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The Sublime, Self-Reference, and Wordsworth's Resolution and Independence

Author(s): Steven Knapp


Source: MLN, Vol. 99, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1984), pp. 1007-1022
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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The Sublime,Self-Reference,
and
Wordsworth'sResolution
andIndependence

StevenKnapp

As a number of scholars have persuaded us, it is hard and a little


dangerous to generalize about the sublime.* Hard, because the
sublimeis at once a diverse collectionof aesthetictheories,a genre
of literaryperformances,and a thematic paradigm that recurs,
witha compulsive and often comic regularity,in post-Enlighten-
ment writingsof the highest and the lowest forms. Dangerous,
because the attemptto generalize can involve the same combina-
tion of imaginativestrivingand failure-with the same effectof
pathos vergingon bathos-that characterizessome versionsof the
sublime itself.Conscious of both the difficultyand the danger, I
will refrainfrom generalizingand simplystipulate: the sublime I
have in mind is the one that depends on mistakingthings,and
thus on a lack of fit between the mind and its objects-for ex-
ample, when one gives an object too much or the wrong kind of
importance. One might call it the sublime of disproportion,or
inaptitude,or discrepancy.What makes it sublime,instead ofjust
grotesque or sentimental,is the way in which the particulardis-
crepancy in question gets interpreted as a revelation of some
higher or deeper power-ordinarily the power that was respon-
sible forthe initialmistake.This versionof the sublime-and again
* This paper was presented to a symposiumon Wordsworthheld at the Human-
itiesCenter,Johns Hopkins University,on April 13 and 14, 1984.

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1008 STEVEN KNAPP

I refrain,in the presentcontext,fromassertingthatthisis the only


versionthatmatters-translates a perceptionof differenceinto an
act of self-reference:the mind reads an emblem of its own tran-
scendence in the magnitude of a discrepancybetween some ordi-
naryphenomenon and the importancethe mind has givenit-just
as, in Wordsworth'sapostrophe to the Philosopher Child in the
IntimationsOde, the precise measure of the "soul's immensity"
is the degree to which its "exterior semblance" can be taken to
"belie" it.
This is the versionof the sublimeimplicit,forexample, in Kant's
account,in the CritiqueofJudgment, of what he calls the "dynamical
sublime," where sublimityderives from the delightfulterrorwe
feel when we imagine ourselves threatened by some natural
danger-provided, of course, that we are not really threatened
but are in factsecure ("wennwirunsnurin Sicherheit befinden").This
artificialterroris aroused when we imaginewhat it would be like
to resistthe power of some fearfulobject in nature-perhaps an
overhangingrock,or a violentstorm,or a volcano-and then rec-
ognize the puniness of our own natural abilities. In itself,such
terrormerelysignals our inabilityto compete with nature on na-
ture's own terms. If we were reallyin danger, the thoughtof re-
sistingnature's power would degenerate into simple fear. But the
absence of real danger gives our facultyof reason a chance to
intervene.In the same moment that we recognize the futilityof
resistingnature in any natural way,the sheer factof our desire to
resist it gets interpretedas a sign of the sense in which we can
overcomenature-namely, in our fidelityto moral principles.This
conversionof imaginarydanger into moral self-recognition is what
makes our encounters withimpressivenatural objects a source of
the sublime. Nature itself is called sublime, according to Kant,
"only because it elevates the imagination to a representationof
thosecases in whichthe mind can make itselfsensibleof the proper
sublimityof its own vocation (Bestimmung), which is even above
nature" (Sect. 28).
The dynamical sublime thus depends on two representational
moves: first,we pretend to resistan imaginarythreat;second, we
interpretthis pretended resistance as the sign of an utterlydif-
ferentkind of power. But exactlyhow does the firstof these moves
produce the second? Why should feigningresistanceto an absent
danger count as the sign of a higher power? The answer would
seem to lie, though Kant in no way spells this out, in the curious

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M L N 1009

inappropriatenessof the impulse to resist. For the resistance in


question-human resistance to the power of nature-is simulta-
neouslypointlessand futile:pointlessbecause the danger isn'treal,
futilebecause if the danger werereal resistancewouldn't work. It
is because this energy of resistance has and can have no appro-
priateobject thatit seems to break free of the scene thatoccasions
it and thus to mimic the unconditioned freedom of our moral
agency.Seen in thisway,the sublime reduces to an arbitraryequa-
tion of futilityand freedom,of pointless exertion and moral au-
tonomy-an equation based only on the impossibility in both cases
of groundingour mentalenergyin any appropriate naturalobject.
Virtually the same equation of pointlessness and autonomy
showsup in Wordsworth,who makes the equation seem even more
abstractand arbitrarythan it seems in Kant. The salient moments
in Wordsworth'spoetry-the moments,thatis, thathave received
the fullestmodern commentary-almost invariablydepend on the
recognitionof some disparitybetween the mind's exertions and
the objects in which its energies are invested.Sometimes,as in the
by now too famous translationof disappointment into triumph
duringa recollectionof crossingSimplon Pass, Wordsworthalmost
perfectlyenacts the Kantian scenario: an experience of failurein-
directlyreveals the preternaturalstrengthof desire and hope. In
more typicalinstances,Wordsworthgoes beyond even the highly
artificialpathos of Kant's account to suggest a formal,almostclin-
ical registeringof disparities.Here the significanceof the disparity
is strangelydetached fromthe suppositionof anyone's experiencing
it. The sublime is restrictedto a whollyabstractor exemplaryrole.
Wordsworth'sdoctrine of the "spots of time,"for example, de-
pends on the detachment of certain images from whateveremo-
tionsfirstmade them seem important.A boy reactssuperstitiously
to his father'sdeath, which he mistakenlyinterpretsas a magical
retributionfor his own eagerness to go home on a school vacation.
His superstitiousexcitementfixes in his memorythe image of an
ordinarylandscape associated withhis intense desire to go home.
Years later, long afterthe superstitionhas worn off,he discovers
that the image has outlived the emotions that gave it its original
salience. It now survivesas an abstractemblem of the mind's ex-
cessive power-strictly, a power to delude itself.And thisdoctrine
of the mind's power-rather than any presentexperience of such
power-is what makes the image a source of consolation in times
of imaginativepoverty.A passage thatprecedes this"spot of time"

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1010 STEVEN KNAPP

in The Two-PartPreludeof 1799 explicitlystates this identification


of autonomywithdetachmentfromcontext:

I mightadvert
To numerousaccidentsin floodor field,
Quarryor moor,or 'midthewintersnows,
Distressesand disasters,
tragicfacts
Of ruralhistory,thatimpressedmymind
Withimagesto whichin following years
Far otherfeelingswereattached-withforms
That yetexistwithindependentlife,
And,liketheirarchetypes, knowno decay.

The temporal characterof the "spots of time" makes them spe-


ciallydependent on autobiographical narrative.A single "spot" is
necessarilythe product of at least two separate moments in the
career of a single agent. Only in the tranquilperspectiveof a later
moment can the unwarranted excitementof the original experi-
ence be recognized as an index of the mind's transcendence-
throughillusion-of natural circumstance.But this temporal gap
between a momentof powerfulerror and a later momentof quiet
knowledgeis not essential-tothe Wordsworthiansublime. In other
cases the disparitybetween two momentsin the career of a single
agent is replaced by a disparitybetween two separate agents, the
speaker and someone or somethingelse. This is the point,I think,
of all those half-natural,half-allegoricalfigures,aptlycalled "bor-
derers" by Jonathan Wordsworth,that rise up or beam down or
simplymaterializebefore the poetic speaker at crucial momentsin
almost all the major poems-the Philosopher Child, the Blind
Beggar, the Discharged Soldier, the Leech-Gatherer,and so on.
These figuresare not quite, in my view, images of the poet's self
or answers to his psychicneeds. Nor do theyexactlyfunction,as
Neil Hertz has argued in a fine commentaryon the Blind Beggar
passage in PreludeVII, to stabilizethe poet's relationto his textby
condensing the threateningmultiplicityof language into a man-
ageably unitaryform. It is not primarilythe unitybut the oddity
of these figures,theirlack of appropriate relationto the landscape
in which theyare somehow deposited, that makes them effective-
thougheffectiveto what end is at thispoint far fromclear. In what
followsI will argue that the point of these figureslies preciselyin
the way they shrug off or evade or otherwisefrustratewhatever
narcissisticinvestmentthey seem to invite. I will suggest that this

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M L N 1011

frustrationof the self's attemptto see itselfreflectedin such fig-


ures is in a certain sense repaid, through somethinglike the self-
referentialturn we have witnessed in Kant. But I defer, for the
moment,an attemptto specifyjust whatagencythisself-referential
turn is supposed to reveal.
My example, chosen a littleunfairlyin a paper emphasizingthe
oddityof Wordsworth's"borderers,"is the figurethatmore clearly
than any other calls attentionto itselfas an anomalous deposit in
an otherwisenormal landscape: the figureof the Leech-Gatherer
in Resolutionand Independence.As we know from the numerous
treatmentsof this poem as a paradigmatic case of the Romantic
crisislyric,the Leech-Gathererappears a thirdof the way through
the poem when he is noticed by the highlyself-consciouspoetic
speaker, who has been anxiously meditating,in a suitablybarren
landscape, on the bleakness of his own financialprospects. Even-
tuallythe poet engages the Leech-Gatherer in a rather awkward
conversation,but only afterthe stationaryfigureat last begins to
move-an event preceded by the followingfour stanzas of de-
scription:
VIII
Now,whetheritwerebypeculiargrace,
A leadingfromabove,a something given,
Yet itbefellthat,in thislonelyplace,
WhenI withtheseuntowardthoughtshad striven,
Besidea pool bare to theeyeof heaven
I sawa Man beforeme unawares:
The oldestmanhe seemedthateverworegreyhairs.
Ix
As a huge stoneis sometimes
seen to lie
Couchedon thebald top of an eminence;
Wonderto all whodo thesameespy,
By whatmeansitcould thither come,and whence;
So thatit seemsa thingenduedwithsense:
Likea sea-beastcrawledforth,thaton a shelf
Of rockor sand reposeth,thereto sun itself;
X
Such seemedthisMan,notall alivenordead,
Nor all asleep-in hisextremeold age:
His bodywas bentdouble,feetand head
Comingtogetherin life'spilgrimage;
As ifsomedireconstraint of pain,or rage

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1012 STEVENKNAPP

Of sicknessfeltbyhimin timeslongpast,
A morethanhumanweightupon hisframehad cast.

XI
Himselfhe propped,limbs,body,and pale face,
Upon a longgreystaffof shavenwood:
And,stillas I drewnearwithgentlepace,
Upon themarginof thatmoorishflood
Motionlessas a cloud theold Man stood,
That hearethnottheloud windswhentheycall;
And movethall together, ifit moveat all.

These stanzas have received a moorish flood of commentary-


including Wordsworth'sown remarksin the 1815 Preface, which
I will consider in a moment. But firstI want to ask just what kind
of relation to the perceiver this figurecan be said to invite.How
and where, for instance,is the Old Man located in the landscape
withwhichthe descriptivesimilesmightseem to identifyhim?The
protagonistsees a Man before him, but at what distance and at
what angle? If the Old Man resemblesa huge stone on the top of
an eminence, then presumably the speaker is looking uphill at a
distant object. But a sea-beast can only crawl forthat sea level,
which suggests that the Old Man is at, or more likelybelow, the
speaker's own elevation. The sea-beast, moreover,has an obvious
origin-namely, the sea-and an obvious means of arrival-
namely,crawlingforth.But the stone amazes all its viewers,who
wonder "By what means it could thithercome, and whence." This
ambiguityabout the Old Man's mode of arrival applies as well to
the speaker's mode of discovery:should we assume thatthe speak-
er's perception took the formof an abrupt surpriseor of gradual
recognition?"I saw a Man before me unawares"-is "unawares"
an adverb modifyingthe speaker's action-"I saw him unexpect-
edly"-or an adjective indicatingthe Old Man's obliviousnessof-
or indifferenceto-the speaker?
Wordsworth'sown analysis ignores such questions of location
and focuses instead on what might be called the Old Man's on-
tology.What I have been describingas an ambiguityin the figure's
spatial and phenomenological relation to the poetic speaker inter-
ests Wordsworthhere as an ambiguityin the Old Man's degree of
agency, and thus as a symptomof the imagination'scapacity to
manipulatewhat Wordsworthcalls "the indicationsof lifeand mo-
tion."In the double simileof Stanza IX, according to Wordsworth,

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M L N 1013

theconferring, theabstracting, and themodifying powersoftheImag-


ination,immediately and mediatelyacting,are all broughtintocon-
junction.The stoneis endowedwithsomething of thepowerof lifeto
approximateit to the sea-beast;and the sea-beaststrippedof someof
itsvitalqualitiesto assimilateit to thestone;whichintermediate
image
is thustreatedforthe purposeof bringingtheoriginalimage,thatof
the stone,to a nearerresemblanceto the figureand conditionof the
aged Man; who is divestedof so muchof the indications of lifeand
motionas to bringhimto the pointwherethe twoobjectsuniteand
coalesceinjust comparison.

The technicalpoint of thisanalysisseems clear enough: the effect


of coalescence resultsfrom a series of parallel adjustmentsin de-
grees of agency. But what, if anything,is the thematic point of the
imagination'sprocedure? Is the simile, for instance,a way of re-
concilinghuman life and inanimate nature, in whichcase it offers
an emblematicresponse to the poet's fears,voiced in the preceding
stanzas, of hyperconscious isolation and material poverty?The
trouble with such an account is that the figurativecoalescence in
this stanza does not seem to reconcile humanityand nature but
instead to isolate the terminalimages, Old Man and stone, from
theirrespectiveoriginsin human lifeand minerallifelessness.The
simile,like the Leech-Gathererhimselfin Stanza X, is not so much
a reconciliationof lifeand death as an anomalous negation of both
conditions-"not all alive nor dead"-, and the simile's effect,a
kind of centripetalisolation, is matched by the way the Old Man
is "bent double, feet and head / Coming together in life's pil-
grimage."
These observations on the peculiarityof the Leech-Gatherer's
location and status already indicate the difficultyof establishing
his precise relationto the contextof the protagonist'sself-conscious
meditation.Somethinglike a thematicconnectionseems to emerge,
however, when the Old Man eventuallybegins to move, in the
stanza followingthe description(Stanza XII):
At length,himselfunsettling,
he thepond
Stirredwithhisstaff,and fixedlydid look
Upon themuddywater,whichhe conned,
As ifhe had been readingin a book....

A figure in this attitude is supposed to be looking at his or her


own image, like Milton's Eve, who rememberslyingdown beside
a lake, the moment afterher creation,

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1014 STEVEN KNAPP

to lookintotheclear
SmoothLake, thatto me seem'danotherSky.
As I bentdownto look,just opposite,
A Shape withinthewat'rygleamappear'd
Bendingto lookon me,I startedback....
Wordsworth'svariationson this Ovidian motifare of course end-
less, but two instances seem to me especially close to the Leech-
Gatherer'sfixed gazing into the pond. When Peter Bell suddenly
glimpsesa drowned man's corpse beneath the watersof the River
Swale, the narrative explodes into a grotesquelycomic series of
hypotheticalexplanations of his terror.The narratormentions-
but only in passing-the possibilitythat Peter has merelyseen his
own reflection:
Is itthemoon'sdistortedface?
The ghost-like imageof a cloud?
Is ita gallowsthereportrayed?
Is Peterof himselfafraid?
Is ita coffin,-ora shroud?
The listgoes on througha seriesof increasinglyGothicpossibilities,
including,in a notorious stanza that Wordsworthremoved after
appalled reactionsto the firstpublished versionin 1819, the image
of "a partyin a parlour,"
Cramm'djust as theyon earthwerecramm'd-
Some sippingpunch,somesippingtea,
But,as youbytheirfacessee,
All silentand all damn'd!
(PWW,II, 354 app. crit.)
The episode is clearly a violent parody of self-reflexivegazing:
one's own image is merelyone in a series of possible occasions for
a pointlesstheatricalterror,an occasion possessingno more or less
personal interest than the actual source of Peter's vision, the
corpse, which Peter will soon extractfromthe riverbywindinghis
staffin its hair. The relevance of this episode of skewed and tri-
vialized narcissismto the figure of the Leech-Gatherer becomes
clear when Peter's gaze, like the Leech-Gatherer's,is compared to
an act of reading:
Neverdid pulseso quicklythrob,
And neverheartso loudlypanted;
He looks,he cannotchoosebutlook;

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M L N 1015

Like someone readingin a book-


A bookthatis enchanted.
Peter's Gothic inabilityto read him-
In Resolutionand Independence,
self-or any particularmeaning-in the riverinto which he can't
help gazing appears in a strangely attenuated and undramatic
form.The lines, once again:
he thepond
At length,himselfunsettling,
Stirredwithhisstaff,and fixedlydid look
Upon themuddywater,whichhe conned,
As ifhe had been readingin a book..
The Old Man "unsettles"himselfin two ways: by movinghis body
and by disturbinghis image, which is presumablyreflectedby the
motionlesssurface of the pond before he stirs it. And it is only
afterhe stirs up its muddy bottom that he begins to "read" the
pond-searching, of course, not for any image of the self but for
tiny,wriggling leeches-increasingly hard to find, as we know
fromDorothy'sdetailed account of her and William'smeetingwith
the actual Leech-Gatherer. If this is narcissism,it is narcissismin
an oddly minimal form,reduced to a kind of technicalscanning
for miniatureblips in a virtuallyopaque medium.
This miniaturizationof what ought to serve as images of the self
is characteristicof the other poem I had in mind as closelyrelated
to the Leech-Gatherer,The Thorn,writtenimmediatelybefore the
firstversionof PeterBell in the springof 1798. Toward the end of
this poem the narrator either reports or imagines the result of
gazing into the pond that lies a few yards distantfromthe thorn
itself:
Some say, if to the pond you go,
And fix on it a steady view,
The shadow of a babe you trace,
A baby and a baby's face,
And that it looks at you;
Whene'er you look on it, 'tis plain
The baby looks at you again.

This time the joke seems to be the opposite of the grislyone in


PeterBell: what the narratoror his source has seen in the pond is
obviously his own reflection and not an actual corpse. Gothic
horrorrevertsto unconscious narcissism.But whatare we to make,
in that case, of the curious oscillation between the baby and the

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1016 STEVEN KNAPP

baby's face? Has the viewer seen what he thought was a baby's
face-but was in fact his own face-and only imagined a baby's
body to go withit? Or is the entireimage, body and face together,
required to match the size of an adult countenance?
This lack of a satisfactoryfitbetween the self and what is sup-
posed to reflectit extends to the strangelittleclusterof images-
the thorn,the pond, the mossyheap, and the mad woman Martha
Ray herself-that seem huddled togetherin an otherwisevastand
emptylandscape. Introduced one by one over the course of the
firstsix stanzas, these objects are arranged, or more exactlydepos-
ited,in a space beginning no more than five yards, the narrator
tells us, from the mountain path from which one "espies" them.
The closestobject,the tree,is "Not higherthan a two years'child";
next comes the "beauteous heap, a hill of moss," which is "like an
infant'sgrave in size" and is "Justhalf a foot in height." In lines
thatwere present in the original version but removed after 1815,
the narrator tells us that the farthestobject, the "little muddy
pond," the siteof the narcissisticgazing already discussed,is "three
feetlong, and two feetwide"-and he assures us thathe has "mea-
sured it from side to side." Martha herselfsits between the heap
and the pond, whichis located only "threeyardsbeyond" the tree.
Adding three feetfor the lengthof the pond, and another footor
so for the diameter of the tree itself,gives a maximum extension
of roughlythirteenfeet for the entire scene. At one point in the
poem, the extreme disproportion between the cluster of images
and the surroundinglandscape is emphasized by a bizarre optical
illusion that parallels the spatial ambiguitiesinvolvingthe Leech-
Gatherer.The narratorrecalls being caught in a fiercestormand
seeking shelter beneath what he thought was a 'jutting crag";
he ran
Head-foremost, throughthedrivingrain,
The shelterof thecragto gain;
And,as I am a man,
Insteadof thejuttingcrag,I found
A Womanseatedon theground.

This neck-breakingdouble take is more dramatic, perhaps, than


anythingin Resolutionand Independence,but the thematiclinkseems
clear. The narrator'sdesperate search for shelterparodies in ad-
vance the anxious poet's longing for what Coleridge would call a
"companionable form"to assuage his fears of destitution.But the

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M L N 1017

point of both episodes seems to be the almost ludicrous inappro-


priatenessof an image that seems at first,by its veryisolation,to
offeritselfas a response to the subject's wish. In both poems this
patternof deflected narcissismis associated withspatial anomalies,
including a peculiar miniaturizationof whateverit is that is sup-
posed to reflectthe self.
Corresponding to the slipperinessor inadequacy of the central
image in Resolutionand Independenceis the speaker's well-known
but stillmysteriousinabilityto concentrate
on what he himselfwants
to interpretas a providentialanswer to his needs. This is the point,
of course, of Lewis Carroll's brilliantparody The WhiteKnight's
Song,in whichthe speaker keeps asking an old man how he makes
his livingand then instantlylapses into reverieabout his own self-
interestedschemes, thinking,for example,
of a way
To feedoneselfon batter,
And so go on fromday to day
Gettinga littlefatter.
Among the felicitiesin his version, Carroll brings out the social
disparityimplicitin the encounter: the gentlemanpoet finallypays
attentionwhen the old man obsequiously offersto "drink/ Your
Honor's noble health."
I heardhimthen,forI hadjust
Completedmydesign
To keep theMenaibridgefromrust
By boilingitin wine.
I thankedhimmuchfortellingme
The wayhe gothiswealth,
But chieflyforhiswishthathe
Mightdrinkmynoblehealth.
Carroll's point is well taken: the Leech-Gatherer's"flash of mild
surprise"when the protagonistaddresses him, like his mysterious
smile several stanzas later, is at least partlyaccountable as a re-
sponse to the rather forced chumminessof a social superior. But
the social awkwardnesscorresponds-and indeed I thinkrefers-
to a verydifferentkind of awkwardnessthat,when examined, will
suggestwhat the Leech-Gatherer reallystands for.
The speaker's attentionactually lapses twice. On the firstocca-
sion, the Leech-Gatherer has been recounting,in "Choice word
and measured phrase, above the reach / Of ordinary men", the

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1018 STEVEN KNAPP

simple factsof his lifeand profession,but his words now meltinto


a featurelessand barely audible continuity:
XVI
The old Man stillstood talkingby my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word fromword could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met within a dream;
Or like a man fromsome far region sent,
To give me human strength,by apt admonishment.

But instead of consolation the effectof thisnotion is only to bring


back the speaker's "formerthoughts"of ruin, which lead him to
repeat his original question, " 'How is it that you live, and what is
it you do?' ". Aftera stanza in which the Leech-Gathererpatiently
rehearses his earlier account, the speaker slides once again into
reverie:

XIX
While he was talkingthus, the lonely place,
The old Man's shape, and speech-all troubled me:
In my mind's eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.
While I these thoughtswithinmyselfpursued,
He, having made a pause, the same discourse renewed.

This time the Old Man's pausing and renewing of the same dis-
course is spontaneous: no question from the speaker has inter-
vened to break off his account and startit over. The patternof
pausing and renewing has drifted away from its dramatic moti-
vation,in the same way that the hauntingimage of the wandering
Leech-Gatherer has slipped free of the stationaryfigure by the
poet's side. In Wordsworth's
PoetryGeoffreyHartman devotes an
intriguingparagraph to this production of what he calls an after-
image:
An after-imageof thiskind plays an importantrole in manyof Words-
worth's poems. It expresses the possibilityof the renewal (or at least
recurrence)of a certain experience by including that possibilityin the
very structureof the experience. As a mental reflex, the after-image
elongates the encounter, and as an image of something,it may also
suggestan indefinitelyextended action. Not any action, of course: it is
the image, itselfrepeated, of a repeated and persistentaction which

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M L N 1019

movesthe Leech-gatherer
closerto the figureof the WanderingJew
and bringsaboutWordsworth'srecognitionof hisfirmness.
(p. 269)

"The image, itselfrepeated, of a repeated and persistentaction"-


thissplendid formulationhas builtinto it the keyto whatit is about
the Leech-Gathererthat preciselyevades the psychological-and,
I would add, the Coleridgean-appropriation Hartman describes.
For what is it in factthat paces continually,laborious and opaque,
across the field of the poet's and the reader's consciousness?What
in this poem is marked by "Choice word and measured phrase,
above the reach / Of ordinary men; a statelyspeech"? What is it
thatmoveth all togetherif it move at all; that repeatedlymakes a
pause and then the same discourse renews?What is it,finally,that
in its antiquity,its persistence,and its self-enclosedindifferenceto
any particularthematiccontent,is bound to evade the narcissistic
strategiesof an anxious Coleridgean poet who so desperatelywants
it to answer to his personal need?
Nothing else, it seems to me, but the condensed Spenserian
stanza-measured, antique, opaque, elusive -whose persistent
and finallypointlessrepetitionconstitutesthisverypoem. In short,
I am suggesting,the Leech-Gathereris nothingother than a ma-
terializeddeposit-a kind of personifiedsedimentor precipitate-
of the stanzas that serve as the deliberatelyawkward and alien
medium of the speaker's meditation. If the speaker's encounter
withthe Leech-Gatherer triggersa version of the self-referential
turnthat the sublime seems to depend on, the agency referredto
is not a facultyin the speaker's own mind but whatever force it
is-Wordsworth would say Imagination-that keeps the stanzas
pacing in their halting but inexorable way. The speaker himself,
afterall, is onlyanothereffectof the same procedure of temporary
condensation; he only entersthe poem, as numerous readers have
noticed, with the shiftfrom description to narration-and from
presentto past tense-at the beginning of the thirdstanza. Both
figuresare introduced to allegorize the disparitybetween the po-
etic medium and the strategyof self-reflectionthat motivatesthe
sublime experience proper.
Recognizingthatthe poem is an allegoryof the slippage between
experience and medium suggests, I think,an answer to the in-
triguing question raised about Resolutionand Independenceby
Thomas Weiskel in a crucial transitionalpassage of The Romantic
Sublime.Weiskel's own approach to Romantic poetry,as he rec-

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1020 STEVEN KNAPP

ognizes,depends on the suspension of all skepticismregardingthe


irreducibilityof the speaker's psychology,no matterhow theatri-
cally presented; hence he will consider only "the various careers
of egos withinpoems," and not the relationbetween those careers
and the media in which theyare represented. Discussing what he
calls the protagonist's"sublime aphasia" in Stanza XVI, Weiskel
notes that this moment of psychologicalblockage "occurs within
Spenserian cadences that roll onward as by an unrelentingagency
or a saving chain of form-the province of poet and reader, not
of the 'I.' " And he asks, "Does the formrepresentin some sense
a recoveryof the power of speech and of listening?The question
seems to me too difficultfora clear answer...." (p. 33).
The question is indeed unanswerable in these terms, since it
already assumes that the formal succession of stanzas must be in
some way assimilatedto the same psychologicalstructureof crisis
and recoverythatthe career of the protagonistalready enacts. But
the power of the stanzas does not, I think,lie in theircapacityto
resolvethe protagonist'spsychologicalcrisisby going over his head
to the poet and reader. The figure of the Leech-Gatherer func-
tions,in my view, as an allegorical sign of the stanzas' detachment
fromwhateverempiricalstrategytheymightseem to embody,and
thus as an indirector negative demonstrationof the Imagination's
transcendenceof whateveragents or objects mightseem, tempo-
rarily,to constrainit.
At this point I am struck,as you may also be struck,by the
proximityof my account to conclusions reached by Michael Fried
in his fascinatinginvestigationof French paintingduring roughly,
the same period. My discussionof the way Wordsworthseems both
to invoke and to resist the narcissisticstrategiesof sublime aes-
thetics seems analogous to Fried's account of the way certain
French paintings seem to reject overt "theatricality"by feigning,
as it were, a sheer indifferenceto their spectators.A poem like
Resolutionand Independencemightbe said to conjoin the opposing
tendencies,described by Fried, of "absorption"and "theatricality."
The stand-infor Fried's theatricalspectatorwould be the poem's
anxious speaker; the Leech-Gatherer, bent double and fixedly
gazing ipto the pond, would replace the various self-absorbedfig-
ures whose function, according to Fried, is to suggest that a
painting exists without regard to the audience for which it was
produced. Given the numerous crucial differencesin medium and

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M L N 1021

theme, such analogies are difficultto assess. For now I will only
indicate,verybriefly,two major ways in which the analogy can be
said to break down. First,it is not primarilyhis self-absorptionthat
makes the Leech-Gatherer a personificationof the poetry'sindif-
ferenceto its speaker's concerns. What gives the figurehis power
is his assimilationto the recurrentebb and flow of Wordsworth's
distortedSpenserians-an effectthatbelies his staticplacementat
the edge of the bare pool. Second, it is not self-absorptionbut a
doublefailureof self-presence-on the part of the speaker, who is
unable to focus,and on the part of the Old Man, who cannot, for
all his debilitatedinnocence, hold still-it is this double failureof
stabilitythat seems to count, for Wordsworth,as a formal token
of what he calls "Imagination." In thissense Wordsworthremains
whollycommittedto the aestheticsof the sublime-that is, to the
allegorizingof failure as the revelationof a higher power. Words-
worth'sversion of the sublime is no more or less "thematic"than
the versions it resists. But the power indicated by Wordsworth's
failureis not exactlyGod, or the self,or even the poem. It is the
power itselfof poetic representation,conceived by Wordsworthas
the repeated dislocationof attentionfromparticularimages of the
self.

University
ofCalifornia,Berkeley

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and Theatricality:
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