Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Limited Analogies: Reading Relations in Wordsworth's the Borderers

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Limited Analogies: Reading Relations in Wordsworth's the Borderers

Article excerpt

All our reasonings concerning matter of fact are founded on a species of analogy. --David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding The other knows me merely by analogy--and that just is not knowing another mind! But I've already seen that nothing could be better than, could go beyond, analogy here! --Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason 

IN THE PREFACE TO LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH CONSIDERS "THE pleasure received from metrical language" and ends up offering what is perhaps his most comprehensive but least original statement on aesthetic theory:

I mean the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it, take their origin: it is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings. (1) 

"A commonplace of eighteenth-century aesthetics," as editors Jane Worthington Smyser and W. J. B. Owen note, Wordsworth's principle of "similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude," reflects a basic concern with the workings of analogical thought. (2) If analogy was understood broadly in the eighteenth century as a "resemblance between things with regard to some circumstances," (3) Wordsworth is interested here in how analogical resemblances are determined in the first place, and in how they determine many facets of life: aesthetic experience, of course, but also mental activity, the passions, morality, judgment, and intercourse in all senses. Approaching this passage with the concerns of queer theory and poststructuralist ethics in mind, recent readers have argued that Wordsworth privileges certain notions of sameness and difference: the first half of his chiastic formulation ("similitude in dissimilitude") has been criticized as a heteronormative principle that puts forth sexual difference as a necessary condition for attraction, while the latter half ("dissimilitude in similitude") has been valorized for emphasizing the importance of difference in the context of ethical relations. (4) And yet the crux of Wordsworth's formulation does not so much involve sameness and/or difference as "the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived." At least when it comes to "taste" and "moral feelings," everything, for Wordsworth, would seem to "depend," not upon whether one privileges sameness or difference, but upon one's ability to discern the difference between a similitude and a dissimilitude. Everything would seem to depend, in other words, upon the possibility of even knowing the difference between difference and sameness.

Of course, by most accounts, the epistemological limits of analogy are supposed to be old news at the beginning of the nineteenth century. "At the beginning of the seventeenth century," writes Michel Foucault, "thought ceases to move in the element of resemblance. Similitude is no longer the form of knowledge but rather the occasion for error." (5) Students of Romanticism will likely understand the break Foucault identifies in terms of a more gradual shift, whereby a system of analogical correspondences that structured Renaissance ontology breaks down across the Enlightenment as analogy comes to be seen as a merely rhetorical device, rather than an organizing principle that unifies the physical, moral, and spiritual realms. According to both Earl Wasserman and M. H. Abrams, for example, "the last significant vestige of the myth of an analogically ordered universe" is found in the eighteenth century, albeit in a "greatly weakened" form, after the "literal belief in a universe of divine types and correspondences, which had originally supported this structural trope, faded. …

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.