A Critique of the Critics

A Critique of the Critics

John Mahoney's latest Wordsworth book a new turn on an old favorite

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Having explored the life and career of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in numerous volumes and journals, Rattigan Professor of English John L. Mahoney has now trained his lens on those who praised, and panned, the British Romantic poet.

Mahoney's recent book, Wordsworth and the Critics: The Development of a Critical Reputation, is the first full-length examination of how critics - including the earliest reviewers of the 18th century, the major Victorian voices and the shifting 20th-century response - have approached the many facets of Wordsworth's work.

The critical history of Wordsworth is one of the lengthiest and most complex of the British Romantics, says Mahoney. While there have been a number of studies about the reception given Wordsworth's poetry and other writings, Mahoney opted to look for larger themes and trends in the poet's critical reputation.

"Wordsworth's legacy came about in the name of turning poetry away from the drawing room and the salon and bringing it back to nature," said Mahoney, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Boston College in 1950 and 1952, respectively, and whose previous work includes a 1996 biography titled William Wordsworth: A Poetic Life.

Rattigan Professor of English John L. Mahoney (Photo by Bill McCormack)

"He wanted to write about real people: the beggars, the farmers and workers. This led to mixed reviews from critics - some praised Wordsworth's work and others thought it paid too much attention to the ordinary parts of life," said Mahoney.

As Wordsworth developed as a poet, Mahoney said, his work shifted from the rustic and rural to the "poetry of consciousness," which included personal reflections and writing about the beauty around him. This often made his poetry difficult to interpret, Mahoney said.

"Wordsworth is not an easy read," he said. "On the one hand, he would affirm the presence of divinity in nature, yet also be torn by doubt. He would be awed by the power of nature, yet also wanted to experience the power of cities, institutions and human beings."

Victorian critics took from Wordsworth something more than poetry. Through poems like "The Excursion," Wordsworth was seen as much a thinker and philosopher as writer, said Mahoney, and "considered the poet of the moral life."

Mahoney said the Victorian view of Wordsworth continued well into the 20th century until the period of the "New Criticism," which took root during the 1930s and 1940s. Critics from this school of thought emphasized close reading, analysis, concrete language and vivid imagery.

"Wordsworth's reputation didn't hold up as well with these critics," said Mahoney. "His language was too symbolic and suggestive."

But by the early 1950s, Mahoney said, the "New Criticism" era gave way to the "History of Ideas" movement. During this time, critics moved away from the close scrutiny of text and sought to focus more on the ideas Wordsworth presented.

"He was very well received in that time by those who thought of him as the 'poet-philosopher,'" he said.

Mahoney disagrees with modern deconstructionist critics who denigrate Wordsworth for writing about the beauty around him in the face of social problems like poverty and gender discrimination.

"Major critics today say he was sublimating his own impulses in the face of great poverty," said Mahoney. "Why can't a man write a beautiful poem without referring to the fact that there are poor people around?"

Still, Mahoney says that Wordsworth's latest critics are just one episode in a lengthy and continuing work in progress.

"Wordsworth's poetry still has the ability to engage, provoke, even entertain and therefore continues to have a place in the literary canon," said Mahoney.


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