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Wordsworth’s Ethics

Adam Potkay


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015*

Paperback. ix+254 p. ISBN 978-1421417028. $29.95


Reviewed by Bruce Graver

Providence College (Rhode Island)



Adam Potkay borrows his title from a Leslie Stephen essay, written in 1876, a time when books of poems were selling at unprecedented rates, and when poets were looked to, without irony, as moral authorities. Potkay’s aim is to reestablish Wordsworth’s place as a significant ethical thinker, and to vindicate poetry itself as a way of knowing and thinking about ethical matters. To do so, he looks back to classical writers that Wordsworth knew—principally Cicero and Seneca—as well as to the neo-Stoic ethics of Shaftesbury, Spinoza, and Kant, writers Wordsworth either read or discussed at length with Coleridge. But not content just to trace influences from the past, Potkay places the poet at the center of late 20th-century ethical debates, by arguing that Wordsworth’s poetry anticipates in crucial ways Emanual Levinas’s ethics of the “Other.” And he does so by demonstrating that the very things that distinguish poetic from philosophical discourse—poetic form, rhythm, and sound—are essential to the practical application of Wordsworth’s ethics. As Potkay puts it in his introduction,

my focus is very much on how ethics can get done in poetry, and especially through the music of poetry. This book ventures back in order to move ahead, seeking in the past a power that might reinvigorate our contemporary discussion of Romantic and modern poetry—one that, on the far side of poststructuralism and the New Historicism … can seem stalled, aimless, anomic. [3-4, emphasis his]

I hope to contribute to what I see as positive yet still fragile trends within twenty-first century literary criticism: its so-called ethical turn; a more general interest in thinking about the sort of thought that literature facilitates and makes possible; and a renewed commitment to poetry’s meter and rhythm, sounds and forms—that is, what makes it poetry and not prose, at least scientific prose.

As these statements suggest, Wordsworth’s Ethics is an ambitious book, and its argument is compelling. It should be welcomed by anyone old-fashioned enough to believe that poetry matters, and required reading for those who do not.

In making his argument, Potkay refuses to confine himself to a narrow range of Wordsworth’s poetry, or to the works of the so-called “Great Decade.” Instead, he begins at the beginning, giving close attention to the “School Exercise” of 1785 and to early notebook fragments, including the translation of the Orpheus passage from Georgics IV, and offers one of the most sensitive readings we have of An Evening Walk. He treats almost all of the canonical poems of Wordsworth’s maturity, as well as Peter Bell, The Waggoner, The Excursion, and The White Doe of Rylstone, and neither shies from, nor denigrates, the late Wordsworth: The Egyptian Maid, “The Cuckoo at Laverna,” and the “Ode, On the Power of Sound” all have their appointed place. Indeed, I cannot recall a more comprehensive study of Wordsworth’s poetic career, certainly not recently, nor one that seeks more diligently to peel away layers of critical opinion to explore what the poet may have actually been doing.

Potkay’s reading of “Tintern Abbey” exemplifies his method well. He has written about the poem in his earlier book, The Story of Joy, a broad study stretching in scope from the Bible to the lyrics of the rock band Three Dog Night. In Wordsworth’s Ethics, the more concentrated focus on Wordsworth allows him better space both to contextualize his understanding of “Tintern Abbey” and develop his argument. Part of the poem is treated in a chapter entitled “The Ethics of Things,” which begins with a nod to Bill Brown and “thing theory,” but quickly does what Brown does not: Potkay attempts “an etymological inquiry” into the meaning of the word “thing” in English generally, but specifically in the late eighteenth century, using the definitions of Johnson’s Dictionary and the legal discussions in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England to establish the range of things Wordsworth might have meant when using the word. The relationship of the human mind to external “things” has been a central concern of Wordsworthian criticism, at least since Geoffrey Hartman’s Wordsworth’s Poetry (1964). As in his earlier book, Potkay connects the two by focusing on the 1798 fragment: “in all things / I saw one life and saw that it was joy.” The ability to see joy, and to feel it, in “all things” is, Potkay maintains, the central issue of ethics for Wordsworth, and Wordsworth derived this concern from his reading of Stoic ethics, principally in the writings of Cicero and Seneca, but also in the Ethics of Spinoza, which he at least discussed with Coleridge in the summer of 1798 (not 1796, as Potkay states on p. 81). “Spinoza’s impress,” writes Potkay, "may be seen in Wordsworth’s (and Coleridge’s) emphatic use of 'joy' as an aspect of the apprehension of God in or as nature. Spinoza, still more than the Stoics from whom he borrowed, stresses the joy of coming to know God." [82]

But Wordsworth also suggests that “things,” those things of nature external to the mind, are also capable of a kind of joy: "Wordsworth not only proposes a more generally human ability to intuit (rightly or wrongly) the interconnection of all things but also suggests that things can do the same and thus deserve the respect owed exclusively to human beings in Spinozan and ancient Stoic ethics.

This is, Potkay suggests, what Wordsworth means when he writes, in Home at Grasmere, of “joy in widest commonalty spread”: joy that is inherent in all things and in some sense felt by all, those that can think, and those that, from a human point of view at least, cannot.

At this point, Potkay turns to “Tintern Abbey,” focusing on the phrase “the life of things,” and the great passage beginning “And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts,” and ending “All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.” These lines, he writes, “resolve the tension” between ourselves, as thinking things, and the things we think about, subordinating all of these things to a comprehensive vision of the universe, in which all things are united by the disturbing presence that rolls through them. This is essentially a “lyric apprehension,” not a logical conclusion drawn from a “procedurally philosophical” argument.


Wordsworth, working with the stuff of the English language, working from Stoic and Spinozan philosophy and from a poetic “face” of world order, wound his way into a lyric apprehension of the life of things, a life that humans, with their passions and words, share almost as equals with other thinking things, other breathing things, and indeed with all things.

The chapter concludes with brief looks at passages from The Prelude and The Excursion, as well as the unpublished “active principle” fragment from the Alfoxden Notebook, that show later developments of Wordsworth’s understanding of “things.”

Potkay returns to “Tintern Abbey” in two further chapters. In “Music Versus Conscience,” he muses on the phrase “still, sad music of humanity,” which is, he claims, emphatically not the voice of conscience, but a voice that reflects or articulates the harmony of the universe and calms the unquiet mind, musing on human mortality. The word music matters here, as does the music of Wordsworth’s own verse, with its sibilants, varying rhythms, and lightly accented syllables, because it both figures and expresses the cosmic order, understood, as the Stoics maintained, to be a kind of harmony. In “The Moral Sublime,” Potkay turns to the closing verse paragraph of the poem, countering arguments like those of John Barrell who have faulted Wordsworth for his supposed condescension towards his sister. Rather than criticizing Wordsworth for not writing the poem he himself would write, as Barrell does, Potkay looks closely at the language of the poem, and sees something so simple and clear that one wonders why it has not been remarked on before: that when William turns to Dorothy and writes “For thou art with me,” he is quoting the 23rd Psalm, and his delay in identifying “thou” as specifically his sister lures the reader into identifying her with God, or, as “my dearest Friend,” with Jesus, as in so many Protestant hymns. That is, rather than demeaning his sister, or imposing his own thoughts upon her, Wordsworth does something more interesting and more radical: “she emerges as a new shepherd, at once naturalized and numinous…. The speaker here assures his sister that a feminized nature (no longer the Lord of Hosts) can … quell the fear of evil.”


Wordsworth deploys scriptural allusion in crafting his oppositional (or complementary) religion, elevating alternately the other (as the good shepherd) and the self (as nature’s prophet) to the perch of lovingkindness God alone occupied. Alluding to Dorothy first as his Lord, and then casting her as one who (as a younger version of himself) needs shielding from evil, Wordsworth expresses their mutual friendship and love through oscillating asymmetries, turning the rigid verticality of theological ethics into a seesaw. [133-135]

Potkay’s treatment of “Tintern Abbey,” spread over three chapters, also demonstrates that this book does not have the traditional, chronological organization of a book so comprehensive. It is organized in a roughly chronological way, in that early poems are treated early in the book, and later poems are generally treated later. But seminal poems, like “Tintern Abbey” or The Prelude, recur at different points in Potkay’s argument, according to the thematic categories that he has established for his individual chapters: “Close Encounters,” for instance, “Independence and Interdependence,” or “Surviving Death.” These categories build on each other: early chapters take up questions of seeing and hearing, basic sensory ways we interact with the world, and from those chapters questions of music, including the musicality and rhythms of Wordsworth’s verse, naturally develop. Finally, Potkay moves into larger ethical questions, especially as he takes up Wordsworth’s later poems, which sometimes (as in The Excursion) seem almost ponderous in their ethical weight, or so they have to many post-Victorian readers.

Nonetheless, there are a number of places where Potkay’s ethical emphases seem a bit ponderous themselves, leading him to miss or at least slide over Wordsworthian humor or irony. He is absolutely right, for instance, to classify the Leech-gatherer of “Resolution and Independence,” as a version of the Horatian “happy man,” and I have myself argued that he is a Wordsworthian incarnation of the Stoic sage. But the oddness of the old man’s form and the obtuseness of the narrator’s reaction to his very simple statements also need to be taken into account, and here they are not. That is what makes the poem so weird, and so prone to parody: how can a figure like the Leech-gatherer really be taken seriously? This is a central problem in many of the “close encounter” poems: Wordsworth sets us up to laugh at either his speaker or the person he meets, and by the end of the poem (I am thinking of “Simon Lee” or “The Idiot Boy”) implicitly chides us for doing so. I think Potkay needs to consider this ethical move also: why lure us into an ethical error, especially in this way? One final problem, specific to “Resolution and Independence”: Potkay calls its verse form rhyme royal, and, strictly speaking, it is not. The closing hexameter line in each stanza makes it a hybrid of rhyme royal and the Spenserian stanza, a hybrid form Wordsworth borrows from Chatterton (as Potkay notes) and Milton (as he does not). Potkay’s discussion seems to imply that it makes no difference whether the final line is a pentameter or an Alexandrine—and it does. The lengthening of the line, its rhythmic alteration, and the emphatic closure it gives to the individual stanza, have an important effect on how we perceive the poem, and thus (following Potkay’s own argument) on its ethical import.

But this is not to diminish in any way my admiration for this book. It is both a fine exposition of the workings of Wordsworth’s verse, and a stirring defense of poetry, in an age in which the value of the humanities themselves is constantly being challenged. These are poems that have changed lives, not because of their hermeneutic complexity, but because they speak directly to what Wordsworth called “the soul of all [our] moral being.” Potkay emphatically makes the case that Wordsworth’s poetry has done that, and continues to do so, and by implication he vindicates literary art. 


* Reissue of 2012 hardcover edition.



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