If the project of the humanities is the recovery of the past, then a part of that recovery must be the task of criticism that is appreciative, even evaluative; such criticism can restore to the present the sources of power in poetry that may have been occluded by time, convention, or ossified habits of thought and reading. So it is when we read Christopher Ricks’ essay on Wordsworth’s prepositions, building off of earlier critics, including the unfairly near-forgotten John Jones, who had remarked in his irreplaceable study of Wordsworth that the poet’s “busy prepositions” “are the stride of his thought”. Ricks does not write what is thought to be historicist criticism, but his sensitivity to a quiet source of Wordsworth’s verbal energy can point the way to setting Wordsworth and other nineteenth-century poets in relation to a cultural shift that accompanies the Romantic era.
The easiest of the busy prepositions to notice, in Wordsworth or any other poet, is “of,” due to the ambiguities it frequently creates, and which Wordsworth and other poets can enjoin to larger purposes. But more commonly prepositions add a spatial dimension to poetry.
Among the instances Ricks gathers, therefore, we find the following from “Tintern Abbey”:
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
Ricks remarks simply: Crucial, and mysterious, since the spirit’s dwelling place in the mind of man remains unspecified and perhaps unspecifiable: it doesn’t dwell there, it dwells in there, as if the mind of man were the darkest and deepest of continents. One is reminded of De Quincey’s feeling for a great Wordsworthian moment when
a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents;
De Quincey (as Ricks quotes him): The very expression “far” by which space and its infinities are attributed to the human heart, and its capacities of reechoing the sublimities of nature, has always struck me with a flash of sublime revelation. “Far” though modifies “into” so that the preposition is here also an essential component of the engine.
All of this is to say that Wordsworth, who is most often considered innovative in his having gotten the experience time into his poetry in new ways, might also be considered innovative for having gotten time’s corollary, space, into his poetry.
In one of Ricks’ unresolved moments of speculation and seizing, he worries at the preposition of “up” in the most famous line of one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems: “And he never lifted up a single stone.” Following the trail of “up” and its less frequent opposite, “down,” through the poem, Ricks suspects Wordsworth teases at the symbolic force of each word, with respect to the vicissitudes of fortune, but comes to rest only with the suggestion that the pattern of raising and lowering signaled by the prepositions is itself a way of contrasting and uniting various moments in the poem.
But they do something else, so general as to be of little relevance to Ricks’ critical question, but worth remarking in the pursuit of other questions about Wordsworth’s distinctiveness: they consistently enforce a sense of the space within the poem’s world. They add dimension and depth to the poem’s texture that, even if we see such dimension and depth when we imagine the poem’s action, would not otherwise be rightly said to be part of the poem, in or of it. And this is new: the poem cutting out, fathoming, entering into and participating in their depths and shallows; the language of Wordsworth’s poems measures and participates in the creation of space as poems before his had not.
Now, to say this might sound bizarre. After all, from Satan’s ascent to Eden, to Marvell’s Appleton House, or the gardens and manors that Pope celebrates (and denounces) in his Epistles, it would seem that there is no shortage of poems about space and its transformations in English.
But this is to use space in a very general sense. To understand how space might be a term helpful in describing Wordsworth’s discovery and innovation, I propose that we turn to another of the arts: architecture, the very subject of the poems by Marvell and Pope, and not a subject of any of Wordsworth’s major poems.
Its being the fate of all arts to occasional be made subservient to others, it is also the case that some arts tend to be yoked together with particular frequency. Poetry from the eighteenth century to the twentieth moves from painting to music to sculpture in many critical discussions; but the best critics have recourse to metaphors and analogies from any three at any time. By adding architecture to the mix, I am not claiming that architecture becomes consciously a model for poets around the Romantic era, or that it is uniquely suited for that era; instead, I think it provides terms to describe an innovation, and that it also provides a new approach to lyric poetry and reflective narrative.
But even in my suggesting that architecture is the art of space, I am yielding to one conception of architecture: one that emerged, or one that was powerfully embodied, in British architecture around the time of Wordsworth in the works of John Soane.
In one of the general surveys of John Soane’s career, John Soane: Architect, Robin Middleton contributes an essay “Soane’s Space and the Matter of Fragmentation.” He draws on Jonathan Crary’s claim that the early nineteenth century witnessed a shift in vision.
Middleton gets himself into an (admittedly) unnecessary and circuitous by-way when it comes to Crary, in so far as Crary’s vision is not a neat analogue for Middleton’s “space,” but the notion of fragmentation is one that Crary plays up and Middleton may have felt indebted for that. At any rate, Middleton’s assertion is first and foremost that Soane cared more inner spaces than masses (or form, as perceived outwardly): The emphasis of classical architecture is on form; Soane stresses space, and this he organizes in wholly unclassical ways….[in The Bank of England, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and the New Law Courts] the external forms are entirely subordinate to the interior arrangements and effects.
The dichotomy of inner experience and outer life that clings to Romantic poetry is not the analogy that I am driving at. Instead, I am considering the space that any poem describes and represents. In the poems by Marvell, Pope, and Milton even, the mass of objects, parks, buildings, their proportions, their forms as Middleton uses the term, are the essential quality that the language not only describes but responds to (not only mimetically–to claim that mimesis would be on the same dubious level as claiming the inherent mimetic properties of sound). In these poems, it is rather the architecture of form and mass that dominates. In Wordsworth’s poetry, however, the language, especially by way of those prepositions, insists on spaces–and on spaces that are surprising, both for where they are found (the recesses of the heart), but also how they follow from one another; how in one poems, the succession of spaces, some inner to an individual, others external, some material, others immaterial, is itself a source of invigoration and discovery.
Middleton on Soane’s Bank of England: The ordering of Soane’s building can be understood only if it is analysed as a series of routes giving access to an odd variety of spaces…
The sources for the development are not entirely a mystery: the principles of the picturesque had been reigning in landscape design for the latter decades of the eighteenth-century. Soane applies them to inner spaces that aspires at the same time to Classical balance and proportion. Wordsworth, it might be said, aspires to those ideals in the prepositional dimensions of his verse, even as he maintains the balance and poise of common language, or a less Miltonic high style. The prepositions are especially suited to carrying the weight because the disruption to the language is so minimal; as in the case of Soane’s interiors, balance and harmony are not sacrificed.
The repercussions of Wordsworth’s innovation are less obvious. Unlike Soane’s, his influence cannot be under-estimated and here too, we might ask how differently Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, or Browning explore and innovate in the creation and suggestion of space in their poems—from Tennyson’s foregrounds and backgrounds and middle-grounds, to Browning’s implied distances between speakers, or implied corridors of secrecy surrounding his speakers; from Shelley’s impossible Platonic geometries, to what John Jones writes of Keats’ in-dwelling (his genuine negative capability) as a high form of spatial awareness and embodiment: “A stasis, spatial and time-defying, is the feat of the imagination we are saying yes to.” Hardy, too, who spoke of his poems as structures to be laid up as external forms and masses, word by word as if brick by brick, might similarly, even in his most temporally charged moments, be thought of as alternatively spatially liberated and constrained, the play between time being also a play between the shapes of spaces.
But to trace and account for space in these poems it could not be enough to look to what is represented, or to trust to impression alone; it would be necessary to find in the language those words and phrases in which space is cleared and bounded.