Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books


André Topia
Carle Bonafous-Murat
Marie-Christine Lemardeley

Partie I - L’inhumain et le sublime

The Benign Inhuman in Wordsworth’s Prelude

Cornelius Crowley

Texte intégral

  • 1 My thanks to Susan Pickford for her translation of this passage.

The question «where do we stand today» first of all begs the retort «Are we indeed standing at all?». We are obviously moving, and with a form of movement which can be defined neither as walking or striding, nor again as strolling. For some time now, this movement has in fact been taking place accelerando: with increasing acceleration.1 Ernst Jünger, «Der Weltstaat» (1960, 483).

1The passage quoted exemplifies a style of questioning characteristic of a modem philosophy and a modem literature. The difficulty of making a clear distinction between the two activities — Wordsworth writes a philosophical poetry, Hegel a philosophy animated by a forward-moving narrative thrust — is a defining trait of a modem questioning. Categories dissolve, forms and distinctions — genres of the fine arts, ranks and stations of the now ancien regime — wither away, so that the question of literature and the question of philosophy become the (impossible) determination of what it means to be human: the Kantian question — what can I do?, what can I know?, of what can I judge? —, but in the absence of any secure architectonics or categorisation. This is the drama of George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke and of James's Isabel Archer, of those «frail vessels» (James 10) of human consciousness, released into a world where the slippage of inherited distinctions leaves both the analyst and the agent devoid of any common measure of sense through which to secure the findings of one’s singular inquiry. The moral imperative — what Isabel Archer or Dorothea Brooke should do — is susceptible of no single answer, so that the suspended fate of the protagonist is comparable to the plight of the poetic or philosophic enterprise to which modernity can give no definition, beyond declaring that fiction and philosophy go on and on, to no clearly assigned purpose or end.

2In the rhetoric of Jünger’s questioning, we note the following characteristic traits: (1) a strident recourse to the question where, all the more strident insofar as the question goes unanswered. We note the bareness of the question, shorn of any circumstantial restriction; the hint, also, that the question is unanswerable, now that the peculiarity of our circumstances — of the way we live now — has disestablished the old regime of circumstantial orientation, so that instead of the reference of motion to an underlying fixity, Jünger postulates a second-degree acceleration, the derivative of an underlying mobility, which leaves us neither here nor there; (2) an exploration of our mode of being by way of the privileged trope of man standing, man as the being exposed to something other, whether the world, the universe, or Nature. The names differ, what matters is their kinship as versions of the non-human; (3) we note also the disqualification of this same trope of station, its rejection on the grounds that neither time nor place do now adhere: no who, because there is no where, no place or site for a stable station, the ground having gone from under our feet, no feet, as the poor forked animal is left without a philosophical leg to stand on, with nothing but the broken crutches of metaphor. In place of an answer informing us where we are and who we are — and who today would have the candour either to ask or to answer the question what is man? —, the tribunal of modem philosophy lamely lists off the conditions rendering impossible any stable answer.

3Humans can only secure the declaration of their humanity by way of their relation to what they are not. Any definition of the human will be conditional, relative, and antithetical. The middle station — neither angel nor beast — is probably the most congenial topos, a site of prudent mediocrity, neither too high nor too low. Savoir garder sa place. Do not trespass or presume too much, do not encroach upon the divine. The play of binary oppositions offers a more dramatic mode of definition, establishing a magnetic field where a sublime impulse thrusts one term toward its polar opposite: the impossible human aspiration to a place and prerogative which is not man's natural birthright (Bloom 117-121). The result of this regime of antithetical opposition is the tragic exposure of what man is, by way of the revelation of what man would be. a negation of the ordinary conditions of the human, of its fate of corporeal mortality. It is through this binary opposition that there is man and God, one with the other, one against the other; that there is the human and the inhuman, one with the other, one against the other; that there is life unto death, and that there is eternity. It is the disappearance of one of these paired items which casts the sole survivor into a categorical no-man's land, a wilderness or atopia where, after the «death of God», it is doubtful whether any secure value can be credited to the human, even as it lays claim to the estate of its sovereign other. For there is no reason now why man enfranchised, man self-reliant and finally autonomous, should not appropriate whatever was hitherto the prerogative of God. And no reason that he should not fail in this. In this lies the drama of modernity, understood as an attempt to outlive the addictive need to erect figures of the more than human. In this lies the drama of subjectivity, of the wilful resolve to bow down to no Maker, to nothing that is not of one's own making. Wordsworth's poetry, like Melville's Billy Budd, is ultimately counterrevolutionary, insofar as it focuses on the perverse results of this plenary appropriation of powers, no longer displaced and invested in a divinity. As if one cannot simply occupy the place left vacant by one's other. As if the human, no longer now the other and Doppelgänger of God, must secure a relation or reference providing a counterweight to its declaration of autonomy and sovereignty: as if history becomes the nightmare of an unlimited human autonomy for which we must dream up a remedy.

4The structure of the modem question — where do we stand today, if where we stand is no longer the ground we once took to be the ground of the human? — admits of a number of answers, usually by way of other questions: where are we going to, or coming from? how did we get lost? where did we (it) all go wrong? These questions rehearse a series of logically possible shifts, they point to certain responses or remedies. Rimbaud's la vraie vie est ailleurs is one such response, an intimation that what we have here is not the real, being the negation of what is really human. Adorno's question, «does life actually live, does the life we live actually exist?», the underlying burden of his Minima Moralia, again bears the implication that, between the facticity of what actually is and the truth of the human, an incommensurable rift has opened up, parting one from the other, whether circumstantially and contingently, or necessarily and fatally.

5I take the poetry of Wordsworth to be an early and exemplary response to our modem atopia, our nulle part or waste land, where the topoi of a classical philosophy and a classical rhetoric are left lying around like so many garments that no longer fit, but which must nevertheless be taken up, since we have to wear something. The task of poetry, for Wordsworth, is to restore us to a specific somewhere. I agree with those critics (Hartman 69-75, Cavell 25-26) who argue that Wordsworth tries to consolidate a condition of human limitation and security by resisting the attractive danger of the apocalyptic sublime, preserving instead the sustaining relation between the human voice and the influence of the more-than-human, thus ensuring that human utterance will not become the reified, inanimate production of what Wordsworth in The Prelude calls «dwarf man», «engendered by these too industrious times» (294-296). (The question of the human and the inhuman in Wordsworth's poetry, I take to be symptomatic of the congenital incapacity of modem poetry to think through the changed structure of social relations which goes with the revolution in industrial production in strictly social and political terms. I take it to be symptomatic of the congenital and defining incapacity to think poetically any specified social analysis, insofar as what is strictly social and political is established through the «falling off» from the poetic, even as the latter is sanctuarised as the antithesis of the dismally and reductively political. The wise man or poet ne fait pas de politique. As if the genesis of a modem poetic thinking implied its condemnation to the realm of a resolutely useless sublimity; as if the intimation of Adorno’s question, and the impossibility of answering it with any assurance, were the daimon haunting a modem poetry.)

6The task of poetry, since the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, is thus one of restoration, its art an art of healing, though not, initially, the reductive therapy by disillusionment which is the habitual method of narrative fiction. (But can there be a therapy of literature that does not operate by way of a diminishment of expectation, in the process of which the possibilities and reach of the human and of literature are both cut down to size, in every sense other than the merely quantitative?) Perhaps it is only fitting that the curriculum vitae of Wordsworth should taper off so badly (Johnston 840), in an extremity far worse than the silence of Hölderlin or the desolation of Artaud: Wordsworth as the holder of local government office, a keeper of fiscal stamps.

7The restoring task of poetry is carried out in the wake of what is both an unprecedented bereavement and an irreversible coming of age, the initial repercussion of which had been an unprecedented joy, captured by Wordsworth in his evocation of the early days of the French revolution (The Prelude, Books IX-X). To carry out its healing mission, poetry must be an enactment of restored, renewed relations. What is involved here is the realignment of relations within the immanence of the given world, in compensation for the forfeited relation of the creature to its Maker and Monarch. If the human is no longer a subordinate creaturely subject, it must assume the burden of being an attention and animadversion to the non-human. The attention to the non-human — conventionally called «Nature» — may indeed induce a State of rapture, a bliss beyond words as impressive as any ecstasy of religious belief. (Its price will be the distancing of the self from the pressuring modes of political and civic relation.) However this ecstasy is not the moment of poetry, whose restorational art comes later, as the writing-out of an aftermath and a falling-off: poetry issues as a restoration of, and in, language, after the departure of bliss beyond words. Wordsworth's poetry starts with the question «whither has gone the visionary gleam?» («Intimations of Immortality», 1,56), and is written as a laborious coming to terms with the impossibility of bliss in language, or in the human modality of temporality and displacement. And so the crux of Wordsworthian poetry is, I believe, the confrontation of the following disappointment: Why I am not a visionary poet? Why is the achievement of living such a disappointment? Why does the gleam get lost in the machinery of its verbal conveyance? Why the «falling-off»? This is the crucial trauma, the enabling and disabling predicament addressed in his poetry.

8To some, Wordsworth is thus an over-timorous modem, more circumspect than those intrepid figures mentioned above. His enterprise does however suggest a more benign reading of the import of the inhuman, with poetry becoming a restorative enactment of the connection between the human and the non-human, an exchange, two-way, in which the language of poetry discloses what is the fundamental modality of all language: language as the (human, not divine) possibility of our registered attention to the (sublime) inhuman of the universe. As a mode of human attentiveness to the world’s non-human otherness, poetry must ward off two possible catastrophes: (1) the nihilistic inhumanity of the human resulting from the exclusive engagement of self with self (solipsism) and from the concomitant deafness to an objectified nature, rendered mute and expressive of nothing; (2) the dissolution of the human, unable to resist the attraction of a fantasised otherness, the immersion of the self in the «destructive element» (Conrad 156).

9For Wordsworth, this opening-up to the non-human is the condition of a renewed humanity. It carries the warning that all human self-absorption is productive of inhumanity. The poetry of Wordsworth is thus a therapy, its aim the overcoming of a self-centred nihilism, the exhausted and repetitive circling of a humanity unable to be affected by anything that is not the fruit of its own tired devices. The Wordsworthian renewal of the human rests on poetry’s preservation of the impressive force of an otherness, independently of any belief in a God who pours down blessings from above. For it is the world which must become the source of a benign inhuman grace, a grace which is always a gift, never the programmed effect of our own efforts and devices. For nobody can declare self-confidently I'm going to be graced, or I'm going to fall in love, I’m about to be inspired.

10It is no accident that Wordsworth, writing a secularised poetry of immanent, world-given grace, should resort to tropes whose origin lies in the structure of religious belief, the eclipse of which is the enabling and disabling condition of modernity. Perhaps Matthew Arnold was right, and poetry can assume the heritage and burden of religion («The Study of Poetry», 171), but only if we attend patiently to the possibility of influx and impress, and choose to ignore the untenable claims of the words penetration or vision, their promise of access to a numinous secret. Among the religious tropes taken over in the poetry of Wordsworth, we can enumerate the following: water pouring or flowing, influx, influencer, wind blowing, tropes brought together in the following lines of the 1850 Prelude, where the wind of inspiration is like the biblical breath, ruah: «Ye winds and sounding cataracts!... Thou hast fed / My lofty speculations; and in thee, For this uneasy heart of ours, I find / A never-failing principle of joy / And purest passion» (II, 446-451).

11The psychic drama played out here is the drama of registered impression: the benign inhuman is a force which presses downwards and inwards. There is however an ambiguous overlap here, a hesitation between two hypotheses: (1) that an immutable truth of humanity rests upon the, always possible, exposure to the life-giving inhuman; (2) that the human is a precarious and conditional possibility, its emergence and maintenance being socially and historically contingent. In other words, the hypothesis that the channels through which the benign inhuman can influence the human are not, at all times or in all places, operative and available. The human is a capacity to be affected, the way a photographic plate must be exposed and affected, the effect registered a question of aperture and of sensibility. The frontier between human integrity and human alienation, in The Prelude, reads as the difference between the sustaining impression of the benign inhuman and the unbearable oppression of a massive de-animating facticity. Bartholomew's Fair in London stands as «a type not false of what the mighty City is itself»:

An undistinguishable world to men,
The slaves unrespited of low pursuits,
Living amid the same perpetual flow
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end —
Oppression, under which even highest minds
Must labour, whence the strongest are not free. (VII, 699-706)

12All of which, at the end of Book VII, is summed up in the following words: «the press/Of self-destroying, transitory things» (VII, 738-739).

13The city is thus a place where sensibility risks extinction beneath the weight of phenomena, through an excess of stimulation to which no imaginative response is possible. Ironic, Baudelairean strategies for the poetic treatment of the urban are alien to Wordsworth. The opposition between the rural and the urban, between their contrasting effects on the faculties of sensibility and inwardness, operates as a version of the Malthusian opposition in the strictly quantitative matter of population. For Malthus, a moral, inwardly-grounded regulation of births, imperative and possible in the country, is unnecessary and impossible in the city, where epidemic disease liquidates any excess of population; for Wordsworth, the registration of the benign impression of the natural, extrahuman power establishes the human in its receptive (rural) setting, whereas the oppressive force of the city’s (excessively visual) pre-empts any responsive sensibility, leaving instead a condition of dehumanised artifice: the city’s «self-destroying transitory thing» is man reified. So why then bother about the latter’s fate, if urban man is no longer truly man? The poet-human must flee the city, to take refuge in more congenial parts. And so it is that the influx of a benign inhuman is the necessary precondition of man's humanity, of an inspired humanity which would appear to be socially and historically contingent, in no sense an eternal or universally-given birthright. Wordsworth's poetry is an activation of the routes and channels through which the benign non-human graces remain available to the human, or to some exemplary types of the human: the poet, exemplarily human, conversant with the inhuman.

14The Prelude rehearses a narrative movement we shall subsequently find exemplified in Proust: we are given to read the story of the self venturing forth into a wilderness, followed by its ultimate restoration to health and wholeness, a restoration which is the prelude and prior condition of the writing of a great work in which the recovery of wholeness will be poetically re-enacted. The poem we read is the necessary prelude to this magnum opus, since no magnum opus can be written prior to the rectification of the prevailing condition of a diseased, inauspicious modernity. For Wordsworth, the preparation involves the experimentation of an idiom no longer subject to the restrictions of a poetic diction, academically established, the recovery of a poetic idiom of sacramental performance, an enactment and preserving of our relation to the benign inhuman.

15Such a claim does, I admit, appear to grant credit to a mystification. We know too much now to be taken in by the conventional critique of the conventionality of poetic diction; we know that the Romantics invent a fiction of primitiveness and originality, incarnated in a politically-reinvented people or Volk. There remains however the strange power of Wordsworth's language, apprehended every time we read the poetry, a power which has to do with the avoidance of any primitivist re-motivation of language. No fetishisation here of the concrete and specific reference: Wordsworth's strongest writing involves the reverberation of a poetic abstract. It is this abstraction of language — its deterritorialisation — which affords an access to the benign inhuman, a relation in which the non-human is allowed to stand off and to stand apart from the human, as an impressive force affecting it; in which, in exchange, the human is established as a capacity to respond to this benign inhuman, and is thus Consolidated and sustained. Such a deterritorialised language might imply that the influence of the benign inhuman is a virtue everywhere available, just as the malaise of modernity might be a malaise that is pandemic and global. In which case, we might conclude that the Wordsworthian poetic, by drawing language towards what is abstract and away from what is local or culturally specific, disturbs its own simple opposition between the urban and the rural. There is no Northumbrian Wordsworth country, no land that is, ex opere operato, salutary. Instead of this, available to all, the Wordsworthian abstraction of the common idiom of English, its suppression of specific limitation, so that the intentionality and striving of the — no longer forcefully «male» — poetic agent cedes priority and initiative to the non-human other, at any time, in any place.

16Let us therefore look at what is going on at the start of the Prelude. The poem is a performance of «blessing» (I, 1). Whereas the speaker subsequently resorts to the past tense for his retrospective narration — childhood, schooldays, university, city, France —, the poem opens with the present tense of sacramental enactment. Here the poet «makes/A present joy the matter of my song» (I, 47):

O there is blessing in this gentle breeze
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky: it beats against my cheek
And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives. (I, 1-4)

17The speaker is a recipient. The breeze is gentle, like the breeze through which the godhead discloses itself to Moses. That a sacramental mystery is performed here is attested to by the speaker’s sense of a release. The voice is «free, enfranchised and at large», having cast off

That burden of my own unnatural self
The heavy weight of many a weary day
Not mine, and such as were not made for me. (I, 23-25)

18The movement is one of return and recovery. The felt breeze is an omen of future grace and inspiration, for the poet is departing from the city’s dereliction, in search of a renewed confirmation of his capacity to sing. The modem dialectics of alienation is rehearsed in these first fines. To speak of the «burden» of an «unnatural self», explicitly declared to be «my own», is to imply that the integrity of ownness has been perverted, that one is not what one is or should be, that the self has in the city assumed habits «not made for me, not mine».

19So the prior condition of any renewal of poetic voice is the reappropriation of one’s genuine self and the casting-off of the «unnatural self». Such growing into oneself, the essential drama of the artist's Bildungsroman, is beyond any act of strenuous will. What is required is the self’s mise en disponibilité, in waiting for the influx of «gentle breeze». If the poetic voice is a human voice which has at last become itself, the guarantor of this self-appropriation is a power beyond any determination of our will. Whereas «Intimations of Immortality» declares that «our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting» (I, 58), thus resorting to a gnostic, dual temporality — a time of fullness prior to the (common, fallen) diminished time that is our shoddy, makeshift birthright —, the drama is here one of rebirth now and of future recovery. The recovery is under way, once the inblown force of the «gentle breeze» elicits a response, a poetic Stimmung, an internal resonance:

For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven
Was blowing on my body, felt within
A corresponding mild creative breeze,
A vital breeze which travelled gently on
O’er things which it had made, and is become
A tempest, a redundant energy,
Vexing its own creation. (I, 41-47)

20It is this inward force which puts an end to «a long-continued frost» (I,49), setting in motion the drama of influx and poetic response — a human answering to the benign inhuman — such as never occurs in Mallarmé's «Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui. » The inflowing breeze is the prior condition of the poetic human. The poet's vocation — the poet is called, just as Mary or a prophet are called — implies the obligation to respond. An absence of response will be evidence of selfish ingratitude. Restoration is the term which best describes the relation between the world which endows and the human who must give back, responding in words for what has been conferred. Wordsworth voices the fear that self-centred preoccupation — ambition, politics, business — has irreparably left one «Like a false steward who has much received / And renders nothing back» (270-271). Hence the recapitulation of what the poet has actually received, the recital of gifts being the most primitive act of acknowledgement and response, and also an affirmation of self, as when a child proudly lists off a profusion of birthday or Christmas gifts received. What follows are the first evocations of the Prelude's «spots of time» (XI, 208), in fines of poetic intensity for which the poem is habitually celebrated. It is important however to consider the fundamental structure and temporality of these childhood experiences.

I was alone
And seemed to be a trouble to the peace
That was among them. (I, 322-324)

21So there «was» a «peace» prior to a human «trouble» and interference. The human is thus the disturbance of an anterior, non-human sufficiency. This dual temporality — non-human sufficiency, then the troubling presence of the human — is more troubling than the dual temporality of the «Intimations of Immortality»: the latter evokes a prelapsarian plenitude of the human, the former an uncanny, pre-human plenitude of nature. It is here that Wordsworth's poem establishes the necessity of art. For if

The mind of man is framed even like the breath
And harmony of music; there is a dark
Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one society. (I, 351-355)

22it follows that the essentially human practice of art can be defined as a ritual of appeasement. If harmony has been breached by the troubling ingress of man, it falls to the latter to attempt a «reconciliation»:

And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm, and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,
That they might answer him: and they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long halloos and screams, and echoes loud,
Redoubled and redoubled, concourse wild
Of mirth and jocund din. (V, 395-404)

23The «mimic hootings» (398) of the boy are an example of such human disturbance, a presence that is both a discordant note in the concert of the owls and an attempted healing of the break, through the ruse of mimesis. Man is not an owl. A devenir hibou is however humanly conceivable. Such a devenir is at the heart of shamanism, and all enterprises of symbolic compensation for our disturbance of the order so sublimely intact before the human arrival on the scene. Wordsworth's primary, non-ironic Romanticism demands the suspension of our disbelief, that we accord a degree of credit to these acts of mimetic restoration. A more ironic strain, that of a later, modernist literature, carries the intimation that the more elaborate the acts performed in appeasement for one’s disruptive being there, the more intrusive and discordant the human note. Wordsworth’s evocation of the boy's owlish imitation suggests a capacity to concede initiative to the elemental forces, and thus register the full force of the benign inhuman; of «Nature», whose extrinsic passion, the poet writes, «Peopled my mind with beauteous forms or grand» (I, 545). It follows therefore that any human integrity, of which poetry is an expression, is not to be understood as a sufficiency of self, since it is dependent on the operation of an «extrinsic passion». Before being an answering voice, the human is a capacity to register its felt commotion, so that «The scenes which were a witness of that joy / Remained in their substantial lineaments / Depicted on the brain» (600-602).

24Written out of the present tense of renewed benediction, the entire Prelude reads as a retrospective account of the disease of «unself». When the speaker addresses the moment of actual birth and nurture, here again, the purpose is to evoke the human capacity to be affected: by the mother, before all else, in a relation which is the original and foundational proof that one’s faculty of intrinsic, indwelling passion derives from an «extrinsic passion». For if «the infant Babe» is «blest» (II, 232), it is through its being «Nursed in his Mother's arms» (II, 240), sustained through a bond in which it «Doth gather passion from his Mother's eye!» (II, 243).

25And so it is that the human is benevolently watched over, the recipient of an attention which establishes it as «An inmate of this active universe» (II, 266). The human enjoys the sustenance of a «filial bond» (II, 263), is impressed upon by «a register / Of permanent relations» (II, 311-312). The poetic voice, which is no more, no less, than the exemplary instance of this human condition, has «conversed / With things that really are» (II, 412-413), till its utterance is not simply a troubling disturbance, but a disclosure through language of this benign inhuman. Given such an infusion of grace from our non-human surroundings, the mystery is to understand how «good men on every side fall off». This is Wordsworth's version of the Verfall, of our interrupted «conversation» with the benign inhuman, a severance which leaves us with an exclusive engagement with self — selfishness —, or with things not as they «really are», but as they are humanly, ail too-humanly, fashioned.

26The successive books of The Prelude, starting out with Book III, «Residence at Cambridge», recount this drift away from the primary matrix of «extrinsic passion», the obliteration of the self beneath the effects of a proprietary selfishness. The initial hope of the poet venturing out into the world is that, confident in the power of what the poem calls the «intercourse» (V, 13) between self and world, his progress will continue as a process of benevolent «impress».

I was a chosen sun
For hither I had come with holy powers
And faculties, whether to work or feel:
To apprehend all passions and all moods
Which time and place and season do impress
Upon the visible universe, and work
Like changes there by force of my own mind. (III, 75)

27What follows is however an allegory of the Wordsworthian «inner falling-off» (IV, 270), to be ended only with the poet’s recovery of the concomitant properties of height and inwardness — the conditions of his poetic utterance — celebrated in the poem’s opening line. Having dealt with Childhood (Book I) and School-Time (Book II), the poet has, by Book III, «retraced [my] life / Up to an eminence» (III, 170). Now, he warns, «into a populous plain / We must descend» (III, 197). The effects of this descent are evident in the changed tenor of the «impresses».

Our eyes are crossed by butterflies, our ears
Hear chattering popinjays, the inner heart
Is trivial, and the impresses without
Are of a gaudy region. (III, 356-359)

28These middle books trace the gradual disorientation of a modem (poetic) sensibility, its exposure to deviations scarcely different from those afflicting Bunyan's pilgrim. For the ordeal of romantic subjectivity, of which The Prelude is the epic, is an avatar of the Protestant drama of the pilgrim soul, attentive to the influx and impress of a divine breeze blowing where it will, independent of the fixed forms and rituals of an academic classicism, or of a dogmatic, canonical Catholicism. This drama implies a redefinition of the notion of sin, no longer measured as the infringement of a rule, but a falling-off from one's original self, through one’s substitution of the clutter of «artificial life» (III, 590) for the existential exposure to the sublime, inward bearing force, whether God, being, world, nature, the names are not of the essence. The censure of the frivolous clutter of impressions, set against the celebration of an unsociable integrity, is evidence of a peculiar, post-Enlightenment redrawing of the relation between human and inhuman. It is the social relation of human to human which now risks being construed as a State of dereliction in which the real self is forfeited. The preservation of the real self is thus made conditional upon the preserved exposure of the self to the benignly impressive inhuman. The cultural implication is that one is deemed to have more chance of remaining human while tending sheep on a hillside than in a metropolitan coffee-house or an assemblée nationale, and the consequent disqualification of the lien social and of the mundanely political. All this, the later, anti-republican Wordsworth will accept. Conversation becomes sublimely exclusive: a commerce with the inhuman elements, not a civil art of conviviality or human friendship. If ever the poet be diverted from such commerce with the benign inhuman — whether in London or in Cambridge, through the uninspired reading of books or the exclusive commitment to the political, as in the French revolutionary establishment of the forms of social relation on a spurious self-sufficiency of reason —, the resuit will be an occlusion of the benign inhuman, and a self-wrought life-in-death or death-in-life. In other words, a manmade inhumanity and «falling off» (IV, 270). For whatever is merely manmade must perish. This perishing is the fate of books:

Thou also, man! hast wrought
For commerce of thy nature with itself,
Things worthy of unconquerable life;
And yet we feel — we cannot choose but feel
That these must perish. Tremblings of the heart
It gives, to think that the immortal being
No more shall need such garments. (V, 18-24)

29Here we have evidence that the Wordsworthian intercourse between the human self and the benign inhuman is both profoundly religious and suspiciously anti-artistic. But then the most resolutely modernist enterprises in art are consistently founded on a mistrust of the charms of art, these mere «popinjays» and «butterflies» (III, 455-456). The structure of this intercourse is only a slight inflection of the relation to godhead anticipated by St. Paul: «now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face» (I Cor. 13:12). The casting-off of images is prelude to the sublime fullness of mystic vision. In predicting the perishing of those bookish «garments», which for the time being do service in the purely human «commerce of thy nature with itself», in expressing surprise at the discrepancy between the grandeur of «Mind» and the frail forms it must borrow, surprise that «Her spirit must (it) lodge in shrines so frail», Wordsworth is implying that the vantage point or «eminence» from which the question of the human «falling-off» can be considered is a point beyond time and beyond the artifice of society, beyond all garments, fleshly or textual. The eminence of the spirit dwells in the timeless here and now, in a present imagined as the other of our «shrines so frail», of our ordinary bodies and artefacts. Wordsworthian poetry celebrates this eminence of spirit, the site and condition of a receptive exposition to the «gentle breeze» of the world spirit or divinity. Such a sustaining exposition is possible if both parties — the human self and its inhuman other — are both incommensurable and consonant, and only so long as the intercourse is not crowded out by man's routine relation to man, by the realm of social banality which Proustian poetics and Heideggerian phenomenology will both place within parentheses. To counter the inauthenticity of man's engagement with other men, the only option for Wordsworth and for many who will come after him will be to secure the health of the human by way of the preserved relation to the inhuman. Health, in a time of social un-health, requires a turning-away from the mundanities of social artifice. The locus of the human exposure to the benign inhuman can only be a place of solitude, the experience to be endured «high up among the clouds» (Yeats, «An Irish Airman Foresees his Death», 184-185). The apotheosis on Mount Snowdon at the end of The Prelude is, like the rainbow after the deluge, the sign of a restored, renewed relation.

30But a relation to what, and between what? Not a compact between men, subject to the law of God or to the law of universal reason. Rather a compact between a mind divested of its «shrine» or garment and the mind's other; a compact that is suffered, and not chosen, under the impressive force to which the mind later responds, the poetry subsequently written being the epic of the self’s subjective response in words. All definition or determination of the human and of the inhuman is a perilous exercise, if we can no longer speak as voices testifying to an undisputed God. Wordsworth postulates the inhuman other as that power which secures the human self. To do so, he must make of the poem the sacramental enactment of a State in which a voice may mean more than it may know, as the poem reverberates with the intimation of a condition habitually beyond the reach of language.

31I confess my inability to declare of what it is that Wordsworth's language is an intimation, to what it reaches out, what it attains or touches. I take it to be an exploration of the human receptivity to what is beyond the human. Language, a human invention, is here the modality of an intercourse with the non-human, as the human imagines itself the recipient of an impression emanating from a power beyond it, an inhuman, non-discursive power, the only evidence or outward sign of which is registered in human language, and in the «shrines so frail» of art, in this «poor earthly casket» (V, 160) of which Wordsworth, as a poet, is the artificer. From the standpoint of our contemporary suspicion, this benign inhuman may seem no more than a fiction through which humans exhibit a creative dissatisfaction with their constitutive finitude, imagining for themselves a set of other-worldly connections and relations, so they can think themselves less transitory and mutable than the poor self to which they have been born. Proust dramatised a passion of social snobbery. The ultimate, and most heroic, of snobberies is ontological: our imagined access to the inhuman permanence that is beyond us.

32The concomitant of this attempt to imagine the eternal, unchanging Mind is the depreciation of the artwork’s mediate, public condition, and the disqualification of our (merely) human form. Shakespeare or Milton are «labourers divine». Their works, fruit of their labours, Wordsworth — or any reader of books — can now hold as «a volume in [his] hand». Verse is to be made «dedicate to Nature's self» (V, 230), to a power which, a few lines earlier, Wordsworth had qualified as: «the breath of God» (V, 222). To be a Nature poet is, as a prelude, to suffer the human opening-up to the more than human, to what does not dwell in words, and then testify in words to the effects of such exposure. The poet casts off the illusions of self-affirmation, assuming a posture of openness to a more than human influx. Within a modem conjuncture where the subjective affirmation of self implies the relegation of inherited forms of collective, ritualised mediation, such a poetry of disponibilité is a rare activity through which the relation to a benign inhuman may be preserved so that, in return, the human may be preserved as a vessel or casket, as a sounding-board reverberant with the uncanny, other-worldly powers present in the universe. The human response will be improvised by way of whatever material is available: breath and vocal cords, the skins of animals stretched over a drum, hollowed-out reeds or bamboo-shoots. Arte povera, evident in the simplicity of Wordsworthian diction, its impoverished resourcefulness. The vocation of the human is to produce its «mimic hoot-ings» (V, 398), in resonant response to the non-human perfection where it is a jarring note, a troubling or muddling interference. Art is the all — too — human endeavour to placate the anger of the gods for our false note in the inhuman concert, Romantic poetry less a raid upon the inarticulate than an attempted recovery of the good vibrations before the human voice broke in.



Adorno, T. W., Minima Moralia, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1951.

Arnold, Matthew, Selected Criticism, ed. Christopher Ricks, New York, Signet, 1972.

Bloom, Harold, Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard UP, 1987.

Cavell, Stanley, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism, Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1988.

Conrad, Joseph, Lord Jim (1900), London, Everyman, 1964.

Hartman, Geoffrey H., The Unremarkable Wordsworth, Minneapolis, U of Minneapolis P, 1987.

—, The Fateful Question of Culture, New York, Columbia UP, 1997.

Heidegger, Martin, Nietzsche (1944), trad. Pierre Klossowski, Paris, Gallimard, 1971.

James, Henry, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), ed. Robert D. Bamberg, New York, Norton, 1995.

Johnston, Kenneth R., The Hidden Wordsworth, New York, Norton, 1998.

Jünger, Ernst, «Der Weltstaat», Sämtliche Werke, Band 7, Stuttgart, Klett & Cotta, 1980.

La Cassagnère, C. and A. Haberer, Wordsworth ou l’autre voix, Lyon, PUL, 1999.

Nestle and Marshall, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, London, Bagster, 1958.

Shakespeare, William, King Lear, The Oxford Shakespeare, ed. Wells and Taylor, Oxford, Clarendon, 1988.

Wordsworth, William, The Prelude: A Parallel Text, ed. J.-C. Maxwell, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.

—, Poetical Works, ed. Ernest De Selincourt, London, OUP, 1969.

Yeats, W. B., The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright, London, Everyman, 1990.


1 My thanks to Susan Pickford for her translation of this passage.


Université de Paris X-Nanterre

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2004

Conditions d’utilisation :