"Michael", the final poem in Lyrical Ballads, begins quietly with a line that is nearly a promise and not quite an invitation: "If from the public way you turn your steps ..." The poem goes on to describe a hidden valley on the banks of Green-head Gill where, if we follow the poem's directions, we may just glimpse the following sight: "Beside the brook / there is a straggling heap of unhewn stones!" These stones are the remains of the sheep-fold that Michael, the shepherd who owned the land, intended to build. Michael's son went to London to seek his fortune, but "gave himself / To evil courses" in the "dissolute city" before fleeing abroad. Michael sank into despair, and when he died his land was sold to pay his creditors. The stones, the poem tells us, are the only evidence of his existence.
Of course, Michael's true monument is the magnificent poem that tells his tale. The question of what remains after our dearest hopes have been disappointed is addressed by the greatest of Wordsworth's early poems. "The Ruined Cottage", "The Female Vagrant" and "The Thorn" attempt to take the measure of the worst losses that can befall an individual. The stories they tell end in defeat, but the poems endure. Wordsworth's own monument to posterity is also a poem – "The Prelude" – and, like many of his speakers, he would not have chosen to be remembered this way. His ambition was to write an epic philosophical poem, "The Recluse", but he only completed one section of it, "The Excursion", which most readers now find as easy to ignore as Michael's heap of stones. One of the benefits of this new edition is that the editor, Stephen Gill, makes space for extracts from "The Excursion", as well as a judicious selection of Wordsworth's later poems, allowing a less familiar side of the poet to emerge.
Gill includes two versions of "The Prelude": the "two-part" version of 1799 (which runs to almost 1,000 lines) and the 1805 text, which runs to 13 books (almost 9,000 lines). Wordsworth seems to have been almost embarrassed to have produced something so self-absorbed, writing to Richard Sharp in 1804: "It seems a frightful deal to say about oneself …" Nevertheless, he continued to revise the poem throughout his life, and a very different version of The Prelude was published posthumously in 1850. By then, Wordsworth's political attitudes, forged during the French revolution that he experienced at first hand, had changed from the radical idealism of his youth into something more circumspect and disillusioned. The 1805 text included here is the one most readers prefer.
Wordsworth's political side is here at once emphasised and qualified. The last poems selected speak out passionately against the despoliation of Wordsworth's beloved Lake District, and complicate any idea that the poet lost his poetic and political fire in old age: "Is then no nook of English ground secure / From rash assault?" demands one poem, and another replies: "a Power, the thirst for Gold, / That rules o'er Britain like a baneful star, / Wills that your peace, your beauty, shall be sold..." But the early, politically radical writing has been relegated to an appendix of extracts and analysis. It is regrettable that Gill cannot find space for more of "Salisbury Plain", and "Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff", which includes observations such as "Liberty … in order to reign in peace must establish herself by violence". Had the letter been published when it was written in 1793, Wordsworth might have been hanged for it.
Ultimately, Wordsworth's poems and passages of social protest should not be taken as the sum of his political views. The Prelude's concern with the interconnectedness of all things also constitutes a political vision, though the scale of it may lead us to call it mysticism:
I mean to speak
Of that interminable building reared
By observation of affinities
In objects where no brotherhood exists
To common minds.
Wordsworth subsequently revised these lines, changing "I mean to speak" to "The song would speak", and "common minds" to "passive minds". The changes are characteristic of the older poet, tempering youthful jouissance with something more precise if less resoundingly memorable. But the invitation to the reader to participate in the endless process of building and drawing out affinities remains.
In his fascinating book, Wordsworth's Revisitings (OUP), Gill considers some of the ways Wordsworth rewrote his poems, whether by suppressing them, revising them or writing sequels. The process of revision often ended only with the poet's death, rather than with a sense of the poems having been completed. Wordsworth's executors were not only left to publish The Prelude, they had to give it a title as well: he had always referred to it simply as "The poem to Coleridge". Wordsworth famously observed that "of two descriptions, either of passions, manners, or characters, each of them equally well executed, the one in prose and the other in verse, the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once." Rereading Wordsworth is particularly rewarding and fitting since he is himself the great revisitor and rewriter. This generous selection of his work offers the perfect occasion to do so.
• Paul Batchelor's The Sinking Road is published by Bloodaxe.
Burgess Powers web development and intelligent hosting reacts to demand and keeps this site available under load