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Alison Hickey, Impure Conceits: Rhetoric and Ideology in Wordsworth's 'Excursion'. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-804-729719 (hbk). Price: £30/$39.50 (hbk).

  • Michael O'Neill

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  • Michael O'Neill
    University of Durham

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Francis Jeffrey thought The Excursion would never do; Shelley saw it as a sell-out, Byron as a drowsy, frowsy bore. Few critics have worked up convincing enthusiasm for the poem, though, of late, there have been some efforts. One, as yet not fully explored, fact about the poem coming more and more into focus is its intricate compositional history; parts date from as early as the late 1790s, and as Mark L. Reed remarks, 'the chronology of the poem remains, in all, highly speculative' (quoted on p. 183). Alison Hickey draws on this fact in her sophisticated and thought-provoking bid to persuade us to look anew at The Excursion.

For Hickey, the poem is 'a complex textual system that defies linear notions of temporality, not just on the level of composition history, but, more important, on a thematic or figural level' (p. 8). She sees the poem as altogether more complex, shifting, and unstable than has been allowed, and reads it in terms of its 'impure conceits' (The Excursion, 2.485): a phrase that she uses, in deconstructive fashion, to highlight 'gaps and strayings', themselves 'thematized in the poem's plots of deviation and deferral, usurpation, broken lineages, and unfulfilled promises' (p. 14). So, for instance, she revisits the question of the poem's epitaphic ambitions, developing Frances Ferguson's observation that Wordsworth's 'incarnational claim' for language in the third Essay upon Epitaphs is 'at least partially at odds with the very notion of epitaph as a sign pointing to a de-incarnation' (p. 72). Hickey suggests that Wordsworth's talk of 'incarnation' marks an unrealizable trust in 'aspiration'. Epitaphs themselves, she goes on, can never embody a 'life', gesturing, as they do, 'to past and future but enclosing neither' (p. 73). The entire poem, for Hickey, is engaged in the attempt to 'contain or channel temporality' through 'figures' that only end up disclosing their own 'precariousness' (p. 75).

All this might have made for a certain logic-chopping sameness in the writing, and yet Hickey's book is more than a rhetorical demonstration of how assertions undermine themselves. She is able to show how anxieties about language bear intimately on Wordsworth's political concerns. For instance, in chapter 3 she addresses the ambivalences lurking within his (or the Wanderer's) eloquent anticipation in Book 9 of a time when 'this imperial Realm' shall prize 'knowledge as her noblest wealth / And best protection'. Wordsworth is not sure whether education 'frees or subdues' (p. 108); education seeks ' To impress a vivid feeling on the mind', in the words of Book 8, line 828, a way of putting it that is, in Hickey's words, 'an equivocal, if typically Wordsworthian, blend of imposition and inspiration' (p. 108).

This equivocalness extends to Wordsworth's view of Andrew Bell's Madras system of education. The Madras system, on Hickey's account, arranges 'children in pairs made of a tutor and tutee (both pupils under the regulation of an overseer'. It lent itself both to 'the spread of democracy' and to 'the extension of exploitative structures' (p. 109). Wordsworth's interest in the system is bound up with his career-long concern with the relationship between imagination and education, and with the fear that there may be 'a fundamental incompatibility between native power and education'. 'Knowledge not purchased with the loss of power' may have been The Prelude's desire, but, for Hickey, the Madras system provoked in Wordsworth the mixed feelings attendant on his view of the 'diffusion of imaginative power'. This diffusion might be seen as 'democratization' or as 'indoctrination' (p. 113). Hickey is alert, here and throughout, to the poetry's hesitations, stallings and anomalies, seeing them, so far as her post-structuralist idiom will allow, as proving the poet's authenticity. So she explains the poem's notorious 'ventriloquism', the fact that all the characters (other than the Solitary) sound like one another, in terms that are sympathetic. Underlying this ventriloquism is the question whether 'it is possible to maintain social bonds and imagination at once'; trying to identify with others, Wordsworth turns them into himself as a would-be 'democratic' process of 'becoming another passes insensibily into its contrary': 'Wordsworth', Hickey writes, 'turns to ventriloquism when he is most aware of the recalcitrant inaccessibility of others' (p. 150).

Hickey's considerable success is that, in tracking the poem's ambivalences about imaginative power and various 'systems of meaning' (p. 131), she gives a more searching sense of The Excursion's tension-ridden life than most commentators have hitherto been able to supply. Building on Paul Fry's argument that Wordsworth is often a poet of 'blankness', Hickey argues, in chapter 4, that the poem seeks 'to acknowledge the violence inherent in imagination' (p. 135). A symptom of this attempt is the resistance of objects, lives and places throughout the poem to attempted acts of interpretation. The enigmatic figure of the Solitary is central here. He himself resists interpretation; moreover, he comments sardonically on our need for emblems, as Hickey brings out in a subtle reading of his penultimate speech in Book 9 (revealing in the process the overlooked excellence of much of the writing in The Excursion). In these lines, the Solitary looks at a burnt-out fire and comments, in words which must have lingered in Shelley's mind while composing the first act of Prometheus Unbound (see line 594), 'Behold an emblem here / Of one day's pleasure, and all mortal joys!'. Hickey speaks of the Solitary's 'perversely virtuosic "reading" of the dying embers' as mocking 'the very notion of signification' (p. 145). Such mockery is not the poem's last word, but it is a significant voice in the poem's drama, though Hickey sees the Solitary less as another participant in the poetry's dialogue than as haunting 'the negative spaces between interpretation' (p. 146). Impure Conceits is rather like the poem it describes: complicated, a little rigid and unyielding, and yet full of unexpected and rewarding clarifications of vision (or of the difficulty of vision), while recognising that all meaning is built on precarious foundations. Above all, it 'compels the reader', in its author's words about the poem, 'to experience the contradictions of the text' (p. 178).