THE GLOBAL WORDSWORTH: ROMANTICISM OUT OF PLACE by Katherine Bergren, Reviewed by Nikki Hessell

By Katherine Bergren
(Bucknell, 2018) 226 pp.
Reviewed by Nikki Hessell on 2019-11-13.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

The full title of Katherine Bergren's marvellous book says it all: William Wordsworth is both a profoundly global poet, influential all over the world, and yet also acutely out of place in many of the locales where his poetry landed. Deeply embedded in his local and regional environment, attentive to its flora, fauna, climate, and landscape, Wordsworth seems a particularly odd choice for colonial readers all over the British Empire. Yet, his poetry did indeed make its way into colonial--and then, as independent governments were established, "postcolonial"--classrooms, curricula, and wider cultures of reading.

Bergren's approach to this potential paradox is simple, elegant, and critically astute. In a series of rewarding and innovative readings, she considers responses to Wordsworth from writers throughout the colonial and postcolonial world, never reducing them to the simple opposition between assimilation and resistance. Also, besides attentively reading the works of these authors, she sheds genuinely imaginative and revisionary light on key Wordsworthian texts. Her book, therefore, will reward not only Wordsworth specialists and Romanticists more generally, but also readers in colonial and postcolonial literary studies.

Her fine introduction highlights "I wandered lonely as a cloud" or "Daffodils," as it was more commonly known in the colonies: an important distinction for Bergren's reading of the transmission and reception of the poem. As Bergren notes, this poem was often taught in the colonies to both settler and colonized pupils. But as many colonial writers observed, the absence of daffodils in other parts of the world made them irrelevant there as a poetic trope and thus exemplified the gap between colonial readers and canonical English literature. As Bergren puts it, "colonial readers are simultaneously objecting to the poem's subject and directing their readers' attention back to it. What happens, they seem to ask, if it is not a poet on a couch who daydreams about daffodils" (2), but a reader, or a novelist? In that sense, "Daffodils" is a surprisingly productive poem, generating important but also very diverse literary responses in the former colonies.

Keeping the focus on "Daffodils," the first chapter treats its effect on the Caribbean writers of our own time, especially Jamaica Kincaid. While previous critics have examined what is known as the "daffodil gap" between Wordsworth and the Caribbean, Bergren innovatively links the influence of Wordsworth on Kincaid with the mobility of his verse. She also rightly notes how the idea of the "daffodil gap" flattens out complexities in the work of the colonial authors to whom it is applied:

the tidiness of the term daffodil gap is at odds with the highly local complexities of the 'lived colonial or post-colonial experience' that it claims to describe. The authors I listed share a history with daffodils, but they lived in different places, inhabited distinct subject positions, and wrote diverse things. Reifying the gap between colonizer and colonized tends to mute these distinctions ... Making daffodils the color of a deep-red hibiscus means something different than making daffodils the color of bronze skin. In scenes like these, daffodils are as much a productive provocation as evidence of a gap between the colonizer's culture and the lived experience of the colonized. (37-38) 

Bergren's analysis of Kincaid's novel Lucy (1990) demonstrates the value of her approach. By rigorously probing Kincaid's prose and ideas, and not simply harvesting her allusions to the daffodil, Bergren shows how she collaborates with Wordsworth. Kincaid and Wordsworth, she concludes, "are not merely antagonists in a debate staged across time and space; they are also bound in a dialogue about human and floral ontology, jointly investigating the circumstances in which a self might begin to lose its edges amid the daffodils" (45).

Though this approach is replicated in the later chapters, it never becomes repetitive, in part because change affects not simply the colonial authors and geographies but also the version of Wordsworth that readers are asked to contemplate. In a chapter on J. M. Coetzee, The Prelude, and the Lucy poems, Bergren pushes beyond Coetzee's explicit critique of the Wordsworthian aesthetic to show how the novelist has integrated Romanticism into his understanding of South Africa and its textual history. Like Kincaid, Coetzee does not simply take Wordsworth as an antagonist who can stand in for European sensibilities writ large. Rather, he evokes Wordsworth even while rethinking the obvious impossibilities of viewing the African continent through a pair of Wordsworthian eyes. While teaching The Prelude in Coetzee's novel Disgrace (1999), for instance, an academic named David Lurie reflects on its meaning (or lack of meaning) in a South African classroom and struggles to somehow link the Alps with Cape Town's Table Mountain. Yet the novel also exhibits a more nuanced engagement with the Lucy poems. Lurie's daughter Lucy, we find, shares with Wordsworth's Lucy "a voicelessness, an affiliation with death, a connection to nature" (74). But Coetzee draws this evocation into a much more significant point about the language politics of white South Africa, caught between its English and its Afrikaans linguistic and literary heritage, and the effect of Romanticism on homegrown genres such as the plaasroman (Afrikaaner farm novel). Rather than rejecting Wordsworthian Romanticism, then, Coetzee is said to acknowledge it as an inescapable, if problematic, cultural force in postcolonial nations. At the same time, Bergren offers not only a subtle reading of Coeztee, but a detailed and attentive re-reading of Wordsworth's poems, in particular The Prelude.

Turning from Coetzee to the nineteenth-century American abolitionist writer and editor Lydia Maria Child, chapter 3 shows how she used epigraphs from Wordsworth to complement the message of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Many of these epigraphs came from The Excursion, a poem that was highly regarded in the United States even though it met a mixed reception in Britain. But while many American readers enjoyed The Excursion for its Englishness, Child found it global in its politics, and while excerpts in publications such as her own might enhance its political impact, they also accurately reflected something transnational in the original poem. For American readers, Bergren writes,

Wordsworth maintained his moral capital even as the disparity between his poetry and the realities of industrial capitalism became more and more entrenched. But the content of that moral capital changed, growing more and more separable from the details of the poetry from which it grew. In Wordsworth, Child apprehended a commitment to the humanity of the labouring poor, a model for her own advocacy whose commitment to England did not prevent him from holding moral authority in America. And through her eyes, I have argued, we apprehend a Wordsworth who understands England as but one patch of the earth--a participant, for better or worse, in the networks of imperialism and trade that had heralded the advent of globalism during the Romantic era. (137-138) 

The final chapter returns us to Kincaid and to her writings about what she has done with her own garden. In a very rich analysis, Bergren makes Kincaid converse not only with Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes, but also with colonial botany: something that measurably affected Wordsworth's writing and also inevitably shaped the writing lives of authors in colonized locales. Kincaid shares with Wordsworth, Bergren argues, "a complicated attitude toward localism" (147) in which both movement and possession shape natural landscapes. This "eco-mobility," which resonates with the mobility of Wordsworth's texts, is also written into those texts, which recognize the botanical and colonial project undertaken by Joseph Banks in his management of Kew Gardens. (In the only error that I noticed in the book, James Cook's first voyage--on which Banks sailed-- is said to have been undertaken on the Bounty [148], which should of course be the Endeavour.)

Returning again to "Daffodils," the conclusion examines its reworking in Laura Mullen's Dark Archive (2011). But here Bergren recalls the other, more accurate title for the poem, "I wandered lonely as a cloud," which holds a different resonance for modern readers. In cleverly exploring how the "cloud" participates in our contemporary lexicon and conceptualization of experience, Bergren reminds us that in spite of its relative slightness, "Daffodils" keeps its grip on the imagination of readers. "[N]othing says Wordsworth quite like daffodils" (176), Bergen comments towards the end of her study. She thus reveals not only that the "Wordsworth" we teach at universities worldwide bears little resemblance to the widely cherished and highly influential poet read around the world, but also that the academic version of Wordsworth was deeply shaped by the colonial forces that brought his poetry to global readers. In turn, he offered some of those readers--those who became significant global authors themselves-- the chance to adore, reject, reshape, and reimagine his works. Summing up the re-creation of "Daffodils" in Caribbean literature, Bergren writes: "In the absence of daffodils, new varieties crop up: bright-red hibiscus-daffodil hybrids, daffodils drawn in the dirt, paper daffodils that flourish on walls, animated daffodils that run down cobbled streets" (45).

Beautifully written, equally attentive to Romanticism and its afterlives, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Romanticism and its legacies, whether scholarly or general readers. It offers a genuinely original perspective on Wordsworth and his works, without insisting on the privilege of canonicity.

Nikki Hessell is Associate Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.