Whenever I feel foolishly assured in belief that criticism has a function, and that it can be made sense of in light of a general act literature carries out, I rush to test it out in an author; how well does it make sense of valuing this one or that one, and how well does it justify why the value of an author needs to be assessed or understood at all. In itself, the urge does not seem unnatural, given that the itch to judge literature is even more common than the itch to write it; maybe there is a healthy reason for the former.
The starting point today was the phrase, blunt enough to strike with the force equivalent to an originality that it lacks, that literature accounts for the world, and in so doing holds the world accountable. What I like in my little phrase is the simultaneity of understanding (accounting for) and judgment (holding accountable), and in the flexibility of word-play that “account” provides. Criticism, then, makes sudden sense if only because we should, quite self-evidently, aspire to hold accountable those means by which we account for and hold accountable. When we are persuaded by a work of literature, when we feel it has moved us to assent, we are assenting not to belief but to judgment; and that is worth wondering over. Skepticism and gratitude in equal measure. And so the literature that is greatest is itself skeptical and grateful for the possibilities afforded by language as it goes about its business.
I could probably start here, but it would violate the principle of the blog to offer no outlet via a particular author. Wordsworth serves as well as any, and better than most, because of the great claims made for him, at least since Keats wrote in a letter of 1818 that he is “deeper” (not “greater”) than Milton, who did “not think into the human heart, as Wordsworth has done.” We do not need to rank, and Keats does not quite do so with the word “deeper,” but to understand how persuasive, intelligent, and broad Wordsworth’s achievement is, the comparison is not beside the point; and recognizing the quality of his achievement seems right–we want to be able to say who the finest judges are, so that we, if we feel in need of a trial, feel ourselves to be on trial, or feel that there is much that needs to be accounted for and held to account, can turn to them.
In a very peculiar dream from last week, I was with a few friends racing through an abandoned library as the world ended; we each had the sense that we ought to choose one final book, something to read while we waited. In the dream, I picked up Wordsworth’s Prelude (an ugly Norton edition, even uglier for its orange library-binding), and I remember worrying, in the dream, whether it was the version I wanted: 1850 or 1805? The thought in the area was that it would provide suitable consolation; the apocalypse was not divine, felt meaningless and even whimsical, but that Wordsworth might have the last word over humankind in my head did seem like it would soothe and make it all OK. (Milton would likely have only served to remind me that Christ was disappointingly absent–not that I expect him to be there, but the end of the world feels like a likely time for grasping at straws and resenting the straws that humanity has spent so much of its time grasping it).
Wordsworth’s words, even without much devout faith in God, would not feel like cheap grace. For Wordsworth, the greater existential, ontological unity of which humankind forms a part at times coincides with the longing for division, and at times coincides with the helplessness of isolation and alienation; the failure of human society and actions exacerbates both the longing and the helplessness, which are to some extent inevitable, but it is also the secret strength of the sympathetic imagination and the world more generally to reconcile humankind to reconcile the longing or the alienation, and maybe to overcome either.
It is a problem that turns back on the poet in his own work, because poetry is just such an act of sympathetic imagination, and a means of bringing the world into the right light; but it cannot escape, any more than people in the world, the alternatives of longing for division and alienation from existence. It too must proceed from those foundations, which is why Wordsworth, far from being drawn to the self as a narcissist or egoist, is drawn there because he cannot claim to be exempt; and his own encounters with longing and alienation, his self-accusations, his self-doubts, and the doubts he feels about the world, are generalizable, even without his having to say so, because he has located the movements of theology within himself. Terms like “longing for division” and “alienation,” and even grace, are not exclusively religious, but religion sorted them out first and they are tools that permit for such breadth of illumination to proceed from an account of a single self.
In the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first too, the late poetry of Geoffrey Hill attempts the same (and with success). Wordsworth finds most of what he needs in Milton; Adam’s self-reproach in Book 10 of Paradise Lost is the first Romantic lyric. I don’t agree with Harold Bloom that Milton casts a shadow on all later poets, but I believe that Milton-in-Wordsworth does, because of how Wordsworth adapts for so many new contexts what Milton had mastered in another. Reading Milton’s Paradise Lost with Wordsworth in the front of one’s memory, it is hard not to feel that the epic is not already an epic of a self: choice is one of its great themes; responsibility is another; and creation another still.
In Milton, Wordsworth found the resources to account for the self so that he was also accounting for the world. The former was not mere predilection, but a belief that any account of the world must be defined by, arbitrated through, the self. At the same time, the threat was apparent to Wordsworth: a poetry defined and arbitrated by the self might be too narrow, too particular to offer a persuasive account of the world, might fail to hold anything beyond personal foibles and failings to account.