University of Hawaii at Manoa
One of the repeated claims in Mark Schoenfield’s reading of “law, labor, and the poet’s contract” is that aesthetic issues in William Wordsworth’s day were inevitably political issues as well. While the claim itself has become something of a literary-critical commonplace in the 1990s, Schoenfield evokes its pertinence to Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s milieu with considerable skill and precision. The primary context for Schoenfield’s historicizing interpretation is not contemporary politics but rather the growth of the free market and the rise of the modern professions. The entanglement of aesthetics with social issues arises from a tension between value and judgment, or between consumption and criticism, that inevitably accompanied the published work’s dual status as commodity and work of art. Schoenfield’s counter-figure for the Wordsworthian poetic imagination is therefore not Napoleon or empire but rather a composite character, the lawyer as critical reviewer. Many reviewers were, like Francis Jeffrey, also lawyers, and Schoenfield begins his book by noting that in classical Athens kritikos meant both critic and judge. One of the main merits of The Professional Wordsworth is that it develops this general overlapping of legal and critical domains into a supple tool for the study of Wordsworth’s poetry.
The thematic emphases of Schoenfield’s readings are hardly new. The book’s subtitle will no doubt remind Wordsworthians immediately that the poet raises the issue of a contract between poet and reader in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads. An extensive critical literature exists concerning the way Wordsworth’s poems and poetics treat law, justice, property, and the relation of contractual agreements to the bonds of community and to economies both of wealth and of social interaction. Schoenfield’s study is distinctive and original in at least two ways, however. The first lies in his knowledge of legal history and the specificity with which he brings it to bear on Wordsworth’s poetry. No other critic has written in comparable detail about the relevance of English common law, Blackstone’s commentaries, and contemporary legal developments to the treatment of property and rights in the Lyrical Ballads and The Excursion. The second has to do with Schoenfield’s emphasis on Wordsworth’s sense of professionalism. The turn Schoenfield gives to Wordsworth’s contention in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads that the poet speaks “not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer or a natural philosopher, but as a Man” is away from the formula’s essentialism or humanism to its struggle to wrest priority over a certain kind of authority from the poet’s professional rivals, and especially from the lawyer who heads up the list. Schoenfield is interested in Wordsworth’s self-conception as a professional producer, owner, and distributor of words, a self-conception he links to Wordsworth’s penchant for laborious revision, his attention to the publication and republication of his work, and above all to an ongoing confrontation between legal and poetic conceptions of authority in his poetry.
Poetry’s confrontation with legal authority often evokes some variation of the “unacknowledged legislator” of Johnson’s Rasselas or Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, and Schoenfield’s analysis includes such a moment. For Wordsworth, he says, “[Poetic discourse] is not so much beyond law as a lawmaker, or more precisely, a trace of the totemic moment which, as Freud speculates, preceded law as an institution” (89–90). This sounds as if Schoenfield is placing Wordsworth’s poetics within a theory of social contract in such a way that poetic authority precedes and makes possible the break between the state of nature and political order. Thus Schoenfield writes of “the transformational power of [Wordsworth's] poetry not as a violation of custom or law but as the recuperation of the aesthetic roots of the former and a legitimate critique of the latter” (108). But the paradoxical resonance of calling poetry a “legitimate critique” of law catches more accurately the prevailing tone of Schoenfield’s work. The poet’s efforts to assert his priority over legal discourse always seem to end up repeating the legal figures and procedures they try to overcome. For example, Wordsworth’s transformation of an oral tale into written poetry in “Michael” is said to “reenact within literature the legal empowerment that is the object of his social critique” (38). This simultaneous resistance to and containment by legal discourse is the overriding burden of Schoenfield’s analysis.
The prevalence of the resistance-containment paradigm also attests to the enveloping presence and determining power accorded to market forces. The market forces at stake here are those driving late eighteenth-century English law away from the common law monumentally elucidated in Blackstone and towards statutory law. Schoenfield’s reading of “Michael” turns on the contemporary transformation of the notion of a legal contract from its common law status, the representation of an obligation that needed to be rooted in prior conditions, to the more financially responsive concept of a written instrument that itself performs the agreement. The explicit and implied contracts Schoenfield carefully unpacks reveal that an abiding tension between local and national economies involves Michael and his property in a web of “dependencies which mean and affect more than Michael can understand and contain” (39). A similar set of legal and economic tensions informs Schoenfield’s interpretation of “Goody Blake and Harry Gill.” The poem’s narrative of “a crime, a trial, and a punishment . . . overlays features of medieval law onto modern law to demonstrate the deficiency of the latter, and structures the trial as between two theories of property” (103).