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?

Hartman stays not for an answer to these questions, and the difficulty of the sentence comes more from its gaps than its depth. Another complicating habit of his style is wordplay. There is a spate of it in his writing, especially at the end of the Seventies, and one gets the sense that he thinks it a sign of criticism’s rightful aspiration to artistry. The problem is that he’s not good at it. At one point he is moved to wonder: ‘What if in “Unitrine” [Coleridge’s coinage] the word-drugged mind suddenly hears “urine”?’ Well, so what if it does? Maybe it should consider kicking the habit. Or again, he will quote a bit of Milton and coo ‘Paradigm Lost, something echoes in us,’ but the little twinkle sits oddly with the expository academic prose. The extravagantly laudatory foreword commissioned for this volume speaks of his ‘felicitously obtrusive verbal play’ and ‘uncanny ear for sounds’, but these coinages strike me as coy and opportunistic. Hartman, who is always in earnest, may associate these punnings with what he analyses in Coleridge as a ‘learned or playful yet always compulsive manipulation of words ... linked ... to his quest for unity in all areas of life’ (in another essay he has some searching and sceptical remarks on Heidegger’s contorted attempts to re-invest German with etymological purity). Word-play can sometimes express a serious interest in the history of words and usage, or for that matter a comic unwillingness to submit to this history. Hartman would wish us to see his language-games as the signs of something provisional, tentative and hesitant in criticism, in the tradition of what he calls ‘the chastening and sceptical attitude toward meaning in Valéry and later semioticians’. He has been an advocate of criticism which aspires to be creative, and takes its role in cultural life responsibly: that Wordsworthian word ‘chastening’ suggests a moral ambition behind his tricks of style, but when he essays artistry the result is fancified and arty.

Hartman’s liking for figurative language is a feature of his style, and also a pointer to his critical interests. John Ashbery’s poetry is said to be ‘like an electrotherapy relieving the stiff neck of the sublime, and helping our numbness to speak’. Does our cultural plight put us in a madhouse or a massage parlour here? Hartman is thinking about his style, not our numbness. More importantly, though, when he talks about stiff necks, he is referring to the mind and not the body. Much of the drama Hartman discovers in Wordsworth is a drama of consciousness: the relation between the mental and physical is one of his main subjects. He has written about the danger that the mind will withdraw into itself, and the need to maintain what Wordsworth calls an ‘ennobling interchange’ between the self and the world.

There is, then, a thematic importance in the way that Hartman sometimes escalates metaphors of the mind into matters of fact. This happens most noticeably in a psychoanalytically-speculative essay on Wordsworth’s poem ‘“A little onward lend thy guiding hand”’. Psychoanalysis relies a great deal on the plausibility of metaphors of mental life – for instance, of regions of the mind, of physical transition between them, of archaeological excavation – and one extension of this is a tendency to equate wishes, or unconscious wishes, with deeds. In this case, the deeds are ‘incest’ and ‘castration’. Hartman has to go far to seek them. The primary point of Wordsworth’s poem is his natural fear of the deprivations of old age, and his eventual pious control over the temptation to rebel against the limits of human life. Hartman’s commentary seems to me to be weaving arabesques round this ordinary situation rather than discovering forces genuinely at work in the poem. Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads made startling claims for the central human importance, at once moral, erotic and aesthetic, of ‘the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived’, and it’s this faculty which malfunctions in Hartman’s more fanciful flights.

David Simpson’s central subject is indicated by Hartman’s passing remark about Wordsworth’s ‘residual agrarian sensibility’. Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination is his second book on Wordsworth, following and complementing Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real (1982). Simpson’s book explains Wordsworth’s writings as propounding an ideal of rural agrarian virtue deriving from the republican tradition of political thought, which has been traced in the important work of J.G.A. Pocock. Simpson’s emphasis throughout is on ‘a whole litany of retractions’ which accompany Wordsworth’s allegiance to agrarian idealism. These retractions, to Simpson, embody a recognition of existing social and political complexities, and add to the cogency and comprehensiveness of Wordsworth’s position. He focuses on the strains of holding to such an ideal of civic virtue during Wordsworth’s lifetime, and also on the difficulties for Wordsworth in feeling that his role as a poet grants him an authoritative voice. Simpson practises what he commends in earlier critics as ‘exemplary standards of close reading’, not only of the poetry but of relevant historical documentation. He has a fascinating and meticulous chapter on the economy of the Lake District in the late 18th century, which manages (as close reading alone cannot) to alert us to significant omissions from Wordsworth’s writings. He illuminates the way that the characteristic Wordsworthian landscape plays down an actual predominance of cattle farming, and shows how little it features the important quarrying industry; and, perhaps most tellingly, he shows how Wordsworth’s emphasis on the essential importance of working your own property leads him to occlude the distinction between owner-occupiers and ‘customary tenants’ – a large group at this time, whose grievances against the regular practices of landlords were widely discussed. Simpson is other things as well as a historicist, but he does cogently point out that ‘the enjoyment of, or despair about relativism has proved too easy an alternative to the more ossified forms of objectivity; neither is it at all helpful in trying to understand the historical identity of writing.’ Writing what he calls a ‘materialist criticism’, Simpson sees literature as inescapably marked (though not in any simple sense causally-determined) by history. One question facing such criticism as this is its reason for analysing works considered ‘literary’: wouldn’t other texts be equally fruitful for historical analysis? A historicist criticism can seem parasitic on a notion of literature which it does nothing to reaffirm yet on which it relies for its subject. Simpson’s book has a number of implicit answers to this question about the criterion of interest in literary texts.

First, he uncovers in the density of implication in poetic language an exceptionally revealing faithfulness to the density of historical situations. Thus, a poem like ‘Gipsies’ ‘contains and projects a sophisticated articulation of an exemplary crisis’ and ‘transcribes a subject in conflict’. The emphasis here is on reproduction of a crisis, not on the vocabulary of aesthetic transformation which, for example, Eliot, Valéry and the Symbolists use: in this respect Simpson claims less for art than Hartman. However, an articulation of crisis is not far from articulacy about it: quantity and quality go together here, and historical fullness becomes a criterion of aesthetic value. And so Simpson says at one point that ‘the peculiar integrity of much of Wordsworth’s poetry is that it records so much of the evidence that counts against its own arguments.’

Simpson’s account of Wordsworth’s politics makes them appear thoroughly plausible and intelligent. This is partly because he shows them to be both more coherent and more consistent than even relatively inflected versions of the story of young-radical becoming old-conservative have suggested, and partly because of Wordsworth’s penetrating consciousness of the areas of his own political vulnerability (especially in the poetry but not only there).[*] He is attentive to fluctuations as well as continuities in Wordsworth’s career, and his convincing invocation of a republican tradition – which includes among other things outspoken criticism of the aristocracy – corrects an undue recent emphasis on Wordsworth as a thinker in the Burkean mould. Wordsworth’s politics are underdescribed by placing him on the right or the left: his romantic critique of commercial expansion, for example, is proto-Marxist, but his urgent fear of an urban proletariat debased by such expansion moves him to aristocratic paternalism. Simpson’s book discovers corresponding ambivalence in the life of his poems, even apparently stable ones: he has an aptly suggestive account of the factors complicating the affirmative rhetoric of The Excursion – notably the non-generalisibility of the Wanderer’s views, and the uniquely explicit critique in the poem of the internally-generated problems of a rural economy. One might suspect of a book like this that it would unduly diminish the forthrightly affirmative elements in Wordsworth, without which there would, after all, be nothing to qualify and retract: but Simpson’s close readings are attuned to both the commanding and perplexed aspects of Wordsworth’s poetic voice, and his overall picture is subtle and persuasive.

A more extensive survey of European Romanticism is contained in Romanticism in National Context, which consists of essays on 13 European countries – including England, France and Germany, but also many less familiar ones such as Wales, Hungary and Greece. It continues a series which started with Enlightenment in National Context (1981), also edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich. The idea for this series seems a very good one; the books are of interest both to the specialist (since nobody could be a specialist on all these countries) and to the general reader. This volume gives a vivid picture of the overall shape of European Romanticism, as well as its particular configurations within national contexts; and many of the cross-currents have anecdotal appeal as well as cultural significance. Contributors have been given a free hand to focus on developments which seem most appropriate to the particular country, so that the scientific, artistic, and political manifestations of Romanticism are variously emphasised in different chapters; and since many of the contributors are foreign scholars, the collection also gives an intriguing glimpse of different national styles of pedagogy – the relative weight given to exposition and controversy, for example.

Romanticism, like other serviceable categories and periods, is neither exact nor undisputed. Marilyn Butler, in one of the more polemical essays, contends that it is misleading to begin a narrative of English Romanticism with, say, the French Revolution or Blake’s Songs: she offers an account of its roots in a ‘country’ tradition in the poetry and politics of the first half of the 18th century. Within Europe the dates of Romantic movements vary widely. Welsh Romanticism, which had mainly come to an end by 1800, is not really separable from the Enlightenment: indeed, as with many other nations, it drew on a tradition of Enlightenment scholarship and antiquarian research to substantiate an argument for autonomous cultural identity. In Russia and Spain, comparably informed by specific political situations, Romanticism had its heyday in the 1820s and 30s, and in Greece even later than this. Nationalist and Romantic movements are in the majority of cases closely linked; the autonomy of the individual is readily associated with the independence of emergent nations. England and France are unusual in this respect: Romanticism here generally has a politically dissenting character, reacting against established national powers instead of working to found them or liberate them from foreign rule. But most Romantic movements are closely involved with national self-determination, with the autonomy of the self realised through participation in the collectivity, not alienation from it. This is notably true in Poland, whose exiled writers had a crucial role in articulating aspirations to nationhood during the period of occupation from 1831-1864 – and where this immediate public purpose even today informs a prestigious and unmarginalised sense of vocation shared by many East European writers. One of the effects of these essays, though, is to make one realise afresh how recent and destructive is the division of Europe into East and West, and how many historical alliances and enmities are hidden or overturned by such groupings as the Warsaw Pact – or for that matter the EEC. There is no chapter on Turkish Romanticism in this stimulating book, but it may not be long before the Ottoman Empire becomes part of the EEC: what would Byron – he appears on the dust-jacket in Albanian national costume – have made of that?

Rupert Christiansen’s Romantic Affinities is a very different affair – a guide to an age, inspired apparently by an understandable fit of summer glooms on marking A-level scripts on Romantic poetry: he wanted to write something more ‘romantic’ than these. The book is like a classroom slide-show of famous and colourful figures of the age, with a lively commentary homing-in on some of the more eye-catching incidents of their lives, and a certain amount of schoolmasterly sagacity pervading it all. It is an old-fashionedly belle-lettristic sort of book, in the tradition of Lytton Strachey and André Maurois. There is a concession to modern times in having a chapter on women, but Rupert Christiansen is pretty much unreconstructed. Mary Wollstonecraft gets taken to task for ‘deficiencies of method, arrangement and style’ (‘but it is difficult to live with that sort of discontent curdling one’s psyche’), and described as the ‘type of revolutionary that is fuelled by a bottomless fund of undirected resentment’, the condescension of Christiansen’s style here shrinking Wollstonecraft’s engagement with publicly significant issues into a question of her temperament. He is sometimes fogeyishly disdainful about actions that strike me as taking a bit of nerve: for instance, Helen Maria Williams at the Luxembourg prison is described ‘doling out bracing cups of tea’, as if Joyce Grenfell had strayed into post-revolutionary France, and Coleridge is said to have ‘skulked off to enlist under a pseudonym in the dragoons’. He keeps his higher style for moments like this description of Hölderlin’s beloved: ‘Susette resembled some exquisite piece of classical statuary, her features sharply chiselled, her skin alabaster white, her raven-dark hair swept chastely back, demure yet enigmatic.’ You’d know from this book that Romantic writers had one hell of a time, but you wouldn’t guess at the depth of their intelligence and self-consciousness.

[*] 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.