Scholarly Debate: The Dating of MS R

MS R is the least clearly established manuscript for Home at Grasmere so that there is an on-going debate as to whether it was written in 1806 or at an earlier time.

FOR 1806

The argument that MS R was written in 1806 relies upon three kinds of evidence.

Internal Evidence

An entry at the top of the first page of Home at Grasmere draft (131) in MS R, and on the interleaf opposite (132) is from The Waggoner, written in January, 1806. The material on the interleaf is crossed out and the space below it is used for pencil draft of Home at Grasmere. The argument made is that this proves that the Home at Grasmere material must have been entered after January, 1806.

The General Coherence Argument

This argument asserts that Home at Grasmere was not pulled together into a coherent form until 1806 and that the three surviving early manuscripts all date from the same period : "all three manuscripts belong . . . to a single phase of work" (Finch, 23). The position is further reinforced by negative evidence from Darlington:

Had Wordsworth completed this phase of work in 1800 or 1801, the poem would then have attained conceptually almost the final form of MS B. It is difficult to believe that with such a clear design in mind Wordsworth would not have copied the poem out in proper sequence in a single manuscript after drafting MS R. (11)

Negative Evidence

The third argument made is that if MS R had been written earlier than 1804 there would be some mention of it. Darlington refers to Wordsworth's 1804 description of "The Recluse" as "one Book and several scattered fragments" (EY , 454) as being too little if MS R were already written (since the "one Book" is taken to refer to ", The Ruined Cottage ").

A further piece of negative evidence is provided by Mark Reed who suggests that if Home at Grasmere were already so advanced by an earlier date, then surely it would have been included in Dorothy and Mary's copy of William's poems, sent to Coleridge abroad in 1804. (Reed, Chronology 1, 657).

AGAINST 1806 (For 1800 or 1801)

Internal Manuscript Evidence

Even in the strongest case made for a date of 1806 for MS R, by John Finch, a loophole was left open. He still had to allow that:

it remains a possibility that, though earlier than MS B, the draft which immediately follows the Waggoner lines is a reworking of a corresponding passage – now missing – in the continuous text. The central section of Home at Grasmere could thus arguably have been written at an earlier stage. (23)

In other words, the pencil lines that seem to prove that the entire block of text for Home at Grasmere is post-1806 could have been added later than the bulk of that text. In fact, Beth Darlington takes up the doubt raised by Finch and asserts that, indeed, the pencil entry below The Waggoner materials "is probably a revision of lines which formerly stood on the interleaf facing page 138 of MS R, now removed" (11). This means that, "Although it must date from 1806, it does not help to date other composition in the manuscript" (11). The internal evidence for MS R being post-1806 is thus invalidated.

The General Coherence Argument

How convincing is this argument? Certainly, MS B must draw upon earlier manuscripts, and MS A as a fair copy does look as though it is made in preparation for, and superseded by, MS B in 1806. But MS R is rough draft not fair copy text. It is therefore not tied into the preparation of MS B to the same degree as MS A (a point that Finch did acknowledge). Against Darlington's claim that if it were completed in 1800 or 1801 the whole poem would surely have been copied out then, two counterarguments can be made. Firstly, the material in MS R may not have been explicitly intended for Home at Grasmere, even if it was written at about the same time. Although thematically connected, it represents a shift from the first person of other Home at Grasmere material into third person narration. Thus, the decision to unite it with other Home at Grasmere writings might only have been made in the copying out of MS B, even if it were written earlier. Secondly, it is written on a manuscript for which the only other surviving material definitely dates from 1800 (that for "Michael" in DC MS 30). In fact, as Jonathan Wordsworth points out, in "On Man, On Nature and On Human Life": "In terms of the original volume [of Coleridge's Poems], the work on Home at Grasmere is [thus] both preceded and followed by materials from 1800" (25).

Internal Evidence: Poetic Content and Mood

Much of the position against an 1806 date for MS R has been articulated by Jonathan Wordsworth in "On Man, on Nature and On Human Life" (1980) (CLICK HERE for Home at Grasmere Manuscript Overview). He also suggests that MS R materials "continue the pattern set up in A" (22), (i.e. in the early draft material that must have preceded MS A). Arguing from internal evidence within the poem, he insists that the content of the work dates it to 1800 because "The poet's situation in summer 1806 was very different from that of 1800" (24). After the death of John Wordsworth in 1805, the completion of The Prelude, and with Coleridge abroad, he asks: "At such a period, and in such a mood, how likely is it that Wordsworth could have written the drafts of MS R?" (24). Actually, though internal evidence could go either way. One block of MS R does end up in The Excursion so we need to acknowledge that it contains elements of mood and tone of both an early and a later Wordsworth.

The Psychology of the Notebook

We could add one further circumstantial element in support of an earlier date for MS R. How likely is it that Wordsworth would return to such an odd manuscript to use as the base material for preparatory drafting, after a six-year absence from it? How much of a psychological case can be made – either in favour of the poet writing across Coleridge's Poems (1796) only in 1800-1801 or at two different times?

The separate numbering of DC MS 28 and 30 encourages us to view these as two distinct manuscripts even though they are entered on the same paper in sections from the same interleaved book. This kind of separation is further enhanced in the Cornell series by their appearance in separate volumes (Home at Grasmere and Lyrical Ballads). Again, this serves to remind us that, however good the Cornell series is, the focus on the development of a single poem across multiple notebooks rather than on what is in a notebook partly distorts our response to manuscript materials. The fact that all other materials entered on this material relate to 1800 – including prose drafts towards Wordsworth's 1800 "Preface" at the end of DC MS 28, should be taken into account. If they are read in the light of each other then early "Michael" and the Home at Grasmere narratives and ensuing reflection can be seen to have a lot in common.

Conclusions: Where does this leave us?

Such scholarly and editorial debate is all very well, but where does it leave the reader working with MS R? In 1986, Kenneth Johnston, in a note to Wordsworth and The Recluse summarises the two sides of the debate – with Jonathan Wordsworth arguing for almost all composition in 1800 and Darlington for two periods of work in 1800-1806. He sides with Darlington: "I continue to follow Darlington's division because I find her evidence more persuasive, and believe that my critical reading of the poem gives added support to it" (370). However, Johnston does not engage directly with the dating of MS R. On the other hand, the Cornell Lyrical Ballads volume (1992), edited by James Butler and Karen Green follows Jonathan Wordsworth in favouring the earlier date for MS R. They suggest that it was "used by WW for draft work toward Home at Grasmere probably in 1800" (xxiv).

SUM: There is no unequivocal evidence for either date. However, this does also mean that there is no real evidence for privileging the 1806 date. It is perfectly possible that MS R is an earlier manuscript. If this is so, then the overall account of the structural organisation of the poem needs to allow for it. It is also worth considering that there may be different times of entry for different blocks of work in MS R. There is a clear distinction between the first section of Grasmere stories and the subsequent section beginning "No we are not alone". This distinction is further maintained within MS B where they are copied onto discrete inserted gatherings sewn in to the later notebook.