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A Letter to William Wordsworth on the Occasion of Reading an Historicist Dissection of Tintern Abbey

Dear Will,

Just thought I’d drop you a line and bring you up to speed on what’s been going on with writing these days. Actually, it’s kind of been getting me down lately, and I just wanted to get some of this off my chest, you know, just bitch a little.

Let’s see, you’ve been dead and buried a good 135–140 years by now, which means you’ve missed out on all the latest trends, though I reckon some of your newer neighbors might be keeping you up on things. Boy, I bet Pound is talking your ear off right now, though Tom Eliot’s probably been giving you the freeze. How do you and Whitman get along? Pretty good, is my bet. But you must not think too much of most of these twentieth-century guys, all gloom and despair and “the center will not hold” and whatnot. I hope they don’t send critics your way, they’d probably badger you up a tree if you gave them half a chance. You see, the fact of the matter is, you’ve been pretty much king of the goddamn mountain down here these days. Surprised? Yeah, it’s true.

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Back just after the war, this guy Northrop Frye wrote a big book about the old loon Blake, and darn if the thing didn’t make them both big stars. Suddenly, everybody was reading Blake because of how Frye fit together and made sense of all those goofy symbols Willie used. Everybody said, “Shit, this guy’s pretty smart, we’ve really been missing the boat on him.” And then they all started reading the rest of you guys, and sure enough, you and John and Sam and Percy and even randy old Byron started showing up on a lot of reading lists and MLA programs. Abrams wrote a book in the 50’s, The Mirror and the Lamp, that made you all look real smart, like real thinkers, not just poets of quaint nature scenes and nostalgia, and then in the 60’s, this guy Hartman wrote a book just about you, Will. Yeah, it was huge, called Wordsworth’s Poetry: 1787–1814, and it was all about you growing up as a poet, sort of an artist and his environment kind of thing. That went over big, too, and you come off smelling like a rose. After that book, you really took off, dissertations out the yin-yang, profs foaming at the mouth in seminars, students rhapsodizing with glazed eyes, it was really crazy. You really touched something in them, Will, your faith in poetry was so strong, really so strong.

But now, I don’t know. I mean, you’re still big, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just different, you see. It seems like people are just missing the point. They’re missing the point about poetry in general. You see, nowadays, everybody’s got a program, poets, critics, they all have these politics to push, and they’re all scrapping with each other to get their own program the most ink. Forget about aesthetics and emotion and beauty, you have to be politically correct or theoretically extreme to get anybody to listen to you, to be noticed. And that is what they’re all after you see, making “The Chronicle of Higher Education” and getting that 150-thou-a-year from one of the UC schools. And it’s getting me down, Will, it really is.

The first thing you got to understand is that everybody has some label these days, a tag to hitch on their sleeves to indentify their “critical stance.” You got your Marxists, your Deconstructionists, your Feminists, your Marxists-Feminists, your Deconstructionst-Marxists, your Historicist-Feminist-Decontructionists, you get the picture. And boy do they squawk at each other. Historicists are pretty in these days, Marxists and Feminists have pretty much coopted into the mainstream, and Deconstructionists are on the outs. Mostly because they were a bunch of snooty hotheads who came in and huffed and stomped around, and were really nasty about things. Nobody really knows what they were talking about, probably not even the Deconstructionists themselves, but basically they were playing fussy little games with words and making these outrageous claims that there was no such thing as original, imaginative creativity in poetry, that it was all intertextual references that intersected in a poet’s consciousness and then were parroted out in metaphorical configurations, the “meaning” of which arose out of societal beliefs and artistic conventions of the time. Nothing really “means” anything to the Deconstructionists, you see, writing is all play among texts. To most of us, it doesn’t make any sense, and they have no explanation for someone like Blake or Milton or even you, Will, writers with real vision or inspiration really mess them up. I think they’re all just hiding a terror of the erotic, of human instinct. They probably have lousy sex.

But they’re more or less out of the picture, though the rest of the scoundrels are strong as ever. They each have their own deviant approaches for how best to obsfucate literature. The Marxists look at literature against a gridwork of class relationships, how the rich and privileged exploit and oppress the poor and downtrodden, and complain that a lot of the so called “Classics” of literature really prop up this system of power manipulation. I’m not sure exactly what the value of examining class relationships in literature is, but it must be something important, because a lot of people use a lot of big words, write big books and make big dough talking about it. The Feminists do pretty much the same thing, except they use men and women instead of upper and lower classes. They have a bit more of a point, I think, but they are also that much more dogmatic and annoying. They come close to the old Deconstructionists with their case and attitude. Like I said, both of these folks are getting absorbed into the mainstream, basically what they wanted at the start, you know, to get attention and spread their word. But now that they’re getting some real airtime, they’re just fussing even more. You know, how their “true” purpose is being twisted by the white male hegemony who are just throwing them a bone, and don’t really listen to what they’re saying. It seems like a lot of them just want to substitute their own dogma for the present doctrine and weild all the power in the academy. It’s all political, a game of power, not an intellectual or aesthetic pursuit. Yecch!

So now come the Historicists. They sort of merge it all together into a mish-mash of the worst of all these movements. I mean, geez, take a look at what they say about “Tintern Abbey,” a damn good poem, I think. They give this screwy reading to it, looking at stuff you apparently “suppressed” while you wrote the thing, like the fact that the abbey was in ruins, that there were vagrants living in the ruins, that the Wye river was polluted, and that all this stuff was a result of the war against France and the industrialization of the town of Tintern. All these things are “in” the poem because they were conditions of the time and place in the physical world that you talk about in the poem. Forget about what is to be human and grow older, and suffer from disappointment and random cruelty of the world, and try to live with this mature knowledge of the world. That’s not what the poem’s about, they say. It’s about the conditions out of which the poem arose. I guess that’s the real problem, Will. Everybody is so concerned with conditions of existence, things we can’t do a damn thing about, that they will lose sight of character and the necessity of making choices in our lives. We’re facing some hard times, Will, people are scared, and worse they’re avoiding their fear, they’re obsessing about all these tangents and missing the center of the struggle. You wouldn’t like it much down here, I don’t think. Not many of us do.

Well, Will, I think I feel a little better now. Sometimes just venting a little spleen is good for the soul. I hope you’re getting along well enough wherever you are these days, maybe even writing a little, eh? We’ll keep struggling, don’t worry, nobody’s giving up. I think things will change, that the darkest time has passed. Shelley’s been a solace for me lately, I think the last lines of “Prometheus Unbound” are about as good as he gets. Remember?

. . . to hope, till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates

Neither to change nor falter nor repent:

This, like the glory, Titan! is to be

Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;

This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory;

And so it goes.


Eric Iversen