Wordsworth and the Motions of the Mind

By Gordon Kent Thomas | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Dissimilitude, Uncertainty, and the Activity of the Mind

"Every great Poet is a Teacher; I wish either to be considered as a Teacher or as nothing." So wrote Wordsworth in 1808 to his friend and fellow artist-teacher Sir George Beaumont, in a letter particularly rich in the glimpses it offers us into the poet's intentions ( MY 1: 195). Clearly for Wordsworth this claim to be a Teacher, or nothing at all, was central to his work. And for us, his readers and his students, it is a claim which needs clarification and understanding.

For Wordsworth can hardly be called a teacher in any ordinary sense of the term, that ordinary sense, conveyed by the Oxford English Dictionary, the monumental edifice of Victorian knowledge and scholarship, which defines the word teacher as "an instructor" and "one whose function is to give instruction, esp. in a school." And this "instruction" presented by a teacher the OED defines as "the imparting of knowledge or skill."

All this may indeed be a bit too uncomplicated, for it ignores the fact that very frequently Wordsworth in his poetry, that is, in his role as a Teacher, not only does not impart knowledge but seems bent in a curious way to undermine what we suppose to be our knowledge, even somehow to diminish our certainty that we really know something at all.

Of course, the discussion of the term teacher in the OED acknowledges that the word is often used figuratively. And the earliest use cited there is indeed figurative, from a medieval manuscript in the Bodleian Library in which Cato is quoted as saying that "De gode techer, Obere mannes liif is oure shewer."

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