Publication Date

12-2010

Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Dr. Deborah Logan (Director), Dr. Lloyd Davies, Dr. Elizabeth Weston

Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts

Abstract

In critical discourse surrounding the poetry of William Wordsworth, it has become generally acceptable to describe the course of the poet’s career by means of a theory of “decline.” In its most common form, this theory argues that Wordsworth’s best poetry was written during one “Great Decade” (1798-1807)—an isolated epoch of prolificacy and genius. His subsequent works, it is argued, neither surpass nor equal his initial efforts; the course of his career after 1808 may be best described in terms of declivity, ebb, and decline.

Due to its ideological complicity with the very texts it engages, and due to its construction as a “myth” of criticism, the theory of decline ultimately becomes a reductive premise that precludes understanding Wordsworth’s apparent downtrend as a complex but explicable process. This study therefore seeks to provide a critical explanation for the process of decline so often observed in Wordsworth’s poetry. In essence, I contend that the perceptible downtrend in Wordsworth’s verse is the direct consequence of continuous, career-long processes of revision or self-editing. This self-editing took two forms: First, the explicit form, whereby Wordsworth actually emended his poetry; and second, the implicit form, whereby Wordsworth sought, through his poetry, to amend his self-image by constructing an autobiography tailored to fit an idealized poetic identity.

This analysis thus reveals and explicates Wordsworth’s possible motives for revision—the fluctuating demands made upon the poet by the poet himself. Because these demands represent the operative (if unstable) principle underlying specific textual changes, one may infer from their character the reasons why Wordsworth’s later poetry suffers in revision. By attending to the process whereby earlier verse was continually revised in order to fit a conceptual or poetic context for which it was not originally intended, I demonstrate how the actual substance of Wordsworth’s poetry was compromised or attenuated through a reductive (re)appropriation of its own materials.

Unlike many critics, I do not treat Wordsworth’s revisions as the signifiers of some external change. Instead, my approach keys upon the conflict between Wordsworth’s efforts to realize a stable poetic identity and the representational and rhetorical limitations of poetic form, particularly with regards to autobiography. Drawing on the work of Susan Wolfson, Paul de Man, and Harold Bloom, I argue that Wordsworth’s revisionary practices are motivated by an agonistic process best described as “autobiographical anxiety” or the “‘anxiety of influence’ turned inward.” Ultimately, I conclude that Wordsworth’s decline was the consequence of an overarching ethic of composition which, because it privileged revision as a means of changing not only poetry but the poet himself, allowed self-consciousness to become a self-defeating agent.

Disciplines

Literature in English, British Isles