This essay addresses the theoretical, philosophical, and aesthetic uses of silence in the work of William Wordsworth and John Cage. Through close readings of poems by both writers, an examination of their texts on poetics, and an excursus on the concepts of slow violence and the Anthropocene, I ask whether silence might be a useful strategy to resist the traumatic effects of neoliberalism and socio-ecological breakdown. In order to demonstrate the pedagogical usefulness of silence, I also share a sound collage created with my students, in which we employed Wordsworth’s and Cage’s compositional and philosophical methods to try to capture something like the texture of silence mixed directly onto an audio file. Finally, the essay closes by asking whether attunement to silence might help us recognize and respond to the slow violence (military, economic, ideological, and so on) that seems simply to be the world we inhabit.
Sometimes in that Silence: Occupying the Anthropocene with Wordsworth and John Cage
1. This essay is predicated on a direct link between our current moment in the Anthropocene, the concept of “slow violence,” and the notion of silence as it emerges in the work of William Wordsworth and John Cage. The linkage between slow violence and the Anthropocene has been theorized adroitly by Rob Nixon in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011). My own contribution involves bringing Wordsworth, Cage, and pedagogy into the picture, and to that end I trace out three points or positions in what follows. First, I address very provisionally what I take to be an important and largely unremarked link between the compositional strategies of Wordsworth and Cage, specifically the role of silence as envisioned by the two writers. Next, I share a sound recording produced with my students as part of a class on environmental citizenship, a recording whose compositional procedure was inspired by Wordsworth and Cage. Finally, I ask whether silence, as method, ethos, pedagogy, and spiritual practice, constitutes a viable politics, or whether, as seems the case with so many other related aesthetic practices and theories developed within the Anthropocene (e.g., personal “development,” “freedom,” the concept of “nature,” etc.), it ultimately threatens to fold back into itself and become yet another form of solipsism or liberal subjectivism.
2. A word about the Anthropocene and the concept of liberal subjectivity more broadly figured: as readers of this volume are well aware, the Anthropocene marks our present interval in time, a moment going back (at least) several centuries, during which many geologically significant conditions and processes have been profoundly altered by human activities. As students of Romanticism are similarly aware, its texts and premises occupy an oddly oblique position vis-à-vis the ravages of the Anthropocene. That is, even as Romanticism arises as response to what “man has made of man” (Wordsworth, "Lines Written in Early Spring"), arguably its privileging of a liberal, democratic subject—autonomous, free, appetitive, propertied, universal, and self-willed—provides the “natural” grounds for global capitalism. Whether silence as a Romantic concept cuts into and denatures this subjectivity, offering in its place a different defamiliarized subject, able in some measure to resist neoliberalism’s thrall, or whether silence merely resounds as yet another form of acquiescence will be one of this essay’s key concerns.
3. In order to frame what follows and also to set up a kind of resonance, I want to begin with three quotations, from which I derive three propositions. First, the quotations:
- “ . . . there came a pause / Of silence such as baffled his best skill” —Wordsworth, "There Was a Boy"
- “Where none of these other goals [preexisting form, intentionality] is present, silence becomes something else—not silence at all, but sounds . . . ambient sounds” —Cage (1973, 22)
- Chance composition frees “the ego from its taste and memory, its concern for profit and power . . . silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter the ego’s own experience whether that be outside or inside.” —Cage (1979)
- silence is that which baffles our best skill (that is, our intentions to control outcomes, to commodify, or to force solutions)
- silence is not the absence of sound
- silence allows the sounds of the “world” (that which is outside the ego—screened or merely unnoticed) to enter in
And, When There Came a Pause
4. One of Romanticism’s primary texts for thinking about silence is, of course, Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy.” Arguably, the most important recent reading of that poem belongs to Anne-Lise François. For François, neither New Historicist nor psychoanalytic readings can account for the “mood of quiet reception” in the poem (167–68). But I confess that I am interested in a much more vulgar and instrumentalist kind of reading. I want to account not so much for the quiet, receptive mood but rather for the sense of being violently opened up by silence. Here are the pertinent and well-known passages:
5. It is not at all my intention to attempt yet another reading of the poem. Instead I want for now to focus on a single word, a word that both François and Hartman seize upon in their readings of the poem: “unawares.” The shock of encountering a form of silence, which, again, I am arguing is not the absence of sound, leads us into the realm of John Cage’s poetics—Cage, who famously said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it” (Silence 109). Thinking Wordsworth through Cage allows us to see that “unawares” in this context means not only without knowledge but also without intentionality. What is more, it reveals something like anamnesis, an uncanny dreamlike state in which “a gentle shock of mild surprise” signals the obliteration of the borders of the everyday self, and with them, everyday temporality. For Cage, as I will show, the desire to compose in a state of nonintentionality leads him to embrace practices of chance composition. For Wordsworth, nonintentionality comes about in two distinctly different ways. In many poems, there seems to be a sensual or emotional overload, a sign perhaps of perceptual or psychic overdetermination—think of the opening stanzas of "Lines Written in Early Spring," for example (“I heard a thousand blended notes . . .”)—which leads then to a kind of stupor, a hollowed-out state of receptiveness. Alternatively, as in the particular case of "There Was a Boy," it may be that failure itself provides the catalyst (when one’s own “skill” is baffled), rather than sensual pleasure or overload.
6. Either way, for both writers, new forms of music or poetry require new forms of listening. Here is Cage in conversation discussing this new mode of attentiveness:
Contingency and Ambience: A Thousand Blended Notes
7. It was this awareness, and with it this sense of unknowing, that I hoped to impart to my students in a class on environmental citizenship cotaught in 2016 with a political geographer. The other primary intertext that I asked the students to read, besides "There was a Boy" and some passages from Cage’s Composition in Retrospect (ca. 1983), was Wordsworth’s "Lines Written in Early Spring." I emphasized to them on the first day the concept of contingency, and in the next class period, ambience. I also handed out Wordsworth’s "Fenwick" note for "Lines Written in Early Spring." Interestingly, the note supports a more open—we might even call it horizontal—reading of the poem, not at all what one would expect from the poet of reflection.  That is, faced with a poem that seems on one level to be arguing for a deeper meaning at the core of natural pleasure (in contrast to human manufacture), the note seems unconcerned with meaning at all, striving only to recall sensuous detail, that is, “pleasant thoughts” (pleasure) with no “sad thoughts” (ideology) brought to mind. Wordsworth paints a picture of silence whose intense particularity of detail is worthy of his sister:
8. Attempting to comprehend fully the open and ambient nature of the note and its relation to Wordsworth’s theory of composition led me to offer my students a few impressionistic words about “spontaneous overflow,” basically a gloss of the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads. This seems to me now wholly inadequate, primarily because the “continued influx” of feelings and thoughts that the "Preface" describes seems to have a teleological thrust, an almost physiological drive towards the ultimate and miraculous production of the poet and the poem (Wordsworth, Major Works 598). A much better place to begin would have been the preface to the 1815 collection of poems. In that work, written 13 years after the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth adopts a tone closer to Cage’s. No longer is imaginative coloring “thrown over” raw perception as it was in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, although meter and associative links may be “superadded.” Instead, the poet represents things “as they are in themselves,” in all of their stubborn facticity (Major Works 597). Thus, an ash tree that has fallen across a brook requires no additional ornament. Like Cage, Wordsworth’s ideal poet does not need nature to talk to him. The “thousand blended notes” of the poem are represented synesthetically, as sound image to be experienced—not, I want to stress, as text to be deciphered or interpreted:
9. It means recognizing that, for Wordsworth, all the potential elements of the poem are present in the silence of a properly observed scene. Even philosophical consideration—for example, the idea “what man has made of man”—comes neither from the poet’s or speaker’s interior nor from the cultural and social surround; it is not dialectically produced through the speaker’s contemplation of nature. Rather, like early industrial pollution, the effects of enclosure on rural populations, or a waywardly discharged soldier, it is copresent in nature, and thus “linked” to the speaker by unobtrusive observation rather than through busy association. Like the “tresses of ivy” that form part of the sonorous experience of the poem, ideas, for Wordsworth, even philosophical or political ideas, are “dependent”—that is, linked to raw data through the perceptive faculties. One requires a degree of silence in order to be unobtrusively observant.
10. This is the most benevolent reading I can offer of Wordsworth’s philosophical quandary in this poem. Perhaps this is because being attentive to silence robs us of some of our defensive critical reflexivity. What I mean by this is that much of Wordsworth’s poetry of this period demands to be read and reread with as much naiveté as is manageable. “What man has made of man” seems so naturally self-evident—its iambic evenness reinforces this—that we are not inclined to stop and question what it means. At first, it seems clear that the first “man” is different from the second “man.” If we read it that way, then one reading might be: “what [industrial capitalism] man made of [natural] man.” Or, we might hear: “what [capitalist] man made of [laborer] man,” etc. As I discussed with my students in class—in fact, they pointed it out in the first place—a kind of violence is suggested either way by this line, especially by its fundamental asymmetry. But beyond any empathetic impulse or even well-meaning liberal outrage we might feel in response to that violence, there is nothing in the line that keeps us from reading it as: “what man [as a concept] has made of man [a particular contingent person].” This last reading leads us away from a conceptualized and concretized poet and/or reader, and, like the Winander Boy, towards a decentered observer and percipient.
11. I am not claiming that Wordsworth’s and Cage’s poetry can be read as part and parcel of a continuous poetics—of course not; in fact, my own slight reading here is tendentious insofar as I leave out any discussion of “I must think, do all I can / That there was pleasure there,” clearly a line that begs to be read in terms of alienation, extreme self-interest, as well as imaginative labor and value, as opposed to mere receptiveness (Major Works 81). Rather, I am merely suggesting that there is, on one level, a similar commitment to disinterested listening involved in the theory and compositional methods of both writers, and a heightened attention to, almost an enthrallment with, ambience.
12. Hoping to materialize this for my students, I asked a small group of them to go out onto campus and record ambient noise with their smartphones. I then edited them together, trying to allow for chance procedure, in order to recreate something like a Cage composition—or, to put it in Wordsworthian terms, to allow us to hear a thousand blended notes. Here is one mix of that experiment. For students, this was a useful exercise in discovering how to pay attention to environments and to let go of preconceived forms and ideas. That is, we allowed every contingent sound—the wind (it was a windy and unseasonably warm winter day), a ping pong game, muffled voices, the sound of a metal clasp clanging against a metal flagpole, and so on—to enter into and become a part of our mix. Something as seemingly unimportant as solitary footsteps in a corridor or laughter in the food court became an essential part of our recording. It was exhilarating and strange. Yet, we decided after classroom debate about the issue that mere aesthetic attention to, even occupation of, this silence is still an extremely weak form of politics. That is, awareness of environment, when merely aestheticized and not theorized as part of a larger system (i.e., capitalism, the institutional ideologies of higher education, etc.), and especially, when it does not lead to action, doubles back on itself and becomes practice of conformism, a watered-down version of care for the self.
War All the Time; Silence as Container
13. What then are the political gains, if any, in attending to the activity of sound? Because this question contains within it an unstated assumption about an aesthetic education, namely that it has the power to (even minimally) effect political change, it must be threaded back through the relation between the individual and the collective, the aesthetic and the political, and systematic/symbolic violence and subjective or intersubjective violence as such. With this in mind, let me stipulate that the political dimension of silence as I understand it being theorized through Cage and Wordsworth is something like a container that provides the conditions and the imaginative space for political action. That is, it hardly matters if the poem itself has political content. Rather, the formal and compositional strategies of the poem create silences that are, as Cage would say, freed from intention. Unlike, say, a poem that is deeply saturated with political content—for example, Shelley’s "England 1819"—observational poems that are attuned to silence (another obvious example would be "A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal") create such containing spaces for the reader. My question then becomes whether or not it is possible to hear also the otherwise unheard gears of neoliberalism and war in our own silences if we listen “unawares.” Wordsworth himself was increasingly insensible to the abstract yet brutal dimension of silence when it came to political matters; as his text "The Convention of Cintra" makes clear, he was not only in favor of war when it augured “liberty,” but also whenever it was merely in the interest of the “nation.” Cage, on the other hand, a pacifist throughout his life, understood that from the perspective of silence, war is as contingent upon the determinate and arbitrary flows of capital as the “thousand blended notes” are upon a fallen ash tree, the wind, or the tresses of ivy in the water. In other words, war forms a part of the symbolically violent background of our experience, and, as such, is always part and parcel of silence: “The world is teeming: anything can / happen . . . The telephone rings . . . / Each person is in the best seat . . . / War begins at any moment” (Silence 96–97).
14. In a recent conference seminar called "On Worldlessness and Worklessness," David Clark recalled Spinoza’s statement that peace is not the absence of war. This reverberates with Cage’s (explicit) and Wordsworth’s (implicit) claim that silence is not the absence of sound. In an earlier text on Kant and war, Clark has argued that peace is “not a respite but, quite to the contrary, [it] marks a period of maximal rethinking about the very nature of sociality” (69). He goes on to write:
15. It seems to me that these subjective and collective uncertainties (as well as their effects) form the core of our contemporary experience. Awareness of our own enmeshment within the Anthropocene intensifies as our silences become more and more saturated in late capitalism. Drone strikes, proxy wars, and covert operations take the place of open declarations of war, not to mention Clark’s assertion of our entanglement in the “disfiguring violence” of “unredeemable war debt” (65). Thus, if I were to ask the students in my environmental citizenship class (taught, remember, in the spring of 2016) if they thought that we, as a nation, were currently at war, my guess is that they would say no, or most of them would. I am tempted to say that this is not because they (or we) are too naïve, but rather because we are not naïve enough. We have not stood long enough, “mute—looking at the grave.” We have not learned, that is, to listen “unawares.”
16. In the silence that emerges from the quietness of the owls, the Winander Boy suddenly discovers his true condition. As though predestined, this discovery prefigures (his death. When read in this way the poem takes on the patina of myth (resonant with the ending of "Strange Fits of Passion"). That is, it becomes a meta-signifier, in this case reinforcing the romantic linkage between knowledge and death. Perhaps what our current war on terror and immigration (and its liberal backlash) obscures in its own mythologizing hysteria is the fact that the majority of (nonimmigrant) Americans, including most of my students—working class and working poor—are not only entangled in a brutal and violent war, but, “gentle shock of mild surprise,” that they are also its unnamed enemy (The Prelude 173).
Coda: We “May Be Depended Upon to Exist”
17. Wordsworth and Cage demonstrate that, when listened to through the aperture of silence, the terms “nature” and “music” cease to need to be anything more or less than their mere material components and effects. I find myself coming down on the side of Cage’s wholehearted embrace of this denaturing of representation, not for deep philosophical reasons but rather for pragmatic, political ones. Wordsworth’s liberal handwringing about the destruction of nature seems to feed back so easily into the system: as I suggest above, “what man has made of man” can easily be heard in the vein of a 1970s public service announcement. Interestingly, many if not most of my students disagree. They like the same yearning in Wordsworth that I find distasteful, and they find Cage’s atonal and experimental poetry and music unlistenable and, even more damning by their lights, unintelligible and depressing.
18. It may be that one of the most important reasons to continue to teach and read Wordsworth is not just that he often transcends his own liberal perspectives, but that entering into the poetry we find ourselves caught up “unawares” by our own liberal identifications. That is, who among us, schooled in and by Wordsworth whether we know it (or like it) or not, has not “lamented” the past in a pious way, or, “in vacant or in pensive mood,” has not looked backwards rather than dealing with the difficulties of the moment (Major Works 81, 304)? In order to resist these intoxicating deflections and to remain in the instability of silence, that is, the instability of my own ambivalence, I’ve taken to reading the final lines of "Lines Written in Early Spring"—“Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?”—as more than a rhetorical question. To read them in this open and naïve way is to leave the “thousand blended notes” open, cacophonous, unblended, untranslated, unlamented—and the poem itself unfinished, less sure of itself, and less ideologically contagious.
19. The conditional clauses that frame the final question take slightly different forms in different published versions. The version in Lyrical Ballads reads “If these my thoughts may not prevent, / If such be of my creed the plan, / Have I not reason . . .” (Lyrical Ballads 66). Yet, in the 1815 collection, interestingly grouped with "Poems of Sentiment and Reflection," the same stanza reads “If this belief from heaven be sent, / If such be Nature’s holy plan, / Have I not reason . . .” (Major Works 81). It is tempting to find expressed in this revision the tendency within the late Enlightenment to codify conceptualizations, to turn thinking into revelation and personal creed into holy writ—again, meta-signification. While this explanatory narrative makes a kind of sense, it seems to me that both responses (the psychological explanation of 1798 and the ideological concretization of 1815) are both ways to silence the silence, so to speak. That is, “And much it grieved my heart to think / What man has made of man,” the first iteration of the refrain, allows us to feel fully the violence of the aforementioned split between “man” and “man,” a split that calls to be read as both an internal rupture (that is, as a figure for modern subjectivity) and as a historical causal “fact” (industrial capitalism, colonialism, etc.). Therefore, when we focus on the repetition of the phrase in the final stanza, we should approach its question without judgment (do we have reason to lament? or, perhaps, is lamentation another form of evasion, conformism in the guise of empathy?). To resist the impulse to suture “man” and “man” together seems to me the more productive as well as ethical approach. Remember that it is the Winander Boy’s failure, his inability to communicate with nature, to suture subject and object, here and there, past and present, that opens him to this new duration, this new way of being in the world. Perhaps like the speaker in the poem, we will find ourselves, seemingly by accident, standing at numerous gravesites together—shattered subjects of the Anthropocene.
20. Reading in this naïve yet devastated way, attentive to the silences that arise from failure, we can read the end of the poem as questioning humankind’s monstrousness to itself, or rather, relatedly, one strata or class’s monstrousness to another (ironically, the only reading precluded by this approach is the reading that is so often proffered, namely the fear of nature “red in tooth and claw”). Furthermore, “what man has made of man” anticipates Bertolt Brecht’s Mann ist Mann by hinting at (demonstrating?) humankind’s inability to be equal to itself.
21. Since, as I wrote earlier, I teach at a regional campus of a large midwestern research university in a mostly poor and working poor area, many of my students have a visceral experience of this inequality. Yet more and more of them approach this material not as bits of cultural capital to be consumed, but rather as a life or death matter. Without knowing what else to do, I encourage them to treat these texts as signposts or road maps for negotiating the intensely difficult terrain of late capitalism, specifically the topography of the working-poor microculture in which they find themselves. Many of my students in fact are training to work in health care or the “criminal justice” system, taking a full load of classes while working full-time at service sector jobs, many of them parents themselves. For them, what “man has made of man” is neither a psychosocial phenomenon nor a one-time historical act. Rather, as Cage teaches us, it is an ongoing and contingent process. Yet while “anything can / happen” and “war [could begin] at any moment,” my students recognize that good things tend to happen much more regularly to people in the upper layers of the socioeconomic scale, and that the costs of bad things happening, including and especially war, are nearly always passed down to the working class and the poor (Cage, Silence 96–97). For them, thinking about and theorizing silence sometimes feels like a luxury; experiencing its shocks to the system, on the other hand, is an inevitable fact of everyday life.
22. It is not necessarily that the silence is louder or more violent in early twenty-first-century central Ohio than it was, say, in the Lake District around 1800. For example, the recent opioid addiction (all but forgotten in wake of the Covid 19 pandemic), which has ravaged parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, and other economically impoverished areas, mirrors in some ways the use of opium in nineteenth-century England. And while I am not claiming a direct cause and effect, the devastation created in families and the larger community (what is this if not slow violence?) was preceded by a loss of manufacturing jobs that has resulted in over 50% of the community living below the poverty line in some areas (e.g., Dayton, Ohio). Now, for the first time in recent history, life expectancy is trending downward for middle-aged working-class men in the United States, due primarily to the uptick in overdoses and suicide. A recent report refers to these (perhaps a bit pathetically) as “deaths of despair” (Case and Deaton). I believe that Cage and Wordsworth, albeit from vastly different political positions, call on us to listen to this ambient violence, to recognize its many forms, and to work collectively in our various communities to make its many ravages audible and visible. Listening and attending to silence’s all-pervasive political surround is not at all the same as acquiescence to the “way things [supposedly] are.” A similar Romantic paradox confronts us when we remember Wordsworth’s dictum: we cannot begin to change ourselves or the world without the “ability to observe with accuracy things as they are in themselves” (Major Works 626).
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Timothy Morton writes of Cage’s prepared piano compositions as exemplary of the asymmetry in the age of hyperobjects, specifically the delinking of personal expressivity and music (Hyperobjects 165). BACK
To score: to gain a point in a game; to evaluate; to orchestrate and/or compose; to cut or to scratch. One can establish a link here from Wordsworth’s recollected daffodils, which score the poem "I wandered Lonely as a Cloud" to John Cage’s unique methods of musical scoring to Charles Olson’s “field poetics” described in "Projective Verse," in which he suggests that the contemporary poet, in typing their poem, creates a “scoring to his [sic] composing . . . a script to its vocalization” (245). Cage and Olson were colleagues and collaborators at Black Mountain College around the time the P.V. was written. There is a further link to be made from Olson’s comments about a “script” to the poem’s vocalizations back to Wordsworth’s claim in the 1819 "Preface" that the reader must be given room to improvise (“modulate”) the music of the poem (Major Works 630). BACK
James Heffernan considers the preface to the 1815 collection clearer and more defined than Wordsworth’s earlier prose explanations of his poetics, arguing that his “ability to define the workings of imagination varied inversely with the power of his own” (111). BACK
Mary Favret mines very similar territory. See also Virilio and Lotringer: “What we classically call ‘war’ is just a smokescreen for this diffused phenomenon which is now neither peace nor war, which in fact abolishes this kind of distinction” (31). BACK