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Alison Hickey’s Impure Conceits:
Alison Hickey, Impure Conceits: Rhetoric and Ideology in Wordsworth’s “Excursion.” Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. xiv + 238 pp.
Wordsworth’s Excursion has not fared well with readers. Keats may have thought it “one of three things to rejoice at in this age,” but to Byron it was “drowsy, frowzy,” to Lord Jeffrey it “would never do,” and even the generous Matthew Arnold thought it “by no means his best work.” Later readers have, for the most part, endorsed the negative judgments of the past by either avoiding the poem altogether or treating it as a symptom of the poet’s premature decline. Thus we have a curious situation in Wordsworthian studies: a major poem of some nine thousand lines which the poet himself regarded as his most important work, remains a mystery to all but a self-selected few. Of no other poet of Wordsworth’s stature can we say the same.
It is thus with great interest that we should greet Alison Hickey’s Impure Conceits, only the second book-length study of The Excursion ever published, and the first to bring the tools of contemporary scholarship and literary theory to an extended discussion of the poem. Hickey’s approach is refreshingly direct: she is intent on taking the poem seriously and confroting its problems squarely. Early on, she asserts that The Excursion “tak[es] us to the heart of questions of literary and historical periodization, of career, of imagination and historicism, of reference and rhetoric, indeed the very [End Page 443] construction of ‘Romantic’” (23). The remainder of the book is devoted to supporting this claim.
Hickey’s argument unfolds gradually from close readings of individual passages. She begins with the famous opening lines of the poem, a set-piece description that Wordsworth first composed in pentameter couplets for An Evening Walk and then transposed into blank verse for The Ruined Cottage, before recasting that poem as book 1 of The Excursion.
’Twas summer, and the sun was mounted high:
Southward the landscape indistinctly glared
Through a pale steam; but all the northern downs,
In clearest air ascending, showed far off
A surface dappled o’er with shadows flung
From brooding clouds; shadows that lay in spots
Determined and unmoved, with steady beams
Of bright and pleasant sunshine interposed . . .
In one of the finest readings of these lines in print, Hickey shows how unsettled the poem we are reading is. Implied oppositions collapse into each other, perspectives shift almost without our knowing it; “the only . . . constant is the landscape itself,” and it has “no fixed station of repose” (28–29). That is, in spite of the way the poem grasps after an authoritative voice or stance, it finally has none: the kaleidoscope is always turning, and with each turn, what momentarily seemed settled and determined proves otherwise.
In her second chapter, Hickey argues that this unsettledness is the result of the ambiguities of language itself. There she discusses the passage from book 2 of the poem that gives her book its title. The Wanderer and the Poet, in search of the Solitary, come across his copy of Voltaire’s Candide hidden in a nook. The Wanderer is appalled:
. . . .
Must that Man have been left, who, hither driven,
. . . could yet bring with him
No dearer relique, no better stay,
Than this dull product of a scoffer’s pen,
Impure conceits discharging from a heart
Hardened by impious pride!
In seizing upon the phrase “impure conceits,” Hickey draws our attention to the central problem of the poem: the Wanderer expresses an implicit desire for “pure meaning” (58), devoid of irony, but in so doing is denying the inherent arbitrariness of language. The Wanderer’s own “conceits,” Hickey shows, are far from pure, as his piggish dismissal of Voltaire suggests: he is [End Page 444] as capable of misreading “the forms of things” as the Poet he admonished in book 1. Ultimately, life itself is more complex and intransigent than our meager...