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Reviewed by:
  • The Excursion
  • Ronald Schroeder
Bushell, Sally, James A. Butler, and Michael C. Jaye, eds. The Excursion, by William Wordsworth. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8014-4653-5. xxx + 1226 pages. $99.95.

With the publication of this impressive volume, the Cornell Wordsworth series is complete, and it seems appropriate that an edition of Wordsworth's The Excursion be the final product of this singularly important project. The Excursion is the longest of Wordsworth's poems to be published in his lifetime (9,068 lines in nine books), and it is the centerpiece of the great epic that he envisioned.

The editors call The Excursion a "dramatic poem" (6), which records the conversation and debate among four characters—a Poet, Wanderer, Solitary, and Pastor—over a period of five days. Wordsworth first developed the plan for The Excursion with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797–1798, the same period during which they were collaborating on the Lyrical Ballads and in which Wordsworth was beginning the autobiographical poem posthumously published as The Prelude. As Wordsworth conceived it, The Excursion would be the second of three long poems in a comprehensive project to be called The Recluse, Wordsworth's mature philosophical consideration of "Man [ . . . ] Nature, and [ . . . ] Human Life" (39). Of the three poems projected, Wordsworth completed only The Excursion.

The history of The Excursion's conception, composition, and publication is complicated. The editors chose for their reading text the first published edition of The Excursion, which appeared in 1814, partly—they explain—because it was the version read by Wordsworth's contemporaries and thus influential in his own lifetime. This edition, therefore, does not entirely replace but rather complements the scholarly edition of The Excursion published in 1949 by Oxford University Press. That edition, edited by Ernest De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, is based on the 1850 version of The Excursion, one that Wordsworth had significantly revised. The Cornell Words-worth sets the 1814 text as pivotal and reviews the succession of manuscript versions that lead up to it and the variants in published editions that follow it. As the editors note, "By means of the material provided in this edition, it is now possible, for the first time, to follow the complete compositional history of Wordsworth's epic, The Excursion" (xii).

Make no mistake, this is a scholarly edition of The Excursion, not designed for a casual reader of the poem. It contains a staggering amount of [End Page 151] material and testifies to an extraordinary collaborative effort by the three editors. Happily, they are faithful to the guiding principles of the Words-worth Cornell series in general and have kept the scholarly interests and the convenience of their readers at the fore. Physically, the book is fat (over two and a half inches thick), heavy (4.5 pounds), and long (more than 1,250 pages); but the paper is sturdy stock, the type is large enough to read without discomfort, and the binding is secure—in short, it is a text that will survive considerable use. More importantly, the design of the book's contents and the editorial apparatus are calculated to serve readers' convenience. For easy cross-referencing, the editors include, alongside their text of the poem, the corresponding line numbers of the 1850 edition. Substantive variants appear in running footnotes below the poem; accidentals (minor differences in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation) are collected in a separate section and thus do not clutter the primary apparatus.

The editors' introduction is informative. Their Notes are extensive (xi) and helpful. Together, they address critical issues that scholars of the poem will encounter: the role that Coleridge played and did not play in the composition of the poem, for example; the poem's relation to other poetry, not only by Wordsworth; the presence of Wordsworth's political and social themes (his intention "to speak on behalf of those too easily overlooked" [377 nn95– 97]); the consequences for the poem of the deaths of two of Wordsworth's children in 1812; Wordsworth's "Christianizing" of some passages in late editions; and Wordsworth's commitment to the more comprehensive project, The Recluse, of which The Excursion was...


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