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  • Chiasmus and the Making of Literary Tradition: the Case of Wordsworth and the Days of Dryden and Pope
  • Sanford Budick

I am sorry that Wordsworth is likely to be displeased at my praise of Dryden, extremely limited as it is. The vigour of Drydens mind, and of his poetry too, is far beyond the vigour of Wordsworths. Nothing was ever written in rhyme equal to the beginning of the Religio Laici, the eleven first lines.

[part of a letter from Landor to Robinson; the words in italics have not been printed before] 1

This essay is part of an effort to understand how literary tradition is made. My concern, in other words, is how tradition is brought into being, not merely handed down or duplicated. Thus my larger aim is to describe the activity of tradition-making per se. In the following pages I consider an aspect of literary history which may seem magical, even what is called psychic, though it depends only on everyday uses of language. My subject is the way in which the writings of an earlier and a later writer—each exemplary of their periods—can form configurations which are not only strongly oppositional, but also powerfully reciprocal, even what I will define as co-subjective. Elements of such reciprocity may well manifest themselves within matched oppositions, where such opposition is expressed both temporally backwards (a later writer contra a remembered earlier writer) and temporally forwards (an earlier writer contra an anticipated later writer). What is distinctive about this pattern of oppositions, however, is that it occurs within a set of reciprocal relations that oppose opposition as such. It will remain for me an open question just whose historical experience or co-subjectivity such a reciprocal symmetry of oppositions may be said to constitute, since it clearly cannot belong to either writer individually. We may wonder, indeed, why any individual writer should enter into configurations of this partially self-eclipsing kind. In other places I have speculated about a variety of possible motives for this sort of partial self-eclipse, especially in the less likely case of an earlier writer, prospectively, with regard to a later one. Roughly speaking those speculations concern, first, Kierkegaards’s notion of a repetition “forwards.” Repetition forwards, according to Kierkegaard, is generated within [End Page 961] each individual by an anxiety of the “Nothing” and an anxiety of the “future.” Second, they concern Freud’s suggestion (as I read him) that an individual may get beyond individual being or “the pleasure principle” by working through an alternation of “life instincts” and “death instincts.” 2 In the present essay, however, my interest is not principally in understanding why these symmetries of fractional selves come into being, but rather in demonstrating that they do indeed exist and that they comprise meanings all their own.

My focus in this essay, then, is on the details of a symmetrical correspondence—forwards and backwards, oppositionally and reciprocally-between poets of different periods of a literary tradition. I will be adducing various existent, even if half-hidden, tracings of the oppositional-reciprocal relations which form such correspondence. It is no historical accident that poetic tracings of this correspondence bear striking affinities to the rhetorical figure known as chiasmus, since chiasmus is a diagram of the simultaneous occurrence of opposition and reciprocity, as in the pattern AB:BA. The formal objective of this essay is to describe the chiasmus that occurs as much between writers of different periods as within the writings of any individual author, whether neoclassical, romantic, or post-romantic.


As an example of chiasmus I offer a couplet from Pope’s elegy on Elizabeth Corbet. In Wordsworth’s effort to distance himself from Pope, Wordsworth cites exactly half of this couplet as an example of what he specifically brands the hateful antitheses of neoclassical verse. Here is Pope’s couplet:

[A] [B]

Heav’n as its purest gold by tortures tried;

[B’] [A’]

The Saint sustain’d it, but the Woman died.

The second line of this couplet-

[Y] [X]

“The Saint sustain’d it, but the Woman died”-

furnishes Wordsworth’s example of “antithesis.” 3

To be sure, each of these verses is...

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