Geoffrey H. Hartman

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Christopher Ricks

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

Among the things which Coleridge "lamented" about Wordsworth's poetry was that "his genius was not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprang out of the ground like a flower." Geoffrey Hartman might have taken this remark as an epigraph for his fine book [Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787–1814]. His argument is that it is just exactly here that Wordsworth's true genius lay: in his ability to respect the earth and the air, to hold nature and imagination in balance, indeed in magnanimous reciprocity. If Wordsworth's poetry reaches great heights, it is as an arch does, by stresses that meet and support each other in loving opposition…. In his important, various, and stimulating book, Mr. Hartman shows conclusively that Wordsworth's progress was towards a true understanding and expressing of [the true relationship between nature and imagination, each respecting the other, each inexorable yet gentle in its power], and that his decline (notably in The Excursion) must be connected with his inability to maintain any longer this fatiguing and precarious balance. The Excursion sells the visible world grievously short—and in doing so, makes imagination not more but less effective….

Mr. Hartman offers some extremely revealing comparisons, for example with Milton and Virgil; but the real battle, as he shows, is between Wordsworth and Blake. If Wordsworth were to be thought to triumph, that would be because in the end his sympathies and ideals were more inclusive, more hospitable, than those of the poet who was compelled to say: "Natural Objects always did and now do weaken, deaden, and obliterate Imagination in Me." Mr. Hartman's formulation is excellent: "beyond but not away from" nature. The relationship has the inseparable interdependence which we find both in the poet's largest conceptions and in, say, a true metaphor: vehicle and tenor, perhaps, but the vehicle is not a cab which you can curtly pay off when it has served your turn. Wordsworth's poetry respects the dignity of all things …, including "unknown modes of being," and, in so doing, it creates for itself respect and dignity.

But Mr. Hartman's book is implicitly an attempt to right a balance. What ever disturbed it? The fact that the modern reader is now far less sensitive to beauties of literalness than to beauties of imagination. The reciprocity of the visual and the visionary is certainly Wordsworth's theme and his achievement. And it is natural enough that Mr. Hartman should not think it necessary to go on laboriously about Wordsworth's triumph of literalness—natural, but also dangerous, since our own imbalance, our own blindness to the literal and our hyper-sensitivity to the significant, is now likely to distort our reading of Wordsworth. (p. 10)

The legitimate concern with the poetic imagination has now reached so engrossing a stage as to make me think that Mr. Hartman has underrated his duty to help a modern reader to see how beautifully effective Wordsworth's literalism is, how strong and how worthy a partner for his imagination. (p. 12)

Christopher Ricks, "The Greatness of Wordsworth," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1965 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. III, No. 12, January 28, 1965, pp. 10, 12.

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