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Callaloo 25.3 (2002) 801-820
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Misusing Canonical Intertexts
Jamaica Kincaid, Wordsworth and Colonialism's "absent things"
In his essay "Wordsworth in the Tropics," Aldous Huxley poses the question: What happens when Wordsworth is exported to the tropics? He anticipates a demystification of the Wordsworthian "axiom that Nature is divine and morally uplifting" (113). The "Wordsworthian who exports this pantheistic worship of Nature to the tropics is liable to have his religious convictions rudely disturbed" when poetic panegyric comes up against a hostile natural reality (Huxley 113). It might be true that "Wordsworth never left his native continent" and that a "voyage through the tropics would have cured him of his too easy and comfortable pantheism" (Huxley 129, 128). But in an important sense Wordsworth was exported to the tropics—to the West Indies. As a fixed feature of English colonial education, Wordsworth's work became deeply implicated in the project of curricular indoctrination, what J. A. Mangan describes as "the imperial curriculum" that promulgated "racial stereotypes, the creation of ethnocentric attitudes and the 'labelling' of colonial peoples" (1).
Jamaica Kincaid, in her novel Lucy, is a contemporary reader of Wordsworth's role in curricular culture with her acute intertextual interrogation of his famous lyric about daffodils, "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Her examination of Wordsworth's exportation to the tropics registers a concomitant importation of desire so powerful that it requires self-invalidation and obfuscation of native, West Indian traditions. "A sort of desire for a perfect place, a perfect situation," she observes, "comes from English Romantic poetry. It described a perfection which one longed for, and of course the perfection that one longed for was England. I longed for England myself. These things were a big influence, and it was important for me to get rid of them. Then I could actually look at the place I'm from" (Bonetti 131). Unlike Huxley, Kincaid does not simply speculate about Wordsworth "in the tropics" but testifies to the profound ideological effects of English Romantic poetry within her early colonial experience and, later, on her as a writer.
Since the publication of her second novel Lucy in 1990, Kincaid has written a series of essays on gardens appearing in The New Yorker from the early to mid-1990's and produced My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants they Love (1998) as well as My Garden Book (1999). Kincaid's fascination with gardens, however, can be traced back to Lucy and the memory of Wordsworth's instrumental role within imperial ideology. In "Alien Soil" a childhood memory confirms an early source of conflict that [End Page 801] appears endemic to a colonial context: "I can remember very well the cruel Englishwoman who was my botany teacher, and that, in spite of her cruelty, botany was one of my two favorite subjects in school. (History was the other.)" (50). Still, she notes parenthetically, "(I do not like daffodils, but that's a legacy of the English approach: I was forced to memorize the poem by William Wordsworth when I was a child" ("Alien Soil" 51). In "Plant Parenthood," she reiterates and explains her dislike for daffodils, foregrounding the political dimension of her instinctive choice: "The reason I do not like daffodils is not at all aesthetic but much more serious than that: having been forced to memorize a poem about daffodils, when none were to be found in the place I grew up" (46). She was supposed to admire something that was absent from her own cultural experience. Through repetition, this scene of forced memorization has attained a primal status in Kincaid's oeuvre where Wordsworth, incorporated into the intransigent mechanism of colonial education, remains the sign of an unresolved relationship to English literary and cultural traditions that inform Kincaid's history. Wordsworth functions metonymically for the attitude she names "the English approach" and a larger social history of cruelty alluded to in the English teacher to implicate literature's political role in the work of empire.
In 20th-century literary criticism and theory, intertextuality emerges...