What Wordsworth Touched

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"What Wordsworth Touched"

Sonia Hofkosh
Tufts University

1.        Sitting on the sofa in his comfortable library or perhaps at the desk in his attic study with a view of the hills and the lake beyond, a man rather advanced in years turns the pages of a book of poetry. He reads some lines aloud or recites them from memory and as he slowly turns the pages looking at poems written over the course of a fifty year career, he reflects on the circumstances of their creation, for the poems he peruses are in fact his own. He shares his reflections with a friend, who sits with him for many hours during the many days and months it takes to look through seven volumes of verse. The friend faithfully transcribes what he says, filling 180 leaves of a notebook with a history of a writing life and an archeology of a poetic practice. [1] 

2.        You are no doubt aware that the old man of whom I speak is William Wordsworth and the persevering scribe his "beloved friend and heart-sister" (W to IF 10 July 1841) Isabella Fenwick. [2]  Fenwick encouraged and collaborated on the poet's project of intensive retrospection which began when they sat down together at Rydal Mount in January 1843, Fenwick's pen poised to take dictation as Wordsworth opened the first volume of the most recently published edition of his writings, Moxon's 1841 Poetical Works. They finished in June with Wordsworth's extended commentary on The Excursion, which includes not only details he remembers about specific persons and places and events that are the originating ground of that poem, but also the changes he registers since writing it—present sorrows such as the recent death of his "lamented friend Southey" (195), as well as more public disappointments such as the failure of "the present session of Parliament" (214) to improve the lot of children working in factories. Such references to current affairs and feelings within his account of the poem's genesis suggest the contingency not just of that particular creation, but of retrospection itself: memory unfolds here in real time, opening the past in and to present conditions and consequences.

3.        I will be looking at a particular piece of Wordsworth's retrospective project--the much cited remarks on the poem he refers to in 1843 simply as "The Ode" —but it is worth noting the temporal chiasmus operative in this retrospective enterprise more broadly. When he sits down to read his own poems once again, he engages in a redoubled and especially sustained process of recollection in which temporalities converge and intersect. The past acquires particular form and inflection from the present. The ambitious annotation project he undertakes late in his career may not constitute a "new idiom" such as Edward Said sees great artists developing near the end of their lives, but we may find that the aging poet's retrospective account of his poetic practice does revisionary work and offers an opportunity for us to rethink some of the central and abiding formulations of (his and romantic) literary history.

4.        As concerned as he had been at least since the poems and prefaces of Lyrical Ballads with the question of reading, especially of reading poetry, the Fenwick project highlights the extent to which Wordsworth was a continuous reader and re-reader of his own writing and correlatively the extent to which his writing entails and embeds the supplement of reading. But I invoke the scene of the old man sitting with Isabella Fenwick in the library or study at Rydal Mount in addition to remind us how much Wordsworth's writing was always and fundamentally a social and embodied phenomenon, coming into being in the nexus of specific relationships to individuals and communities and in the context of specific situations, environments, and material conditions. The Fenwick notes repeatedly attest to the circumstantial and materially determined nature of poetic invention. His gloss on "We are Seven," for instance, famously recounts what Wordsworth calls "one of the most remarkable facts in my own poetic career" (39), that is, the inception of Lyrical Ballads in a walking tour with his sister and Coleridge in the Spring of 1798, or, more exactly, in their determination to compose a poem to send to the Monthly Magazine to finance that trip. Moreover, the scene of the production of the Fenwick notes itself reminds us that poems are objects within a particular (if changing) field of embodied experience. When he holds the book of his poems, turning the pages to read them and reflect aloud on the details of their composition, how they came to be poems, and thus how he came to be the poet he is, sitting there reading them, Wordsworth touches something that is one among the things in the world that thereby touch him in return, for inevitably, what we touch, touches us. [3] 

5.        His hand upon the page, this touch, I will suggest, is "the touch of earthly years" ("A Slumber" ), what the aging poet reviewing his life's work in the unavoidable consciousness of its approaching end must feel not just in the abstract, as nostalgia, for instance, or as emotion recollected in tranquility, but somatically, as a palpable pressure, however slight or fleeting, a mild sensation on the surface of his skin, felt on the flesh, if not also in the blood or along the heart. His hand upon the page, such contact of the body with the world of tactile objects—here, the book itself, or the paper—instantiates what one philosopher of the haptic calls "something mutual between the toucher and the touched." [4]  For the philosopher of the haptic, this "something"—which is not a thing--evokes Merleau-Ponty's argument about the reciprocal relation between embodied consciousness and the external world. "Something mutual between the toucher and the touched." It is at this point or plane of contact, an interface between person and thing, that the body, according to Jean-Luc Nancy, would experience "its own weight," that is, the very density, or we might say, the very lightness, of its own corporeal being. Nancy proposes that "touching—happens in writing all the time" (11): ". . . the page itself is a touching (of my hand while it writes, and your hands while they hold the book) . . . a slight, resistant, fine texture, the infinitesimal dust of a contact" (51); this dust, he suggests, is "the ob-jected matter of the sub-ject" (29). To put it another way, let us extrapolate from Adorno's dialectical model of the relations of subject and object to consider that when Wordsworth turns the pages upon which his poems are printed, "subjectivity is grasped as the object's form" (144): in its encounter with the object, even or especially the object of its own imagination, the subject can no longer--at least for the moment that they touch--persist in "forgetting how much it is an object itself" (140). [5] 

6.        Although he defined poetry as "the history or science of feelings" (in his note to "The Thorn" ) and designed his works to be affecting (are we not "moved" [493], like the narrator of "The Ruined Cottage," by Margaret's woeful tale?), Wordsworth is not generally regarded as a haptic poet. Francis O'Gorman has recently explored Wordsworth's reticence about depicting human touch in his poetry, arguing that while his language aspires to material efficacy, words as things, even such a rhetorical near approach to the tangible is threatening, "marked with death and effacement" (20). In Geoffrey Hartman's analysis of Wordsworth's "touching compulsion," the poet is primarily understood to be reacting to "a ghostliness" or a "phantom-reality" (22), or, in Wordsworth's own terms, "to be affected...by absent things as if they were present" ("Preface to LB" ), rather than by what he will call, in the note to which I will return in a moment, "objects of sight" such as the wall or tree he would often grasp to remind himself that "external things [have] external existence." For Hartman, as for Nancy, all art may involve a "kind of touching" (22), especially, for Hartman, mimetic art, in that representation subsists in some relation to reality, whether regressive or restorative or substitutive. But despite his early compulsion to grasp the wall or tree, Wordsworth is not ultimately a poet of touch or the tangible or even the visible in Hartman's influential analysis; instead, his poetry "almost transcends representation," seeming to exist, Hartman says, "without the material density of poetic texture—without imagistic or narrative detail" (27) or, we might add, without the book or the pages he turns when he reviews his writing at Rydal Mount in 1843.

7.        I keep coming back to the scene of the poet in the act of touching the page in turning it to draw attention to the mostly unacknowledged and yet fundamental materiality at issue in the practice of reading and writing, in the apprehension of the literary artifact as such. Such a material act even as I stand here is undergoing significant transformation. The page is now often digitized on a screen; we turn it by pushing a button; our fingers touch a keyboard instead of a pen to make words appear. The particular dynamic in which the body encounters the literary work is always under reconstruction. In looking with some insistence at Wordsworth touching the page of the book as Isabella Fenwick transcribes his commentary on his creative process, I do not mean to claim the medium as the message; I do, however, want to suggest that specific and changing forms of mediation constitute a "material density" that should be incorporated into our understanding of the making and meaning of literature and of the cultural arena in which the work of art acquires and confers value. Further, I want to suggest that however infinitesimal its dust, Wordsworth implicitly understood the force and consequence of such materiality as foundational to the operation of the imagination and to the identity of the poet as imaginative subject or creative consciousness.

8.        As a retrospective project, the Fenwick notes remember the making of each poem and crucially the making of the poet qua poet; in its very quotidian drama of the hand holding the book and turning its pages ("little, nameless, unremembered acts" l. 5), it in addition reminds us that poem as well as poet are always being grasped in material form, or, in Nancy's terms, as ob-jected matter. While his early poetics may be constructed specifically against what Stephan Uhlig calls "poetic objecthood," the scene at Rydal Mount in 1843 demonstrates Wordsworth's unavoidable reliance on (even his investment in) the materiality of poetic practice. The poet performs even if he does not theorize the everyday efficacy of the material in Romantic writing. And yet, he does offer a kind of thing theory in the Fenwick notes. His reflections on the origins of particular poems collectively articulate a logic of embodiment—how poems come into being (come to be written and to be read as particular poems) within a complex relational or referential field, as situated phenomena. Wordsworth had of course long aspired in his poetry to keep the reader "in the company of flesh and blood" ("Preface" 1802). Perhaps we might go so far as to say that in the Fenwick project he thinks through the body as the very condition for making and apprehending the work of art. To say this is not to claim primacy in the production of meaning and value either for the hand turning the page or for the material object itself, the book or the paper. It is not to argue for a strictly materialist account of being that would exclude any/thing not immediately available to the senses. But it is to return, as Wordsworth himself does in the note I want to look at briefly in closing, to the question of the subject's relation to the object and to the function of the intimacy of contact, of touch, that puts them into that relation.

9.        Paul de Man rejected the problem of the subject's relation to the object—the mind to nature--as an "impasse" in the discourse of Romanticism, a "pseudo dialectic" that masks the "painful knowledge" of time and death and the difference of the self from the non-self expressed as a rhetoric of temporality, as allegory or irony. [6]  De Man describes this negative self-knowledge as a kind of vertigo, and in particular in reading Wordsworth, locates it at the moment when the bond between subject and object is revealed as unstable or even illusory: "the experience hits as a sudden feeling of dizziness, a falling or a threat of falling, a vertige of which there are many examples in Wordsworth" (78-9). At least one such example is invoked in the commentary Isabella Fenwick records in her notebook at Rydal Mount. Here, however, it is crucially in the very contact of subject and object that Wordsworth acknowledges a consciousness of temporality, the condition of being a body in time.

10.        In his comments on "The Ode," the aging poet recounts how difficult it was for him as a boy "to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being" or "to think of external things as having external existence":

I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from but inherent in my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. In later periods of life I have deplored, as we all have reason to do, a subjugation of an opposite character & have rejoiced over the remembrances, as is expressed in the lines 'obstinate questionings &c.'
The abyss that threatens to open here is significantly not a function of the difference of the self from the non-self but of the total assimilation or abstraction of the material world into the subject, "the world of his own mind"; the boy recalls himself from even as the old poet recalls him in such "dizzy raptures" ("Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," 86) by touching something--a wall or tree, or a volume of poems. The note suggests that grasping the external existence of material things is stabilizing but also inevitably conduces to its own constraining effects ("subjugation," or what the poem calls "shades of the prison-house" 67). What he touches, touches him. But if the child who touches the wall or tree as an anchor against idealist free-fall is father to the man who deplores the limits thus imposed upon him by "sense and outward things" (145), the note also intimates that the passage of time can transform fear into rejoicing and that aging may have its satisfactions along with its losses and regrets.

11.         This note consolidates the story the Fenwick project implicitly tells about what Wordsworth touched. This is a story not just about remembering things that existed and how they came to be, but also about how things (entities, objects, bodies) change over time, must change, in order to endure. When in the process of the retrospective exercise he undertakes in 1843 he thus necessarily makes contact with external things that have external existence, including the pages of books, he is not so much affirming an "ontic unity of all things, including human things," as Paul Fry has recently argued (6). Nor, as Adam Potkay has similarly proposed, is he enacting a deep ecology, comprehending "all thinking things, all objects of all thought" ("Lines," 102) as "one life" (The Prelude 2:430). Rather, as when he was a boy reaching out to grasp a wall or tree, the old man's touch establishes relationship through or in difference, marking the point or plane where the self is distinguished from the non-self, where the subject in its very intimacy with the object becomes the particular subject it is, limited by a particular body. The old man's touch lingers, an infinitesimal dust. No impasse, it conveys that we are most in and of the world, situated, embodied in relation to external things when we feel how tenuous our hold on those things is and yet hold them close as if our own life depended on it.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. "Subject and Object.." The Adorno Reader. Ed. Brian O'Connor. Malden & Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Print.

Balfour, Ian. "Subjecticity (On Kant and the Texture of Romanticism).." Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic. Ed. Forest Pyle. [n.p.]: [n.p.], Feb 2005. Web.

Curtis, Jared, ed. The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1993. Print.

de Man, Paul. "The Rhetoric of Temporality.." Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. Print.

de Man, Paul. "Time and History in Wordsworth.." Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers. Ed. E. S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrej Warminski. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. Print.

Fisher, Tom H. "What We Touch, Touches Us: Materials, Affects, and Affordances.." Design Issues 20 (2004): 20-31. Print.

Fry, Paul. Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

Hartman, Geoffrey. "A Touching Compulsion.." The Unremarkable Wordsworth. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Corpus. Trans. Richard A. Rand. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. Print.

O'Gorman, Francis. "Wordsworth and Touch.." English 58 (2009): 4-23. Print.

Paterson, Mark. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Uhlig, Stephan H. "Poetic Objecthood in 1798.." Wordsworth's Poetic Theory: Knowledge, Language, Experience. Ed. Alexander Regier and Stephan H. Uhlig. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.


[1] Stephen Gill calls the Fenwick Notes "a document in Wordsworth's autobiography" (408). BACK

[2] I am indebted to the account of the occasion and progress of the project in "Introduction" in "The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth" , ed. Jared Curtis. BACK

[3] I am here adapting the terms of an argument about consumer response to plastics in Tom H. Fisher, "What We Touch, Touches Us: Materials, Affects, and Affordances," Design Issues 20, 4 (Autumn 2004): 20-31. Fisher contends that our physical interaction with ordinary materials is both conditioned by and conditions knowledge at the level of theory, culture, and psychology. BACK

[4] Mark Paterson, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies (Oxford & NY: Oxford UP, 2007). Also see "The Human Touch," tpm: The Philosopher's Magazine 45 (2009). BACK

[5] Also see Ian Balfour's comments on the "mutual determinations of subject and object" in Adorno's essay in "Subjecticity (On Kant and the Texture of Romanticism)" in Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic, Romantic Circles Praxis, ed. Forest Pyle (Feb 2005). BACK

[6] Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (U of Minn P, 1983), 187-228; 198; 207; 198. BACK