“A great Poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight.”  (Shelley 693)

Another issue, if one is going to speak, with Kroeber, about the ‘ecological’ discoveries of romanticism: thinkers as different as Hartman and McGann point to the ‘negative’ (rather than rhapsodic) aspects of romantic ‘experience’.  Hartman points to the fear and loss that haunt Wordsworth, almost as if these are the real subtext and driving force in his work.  McGann enshrines Byron as the least ‘illusioned’ of the romantics, because of his ‘cynicism’, ‘nihilism’, and ‘anarchism’.  Indeed, McGann identifies three stages of romanticism: primary (confident, revolutionary, ideological), secondary (self-questioning, ironic), and ‘post’ (dark, cynical).  Apparently the cynical, despairing position is the least illusioned.

So, there is a problem: nature (as Zizek often puts it) is not an organic wholeness moving in equilibrium, but a series of catastrophes, ruptures, breaks.  That is, nature is an impersonal and unpredictable assemblage, a sheer alterity.  Forget about sentimental outpourings of spontaneous feeling, and forget as Nature as a mother and teacher that never betrays “the heart that loves her.”

Is there, after all, this undercurrent in Wordsworth of anxiety or fear?  Most critics certainly think so, and Hartman, after all, is widely acknowledged as one of Wordsworth’s most sensitive and accurate readers.  The place to investigate seems to be Wordsworh’s ‘sublime’.  Frances Ferguson’s Solitude and the Sublime traces a (professedly pro-Kantian) distinction between Burkean and Kantian accounts of that territory, in the face of which we either encounter the thrill of a terror that can do us no actual physical harm (a pleasant, invigorating pain) or we encounter the rare, exceptional failure of imagination to encompass a perceptual experience (a perception of immensity or infinity), and are thus radically thrown back upon the invisible operations of a priori reason, which makes sense of the experience where sense-bound imagination cannot.  In Burke’s account, the sublime is a primarily affective experience in excess of the cultural organization of the body.  In Kant’s account, the sublime is not an encounter with sensuous phenomenon so much as a more or less sudden, ‘direct’, and shocking encounter with the background of consciousness (reason) itself.

[Part of Ferguson’s argument, which I’ve yet to sort out, is that ‘solitude’ is not as accessible to us as we think – the social always comes crowding around, and into, the romantic ideal of the so-called solitary individual.  Perhaps she finds that Kant’s account brings in the ‘social’ where Burke’s tries to escape it].

[I think, here, we are getting close to Deleuze’s (as taken up by Shaviro) account of the “wrenching duality” of the aesthetic in Kant – in that, the aesthetic is a judgment of reason, yet at the same time a precondition or ‘supersensible’ sensory ground of reason].

To cut to the point – Wordsworth’s representations of nature (as aesthetic experience) include both the the beautiful and the sublime.  With the beautiful, we have no problem apparently.  It gives us pleasure.  It soothes and heals us.  It reassures us, and corrects our judgment.  But the sublime (whether Burkean or Kantian) faces us with an alterity.  Despite heroic intellectual feats, Kant cannot completely tame or suppress this alterity by calling it reason or calling it the ‘supersensible’. The terror cannot be explained away as simply the majestic terror of ‘reason’ itself – as a new form of highest, numinous authority.  The shock and the rupture, the breaking open of the center of aesthetic experience (the ‘loss of agency’ that Ferguson discusses in detail), cannot be so easily ‘sublimated’.

The problem is how to encounter this alterity without humanizing it, yet also without enthroning alienation and skepticism (critique), (or what Braidotti wittily calls ‘thanatos-centered’ politics). Braidotti discusses the urgency of a break with anthropocentrism that is nevertheless ‘zoe’-oriented (a politics of sheer, active ‘life’ or matter).  What we need to do as romanticists, and what Kroeber began to do, though Levinson and Morton almost wilfully misunderstood him even in taking up the same sort of work, is to read the “anti-self-consciousness” (Hartman) and anti-alienation in Wordsworthian alterity.

“Zoe” (a term introduced in Foucauldian ‘biopolitics’ and taken up by Giorgio Agamben, then reappropriated by Braidotti) seems to offer one the most promising avenues for opening such a conversation.  Zoe can stand for affectivity, or the active interrelations of matter in excess of both body and mind, and can help us to rediscover the ‘vision’ or ‘imagination’ (in the distinctly romantic sense of non-discursive, sensitive attention) rather than the ‘ideological’ blindness in Wordsworth.   Perhaps this term is also appropriate in that the new historicist ‘adversarial’ readings of Wordsworth appear to originate in (80s) feminist critique of the canon and its complacent masculinism.  Braidotti, arguably one of today’s leading feminists, has moved, with Sedgwick and Haraway, beyond a hermeneutics of suspicion (Sedgwick) toward vital reappraisal of aesthetic experience.

What remains to be done in this analysis is to ask how zoe figures in the sublime.  Does it undo the very notion of sublimity.  And the place to look is Wordsworth, especially in The Prelude.  Oddly, Wordsworth seems to oscillate between Burke and Kant, as one can see:

Imagination – here the Power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech,

That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss

Like and unfathered vapour that enwraps,

At once, some lonely traveller.  I was lost;

Halted without an effort to break through;

But to my conscious soul I now can say –

‘I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

(Prelude VI, 592-602)

Imagination, here, is figured as a “Power” that escapes accurate description, or one that exceeds language.  That is, one way of defining imagination is that, though it clothes itself in language, it is never identical with language.  It is “awful” and sublime (quite in contrast to what Kant argues – i.e., that when imagination fails the sublime power ‘rises’ as reason), and arises not from the abyss of a cliff or cataract, but from the awful terrain of the mind.  Then it is compared to a “an unfathered vapour” (apparently it is a kind of immaculate conception or parthenogenesis) – a vapour that “enwraps” and disorients “some lonely traveller.”  To clarify, Wordsworth writes: “I was lost.”  One can read this to say: the sense of “I” was lost.  Just as in Kant, the individual mind is “halted,” but here the metaphor is of being surrounded by a disorienting mist, not faced with a ‘boundless’ immensity.  Kant makes this emphasis on boundedness and the boundless explicit.  Yet Kant protects us from the boundless by arguing that what we really encounter is not the boundless but the power of our own reason.  Here, though, in Wordsworth, the poet is enshrouded in a sort of mantle of power, a vapour that requires no father but rises up immaculate, as pure immanence.

The next lines are stunningly ambiguous:  “But to my conscious soul I now can say/’I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength/Of usurpation…”  A ‘usurpation’ has taken place, but of what by what?  Who is the poet addressing: his conscious soul or the power of imagination, when he says, ‘I recognize thy glory’?  Clearly he means the imagination, yet why then does he offer the phrase “conscious soul”?   A condensation seems to take place: the aspect of the soul that can be designated as conscious, and as glorious, is the imagination.  Consciousness (under the name of father, reason) has been usurped.  In the same gesture, religious dogma (God the father) has been usurped.  If we take Wordsworth literallly, he was literally ‘rapt’ away, wrapped up, overwhelmed by a passion, a bewildering, awful (perhaps frightening) “strength of usurpation”: “when the light of sense/Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed/The invisible world…” Hartman rightly reads such statements as references to actual death, and an anxiety about mortality.  The “light of sense,” too, is a difficult phrase.  Does he refer to ‘sense experience’, or to what Kant calls imagination, as a function of sense-experience that we ultimately cannot trust because, as Kant sees it, such experience is filtered through a faculty of imagination that apprehends the approximate shape of sense objects: that is, forming what Ferguson calls “mental objects” or mental images?  Or, does Wordsworth mean the light of commons sense?  Or, does he mean perception itself?   This “light” goes out, but “with a flash that has revealed/The invisible world.”  Suddenly, the metaphor has shifted radically from an enshrouding mist to a flash of lightning, as if the ‘invisible’ is all around us, but we lack the vision to see it.  Blind, bounded, unconscious, we cannot see what lies outside identity, and what is only visible in the death of identity.  Arguably, “I” and “soul” are not at all synonymous – the latter is invisible and non-codifiable: it can only flash in the disurption of discursive identity.  So, it is a sweetly sad contradiction to say “‘I recognize thy glory:'” – because it involves a disownment – in a sense, “I” can never recognize the soul’s greatness or glory, because that glory only flashes in the annihilation of the “I” – but this can be acknowledged syntactically through the pronoun “thy” – the glory is not mine but thine (it is of an otherness, an alterity).   Imagination is the power of this alterity.

Consciousness, enshrouded in the vaporous power of the imagination, is a self-annihilatory lightning flash that reveals the “invisible world.”  More befuddling yet, all of this is a description of an “abode.”  “Greatness” (or the sublime) makes its “abode” in this “strength/Of usurpation” which is not a thing but a “when,” a “when” that is an incursion into, a usurpation of, ordinary time:

But to my conscious soul I now can say –

‘I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

Here, perhaps, we have the image of a flash within a cloud, both figures for a disembodied mind. Wordsworth’s language seems to emerge from a specific religious terminology, one I have not yet traced, but with interesting connections to kabbalah and possibly gnosticism.  In kabbalah, or Jewish mystic thought, the polysemic word “shekinah” refers to the presence of God, the abode or dwelling of God, and to the female presence or “bride” of God.  In the Christian tradition, this presence of God is often associated with “glory.”  Hence, it’s rather hard to read this outside the context of Judeo-Christian mystic experience, or theophany, with the one crucial difference that this indwelling fatherless presence of glory is explicitly linked to the imagination, and explicitly linked to a usurpation of paternal, institutional rationality.

This flash of mind-as-alterity that is both within the personal mind and radically outside it (at the core of personality-in-life and yet unbounded-in-death) is like the traditional religious concept of the ‘presence of God’: a presence too powerful to look upon and live.  It is death, but the death of the limited identity (the self, the “I”).  To see it is the end of consciousness.  In that sense, consciousness is a shadow, a shabby construction of words or mediate fabrications.  One finds the same logic in Shelley’s famous metaphor for poetry in A Defence of Poetry:  “Poetry is a sword of lightning ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.”

One really should turn to Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry:  “His very words are instinct with spirit, each is as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable thought; and many yet lie covered in the ashes of their birth, and pregnant with a lightning which has yet found no conductor.  All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn which contained all oaks potentially.  Veil after veil may be undrawn and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed.  A great Poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight.”  (Shelley 693)

Shelley describes poetry as “the record of the happiest and best moments of the happiest and best minds”:

[he uses the word “visitations”]

“[…] always arising unforseen and departing unbidden, but elevating and delightful beyond all expression: so that even in the desire and the regret they leave there cannot but be pleasure, participating as it does in the nature of its object.  It is as the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own, but its footsteps are like those of the wind over the sea, which the coming calm erases, and whos traces remain only as on the wrinkled sand which paves it […] And the state of mind produced by them is at war with every base desire” (697).

There’s too much to cover in this essay, but one can note for now that McGann would call this patent ideology.  Yet, Shelley seems to anticipate, or at least offer a counterargument to, McGann’s ‘unmasking’ (one must recall that Shelley’s final fragment “The Triumph of Life” is all about unmaskings).  Rather than an ideology to be unmasked, for Shelley a poem is infinite, suggestive, ever un-foreclosed: “and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight” (693).  That is, for Shelley too, poetry does speak of that which can never be clothed in words.  For this reason, each new generation will access it differently – not because the ‘infinite relations’ (‘interpenetration’) that vitalize the poem are in flux, but because the “infinite” and “naked” meaning cannot be exhausted.

I will stop short of an analysis of what seem to be exceedingly difficult lines:

“Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life, and veiling them or in language or in form sends them forth among mankind bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide – abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things.  Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity of man.” (698)