Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth Writing

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth Writing

Article excerpt

There's a paradox at the heart of Wordsworth's reception, the paradox that he was a poet who didn't write poetry. It's a paradox linked, I think, to that other paradox in Wordsworth's reception, the idea that despite what his name might suggest his words are not worth much, that he's not a poet who cares too much for the material of his art. In the mid-twentieth-century, in particular, there seems to have been a consensus that Wordsworth cared little for words--despite his declaration in Book 5 of The Prelude (1805) that "words themselves / Move us with conscious pleasure" (567-8) and his assertion that at the age of thirteen his "ears began to open to the charm / Of words in tuneful order," finding them "sweet / For their own sakes" (577-9). In his richly logophiliac book from 1951 The Structure of Complex Words, for example, William Empson seems to surprise himself by writing on Wordsworth at all: "One does not think of the poetry of Wordsworth ... as depending on a concentrated richness of single words," he declares (289). In Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), Donald Davie states that in Wordsworth diction "hardly ever matters" and that in his early poems at least language is "as nearly irrelevant as it can be in poetry" (113). And in The Simple Wordsworth (1960), John Danby remarks that Wordsworth was "at heart ... profoundly uninterested in poetry as words" (16). Such comments seem to echo Walter Pater's suggestion in an 1889 essay that Wordsworth "stimulate [s] the reader to look below the immediate surface of his poetry" and that he encourages "a habit of reading between the lines" (94-5).

Opposing these are others who argue that Wordsworth is a poet of what Paul de Man calls "sheer language" (92), and that he is always, as Frances Ferguson remarks in Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit (1977), "deeply conscious of the power of words" (xv). The two opposing traditions are encapsulated by Coleridge when, in two comments that can both be read in more ways than one, he remarks in Biographia Literaria (1817) on the "perfect appropriateness of the words to the meaning" in Wordsworth (II.142) and in an 1803 letter to Southey that his words "always mean the whole of their possible Meaning" (II.977).

This curious idea, this paradox of the poet for whom words are immaterial, seems to be related to that other paradox of Wordsworthian reception, the representation of Wordsworth as a poet who doesn't write poetry. To the extent that Wordsworth is represented by himself or by others, as a poet who speaks poetry and as a poet for whom writing is something of an afterthought, words are, or become, devalued, lose their worth. Since for Wordsworth the act of writing was itself associated with bad eyes, headaches, bowel complaints, chest pains, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, (1) the issue of which words are worth writing, worth the effort, worth the pain, may be thought to be not inconsiderable. But what is notable about Wordsworth's poetry and his poetics is that both appear to involve a model of composition that is directed towards the exclusion of the act of writing, towards short-circuiting the question raised by the poet's name and eliding the process of writing itself.

As James Chandler comments in Wordsworth's Second Nature (1984), while Wordsworth's poetry is written, "it can only succeed by aspiring to the condition of speech": orality in this respect is "central to Wordsworth's literary program" (143; emphasis added). Thus the 1798 Advertisement to the Lyrical Ballads refers to the poems as experiments designed to "ascertain how far the language of conversation" can be "adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure" (7) while the 1802 version of the Preface famously speaks about the poet as a man speaking to men (255). Indeed, the exclusion of writing is often embedded within Wordsworth's representation of his own compositional practice. "Tintern Abbey" is exemplary in this respect: in a comment dictated to Isabella Fenwick, Wordsworth recalls composing the poem over a number of days in July, 1798, as he wandered around the Wye valley with Dorothy, on foot and by boat, writing it down on his arrival back in Bristol (15). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.