Welcome to a universe of death

Duncan Wu delights in an exhilarating study of Wordsworth's work that may upset traditionalists

September 4, 2008

In this startling new study, Paul H. Fry offers a new interpretation of a poet whose view of nature was that it was essentially meaningless and unintelligible. Typically, Fry argues, Wordsworth does not say that nature is a book - books, after all, mean something. And when writing about the spots of time passages in The Prelude, which many regard as Wordsworth's greatest writings, Fry says that they "mean absolutely nothing at all". To many admirers of the poet, this will come as a shock; it is, as Fry himself admits, counterintuitive.

But that's not all. He goes on to point out that, for all Wordsworth's concentration on the redemptive power of the human mind, the poet gives no account "of how the mind can reflect experience"; in fact, he "undermines the very idea of reflection". Instead, Fry's Wordsworth "is the connoisseur of indifference" who looks about himself and sees meaninglessness, preferring books that allow self-forgetfulness. As for unity, the perception of which is so often held to be a redemptive quality in Wordsworth's poetry, Fry says that it consists of finding all things to be the same. The Wordsworthian imagination, he argues, has one purpose only: the "disclosure of things as things". It forces aside difference in order to perceive unity. Indeed, poetry "tells us nothing more than what we are".

If that seems bleak, it is hardly relieved by what Fry finds to be the Wordsworthian concept of nature: "'Nature' really is a being toward one's death, one's existence in a universe of death." Fry's Wordsworth is compelled by a universe of death, and in his poetry seeks to confuse life, death and sleep. For instance, the famous mystic passage at the heart of Tintern Abbey describes "a state of mind that resembles a coma". Not surprisingly, Fry rejects the orthodoxy that Wordsworth and Coleridge were pantheists in 1798, saying that they preferred to look for unity in abstraction. Along the way, he offers a critique of "green" interpretations of Wordsworth, analyses Francis Jeffrey's attacks on the poetry, and engages in a barnstorming account of The Ancient Mariner in which Coleridge's poem is a refutation of Wordsworth.

This is a necessarily concentrated version of Fry's argument, which he expounds in a more leisurely and methodical manner than I have managed to do here. There are elements of it that baffle me, particularly the philosophical underpinnings, which are not as clear to me as I would wish (but this is my fault rather than Fry's). Parts of this book have been read out as papers at conferences, and I am sorry not to have been present because I would like to know how they were received. For there are elements here that will upset some Wordsworthians.

In fact, Fry's interpretation could not be better informed, either on scholarly matters or on the critical heritage. Surprising though his conclusions may seem, they are amply justified by his scrupulous readings, drawn from the warp and weft of the verse itself. And he is always true to his source. Take, for instance, his observation on the "twofold image" of the white ram in Wordsworth's Excursion: "What is most important to notice is that the figure of reflection is not itself reflecting. The ram has its perfect counterpart in the water but is unaware of it - as is, of course, the reflection likewise ... Reflection, then, is a transitory trick of relation that cannot be reflected upon because it reflects no authentic working of the mind." Although this illuminates Wordsworth in a way that will discomfit some, it is resolutely faithful to the text and opens up the poet's meaning in a manner that is genuinely new.

Fry's volume delivers a timely (and welcome) shock. The Wordsworth it presents is a strange figure unlike the romanticised poet to whom we are used - and many will find that unsettling, to say the least. But that, it seems to me, is the proper function of all good literary criticism. Fry's virtue is that he is utterly independent-minded, eager to challenge readerly preconception and keen to confront us with fresh interpretive possibilities. Given the complexity of much of this book, it is a supreme credit to find that it is one of those rare things: a critical study that manages to be compulsively readable. It is, moreover, resolutely old-fashioned, convinced (to some degree) that such a thing as authorial intention exists, and focused on the poetry rather than on its cultural or political context. That would be achievement enough. But it is also one of the most exhilarating books about Wordsworth to have appeared in a long time.

Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are

By Paul H. Fry

Yale University Press

288pp, £35.00

ISBN 9780300126488

Published June 2008

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