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Andrew Bennett, Wordsworth Writing

Friday, August 21, 2009 - 07:34
Andrew Bennett, Wordsworth Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi + 249pp; illus. $101.00 (Hdbk; ISBN-10: 052187419X; ISBN-13: 978-0521874199)

Reviewed by
Brian Bates
University of Denver

In Wordsworth Writing, Andrew Bennett challenges several pervasive myths about Wordsworth, revisits the most significant cruxes of twentieth-century Wordsworth criticism, and sheds fresh light on Wordsworth’s poetic practice. Bennett carries out this three-pronged revision by questioning the assumption behind many studies of Wordsworth’s life and poetry: that Wordsworth composed poetry without actually writing. Wordsworth has long been considered a poet who composed aloud while walking outdoors, but Bennett contends that this view of Wordsworth as a spontaneous poet of nature misrepresents how he wrote the majority of his poetry. Instead, Bennett demonstrates that Wordsworth’s concern with the process of writing—from thinking about writing, to inscribing words on the page, false starts, writing blocks, and re-writing—defined his poetic identity, choice of subject matter, and passion for poetry.

Although Bennett’s argument cuts across the grain of much Wordsworth criticism, it also explores why so many critics have upheld the notion that for this Lake poet writing and, more particularly, written words were worthless. From the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1800) to the Fenwick Notes (1843), Wordsworth often publicized his written poetry as a kind of speech and fashioned himself as a poet who composed extemporaneously because he immersed himself in natural and inspiring surroundings. In chapter one, Bennett traces how this branding of Wordsworth occurred in the nineteenth century and then closely examines the evidence that critics, biographers, and painters have drawn upon to interpret Wordsworth’s poetic habits. After demonstrating that this evidence is sparse, ambiguous, and occasionally unreliable, Bennett turns to Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals because they offer the closest account of William’s perambulatory compositions. Bennett concludes that Dorothy’s uses of “composing” and description of her brother’s writing process reveal that William most often composed indoors and that when he was outside, he primarily sat down to write while composing. Chapter one reconfigures Wordsworth as a working and often frustrated writer. However, this unmasking of Wordsworth does not recount how many of Wordsworth’s contemporary critics and satirists saw through his public attempts to divorce writing from composition. They lambasted him, early and often, for presenting himself as a poet of nature who labors without laboring.

Bennett’s empirical proof of Wordsworth’s writing habits and quibbling about how much Wordsworth composed aloud or wrote with a pen might seem inconsequential. Chapter two, however, quells such doubts by turning to “the most famous example of the Wordsworthian denial of writing,” his poem “Tintern Abbey” (45). Bennett maintains that Wordsworth’s title change in 1815 from “Lines Written” to “Lines Composed” reveals most acutely Wordsworth’s efforts to present himself as a spontaneous poet of nature who disengaged writing from oral composition. Most nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics, including New Historicists, have reified this image of Wordsworth composing the entire poem aloud on his walking tour. Bennett, however, argues that the process of writing the poem in Bristol, at the end of this tour, structures its thematic ideas and form. From its deictics “these,” “here,” and “this,” and tension between present and past composition, to its repetitions, absences, and figurations of the country and city, “Tintern Abbey” lauds speech and natural inspiration but also anxiously records how necessary the city and writing were for its creation and are for its reception.

Chapter three further probes this paradox of speech vs. writing by focusing on Wordsworth’s conception of the epitaph. Bennett argues that Wordsworth’s strained descriptions in his “Essays Upon Epitaphs” of the appropriate language for epitaphs—an emotional balancing of immediacy and particularity (speech) with deliberation and universality (writing)—are “bound up with the recognition that writing is the necessary ground of speech” (72). In the first half of the chapter, Bennett relates the writing theories of Jacques Derrida, David Olsen, and Roy Harris to his argument. Unfortunately, this extended theoretical treatment obfuscates many of Bennett’s claims about Wordsworth’s “Essays Upon Epitaphs.” Chapter four more usefully examines Wordsworth’s writing theory by turning to Wordsworth’s inscription poems and his “bibliographical graffiti” in Coleridge’s 1796 Poems (90). Wordsworth’s inscription poems represent an impossibility because they foreground historical and physical acts of writing from which they are displaced. After all, readers encounter them in a book, not at their original location. Bennett’s point is that such paradoxical acts and places of inscription—even Wordsworth’s first scribbling of Home at Grasmere in and against Coleridge’s Poems—define Wordsworth’s poetics. As the next chapter explains, the secret behind Wordsworth’s poetry, particularly in the “Preface” to and poems of Lyrical Ballads, concerns the break-down of oral communication. Bennett suggests that Wordsworth’s passion disrupts poetic composition (speech) but also makes his (written) brand of poetry possible. Wordsworth’s poetry records and gains its energy from the delays and deferrals that occur when speech falters and writing becomes a necessary supplement.

The next two chapters deal with Wordsworth’s self-composition, his vexed writing of Book I of The Prelude, and the conflict between philosophy and poetry. In chapter six, Bennett takes on a host of twentieth-century Wordsworth criticism in his efforts to explain how philosophy “unhinges” Wordsworth’s poetry, particularly The Recluse. However, philosophy also spurs Wordsworth to write poetry, namely The Prelude, which hinges on his failure to think philosophically and on his ability to write through and about this perplexity. Bennett also re-locates debates about what the Ur-text and the biographical or psychological origins of The Prelude might be to examine instead the significance of Wordsworth’s “compositional stutterings” in Book I of his autobiographical poem (155). From Bennett’s perspective, The Prelude is about learning how to write. Writing discomposes Wordsworth, doubles back on itself, and necessitates revision on the page and of the self. Far from the therapeutic model of writing as cure, so often held up by Wordsworth scholars, writing produces disturbances, not resolution—consider the “Spots of Time” in The Prelude—that turn on, and lead to, more writing. In his final chapter, Bennett asks that closer attention be paid to the history of Wordsworth writing, and he points out that too many critics and editors have reproduced the poet’s narrative of originary loss in the “Intimations Ode,” “Tintern Abbey,” and “Elegiac Stanzas.” Wordsworth’s tropes of obscurity and loss cannot be explained away by singling out particular socio-political or psycho-biographical contexts behind the writing of his poems. What scholars continue to overlook is that Wordsworth discovers, experiences, and articulates loss through the process of writing.

Wordsworth Writing signals a new and invigorating direction for Wordsworth studies and studies in Romanticism. Bennett’s argument also suggests that any critical exploration of authorship must historicize and closely investigate particular acts of writing. The strengths of this book lie in Bennett’s careful and insightful returns to canonical poems and cruxes of twentieth-century Wordsworth criticism. However, the weaknesses of Wordsworth Writing arise from what these canonical concerns leave out and appear particularly in chapters where theorizing about writing or rehashing past criticism supersedes closer readings of individual poems. For example, chapter five, “Wordsworth’s Passion,” which centers on failed speech, ends with a few pages that only gloss “Resolution and Independence” instead of providing a new reading of the poem. Bennett also is so focused on the critical reception of individual poems that he does not probe what the process of writing might have meant for Wordsworth as he obsessively collected together and edited his poems into volumes. Fortunately, Bennett’s argument and methodology open the door for exploring this and many other questions about Wordsworth’s poetic practice. Wordsworth Writing should be considered a touchstone for Wordsworth studies in the twenty-first century.