The Wordsworthian Sonnet Revival: Poems in Two Volumes (1807)

  • Joseph Phelan

Abstract

It was until fairly recently possible to argue that Wordsworth ‘resurrected the sonnet from the virtual oblivion in which it had lain for more than a century and re-established it in a position of eminence’, but such assertions have become increasingly implausible.1 It is now clear that when Wordsworth produced his first sustained exercise in the form in Poems in Two Volumes (1807), he was rather belatedly adopting a form that had already been rediscovered and popularised during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Thanks to recent scholarship the story of the sonnet revival has become a familiar one, from the role played by Percy’s Reliques in disinterring this apparently moribund poetic form to the work of women poets, especially Charlotte Smith, in developing the ‘elegiac sonnet’ into a vehicle for the articulation of a certain type of intense and personal experience.2 The sonnets in Poems in Two Volumes do not even represent Wordsworth’s own first attempt at sonnet-writing; in spite of his claims to the contrary, we now know that he wrote and published sonnets before 1807, and that these sonnets were heavily indebted to the elegiac sonnet tradition that he later disowned. Under these circumstances it seems a severe distortion of literary history to credit Wordsworth with having ‘revived’ the sonnet, a distortion complicit with the general tendency of literary history to appropriate women’s achievements and innovations and reassign them to men.

Keywords

Europe Hunt Bark Crest Egypt 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Lee M. Johnson, Wordsworth and the Sonnet, Anglistica XIX (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1973), p. 10.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), ch. 3; Google Scholar
  3. Daniel Robinson, ‘Reviving the Sonnet: Women Romantic Poets and the Sonnet Claim,’ European Romantic Review 6 (1995), 98–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    Cited in Alun Jones ed., Wordsworth’s Poems of 1807 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987), p. 159; Wordsworth’s account is corroborated by one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entries (hence the editorial emendation to the date): Google Scholar
  5. See Marjorie M. Barber ed., A Dorothy Wordsworth Selection (London: Macmillan, 1965), p. 56.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Mary Robinson’s preface is reprinted in Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson eds, A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic-Era Revival 1750–1850 (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1999), pp. 233–40; Google Scholar
  7. Anne Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance (1790: OUP, 1993), pp. 23–24.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    From the Gentleman’s Magazine, 56 (1786), 333–4; cited Duncan Wu, Romantic Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 69.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Nathan Drake, Literary Hours or Sketches Critical and Narrative (London: Cadell and Davies, 1798), pp. 61, 66–7.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See Bishop Hunt Jr., ‘Wordsworth and Charlotte Smith’, The Wordsworth Circle 1 (1970), 85–103.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Doubtfully headed ‘To [?] Charles Lamb’, but the words in question were intended for the poet’s brother John; see Alan G. Hill ed., Letters of William Wordsworth: A New Selection (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 59–60.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    See ch. 1 of Biographia Literaria for Coleridge’s account of his discovery of Bowles’ sonnets; the quotation is from the second version of Coleridge’s sonnet to Bowles, 1. 8. Coleridge’s tortuous relation to the sonnet tradition is discussed in detail in Daniel Robinson, ‘“Work without hope”: Anxiety and embarrassment in Coleridge’s Sonnets’, Studies in Romanticism 39 (2000), 81–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 16.
    John Kerrigan notes the significance of this phrase in ‘Wordsworth and the Sonnet: Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, Essays in Criticism 35 (1985), 57.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat’; Milton, ‘Areopagitica’ in K.M. Burton ed., Milton’s Prose Writings (London and New York: Dent, Dutton, 1974), p. 158.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; rpt. Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1982), p. 299.Google Scholar
  16. 27.
    This letter, to the Whig statesman Charles James Fox, was written in January 1801 to accompany a presentation copy of Lyrical Ballads; see Michael Mason ed., Lyrical Ballads (London and New York: Longman, 1992), pp. 42–43.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics in Early Victorian Literature and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    A similarity also noted by Arunodoy Bhattacharya in The Sonnet and the Major English Romantic Poets (Calcutta, 1976), p. 32.Google Scholar
  19. 31.
    Leigh Hunt and S. Adams Lee eds, The Book of the Sonnet (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1867), I, pp. 226–7Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    Alan Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1989), p. 431.Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    Preface to Poems (1815); John O. Haydon, Wordsworth: The Poems (Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1982), II, p. 919.Google Scholar
  22. 43.
    For Wordsworth’s involvement in the revolutionary politics of London in the 1790s see Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  23. 48.
    Francis Jeffrey, Review of Poems in Two Volumes, Edinburgh Review 11 (1807), 230.Google Scholar

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© Joseph Patrick Phelan 2005

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  • Joseph Phelan

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