Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Subversion of the Prelude in Jacob's Room, or the Woolf Who Cried Wordsworth

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Subversion of the Prelude in Jacob's Room, or the Woolf Who Cried Wordsworth

Article excerpt

VIRGINIA WOOLF WROTE when one century turned into another with the tumult of women, workers, and ethnic groups "smashing and crashing" the conventions marginalizing them ("Bennett,'" 114). She wrote in a time when a world war had stripped away a facade of paternalistic authority to reveal greed, ego, and narrow-mindedness driving the social order. Woolf believed that creating a new aesthetic principle that equally valued the viewpoints and experiences of men and women would help humanity to replace this destructive order by inspiring humans to a more independent, more joyous, more compassionate, and deeper understanding of themselves and their world. Jacob's Room is an especially striking example of her expression of this principle. One of the most intriguing ways her novel challenges her readers is in critically rewriting William Wordsworth's The Prelude. Woolf strives to stir her contemporaries out of a cozy reliance on others by showing not only that the vision of one of their most beloved philosopher poets was inadequate to address twentieth-century problems but how his initially revolutionary vision had been co-opted by the very society he sought to reshape.

Wordsworth's early standing as a maverick in his own and in his contemporaries' eyes illuminates why Woolf would seek to supplant him to assert her own preeminence as an aesthetic and social revolutionary. Wordsworth, initially, saw himself liberating humanity from a spiritual oppression imposed by an inflexible social order, reflected in the rigidity of the aesthetic order. In a letter to John Wilson in 1802 he wrote: "A great Poet ought ... to a certain degree to rectify men's feelings, to give them new compositions of feeling, to render their feelings more sane pure and permanent.... more consonant to nature ... to the great moving spirit of things" (qtd. in Gill, 198). Those representing the system he opposed reacted to him as a threat. Reviewer Francis Jeffrey refers to the "Preface'" of the Lyrical Ballads as a "manifesto"; its ideas and form are "the most formidable conspiracy that has lately been formed against sound judgment in matters poetical" (qtd. in Gill, 224). Stephen Gill points out that Jeffrey even assessed Wordsworth's poetics to be a serious threat to society: "'His [Wordsworth's] linguistic radicalism, Jeffrey claims, subverts social order, as does the general drift of these new poets, who are distinguished by a "splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society'" (224). Later, in the early twentieth century, even Virginia Woolf approvingly noted Wordsworth's subversive status in his own time as "a young man, who is to lead the great poetic revolution of his age ..." ("Wordsworth's Letters," 184).

However, years later Woolf qualifies this assessment. She suggests that Wordsworth's plans to "bind together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society" (1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 326) have failed for being too firmly rooted in the traditional patriarchal system. In "Phases of Fiction," Woolf specifically places Wordsworth amongst the limiting "priesthood of genius" that shackles readers and artists to "the eternal tea-table and the plausible formulas" (55). Elsewhere, she describes Wordsworth as "among the priests" "who take you by the hand and lead you straight up to mystery" ("Pastons," 17). As only a man speaking to men, rather than specifically declaring himself a human speaking to men and women, Wordsworth would seem to Woolf to have failed at shattering the barriers separating and confining human beings within stultifying compartments of class and gender. In Jacob's Room, Woolf reveals the egocentric limitations in such a vision to demonstrate that her own "philosophy of art" will provide a true revolution in which the "reader" and "the writer" may joy in their "desire to create" ("Phases," 57).

Virginia Woolf's own perspective on subjectivism would have especially drawn her to subvert the Bildungsroman personae narrating The Prelude. …

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