Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


Keith Hanley, Wordsworth: A Poet's History. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN: 0-333-918835 (hbk.). US$59.95.

  • Kenneth R. Johnston

…plus d’informations

  • Kenneth R. Johnston
    Indiana University

Corps de l’article

Keith Hanley has written a challenging and rewarding book. Dissatisfied with biographical and historical efforts to get at the putatively "secret" or "hidden" sources of Wordsworth's strange poetic power—because "the poet lies hidden still"—he proposes to find the source of the power within language itself, working at deep levels of language-acquisition and self-identification in infancy and early childhood. He finds the essential Wordsworth in the poet's search for a language adequate to his peculiar needs.

The kinds of Wordsworthian difficulties Hanley has in mind are those which suggest that something is not being said, in poems that, impressive as they are, leave open questions that simultaneously increase and diminish their impact. This peculiarly Wordsworthian phenomenon will be familiar to readers of this professional journal, as will the history of efforts to interpret or explain it (the poet suffered a nervous breakdown, etc.). Hanley initially describes this "dark" side of Wordsworth as his apparent lack of sympathy with his often pathetic subjects: "he could afford to suffer with those whom he saw suffer" (speaking of the Pedlar in "The Ruined Cottage"). Hanley seeks to read the signature of this idiom, selectively, throughout Wordsworth's oeuvre. He takes lines from Matthew Arnold's "Memorial Verses" on the poet's death (1850) as a motto for his investigation: "The cloud of mortal destiny, / Others will front it fearlessly—/ But who, like him, will put it by?" Hanley: "It is on the veiled operations of this putting by that the present book reflects" (5).

What results from Hanley's setting himself this daunting task is a rigorous psychoanalytic study, more Lacanian than Freudian, which locates the powerful torque of Wordsworth's language (by which I mean its tendency to gain power from a sort of reverse twist or thrust upon itself) in his reactions to, and lifelong memories of, his mother's and father's early deaths. He finds in two central passages describing these events—and in many echoes or partial echoes of them he adduces throughout the poet's oeuvre—a necessary disciplining of the poet's subjectivity into the patriarchal, institutional orders of society and the symbolic order of language, away from the pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal experience of un-individuated selfhood, whether experienced as being part of the mother's body or, by extension, part of the body of Mother Nature. This account of the traumatic process necessary for human mental growth is of course offered as normative by Jacques Lacan. What makes it unique for Wordsworth, according to Hanley, is the desire or tendency of Wordsworth's poetic language to hark back to the stage of undifferentiated selfhood, "at one with nature," that we frequently identify as the most powerful of his idioms. Hanley sees in such language, however, the buried monitory presence of the parents' discipline, resulting in expressions that are all the more powerful for being crossed by a recognition that the desired fullness of being can nevermore be im-mediately accessed.

This seems like a plausible account to me, once we accept its authorizing terms from Lacan (and, in later chapters, from Kristeva and Foucault). However, I must confess to having something of a tin ear when it comes to psychoanalytic criticism: not that I disagree with it, only that its claims seem to follow unproblematically, relatively speaking, once we have made the initial grant of faith, or suspension of disbelief, for the proposed principles of organizing evidence. Hanley wants his use of these theorists to contribute "marginally" to their projects, in addition to demonstrating their usefulness for elucidating Wordsworth. I must leave it to readers more expert than I to evaluate the cogency and currency of Hanley's use of them.

In Chapter One, "The Spectral Mother," Hanley studies several Wordsworthian texts involving women (daughters and lovers as well as mothers) in terms of his Lacanian reading of the incident of the "woman in white" at Cockermouth church Wordsworth described in his "Autobiographical Memoranda" of 1847. The woman was doing public penance for some sort of sexual transgression (most likely adultery or an out-of-wedlock birth). The boy Wordsworth proudly reported having seen the ceremony, and his mother "commended my having been present, expressing a hope that I should remember the circumstance for the rest of my life." Thus, according to Hanley, Wordsworth's mother "sacrifices one version of herself, the sexually transgressive penitent, as the defining Foucauldian other of the moral regime of the law, and thereby constitutes her own dominating presence within the disciplinary discourses she is endorsing" (39). In most standard psychoanalytic accounts, the boy would already, at about age two, have "seiz[ed] the 'word of the father,'" in his "fall" into the symbolic order of language [Lacan], but his mother's reinforcement of this order, coupled with the fact of her early death, made her death "only the first, though the most formative of a series of traumas that in effect rehearsed the primary trauma of his entry into the 'symbolic order' of language and culture in infancy." What became formative, and what Hanley consistently emphasizes, is that "Wordsworth became interested in so regulating his relation to language that he could both reaccentuate his original attachment to the mother and yet be saved from foreclosure, the failure of subjectivity that denying his subsequent identification with the father would bring about" (13).

Chapter Two, "The Elided Father," has a somewhat clearer path to follow, since Wordsworth wrote several passages describing the event and the effect of his father's death on him, one of them finally enshrined as one of the "spots of time" in The Prelude, the Waiting for the Horses episode, to which he said his mind repeatedly "repaired" for creative sustenance. Hanley eschews mention of two obvious reasons that Wordsworth's reaction to his father's death might have been conflicted beyond the norm: first, John Wordsworth's encouragement of his second son's evident literary precocity; and second, the young Wordsworth's feeling that, nonetheless, a career as a poet what not what the practical, astute agent of Sir James Lowther had in mind for him, professionally. Instead, following his psychoanalytical trail, Hanley sees in Wordsworth's reaction to his father's death a kind of guilt feeling, a "return of the language trauma," which "reveals the true object of Oedipal desire to be the phallus of language" (69), thus encapsulating Lacan's revision of Freud. This is because Wordsworth's already "highly complex paternal identification" has been over-determined "by the maternal relation," so that, both receiving and wresting the phallus of (adult, social) language from the father, Wordsworth still seeks to retain his pre-linguistic identification with the (childish, subjective) bodily presence of the mother. Or, in a typically complex formulation by Hanley: "In order to explain to himself where he had arrived in his conflicted feelings about the event, he calls up language of repentance belatedly to lament his father (so paying his debt) even as it demonstrates the paradigm of conversion that had itself qualified the role of the father and so, guiltily, distracted his mourning" (68). The progression of verbs here is coherent, but just barely, leaving a slight sense of Hanley having it both ways—but, since this is what he is trying to express Wordsworth wanting as well, perhaps appropriately so. In this chapter Hanley complicates Lacan with Julia Kristeva's hypothesis of a "maternal function" prior to the mirror stage to explain Wordsworth's evident preoccupation with "the recuperation of activities within the presymbolic" (75).

Given that the first two chapters are largely devoted to showing the pervasive presence of Wordsworth's powerfully conflicted/productive maternal and paternal recollections, I turned to Chapters 3 and 4, on Wordsworth's engagement with the French Revolution, in hopes of getting more of the "payoff" of Hanley's approach. I was not disappointed, though I remain somewhat bemused by his methods of demonstration. Hanley's account of Wordsworth's adjustment to the trauma of his involvement with the French Revolution is not simply an account of Wordsworth's growing disillusionment with the course of the revolution and his return to the political conservatism of his origins. That arc of response characterized the feelings of thousands of Europeans at the time. More important for Wordsworth, according to Hanley, was his recognition that, underneath this overt shift in political opinions, his "conservatism" was already part of his early psychological discipline in the experience of the deaths of his mother and father. Hence what Wordsworth had to do was show that he had responded positively to the promise of the Revolution, but also reacted appropriately to its excesses, yet without recoiling into reactionary conservatism. Since something like the latter did become, increasingly, Wordsworth's public political position, Hanley wants to show that, in the poetry of the ever-developing Prelude, Wordsworth establishes a position, of liberal British constitutionalism, that can satisfactorily represent his chastened emergence from the revolutionary fires. The crisis of the revolution, for Wordsworth as a poet, was, first, that he was "compelled by history to acknowledge discursive contradictions by which his subjectivity had been constituted." That is, as the Revolution moved into ever more radically alienated states of language separated from constitutionally persuasive power, Wordsworth recognized in its course of events the alienating knowledge of his own self-constitution in language—the very recognition which, according to Hanley's controlling thesis, he always needed to repress in order to preserve the feeling of seamlessness necessary to his best self-expression. Hence, secondly, "he remained psychologically compelled to construct a poetic language that could subsume them [the contradictions] in imaginary closure." (119)

In Chapter 4, "Changing Spots," Hanley shows how Wordsworth did this, in a brilliantly sustained intertextual mediation between Wordsworth and Shakespeare, expanding on Wordsworth's personal crisis of the Revolution in Chapter 3 (the years, circa 1792-1797, when his poetic texts are "confused"). He finds Wordsworth using Shakespeare as friendly, non-threatening "father," to create a language—i.e., the very poetry we are reading—that will enable him to negotiate his transition back to an acceptable version of British constitutionalism that can claim to have confronted the revolution seriously. This is impressive intertextual criticism, both for its knowledge of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and for keeping in play both the psychological and political registers of Hanley's thesis. But at times it becomes so reflexive as to be more impressive than persuasive. Hanley rapidly traverses the entire linguistic universe that is 'Wordsworth,' gliding on his intertextual skates, pushing off on "pre-echoes" and "half echoes" of language that, while mostly persuasive, are not uniformly so. We are to see, in Hanley's recognition of the Shakespearean intertexts, the actual creative movement of Wordsworth's mind in the act of writing the lines—which, by the manifest fact that they are written, signify the realization what Hanley maintains Wordsworth needed. This is QED with a vengeance. Hamlet-like, Wordsworth could write The Prelude—i.e., reflecting on himself—instead of doing what he was supposed to be doing, avenging his father—or, in Wordsworth's case, delivering for his era, in philosophically persuasively language, his reflections "on Man, on Nature, and on Human Life," i.e., writing The Recluse. Hanley wants to redefine our sense that what The Prelude is most centrally "about" is, as Wordsworth put it in the titles of Books XI and XII (1805), "Imagination, Impaired and Restored." But his Imagination's greatest impairment was his declaration of allegiance to the Revolution not as a political fact but as a uniquely psychological one, and his final restoration was his disavowal of that allegiance, not as apostasy, but by his achieving a "constitutional" language, of which Shakespeare is the "English" sign ("the tongue / That Shakespeare spake"). So, by reading the completed The Prelude, with all the Shakespearean intertextualities that Hanley can interpret, we are seeing the completed and validated form of Wordsworth's self-recovery . . . which is to say, his recovery/creation of the language in which he best expresses himself.

I very much agree with the conclusions that Hanley reaches about The Prelude, but his method has a somewhat tautological "feel," reminding me of Samuel Johnson's mad astronomer in Rasselas, who thought he had to keep on thinking about the motions of the planets in order to keep them going. If the presence of Shakespearean language is at one and the same time the sign of an appropriately liberal British constitutional recovery and a satisfactory Wordsworthian trauma-resolution, it does not seem to me that we have ever got out of the mental linguistic universe of Wordsworth reading/remembering Shakespeare, and Wordsworth writing 'Wordsworthian' poetry. Perhaps, as an account of the development of his characteristically powerful language, this procedure is valid. It can certainly claim not to be contaminated by extrinsic historical or biographical factors—always excepting the Lacanian paradigm that is Hanley's methodological template: Wordsworth's appropriation of Shakespeare is to Wordsworth's vision of a strengthened British constitutionalism as Wordsworth's psychic health is to his psychic negotiation of his reactions to his father's death.

In the final chapter, "The Shock of the Old," Hanley pursues the formulaic pattern he discerns in Wordsworth's language in the work of two of his Victorian disciples, Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Eliot. In his readings of Eliot and Hopkins, and his corollary use of Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire to explain the loss of "aura" in modernizing post-Reform England, Hanley is highly suggestive, all the moreso by being more tentative in his use of the paradigms he has established didactically for reading Wordsworth himself. These last reflections are appropriate to an account of "A Poet's History," since the history of 'Wordsworth' very much includes his influence on other poets, and his continuing presence, through language, in modern culture.

There is a good deal more in Hanley's book than this brief review can suggest. Its 237 pages of text are as densely packed with insight and information as they are, sometimes, densely written. Whether "the poet lies hidden still," or now stands revealed in Hanley's psycholinguistic light, is a matter for individual readers to decide. A narrowly focused approach often gains depth of insight at the cost of breadth of vision. Since Hanley uses The Hidden Wordsworth as his rhetorical push-off point against biographical accounts that have failed to get at what he calls "The Secret Histories of 'Wordsworth,'" I feel entitled to a last word in self-defense. While I do not begrudge Hanley his need for rhetorical opposition, my 1998 biography of the poet does not purport to show, as he claims, what was "really going on behind the poems." My statement of purpose makes clear that I intended to examine, radically but rigorously, every aspect of the poet's childhood and young manhood, to assess the risks and costs he was willing—or not—to take or accept, and sometimes to cover over, in the process of his self-creation in the role of The Poet.