In Wordsworth et la Marche, Florence Gaillet-de Chezelles investigates with rigorous vigor the influence of Wordsworth’s pedestrian experiences on his poetics. Though massive in scope, the book is focused and coherent. De Chezelles does a fine job providing signposts throughout to remind the reader of where s/he is and where s/he is being led. The three parts move through an axis from the general to the particular and display a rich, diverse, and evolving dynamics. De Chezelles supports her arguments by copious illustrations and offers, in addition to her own commentaries, a considerable anthology of Wordsworth as well, adding to the commodity and concernment of the book. She uses a wide range of scholarship and, by and large, arrives at more advanced conclusions.
In the first part “Figures of Walking,” de Chezelles places Wordsworth in the tradition of walking vehicled by continental poets and brings her readers to feel the active pressure of Europe on the British scene and its literature. This chapter has a twofold effectiveness: it foregrounds an aspect of Wordsworth as no recreational walker though de Chezelles insists on the aspect of walking as a pleasurable habit. It also offers a representation of Romantic vagrancy as a form of mental exertion, a metaphorical blending of matter and spirit, tenor and vehicle. De Chezelles also argues that despite its non recreational role, walking is not pressing in fulfillment. It tempers the craven impulse for writing and maximizes creative forces. The subparts tie nicely with each other and display a firm sense of organization. The analysis is richly detailed without engendering weight for it is enlivened with meaningful intertextual linkages. The other concern of this chapter is the imminent experience of shepherds, vagrants, and beggars, considered as social outcasts, of the underside of the British national life. Wordsworth’s all-embracing empathy mocks the abuse vented on this category of people and draws attention to the monumental social quality of their observations.
The second chapter “Walking: A Means of Anchorage and Discovery,” substantiates the value of pedestrianism treated in the first part by establishing it as a ritual where knowledge is framed and evaluated in a qualitative way. Walking reveals an imperative in the apotheosis of individuation or what de Chezelles, borrowing from Keats, calls “the egotistical sublime.” De Chezelles brocades the Wordsworthian phenomenon of self-consciousness and argues that walking in nature and in the city enables Wordsworth to see into himself without immediate measurable benefits because the two essential components, the object of perception and the mind, determine each other by a sort of reflexive substitution which Wordsworth can not probe at the beginning. Walking is in many ways heuristic because the mind, though seemingly lethargic during this physical activity, encroaches its own reality and truth through the immediate sensual experiences and their subsequent intellectualization. De Chezelles rightly argues that the primary aesthetic and contemplative mood is not divorced from a form of will for self-knowledge. This chapter is, I believe, the most compelling part of the book because it draws on the philosophical implications of the peripatetic. The mutual support of sensation and imagination shows that poetic composition in Wordsworth is deeply affected by the body. The synthetic structure, of body and mind, rather stunted and vitiated in other works on the same topic, largely foregrounds the originality of the book.
Though the analysis draws on the relation of walking and self-consciousness as it is traditionally represented by a line of phenomenologist critics, it does not pass them unmolested. De Chezelles’s debt to critics, whether expressed or residual, compels respect for her knowledgeableness of the topic. The unvarying hallmark of this chapter is the degree of innovation manifest in pervasive observations or sometimes merely in a sensitive weight of emphasis.
The core issue in the third chapter is how walking first empowers the faculty of imagination and secondly helps Wordsworth recast the already stored mental forms in writing. De Chezelles describes the three-phase process of the Wordsworthian composition: the careful amassing of circumstantial details while walking, the building of associations into patterns by memory, and their timely rendition. De Chezelles insists that perception of nature, when immediately set up to serve composition reveals nonfunctional and counterproductive. Yet while in the second chapter de Chezelles looks at masterly commentaries and surges incisively into them to uplift her own observations, the analysis in this chapter is so supplemented by the championship of prominent critics that the writer’s position tends to lack personal standing. Analysis in many subparts seems not only traditionally bound but also mimetic. I do not mean that de Chezelles’s familiarity with Wordsworth criticism blinds her to differences and refinements, but that the reminiscences are sometimes too close to allow for the neat and proper distinction of her own ideas. She reminds the reader far too often of firmly embraced critical statements such as the compound nature of Wordsworth’s poetics and the ineffectiveness of immediate composition. One should not, however, overlook her brilliant idea that walking, as a physical exercise, helps produce the particular tract of the meter. This insightful observation is met with informed, perceptive, and sophisticated analysis and gains in point of effect and authority by the close reading of relevant passages. Reading in this part is also particularly prolific because it offers a panoply of assumptions based on a minute study of versification and the intentional pattern of images.
Despite the breadth of its vision, Wordsworth et la Marche exhibits fluidity, force, and a concentrated range of reference. It is packed full of minute and insightful observations which no reader or critic, solicitor for the study of the role of walking in Wordsworth’s poetry, can afford to overlook. Even in the very few places where de Chezelles’s views seem parochial, the analysis is still prolific in the sense that it synthesizes established critical undertakings. What might pass for a dangerous and insensitive circumscription of criticism, therefore, proves an admirable benefit since it improves and even completes knowledge of Wordsworth scholarship.
Ihsen Hachaichi is a PhD fellow in the English department at the Universite de Montreal. Her field of expertise is, yet not exclusively, British Romantic literature. Along with a sustained research on the phenomenology of sight and sound in Wordsworth's poetry, she is developing a constructionist/positivist interest in the modalities of representation and projection in postmodern Gay discourse.