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Haunted Metre: Wordsworth’s Subliminal Lyric


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1Given Wordsworth’s condemnation, in the 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, of the “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse,” exciting the reading public’s “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” (LB 249), it has been customary to approach his relations to the Gothic in terms of readerships, grounded on or eventually grounding a sociology of reception. In this paper I am assuming the transference of the Gothic charge more intimately upon Coleridge, despite the latter’s own disparagement of the seductions of Gothic literature, as in the (perhaps strategic) letter of 27 December 1802 to Mary Robinson: "My head turns giddy, my heart sickens at the very thought of seeing such books in the hands of a child of mine” (Griggs, 94). The terms of Coleridge’s condemnation of the Gothic provide a counterpart to Wordsworth’s lyric phenomenology: “combinations of the highest sensation, wonder produced by supernatural power, without the means—thus gratifying our instinct of free-will that would fain be emancipated from the thraldom of ordinary nature—& and would indeed annihilate both space & time” (Notebooks 3449). What interests me here are the ways in which Wordsworth works with familiar, not unfamiliar, spirits, in a bringing up of language from what Hegel in The Philosophy of Spirit calls the “night-like mine” or “unconscious pit” (Hegel §453) from which signs emerge, to “the light of things” (“The Tables Turned”), the emancipations and annihilations operating from within “metrical language” to motivate any possible incursion or excursion through “ordinary nature”, any possible space and time of writing, any signs of a presence.

2In its collaborative genesis, in the reception history of its hybrid title (“What is a ‘lyrical ballad’?”), in Wordsworth’s claim in the 1798 Advertisement for the book’s “experimental” status modulating into the common-language refractions of the 1800 Preface, in its unstable positioning between monologic and dialogic modes, in its complexification of the relations between tradition and modernity (both thematized and performed), in its framing and unframing of trauma – the list of antitheses goes on – Lyrical Ballads has been of exceptionally fractured significance, certainly insofar as the poems and their Prefaces have seemed to perform the fractured construction of significance which is one of the identifying marks of Romanticism. Where Coleridge’s “Ancyente Marinere”, originally conceived as a poem by two hands, rises like a ghost at the beginning of the first edition, it is repressed if not quite suppressed in the second, a note appended by Wordsworth decrying its unmotivated, defective strangeness (and this helped destroy STC’s self-confidence), as Coleridge was erased from the writing of the 1800 Preface, whose opening passages were taken from his notes and which owed much to his “whole souled” thinking. Eventually, unsure what poems to include, unable to complete the Gothic “Christabel” on time for the second edition but justifying its omission, in a letter to Humphry Davy, as being “in direct opposition to the very purpose for which the Lyrical Ballads were published” (Letters I, 631) and charged nevertheless with seeing the book through the press, Coleridge assumes the uncanny otherness of the “Friend” addressed in the transferential economies of The Prelude. We can no longer, like contemporary reviewers, talk indifferently of “the author” of the anonymous first edition; by 1800 Wordsworth had effectively rendered Coleridge’s “supernatural” poetic subliminal, in the sense that it is split off for failing to do what his own poems precisely wished to avoid: the Mariner “has no distinct character... as a human being who having long been under the controul of supernatural impressions might be supposed to partake of something supernatural” (Wordsworth’s "Note to the Ancient Mariner" from the 1800 edition, LB 277). Yet what then of the anti-supernaturalism of “Peter Bell”? If Coleridge’s poetic, in the words of the collection’s 1963 editors, “faded from [Wordsworth’s] mind” (LB xlii), its practices of ideational dislocation and form, and of conversational distancing as “a father’s tale” seeking the redemption of the child, that “his childhood shall grow up / Familiar with these songs, that with the night / He may associate Joy!” ("The Nightingale"), merge with liminal and subliminal forms of terror threatening and generating much of Wordsworth’s poetic.

3Wordsworth and Coleridge’s definitions of style and purpose in the collection, in the Prefaces and in Biographia Literaria, have influenced critical readings towards the epistemological and conceptual discourses predicated upon the poetry, whether generically in relation to theme, structure and diction (supernatural/natural, dramatic/lyric, rustic/urban, common/individual), or ideologically in the conceptual oppositions between historical and imaginary, or materialist and idealist inscription, notoriously in the New Historicist “Romantic ideology” interpretations of “Tintern Abbey” as a retreat from history, following McGann, Levinson, Johnston, most interestingly refuted, as to location “above” the ruins (i.e. upriver), by David Miall, in his essay "Locating Wordsworth: ‘Tintern Abbey’ and the Community with Nature." A 1998 essay on Wordsworth’s poetic language which begins in Kristevan “semiotic rhythms” ends up admitting that “When all is said and done, no plausible account of Wordsworth’s poetic language can go very much against the grain of Coleridge’s account of Wordsworth’s stylistic signature” (Hanley 20). Wordsworth’s Advertisement and Prefaces, like the later (1814) “Prospectus” for The Recluse, are richly inconclusive, yet although Coleridge is as acute a reader as one could wish of those objects on which he focuses, his criticism of what he sees as Wordsworth’s failed impersonations of (unrepresentative) characters in the poems and of his reliance upon Hartleian associationism as poetic motive merely point out the lack of a unitary poetic theory, but do not account for the unpredictably shifting qualities that give the book its variously orchestrated, extraordinary powers – including the metonymic “associations” of metre.

  • 1  I use the term in Deleuze’s sense (he refers to the painting of Klee and Bacon) of an originary or (...)

4If Wordsworth’s poems, in Coleridge’s words, “excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom” (Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIV), it is, I would argue, because that “feeling” occurs where awakening and lethargy – the intentions and intensions of ek-stasis – metrically enable and condition both event and horizon of the prosodic sequence, suspending meaning (common knowledge) as an uncertain correlative of the event, the correlation itself being the ostensible motive of the poetry. The bivalent effect of metre asserted in the 1800 Preface is that it will either "temper[...] and restrain[...] the passion" or else "impart passion" (LB 264-5). These energies can be seen in two of Lyrical Ballads’ favourite things, epitaphs without stones and stones without epitaphs, whose writing, involving extremes of presencing and absenting, anthropology and ontology, in the metrics of an imperative “pause” addressed to and by a “strange” familiar, provides an ontology of trace as both act and text, speech and writing, a patterning of stasis against which the poetry moves, as if against its own mortality. Where there is personal memory there is the scene of the epitaph, even though only one poem, and a precisely unmemorable one at that, is entitled “A Poet’s Epitaph”; one could say of Wordsworth’s poems what Derrida says of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, reporting Deleuze, that it "was less an exercise of memory than a semiotic activity or experience” (Derrida 124). The ethical function of the epitaph, as noted in the “Essay on Epitaphs”, is, like that of metre, a restraint and an intensification of feeling, to restrain the particular idiolect, on one hand, and the general language, on the other, the double restraint coming from the temporal dislocation of remembrance: the remembering subject is in the present, the remembered object in the past. They cannot therefore maintain their identities if there is to be a representation of common experience (this is the semiotic diagram1 of “a man speaking to men”). The epitaph, whether of self or other, is the poetic form of a correlation that is to counteract the other erasures of mortality. There is no swoon into the aestheticized totalization of an involuntary release of dramatized self-presence. One has only to imagine that what the ballad metre of “The Idiot Boy” “restrains” is cognate with that to which “Tintern Abbey” “imparts passion” to see that the ground of this poetry is where signs emerge as marks of necessary being, tense with their own differential arbitrariness, whether that Grund or Ungrund is conceived as pre-ontological (or perhaps post-ontological, if one considers Wordsworth’s Kantian disjunction/suspension of the Cartesian equivalence of “I think” with “I am”) or pre-subjective, conceived either psychoanalytically or historically.

5I shall be looking at why such conceptualizations are typically inadequate; despite what Wordsworth describes, in the 1802 note added to the Preface, as “a sort of half consciousness of unsubstantial existence” “throw[n] over the whole composition” by metre – the subliminal territory of “delusion” he seems to share with Coleridge –, it yet “divests” language of its “reality” only “in a certain degree”, much as the physical sensation of “pain” at the time could not medically be anaesthetized. The language and metre of “pleasure” is generated by the poet “removing what would otherwise be painful or disgusting in the passion,” but the “painful feeling” indissociable from “powerful descriptions of the deeper passions” motivates not an ethical concept or moral stance, not (as yet) a historical identity, so much as the particular “overbalancing” proper to “harmonious metrical language”. In the same way, Wordsworth’s poetic, suspending the difference between performance and reference, representation and recollection, is not reducible to ideology. The particular operations of what he calls “the circumstance of metre” as “perpetual renewal” of “similitude” to “real life” while “differing from it so widely” will form the core of my argument.  

  • 2  Yet originally, in 1798-9, The Prelude was conceived as part of the same project (see Stephen Gill (...)

6In the 1814 Preface to The Excursion Wordsworth figures The Recluse, the “philosophical poem, containing views of Man, Nature and Society” of which The Excursion was (by 1814) to be a part, and fragments of whose first incomplete draft (the subsumed “Ruined Cottage” pieces) date from 1795–1797, as “a gothic church” whose “ante-chamber” was the autobiographical Prelude, begun in 1798; the published “minor pieces” including the Lyrical Ballads could then “be likened to the little cells, oratories and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in those edifices” (PW 589). The postponing of the full “gothic” construction of the philosophical poem gave rise to, or was entailed by, the psychoanalysis of The Prelude, so that, to a certain extent, “The Prelude is...the analytic scene of his inability to proceed with The Recluse” (Faflak 3)2. The architecture is a metaphor of the expressed psyche, language as construction/building calling up its contrary as interminable vagrancy, as the four personae of The Excursion, the Wanderer, the Solitary, the Pastor and the Poet narrate judgments of memorial positionings of the self. Enclosure and expression entertain conflicted relations in the poems Wordsworth produced at this time, around the form of vacancy, the embodied trace left in place of the vagrant word (written as much as spoken). The genetic relation between vacancy and idiolect as expression of a private interiority cannot easily be transposed into a stable symbolic form (i.e. a singular remembrance or common meaning): how uneasily the term “gothic” sits with Wordsworth, compared, say, to Keats.

  • 3  For an account of Coleridge’s negotiations with parody in and around the “Ancyente Marinere” see D (...)

7The structural revisions of the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads which Wordsworth effected show a parallel shift away from any suspicion of Gothic architecture or phantasy. The neo-Germanic ballad “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,” which Coleridge seemed to suspend between necessity and parody3, was shifted from first to twenty-third position. The collection opened with “Expostulation and Reply” and its self-reflexive question, “‘Why William, sit you thus alone...?’” followed by the exhortation to “Come forth into the light of things” in “The Tables Turned”. Three of the most “dramatic” pieces from the first edition (i.e. those narrated by a “character”) were promoted to 3,4,5; but they are characters from social history (the war father, the Indian woman, the dispossessed yeoman) rather than those afflicted by any form of “madness” or by the return of spiritual violence. In the poem Wordsworth wrote in answer to the Mariner, “Peter Bell”, the supernatural is negated by a similar move to psychological restoration. The recovery of the corpse of the dead father is an act of mourning rather than haunting, an act which involves first a mistaken self-recognition in the mirror of the water where the dead man lies: “And then—upon the glassy flood / His wandering eye is fixed. // Thought he, that is the face of one / In his last sleep securely bound!” After much touching and pulling, the corpse “Uprises like a ghost!” This irruption of the dead father recurs of course in the Esthwaite drowned man in The Prelude, as a displaced motive of the visionary hiatus of the spot of time, and not as analytic image of the psychological prescription; in other words, it is stronger as psychoanalytic reenactment, an interminable haunting, than as “philosophical” or “scientific” object of contemplation. As such it is superfluous, and this seems to be why the poem was suppressed from the collection. Both poets intended a certain consciousness of reception, Coleridge perhaps more exclusively so; his “supernatural”, like “whatever source of delusion”, was to provoke “the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real” (my italics). That is precisely the subjunctive supposition that Wordsworth claimed as a structuring motive of his own.

8Wordsworth brings the Gothic power of incident, of which the German ballads of Bürger had provided the poets with one particularly prismatic example among dozens (see Richard Mayo’s 1954 landmark article on “The Contemporaneity of Lyrical Ballads”), up to the brink of Romantic transcendence, the characteristic placing and displacing of the real, in the two-part poem “Hart-Leap Well” that opens the second volume of the 1800 edition. The first part narrates the murderous ecstasy of a desired, virtual memorial, in which the narrative, enabling, it seems, the archaic (“romantic”) violence of libidinal energy, sublimates its feudal power, its sadistic spirit, prematurely and unconsciously as culture. The gothically perverse naturalism of “The knight” (quite as “negative” as Keats’s loitering knight-at-arms) riding down “With the slow motion of a summer’s cloud” is reified in the movement of the murdered hart as three stone pillars in a descending line, renaturalized in the lyric second part to three dead aspins round a square. Wordsworth maps the memorial logic of narrative ballad from its desired termination in an imaginary construction to an interminable (except by a “moral”) lyric ritual mourning, conceptualized in the irreducibility of “the Being that is in the clouds and air” and which ironically inverts the poem’s morality: the violent need for the hart’s dying breath to motivate itself as elegy, perverting the sentimental but ethically true prescription “Never to blend our pleasure...With sorrow...” The poem complexifies what is already a psychologizing of the supernatural (“This race it looks not like an earthly race”) by returning the archaic narrative back away from the arbitrary or accidental telos of the imaginary pursuit of feeling (the hart/heart) figured as gothic and placed prematurely against a natural world in which the “leap” is fantastically downwards towards a construction of pathology (the sadistic pavilion). In its place the lyric instates the upward look of the “thinking heart” (“my heart” which “leaps up”) towards “the last stone pillar on a dark hill-top”, in the performance of a contemplation of mortality which cannot so easily distinguish the objectified other as “accidental” in the way the Coleridgean supernatural appears to do: “The moving accident is not my trade, / To freeze the blood I have no ready arts...” This is more than anti-gothic: a whole semiology of self-presence is at stake, the paradoxical excursion of mind into its singular and common truth, its death in the stone-sign remembered as an intuition (or intimation) of immortality. Yet the strategy is not wholly successful, since it remains too clearly strategic: beyond the ironies of the sentimental morality the hart’s death does not escape its narrative value. The lyric remains on the level of the semiotic, i.e. on the level of form, without generating the catastophe to make it more than an archaically hypostatized “moral sentiment”.        

9“The lethargy of custom” as psychologically congruent with the lyric pause (the lyric as pause), if that phrase is translated into “the inertia of the known”, is therefore ironically an important motive and site of Wordsworth’s poetic “purpose”. There is a semantics of prosody in Lyrical Ballads quite as strongly antithetical in its relation to thought as the aesthetic oxymoron typified in the “visionary dreariness” of The Prelude’s spots of time; and this stands in a similar kind of relation to the more absolute ideational oxymoron of Coleridge’s “supernatural” dissimilitude, close to the baroque “obscure clarté” of Corneille, as Kant’s open-ended “I think” stands to the Cartesian “sum”. Where Corneille’s oxymoron is only so analytically, the darkness of this world traversed, overcome, in performance to reach the light of God but shadowed by memory of the initial “obscure”, Wordsworth’s phrase characteristically denies to the narrative temporality of performance the dramatic possibility of erasing the ambivalence. The narrative intention of the common ballad is undone by the lack of knowledge of the “lethargy” or stasis that accompanies it, and which marks antithetically the Wordsworthian sublime; as Geoffrey Hartman says, “One wonders whether anything worthwhile ‘narrating’ happens in Wordsworth.” (Barnett 36)

10In a timely article Simon Malpas has addressed the “Romantic ideology” critique of Kant’s aesthetic as implying a “common meaning” (the trap being a meaningless “universal subjectivity”) by taking it through the crisis of the deconstructed subject. Kant’s aesthetic of “pleasure” is clearly apposite in relating the narratives of cognition as relation of “common understanding” to the transcendental imagination that motivates the same intuitive inwardness as the lyric:

Without being guided by any purpose or principle whatever, this pleasure [of taste] accompanies our ordinary apprehension of an object by means of the imagination, our power of intuition, in relation to the understanding, our power of concepts. This apprehension occurs by means of a procedure that judgement has to carry out to give rise to even the most ordinary experience .... [P]leasure must of necessity rest on the same conditions in everyone, because they are subjective conditions for the possibility of cognition as such, and because the proportion between these cognitive powers that is required for taste is also required for the sound and common understanding that we may presuppose in everyone. (Kant, Critique of Judgement §39, 158-59, quoted in Malpas)

11The experience of pleasure thus arises from the same conditions as the experience of knowledge (hence the possibility of universal judgments of taste), but occurs only if knowledge does not: there is thus a negative relation between the aesthetic and the cognitive, the former occurring necessarily without or before knowledge. Derrida characteristically traces out the phenomenological effect of this lack-in-knowledge, what he calls the ‘without’, for Kant’s aesthetics:

it is the without that counts for beauty; neither the finality nor the end, neither the lacking goal nor the lack of a goal but the edging in the sans of the pure cut (la bordure en ‘sans’ de la coupure pure), the sans of the finality-sans-end .... in the predication of beauty, a nonknowledge intervenes in a decisive, concise, incisive way, in a determinate place and at a determinate moment, precisely at the end, more precisely with regard to the end. For the nonknowledge with regard to the end does not intervene at the end, precisely, but somewhere in the middle, dividing the field whose finality lends itself to knowledge but whose end is hidden from it. (Derrida 1987, 88-9; quoted in Malpas)

12This paratactic cut in the field of experience, the uneasy or uncanny suspension of finality which it implies, speaks dramatically to the construction of Wordsworth’s poetic; particularly the signs of construction in stone, the haunt or body of meaning in the intentional object, of the possibility of self-presence as transcending its contingency, or what Hegel would call its “inferiority”. Malpas explains the effect of this “without”:

On the way to knowledge there is a nonknowledge which opens the possibility for knowledge without being reducible to it…. The cut takes place once the conditions for knowledge have been established (the purposiveness of an object in relation to the imagination and understanding) but before knowledge itself emerges (before the purpose has been presented for the purposiveness no concept can subsume the experience of the object). For this reason, aesthetic judgement, occurring somehow ‘before’ knowledge, ‘before’ the experience can be brought under a concept, is profoundly problematic for the subject. The Kantian subject emerges from this process of bringing intuitions under concepts (accompanying the sensation with the ‘I think’), and yet in aesthetic judgement what happens happens without an ‘I think’. The aesthetic places the subject in a constant state of in statu nascendi, constantly on the brink of knowledge or justice, but never acquiring them.

  • 4  The generic power of this semio-poetic, or semiotic diagram of the poetic, becomes apparent if we (...)

13The homology between writing and its material ground, and, further, between symbolic and material grounds of thought (what Hegel would call the natural sign) is epitomized and partly (uncannily) “embodied” in the epitaph and in the relays it sets in play “on the brink of knowledge” between stone-sign and truth-content, in the rhythmically affirming and fading resistance to the catastrophe of mortality implied in such metrical sequences as “Why William, on that old grey stone, / Thus for the length of half a day, / Why William, ...” This hesitancy in giving absolute power to the free play of the arbitrary sign alerts us to the desire for metrical movement nevertheless to leave or at least encounter a presence in the word as object of experience, signified by the differential meaning of the stone as difference from the soul, and therefore index of its self-presence. This is the “semiotic diagram” of Wordsworth’s poetic: the lyric as index, as utterly historicized (“associationist”) inscription constitutes itself between symbolic (in the Peircean sense) and iconic modes: the “common symbol” of verb tenses - past, present, past perfect, present perfect - as vectors of the becoming of the sign, and therefore of the self-representation of self-presence; and the archaic substance of the stone as the pre-history of the semiotic4. The word as object of experience - recovered as dislocated archaically from its syntactic or discursive functions in the sentence - is then not to be understood in the sense of natural language or what Coleridge in “Frost at Midnight” calls “eternal language” (more a formal syntax of the natural world than just the “motivated sign”, although this is crucial in sanctioning empowerment of voice in the first place), so much as the word as imprint or typos of consciousness, repository of affect, and, paradoxically, as obstructive substitute for meaning (taken in the Lockean sense of “signs of ideas”) insofar as it tempts an iconic reading without fulfilling that; and the unfulfilled is Wordsworth’s characteristic mode (the lack of fulfilment necessary to the primary ontology, of the syntactic sign).

14This he indicates in the note to “The Thorn”, where he writes of “the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion” (LB 289). This quiddity, which, as non-symbolic or sub-symbolic, indicates a depletion of reference, is associated with the solacing or compensation of repetition, so that the therapeutic effect of metre as an incantatory instrument of mourning is clearly implied: “now every man must know that an attempt is rarely made to communicate impassioned feelings without something of an accompanying consciousness of the inadequateness of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language. During such efforts there will be a craving in the mind, and as long as it is unsatisfied the Speaker will cling to the same words, or words of the same character.” We may notice how blurred this “apparent tautology” is allowed to be in the poem “Michael”, which he said contained his most important views, presenting a man whose paternal stoicism, antithesis of the dominant filial anxiety driving the psycho-analysis of the poems, Wordsworth considered his central ethos. The conceptualized “heap of stones” is all that marks the “utter solitude”, unsignified “but for one object which you might pass by, / Might see and notice not.” The stones are experienced in the other space as icon of a necessary recursion to a more archaic ground of reference, split between a first occurrence in the possibility of symbolism and the iconic repetition (an icon, in Peirce’s terms, being a sign which shares “a material quality” with its referent; here the material quality is the verbal form - we are at that utopian point where voice and writing converge, a natural language quite different from Coleridge’s more thoroughgoing symbolism). The ethical narrative clearly and prescriptively attached, as in “Hart-Leap Well”, derealizes the object, so that the stones remain symbolically suspended between their archaeological (modern) meaning as remains and their iconic (archaic) aura as relics. What enables this suspension is the metrical attention to the composition of tone, as an incremental achievement of composition (“the sense of difficulty overcome”): as with much of Wordsworth’s poetry, there is a sense of coming to the writing, of apprenticeship in the pre-scriptal moment or time fulfilled: estrangement and custom, action and lethargy, come to operate as points of departure and end for the effective development of the poetic “purpose”, i.e. the poetic itself. The things which obstruct linger semiotically on the edge of their own existential mystery, more substantial therefore (because different) than the Benjaminian “aura”. The symbolic is haunted by the iconic, the expression of the poem performing the indexical lyric of the perfection which the poem is charged with bringing to the present occasion, as poem, and also with bringing the poem to that perfection as (unachieved) finality beyond the “cut”. What is it to wish to “confound my present feelings with the past” (“Nutting”), which he ironically denies doing, but to write the present perfect over the imperfect present? This too is a difference from Coleridge’s architectonic use of reason.

15Given that this process is predicated (“lengthened”) ambiguously in the imaginary experience of the different characters (including the speaker) and in the transactional incorporation of that experience as undifferentiated voice (the identity we mean when we call Wordsworth “original”), the “action” and “effect” of these “things” are both more substantial and more obscure than the Saussurian “acoustic image”. Not that Wordsworth is a Dadaist. Yet since poetic language “differs so widely from the real” we must believe that “words as things” function first as obstacles to discursive movement, as the lyric, even in a dramatic lyric like “The Mad Mother”, is an obstacle to narrative, creating the “vertical” narrative of transcendence, initially subsuming but then subsumed by the metonymic drive of the falling away into contextual narrative. Yet the eschewing of metaphor, the apparently simplified lexicon, has the effect of shifting substance to the verbs, the markers of tense: it is then as much the verb which is a thing as any substantive. Being and becoming, as they are vectored through the matrix of the poem in verbal forms, operate plastically upon the semiosis as “things, active and efficient”. “There is a thorn” is not saying “This is a thorn”, (nor yet “Ceci n’est pas une aubépine”). Verb and substantive haunt each other. We shall return to the urgent question of this lyric intention, in its relation to the self-haunting of the indexical desire for inscription, in “Tintern Abbey”’s dread of its own vagrant and mad origin in both the placelessness of language and in the clichés of locodescription. The obstruction is the effect of a fully realized self-presence on the ethical scheme of common language.

16“The Idiot Boy”, which Wordsworth considered the most significant poem in the 1798 edition, uses the power of metre both to enable and to resist knowledge. The gently satirical irony, “of detachment and loving-kindness”, as J.F. Danby calls it, knows that “there is an essential poignancy and idiocy in emotion itself. Only the final upshot can decide which aspect will come uppermost.” (Danby 211) The other pole of knowledge is the Divine Fool archetype of which he writes in the letter to John Wilson (1802) that “their life is hidden with God.” It is characteristic of the 1798 edition to find ourselves having to recover the experience of thought as no more than a possibility constructed in the “circumstance of metre” which engenders a linguistic “idiocy”, an ostensibly naïve attachment to the magic power of words, cognate with the “wise passiveness” of the stoic ethos. Idiocy is to reason as beauty is to knowledge – “without” or “before” – the two seen as haunting each other since they cannot constitute the singular identity posited by the idealized metanarrative of incremental knowledge in the soul as power. This metanarrative of course will cause much creative tension in The Prelude, as it wrestles for power with the greater power of death that governs the becoming and regeneration of the cosmos (“nature”) beyond culture and language.

The Idiot Boy (opening stanzas)

’Tis eight o’clock,—a clear March night,
The moon is up—the sky is blue,
The owlet in the moonlight air,
He shouts from nobody knows where;
He lengthens out his lonely shout,
Halloo! halloo! a long halloo!

—Why bustle thus about your door,
What means this bustle, Betty Foy?
Why are you in this mighty fret?
And why on horseback have you set
Him whom you love, your idiot boy?

Beneath the moon that shines so bright,
Till she is tired, let Betty Foy
With girt and stirrup fiddle-faddle;
But wherefore set upon a saddle
Him whom she loves, her idiot boy?

17The staccato clarity of the poem’s opening scene, pegged around the caesuras, plays simplicity of statement (“romantic banality”) against paratactic strangeness (“the moon is up – the sky is blue” - but at 8 p.m. very different from “sky blue”). Already the regularity of metre consolidates around the verb “to be” an ontological confusion of substantia and accidens: the moon is not “analytically” up any more then the sky is blue (or any more, in Hegel’s example of ontological syntax in The Subjective Notion, than a rose is red – it is also a flower, this, etc. [§166]). Metrical repetition mimics the tautology which is approximated by semantics, so that it seems impossible to free the syntax from the metre, as though in fact syntax was a question of metre. Meaning falls back into metre, as by a natural gravity operating in the temporalities of the moon, enabling the recovery of the vagrant power of idiocy, as the voice in the opening poem of the second edition, “Expostulation and Reply”, is figured as dislocated from “purpose”, the gravity of intentionality: “You look round on your mother earth, / As if she for no purpose bore you”. Much is in the ambivalence of that “as if”: how silly to think of such purposelessness, yet, spoken differently, how alienating. And in that ambivalence, in the vacancy of purpose, the syntax opens into the only freedom it has, to carry meaning-effects dislocated from any “thing”. “The Idiot Boy” proceeds to open the metre beyond the copulative tautologies, substituting “in” for “is”: “The owlet in the moonlight air” – a nominal epithet of the kind Wordsworth finds fault with at the end of the Preface (it “should” be “moonlit air”) – further condensing the obstruction repeating the pronoun “He shouts” as if violently to particularize the generically romantic owlet, and to bring it closer to the speaking subject, in the consolidation of the speech act which the poem is. The syntax is “overbalanced” to open the poem to this craving shout, the vector inverted as a semantic echo to locate the placeless hearer (“from nobody knows where”) as the repeated “no-knows” places unknowing as a body-less nowhere (the desired body being absent, or absented), the faded violence of the shout echoing the particularized voice, “lengthening” it, into a site of common dissolution. Yet the insistence of the pronoun, repeated in the fifth line, “He lengthens out his lonely shout”, takes on significance as sign and circumstance of the pain of loss, carried on the metrical insistence of an internal rhyme for which meaning (the lengthening of the shout) is a mere analogy, the sound making the meaning. The final line of the first stanza sees this “lonely” need for “word-as-thing” – actually metre as analogue of “real life” – subsume even the onomatopoeic, the primitive word-as-thing restrained, deferred, into poetic difference by the metrical syntax, the performative “analogy” in which poetic truth supervenes upon “real life”: “a long halloo” is already a memory of the primitive sound, and is thus entering the un-known placelessness of “purer mind”, the ontology of the trace suspended between projective metre and the retrospect of “synthetic” judgment. The “blue” “halloo” arches over this “nowhere” like “the quiet of the sky” over the earth of Tintern Abbey.

18The second stanza cuts back with the paratactic violence characteristic of the “fits of passion” fracturing the narratives of many key poems in the collection, the tautological hiatus of the trace which is yet not an absolute dislocation of meaning (Wordsworth, as has been remarked, is no postmodernist) and which is a formal mark of Derrida’s neo-Kantian “cut” of “pleasure”. Later in the poem the narrative break will be clothed in satirical irony, feigning a lack of inspiration from the muses “whom I love so well” to pursue his tale of where Johnny has been; but even that feint is coloured as being “bereaved” and “unfriended”. Poetry, even poetic irony, is a form of love. Under the arching sound of the sky the “bustle” of meaning takes over as a multiplication of signs of demonstrable moral sentiments presenting themselves to judgment as the yet unknown motives of acts, of “fret and “bustle”, so that Betty comes to occupy the sympathetic place of victim to “the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and fever of the world” which in “Tintern Abbey” threaten the rhythms of poetic recompense, having “hung upon the beatings of my heart”. The initial rhyming iambs that signal a turn into motivated repetition of common meaning will not recur before stanza 6, in the earthward quietism of one of Wordsworth’s strongest signs, the bending return of human intention, “But Betty’s bent on her intent”. The rhyme scheme interiorizes the familiarity of the known but occluded addressee, Betty Foy, more deeply the typical ballad figure, the speaker’s critical stance overbalancing in a way similar to Matthew’s in “Expostulation and Reply”, the fulcrum of this excess being the reflexive otherness of the second person, the strangely anxious intensity of the vocative “you” (the tone here – but only the moral tone – similar to Joyce’s in the story “Clay”). The unrhymed first line is released into the delusions of narrative before the intense restraint of the bccb quatrain, which then resolves into a most unexpectedly hallowed, utterly unidiomatic seriousness, the initial iamb inverted to trochaic intensity, “Him whom you love…”, the idiot boy placed like Jesus on the ass, not an idiot or an archetypal Holy Fool, but a bearer of intense pathos, the vagrant voice carrying what cannot be known “from nobody knows where”.

19The horseback rider, for Wordsworth, carries always the news of the death of his father, emblematically in the Return of the Horses episode from The Prelude. In a brilliant article on “Tautology and Imaginative Vision in Wordsworth” based on the premise that “the act of perception is the result of intense trauma” (Wu 12), Duncan Wu sees repetition, what he terms “tautology”, as spatialized in vision: referring to the Return of the Horses episode he notes: “The act of staring for a long time into the middle distance, searching for what has been lost, is, I would suggest, precisely analogous both in psychological and poetic terms to the use of tautology.” (Wu 9) Primarily, however (in the Kantian aesthetic, both before and without knowledge) “on horseback” is a “nowhere” of aesthetic signification that carries the always already passive sensation of the failure to carry the boy home to witness his father’s death, the failure to mourn. Here in “The Idiot Boy”, the final couplet in which the “fret/set” rhyme is superseded by the rhyming, echoing return of the “boy” to his mother’s proper name, “Foy”, “lengthens” the phonic patterning, so that the question resonates as more than a judgment of the other (the contemplated object): it sets in motion a strange anxiety in the voice of the speaker, as if the semantic circumstance, of an “idiot” (un-knowing) boy being set upon a horse, was the reified contrary of what deeply motivates the lines, namely the poetic circumstance of an idiot (lonely) boy, whom nobody has set upon the horse that would (metrically) carry him back from the ontological idiocy of signs to his mother’s love, in the place of his lost father. And this is not an Oedipal substitution: “you set / Him whom you love” in the father’s place not as a rival, but as a boy bereaved, as the sign is bereaved (why Hegel figures the sign as a pyramid, a tomb). The lyric intensity of the first stanza, which first displaces narrative in both space and time, has also displaced both axes and field of identity (self/other, inner/outer, private/common) by enabling “metrical language” to establish an elemental psychic semiotic where knowledge and feeling have no referential primacy, are performed as if unremembered, as if occurring without reference. Metrical language thus covers the real as analogy (hence Symbolisme), while its necessity, its “natural” motivation in the ontological trace of syntax, is taken on trust in the reduction of poetic diction to its simplest “common” elements, its originary Foy or faith: not prehistoric or primitivist, but linguistic.

20We can see in the third stanza the rhythmic falling away or fading of this intense engagement with the creative power of the prosody as the axiomatic line, “Beneath the moon that shines so bright” “tires” Betty, who is “let” to play once more with the bustle of reality, the comforting “delusion” of the thing-level of words, “With girt and stirrup fiddle-faddle”. However, the “idiot” experience of the “lonely” boy returns like the echo of the shout, this time deflected into a third person observation, the faded interrogation of the discharged object world that is nevertheless an insistent memory of the initial bereavement, returning like a “shock / Of mild surprise” (“There Was a Boy”): “But wherefore set upon a saddle / Him whom she loves, her idiot boy” (who will, in the return from “nowhere” later in the narrative out of the fold of catastrophe, retrieve his subject-status, not “Him” but “He whom you love, your idiot boy”). The idiot boy as always already bereaved subject – what might be the lack-in-being of the Kantian “I think” and the lack-in-knowledge of aesthetic “idiocy” – thus claims a power to generate the metrical language of the poem that is different from the immediacies of onomatopoeia (“And Johnny’s lips they burr, burr, burr”) and different from the naive realisms of either incantatory repetition or empirical inquiry. Refusing the “tiring” strangeness of the Gothic imaginary, the poem, “bent on its intent”, insistently invests the uncanny in the micronarratives of moral and emotional concatenation that constitute the metre: all that is involved in the movements of estrangement and identification between the lyric subject and the matter of “the world”, both scene and law of otherness (“the world will say ‘tis very idle”).

21In the dramatically exemplary “Simon Lee”, the shifts between serious and ironic tones work to disable the satiric reader and enable the final ethical irony, “I’ve heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds / With coldness still returning. / Alas! the gratitude of men / Has oftner left me mourning.” In “The Idiot Boy” such shifts are more mercurial, less identifiable with ethical reference, since less constructed in a “common” political space beyond the aesthetic. In the vagrant idiocy of the poetic, “common” language functions at a level below or before reference, not as “primitive” in the sense of the (neo-Augustan) poetic archaeology of the Preface, since sophistication and irony – psychoanalytic and philosophical – operate fully in the metrical field of the poem, between prosody and discourse, or, in different terms, between discourse and seme (except of course that the prosody conditions such determinations). The constitutive energies of the poetic are specific to the occasion of the poem – as the poems in the first edition are quite remarkably distinct, independently of “theme” or reference – and therefore cannot be reduced to the banalities of generic “feeling” of the kind referenced in the Preface. This pragmatic specificity to the occasion of the poem, and which greatly contributes to the literary novelty of the book, is reinforced by the associationist process that Coleridge sees precisely as too particular, where Coleridge seeks the representative forms of symbolic effect to transcend the historical occasion of the poem. It is in this sense that Wordsworth’s is a poetic of the “natural”: in phenomenological terms, he plays in the catastrophic time between the “natural attitude” – the “natural language” – and the reduction that allows the sign to emerge fully beyond the “circumstance of metre” as (gothic) ghost of a primary intuition.           

22Metre, then, is charged with distending presentified consciousness as uncertainly continuous or discontinuous over the span of a poem – this process ironically thematized in “Tintern Abbey” –, which it effects by rhythmic impulse suspending the projective or prospective reach of semantic difference in repetition. Meaning is firstly patterning, word to word, before it extends beyond this generic interplay or common meaning implied ironically in the very necessity of the poem’s reception, as the “Tintern Abbey” poet attempts the reception of his earlier self and its projection in a lyric “synthetic a priori”. As it differs from a representation of real life (i.e. is not fully accounted for or determined by cognition) metrical language occludes in the rhythmic hiatus the other possibility of the real within the “circumstance of metre”. It is the power given to the “otherness” of the real (“analogous to the supernatural”) that distinguishes Wordsworth’s metrical hiatus from the classic prescription Coleridge repeats in Chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria, where the poem moves “like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him onward.” In “Nutting” this tautological occlusion, “I heard the murmur and the murmuring sound,” is “overbalanced” to the extent that, “with wise restraint / Voluptuous,” it perverts the ethical self into “egotistical sublimity” and precipitates “merciless ravage” and “a sense of pain” in the pathology of dislocation. The ethical catastrophe motivates the characteristically ambivalent or doubled intentionality of the poems that Wordsworth stages usually between self-expression and self-effacement, in the arising of a memorable object into the (baroque, anti-Hegelian) obscurity of existence, the epitaphic absence of the sign as stone, the word-as-thing; for example, in the doubled vector of “singular” experience obscuring the death of his father in Book XI of The Prelude, “Straining my eyes intensely” “from the meeting-point / Of two highways ascending,” where “Upon my right hand was a single sheep”. We see the ambivalence of expression and erasure again in the “Poem on the Naming of Places”, “A narrow girdle...”, in the queered act of prehension occurring as a most metrically precise “vacant mood”; the dandelion seed which “seeming lifeless half, and half impelled / By some internal feeling, skimm’d along / Close to the surface of the lake that lay / Asleep in a dead calm, ran closely on / Along the dead calm lake...”, in its “report” of the “invisible”, seeds the ethical hiatus between the ostensible contraries of picking the flower and leaving it, “too fair / Either to be divided from the place on which it grew, or to be left alone / To its own beauty.”  

23The sign is thus haunted by the very ground, the dead calm lake, that enables meaning in the first place. The epitaph as exemplary mode and emblem does not connote a refusal of a discursive practice of language, as William Keach implies in noting that Wordsworth theorizes the relation of language not to living but to dead bodies. The word-thing, not to be confused with objects or referents, is imagined in the poetic event-structure as being constituted by repetition; but the metrical repetition is ontologically primordial since the tautology incorporates in the word the pre-poetic intuition that gave rise to it. The regularity of metre is both “something to which the mind has been accustomed in various moods and in a less excited state” but brings also “continual...impulses of...surprise” in “the sense of difficulty overcome” (Preface, LB 264-6). This is the ontology of the “overbalance of pleasure” embodied in poetry: the words and the poems they constitute, in other words, have a life of their own. In “Three years she grew in sun and shower” these mutually inverted temporalities of lived and imaginary pleasure, the crucial Romantic dislocation of experience from the life of writing (not “the life of letters”), constitute the shadowed biography of Lucy. Knowledge and feeling in poetic language are effects of this life, its forms conditioning the emergence of the poetic subject, the private interiority whose negotiations with the public world, in the desire to occupy common space, the public space of language, constitute what has come to be seen as modernity, although it remains ironically cut from social identity by its very representation of the catastrophe engendered by its desire. Wordsworth’s entire poetic output is directed towards the development of this “circumstance of metre” as it relates, in the apophantic intentionality of its movement, all human relations expressible from a series of points in prosodic sequence laid down or embedded by the precise pitching of the lyrical subject as differing from the world-ballad that will have constituted “it” as written repetition or “prescription” (the existential structure of “Tintern Abbey”). This is the barely perceptible paradox of the book’s title; that social identity should haunt the Wordsworthian lyric is not merely a pathology, but the ground of its representation to the world.

24The Wordsworthian lyrical ballad can thus be seen as a particular ontology of the lyric subject, an empirical extension or “lengthening” of its occasion determined neither as wholly original (the sign of cognitive reflection as effect of a referential mode) nor wholly originary (event of intuitive sensation as cause of a performative mode). In the lyric movement the “surprize” of the occasion is closely shadowed by necessary intent; this double intentionality becomes dominant in the rhythmic intensity of the pentameters developing through The Prelude, and exemplified in “The Old Cumberland Beggar”, avatar of the young “Beggar” of “Nutting”, in which projections of the subject become involved quite literally in the imaginations of metrical movement as identification with the ground (self-mourning as grounding), the “ageing” introjected into the walk, the metre itself: “I saw an aged Beggar in my walk, / And he was seated by the highway side / On a low structure of rude masonry / Built at the foot of a hill, that they / Who lead their horses down the steep rough road / May thence remount at ease.” To “remount at ease” is also a figure of the Wordsworthian sublime.

25Before looking more closely at “Tintern Abbey” I should like to see how the “lengthening” of the lyric constructs it as an epitaph, but an epitaph written, so to speak, on water.

Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening

How rich the wave, in front, imprest
With evening-twilight’s summer hues,
While, facing thus the crimson west,
The boat her silent path pursues!
And see how dark the backward stream!
A little moment past, so smiling!
And still, perhaps, with faithless gleam,
Some other loiterer beguiling.

Such views the youthful bard allure,
But, heedless of the following gloom,
He deems their colors shall endure
Till peace go with him to the tomb.
—And let him nurse his fond deceit,
And what if he must die in sorrow!
Who would not cherish dreams so sweet,
Though grief and pain may come to-morrow?

Glide gently, thus for ever glide,
O Thames! that other bards may see,
As lovely visions by thy side
As now, fair river! come to me.
Oh glide, fair stream! for ever so;
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
’Till all our minds for ever flow
As thy deep waters now are flowing.

Vain thought! yet be as now thou art,
That in thy waters may be seen
The image of a poet’s heart,
How bright, how solemn, how serene!
Such heart did once the poet bless,
Who, pouring here a later ditty,
Could find no refuge from distress,
But in the milder grief of pity.

Remembrance! as we glide along,
For him suspend the dashing oar,
And pray that never child of Song
May know his freezing sorrows more.
How calm! how still! the only sound
The dripping of the oar suspended!
—The evening darkness gathers round
By virtue’s holiest powers attended.

26“Lines written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening” immobilizes in repetition the “oar” image from Collins’s elegy, “Ode on the Death of Thomson”, which, as “the last written” of his published poems, becomes an elegy for Collins: “Remembrance oft shall haunt the shore... // And oft suspend the dashing oar / To bid his gentle spirit rest.” Wordsworth changes the semantic repetition, “oft suspend” to a performative, repeating both the line as “For him suspend the dashing oar” and the “suspension” as a “retrogressive movement” back into meaning as associative sound before or “without” knowledge: “How calm! how still! the only sound, / The dripping of the oar suspended!” The poem seems to demand slow reading, its “continual impulses of surprize” carrying a very particular “sense of difficulty overcome”; the slower it is read, the more intensely “vagrant” and haunted it becomes by its own mortality, its lack of purchase on the real. The absence of finite main verb in the opening sentence (the verb is in the subordinate clause, the subordinate movement which the boat pursues) is compensated by a strange “richness” of syntactic obstruction, provoked by the oddity of the adjective “rich”, adverbially detached from the “wave”, pushing on “in front,” the syntactic “suspension” carried on the homophony of “in” and “im-” to the passive participle “imprest” which, if rich was “richly” as the syntax (but not the beat) of the moving line desires, would be an active verb, as if the metrical wave itself generated the “impressions” of sense. Words as metrical “things”, impulses of sense, have the power momentarily to anticipate the resolutions of metrical syntax, the symbolic meaning, without there being the slightest symbolic or metaphoric distance between them, since in the ethical pragmatism under whose sign the poetic is set (structured as “associationism”), the words will fall back “naturally” into the “path” of the oncoming syntactic resolutions, the cognitive function of language that walks inexorably “behind” the pressured “front” of sound like a ghost. This advance of sound is here more simply figured than in “Tintern Abbey” and other poems less immediately lyrical (Wordsworth changed the circumstance from walking by the River Cam to boating on the Thames, clearly to erase a type of existential friction in the movement, and to pick up the symbolic context of the imaginary boat and the temporal river). The “impressing”, as in “Tintern Abbey”, turns sensation into “thoughts of more deep seclusion”, the interiority of the “silent path” of contemplation here figured in the verbal muteness of “rich” as the “world” seems to take its colours “half” from the inward movement of fading of the sense into thought which, to the conscious mind, constitutes the subject.

27The opening couplet of a faceless (because verbless) presencing without grammatical predication, and thus without the syntactic sign of consciousness, folds through a silent catastrophe (Wordsworth’s typical “diagram”) into a “facing” which is the boat’s, as if the knowledge of mortality, the “silent” thought given by the poem, inheres in the vehicle of thought, in the ground of the semiotic (what elsewhere might be figured as “nature”). Desire returning to consciousness undertakes the reconstruction of experience as if a “natural” consequence of the opening period, on the conjunction “And”, “And see how dark the backwards stream!” although analepsis recalls the unseen, the unremembered, and forgets its unseeing. The “evening-twilight” was a dimension of the phenomenology “impressed” upon the wave, a sign motivated by metre, unseen, not “faced.” The phonetic pressures of the first quatrain, in which the liquid [l] sound occurs only twice, as the first unstressed syllable of the third iamb, as if in the trough of a resurgence from the caesura, are released in the swoon of conscious wonder in the fifth line, “And see how dark,” the waters of sense retreating from the “dark” interior of the voice, before returning to inundate the last three lines eight times, with “faithless gleam”, the liquid now consciously desired and “beguiling” even as its faithlessness is repudiated. Of course, we know that the crimson has been seen by Wordsworth, so that the word’s semiotic status as “percipuum”, to use Peirce’s term, comprises also its referent – this is, ironically, what guarantees the poems’ “realism”, their “truth to experience”: the autobiographical is sedimented as a context in its modes of grounding necessity, as a system of interpretation at one remove from the referential, not because it is “imaginary” but because it is a semiotic analogue, a system of motivated signs from which, ironically, signs of the “unremembered” context are absent. Wordsworth was never in the boat at all, but this doesn’t matter: the lack of a subject-position establishes antithetically the ontological lack that enables the metre in the first place.

28As in the “elfin pinnace” episode in The Prelude, the rower is facing backwards, so that “thought” arises from sense only as “backward”, as necessarily unoriginary, since a naively realist identification in the prosody as somehow descriptive or mimetic would be a mere “faithless gleam”. This is because the poetic dislocates time and space as differently constructed in the performance of the poem: “A little moment past, so smiling! / And still, perhaps, with faithless gleam, / Some other loiterer beguiling.” The “gleam” continues now, but not here, though as we have seen it has been where I am not (Wo Es war, soll Ich werden; though Wordsworth ironises Freud’s therapeutic imperative). The objects of “knowledge” are different from the “things” of metrical language, as “a little moment past” is the constative, concluded equivalent of “a little moment passed”, the pathos of the pun carrying the pathos of the diminutive, so that nothing, of course, is lost, any more than the ethical can admit the loss of an illusion. We barely have the right, the poem seems to be saying, to mourn our sentimental attachment to life, even though, as the opening lines show, the knowledge can never coincide with the perception; and yet of course, those attachments are the pinions of human syntax. This is why the obstructed syntax of the opening, displacing the smooth vectors and surfaces of the scenic imagination, creates an inconclusiveness of tone that maintains the obvious moral knowledge about the illusions of the imaginary suspended in a difficult dramatic “balance or reconciliation”, to quote Coleridge, with the occlusion of that very knowledge, an occlusion which cannot thus be relegated to mere memory, to oblivion; and this is the semiotic structure of the epitaph. Much turns on how we interpret “faith”. Blind faith here gives way to insight, though both obtain in the “circumstance of metre”. Insight is ghosted by blindness, not conceptually, as a moment of “epistemological panic”, but performatively, as an ecstatic denial of mortality. And as the liquid remains beguiling even against the warnings of reason, so the second stanza develops the ironies of “the following gloom” as the thetic inversion of the dark “backward stream”: the moral knowledge about illusion cannot maintain its form fully against the conjunctions of metrical syntax tempted into a prophetic denial of mortality: “But, heedless of the following gloom, / He deems their colours shall endure / Till peace go with him to the tomb.” The poem is haunted by its own subliminal desire to follow its signs into the oblivion of voice, beyond the circumstance of thought. This too is a difference from the power Hegel gives to voice over sight: in Wordsworth voice is always subsumed in metre.

29The second half of the poem, which became a separate poem in the 1800 edition, tries to elide the terminable narrative of moral knowledge by relaunching the gliding boat as the gliding Thames, and the search for moral power in the death of “some other loiterer” leads to the ironic doubling of Collins’s elegy for Thomson. In effect, the poem turns to a catabasis: “Till peace go with him to the tomb” hints also at the death of peace, the difficulty of facing “the evening darkness”. “Remembrance” may be one of “virtue’s holiest powers” but it releases none of the tension of mortality suspended in the precarious particularity of the poem’s occasion, “The dripping of the oar suspended!” The insubstantial world yet divides absolutely the lyric imagination as soon as it turns paratactically from the pursuit of “objects” to the denial of their absence, figured as the loss or oblivion of an “unremembered” real (the performative resolution of this question of existential relativity will come in the skating episode in Bk 1 of The Prelude). The unremembered is what consciousness, the pursuit of signified sensation, functions to occlude and exclude; remembrance is in conflict with “seeing” the boat as a supernatural (i.e. Coleridgean) sign of imagination . The poetry is also haunted by that theory of the imagination, as by the ghost of a law; Wordsworth’s love of “duty” is different from Coleridge’s love of law.  

30Wordsworth was clearly not interested in the personal ascription of experience, any more than he was interested in faithful (thus “faithless”) naturalism. As has been remarked, a household where breakfast was never taken before nine o’clock was not that of a countryman. Even the poem “There was a boy, ye knew him well, ye cliffs”, which he describes as relating “one of the earliest processes of Nature in the development of the imagination”, “guided by one of my own primary consciousnesses”, is largely modelled on a passage in Joanna Baillie’s play De Monfort published in 1798. “It comes as a shock,” as Jonathan Wordsworth has commented, “to think of ‘There was a boy’, of all poems, as having a literary source.” (J. Wordsworth, 97; quoted in Hanley) What is not in the original is the conjunction of the echoing return with the metrical construction of the traumatic hiatus that marks Wordsworth’s experience of mourning, the subliminal ground of his “spots of time.” The metrical return of the echo carries “a gentle shock of mild surprize” that quite “overbalances,” in its adjunction of imaginative power, the original affect of the metrical impulse (the mimic hooting). The “pauses of deep silence” are elsewhere figured as a “relaxing” of attention, but this withdrawal or hiatus of vocalization is the gap in which the lost object, verso of the “facing” subject, is buried. Metre, we recall, embodies “something to which the mind has been accustomed”, and since, in the associationist logic, “our thoughts” “are indeed the representative of all our past feelings” then clearly metre is a vehicle of what the “associationist” psychologist Brentano would call “affective or emotional memory”, while in the contrary dynamic of “surprize”, “our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts.” In other words, the tautology of echo in “There was a boy”, carries occluded within it a history of feeling quite distinct from cognitive reference, quite anterior to “thought”, although the repetition into the sign (cognate with the recognition that there is metre) dislocates the poem from remembrance: the sign is thus unremembered, as the image, in Hegel’s scheme, is the intuition “different from itself.” Wordsworth seeks to bury his personal psychic history in the difference which metrical language opens with real life, firstly in its mere patterning, its temporality of endlessness, and secondly in the referential acts of cognition which immediately supervene upon the historical “middle distance” opened up by repetition. This is the experiential tempo of which the “spots of time” propose to construct the referents in a poetic “analogous to the supernatural” in the syncopation of “deficiencies of language” with which he entrusts the “vacant mood” of unconscious pain.

31There is thus a vertiginous falling away of words from the speaker, whether Wordsworth’s “own voice” or that of a “character”, a falling back into a constitutive otherness that may assuage pain at loss or on the contrary appropriate loss as an imaginary personal experience of the speaker which paradoxically enables the prosodic sequence. In this chiastic movement private feelings emerge as the paradoxical erasure of personal expression (voice), in the same way as the claim for representativeness is erased by the interminable movement of a common mortality towards which all metre tends; and this latter erasure is representatively seen in the supervening of lyric upon narrative modes (one needs just to think of the “mode” of The Prelude, compared for example, mutatis mutandis, with Goethe’s autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit, to realize the degree to which Wordsworth worked at the irreducibility of his poetic to conceptual discourse). Narrative time, as we have seen in “Hart-Leap Well”, is reduced as a “delusion” (STC), death not an end, of the kind called for by what is often seen as the poems’ “sentimental morality”, but as the enabling condition of the writing. The way in which consolidations of moral knowledge supervene with different degrees of surprise upon “mere feeling” reenacts precisely the narrative of the Preface, in which “truth” supervenes upon “phraseology”. “Sentimental morality” as the yield of narrative time is thus figured as a token of feeling to be impassioned or restrained by metre; this is the function of irony in Lyrical Ballads, to perform a structure of feeling as the marker between interminable (self-reflexive) modes and terminable (contemplative) modes. The difference between the finality of narrative and the endlessness of meter is cognate with the difference between cognitive objects and intentional objects. In poetic intention as vehicle of a private ecstasy, the object in its object-status signifies the necessary death of ecstasy – a necessity which gives the epitaph its intensely motivated privilege; and the extraordinary power of Wordsworth’s poetry comes from his desire to give metrical form to this occlusion of ecstasy, to occlude his own death. Hence regular metre and the common object are paradoxically enactments of the interminable unachieved presencing of the lyric subject, the performance not of personality but of a Keatsian “negative capability.” In those poems where the “purpose” functions most strongly there is in each word the vibration of a generic, common emergence, enclosed and deferred in the rhythmic revelation of what is already known, a death to come. In Hart Leap Well”, for example, “the few tired dogs that yet remain” for the “restless” hunt of the hart, “Brach, Swift and Music,” are sound-emblems, self-reflexive “acoustic images” (opaque or transparent) of experiences of metrical time that occlude and yet “lead to” the death of the heart. We shall see this pursuit most obscurely in “Tintern Abbey.”

32Wordsworth, it could be said, used the apparent shipwreck of Coleridge’s poetry to colour the self-haunting that is the closest the poems come to expressing an identity. Even as the lyric subject emerges catastrophically like the Mariner from the pre-poetic, the “unremembered” “nowhere” – psychic and semiotic – it splits into a layered polyphony suspended by the elemental conditionings of metre, as if Wordsworth had interwoven Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. “The Thorn”, for example, opens as we have seen in a severely depleted idiom (“There is a thorn”) which constructs a symbolic analogy to stoic human suffering in old age, ghosted by the nursery language of “a two years’ child” not quite innocent enough to be identified. The “apparent tautology” of repetition (returning like Martha herself to the grave – and this is the primary enabling and informing tautology) is thus attributable either to the “craving in the mind ” noted above, or to the “restraint” which acts like a ground of meaning, the base from which register rises like the mound of moss or sinks like the depression of the pond, and beside which the subject stands indeterminately vocalizing, like the thorn itself. Bit in the poem the magical power of the dead child to hold off the particular identifications of the speaking subject breaks down, as Coleridge and others have noted, in the garrulousness of the narrator; and here Wordsworth’s note is wishful thinking, as the writing weakens, the magic not potent enough. Wordsworth is not attempting dramatic monologues.

33The disparities of symbolic register indicate a poetic anthropology deriving from the extreme care with which Wordsworth pitches the opening lines according to a precise metrical and vocal topology. In virtually all the poems in Lyrical Ballads the initial discursive stance, or character of the poem as speech act, is quickly unbalanced by an excess or depletion of attention, corresponding to the ebb and flow of an “unremembered” semiosis as it carries signs “outward” from the subject. Again, the associationism (pace Coleridge) is primarily a prosodic motor, not a conceptual philosophy. The “wholeness” that Coleridge sees as the poems’ “imagination” is constructed in the continual opening of this topology, and Wordsworth’s extreme alertness to erasures of phonic effect, that is, the metonymic contamination of one word by another (as sound and sign) playing off similitude and dissimilitude, allowing him to form, in the topographic continuity of relation and solitude, the ethical structures of meaning in the structures of ethical meaning. That the narrative movement is necessarily a “fading” is what creates the astonishingly original self-reflexion from what is essentially a neo-Augustan poetic theory.

Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey… [opening two verse paragraphs]

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. —Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

                  Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

34“Tintern Abbey”, the concluding poem in the 1798 edition and its most complex “analogy to the supernatural”, deconstructs the naturalist myth that seems to constitute the originary identity of the poet. Nature is a “wild” and “green” décor, the epithets repeated as tokens of a recursive “craving” not for place but for impossible presence. The sublime space beyond voice in “the quiet of the sky”, the space of “the round ocean and the living air,” is visionary, not natural, is what “we behold / From this green earth.” The poem is not a “verbal icon”, a unitary statement. It is in some respects a failed soliloquy, its failure to contain itself within the scene of writing leading to the recompense of what “Michael” calls feeling “For passions that were not my own.” The poet is thrown into a vertiginous “apparent tautology”, the recursion of intention to a place that presents itself initially as a fold in time, and a return of the “inland murmur”. The four repetitions of the signifiers of repetition (“once again”, “again”) all occur in the final two feet of the line, so that the predication returns with intensely cathected originary violence from the start of the following lines. This tightly performed turning from a signified past to a signifying present is an extension of the ontological catastrophe that marks the celebrated ‘false origin” of The Prelude, “Was it for this?” in which the past and the present obliterate each other as dimensions of time, in the impossible ontology of “it” which both is and is not, as the indexed “this” is both present and absent, both state and trace (cf WC Williams’s poem “This Is Just To Say”).

35The recursion of intention to a place that is a fold in time is marked by the arising of an “inland murmur”, the turn outwards and the Erinnerung held in a metric tension that signals the difficulty of holding the constructed temporality of the sign (intuition>image), producing power, against the performance of the inscription that is felt lyrically as impotence. This is an ironic refusal of the possibility of stabilizing absolute spirit, in the Hegelian sense: the sublation of vision is achieved not by any assumption of voice but as recursive catastrophe caught between anxiety and expressive power. The “lines run wild” in the collapse of form necessary to the epitaph, the death of the past self and of cliché; and the smoke rises from this double collapse, with “uncertain notice”, leaving the poem evolving around its hidden fire. There is in the first part of the poem a metrical conflict between the periodicity of scenic construction and the recurrent tonal collapse, the cadence of the semiotic falling-away, which can provisionally appear as the collapse of writing into voice (writing as sustained power, voice as slackening: two conflicting types of inwardness, one the signs of Erinnerung, the other the collapse into conflict, the pre-poetic/unwritten subject). The writing subject is haunted by signs of dissolution and death, the rocking rhythm being both a rebirth and a burial beneath “this dark sycamore”, surrounded by “wreathes” of smoke and language in a scene that appears an allegory of creation.

36The turn of the catastrophic ontology (“Was it for this?”) operates violently to erase “These forms” which “have not been to me / As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye”: the fold of vision into blindness is a fold of spatial and temporal meaning into the lengthening rhythms of catastrophe. The rolling rhetorical periods of the poem embody an extended intentionality in the tautology to recover the semiotic trauma of lost intuition, so that “wavelength” becomes an analogue of excursive sign-production in a metric of representational logic. This analogy of metre and representation allows the poem to operate the “cut” (dislocated) analogy of “remembered” and “unremembered” feelings, to create the irony of a private self left unrecovered, “inside”, “almost suspended” as “a loving soul” as the poem accedes to common meaning. If there is a figuring of sign-stone as body and meaning as soul then the “living soul” is impossible in this semiotic of the word (semantic); it is only possible in a semiotics of metre (syntactic). And then suddenly, like a ghost, his sister is at his side, as she will be when he is dead, and it “will have been” for this.

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1  I use the term in Deleuze’s sense (he refers to the painting of Klee and Bacon) of an originary organization of pre-semiotic chaos: “Le diagramme ce serait la catastrophe germe: il y a à cette instance très particulière, la catastrophe, … et en sort quelque chose qui est le rythme, la couleur, ce que vous voulez. Et bien cette unité pour faire sentir cette ‘catastrophe germe’, ce ‘chaos germe’, ce serait ça. Ce serait ça le diagramme.” (Cours du 31/03/81 [14A])

2  Yet originally, in 1798-9, The Prelude was conceived as part of the same project (see Stephen Gill’s correction of de Selincourt’s chronologie in the Preface to the 1970 Second Edition of the 1805 Prelude).

3  For an account of Coleridge’s negotiations with parody in and around the “Ancyente Marinere” see Daniel Burgoyne, “Coleridge’s’Poetic Faith’ and Poe’s Scientific Hoax” and Steven E. Jones, “‘Supernatural, or at Least Romantic’: the Ancient Mariner and Parody.”

4  The generic power of this semio-poetic, or semiotic diagram of the poetic, becomes apparent if we ask whether The Prelude could not be considered a “lyrical epic”.

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Adrian HARDING, « Haunted Metre: Wordsworth’s Subliminal Lyric »e-Rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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