"Cut by Rainbow": Tales, Tellers, and Reimagining Wordsworth's Pastoral Poetics in Toni Morrison's Beloved and A Mercy

Article excerpt

Critics have recognized a reimagining of British Romanticism in celebrated works by twentieth- and twenty-first-century American novelists such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Saul Bellow, (1) but few have read Toni Morrison as a legatee of the British Romantic movement.

To avoid critical comparisons that might distract from the African American inflection of her writing, Morrison claims she has resisted using literary allusion to canonical authors in her work. However, given her background and formal literary qualifications, her insistence does not guarantee the absence of such allusion. (2) In fact, Martin Bidney recognizes Morrison's awareness of an integrated sense of community and her episodic encounters with nature and the sublime as indebted to William Blake, John Keats, and William Wordsworth. (3) Identifying verbal echoes and reimaginings of Romantic concerns and episodes from Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850), Bidney reminds us that Morrison has been and continues to be an attentive respondent to Wordsworth.

Limited to reading Beloved (1987) for reworking of the plots of episodic moments in The Prelude, Bidney does not acknowledge the centrality of Wordsworth's "The Ruined Cottage" (c. 1797) to Morrison's writing. The approach offered here explores the profound influence that Wordsworth's elegiac vision of the pastoral exerted on Morrison's novels A Mercy (2008) and Beloved. This account of Morrison's engagement with Wordsworth resists a tendency to regard her as a contemporary advocate of Romantic ideological beliefs, artistic conventions, or practices. Reading the two works by Morrison as meditations on and mitigations against Wordsworth's own ambivalent treatment of the pastoral finds affinity with anti-pastoral elements in the poetics of Robert Frost and Derek Walcott. Through such an interpretation, Morrison emerges as a subtle respondent to the pastoral and Wordsworth, one who is attuned to the complex, nuanced, and darker misgivings of Wordsworth's idealizing and compensatory poetics.

Given the historical, geographical, and topographical differences between Wordsworth and Morrison, definitions of the pastoral are no less critical and difficult than those of Romanticism itself. From its inception, the idealizing pastoral mode celebrated the idyllic, harmonious, rural existence, but was frequently self-conscious about its use of generic conventions and resistance to the anti-pastoral of the urban and modern. (4) To complicate matters further, Wordsworth's Romantic pastoral poetry of personal reaction to and interaction with a sublimely uncultivated landscape is distinct from the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Their version of the American pastoral has been characterized as celebrating rural industriousness and naturalizing technological innovation in their responses to nature. (5) Within the American tradition, the site of the pastoral is infrequently aligned with the idealizing imagination and epiphany and more often with the realities of aggressive colonial ownership of the land and its people. (6)

The reception of Morrison's novels as Faulknerian pastoral--surprisingly termed in John Updike's review of A Mercy as a "dreamy wilderness"--attests to a creative and literary genealogy that reaches back through Faulkner to an earlier American Romanticism and its literary negotiations with Wordsworth. Works by Thoreau and Emerson provide a vital conduit between the pastoral mode of British Romantic poetry and American letters that are indebted to Wordsworth's concept of nature, which discovers beauty, spiritual delight, and revelation in the commonplaces of natural existence and everyday language. (7)

"I Have Heard Him Say": Morrison and the Voices of Wordsworth

In the first few pages of A Mercy, Morrison announces her Wordsworthian inheritance through attention to how tales can empower a "telling [that] can't hurt you" (1)and to the limitations of words and language from which stories are created. …