Thomas Pfau, Wordsworth's Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production and John Rieder, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn: Community, Virtue, and Vision in the 1790s.
University of Southern California
The theses of John Rieder's and Thomas Pfau's recent books present striking parallels, a fact that reflects at least as much on the theoretical climate both critics inhabit as it does on their shared topical focus. Although it may be unsurprising to find similarities between two studies of Wordswortheach of which, moreover, concentrates on a limited number of works from early in the poet's careermore notable are the ways each positions itself as post-New Historicism, even while insisting on the rigorous articulation of historical context. For both critics, this stance involves a renewed attention to the category of the aesthetic, defined not as the evasion or mystification of history but as the precise and determinate response to questions posed at the level of material circumstance. The cultivation of aesthetic (i.e., "literary") experience, argue Pfau and Rieder, constitutes the particular ideological project of the middle class in its late-eighteenth century period of consolidation. What Pfau calls the "virtual commodity" of "unselfconscious aesthetic interest" (1, 65) surfaces in Rieder's account as, more simply, the "literary community held together . . . by poetry itself" (Rieder 21617). The construction of literature as an autonomous domain thus solves a "problem of cohesion or social totality" which (Rieder 46), because it cannot be addressed by the available modes of political representation, instances the modern concept of class itself.
Both Rieder and Pfau, as this brief summary implies, regard their books as contributing to the current critical investigation of literature as a discipline. Influenced most immediately by John Guillory's analysis of cultural capital, these critics understand literature as a mode of production that, to paraphrase Wordsworth, both calls forth and communicates a shared identity through the refinement of what Pfau and Rieder variously call "sensibility" or "sympathy." The middle-class reader participates, as Pfau explains, in
an efficient yet fundamentally unconscious collective practice...[whose] vernacular, formal-aesthetic discriminations absorb the cognitive potential of its subjects (poet and audience) by the very practice that defines them as a community. (55)
"Community" and "class" are characterized in Pfau's argument as imaginary categories with real social efficacy, and less as the material bases of aesthetic production than as its telos. To regard the characteristically Romantic attenuation of reference as a form of false consciousness is thus, as both Pfau and Rieder make clear in their respective critiques of Romantic New Historicism, to miss the more telling historical point. In this respect as in others, Rieder and Pfau are representative and shrewd exemplars of a critical project that weds the materialist and political concerns of New Historicism to the theoretical self-consciousness against which, in part, its energies were defined. Yet their sophistication and theoretical range is linked, in a curious way, to a renewed focus on some of most traditional themes in Wordsworth criticism: the performance of community; the threat of alienation; the paradoxical relation of sympathy to solitude.
In Pfau, these themes emerge gradually from a genetic argument that aspires to locate Wordsworth within a broad canvas of momentous cultural developments, including landscape painting and tourism, educational reform and rhetorical instruction, and political theory from Reynolds and Burke to Malthus. Wordsworth's Profession is, in all respects, a large book: ambitious, learned, and formidably dense. Pfau typically frames his discussions by invoking a topos of current scholarly concern, such as picturesque landscape or the discourse of the sublime, and raising the analysis to a higher level of abstraction. In this method, Pfau emulates Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit is probably the most important intellectual context for an argument that often seems more directly engaged with the state of contemporary criticism than with producing a new reading of Wordsworth. The result is a book more notable for range than local nuance, and for synthesis than novelty.
Wordsworth's Profession is divided into three long sections, "Description," "Instruction," and "Vocation." The first section begins by surveying the evolution of eighteenth-century landscape painting and locodescriptive poetry, with the intent of demonstrating "a systematic relationship between the emergence of the Picturesque . . . and the gradual emergence of 'class' as the conscious reflection of a social identity that has been produced rather than inherited" (21). Picturesque description presents a particularly diagrammatic example of cultural capital, with its "transfiguration of spatial vistas into communal prospects" (28). From guidebooks and familiar topographical poems such as "Cooper's Hill" and The Seasons, Pfau arrives at Wordsworth's early poems Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk, and concludes the section with a reading of "Tintern Abbey." Generously illustrated and impressive in its command of these interrelated genres, Pfau's discussion presumes rather than rehearses the kind of detailed analysis to be found in such studies as John Barrell's The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place (Cambridge University Press, 1972) or Ann Bermingham's Landscape and Ideology (University of California Press, 1986). The itinerary, as well, will be familiar to readers of Alan Liu's Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford University Press, 1989). Pfau's contribution consists of his emphasis on the way descriptive practices construct the landscape as "virtual reality" through "the gradual disestablishment of nature's materiality" (65). Pfau makes this argument with the assistance of Kant, whose account of the constitutive "dissimulation of empirical and social reference by the aesthetic" also propels a critique of "the romance of Enlightenment retold in vestigial form by contemporary historicism" (105, 122).
Parts two and three, "Instruction" and "Vocation," center on Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude respectively. In his second section, Pfau surveys a number of late eighteenth-century treatises on education, focusing especially on Andrew Bell and Mary Wollstonecraft, to show how they conflate "the technologies of instruction [with] those of surveillance" (Pfau 152). Surveillance becomes self-culture for the reader of Lyrical Ballads, in which "misguided, obtuse, and overly confident" narrators dramatize the need "to dismantle the terms of any received cultural and interpretive authority" (184, 198). Community, then, is to be achieved through the "felicitous performance" of interpretation, a task made inescapable by the discontinuities within and among the poems that make up the collection (259). Pfau's final section situates The Prelude within the traditions of public discourse and the man of letters, contending that the poem's "fixation on a self" is the epiphenomenon of "an affect-based general rhetoric" inherited from Burke, Reynolds, and Hume (30102). He concludes by suggesting how "the proper aesthetic management" of a representative subjectivity conflicts with the "macroeconomic specter of reproduction" announced by Malthus and thematized in Book 7 of The Prelude (340).
Consistently intelligent and painstakingly argued, Pfau's analysis is gauged much more toward elaborating the intellectual contexts of Wordsworth's poetry than toward producing original close readings. Pfau's comments on peripheral figures like Malthus or Wollstonecraft often convey a greater impact than his analyses of Wordsworth, which run along generally well-established lines. His account of Book 7, for example, aims to locate the ideological motivations for the sublime, but proceeds in terms considerably indebted to Mary Jacobus's discussion of gender and personification in Romanticism, Writing, and Sexual Difference (Clarendon Press, 1989). His fine discussion of the Lyrical Ballads is qualified by a few instances of tone-deafnessas when he claims that, for the narrator of "Simon Lee," "closure is achieved in a simple moral syllogism: an act of charity warrants gratitude"or oversight, as when he refers to "Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree" as the first item in the 1798 collection (220, 184). Minor slips like these may weigh more heavily in so imposing a book than they would in one of more modest pretensions. Pfau's prose makes stringent demands on the reader, and his frequent iterations make the argument seem more predictable than its breadth of reference warrants.
In this respect Rieder's book provides a foil as well as a complement. A conventional monograph in form, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn devotes four of its seven chapters to "close readings of major poems written in the crucial years from 1795 to 1798," including the Salisbury Plain poems, The Borderers, The Ruined Cottage, and "Tintern Abbey" (90). Rieder is disarmingly frank in acknowledging that his "project's limitations are no doubt obvious" (221). This tight focus, however, conduces both to clarity of outline and acuity of insight. Less sophisticated a sociologist than Pfau, Rieder is (as his name promises!) the more venturesome reader.
The title of Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn may be unfortunate, suggesting as it does a set of New Historicist themes that have become commonplace in the last decade or so. Rieder does in fact share the New Historicism's sometimes doctrinaire emphasis on "class perspective," even while his own account of the fissures within that perspective throws some doubt on the adequacy of class as an explanatory category. He also accepts the view that Wordsworth's poetry becomes progressively depoliticized as the poet's "mature literary practice" evolves, but argues cogently against the synonymy of literature and power, suggesting that poetry exerts its influence "much less by repressing desires than by gratifying them" (20, 90, 27). For example, as Rieder points out by surveying a number of late eighteenth-century poems whose titles resemble the "elaborate and specific" "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798," the argument that Wordsworth's poem evades reference fails to account for "the conventions of touristic meditation" (25). More tellingly, this argument involves a "theoretical error": such analyses impose a premature
opposition between referentiality and repression, whereas the detour along which the poem leads Wordsworth's social and political aims seems . . . not to derive its power from suppressing the social but rather from actively constructing a particular kind of social body. (25)
That social body, most vividly imagined in "Tintern Abbey," is a community of readers, paradoxically represented by the speaker's visionary solitude (218). It is Rieder's project to explicate that poignant contradiction, first by examining the versions of community posited in late eighteenth-century political writing, and then by tracing the progress of Wordsworth's gradual movement away from this tradition.
Rieder's first three chapters situate Wordsworth within two major contemporary debates, the interpretation of the French Revolution and criticism of the Poor Laws. At times unfocused, these chapters are nonetheless useful not only for establishing the historical basis of Rieder's own argument but for further enriching our sense of the intricate ways in which Wordsworth's writing does and does not correspond to the dominant discourses of his time. Following an introduction in which Rieder surveys recent scholarship and outlines his thesis, Chapter Two focuses on A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff to show how, in the republican discourse Wordsworth inherits, the concept of community is riven by the theoretical status of property, which "both ties people together and sets them against one another" (42). Wordsworth's position is thus "marked in contradictory fashion by the class division it straddles" (43). This context leads Rieder to suggest that Wordsworth's political shift cannot be explained as a simple move from radical to conservative, but corresponds to "different paradigms of social cohesion": roughly speaking, force versus sympathy (45). His third chapter pursues this thread by scrutinizing the figure of the pauper in the Poor-Law debates and in Wordsworth's poems "The Old Cumberland Beggar" and "Simon Lee," of which Rieder comments that the appeal to the reader "represents the gap between natural feeling and sympathetically constituted, healthy community" (74). A final section of the chapter examines the motif of indolence in "Resolution and Independence," less as the index of a psychological problem than as the sign of Wordsworth's utopianism, a "providential economy [that] weds the leisure of the middle or upper classes to the noncalculating improvidence of the poor" (82). The incompatible postures of virtuous action and passive election ultimately propel Wordsworth toward the ethos of distant or "vicarious" sympathy that Rieder associates with literature as such.
The remainder of the book adheres strictly to formal analysis and textual history, treating its four major texts as stages in Wordsworth's development of a properly literary alternative to his political dilemma. Chapter Four shows how, as Salisbury Plain became Adventures on Salisbury Plain, Wordsworth de-emphasized the narrator's republican oratory to focus on the self-consciousness of his characters and the community they form through story-telling. Chapter Five reads The Borderers as a "philosophic engagement with the theme of the social contract" (108). Rieder is especially penetrating in his account of how theatricality contaminates all hypotheses of authentic community, so that society becomes inextricable from legal violence. The following chapter, on The Ruined Cottage, makes thoughtful use of textual scholarship to argue that, as all the poem's represented social relationships (including the bond between Margaret and the Pedlar) fail or prove inadequate, Wordsworth substitutes for them a "pleasurable relationship between the poet and the reader" that nonetheless remains haunted by Margaret's exploitation (166, 184). Rieder's final chapter on "Tintern Abbey" both summarizes his thesis and offers an illuminating perspective on this exhaustively-discussed poem. Rieder affiliates "Tintern Abbey" with the rural retirement toposrepresented here by Horace's second Epode as well as John Thelwall's Poems, Chiefly Written in Retirementto show how, by radicalizing the stance of withdrawal, Wordsworth achieves a vision of liberty as purified literary ritual. The problem Wordsworth sets himself, Rieder contends, is not how to establish continuity with his past self; it is to "formulat[e] his role in the grand historical drama" (217).
A brief conclusion argues for the historical importance of Wordsworth's answer as the originating moment of literature in its modern, disciplinary sense. Rieder also outlines a case for his own method of analysis, presenting it as an alternative to both reception history and the New Historicist "reclamation of the repressed other" (226). As Rieder suggests, "the attempt to specify the real things that radiate in so many eccentric ways from a poetic composition cannot work backward so as to make the poem into the answer that the things pose as a question" (227). One might respond that this critique, entirely convincing in itself, merely restates the traditional defense of literary autonomy in a more politically astute and self-conscious guise. Thus while scholars of Wordsworth and British Romanticism certainly have much to learn from both Rieder's and Pfau's careful scholarship and critical subtlety, the broader significance of these two books may lie in their value as correctives rather than in their proposals, explicit or implied, for new directions in Romantic studies.