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  • William and Dorothy: A Case Study in the Hermeneutics of Disparagement
  • Alan Grob

Of the convulsive changes that have worked their way through the field of Romantic—and especially Wordsworthian—studies during the postmodernity of the past thirty years, none seems more truly ominous than many critics’ virtually wholesale adoption in the past decade of those adversarial presuppositions that now seem to shape and govern almost all undertakings of any real influence in the field. While the term “adversarial” has become a critical commonplace, its meaning self-evident, its pertinence for my purposes derives from a casual remark made by Marjorie Levinson in her plainly seminal Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems, her observation that adoption by the New Historicism of feminism’s “adversarial tactics” served as a major point of affinity between the two movements, movements which I should add were understood to be essentially disparate when Levinson used the term in 1986 but now clearly are rapidly coalescing. 1 As a consequence of the undeniable ascendancy of these critical schools, what has seemingly emerged in Romantic studies, almost by consensus, is an interpretive community adversarially self-defined whose quarrel, astonishingly enough for those of us who came before, is not over but with the subject of its criticism.

In an earlier time, one gained entry to one’s interpretive community by taking sides on some time-honored and well-worn point at issue, Milton’s vexed conundrum of the two-handed engine, for example, or to bring matters closer to Wordsworthian concerns, whether Wordsworth was a poet of nature or poet of consciousness, a transcendentalist or empiricist, a continuator of the Miltonic tradition or its oedipally agonistic foe. Moreover, in that long-ago time one presumably chose one’s community for the ostensible purpose of clarifying meaning and getting it right (even if the practitioners of these older traditions were not always as disinterestedly objective as they believed). And one sought to clarify meaning, to get it right, because in most cases the authors written about deserved no less—or so it was assumed—or how else justify the expenditure of attention and effort? Toward such authors, the critic voiced and presumably felt respect, indeed admiration no doubt [End Page 187] aesthetically grounded but often conveying something more; and these respectful and admiring presuppositions the critic knew to be not only the unstated givens of the interpretive community to which he belonged but also the similarly unstated givens of those rival interpretive communities with whom he quarreled. But obviously no such unstated givens of tacit respect—and certainly not tacit admiration—figure in the presuppositions of those who would claim membership in an interpretive community adversarially conceived, whether operating under the banner of New Historicism or an increasingly historicized feminism. In either case the principal requisite for membership would seem to be the critic’s virtually a priori presumption of his subject’s political and ethical shortcomings, the adoption of a hermeneutics of disparagement designed to find fault and assign blame, the commitment to seek out and be assured of finding evidences of bad faith, reactionary currying of establishment favor, class and sex biases of the most egregious kind on the part of the author in question—or so doctrine and practice teach us in Wordsworth studies.

In this regard, New Historicism and the feminist criticism with which it bears affinities can be looked upon as representing a fundamental paradigm shift in literary criticism, differing radically both from an older historical criticism (even when practiced by such seeming political unassailables as E. P. Thompson and David Erdman) and a deconstructionist postmodernism that New Historicism and feminism would still in essential respects claim as their theoretical forerunner. For Thompson, after all, the aim of his classic essay of 1969 was to show that Wordsworth and Coleridge at the time of Lyrical Ballads had kept the faith and retained their Jacobin loyalties, that while perhaps disenchanted they had not yet defaulted as their critics had often charged. 2 And for Erdman, of course, Blake was the very epitome of the politically committed poet, committed in the right way and to the right cause. Moreover, even Yale criticism in its deconstructionist mode...

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