Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Self-Displacing Vision": Snowdon and the Dialectic of the Senses

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Self-Displacing Vision": Snowdon and the Dialectic of the Senses

Article excerpt

"[I]nstead of apocalypse, there is only developing and self-displacing vision" (65). Thus Geoffrey Hartman, early in Wordsworth's Poetry, comments on the culminating scene in the poet's account of the "origin and progress of his powers," (1) the Ascent of Snowdon. The implicit contrast, of course, is to the Apostrophe to the Imagination which supervenes on Wordsworth's account of crossing the Alps in The Prelude, Book VI, the moment of recognition in which, "rising up before the eye and progress of [his] song" (VI 527), (2) the poet's imagination reveals its distinctive structure: what Hart-man identifies, in an even more striking formulation, as "consciousness of self raised to apocalyptic pitch" (17).

It is from these "rival highpoints"(63) of The Prelude that the argument of Wordsworth's Poetry, Hartman's account of the poet's "via naturaliter negative," is strung. The formulation from which we set out--"instead of apocalypse, there is only developing and self-displacing vision"--is thus also an aphoristic condensation of that argument and its guiding claim: that the adherence of Wordsworth's poetry to the limits of experience must be read as systematically resisting or evading the apocalyptic tendency of his imagination, with Snowdon his "most astonishing avoidance of apocalypse" (61). The dominant strategy of this avoidance would be literalization, although Hartman himself does not use that term: "The main attributes that define imagination figuratively" in the ecstatic Apostrophe of Book VI--mist, flash, abyss--appear in Snowdon as "a literal part of the landscape" (64).

I have the impression, perhaps mistaken, that Hartman's reading in Wordsworth's Poetry of the Apostrophe to the Imagination has been more influential than his discussion of Snowdon. This is not surprising given the absolute cognitive, if not poetic, privilege he claims for the former passage: Wordsworth "came once, and only, face to face with his imagination" (61), in language which (with its allusion to St. Paul) is itself notably apocalyptic in tendency. There is, however, a counterplot to Wordsworth's Poetry that emerges in the latter half of the book, and which Hartman's retrospective comments highlight. Consider, for example, the following statement from the "Polemical Memoir" introducing A Critic's Journey (1998):

  There is a dialectic of the senses, initiated by the dominance of the
  eye, by scopic desire; and the poet came to believe that Nature was an
  agency pitting other senses against the eye and resolving--
  developmentally and providentially--sensory fixations [...]
  Wordsworth's Poetry went beyond the contending categories of 'Nature'
  and 'Imagination' to show this dialectic in detail. (xxvi)

Here again Snowdon, and in particular, a later section of Wordsworth's Poetry entitled "Eye and Ear on Snowdon," figures centrally, though in ways that significantly rework, as we will see, the terms of its relation to Book VI. For the displacements which organized the relationship between the two passages will now appear as internal to the unfolding of the Snowdon episode itself and indeed to the very play of perception. Hartman's earlier characterization of Snowdon as "developing and self-displacing vision" thus itself harbors a literalism that refers us from the visionary to the visual. Read in the context of this later development, Snowdon's "astonishing avoidance of apocalypse" will seem less like an evasion of self-knowledge, however breath-taking in the performance, and more like an unprecedented form of poetic resolve.

As the quotation from A Critic's Journey indicates, "Eye and Ear on Snowdon" is part of a longer development devoted to showing how, beginning especially with the Alfoxden period, Wordsworth's writing works to subdue "the tyranny of the eye" without sacrificing its grounding in the senses, and specifically how "sight transcends [...] itself, and becomes hearing" (176). …

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