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Teaching Romanticism V: William Wordsworth

by Daniel Cook

William-Wordsworth-001As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with advice on future subjects or, indeed, with further thoughts on teaching Wordsworth, about which much more could be said, evidently. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. But let’s begin with that old stalwart: William Wordsworth.

Professor Susan Wolfson, Princeton University
I have the luxury of Romantics-rich teaching at Princeton: two undergraduate courses every year and a graduate course too. Wordsworth appears in several places in my undergraduate syllabus. In the course titled “Romanticism and the Age of Revolutions” I do a first-day warm up comparing Blake’s ‘London’ to Wordsworth’s Westminster Bridge sonnet. Then, after a week on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience I do a week on Wordsworth and childhood: Lyrical Ballads, Intimations Ode, Books 1-2 of The Prelude. Then for a unit on the French Revolution and literary imagination, I use Prelude 6, 9, 10 (along with a lot of other texts: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, Godwin, H.M. Williams, Burns, Barbauld, Charlotte Smith). MarywollstonecraftHe and Dorothy Wordsworth make a brief appearance in the unit on Slavery and the Slave Trade (Dorothy’s journals, William in The Prelude). Then there is a long Wordsworth unit of autobiography and imagination that includes Dorothy Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”, selections from the rest of the Prelude, more Lyrical Ballads, “Solitary Reaper”, “Surprized by joy”, “Elegiac Stanzas”, “Resolution and Independence”. And Dorthy Wordsworth’s poems and journals. For the second-half course, “The Younger Romantics”, Wordsworth comes in week one with just a couple of key texts: the Prospectus to The Excursion and the passage from Book IV on mythogenesis, “Tintern Abbey”, and then Keats, Shelley, Hazlitt and Byron in various tempers of appreciation and impatience on Wordsworth. I’ve done various graduate courses that use The Prelude and Lyrical Ballads chiefly. When I have a course in the orbit of Frankenstein, I use Books 1-2 of The Prelude and Lyrical Ballads. This semester I’m doing “Coming of Age in the Age of Romanticism” and we’re doing all of The Prelude (along with Childe Harolds Pilgrimage III-IV, all of Don Juan, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh). My base text for Wordsworth is the Norton Critical Edition for The Prelude when we do it all, otherwise the Longman Anthology of British Literature’s excellent Romantics volume.

Professor G. Kim Blank, University of Victoria
Samuel_Taylor_ColeridgeI teach Wordsworth in a 3rd-year Romantic Poetry course (14 weeks). The course revolves around Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the years 1797-1807. Most of the Lyrical Ballads poems are taught (including the Preface) as well as selected poems from the 1807 volume; the 1799 Prelude is also required, as are parts of Dorothy’s journals. What is often pointed out is that the subjects of loss, endurance, abandonment, separation, guilt, death, and grieving are central to most of these poems (without getting over-psychoanalytical, connections are made to aspects of Wordsworth’s own life). The singular importance of Coleridge in the development of Wordsworth’s poetry and poetics is emphasized: students seem to enjoy the idea of influence, collaboration, and Coleridge/Wordsworth’s sometimes puzzling friendship, as well the stark differences between the two poets. Significant time is spent discussing Wordsworth’s language and style, and his “use” of subjects from the lower classes. Weaning students from the idea that nature poetry merely celebrates lively flowers and lovely rainbows takes a little work. The Goslar experience (what Wordsworth worked on while there—and perhaps why) is covered in some detail.

A sampling of background/terms covered:
•       the usefulness (or not!) of the term “Romanticism”;
•       Locke, Hume, Hartley;
•       idealism, associationism, pantheism, republicanism, radicalism, sublime;
•       the French Revolution: impact upon Wordsworth and Romantic poetry;
•       the war with France;
•       Burke, Paine;
•       human rights (e.g., abolition, women’s rights, child labor laws);
•       literacy rates; publishing;
•       science and poetry;
•       the movement toward an industrial economy and the shift in population to urban centers; enclosure; population growth;
•       Wordsworth’s profound influence over the last two centuries.

Professor Małgorzata Łuczyńska-Hołdys, University of Warsaw
I’ve been teaching Wordsworth at the Institute of English Studies at the University of Warsaw, Poland for a few of years now. I suppose the choice of texts is pretty standard: I teach “Daffodils,” together with “We Are Seven”, coupled with excerpts from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to first-year students on a survey course. tintern_abbey_walesTo other students I offer a Romantic Poets course – and here the choice varies, but generally I do the Intimations Ode (accompanied by either the immortal Trilling article or some newer reading from JSTOR; I like Alan Grob’s Search for Identity as well), “Resolution and Independence” and one or two sonnets. For the course on the sublime I’ve been using passages from The Prelude (here I like the article ‘Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the Failure of Language’ by Jim Springer Borck, which appeared in Studies in English Literature in 1973), “Tintern Abbey” and “It is a Beauteous Evening”; once or twice I’ve tried “Nutting” accompanied by G. Jones’ Rude Intercourse and it worked out well; as for other poets to go with Wordsworth, I’ve used John Clare to demonstrate different attitudes to nature; Charlotte Smith in a similar context; and Coleridge’s “Dejection” together with the “Immortality Ode”.

Professor Stephen Behrendt, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
For myself, let me say how I use Wordsworth to “set” the discussion of Romanticism. When I teach Romantic poetry here, it is always to a very mixed group, most of whom have not studied Romantic poetry or even 18th-19th century literature (British or otherwise). So I begin, literally on the second day (i.e., following the inevitable bureaucratic matters of Day 1) with “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (the four-stanza version) as an absolutely prototypical example of one kind of Romantic poem. We go virtually line by line, with me providing — through discussion with my students — a metacommentary on how and why the poem exemplifies attitudes, themes, and devices that are especially characteristic of that variety of Romantic poetry we associate with the “Nature” and Wordsworthian strain. blue_cloudsWord by word, I start with “I”, to make the point that Romanticism stresses in the individual voice, perspective, and heart (feeling) in contradistinction to what we usually associate with 18th-century poetry (we’ll get into sentiment and the end of the 18th century later). Then “wandered”, to denote a movement that is neither (pre) determined nor “straight-line” and empirical in nature. “Lonely” sets up the idea of word-play, pointing on one hand to the denotation of solitary movement (and hence solitary mind): “lone”; and on the other to the connotation of the mood or emotions typically associated with with “loneliness”. This helps me establish the need to examine multiple denotations and connotations in Romantic poetry, and to put various alternative combinations into conversations with one another. “As a cloud”: What sort of cloud?, I ask, to get students to visualize the kind of cloud that fits with the poem’s opening cues. A cloud that “floats”, I read, and ask them next to rationalize and justify that particular verb (by trying out alternatives to better understand Wordsworth’s careful and deliberate word choice) and how it enters the visual and emotional constellation of suggestion that is already emerging in these opening words. “On high” directs their gaze upward, where the “host” of daffodils will suggest to some where the “heavenly host” (which is itself signaled by the purposeful shift from “crowd” to “host”, which shift revises and modifies while deliberately retaining the original and therefore not-rejected-at-all noun) of the Nativity appeared, and where the stars shine and twinkle also on the Milky Way. “O’er vales and hills” anticipates with its topographical undulations the necessarily flat margin of the bay that soon follows, introducing yet another set of contrasts. “All at once” works like “lonely”, earlier, in terms of multiplicity of signification: “suddenly”, of course,” but also all of them at the same time, smeared into near indistinguishibility or inseparability like the stars in the Milky Way. And so on.connors-hill-nature-768x1366 I also get students to observe that stanzas 1 and 2 end with images of dancing, as does stanza 4. Why does stanza 3, then, begin with dancing rather that reserving it for the end? Here we can talk about artistry and poetic technique, and the “surprise” that comes with varying the pattern that has been established in stanzas 1 and 2. So this apparently free-association lyric turns out, upon closer inspection, to be much more deliberately crafted than it first appears. (This is a good place, by the way, to distribute copies of the earlier, three-stanza version, which I sometimes do with more advanced students and which of course introduces a whole range of considerations concerning revision). And, finally, we get to the matter of primary stimulus (the sight of the daffodils in the field) and secondary stimulus (the deliberately recalled — and imaginatively refashioned — experience that combines memory [past] with creative thought [present] in a poem that is, after all, expressed in the present tense and that in fact traces an imaginative and intellectual — and emotional — progression across time from an initial experience and a number of imaginative re-creations, and arriving finally at a reflective “conclusion” about them all). And then we have, too, the issue of “outdoors” (Nature, the natural world, and [perhaps] God’s creation — or some sort of God, anyway) and “indoors” (the “built” world that is mankind’s creation [or, if not creation ex nihilo then recombination of natural materials that are re-purposed through alteration or manufacture]). Wordsworth1There’s more, of course, but this is the general outline. Students, especially since we are just starting the course, get to observe and to practice the sort of culturally contextualized close reading I’m modeling with them here. And because it’s early in the course there is among them a nice willingness to jump into the discussion and try out some suggestions because I welcome “first impressions” as way of getting a lot of ideas into the discussion, so that we may then begin exploring the fact that “interpreting” is less a matter of solving a puzzle (which many think reading poetry is, of course) but rather of trying out many options and alternatives, eliminating the obviously unworkable (“wrong”?) ones, and then accepting that any final interpretation is necessarily a negotiated one that involves the whole constellation of possibilities that emerges from our initial examination. I should say, by the way, that after we look at Wordsworth I go directly to something very different to stress the great variety of Romantic poetic discourse. I like to use Mary Robinson’s “January 1795” here because (1) it introduces a woman poet right away; (2) it offers a wholly different and more explicitly polemical and political subject and tone that illustrates a side of Romanticism that is still too often neglected; (3) it introduces issues of aesthetics, rhetorical strategy, and audience pre-assessment that will be useful as we move on in the course, and (4) it is another poem about which students enjoy offering up comments and impressions as they have just done with Wordsworth’s poem.


Well, well, well, what a great start to the “Teaching X” strand of the Teaching Romanticism blog, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Thanks again to professors Wolfson, Blank, Łuczyńska-Hołdys, and Behrendt for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. Evidently, Wordsworth continues to be a versatile figure able to inhabit a wide array of modules both within and outwith British Romanticism. Alongside Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge in particular, he invites comparative study in a range of areas pertinent to the advancement of student skills and appreciation. Future posts may look in more detail at Robinson and Smith, or Keats and the Shelleys, among others. We’ll be sure to return to the Wordsworths, too.

Dr Daniel Cook is a Lecturer in English and Associate Director of The Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee. Daniel has published widely on eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literature and biography, including his first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830 (Palgrave, 2013).

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