Review of John Jones, The Egotistical Sublime: A History of Wordsworth's Imagination.

["Spectator Ab Extra." Review of John Jones, The Egotistical Sublime: A History of Wordsworth's Imagination. New Statesman 1206 (17 April 1954): 508.]


Wordsworth’s poetry confronts the critical intelligence with a formidable obstacle: there is so much of it; weariness and revulsion sooner or later infect the reader.  Matthew Arnold tried to rescue Wordsworth’s poetry from its author by anthologising, and established a popular tradition of cheerful but damaging over-simplification.  But the bitter fact is that Wordsworth’s art is slow, cumulative, undramatic; the weight and monotony are of the essence, no less than the obscurity of his symbolising processes and the fervour and oddness of his beliefs.  To examine the whole of Wordsworth’s poetry with Wordsworth’s own sense of the integrity of fact is a rare and courageous endeavour.  Mr. Jones has made such and attempt, and the results are impressive.

The Keatsian title, chosen without facetious intent, indicates the centre of gravity for Mr. Jones’s view.  The most vital quality of Wordsworth’s mind, he finds, is its literalness and its solitude: hence not only the profundity, but also the narrowness, the obstinacy, the weak self-criticism, the lack of humour, the dullness.  Coleridge described him as a Spectator ab extra – a man who strove to see everything for what it was while his mind preserved “her own inviolate retirement.”  Wordsworth believed that the object he fixed his gaze upon would yield up its secret entire; for him the moral universe was a single intelligible structure.  His greatest gift was his profound and subtle grasp of the way the world was wedded to the mind and the mind to the world.

By paying close attention to Wordsworth’s singular vision, Mr. Jones discovered that the poetry moved through three phases.  The work of the Great Decade was a poetry of solitude and relationship. Before the Great Decade was over, a poetry of indecision had begun to supervene.  But Wordsworth did not suffer complete occlusion: in a few late poems the “baptised imagination” (his own phrase) is triumphantly at work.

In his great early poetry, landscape is Wordsworth’s single comprehensive metaphor for reality; when rendered in its arcane particularity it is deep and rich enough to encompass the range of moral life.  The recurrent Solitaries – self-absorbed, impervious figures bereft of personality and almost indistinguishable from the landscape – are no less important.  For they are the principle of relationship in action; they embody “the eye made quiet” the wise but childlike state which (through the grace of poetry) annihilates the gulf between the integrity of the thing and the inviolate solitude of the mind.  Through these figures, and without drifting towards philosophical or allegorical separation, Wordsworth can steadily evolve his reality out of the sacramental meeting of the inner and outer worlds.

But this integral vision was vulnerable.  Already in the 1804-5 portions of The Prelude Wordsworth was losing his grip on particularity.  The landscape shrinks; crude oppositions and an obtrusive pathos emerge when he tries deliberately to write a transcendental poetry quite foreign to his earthy genius.  The shift, as Keats resentfully noticed, was towards generalisation and a nagging rationality.  Then his brother’s death sealed the process, forcing him faute de mieux into a faint and desolate Christian pietism.  In the latter poetry he was trying to write Christian verse; usually, through dimness of experience rather than from timidity or disingenuousness, he failed.  Yet very occasionally – and Mr. Jones makes no extravagant claims for the late poetry at large – Wordsworth came upon a vein that was genuinely Christian and genuinely Wordsworthian.  The literalness returns, directed now upon a dream or a Blake-like vision.  While his eye is at its old fever of concretion, there is no transcendental vapouring; Paradise has a terrible and severe solidity; all is ceremonious, heraldic, Apocalyptic; the imagery has its pristine beak-like hardness.  It is as though he had moved into an ancient yet primordial innocence in which he sees God as suffering, God as Artist delighting in the minutiae of creation.  Wordsworth’s massive egotism – his genius – is transfigured, if only momentarily, in an impulse of praise and humble gratitude.  “His waterfall-trumpeter is now the archangel.”

The tone of this book is firm and unpretentious; and the vigorous, distinct writing rewards the reader with many memorable pungencies and felicities.  The running contrast that Mr. Jones draws between Wordsworth and Coleridge is on the whole illuminating, but is sometimes pressed unnecessarily beyond the point of accuracy.  If some of Mr. Jones’s judgments are sharply provocative, the taut undercurrent of his rigorous thinking is a constant token of good faith and a stimulus to reflection.  This incisive, honest, and sensitive piece of criticism leads one to inquire afresh – and with some hope of relevance – into Coleridge’s claim that Wordsworth was a great philosophical poet.