218. (William Wordsworth)

Perverse as it is to redefine words against conventional meanings, it is nonetheless possible to loosen from conventional meanings an implication that enlarges the significance of a word. The word “tact” seems to me susceptible to such an operation, where beneath its concern for social proprieties, for the embarrassment of others, and for good manners is a suggestion of tactility, so that the word might be asked to mean a judicious awareness of bodily experience. Admittedly, the tactile is only one bodily sensation, and so it could join with taste, and at least take in two senses. “Tact” at any rate, in the sense of judicious awareness of bodily experience is so fundamental to art, I’ve suggested, as to distinguish aesthetic from non-aesthetic experience. With so broadened a sense, the greatest artists are not those who are most proper and prim; Catullus, Chaucer, Rabelais, Swift all depend on extraordinary tact, as well as taste, in their understanding of what constitutes “going far” or “going too far”; likewise Austen or James, whose art depends on a vigilant awareness of what the bodies of characters are doing and experiencing, no matter how much the bodies made fade from what is represented on the page.

This “tact” or awareness of bodily experience is not a guarantor of artistic success, but I think that a consideration of what is done to, or claimed for, the body can be used both to discuss what happens and what fails to happen in a work of literature. It can be a way of saying what is characteristic of a work, what makes it what it is, and of thinking what else it might be; and that provides a ground upon which critical judgments can develop. What is made of the body here? What is claimed for the body here? Just how much and what does the body feel (this being a reorienting of Eliot’s reminder that intelligence consists, among other things, in knowing “what and how much is felt in any situation”)? How is the body “placed”? Why and when does the author return to the body? These are questions that might scaffold a discussion, shadowed always by the thought that a work of literature (and art), “placing” the body, is concerned also with a sense of place and space. Answering them might help us to look at parts of the language that we neglected, or they might help explain the significance of what we have noticed in the language of a work; I suspect they point in directions that trained readers of literature, and trained observers or listeners of any work of art, are already, tacitly and instinctively, moving.

In its awareness of the body, offering the fiction of reconciliation to the body, or else reminding us of the need for such reconciliation, works of art may attend and achieve other ends; but the force that we feel they bring, disrupting us from habitual thoughts, is not, I think, describable without an acknowledgement that those habits of thinking are often habits of thinking about the body, which has its own habits of action.

If such a train of thought might follow tracks towards any author and any work to which we respond, it has both highly general and highly limited utility (somewhat like a train itself, which can arrive at a destination but affords little versatility for exploring it). But in the case of Wordsworth, whose persistently novel and enduringly disquieting awareness of bodily life is immediate and critically well-attended—from the word “sense” in The Prelude to Paul Fry’s much more recent critical readings of “Gray Wordsworth” (as opposed to the eco-Green Wordsworth)—the train of thought has such a ground to cover that there is no reason to step off yet.

To note the bodily intelligence, the tact, of Wordsworth’s pronouns is to notice nothing new. Christopher Ricks’ essay, “William Wordsworth: ‘A sinking inward into ourselves from thought to thought,” not only scratches the itch raised by Wordsworth’s ingenious pronouns, but reminds us that such an itch exists to be scratched; it restores us to a fuller sense of Wordsworth’s poetry. Pronouns in the poetry give the essay its focus and fulcrums (expanding out, or burrowing down, as it does into other dimensions of the poetry). Any reader of Ricks would express no surprise that his critical eye seized on so small a feature and that his mind could see how so small a detail could, in the hands of so great a poet as Wordsworth is, be made so much of. But it is also characteristic of Ricks that he is attuned to a part of speech that can be so often and subtly asked to speak to and of the body, Ricks being a critic whose greatest insights are often born of an awareness of the awareness of the body in a work of literature, be it effected through rhyming in Paradise Lost, the word “nipple” in Keats, or the accents of Eliot’s verse. Yet the corporeal life of pronouns is invisible in Ricks’ broad reach:


If as a poet you seek the simplest and most permanent forms of language, you are bound to give special importance to prepositions and conjunctions—those humble fundamentals, ‘in’, ‘up’, ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘of’, and so on. If as a poet concerned above all with relations and relationships, you are bound to give special importance to those words which express relationships: prepositions and conjunctions.


It would be obtuse to offer a reminder, as Ricks does not, that most relationships involve the body, but the fact that the body’s dimensions, the depth of the heart, the feebleness of a form, the solidity of a frame, are pertinent to many of Wordsworth’s exemplary passages, and that the body’s relationship to place, its location in time and space at once, pertinent to a great many more, would suggest at least that Wordsworth’s artful way with this class of words is inspired by his way of feeling through the feeling body.

In “We are Seven,” for instance, the speaker’s confusion is caused not only by the verb “dwell” but by the prepositions that locate where the dead bodies of his interlocutor, the little girl, do in fact dwell: “at Conway,” “to Sea,” “in the Church-yard” (where, to be fair, the hyphen does a lot of the obfuscating), “beneath the Church-yard tree.” It is a poem about being a body, and the claim for being anything at all is carried in part by being something in time and space.

Another instance, from “Lines Written in Early Spring”:


I heard a thousand blended notes

While in a grove I sate reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.


Naturally, we might think, the verb would lead the poet’s composition, and “ran” would do the work, urging that the soul be understood as a force. But I wonder if in this case, the leading word was not “through”; whether “through me ran” is not more itself owing to the sense of Wordsworth’s corporeal form, capable both of running and of channeling that which runs, that is established in the word “through.”

The parlor game could go on. It might also be extended in different directions. Wordsworth’s punctuation, for instance, could profitably be discussed in terms both of marking encounters with the body (his own and others) and eliciting a bodily response in readers.

But one last preposition, perhaps the most inadvertently famous in all of Wordsworth, from the penultimate verse-paragraph of “Michael”:


‘Tis not forgotten yet

The pity which was then in every heart

For the Old Man—and ‘tis believed by all

That many and many a day he thither went,

And never lifted up a single stone.


Ricks asks whether the word “up” in that last line, Arnold’s touchstone of Wordsworth’s great naturalness as a poet, might not be felt as redundant, then turns to recognize that “the question is fatuous because the word ‘up’ is here, for all its quietude intensely active. For ‘Michael’ is a poem which, with consummate naturalness such as never invites the suspicion of a disembodied symbolizing, sets ‘up’ severely against ‘down.’” Then goes on to an extraordinary discussion of the pathos and dignity that those two words establish in the poem. But more could be made of “never invites the suspicion of disembodied symbolizing”—a nugget in the criticism such as Ricks makes much of in the critics he takes up—since Wordsworth not only rarely invites such a suspicion, but makes vigilant suspicion of such a possibility the engine of “Resolution and Independence” among other poems. I’d only add that, regardless of the presence of “down” and “up,” elsewhere in the poem, the word “up” here moves the reader’s eye and mind with it, in space, so that the full bodily act of a stone being moved in space, by the strength of the reader, is recognized in the moment of its negation (“never”—also wonderful in the line is the ambiguity of frequency whether he went there many days and never ever lifted a stone, or whether on a few days he did lift one but many days he went there and didn’t). The line is carried, then, by Wordsworth’s recognition that verbs alone do not afford the body due place in a poem; that to lift and lift up are not commensurate acknowledgments of what the body can (and does not) do.

It is somewhat surprising that a poet seemingly as chilly towards the erotic possibilities of life as Wordsworth often seems to be (unless we follow strange and twisting paths of sublimation, finding a panting human form beneath the solid, stolid mountain shapes) could be so persuasively, warmly alive to the body throughout his verse—that it might in fact be inseparable from his greatness that he is. Whatever the pantheistic urgings or promptings of his mind, the return to the thought that the body of nature is one, the possibilities of the human body orient the language of the poetry. And so it is not unlikely that the erotic possibilities of the body are present, if not in what Wordsworth represents or whom Wordsworth addresses, then in the language itself; or rather, it seems likely that Wordsworth’s sense of the human body has to accommodate, be capable of accommodating, a possibility of erotic life that he does not himself write about (no author can write about everything, but they can leave us with a sense that they might, or that the world they write about might contain everything). If it is, I suspect the accommodation would be effected by the prepositions that recognize how variously and thrillingly human bodies can move.


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