MSJJ and the "Two-Part Prelude" (Full)

Full Editorial History

Helen Darbishire’s annotated copy of De Selincourt’s 1926 edition.

Given below is a full account of the emergence of "The Two-Part Prelude" as a distinct version of the text in the second half of the 20th Century.

1. Ernest De Selincourt's 1926 Edition (reprinted 1928).

In 1926, Ernest de Selincourt published the, now well-known, parallel text version of The Prelude on facing pages:

On the right-hand pages is a reprint of the authorized text, as it appeared in 1850, a few months after the poet's death: on the left, the text of the poem as it was read to Coleridge at Coleorton, in the winter after his return from Malta (1806-7). (vii)

This edition listed the various MSS of the poem as: A B C D E J M U V W X Y Z, omitting MS JJ in DC MS 19, MS RV (DC MS 21) and DC MSS 15 and 16.

As a result, the first major edition of The Prelude overlooked all early MSS towards Parts 1 and 2 with the exception of the Alfoxden Notebook (DC MS 14) which appeared to be added at the last moment. Unsurprisingly, then, it made no case whatsoever for a "Two-Part Prelude" since this perspective upon the poem had not yet been uncovered. De Selincourt suggests that "It is highly probable that Books I and II were completed in the latter half of 1799" (xxxiv) and that "The earliest known manuscript (V) of any long consecutive part of The Prelude seems to belong to this period" (xxxv). This was inaccurate of course, since MS RV preceded it (and MS JJ preceded that, although it is a discontinuous MS).

Nevertheless, in spite of overlooking early MSS, de Selincourt did date the early stages of the poem with reasonable accuracy, aided by Dorothy and William's letter to Coleridge of December 1798: "the months spent in Germany, mid-September 1798 to end of February 1799, rank among his most productive periods, and then it was that the larger part of Books I and II were composed" (xxxiv). This is true for Book I, although de Selincourt's lack of knowledge of the existence of MS RV (DC MS 21) leads him to give too early a date for Book II.

2. Ernest De Selincourt, "Early Readings in The Prelude," The Times Literary Supplement. Thursday, November 12, 1931: 886.

In this 1931 article, De Selincourt describes his belated realisation that The Prelude existed in an earlier form. He begins:

When Mr. Gordon Wordsworth handed over to me the manuscripts of The Prelude he was not aware that the last twenty pages of the notebook in which Dorothy Wordsworth wrote a part of her diary (February 14-May 2, 1802) contained the earliest extant drafts of some of those passages in the poem, chiefly in Book I., which deal with the poet's experiences as a child. (886)

DC MS 19 is clearly labelled "Diaries" (prob. by GGW) on the front cover and this strongly suggests the reason for the material initially being overlooked. The notebook was probably categorised as containing the writings of Dorothy rather than William. De Selincourt took the opportunity to name the new Prelude MS – "I have called the newly discovered manuscript JJ" (886) – and acknowledged the need to correct his earlier account:

On page xxii. of my introduction to the text of 1805-6 I spoke of the manuscript V. as "the earliest extant version of any considerable part of The Prelude"; but this manuscript must clearly take precedence of V.; it has V.'s readings wherever V. differs from the 1805-6 text, and it often records a still earlier stage of composition, in some places obviously the poet's first tentative efforts to give expression to his thought. (886)

Although De Selincourt was aware of the earlier MS he did not incorporate this information into his 1933 single text edition of the 1805 poem (subsequently reprinted in 1936, 1942, 1947). MS RV still had not been discovered. This may have been because MS D of Home at Grasmere was originally sewn into it.

3. Helen Darbishire's Revised Edition (1959).

It was with the second revised edition of 1959, by Helen Darbishire, that the "Two Part Prelude" clearly began to emerge as a distinct entity. In her personal copy of the earlier De Selincourt edition (now owned by Dove Cottage) additions on the pages of the introduction make it clear that Darbishire is well aware of the significance not only of MS JJ but also of MS RV (not known to De Selincourt) and the other early MSS 15 and 16 as they contribute to the early state of The Prelude.

Darbishire's revised edition gives a detailed account of all of the early manuscripts and of their significance. She fully recognises the value of MS JJ, stating that:

This MS. JJ, representing Wordsworth's first coherent attempt to embark upon the poem which afterwards became The Prelude, is sufficiently interesting and significant to merit printing as a whole. (xxvi)

For this reason, Darbishire also presented a version of MS JJ as an "Appendix" at the back of the book (633-642) and was the first to publish this manuscript. Such an act paved the way for later editorial constructions of this text and the other early MSS into "The Two-Part Prelude". In the Cornell edition, Parrish's presentation not only of a "Reading Text" for the poem in two books but also for MS JJ itself looks directly back to Darbishire's.

4. Two Key Articles: "The Three Forms of The Prelude 1798-1805," J. R. MacGillivray (1964) and "The Two-Part Prelude of 1798-99", Jonathan Wordsworth and Stephen Gill (1973).

Although Darbishire's edition had brought the early Prelude manuscripts to light, the concept of a "Two-Part Prelude" was yet to be defined by two key articles. In the first of these, J. R. MacGillivray was concerned with clearly defining the poem over time in its three different pre-1805 states, not solely concerned with the earliest version. Nonetheless, he was the first to write about "a two-part poem" (240) and to clearly define this stage of development as distinctive: "In this proto-Prelude of 1798-1800 one observes a much more unified theme and a much stronger sense of formal structure than in the poem completed first in 1805 and published in 1850" (236). His article seems to anticipate a shift away from the dominant debate over the two versions (1805 over 1850) and towards the earlier material.

The second article by Jonathan Wordsworth and Stephen Gill is written (as a footnote makes clear) in anticipation of their forthcoming Norton publications of the text as a discrete work. The paper acknowledges its debt to MacGillivray but, unlike him, is able to focus solely on the earliest "proto-Prelude" in considerable detail. The article makes a strong and convincing case for the completeness of the early version (perhaps anticipating hostility towards its forthcoming separate publication). So the "Two-Part Prelude" is described as a "separate and internally coherent form of The Prelude" (503), as a work which is definitively completed in this state and as one which:

was not continued . . . it was used as material towards a new and quite different poem, the five-book Prelude of spring 1804, which was in turn broken up in the making of 1805. (505)

In other words, rather than viewing the earlier material merely as disparate units feeding into the major form of the 13 Book Prelude, these critics re-define the poem itself in terms of connected, but also discrete, states. An account which focuses only on the final version is replaced by an understanding of the entire poem in terms of different versions over time. This redefinition (reflecting changes in editorial theory as well as the principles of the forthcoming Cornell Wordsworth series) allows a greater valuing of the poet's early unpublished material than was previously possible. It reflects a major shift in attitude towards the very concept of "The Prelude" from that of earlier editors (for whom two versions were enough!) This article also gives a detailed account of the manuscripts and phases of the early Prelude development.

5. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (1974).

The two earlier editions of the Norton Anthology of English Literature had presented extracts from The Prelude in the version of 1850. In 1974 the third edition of the anthology boldly declared that: "We print in this anthology, for the first time, the earliest, two-part form of The Prelude in its entirety" (2, 195). The text was that prepared for the forthcoming (1979) Norton Critical Edition of The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850.

Drawn from MS V (primarily) and MS U, the text of the "Two-Part Prelude" was presented as "thematically an entity" (196) and valued for its intensity and compactness:

This text, unlike the later versions (which, for altered structural purposes, relocate some of the episodes in later books), allows us to read the unbroken sequence of his "spots of time"; that is, revelatory moments of early experience which turn out, in retrospect, to mark crucial stages in the growth of the poet's mind and in this version much of the poetry, especially in Part I . . . has a terse power which was weakened by Wordsworth's later attempts to smooth out the syntax and heighten the style . . . (2, 196).

After presenting the earlier work, the anthology then went on to present extracts from a number of books across the poem of 1850. Separate publication of this version of the poem within an anthology, prior to its publication anywhere else, was controversial. In a chapter entitled "The Cornell Wordsworth and the Norton Prelude" in Romantic Texts and Contexts Donald Reiman put his position succinctly when he stated that:

To have these early texts available for the scholar and student is valuable; to have the two-part Prelude of 1789-1790 [sic] the only version of the Prelude available to students encountering WW for the first time seems to me less unambiguously so. (135)

Whilst Reiman overstates his case (it was not the only version of The Prelude given in the Anthology) the point still stands that it is potentially dangerous to present a newly-established text for the first time in such a context to a relatively uninformed readership. Unsurprisingly, then, it was dropped from the Fourth edition. Perhaps more surprisingly, it has not been subsequently reinstated (not by the Eighth edition at least), even after the success and widespread use of the Norton Critical Edition and of Parrish's Cornell Edition.

6. Stephen Parrish, The Prelude 1798-99. (1977).

Parrish's fully comprehensive edition of The Prelude in its "Two-Part" state was presumably intended to be the first publication of this work but was preceded by the publication of the text in the Norton Anthology described above. Nonetheless, the Cornell edition provides by far the fullest account of the inception and development of the poem in 1798-99. Parrish was able to draw upon all the editions and articles mentioned above. As well as giving every manuscript contributing to the two parts in full, with photographs and transcriptions, the introduction also provides detailed accounts of relations between early MSS and reconstructions of the lines on stubs in MSS 15 and 16.

For MS JJ the edition reproduces the entire manuscript photographically as well as providing a reading text for just this manuscript. Parrish states of it that:

This important manuscript, unrecognized until 1931, unpublished as a whole until 1959, allows us to judge something of Wordsworth's intentions and his state of mind when he began to write The Prelude. (6)

Parrish's transcribed text for the MS JJ manuscript differs from Darbishire's primarily in placing the draft "Preamble" lines at the start of the poem rather than the end.

7. Norton Critical Edition, edited M. H. Abrams, Stephen Gill and Jonathan Wordsworth.

The Norton edition is distinguished from that of Stephen Parrish as "the first edition of The Prelude to offer Wordsworth's greatest poem in three separate forms" (ix). In other words, it seeks to present the "Two-Part Prelude" in the context of future enlargement to three, five, thirteen and fourteen books. Nevertheless, it is extremely clear and thorough in its coverage of early Prelude materials. As well as presenting a complete reading text it also provides a section entitled "MS Drafts and Fragments" which contains a Reading Text for MS JJ as well as "the most important draft passages of 1799-1804 that were not included in the three major versions of the poem" (xii).

8. William Wordsworth: The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850). Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

In this Penguin Classics edition of The Prelude, Jonathan Wordsworth begins by stating that "The Prelude is a poem of many versions" (xxv). As the title suggests, he then goes one step further than the earlier Norton edition in claiming a distinct status for the largest stable block of work in MSJJ, naming it "Was It for This" and presenting it as a "1798" text preceding the "Two-Book" version of 1798-99. He describes this as "a self-contained poem of 150 lines composed in Germany in October 1798" (xxv). As editor he makes considerable claims for this version of the text:

Was It For This, here for the first time presented as a separate, annotated version of The Prelude, is of immense importance. Short as it is, it takes for its theme "The Growth of a Poet's Mind", containing in embryo the discussion of education through nature central to all later versions. (xxvi)

However, the difficulty with such an account is that – although the editor allows that "As he began to write Wordsworth did not know that he was embarked on a major poem" (xxvi) – by giving that early draft a title of its own, the edition suggests that it is a strong and discrete whole. All other evidence on this site, in relation to the re-organisation and development of MS JJ indicates that it does not have such status, although Jonathan Wordsworth would presumably have argued that this core block remains relatively stable across re-structuring of the whole.

The question to ask is whether there is a need to define a separate early state as anything other than the earliest surviving draft. Is it necessary to elevate the first state of The Prelude to this degree, or is to do so a distortion of its place within the process?

To compare three transcribed versions of MS JJ (those of Darbishire; Parrish; Abrams, Wordsworth and Gill) click below. (Jonathan Wordsworth's "Was it For This" amounts to the first block of the Norton version).


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974.

Darbishire, Helen and Ernest De Selincourt, eds. William Wordsworth: The Prelude or Growth of a Poet's Mind. 2nd Edition, Revised. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1959.

De Selincourt, Ernest, ed. The Prelude or Growth of A Poet's Mind by William Wordsworth. (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1926).

---. "The Composition of 'The Prelude'" Times Literary Supplement. Thursday March 19th, 1925: 196.

---. "Early Readings in The Prelude," Times Literary Supplement. Thursday, November 12th, 1931: 886.

MacGillivray, J. R. "The Three Forms of The Prelude 1798-1805." Essays in English Literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian Age. Presented to A.S. P. Woodhouse. 1964. Eds. Millar Maclure and F.W. Watt. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1964. 229-244.

Parrish, Stephen, ed. The Prelude, 1798-1799 by William Wordsworth. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Reiman, Donald. Romantic Texts and Contexts. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Wordsworth, Jonathan, ed. William Wordsworth. The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850). London: Penguin Books, 1995.

Wordsworth, Jonathan and Stephen Gill. "The Two-Part Prelude of 1798-99". Journal of English & Germanic Philology 72 (1973): 505-525.

Wordsworth, Jonathan, M. H. Abrams and Stephen Gill. William Wordsworth: The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850. Authoritative Texts; Context and Reception; Recent Critical Essays . New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.