David Simpson. Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity

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David Simpson. Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 292. $99.

David Simpson's gorgeously written, audacious study gives us a haunted Wordsworth, an occupant and observer of a modern capitalist world's "ghost-ridden dark and twilight zones" (3). By characterizing him in these terms, Simpson is in part calling attention to how obsessively William Wordsworth's verse treats figures--like the discharged soldier of The Prelude, Book 4, the old Cumberland beggar, or Margaret in "The Ruined Cottage"--who are spooky in their de-animated, death-in-life demeanor and their tragic disconnection from human sociality. He is also underlining how Wordsworth's self-representations partake of the same spectrality, so that the poet somehow "wanders lonely" even when, as Dorothy Wordsworth's journals indicate, he ought by rights to describe himself as enjoying company. To approach this Romantic ghost world Simpson takes a path distinct from that followed by the many Romanticists who, while aligning Wordsworth and Freud, have foregrounded the elegiac strain in verse that seems forever to be rehearsing loss (of Lucy, of a younger self, of his brother John) and that brings the dead back only to lose them once more. The spectrality this book treats is likewise misapprehended if construed as a link connecting Wordsworth to the Romantic period's Gothic tales and ballads and so as yet another indication that a poet in his day perforce lived (as Thomas Love Peacock complained) "in the days that are past" and was obliged to make exploded superstition and premodern custom his stock-in-trade. On the contrary, the ghost-seeing recorded by Wordsworth's verse and demanded of his readers is not the product of a backward look, but rather, Simpson insists, a marker of this poet's ongoing relevance. Wordsworth's specters "express the conditions of their time, which is ... still our time and as far as we can see the time still to come" (11). The poetry in which they feature is the "vehicle of an unresolved history we still inhabit" (13), one reason Simpson has found himself returning to it, making this his third book on Wordsworth (Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real appeared in 1982, and Wordsworth's Historical Imagination in 1987). In its dramatization of indigence, dislocation, and disconnection, guilt and sorrow, Wordsworth's "poetics of modernity" represents, Simpson avers, a signal resource with which to theorize the conditions of human existence in a modern lifeworld shaped by the achieved dominance of the commodity form.

In Specters of Marx--a key resource for this argument--Derrida pondered the claim about the "specter" "haunting Europe" that had opened Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto and noted that "there are several times of the specter." By returning, the revenant might testify either "to a living past or to a living future." The capitalist societies who post-1989 triumphally declared communism history--obsolescent, a dead end--should have remembered, Derrida suggests, that precisely in never dying the ghost remains both "to come-back" and "to come" (trans. Peggy Kamuf [Routledge, 1994], 99). Through brilliant readings of an immense range of Wordsworth's poems, Simpson seeks in a similar fashion to rebuke accounts of Wordsworth as history, a figure so distant in time from us as to be over and done with. (Generally this is his students' response, he notes in an Introduction whose attention to the travails of pedagogy will, for many academic readers, occasion gleams of recognition and remembered sensations of sad perplexity.) For Simpson, the ghostly figures in Wordsworth's works, rather than blasts from the past, "haunt the present from the present itself" (145). Thus Simpson's Wordsworth finally places little credit in the Burkean traditionalism and attendant notions of an organic social solidarity that he sometimes espoused. He is notable, rather, for his insight into the abstraction, hollowness, and deadness that commodification introduces into human relations. …


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