Brad Sullivan's thoughtful and closely argued Wordsworth and the Composition of Knowledge attempts to plow new ground in Wordsworth Studies, sowing the seeds of more fruitful understanding in its willingness to take seriously the poet's philosophic concerns. However, rather than being an earth-breaking effort, Sullivan's work actually participates in a broader cross-fertilization occurring within most humanistic inquiry, a trend only partially acknowledged here. As well, the exploration of the role of the sciences in Romantic Studies has grown in critical prominence across the 1990s, a concern again only partially engaged here. Accepting these limitations and taking the book on its own terms, a reader will find much of interest in this multivectored study, and the counter-tradition traced—from Isocrates through Quintillian to Wordsworth—comes into view with clarity and concision.
In the work's opening section (constructed of two chapters), Sullivan pursues "Knowing Context," examining respectively his and Wordsworth's "Origins and Assumptions" and the "Enduring Knowledge Traditions" within which they operate. This dialogic structure recurs in the second section, which examines "Wordsworth's Critique of Systematic Knowing" by first analyzing the degree to which Wordsworth's philosophical and poetic commitments express disenchantment with mechanical philosophy to articulate a transactive and interpenetrating model of mental and material processes. The third section, "Wordsworth's Alternative Model of Knowing," explores this counter-model in four nicely interlocking chapters and achieves a finely realized symmetry, providing an intellectual grid within which the model operates. The structure of this book, which provides a systematic movement from broad cultural traditions to specific poetic and philosophic practice, is a strength, providing a framework that allows Sullivan to achieve his primary critical goal:
This text attempts to step outside the confines of the killing epistemology that [Wordsworth] sought to balance and correct, and to place the central terms and patterns of his work within a broader context framed by the ancient and ongoing battle between philosophy and rhetoric on the one hand and an alternative epistemological stance—an "ecology of mind" offered by Gregory Bateson in our own century—on the other.p. 10
Sullivan succeeds in this "attempt," although my sole complaint here and elsewhere would be the work's failure to engage other critics who have recently grappled with related issues. As well, the characterization of Wordsworth as rhetorically poised against the multi-headed hydra of instrumental reason and its attendant technologies (features that help define enlightenment epistemology) has both a long interpretive history and has also received critical attention in the last decade, although Sullivan's fusion of rhetorical, philosophical, and linguistic analysis does extend this discussion. And so, while this work cannot function as "a starting point for more fruitful discussions of [Wordsworth's] literary theory, his philosophy, his educational ideas, his social and moral purposes, and his poetic and rhetorical strategies" (p. 12), since such issues have long concerned Wordsworthians in the field, it does add much to our understanding of the range of the poet's intellectual and creative commitments to a counter-tradition partially defined by the rhetorical difference between Isocrates and Socrates/Plato.
Sullivan does a fine job of establishing Wordsworth's "broad rhetorical approach to knowing," a transactive model "constructed in terms of relationship, interaction, and negotiation" (p. 18), and later the author connects this model to both David Bohm's model of quantum and John Rudy's meditative approach to the poetry, finding that Wordsworth's refiguration of knowledge provides a "powerful synthetic vision of engagement of mind and world meant to complement, not displace or extend, Newtonian science" (p. 23). After considering the degree to which this refiguring occurs relative to the French Revolution, wherein the "Reason-centered epistemology of the Enlightenment" reveals "its absolute failure" (p. 25), Sullivan begins to extend his theoretical model into contemporary physics. Such analysis, as well as that in the succeeding chapter—which interrelates Wordsworth's resistance to "a killing epistemology" (p. 26) and the advent of postmodern physics expressed by Bohr, Heisenberg, and Einstein—while indeed synthesizing some prior critical efforts, neglects recent critical investigations along similar lines. Yet the work rightly links the return of participation in contemporary physics, through the "observer" (p. 43), to the Wordsworthian attempt to heal the Cartesian fissure between subject and object, an overcoming expressed by "creative discourse [as it emerges] during and after the act of composition" (p. 46).
The third chapter, which examines Wordsworth's view of the limits of reason and rational systems, will likely feel the most familiar to Romantic theorists, where Morris Berman's view of "Scientific consciousness [as] alienated consciousness" (p. 54) is used to unveil the killing epistemology of the enlightenment as "a form of madness" (p. 57). What is missing from this section is an attempt to connect with more rigorous deconstructers of this epistemology, a line best represented by Horkheimer and Adorno or Karl Popper. However, the focus on Wordsworth's "attempts to forge a middle path between transcendent and immanent philosophies by finding a link between material reality and states of experience" leads to rewarding insights into the function of imagination and its role in Wordworth's "'peculiar faith in nature'" (p. 68). The dichotomies of engagement, emerging from Wordsworth's rhetorical choices, clearly deconstruct the remoteness and alienation of scientific method even as they reconstruct a more comprehensive view of mind in its activities. Sullivan's focus on rhetorical strategy leads, somewhat inevitably, to the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, but this section of analysis is nicely supplemented by examining the "Essay on Morals" and extracting four crucial points that establish a "rhetorical epistemology" for the poet's efforts to weave "discourse experiments" that address the synthesis of imagination and representation. From this effort, Sullivan begins a detailed examination of these threads in the second half of the book.
This model emphasizes "perception and participation" (p. 87), which the author skillfully connects to Bateson's argument from "experience" to establish the middle ground, with "stress on individual perception" supporting Wordsworth's "claims that his poetry had important social and moral purposes" (p. 88). Of course, other critics have seen like connections and implications, and Sullivan's effort to deconstruct the "complexities of perception," while fruitful to his argument, also misses overt connections to how this approach intersects contemporary theories of complementarity as traced by Arkady Plotnitsky. As a result, the chapter on perception, while filled with insightful readings of familiar material, often arrives as truisms of Wordsworth Studies: "Rather than accepting a vision of a pre-existing 'reality' which was mechanical and which would yield to mental analysis, he offered a vision of Nature as a larger Mind that encompasses and includes the individual perceiver" (pp. 100-1).
However, once Sullivan moves toward the elaboration of "Wordsworth's Ecology of Mind," the synthesis occasionally lacking in other sections of the book begins to emerge with clarity. Here the interdisciplinary threads of the argument, which range from the physical theories of David Bohm to the ecological commitments of Gregory Bateson, cohere and point, from a contemporary prospect, to the re-fusing of division residing in the dualism of Descartes. As a result, this chapter does break new ground to argue that "Wordsworth's epistemology depends more on ongoing processes of calibration—entering larger mind-like processes, tuning perception, developing good habits of mind, and revising mental models over time—than on feedback or testing against some pre-established set of aims or ideas" (p. 115). The gains made in this chapter receive support from Wordsworth's "rhetorical model of knowing" (p. 117), which Sullivan reconstructs in his seventh chapter and which confirms the author's sense that "Wordsworth drew upon, and extended, the tradition of rhetoric" (p. 118). The new mode of rhetoric Wordsworth pursues accepts "individual perception as the matrix of all meaning, and then developed in essence a theory of composition [which "includes all the complexities of perceiving and organizing perception"], not of poetics or writing" (p. 137). This insight, filtered through Quintillian, propels the study forward into the praxis of "Poetry and Composing" (Chapter 8).
As the text attempts to step "outside Cartesian dualisms," the degree to which Wordsworth's rhetorical stance succeeds in articulating a new relevance for poetic endeavors crystallizes, although much of the textual material considered has factored into past critical efforts. By emphasizing process and perception, the poet "sought to bring readers into the process of entering new experiences, of wondering and participating, of absorbing and synthesizing, and of examining and considering by way of 'long intercourse'" (p. 148). Poetry is the vehicle for such discovery, which re-turns relevance to the poetic enterprise, and the method of "identification" at its foundation is, ultimately, democratic (as "identification" is defined by Kenneth Burke). Moving rapidly through "We are Seven," "Tintern Abbey," and "The Solitary Reaper," Sullivan concludes his work with a consideration of representation and reception dynamic, which can help explain the Victorian estrangement from such a poetic effort. Wordsworth's poetry restores what enlightenment epistemology represses ("the ongoing process of returning to perception and remaking meaning" [p. 168]), becoming vehicles of experience with relevance to life at the level of the everyday.
The uses of Wordsworth described in the "Postscript" are far-reaching, and the brief section does succeed in elaborating several ways through which Wordsworthian practice can condition the construction of knowledge in the academy, as well as the wider world of social and moral commitment. Of course, critics like Jonathan Bate, Karl Kroeber, and James McKusick have argued in a similar vein for an approach to knowledge "that can best be conceived of as environmental or ecological" (p. 174), and the conclusions might have been pursued more rigorously through a more detailed assessment of how this earlier work interfaces with the present study. And so, while the text often swerves from deeper critical engagement, its willingness to pursue Wordsworth's oft-reviled philosophical concerns renders it an asset to future Wordsworth scholarship.