On Wordsworth’s Revisions

By D. R. Gayton

So much about William Wordsworth’s life and works has come down almost as common knowledge in modern academic circles, that a repetition of his contributions (whether contested or authenticated) to the history of European literatures would, I fear, appear redundant.  A decided quality of William Wordsworth’s literary work, however, is the widespread appeal and influence it has enjoyed with the reading audience, from a very early period to the present.  Another aspect of Wordsworth and his life is his relative longevity.  Born in 1770 he lived well into his seventy-ninth year, and published a great deal through out that time.   A quick perusal of Wordsworth’s publishing history reveals, amidst his principal volumes of poetry, eight Collected Editions interspersed from 1802 to 1850, year of Wordsworth’s last author-supervised publication of The Poetical Woks of William Wordsworth (in six volumes).  Along the way, and with each new publication, Wordsworth made numerous revisions to many of his older poems (Gill 1984, p. xiv).  Consequently many volumes exist, even today, containing numerous variations between texts.

Traditionally, many critics and publishers have considered Wordsworth’s last Collected Edition as standard form for reprint and criticism.  That is, until the mid 20th century when academicians such as the Formalist and later on the New Critics began to concentrate more on textual interpretation, developing and spreading thereby a veritable predilection for first editions.  Having thusly two varying published texts per poem (only a handful of Wordsworth’s poems, such as Tintern Abbey, remained completely unaltered) several critical questions of value and interpretation arise.  Put simply, which version of the poem is more “accurate”, more “genuine”, or more “significant”.   In contrast, however, a few will rightly ask if such questions of value are even applicable to poetry and art in general.  Finding   argumentations with vastly diverging sets of opinions, yet each perfectly cogent in its own right, I was compelled to extend beyond contemporary literary criticism and revisit both early and later texts to draw my own conclusions.

The daunting and monumental task, however, of reexamining all of Wordsworth’s late poetry editions and comparing them to his earlier ones is clearly beyond the scope of this essay.  My main focus here in has been to narrow down the scope of textual analysis available to a manageable set of poems.  For this purpose I chose from sets of easily identifiable and referable texts of chronological cohesion.  Concentrating then on the highly influential Lyrical Ballads, I have drawn texts from the earliest edition of 1798, to match with the final author-supervised edition of 1850.  In analyzing the Lyrical Ballads I treated the texts of each edition as completely independent of each other; by doing so my goal has been to identify (within the revisions) shifts of meaning, author’s aesthetics, style, and psychology.   For this purpose I narrowed my selection to ‘Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree’, ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, and ‘Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman’.

Written in the spring of 1797, ‘Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree’ was one of the first poems composed by Wordsworth that would eventually form part of the main frame behind the Lyrical Ballads.   Written in blank verse and a lose iambic pentameter ‘Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree’ reflects the musings of a melancholic and tormented man.  Ultimately, the poem resolves itself with an appeal for empathy and self-acceptance, yet looking at both editions of the poem side by side it becomes apparent that late revisions do in fact modify what Wordsworth called narrative and consequently the reader’s recipience, not to the poem per se, but to the story in the poem.  Case in point, while describing the youth of the melancholic and tormented man, Wordsworth in 1798 writes:

No common soul. In youth, by genius nurs’d, 

            And big with lofty views, he to the world 

            Went forth pure in his heart, against the taint 

            Of dissolute tongues, ‘gainst jealousy, and hate, 

            And scorn, against all enemies prepared, 

            All but neglect: and so, his spirit damped 

            At once, with rash disdain he turned away,

The revision on the other hand makes several changes.  Notably, ‘genius’ becomes ‘science’ and ‘he to the world went forth’ becomes ‘led by nature’:

No common soul. In youth by science nursed,

            And led by nature into a wild scene

            Of lofty hopes, he to the world went forth

            A favoured Being, knowing no desire

            Which genius did not hallow; ‘gainst the taint

            Of dissolute tongues, and jealousy, and hate,

            And scorn,—against all enemies prepared,

            All but neglect. The world, for so it thought,    20

            Owed him no service; wherefore he at once

With indignation turn’d himself away


In both instances the youth is going against the grain, the difference is in the role the protagonist takes.  By changing, ‘And big with lofty views, he to the world / Went forth’  to  ‘And led by nature into a wild scene / Of lofty hopes’, Wordsworth is shifting the role of the protagonist from an active one to a passive one.  This change in stance denotes a change in temperament and motivations of the protagonist that is further reflected on the ending lines of the excerpt.  So then, when  ‘his spirit damped / At once, with rash disdain he turned away’ becomes ‘The world, for so it thought, / Owed him no service; wherefore he at once/ With indignation turn’d himself away’,  the melancholic protagonist of the poem is transformed from a cocky, moody, disgusted youth to a genteel and indignant young man.  Again, although the poem’s final resolve remains the same, it is the poet’s perception of the protagonist’s circumstances that has obviously changed.

In ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ the revisions are more abundant, and it becomes clear from a side to side comparison of both early and later texts that the majority of the ‘corrections’ of the later text were made for narrative cohesiveness and clarity.  Here, the complete reorganization of stanzas five through eight not only serves to clarify and simplify the lexicon of the original, but it also lends the poem a fluidity that the original (when compared to the later) seems to lack.  Amended, the dance of the sheep is better related in the later edition and the relationship between man and child seems less strained with intensity.  Like in ‘Line left upon a seat in a Yew-tree’ the poems resolution remains constant, what is altered is the overall fluidity of the poem as it unwinds from stanza to stanza.  Many revisions show the same effect.  By smoothing out the (really strategized) narrative, Wordsworth is—whether he was aware of the fact or not—leading the reader to experience a literary suspension of disbelief and hence empathy.

Stylistic maneuvers of this sort are again evinced in the narrative of Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman.  Written in twelve octaves (in loose the tetrameters) of a,b,a,b,c,d,c,d rhyme, Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman undergoes massive  changes under later revisions.  Of the twelve octaves only four remain completely unchained in the edition of 1850.  In fact, the entire narrative sequence gets rearranged.  Crucial character details depicting Simon Lee (the narrative’s protagonist) are moved to the fore while others are withheld for a double effect. Foremost, by shifting all descriptive passages of Simon Lee’s youthful prowess as a sportsman to the fore instead of interspersing them across three stanzas, the contrast of Simon Lee’s later degradation becomes much stronger; secondly, by restoring him his eye in the revision, Simon Lee ceases to come off as a the ridiculous, aged, and impoverished lackey of the first.  Another very important change of the later text is in the characterization of Simon’s wife.  Stanza four, lines 27 – 32 of the 1798 edition introduce Simon’s wife thusly:

To Poor old Simon Lee!

            He has no son, he has no child,

            His wife, an aged woman,

            Lives with him, near the waterfall


Mentioned almost as an aside, Ruth, that is Simon’s wife, is not mentioned soon after and when she does appear again she seems again almost an accoutrement to her husband.  The revised version on the other hand reads as follows:

His body, dwindled and awry,

            Rests upon ankles swoln and thick;

            His legs are thin and dry.

            One prop he has, and only one,

            His wife, an aged woman,

By referring to Ruth as a ‘prop’ to Simon, Wordsworth is delineating with very quick strokes a personal relationship between husband and wife that the original stanza lacks. That relationship if further expressed when they’re shown working side by side.

Oft, working by her Husband’s side,

            Ruth does what Simon cannot do;   

            For she, with scanty cause for pride,

            Is stouter of the two.

            And, though you with your utmost skill

            From labour could not wean them,

            ‘Tis little, very little—all

            That they can do between them

That same description, on the other hand, in the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, reads as follows:

Old Ruths works out doors with him,

            And does what Simon can not do;

            For she, not over stout of limb,

            Is stouter of the two.

            And though you with your utmost skill

            From labour could not wean them

            Alas! It’s very little, all

            Which they can do between them.

Clearly the difference of presentation makes a great difference to the reader’s understanding of the relationship between husband and wife.  To say that Ruth works ‘by her husband’s side’, is obviously not the same as to say Ruth ‘works out doors with him’.  The proximity and relationship between husband and wife is not only clarified during the revision it also amplifies character identification; increasing thereby reader’s empathy. Further, while on the 1798 text Ruth is described as ‘not over stout of limb, / [she] Is stouter of the two’ making her thusly seem almost robust, the revision clarifies that she is in fact in no better condition than her ailing husband, when ‘with scanty cause for pride, / [she] Is stouter of the two’  superimposes the previous text.

Writing for John Hopkins’ English Literary History (ELH) journal in the Fall of 1993, Professor Zachary Leander states in his essay Wordsworth, revision, and personal identity,

 many of even the most notorious of the poem’s revisions can be understood—were understood by Wordsworth—as refinements, or recuperations of meaning, rather than as impositions or assertions of what Philip Horne calls ‘new self,’ a more conservative and religious self in particular.

While Mr. Leander is correct in asserting that Wordsworth’s revisions are in essence “refinements or recuperations of meaning”, he is much too hasty in completely disregarding Philip Horne’s arguments for an interpretation of a ‘new self’.  For as Phillip Horne argued, Wordsworth is in fact revising his texts as a ‘new self’, however, that ‘self’ that Mr. Horne is arguing for is the biographical Wordsworth (the successful poet Laureate), not the literary Wordsworth (the artist, reexamining his art). “Though not identical with the person he once was…[Wordsworth] reveals himself in his revisions to have been one, continuing to identify with the     aims, aspirations, thoughts, and feelings of earlier poems, by attempting to bring them to a more perfect expression” (Leander 1993).  Notwithstanding, however, this line of thought, intended to abrogate Horne’s arguments, completely disregards Wordsworth’s many added religious allusions in his texts, such as in Lines Written in Early Spring when “if this thoughts may not prevent / If such be of my creed the plan”, becomes “If this belief from heaven be sent, / If such be Nature’s holy plan”.  Moreover, it is incorrect to state that the revisions reveal a Wordsworth who is as the years passed “continuing to identify with the aims, aspirations, thoughts, and feelings of earlier poems”.  In fact what the revisions do reveal, is a man who has recast and reexamined his former experiences, thoughts, and feelings from the safety of time passed.  The Wordsworth of the revisions is a man writing from “a day when I could bear / Some fond regrets to entertain” (Anecdote for Fathers, revised edition, l. 13-14).  Separated by time from the “crisis years” that gave birth to the Lyrical Ballads (1797 – 1798), the revisions show a poet evincing greater control over his craft, as well as a man who possesses greater peace of mind.








Leader, Zachary. “Wordsworth, revision, and personal identity.” ELH 60.3 (1993): 651+. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.


Gill, Stephen.  “Introduction”.  William Wordsworth, The Major Works.  Oxford; OUP (1993)


Wordsworth, William. “Delphi Complete Works of William Wordsworth” (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series) (Kindle Locations 26670-26673). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.