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  • Wordsworth’s “Solitaries” and the Problem of Literary Reference
  • Scott Dykstra

Anyone familiar with Wordsworth criticism of the past decade or so will be aware of its indebtedness to a particular account of literary reference. According to Jerome McGann, the “question of referentiality” is essential to recent critical attempts at “reconstitut[ing] sociohistorical methods and interests as the heart of literary studies.” 1 Such methods and interests, he argues in his essay, “A Point of Reference,” when not entirely repudiated by formalist or “text-centered” critical approaches, have been consistently oversimplified by “an impoverished theory of language and literary reference,” which McGann associates with the “empiricist” belief in a “‘solid’ correspondence” between “‘literal names’” and “‘visible physical objects.’” 2 For McGann, then, as for many contemporary Wordsworthians, an enriched account of literary reference stands as the central theoretical goal of modern historicist criticism. But a peculiar and characteristic problem of reference hovers over the entirety of McGann’s essay, which focuses less on the relationships between literary language and the world than on the semantic status of discursive “referents” or “particulars” within the broader ideological “field” to which they belong. “To recover the concept of referentiality,” he writes, “we . . . begin by reminding ourselves that ‘facts’ are not mere data, objects, or monads; they are heuristic isolates which bring into focus some more or less complex network of human events and relations.” 3 And, throughout his essay, McGann suggests that an understanding of such “networks” will somehow provide us with an adequate concept of literary reference. A work of literature, we are told, “has reference to” a “totality of human changes in all its diverse and particular manifestations,” a “process of dynamic totalization” that extends well beyond a particular author’s “explicit frame of . . . narrativization”: “What we must see,” McGann insists, “is that [literary] works . . . have reference to . . . some more or less comprehensive aspects of the past, and the present and the future as well.” 4

Within the field of Wordsworth studies, at least, some such account would seem to have fulfilled the broader institutional role envisioned for it by McGann, allowing many of the poet’s most influential [End Page 893] interpreters to bring a variety of historical subjects to the center of critical attention as the “displaced,” “denied,” or “absent referents” of particular lyric and narrative poems. And, in practice, McGann’s own criticism—as well as that of Marjorie Levinson, Alan Liu, David Simpson, and others—has shown an especially strong commitment to the “human” or social dimensions of literary discourse stressed in “A Point of Reference.” 5 Liu has suggested that in Wordsworth’s poetry “persons . . . become patterns in an imagery wholly distanced from normal human concerns,” and the recovery of concrete historical information about such “persons” has played an important role in the ongoing polemic against “text-centered” preoccupations with imagery and poetic language. 6 At the same time, however, historicist critics have sought to distinguish their own research from that of more traditional scholarship by insisting upon its direct responsiveness to the formal properties of the poet’s texts, employing a “procedure,” in Levinson’s words, “whereby a manifold of contemporary meanings . . . is restored to a work which defines by its illogical affirmations the contours of [its] repressed material.” 7 Under the banner of a much-expanded theory of literary reference, “patterns of imagery” are reconceived as conspicuous evasions of social reality—“gaps,” “fissures,” “contextually charged silences,” and the like—and what used to be thought of, at best, as mere “context” is reintroduced as the “effaced” or “occluded” content of Wordsworth’s poetry.

But the very liberality of the historicist concept of reference would seem to preclude any discussion of two interrelated concerns that were inseparable from that topic within Wordsworth’s own philosophical and literary culture: a concern, on the one hand, with differentiating between true and false reports, and, on the other hand, with accounting for the special effect of reference produced by specifically fictive discourse. And such concerns, as David Hume illustrates in a striking passage from his Treatise of Human Nature, remain, at least in principle, totally independent from any consideration of the formal properties or semantic inflections of a...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 893-928
Launched on MUSE
1996-12-01
Open Access
No
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