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  • Wordsworth’s Pope: A Study in Literary Historiography
  • Douglas Lane Patey
Robert J. Griffin. Wordsworth’s Pope: A Study in Literary Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Pp. 188. $49.95.

It is surprising to find William Hazlitt declaring in 1824 that there are “but one or two [persons] that I should like to have been better than Pope.” Not Shakespeare or Milton, but Pope. Equally remarkable are Wordsworth’s tangled responses to the poet he confessed himself enthralled by as a boy and, as an adult, at once condemned, claimed to know by heart, and echoed at the most unlikely moments (that is, at moments which traditional literary history would suggest are the most unlikely). More remarkable than any individual verbal devices Wordsworth learned from Pope—such as the play with participles (“Forever [blank]ing, never to be [blank]ed”)—are the echoes of Pope when Wordsworth discusses his youthful self and the sources of his poetic inspiration. The “language of my former heart” that in 1798 Wordsworth hears in his sister Dorothy echoes the “language of the heart” that Pope had attributed to his own forebears: his biological father (in the Epistle to Arbuthnot ), and poetic parents such as Cowley (in To Augustus ). Wordsworth’s Boy of Winander, surprised by the voice of mountain torrents, recalls the similarly surprised swains of Pope’s Messiah and his translation of Iliad 4. Robert J. Griffin’s Wordsworth’s Pope explores these matters superbly. And for the first time—via an extraordinary look at literary renderings of Dido—Griffin makes sense of Wordsworth’s echo of The Rape of the Lock in the famous question “Was it for this” that opens the 1799 Prelude . “Wordsworth’s greatness,” Griffin concludes, “is to be found not in his rejection of Pope’s ‘classicism’”—i.e., the public gestures of rejection with which we are most familiar—but more covertly, “in his successful use” of Pope (90).

Griffin’s argument about Wordsworth is the centerpiece in an invigorating exercise in revisionary literary history. “Our received picture of Romantic literary history,” according to Griffin, “is a significantly distorted one because it derives from Romanticism’s view of itself” (2). In an effort (in Clifford Siskin’s phrase) to write a literary history of Romanticism that is not itself Romantic literary history, Griffin argues that “it is primarily Wordsworth’s polemical attacks on Pope that establish for us our notions of both ‘Pope’ and Romantic difference” (1). Students of the eighteenth century long since disembarrassed themselves of Harold Bloom’s theory of the crippling anxiety generated by Milton’s influence. But, Griffin asks, what if Bloom’s picture was right after all—but simply misidentified the strong poet who obsessed a century of subsequent writers? What if the oedipal progenitor of offspring moved to poetic patricide, belated poets in whom the repressed persistently returned, was not Milton but Alexander Pope?

In one sense, Griffin’s thesis is familiar. A rejection of “Pope”—a figure often so different from the historical Pope as to deserve quotation marks—marks the 1740s, whereupon a series of poets from the Wartons to Cowper claim the mantle of rejecting Pope’s “artificiality” and returning to “nature.” Finally, in 1817 Francis Jeffrey firmly attaches the mantle to William Wordsworth. The way of rejecting “Pope” pioneered by the Wartons is “the foundation for literary history in the nineteenth century” (20). Projected forward from the 1740s to a date closer to 1798, it remains the account of Romanticism’s origins “that everyone knows best” (19).

So far, so familiar. It was, after all, the generation of the Wartons that opened the way for W. J. Bate and Harold Bloom by plucking Paradise Lost out of the Restoration and making it a work of “the last age” rather than the age of Dryden and Denham. Griffin’s argument becomes exciting when he proceeds to show that the rejection was never so straightforward as its proponents claimed. Griffin explains how deeply self-contradictory are the treatments of poetry, Pope, and literary history promulgated by the Wartons, Young (especially the Conjectures on Original Composition ), and Gray, and how the same pattern of contradiction animates Wordsworth...

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