Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 30 (1999) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Words worth belongs to a generation that re-invented posterity as the true judge of artistic worth, a truth beyond fashion and faction, the eternal justification of a misunderstood life. His exact contemporary Holderlin asked 'Wozu Dichter in diirftiger Zeit, meaning, among other things, why be a poet in an age that does not know how to value poetry? Romantic poets invested very heavily in the future, and for that reason, leaving aside others, their reception makes a fascinating study, full of veneration, misprision, irony, bathos, creative imitation and unconscious symbiosis.
Stephen Gill's book IS about both the Victorianization of Words worth and the Wordsworthianization of the Victorians. So 'reception' is too passive and simple a term. This is not exclusively a narrative of responses from writers and reviewers, professional compares in the business of literary criticism; it is about remakings, some of which are generally familiar. Matthew Arnold's reinvention of Wordsworth - the Words worth whose 'philosophy' and by implication most of The Prelude is of no lasting value - is still well known through his Essays in Criticism and his selected edition, Poems of Wordsworth (1879), which was still in print very recently. Perhaps J. S. Mill's account of his recovery from emotional breakdown, his discovery of Wordsworth's saving power, is as well known: certainly it is accepted by many critics as a narrative - in fact the narrative - of Wordsworth's absorption into mainstream Victorian liberal individualism: another ambiguous canonization (I'm thinking of, for example, Anne Janowitz's Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition). But these landmarks in the history of 'Wordsworth' take on a fresh appearance in Gill's indispensable book, which fills in a great many details and looks at the subject from a number of angles. The cast in this story is huge: not just poets but novelists, reviewers, publishers, publicists, editors, biographers, political and religious opportunists (especially the latter), self-appointed heritage-definers, and simple souvenir-hunters who removed plants from Rydal Mount right under Wordsworth's nose - among them one Isaac Evans, who in 1841 collected rose leaves to send to his sister Mary Ann.