Wordsworth Writing concentrates on the domesticity of Wordsworth’s topos. Writing strategies, graphological, grammatological, and semantic aspects are the book’s subject matter. Delineating the accord, relation, and affect between the poet and his text, Andrew Bennett re-evaluates the allegiance between orality and writing, and sheds light on Wordsworth’s interiorized technique or practice of “composing in his head” (24). Though he is moderate on the claim that Wordsworth always composes with pen and paper and asserts that the authentic poetic authority in Wordsworth is non-inscriptional and aural, he denounces the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of a logocentric reading of Wordsworth, which gives speech pre-eminence over writing. Bennett believes that the strength of Wordsworth’s poetry consists in its being incipiently a mode of composition in the head, a non-scriptural presencing of the sounds and images that gradually and unconsciously exert an influence on poetic consciousness. The mind acts as a repository for emotions and a distiller of poetic thought and, once substantiated, the emotions are transcribed in words. The interim increases the “worth of words” and widens the aural and visual spectrum of the scene actually experienced. Bennett dismantles therefore the absolute and determinable “phonocentric myth” (57) of Wordsworthian composition because the ensuing stage of writing is also important.
In the first three chapters, Bennett exposes the different dimensions of the physical and mental act of writing. He illustrates the poet’s self-internalized angst of grappling with the inadequacy of the present moment to deliver the magnitude of the experience of sense perception. The originality of these expository chapters falls on Bennett’s treatment of autobiography and self-inscription as means to communicate the simultaneously apocalyptic and frazzled emotion that comes on Wordsworth, at once demanding interpretation and baffling it. There is an essential resistance to writing because the self privileges reflecting on itself. Reflective consciousness is sustained by the inner voices and becomes reflexive in the moment of writing. The readerly introspection and self-presence (phenomenological being in the present and present need to recall a past mode of being) become temporal issues difficult to handle because of this double consciousness.
To convincingly argue for a perception of the idiosyncratic two-process strategy of writing in Wordsworth (reflection and reflexivity), Bennett mobilizes historicist approaches of different kinds (literary history, cultural history, genealogies of knowledge) and, where necessary, resorts to the disciplines of close reading and rhetorical analysis to single out the perspectives in Wordsworth’s poetry that specifically serve his purpose. He enriches his study with an array of critical and theoretical readings of phenomenology, post-structuralism, and deconstruction at times to reinforce views that orality and writing are equally important, and other times to refute the facile and clichéd idea that writing naturally comprises the specificities of the all-encompassing act of composition. His treatment of “Tintern Abbey” especially rejuvenates and redoubles the appreciation of the underscored issue of physical and topographical revisitation. Wordsworth revisits the physical spot and the discursive space because he means to gain a sense of composure, to recover from the former intemperate act of sensual consummation. The immediacy systematically suggested by the physical act of writing on the spot is a sanctioned form of preserving the import of the emotion, a labour Wordsworth dispenses with. “Tintern Abbey” is the example of rural pedestrianism and the illustration of what Bennett calls “composition” in contrast to other poems where “perambulatory obstruction” produces writing.
In the fifth chapter, Bennett maintains that Wordsworth is passionate about poetry because it is a confessional discourse resulting from a lavish and unrestrained expense of emotions. He pinpoints the dynamic nature of Wordsworth’s engagement with his text founded on the poet’s own conviction that the locus of self-consciousness is the text. Its transcription is problematical precisely because it has to be aesthetically checked (abiding by the natural “language of man”) and preternatural in the sense that it has to go beyond naturalization to humanization. The other perplexity attending the act of writing is that it exacts a temporal deferral to produce a reflexive difference. Wordsworth’s self-imposed travail is to prevent a curve or failing of memory, while also curb the imagination from being faithful to the point of disenchantment. The punctual inscription of self-identity has to accommodate a temporally mediated self-presence. Bennett delves into the philosophic disquisition Wordsworth sets in the revised prefaces wherein he emphasises that past and present concomitantly produce writing.
The chapter called “Wordsworth Unhinged” somewhat crimps the originality of the work because Bennett draws on the simplistic idea that Wordsworth, having been pressured to write by Coleridge, deprecates the value of his own writing. Here the hitherto successful deconstructionist approach dwindles to the degree of overdetermination. The point driven by Bennett, that the obligation to write obtrudes on the quality of writing, is blindly supported and not debatable. Bennett makes readable only one aspect of the problematic of disturbance. Yet shortly after, we reencounter originality especially in the “writing cure,” where Bennett shows that hypochondria is a “writing effect” and paradoxically an effect of writing, and the ultimate evidence that discomposure and impossible self-coincidence are the subject matter of writing.
Bennett’s book successfully engages with the politics of reading Wordsworth because poetics is given pre-eminence over theory and scholarship. It provides a formative and insightful understanding of the semiotic and formal paradigms at stake in Wordsworth by focusing on the different ways in which the experience of writing is framed. Wordsworth’s poetics continues therefore to stake out for itself a place in models of cultural studies and communication studies which blend psychology, sociology, literary theory, semiotics and linguistics.
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.