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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 167-196

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Presence and Passage:
A Poet's Wordsworth

Heather McHugh

An early whiff of Wordsworth, I'm ashamed to say but crotchety enough to know, kept me off the Romantic trail for decades. I thought that if there never wafted another rill or daffodil anywhere near English poetry, the world might be a better place. And some blue moon ago I recorded in my journal, with unnatural glee, Cyril Connolly's acid remark: "I refuse to be famous for a book on Wordsworth, even though it was all he was famous for."

Perhaps I held Willie responsible for the worst habits I encountered in poetry workshops, day in, day out, for decades. Not that most of my students had read him; his influence took the form, rather, of an unspoken presumption about the very nature of poetry: that it consisted in a bit of nature and a big idea (a little fresh air, then a lot of hot). Moreover, as Wordsworth himself said of The Prelude, it was unprecedented in English literature that a poet should speak so much of himself. It was not, alas, unsuccedented. Poets have been speaking so much of themselves ever since.

One mustn't blame Christ for all that Christians do, or Krishna for the occasional lobotomized gaze among his tinkling ministries. A great figure is as cursed as complimented by his followers. But it remains true today that one of the most deadly legacies of Wordsworthian witness is the sheer tedium of the rhetoric of attestation: I think, I thought, I felt, I have known, I heard, I saw, I watched, I gazed, I call to mind, I dare to tell—in short, I mull and mull—and make too little [End Page 167] cider. Subordinating object to subject, fact to sensibility, too much poetry in English since Wordsworth vouches for its veracity only with a flash of first-person pronoun, that lyric learner's permit. Having picked some blueberries or seen some birds, the poet has the urge to tell us so. I have visited the outside world, he wants to say; I have spent time (scout's honor) turning it over in my heart and mind, and now, as a sign of goodwill toward men, I want to share with all of you what really matters: namely, my effusions on it. In the usual NPR and NPM (National Poetry Month) instances, there's rarely a lick of salt or irony, rarely a riff of arresting rhetoric, a grace note in the grammar, or a feel for philology. What sets such offerings apart as poetry, they seem to claim, is their feel for feelings. It's enough to make a lover of Swift go back to swiving.

As an antidote to the aesthetics of the good intention, Oscar Wilde applied the caveat "All bad poetry is sincere" and Chesterton the tonic aperçu "The artistic temperament is an affliction of amateurs." The MFA workshop's professional hazard, of course, is precisely that: an overconcentration of sincerities in artistic temperaments. Perhaps as much as anything, it's the legacy of temperament itself, the legacy of self itself, that has indisposed me to the Romantic poets all these years. (I found myself in no way indisposed to Beethoven.) Especially to Wordsworth—with his orphan Alices and widow Ruths, his heart aflutter with the butterflies, his spirit dancing with the daffodils, his inner life and trembling pools; with his shades and hangmen, mists and ghosts—I found myself congenitally averse. But nothing lasts forever (except maybe The Prelude). A lecturer is famously the one with his tongue in your ear, his hand in your pocket, and his faith in your patience, and since I'd rather not overdraw on that third account, at least, let me finish my own little prelude by facing the Lichtenbergian fact: if an ass looks into a mirror, you can't expect an apostle to look out. At heart, perhaps I was too much like him to like him. Romanticism [End Page 168] isn...


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