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  • Wordsworth’s “Nutting” and the Violent End of Reading
  • Robert Burns Neveldine

Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures.

—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

The name is the end of discourse.

—Michel Foucault, “The Quadrilateral of Language”

What kind of disquieting play on words is it that can make the analyst a promoter of anality?

—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, ”A Recapitulation of the Three Syntheses”

Symbolically ... this hotly contested (male) hole remains, for the heterosexual man, a site of extreme privilege, his pink badge of virtù, so to speak.

—Jan Zita Grover, “AIDS: Keywords”


By 1790, Wordsworth is exploring revolutionary France with his friend Robert Jones. That same year, the Bastille having been stormed and his manuscripts’ fate uncertain, the Marquis de Sade walks away from Charenton asylum, poor but free, to set his affairs in order.

About Sade’s compulsive rewritings of traditional themes, Foucault remarks that it was “not in view of a dialectical reward, but toward a radical exhaustion.” 1 And belatedly, Bloom has remarked [End Page 657] that “The romance-of-trespass, of violating a sacred or daemonic ground, is a central form in modern literature, from Coleridge and Wordsworth to the present.” 2

This essay is not overtly concerned with the relationship between Sade and Wordsworth—contemporaneous and yet ostensibly worlds apart. But the time has been long in coming when Sade and Wordsworth would meet openly on that ground.


Wordsworth criticism has been focusing again on “Nutting,” the blank-verse allegory he completed in 1799, first published in the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), and never assimilated into The Prelude, for which he originally intended it. 3 The speaker of the poem, a young man “with a huge wallet o’er [his] shoulders slung, / A nutting crook in hand” (6–7), leaves home one day in search of hazelnuts. He sounds optimistic enough, and, when he discovers a worthy tree, becomes positively playful, but ends up decimating the hazel in a scene of “merciless ravage” (45), and never returns home with his harvest. It is the speaker’s startling violence that has most often attracted criticism. For example, Rachel Crawford, in “The Structure of the Sororal in Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting,’” reads in this allegory Freudian acts of primary narcissism and castrating vehemence against the phallic mother, complementing similar assertions in Jonathan Arac’s “Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’: Suspension and Decision” with her own concerns for the mechanisms of sisterhood. Crawford seems correct in identifying the sororal as a neglected yet crucial issue here. 4 Charles Altieri, also responding to Arac, takes yet another approach. He suggests, even more powerfully than Arac, that in Wordsworth’s short poem occurs the founding moment of modernity. According to Altieri, the “hero” of the narrative (that is, the poet), frustrated over the inadequacy of the pastoral mode in representing fully the power of the poetic “spirit,” seeks violence against nature, positioned as object vis-à-vis this newfound source of subjectivity. “Nutting” is thus a “great achievement” in establishing the origins of the modern spirit of poetry in the drastic convolutions of the Romantic self. 5 All these critics share with their predecessors an assumption about the gender of the hazel’s “mutilated bower” (50), as well as emphases on routine psychoanalytical modes, problems of poetic...

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