Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's Epitaphic Poetics and the Print Market

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Wordsworth's Epitaphic Poetics and the Print Market

Article excerpt

BETWEEN ROUGHLY 1797, WHEN HE BEGAN WORK ON THE RUINED COTTAGE manuscript, and 1814, when he published The Excursion, William Wordsworth returned again and again to the poetic form of the epitaph. Critics in recent decades have tended to read these epitaphic poems either deconstructively, as a general trope for the textuality of writing and its inevitable gap of absence and loss; or as creating an imagined form of community, through shared sympathy with the deceased. This essay will build on those insights but suggest a more historically specific reading of Wordsworth's epitaphic mode: his use of the epitaph in order to develop, theorize, and justify a new poetics and a new authorial role in relation to an expanding print culture.

Deconstructive readings generally emphasize the gap between the sheer materiality of the inscribed epitaph, figuring the textuality of writing, and the absence of the author, associated with the absent dead. In the epitaph, according to such readings, the living play of experience and identity is arrested onto the fixed lineaments of the material page, creating a haunted gap between signifier and signified, text and the human presence to which it refers. Frances Ferguson, Paul de Man, J. Douglas Kneale, and Mary Jacobus all connect the epitaphic mode in this way with the project of autobiography generally: what Kneale calls "Wordsworth's master trope, the epitaph, in which the (absent) autobiographical self attempts to give itself textual form" but can never fully incarnate itself within the text. (1)

Other critics, including Esther Schor, Michele Turner ShaW, Lorna Clymer, and Kurt Fosso, have recently shown how Wordsworth uses death and the epitaph to bind together an imagined community of readers. (2) In Burried Communities, Fosso writes that Wordsworth's poetry of mourning leads to a memorialization that "forges a bond of grief between mourners and between the living and the dead." (3) According to Fosso, "it is not community that leads to a connection to the dead so much as it is the dead, and more specifically the relationship of the living to them, that leads to community" (ibid.).

While both these critical approaches have produced valuable insights, neither has attended specifically enough to the historical, cultural, and material contexts of the period. Deconstructive readers tend to universalize the relationship between language and death in an ahistorical manner. Accounts of imagined community, on the other hand, have not sufficiently historicized author-reader relations and remain vague on why a poet might imagine this particular form of community at this particular time. Fosso, for instance, claims that Wordsworth's "social vision of mournful community is his particular response to a broad crisis in late eighteenth-century Britain," specifically its transformation from a predominantly agrarian to a more urbanized society, with a corresponding loss of more intimate and immediate forms of community (xi, 14-15). Writers at the time, however, faced a more specific and pressing sense of dislocation: the vast expansion of the reading public and the lost sense of immediate connection between authors and readers. In his study of The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, William St. Clair claims that this massive expansion took place after court decisions in the 1770S opened up a common domain of literary works for republication, after the lapse of a twenty-eight year copyright term. This development broke up a long period of monopoly and price-fixing by booksellers and led to a "rapid expansion of reading ... across all strata of society, whether categorized by income, by occupation, or by gender." (4) St. Clair's analysis confirms that of Jon Klancher, who argues in The Making of English Reading Audiences that the reading public greatly expanded and fractured during the Romantic period, forcing authors to face a vast and anonymous commercial public for the first time without the previous sense of a "deliberately formed compact between writer and audience. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.