Three feet on the ground
- William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision by Jonathan Wordsworth
Oxford, 496 pp, £25.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 19 812097 4
- William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Grandeur and of Tenderness by David Pirie
Methuen, 301 pp, £14.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 416 31300 0
- Benjamin the Waggoner by William Wordsworth, edited by Paul Betz
Cornell/Harvester, 356 pp, £40.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 85527 513 8
One evening, declares Jonathan Wordsworth as he begins his new critical book, a poet happened to be walking along a road, when the peasant who was with him pointed out a striking sight:
’Twas a horse, that stood
Alone upon a little breast of ground
With a clear silver moonlight sky behind.
With one leg from the ground the creature stood,
Insensible and still; breath, motion gone,
Hairs, colour, all but shape and substance gone,
Mane, ears, and tail, as lifeless as the trunk
That had no stir of breath. We paused awhile
In pleasure of the sight, and left him there,
With all his functions silently sealed up,
Like an amphibious work of Nature’s hand,
A borderer dwelling betwixt life and death,
A living statue or a statued life.
The lines are found in a draft, in the end never incorporated into a finished poem; the poet, says Jonathan Wordsworth, could only be William Wordsworth. It seems wholly true, and Wordsworthianness is very well brought out in the discussion that follows – a sensitive, lucid, light prose-paraphrase which includes the reflection that ‘hairs’ is much better than ‘hair’ would have been, and the useful information that horses often sleep on three legs.
Jonathan Wordsworth goes on to warn his reader, with a logic that may escape those unfamiliar with recent Romantic criticism, not to ‘overstress the ordinariness of what is happening’. We, like the peasant, would probably see a horse asleep in the moonlight, whereas Wordsworth ‘points out ... something quite different. We are not, in this case at least, laid afresh on the cool flowery lap of earth, shown an object sparkling anew with the dewdrops of childhood. We are offered a strange, personal vision, child-like only in its intensity.’ We are offered both, surely? Why otherwise should the poet stress his fellow-feeling with the peasant as they look at the horse: ‘We paused awhile/ In pleasure of the sight’? Would the critic have chosen to begin with this wonderful passage unless he sensed that we would warm to its ordinariness? In fact, here as elsewhere in the book, and in spite of his critical orthodoxy, Jonathan Wordsworth demonstrates that it is his great gift to make the poet accessible and sympathetic, an observer of common experience, remarkable for his articulacy, but still companionably attuned to neighbours and strangers.
There was a time when critics probably took it as a compliment if told that they wrote well, and made one want to go off to read the poet they discussed. Nowadays, with groups of mandarin critics circling each major author, writing mostly for one another, it can seem double-edged to say that an academic has the common touch. For most students, and such general readers as survive, the readiest approach to a writer is still a blend of biography and of the ‘close reading’ of a limited, knowable selection of the poet’s oeuvre. Formally, Wordsworth’s life has been written for our time by Mary Moorman, in her detailed two-volume biography (1957 and 1967). But her effort has over the last twenty years been paralleled and supplemented by Jonathan Wordsworth, who operates in an area between textual scholarship and literary biography, using the successive versions of one poem as evidence for Wordsworth’s changing state of mind, and vice versa. Where his earlier book, The Music of Humanity, focused on one poem, ‘The Ruined Cottage’, the present book is an eclectic collection of essays and lectures, the earliest delivered in 1969. They move about within the great decade of Wordsworth’s productivity in what would appear to be a random manner, if the Table of Contents did not reveal a fundamentally chronological and literary-biographical structure of thought by its tell-tale concern with dates.
Jonathan Wordsworth does not stray into biography for its own sake: in a disciplined way, he keeps the texts in view. So he does not here discuss Wordsworth’s marriage, recently so freshly and touchingly illuminated by the discovery of the letters which passed between William and Mary Wordsworth in 1810 and 1812, when the poet was away from home. But the intellectual and literary relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge is of key importance to him, and one connecting thread in this volume of essays brings Coleridge into prominence as an influence and a commentator on Wordsworth’s oeuvre in its best years, 1797-1805.
Vol. 5 No. 16 · 1 September 1983
SIR: Marilyn Butler, in her review of William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision (LRB, 7 July), raises a question which is clearly, for her, of some importance: the fact that she feels that Jonathan Wordsworth ‘omit[s] … counter-evidence’ in the interest of proving that Wordsworth was ‘out of politics and into visions before his best poems are written’. The kind of ‘counter-evidence’ which Marilyn Butler has in mind is, it seems, exemplified by a passage which she quotes from an addition to the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads written by Wordsworth in 1802. 1802 is one of the years in which, according to Jonathan Wordsworth in a passage from The Borders of Vision quoted earlier in the review, while ‘great poetry of the imagination’ was produced, ‘true fellow-feeling is very rare’ – yet here is Wordsworth, in the addition to the Preface, talking about the poet ‘wishing to bring his feelings nearer to those of the persons whose feelings he describes’, even allowing himself to ‘confound and identify his own feelings with theirs’, and so on.
It should, however, be pointed out that there was frequently a discrepancy between Wordsworth’s theory and his practice. As Coleridge noted in the Biographia: ‘were there excluded from Mr Wordsworth’s compositions all that a literal adherence to the theory of his preface would exclude, two thirds at least of the marked beauties of his poetry would be erased.’ Indeed Jonathan Wordsworth gives an example of this discrepancy a few lines further on in the Borders of Vision extract quoted above: the fact that although Book VIII of The Prelude has the title ‘Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind’, the book ‘turns out not to be about people at all’. In other words, however much Wordsworth may have wanted to make important connections between his own internal imaginative experiences and the kind of fellow-feeling which is described in this extract from the Preface, he did not succeed (at this period at least) in doing so in the poetry itself – and it is the poetry, rather than the theory, of which Jonathan Wordsworth is writing here. Indeed, as Wordsworth himself was to put it many years later: ‘I never cared a straw about the theory – and the Preface was written at the request of Mr Coleridge out of sheer good nature …’
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
SIR: While I have broad sympathy with Dr Butler’s desire to reclaim Wordsworth’s texts from the monopoly of American ‘mandarin critics’, with their emphasis on transcendentalism and élitism, it seems to me confusing to end up associating Mr Wordsworth’s book with the approach she is rejecting because he is interested in the same kind of poetry. I am equally suspicious of her own contrary attempt completely to neglect Wordsworth’s major philosophical preoccupations, on which that approach has been based, and of the implication that the only fruitful way to avoid it is to concentrate on a restricted alternative canon.
Dr Butler posits a democratically-available all-British Wordsworth, recoverable by focusing critical consideration on the humanitarian side, its social and political context, rather than on the ambitiously philosophical and visionary poetry of the creative imagination. She gives the impression that to consider this ‘imaginative’ poetry in depth is impoverishingly ‘professional’, almost irresponsible in a teacher, and that to do so constitutes falling for some transatlantic trend. And yet, however regrettable readers may or may not find the fact, Wordsworth’s poetry from 1797 to 1805 does show an undeniable preoccupation with universal systems and the nature and functioning of the creative imagination – a preoccupation, as Mr Wordsworth stresses, largely attributable to Coleridge’s influence.
Dr Butler’s attempt to highlight a continuing radicalism takes no account of the different ways Wordsworth looks at the same subjects over the period in question. The Lucy poems or the 1802 lyrics reveal a detachment from the poet’s own experience, not just that of others. The developing composition of The Prelude or a poem like ‘The Leech Gatherer’ shows the active workings of a mind to realise a representative human outlook, and so to achieve a sense of social responsibility opposed to solipsistic self-indulgence.
Wordsworth’s ‘imaginative’ poetry characteristically strives illogically to integrate the intellectual cogency of Coleridge’s transcendental systems with his own inalienable instinct for the adequacy of naturalist experience. Mr Wordsworth’s book gives full consideration to Coleridge’s central influence, but without adopting the idealist world-view from which American critics – Coleridge’s critical heirs, from Geoffrey Hartman to Charles Sherry – have often viewed Wordsworth’s ‘imaginative’ poetry as a fascinating failure. He has started from the conviction (surely not contested by Dr Butler?) that Wordsworth’s greatest poetry of the imagination is successful – as poetry – and that its valued effects have little to do with settling its philosophical premisses. In so doing, he has re-opened the essential development of ‘Wordsworthianness’ to concentrate on the poetry rather than any partisan specialism, philosophical or political. After all, what Dr Butler characterises as the ‘clash’ between Mr Wordsworth’s empiricism and ‘the vogue for global generalisation’ was very much that of the poet himself – after he met Coleridge.
University of Lancaster
Vol. 5 No. 17 · 15 September 1983
SIR: Mr Hanley (Letters, 1 September) has misunderstood the issue. I advocate neither neglect of Wordsworth’s philosophical preoccupations, nor (heaven help us) a restricted alternative canon. On the contrary, I thought Jonathan Wordsworth narrowed Wordsworth’s interests, along fashionable lines, when he represented his best poetry as concerned with self to the exclusion of people and politics. My own counter-evidence included the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Mr Hanley supports my case, and of course I agree with him, when he observes that the Lucy poems, The Prelude and ‘The Leech Gatherer’ also reveal a more attractive and complex Wordsworth than the current stereotype. Harriet Jump’s Wordsworth on the same Letters page is another creature again. She cites Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria (1817) and Wordsworth ‘many years later’ to prove that Wordsworth’s theories never mattered anyway. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? The Preface had notoriously democratic connotations, and by 1817 both poets were pro-Government writers. My review was about the tendency of critics of major writers – not just Americans, and not even just Wordsworthians – to standardise and to narrow the terms in which the writer gets discussed. Ms Jump and Mr Hanley neatly illustrate the process by referring consistently to two sources of authority – Wordsworth himself and his co-author Coleridge – as though discussion has to be kept within, as it were, the family. This habit can take a rather literal form, as it does in Mr Wordsworth’s book, where he suggests that Wordsworth gave up love of mankind and other people when he discovered that his poetic vocation required him to focus on himself and his sister Dorothy. It is more sophisticated when in the same book, as Mr Hanley observes, Wordsworth’s poetry is explained through Coleridge’s ideas. Critically speaking, these practices are similar, merely the middlebrow and highbrow variants of the same fallacy. Coleridge’s pronouncements must provide a Wordsworth critic with some of his data, but they don’t supply his basic analytical tools. This is not simply because Coleridge was prone to fibbing over detail, especially in retrospect. It’s because his theories are no more disinterested than anything else he wrote; like Wordsworth telling his own life-story in The Prelude, Coleridge is an interested party. Quite apart from the general scholarly value of wariness and detachment, good modern criticism has to show some intellectual range, in modern times as well as in the subject’s times.
Vol. 5 No. 20 · 3 November 1983
SIR: I have always rather agreed with Wordsworth’s comment, after Southey’s paltry notice of Lyrical Ballads (1798), that if he couldn’t think of anything pleasant to say about a friend’s book he shouldn’t have reviewed it. That Marilyn Butler should choose to attack The Borders of Vision in print might in any case seem less than amiable (LRB, 7 July): that she should take the opportunity of doing so twice within the space of a few weeks argues a blunt sensibility – which I’m afraid is what is to be seen in her political readings of Romantic poetry.
St Catherine’s College, Oxford
On the second of the occasions to which Jonathan Wordsworth refers, Marilyn Butler was arguing, rather than attacking, in response to letters of criticism directed at her review.
Editor, ‘London Review’