In the preface to his influential 1879 selected edition of Wordsworth, poet and critic Matthew Arnold set about to do two things for Wordsworth’s legacy. Firstly, he hoped to divide the “really first-rate work” that Wordsworth had produced between the years of 1798 and 1808 from the “mass of inferior work” that clogged and obstructed true appreciation of Wordsworth’s genius. His second aim was to divest the arrangement of Wordsworth’s poems from the idiosyncratic “scheme of mental physiology” that Wordsworth had invented for his 1815 Poems, an arrangement that had been adhered to by Wordsworth’s publishers in all subsequent collected editions of his works.
Arnold’s new arrangement grouped poems together by their form—ballads with ballads, odes with odes, etc. Just a few years later, in 1882, editor William Knight would propose yet another arrangement: chronological. Knight’s Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, unlike Arnold’s selective edition, is expansively comprehensive, running to eleven volumes. In the preface to his edition, Knight writes that he adopted chronology to show “the growth of [Wordsworth’s] mind, the progressive development of his imaginative power”—echoing the subtitle of the Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind.
Knight also acknowledges just how difficult chronological arrangement is for a poet like Wordsworth, who wrote over the course of many decades and revised frequently. Moreover, Wordsworth’s revisions, claims Knight, were not always for the better, and the discerning reader might prefer an earlier state of the text. To ameliorate these issues, Knight included copious footnotes, mapping out the textual history of each poem. He devoted the last three volumes of the set to a detailed biography, which also included several pieces of writing by Wordsworth that had never before been in print. In short, Knight dressed Wordsworth within a scholarly apparatus.
Knight’s Poetical Works was issued in three sizes: a “standard” edition standing 23 cm tall, a large paper edition of 27.5 cm, and a largest paper edition of 29 cm. The median large paper edition can additionally be divided into two issues: one with a limitation statement marking it as one of 115 copies “on Large paper,” and a second with a limitation statement specifying one of 25 copies on “Imperial octavo laid paper.” Knight’s edition is further dressed up by a different engraved frontispiece in each volume. In the large and largest paper copies, the frontispieces are printed on fine china paper adhered to heavier stock.
These luxe touches, like Knight’s footnotes and biographical volumes, acknowledge Wordsworth’s position by the 1880s as one of England’s premier poets—a status that, even ten years prior, was not taken for granted.