- The Textual Future of Wordsworth’s Classification of his Poems
Tables of contents have great consequences for collections of literary works, especially poetry. Far more than a mechanism for locating the individual pieces in a book, a Table of Contents gives a snapshot of how the author—or the editor—has conceptualized the material as a whole. This device makes the first move to supply the book with a general interpretive framework.
Two of Wordsworth’s Tables of Contents provide striking examples. One—Lyrical Ballads—is famous, the other—the 1815 collected edition—infamous. The importance of the order of the poems in Lyrical Ballads is underscored by the difference between the first edition of 1798 and the second edition of 1800. Although Wordsworth and Coleridge jointly conceived and authored Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth insisted that the order of the poems be changed in the second edition.1He was responding to reviewers who had been stymied by Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts” which came first in the 1798 edition.
The ordering of the 1815 Poems is even more interesting. “Much Ado about Nothing” was how The Monthly Review described it, and later readers—particularly readers in the twentieth century—have found Wordsworth’s categorical ordering bizarre and unhelpful.2Nonetheless, Wordsworth kept that basic framework in all the editions of his collected poems that he oversaw during his lifetime, and his posthumous editors preserved it for many years. Obscure as the classification may seem, it [End Page 285] represents Wordsworth’s own interpretation of his work. Scholars now scarcely remember Wordsworth’s 1815 Table of Contents and no longer try to fathom its significance. Chronological arrangements began to be installed in the late nineteenth century, and they are now regulative and commonplace.
Understanding Wordsworth’s poetry today, I believe, should begin with a recovery of the meaning of those two radically different arrangements that governed the reception of his poetry.3In this essay, I trace the history of the now dominant chronological Table of Contents because it represents an interpretive focus that has not been critically examined. So universal is this interpretive framework that it has gained the bad eminence of self-transparency. But it is a framework that has a distinct historical shape. Exposing that history to critical reflection will help us understand some basic and unexamined preconceptions that we now bring to Wordsworth’s poetry. It will put us in a better position to conduct a needed reconsideration of Wordsworth’s own interpretive schema.
Wordsworth’s classification, which he expanded and revised in subsequent editions, was the only approved arrangement for his collected poems in use between its publication in 1815 and the first scholarly edition in 1882. After his death and for the next fifty years, it became as much a part of his literary estate as any of his poems. The nineteenth-century businessmen who, along with the Wordsworth family, oversaw the publication of the poet’s works during this period had little incentive to invest in a new arrangement. After all, it bore the legitimizing stamp of Wordsworth’s mind.
For Edward Moxon, Wordsworth’s longtime publisher, the successive iterations of the classification had the further advantage of copyright protection. Copyright law at the time provided exclusive rights for the longer of two terms: the author’s life plus seven years or forty-two years. The first year that other publishers could compete with Moxon for a share of the market for Wordsworth, 1857, coincidentally, was both forty-two years after 1815 and seven years after the poet’s death. In other words, the 1815 Poems entered the public domain in the same year as all four editions of the Lyrical Ballads and the 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes. This fact was not lost on Moxon’s enterprising competitors, chief among them George Routledge [End Page 286] and Co. Neither Routledge nor any other publisher save Moxon, however, could incorporate Wordsworth’s revisions to the 1815 classification. They had to, and did, take the arrangement as it stood in that year. To some extent, Wordsworth scholarship has understated this aspect of Wordsworth’s...