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ELH 71.4 (2004) 969-1000

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Crying Game:

Operatic Strains in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


In a group portrait of opera superstars from the mid-eighteenth century, Jacopo Amigoni places the castrato, Farinelli, at center stage, with the soprano Castellini at his right hand (see figure 1). Amigoni indulges artistic license by placing himself in the most intimate relation to Farinelli—leaning over him as if whispering into his ear, hand on his right shoulder—but it is the figure furthest away, to the rear on the left margin of the painting, who could lay greatest claim to Farinelli's confidence, as well as to an almost equal share of his fame. The librettist Pietro Metastasio, Farinelli's correspondent and collaborator for over thirty years, holds a quill, as if he has just finished transcribing the score that Farinelli has in his hand. That score, of which a fragment is just visible, shows Farinelli's own setting of Metastasio's famous La Partenza (1749)—"Ecco quel fiero istante"—a signature piece of the great male soprano, and a text repeatedly set over the next fifty years by the most prominent composers in Europe, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.1 If Metastsio's La Partenza looms large in European music history, however, its place in British literary history has been forgotten. William Wordsworth translated this very portion of the poem, with four other Metastasian texts, for the Morning Post in 1803. That the tantalizing journey of Metastasio's La Partenza from Farinelli's hand to Wordsworth's has never been traced is typical of the embarrassed silence that historically surrounds the intersection of opera and literature. The disregard is mutual. Metastasio's marginal relation to Farinelli in the Amigoni portrait mirrors the subservient relation of text to performance in opera culture, while the near illegibility of the operatic text mirrors its invisibility in the literary-critical corpus on Wordsworth. My purpose here is to break the silence between baroque opera and British Romanticism, by setting what are arguably Wordsworth's most obscure verses—his translation of Metastasian arias for the Morning [End Page 969] Post—alongside his most famous, the 1800 Lyrical Ballads. Reading Wordsworth through Metastasio suggests hitherto unheard operatic registers of Lyrical Ballads, a canonical text historically characterized by decidedly anti-operatic notions of stylistic restraint and moral seriousness. This rare juxtaposition of the operatic and the literary has the potential likewise to shake our assumptions regarding Wordsworthian masculinity, helping to address what Adela Pinch has called the perennial difficulty in "assign[ing] a fundamental place to questions of gender and sexuality" in Lyrical Ballads.2

In "The Brothers," a long dramatic poem first published in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth makes strategic use of a masculinist language familiar to his wartime readers. The "Priest of Ennerdale" mistakes Leonard, a returned sailor, for an effeminate Lake tourist, a "moping son of Idleness."3 His "tears," "fancies," and "solitary smiles" represent to the Priest a masculine deficiency, a neglect of industry and martial vigor. This (mistaken) description of Leonard is also strikingly evocative of Wordsworth's own balladeer, and by extension the poet himself:

'Tis one of those who needs must leave the path
Of the world's business, to go wild alone:
His arms have a perpetual holiday,
The happy man will creep about the fields
Following his fancies by the hour, to bring
Tears down his cheek, or solitary smiles
Into his face, until the setting sun
Write Fool upon his forehead.

Through the Priest, Wordsworth articulates with surprising relish the masculinist critique of the Romantic man of feeling. He is not a hero of solitude, but the inverse: an effeminate idler, a deserter of "the world's business," a "Fool." The pun on "arms" points to a more specific charge: the poet-figure is on "perpetual holiday" from his principal masculine responsibility, namely defense of the nation. The irony of the Priest's misrecognition—the reader knows that Leonard has in fact...


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