[lbo-talk] John Dolan summons his literary hero

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Sat Mar 18 14:44:03 PST 2006

Doug Henwood wrote:
> Chris Doss wrote:
> >And that, of course, is why Byron was adored in Europe
> >but snubbed in England and America. He was everything
> >Wordsworth's gang was not. They were utterly
> >humorless-a Romanticist once told me that "there are
> >three jokes in Wordsworth, or so they say:but I can't
> >recall them."
> I think Geoffrey Hartman found one in The Prelude, around the
> crossing of the Alps passage, but now I can't recall it. Oh, and The
> Leech Gatherer is pretty funny.

I'm surprised Harman did not mention the passage on youthful cardplaying in Book 1 (2?) of The Prleude. Very skillful interaction with the game of Ombre in The Rape of the Lock. And if readers decide in advance that a writer is "humorless," then they find humor only if it is virtually a pie in the face. Suppressing preconceptions, take a look (1850 text) of the opening lines of Book III (arrival at Cambridge), lines which Arnold saw as humorless but on which de Selincourt (seeing playfulness) was surely right:

It was a dreary morning when the wheels

Rolled over a wide plain o'erhung with clouds,

And nothing cheered our way till first we saw

The long-roofed chapel of King's College lift

Turrets and pinnacles in answering files,

Extended high above a dusky grove.

Surely the plains of Troy with its mighty pinnacles are not far from Wordsworth's musings here. And "dusky grove" in a poet supersensitive to "poetic diction"! And then he continues:

Advancing, we espied upon the road

A student clothed in gown and tasselled cap,

Striding along as if o'ertasked by Time,

Or covetous of exercise and air. . . .

The drop from (upper case) Time to being "covetous" of exercise. Wonderful. It was for these two lines that I chose to use the edition of 1850 rather than 1805, though the latter is usually better.

Perhaps Wordsworth goes well with age. For some 50 years I saw found his work quite easy to ignore, but eight years ago on a whim I picked up the Norton edition of The Prelude off the shelf a Barnes & Noble, and on another whim two years ago began to read that poem in the 1805 text. I was and remain enraptured.

Wordsworth was not a standup comedian, but then neither was Byron exactly; also absence of jokes does not necessarily coincide with "humorlessnes" nor skill a cracking jokes coincide with whatever it is we call a "sense of humor." When he heard the news of Waterloo, Byron said something like "It's a damn shame."

None of this is said in desparagement of Byron; his Don Juan is one of the most wonderful things ever written.


P.S. I don't know whether any critic has attempted to defend the following lines from "The Thorn" (in description of the grave of a young girl). Here I doubt that the humor was intended, and he did change the lines I believe after Coleridge had objected:

'Twas three feet long and two feet wide,

I measured it from side to side.

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