Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth, "Simon Lee," and the Craving for Incidents

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth, "Simon Lee," and the Craving for Incidents

Article excerpt

IN HIS PREFACE TO LYRICAL BALLADS (1800), WILLIAM WORDSWORTH FAMOUSLY, if also enigmatically, defines poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." (1) Readers of Wordsworth's preface often concentrate on one half or other of this formulation. Readers who privilege the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings produce an understanding of Wordsworth's poetry, and of romantic poetry more generally, that relies heavily on theories of expression and aligns poetic power with spontaneity. The fact that for Wordsworth these powerful feelings are "recollected in tranquility" remains enigmatic, in part because it introduces a necessary temporal delay, a level of mediation that is difficult to reconcile with the unmediated access to powerful feelings the first half of Wordsworth's formulation promises. Readers who privilege the importance of "recollection" have in recent years linked Wordsworth's commitment to tranquility to a civilizing process that subordinates immediate sensation to reflective judgment. Tranquility marks a necessary temporal and psychological distance from the initial sense-experience and becomes one way for the poet to maintain control over such experiences. As Noel Jackson summarizes, "Wordsworth's claim that the poet is capable of formally abstracting from and exerting control over the immediacy of 'vulgar' sense-experience has often been read as the signature proposition of Wordsworthian aesthetics and a crucial expression of its ideological character." (2) Through reflection, in other words, the poet learns to impose continuity on discontinuous sense-data. Such readings of Wordsworth find in the movement from a spontaneous overflow of feeling to the recollection of these feelings in tranquility a model for the development, as enculturation, of the individual, society and the nation state.

However, Wordsworth's introduction in the preface to Lyrical Ballads of a necessary temporal delay and an accompanying psychological distance from immediate sensations, made possible by what he calls "tranquility," also introduces an interpretive dilemma. At some key moments, Wordsworth invites readers to conclude that the feelings recollected are not exactly the poet's, which results in an idiosyncratic understanding of tranquility. Famously, Wordsworth writes in The Prelude (1805) of his past self." "so wide appears / The vacancy between me and those days, / Which yet have such self-presence in my mind / That, sometimes, when I think of them, I seem / Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself/And of some other Being." (3) Wordsworthian tranquility, which implies a certain distance from oneself and from one's own feelings, may not always denote an experience of calm, but an experience of estrangement from the very things one hopes never to feel estranged from, like oneself. With "tranquility," I suggest, Wordsworth describes not merely a psychological state belonging to a "civilized" subject but also introduces a certain interpretive dilemma that poetry poses for its readers, even when the reader is also the poet himself.

Through a reading of the concluding lines of "Simon Lee: The Old Huntsman with an Incident in Which he was Concerned," in which this necessary delay is typographically marked by the inclusion of a dash that separates the final four lines of the poem, I show how this delay far from enabling an assertion of control over the experience recorded produces instead two competing reflections on or responses to the incident. What Wordsworth's poem demonstrates in closing is a poet-narrator less in control of his responses to the incident with which he was concerned than has previously been noted in the body of criticism that responds to the poem. The concluding lines of Wordsworth's poem suggest that one danger of tranquility--of the necessary temporal and psychological distance from incidents--may be a sort of estrangement, for the poet-narrator himself as well as for the reader, the interpreter, from the incident the poem describes. …

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