A Vocation of Error: Authorship as Deviance in the 1799 'Prelude.' (by William Wordsworth)

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When William Wordsworth takes up the question of his status as a poet in the first fragmentary drafts towards what we now call the 1799 Prelude, he does not hesitate to appropriate several disparate kinds of authorizing discourses, including the account of his election as a poet-prophet, the analysis of his mental and cultural development, and the evocation of his distinctive childhood. As I will argue below, he brings together vocation, philosophy, and autobiography, appealing at once to Milton, the Enlightenment, and to his ongoing dialogue with Coleridge, producing an authorial claim so complex it remains almost inscrutable. Faced with such complexity, one is tempted to emphasize one discourse at the expense of others, to establish a definitive context which can at least partially subsume all other contexts. Yet in those fragmentary drafts and the initial sections of the 1799 Prelude, Wordsworth plays one discourse off against another, undercutting the premises of Miltonic vocation, for example, with the secular terms of Enlightenment philosophy, and vice versa. Using each context against another, he deviates from them all, apparently with an eye towards a conception of the author as yet unformulated in its own right.

This conception, however, is not entirely unformulated, nor does it emerge exclusively from resistance to received ideologies of authorship. The problem is not that authorship is inexplicable in familiar terms but that authorship is the inexplicable itself. Rather than merely deviating from various norms, Wordsworth calls upon a discourse proper to deviance--a poetics of errancy, of what has no proper name, what wanders from the true path or strays beyond proper bounds, what unsettles familiar languages and renders them unreadable. This is precisely the figural complex that informs nearly all of his earlier poetry, especially the programmatic explorations of errancy in Salisbury Plain (1793-94) and its revision, Adventures on Salisbury Plain (primarily 1795-96), where a certain radical disorientation reaches Gothic intensity. To be sure, Wordsworth does not introduce such a poetics without reservations; in The Borderers he exposes the darker implications of radical perspectivism, and in the poetry of late 1797 and early 1798, especially The Ruined Cottage and the biography of the Pedlar, he attempts to domesticate the errant wanderer, to reconstruct a shattered culture, and to envision the possibility of a return to something like home.(1)

Already in the first fragmentary lines of MS. JJ, the starting point for what would become the 1799 Prelude, something particularly vexing and evanescent is at issue:

a mild creative breeze

a vital breeze that passes gently on

Oer things which it has made and soon becomes

A tempest a redundant energy

Creating not but as it may

disturbing things created.--

a storm not terrible but strong

with lights and shades and with a rushing power

trances of thought

And mountings of the mind compared to which

The wind that drives along th [']autumnal [?leaf]

Is meekness.

what there is

Of subtler feeling of remembered joy

Of soul & spirit in departed sound

That can not be remembered. (1-16)(2)

We might read these lines as evidence either of the poetic crisis Wordsworth describes in the first pages of the 1805 Prelude or of "the powerful disturbance of mind occasioned by a superabundant flow of inspiration"--states of mind which are not as far apart as Parrish insists (Prelude 6). But lacking any supporting evidence or context for these lines aside from Wordsworth's own retrospective interpretations, we should hesitate to explain them immediately as the expression of a specific biographical experience, whether crisis or inspiration. They read instead as a rewriting of various earlier depictions of errancy and vexation: here are the breeze, wind, tempest, and storm of the Salisbury Plain poems and "Incipient Madness"; the "lights and shades" that tend to appear around the privileged object in the landscape--the shard of glass in "Incipient Madness" or the spears of grass in The Ruined Cottage; the "trances of thought" akin to those of the Sailor in Adventures on Salisbury Plain or the Pedlar; the curious blend of memory and the lack of memory which appeared in "The Discharged Soldier" (described as "one / Remembering the importance of his theme, / But feeling it no longer" [144-46]) and in crucial draft passages on the Pedlar's life ("the soul / Remembering how she felt, but what she felt / Remembering not. …