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  • Nostalgia’s Freight in Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode
  • Fred Hoerner


Despite their evident critical differences, New Criticism and new historicism have tended to read Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode as an essentially nostalgic text. This view of the poem has contended that the poet’s “philosophic mind” synthesizes objective and subjective orders to produce either Cleanth Brooks’s “paradox of the imagination” or Jerome McGann’s “Romantic ideology.” 1 The problem with this theoretical binary of imagination construed as revelation or false consciousness is that it tends to exclude the possibility that a poem might enact the critical distance poets require to break the usual (or, in the language of Romanticism, customary) correspondences between inner and outer worlds that comprise the structures by which we live. Without sufficiently acknowledging the resources available to poetic and cultural agency even within apparently constraining structure, readers are quite literally bound to confuse Wordsworth’s nostalgic material with his poetic practice.

In brief, the perception that the Ode promotes a politics of nostalgia may indicate a premise about agency shared by otherwise contrary critical methods. Against the tradition of readings that assume nostalgia, then judge it as “cure” or “regressive ideal,” I argue that it serves as a strategic medium that undermines nostalgia’s putative status as the revered (or reviled) basis for the Ode ’s argument about recollection and identity. 2 As Kenneth Johnston has argued, Wordsworth aims to use mental custom against itself, a goal he images in the Fenwick note as an Archimedean fulcrum point “whereon to rest his machine”; once gained, that point empowers the poet to lever off the weight of “his own mind.” 3 I suggest that killing weight leveraged breeds joy because the poet has gained agency from the customary formalism that is nostalgia’s inertial freight.

The theoretical dimension of my argument is adapted from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, which conceptualizes practice such that it enables agency even within structural constraints that seem to demand strict reproduction or imitation. [End Page 631] Their emphasis on practice shares a refusal of the subject/object binaries that reduce cultural agency to the reproduction of a psychological or historical model. 4 Echoing Marx, Bourdieu emphasizes that agents tend to construct objects of knowledge that turn on their makers, insofar as they tend to “reproduce themselves in the agents’ dispositions.” 5 Both the latent circularity and potential failure of dialectical practice conveyed by this model ground Bourdieu’s notion of the “habitus,” the process whereby “history [is] turned into nature” and practice contracts into mere reproduction. 6 This crucial shift from history to nature, and practice to reproduction, occurs when cultural agents fail to perceive or “misrecognize” the circularity the shift entails, causing agents to confuse coercive historical discourses with natural or religious laws. The conservative and thus political force of the habitus resides in its capacity to equate “social structures and mental structures,” that is, to make “the sense of limits... [conform to] the sense of reality.” 7

According to Bourdieu, cultural agents cannot help but be conditioned, even used, by the very world they make. However, the fact that this world is “made up” — achieved rather than ascribed — keeps structure available to use and to take advantage of, provided agents foreground its discursive, that is, its historical and formal nature. Similarly, Giddens emphasizes praxis even within revered structures through his theory of “structuration,” which stresses that “structure exists only in its instantiations in practices... of knowledgeable human agents” who gain such knowledge and thus agency “in and through” their strategic reproduction of structure. 8 As Bourdieu and Giddens see it, practice involves a temporal dialectic between interests and structures. Perceiving that mis-fit and deriving motivation from it matters because such practice resists custom and ideology that tempt agents with the gratification of identifying their interests with prior structures that claim to be complete. The agent of this resistance is a knowing subject, one who improvises possibility out of the same structures that would dominate were they revered by a conservative disposition such as nostalgia. Thus, “practice theories” can help to foreground how, in the Ode, Wordsworth sustains the chronic tension between subjective and...

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