In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Will plus Words plus Worth: What’s in a Name?
  • Susan J. Wolfson

i. seeking and hiding a name

Housed in the book of the autobiographical poem that William Wordsworth reflexively titled Books is a dream about books.1 Within this appears a word-chain even more self-reflexive than has been noticed in the rich archive of critical attention to this episode. In the Prelude, Book Fifth: Books opens in crisis about the material survival of “things worthy of unconquerable life,” including the book of poetry at hand (1805, 5.19). Is there an under-pressure of Wordsworth in worthy? I wouldn’t pause over this one syllable but for noting how two syllables of Wordsworth possess a crucial line in the dream to come. Even though Wordsworth revised this initial “worthy of” to “that aspire to” in the 1850 Prelude, the name-pressure intensifies in its dream-language, because the poet now claims the dream as his own (1850, 5.20).2 Thomas De Quincey was alert to the cannily formative field: “the form of the dream is not arbitrary; but, with exquisite skill in the art of composition, is made to arise out of the situation in which the poet had previous found himself, and is faintly prefigured in the elements of that situation. He had been reading ‘Don Quixote.’”3 De Quincey means the elements of prefigurative reading—“the errant knight / Recorded by Cervantes” (5.60–61)—but elements also mark, more than faintly, the dream-poetry, not only in the title of one book that figures therein, but also, with apparitional legibility, in syllable-elements of the name Wordsworth in the line of verse that introduces the other book. In this strange art of dream-logic composition, the poet finds himself here, too.

This is how it happens in the 1850 Prelude. The reader-dreamer is lost in a desert wilderness, when suddenly (he recounts), “Close at my side, an uncouth shape appeared / Upon a dromedary, mounted high” (1850, 5.75–76). It seems to be a Bedouin Arab, in urgent flight, cradling two objects.4 Wordsworth pauses the poetry here to concede a conspicuously arbitrary signifying: “(To give it the language of the [End Page 649] dream)” (5.87). The Arab names one of the objects, a stone, as “Euclid’s Elements” (5.88). The other, “a shell / Of a surpassing brightness” (5.79–80), is presented with this flourish:

      ‘This’, said he, ‘Is something of more worth’; and, at the word Stretched forth the shell . . .


Halting my eye one day in reading, it was line 89 that prompted the adventure of this essay. Here, in sequence, is worth . . . word. The pentameter stress on both syllables, the caesura at worth, the pause of word at the line-end, the two near rhyming: all this sets word to claim as its referent not the full sentence but the particular worth. The syllables of the waking name Wordsworth are mirrored in reverse, the lawless forgery of a dream-machine.5 These are literally “Wordsworth’s Elements.” And as this geometry-charmed poet knows, Euclid’s Elements is a work in 13 books, as was the 1805 Prelude. On this field, the sequence worth . . . word seems to me no uncouth shape, but a legible kin of poet’s signature to his debut publication in 1787, “Axiologus.” With a glance at Euclidian “axiom,” Wordsworth’s classy Greek-Latin code-name spells “worth of words”—in English syntax, words’ worth.6 The punning pseudonym announces vocation. And vocation, temporal and eternal, is the crisis of worth and words in Books.

Poets are not unknown forgers of name-games. “Names! What’s in a name?” jests a voice in front of Dublin’s library (ringing Juliet’s protest to Romeo) to challenge the notion of coded autobiography in William Shakespeare’s works.7 Stephen Dedalus briskly parries:

He has hidden his own name, a fair name, William, in the plays . . . as a painter of old Italy set his face in a dark corner of his canvas. He has revealed it in the sonnets where there is Will in overplus . . .8

Whether hidden in corners of play, or...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 649-688
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.