University of Denver
In Wordsworth Writing, Andrew Bennett challenges several pervasive myths about Wordsworth, revisits the most significant cruxes of twentieth-century Wordsworth criticism, and sheds fresh light on Wordsworth’s poetic practice. Bennett carries out this three-pronged revision by questioning the assumption behind many studies of Wordsworth’s life and poetry: that Wordsworth composed poetry without actually writing. Wordsworth has long been considered a poet who composed aloud while walking outdoors, but Bennett contends that this view of Wordsworth as a spontaneous poet of nature misrepresents how he wrote the majority of his poetry. Instead, Bennett demonstrates that Wordsworth’s concern with the process of writing—from thinking about writing, to inscribing words on the page, false starts, writing blocks, and re-writing—defined his poetic identity, choice of subject matter, and passion for poetry.
Although Bennett’s argument cuts across the grain of much Wordsworth criticism, it also explores why so many critics have upheld the notion that for this Lake poet writing and, more particularly, written words were worthless. From the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1800) to the Fenwick Notes (1843), Wordsworth often publicized his written poetry as a kind of speech and fashioned himself as a poet who composed extemporaneously because he immersed himself in natural and inspiring surroundings. In chapter one, Bennett traces how this branding of Wordsworth occurred in the nineteenth century and then closely examines the evidence that critics, biographers, and painters have drawn upon to interpret Wordsworth’s poetic habits. After demonstrating that this evidence is sparse, ambiguous, and occasionally unreliable, Bennett turns to Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals because they offer the closest account of William’s perambulatory compositions. Bennett concludes that Dorothy’s uses of “composing” and description of her brother’s writing process reveal that William most often composed indoors and that when he was outside, he primarily sat down to write while composing. Chapter one reconfigures Wordsworth as a working and often frustrated writer. However, this unmasking of Wordsworth does not recount how many of Wordsworth’s contemporary critics and satirists saw through his public attempts to divorce writing from composition. They lambasted him, early and often, for presenting himself as a poet of nature who labors without laboring.
Bennett’s empirical proof of Wordsworth’s writing habits and quibbling about how much Wordsworth composed aloud or wrote with a pen might seem inconsequential. Chapter two, however, quells such doubts by turning to “the most famous example of the Wordsworthian denial of writing,” his poem “Tintern Abbey” (45). Bennett maintains that Wordsworth’s title change in 1815 from “Lines Written” to “Lines Composed” reveals most acutely Wordsworth’s efforts to present himself as a spontaneous poet of nature who disengaged writing from oral composition. Most nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics, including New Historicists, have reified this image of Wordsworth composing the entire poem aloud on his walking tour. Bennett, however, argues that the process of writing the poem in Bristol, at the end of this tour, structures its thematic ideas and form. From its deictics “these,” “here,” and “this,” and tension between present and past composition, to its repetitions, absences, and figurations of the country and city, “Tintern Abbey” lauds speech and natural inspiration but also anxiously records how necessary the city and writing were for its creation and are for its reception.