THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF WILLIAM WORDSWORTH by Richard Gravil and Daniel Robinson, eds., Reviewed by Leslie Brisman
 

THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Eds. Richard Gravil and Daniel Robinson
(Oxford, 2015) 896 pp.
Reviewed by Leslie Brisman on 2015-07-22.

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Coming to the last words on the last page of prose in this monumental volume, "nothing like it will ever again appear in book form," I am tempted to say that they apply not just to the Cornell Wordsworth, the subject of Bruce Graver's crowning essay, but to this volume as well. Yet the more telling analogy that this anthology deserves is to Coleridge's reaction to Wordsworth concluding his reading of The Prelude, "and round us. . .That happy vision of beloved faces, / All of whom I deepliest love." Without anxiety, without competition, "I sat,"

Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound:
And when I rose, I found myself in prayer!

A strict historian of my reading experience might cavil that my emotional outburst at that moment took the form of tears, not prayer. But that is no matter; like Coleridge, I was aware of having sat through a long and overwhelmingly wondrous experience that touched me as very few works of secondary literature ever have. Perhaps I have personal reason for being more moved than many a scholar who will turn to this collection of essays as a reference book --as most surely will--a book to give an authoritative "spot of time" in one particular critical journey rather than a single, sustained, overwhelming history. As a graduate student at Cornell in 1967, deeply absorbed in the "Wordsworth wars" and leaning heavily on the guidance and humanity of John Finch, I was devastated by his tragic death and at the feeling, shared by so many of us, that an intellectual footbridge like the physical one across an on-campus chasm had collapsed, leaving a gaping divide between the meticulous scholarship of Stephen Parrish and the wide, humanistic horizons of M.H. Abrams.

But that "personal" reason is hardly personal, given that everyone who writes about or teaches Wordsworth is indebted to the editors of the Cornell Wordsworth and is involved in the ramifications of the choice between early and late texts of Wordsworth's poems--and all that choice entails. One need not have been involved in the editorial work of the Cornell Wordsworth to feel, coming to the end of Bruce Graver's essay in this volume, something of Coleridge's "deepliest love" for the experience of having shared the journey through this book. The volume seems to assemble "that happy vision of beloved faces" who have been working on Wordsworth for over half a century, both in the actual contributors to this volume and in those, like Jerome McGann, Alan Liu, Marjorie Levinson, David Simpson, David Bromwich, Kenneth Johnston, Jonathan Bate, Mary Jacobus, Alan Bewell, James Chandler, Frances Ferguson, Stephen Gill, and Harold Bloom, who did not write for this volume but whose "beloved faces" are repeatedly invoked. I repeat Coleridge's phrase not from constitutional mawkishness, of which I might often be accused, but out of tribute to one of the startling achievements of the collection both in the work done for it and the gargantuan body of work to which it refers--the sense of a visionary company, happily assembled even when taking different positions on the role of personal or political or literary history, the appropriateness of psychoanalytic reading, or the basic, unavoidable question of what version of a poem to privilege.

Aside from the concluding Graver essay on editing Wordsworth, the volume begins and ends with the giant presence of Geoffrey Hartman. The choice of a great Hartman lyric, "Genius Loci," to open a volume of essays so much about the critical landscape Hartman has himself made possible, makes it seem as though not just Hartman but Wordsworth himself is "living at this hour" and being directly invoked--though more benignantly than Milton is in Wordsworth's sonnet. Hartman's poem and Andrew Bennett's masterful survey, "Wordsworth in Modern Criticism," seem less like Helvellyn bookends than Hartmanian mountains that make all the essays between resemble what Hartman calls "cataracts / that deepen their own voice between the rocks." This is to say that there is something about this collection of essays that makes the whole even greater than the sum of its parts, that brings to bear the whole assembly of scholars working on Wordsworth as though "that happy vision of beloved faces" were also the assembled precursors ranged along Childe Roland's hill-sides, all witnessing the individual scholar's slug-horn performance.

There is a very real--and very risky--reason for this: the premise of the Oxford Handbook, as of the spate of Oxford Handbooks and Cambridge essay collections generally, is that a number of scholars will "come together" in writing original pieces for these collections. The benefit, when it works well, is that sense of scholarship in the making, of a collective enterprise when distinguished professors from all over the world assemble to "work together"--as a most distinguished few literally (geographically) did when the Oxford Anthology of English Literature was assembled. The risk--and the risk too is a real one--is that the scholars to whom Richard Gravil and Daniel Robinson have so wisely turned will produce highly competent and well-researched pieces, respectful of their colleagues and predecessors, but not quite up to the level of distinction that the same scholars attain in their best, independently published work. I believe that the only previously published item here is Geoffrey Hartman's "Genius Loci" poem, which first appeared a year and a half ago in his remarkable collection, The Eighth Day. But how many poets can write their best poems on demand? And why should we expect scholars to produce their best criticism on request?

Nonetheless, as compared with Oxford and Cambridge collections of essays on other authors, The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth is distinguished in the number of pieces that give us something truly surprising, important, and new. Rather than summarizing all fifty contributions, I will restrict myself to pointing out some of the unexpected highlights of the pieces that seem to go far beyond what one might have expected of the "highly competent" and "well-researched" occasional essay.

In "Wordsworth and Sensibility," Duncan Wu proposes that Wordsworth admired Charlotte Smith not just for infusing landscape descriptions with personal emotion but also for teaching him how to express personal loss under the guise of writing about historical events. Moving beyond what has often been remarked about the Gothic element in Wordsworth, Wu proposes that the "deep subject" of ostensibly impersonal horrors is, in fact, deeply personal. For Wu, the ghastly scene on Salisbury Plain in Prelude XII, where "the sacrificial Altar [is] fed / With living men," signifies Wordsworth's personal horror of being early orphaned. For Wu, "the pomp / Is for both worlds, the living and the dead" means that the Gothic horror of the scene serves the living poet in dealing with the dead--Wordsworth's mother and father. James A.W. Heffernan, in "Wordsworth and Landscape," rises to a similar height of insight when he interprets "Tintern Abbey" as a poem about the relation of the ruins of time to "psychic ruin." In Heffernan's reading, the poem means something very different from what Marjorie Levinson has proposed. "In thus personalizing the history of ruin," Heffernan writes, rather than simply describing a landscape picturesquely dominated by a ruin, Wordsworth reconstructs the poetry of landscape" (624). And in "Later Narrative Poems," Peter J. Manning similarly personalizes what we might otherwise have construed as "romantic" only in the sense of the far-off: "The poems [like "The Egyptian Maid"] in which Wordsworth confronted the conflicts that romance released--between aggression and piety, eros and family, the here and the hereafter--reveal their 'cross-legged' fascination to those who leave the beaten track to explore them"(287). And so, with Manning's leadership, we do.

Susan Wolfson may be thought to have a particularly difficult assignment in writing something both new and scholarly about the "Poem upon the Wye," but it is one to which she brings something like the "lights that flicker in dark passages" that she finds in great moments of Wordsworth's poetry. I imagine that, like me, many a devotee teaching this great poem suggests the option of reading Wordsworth's various pasts in terms of screen memory, so that in recalling how he "bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides / Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams," Wordsworth might be replacing a disturbing memory of late adolescence--five years earlier--with the more benignant memory of boyhood. But Wolfson does something a little more risky, a little further into what Keats called "the burthen of the mystery" of this poem: she reads "bound[ing] o'er the mountains" not as a literal earlier memory but as a figure of speech. In light of the ensuing claim that his earlier self followed nature "more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved," Wolfson finds Wordsworth's bounding simile drawing its vehicle from a tenor that William and Dorothy knew all too well: the bounder of 1793 was "a man in flight from a France in shambles and a romance in disarray" (197). Suddenly, the "aching joys" and "dizzy raptures" are no memory of a childish overinvestment in nature but a figure for the erotic joys and raptures they delicately represent. And Michael O'Neill, writing about the Intimations Ode, seems to have read not just such great older pieces as those by Trilling and Vender but, also, as it were, Wolfson herself, to brood on the abundance of losses and the pathos of the "now no more" in Tintern Abbey.

In writing about the Salisbury Plain poems, Quentin Bailey manages a similarly handsome supplement to the fine work of John Rieder, Karen Swann, and Kurt Fosso. Many students of these poems might be grateful to the Handbook just for pointing to the notable pieces about them, especially Fosso's explanation of Spenserian stanzas as the medium for such tales of loneliness and suffering. But Bailey shows how the poems reflect changes in the penal code and how Wordsworth's revision of his originally topical poem made it a more profoundly existential drama. Writing about The Prelude, Philip Shaw is similarly astute on the ways in which Wordsworth "escapes the historical conditioning of identity" and mitigates the "the violence of revolutionary action. . . by romance" (420). But perhaps the single most useful new meditation on the relation of history (in this case the poet's personal history) to poetic achievement is Peter Newbon writing on "Wordsworth and the Growth of the Mind." Throughout Wordsworth's poetry, Newbon descries two potentially antithetical desires: to habituate the mind to the quotidian and to retain a sense of untrammelled power (715). This simple dichotomy helps orient so many readings of what, fundamentally, Wordsworth is about.

Paul Fry carefully articulates a very special instance of such a dual poetic aim. In "The Pedlar, the Poet, and "The Ruined Cottage,"" Fry treats with new subtlety the conflicting aims of arousing empathy and reaching equanimity. While respecting Jonathan Wordsworth's monumental Music of Humanity, Fry furthers the dramatic conflict of equanimity and empathy to the point where vicarious suffering (in poems as in Christianity) takes on a new urgency. According to Fry, the Poet of The Excursion is still a child, as unformed and immature now as he was in 'The Ruined Cottage." Fry's essay, then, newly assimilates the drama of The Excursion to the drama of the growth of the poet's mind--a theme foregrounded by this monumental collection. For essay after essay shows how the best of Wordsworth criticism seems to lose its secondariness and become part of the adventure in the growth of the poet's mind--an adventure that was Wordsworth's own preoccupation and achievement.

Leslie Brisman is Karl Young Professor of English at Yale University.


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