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Cornell Library announces acquisition of rare Wordsworth volumes Set of Poetical Works is noteworthy for revisions written in celebrated poet's own hand

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William Wordsworth's Poetical Works
Cornell Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
The title page of Vol. 1 of the set of William Wordsworth's Poetical Works, with handwritten annotations by the poet, acquired by Cornell University Library. The title page dedication is by John Wordsworth, William Wordsworth's son.

Cornell University Library will announce the acquisition of a rare set of William Wordsworth's Poetical Works (1827), annotated with the poet's largely unpublished handwritten revisions, during a public reception on campus in the Kroch Library's Rare and Manuscript Collections, Wednesday, May 26, at 4 p.m.

Members of the media are invited to attend the event, meet with Cornell's Wordsworth scholars and view the Poetical Works books and other material from Cornell Library's Wordsworth collection.

Cornell Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections purchased the unique five-volume set last December at a Sotheby's auction in London. The acquisition, which cost approximately $60,000, was made possible by an endowment established by Cornell English Professor Emeritus M.H. Abrams. The endowment supports purchases of research materials by and relating to William Wordsworth (1770-1850), one of England's most celebrated poets. Cornell's Wordsworth collection is second only to that in Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth museum and archive in England.

"When I was notified last fall that the set was to be auctioned at Sotheby's, I knew it was one of the most important Wordsworth items to be offered for sale in several decades," said Katherine Reagan, Cornell's rare book librarian. "However, I was reluctant to commit to a bid without personally examining the books."

As fate would have it, Cornell English Professor Stephen M. Parrish, a noted Wordsworth scholar and general editor of the Cornell Wordsworth -- a complete edition of all of Wordsworth's poetry, with all the variant readings -- was in London at the time and was able to confirm the value of the volumes. He emphasized that the books would be of particular importance to the editors of the Cornell Wordsworth, of which 18 volumes are in print and the final three, plus index, are in advanced stages of preparation.

The Poetical Works volumes were in the hands of a private collector who had not made the significant annotations available to Wordsworth scholars. Because the Cornell Wordsworth promises to provide all readings from all known printings and all known

manuscripts during the poet's lifetime, access to the unpublished revisions in these books was essential to the completion of the edition's editorial mission.

"The more I learned about the volumes, the more convinced I became that they belonged at Cornell," said Reagan.

Despite competitive bidding from a private collector, Cornell Library prevailed at Sotheby's auction Dec. 17, 1998. "We were elated, but we still had to obtain an export license," Reagan said.

Because the books are covered by laws limiting the export of artifacts important to the preservation of Britain's cultural heritage, there was no guarantee the books would be permitted to leave England. Speculative debate among members of the British press, however, did not prevent the British government from granting Cornell a license. Cornell Library, after all, will preserve the set for current and future generations of scholars, each of which will have the opportunity to interpret the meaning of William Wordsworth's unpublished annotations.

Many authors use published copies of their works as starting places for further revision, inserting handwritten changes or additions into the margins or between the lines of the printed text. Such is the case with Cornell's recent acquisition, as Wordsworth used this five-volume set, published in 1827, to sketch ideas for revising several of his poems, presumably for inclusion in subsequent editions. These annotated copies will offer valuable insight into the literary imagination of the poet and a record of the development of his work.

For additional information about the collection, contact: Katherine Reagan, curator of rare books, (607) 255-3530,, or Stephen Parrish, professor of English, (607) 255-6800.

Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collections: