Vanishings

Peter Swaab

  • The Unremarkable Wordsworth by Geoffrey Hartman
    Methuen, 249 pp, £8.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 416 05142 1
  • Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement by David Simpson
    Methuen, 239 pp, £25.00, June 1987, ISBN 0 416 03872 7
  • Romanticism in National Context edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich
    Cambridge, 353 pp, £30.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 521 32605 2
  • Romantic Affinities: Portraits from an Age 1780-1830 by Rupert Christiansen
    Bodley Head, 262 pp, £16.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 370 31117 5

Wordsworth’s poetry has been able to animate critical writing, relevantly, from several different points of view. Narratologists have discussed the gaps in his storytelling and the vulnerability of the selves that do the relating; historically-minded criticism has unearthed the contemporary writings with which Wordsworth’s interact, and also shown how far he was involved not only in the politics of poetry but in the politics of public affairs; textual criticism has uncovered an exceptionally rich store of newly published texts and variants, many of them representing his first and arguably best thoughts; deconstructionists have homed in on the paradox of a poetic mission which aims to realise the ‘sad incompetence of human speech’, while both deconstruction and psychoanalysis have been attuned to Wordsworth’s sense that crucial human insights are founded, not on achieved knowledge, but on moments of loss, absence and negation – the ‘Fallings from us, vanishings;/Blank misgivings’ of the ‘Immortality Ode’. This hospitality to critical approaches is in part a sign of the real amplitude of Wordsworth’s achievement. Though he was never the kind of philosophical poet Coleridge asked him to be, Wordsworth’s subject was no less than the whole of human society; as with such holist contemporaries as Coleridge and Hegel, his views on different topics lead into each other, presenting comparable vocabularies and linked concerns whether his immediate subject is the developing self or the revolutions of society.

Geoffrey Hartman has been probably the most eminent commentator on Wordsworth since the publication in 1964 of his important and influential Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814. The Unremarkable Wordsworth collects 14 essays written since then; 11 of these have appeared in print already, but in diverse and sometimes out-of-the-way places. Hartman has interested himself in the theory of literary criticism, and many of the essays in this collection see what kind of dialogue can be established between Wordsworth’s poetry and various contemporary critical approaches. There are pieces invoking literary history, psychoanalysis, structuralism, deconstruction, phenomenology and Biblical prophecy, and Hartman has serious insights about all these, as well as a constantly intent and searching focus on Wordsworth.

The book is too diverse to lend itself to summary, but one of its continuities centres on the possibilities for a sacred dimension in poetry. When Hartman’s introduction considers ‘the end of poetry in our climate’, and fears that ‘despite rare auroras, poetry as well as nature is going out’, we are reminded that his first book The Unmediated Vision (1954) was contemporary with the late poetry of Wallace Stevens and with such critical works as Erich Heller’s The Disinherited Mind: his alertness to critical fashions never removes him from a romantic tradition lamenting the disenchantment of the external world, and seeking restoration for this in the possibilities of art. Several of the essays, both early and late, turn to Wordsworth’s fears about the evanescence of the supernatural both in himself and in the perceived world. Hartman focuses, for instance, on Wordsworth’s re-deployment of the under-fuelled mythological machinery of previous 18th-century poets, on his efforts to ground personification in the animating powers of the mind, and on his straining towards a prophetic trust in ‘the old language, its pathos, its animism, its fallacious figures’. In his most recent essays, which turn explicitly to Biblical hermeneutics and poet-prophet connections, the power of words to give substance to the sacred is still the central issue.

It is characteristic of a Hartman essay that you leave it feeling there was even more to the subject than you had realised, but not sure quite what. This is partly because he writes a compressed prose: often his phrasing is eloquent but obscure. ‘In his call to save nature,’ he writes in his introduction, Wordsworth ‘expresses not only a residual agrarian sensibility but a response to apocalyptic stirrings which institutionalised religions cannot always bind or subdue.’ But where does Wordsworth call to ‘save’ nature, and what would it be to do this? (Hopkins wrote some proto-ecological poems about a ravished countryside, such as ‘Binsey Poplars’, but Wordsworth, ‘poet of nature’, quite strikingly didn’t.) And isn’t the emphasis on the repressive functions of religion only partially Wordsworthian?

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[*] There is a full portrait of the late Wordsworth in the immense volume of his late letters which appeared last year: The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Vol VII: The Later Years, Part IV, 1840-1853, edited by Alan Hill. Oxford, 951 pp., £70, 28 April 1988, 0 19 812606 9.