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Ashton Nichols, The Revolutionary 'I': Wordsworth and the Politics of Self-Representation. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-333-71889-5. Price: £42.50 (US$55).Yu Liu, Poetics and Politics: The Revolutions of Wordsworth. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. ISBN: 0-82014-4168-6. Price: £30 (US$39.95).

  • Patrick Vincent

…plus d’informations

  • Patrick Vincent
    University of California, Davis

Much of the Wordsworth scholarship in the 1990s has focused on the poet's self-fashioning, a testament to the rich complexity both of the historical figure and of his verse. Rebel or reactionary, Whig or Tory, deserter or spy? The myriad questions surrounding Wordsworth speak as much to our own time as to his own, and each new book on the poet says something not just about our narrow field, Romanticism or literary studies, but about our historical moment as well. At the center of this critical enterprise, of course, lies The Prelude. Kenneth Johnston, in his recent and fascinating Wordsworth biography, re-labels the poem "The Wordsworthiad" for its epic attempt to self-create a now familiar persona, the solitary, majestic poet of nature and of the common man. Two new monographs on Wordsworth, The Revolutionary 'I' by Ashton Nichols, and Poetics and Politics by Yu Liu, make a similar argument, taking this Wordsworthiad as their jumping board, to better understand what stands behind the 'Wordsworth' figure. Although both works contain the words "revolution" and "politics" in their title, neither really comes close to capturing the epic, revolutionary nature either of the poem or of the poet—it is as if, in our profoundly un-ideological era, critics are overly timid, if not embarrassed to take a strong stand on Wordsworth. Instead, by attempting to salvage Wordsworth's 'radical' status without ever persuading their reader why in fact we should consider Wordsworth 'radical', both critics only confirm the validity of the revisionist line of critique launched in the 1980s by McGann and Levinson.

The most useful and interesting of these two studies by far is Nichols's The Revolutionary 'I'. An addition to the excellent "Romanticism in Perspective" series, Nichols's work argues for an autobiographical and utilitarian reading of Wordsworth's poetry, along the same lines as Elizabeth Fay's Becoming Wordsworthian (1995) and Sheila Kearns's Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography (1995). Calling his a "pragmatic criticism," the author suggests that "there is little need for a consistent theory of autobiography, since self-life writing contributes to a literary form defined more by its purposes than by its generic characteristics"(p. xv). As such, Nichols borrows from a hodge-podge mixture of theoretical sources, from Bakhtin to Chodorow to Wittgenstein, at times rather sketchily (in his use of Derrida in Chapter 5 for example). Nichols's critical voice comes out more strongly when he uses only the lineaments of theory, in particular when discussing gift exchange in Chapter 4. The critic shines when he divorces himself completely from theory and performs close readings which breath new life into much discussed texts such as "The Boy of Winander", and show the significance of more obscure pieces like the fishing trip fragment in Book II of the 1805 Prelude. Particularly striking is Nichols's empathetic, almost uncanny insight into the poet's mind, transcribed through frequent and amusing fictional ventriloquies of the poet.

The Revolutionary 'I' is divided into six chapters. The first, titled "Silencing the (Other) Self", shows how the poet writes and re-writes texts as a way of creating a 'Wordsworth' that fits the conventional pose of poet isolated from society. In his quest for a unified, autobiographical 'I', argues Nichols, Wordsworth must sacrifice his other selves, the dramatic voices that inhabit his Lyrical Ballads. Nichols traces the beginning of this process to the "The Boy of Winander" (1798), persuasively showing how the poet moves in this "epitaph to his old self" (p. 15) beyond an "echoic" dialogue to the idea of an origin, of an artistically permanent because textually produced self. Reading Coleridge's "The Nightingale" as a source text for "The Boy of Winander", the author argues that Coleridge's poem shows Wordsworth what he needs to stop being in order to fulfill his destiny as a 'philosophical poet'. In Chapters 2 and 3, Nichols pursues the notion of a dramatized "cultural self" in The Prelude, arguing that Wordsworth's use of first person narrative is "revolutionary" because it collapses poet and lyric speaker, and dissimulates its dialogic sources. Nichols uses the terms "revolutionary" and "politics", which he roughly defines as tactic, in a largely a-historical and vague manner that fails to evince the epic quality of Wordsworth's new poetics. When the critic makes the dubious claim that Wordsworth's "egotistical sublime" is adopted by all poets following in his footsteps, from Clare to Hemans to Louis Gluck (p. 43), the very particularity that makes Wordsworth's writing so revolutionary is lost on us.

Chapter 4 is, along with the last chapter, the most interesting, because novel of the arguments in Nichols's study. Entitled "Coleridge as Catalyst to Autobiography", the chapter argues that Coleridge's 'illness' is a "powerful force" behind the expansion of the 1799 into the 1805 Prelude (p. 79). Like Raimonda Modiano, Nichols borrows from Marcel Mauss's gift-exchange theory, and combines this with Peter Sack's concept of elegy in order to argue for the poem as a "sustained curative 'love' offering to a sick friend" (p. 84). Playing on the many uses of the words "restored" and "renovated" in The Prelude, Nichols shows how Wordsworth seeks to give Coleridge some of his own, happy past as a form of therapy. Curiously, the author never mentions the poetics of sensibility, in which the therapeutic value of writing is so instrumental. In Chapter 5, "Dialogizing Dorothy", Nichols unravels one more voice collapsed into the autobiographical "I" of The Prelude: Dorothy. Rather than claiming, like feminist scholars in the past, that Wordsworth 'colonizes' female voices, the author prefers to label Dorothy a "spousal sister" whom Wordsworth figures through conversation and through her "wise passiveness"—the poet does not "absorb" the feminine, he dialogizes it (p. 118). While Nichols's hesitancy to attack Wordsworth here might be seen as a case of academic pussyfooting, the aim of the chapter lies elsewhere, in the author's (successful) attempt to argue for a "female softness" in the voice of The Prelude.

The centerpiece of The Revolutionary 'I' is its last chapter, a comparison of The Prelude with Derek Walcott's Another Life, which might be very effectively taught in the classroom. In his Preface, Nichols wisely reminds us, "poems, plays, novels, and short stories have always been experienced as objects of pleasure" (p. xii). It is in this last chapter that the reader gets a real sense of that pleasure: the author here is clearly enjoying himself, something that cannot be said of much academic writing these days. Nichols claims that Walcott's verse is Wordsworthian, and calls him a sort of "Carribean Wordsworth" (133), a label justified not only by Walcott's own allusions to Wordsworth in his autobiographic poem, but also by Nichols's perceptive textual comparisons. The two poets share a "colonized consciousness" which they seek to transcend, a gulf between aspiration and reality much like the gulf between the Lake District and London, or between St. Lucia and England. "Both Walcott and Wordsworth," writes Nichols, "inhabit worlds that have left traditional pasts to embark on much less certain futures" (145). The author uses this last chapter to buttress his attack, or rather skirmish, against McGann, stating on the final page that neither poet wishes to escape history, only to "create themselves poetically out of a history—their own—that can link them to the permanent, yet still dynamic, cultures that produced them" (180). While The Revolutionary 'I' persuasively argues for a multiplicity of voices contained in Wordsworth's autobiographic "I", its own avoidance of historical discourse and emphasis on domestic culture, Wordsworth's "own" life, only reinforces the view that Wordsworth does indeed escape history in order to self-fashion himself as poet.

Yu Liu's Poetics and Politics: The Revolutions of Wordsworth also self-consciously situates itself in opposition to New Historical readings of Wordsworth, but less convincingly. On the opening page, the author states:

I have attempted to show how the ostensible disengagement of Wordsworth's poetry from social and political action can be construed as his unique way of engaging in radical politics and how the significance of his greatest poetry lies in his making it possible for the aesthetic experience to work out a democratic exercise of self-enlightenment and self-empowerment.

p. 1

In this, one of the shorter sentences in the book, a number of complications crop up: how, for example, should one define "radical politics", "democratic exercise", "self-enlightenment" and "self-empowerment"? All of these are over-determined, and over-used terms. More problematic is the phrasing "can be construed". Liu's claim is that Wordsworth takes on a "democratic" shading through the passage of poetry reading from a "poet-centered elitist event into a reader-oriented egalitarian activity" (p. 2). In other words, the poet's radically democratic politics is supposed to emerge from the very act of "construing", or interpreting Wordsworth's poetry. From then on, one expects a reader-response take on Wordsworth's poems. Instead, Liu only recycles other critics' theories, twisting them when necessary to fit his own agenda. This agenda, as it becomes fast apparent, is inherently conservative, often echoing Burke. "The disengagement of Wordsworth from the situation across the English Channel," Liu writes, "shows how [Wordsworth] was much more acute politically than even his most sympathetic readers have hitherto been willing to credit him" (p. 8). Elsewhere, Liu explains, "Wordsworth seems to be both brave and brilliant in confronting the self-serving implications of the do-gooders in the Rousseausistic exercise of compassion" (p. 3). Below, he writes, in reference to Wordsworth's attempt to make "lower-class protagonists" be of assistance to these "do-gooders": "I have argued that the highly unusual endeavor of Wordsworth to democratize the situation of assistance represents a truly inspiring and inspired move of a very different kind of radical politics" (p. 3). One gets the strong impression, as the study unfurls, that Wordsworth's, and Liu's, "radical politics" are not so radical after all.

Liu divides his study into four chapters. The first examines the pattern of "crisis and recovery" in Wordsworth's aesthetics. The second looks at the "revolutionary" humanism of the Lyrical Ballads. In the third chapter, Liu analyzes the poet's use of elegy. The final chapter focuses on Wordsworth's "achievement" in The Prelude. Because all of these arguments have been made elsewhere, I would like to pay closer attention to a single of his chapters, in order to critique the author's method. Entitled "Grief and Relief: The Wordsworthian Elegiac Experience", Chapter 3 looks at Wordsworth's poetry during his 'great decade', a poetry "profoundly and prominently pre-occupied with the theme of loss" (p. 61). In order to explain this loss, Liu adopts Peter Sack's theory of elegy, first giving us a drawn out paraphrase of Chapter 1 of The English Elegy (1985), then all-too-briefly applying that theory to a long list of Wordsworth lyrics: two Lucy poems, "Tintern Abbey", the "Intimations" Ode, "Elegiac Stanzas", "We are Seven", passages from The Prelude. Liu's thesis in this chapter is that Wordsworth can at the same time "stay close" to the dead while also moving from grief to relief. In other words, the critic wants elegy both ways, as a therapy from loss through the sacrifice of the lost object, and as a way of resurrecting the dead and of withholding their sacrifice as long as possible. Not once does Liu convincingly show us how Wordsworth can pull this off—Liu's strategy, to point to Wordsworth's own skepticism whenever he transforms his dead into gnomic truths, does not sufficiently account for, nor justify the poet's Romantic ideology. When Liu writes, in the conclusion to the chapter, that "the Wordsworthian mourner/elegist is finally able to set himself apart from his Freudian and Sacksian counterparts," one cannot help but think that the author himself was never able to reciprocate. His claim that Wordsworth's "ability to move beyond grief to relief without any make-believe" (p. 87) strikes us as unsustainable.

Perhaps more than anything else, these two recent additions to Wordsworth scholarship point to the danger inherent in serialized publications on Romanticism. As scholars, we should obviously welcome and encourage any new opportunity to make our work accessible. However, we should also be wary of the ease and frequency in which manuscripts on canonical authors get published. Wordsworth has been made into an industry—it is becoming increasingly difficult to sift through the bad in order to find the good. Ashton Nichols's The Revolutionary 'I', although not revolutionary, certainly contributes to the field. Yu Liu's Poetics and Politics does not.