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Several different versions of Wordsworth's sonnet "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" can be found online. Here is one version, from Haram Lee's blog on the Brandeis University website:

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

The other versions differ only in punctuation and capitalization from the second quatrain on, which is likely the result of editorial choices. But there is wide variation in the first quatrain which suggests ongoing revision on Wordsworth's own part. Here are some examples:

From allpoetry.com:

Toussaint – the most unhappy man of men! –
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den;--

From Wikisource:

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the all-cheering sun be free to shed
His beams around thee, or thou rest thy head
Pillowed in some dark dungeon's noisome den,

From Poetry Atlas:

Toussaint! — thou most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling rustic tends his plough
Within thy hearing, or thou liest now
Buried in some deep dungeon's earless-den:

Here are some of the changes:

  • "thou" or "the" as the second word of the poem
  • a rustic, a milkmaid, or the sun in the second line
  • if a rustic, whether he "tend" or "tends" his plough
  • whether Toussaint is "alone", "pillowed", or "buried"
  • "thou liest now" or "thy head be now" or "thou rest thy head"
  • whether the dungeon of line 4 is "deep" or "dark".

The changes affect not only the word choice and imagery, but also the rhyme scheme. The Wikisource version changes the octave from a standard Italian ABBA ABBA to ABBA ACCA, which would be an unusual structure.

So: What is the textual history of this sonnet? Whence these variations? Are all of the examples above well-attested, or are some of them dubious? For those that are well-attested, what was Wordsworth's thinking in making the changes?

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I found four versions of these lines published by Wordsworth in his lifetime. We can be reasonably confident that these are the poet’s own revisions.

Toussaint! the most unhappy Man of Men,
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,

William Wordsworth (1803). ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’. In The Morning Post (2 February 1803). The same text (except for the movement of the exclamation mark to the end of the line) was printed in Poems (1807), volume 1, p. 134. London: Longman.

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the all-cheering sun be free to shed
His beams around thee, or thou rest thy head
Pillowed in some dark dungeon's noisome den,

William Wordsworth (1815). Poems, volume 2, p. 206. London: Longman.

Touissaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the whistlng Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or Thou liest now
Buried in some deep dungeon’s earless den;

William Wordsworth (1820). Miscellaneous Poems, volume 3, p. 212. London: Longman.

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den;

William Wordsworth (1827). Poetical Works, volume 3, p. 134. London: Longman. The same text appears in Poetical Works (1843), volume 3, p. 182.

Another variant is found in an 1807 manuscript, but was not printed in the poet’s lifetime.

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the Swain attendant on his plough
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,

William Wordsworth (1807). ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’. Manuscript, quoted in Joshua Stanley (2015). ‘Wordsworth and “the most unhappy man of men”: Sentimentalism and Representation’. European Romantic Review 26:2, p. 199.

As for the variant with “thou” in the first line and “tends” in the second, this seems to have originated in the United States. I found two appearances of this variant in 1833, both in the context of the abolition movement, so it is probable that one writer copied from the other:

It seems doubtful that “tends” instead of “tend” was due to Wordsworth, as the clause is introduced by “whether” and so is in the subjunctive which (according to the traditional rules of English grammar) requires the form “tend”: compare “sing” (not “sings”) in the 1803 version and “rest” (not “restest”) in the 1815 version.† So these variants are mistakes of transcription, or the writer (accidentally or deliberately) substituted “tends” as being the more usual form in American dialect.

† Wordsworth was not completely consistent in this respect, however, as according to the traditional rule “liest” in the third line should be “lie”.

There does not seem to be any record of Wordsworth’s reasons for the revisions, but it is possible to speculate. The word “cow” was considered unpoetical (Stanley, p. 199: “extremely uncommon with his contemporaries and eighteenth-century poets as well”). The 1820 revision restores the Petrarchan ABBA ABBA rhyme-scheme for the octet that had been altered to ABBA ACCA in the 1815 revision, as pointed out in the question. The phrase “thou rest thy head pillowed” in the 1815 version perhaps makes the dungeon out to be rather too comfortable, and its replacement “thou liest now buried” in the 1820 version is subject to misinterpretation as saying that the addressee is already dead and buried.

Joshua Stanley has a theory that the replacement of “the rural milk-maid” with “the swain attendant”, “the all-cheering sun”, and finally with “the whistling rustic”, might have derived from Wordsworth’s discomfort with revolution. Stanley links the “rural milk-maid” with the “hunger-bitten girl who crept along fitting her languid self unto a heifer’s motion—by a cord tied to her arm” whom Wordsworth saw in France during the Revolution and recorded in the 1805 version of The Prelude. Stanley suggests that by 1807 Wordsworth found the figure of the milk-maid too sympathetic for comparison with Toussaint the revolutionary:

As Wordsworth reworked the poem, replacing the “Milk-maid” with a “Rustic,” these opening lines were brought closer to the nexus of constraint that can be chosen by the privileged, further repressing the scene of an encounter with structural inequality. In this process, a radicalizing sympathy is drained from the passage.

Stanley, p. 190.

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