Five Questions: Tim Fulford on the Late Poetry of the Lake Poets

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Late Poetry Lake Poets

Tim Fulford, Professor of English at De Montfort University, is one of the hardest-working scholars in Romantic studies.  In the past several years, he has, among other things, edited (with Lynda Pratt) Robert Southey’s Later Poetical Works and large parts of his voluminous Collected Letters; produced editions of Robert Bloomfield’s letters and his poem The Banks of the Wye; and organised a series of excellent conferences.  Below, we discuss his fascinating new monograph, The Late Poetry of the Lake Poets: Romanticism Revisited, which was published by Cambridge University Press last month.

1) In his last book, On Late Style, Edward Said looks at lateness not as ‘harmony and resolution’ but as ‘intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction’ involving ‘above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness, going against…’.  Was a ‘contradictory, alienated relationship’ with ‘the established social order’ something you found manifested in the late works of the Lakers, or were their late styles more conciliatory?

None of the above I think…Certainly not harmony and resolution, but not intransigence and going against an established order either.  I see the Lakers as part of a contest for cultural authority; responding to the severe critiques made of them—personal attacks as well as reviews of their work—they revised old work, and produced new kinds of work, so as to gain legitimacy, influence and popularity.  Their late careers did not so much feature self-satisfied summings-up, looking only backwards into their own oeuvres, as interventions in a vexed cultural sphere: they changed their style—and genre—; they revised past poetry, to win a public for work that had been widely derided for many years.

2) You argue persuasively that Wordsworth and Coleridge’s late works became neglected in part due to struggles in the universities in the early twentieth century to define a teachable method for literary criticism.  How do you think our scholarly and pedagogical agendas need to shift in order to reintegrate these works?

I think it’s not so much a change of agenda we need—the New Historicist methodology to which most Romanticists are committed has expanded the traditional canon and taught us to investigate writing in historical context; what we haven’t done, by and large, is follow-through by investigating the later careers and contexts of these poets.  Much more work needs to be done on their writing, and its effect, in the 1820s, 30s and 40s.

3) How has your recent editorial work on Southey’s Collected Letters and Later Poetical Works informed this project?

Southey’s letters are so full of references to contemporary events—political and cultural—and to history, that, annotating them, I learnt far more than I’d ever known about the period, and the positions of the Romantic poets in the culture of the time.  Editing the Later Poetical Works showed me in detail what a variety of interesting poems Southey had written late in his career—and reminded me how little studied they are.  It also showed how involved in revision he was—it wasn’t only Wordsworth that obsessively reworked poems to make an impact of a different kind when republished later in life.

4) In your introduction, you state that part of your purpose is to ‘investigate these poems for what they say to us now’. Could you pick out two or three examples from among these late works that you think have particularly strong resonances for modern audiences, general or scholarly?

Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Long Meg and her daughters’ is a quietly astonishing poem looking at a prehistoric stone circle and pondering our relationship to history; Coleridge’s composite prose/verse text ‘The Blossoming of the Solitary Date Tree’ is a post-modernist tour de force—a self-referential riddle exploring writing, creativity and sexuality.  Southey’s A Tale of Paraguay is a salutary story about the dangers of well-meaning interventions in indigenous cultures—highly relevant in today’s world of ‘missions’ in Afghanistan and exploitation of the Amazon.

5) What’s next for you?

I’m getting the 2014 Coleridge Summer Conference together, and finishing another monograph—provisionally called The Consequences of Love—on Romantic poetry emerging from, and redefining, partnerships and their breakdown.  It looks at Southey, Coleridge and Mary Robinson as a collaborative circle, at Southey and Coleridge’s intense friendship and rivalry, at Wordsworth partnered by the ghost of Cowper in 1804, at Bloomfield and the Cockney essayists, at Wordsworth and Dorothy in the 1820s, and at Clare impersonating other poets in the 1840s.  I’m also editing Part V of Southey’s letters, due out on the Romantic Circles website in 2015, and Humphry Davy’s letters, due out with Oxford in 2018.