IES Director's Seminar

27 November 2012, 12:30 - 14:00

Event Type:
Room 234 (Senate House)
Venue Details:

Senate House 
Malet Street 
London WC1E 7HU


Erica McAlpine (Keble College, Oxford): 'Would vs. Has: Tense, Tension, and Intent in Wordsworth'

Wordsworth, in an early manuscript of The Prelude, writes about the boy of Winander that the “silent owls” were “responsive to my call,” meaning, of course, “responsive to his call” (the call of the boy, not the poet). The poet corrects his mistake for the 1805 edition of the poem, but in doing so he leaves intact another, seven lines later: “a gentle shock of mild surprise/ has carried far into his heart the voice/ of mountain torrents….” Here Wordsworth’s verb tense implies that the boy is still living—“has carried”—whereas in the next line he changes tenses again (“the visible scene/would enter unawares into his mind”), reminding us that the boy is gone, that the episode was in the past. The reader of these lines feels a certain responsibility to explain the incongruity. But why should this be the case? My paper pursues this question, suggesting that as critics, we preserve the tension between poetic craft (with its failures) and the scholarly celebration of unconscious creativity—a tension that may well distinguish poetry from other literary forms.

Erica McAlpine is the Robin Geffen Career Development Fellow in English at Keble College, Oxford. Her essays, poems, and translations have appeared in journals such as Studies in Romanticism, Literary Imagination, The Literary Review, and The American Scholar. During her visiting fellowship at the IES, she has been working on a book project titled “The Lyric Mistake.”