The Excursion by William Wordsworth

March 27, 2008

I shed tears because I couldn’t praise it as I wanted.” Hazlitt’s sad comment on Wordsworth’s Excursion stands as the epitaph to a great poem that readers have often found hard to like. For contemporaries such as Mary Shelley, its dedication to the Tory peer Lord Lonsdale revealed that its author had become a “slave” to the governing classes. This was a real disappointment given that in 1793, shortly after the execution of Louis XVI, Wordsworth had written a pamphlet in defence of regicide and popular uprisings. Since then, he had accepted the patronage of a Tory baronet, Sir George Beaumont, and toned down his criticism of the Government. To younger readers who still aspired to a more egalitarian society, The Excursion suggested that Wordsworth had lost touch with his origins. But what really damned the poem was Francis Jeffrey’s famous review, which began with the immortal sentence: “This will never do!”

I doubt whether The Excursion will ever become a popular poem. But if ever there were a time for it to find new admirers it must be now, with the appearance of this elegant edition produced as the concluding volume in the Cornell Wordsworth Series. Its editors have produced an impeccable reading text that is more accurate than any so far published. As usual with this series, it’s a pleasure to read poetry so clearly edited and printed. Their introduction provides a well-informed account of the genesis of the poem, and summarises recent critical views.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the volume is the 800-odd pages devoted to an analysis of the manuscripts related to the poem. The editors have identified no fewer than eight distinct “stages” of composition, from 1798 to 1814, and document each in detail, drawing on manuscript evidence from libraries in Grasmere, New York and Harvard. To the non-specialist, this sort of thing has the potential to induce boredom if not a very deep sleep, but the fascinating thing about the work done by the Cornell editors is that they show how The Excursion once included two extensive narrative poems, The Peasant’s Life and The Shepherd of Bield Crag, which their author cut before completion. They also show how the poem was shaped by the deaths of Wordsworth’s children, which inspired many lines cut during composition, including a riff on “a parent’s joys” in Book III. This has important implications for anyone interested in Wordsworth’s intellectual development, and underlines the fact that the archival work of his editors is vital to a full understanding of the poet’s life and work.

All the same, you can have too much Wordsworth, especially if you object to his political inconstancy. “Hail to the Crown by Freedom shaped – to gird/ An English Sovereign’s brow! And to the Throne/ Whereon he sits!” The republican poet of 1793 would never have curried favour with George III in such obsequious verse: as Hazlitt observed, Wordsworth was a “renegade who could not resist a bitter sneer at the principles he once held sacred”. Byron, who classed Wordsworth with Southey and Coleridge as traitors to the revolutionary cause, thought The Excursion too long – “I think the quarto holds five hundred pages”, he wrote in Don Juan. This edition runs to over 1,200, which may be more than enough for most readers.

For Wordsworthians, however, this edition is a monument to years of patient scholarship, and will serve them handsomely for decades to come.

The Excursion by William Wordsworth

Edited by Sally Bushell, James A. Butler, and Michael C. Jaye
Cornell University Press
1,256pp
£50.95
ISBN 9780801446535
Published 9 November 2007

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