Keith Hanley, Wordsworth: A Poet's History. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN: 0-333-918835 (hbk.). US$59.95.[Record]

  • Kenneth R. Johnston

…more information

  • Kenneth R. Johnston
    Indiana University

Keith Hanley has written a challenging and rewarding book. Dissatisfied with biographical and historical efforts to get at the putatively "secret" or "hidden" sources of Wordsworth's strange poetic power—because "the poet lies hidden still"—he proposes to find the source of the power within language itself, working at deep levels of language-acquisition and self-identification in infancy and early childhood. He finds the essential Wordsworth in the poet's search for a language adequate to his peculiar needs. The kinds of Wordsworthian difficulties Hanley has in mind are those which suggest that something is not being said, in poems that, impressive as they are, leave open questions that simultaneously increase and diminish their impact. This peculiarly Wordsworthian phenomenon will be familiar to readers of this professional journal, as will the history of efforts to interpret or explain it (the poet suffered a nervous breakdown, etc.). Hanley initially describes this "dark" side of Wordsworth as his apparent lack of sympathy with his often pathetic subjects: "he could afford to suffer with those whom he saw suffer" (speaking of the Pedlar in "The Ruined Cottage"). Hanley seeks to read the signature of this idiom, selectively, throughout Wordsworth's oeuvre. He takes lines from Matthew Arnold's "Memorial Verses" on the poet's death (1850) as a motto for his investigation: "The cloud of mortal destiny, / Others will front it fearlessly—/ But who, like him, will put it by?" Hanley: "It is on the veiled operations of this putting by that the present book reflects" (5). What results from Hanley's setting himself this daunting task is a rigorous psychoanalytic study, more Lacanian than Freudian, which locates the powerful torque of Wordsworth's language (by which I mean its tendency to gain power from a sort of reverse twist or thrust upon itself) in his reactions to, and lifelong memories of, his mother's and father's early deaths. He finds in two central passages describing these events—and in many echoes or partial echoes of them he adduces throughout the poet's oeuvre—a necessary disciplining of the poet's subjectivity into the patriarchal, institutional orders of society and the symbolic order of language, away from the pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal experience of un-individuated selfhood, whether experienced as being part of the mother's body or, by extension, part of the body of Mother Nature. This account of the traumatic process necessary for human mental growth is of course offered as normative by Jacques Lacan. What makes it unique for Wordsworth, according to Hanley, is the desire or tendency of Wordsworth's poetic language to hark back to the stage of undifferentiated selfhood, "at one with nature," that we frequently identify as the most powerful of his idioms. Hanley sees in such language, however, the buried monitory presence of the parents' discipline, resulting in expressions that are all the more powerful for being crossed by a recognition that the desired fullness of being can nevermore be im-mediately accessed. This seems like a plausible account to me, once we accept its authorizing terms from Lacan (and, in later chapters, from Kristeva and Foucault). However, I must confess to having something of a tin ear when it comes to psychoanalytic criticism: not that I disagree with it, only that its claims seem to follow unproblematically, relatively speaking, once we have made the initial grant of faith, or suspension of disbelief, for the proposed principles of organizing evidence. Hanley wants his use of these theorists to contribute "marginally" to their projects, in addition to demonstrating their usefulness for elucidating Wordsworth. I must leave it to readers more expert than I to evaluate the cogency and currency of Hanley's use of them. In …