Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's "Nutting" and the Ovidian "Nux"

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's "Nutting" and the Ovidian "Nux"

Article excerpt

And will any one say he had no right to those Acorns or Apples he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all Mankind to make them his? Was it a Robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in Common? (1)

THE CENTRAL IMAGES OF WORDSWORTH'S POEM "NUTTING" ARE SO STRIKING that they have garnered him the highest accolades for originality. To quote but one major voice, that of Geoffrey Hartman: "Few before him would have been inspired by the event recorded in 'Nutting.' That Wordsworth is so inspired argues a new phase in the development of the sympathetic imagination...." (2) He does note that the act of the boy may be compared to that of a hero in Romance and cites the prefatory essay to Tile Borderers, where Wordsworth referred to "the Orlando of Ariosto, the Cardenio of Cervantes, who lays waste the groves that would shelter him." (3) But, Hartman insists, "The scene, however, remains English, the hero a boy, the wood a wood" (Hartman 74). The convictions about the poet's absolute originality have had important consequences for the interpretation of the text, as commentators have sought to account for such radical innovation by delving into Wordsworth's biography. Such investigations have frequently moved on into the realm of speculation about the psychology of puberty, about the nature of Wordsworth's relationship to Dorothy, and about gender identity. (4) Other readings have taken the assumption of originality as barfing the investigation of contexts and as legitimating intensive work-immanent readings. (5) Some have investigated the poem's relation to other sources, especially in Milton and in Ariosto. (6) All these approaches have enriched our understanding of the poem and have made it into a significant moment in Wordsworth studies, and I do not aim to slight or deny the respective value of their contributions. Rather, I hope to add another dimension to the discussion by focusing attention on an unnoticed source for the poem in the Ovidian elegy "Nux." The recognition of this source raises some important questions about the poem's story as well as its history and may elucidate Wordsworth's motives in removing "Nutting" from The Prelude and thereby isolating it from a revealing context. (7)

It is not surprising that "Nux" has been overlooked by Wordsworth scholars, even by those who have studied his borrowings and translations from Latin in detail. A short poem of ninety-one distichs, "Nux" is the complaint of a walnut tree directed against those who attack it for its nuts and against fate for making it so productive, so attractive to marauders. Once considered a poem by Ovid and transmitted as such, "Nux" has encountered a difficult reception since the nineteenth century, when German philologists seriously challenged its authenticity. The pros and cons of those arguments need not be reviewed here. (8) What does matter more is that before then "Nux" had circulated as one of Ovid's poems, albeit one of the lesser works, because of its style, topic and language. (9) Occasional doubts were expressed, but the poem continued to be popular, not least because it was well-suited for teaching pupils Latin. (10) It had the admired Ovidian style without any disturbing amorous or lascivious undertones. On the contrary, the complaint of the hapless nut tree about how it had been stoned and beaten would have lent itself to ready moralizing for schoolboys who might be prone to stealing nuts and fruits from local orchards.

Pedagogical motives led Erasmus to write a detailed commentary on "Nux" in 1523, expressly for the purpose of helping the son of Sir Thomas More with Latin lessons. Erasmus encouraged the pupil to accept "this small gift--it is really quite elegant and very Ovidian. In any case, one could hardly regard a whole tree as a very tiny gift, or think that something so eloquent is valueless." (11) Part of the learned wit in the project is that the relatively straightforward "Nux" did not really demand extensive commentary or explication, unlike the Metamorphoses, for example. …

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