What Wordsworth Touched

"What Wordsworth Touched"

Sonia Hofkosh
Tufts University

1.        Sitting on the sofa in his comfortable library, or perhaps at the desk in his attic study with a view of the hills and the lake beyond, a man rather advanced in years turns the pages of a book of poetry, other volumes by the same author arrayed on the shelf or on the table nearby. He reads some lines of verse aloud or recites them from memory; he knows the words well and very much enjoys repeating them. As he slowly turns the pages looking at poems written over the course of a fifty year career, he reflects on the circumstances of their creation; he recalls the particular experiences which impelled him to compose them, for the poems he peruses are in fact his own. He shares his reflections with a friend who devotedly sits with him for many hours day after day for the many days it takes to look through seven volumes of verse. The friend faithfully transcribes what he says, filling one hundred and eighty leaves of a notebook with a history of a writing life and an archeology of a poetic practice. [1] 

2.         You are no doubt aware that the old man with the book in his hand is William Wordsworth and the persevering scribe his “beloved friend and heart-sister,” Isabella Fenwick. [2]  Fenwick, who had moved to Ambleside in 1838 to be near the Wordsworths, encouraged and then collaborated on the poet’s project of intensive retrospection which began when they sat down together in January 1843, Fenwick’s pen poised to take dictation as Wordsworth opened the first volume of the most recently published edition of his writings, Edward Moxon’s 1841 Poetical Works, turned the pages past the frontispiece portrait (the white-haired Bard of Rydal Mount), to recall a lifetime of writing poems, beginning with those referring to the period of childhood. They finished their retrospective project six months later in June 1843 with Wordsworth’s commentary on The Excursion, which extends to more than twenty leaves of Fenwick’s notebook. This commentary includes circumstances he remembers about the specific places and persons and situations from the past that he considers the originating ground of the poem and thus its claim to a certain kind of truth value (as he repeatedly insists, “every particular was exactly as I have related”), [3]  but it also registers the passage of time since writing it in a sense of loss or regret infused into his present experience—for example, he notes the recent death of his “lamented friend Southey” (195) and his “utter detestation” of an ostentatious boat-house “now” (206) being built in Grasmere which will mar the beauty and seclusion of that beloved lakeshore, as well as more public sorrows such as the failure of “the present session of Parliament” to improve the lot of children laboring in factories (214). Such references to current events and feelings within his account of a poem written decades earlier suggests the contingency not just of that particular creation, but of the retrospective project itself. Memory unfolds here in real time, opening the past in and to present circumstances and effects.

3.        I will be looking at a particular piece of Wordsworth’s retrospective project—his much cited remarks on the poem he refers to in 1843 simply as “The Ode”—but it is worth noticing the temporal chiasmus operating in this retrospective enterprise more broadly. When he sits down to read his own poems once again, he engages in a redoubled and especially sustained process of recollection in which looking back day after day enacts retrospection going forward, as duration, a condition of the on-going present if not also of the possible futures to which that present is always giving way. Temporalities converge and intersect. The past acquires its particular form and inflection from the present; it becomes, we might say, always already new. [4]  Let me mention that during the months Wordsworth is thus engaged he turns seventy-three and is also appointed Poet Laureate, an honor he initially refuses because he thinks himself too old. He is in fact producing very little new work at this time, though new editions of his previous writing continue to appear and he will in the years ahead arrange for the posthumous publication of an authorized biography as well as of the poem he calls “the long Poem on my own education” or “the poem on the growth of my own Mind” (188) known to us as The Prelude. Though the ambitious annotation project the poet undertakes late in his career may not constitute a wholly “new idiom” such as Edward Said sees great artists developing near the end of their lives, still we may find that the aging poet’s retrospective account of his poetic practice does revisionary work and thereby offers an opportunity for us to rethink some of the central and abiding formulations of his (and Romantic) literary history. The old Wordsworth may be the new Wordsworth for our time. [5] 

4.        As concerned as he had been at least since the poems and prefaces of Lyrical Ballads with the question of reading, especially of reading poetry, the Fenwick project highlights the extent to which Wordsworth was a continuous reader and re-reader of his own writing, and correlatively, the extent to which his writing entails and embeds the supplement of reading. But I invoke the scene of the aging poet sitting with Isabella Fenwick in the library or study at Rydal Mount in addition to remind us how much Wordsworth’s writing was always and fundamentally a social and embodied phenomenon, coming into being in the nexus of specific relationships to individuals and communities and in the context of specific situations, environments, and material conditions. The Fenwick notes repeatedly attest to the circumstantial and materially determined nature of poetic invention. His gloss on “We are Seven,” for instance, famously recounts what Wordsworth calls “one of the most remarkable facts in my own poetic career” (39)—that is, the inception of Lyrical Ballads in a walking tour with his sister and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Spring of 1798, or, more exactly, in their determination to compose a poem to send to the Monthly Magazine to finance that trip. Moreover, the scene of the production of the Fenwick notes itself reminds us that poems are objects within a particular (if changing) field of embodied activity and experience. When he holds the book of poems, turning the pages to read them and reflect aloud on the details of their composition—how they came to be the particular poems they are, and thus how he came to be the poet he is, sitting there, turning the pages, reading them—Wordsworth touches something that is one among the things in the world that thereby touch him in return, for inevitably, what we touch, touches us. [6] 

5.        His hand upon the page, this touch, I will suggest, is also “the touch of earthly years” ("A Slumber"), what the aging poet reviewing his life’s work in the unavoidable knowledge of its approaching end must feel not just in the abstract—as nostalgia, for instance, or as emotion recollected in tranquility—but somatically, as a palpable pressure, however slight or fleeting, a mild sensation on the surface of his skin, felt on the flesh, if not also in the blood or along the heart. His hand upon the page, such contact of the body with the world of tactile objects—here, the book or the paper—instantiates what one philosopher of the haptic calls “something mutual between the toucher and the touched.” [7]  For the philosopher of the haptic, this “something”—which is not itself a thing—evokes Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s argument about the reciprocal relation between embodied consciousness and the external world. Something mutual between the toucher and the touched. It is at this interstitial point or plane of contact, an interface between person and thing, that the body, according to Jean-Luc Nancy, would experience “its own weight,” [8]  that is, the very gravity, or we might say, the very lightness, of its own corporeal being. Nancy proposes that “touching—happens in writing all the time” (11): “. . . the page itself is a touching (of my hand while it writes, and your hands while they hold the book) . . . a slight, resistant, fine texture, the infinitesimal dust of a contact” (51); this dust, he suggests, is “the ob-jected matter of the sub-ject” (29). To put it another way, let us extrapolate from Theodor Adorno’s dialectical model of the relations of subject and object to consider that when Wordsworth turns the pages upon which his poems are printed, “subjectivity is grasped as the object’s form”: in its encounter with the object, even or especially the object of its own making, the subject can no longer—at least for the moment that they touch—persist in “forgetting how much it is an object itself.” [9] 

6.        Although he defined poetry as “the history or science of feelings” (in his note to “The Thorn”) and designed his works to be affecting (are we not “moved,” like the narrator of “The Ruined Cottage,” by Margaret’s woeful tale?), Wordsworth is not generally considered a poet of the haptic. Francis O’Gorman has explored Wordsworth’s reticence about depicting human touch in his poetry, arguing that while his language aspires to material efficacy—words as things—even such a rhetorical near approach to the tangible is threatening, “marked with death and effacement.” [10]  In Geoffrey Hartman’s earlier analysis of Wordsworth’s “touching compulsion,” the poet is primarily understood to be reacting to “a ghostliness” or a “phantom-reality,” [11]  or, in Wordsworth’s own terms, “to be affected…by absent things as if they were present” ("Preface" to Lyrical Ballads), rather than by what he will call, in a comment Isabella Fenwick writes down as he turns the pages of the volume he holds in his hands (and to which I will return), “objects of sight” such as the wall or tree at which he would many times grasp to remind himself that “external things [have] external existence.” For Hartman, as for Nancy, all art may involve a “kind of touching” (22), especially, for Hartman, mimetic art, in that representation subsists in some relation to reality, whether regressive or restorative or substitutive. But despite his early compulsion to grasp the wall or tree, Wordsworth is not ultimately a poet of touch, or the tangible, or even the visible in Hartman’s influential analysis; instead, his poetry “almost transcends representation,” seeming to exist, Hartman says, “without the material density of poetic texture—without imagistic or narrative detail” (27) or, we might add, without the book or the pages he turns when he reviews his writing at Rydal Mount in 1843. [12] 

7.        I keep coming back to the prosaic scene of the poet turning the pages of the book in his hand to draw attention to the mostly unacknowledged and yet fundamental materiality at issue in the everyday practices of reading and writing and thus in the apprehension of the literary artifact as such, both what it is and what it may become for its writer and its readers. Even as I write (or, rather, type) this sentence, that materiality and those practices are undergoing significant transformation. The page is now often digitized, as this one is; we might turn it by tapping on a button or swiping a finger across the surface of a screen. The specific situation in which the body encounters the work of art is always under construction. In looking with some insistence at Wordsworth turning the pages of his book as Isabella Fenwick transcribes his commentary on his creative process, I do not mean to claim that the medium is the message; I do, however, want to suggest that specific and changing forms of mediation constitute a “material density” at the conceptual ground of the literary enterprise and it is in relation to such materiality that the meanings and values the work of art variously acquires and confers are determined. Further, I want to suggest that however infinitesimal its dust, Wordsworth implicitly understood the force and consequence of such materiality as foundational to the operation of the imagination and to the identity of the poet as agental subject or creative consciousness.

8.        As a retrospective project, the Fenwick notes remember the making of each poem, and crucially thereby the making of the poet qua poet; moreover, in the very quotidian drama (“little, nameless, unremembered acts”) of the hand turning the pages of the book, that project in addition does not forget that poem as well as poet are always being grasped in material form, or, in Nancy’s terms, as ob-jected matter. While his early poetics may be constructed specifically against what Stephan Uhlig calls “poetic objecthood,” [13]  the scene at Rydal Mount in 1843 demonstrates Wordsworth’s unavoidable reliance on (even his investment in) the materiality of his poetic practice. The poet performs even if he does not theorize the everyday efficacy of objects in the Romantic imaginary. And yet, he does offer a kind of thing theory in the Fenwick notes. His reflections on the origins of each poem collectively articulate a logic of embodiment—that poems come into being as situated phenomena, that they are written and read as singular artifacts within a complex and contingent relational field. Wordsworth had of course long aspired in his poetry to keep the reader “in the company of flesh and blood” (“Preface” to Lyrical Ballads). Perhaps we might go so far as to say that in the Fenwick project as he sits turning pages and she sits with him taking dictation, he is thinking through the body as the very condition for making and apprehending the work of art. To say this is not to claim primacy in the production of meaning and value, either for the hand turning the page, or for the inanimate object, the book or the paper; it is not to argue for a strictly materialist ontology that would exclude any/thing not immediately available to the senses. But it is to return, as Wordsworth himself does in the note I want to look at briefly in closing, to the question of the subject’s relation to the object and to the function of the intimate contact—the touch—that puts them into that relation.

9.        Paul De Man rejected the problematic of the subject’s relation to the object—the mind to nature—as an “impasse” in the discourse of Romanticism, a “pseudo dialectic” that masks the “painful knowledge” of time, and death, and the difference of the self from the non-self that is expressed in a rhetoric of temporality, as allegory or irony. [14]  De Man describes this negative self-knowledge as a kind of vertigo, and in particular in reading Wordsworth, locates it at the moment when the bond between subject and object is revealed as unstable or even illusory: “the experience hits as a sudden feeling of dizziness, a falling or a threat of falling, a vertige of which there are many examples in Wordsworth.” [15]  At least one such example is invoked in the commentary Isabella Fenwick records in her notebook at Rydal Mount. Here, however, it is crucially in the very contact of subject and object that Wordsworth acknowledges temporality and the condition of being a body in time.

10.        In his comments on “The Ode,” the poem Hartman has called “Wordsworth’s Being and Time,” [16]  the aging poet recounts how difficult it was for him as a boy “to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being” or “to think of external things as having external existence” (159):

I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from but inherent in my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. In later periods of life I have deplored, as we all have reason to do, a subjugation of an opposite character & have rejoiced over the remembrances, as is expressed in the lines ‘obstinate questionings &c.’ (160)
The abyss that threatens to open for the young Wordsworth is significantly not a function of the difference of the self from the non-self but of the total assimilation or abstraction of the material world into or as the subject, “the world of his own mind”; the boy recalls himself from even as the older poet would recall him in such “dizzy raptures” (“Lines” 86) by touching something—a wall or tree, or a volume of verse. The note suggests that grasping the external existence of material things is stabilizing, but also inevitably conduces to its own constraining effects (“subjugation,” or what “The Ode” calls “shades of the prison-house” [67]). What he touches, touches him. But if the child who touches the wall or tree as an anchor against idealist free-fall is father to the man who deplores the limits thus imposed upon his imagination by “sense and outward things” (145), the note also intimates that the transformative capacity of being in time can turn fear into rejoicing even as it leaves its traces on the aging body, the infinitesimal dust of a contact.

11.         I have only begun to suggest how this note condenses the story the Fenwick project implicitly tells about what Wordsworth touched. This is a story not just about the past, about remembering things that existed and how they came to be, but also about how things (objects, bodies) change over time—must change—in order to endure. When in the process of the retrospective exercise he undertakes with Isabella Fenwick in 1843 he thus necessarily makes contact with external things that have external existence, including the pages of books, he is not so much proclaiming an “ontic unity of all things, including human things,” as Paul Fry has recently argued. [17]  Nor, as Adam Potkay has similarly proposed, is he affirming a deep ecology that comprehends “all thinking things, all objects of all thought” (“Lines” 102) as “one life” (The Prelude 2:430). [18]  Rather, as when he was a boy repeatedly reaching out to grasp a wall or tree, the old man’s touch establishes a relationality that is fluctuating and fragile at the point or plane where the self is distinguished from the non-self, where the subject in its very intimacy with the object becomes the particular subject it is, limited to and by a particular body. The old man’s touch lingers, day after day, an infinitesimal dust. No impasse, this may be the everyday prose of poetry: it conveys that we feel most in and of the world, situated, embodied in relation to external things when we feel how tenuous our hold on those things is, and yet hold them close as if our own life depended on it.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. "Subject and Object." The Adorno Reader. Ed. Brian O'Connor. Malden & Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 137-151. Print.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000. Print.

Balfour, Ian. "Subjecticity (On Kant and the Texture of Romanticism)." Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic Ed. Forest Pyle. (Feb 2005). Web.

Curtis, Jared, ed. The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1993. Print.

de Man, Paul. "The Rhetoric of Temporality." Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. 187-228. Print.

---. "Time and History in Wordsworth." Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers. Ed. E. S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrej Warminski. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 74-94. Print.

Fisher, Tom H. "What We Touch, Touches Us: Materials, Affects, and Affordances." Design Issues 20.4 (2004): 20-31. Print.

Fry, Paul. Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

Hartman, Geoffrey. "A Touching Compulsion." The Unremarkable Wordsworth. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. 18-30. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Corpus. Trans. Richard A. Rand. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. Print.

O'Gorman, Francis. "Wordsworth and Touch." English 58.220 (2009): 4-23. Print.

Paterson, Mark. "The Human Touch." tpm: The Philosopher’s Magazine 45.2 (2009): 50-56. Print.

---. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Uhlig, Stephan H. "Poetic Objecthood in 1798." Wordsworth's Poetic Theory: Knowledge, Language, Experience. Ed. Alexander Regier and Stephan H. Uhlig. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 36-42. Print.


[1] Stephen Gill calls the Fenwick Notes “a document in Wordsworth’s autobiography” in William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 408. BACK

[2] Wordsworth to Isabella Fenwick, 10 July 1841. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol 7, The Later Years, Part IV, 1840-1853, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2nd ed. rev. Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 215. I am indebted to the account of the retrospective project in the “Introduction” to The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth, ed. Jared Curtis (Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks, 2007), 12-28. BACK

[3] Ibid., 209. Future page references will appear in the body of the essay. BACK

[4] Insofar as Wordsworth’s reflections on writing his poems can be understood as a remediation of sorts, as I try to suggest here, Lisa Gitelman’s idea that new media arise out of old and function as “socially embedded sites for the ongoing negotiation of meaning ” would aptly describe his collaborative enterprise with Fenwick. See Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 6. See also Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000). BACK

[5] Edward Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York; Random House, 2006), 6. For recent critical interest in and insight on Wordsworth’s later work, see Tim Fulford, The Late Poetry of the Lake Poets: Romanticism Revised (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and essays by Peter Manning, especially “Wordsworth in Youth and Age,” European Romantic Review 25 (2014 June): 385-396. BACK

[6] I am here adapting the terms of Tom H. Fisher’s argument. Fisher provides data on consumer response to plastics to support the contention that our physical interaction with ordinary materials is both conditioned by and conditions knowledge at the level of theory, culture, and individual psychology. BACK

[7] Mark Paterson, "The Human Touch," tpm: The Philosopher’s Magazine 45 (2009): 50-56. See also Paterson’s more extensive discussion of what he names “felt phenomenology” in The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects, and Technologies (Oxford & NY: Berg, 2007). BACK

[8] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). BACK

[9] “Subject and Object” in The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor (Malden & Oxford, Blackwell, 2000), 137-151; 144; 140. Also see Ian Balfour’s comments on the “mutual determinations of subject and object” in Adorno’s essay. BACK

[10] Francis O’Gorman, “Wordsworth and Touch,” English 58.220 (2009): 4-23; 20. BACK

[11] “A Touching Compulsion,” The Unremarkable Wordsworth (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 18-30; 22. BACK

[12] In her recent discussion of the “elusive matter of lyric poetry” in Romantic Things: a tree, a rock, a cloud (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 2012), Mary Jacobus suggests that in Wordsworth’s writing touch involves “what Derrida calls ‘tact,’ the tact not to touch, or the untouchable” and thus informs an ethics or ecopoetics of distance or withholding. See especially Chapter 3. Jacobus’s resonant discussion focuses on natural objects (trees, rocks, clouds), while I want to consider the efficacy of the artifactual or the handmade (the wall as well as the tree). BACK

[13] Stephan H. Uhlig, “Poetic Objecthood in 1798,” Wordsworth’s Poetic Theory: Knowledge, Language, Experience, eds. Alexander Regier and Stephan H. Uhlig (Basingstoke & New York, 2010), 36-42. BACK

[14] de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” 187-228; 198; 207; 198. BACK

[15] “Time and History in Wordsworth,” Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar of 1967 (1993), 74-94; 78-9. BACK

[16] “Wordsworth Before Heidegger,”The Unremarkable Wordsworth, 202. BACK

[17] Paul Fry, Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008), 6. BACK

[18] Adam Potkay, “Wordsworth and the Ethics of Things,” PMLA 123.2 (March 2008): 390-404. BACK