WORDSWORTH'S FUN by Matthew Bevis, Reviewed by Leslie Brisman

By Matthew Bevis
(Chicago, 2019), 303 pp.
Reviewed by Leslie Brisman on 2020-06-04.

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Harold Bloom was fond of saying that the genius of a book could be measured by the number of times per page that it made one's jaw drop in amazement. By such a standard, Matthew Bevis has written a book of consummate genius, for virtually every page is filled with insights startlingly new and moving. To find a book about Wordsworth this important and this breathtakingly beautiful, one may have to go back to Geoffrey Hartman's Wordsworth's Poetry (1964); but unlike Bevis's book, not even Hartman's monumental monograph can be called in any ordinary sense a "fun read." Since 1964, there are perhaps a half-dozen books exclusively about Wordsworth that I would cling to--in the words of the Arab in Wordsworth's dream--as "something of more worth" than shelves upon shelves of other books. But I cannot think of one other that seems to be such "An Ode, in passion uttered," that is so sublime and so humorous, so perceptive about its poet and so transcendent of its ostensible subject.

Bevis himself is having fun in giving this magnificent book such a modest title. But by fun he means a whole world of things, from "comic," in the sense of life-celebrating, to "funny" in the sense of odd or "worth noting," whether it be a literary allusion, a marginalized human being, an unpublished or draft reading, or a repressed aspect of consciousness. Perhaps the best shorthand way of representing the subject of the book is to say that "fun" denotes not "everything in Wordsworth that is not sublime" but rather "everything usually thought too ordinary to be sublime plus the other aspect of everything that is."

So breathtaking a panorama obliges me to return to and quarrel with the Bloomian criterion for genius. I used to argue that the genius of a book could be measured not by the number of amazing ideas it offered but by their value, for many a book well worth the study has only one idea, variously inflected. Bevis's book triumphs by this standard as well, if one conceives of the many wondrous ways he shows us that Wordsworth is this and also that: Wordsworth is the master of simplicity and duplicity, of high seriousness and openness to ridicule, of the poignant and the ludicrous, of self-fulfillment and self-sabotage, of introversion and passion about encountering the Other in all his or its otherness. None of these antinomies is an eighteenth-century pairing to be dismissed as concordia discors. For there is something profound and profoundly personal about these "versions of himself" that Bevis explores in so many different and awe-inspiring ways.

To see how an awareness of opposite states of feeling becomes an awareness of greater depth, consider the simplest of phrases pointing to complexity of mind: "part of him." Writing about "Resolution and Independence," for example, Bevis risks offending the high Presbyterian seriousness of the leech-gathering "grave liver" and his poet by casually observing of the latter (note the contraction) that "he's a little too determined to wallow in all the things that might never happen; part of him is feeling good about feeling bad" (125). In fifty years of teaching this magnificent poem, it not only never occurred to me to say anything like that; I think I would have frowned like Toscanini at an off-pitch note if a student had hazarded such a thought. But what a relief to find it stated! Bevis is not just finally pointing out that the emperor has no clothes; he's exposing the emperor's outfit as motley.

Consider too Bevis's comment on Emilia's outburst at what he takes to be the folly of Iago: "O murderous coxcomb, what should such a fool / Do with so good a wife? "(Othello 5.2.230). I confess it never occurred to me that the "murderous coxcomb" could be Iago rather than Othello, and the good wife Emilia herself rather than Desdemona. But Bevis hears Emilia exposing the oxymoronic folly of the cunning Iago, the murderous coxcomb who has just stabbed her:

This is the first time that somebody calls Iago a fool in the play, and it drives him crazy enough to stab them to death. ["Them" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun because Emilia is distancing herself from the gender role of wife?] Emilia's appellation "murderous coxcomb" brilliantly seizes on the always exposed, potentially humiliating position of the Fool, the sense that the joker-trickster seeks to stage-manage situations in order to avoid becoming the butt of the joke--as though he were revisiting, with a view to mastery, a scene of trauma. (146)

Though I do not believe that Bevis is right to identify the "murderous coxcomb" as Iago, this is at least--as Harold Bloom would say-- a strong misreading of Othello. It also inspires a better understanding of Wordsworth's Rivers, and of the whole Borderers project, than anything I have encountered in the great readings of what I had thought a not-so-great play. (An ancillary achievement of Bevis's book is to challenge any distinction one may have made between the truly great and the not-so-great poems.)

The idea of "fun" is endlessly provocative. Even if we construe Wordsworth's fun as his sense of the uncanny, we may be startled to see how Bevis reads the sublime and the ridiculous as alternate destinations on a two-way street. To explain the profundity of "The Idiot Boy," and perhaps of so many of the pedestrian affairs of our lives, Bevis writes, "life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation"(178). At the same time, he speeds far away from the domestic and the moral when he reads Johnny as part of Wordsworth and discovers in him "a need to feel again the electrifyingly improper power of a boy's lack of consideration, his reckless sense of his own autonomy, his ability to survive anything"(182). Though this paean to Imagination might have been written by Hartman or Bloom or Thomas Weiskel, I am not sure that any one of them would have had the temerity to couch it in such ordinary terms.

And how extraordinary the "ordinary" can be! It is in the context of what Mary Wordsworth called "little matters" that Bevis, in an aside, seems to laugh at the intimation that his work as a whole might be seen as "the occlusion or negation of the sociopolitical in the name of the personal"(171). If so, how much more the "personal" entails than once was thought! I cannot think of another reader of Wordsworth who would pause to ambiguate the self in "O mercy to myself I cried," or who, in the process of scrutinizing nuances of poetic rhythm, can identify something as revelatory as "the self's tragicomic need to get rid of needing"(51). The point cries out for further notice not just as a brilliant reading of the Lucy poems but as a synecdoche for all the ruminations about sex that are somehow associated with the comic and fun. Taking what is intimated but not said as personified by the poem muttering under its breath, Bevis holds a microphone to the mutterer: "The poem mutters under its breath of the animosity inside strong affection, tells of a fantasy in which one does away with desire by doing away with the object of desire"(51).

If sex is seldom the ostensible subject, Bevis reveals the manifold ways in which poetic activity is itself erotic. Amazingly, it is a manuscript version of Peter Bell that produces the invaluable observation, "One sometimes registers in Wordsworth a kind of eroticism of words, a feeling that he wants his poems to hide as well as to reveal things"(109). This is the linguistic equivalent of the eroticism of the long skirt with the high slit. Bevis makes gentle but dazzling use of another fine critic's misquotation ("Repeat! repeat" for "repent! repent") to introduce the larger question of repetition as an alluring feature of poetry, especially poetry in meter and rhyme, as like, and more than like, the sexual impulse. In the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth calls similitude in dissimilitude a principal source "of sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it." On this topic Bevis aptly cites Walter Benjamin: "The obscure urge to repeat things is scarcely less powerful in play, scarcely less cunning in its workings, than the sexual impulse in love"(111).

I am not sure that ironic is the right word, but there is certainly something especially poignant about the fact that a book entitled Wordsworth's Fun concludes with something of a paean to desire as a mode of transcendence, something far more ennobling of ordinary experience in The Prelude and its readers than the word fun ordinarily denotes. While documenting Wordsworth's obsession with Ariosto, Bevis uncovers in a manuscript version of "Nutting" an allusion to Orlando Furioso that seems anything but casual or incidental--though it is certainly "fun." Quoting the lines that originally described the boy's seizing of the hazels, "From such rude intercourse the woods all shrink / As at the blowing of Astolpho's horn," Bevis hears the "horn" suggesting an aroused penis. Is he right? It hardly matters, for in doing so he gestures to higher truth: a "motive for metaphor" that is dignified, not degraded, by association with sexual desire. "When, in The Prelude, Wordsworth speaks of one who, 'like a Hero in Romance / . . . winds away his never-ending horn,' he gestures toward other forms of never-ending desire, and the figure for embodied desire in Ariosto is . . . Angelica, the maiden who both drives and derails the plot as knight after knight chases her through the forest" (237). It is perhaps Bevis's funniest moment, of many, as well as his most profound insight into the essence of Wordsworth, when he picks up in the next sentence, with "She's still running in The Prelude." The allusion to Ariosto's captivating but elusive heroine, in 1805 Prelude 9.450-55, is so much more than an allusion; it is a figure for what keeps us running, running back to Wordsworth--and running after his best readers with renewed energy and life.

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

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