Mark Schoenfield, The Professional Wordsworth: Law, Labor, and the Poet's Contract

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Mark Schoenfield, The Professional Wordsworth: Law, Labor, and the Poet's Contract. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. xiv + 360pp. $50.00. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8203-1791-8).

Reviewed by

John Rieder
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).

The most telling legal-historical context Schoenfield brings to bear on this poem is to connect neighborly testimony in the poem with the medieval concept of a jury whose members are chosen because they are members of the litigants' or defendant's community and therefore are in a position to recognize the truth about them. In a modern jury, of course, such foreknowledge instead disqualifies the prospective juror. Thus when Harry Gill sets out to catch Goody Blake in the act of stealing from him, his concern with private, mobile property (Schoenfield also compares Gill's attitude toward the hedge with the logic of enclosure and wage labor) demands a neutralization of the communal bonds formerly embodied in the power of one's word. The power of the word enacts the poem's version of justice, of course, but ultimately Harry Gill's logic is echoed by the tendency of the poem's early reviewers to criminalize Goody Blake by "inventing" her witchcraft. Schoenfield's emphasis on market forces appears most clearly in his commentary on the relation of Wordsworth's poems to the reviews. Schoenfield draws a strong contrast between Wordsworth's famous insistence on the face-to-face relationship between poet and reader and the reviewers' assumption of a serial relationship between readers and their readings of a poem. This, once again, is an opposition Wordsworth resists but cannot contain. His face-to-face reader inevitably also comes to stand for an anonymous reading public, with the result that the tension between resistance and containment collapses into an ideological contradiction: "Individual readers can accumulate into a market, and indeed must to the extent that books are sold, discussed, reissued, and so on; but they do so, in Wordsworthian terms, by denying the collective market character of their endeavors as readers and poets" (135).

After a chapter on the 1800 Lyrical Ballads, with particularly good sections on "Hart-Leap Well" and "The Brothers," the final chapters of The Professional Wordsworth turn to what Schoenfield calls Wordsworth's "juridical" epic, The Excursion. Wordsworth's extended meditation on nature, labor, property, and rights enters into dialogue with legal discourse first of all, according to Schoenfield, over the issue of reason. Schoenfield carefully rehearses the rather familiar theme of the Wanderer's and Wordsworth's attack on abstract philosophical reason, represented in the poem by Voltaire and allied among the reviewers to Hazlitt. The more important contribution of Schoenfield's reading, however, is to complicate any attempt to freeze this discussion into a binary opposition of radical and conservative views by setting this disagreement into tension with another, equally thoroughgoing one. Here the standard of reason is represented by common law and Francis Jeffrey, and Wordsworth's more or less straightforward disagreement with the latter involves his attempt to wrest from the lawyer's grasp the authority of the former. Thus the poem models a practice of retelling, reinterpretation, and adjustment of precedent to present contingencies that is closely analogous to common law and so asserts a poetic authority as originary and broad as legality itself. Schoenfield calls the dialogue among the characters—or more accurately, the narratives—of The Excursion a "sustained experiment in translating the visible into the legible" (209). As such it seeks to elaborate that laborious and sustained production of the "obvious" that Jeffrey denies. The way one tells the stories of the dead is a bedrock political and social issue for Wordsworth because, as Schoenfield says, "In a nation governed by common law, determining history amounts to determining law" (218). Wordsworth parts not only from Jeffrey's dogmatism but also from Blackstone's (or Burke's) constitutionalism here by insisting that the way in which nature underpins contractual law is not discernible within the tradition of common law as an object of interpretation (i.e., the British constitution) but rather, and solely, as a method of interpretation. What the Poet learns from the Wanderer is, finally, both "the voice of a particular social structure" and "what forms of mediation transform nature into the most humanly accessible form" (213, 219).

All of this complicates the status of the poem itself as interpretable object, method of interpretation, and commodified and circulating property. The final turn of Schoenfield's argument takes up this set of problems by locating in The Excursion the concept of a "radically unalienated" property, "arising only to the extent of contact and not transferrable," that models the reader's labor on and debt to the poem: "What can the poem transfer? Not beauty, but the awareness of beauty, the desire for it. The poet creates, and markets, a lack that demands its own fulfillment" (216). The poem attempts to reproduce a communal bond where property signifies obligation, a version of inalienable rights antithetical to the alienable property of the free market. The circulation of the poem pointedly echoes the Wanderer's wandering: "Wordsworth can, in the myth of The Excursion, always find the reader at home, and thus continue the role of the peddler in an economy that has extinguished that role, and has substituted instead lawyers, critics, and merchants" (250).

The poet who emerges from Schoenfield's readings of the Lyrical Ballads and The Excursion is socially committed, politically astute, resolutely non-Whiggish, suspicious of modernity and yet thoroughly embroiled in and engaged with it. One might well ask whether this profile is also adequate to the more personal and eccentric poet of The Prelude, "Tintern Abbey," or the Lucy and Matthew poems, none of which receive more than a glance in this study. Schoenfield's neglect of Wordsworth's lyricism and sublimity is in part a side-effect of the book's predominant focus on poems that attracted a lot of attention among contemporary reviewers, such as "Goody Blake and Harry Gill" and The Excursion. At the same time, Schoenfield's slightly unusual choice of texts reflects another of the book's strengths. By successfully integrating close reading of poetry with the history of law and of publishing, The Professional Wordsworth makes visible a provocative version of literary history in which poetry is one among a number of writing practices competing for readership, class standing, and social authority in the expanding economy of early-nineteenth-century England.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: