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Figures of Revision in Wordsworth's Critical Arguments

  • Soheil Ahmed

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  • Soheil Ahmed
    University of Queensland

Corps de l’article

This essay deals with three key arguments in Wordsworth's poetics: the theorisation of tautology; the definition of the poet; and the relationship between thoughts and feelings. The peculiar discursive manoeuvres of these three arguments may be called figurative revisions. Although the literal notion of revision has its own place, the more comprehensive conceptualisation of revision presented here cannot rely solely on it: understandably, the notion of revision, therefore, has reference not only to that literal activity of making retrospective changes in a text, but even more so to that turning around associated with it. It is in this turning around, this looking again, that revision—or re-vision [1]—constitutes a form of textual self-consciousness that is examined here. No less is revision a form of reflexivity.

But this conceptual broadening also requires a reassessment of the relationship between the literal and figurative already radicalised by Derrida's conceptualisation of writing not as a mere scriptive activity but as a spatio-temporal structure. Tracing the "metaphoric transitions" (199) in Freud's theorisation of the psyche in a "Note on the Mystic Pad" Derrida asserts that "the 'objectivist' or 'worldly' consideration of writing teaches us nothing if reference is not made to a psychical space of writing" (212). Thus no more is the figurative a supplement of the literal; in fact, it is the figurative, according to Derrida, which constitutes the conditions of possibility for a conceptualisation of the literal. Moreover, this methodological initiative gives us incentive to treat the seemingly incidental as being essentially central. Consider how Derrida traces out the process by which scriptural metaphors enter into and take over Freud's model of memory. [2]

As always, a problem of this nature begs the question: what procedure do we adopt to assess such an elusive issue? We may try to answer such a question by examining the manner in which the problematic begins to be articulated for us in critical discourse. Even the most abbreviated survey suggests how we encounter it disguised, for instance, as Frances Ferguson's notion of "reading" that "proleptic and retrogressive movement in Wordsworth's poetry" (xiv); as Clifford Siskin's "interpretation" (9); as Isobel Armstrong's "repetition" (35); as Cynthia Chase's "disfigurement" (5). [3] (Or even as Howard Bloom's "revisionary ratios" (8) which stipulate that all writing is indeed rewriting.) Nowhere is it more pronounced than in Armstrong's suggestion that in critical moments Wordsworth's poetry appears to "reread" (xiii) itself like a text. To sum it up in Raymond Carney's words, "we need to begin to talk about writing as a process with a significance in and of itself, composition as an activity of consciousness and not merely as a means of producing ultimate meanings" (634).

The obvious lack of coordination between these various pronouncements issues its own methodological challenges. But these may need to be taken up elsewhere. For the time being, however, these critical gestures serve to situate the issue for us: Wordsworth's discourse gives evidence of the unintended textualisation of self-division. At the same time, these articulations of the problematic of revision become the pretext for our particular interventions in Wordsworth scholarship.

Although the examples given here refer only to the occurrences of figurative revisions in Wordsworth's poetic discourse, the present inquiry takes it even further to demonstrate how such revisions, in fact, occur in another form in Wordsworth's critical discourse. These examples of Wordsworth's critical discourse, we further argue, become self-enacting revisions when they trace out their own procedures. Taken together with Wordsworth's habits of composition (characterised by the incessant revisions of The Prelude, for instance), these discursive manoeuvres cannot be ignored: perhaps, these more figurative forms of revision foreground the possibility of an actual romantic praxis. [4] That is why they are also prefigurative.

In methodological matters we will, therefore, be guided not only by Derrida's notion of the inseparability of the literal and the figurative mentioned above, but also by Hayden White's insights into the prefigurative possibilities of discourse. The very nature of the issue makes this both a necessity and a possibility. As Hayden White suggests, "troping is the soul of discourse" (2) which effects its "adequation by a prefigurative move that is more tropical than logical" (1).

This prefigurative move in Wordsworth's case, we argue, is apparent in such discursive gestures as, for instance, his valorisation of tautology. If troping is the soul of discourse, then the proximity of repetition and revision may not be dismissed as incidental. Following Derrida's methodology of tracing out the metaphoric transitions in Freud's discussion of memory mentioned earlier we affirm the essential centrality of the apparently incidental. Repetition thus becomes the possibility for revision. As we shall see, the figure of revision continues to insinuate itself throughout Wordsworth's discourse as a master trope.

But this is no ordinary trope, either; revision, we might say, is a trope of trope contingently produced by certain discursive movements. The difficulty in describing it derives in no small measure from this form of constitutedness: thus, while the examples of discourse in which the figure of revision lies embedded are themselves actual, the discursive manoeuvres which produce it are not. These are notional.

Wordsworth's spirited defence of tautology [5] in "The Note to 'The Thorn,'" (1800) is an instructive example for our argument and sets the stage for a discussion of our subsequent examples:

There is a numerous class of readers who imagine that the same words cannot be repeated without tautology: this is a great error: virtual tautology is much oftener produced by using different words when the meaning is exactly the same. [. . .] There are also various other reasons why repetition and apparent tautology are frequently beauties of the highest kind. Among the chief of these reasons is the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion.

Poetical Works 513

It is Wordsworth's particular form of problematisation that invites speculation about repetition as a condition of possibility for revision as a master trope: tautology is consolidated by the very processes aimed at eliminating it. Thus the very strategies aimed at eliminating tautology (for instance, using different words when the meaning is the same) leads even more to "virtual tautology."

Tautology is thus far more fundamental than it initially appears; it is connected with the functioning of meaning in language. If different words can be used when the meaning is the same, then it suggests that meaning exceeds the expressive powers of words. Meaning cannot be completely exhausted by words and continues beyond them. In fact, tautology it seems occurs when language runs up against its own representational limitations. But interestingly, tautology marks not only the representational limitations of language, but the very possibility of transcending them.

This is a crucial point. Because it is here that the argument begins to turn into a self-performing trope. Notice Wordsworth's ambivalence towards "repetition and apparent tautology" which are seen initially as the externalities of language, its form, as distinct from its content, "the meaning." But the implicit privileging of a presumed content of language over its form notwithstanding, Wordsworth asserts ultimately that "there are also various other reasons why repetition and apparent tautology are frequent beauties of the highest kind." Far from being a mindless repetition of words, tautology is an expression of this complexity and depth of human feelings. [6]

The distinct stages of Wordsworth's argument here form a dialectical pattern: first, tautology is presented as an inevitability connected with the functioning of meaning in language; second, it is seen as an externality; third, it is reassimilated into a final synthesis as an essential part of the very content to which it was considered external. The same manoeuvre is discernible in Wordsworth's assertion that not only are words "symbols of the passion," but also "themselves part of the passion." Words are not just representations of our feelings but also constitutive of them. In this synthesis of form and content Wordsworth's argument executes that turning movement we call a figurative revision. With neither form or content left as an absolute origin any perceived discrepancies may have been resolved pre-emptively. This is essentially a reflexive moment in which the discourse comes to terms with itself. Thus Wordsworth's argument for repetition not only promotes the possibility of revision but also enacts it discursively.

The thrust of our argument is in the direction of the notion of trope as a form of self-enacting stylistics. Hayden White delineates the process by which the different meanings (from classical Greek, Koiné, classical and late Latin)

sedimented in the early English word trope, capture the force of the concept that modern English intends by the word sty1e, a concept that is especially apt for the consideration of that form of verbal composition which, in order to distinguish it from logical demonstration on the one side and from pure fiction on the other, we call by the name of discourse.


Taking this as an endorsement for the tropological possibilities of Wordsworth's discourse that we have been developing, we can further demonstrate the preponderance of the figures of revision in his other arguments. The self-performing nature of such revisions is nowhere more apparent than in Wordsworth's definition of a poet:

What is a Poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him?—He is a man speaking to men: a man it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind [. . .].

"The Preface" 138

This is an argument for difference of degree as distinct from a difference of kind: the poet possesses "more" of the same sensibilities as the "common man." What is interesting about this argument is the manner in which it sustains itself through a tropological effect enacted by means of a progressive repetition, if you will. Consider, for instance, the almost interminable chain of comparatives: "more enthusiasm and tenderness"; "greater knowledge of human nature"; "a more comprehensive soul"; "rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life"; "a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present"; "a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels." The multiplicity of disparate elements notwithstanding, in the end what we have is the repetition of that sense of "moreness." This is only one aspect of the self-performing revision. However, what we seek to disclose ultimately is that form of revision which arises as a direct consequence of the inherent difficulties in Wordsworth's formulations. In this case as we note, Wordsworth's strategy consists of deploying the principle of difference of degree as a way out of the difficulty: "Among the qualities there enumerated as principally conducing to form a Poet, is implied nothing differing in kind from other men, but only in degree" ("The Preface" 142).

But this, too, smacks of hierarchy that Wordsworth might have liked to avoid. The democratisation Wordsworth sought was fraught with difficulties even at a discursive level. Revisions are symptomatic of the many pitfalls of Wordsworth's particular form of reasoning; and the attempt to forestall the aporetic crises to which they give rise. (Whether these attempts succeed is another matter).

The argument for difference of degree is another aspect of the argument for difference in similarity. The latter surfaces in the course of Wordsworth's associationist arguments as he asserts that the mind recognises a major contrast between the language of the common people and the metre which is superimposed upon it. But each—that is, the language of the common people and the super-imposed metre—evokes in its turn its own kind of associations: Wordsworth's language is meant to evoke the language of the common people on which it is modelled; while metre is intended to evoke the memory of "pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction." Together, "all these imperceptibly make up a complex feeling of delight" ("The Preface" 151); and it is this complex feeling of delight that results in the heightening of the language of the common people. Thus difference can be accommodated to similarity.

We should keep in mind that this accommodation of difference to similarity is also consistent with the general program of "The Preface" which seeks to highlight "the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude" (149). "This principle," as Wordsworth maintains, "is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder." So seminal is this principle—of similitude in dissimilitude and dissimilitude in similitude—that Wordsworth connects it with the "sexual appetites"; "the life of our ordinary conversation"; and our "tastes and our moral feelings."

The attendant difficulties of the argument for difference of degree, however, continue to dog his steps: this occurs, for instance, when Wordsworth moves on to describe the poet in terms of his ability to make the absent present. If the poet, as Wordsworth maintains, is separated from his audience in possessing a deeper perception of things (although not a different language), then he is even more different in possessing the power to make the absent present. But these are contradictory demands.

It is in order to reconcile them that Wordsworth suggests that the role of the poet is that of "a translator, who does not scruple to substitute excellencies of another kind for those which are unattainable by him; and endeavours occasionally to surpass his original, in order to make some amends for the general inferiority to which he feels that he must submit" ("The Preface" 139). Is nature, then, inferior to art? The poet, Wordsworth suggests, "considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature" ("The Preface" 140). In defining the role of the poet as that of a translator Wordsworth abandons the mimetic in favour of the transformative as the principal criterion of Romantic art that the poet must endeavour to fulfil. In fact, this oscillation between the mimetic and transformative in "The Preface" indicates Wordsworth's attempt to balance each criterion against the other and resolve the contradictions which would otherwise lead to absurd conclusions.

How can the poet represent the absent without falsifying it? And how can the poet represent the real without being unpleasant? The notion of revision we are proposing serves as a description of the implicit strategies of containment adopted by Wordsworth's discourse. The formulation of critical issues apart, the discourse in "The Preface" is implicated in averting its own crises of self-dissolution.

Consider how Wordsworth anticipates the problem of representation when he says that although the poet "describes and imitates passions, his employment is in some degree mechanical, compared with the freedom and power of real and substantial action and suffering" ("The Preface" 138). The poet's imagined passions are no substitute for the emotions arising out of real situations—and the poet's passions are always imagined passions because the poet's task is to conjure up emotions not immediately present; in other words, to re-present the absent, or more significantly, to revise the absent original. Wordsworth maintains a distinction between reality and its representation.

It is because of this distinction that Wordsworth is able to suggest that the poet must endeavour not only to "bring his feelings near to those of the persons whose feelings he describes," but must also when necessary, "let himself slip into an entire delusion, and even confound and identify his own feelings with theirs"—but not without modifying "the language which is thus suggested to him by a consideration that he describes for a particular purpose, that of giving pleasure." Thus, although the poet's imitation of emotions should conform to the highest standards of fidelity, the language he uses must on the other hand be modified where necessary. The so-called "principle of selection" which enables the poet to filter out "what would otherwise be painful or disgusting in the passion" constitutes in essence a form of revision which is integral to the sort of poetic theory Wordsworth is endorsing.

In an earlier statement Wordsworth observes parenthetically that although he has adopted the language of the common people he has, nevertheless, purified it "from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust" ("The Preface" 125). There seems to be a fundamental contradiction here: Wordsworth believes that he must incorporate the language of the common people in his poetry and yet he finds that in its natural state this language has elements that are unsuitable for his poetry. Throughout "The Preface" Wordsworth's customary practice has been to resolve contradictions by playing them down and then reassimilating them by means of a revisionary manoeuvre. As in this case, Wordsworth begins by affirming his faith in the language of the rural masses as a model worthy of emulation. The language of the rural masses was chosen "because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived" ("The Preface" 125). But even as Wordsworth is making this argument he realises that eventually it cannot stand up to scrutiny; and towards the end of a series of long statements maintaining his faith in the virtues of "humble and rustic life" Wordsworth cannot refrain from expressing his doubts albeit parenthetically.

Why should a language allegedly suited for poetry require purification? As Wordsworth tells us, "such a language arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language" than the one substituted for it by poets. In other words, such a language is unpremeditated and sincere. But this formulation comes at the cost of a critical blindness on Wordsworth's part: when emulated in poetry this language cannot remain unpremeditated.

What Wordsworth calls "purification" itself constitutes a form of revision: the language of the common people has been "purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust." Wordsworth's argument would suggest that nature in its pristine state still needs modification in order to be integrated into the subject's consciousness.

The manifest ambivalence of Wordsworth's discourse highlighted thus far arises as a consequence of revisions, the strategies of containment which assume a number of forms, some of them self-performing. But perhaps the self-performing aspect of such revisions is nowhere more evident than in his discussion on the relation between thoughts and feelings:

For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects [. . .].

"The Preface" 127

At first, thoughts appear to be prior to feelings; but the distinction between thoughts and feelings is collapsed as we learn that thoughts are actually "representatives of all our past feelings" transformed by protracted introspection—the Wordsworthian "contemplation." Thoughts "direct"—that is, correct—feelings in such a manner that we could say that feelings are re-vised by the higher faculty of thought. But this revision is pre-eminently a self-revision, the self-revision of feeling, for in the beginning, if we follow Wordsworth's logic, before thoughts have become feelings there are only feelings. For these first feelings which are prior to thoughts—the ur-thoughts—to become thoughts there must be some kind of self-transformation brought on by contemplation as there are no prior thoughts to direct them. Contemplation—or as we often call it, reflection—is a process in which consciousness examines itself and its own contents; it becomes aware of itself as consciousness. This opens up a further possibility for our discussion of revision: revision-as-reflection.

Self-reflexiveness, Wordsworth seems to suggest, is an originary act. Feelings can come into being only if they become aware of their status as feelings—that is, by a self-reflexiveness that is also the property of consciousness. Wordsworth's hierarchisation of thoughts and feelings appears to be only provisional—and it is in its provisionality that this hierarchisation proves to be self-deconstructive: at first feelings are directed by thoughts, which are themselves past feelings modified by contemplation. In this inconsistent problematisation of origins Wordsworth's revisionary manoeuvre is to assimilate thoughts to feelings. But this still leaves "feelings" as an absolute origin. As we reach back, we find feelings to be prior to thoughts when we thought it to be otherwise. What, then, differentiates thoughts and feelings is revision: feelings (self-)revised are thoughts. And so the process continues, as Wordsworth himself points out, "by the repetition and continuance of this act." [7] Continuity and revision go hand in hand—only through repeated acts of revision can continuity be maintained. Revision ensures the continuity of Continuity.

The preceding analysis of thoughts modifying feelings paves the way for an understanding of the role of meditation and the notion of revision-as-reflection. We move towards these through Wordsworth's awareness that his poetry is set against that of his contemporaries—whose "triviality and meanness" he roundly derides. The distinctive feature of his poetry as he tells us is that it has a "worthy purpose" ("The Preface" 125). Purpose is thus the differentiating feature of Wordsworth's poetry; but unfortunately, this differentiating feature contradicts another cardinal principle of Wordsworth's poetry: spontaneity. The contrary demands of purpose and spontaneity must now be balanced:

Not that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but habits of meditation have, I trust, so prompted and regulated my feelings, that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If this opinion be erroneous, I can have little right to the name of a Poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [. . .].

"The Preface" 125-27

As a poet Wordsworth has trained himself to be introspective: although the feelings he experiences—even in the absence of real events and objects of nature that occasion them—are spontaneous they are nevertheless modified—that is, "regulated"—by introspection. Without such regulation the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings would degenerate into mere sentimentality, and, purposelessness. The Wordsworthian notion of spontaneity is thus not an unqualified one and is subordinated to Romantic meditation.

Although all good poetry as Wordsworth tells us is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, these feelings have been transformed through meditation into the artistic substance of poetry. But crucially such a transformation constitutes a form of revision. After all, no good poetry, as Wordsworth says, was ever produced "but by a man who, being possessed of more than unusual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply" ("The Preface" 127). Sensibility itself is not enough to qualify one for the office of a poet; to be a poet one must possess the ability to transform one's sensibility into the artistic substance of poetry through contemplation. It is this formulation of Romantic meditation that opens up the possibility of conceptualising it as revision-as-reflection. [8]

The now-famous passage in "The Preface" can be taken as a comment on the nature of Romantic meditation which is at once revisionary and transformative:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of re-action, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.


Recollection presupposes a temporal separation that itself imposes a form of revision, or re-vision, that is, a looking again, or looking back at the real events which gave rise to the emotions now being contemplated in tranquillity. But recollection simultaneously puts us in a reflective or contemplative mood. In this sense recollection and contemplation go together. We do not just remember past events, we also meditate upon them and examine their constitution. In recollecting them we also transform them. Recollection is thus also an examination of the contents of consciousness in the sense of reflection. Together recollection and contemplation form a complex process—that "species of re-action" which, to reiterate an earlier point made in this discussion, make for the possibility of revision-as-reflection.

In analysing the discursive manoeuvres of the key arguments of "The Preface" we have encountered the various figures of revision. These essentially imply a sense of doubling. The same sense of doubling also informs the literal act of reconfiguring a text through retrospective insertions and extensions. But the crux of the matter is that such an act, however literal, cannot take place without figurative self-transformations of consciousness. In taking the text from one configuration to another consciousness—or what has been called consciousness-as-writing (Slinn 39-63)—cannot but revise itself in the process. Thus the embededness of the figurative in the literal.

The conceptual framework for such a theory of revision that we have been implicitly sketching out rests on our understanding of Wordsworth's own formulation of repetition delineated above—an approximation of which can be found in Wordsworth's poetic practices: repetition marks a peculiar motion illustrated fittingly by such descriptions as "My horse trudg'd on, and we drew nigh" (11); or, "My horse mov'd on; hoof after hoof" (21). [9] Trudging on constitutes progression through repetitiveness, bringing precept and praxis together. Evidently, repetition does not carry the pejorative connotations of stasis; rather it signifies advancement for Wordsworth, albeit by degrees. As Søren Kierkegaard says, "Indeed, if there were no repetition, what then would life be? Who would wish to be a tablet upon which time writes every instant a new inscription? or to be a mere memorial of the past?" (34-35).

The purpose here has not been to trip Wordsworth over as he goes about the business of constructing the arguments crucial to his poetics; but to show the discursive struggles inherent in such a project. We have also demonstrated how the possibilities for a broader formulation of revision, one that embraces the literal and figurative at once, is already available to us in Wordsworth's "Prefaces." Both its discursive manoeuvres (explored here through some of Hayden White's insights into the tropological qualities of discourse) and its formulations offer such possibilities. We have also argued that the possibility for such a conceptualisation of revision lies through an essential crisis that shows how tentative the boundaries between the literal and the figurative are. The object in this enterprise has been to understand the "psychical space of writing"—or, as in this case, revision—by enlisting Wordsworth on our side.

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