Please summarize the fourth topic, Topic IV, of a critical article by Thomas Pfau about Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The Pfau essay is “‘Elementary Feelings’ and ‘Distorted...

Please summarize the fourth topic, Topic IV, of a critical article by Thomas Pfau about Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The Pfau essay is “‘Elementary Feelings’ and ‘Distorted Language’: The Pragmatics of Culture in Wordsworth's ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’” (1993).

The essay's main ideas are divided into four topics (I, II, III, IV). I want a summary on just the fourth topic, Topic IV.

I tackled this article but found it too difficult to understand, so I need you to describe and comment Topic IV's main claims with as much detail as you can.

Asked on by esdras

1 Answer

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Pfau articulates the main point of Section 4, which is also his concluding argument for the entire essay, at the end:

Thus the 1800 Preface implicates both romanticism and modernism in the irremediable tension between a language by definition alienated into contingent and uncontainable otherness and a desire for 'more durable' cultural value that threatens to unravel at the very moment of its rhetorical implementation.

What this says, in as plain English as I can muster, is that Wordsworth argues that there is an unmovable stumbling block between the language of poetic discourse--that relies on unchangeable cultural values for its understanding by the reader--and the modern cultural values of readers that no longer resonate equally (and understandably) between poet and modern reader.  In other words, poets and modern readers no longer have common values and perceptions and therefore the transfer of poetic feeling (also, passion) cannot occur.

Pfau's primary concern in Section 4 derives from Wordsworth's argument that starts with this premise: 

The earliest poets of all nations generally wrote from passion excited by real events; they wrote naturally, and as men: feeling powerfully as the did, their language was daring and figurative. (Preface 160) (Pfau:140)

The problem, according to Wordsworth, comes to fruition with later (read, modern) poets who are not close to "real events" and whose language is a "mechanical adoption . . . applied . . . to feelings and thoughts with which they had no connection whatsoever."  That is, the further modern poets are from the "real events" that animated earlier poets, the more the language becomes a shadow of the passion-infused original poetic language.  Poetic discourse, then, the transaction between poet and reader, becomes weaker as time advances.

The inevitable result of this weakening transaction is

. . . the increasingly bleak strategy of a writer who casts the act of reading against ineluctible historical development itself. (Pfau:141)

That is, poets, who are depending upon a shared understanding of culture and history, are writing to readers who are inevitably changed by the times they inhabit and who may no longer fully understand the poet's meaning. h Pfau is quoting Jon Klancher here, but the point folds nicely into Pfau's main contention in Section 4 that the "significance" of Wordsworth’s Preface, reflecting, as it does, on society at the beginning of the 19thC.,

rests primarily with its unexpected recognition of fundamental incommensureability between ideational desires and their discursive realization. (Pfau:142)

That is, the disconnect between poet and modern reader occurs when the poet attempts to convey ideas (or feelings)  that were once commonly understood to readers whose experience (in the modern world) no long allows them to understand the poet's ideas or the passions he or or she is trying to express.

This "fundamental incommensurability," then, is not, as Pfau noted earlier, fixable.  As time advances, if we agree with Wordsworth's unlooked for observation, the gap between poet and readers widens and, as it widens, misunderstanding or, rather, the lack of understanding, engendered by modernity, makes the unraveling of meaning almost a certainty.