Ashton Nichols, The Revolutionary 'I': Wordsworth and the Politics of Self-Representation. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-333-71889-5. Price: £42.50 (US$55).Yu Liu, Poetics and Politics: The Revolutions of Wordsworth. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. ISBN: 0-82014-4168-6. Price: £30 (US$39.95).[Record]

  • Patrick Vincent

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  • Patrick Vincent
    University of California, Davis

Much of the Wordsworth scholarship in the 1990s has focused on the poet's self-fashioning, a testament to the rich complexity both of the historical figure and of his verse. Rebel or reactionary, Whig or Tory, deserter or spy? The myriad questions surrounding Wordsworth speak as much to our own time as to his own, and each new book on the poet says something not just about our narrow field, Romanticism or literary studies, but about our historical moment as well. At the center of this critical enterprise, of course, lies The Prelude. Kenneth Johnston, in his recent and fascinating Wordsworth biography, re-labels the poem "The Wordsworthiad" for its epic attempt to self-create a now familiar persona, the solitary, majestic poet of nature and of the common man. Two new monographs on Wordsworth, The Revolutionary 'I' by Ashton Nichols, and Poetics and Politics by Yu Liu, make a similar argument, taking this Wordsworthiad as their jumping board, to better understand what stands behind the 'Wordsworth' figure. Although both works contain the words "revolution" and "politics" in their title, neither really comes close to capturing the epic, revolutionary nature either of the poem or of the poet—it is as if, in our profoundly un-ideological era, critics are overly timid, if not embarrassed to take a strong stand on Wordsworth. Instead, by attempting to salvage Wordsworth's 'radical' status without ever persuading their reader why in fact we should consider Wordsworth 'radical', both critics only confirm the validity of the revisionist line of critique launched in the 1980s by McGann and Levinson. The most useful and interesting of these two studies by far is Nichols's The Revolutionary 'I'. An addition to the excellent "Romanticism in Perspective" series, Nichols's work argues for an autobiographical and utilitarian reading of Wordsworth's poetry, along the same lines as Elizabeth Fay's Becoming Wordsworthian (1995) and Sheila Kearns's Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography (1995). Calling his a "pragmatic criticism," the author suggests that "there is little need for a consistent theory of autobiography, since self-life writing contributes to a literary form defined more by its purposes than by its generic characteristics"(p. xv). As such, Nichols borrows from a hodge-podge mixture of theoretical sources, from Bakhtin to Chodorow to Wittgenstein, at times rather sketchily (in his use of Derrida in Chapter 5 for example). Nichols's critical voice comes out more strongly when he uses only the lineaments of theory, in particular when discussing gift exchange in Chapter 4. The critic shines when he divorces himself completely from theory and performs close readings which breath new life into much discussed texts such as "The Boy of Winander", and show the significance of more obscure pieces like the fishing trip fragment in Book II of the 1805 Prelude. Particularly striking is Nichols's empathetic, almost uncanny insight into the poet's mind, transcribed through frequent and amusing fictional ventriloquies of the poet. Chapter 4 is, along with the last chapter, the most interesting, because novel of the arguments in Nichols's study. Entitled "Coleridge as Catalyst to Autobiography", the chapter argues that Coleridge's 'illness' is a "powerful force" behind the expansion of the 1799 into the 1805 Prelude (p. 79). Like Raimonda Modiano, Nichols borrows from Marcel Mauss's gift-exchange theory, and combines this with Peter Sack's concept of elegy in order to argue for the poem as a "sustained curative 'love' offering to a sick friend" (p. 84). Playing on the many uses of the words "restored" and "renovated" in The Prelude, Nichols shows how Wordsworth seeks to give Coleridge some of his own, happy past as a form of therapy. Curiously, …