Penguins on Parade: Wordsworth!

Some Penguin Classics might almost fairly be said to overdo things, and if ever there were such a case, it’s the two-volume edition of the poems of William Wordsworth that came out in the Penguin Classics line in 1990. These two volumes, called The Poems: Volume One and The Poems: Volume Two, are edited by John O. Hayden, and each is a brick of over 1000 pages. They run more or less chronologically for the entire ghastly length of time Wordsworth was churning out poetry, and even at their finished length, horrifyingly, they don’t represent the whole of the man’s catalogue: his epic, “The Prelude,” isn’t included here, nor are any of the five or six variant editions of that impenetrably dull work. So, believe it or not, the 2045 pages of these two volumes represent only about a working half of the extant verse. It boggles the mind – I don’t know of any other Penguin Classic like it. There are many other ‘complete poems’ volumes, true, but the life’s work in those cases is always that of an ordinary poet, not some dodderer caught in the grip of a logorrhoea mania as helpless as it was unsleeping.

In other words, apart from ruefully satisfying that bitter little rump of Wordsworth-fans that has existed in the world since their idol first decided, at age 15, to write a gaseous ode about something that happened to him five minutes ago (and then keep revising it for the next sixty years), there can’t really be any good editorial reason for anybody – even Penguin Classics – to publish two volumes containing every single poem Wordsworth ever wrote. It goes beyond being zealous; it’s just plain rude.

Nevertheless, here these two fat volumes sit on the shelf, offering the same mildly dyspeptic reprimand they always have to readers who glance at them, consider for half a second finally grappling with all the Wordsworth in the whole world, and then veer off and take a slim volume of Keats to the park. Being Penguin volumes, they’re attractively made and beautifully researched. Hayden’s end-notes are masterpieces of succinctness, including both his own glosses on Wordsworth’s obscurities (a going business, that) and brief relevant extracts from the glosses of those glossers who’ve glossed before him. Those obscurities most certainly extend to whole poems, as anybody who’s ever actually read “The Prelude” can attest. As noted, these two Penguin volumes don’t include “The Prelude,” but since they include everything else, there are still plenty of examples of poems that might have turned out sharper and more memorable if they’d been in less sententious hands. Think, for instance, how evocative this one might have been if its author hadn’t been so hell-bent on thinly-veiled political commentary:

‘Who but is pleased to watch the moon on high’

Who but is pleased to watch the moon on high

Travelling where she from time to time enshrouds

Her head, and nothing loth her Majesty

Renounces, till among the scattered clouds

One with its kindling edge declares that soon

Will reappear before the uplifted eye

A Form as bright, as beautiful a moon,

To glide in open prospect through clear sky.

Pity that such a promise e’er should prove

False in the issue, that yon seeming space

Of sky should be in truth the steadfast face

Of a cloud flat and dense, through which must move

(By transit not unlike man’s frequent doom)

The Wanderer lost in more determined gloom.

Still, if you write 10,000 verses in your life, you’re bound to write some that Steve will like, even if you do so sarcastically or accidentally. No matter how Wordsworth has bored me over the years (ironic, since I worked for a long time in a bookshop bearing his name), there are poems of his I still turn to every National Poetry Month. Two of those poems are intensely predictable of me, but here they are anyway:

‘She dwelt among untrodden ways’

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the spring of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

And then there’s this one, probably my favorite Wordsworth poem:

The Solitary Reaper

Behold her, single in the field,

Yon Solitary Highland Lass!

Reaping and singing by herself;

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! for the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt

More welcome notes to weary bands

Of travellers in some shady haunt,

Among Arabian sands:

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard

In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,

Breaking the silence of the seas

Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:

Or is it some more humble lay,

Familiar matter of today?

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain

That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o’er the sickle bending; -

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that those last two poems are frequently anthologized. And come to think of it, they’re always included in the various “Selected Poems” Wordsworth volumes Penguin Classics has published over the years. If you take my meaning.

4 Comments to Penguins on Parade: Wordsworth!

  1. April 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    That “entire ghastly length of time” made me laugh.

  2. April 15, 2013 at 12:38 am | Permalink

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