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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 18, mai 2000

Romantic Couplings

Sous la direction de Jacqueline M. Labbe

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005922ar

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John Rieder, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn: Community, Virtue, and Vision in the 1790s. Newark: University of Delaware Press, London: Associated University Presses, 1997. ISBN: 0-87413-610-5. Price: US$41.50.

David Chandler

Kyoto University


1

Wordsworth's 'Counterrevolutionary Turn' is The Prelude's story of a 'turn away from the grand stage of historical events' to a small 'community of recognition' (Dorothy, Coleridge) somehow connected with 'Nature'. John Rieder's book is basically concerned with the question whether 'such an account coincides with the evidence provided by Wordsworth's writings during the 1790s' (p. 19). Although at no point very explicit, he seems on the whole to affirm the substantial accuracy of The Prelude's version of events, while analysing Wordsworth's changing sense of community with critical tools derived, on one hand, from Marjorie Levinson and Alan Liu, and on the other from Jonathan Arac and Don Biolotosky. That is, he combines the former critics' interest in the social relationships enacted in Wordsworth's 1790s work with the latter critics' interest in the seminal notion of 'Literature' developed by Wordsworth. Wordsworthian 'sympathy', we learn, was class-bound, therefore essentially distanced from its ostensible objects (roughly the labouring classes), which it 'read' in the manner of a 'text'. However Wordsworth's visionary and (purportedly) exemplary reading of that 'text' implicitly and seductively incorporates his reader into a 'literary form of community' which then 'virtually' supplants the explicitly represented 'real' community (p. 20). The former, although paradoxically a 'community' of solitaries, is more 'authentic' and 'sincere' than 'real' communities because such qualities are the very criteria for inclusion. Evoking the question what should come 'After Romantic Ideology' (the title of a recent special issue of RoN), Rieder suggests that critical enquiry should move on from an account of Wordsworth's displacements and repressions ('New Historicism') to consider his construction of 'a particular kind of social body' (p. 25). Although such a movement would come to emphasise 'pleasure' (closely aligned with sympathy) rather than 'power' (p. 224), Rieder otherwise supports the 'New Historicist' project of interrogating contemporary reading practices with reference to both social relationships mediated in the poetry and the modern institutional context. In short, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn is a commendably self-reflective piece of criticism which contributes usefully to our understanding of the relationship between Wordsworth's politics and his poetry.

2

Chapter One introduces and establishes the main terms of Rieder's project. Chapters Two and Three take broad economic perspectives on changes in Wordsworth's thinking between the early 1790s and the early 1800s. Chapters Four to Seven examine the Salisbury Plain poems, The Borderers, The Ruined Cottage and 'Tintern Abbey' respectively, demonstrating how Wordsworth's understanding of community developed in and through these works. The book ends with a brief conclusion, largely a theoretical meditation on what has gone before. Overall one experiences a want of coherence in both design and execution, quite possibly a result of the book being written over a long period, against a background of accelerated change in Wordsworth studies. [1] Or it may simply be that the main thesis was conceived in response to contemporary criticism and prior to much of the detailed scholarly work, so that instead of encountering a principal argument, constantly developed and refined, one finds an interpretive model applied with varying degrees of ingenuity and success to a chronologically-arranged series of texts. If the weaknesses of Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn reside in this lack of forward momentum (unfortunately likely to prove costly in terms of readership), with the attendant absence of clear summing up and connecting points, its strengths lie in its impressive command of historical and cultural context, and astute questioning of the poetry reviewed.

3

From what has been said above, it should be obvious that The Ruined Cottage best illustrates Rieder's thesis: 'no other poem attests so well ... to the problem at the core of Wordsworth's social vison' (p. 149). One is tempted to suppose, indeed, that it inspired the thesis. The longest chapter of Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn is devoted to this poem, principally in its Ms. D version, and Rieder offers a powerful reading of it as 'a lesson in the discipline of literary pleasure' (p. 167). The 'tension' of the poem, he suggests, derives from its intersecting

... between a subsistence economy [Margaret's] and an economy of accumulation that exploits it [the Pedlar's]. What finally allows the two men [Narrator and Pedlar] to come together in a newfound social body is precisely the transubstantiation of the body of Margaret from laborious, contingent producer to essential, timeless source and repository. The way that Margaret, family, labor, and subsistence turn into the metaphysical reserve fund for lyrical pleasure indicates the ideological and class function of Wordsworth's literary transaction.

p. 179

This sort of 'transaction', Rieder suggests, is typical of Wordsworth's mature work. The Ruined Cottage thus responds in intriguing ways to a development Rieder had previously traced in the changing form of the Salisbury Plain poems. In the revision of Salisbury Plain (1793-4) into Adventures on Salisbury Plain (1795), 'the characters' own perspectives regarding their situations' came to acquire a 'primary importance', he argues, 'because their sympathies for one another are the very stuff of the social fabric' (p. 101). Stories here became significant for the relationships they create between tellers and listeners, but in representing such relationships, Wordsworth, the 'indignant narrator', became increasingly aware of the distance between himself and those of whom he wrote. In other words, as his characters became more than mere cardboard 'types' a sense of class difference began to inform the act of writing. Given this, his sense of audience changed as well: instead of the radical audience imagined in Salisbury Plain, the revised poem 'speaks to a diffuse group of meditative spectators who can define themselves in a kind of specular opposition to the sensation-seeking crowd watching the sailor's execution' (p. 107). It was, finally, the lower classes' weakness for theatrical spectacle which led Wordsworth to painfully seek a less precarious form of 'authentic' community elsewhere. His mature work is essentially anti-theatrical, not least in envisaging a meditative 'community' of solitaries free from the potentially corrupting 'theatre' of workaday human intercourse. Central to Rieder's reading of The Ruined Cottage is consequently the passage where the Pedlar says:

'Tis now the hour of deepest noon.

At this still season of repose and peace,

This hour when all things which are not at rest

Are chearful...

Why should a tear be in an old man's eye?

Why should we thus with an untoward mind

And in the weakness of humanity

From natural wisdom turn our hearts away,

To natural comfort shut our eyes and ears,

And feeding on disquiet thus disturb

The calm of Nature with our restless thoughts?

The Pedlar here seems to suggest that 'repose and peace' are 'achievable precisely by not telling the story', and Rieder astutely notes that the interruption is placed 'immediately after the first instance of Margaret's direct speech' (p. 173). The Pedlar's new community of kindred spirits feeds parasitically off the emotive power generated by the old community, literally centred around Margaret, to which the Pedlar had always been something of a jealous outsider. Much of the power and pathos of Rieder's reading derives from his demonstration that Margaret's 'dramatic presence' (p. 181) constantly threatens to overwhelm the Pedlar's 'naturally wise' narrative detachment: 'the best measure of Wordsworth's achievement is that he has rendered her [Margaret's] exploitation so intensely that no practice or ritual of literary distance and self-recognition can quite discipline it into silence' (p. 184).

4

Between the accounts of the Salisbury Plain poems and The Ruined Cottage, the long chapter on The Borderers is less satisfying. That is, there is plenty of informative criticism, but Rieder's attempts to bend this into the main developmental narrative concerning Wordsworth and 'community' are neither clear nor compelling. A few retrospective connecting hints in the subsequent account of The Ruined Cottage are helpful, but still leave something wanting. Particularly important (I am supposing) is the suggestion that 'In a process uncomfortably similar to that by which abandonment produces community in The Borderers, the narrator and Armytage remember Margaret in order to be able to forget her' (p. 177). In the play, according to Rieder, Mortimer has an 'authentic sense of community and justice' (p. 125), imagining himself connected to society at a level innocent of the 'power relations enacted in law and politics' (p. 129). The community of sympathy he envisages is represented in the play by Herbert. Rivers' 'manipulation of spectacle' (p. 125) shakes Mortimer's faith in Herbert, however, in a manner symbolic of the actual constitution of society: 'political power usurps upon the bonds of spontaneous, passionate community through its manipulation of spectacle'. 'The darkest political implication' of The Borderers, Rieder suggests, 'is not the failure of rationalist doctrine but the inexorable, seemingly inevitable (or even "natural") interweaving of spontaneous and passionate bonds with perverted and misconstructed signs' (p. 141). In other words, authentic communities are perverted into civil societies when men 'formalize social interaction' (p. 144), using theatre to justify the isolation and rejection of the contaminating 'Other'. The crux of the matter seems to be, though this is nowhere spelt out, that Wordsworth is a sort of Mortimer-his-own-Rivers. That is, torn between his need for 'authentic' community and the suspicion that there may be no such thing because of social 'theatre', he assumed the worst and betrayed himself into, or discovered himself in, a kind of heroic isolation. The only kindred spirits then are those, like Rivers, who have pursued a similar route: this is the first, bleak version of the 'community' of solitaries. But this seems an overly schematic reading, leaving much of the play unaccounted for. In particular, Rieder has little to say about Herbert, perhaps because his role in such a reading is hardly more than symbolic—an innocent, loving old man, falsely accused. Given the sort of dialogue Rieder creates between the authentic 'face' and busy rumour, though, it is a little surprising to find no discussion of the significance of Wordsworth placing a blindman at the centre of his plot. Herbert ought, on this interpretative model, to be more vulnerable to delusion than Mortimer: he lives in a world of voices, unable to appeal to the faces of his interlocutors for 'authentication'. Even his daughter may, with genuine love, deliberately delude him—there is a natural parallel to be drawn with Charles Dickens' Cricket on the Hearth (published just three years after The Borderers), another narrative concerned with blindness (physical and metaphorical) and suspicion. In Dickens a father creates a fantastical reality for his blind daughter, but from the purest motives, and the result is that she has faith in human goodness which eventually acquires real, redemptive moral force. Her world is pure 'theatre' in Rieder's sense, but when the pageant vanishes it forms the basis for the purest vision: '"It is my sight restored. It is my sight!" she cried. "I have been blind, and now my eyes are open".' Herbert, in a surely symbolic episode of the pre-plot, is blinded in an act of love, securing him a human relationship which the play comes close to idealising and which is at least the most positive aspect of The Borderers' world. One could argue, indeed, that Wordsworth's play, like Dickens' story, turns on the theme of blindness, and that Rieder fails to see this because he prematurely takes Mortimer and Rivers offstage, as it were (envisaging a sort of 'double theatre', something like that employed in The Taming of the Shrew).

5

Of the rest of Rieder's book: anyone interested in that well-roasted critical chestnut, the politics of 'Tintern Abbey', should read his (largely independent) account of how that poem 'receives and consolidates a markedly bourgeois version of the poetry of retirement' (p. 194). However, as the first part of Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn is less likely to be widely read, it seems worth saying more about the earlier chapters here. Chapter Two, 'Wordsworth's Ethos: Violence, Alienation, and Middle-Class Virtue', examines the significance of Wordsworth's earlier understanding of himself as among 'the friends of liberty'. Asking how these 'friends of liberty' are empowered and how their social programme can be affected, Rieder seeks an answer 'in Wordsworth's milieu' and argues, with reference to Burke and Paine, that the 'friends' can be substantially aligned with the advancing commercial sector. Pursuing the point, he suggests that this alignment exposes 'the ideological crux of Wordsworth's republican ethos': the 'friends" 'peculiarly clear perspective on affairs of state ... rests upon a material, economically determined base. But at the same time their moral position is precisely what is not culturally or economically determined. It is the free exercise of the natural birthright of any group of men uncorrupted by the extremes of wealth or poverty' (p. 43). Thus when the 'friends of liberty' contemplate the aristocracy they stress class difference, but when they contemplate the labouring classes they 'submerge class differences in simple "humanity"'. Two models of social cohesion—roughly Hobbes's and Shaftesbury's—collide here, but they had already been mediated by Mandeville's purely economic account of the formation and structure of society. As he came to understand this, Wordsworth began fearing that society was merely the result of a 'mercenary cooperation' parodying the shape of an authentic, 'passionate' community (p. 49). Jumping ahead to Wordsworth's 'public utterance[s]' (p. 52), he finds the mature poet concerned with 'the uncertain basis of economic community' (p. 53). While the 1802 sonnets generally appear hostile to commerce, 'British commerce itself is capable of coalescing with the power of nature by way of its implicit representation of an organic social whole.' 'Westminster Bridge' is read as 'Wordsworth's most striking realization of the various dichotomies that radiate from the topic of economy' (p. 55). The city here achieves a coherent integrity, but 'only by virtue of the compelling perspective that focusses their manifold appearances in the sweeping gesture of the speaker's gaze' (p. 57). Here we can witness 'the lyric victory of vision over the tensions resident in the theme of virtue and community':

The poem sets the poet both at the centre of things and, at the same time, outside of them. The community he convenes is not, finally either London or the English nation, but rather a series of spectators who silently share his solitary gaze.

p. 58

6

Chapter Three, 'The Economy of Vision', explores the way Wordsworth's class attitudes were shaped by discussion of the Poor Law in the 1790s, arguing that this discussion revealed to Wordsworth that 'the discourse of "reason" was shifting away from the defenders of natural rights [e.g. Paine] and toward the application of political-economic principles [e.g. Bentham's ideas]' (p. 68). Wordsworth's own contribution to the debate 'consist[ed] largely of a strategic denial of a quantifiable sense of public prosperity. ... [He] advocates an ethical sense of community, accessible immediately to the sympathetic individual but invisible to Benthamite balance sheets' (p. 69). His poems seek to naturalise poverty, and he is less interested in 'material poverty' than in 'the experience of isolation' (p. 71). Sympathy is wealth, isolation poverty, and understood thus 'Wordsworthian sympathy does retain the structure of a virtue based on class privilege. ... the ties of sympathy simultaneously occupy the position elsewhere accorded to the accumulated surplus that constitutes civilization' (pp. 71-2). Rieder illustrates the point with a fine reading of 'Simon Lee' and its 'stores [of] silent thought'. 'The narrator's sympathy', he argues, 'does not transcend social differences but rather translates them into the project of Wordsworth's therapeutic poetics. He calls upon poetry to repair his damaged sense of community, and he offers the poem itself as the means for doing so' (p. 75). In the blind beggar episode in The Prelude the process is taken even further: 'a community of readers' is created 'whose solitude and separation are exactly what establishes their essential identity' (p. 76). The remainder of the chapter considers Wordsworth's 'anxiety of indolence' (p. 82). Wordsworth experienced a productive tension between two notions of indolence, one 'a natural, spontaneous sense of belonging in the world', the other 'a guilt-ridden awareness of singularity and dereliction of duty' (p. 85). The first, suggests Rieder, was an attempt to understand 'class privilege' as 'nature's gift' (p. 90), yet the second inevitably returned Wordsworth to a painful awareness of how inadequate an appeal to 'nature' was when it came to subsuming class difference in 'sympathy'.

7

Taken altogether, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn is a learned, original, significant book, marred only by obliqueness and, to a lesser extent, obsessiveness. These faults are likely to cost Rieder the sort of large audience James K. Chandler found for his eminently readable Wordsworth's Second Nature (1984), the standard study to which Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn most obviously compares. Nevertheless, future scholars specialising in Wordsworth's politics and poetry will need to familiarise themselves with Rieder's arguments, and will, I think, be rewarded for their efforts.


 

Note

[1]

The Acknowledgments make clear that much of the book was written in the late 1980s, a period when Wordsworth studies were rather more preoccupied with the 'Ideology' question.

Auteur : David Chandler
Ouvrage recensé : John Rieder, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn: Community, Virtue, and Vision in the 1790s. Newark: University of Delaware Press, London: Associated University Presses, 1997. ISBN: 0-87413-610-5. Price: US$41.50.
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 18, mai 2000
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005922ar
DOI : 10.7202/005922ar

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