It is helpful to think of Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern
as a book written by two David Simpsons. One is the author of numerous articles and scholarly monographs on Romanticism and literature, including two previous books on Wordsworth. The other publishes more general essays on intellectual history, photography, war, and current events in periodicals like the London Review of Books
. Both David Simpsons write with a clear, powerful intelligence. Both are often funny. But where the first David Simpson is rigorously academic, offering extended and very close readings that unearth allusions, build upon nuanced accounts of other critics, and pause for paragraphs at a time on a word or image, the second takes a wider view of things, occasionally deploying the close-reading skills of the former in order to home in on a particular image or thought, but always moving out again to make broad and compelling statements about trauma and history, politics and the present. These two Simpsons have overlapped occasionally before (they are, after all, the same person). But they have never come together like they do in Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern
, an impressively argued book about Wordsworth that quite boldly reads his anxieties and engagements as our own. I say it is helpful to think of this book as written by two David Simpsons not because I want to maintain the regrettable division between public, or belletristic, writing and the kinds of writing done by and for academics. I say it because Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern
collapses this division in compelling and provocative ways. Readers who come to Simpson’s book looking for what it adds to Wordsworth studies or to Romanticism, in other words, may frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness as a result of the book’s other, less literary – and less academic – interest: namely, the present. In addition to accounting for some persistent features in his poetry (the presence of death and death-like figures, a curious lack of decidability in the face of social issues), Simpson means to show Wordsworth’s importance for understanding our post-9/11 world – and, more importantly, how we might position ourselves in relation to it. The book’s two interests are in fact interdependent: Wordsworth can speak to our present political moment because recent theoretical work on this moment has made it possible to hear the quite contemporary voice issuing from his poetry. What links Wordsworth’s world and ours is the “extended development of the commodity form” that began “around 1800” (5). Simpson uses this phrase – “around 1800” – as a kind of refrain throughout his study. It comes from Jeffrey Sachs’s book, The End of Poverty
(2005), which Simpson takes up in his first chapter. Sachs argues that the problem of “extreme” poverty is a relatively recent one: it emerged “around 1800” as an effect of modern – i.e. capitalist – economic growth. Overall, Simpson is skeptical about Sachs’s “rhetoric of compassionate problem-solving” (17). He thinks Wordsworth would be, too. But he uses the timeline of Sachs’s book to highlight “the strong conjunction of his concerns with those evident in a reading of Wordsworth’s poetry” (18). Extreme poverty is one of these; it is also the focus of Simpson’s first chapter (which features readings of the “hunger-bitten girl” episode from the Prelude
, Book IX, and “The Ruined Cottage”). Other concerns include homelessness; war and its effects on individuals, families, and bodies; alienation; what Simpson calls (following Giorgio Agamben) “substitutability”; and most significantly, the spectral character of the commodity form itself, which remakes the world in its own image and converts ...
Anthony Jarrells teaches in the English Department at the University of South Carolina and is the author of Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions: 1688 and the Romantic Reform of Literature (2005) and the editor of volume 2 (“Selected Prose”) of Blackwood’s Magazine, 1817-1825 (2006). He is currently at work on a study of the Romantic-period tale.
- Simpson, David. 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- Simpson, David. Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement. New York: Methuen, 1987.
- Wordsworth, William. Selected Prose. Ed. John O. Hayden. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.