Between Memory and History: Wordsworth's Excursion[Record]

  • Lisa Hirschfield

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  • Lisa Hirschfield
    New York University

Despite—or perhaps, because of—its own mixed reception history, The Excursion (1814) remains an interesting comment on the process of historical and cultural change. Like The Prelude (1850), the poem addresses the status of the self, the passage of time, and memory—issues that have revived critical interest in the poem over the last two decades. As the arguments of critics like William H. Galperin and David Simpson have implied, The Excursion engages with these issues by "displacing" them as symptoms or "anxieties." The poem seems to indicate Wordsworth's revision, or at least his questioning, of assumptions about self, imagination, and memory on which The Prelude operated. Instead of undertaking a further interrogation of the poem's "anxieties" in this essay, I want to suggest another way of reading them—a reading that also suggests a schema for re-reading critical and editorial interventions that seek to determine any poem's meaning. While considerations of Wordsworth and memory are nothing new, such readings have usually sought to interpret or critique Wordsworth's own relationship to memory, with regard to language, landscape, or an apriori concept of historical "truth." But these investigations do not, usually, read Wordsworth as memory—that is, as a mode of knowledge, that responds to, draws from, and narrates historical events, but has no necessary allegiance to history. All narrative genres, whether documentary or fictional, create "typical patterns in which we experience and interpret events" (Fentress and Wickham, 73). As we know, these patterns always operate in terms of a particular discourse; comprising a grammar of conceptualized images and figures, all narratives are purely rhetorical at some level. Impure Conceits, Alison Hickey's recent book-length study of The Excursion, provides an in-depth examination of such rhetorical figures, and how they structure meaning in the poem. These rhetorical figures also structure memory; and this suggests that memory is less a corollary to history than a system of meaning unto itself, albeit one that draws its material from history. But Hickey's reading is important to my discussion for another reason: she focuses her attention on the failure of tropes in The Excursion. It is this failure—a failure of memory, in a sense—that leaves the poem caught between memory and history, and ultimately questions the power of memory to sustain and nourish the modern imagination. Hickey notes that The Prelude's unified force of memory—the narrative authority of an "imperial self"—is almost entirely absent in The Excursion (15). Instead, The Excursion presents us with far more uncertain "gaps and strayings...plots of deviation and deferral, usurpations and broken lineages, and unfulfilled promises" (14). What The Excursion demonstrates is not a memory that recreates or in some way reenacts the past, but a memory that can only represent, by signs and figures, the broken narratives of a past that is and always was irretrievable. In many ways, the poem revises Wordsworth's former, more hopeful view of memory as a redemptive, restorative, and absolute power—a view that informs The Prelude and poems like Tintern Abbey. "Memory has never known more than two forms of legitimacy: historical and literary," writes the historian Pierre Nora. Nora, who recently published his decade-long collaborative historical study, Les Lieux de Mémoire, or "Realms of Memory," is concerned with the way in which cultural or collective memory is "in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting. . . vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived" (8). Echoing Nora, Hickey's focus on The Excursion's "gaps and strayings" would support a claim that this poem is remarkable for its very problematic relationship to memory, …