Commentary on "The Country Girl" by William Wordsworth

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L.E.L.'s Verses and the Keepsake for 1829, Edited by Terence Hoagwood, Martin Jacobsen, and Kathryn Ledbetter

Commentary on "The Country Girl"

In early 1828, Wordsworth was in need of more money than he was getting from the proceeds of his own books' sales. Though he had expressed contempt for the annuals, and was to do so again, Wordsworth accepted the offer from Reynolds, who was to edit the volume, of 100 guineas for providing 12 pages of verse for The Keepsake.1 "The Country Girl" is one of those pages. Reynolds later pointed out that Wordsworth's writings in the volume were half-a-page short of 12, but Wordsworth refused to supply more because Reynolds had declined to print four of Wordsworth's sonnets that had been submitted for the purpose. Then the proprietor Charles Heath indicated that he might pay Wordsworth the promised 100 guineas over a prolonged period--it might take 20 years for Wordsworth to receive the 100 guineas--and Wordsworth, angered about the money, stopped supplying writings to the Keepsake.2 From the beginning of the negotiations, according to Dora Wordsworth, William Wordsworth had viewed the Keepsake and his contribution as "degrading" (see our Introduction). The pretend-game of "The Country Girl" involves disguising this degrading act as an ennobling one.

As per the custom of the Keepsake, Heath supplied Wordsworth with a picture that was to appear (in an engraving) with the poem that Wordsworth was hired to write for the purpose. The problem of simulation (and inauthenticity) is many-layered and profound: the signature on the engraving indicates that "The Country Girl" was painted by J. Holmes and engraved by Charles Heath; but engravings in the Keepsake that were signed in that way were not necessarily engraved by Heath--as we have pointed out in our Introduction, John Heath observes that another engraving in The Keepsake for 1829, the frontispiece engraving of Mrs. Peel, "bears the signature of Charles Heath, but a very early proof copy is lettered in manuscript: 'Lane reduced, Goodyear etchd [sic] figure, Webb etchd fur and feathers, J. H. Watt drapery and hat, Rhodes worked up hat feathers, D. Smith background, and C. Heath flesh.'"3 Already, the engraving The Country Girl simulates a painting that simulates a country girl, and the questionable engraving presents a questionable attribution to Heath as the simulator of the painterly simulator.4 Evidently Wordsworth, then, for money, feigns feeling about the whole thing.

The difference or continuity of this scenario of simulation with the method and meaning of Wordsworth's other poems is a matter for important critical reflection. Peter J. Manning suggests that Wordsworth's overtly commercial engagement with the Keepsake "represents less apostasy from an earlier purity than a manifestation of an investment in the literary market present from the beginning of his career."5 The Keepsake for 1829 provides a field that frames or even imparts meaning to "The Country Girl." In a collection of poems by William Wordsworth, his poem's meanings would be framed by his own other works; here, others' work frames (determines) the meanings of Wordsworth poem.

Of course, the focus on a particular work of art also determines the meanings of Wordsworth's poem. The first six lines form a blazon, enumerating several body parts of the "Country Girl" --eyes, "Those locks," "thy brow," "That cheek," "That lip." These lines are emphatically set off from what follows by their versification: after a tetrameter couplet, a trimeter line introduces an envelope quatrain that ends in another trimeter line. Nothing of the sort appears again in the poem, which is composed entirely of tetrameter lines from this point to the poem's end, all in couplets except that (in paragraph two) "flowers" makes an envelope with "bowers," and "share" is separated from its rhyme ("prayer") by four lines.

The blazon is followed by a first-person report of a fantasy ("Fancy sped / To scenes Arcadian") whose Arcadian theme is carried principally by names of happy feelings ("bliss," "happiness," "love," "innocent delight"). Like L.E.L.'s "Verses," this similarly self-conscious poem on a picture then turns, at the beginning of paragraph two, to reflection about art, rather than a description of this particular engraving. (The phrase, "mingle colours," clearly does not refer to the engraving at all.) The speaker praises the depiction for including the "sheaf of corn" as a reminder of "Life's daily tasks" in contrast to "The sweet illusion" that a picture of flowers might have produced. With their "lowly bed" and "weary head," the imagined laborers express, finally, Christian conformity (the prayer for daily bread) rather than the pagan desire of the merely imagined pastoral with which the poem's first half is occupied.

Like L.E.L.'s "Verses," then, this poem produces a rhythm of illusionary inflation and quotidian deflation. Both poems refuse to be art-about-art in the shallow sense (a verbal version of the picture) to prefer a moralized commentary on art--not on the particular picture that each poem accompanies, but rather on the illusion-making practice of art, the construction of deceptive images and the concomitant delusions about life that are associated, in each poem, with the classical (pastoral) or medieval (chivalric) conventions that the paintings reproduce. Both poems express anxiety about their own status as simulations, to regret disillusion (L.E.L.) or to express gratitude for it (Wordsworth).

The Keepsake's adjustment of its themes to its audience (see our Introduction) transforms the meanings of its contents. Both poems were, obviously, taken into the Keepsake for 1829 where they take on new meanings among partially disrobed female figures (as on the engraved title-page); Shelley's fragmentary essay "On Love," which the Keepsake juxtaposes immediately with "The Country Girl"; and the amorous and flippant rhetoric of other pieces in the volume, including Reynolds's "On Two Sisters," which follows "The Country Girl" immediately--"Each gift of beauty, sweet, is thine! / Thy form surpasses e'en desire. . . ." For example, in this form Shelley's essay "On Love" functions as a valentine rather than the philosophical essay that it obviously is when it is encountered in a collection of Shelley's other essays. Encountered here, in The Keepsake for 1829, like L.E.L.'s "Verses," Thomas Moore's "Extempore," and Wordsworth's "The Country Girl," it furnishes an instructive example of the power of material form--a book's form, this particular vellum, under these silk covers, in that particular market--to manufacture the meanings of a literary work as it actually exists and as (a matter of fact) it enters the world.


Notes

1. See our Introduction; Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 350; Kathryn Ledbetter, "Lucrative Requests: British Authors and Gift Book Editors," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 88.2 (June 1994): 207-16; and Peter J. Manning, "Wordsworth in the Keepsake, 1829," in Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British Publishing and Reading Practices, eds. John O. Jordan and Robert L. Patten (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 44-73. Return to Essay

2. See The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. The Later Years, Part II, 1829-1834, 2nd ed., ed. Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 2: 14-15; Letters of Dora Wordsworth, ed. Howard P. Vincent (Chicago: Packard, 1944), 39; and Manning, "Wordsworth in the Keepsake," 60. Return to Essay

3. John Heath, The Heath Family Engravers 1779-1878 (Hants: Scolar Press, 1993), 2: 58. Return to Essay

4. The false representations of this artifact have not stopped even now: Manning's 1995 essay (see note 1 above) reproduces a photograph of Heath's engraving (not a photograph of Holmes's painting) and entitles it "James Holmes, The Country Girl": see Manning, p. 64. Return to Essay

5. Manning, "Wordsworth in the Keepsake, 1829," 61. Return to Essay

Published @ RC

October 1998