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'An Art that Nature Makes': Wordsworth and the Unachievable Style, 1797-1805

CLARKSON, OLIVER,JOHN (2014) 'An Art that Nature Makes': Wordsworth and the Unachievable Style, 1797-1805. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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In his 1879 preface, Matthew Arnold made the flamboyant claim that Wordsworth’s best poetry ‘is as inevitable as Nature herself. It might seem that Nature not only gave him the matter for his poem, but wrote his poem for him. He has no style.’ Critics have commonly judged this proclamation either ludicrous or reductive. But this thesis argues that a comment such as this demands a different kind of attention, one which conceives of it not as abstract flummery but as diagnosing rather a fundamental impulse in Wordsworth’s poetry: the desire to absorb nature’s ‘own naked work / Self-wrought, unaided by the human mind’, to defy words, to relinquish ‘style’ itself in favour of a stylelessness that constitutes an ‘unachievable style’.

According to the most dominant schools of criticism, Wordsworth’s ‘nature’ is either surmounted by the autonomous ‘Imagination’ (Hartman), elevated into an ahistorical and idealistic ‘Nature’ (McGann), or made a site of ecological worship (Bate). But I seize upon a question that cuts to the heart of what being a ‘Poet of Nature’ means: how can poetry apprehend a world that defies words?

This thesis does not offer any easy answer to that question. It shows, rather, how Wordsworth’s poetry obstinately asks that question of itself, doing so with a sense of humility that recalls Thomson’s lines from The Seasons: ‘But who can paint / Like Nature? […] If fancy then / Unequal fails beneath the pleasing task, / Ah, what shall language do?’ My concern is with poetry whose ‘awareness of itself as poetry’ (O’Neill) serves to bring about a heightened appreciation of a world outside of poetry.

This idea is pursued through seven chapters. Chapter I shows how Wordsworth’s ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’ put self-consciously on display language’s struggles to represent nature ‘inevitably’. Chapter II aligns issues of poetry and architecture by arguing that Wordsworth’s ‘ventriloquizing’ frees him to embark upon a stylistic journey from artifice towards naturalness. Chapter III considers the significance of mists and winds in 'Michael' as entities set in motion by verbs whose ‘indifference’ yields to what is untrackable in nature. In Chapter IV I show how shadows serve to analogise language’s imperfect relationship with nature in 'The Ruined Cottage'. My next chapter (VI) celebrates the formal artistry of Wordsworth’s 1802 lyrics, albeit an artistry wary of artistry. I delineate how, by enforcing and then unweaving their designs, the lyrics finally avow nature’s freedom. Chapter VI brings into focus what I term Wordsworth’s ‘anti-onomatopoeic’ technique, a technique whose achievement by way of negation epitomises Wordsworth’s modes of tribute to 'an art that nature makes'. My final chapter (VII) reads Wordsworth’s ‘Great Ode’ as a poem that laments, interrogates, and finally learns to live without a ‘forgotten style’ (a sort of pre-poetic absorption) that equates to the ‘unachievable style’.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2014
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:26 Sep 2014 09:44

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