- Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song
Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song takes its title from Wordsworth’s own account (in The Prelude of 1805) of what he hopes to write:
Then, last wish, My last and favourite aspiration! Then I yearn towards some philosophic Song Of Truth that cherishes our daily life(Book First, lines 228–31; cited in Jarvis 1)
Simon Jarvis begins his study of Wordsworth with this fragment, asking: “How important, and in what ways, was this ‘favourite aspiration’ to what Wordsworth actually did in the end write?” (1). Grounded in an attention to philosophical approaches to modern experience, Jarvis’s careful readings throughout the book bring out the depth and multiplicities of meaning [End Page 1218] in these lines, especially in charged words like wish, truth, daily life, and, of course, philosophic song.
Early in the introduction, Jarvis reminds us of a passage from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. . . . I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence” (cited in Jarvis 9). For Jarvis, Kant here articulates perhaps the paramount problem of the modern condition:
[T]he passage testifies to an irreparably split life. The moral law is inside, the stars are outside. What creates a wondrous effect here is the vertiginous contrast which is compressed into the single emphatic phrase: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. It is vertiginous not because it is a contrast in scale: because, for example, we pass from something infinitely large to something infinitesimally small; but because it is a contrast between “two things” which cannot in fact be compared with each other at all. Each is immeasurable; both are mutually incommensurable.(9–10)
Jarvis presents Wordsworth as an artist whose work confronts this paradigmatic modern experience, the sense of an “irreparably split life” which has weighed upon thinkers from Kant onward, and which continues to shape contemporary critical thought. Interested in supporting recent critical efforts to reclaim Wordsworth from critics of “suspicion”—critics who attempt to discredit Wordsworth’s poetic thinking as ideological—Jarvis yet remains unsatisfied with the common argument against suspicion: the claim that Wordsworth’s poetry is pure aesthetic autonomy, and thus that questions of meaning are irrelevant. Jarvis foregrounds the question of philosophic aspiration in Wordsworth’s poetry, arguing that we should understand the poetry as a mode of seeking at once aesthetic and cognitive. Wordsworth’s poetry emerges as a rendering of and a response to the fractured experience of modernity. Marked by the conflicts of modern experience: between the empirical and the spiritual; the “outer” world and the “inner” self; the cognitive and affective dimensions of the subject; or the rational and irrational aspects of thought, Wordsworth’s verse inhabits these contradictions; the insight of the poetry issues precisely from this acknowledgment of contradiction. This approach, which Jarvis calls Wordsworth’s “speculative thinking,” provides a productive alternative to contemporary framings of the questions of truth and experience. The question of the relevance of truth to a discussion of Wordsworth’s poetry is a central concern of the book, and it is accompanied by a considered analysis of the term’s fraught status in contemporary debates. On the one hand, the contemporary opinion that any claim to truth is (emptily) metaphysical, or that truth claims must be discredited as ideological, is shown to be symptomatic of a manner of thinking ineliminably structured by a logic of absolute division. On the other hand, the question of what truth is necessarily remains open. It is aligned with the question of the philosophic aspiration of Wordsworth’s [End Page 1219] poetry, what it is that this mode of seeking seeks. Jarvis addresses these questions along the concept of experience.
Thus, while the book is concretely concerned with Wordsworth’s particularity, its attention to the philosophical questions at stake in Wordsworth’s oeuvre gives rise to a wide...