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Richard W. Clancey, Wordsworth's Classical Undersong: Education, Rhetoric and Poetic Truth

Monday, January 7, 2002 - 06:58
Richard W. Clancey, Wordsworth's Classical Undersong: Education, Rhetoric and Poetic Truth. New York: St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2000. xxiii + 215pp. $65.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22560-1).

Reviewed by
J. Douglas Kneale
University of Western Ontario

In reconstructing Wordsworth's classical education at Hawkshead" (xv), Richard W. Clancey emphasizes the fundamental importance of the concept of ethos in the growth of Wordsworth's style. Comprising "honesty, truth, and audience-concern" (9), ethos is at once an Aristotelian principle and a Wordsworthian signature. It begins with Wordsworth "in his mother's arms, at her knee, among his father's books, in his presence and shadow" (7), and it develops-with more continuity than disrupture-through the admirable, "holistically" based (51) education that Wordsworth received at Hawkshead Grammar School and his deepening intimacy with the classics at Cambridge. In a book on a poet whose originality owes much to his origins, Clancey argues for the importance of Wordsworth's teachers, and his teachers' teachers, in the formation of a poetical character whose romanticism is thoroughly grounded in its classicism.

The interplay of Wordsworth's traditional late-eighteenth-century upbringing and his revolutionary individual talent has always been a difficult issue to sort out, but scholars of late have demonstrated convincingly how indebted-and yet paradoxically how "free, enfranchised and at large"-Wordsworth is when it comes to the "feeding source[s]" of his poetry. Clancey traces the derivation of Wordsworth's voice to the "classical undersong" that he learned at school through his reading and translation in the classical languages. Arguing that "Teachers will ordinarily teach what they have been taught themselves" (38), Clancey goes into considerable detail about Wordsworth's schoolmasters, their training and background, their philosophy of teaching, and the probable curriculum that they set for boys such as Wordsworth. While we may know that Wordsworth was a respectable Latinist-his translations of Virgil and Horace not least standing as evidence-we may be less familiar with his competence in Greek, or the fact that "Hawkshead in the 1780s was teaching Demosthenes" (45). But Clancey also shows how much Hawkshead used translations in the teaching of the classics, and he suggests that such a method, different from techniques at other schools that stressed composition, actually allowed Wordsworth not just to develop an affection for the classics, but to become a sophisticated translator himself.

Out of this history of the English grammar school leading up to and including Wordsworth's time emerges the sense of an ethos instilled in personal and public life, but especially for Clancey in literature, that connected Wordsworth to a rhetorical tradition whose two anchors were Aristotle and Horace. While Wordsworth's famous and baffling statement in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (e.g., "Aristotle, I have been told . . .") makes one question the extent of the poet's first-hand knowledge, Clancey suggests that Aristotle's principles of argumentation-particularly ethos itself as discussed in the Poetics and the Rhetoric and embodied in Horace's poetry-are important to an understanding of the character of Wordsworth's poetry. Clancey does not claim a direct or literal Aristotle-Horace-Wordsworth lineage, but he does show, against a background of Aristotle's ethical argument, convergences between Horatian and Wordsworthian poetics.

A detailed chapter on Horace's Epistle to Florus shows how aspects of the ethical argument-e.g., the "good sense, good moral character, and goodwill" (68) of the orator or poet-are manifested in Horace's ironic, lyrical, elegant voice. Before moving on directly to Wordsworth's poetry, however, Clancey juxtaposes an equally thorough rhetorical reading of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, emphasizing the ethical cast of its arguments, and also its "celebratory or epideictic rhetoric" (91). Clancey reads Wordsworth's prose as closely as he reads Horace's verse, noting in their differing conceptions of "the chief duties of the poet"-for Horace, "mastery of the demands of his art"; for Wordsworth, "the interior principles of poetry" (105)-a common epistemological ground, what Wordsworth calls a "truth which is its own testimony" (113). Clancey asks how a subjective, lyrical kind of poetry can presume to a truth which is, as Wordsworth says, "not individual and local, but general, and operative," and he finds the answer in both Wordsworth's and Horace's "asserting a special poetic epistemology" (114) that downplays mimesis in favor of ethos; they thus espouse a poet who is less a "maker" than a "speaker" whose "feelings," "thoughts," and "expressions" are seen as "not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion." Because so often in Wordsworth pathos is tied to an elegiac sense of loss, Clancey turns to Wordsworth's examples of epitaphs as texts whose "affective eloquence" (124) bespeaks the ethical and "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."

What is new about the discussion of The Prelude in the chapters that follow is the degree to which Clancey demonstrates that the poem should be read as an argument, not a given history. "Wordsworth had to persuade himself," Clancey writes (133). In this poem, as in so many others in his oeuvre, Wordsworth's foregrounding of nature can obscure the role of art. While this is itself a classical topos-art hiding art-we sometimes tend to take Wordsworth at his word and think that the great poem on the growth of his own mind has an aesthetic and a rhetorical structure owing more to the fluxes and refluxes of the river Derwent than to any literary form. In Wordsworth's autobiography, as in Milton's doctrine, the life is often taken as the composition and pattern of a true poem, but it is a poem operating in forensic, deliberative and, perhaps above all, epideictic modes of rhetoric. We are well reminded of "the argumentative and evidentiary qualities" (133) of The Prelude-that is, of the ways in which Wordsworth must convince not only Coleridge but himself that he is the hero of his own "heroic argument." Clancey shows how ethos and epideictic work together: "Often the argument emerges as simple epideictic lyrical celebration of what has transpired in Wordsworth's life" (134), but since this self-praise (and occasionally self-blame) has its self-conscious side, we see that as the poem progresses, Wordsworth's "narrative becomes the history of the textual disclosure itself" (135).

But the forensic mode comes into play as well in Wordsworth's scenes of persuasion. Describing the after-effects of the boat-stealing scene, Clancey writes: "We are convinced of the authenticity of the moral dimensions of his experience because he seems so convinced that as a child he was convinced of the moral quality of what he did. . . . We read with interest as witnesses to a trial nature has set for Wordsworth" (144). The role of witness in the poem extends from the reader to Coleridge to the numerous apostrophised natural objects, presences, or spirits that corroborate a text which must be its own testimony, and which operates according to a rhetoric of guilty/not guilty, praise/blame, persuasion/dissuasion: "Wordsworth had to prove himself to himself" (148). In that ethical proof, of which the Snowdon episode provides the climactic example for Clancey, lies the vatic, the philosophical, the apocalyptic, the rhetorical, the authentically human Wordsworth.

Clancey's book joins other recent work on Wordsworth that continues to probe the affiliations between poetry and rhetoric; his Appendix offers an annotated bibliography of recent works on Aristotelian rhetoric and a useful synopsis of contemporary applications of the ethical proof. Because of his forging links with studies in these related fields, we may say that the ethical proof today-if not ethical behavior itself-is a living concern that cuts across aesthetics and ideology.