Wordsworth and the Writing of the Nation

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WORDSWORTH AND THE WRITING OF THE NATION. By James M. Garrett. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. 214. ISBN 978 0 7546 5783 5. £55.

In the introduction to this study, James Garrett provides a helpful outline of his New Historical enquiry, situating himself well in terms of other related work and the Wordsworthian canon. Garrett's aims are multiple and complex, if rather familiar in their Foucauldian tendencies. He seeks to use early nineteenth-century structures for imposing systematic order upon the nation (through census, map and museum archive) to explore issues of national representation and self-identity as exemplified in 'the literary institution named Wordsworth'. Garrett does, however, reflect intelligently upon the dangers of drawing an over-simplistic analogy between larger cultural activities and literature, acknowledging that 'I appear to be treading dangerously close to what Alan Liu has called the "embarrassment of New Historicism"'. Instead, he seeks to explore the complex contradictions, which are intrinsic to such nation-building structures at a larger level, and to Wordsworthian poetics and national ambitions. A tension between 'English liberalism' and 'cultural nationalism' returns us to the Wordsworthian 'system' by means of Alison Hickey's account of a 'conflict between an incorporating or systematic impulse and the resistance to it' (quoted by Garrett). Garrett's aim then is to 'recenter Wordsworth's career not on a particular work or poetic project but on a particular goal, that of the writing of the nation'. This aim also has the secondary canonical effect of placing the book's emphasis on the later self-classifying Wordsworth ('active in the creation of his own self-image'), rather than on an earlier one.

In Chapter 1 Garrett makes good use of the imposition of the census upon the populace from 1800 onwards, which exemplifies his argument by analogy - that the power of the census as a disciplinary structure at a nationwide level (one that also works to create a subclass of those who 'do not count') corresponds to the desired controls of the Wordsworthian imagination. Such ideas are explored through Wordsworth's articulation of the mind's 'abstracting' power in relation to the leech gatherer and (more historically) 'Gypsies'. In his second chapter, Garrett further develops his analogy between the creation and imposition of the census and Wordsworth's creation of a systematic classification for his poems. In both cases, it is argued, the structure works to create an abstract unified body that eradicates difference. Garrett gives an interesting account of Wordsworth's creation of a 'textual self' and there is more interesting work on the recontextualising of texts within the new schema, although I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of the changes of meaning produced. This chapter suffers slightly from a lack of engagement with Frances Ferguson's excellent work on Wordsworth's classification (in her 1977 book, Language as Counter Spirit) as well as being a point where both the strengths and the limits of the underlying methodology are made manifest - with repeated claims that the census is 'a similar attempt at absolute control' to that of Wordsworth. At times the analogy seems to stretch further than it should.

Another example of this occurs with the discussion in Chapter 3 of Wordsworth's desire for a 'prospect view' alongside the development of the Ordnance Survey. Garrett claims that Wordsworth, like contemporaries involved in the national mapping project, 'sought to create a map of the nation that transcended local differences by subjecting the landscape to the "prospect view," the abstract imperial gaze available from the mountain summit'. Here, the idea of the 'prospect view' is approached from one direction only, with no reference to other significant contexts such as the preceding seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literary contexts of the prospect poem or the philosophical model of epicurean withdrawal from the world. …