Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's Anatomies of Surprise

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's Anatomies of Surprise

Article excerpt

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH HAS LONG BEEN RECOGNIZED AS A POET OF sudden irruptions, episodes that seemed trivial to many of his contemporary readers but strike us as quintessentially lyric moments. In the poet's terms, they take the form of either a "strange fit of passion" or a "whirl-blast"--a spontaneous feeling or a natural phenomenon, or a combination of the two. With respect to lyric tradition, they represent a major revision of the archetypal form of astonishment invented in Dante's vision of Beatrice in the Vita Nova and Petrarch's first arresting sight of Laura in the Rime Sparse. How to name the Wordsworthian moment? The poet's own phrase "spots of time," which described a few vignettes in The Prelude, has been broadly applied to a range of similar experiences, in the same way that Coleridge's term "conversation poem" has been appropriated as a generic category. "Epiphany" has also been an important designation, but despite its descriptive power, it is something of an anachronism: a theological term reinterpreted by Modernist aesthetics and applied to Romantic-era anecdotes. I propose to explore the explanatory possibilities of a term that Wordsworth did know, and frequently used: surprize.

Just at the outset, I use the now-obsolete spelling as a mark of the distance between our verbal usage and the nuances Wordsworth would have known, and as an emphatic reminder of a term that had great currency in eighteenth-century novels and aesthetic discourse. The word "surprise" figures in some of the poet's most striking phrases of astonishment: the Boy of Winander's "gentle shock of mild surprise" at the aural jolt of the owls' silence and the world's susurrus; the leech-gatherer's "flash of mild surprise" at his questioner's curiosity; the child whose "mortal Nature" trembles "like a guilty Thing surprised"; the strange experience of being "surprised by joy." (1) I would like to resituate such anecdotes within an eighteenth-century discourse that conceived of surprise as a component of aesthetic response, a phenomenon of cognition and emotion, and a narrative crux.

Before we pursue this line of inquiry, it is worth considering the capacities and limitations of the epiphany-model, which has been most thoroughly explored by Robert Langbaum and, more recently, Ashton Nichols. In its theological sense, the word "epiphany" denotes a manifestation of the divine, but in its broader modernist inflection (particularly as formulated by James Joyce in Stephen Hero) it involves an intimation of deep significance within the mundane. It is in the latter sense that Langbaum uses the term to account for several features of Wordsworthian experience: the shock of the ordinary, the quasi-mystical sense of an external power or agency, the intimation of an invisible realm behind the world of appearances, the fleeting perception and its afterlife. (2) Beyond describing the Wordsworthian structure of experience, the idea of epiphany locates an affinity between the modern poetics of the ordinary and the Romantic lyric, connecting "spots of time" with the twentieth-century genre of the short story.

This genealogy is not equally illuminating in both historical directions, however. Applied as an interpretive frame and thematic summary, the epiphany-model tends to simplify or flatten Wordsworth's poetry. Langbaum describes "A Night-Piece" as "an epiphany of the distant, silent motion of the stars," the Mount Snowdon episode of The Prelude as an "epiphany of the creative imagination," the "Westminster Bridge" sonnet as "an epiphany of human as distinguished from natural life," and "It is a beauteous evening" as an "epiphany of deity" ("The Epiphanic Mode" 350, 352-53). So many different terms occupy the space in the synoptic template, "epiphany of," that the concept risks being thinned into any realization--or, from a critical standpoint, any thematic precis. The formula also promotes a narrowing teleology. Though we can recognize these distillations as possible meanings in Wordsworth's poems, we might not agree that the climactic realization of "A Night-Piece" is a sense of cosmic movement, or that the "Westminster Bridge" sonnet culminates in a renewed conceptual distinction. …

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