Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Spots of Time in Space and Time

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Spots of Time in Space and Time

Article excerpt

With rare exceptions, William Wordsworth uses the word "spot" to designate a geographical place. His spots often are exceptionally good locations. They include the pre-Napoleonic French "Spot rich in all things that can soothe and please" ("October 1803" 8), the "green spot, so calm and green" and "the deep and quiet spot" of Peter Bell (365, 376), the "chosen spot" in "I know an aged man" (21), the "calmest fairest spot on earth" of The Recluse (1.73), the "favoured spots" that he distinguishes from the rest of the "whole earth" in the 1805 Prelude (10.701), the "pregnant spot of ground," the "dear appropriated spot," and the "hallowed spot of earth" in The Excursion (5.371, 945; 6.802), and many more.

Wordsworth's spots are also places where natural or human pleasure or pain has occurred, and they are invested with the events that have occurred there. They include the "spot [...] made by Nature for herself' in the Poems on the Naming of Places ("To M.H." 15) and the "natal spot" of the briar-rose in "The Waterfall and the Eglantine" (23). Human "Passion rivets to the spot" in Descriptive Sketches (298); Margaret's overgrown cottage garden has become a "cheerless spot," and her cottage is a "wretched spot" in The Ruined Cottage (60, 487); and the place where Martha Ray spends her days crying, "Oh misery," in "The Thorn" is "The spot to which she goes" (92; also 91, 97, and 99). And so on.

"Spot" is a common word in Wordsworth's poetry. It is plain speech, entering the language by 1200 CE, when it meant "moral stain, blot, or blemish; a stigma or disgrace" (OED), a meaning that resonates in Margaret's, Martha Ray's, and many other Wordsworthian spots. Its semantic range expands to include "A small space or extent of ground; a particular place or locality of limited extent" around 1400. In Wordsworth's time, as now, the word often connotes spiritual, mental, bodily characteristics: a spot on one's face, on one's reputation, etc. Wordsworth, though, places these characteristics onto or into the land.

Critical accounts of Wordsworth's "spots of time" emphasize other issues than their complex placedness. Often they prioritize the trauma that has occurred at (or in relation to) the spots, as when Geoffrey Hartman shows that Wordsworth "raise [s] himself from his obsession with specific place" to deal with a Nature that assumes a "tutelary" role after he has violated it (212-4); or as when Peter Larkin shows that "Wordsworth's 'spots of time' occupy a fault-line between trauma and aspiration" (30). They highlight contradictions and conflicts in Wordsworth's formulation of "spots of time," as when Eugene Stelzig calls the phrase "famous[ly] paradoxical" (533); or as when Alan Richardson observes that "'spots of time' is an oxymoron: an enigma designed to halt the reading process and challenge conventional categories of literary experience" (15; also Wedd 225-6).

But Wordsworth's contemporaries might have seen in the phrase language that is apposite to common 18th century expressions of spatial-temporal connections. In 1990, Jack Stillinger observed that the American educator Emma Willard used the phrase "spots of time" in her 1822 Ancient Geography, as Connected with Chronology and that, while she could not have read Wordsworth's lines on the spots, first published in 1850, her "sentences are a veritable anthology of Wordsworthian concepts" (Willard vii; Stillinger 71). Because of the similarity between Willard and Wordsworth, Stillinger "propose [s] that somewhere [...] there exists a pre-Wordsworthian discussion of spots of time in geographical or geographical-historical terms" (72). Along these lines, I propose that Wordsworth's "spots of time," which first appeared in the 1799 two-part Prelude, emerge from his decade-long contact with representations, conceptualizations, and theorizations of space and the precursors of space-time.

In the "spots of time" passages, Wordsworth engages with the space-oriented writings and conversations of figures such as Isaac Newton, David Hartley, the Common Sense philosopher Thomas Reid, and Tom Wedgwood. …

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