Wordsworth’s The Prelude is a pretty formidable poem, not least due to its length. I initially encountered it in my first year of studies as an English Literature undergraduate, within a course entitled ‘Writing & Self’. There was no obligation to tackle the entire poem – we just had to look at a few extracts and try to get to grips with Wordsworth’s philosophy on the relationship between nature, memory and selfhood. Selfhood. That elusive concept; you think you know it, but no – the post-structuralists, modernists and Samuel Beckett have something radically different to say about it. Not going to lie though, I really enjoyed it in the end. The really long poetry? Not so much…
At the time, I was disinterested in the seemingly repetitive obsession with the natural world, what seemed like bland blank verse, and the endless length. However, after studying more recently Milton’s marathon-of-a-poem Paradise Lost, with all its mythical references beyond my grasp, Wordsworth’s doesn’t seem so scary. In fact, I felt the urge to go back to it and think about how my perception may have changed. What interests me about it now, with (hopefully) a little more intellectual maturity, is not only the poem’s emotive value but also the way it sheds an interesting light on some theories I’ve been looking at recently.
Roland Barthes, in a famous essay called ‘The Death of the Author’, argued against the Romantic conception of author as god-like genius held by writers such as Wordsworth:
[…] a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.
The idea that no writing is original, but instead a ‘tissue of citations’ borrowing meaning from the myriad of texts and other references (written or oral) floating in the social world of language has profound consequences for the way we approach literature. The notion that literary texts do not contain a single, ‘intended’ meaning released by the authorial author was posited by the New Critics of the early twentieth-century, Wimsatt and Beardsley. In ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that good criticism shouldn’t try to decipher an author’s intended meaning but instead look at how the poem succeeds in creating meaning through its form, claiming simply that ‘judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.’ Their definition of what ‘works’ in poetry was that style contributed to substance; in other words, the poem’s metre, rhyme and metaphor evoked the feelings and understandings appropriate to the poem’s meaning – a meaning that should be deciphered, then, not in reference to the author’s intentions but in reference solely to the text on the page. The New Critics, however, differ from Barthes in that they believe a text contains a complete, unified meaning that can be ‘unlocked’ by studying the text, whereas Barthes is saying the text is inherently plural, due to the unstable and intertextual nature of language and literature.
Going back to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an epic poem defined by its status as the autobiographical unfolding of a poet’s personal and artistic growth (a quest for self-expression famously rewritten by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh from a female perspective), seems problematic within the context of twentieth-century New Criticism. How are we to approach a poem that is concerned primarily with the poet’s mind and experience? A poem that Wordsworth has literally put himself into? The poet himself described The Prelude as ‘a poem on the growth of my own mind’. Is it possible, then, to ignore his presence, and relegate the autobiographical context of the poem to a shadowy distance?
I think the two positions can be reconciled. Wordsworth’s poem may delve into personal experience, but he is by no means the only poet in the world that does so – let alone the only poet interested in the relationship between art and nature. Criticism is used to finding inventive ways of looking at a poem that may or may not involve the poet’s self and life. We could, in the following of Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’, consider how his use of blank verse constitutes an Oedipal struggle with his predecessor Milton. We could examine the more political elements of the poem, and how they relate to the cultural and social context of the time, or even the complex philosophical ideas Wordsworth espouses.
I myself am interested in the poet’s voice: the way he narrates fragments of experience to build up to the whole of his self, his artistic vision. I am also interested in the fluctuating effects of self-estrangement and unification, and the evocation of memory that permeates the text. Here is one of my favourite extracts of The Prelude:
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
A New Critical reading here could look at many poetic elements and examine how they contribute to an overall meaning. Indeed, I think the New Critical approach always has great value in unlocking the text – not in the sense of unlocking some kind of hidden meaning – but in unlocking the nuanced structures and framework of techniques that produce particular effects. Yet this kind of close reading can also go hand-in-hand with considerations of writerly subjectivity and creation, especially for an overtly autobiographical work like The Prelude. Although Wordsworth termed poetry ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, he also noted that it was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’; in other words, poetry comes from the self, from a kind of organic inspiration caused by worldly experience, but it is only upon reflection and considered reconstruction that good poetry is created.
Of course, whether poetry comes from the self or not is irrelevant to New Critics, and for Barthes, this notion is flawed since all language is social: ‘it is language that speaks, not the author’, he claims in Image, Music, Text. It is, however, worthwhile to perhaps consider the ‘ghostly’ presence of the author in the text. Barthes himself admits in The Pleasure of the Text that the reader’s idea of the author plays a fundamental role in his/her reading of the text: ‘in a way, I need the author, I desire his presence’. This intimacy between reader and author is enacted as a kind of strangely corporeal, erotic relationship – where the reader desires the author’s body, in a kind of strip-tease effect as the text is unravelled before the reader’s eyes; but also by the reader, as the text is ‘played’ – as it offers up its ambiguities and gaps for the reader to fill in with his/her own meaning. The presence of the author is the promise of meaning. When I read Wordsworth’s poem, and look for meaning, I am not just thinking of the words on the page – inevitably I have some hazy conception of the writer who writes them, the man wandering the Lake District with words whirling round his brain like blossom caught in the wind. Without my sense of the author, I feel as I open the cover of a book, the text seems hollow; I need to conjure his/her presence to enter the threshold of fiction, and of meaning.
This of course applies to certain texts more than others. If I have no real knowledge of the author, I am able to approach a text with a ‘pure’ mind, but even then, I unconsciously scan for clues as to the possible links the text has to other writers and traditions. The text, then, seems always to be situated in some intangible web of meaning, and only sometimes is the author present, a spider or spectre creeping elusively around my reading of the text.
So, back to the ghostly presence of Wordsworth in this extract. Who is he – who and when and where is the speaking ‘I’ – is it Wordsworth, the physical hand, gnarled with old age (and those trips to the Alps) writing the poem, Wordsworth the young boy (returned to in memory or literally re-living his younger self?), Wordsworth the imagined author, behind a desk in Dove Cottage, conjured by the reader’s imagination…Or perhaps all of these, an uncanny amalgamation of identities? Wordsworth himself never lived to see the poem published; indeed, he was revising it again and again until his final years. So we can’t even be sure which temporal Wordsworth was writing these lines. Which words came at which age? When reading, I feel the fragmented sense of time come together in the quiet and consistent flow of the iambic lines. It seems like the author’s true identity, his ‘true’ intentions or involvement in the poem, slip away under the seduction of the poetry and language.
Milan Kundera in Art of the Novel mentions a distinction between poets with and without history. Wordsworth might here be difficult to classify because he wrote both intimate, lyrical poems and also ones which dealt with the politics and history of the time, such as the Industrial Revolution. In the above extract – a mere snippet of the whole poem, which does at points get historical – I’d like to consider Wordsworth a poet without history; the ‘I’ of the speaker merged with both the poet and the young boy who steals the boat. Memory has transformed the experience into a sublime perspective on the transcendent greatness of the world, the ‘familiar shapes’ evolved into ‘huge and mighty forms, which ‘do not live / like living men’. In other words, forms that will not breathe and change and die like humans, but remain in a powerful position of natural supremacy – an existence that to Wordsworth as a developing poet and young man was almost formidable, ‘a trouble to [his] dreams’. Kundera points out that ‘pure lyric poetry lives in feelings’ which ‘are all given to us at once’, but intensify in the mind of a poet. I feel that Wordsworth’s moving account of the transition of the landscape reflects this, particularly as the weighty blank verse and enjambment create that sense of moving, progressive and natural feeling.
Yet it is also a strange feeling, the sensation and memory of terror that recalls in the eye/the ‘I’ of the poet’s mind. The emotions experienced as a boy are part of the bank of material that builds up to produce poetic inspiration. And yet memory is not a film-tape, recording past events with absolute accuracy. It is malleable, subject to revision, always related to the present moment in which it is recalled. Wordsworth called these ‘spots of time’: moments where some flash of previous existence will burst into consciousness – a thought, a memory, a feeling, a scene from a novel, a line of verse, a melody from a song. This strange release of the past into the fiery now of the present can not always be explained, but they are essential, in Wordsworth’s philosophy, for the development of self. As Locke argued, the self is a continual being only through the continuation of consciousness, and it is through these ‘spots of time’ – gaps in the fabric of our present that catch some thread of our past – that our identity continues to be woven together into a coherent selfhood.
And so, in slight relation to selfhood, the idea of genius, or a poet without history. Barthes has destroyed genius, in his destruction of authorship. We can accept the theoretical ‘truth’ or weight of this, but still acknowledge, at least psychologically, some kind of notion of genius. Genius doesn’t have to mean brilliance, but as Kundera’s book suggests, it conveys something special and unique about creative writing, in that it is inevitably in some way produced by feeling – and this feeling is inextricably related to one’s personal experiences, even if the writer is not aware or rejects this in their writing. Personal experiences are unique, and even though language is not, it is our individual way of assembling language in direct relation to feeling and consciousness that makes writing something special, perhaps magical; that makes writers not merely what Italo Calvino in ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ calls ‘literary machines’, churning out elaborate patterns of words from the dictionary.
Moreover, and this may link with Barthes’ writings on readerly pleasure, genius can lie in the reader too. A genius that transcends language, the feeling of what Barthes calls ‘jouissance’ or bliss, that occurs when a text ‘imposes a state of loss’ upon the reader. For if the reader is involved in producing meaning from this lost, he/she too has some kind of genius. When faced with the lines: ‘For so it seemed, with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing, / Strode after me’ we are struck with the sudden, lightning bolt connection between past and present. ‘Seemed’ highlights the idea of visual recollection, of memory recalled in the present. The uncanny anthropomorphism of the ‘huge peak, black and huge’ recalls a childhood terror, but also the adult’s terror of the unknown. Wordsworth, the writing poet, cannot recall exactly what made the peak so terrible. It is merely ‘huge’, ‘huge’ – a monstrous presence burgeoning repeatedly in his memory and thought. This strange severance between feeling and meaning is a kind of bliss, and a kind of fear. The loss is what is left out in the mind; just as Wordsworth’s recollection is a distortion of childhood fright and adult ‘trouble’, the reader’s perception of that looming black peak is the facing of an abyss: ‘there hung a darkness’. An abyss of possibility. What is the nature of the child’s fear, why can Wordsworth recall it – what is it in his present moment that brings back that memory? The only way to find out is to trail the poem’s entirety, searching endlessly for clues that connect the ‘stars’ of the poet’s psychology, of the poem’s constellation of meaning. Yet there will always be these chasms, where it seems that meaning is lost – where, as the black peak separates the ‘I’ from the ‘stars’, the reader faces an aporia, a non-road separating the word on the page with its meaning, its interpretation. The author’s intentions are lost, and the dictionary fails us.
I have tried to compare Wordsworth’s experience of nature with the experience of reading, as an activity profoundly connected with both loss and creation, with darkness and strangeness but also the ‘sparkling light’ that seems to seduce us into the bewitching land of literature.
‘To give an Author to a text,’ Barthes argues, ‘is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’. I don’t think this is entirely true. I think that if you allow the author’s presence, at least at some ghostly level – and this has been discussed somewhere in Derrida’s writing in a much more sophisticated way than I have here – you can open the writing. For the author creates more problems, as a character not quite inside or outside the text. The uniting of the reading and writing self; navigating the text and giving it meaning; facing up to the strange array of images and sounds that lead a meandering path through the poem – that is poetic genius.
Barthes, R. (1967) ‘The Death of the Author’, translated by Richard Howard, Available at: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf [Accessed 11.3.13].
Barthes, R. (1980) The Pleasure of the Text.
Kundera, M. (2003) The Art of the Novel. New York: HarperCollins.
Wimsatt and Beardsley – ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. Available at: http://letras.cabaladada.org/letras/intentional_fallacy.pdf
Wordsworth, W. The Prelude. – began in 1798 and published in 1850, the year of Wordsworth’s death.