On Dirt and Dora

On post-humanism and literary form, Sandra Macpherson writes:

“About the end of our species I say: fine. Being able to say this is in fact what one commits oneself to by describing oneself or one’s project as posthuman and posthumanist. We are the bad objects...when we do destroy the world upon which our being depends, as surely we will, other forms of matter will remain.” [1]
Parsing Macpherson’s logic, Anahid Nersessian and Jonathan Kramnick explain that the “idea is to make form as inclusive and general as possible, so there is finally no difference in kind between manufactured forms like haikus or color field paintings and natural objects like glaciers and crystals, and so there is no need for an agent to create or behold any form for the word to have meaning. For Macpherson, this inclusiveness performs a consolation of sorts: when the human race goes extinct, and poems are no longer written or read, ‘other forms of matter will remain.’” [2]

Thinking back from Macpherson’s matterism to a classically formalist focus on poetic meter, I’m interested in the possibility that metricality performs an intense classificatory function that requires formal evaluation without conferring evaluative judgment. This possibility highlights a counterintuitive connection between Macpherson’s matterism and the hyper-specificity of historical poetics. By historical poetics, always a disputed label, I refer to the work of a specific group, which Yopie Prins describes in the following terms:

To think historically about genre and the diversity of nineteenth-century poetic genres in particular, a group was formed ten years ago by scholars working on British, American, and anglophone poetry and poetics of the long nineteenth century [...] We are not formulating an ideology of historical poetics in our laboratory; we are conducting parallel experiments in genre theory, in the history of prosody, in poetry and public culture, in poetry circulating in and out of print, in poetry as media, in the translation and global circulation of poetry, in ballads and poetess verse and dialect poetry and popular parodies and other subgenres, too many to list at any one time. [3]

In an attempt to summarize the work of this group, V. Joshua Adams, Joel Calahan, and Michael Hansen argue, “the evolution of genres reflects that of reading practices in interpretive communities[.]” [4] Rather than read all poetry as lyric, historical poetics traces the history of lyric reading, then turns to the specific historical contexts in which poetry circulates—instead of Victorian lyric, one might think about the social lives of working-class Victorian ballads, for example. Deconstructing a tradition/individual talent-oriented approach to the long durée of literary history, historical poetics divests poems from lyric claims to transcendence. While historical poetics encourages culturally symptomatic reading as well as a heightened awareness of the constructive work of literary criticism, it also suggests that old poems have lived their real lives in the past.

And it is this fossilization that I want to talk about in relation to meter—not because matterism and historical poetics calcify the objects of their inquiry, but rather because an irreverent approach to the idea of poetry seems to suggest an appealing politics. If a poem is like a fiddlehead fern or a poem is defined by its readership in 1798, then a poem doesn’t care what you think of it. Both Macpherson’s matterism and the guidelines of historical poetics suggest an escape route from notions of taste and value that make their way, invited or not, into literary criticism. If evaluative commitments are always expressions of power, can critical methodologies that destabilize evaluation usher a new progressivism into the literary-critical enterprise?

Well, yes and no.

I’ve wanted for a long time to write something interesting about Dora Wordsworth. I had the opportunity to work through her archive while in Grasmere for a conference on the innovative interpretation of manuscripts. I compiled her poetry, pored over her autograph book of verse, and discussed her legacy with Pamela Woof, who called her “neglected.” But something has been holding me back, which is, I think, the evaluative question. Dora Wordsworth’s poems aren’t self-evidently “good,” and I’m uninterested in performing the kind of old-school feminist recovery project that would demonstrate their aesthetic value, thereby reifying this value as relative or comparative value. At the same time, a straightforward, historical approach to Dora Wordsworth leads to a similar feminist recovery cul-de-sac in which her value is relational, coincidental.

In an earlier stab at this essay, I borrowed my approach from historical poetics and attempted to move from contemporary conceptions of Dora Wordsworth to the ways in which her writings circulated and functioned within an intimate literary community. Geoffrey Hartman and his respondents have read Wordsworth’s daughter as a dynamic and indeterminate subject of her father’s later poetry, “an object of desire [...] exceeding the grasp of poet and reader alike.” [5] Michelle Levy has identified Dora as an intended if not symbolic audience for the writings of Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth. [6] Norma Clarke and Deborah Kennedy have focused on Dora’s scant publication record and on the ways in which her parents discouraged her literary career, and Judith Page concludes her monograph on Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women with a chapter devoted to Dora’s life, a chapter that leads the critic to conclude, “I hope that this book has shown at least one way to admire the poet, to love the poetry, and yet to critique some of the assumptions about women upon which Wordsworth’s poetry and life were founded.” [7] In all of these critical interpretations, Dora Wordsworth functions as an intermediate figure, whether she appears as a symbolic and encoded interlocutor motivating her father’s poetry and her aunt’s and mother’s journals, records, and travel writings, or whether her successes and failures highlight contemporary and familial attitudes toward women’s writing. Whether Dora Wordsworth is read into the writings of the men and women around her, or whether her life and work are used to elucidate the structure of her household and literary-historical moment, Dora is conjured, time and again, as an intermediate figure.

One way to reclaim Dora Wordsworth is to historicize her intermediacy by arguing that her literary work is, in itself, social, collective, collaborative, and interstitial. In addition to her travel writings, the “poet’s daughter,” as she is so often called, left behind a small collection of poems, many epistolary in nature, and her fascinating and enigmatic autograph book of verse. From 1830 until her death in 1847, Dora Wordsworth collected poems, notes, and illustrations personally inscribed and drawn by a number of literary figures.  Writers continued to add to Dora Wordsworth’s autograph book even after her death, and the resulting volume includes contributions by Felicia Hemans, Robert Southey, Sir Walter Scott, Matthew Arnold, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, among many others.  From a literary-historical perspective, Dora Wordsworth’s autograph book of verse serves a number of functions: it documents the comings and going of the Wordsworth household, thereby situating the older William Wordsworth within an extended literary community; it documents and anthologizes that complex moment when the Romantic and Victorian periods overlapped; and, finally, when considered alongside her epistolary verse and travel writings, it allows us to rethink Dora Wordsworth’s poetics of intermediacy as a literary project rather than as a literary-critical retro-projection.

I find this approach to Dora appealing, but I’m unsatisfied with its conclusions, mainly because they ascribe my interests to Dora Wordsworth, rather than to me. It is I who am interested in the aesthetics of Dora Wordsworth’s creative delicacy and humor, in the glimpse her works provide of social worlds, in the poetics of loving and of being loved. In an essay I published on Dorothy Wordsworth’s quotidian experimentalism, I hypothesized that, later in life, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote her poems with the family archive in mind. I still believe this, to some extent, but I also realize that I conjured this interpretation as a very junior feminist scholar exploring in the archives. My sense of Dorothy Wordsworth’s approach in her poetry may pertain to her motives or understanding, but it certainly also pertains to mine, and to my interest in theorizing the trans-historical conversation in which I found myself engaged. In my book on Mary Shelley and motherhood, I try to sidestep some of the theoretical issues inherent in biographical reading by entering fully into the critical space—not Mary Shelley’s emotions but mine, not only her blood loss but also mine. This is satisfying but it’s easy to avoid questions of evaluation when it comes to Mary Shelley, as feminist editors, critics, and theorists before me have labored to secure her canonical status already.

With all of this in mind, I’d like to engage the possibility that meter might offer us a way around these challenges—a way, that is, to solve my Dora Wordsworth problem. By identifying something as poetry without insisting on it as good or lyric or valuable or successful poetry, meter has the potential to invite formal analysis free from evaluative claims. Furthermore, the notion of a metrical contract invokes the promise of exchange, agreement, or conversation between author and reader. So what might it look like to take up a metrical contract offered by Dora Wordsworth without issuing a value judgment on her writing and without historicizing her into the connective ligaments of nineteenth-century literary history?

To test this theory, I’ll turn to a poem sent by Dora Wordsworth to her brother, Christopher:

The packet now dispatched, dear Chris, you owe
To the kind proffer of Sir Richard Fleming,
Who said, that his intention was to go
Last Monday, but he has been hawing, hemming,
And Thursday’s come, he not departed-so
The current of a backward spirit stemming,
I now can answer your poetic letter;
You for the postage, still Sir Richard’s debtor,

Shall I in verse re-write, what I have written
Because, “no Wordsworth should appear in prose?”
Believe me, I am not so deeply smitten
With Rhyme, as peradventure you suppose;
For oft I see my reverend Sire muse‑bitten
When I’d much rather he were cleaning shoes,
So sadly does he tease his head and Sto‑make
In hammering stubborn phrase full of’t of slow make:
Therefore with creeping prose be well contented,
Only one Stanza shall be penned, to tell
That our Westmorerian heavens which had resented
Your dandy bonnets, broad as Turtle Shell,
Pouring upon them daily wrath, relented;
And soon as you were gone they bad farewell
To all their churlishness, and did beguile
More favored lingerers with a six weeks smile!

My Mother whispers, that’s a little bounce,
As Charles, and One more grave can testify;
But be assured, there’s more than a good ounce
Of truth in it ‑ + if it won’t apply
Even to the letter, boldly I pronounce
That Charles’ bonnet was the reason why!
The broad brimmed Target terrified the Sun,
Who never hid his face when that was gone. [8]

From a historical perspective, this metrical movement from a sister to a brother offers a delicious glimpse of intimate connections. Bad weather was nature’s reaction formation to an ugly hat that can thus be mocked in verse, as can a luminary poet when he is also one’s father (and the father of one’s poetic audience). But I want to avoid the temptation to dive deep into historical context (and to try and find a more detailed description of this hat). Instead, I’d like to think about how this text moves through history differently because of its meter. What do these verses ask us to do? How do they ask us to think? How is this epistle different from a letter written without a clear metrical contract?

This is, at least in some sense, what the poem is about. Having found time to “answer” her brother’s “poetic letter,” Dora Wordsworth asks, “Shall I in verse re-write, what I have written/Because, ‘no Wordsworth should appear in prose?’” Invoking and activating metrical processes of verse making, this Wordsworth thus encodes herself in the “answer” to the “poetic letter” and suggests that verse might stand in for the author. If ‘no Wordsworth should appear in prose[,]” then the reactionary verse writing (or re-writing) both presents the Wordsworth who “appears” in its words and manifests that Wordsworth, as the verse text conjures or causes its author to “appear.” And yet, this statement of self-presence in the text is also self-negating—“no Wordsworth should appear in prose” creates an apposition between the author and “no Wordsworth,” her own erasure, all the while erasing the author’s prose writings, including the letters in which she “appears” for her brother, who is not at home. According to the poem, then, verse making constitutes an act of self-containment as well as an act of self-erasure. The poem stands in for the author while highlighting the author’s absence. (The poem can do this whether or not it is any “good.”)

The poem answers these anxieties with chiming rhymes: “Shall I in verse re-write, what I have written/Because, ‘no Wordsworth should appear in prose?’/Believe me, I am not so deeply smitten/With Rhyme, as peradventure you suppose[.]” Thus, after a moment of simultaneous self-assertion and self-effacement, the poem asks us to “Believe me”; “me,” in this context, might be the author, the author manifested in the poem, or the poem that stands in as an author surrogate. The following phrase, “deeply smitten,” not only suggests sentiment but also denotes “smite”; “deeply smitten,” then, indicates both the presence of emotion and the striking down of the author. And yet, even this phrase is presented in the negative—“I am not so deeply smitten.”

The dismissive turn to “Rhyme” after the line break might suggest that the reader pay attention to meter, instead. Following this possible suggestion and reading for stressed syllables produces the following pattern.

I • verse • write • I • writ
cause • Words • should • ‘pear • prose?
“leave” • I • not • deep • smit
Rhyme • per • ven • you • pose

Fragmented and broken away from the context of light, epistolary, or intimate verse, these lines present a sparse picture of the writer in relation to verse. The remaining syllables of the first line juxtapose “I verse write” with “I writ,” thus suggesting that “I” is inscribed in history or created when “I” writes verse. The accentuated syllables of the next lines follow this pattern, as “cause Words” bleeds into “leave I,” thus indicating that to write is to step outside of the self.

Perhaps this is why the poem goes on to ask that the reader “with creeping prose be well contented.” Within the context of the poem, this demand pushes back against a portrayal of verse making as inefficient, aggravating, and distracting from daily life. Perhaps it also suggests that “creeping prose,” which stretches out like a growing vine, is somehow the safer enterprise, expressing but not obliterating one’s self.

Now, let me be clear: I know this close reading has been somewhat ridiculous. We cannot break poems apart to interpret their patterns of formation because poems are not asters or quartz or woven socks. Poetic formal repetition and mollusk formal repetition make very different kinds of demands on us, as poems suggest an author and an interpretive community that Macpherson’s matterism wants to—but cannot—move beyond. And yet, if we assume that a poem can only be understood in relation to its original interpretive framework, me might miss an important aspect of its formal repetitions. Like a rabbit’s tooth, a poem keeps growing. From The Prelude’s spillage of blank-verse line upon blank-verse line to Kubla Khan’s rejection of closure to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’s ironic accretion of false epiphany upon false epiphany with the lapping of each Alexandrine line, Romantic poetic forms encode their own repetitions. This is how poems persist differently from “other artifacts”; metrical poetic contracts make space for what’s next and then propel the reader into that space. Unlike the eroded edges of a piece of sea glass, not quite like the archaic torso breaking at the shoulder, poems repeat their attempts at genesis. Whether or not they accomplish anything, they involve the reader in the act of attempting.

In the verses quoted above, Dora Wordsworth identifies as the occasion for her poetic letter a period of delay or refusal, the “hawing, hemming” of the “not departed” whose physical movement might transport the letter. In a poem that doesn’t take itself seriously at all, Dora Wordsworth in fact makes a serious observation about poetics—that they can be instigated by the “current of a backward spirit stemming[,]” both a reiteration of the notion that poems are produced in tranquil recollection and a theory of poetry as bringing up or ushering in the past. The line break obfuscates a syntactic opposition between the current of a backward spirit and the verse-maker: “The current of a backward spirit stemming, I [...]” What might it mean for the verse-maker to exist as the current of a backward spirit? Does this mean the verse-maker indicates a spirit’s movement, or manifests a spirit in the present moment, or represents a spiritual movement toward the past? Is the verse-maker a sort of spirit herself, something akin to Emily Brontë’s poetic statement, “[...] I am not and none beside [...] But only spirit wandering wide/Through infinite immensity[?]” [9]

On an old poem that exists in fragments, Anne Carson writes: “the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat [...] You can of course keep shaking the box.” [10] This is the Sapphic imaginary, fragments of papyrus pulled from an alligator’s husk. This is what is sometimes called lyric, although it shouldn’t be. Even when they’re broken down, poems open up. They outlive us.


[1] Sandra Macpherson, “A Little Formalism,” ELH 82.2 (2015): 385-405, 402.

[2] Anahid Nersessian and Jonathan Kramnick, “Form and Explanation,” Critical Inquiry 43.3 (2017): 650-69, 657.

[3] Yopie Prins, “‘What is Historical Poetics?’” Modern Language Quarterly 77.1 (2016): 13-40, 15-16.

[4] V. Joshua Adams, Joel Calahan, and Michael Hansen, “Reading Historical Poetics,” Modern Language Quarterly 77.1 (2016): 1-12, 4.

[5] Philip Shaw, “Wordsworth’s ‘dread voice’: Ovid, Dora, and the Later Poetry,” Romanticism 8.1 (2002): 34-48, 34.

[6] Michelle Levy, Family Authorship and Romantic Print Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): 125.

[7] Deborah Kennedy, “Hemens, Wordswroth, and the ‘literary lady,’” Victorian Poetry 35.3 (1997): 267-286, 271. Kennedy cites Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love—The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemens, and Jane Wlsh Carlyle (London: Routledge, 1990). Judith Page, Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 164.

[8] This manuscript is the property of The Wordsworth Trust and is available at the Jerwood Center at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, England. WLL/Wordsworth, Dora/1/100.

[9] Emily Brontë,The Complete Poems, ed. Janet Gezari (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 62.

[10] Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red (New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1999), 6-7.

Rachel Feder teaches at the University of Denver.