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  • "His lips with joy they burr":Onomatopoeia in Wordsworth's "The Idiot Boy"
  • Megan Quinn (bio)

Among its achievements, wordsworth's "the idiot boy" (1798) is notable for the strong revulsion it inspired in some of its readers, particularly in response to Johnny Foy's onomatopoeic "burring." Within criticism on the poem, this revulsion makes up a familiar canon, including in its ranks Coleridge, Byron, Southey, John Wilson, and Geoffrey Hartman.1 The tale of Johnny's glory holds a prime place among Coleridge's complaints against the preface to Lyrical Ballads, especially Wordsworth's claim to a poetics of the "real language of men in a state of vivid sensation" and its basis in "Low and rustic life."2 Coleridge argues that the real language of a rustic man "would furnish a very scanty vocabulary" that centers on "his bodily conveniences."3 "The best part of human language," he writes, "is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself" (51). His criticism of "The Idiot Boy" specifically refers to its use of onomatopoeia. Though a "fine poem," it fails to preserve the reader from [End Page 27] "the disgusting images of ordinary, morbid idiocy" and "even by the 'burr, burr, burr,' uncounteracted by any preceding description of the boy's beauty, assist[s] in recalling them" (44–45). Coleridge's distaste for the recollection of these "images" highlights the effectiveness with which Wordsworth's onomatopoeia makes Johnny's body, and his disability, seem vividly present. This objection reflects a larger ambivalence, within eighteenth-century philosophy, toward the embodiment that such persons and their inarticulate cries recalled. In other words, Coleridge objects to the nexus of poetic language, embodiment, and disability that "The Idiot Boy" represents.

Despite these forceful reactions to the physicality of Wordsworth's language and Johnny's disability, an emphasis on his poetry of mind still colors his critical reputation, and in studies of disability a focus on the descriptive representation of bodies at times neglects the sensory impact of words. For post-structuralist critics following Paul de Man, the problem of Wordsworth's language is more specifically one of failure to represent the mind without "de-facement" or to "become entirely literal" like a natural object.4 As these critics oppose the figurative to the literal and material, they describe Wordsworth's supposed failure in terms that recall and invert his claims to keep his reader "in the company of flesh and blood" (Preface, 747).5 Although the field of disability studies concerns the impact of verbal representation on bodies in the real world, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder's influential book, Narrative Prosthesis (2000), echoes this disembodied view of language. So, they claim, language "lacks the very physicality that it seeks to control."6 These dismissals of the idea that language might be a physical agent, in both post-structuralist criticism and some studies of disability, seem to me missed opportunities. With this understanding of language, we lack a framework in which to understand Coleridge's visceral reaction to "The Idiot Boy," the larger role of onomatopoeia and embodiment in Wordsworth's poetics, and the full range of effects that language has on the lived experience of disability. [End Page 28]

Recent criticism has brought new attention to the role of the physical in Wordsworth's language and in representations of disability. For example, William Keach remarks Wordsworth's consideration of words as "things," and Alan Richardson describes the poet's "embodied approach to language."7 In this rediscovery of Wordsworthian embodiment, onomatopoeia plays a minor part. Through the poet's imitative rhythms and interjections, including Johnny's burring, Richardson sees Wordsworth's interest in philosophical ideas of how "articulated speech … absorb[ed] the 'natural' language of cries," and in a wider overlap between human and animal life.8 Meanwhile, Joshua King sees this overlap in "The Idiot Boy" as a vision of "human community" based on "involuntary patterns of sensation, pleasure, and habit, rather than … rationality and linguistic ability."9 Within disability studies, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and James C. Wilson move toward a material view of language on the heels of Mitchell and Snyder's binary account.10 More...


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