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Wordsworth’s Creation of Active Taste

  • Chris Jones and
  • Li-Po Lee

…plus d’informations

  • Chris Jones
    University of Bangor

  • Li-Po Lee
    Chia-Nan University

This essay builds on Don Bialostosky’s employment of Bakhtin in the interpretation of Wordsworth and the remark of Michael O’Neill that Wordsworth’s poems “engage the reader in the drama of sense-making staged in the poem: sense-making that is cautiously and intricately aware of its own processes, and reluctant to claim decisive success.” In educating his reader in “dialogic effects which allow poet and reader to explore different perspectives” (41-44), O’Neill’s Wordsworth is the consummate showman, exhibiting the tricks of the trade but leaving the reader grasping for more. Though both Bialostosky and O’Neill have more to say about the shorter poems, the former’s brief discussion of The Prelude includes a Bakhtinian separation of the controlling poet from the narrator and a warning that Wordsworth’s art “resists both the aesthetic demand for unity of consciousness and the ideological projection of a unified doctrine” (76). His narrator’s claims are always subject to irony, yet our pleasure comes from identifying with the energy, intelligence and self-conscious ingenuity with which he constructs “what he claims to have discovered” (184). Critics have been all too ready to supply the irony in the form of accusations of suppression, falsification and inconsistency but if Wordsworth is viewed as educating a taste that he stressed should be an active co-operating power, the critics’ development of alternatives demonstrate his success rather than his failure. [1] Such an approach would do much to account for the patent and explicit uncertainties expressed by the narrator and would also establish a continuity with earlier poems. In exploring the dialogic nature of The Prelude we use analytical tools from narratology and film criticism to suggest that Wordsworth the poet is fully conscious of the gaps in the narrator’s story that critics have exposed and offers them as opportunities for readers to become participants in the creative enterprise.

In the preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth anticipates critics like Adorno in condemning a mass entertainment industry that produces “savage torpor” (Major Works 599) in its audience by abusing sensual stimulation. Linking this with his denigration of the pleasures derived from the eye in “Tintern Abbey” and the “despotic” eye of The Prelude (1805; 9.173), critics have tended to neglect the ways in which Wordsworth seeks to stimulate active powers by visual means. This goes beyond asking the reader to see things as he does and involves exhibiting the ways in which his art manipulates reality. Like Walter Benjamin his conception of a progressive popular art educates the audience in the different ways in which reality can be presented or produced. Benjamin’s praise of the cinema as providing a “new mode of participation” (735) can be applied to Wordsworth’s methods of inter-cutting and splicing his material. Unlike the model Hollywood film which seeks a complete illusion of continuity, Wordsworth draws attention to the possible gaps in suturing past and present and different viewpoints together, drawing the reader into the creative process.

Cinematic theory is appropriate for examining Wordsworth’s mobilization of the reader’s cooperative power firstly because of the strongly visual, almost “Kodak moment” quality of his images and, secondly, because these images often need considerable work to recuperate them for a consistent point of view. Wordsworth hopes that readers will recognize and respond to his images but his educative programme also hopes that their presentation and mode of connection will change the audience’s apprehension of their significance. In the case of “Simon Lee,” for instance, he hopes to do this “by placing my Reader in the way of receiving from ordinary moral sensations another and more salutary impression than we are accustomed to receive from them” (Major Works 598-99). Wordsworth’s language here evokes the cinematic concept of “suturing,” literally stitching together the strips of celluloid to produce an effect of continuity and, more ideologically, stitching the reader into the place where the director wants him/her and in which this continuity is apprehended. The most well-known technique of suturing is the “shot / reverse shot” pairing, in which a view is shown which is ascribed to the character shown in the next shot. The viewer is given this position as a surrogate and allows this point of view to define what s/he sees: “The operation of suture is successful at the moment that the viewing subject says, “Yes, that’s me,” or “That’s what I see” (Silverman 140-41). Wordsworth’s practice, however, is diametrically opposed to the usual operation of “classical” cinema. His characters and narrators are themselves struggling with the “drama of sense-making” and give the reader no authoritative visual or discursive viewpoint which might passively absorb the material of the poems. Steven Cohan and Linda Shires, extending the analysis of suture to literature, maintain that suturing produces pleasure by re-establishing ideological order after momentary challenges (172). Their more visual approach usefully supplements a Bakhtinian recognition of competing voices in dealing with effects of local focalization and the reader’s (and the author’s) investment in producing a coherent meaning. They suggest that critical analysis can reveal the ways that aberrant views are undermined, suppressed and assimilated to an overall pattern of meaning, usually congruent with dominant contemporary discourses. In Wordsworth’s case, however, the author often emphasises the openness of his narrators’ versions to other views and betrays their anxiety to produce consistency. The tentativeness of these poetically achieved connections and unities reveals the manipulation of reality and calls out the reader’s supplementary imagination.

For Wordsworth, the poet’s productions and transformations are always based on pre-existing material, just as film presents the viewer with an image of the real in all its recognizable materiality. One basic skill Wordsworth considered essential to the poet was the ability “to observe with accuracy things as they are in themselves, and with fidelity to describe them, unmodified by any passion or feeling existing in the mind of the Describer: whether the things depicted be actually present to the senses, or have a place only in the memory” (Major Works 626). Some such idea of the validity of the real might well lie behind The Prelude’s stress on the “real solid world / Of images” that the narrator possesses, which inoculates him against patent poetic falsity (1805; 8.604-05). Certainly the higher imaginative power of the poet must “treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses and the passions,” (Major Works 641) but Wordsworth invariably invokes the presence of the “real” as the ground of the transformation, the art of simile rather than metaphor. The process of transformation is highlighted. He stresses the creative, passionate response of the poet to reality but does not maintain, as Coleridge does, that this response should be the ordering principle of the poem. Images can have a suggestiveness that exceeds the interpretive frame of the poem and the “poetic” can find itself in a subordinate situation within the poem. Wordsworth’s “matter-of-factness,” much decried by Coleridge and other critics, in fact draws attention to the transforming powers of the mind. In both “The Thorn” and in “Resolution and Independence” a reasonably neutral vision of the central features are given as well as the poetically heightened perception of the character who provides the reader with a viewpoint. The despondent state of the poet as focalizer is well established before the leechgatherer is subjected to the imaginative devices outlined in the 1815 “Essay Supplementary” to transform him into a messenger from the borders of death. On further acquaintance he becomes a stolid, unimaginative reality, politely resisting poetical transformation and regarding the poet’s portentousness with amiable humour. The poet, admonished for his own passionate, poetic exaggeration, can indeed find a message in the old man’s steadfastness, but not of the transcendent kind he initially looked for. The narrator of “The Thorn,” also the major focalizer, gives objective descriptions of the thorn, mound and pool, notoriously including the physical dimensions of the last. Into this description are almost imperceptively woven suggestions of an infant’s grave. The interlocutor, whose presence might be judged superfluous if he were merely an echo of the narrator’s frustrated demands for true knowledge of Martha’s story, is sent to view the spot as if it could, of itself, supply the answer. In fact he is being enrolled among the numerous other views and voices from which the narrator has constructed his story and read meanings into the landscape. Not least among these voices is one asserting that Martha Ray was not with child, but this is dismissed as “plainly” wrong, though he only has other voices to trust to. One visual encounter with the protagonist has led him to buy into the widespread suspicions of a traditional scenario of archetypal female tragedy. It sounds very much like the “tragic super-tragic” scenarios of the undisciplined imagination that Wordsworth talks of in The Prelude (1805; 8.532), yet such “superstitious” delusions have a humanizing value. The sacred passions invoked not only colour the landscape but can apparently cause a local earthquake to deter a profane pursuit of legal proof and punishment. Geoffrey Hartman calls the speaker of “The Thorn” Wordsworth’s “ocular man” whose adherence to the factual is a barrier to Wordsworth’s own more spiritual intimations. He “exorcizes his quasi-apocalyptic obsession with clear and centered evidence” (Wordsworth’s Poetry 148). Yet the point is that clear, plain evidence becomes distorted by any contact with deep feeling and the creative, cooperative passions of the viewer.

The narratological question “Who is speaking?” often needs to be supplemented by the cinematic query “Who is seeing … and how?” The dialogic mode enforces the reader’s participation in the creation of meaning and this is frequently a matter of collating different visual as well as ideological viewpoints. In “Simon Lee” the ordering and angle of “shots” give multiple conflicting viewpoints. The initial “establishing” wide-angle shot invites the viewer to enjoy the sweet and pleasant setting of a noble country-house only to focus on the “little man” who becomes the main signifier of the fall of the house of Ivor. Between the past and the present many scenarios are invoked and with them, as Bialostosky emphasizes, we hear the voice of the participant. When the narrator, as the reader’s surrogate, enters the picture we are not sutured into a satisfying point of view but confronted with a challenge to make a story from facts which point in different directions. Some would condemn the House of Ivor for taking up this man’s best years ministering to aristocratic pleasure and then leaving him crippled and destitute. A wider critical scenario would point to Parliamentary enclosures that such powerful landlords could enforce, leaving Simon only a scrap of the common land. Against these a traditional moralistic scenario condemns Simon’s youthful pride in his acclaimed hunting skills and neglect of the “husbandry” that might have secured a better old age. Against both of these plays Simon’s joyful pride in his achievements and continuing love of the sport that links him to the ongoing life of the countryside. The narrator’s mourning does not appear a totally appropriate response to the picture of the old man, however decrepit. This poem is one which particularly motivated Roger Sharrock to comment on Wordsworth’s “revolt against literature” and maintain that the reader is supposed to ignore the medium and respond directly to the reality expressed in “the only words which can convey the object or experience as nakedly as possible” in a “photographic (or phonographic) conception of the language proper to poetry” (161). We must register the horror of the lost eye, even though it is expressed in a subordinate clause, and the pain of limbs even under the belittling description of “poor old ancles” (Lyrical Ballads 1798, l. 68).Yet these are terms which Simon himself might use in describing his plight. Visuality here plays with different ways of viewing or viewing by different others. We can tell, for instance, that Simon is still proud of his livery-coat as he seems to display it with a flourish “fair behind, and fair before” (1798; l. 10). A later version, despite seeming to favour the prudential moral scenario mentioned above, displaces this shot with a powerful reference to “liveried poverty” (1832; l. 28), substituting a narratorial, social-critical judgment for a free, unco-opted visual detail. Later versions, besides introducing more “literary” language and allusions, re-order the shots, trying to tidy up the chronological shifts between Simon’s present age and his frequently invoked youth instead of leaving them to intermingle.

These multiple inner and outer views of a character correspond to Bakhtin’s early dialogism in the essay “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity.” Bakhtin emphasises the necessity for both empathy and detachment as the author attempts to “consummate” the hero in an aesthetic form. The self resists form in its radical potentiality and its own limitations of view; it needs the other who can see round the self and see the self as a rounded, bounded being in space/time to produce a distinct image. The view of the other may include “transgredient” intuitions of inner being as well, but can never merge. Keatsian self-forgetfulness in complete empathy would destroy the dialogism within which meaning is possible and Wordsworth limits the “delusion” of identifying with a character to “short spaces of time” (Major Works 604). This loving relation inevitably entails endowing the hero with epithets and qualities that “sum up,” even judge, him in a way impossible for the incompletion of an on-going life and relate him to others who have been so described, potentially violating his uniqueness. Bakhtin admits that “consummating” a hero, producing a completed image of him, however enriching, is effectually to kill him. But consummation is always incomplete, a task and a struggle. [2] The voice of the hero can answer back, as can other views in the orchestrated aesthetic whole, and the reader participates in the to-and-fro of sympathy, producing not an “organic” but a self-reflexive and co-operative work: “Co-experiencing with the author is a sharing of the actively creative position he has assumed in relation to what is presented, i.e., it is not co-experiencing any longer, but co-creation” (Bakhtin 65-6).

Any self-reflexive imaging is aesthetic and creative in nature, so there is no essential difference between autobiography and biography (150). The distance between the narrator and hero, or narrator when young, however, is always problematic in autobiography. The narrator cannot paint what then he was:

My act-performing consciousness as such poses questions only of the following type: what for? To what end? How? Is it correct or not? Is it necessary or not? Is it required or not? Is it good or not? It never asks such questions as the following: who am I? what am I? what kind am I?


Answers to the latter questions must be supplied by the narrator and are always post facto. Complete objectification would inhibit the hero’s development into the narrator just as lack of completion would leave him nebulous as a separate individual. Wordsworth seems to acknowledge these difficulties in the “Blessed the infant babe” passage which takes up the idea of suturing first from the point of view of the hero and then from that of a narrator.

Launching the enterprise which might justly merit the sub-title “The Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” Wordsworth is characteristically doubtful about tracing origins which “in the words of reason deeply weighed— / Hath no beginning” (1805; 2.232-6). “Who,” he asks can:

point as with a wand, and say
‘This portion of the river of my mind
Came from yon fountain’?

-1805; 2.213-15

Arguably the narrator does just this, stitching individual experiences of the younger Wordsworth (or Bakhtinian “hero”) to that of the older narrator by means of paradigmatic instances, or “spots of time,” that show continuity and growth. He launches into a universalized account of the growth of the faculties that is centred on the production of unity under the influence of passion and the action of the eye. In his “best conjectures” the babe is said to “gather passion from his mother’s eye” and “hence” is “eager to combine / In one appearance all the elements / And parts of the same object, else detached / And loth to coalesce.” This disciplines his “organs and recipient faculties,” makes them vigorous to “spread” and tenacious “of the forms which it receives / In one beloved presence” (1805; 2.249-55). The passage has been discussed by Cathy Caruth in Freudian terms which make sucking the mother’s breast the type of all subsequent sexual (affective) relations for which they are substitutes. For Caruth, Wordsworth’s elliptical description of his mother’s death as the removal of “the props of my affections” (1805; 2.294) is a denial of that originary relationship equivalent to the assassination of the mother: “To describe the mother—or is it just her body, the breasts?—as ‘props’, is to make of her support an artificial structure, part of an edifice which the soul manipulates for its own architectonic purposes” (104). A cross-over from affective to cognitive relations happens when the mother is consummated, seen as a whole, “read” and thereby “removed” as an affective presence “in order to be accessible to experience in the first place” (108). The mother is something like the “spirit” of the edifice built by Wordsworth in the articulations of language, but to many critics she is a very unquiet spirit, the haunting presence of death overshadowing his constructions.

One difficulty with Caruth’s interpretation is the place that the breast occupies in the process:

 the babe
Nursed in his mother’s arms, the babe who sleeps
Upon his mother’s breast, who when his soul
Claims manifest kindred with an earthly soul,
Doth gather passion from his mother’s eye.
Such feelings pass into his torpid life
Like an awakening breeze….

-1805; 2.239-45

Here the central Freudian experience of the mother’s breast seems to be taken as part of the “torpid” life that has to be awakened when a kindred of souls becomes “manifest.” A reading that responds to seeing, recognizing and beholding as more than classifying, egotistical manoeuvres might yield a different emphasis. Wordsworth’s “apprehensive habitude” of seeing things as wholes, implies the wholeness of the self, the central self or “soul.” He sees himself in his mother’s eye as an object of passion, a mirror-image that reassures him of his own wholeness, separateness and identity. If the world is “irradiated” by this passion, then his sense of himself as nature’s special care and his progress as “her” tutelage is also bound up with his capacity to connect things and form things into wholes, constructing the very edifice in words and images that confirms this relationship. The narrator’s remembering is consequently a true “re-membering.” We might suggest that an anxiety of losing individual integrity drives his attempts to bring harmony and wholeness to his story and his self. The narrator of The Prelude is located in this place of anxiety, but, perhaps, only as far as he is committed to the “best conjectures” that Wordsworth admits are insufficient. The ambiguous, conjectural quality is heightened by a vocabulary that strains to unite mother and external world as equally “kindred” and “gravitational.” A Bakhtinian reading of the situation emphasises continuity as well as initiation. It is indeed the mother who “completes” or “consummates” the babe by providing that excess of seeing that can encompass his wholeness against the background of the world and its meanings: “This love that shapes a human being from outside throughout his life – his mother’s love and the love of those around him – this love gives body to his inner body” (Bakhtin 51). Being gains access to meaning, not as a sacrifice to the language of the fathers or mothers, but as an entry into dialogic relationships.

The series of images, babe at the breast, the mother’s eye in reciprocated seeing, the flower which in a later version is irradiated with love as soon as it becomes an object of attention, are linked in ways that suggest connection but which defeat rational analysis. Sensibility, if it is the “great birthright of our being” (1805; 2.286) cannot be confined to “born poets” and those who have been nursed by their own mothers. The mother’s love might be the medium by which the infant learns to love the world and find love within it or it might be the model of a “gravitational” bond that is always already operating. The narrator who attempts to theorize his life, to annex the vitality of the young Wordsworth in the service of his myth of growth, is a poet of the Coleridgean kind or the “mighty mind” of the last book of The Prelude. The poet/author who dramatises his struggles allows us to appreciate both the anxiety and the energy of construction as he is in dialogue with both the young Wordsworth and the narrator. The anxiety is shown by doubts and hesitations, the energy by imaginative tours de force of overt artfulness.

Difficulties in suturing become thematized in The Prelude. In the strangest way, the narrator introduces doubts into his own account of himself. There is no uncertainty about what the narrator wants his autobiography to show. Amid the syntagmatic movement of his careless, boisterous, youthful activities come paradigmatic moments when he becomes aware of the life and harmony of Nature. Such moments built up the being that now commands a tranquil poetic mastery, they yield recognition of the essential “I” in the “not I,” connecting youth and maturity. John Bishop points out that, narrowly speaking, the “spots of time” are “the two incidents introduced by Wordsworth’s own use of the phrase.” But:

Using the phrase in a looser sense, the ‘spots of time’ must include the descriptions of Wordsworth’s boyhood exploits as a snarer of woodcocks, a plunderer of birds nests, a skater, a rider of horses, and such single events as the famous Stolen Boat episode, the Dedication to poetry, the Discharged Soldier, the Dream of the Arab-Quixote, the memory of the Winander Boy, the Drowned Man, Entering London, the Father and Child and the Blind Beggar, Simplon Pass, The Night in Paris, Robespierre’s Death, and Snowdon. Some would wish to include the memories of childhood play at Cockermouth, and the moment under the rock when Wordsworth heard ‘The ghostly language of the ancient earth’ (II 309), or such border-line cases as the Druid Reverie.


These moments of self-recognition are marked by detailed visual “photographic” images and often introduced by much busy preparatory activity but at the heart of them is some mystic awareness of the life of things. It is as if Wordsworth is watching old home movies and periodically is able to say “Yes, that’s me.”

There are, however, deep misgivings about the truth of the experiences that the narrator attributes to the young Wordsworth. The narrator confesses that he “cannot say what portion is in truth / The naked recollection of that time, / And what may rather have been called to life / By after-meditation” (1805; 3.644-8). This is serious when it affects the ideological consistency of the poem. Bishop’s label “Dedication to Poetry” seems slightly farcical when the young Wordsworth is so pointedly shown to be unaware of any vows made by or for him at the time: “I made no vows, but vows / Were then made for me: bond unknown to me /Was given” (1805; 4.341-43). In Bakhtinian terms the young Wordsworth is the hero to the narrator and the latter has to enrich his image, by some mysterious outward agency, with values that were not present to the acting consciousness of the hero. The poet/author, however, is laying bare the art and artifice of the poetic production.

The important transition from love of nature to love of man is jeopardized when the narrator’s sublime pictures of shepherds, apparently seen by himself as a “rambling schoolboy,” is followed by the admission “Of this I little saw, cared less for it, / But something must have felt” (1805; 8.427-8). Soheil Ahmed instances another similarly disconcerting admission:

Yet do not deem, my friend, though thus I speak
Of man as having taken in my mind
A place thus early which might almost seem
Preeminent, that this was really so.

-1805; 8.472-5

Ahmed writes of the “I” losing control:

The difficulties of storytelling are the same as those of maintaining the integrity of the “I” in the face of narrative contingencies that challenge its authority, even as they determine it. Wordsworth’s encounter with this paradoxical feeling is evident in his conscious problematisation of the order of events distorted, he says, by the very narrative entrusted with giving an account of his crucial development from priest of nature to humanitarian liberal. The attempt to rectify this narrative betrayal finds its expression in the rhetoric of perceived discrepancy.


It is the narrator here who does not have control over the discrepancies thrown up in “narrative contingency.” Wordsworth the poet creates a narrator who is patently unable to paper over the cracks and “betrays” this wittingly. Ahmed examines revisions to The Prelude which contradict or add to previous accounts and claims that they:

suggest that the act of remembrance is postulated not only on the mutual constitutiveness of narrativity and temporality, but also on the mutual constitutiveness of autobiographical writing and literary self-invention.


It is here the professional critic who unearths this suggestion. We would suggest that the narrator’s “rhetoric of perceived discrepancy” emphasizes this creativity in ways that even the common reader can recognize.

Ahmed’s is an aesthetically turned exploitation of these discrepancies. Using psychological theory, Susan Wolfson argues that revisions to the “drowned man” episode show it to be an aestheticized suppression or “screen memory” of his mother’s death. Associating death with the quasi-maternal lake and with the lifelessness of a written book, she accounts for Wordsworth’s continual revisions as ceaseless attempts to exorcise such hauntings. Wordsworth is attempting to turn the suicide into “a literary figure, tempering and derealizing its life in the mind” (112). She has to admit, however, that “the productivity of Wordsworth’s revisions is such that even what he denies many become more explicit” (123). The stark horror of its visual depiction is actually intensified in the revised version:

At last, the dead man, ’mid that beauteous scene
Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright
Rose, with his ghastly face, a spectre shape
Of terror

-1850; 5.448-51

It is left uncertain how far Wordsworth was conscious of the self-deconstructive nature of his writing. Does he “show” or “suggest” these suppressions and manipulations in the sense of displaying them openly to the reader, or is this an unconscious or half-conscious display which the modern critic can interpret in the light of the “best conjectures” of contemporary theory? Wolfson leaves this open in her use of the ambiguous term “stage”: “Long before de Man articulated the negativity behind language, Wordsworth staged as much in passages such as this “mastery of death” (131). As these examples demonstrate, it needs no scholarly study of revisions to respond to visual images that disrupt the narrator’s declared intentions or to grasp the conscious, perceived discrepancies of the narrator. If, as Wolfson suggests, continual revision keeps the book alive so does the revising activity of the reader in response to such promptings. Wordsworth is still the poet of Lyrical Ballads, a man speaking to men and expecting his readers to see the potentiality for other stories within the one that the narrator/poet tells. Dialogic literature, as Holquist asserts, has the capacity to “teach possibilities of authorship” (85).

The narrator’s remotivation or redemption of images projects the poem into the postmodern of narratology as Jonathan Culler describes it:

Positing the priority of events to the discourse which reports or presents them, narratology establishes a hierarchy which the functioning of narratives often subverts by presenting events not as givens but as the products of discursive forces or requirements.


Wordsworth is writing at the cusp of a philosophical revolution that replaced the Lockean “order of things” with the Kantian ordering of the mind but his fidelity to the image of reality is unshaken, though it has similarly disturbing or empowering consequences. The narrator has interpreted experiences in a way that exceeds or contradicts the awareness of the hero in response to Culler’s “discursive requirements” but, though he invites the reader’ scepticism, the experiences are not negated but survive in imaginative potentiality. When identifying with a hero like the young Wordsworth, who experiences the events of the poem, we often accept descriptions of his experiences that are not in his own language but that of the mature narrator. What Wordsworth does, however, is to stretch this convention to breaking point by using very unusual and poetic language to evoke the experiences (“diurnal” in the skating episode, “respirations” at St Mary’s Abbey). This actually emphasises the materiality of the images, visual and auditory, which want the articulacy of language. If images are thought of as records of reality, not constituted solely by words but by the memory of the senses, they will always have an excess over any verbally expressed meaning. Narrative never exhausts the filmic image, as Kristin Thompson maintains:

A film depends on materiality for its existence; out of image and sound it creates its structures, but it can never make all the physical elements of the film part of its set of smooth perceptual cues.


Wordsworth’s cinematic method retains the potentiality of images both to disturb and to confirm structure and meaning. The remembered images of the Gondo gorge might suggest the apocalyptic interpretation they are given, even though the apocalyptic interpretation is clearly superimposed by the narrator who, at the point of narration, has delivered a paean to the apocalyptic imagination.

It is difficult to resist Bialostosky’s assertion of the authority of the controlling author/poet, when the narrator is so patently a dramatized figure, not exactly unreliable but far from authoritative. As Bialstosky says, “even imagination cannot rise up from the mind’s abyss for the narrator unless the poet gives it leave” (168). If it is maintained that these dramatized uncertainties are Wordsworth’s own, transparently admitted to the reader, it is nevertheless true that he has created a narrator to transmit them and even to highlight them. The narrator might well be a poet like Wordsworth or Coleridge but he serves to demonstrate the methods of such transformative poetry and show at what price such poetic unity is achieved. At its most extreme, the narrator’s poetic art “plants” Coleridge in company with Wordsworth’s future wife and sister among the beauties of the Border Beacon country after acknowledging the real Coleridge’s “melancholy lot” and departure to the Mediterranean to seek better health. “But thou art with us, with us in the past, / The present, with us in the times to come. / There is no grief, no sorrow, no despair” (1805; 6.251-3) proclaims the ecstatic narrator, but the reader must feel the artificiality of the imposition. The narrator acts like a film director, manipulating his material with great panache yet, contrary to typical Hollywood practice, attention is drawn to his manipulations, the gaps or excesses that his art does not conceal. In this way he can act as a teacher and a stimulus for the reader’s own constructive or deconstructive revising activity.

In analysing the interplay of different viewpoints, hero, narrator, poet, the tools of filmic narratological analysis come into their own. Though they are part of a structuralist methodology they show their value, as Culler suggests, when they point up disturbances and inconsistencies in the structure. David Miall has investigated some of the effects of The Prelude with reference to cinematic techniques. He instances the co-presence of present and future hero in some scenes and especially what he calls the reversal of figure and ground.

The figures in the landscape undergo a type of figure-ground reversal, so that the environment within which human beings derive their meaning and agency is itself foregrounded. Thus Wordsworth’s emphasis [in] the childhood experience he relates, as well as [in] later episodes such as crossing the Alps, regularly displaces attention from the experiencing self onto the natural processes with which the narrator’s feelings appear to be continuous.


In the bird-nesting episode the figure of the hero and his activities is displaced by an awareness of the surrounding elements. Examining this scene more closely brings out the unstable multiplicity of viewpoints. The reader is sutured into the figure of the hero precariously clinging to the crag and reaching for the bird’s eggs:

 Oh, when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost, as it seemed
Suspended by the blast which blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears, the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!

-1805; 1.341-50

The focus is on the particulars which take up his attention, the knots of grass, fissures and cracks that provide handholds and footholds and the immediate pressure of the wind. The reader might well identify with the dizziness but find it unlikely that in such a position of peril he would contemplate the movement of the clouds, develop a mystic appreciation of the elements and translate the “blast” threatening his balance into an utterance. Another viewpoint, visual as well as discursive, seems to be giving this intimation of the living, sustaining forces of the universe. The narrator is clearly providing the Bakhtinian “outsidedness” of view that sets the acting consciousness of the hero against the background of universal forces.

The distinction of viewpoints is clearer in the St Mary’s Abbey episode. Here it is almost impossible not to reach for a further level of narratological authority as the view of the hero conflicts with that of a narrator who is a patently dramatized other. After a long circumstantial account of obtaining the horses, lying to their owner about the extent of their expedition and revealing that their goal is chosen mostly because of its distance, the voice of the narrator intrudes to celebrate the calm, timeless beauty of St Mary’s Abbey. We are, however, sutured into the consciousness of the boys as they go about their boisterous games, exulting in “glad animal movements,” the keynote of the boyhood sections:

Our steeds remounted, and the summons given,
With whip and spur we by the chauntry flew
In uncouth race, and left the cross-legged knight,
And the stone abbot, and that single wren
Which one day sang so sweetly in the nave
Of the old church that, though from recent showers
The earth was comfortless, and, touched by faint
Internal breezes—sobbings of the place
And respirations—from the roofless walls
The shuddering ivy dripped large drops, yet still
So sweetly ’mid the gloom the invisible bird
Sang to itself that there I could have made
My dwelling-place, and lived for ever there
To hear such music. Through the walls we flew
And down the valley, and, a circuit made
In wantonness of heart, through rough and smooth
We scampered homeward.

-1805; 2.122-38

In their race they (and we as we are sutured into their point of view) note in passing various features that act as markers: chauntry, knight, and abbot, but abruptly they (we) escape from the frame. There is no reverse-shot to show the face of the perceiver of the invisible wren, unlikely to be noticed by a rider, and we travel into a different time to that in which the wren had first been located.

Many of the “spots of time” have this structure. They begin with detailed syntagmatic movement placing the event within a firm time-scale and with attention to the metonymic, realistic adjuncts of the scene. When the narrator perceives his hero’s epiphanies in each episode, there is a suspension of ordinary life, the markers of time, place, person are confused, a ground/foreground reversal occurs, vivid depictions are succeeded by sublime images and intimations and the vocabulary becomes adult and poetically organized. The intention of the passages is clear, their artfulness is undoubted, but this artfulness calls attention to itself in its very attempt to coerce all elements into a paradigmatic unity. The intention of the narrator is to imply that however ignoble the boyhood sports may be, their “end” is to ennoble. What were mere environmental accompaniments to play made an impression, even if hardly noticed, and gradually became sought for their own sakes. The poet, however, seems to stress those elements that obstinately refuse to fit, highlighting the difficulties that the narrator is trying to overcome. The “walls,” “belfry,” “towers,” “chauntry,” “cross-legged knight” and “stone abbot” are metonymies that tell their own stories of ancient, quiet worship, and reinforce a reverent mood that contrasts with the violent movement of the boys. But the cross-legged knight introduces the theme of violence (on horseback) and the insistence on the stony nature of the abbot hints at an inhumanly rigid discipline. The walls, an equally restrictive image of seclusion, are made more natural in their decay, but “we” are glad to be free of them. The narrator’s sentimental reflection is undermined by these overtones produced by the interplay between different viewpoints.

Visual images add complexity and possible dissonance to the view of Cambridge. Among the images of sterile, artificial life only one seems to unite Wordsworth with the inspiration of Nature, an ash seen in winter moonlight. The ash, like himself, is associated with natural mountain scenery, yet it is “trimmed out” by Winter with ivy hanging in “yellow tassels and festoons” (1805; 6.97-8). The image is a glorified version of the “strange transformation for a mountain youth” viewed with sceptical amusement at the beginning of Book Three, with his tasselled cap and “hair / Glittering like rimy trees when frost is keen” (1805; 3.36-37). What might seem artificial and parasitic is actually a valuable acquisition. The ash does not now evoke natural sublimity but visions and “bright appearances” of “human forms and superhuman powers” that “scarcely Spenser’s self” might have enjoyed (1805; 6.104-07). Wordsworth’s response to Chaucer, Spenser, Newton and Milton and the sociability that is celebrated in the Cambridge section (“my heart / Was social” 1805; 3.235-36) may yield a different story of the development of his love of man and man’s potentialities from that which the narrator tells.

In the concluding sections of the poem, far from celebrating an exclusive poetic eminence, Wordsworth addresses the reader directly and encourages his/her own creativity. Poetic powers, like infant sensibility, are more widespread than commonly thought, and he celebrates similar powers of response and awareness in rustic characters who lack the skills of verbal expression. The poetic constituency to which Wordsworth appeals as “thou” and “man” is a wide one and his stress is on the individual effort which each has to undertake and which he hopes to encourage: “no secondary hand can intervene / To fashion this ability” (1805; 13.192-93). The “prime and vital principle” within the recesses of our nature unites, as in Bakhtin, imagination and love. The Prelude is a kind of “Do it yourself” guide to Romantic life-writing. The subject is, indeed, the growth of a poet’s mind, but the “poet” is Wordsworth by example. Wordsworth continually tries to widen his “I” into a “we,” and although the events of his life are individual he gestures towards similar, not identical, experience that might be shared in a life of “nature” rather than specialized education. University is presented as almost a dereliction of his true destiny and only in the later books do we learn that he had started his poetic career at school. By the end of the poem “we” are sutured into a creative community (including but not restricted to Coleridge) and invited to revise and supplement Wordsworth’s account, especially with regard to the influence of the city, books and schooling. “Much,” as he says, “hath been omitted” (1805; 13.279) yet within his narrator’s account he has encouraged a dialogic engagement that can provoke and sustain supplemental views.

Parties annexes