Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Heroics

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Heroics

Article excerpt

By "Wordsworth's Heroics," I do not mean the heroism of Wordsworth's life, which was often very great, but the heroism of his poetry; or rather, the way his poetry dealt with an idea of the poetically heroic that he inherited from his eighteenth-century forbears. I suppose that now no one speaks unguardedly, as once they did, of Wordsworth's rejection of "the eighteenth century"; but what sense we make of the continuities depends on what idea we entertain of that handy fabrication, "the eighteenth century." Ever since (if not before) David Nichol Smith quoted a passage of Akenside in his preface to The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1926) and remarked its similarity to Wordsworth, we have been aware of connections between The Prelude, say, and the tradition of deistic verse-philosophising represented by Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination and Thomson's Seasons. But I want to look away from the metaphysical respectabilities of that Miltonic line and toward what might seem the less salubrious mode of the mock-heroic. Mock-heroic is not peculiar to the eighteenth century (think of the Nun's Priest's Tale) but it does seem a cast of literary mind which found the eighteenth century especially hospitable: perhaps because, as David Fairer has cleverly speculated, the juxtaposition of incongruous elements which mock-heroic thrives upon appeared so nicely to exemplify life in the new Lockean mind, where "one idea was no bigger than another" (Fairer 50). Anyway, fascination with the mode during the eighteenth century is universally acknowledged; and I think that Wordsworth was enough of an eighteenth-century poet to find it compelling too, though the results were usually more oblique than the run of Augustan examples. Indeed it would often be perverse to claim Wordsworth's poems as examples of mock-heroic any more, I agree; but I think the link is real for all that: Wordsworth took the raw ingredients of the idiom and transformed them astonishingly.

I should begin with an uncontentious example from the first part of the 1799 Prelude, written when William and Dorothy were in Germany, about to freeze in the coldest winter of the century. Wordsworth is summoning resources before embarking on the vast philosophical epic The Recluse, a commission which Coleridge has spent the Spring enthusiastically pressing on him; and, to gather himself for the task ahead, Wordsworth returns in memory to his childhood, which is where he locates the springs of those imaginative powers that are presently going to see him through the task. Odd incidents suggest themselves: he remembers bathing in the Derwent, trap-robbing, taking eggs from ravens' nests, stealing a shepherd's boat; and he remembers skating on the frozen lakes - a memory called to mind, perhaps, by the wintry weather he was currently enduring in Germany. He apostrophises the presences of nature who have (as he hopes to think) presided over the educational regime that has equipped him so well for the work to come; and then, in a very remarkable transition, the style of apprehension alters to a different mode, from pantheist rapture to something like affectionate social comedy, before modulating back to the numinous wintry sublime again.

   I would record with no reluctant voice
   Our home amusements by the warm peat fire
   At evening, when with pencil and with slate,
   In square divisions parcelled out, and all
   With crosses and with cyphers scribbled o'er,
   We schemed and puzzled, head opposed to head,
   In strife too humble to be named in verse

"Or," he continues, they crowded "round the naked table":

   And to the combat--lu or whist--led on
   A thick-ribbed army, not as in the world
   Discarded and ungratefully thrown by
   Even for the very service they had wrought,
   But husbanded through many a long campaign,
   Oh, with what echoes on the board they fell-Ironic
   diamonds, hearts of sable hue,
   Queens gleaming through their splendour's last decay,
   Knaves wrapt in one assimilating gloom,
   And kings indignant at the shame incurred
   By royal visages. … 
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