By Peter N. Miller
Dedicated readers of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude must at some point grapple with the disconcerting question of which version of the poem they’re looking at.
In 1799 Wordsworth produced a fair-copy manuscript of what would later be called The Two-Part Prelude. Between 1801 and 1805 the poet drastically revised this material to create a longer autobiographical poem, which consisted at various points of five books, eight books, and thirteen books. Wordsworth continued to revise the work over the coming decades, breaking Book 10 in two in 1829 to create a fourteen-book Prelude. His most substantial final revisions came in 1839, yet the poem was still not published, in any form, until shortly after the poet’s death, in 1850. To confuse matters further, Wordsworth never actually called The Prelude by that name. For him it was always “the poem to Coleridge.” The poet’s widow, Mary Hutchinson, suggested the title The Prelude. There is not a poem called The Prelude, it would seem, but multiple poems, each with a certain claim to legitimacy.
While The Prelude’s complex and confusing textual history may seem unique, it actually points to a feature of all textual artifacts. Namely, that “no text is self-identical” (145), as Jerome McGann states in his 2001 book Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. Because our conceptions of textual singularity are always mediated by our varied physical practices and technologies of reading, no literary text is ever fully stable or perfectly replicable, even when we think we’re looking at two copies of the “same” book.
In the case of The Prelude, the poem’s bibliographical messiness is well matched by its protagonist’s unsettled sense of double-mindedness, a sense that Wordsworth strives to articulate and reconcile over the course of his epic. Thinking back on his childhood, for instance, the adult poet observes that
so wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days,
Which yet have such self-presence in my mind
That, sometimes, when I think of them, I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other being. (II.28-33)
The poet of The Prelude is plagued by “other being[s]” that are in fact earlier versions of himself. So too—in a literal, textual sense—is the poem that would be continually copied, revised, and expanded over a period of fifty years.
When it comes to creating a new print edition of The Prelude, however, the format of the codex book invariably supports the impression of a singular, coherent Prelude, one in which poem and book are largely synonymous. Certainly, there are editions that strive to alert the reader to the multiplicity of Wordsworth’s text, via introductory material by an editor, footnotes appended to portions of verse whose textual history is particularly dynamic, or even side-by-side printings of the 1805 and 1850 versions. Yet even in the richest and most thorough print representations of Wordsworth’s multiple versions and revisions, an inescapable bibliographical gravity pulls us back toward the illusion of singularity.
What if there was a way to discard the entire notion of a singular text? Would it be possible to conceive of—and produce—a Prelude in which its textual multiplicity functions not as an editorial supplement but a fundamental condition of its being? As we enter more fully into the digital age, it seems to me that non-print-based computerized tools could be used to build an intriguing platform to experience Wordsworth’s textually and psychologically fraught epic.
I lack the computer programming skills to build this myself, so this essay is not a blueprint as much as a thought experiment and a call for further input. But what I have in mind is an internet-based edition of The Prelude that, like Heraclitus’ river (or perhaps Wordsworth’s Derwent), is never the same twice. That is, a Prelude which revels in structural and textual fluidity by presenting a different version of itself each time a reader accesses the website. Some of these versions would be the traditionally recognized iterations and revisions of the poem: in two books, five books, thirteen books, etc. But other versions—and here’s where it gets more slippery and more interesting—would seek to challenge the notion of even, say, four “stable” Preludes by introducing further textual and structural variations into the text. Such variations would initially have their basis in ever more minute variations among Wordsworth’s manuscripts, but they might not stop there…
Would this project inflict a kind of violence against Wordsworth’s great poem? Yes, undoubtedly. But, as I see it, this is precisely the point. In other words, this project would highlight and dramatize the bibliographical violence that must always already occur in order to present a reader with any given text. By bringing questions of authorial intent and editorial discretion to their breaking points (and beyond), a shape-shifting digital Prelude might productively illuminate the constitutive ambivalence that runs throughout Wordsworth’s epic and which mediates our own experience of it as readers. Much more technical, theoretical, and editorial thought will be required before this project is anywhere near going live, but I think the process of building and theorizing a digital Prelude would ultimately honor the textual and intellectual complexities of Wordsworth’s poem.
Wordsworth, musing in Book 2 on the miraculous interaction of a newborn with the external world, postulates that
A virtue which irradiates and exalts
All objects through all intercourse of sense.
No outcast he, bewilder’d and depress’d;
Along his infant veins are interfus’d
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature, that connect him with the world. (II.258-64)
Gravitation and filial bond. Radiance and linearity. Hypertext and codex. An awestruck sense that human singularity is endlessly interwoven with social multiplicity permeates Wordsworth’s poem. What would happen if it permeated his text as well? For readers in the twenty-first century, might that “virtue which irradiates and exalts / All objects,” which connects the human being to the world, be the World Wide Web?
McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850: Authoritative Texts, Context and Reception, Recent Critical Essays. New York: Norton, 1979.
Peter N. Miller is a doctoral student in English at the University of Virginia.