Julia S. Carlson, Romantic Marks and Measures: Wordsworth’s Poetry in Fields of Print

Julia S. Carlson, Romantic Marks and Measures: Wordsworth’s Poetry in Fields of Print (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) xiv + 354 pp. £50.00 Hb. ISBN 9780812247879

In this ambitious, important book, Julia Carlson sets out to reassess two of the most fundamental elements of Wordsworth's poetry. Claiming in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads that he would write a new kind of poetry in the 'language really used by men', Wordsworth aligned his verse with 'speech and nature', as Carlson has it (8). By uncovering the shared connections between elocution and cartography as they situate Wordsworth’s poetry in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture, this study radically transforms understandings of both 'speech' and 'nature', and how they shape Wordsworth's engagements with blank verse in particular. Carlson’s project is vast yet focussed, and throughout the book negotiates deftly her aim to ‘show how Wordsworth’s topographically and orally invested poetry registered at a thematic and textual level’ (10) and how, ultimately, ‘blank verse became a medium in which Englishness was expressed in print’ (12).

The book has an overarching structure of two halves: the first ‘examines the shaping of Wordsworth’s blank verse within a burgeoning cartographic culture’, whilst the second considers Wordsworth’s poetics ‘within a thriving print culture of English’ and elocutionary notation (12). There are seven chapters overall that are bridged by an ‘interchapter’ halfway through the book.  As the chapters unfold, what might seem initially like two books in one becomes a dynamic study of how the disciplines of cartography and elocution speak to each other as both contexts and formal influences that shape Wordsworth’s poetics. Chapter 1 considers poetry and print culture in the context of picturesque tourism, looking at Lake District guidebooks in particular and how they aligned the poem (and extracts of blank verse in particular) with the visual representation of landscape. Carlson’s claim that the ‘print culture of lakes tourism’ enables a re-thinking of the ‘history of poetic form’ and especially the ‘Wordsworthian “nature lyric”’ (25) is explored through engaging readings of Wordsworth’s use of blank verse extracts in his own essay on the Lakes; her suggestion that Wordsworth as a ‘guidebook writer and as a quoter and writer of landscape poems . . . attuned readers to the material forms and stress patterns of each’ is compelling. Chapter 2 focuses in on maps as they figure in Wordsworth’s verse and especially in The Prelude. It offers a fascinating argument for maps as ‘pockets of illegibility’ (60) at the turn of the eighteenth century, and so builds a convincing case for asserting period cartography as a crucial framework through which to read the famous Simplon Pass episode in Book VI (where Wordsworth and Jones ‘lost their way’) in order to see how ‘the climactic event of Book VI narrates a problem of decipherment that is already inscribed on the maps of the period’. Chapter 3, which rounds off the section exploring Wordsworth’s cartographic poetics, stays with The Prelude and considers the connections between this poetic project and that of the Ordnance Survey, arguing that the poem’s ‘representational self-reflexivity and experimentation is matched by experimentation and debate in the cartographic representation of the nation’ (83-84).

In the ‘interchapter’, Carlson moves nimbly from cartography to the print culture of elocution, making a case for their interrelation by drawing attention to how ‘before maps were ever conceived of as language, the English language was conceived of spatially and geographically’ (130). For Carlson, tour narratives and maps are akin to elocutionary treatises because they all contributed to a ‘spatialization’ of the English language forged through the media of visual print culture and diagrams as well as poetic measure, inscription, and illustration. This is such a compelling argument that it is almost a shame to have it laid out halfway through the book, as the following chapters stray occasionally from such direct and fruitful comparison between the two disciplines. The second half of the book is as rich as the first, though. Chapter 4‘s discussion of Wordsworth’s blank verse in relation to elocution’s investment in ‘emphasis’ offers a significant interpretation of ‘The Discharged Soldier’ in particular. Carlson shows how this passage becomes a moment of ‘metrical self-fashioning’ (170) in the face of a ‘self-alienation . . . not accounted for in elocutionary theory’ (167), as well as indicative of the forms of alienation from nature and community implicit in the standard measurement of the ‘milestone’ that the solider is aligned with (149). Chapter 5 gives a rewarding account of the print culture and changing typeface of Lyrical Ballads, paying close attention to how punctuation and pauses emplace feeling in Wordsworth’s verse. Carlson’s reading of ‘The Brothers’ is especially engaging, showing how ‘emendations to the punctuation of speech sharpen the emotional contours of place’ (200). Chapter 6 explores the significance of the exclamation point in The Prelude, exploring in fascinating ways the context of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s ‘prose and verse sent by mail’ as it unveils the spatial dynamics of absence and intimate address in the poem. The final chapter concludes the book with a detailed study of John Thelwall’s radical work on both prosody and elocution in relation to The Excursion, illuminating how Thelwall’s scansion of that poem is tied up with his exploration of a national ‘rhythmus’ and a ‘cartographic figuring of a nation unified by an animating physiological prosody’ (296).

Throughout the book, Carlson permits us to see and hear Wordsworth’s poetry in exciting new ways, through sensitive close-readings and rigorous research into a wealth of historical sources. Her work is remarkable not only for the important contributions she makes to studies of Romantic print culture, but also for her uncovering of cartography as a site of visual imagination and playful meaning-making, not just of disciplined, orderly knowledge. Carlson’s study of Wordsworth’s cartographical imagination is a nuanced exploration of how this visual experimentation shapes his poetic lines. She invigorates the study of historical prosody in particular, offering an important new spatial dimension to how Wordsworth marked and measured the sounds and shapes of his verse.

Erin Lafford, University of Derby