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Robert J. Griffin, Wordsworth's Pope: A Study in Literary Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 521 48171 6 (hardback). Price: £30 (US$49.95).

  • Seamus Perry

…plus d’informations

  • Seamus Perry
    Lincoln College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

This is a short book (145 pages of text) with very big ambitions, which makes it a lively ride, but rather a reckless one. Like Lovejoy, and many others who have turned to the subject, Griffin hopes to dissuade us from using the term 'Romanticism' because of its wrong-headed 'powerful associations' and 'stock responses', which, 'second nature to us and thus never questioned', give us a 'significantly distorted' view of 'Romantic [sic] literary history'. Particularly distorting is its belittling of Pope, who, quite as much as Milton, was a decisive influence on the English 'Romantics' (for want of a better word) and especially on Wordsworth, so much so that, for example, Pope haunts 'Tintern Abbey' as '"father," or former self'. This misleading marginalisation of Pope, in turn, is the result of our inheriting 'Romantic' preconceptions: when we try to think about Pope, we keep thinking about 'Pope', that hateful alterity constructed by the 'Romantic' authors, and pre-eminently by Wordsworth: 'the "Pope" depicted in Wordsworth's polemics, has become our Pope'. This is a serious 'misrecognition': we need to 'get beyond the insistent antithesis of Wordsworth to Pope', because 'the Romantic attack on Pope masks how much they have in common, how much "Pope" is an aspect of themselves'. Seeking to break this mind set, Griffin writes a 'defamiliarized history' which portrays literary history 'horizontally' and not 'vertically', that is to say, without the 'metaphysical dimension of a teleological master narrative', the teleology in question being 'From Classic to Romantic'. And, finally, this re-jigging of the concepts involves a redefinition of Romantic Ideology, or 'Romanticism' - the word kept within the safety cordon of inverted commas - as something extending back to the Wartons. Indeed this book claims not only that 'Romantic ideology' is 'an intensified, or extreme form of Wartonianism', nor merely that Wordsworth's opinions are 'intensifications of the Wartonian view', but that, in our own day, M.H. Abrams is also 'essentially Wartonian', to much continuing confusion.

One imagines the surprised ghost of Warton blinking in this unaccustomed limelight; but his startling celebrity is Griffin's point: his is 'an odd claim', he says, 'strange, if not perverse'. The Warton brothers are not 'pre-Romantic' (a term full of the teleology he wants to drop) but 'the first, earliest Romantics', because they reject Pope, and yet are secretly indebted to him: this pattern Griffin holds to be exemplary of the 'Romantic' poets, who 'can do nothing with Pope, but also nothing without him'. The notion of 'an anxiety about Pope' certainly fits Thomas Warton's 'Pleasures of Melancholy' very well. The poem carries several clear allusions to Pope's poetry, and makes explicit, dismissive reference to Pope himself, and Griffin discerns a pattern. Effectively, Warton splits Pope into two: a rational, Good Sense, 'Belinda' (from The Rape of the Lock) side, which is then identified with Pope and disowned; and a more emotive, Gothic, 'Eloisa' (from Eloisa to Abelard) side, which is identified, deceptively, as the sublimity of 'Spenser' or 'Milton'. A similar pattern of indebtedness and rejection occurs in Joseph Warton, who 'turn[s] away from his Popean origins' to write an almost parodically ambivalent Essay on Pope; Griffin gives a good account of this. Pope is belittled in the first part of the Essay as 'Le Poete de la Raison' (Warton can't bring himself to say so in English) and seems set to occupy a minor rank; but when the second part of the Essay emerges, years later, Pope is judged very highly, 'next to Milton, and just above Dryden'. Wartonian ambivalence about Pope can be seen as well in the way Joseph chose to sign his name on more obviously un-Popean works like 'The Enthusiast', while keeping more Popean efforts anonymous or attributing them to his father.

There is no doubt that the Wartons played a singularly important role in the literary culture of the mid- and late- eighteenth century (a period which, as David Fairer has suggested, has a better claim to be the 'Age of Warton' than the 'Age of Johnson'); and it is very good to learn more about their distinct kinds of literary intelligence. Moreover, the route from Warton to Jeffrey to Macaulay to Arnold, patronising the classics of our prose, is a clear one. The difficulties with Griffin's thesis begin, I think, when he expands Wartonian ambivalence towards Pope to become a general description of 'Romanticism'. As we have seen, he wants to absorb the label 'Pre-Romantic', which is mistakenly teleological, into the broader category of 'Romantic'. But he also acknowledges that a 'more maturely "Romantic" poem' than 'The Pleasures of Melancholy' would be 'self-conscious enough of its own origins to efface any explicit trace of Eloisa while retaining her poetic value'; and such talk of maturing into grown-up 'Romanticism' seems to concede practically everything to someone using the 'pre-Romantic' label. Maturing in this case is the more effective repression of Pope (the model is Freudian, or rather Bloomian); but if real maturity is accompanied by extremely successful repression, then here, clearly, is where the argument is bound to find the going harder.

The ground thesis states that 'the representation of "Pope" as Other is at the root of "Romanticism"'; and, Others being what they are, this is implicitly to acknowledge 'Pope' 'an inseparable part of the internal structure of the Romantic subject'. This has a tamer conclusion, which I think well learnt (if it needs to be learnt): that '[w]hereas an epochal break is routinely asserted to have taken place in the eighteenth century, one can just as easily argue for continuity among change' - indeed, one can argue so rather better, I should say (and many good critics have done). The odd appearance of 'Good Sense' in Biographia; Wordsworth's continuing emphasis on 'refinement'; the similarities between Coleridge's 'One Life' and the divine necessitarianism of the Essay on Man: all these are points well made here. Parallels between Coleridge's Wordsworth and Dr Johnson's Milton (pointed out by H.J. Jackson), between Romantic conceptions of Paradise Lost and eighteenth century views (described by Lucy Newlyn), between Wordsworth's conception of mind and Locke's (described long ago by Basil Willey, Hugh Sykes Davis and others): all these would also apply. Griffin remarks that '"originality" is not a power creating something from nothing, but rather a power that works transformations within a system of discourse'; and this is certainly true, though it is not unheard of to say so. Allowing for differences in the dialect or the tribe, it might have been said by T.S. Eliot.

But Griffin also draws a stronger conclusion: Pope's repressed but central imaginative presence for Wordsworth's poetry; and with this I cannot agree, or at least cannot say I have been persuaded by the chapter here. Griffin claims that links between Wordsworth's poetry and Pope are a great unspoken truth, not pointed out by the critics (though he admits that Laurence Lipking and Jonathan Wordsworth have pointed some out) because 'we have not been trained to look', a queerly Pavlovian picture, or one attributing unusual power to teacher. But merely referring to Pope isn't the point of the thesis: Griffin brings forward a handful of examples to show that Wordsworth's relations to the elder poet were on the specific model of 'unresolved emotional attachment to [one's] parents', because he read him and wrote like him while at Hawkshead Grammar, and then went through a Warton-like rejection.

Griffin gathers evidence for his argument in the way Wordsworth alludes to Pope; but this is tricky ground. Allusions are always difficult things to handle because you cannot be sure which way they run. Christopher Ricks quotes Eliot in his new edition of the uncollected poems: as a poet, says Eliot, you may borrow if 'your fundamental purposes are akin to those of the one who is, for you, the author of the phrase', and you may also borrow if your purposes are 'consciously and pointedly diverse from those of the author, and the contrast is very much to the point' (Inventions of the March Hare, Poems 1909-1917, p.xxiv); and the difficulty for the critic, obviously, is knowing which he has. This is a very general difficulty, not at all specific to Wordsworth's putative use of Pope, needless to say; and it does make an argument resting very largely on the use of allusion rather precarious.

I cannot say that Griffin's examples persuade me; but then we are operating with very different theories of the mind. For example, the phrase 'language of my former heart' from 'Tintern Abbey' is traced to 'Language of the Heart' from the 'Epistle to Arbuthnot', and a passage from 'To Augustus' which patronises Cowley; and from this Griffin goes on to read 'the structure of feeling in the poem' as one which, in a curiously evasive phrase, 'Wordsworth's shifting relation to Pope fits as well as any other' (as any other? as any Other?). 'We can speculate that the "father" (Pope) was transformed by repression first into a "mother" (Nature), and then into a younger sister': well, we can. Another example: that the boy of Winander alludes to surprised swains in Messiah. Well, there is an obvious methodological problem in spotting strong repressions, which is that there isn't much to show; and Griffin is forced to remark pluckily of this parallel that '[t]he only verbal echo to remain undistorted is the word "surprise"', which is surprisingly undistorted. But the real task in hand here is not exactly allusion spotting, but the more de Manian employment of showing that it 'is possible to construe' the poem as an allegory of Wordsworth reading Pope. I'm not sure how you assess the plausibility of this kind of thing, or whether you are meant to; I can't imagine the kind of mind Wordsworth would have had to be in for this to occur, unless Pope was some kind of life-consuming fixation, and that I still don't see much reason to believe. A last example: The Prelude's 'Was it for this?', Griffin very plausibly argues, has a source in the Virgilian parody from Rape of the Lock, 'Was it for this you took such constant care. . .'); but Wordsworth replaces 'Pope's language' with a river ('For this didst thou, O Derwent. . .'), a displacement by 'nature' which becomes exemplarily 'Romantic'. But surely this parallel is wrong somewhere: Dido is being spoken to by her sister, as in the pastiche Thalestris is addressing Belinda; so the river is really displacing a human intimate, which I agree is unusual, but not obviously much to do with Warton. Jonathan Wordsworth is scolded for putting Milton's use of the trope foremost (William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision, 37), which Griffin sees as an exemplary instance of the Wartonian ideology at work. But since, in Jonathan Wordsworth's reading, the 'this' is the unfulfilled epic task of The Recluse, and the 'this' in Samson is the failure to complete a God-given duty (whereas the 'this' in The Rape of the Lock is the social disaster of having a lock of hair cut off) it is difficult not to admit the Milton parallel altogether more likely, whatever your views of Pope.

Griffin ends with an account of Abrams's The Mirror and the Lamp, describing the inadequacies of its governing metaphor, and criticising the Wartonian model of epochal 'break' it relies upon. The shortcomings of the paradigm have been pointed out often enough, though Griffin's sense of the intellectual variety of the eighteenth century is another valuable corrective; and if the romantic-classic dualism reinforces a 'Nothing Was Ever The Same Again After 1798' school of criticism, then its effects are indeed perncious and deceptive. Abrams's own defence of his nominalist use of 'Romantic', made in several essays, might have justly claimed a place in this chapter; and, while it is true that modern literary attitudes are described in The Mirror and the Lamp as the development of Romantic ones, it is not really fair to say that Abrams 'simply subsumed Modernism under Romanticism': he goes out of his way in Natural Supernaturalism (pp.427-31), as well as in the essay 'Coleridge, Baudelaire and Modernist Poetics' (collected in The Correspondent Breeze), specifically to deny any simple continuity. Again, if the point is, as Griffin puts it, that from 'Classic' to 'Romantic', 'Change occurs, but not as a radical break', then one can certainly agree; but so would Abrams, especially on the subject of Wordsworth: 'Wordsworth,' he writes in The Mirror and the Lamp, words not quoted here, 'was more thoroughly immersed in certain currents of eighteenth-century thinking than any of his important contemporaries' (p.103). (Maybe it's Abrams we're becoming used to seeing distorted.) In fact, of all the 'Romantics' to choose, Wordsworth is an odd one for Griffin to have singled out to exemplify his thesis: the 'Romanticism' of Wordsworth has, until comparatively recent times, been extremely equivocal, so much so that comments about Wordsworth's actual 'classicism' are not uncommon. (Wordsworth is 'the most classical of living English poets,' wrote Lockhart in his brutal review of Endymion, contrasting him unfavourably with the Cockney Keats).

Griffin ends with some pages on the need to de-theologise literary studies, and de-sanctify the secular messiah of Wordsworth. Well, I entirely agree, but I think he is the prophet of an event already over on this one; and this is the feeling I have about a lot of the book. I wonder if anyone actually does see 'Romanticism' as an 'epochal break', or indeed if anyone sees 'epochal breaks' anywhere? Is there a 'Nothing Was Ever The Same Again After 1798' school of criticism? Surely the presence of Pope in English 'Romanticism' is hardly the unthought unthinkable Griffin would claim: to go no further, the cases of Byron and Crabbe - neither of which are addressed in this book - suggest that Pope's poetry was very much a current part of the literary scene.

Not only is it not unusual for poets to stereotype their successors while remaining more or less indebted, it is positively normal, as Frank Kermode argues in History and Value: it is what the modernists did to the nineteenth century, and the Movement to the modernists. Now, it is what the historicists are doing to the 'organicist idealists' (or whatever) who purportedly used to marshal under the flag of Abrams. Of course, in each of these cases, things turn out to be more complicated than angry and complete renunciation; and Griffin does a valuable service in reminding us of this truth in his own example. My criticism is that he then tries to install a totalising Freudian paradigm that lands us back with simplicity all over again, albeit of a suitably sophisticated kind. I object, not only because it produces an account of Wordsworth I happen to disagree with, but because it seems to sell us all rather short. I'm not sure that we do all experience the Romantic line on Pope as 'second nature'; presumably a Pope scholar for one wouldn't be likely to. So, told that Wordsworth's 'Pope' is our Pope, I wonder who this 'us' might be, and who we are to be so easily duped by error. Nevertheless, a book to think about, very lucidly written and quite properly engaged with its thesis: the germ of a very interesting book about the Wartons and 'pre-Romanticism', in fact, which expands into a more general and tendentious argument about Wordsworth; still, that is detachable, I think.