Essays in Romanticism

Prelude Interrupted: Wordsworth and Ethical Failure

Essays in Romanticism (2020), 27, (1), 41–60.

Abstract

Social encounters in Wordsworth are often identified as critiques of instrumentalizing or objectifying behavior. But such behaviors are also foundational to Wordsworth’s own poetic practice, which transmutes ethical and intersubjective failures into the raw materials of art. Reading “Resolution and Independence” through Keats and Levinas helps identify this poetic feature as not only thematic but also structural. In The Prelude, this structure is developed and theorized more completely. The poem is rife with moments of incompletion and suspension linked to failed encounters with alterity. Wordsworth connects the inability to truly recognize and engage an “other” with failures of personal and historical progress, of social and artistic completion, and of moral growth. Yet The Prelude also reveals the aesthetic force drawn from these failures, positing interpersonal or revolutionary breakdown as the key enablers of poetic creation. Ethical impasse in The Prelude is no limitation: it is a precondition for the Wordsworthian sublime.

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Author details

Romanow, Jacob