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Linda C. Brigham FRAIL MEMORIALS: "ESSAYS UPON EPITAPHS" AND WORDSWORTH'S ECONOMY OF REFERENCE Decades after the French Revolution, Destutt de Tracy, who coined the word "ideology," remained an unswerving advocate of universal grammar, linguistic perfectibility, and epistemological clarity. Although the complexity of human thought and language exceeded the scope he anticipated in the original plan for the Elemens, he still sought a scientific solution for the problem of defining and improving human cognition. For Edmund Burke, however, the disentangling of terms represented the dismemberment ofsociety. The interdependency of words—their lack of independent definition—reflected the interdependency of the individual within a group, the lone subject's profound incompleteness apart from tradition and community. These philosophical differences, the products of extensive and intensive eighteenth-century reflections on empiricism and its implications for human autonomy, form the environment of Wordsworth's nascent poetics. A cursory perusal of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads might suggest that he pursued the path of Tracy, Condillac, and Home Tooke.' The Preface's justification of nature over convention, the country over the city, and the simple over the complex implies a concern with more primitive origins informed by Enlightenment thought. But in fact, as has been noted since Coleridge, Wordsworth's "primitivism" is mitigated and ambiguous, as is his assessment of the value of direct sensory experience. The Preface presents a paradox in its simultaneous insistence on locality and universality, its negotiation of the minutiae of the poet's individual experience and the general interest of his readership. These tensions fuel a strategy of reading with political and economic consequences: to mean at all, Wordsworth's poetry forces a conservation Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 15-31 16Philosophy and Literature of both the artifacts in his environment and those in his own life. Over a decade later, in the "Essays Upon Epitaphs," Wordsworth insists more definitely and succinctly on a kind of semantic incompleteness, on the necessity of a stable world of reference to supplement the linguistic volatility ofa poet. In this respect, Wordsworth's linguistic theory proves remarkably similar to Burke's. Much of Wordsworth criticism, both recent and not-so-recent, surrounds the problem of reference in his work. My purpose here is to add to the discussion of reference by introducing a new framework for its interpretation: the semiotics of American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Reference, how signs refer to their objects, forms the basis of Peirce's semiotics. He categorized three ways in which signs mean: the sign could be an icon, an index, or a symbol. The icon, the simplest and most basic form of representation, communicates its object by resemblance , that is, it phenomenally suggests its object. It stands in for the object, substitutes for it. The icon may image its object like a portrait, diagram it like a map, or foreground an unmarked quality of the object through a metaphor. The second type of sign, the index, refers to its object by contiguity in space or time. A footprint is an index of an animal. Smoke is an index of fire. Causes and effects are indexes of each other. In ordinary language, deictics such as "this" and "that" are indexes. Rather than defining a characteristic of the object, deictics immediately affect the listener by focusing the attention in a certain direction. Finally, a symbol as Peirce defines it is a general, conventional sign. AU natural language is symbolic; language consists of generally defined terms whose utterance in particular contexts give it referential force. Although as a subset of natural language, poetry is conventional and technically symbolic, literary language generally leans toward one or the other of the more fundamental, non-arbitrary sign-types, the index or the icon. This is what constitutes the non-discursiveness of literature, the quality which constitutes poetic indirection. The discourse of French Enlightenment political theory, the "metaphysical truths" Burke condemned as "morally false," has a heavy component oficonic signs. In Burke's view, French theory reduces its objects to schematic models, and Burke's English opponents followed the French at the expense of national and nationalist interest. The fearfully clear and distinct "rights of man," upon which Paine's constitution depends like a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 15-31
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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