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Working with Manuscripts: ‘Michael’

In this video Professor Sally Bushell of Lancaster University, looks at some of the manuscripts for 'Michael' held at The Jerwood Centre.
In this session today, we’re going to be focusing on a particular poem, “Michael,” published in the second volume of “Lyrical Ballads” in 1800. We’re looking at this poem for two reasons. First, it allows us to see how a poem changes across different manuscript versions. And secondly, it’s a poem that’s bound up with Wordsworth’s relationship with his best friend and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge had moved up to the lakes to be near Wordsworth, and for them to be able to work together, and in 1800, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dorothy Wordsworth were working hard together to prepare Lyrical Ballads for the press.
The second volume of lyrical ballads was to include a number of new poems, and some longer poems, and one of these was Coleridge’s poem, “Christabel.” Dorothy’s journals record him reading it to the Wordsworths in the evenings, and she tells us, on Saturday, October the 4th, “exceedingly delighted with the second part of ‘Christabel.’” Sunday morning, she says, “Coleridge read a second time ‘Christabel.’ We had increasing pleasure. But on Monday the 6th, a rainy day, they determined not to print “Christabel” with the “Lyrical Ballads.” So over the course of that weekend, for whatever reason, we don’t really know, the Wordsworths changed their mind, and “Christabel,” it was decided, would be left out of the collection.
Now, this was probably devastating to Coleridge, who’d been working on that poem for some time, but it also created a major problem for Wordsworth, because he now had a big gap to fill in the volume that he was preparing to send to press. And it is “Michael” that fills that gap left by “Christabel.” So Wordsworth has to write the poem “Michael” under pressure. So when we look at the manuscripts, what we find is that the poem “Michael,” replacing “Christabel” in the published text, is also bound up with it across the different versions of the draft text. Now, the earliest surviving manuscript for “Michael” is two pages that are found here in the “Christabel” notebook.
Jeff showed you this notebook earlier, and it has “Christabel” written on the cover. At the back of the “Christabel” notebook are two pages now known as a ballad “Michael,” in which Wordsworth attempts to write the poem in a very traditional ballad form. This is very different from the poem as it finally appears, when it’s written in blank verse or iambic pentameter, and it has much greater weight and dignity. So I’m just going to read you a few lines from the middle of this page. We’ll give you a sense of the different feel of the ballad. So this is “Michael” in its first attempt in the “Christabel” notebook. “Two shepherds we have.
They’re the wits of the dale, renowned for song, satire, epistle and tale, rhymes pleasant to sing or to say. To this shepherd they went in a doggrel strain. They carved on a stone in the wall to explain the cause of old Michael’s decay.” So you can hear the kind of sing-songy rhythm of the ballad form, da-da da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da. Da-da da-da-da da-da-da. And that’s very different from the sound, and the tone, and the mood of the poem as it’s finally written.
Now, what is interesting, even in this very, very early version, on the next page, very, very roughly drafted, a few more lines in the same form, nonetheless still give us core ideas that do pass through into the final text. In particular, the symbol of the sheepfold. And on this page, we find the lines “then think of this sheepfold, my son. Let it be thy anchor and watchtower, a bond between thee and all that is good in thy heart.” So it’s still being written in very traditional ballad form, but it’s a core concept that’s going to pass right through and hold into the final text. The other point to make about these two pages, ballad “Michael,” is, of course, their location.
They’re found in the “Christabel” notebook, and it’s called the “Christabel” notebook because it’s filled with the poem “Christabel,” that we know has being taken out of “Lyrical Ballads,” copied out, neatly, for the Wordsworths to have. So it’s a precious copy for them. Where does that “Christabel” start? It starts on the page after ballad “Michael,” and it fills that notebook. So we might say if we see it as a kind of duel, a contest between these two poems, “Michael” and “Christabel,” that in this notebook, “Christabel” wins out. The poem isn’t published, and because it isn’t published, the notebook has great value to the Wordsworths. It’s their only copy of that poem.
If we turn to next surviving manuscript for “Michael,” DCMS 30, the poem begins to look and feel much more like the final published text, in blank verse, and with the content much more recognisable. But where do we find this poem written? It’s written in and over a copy of Coleridge’s “Poems on Various Subjects,” 1796, and this is the volume that made Coleridge famous before he even met Wordsworth. So to be fair to Wordsworth, the copy he has is not the published text. It’s what we call an interleaved volume. So it has the printed poems, but interleaved between those printed pages are blank pages, plain pages of paper, and that is where Wordsworth first enters his text.
So he’s drafting his new poem, “Michael,” on and around what was a published book of Coleridge’s. And the first couple of pages, you can very clearly see him entering the text primarily onto the blank pages. However, as it goes on, inevitably, he starts to write across, around, and over the printed text that is already there as the redrafting develops. So what we have here is a handwritten manuscript turning a printed book back into a manuscript. And what we also have is a kind of conversation, if you like, between those two texts, between Wordsworth writing the new poem, and the poems that are already on the page. Now, critics can take different lines on this.
The most common response is that Wordsworth is usurping Coleridge, that he’s sort of aggressively writing himself over his fellow poet in an act of almost violence. And one critic described it as bibliographic graffiti. So that’s the negative reading, if you like. I think you could also offer a more positive reading and say, actually, Wordsworth’s having trouble writing the poem, he’s finding it difficult, and so he goes to a structure that is a kind of supportive structure, where his friend’s poems are already there, offering him a kind of support as he writes. But there’s no absolute way, as always with manuscripts, of determining which interpretation is correct. In any case, it certainly creates for us an absolutely fascinating manuscript object.
There’s one other draft manuscript for “Michael,” and then the final manuscript is the printer’s copy, DCMS 1800, which is in the form of letters sent out to the publishers with the final version that’s going to go to press of the poem “Michael.” Once again, this is a household chore with all members of the family involved, and amazingly enough, Coleridge himself sends one of those letters with the poem “Michael” written out to be sent to the printer to be published. So here we see Coleridge in a kind of amazing, generous act of friendship, choosing to put his friend’s needs and the needs of the collection before his own.
What I hope this has shown us is not only how much a poem changes in the course of its writing, but also what an extraordinarily rich story lies beneath the surface.

In this video Professor Sally Bushell looks at some of the manuscripts for ‘Michael’ held at The Jerwood Centre. She talks about the context for the poem, looking closely at the draft materials but also narrating the complex dynamic between Wordsworth and Coleridge that informs the writing of the poem.

As you watch the film, pay particular attention to the discussion of the third manuscript (DC MS 30) in which Wordsworth writes his new poem, ‘Michael’, around Coleridge’s published Poems (1796). You are going to be asked to try and analyse a page from this later!

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