Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The endless wilderness of dull, flat, prosaic twaddle - The Prelude and The Excursion

The Wordsworth-is-boring theme meshes nicely with the forgotten-book theme I puzzled over last week. As boring as The Prelude can be,* Wordsworth wrote a far duller poem that was once considered his greatest achievement, by far, by so far, and is now virtually unread.

It's The Excursion of 1814. Cornell University Press has just returned it to print as part of their 19 volume critical edition. The Cornell edition is 1,256 pages long, of which less than 300 are the actual text of the actual poem. It's described as "a dramatic poem that advances largely through debate among the four main speakers: the Poet, the Wanderer, the Solitary, and the Pastor." Largely through debate, wonderful. Wonderful.

So maybe three years ago I read The Excursion. Why? Because everyone in early 19th century England - everyone** - who expressed an opinion on Wordsworth seemed to assume that The Excursion was Wordsworth's greatest achievement, the culmination of his life's work, a source of wisdom and solace. Keats, Hazlitt, I remember their praise distinctly. Later writers, too. I finally got sick of just hearing about it. I wanted to see for myself.

The Excursion is quite dull. I remember it poorly. One of the few episodes that lingers with me is the Solitary describing his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and his later disillusionment. The character is just ventriloquizing Wordsworth - everything interesting he says is borrowed from the 1805 Prelude. That's more or less true for the whole book.***

As a result, when the 1850 Prelude was published just after Wordsworth's death, contemporaries saw it as a weaker, more egocentric Excursion. In the 20th century, egocentrism is not only a lesser fault, but positively valued. To us, The Excursion is The Prelude seen through a haze. Give it to us straight, William, we can handle it (even though the "William Wordsworth" of The Prelude is fictional). The Prelude has now completely swallowed and digested The Excursion. Scholars, and luckless saps like me, still pick through the bones.

This bit of Thomas Macaulay's journal (July 28, 1850) is too good to resist:

"I brought home, and read, the 'Prelude.' It is a poorer 'Excursion;' the same sort of faults and beauties; but the faults greater and the beauties fainter... The story is the old story. There are the old raptures about mountains and cataracts; the old flimsy philosophy about the effect of scenery on the mind; the old, crazy, mystical metaphysics; the endless wilderness of dull, flat, prosaic twaddle; and here and there fine descriptions and energetic declamations interspersed."

Quoted in the 1979 Norton Critical Edition of The Prelude, p. 560.

But then see this George Eliot letter, April 19, 1880:

"Except for travelling, and for popular distribution, I prefer Moxon's one-volumed edition of Wordsworth to any selection. No selection gives you the perfect gems to be found in single lines, or in half a dozen lines, which are to be found in the 'dull' poems." ****

So the dull poems are exactly those we should be reading!

I seem to have avoided, for a day, writing about The Prelude, the actual poem.

* Disclaimers: I like it, I've read it four times, it's brilliant, a landmark, etc.

** Everyone except for Thomas DeQuincey. And Coleridge, if I remember correctly. But they had both read The Prelude. And I also mean eventually, over the course of Wordsworth's life. Some of the intial reaction was extremely negative. One review famously, stupidly, began "This will never do!"

*** But I'm leafing through The Excursion now, and am reminded that Book I is actually just "The Ruined Cottage," perhaps overly sentimental but not dull. And the Pastor's section, Books VII and VIII, have a lot of good passages: the graveyard, the story of the Knight. Gentle, sweet stuff, hardly exciting.

**** The George Eliot Letters, Volume VII, 1878-1880, (1955) ed. Gordon S. Haight, Yale University Press, p. 261.


  1. "This will never do!" (note **) sounds like the perfect beginning to a negative review! A bit high-strung perhaps, but I much prefer it to the "I don't get it" school of contemporary blog criticism where a slow-witted reader takes a writer to task for creating too "complicated" a narrative structure for him/her to follow. P.S. You make Wordsworth sound almost interesting!

  2. dare I comment? You are so well read in Victorian literature, I feel like an ignoramus trying to comment sometimes.

    I have loved the Wordsworth I've read. But I've only read excerpts here and there. The more you talk about how boring The Prelude is, the more I want to read it! And then I saw your note that you love it, so I guess that means I do want to read it!

  3. Even my Romantics prof in college, who LOVED Wordsworth like a brother, and was in the process of devoting his entire career to Wordsworth studies, conceded that The Prelude and The Excursion are both boring in many, many places. So I think you're on firm ground here.

    Personally, there are several poems of Wordsworth's that give me that tingly, soul-singing, reading-a-masterpiece feeling ("Tintern Abbey," some of the Lucy poems), but overall I have a hard time with his High-Romantic level of sentimentalism and, dare I say, sappiness. To me irony is like salt - you don't want it to overwhelm the dish, but if there's none to be found at all then the food tastes mighty bland. I think "This will never do!" pretty much encapsulates my feelings about "The Ruined Cottage," for example. Nor am I big on dancing with the daffodils, or golden-tressed maids insisting that "We are Seven." But, you know, that's just me. :-)

  4. "Wordsworth: Almost interesting!" is a perfect poster slogan for him.

    Rebecca, The Prelude really is excellent - in passages, as they say. Wordsworth's best poems, though, as Emily says, are just The Greatest. I've been inspired to go back to Lyrical Ballads myself, actually, and revisit a few of them.

    Ah geez, Emily, the daffodils. That daffodil poem, ugh. And the strange thing is that Dorothy Wordsworth's account of the same scene is so good. Cool, not gooey. I spent some timing clubbing William with his sister last year. Thump, thump.