‘Transcripts of the private heart’: The Sonnet and Autobiography

  • Joseph Phelan


Between the publication of Poems in Two Volumes in 1807 and Wordsworth’s death in 1850, he remained without question the single most important practitioner of the sonnet in the English language. His critical reputation rose steadily throughout the 1820s and 1830s, and the reputation of his sonnets rose along with it. In a review of poems by Alfred and Charles Tennyson in The Tatler of March 1831, Leigh Hunt observed a propos of the Petrarchan sonnet: ‘It has been doubted whether that construction suits the genius of the English language: but the doubt is anterior to the publication of Mr. Wordsworth’s sonnets, and after that it would be difficult to repeat it.’1 By 1833, when his critical reputation was approaching its zenith, many of his contemporaries would have agreed with Alexander Dyce’s verdict: ‘The success with which [the sonnet] has been recently cultivated by Mr. Wordsworth, would alone have conferred an enduring celebrity on his name, even if he had achieved no other triumphs’.2 During this period Wordsworth did not simply repeat the gestures of 1807; he continued to experiment and innovate with the form. In 1820 he published a set of sonnets which returned to the ‘loco-descriptive’ tradition of Bowles, tracing the course and character of the River Duddon, and followed this up with other series recording tours to Scotland and the continent.3


Early Nineteenth Century Male Tradition English Poetry Adverbial Clause Ultimate Drift 
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  1. 1.
    Reprinted in Leigh Hunt’s Literary Criticism, eds L.H. Houtchens and C.W. Houtchens (New York: Columbia UP, 1956), p. 359.Google Scholar
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    The term ‘poetess’ was widely used at the time, and has been revived during the last decade or so as a way of referring to L.E.L. and Felicia Hemans in particular; see eg. Anne Mellor, ‘The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women’s Poetry, 1780–1830’, Studies in Romanticism 36 (1997), 261–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    From a letter of 23 November 1842 to Mary Russell Mitford; cited in Susan J. Wolfson, Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2000), p. 590. See also her poem ‘Felicia Hemans: To L.E.L., referring to her monody on the poetess’, which mocks the tone and diction of L.E.L.’s poem.Google Scholar
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© Joseph Patrick Phelan 2005

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  • Joseph Phelan

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