Preface to Lyrical Ballads Questions and Answers
by William Wordsworth

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Please comment about the main claims in Thomas Pfau's essay "‘Elementary Feelings’ and ‘Distorted Language’: The Pragmatics of Culture in Wordsworth's ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads.’”   

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Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English & Professor and Chair of German and Director of Graduate Studies of the Carolina-Duke Program in German at Duke. The main focus of his scholarship is literature and intellectual history of the Romantic movements in Germany and England. Much of his scholarship engages both twentieth-century literary theory and its applications to the literary theories of the Romantics.

The essay in question was published in 1993 and responds to an even earlier article by Don H. Bialostosky, "Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads", which was published in PMLA in 1978, which argues that scholars normally read Wordsworth's "Preface" through the conceptual frame of Coleridge. Bialostosky then argues that this is a bad idea because Coleridge was not actually clarifying but instead undermining Wordsworth. Importantly, Bialostosky is looking at the early nineteenth century through the critical lens of Mikhail Bakhtin, an early twentieth-century Russian Marxist critic. As you write your analysis of this article, you will want to focus on how Pfau situates himself within this critical landscape.

Pfau begins by stating that he prefers the close reading of Josephine Miles to Bialostosky's reading. Here, he needs to negotiate carefully the literary politics of his article. In the period in which he was writing, New Criticism, which was seen as allied with Formalism, was focused on close reading and seeking organic unity in poetic texts. It was highly unfashionable. What Pfau is trying to do rhetorically is advocate a form of close reading, which would normally be derided as "Formalist" and old fashioned, but in such as way as opposes his close reading to the quest for "organic unity" which was even a worse and more unfashionable form of "Formalism" and emphasizes the way his type of close reading focuses on the "pragmatics" of the text rather than either the mechanical features of Formalism or the aesthetics of New Criticism. Thus much of what you are struggling to understand in the article is precisely the way in which Pfau is trying to negotiate the academic fashions of the 1990s, something that would have been essential to his achieving a tenured post at Duke.

To achieve this end, he argues that the form of close reading performed by Miles reveals that keywords used by Wordsworth focus on the nature of the "real" as communally constructed. He also wants to claim that the center of the "Preface" is a political argument in which Wordsworth himself is negotiating between a new social theory of poetry and a traditional sense of poetic form. This is his key argument. The final piece to the puzzle is that the notion of pragmatist reading in terms of communities of interpretation was one originally set forth by Stanley Fish, who was the Chair of the English Department at Duke (the place where Pfau was trying to build his career). Essentially, Pfau was arguing that the theories held by his boss were far better than the theories of competing schools of literary criticism for interpreting Wordsworth, and allow us to read Wordsworth himself closely without viewing him through the lens of Coleridge or those highly unfashionable Formalists and New Critics. 

As you write your critical review, you want to incorporate this background information (though perhaps explaining the politics more euphemistically) into your introduction, and then summarize Pfau's main points about specific terms used in the "Preface" and how they argue for Wordsworth's unique vision of poetry.


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