J H Prynne on Wordsworth and Delight

My arduity site has a piece on Prynne’s Field Notes which is an enormously detailed examination of Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper. In that I hope I made clear my dislike of Wordsworth coupled with my admiration of Prynne as a critic.

This very afternoon I came across his Concepts and Conception in Poetry which was published in 2014 and focuses on extracts from The Prelude, The Pedlar and all of Wallace Stevens’ Prologues to What is Possible I have no idea when I bought this, I didn’t know that I owned it and I cannot remember even thumbing through its pages. Given my admiration for Most Things Prynne, I’ve now read it and would like to point out a couple of things that I’ve found helpful in approaching his verse.

Concepts runs to 45 pages and is divided into five parts:

  • Extracts from Boethius, Dante, Shakespeare, John Locke, J S Mill, Henry Home, Shelley and Ray Jackendoff on the nature of concepts;
  • Prynne’s introduction which sets out his theme;
  • Commentary on The Prelude extract;
  • Commentary on the same from The Pedlar;
  • Commentary on Prologues to What is Possible.

Here I’m going to deal with parts 2 and 3 although I may do something later about part 4. My only observation re part one is that the number and length of the extracts does seem to be over-egging the pudding in terms of establishing a premise.

Part 2 is characteristically dense but induces more brow furrowing in this reader than did Field Notes and his work on Herbert’s Love III. This is probably because the point being made is around a specific aspect of conceptualisation which is quite complex. Being thereby a little disappointed, I’ll try to offer a summary of this notion and some of the poetry evidence used to support it. Here’s what appears to be the main thrust of the argument;

These higher ‘free’ levels of poetic contrivance have been described as already self-conceptualized, in part because of language as a mediating code practice or even code-structure. But it is possible to consider the most ambitious forms of poetical invention to be those that enter into their own conceptual domain so completely as to transform this into its own ‘free naturalism’ where all is conceptualized and therefore nothing is, a ‘possible world’ where abstraction functions not as that which is abstracted from something else but as autonomous at levels of second-order meaning and interpretation; this meta-discourse practice is fully supported by the language medium because natural language itself is generically conceptualized in relation to ‘what there is’ whether ‘real’ or not, elastic in upward dimensionality, almost indefinitely so; and this is especially true of poetic discourse constructions.

It would seem likely that Prynne is here describing his own work as an example of the ‘most ambitious forms’ and, if so, may give further insight into his practice and, in using Wordsworth and Stevens as examples, is demonstrating one aspect of his approach as a reader.

As can be seen, the processes by which concepts come about is fairly central here. After some internal debate, I’ve decided not to engage with conceptualizing in any detail except to observe that things can sometimes be made more complicated than is necessary and that I’m always suspicious of claims made for the special nature of poetry. I am however intrigued by this notion of an autonomous abstraction.

As a reader of the later work, this particular ‘frame’ seems to ‘fit’ much of Prynne’s work over the last 25 years. This may be because I want it to fit but the work is renowned for it’s resistance to straightforwardness and as such follows its own rules regardless of other contemporary work and trends. However, I can’t see how the above works, I don’t understand the process by which a poem can enter into its own conceptual domain because the nature of concepts is that they operate in a wider context of ideas, observations and feelings. Poems make use of parts of this context but I don’t think that they can make it, exclusively or otherwise, their own.

The paragraph continues with;

Within such territory, often separated from lower levels by ascription as ‘in imagination’ or ‘sublime’ an arbitrary text-lexicon can be converted into a distinct vocabulary and improvised rules for following a narrative or a performance can be formed by modification of lower-order practice or can be newly invented in their own right. A reader may have a demanding task to interpret these ‘rules, but the process may be exhilarating enough to carry the reader forward with strenuous delight: ‘it must give pleasure’ (both Wordsworth and Stevens agreee on this).

Readers from many moons ago may recall that my attempts to get above the foothills of Mount Prynne was greatly assisted by the pleasure I gained from attending to his Streak Willing Entourage Artesian from 2009. I was at a loss to adequately describe this feeling other than to observe that reading the series required quite a profound change in the way that I thought. ‘Strenuous delight’ is (probably) probably closer although I’d change the noun to ‘satisfaction’ for reasons that I’ll try to explain below.

In retrospect, the delight gained was from the fact that the main subject, the recent civil war in Ulster, was and is an interest of mine. This was coupled with the pleasure I get in extending and challenging my mental abilities. The delight comes from my love of poetry and its many strategies of expression.

I have never had this from Wordsworth, a poet that, after fifty years of trying, I still can’t see the point of. I’m even less keen on The Prelude because I had Book III as part of my Eng Lit A level. Prynne has been a fan since childhood and has led me to see, in part, the point of The Solitary Reaper. Here he makes use of lines 279-306 Book Thirteenth from the 1805/06 version;

Yet much had been omitted, as need was,
Of books how much! and even of the other wealth
Which is collected among woods and fields
Far more: which is Nature's secondary grace,
That outward illustration which is hers, 
Hath hitherto been barely touch'd upon,
The charm more superficial and yet sweet
Which from her works finds way, contemplated
As they hold forth a genuine counterpart
and softening mirror of the moral world.
       Yes, having track'd the main essential Power,
Imagination, up her way sublime
In turn might Fancy also be pursued
Through all her transmigrations, till she too
was purified, had learn'd to ply her craft
By judgement steadied. Then might we return
And in the Rivers and the Groves behold
Another face; might hear them from all sides
Calling upon the more instructed mind
to link their images with subtle skill
Sometimes, and by elaborate research, 
With forms and definite appearances
Of human life, presenting them sometimes
To the involuntary sympathy
Of our internal being, satisfied
And soothed with a conception of delight
Where meditation cannot come, which thought
Could never heighten.

This is part of the Conclusion and Prynne assesses its adequacy as a summation of all that’s gone before. It may be my personal bias re Wordsworth but the process seems unusually long winded and seems to hedge around what appears to be the central point, With regard to ‘delight’ we are told that it;

…….can be sought after and deeply welcomed but it cannot be caused into being , only prepared for and then discovered or received.

I don’t understand this, how might we prepare ourselves to be delighted? Causing something into being is either clumsy or evasive esp if ‘making something happen’ is what is intended. In addition, I always thought that surprise was a key element in delight and being looked for diminishes or negates that sensation.

Here’s a couple of personal poetry examples of what I think I mean, I experienced delight when:

  • a stranger told me that he’d chosen the subject for his phd on the strength of things I’d written about David Jones;
  • I discovered that Geoffrey Hill had quoted in me in one of his Clavics poems;
  • an audience member informed me that one of my performance pieces had created a sound picture of how she thinks.

My point is that none of these were expected nor sought for and I experienced them all as a shock, as something sudden and completely outside any kind of expectations that I might have had. I couldn’t have prepared myself for any of these and the delight that I felt came this mix of surprise and pleasure.

Things get trickier as Prynne tackles the ‘sense’ of the final lines;

The resolving stage in this passage of discursive thought adopts apparently a practice of meditation mediated in textual performance and yet held strongly to be finally beyond the reach of meditation, even of thought itself.

This is a fair summation of what Wordsworth seems to be asserting and Prynne clearly thinks that it is an important point to make. I have a real struggle with this beyond ‘thought itself’ notion in general and especially when used with regard to poetry. My standard response is that the thing we call the brain makes thoughts, that that these thoughts may occupy various categories (intuitions, emotions, visions, sensations, opinions etc) but they are all thoughts and that, mentally, there is nothing else. Claiming that something can get above or outside of thought strikes me as irrational and more than a little lazy.

My final worry is this;

Or have the stages outlined here, by which the domain is reached, devised a new category of potentially conceptualised understanding, that is intrinsically, or at least initially personal and individual and thus self-generalising only within this one private individual mind? And yet this outcome is grasped here as a scheme of self-knowledge with a sufficient articulation to be able to be communicated to potential readers, who extend the realm of possible meaning into a society of the poem, distinctly and hopefully envisaged by its author.

This seems to be trying too hard, this intensely personal and private understanding that is arrived at outside of thought can, be means of ‘a sufficient articulation’ reach readers who can then further enhance it. I have no idea how this might work, I suspect that ‘sufficient articulation’ is used because it throws up further confusions and bewilderments. Prynne’s reference to ‘a society’ as in one of many also seems a bit weird in this context.

I hope that, in disagreeing, I’ve at least shown how Prynne may think about this particular aspect of poem making. In the coming weeks I’ll look at what he has to say about The Pedlar.

2 responses to “J H Prynne on Wordsworth and Delight

  1. Some very interesting remarks on Prynne’s commentaries on Wordsworth and conceptualism. Have to admit his ‘society of the poem’ made me think a bit of Harbermas’ ‘public sphere’. Delight? Perhaps delight in something well said, in the clarity of the sign, but perhaps like beauty essentially in the eye of the beholder.

    • Thank you for this, I need to give some more thought to the ‘society’ notion. Re delight, it may well be subjective but I can’t think of a poem that, for me, has carried that particular sense of surprise that seems essential in being delighted.

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