Redfield, "Wordsworth, Poetry, Romanticism: An Interview with Geoffrey Hartman"

Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom
Two Interviews

Wordsworth, Poetry, Romanticism: An Interview
with Geoffrey Hartman1

Marc Redfield, Claremont Graduate University

  1. Marc Redfield: Geoffrey, thank you for this occasion. I'd like to pick up on the present occasion and suggest that our conversation be centered on Wordsworth and then maybe also on poetry and religion and the present moment or modernity.

  2. Geoffrey Hartman: Okay.

  3. MR: Partly following out on your talk at the conference and partly thinking about, let's say, the function of criticism and poetry at the present time. So let me ask you an opening question, which is about Wordsworth. You have written about so many authors and periods and topics, but Wordsworth has always been, particularly since 1964, your special author, if that's fair.

  4. GH: Actually . . .

  5. MR: Maybe not.

  6. GH: Earlier. [Laughs.]

  7. MR: Earlier, yes. [Both laugh.]

  8. GH: Earlier, because The Unmediated Vision had its first chapter on Wordsworth.

  9. MR: Okay. And the others were Rilke and Hopkins and Valéry. And you continued to write about these figures, but . . .

  10. GH: I've continued to write on Hopkins . . . not on Rilke . . . but also on Valéry. I wrote on Rilke later only in view of a comment on Paul Celan. I mean, he figures, but not in a sustained way.

  11. MR: You've written about the Wordsworthian sense of place that you acquired as a child refugee . . .

  12. GH: Right.

  13. MR: . . . in England, and your most recent writing up through today continues to draw strength from Wordsworth and to return to him, so I was wondering if you would be willing to try to sort of say something in an interview format about your own sense of the importance of Wordsworth for us today. I know that's an enormous question, but that might start us in a direction.

  14. GH: Well, you know, you have to presuppose that poetry is of importance. [Chuckles.] And then, that Wordsworth is of importance. I mean that it is true if there were no Wordsworth, Milton still would be important, Spenser, Shakespeare, and, you know, continental poetry, and so on. Poetry would not go away . . . But having said that, Wordsworth does stand there permanently to my mind, and I think that's a general consensus; we've recognized that there is a divide between the old and the new: symbolism, old style, new style, however you would describe it. Wordsworth is an innovator and one should talk about exactly why he is the beginning of modern poetry. It doesn't matter if we say modern or modernist. We still don't know the decisive elements that went into that change from an older style of symbolism and writing poetry to the new style—the new style being a new type of visionariness but also a certain intermingling of prosaicness or a diminished fear of the difference between prose and poetry. Should poetry come closer to prose, that might be a strength rather than a weakness. So, I think this development, which may not be the first thing people think about, has something to do with the history of prose, at least in England. Because in England there was previously, before Wordsworth, a considerable division between poetic style and prose style; and Wordsworth, as you know, revolted against a special language for poetry, wanted to do away with "poetic diction."

  15. So, one would have to make an excursus into prose and prose rhythms and into the whole question of the transformation of meter, which finally goes into free style or vers libre. That is only the technical level. These technical matters are important, even if we cannot make a one-to-one relation between technical and thematic or form and content. But the main thing that makes one think of Wordsworth as originator is the way he handles paranormal or intense, quasi-mystical feelings for the natural world ("the incumbent mystery of sense and soul") as an everyday kind of ecstasy. I don't quite know how to put it and so I usually cite Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life. This aspect of Wordsworth was clear enough yet not valued at the beginning, but now we have no great problem with it. Behind it, of course, is a crucial reflection on the depth of everyday life. As well as the role of nature in everyday life as a nourishing environment, and how it affects what we are increasingly calling the ecology of mind. That is, not just the relation between open spaces or rural nature and mental space, but a necessary symbiosis of nature and mind or nature and the imagination. One learns to understand the poet's fear that nature in the future may not sustain a characteristically English culture—will not sustain the imagination it has fostered. And if nature does not sustain the imagination, then the mind will desert nature or the imagination will. The result is fatal to the ecosystem of both nature and mind. There is a growing dependency on increasingly coarser stimuli abetted by urbanization (a process the poet analyses in his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads), the crowding of people in cities, the hurry, the helter-skelter, the proliferation of news and sensational writing,—matters that, later on, Walter Benjamin also observed and expressed in more direct socioeconomic terms. Benjamin added the insight that modernity did not augment perception and sensation by the addition of new media but the contrary of that, that the media actually impoverish our capacity to feel directly and for "the meanest flower."

  16. MR: The shock experience . . .

  17. GH: Yes, Wordsworth emphasizes the shock experience of the City, but as a negative. Even when poets like Baudelaire don't talk about shock, that shock enters their poetry. Wordsworth does talk about it, especially in his description of London in The Prelude, but it is interesting that for him the shock came first in youth, from nature itself, and in that context was positive, tonic. And he stays with that, and holds onto that, because the later, urban shock is more intractable, does not contribute to maturation, or else he just doesn't know how to deal with it. Of course, anyone serious about urban studies would say "Wordsworth is arrièré, he gets it backwards; cities can be developed as a wonderful habitat, we just have to get used to, use them as a creative field of stimuli rather than succumbing to trauma and sensory flooding."

  18. MR: Still, would it be fair to say that you've seen and read in Wordsworth a poet whose particular power speaks to. . . well I was thinking of two things as you were speaking, they are, of course, themes in your writing: the impending ecological disaster, and then secondly the degree of violence which has gotten attached to religion and to expressions of religious fervor in the very contemporary world.

  19. GH: He knew about the violence, and he knew it from England's history itself. He became a very strong supporter of the via media, yet was not overly concerned with religion. He may have been close, early on, to the spirit of Methodism, and did not fear "enthusiasm" the way that Locke and other enlightened thinkers feared religious mania of every kind. Chiefly, though, he was concerned that if your thoughts turned too much towards otherworldliness and became trapped in compensatory religious structures of the imagination, then your sensibility would move away from nature even more, and closer to apocalyptic fancies. And that violence, leading to the loss of the natural world as what should suffice, as poetry's true nourishment, he wanted to avoid at all costs. That is one reason why he doesn't, like Blake, erect a counter-visionary structure in his poetry. He doesn't try to replace one vision by another but subtly transforms, "naturalizes" an older symbolic mode entirely.

  20. MR: I'd like to pursue that along a particular track, and it's a bit self-interested because I've been trying to write about the "war on terror" in relation to certain Romantic sources, if you can believe it . . .

  21. GH: You gave a lecture on that at Yale I could not attend.

  22. MR: Yes, and in (I think) 1947, Jean Paulhan wrote a book that's pretty much forgotten except in French departments called Les fleurs de Tarbes, ou la Terreur dans les lettres, and it had the sort of counterintuitive thesis that modern literature, we would say romantic as opposed to classic literature, craves terror in a sense because it craves transparency.

  23. GH: Craves?

  24. MR: Desires.

  25. GH: Desires . . .

  26. MR: . . . is attracted to terror, to the Revolution, because it desires immediacy, or to pick up the great title . . .

  27. GH: Okay, that's . . .

  28. MR: . . . "unmediated vision."

  29. GH: I must admit to an early admiration (craving?) for unmediatedness. It may be that the terror experienced by the poet, also as the Terror that beset a phase in the internecine struggle of the revolutionary factions in France, has something fanatical and ideological in common with our contemporary experience. I am not sure, though, that this murderousness in the name of religion (also of "enlightenment" or self-empowerment when we think of Wordsworth's critique of Godwinianism in The Borderers) arises out of a desire for the unmediated. Yet as a wish to throw off all hypocrisy, repression, convention, arbitrary mind-shackles—in short "second nature"—it tends that way and may indulge in fantasies of a violent purgation. The French Revolution joins up with, becomes, a political religion. Wordsworth was, for a time, an enthusiast of the revolution; his understanding of it was not far from that of Carlyle, who later on saw it, despite its militant secularism, as a religious phenomenon—a religious phenomenon in the political realm. The wild post-Revolutionary speculations, Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude, tried to separate future from past absolutely. They separated, as by a gulf, the man who would be, the man of a new order—I'm paraphrasing—from the man of the past. Eventually that led the poet to return, in reaction, to continuities with his own tradition; even to define the poet generically as one who would be saved from the wound of such discontinuity by memories returning of his early intercourse with a beauty "old as creation." Even the early fearful experiences bound him, as he now saw, to his habitat. He turned from certain abstract immediacies and came to honor the concrete, embedded qualities of a religion apparently formed by spirit of place, by local and national traditions. There is, we might say, a return from globalism to localism. But still, being a complex if unconventional thinker, Wordsworth had a notion of natural religion that was pedagogical. Nature was a great pedagogue, and any social engineering, any mechanical scheme of education, could not replace the accidented and multifaceted influences that, he claimed, made him a poet. In The Prelude he describes, for instance, how Nature liberated him from, well, I call it a "spot syndrome," from fixating localizations. Their localization has a mythic, even theophanic strength; but that does not cancel the psychological drama of having to progress from their haunting to the concept of Nature itself, nature as Nature, something much larger. Wordsworth's Prelude becomes our first significant poem centering on developmental psychology. He couldn't simply go back to local virtue, or local attachment. "Local attachment" at the end of the eighteenth century was a dialectical response—well, even if not dialectical, it was a reactive response to the growing cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment. All these are the complicated movements which factor into what we call "Wordsworth."

  30. MR: Yes. And perhaps, to just pursue this one step longer and then we'll turn to something else, Paulhan defines "terror in letters" as the desire to extirpate the flowers of rhetoric, right, and to achieve an unmediated vision, and Wordsworth's relation's highly complex . . .

  31. GH: Yes, yes, it is . . .

  32. MR: . . . the achieving of a plainer style.

  33. GH: Exactly . . . Paulhan would be relevant to Wordsworth and his distrust of rhetorical "glitter." Yet in Lyrical Ballads he didn't want to extirpate, really, the flowers or colors of rhetoric. He wanted to give them genuine roots, wanted them to proceed from the popular imagination, and, as it were, emerge from the soil, from a heart, or homeland. So Yeats too asks us to ground myth in the earth The result is, as in many of the Lyrical Ballads, a minimalism of incident and style; and when the poet does use flowers of rhetoric, they are very closely, almost pedantically, but still quite powerfully attached to the particular person or story. In the "Idiot Boy," even though it is night, the idiot boy thinks the moon is the sun which shines so cold, and the owls hooting are the cocks crowing. So the metafelicity of this, the distortion, the coloration—what one could call strong, crazy metaphors— is sunk into the specific instance. Otherwise he is a minimalist, as in the Lucy poems. There, when you compare "Strange fits of passion" to "A slumber did my spirit seal," you see how much he elides, or rather condenses in the latter. But there is no sense of wishing to extirpate figures, only dead metaphors. Live metaphors, however rare, are the stuff of poetry. When in "The Ruined Cottage" the baker's cart goes by Margaret's house, because she has no money, so why stop there, she says, "that wagon doesn't care for me." She doesn't say "the baker doesn't." She transfers it to the wagon, "That wagon doesn't care for me."

  34. MR: It's the more powerful because it's a sense of a process.

  35. GH: Yes, you feel the poetic process, the metaphoric transfer or displacement . . . The animation of what is inert, of the mute, insensate thing, is part of that, and is justified by Margaret's passion, even as she remains movingly shy of cursing, or anger, or attributing blame directly.

  36. MR: I suppose I'm trying to connect this to Wordsworth's resistance to apocalypse as you have taught us to see.

  37. GH: If apocalypse is also . . .

  38. MR: . . . as a resistance to terror.

  39. GH: Yes. Well, that's a jump, yet it's relevant. Apocalypse is always associated with violent images of purgation, and with a rhetorical violence too, about which Wordsworth may be too squeamish. So I think that is right, your perception is to the point. Wordsworth's purgation of poetic diction is not terroristic in Paulhan's sense. His plain style bypasses (to Blake's disgust) the "terrors" of a theomanic imagination for the deeper, daily, subtle profoundnesses of a mind seeking what will suffice.

  40. MR: And then let me ask you a question that goes in a slightly different direction; again, I have half my eye on the contemporary world that we are living and suffering in. One aspect of globalization, of course, is the global spread of English. And in our little local part of the world, what that means is a great deal of stress put on foreign language departments, near catastrophe for German departments in many universities . . .

  41. GH: Also for French at the moment.

  42. MR: For French, yes. So here, just to sound a little perverse about it, is a problem that Wordsworth can't help us with as it were. One would want to, of course, instead urge that people read Rilke or Valéry in the original. The serious question I would like to ask you is for any reflections on comparative Romanticism and the future you see for comparative study in the world today.

  43. GH: I can't give you even a moderately simple answer that would suggest a clear corrective or resolution for the paradox that even as we become multicultural we neglect the basis of every culture, its language. Our globalism becomes ever more abstract and our actual knowledge ever more parochial. That is why I prefer not to limit your concern to Romanticism. Of course, one should go back to Romanticism and extrapolate from it because there is so much of it that involves theory of language. I don't mean just Rousseau's theory of language but also the more concrete, empirical reflections of Humboldt in Germany. We should learn, I think, to pay attention to, to study as an ensemble, language theory, interpretation theory, and the creative literature that arises at a time that introduces via Goethe the concept of world literature, without any thought of abandoning the study of the particular national literatures. Then you also have to go back in time and study the dialectic of global and local: the way a language renews itself, is renewed by writers trying to revive its fossilized metaphors or retrieve its supposed original vigor. The short answer is that unless we cultivate a greater respect for the way language is an indefeasible part of thought rather than its utilitarian shell, we won't progress but will regress in this media age.

  44. It would be pedantic of me to offer a précis of the differing literary histories and philosophies of language in major European countries, the ones I know about (France, Germany, England), but Comp. Lit. scholars are acquainted with how productive and erudite European stylistics was in the hands of a Spitzer or Auerbach, who knew the evolution of the relevant vernaculars and could closely relate them to their developing literatures—interactive yet distinctive for each nationality. So one can extract some very important lessons concerning the way that language fertilizes itself and exerts great influence on a historical thesaurus but also on the imagination. How language is intrinsic to the development of a literary imagination. It's not that you have an imagination and then you strive to find a language for it, somehow create new words. It is a much more intricate process. So I would go in that direction, but the modern instance is made more difficult because language is proliferating unequally: in certain areas very, very fast, and in some areas hardly at all. Just think of the popular craze for acronyms and abbreviations now exacerbated by e-mail and text messaging. Multiple sources from print and speech flow into the river, the flood of language and junk speech. The growth of the optical deceives us, makes us believe (a willing deception on our part) that we can understand all this as if—to return to your concern—it were transparent, as if it could be understood immediately. But that immediacy overlooks the linguistic and interpretive moment and is, in reality, more mediated than ever. Whether our knowledge of language is expanding or contracting—and there is a lot of inventiveness around—it doesn't settle or sift incrementally. The new or idiosyncratic is soon consumed. It does not seem to build up, as in Shakespeare, to a creative synthesis of popular and higher genres. There does seem to be an important current, however, an incipient canon of popular music that may already be contributing to the thesaurus of speech, rhythm, poetry. So, I'm not saying that the contemporary situation is arid, rather that it is confusing, and has led to an unfortunate neglect of a vast heritage as well as a disincentive. There is a distinct lack of interest in the deeper study of poetry, and generally of the way traditions have always refigured themselves.

  45. MR: I suppose it goes back to a theme that we were discussing in the panels today. Just the double-edged nature of mediation, technical mediation; although,

  46. GH: Yes, technological mediation . . .

  47. MR: on the one hand, the technical flowerings of creativity, and on the other hand, standardization.

  48. GH: It is very interesting, this encroaching standardization. Auerbach mentions it in the last chapter of Mimesis, one of the Comp. Lit. Bibles, as both eulogy and elegy for a many-splendored historicism. I.A. Richards too should be mentioned—Ogden and Richards worked together on The System of Basic English. Ogden, actually, wrote a book around 1930, called something like Against Babel or Debabelization [chuckles]—and that was a tirade against French and German etc., against bothering to be multilingual. Their position was "it is better for education and world peace to have a language which can be adopted universally, so let's work on basic English." Another side of that was the short-lived utopian idea of a universal Esperanto. What one is afraid of is that language will now, on the one hand, spin out of control in various ways, and on the other standardize and impoverish itself.

  49. MR: Yes, well in particular of course from the point of view of the people who teach languages other than English . . . I don't know . . .

  50. GH: The case has to be made that everyone should have more than one language. Now, that kind of bilingualism is necessary, not primarily as an epistemic or even economic tool, but because you cannot understand and really own your language unless you have also another language. That is the minimum principle to be adopted, and I wouldn't care what language it is, whether an African-American pairing or a Spanish-American, or English-Latin. But you should try to master two languages; and, if possible, two languages with either a significant written canon or a recorded oral tradition, and—you were talking about comparative literature—you would acquire some capability of comparing them. That is, to test the limits of translatability, and as you get to the limits of translatability, you also see how and perhaps why cultures are different. . . Disaster awaits if you underestimate the depth relation of a culture to its language, as we see in American foreign policy, its ignorant adventurism.

  51. MR: Right. Let me close the interview with a couple of questions about poetry, just to bring us full circle. There was a very striking moment, at least for me, in an interview that Harold Bloom gave around 1985, I think it was Imre Salusinszky . . . if I got the name right . . .

  52. GH: Yes, he published an interview with Frye, who else, myself, Bloom, Gayatri Spivak perhaps, and . . .

  53. MR: Maybe Edward Said, I don't remember . . .

  54. GH: Yeah, I think Said was there too . . .

  55. MR: Well, anyway, at a certain point in the interview, I think that it is this interview, Bloom confessed to having completely changed his mind about Blake. He commented that when he was young he would have said he put Blake on the highest level, and Pope lower, considerably lower, and now he would do it the other way around. So, that's the case in which a critic has changed his mind about something very large given the history of this particular critic's writing. I wonder whether you've had any experience that's analogous in which a writer who once meant a great deal to you maybe now means less, for reasons that would be interesting.

  56. GH: No, and I don't think that reflects favorably on me [laughs], the fact that I have to say no. It may be that I don't go out on as many limbs as Bloom does. And I know it was quite a reversal, because Bloom and I were in very close daily contact for a long time. And I saw, even wrote about the change in his attitude about Blake, but that is another subject. [Pause.] I really don't think I have ever reversed myself, because even when I fall away from a poet such as Rilke, I still enjoy that poet. Bloom has to adopt something wholeheartedly and then reject it. I mean he takes it into his bosom, and then he divorces. I think a certain love/hate remains; he's a very passionate person in that respect. I seem to be more cautious, I fall for a poet easily enough but have to work hard to justify what I feel, to prove that poet's worth to myself. Bloom, however, has a capacity of intuition when it comes to poetry that is absolutely remarkable, while I have to woo a poet, and do it from the outside. I look at the style and say, "Now this is interesting . . . " and very gradually, you know, I get used to it, attain a certain intimate confidence, but it takes time. Now, in the case of Wordsworth, it had something to do with my displacement into another language. And with Wordsworth and English nature hitting me at the same time. Not that I was in the Lake District, I was in another place, in Bucks, but it was a typical English rural nature that hadn't changed all that much when I found myself there in '39. So, I got a start like this. But even with Wordsworth, I stayed a long time pondering features of style Bloom would have probably have considered trivial—the repetitions, and so on. I don't think they should be disregarded, but Bloom is not particularly interested in diction, or stylistic norms and deviations, unless they tell his ear about a deviant borrowing from precursors. When he comes to a poet like Hopkins, he kind of throws the diction away, and flies immediately to the poetical ideology, as it were. I have a very close relationship to Wordsworth, but—how should I put it—I don't incorporate the poet that I read, or anything that I read, in the way that Bloom does.

  57. MR: In the 50s and 60s, you wrote about contemporary American poetry . . .

  58. GH: Yes, I did.

  59. MR: Do you still read contemporary American poetry?

  60. GH: I still do, but it is not as intense. I decided early on that I was going to do poetry reviewing, because that's how I would get into contemporary American and English poetry—through, you know, the pressure. I need a lot of pressure. My aim was to be a poet, so at that time I read poetry to get on as a poet. To inspire and feed me. To encourage me. And this reviewing of poetry was really my way of getting deeper into the poetry. I was also piquing my intellect, because each poet is a little world, a heterocosm, so that was the challenge. I made some discoveries, or I thought I made them, like A. D. Hope, the Australian poet. I was sent his book together with about 30 others by the Kenyon Review, and I said to myself, "This is a great poet. How come no one knows about him?" Of course, while they didn't know about him in America, he was already famous in Australia, so I wrote this review under the illusion that I was a discoverer of a new poet, that's how naïve I was. I had no big background. Whereas Bloom, as he told me, from very early on read and read and poetry simply fell into him. He memorized Yeats completely. He didn't say he memorized every other poet too, but he knows, he knows a tremendous amount by heart. Empson was another who knew the canon by heart, big swatches of it. I envy their capacious memory, or should I say heart: their non-mechanical learning by heart. That is lost to so many of us.


1This interview was conducted at the 2005 NASSR conference on August 16, 2005. It was recorded by Kate Singer, transcribed by Lisa Marie Rhody, and lasts 36 minutes and 42 seconds.