Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Review: William Wordsworth Fragments, edited by Rainer J. Hanshe

By: Thomas Sanfilip

It is hard to say when the golden age of literary criticism ended and a void crept into the serious study of the humanities. We are now fully immersed in the dark side of post-modernist thinking whereby aspects of language and form alone, along with a strange fascination with discontinuity, end up more important than content. However, given this as a reality, there are always instances when the potential of rediscovery and enlightenment can occur in the meditation and study of literary works overlooked or forgotten. This serious joining by Contra Mundum Press of two long buried incomplete prose pieces —“Hawkshead & the Ferry” and “The Sublime and Beautiful”—written by the English romantic poet, William Wordsworth, is just such an admirable attempt to reclaim some of the territory long lost to what was once considered axiomatic to the study of the humanities.  

The question is—have we gone so far in time that this kind of scrupulous attention to textual details, which is absolutely necessary for any truly relevant literary and critical analysis, a barrier rather than an opportunity to appreciate a serious work of literature? Contra Mundum Press does not believe so and I applaud their tenacity and adherence to this higher standard of critical acumen, though any study of literature today is archeologic at best, and such emphasis on textuality becomes by its very nature a barrier to understanding the source and substantive ideas of the literary work under consideration.

Nonetheless, as impressive as this carefully reedited edition of Wordsworth’s two prose fragments, it is by the nature of its textual approach a contest between the critical context that precedes Wordsworth’s two fragmentary prose pieces and the ideas expressed by Wordsworth himself. Reviewing the book is a challenge wherein it becomes necessary to establish some point of gravity around which to understand the significance of the work as opposed to its textuality which is offered in tandem with lengthy critical commentary and precise annotations placed inside Wordsworth’s text in exquisitely sharp detail. How to appreciate such textual exactitude and the substance of Wordsworth’s ideas at the same time I think is the greatest challenge to appreciate this book, as both a rarified expression of profound aesthetics by Wordsworth brought back to life by Contra Mundum Press and the well-designed aesthetic around which the works are offered.

Rainer J. Hanshe’s preface provides the best context to Wordsworth’s two fragmentary pieces, with a very clear explanation around the controversy surrounding the connection between the two pieces. Editorially it was decided to leave blank 4 pages between the two to suggest that the missing connective prose might one day be found and inserted, an intriguing idea that influenced Hanshe’s editorial decision to textually make such a decision. This in my view was bold, adventurous and unique, but notes on the text, editing procedures, a manuscript key, the dating of the manuscripts, an abbreviation key and sigla offers simply too much context. Alan Vardy’s equally contextual introduction, though an impressive example of literary acumen, would in my view have been better as an afterword. His introduction, more for an informed literary audience familiar with the perimeters of hardcore literary analysis, should be read afterwards to fully appreciate the full breadth of Wordsworth’s thinking.

So to this extent, Wordsworth’s incomplete works emerge after all the context like  brilliant light. The book begins with the incomplete “Hawkshead & the Ferry,” a careful walking tour of the surrounding countryside and habitats, with an eye for aesthetic features, often lacking. “We should not be justified in concluding that the beautiful or stately growth of the forest in their natural shape had no attractions for the eyes of our ancestors who were so studious to disfigure, by the shears, those trees which, being planted by the side of their own doors, came the most frequently under their notice,” writes Wordsworth. “This waywardness is in truth a step in the progress of refinement by a tie less gross than that of necessity: Man is thus connected with living nature.”

For Wordsworth, landscape is a “living thing” and we are “bound by the laws of taste not to disfigure a beautiful Country, or break in upon its composure by flaring edifices placed injuriously to the feelings of others for supposed advantages of our own.” In the second fragment that follows, “The Sublime & the Beautiful”, he justifies his perspective in more specific aesthetic terms. “Though it is impossible that a mind can be in a healthy state that is not frequently and strongly moved both by sublimity and beauty, it is more dependent for its daily well-being upon the love & gentleness which accompany the one, than upon the exultation or awe which are created by the other.”

How Wordsworth’s ideas of beauty and design devised in coordination with nature  would play in our world today so decidedly anti-aesthetic is predictable. Everything that could be beautiful and sublime i.e. the arts, fashion, architecture, human society has been reduced strangely to sheer ugliness and vapidity in spite of so many past ages that reveled in beauty in all forms. Aesthetic counter arguments— if they exist at all today—are now for the most part militant and absurdly politicized, so Wordsworth’s assumption that the human soul is “frequently and strongly moved both by sublimity and beauty” does require a dubious stretch of the imagination to accept given our present state of cultural malaise. Still, I believe Wordsworth’s ideas generated by a more pastoral coexistence with nature is worth revisiting. As he states plainly and with firm conviction—”It is of infinite importance to the noblest feelings of the Mind & to its very highest powers that the forms of Nature should be accurately contemplated, &, if described, described in language that shall prove that we understand the several grand constitutional laws under which it has been ordained that these objects should  everlastingly affect the mind.”

Here we have the heart and soul of Wordsworth’s aesthetics we are so desperately missing today. Contra Mundum should be applauded for plucking these two remarkable fragmented works from the obscurity they have languished in for so long and offering them for recontemplation. For all the absurdity of the notion that nature suddenly requires saving, Wordsworth makes clear that the “saving” of nature rests within rather than outside, that reverence of nature and the recognition of our intimate connection to it is really God-centered, the essence of our spiritual lifeblood and in the end how we should relate to nature’s pervasive schemata.

Alan Vardy’s erudite examination and appraisal of Wordsworth’s aesthetic views sums up the poet’s success and failure in articulating that aesthetic. “Wordsworth’s efforts … caused him to struggle toward an Idealist solution . . . He ultimately pulled away from this solution, however due to the risk that such philosophical discourse might threaten the intense affection that commenced the process of inquiry in the first place . . . he could not formulate an adequate account of ‘the sublime and beautiful,’ and more crucially, he feared that, attempting to pick apart the reality of lived experience, experience itself could be compromised & lost.”

I have this morning finished reading a good third of Henry James’ notebooks. What stands out for me is not so much the thinking and ruminating in detail over the composition and working out conceptually of his stories, but James’ writing between the lines, the human personality behind the works, what he shares with himself without self-consciousness. It is remarkable that the tone and style are remarkably warm, accessible, eloquent, sincere, direct, but most of all natural. His voice is natural and sensitive, a pure reflection of his feelings and ideas—everything his stories are not. But, like Wordsworth, he made clear that expressing as well as one can what one remembers in a living context is all the difference in losing momentum and belief in one’ art and giving up entirely, sinking into complete indifference and ennui. This is a position Wordsworth would never have taken in his poetry, and these two fragmentary pieces bear proof that if unity of being is ever to be achieved and savored out of any aesthetic sensibility, it must not only touch art, but coexist with all of nature itself.

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