Review of W.J.B. Owen, Wordsworth as Critic.

[Review of W.J.B. Owen, Wordsworth as Critic. Queen's Quarterly. 76.4 (Winter 1969): 729-30.]


The word critic has been used in the past 50 years, not always very scrupulously, to cover a wide range of activities, from occasional, intermittent, or sustained reflection on particular works, to theories about how criticism may – or even should – be conducted, to more or less comprehensive considerations of the nature, functions, and cognitive aspect of poetry.  So genial a blurring of the term has done little enough to clarify the field of criticism; and it is in this vaguely referential way that Mr. Owen’s title claims Wordsworth as a “critic.”  “The aim of this book” he states, “is to show the growth of Wordsworth’s thinking about the theory of his art” – not, as it turns out, the theory of poetry altogether (the art that Wordsworth also practised) but simply his own poetry.

The claim that Wordsworth is a “critic” rests presumably on the assumption that the Preface to Lyrical Ballads is an important critical document and that if he could write one such, whatever else of the same kind he wrote must similarly be important.  Yet the Preface to Lyrical Ballads is largely generalized poetics in a rhetorical mode, an affirmation of a limited and not very coherent view of poetry – in which incidentally is embedded one of the most interesting and perceptive accounts we have of one poet’s way of making.  I cannot help wondering whether the importance traditionally assigned to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads may be the result of nineteenth century literary piety and absent-minded academic inflation.  Has the Preface, I wonder, ever set any poet afire?  Certainly the truncated phrase about “spontaneous overflow” clings like an unassimilable burr to many discussions where it does not belong.  Less comprehensive and original than Coleridge, less plangent and philosophical than Shelley, less daringly personal and penetrating than Keats, Wordsworth’s Preface is certainly not without interest as an historical document; and to Wordsworth scholars anything he wrote on the subject of poetry has to be taken into account.  But the treatment in this book seems disproportionate and in the end unrewarding.

The documents dealt with are the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (with its various revisions), the three Essays on Epitaphs, the Preface to the 1815 poems, and the Essay Supplementary to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.  The text of these is not given in this volume – a difficulty we can outflank by using Vol II of the de Selincourt-Darbishire Poetical Works for the prefaces, and Vol IV (or the new edition of Coleridge’s The Friend) for one of the essays on Epitaphs; Grosart for the others; no single text will serve, however, until the Oxford edition of the Prose Works is published.  This raises a slight difficulty in using so detailed a commentary, but not an insuperable one.  The commentary on the Preface to Lyrical Ballads is a reprint with a few slight changes of the Introduction published by Mr. Owen in Anglistica (Copenhagen) in 1957.  In the 1957 version, the Introduction of 100 pages, and a 40-page Commentary (here telescoped into footnotes and cross-references to the earlier version), referred to 25 pages of Wordsworth’s text.  In this new edition, the commentary on the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (excluding the Essay Supplementary) makes 119 out of 234 pages of text.  Commentary on this scale might well be accorded to Aristotle’s Poetics (and often has) or perhaps to the Biographia Literaria (but hasn’t yet).  But here the purpose of the commentary seems to lose direction, partly because Wordsworth’s text doesn’t need it on this scale, partly because Wordsworth’s purpose is not very steady. 

The commentary itself is confused in purpose, being in part an exposition of the original documents, in part a history of the “ideas” contained in them; in the second phase of interest Wordsworth often seems little more than a convenient reference point in the flux of literary-critical history, his “ideas” demonstrated for what mostly they are from this point of view – commonplaces of his predecessors.  Whatever short-comings these writings of Wordsworth’s may have as central critical documents, they were all written under the impetus of a passionate need to say something about his poetry and are uttered with the fervour of a strong if not particularly philosophical intelligence.  Somewhere the strength and individuality of the documents has slipped away in this account.  The progress in Wordsworth’s few “occasional” writings on such matters is shown to be zigzag, almost haphazard, ending in 1815 without having advanced very far beyond its beginnings except in some clarification.  I suspect that there is rather more to the story than that, if only we could regard the documents as Wordsworth’s, as somehow necessarily propelled into articulate existence (the necessities might even be definable), being by-products or overflow from the urgent and exacting poetic activity of a powerful, intensely original, and largely self-enclosed intelligence.  The history of “ideas” is prone to submerge or blur the specificity of individual figures – a serious loss for the study of poetry in its own right in any case.  Mr. Owen seems concerned to refer Wordsworth’s writing to a distinction between “classical” and “romantic” criticism, and distinction between “mimetic” and “non-mimetic” poetry – both of them open to very searching questions.  Despite influential reiterations in favour of both positions, it is difficult to see either of them as a firm enough point of reference to “place” Wordsworth in the history of ideas.  The fact that the 1957 Introduction has been reissued and that the other documents in the case have been similarly handled will be welcomed by those who have found the earlier version useful.