Wordsworth, Milton, and Parodic Sonnets
1> Milton’s choices of sonnet form and subject matter have long been identified as the impetus for Wordsworth’s turn to the sonnet in 1802. Particularly Wordsworth’s sonnet “London, 1802,” which begins, “MILTON! Thou should’st be living at this hour,” holds Milton up as an icon of liberty, virtue, and English tradition. However, the high sincerity that has defined most criticism about Milton’s influence on Wordsworth’s sonnets overlooks several of the reasons why Wordsworth turned to Milton as he attempted to define his poetic vocation for English readers. Wordsworth not only admired Milton’s singular voice of liberty and the muscular turns that he employed to break the typical volta of the Italian sonnet; he recognized that Milton’s sonnets often defined themselves by the sheer number of voices conjoined within them.
2> Wordsworth also grasped how and why Milton welcomed humor and self-parody into his sonnets. Specifically, Milton’s twin sonnets 11 and 12 showed Wordsworth how to echo back and intertwine his own voice with the voices of contemporary critics and detractors. In his sonnet “On the Detraction which followed the Publication of a Certain Poem” (1820), Wordsworth parodies the language, subject matter, and form of Milton’s twin sonnets in order to engage contemporary reviewers and the reading public in a historical, self-reflexive, and ironic inquiry into what defines the form and nature of England’s literary tradition. This sonnet demonstrates Wordsworth’s understanding that, in order to engender a sustainable cultural place for his poetry, he must re-locate and re-appropriate his own poetic discourse in relation to those very cultural forces that seek to dismantle the collective power of his works.
3> Wordsworth’s 1820 sonnet was written in response to savage reviews and several parodies of his poem “Peter Bell” (1819). This sonnet underscores the value of his poetic labor by measuring that labor against the pledges of his contemporaries, and it reveals Wordsworth’s complex engagement with the review culture and the reading public as well as his definition of what constitutes literature. Furthermore, the sonnet demonstrates his acute awareness of the conventions of parody and the shaping power of paratexts. The sonnet begins with an epigraph that directs Wordsworth’s readers to: “See Milton’s Sonnet, beginning, ‘A Book was writ of late called ‘Tetrachordon.’” Instead of merely answering his detractors with a prose attack (as in the “Essay Supplementary to the Preface”) or even another ballad like “Peter Bell,” Wordsworth responded with a complex double-edged satire in a parodic sonnet that directs his readers’ attention backward to Milton’s sonnet 12—itself a complex satiric response to detractors of Milton’s Tetrachordon. Wordsworth draws upon a Milton sonnet that was distinctly representative of and officiously embedded in a complex intertextual and public controversy about the legality and ethics of divorce.
4> Wordsworth further situates his own public response to contemporary reviewers and parodists within the discourse of Milton’s response to his critics and within the literary tradition of the sonnet. If J.H. Reynolds had satirically lambasted Wordsworth in his mock “Peter Bell” for writing in “that pure unlaboured style, which can only be met with among labourers” (“Peter Bell” 174), Wordsworth responded by explicitly naming a fellow laborer (Milton) and by writing in a self-consciously intricate form (the sonnet). Wordsworth’s epigraph enjoins his contemporary readers to read Wordsworth’s response to them within the context of Milton’s battles with his critics.
5> In order for readers to acquire the competence to read Wordsworth’s poem, the epigraph suggests, they must go back to Milton’s sonnet and grapple with the complex relationship that Milton describes between writer, text, and critics. Wordsworth might have chosen to refer his readers to Milton’s twelfth sonnet for several reasons. First, Milton’s sonnet responds to readers who misunderstood Tetrachordon and his divorce tracts as well as readers who neglected to read Tetrachordon. Consequently, it deals explicitly with the reception history of his works. Second, in the sonnet, Milton satirizes the responses of contemporaries who happen across Tetrachordon in the marketplace of St. Paul’s: “Cries the stall-reader, bless us! what a word on/ A title page is this!” (5-6). These stall readers cannot grasp the meaning of Milton’s Greek title (even though they mimic the sound of it, “what a word on”) and they complain, “Why is it harder Sirs then Gordon,/ Colkitto, or Macdonnel, or Galasp” (8-9). An explicit commentary on learning in his age, these lines begin to suggest why Milton’s readers were so bewildered by his Greek title. However, the fact that these stall readers mimic the title by mocking it implies that his work has gained a degree of currency among such readers.
6> Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell” also experienced a degree of currency and even popularity as a function of his detractors. His “Peter Bell” sold more copies than any of his previous books of poetry, largely due to the popularity of Reynolds’ parody, written only with the knowledge of Wordsworth’s title. Although the meaning of his title is misrepresented and even misunderstood in such a context, Reynolds’ parody also brought Wordsworth’s name and work to a new level of public attention. Somewhat ironically, Wordsworth too seems to have invited such attention to his title with his epigraph to “Peter Bell”: “‘What’s in a Name? Brutus will start a Spirit as soon as Caesar!’” Widely commented on and ridiculed, Wordsworth’s epigraph directly calls attention to his title. The Lake poet’s reference back to Milton’s sonnet also suggests that Wordsworth’s contemporaries have not grasped the meaning of the title “Peter Bell” any more than Milton’s contemporaries could grasp his Greek title. Wordsworth’s epigraph to his sonnet implies that his critics have misread or overlooked the central importance of his character’s name for the trajectory of the story and that character’s reformation. Instead of merely denigrating attacks on “Peter Bell” from “a harpy brood” (7), Wordsworth enables his sonnet, through Milton’s sonnet 12, to comment indirectly on readers and learning in his own age. Wordsworth suggests that his critics, like Milton’s critics, cannot understand his title and, therefore, cannot understand his work. Furthermore, what Wordsworth chooses not to say, Milton says for him.
7> In “Resembling Unlikeness: A Reading of Milton’s Tetrachordon Sonnet,” Patrick Cook argues that although sonnet 12 satirizes a lack in contemporary learning, the speaker also implicates himself in the age that he critiques, with the repeated use of “our” in “Those rugged names to our like mouths grow sleek” (10) and “ours” in “Thy age, like ours, O Soul of Sir John Cheek,/ Hated not Learning worse then Toad or Asp” (12-13): Cook maintains, “The apparently unlike stall-readers are in fact most resembling—resembling both Milton and the earlier age he praises in both the poem and [Tetrachordon]” (123). Although the sonnet foregrounds the differences between poet and readers, it also collapses that difference in the sestet with the use of “our.” Furthermore, in relation to line 10, Cook even asserts, “Just as spelling the title brings the vulgar closer to Milton, so do considering, imitating, indeed even quoting the vulgar bring Milton closer to them” (124).
8> In his sonnet, Wordsworth also seems to quote “the vulgar” that seemingly have misunderstood and mocked his “Peter Bell.” He refers to Robin Hood and Rob Roy—references perhaps to Reynolds’ sonnets about Robin Hood as well as to Wordsworth’s own poems and comments about the works of Sir Walter Scott. He also places his “Peter Bell” in line with Robert Burns’s Tam O’Shanter. Wordsworth mimics contemporary complaints against his work, echoes his own complaints against contemporaries, and brings their voices together in the octave of his sonnet. Furthermore, Wordsworth imitates and quotes Milton’s speaker and, thereby, brings himself and his poem closer to the tone of Milton’s poem. Against “A book was writt of late call’d Tetrachordon,/ And wov’n close both matter, form, and stile,” Wordsworth writes, “A BOOK came forth of late, called PETER BELL;/ Not negligent the style;--the matter?—good.” Wordsworth too, these lines suggest, can imitate parodically another’s work as well as any parodist can imitate him. Wordsworth can speak the language of his detractors as well as imitate the language of Milton.
9> Curiously, though, Wordsworth’s rendition of the second Miltonic line only deals with style and matter—Wordsworth has left out how the form is “wov’n close.” The dashes elide this point, but what Wordsworth seemingly has passed over here is, in fact, what his sonnet asks that his readers weave together. This elision might be explained by Wordsworth’s reference to Milton’s title Tetrachordon. The title—suggestive of four disparate musical strings tuned together—which Milton metaphorically applies to his weaving together of four pieces of scripture, underlines Milton’s attempt to bring into accord his age’s views about marriage and divorce. For Wordsworth’s readers, such weaving also necessitates their recognizing not only how Wordsworth’s sonnet responds directly to Milton’s sonnet 12, but also how it positions itself in relation to Milton’s sonnet 11, sonnet 12’s twin poem.
10> Wordsworth’s sonnet alludes to two aspects of Milton’s sonnet 11. First, in the last two lines of the octave of Wordsworth’s sonnet, he writes that his detractors, “Waxed wroth, and with foul claws, a harpy brood/ On Bard and Hero clamorously fell.” Wordsworth evokes the Dionysian elements of Milton’s sonnet 11. The speaker in Milton’s sonnet, who prompts his contemporaries toward liberty with the argument of his twin treatises Tetrachordon and Colasterion, finds himself beset with “a barbarous noise” of detractors, attempting to tear him apart. While Wordsworth follows Milton’s depiction of a ravenous community of critics, the Lake poet chooses a different figuration of his detractors. Instead of Milton’s lecherous detractors, “Owls and cuckoos, asses, apes and dogs,” Wordsworth describes a “harpy brood” that attacks both “Bard and Hero.” Milton equates himself with the persecuted Latona who gave birth to Apollo and Diana, twin gods suggesting his twin treatises while Wordsworth describes his critics as a “harpy brood,” thereby characterizing them as half-predator bird and half-woman.
11> With such a comparative image, Wordsworth implies that he, as a “Bard,” is in a position like Phineus from an episode in the Quest for the Golden Fleece. Given the gift of prophecy by Apollo and cursed for using this gift by Zeus, Phineus was beset, every time he attempted to eat, by harpies that defiled his food, leaving it so foul that no mortal would eat it. Like Milton’s self-portrayal in sonnet 11 of a poet who attempts to provide truth and liberty, Wordsworth fashions himself as a seer, capable of prophesying truth that leads to liberty. Wordsworth places his readers in a position to recognize, by way of Milton’s sonnet 11, that he, like Milton, also prophesies the truth. The image also takes on an economic significance. Beset by harpies that befoul his reputation and his poetic characters, and consequently his poems, his depiction suggests not only that these critics plague his career, but also that parodists and critics render his works unfit for public consumption because they tamper with them before they can be consumed. Or, the image might even imply that these critics tamper with the economics of his poetry, ruining his capital gains from the sale of his works. These harpies stand in the way of the poet reaping the benefits of prophesying the truth. Ironically, however, in the case of “Peter Bell,” Wordsworth has come to rely on this harpy brood for catalyzing sales of his work. To remain in the public eye, he needs the very “harpy brood” that defiles his work.
12> The second overt allusion to Milton’s sonnet occurs when Wordsworth describes his hero Peter Bell as a “Rover.” Besides using the proper name “Rover,” Wordsworth echoes the word “roav” both from his own “Peter Bell” and from Milton’s sonnet 11: “But from that mark how farr they roav, we see/ For all this wast of wealth and loss of blood” (13-14). Milton chastises critics who “still revolt when Truth would set them free” (10), and chooses “License” instead of “liberty,” by, as John Shawcross points out, likening “the people who think they aim at liberty by means of Civil War to wasteful archers whose arrows (rovers) miss their mark and merely wound their prey.” Like Milton, Wordsworth suggests that his detractors also have missed the mark with their criticisms of the poet and his characters. Correspondingly, his octave begins, “Heed not, wild Rover once through heath and glen,/ Who mad’st the better life thy choice.” At the volta in his sonnet, Wordsworth turns to address his “Hero” Peter Bell directly and shifts the setting of the sonnet from the overtly public responses of his critics to the private world of the poem “Peter Bell.” He urges his hero to ignore this brood of harpies and focuses instead on where Peter Bell has gone or will go.
13> Curiously, the syntax of line 8 renders the word “once” a bit ambiguous. The word seems to imply that Peter Bell has already passed one time through heath and glen; however, it also suggests a process, meaning that once he makes it through the heath, he should “Heed not” this harpy brood. As a Rover, who has wandered and been once through an experience that has transformed him entirely from a rogue to a more virtuous man, and as a character, who continues to grow as a portion of Wordsworth’s larger poetic oeuvre, Peter Bell offers a model for Wordsworth’s readers—a model of progressive learning that is only undercut by listening solely to Wordsworth’s detractors. Wordsworth’s Rover functions as a corrective surrogate to the roving license of Wordsworth’s readers who denigrate the type of moral and hermeneutic liberty that Wordsworth ascribes to this character’s conversion and suggests might be available through his poetic works. Although Wordsworth creates a distinction between his detractors (in the octave) and his own private world of poetry (in the sestet), his sestet also suggests the manner in which readers can become a part of this world, by following a path, like Peter Bell, through the heath and glen of his poems.
14> The combination of Milton’s sonnets twelve and eleven offers readers a dual perspective that both sympathizes with and rejects contemporary readers. Attentive readers might also recognize that Wordsworth’s epigraph not only has drawn them back to Milton’s response to critics; it has drawn them toward the very middle of Milton’s sonnet sequence of twenty-three poems, thereby inviting them to look both backwards and forwards. For Wordsworth—an avid reader of Milton’s sonnets and a poet acutely concerned with the arrangement of his poems—referring readers to the middle of Milton’s sonnet sequence is no accident. Wordsworth asks his readers to consider the placement of both Milton sonnets that he alludes to in the context of all 23 sonnets, which trace Milton’s youthful follies and ambitions, his political involvement, and his subsequent blindness. Beyond prompting attentive readers to consider the relationship between Milton’s sonnet and his series of sonnets, Wordsworth also suggests that his sonnet and the “Miscellaneous Sonnets” that it appears within in 1820 are connected to the same tradition. Wordsworth does not single out his sonnet-response to detractors of “Peter Bell” as a singular work. Instead, he organizes his response within the larger context of his nationalistic “Miscellaneous Sonnets,” an ever-growing and evolving category that he first created as a portion of his 1807 Poems. “On the detraction” is a part of a group of sonnets, which are, in turn, a portion of Wordsworth’s larger poetic oeuvre.
15> For Wordsworth the sonnet form operates as a metaphor for his entire poetic works. Wordsworth even conceived of modeling his epic The Prelude on the Petrarchan sonnet. In answering his detractors with a sonnet—embedded within other sonnets, which further are embedded within the Miltonic tradition of sonneteering— Wordsworth demonstrates that the sonnet’s “scanty plot of ground” functions as an appropriate genre for engaging criticism and forging national identity. Wordsworth also suggests that the sonnet provides a fit space to record—by looking backward on and projecting forward—the collective labor of diverse communities of readers as they respond to the various parts of his ever-expanding poetic project.
Cook, Patrick. “Resembling Unlikeness: A Reading of Milton’s Tetrachordon Sonnet.” Milton Quarterly 26.4 (1992): 121-129.
Milton, John. The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Ed. John T. Shawcross. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.
Reynolds, J.H. “Peter Bell: A Lyrical Ballad.” Romantic Parodies, 1797-1831. Eds. Kent, David and Ewen, D.R. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1992.
Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Vol. III. Ed. E. De Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.
Brian Bates is an Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences Lecturer at the University of Denver. He specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture, and has published articles about Wordsworth’s collections of poetry, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, and Keats’s re-envisioning of Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” He also has an article focused on Wordsworth’s Regency parodists forthcoming in Studies in Romanticism.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures