top of page

Visible worlds and visionary minds

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

in William Wordsworth’s *The Two-Book Prelude* (1798) and Jorie Graham’s *Materialism* (1993)

There is no object standing between the Poet and the image of things; between this, and the Biographer and Historian there are a thousand.” (William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads)
How should the poetic gaze seek to reconcile a preconceptual material world and the impositions of an imaginative realm, between visible objects on the one hand and a visionary subjecthood on the other? How might contemporary ecocritical and eco-phenomenological positions facilitate a valuable comparison between the visual modes conceived by Wordsworth and the contemporary American poet Jorie Graham respectively?
This essay seeks responses to these questions by reading Wordsworth’s The Two-Book Prelude, with some reference to other relevant poems in his oeuvre, and Graham’s 1993 collection Materialism, to argue that a strong interest in a visual mode of interacting with the material world leads both poets, despite their temporal separation, to diagnose the same ontological challenges bound up in perception – the extent to which the material world can be perceived and represented in the fullness of its own terms. Crucially, both figure visual perception not as a perfunctory act of seeing but as dynamic process of getting-to-know. However, this paper will elucidate marked differences in Wordsworth and Graham’s respective poetic responses to these challenges I deploy the writings of ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton and philosopher David Abram, who has sought to focus phenomenology on relations between humans and ecologies, to suggest that The Two-Book Prelude evidences a poet ultimately favouring the visions of a centred poet-subject over the tribulations in attempting to represent external things ‘as they really are’. These theorists will also support an investigation of how, often in contrast, Graham explores the possibility of an “intersubjectivity” (Abram 31), and of reciprocal aesthetic encounters with the material world as posited by Morton. Poet-subjects in both principle works often consider the ontological challenges in question through their interaction with rivers, wind, and sunlight. Representations of rivers in particular are woven through my investigation, not just through their status as a familiar metaphor for biographical lineage, but as an exemplary site of tension between surface and depth, appearance and substance, stasis and flux, openness and enclosure, and determinacy and indeterminacy.
At first glance, a comparative approach that takes Wordsworth and Graham as subjects appears to risk collapsing under the weight of anachronism. However, I do not make any claims to unearth direct dialogue or formal fraternity between the two poets. Rather, my point of departure is that The Two-Book Prelude and Materialism identify a comparable set of fallacies bound up in the reliability of the poetic gaze, resulting in subsequent representational dilemmas, and that a comparative approach can usefully throw both their responses into relief.


The visible and the visionary
The two works of poetry selected undoubtedly share a thematic preoccupation with the ‘seeing’ poet-subject and the ‘seen’ material object or set of objects. In her book-length study of Graham’s poetry, Catherine Sona Karagueuzian explores the poet’s “long-standing” interest in “what is available to the poet or subject through sight” (2). The titles of both the collection itself, Materialism, and individual poems within – “The Visible World”, “The Surface” – underscore that interest. For Graham, the poetic gaze’s often troubling relationship with the visible world is compounded by subsequent representational practices that are seen to be anchored in an imposition onto the material world as opposed to a reflection of it. In a more hyperbolic assertion, Wordsworth’s idealised adolescent self in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” claims to have “no need” (81) of any “interest / Unborrowed from the eye” (83). However, this apparent personal commitment to the visual is often associated with a former, immature self: in “Lines” Wordsworth suggests that “that time is past” (83), so he turns to celebrate the role of “remoter charm / By thought supplied” (81-82), surfacing a drive from the visible to the visionary, from vision to re-vision, that, in turn, runs through Wordsworth criticism.
Frank D. McConnell identifies a “radical mistrust of the eye-or at least of the blandishments of the visible world” (109) in Wordsworth’s poetry, whereas in his The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism, William Galperin argues for “the agency of the merely seen or seeable in romantic texts” (1) and its uncanny reappearance. Whereas Graham’s poetry demonstrates an almost antithetical mistrust of the ‘mind’s eye’ and an openness towards subjectivities within the material world, Wordsworth explores multiple modes of seeing in The Two-Book Prelude that cumulatively figure “a subjectivity divided” by “its responsiveness to a visible or material world, on the one hand, and to a world no sooner seen than imaginatively appropriated, on the other” (Galperin 3). In drawing on eco-phenomenology, I seek to loosen the boundary between the two as it applies to both Graham and, in particular, to Wordsworth.


Preconceptual surface phenomena
Both Wordsworth and Graham identify a preconceptual chaos in the material world, that is inevitably imposed upon by the poetic gaze, so that perception cannot be understood as separate from vision. The preconceptual chaos can be traced through a dialogue with the phenomenological paradigms drawn up by Abram and Morton. In diagnosing the same challenges faced by attempts to truly grasp and faithfully represent the material world on its own terms, both poets seem to ground their ways of seeing in a sense of Edmund Husserl’s ‘Lebenswelt’ ¹. This ‘life-world’ is defined by Abram as “the world as we organically experience it in its enigmatic multiplicity and open-endedness, prior to conceptually freezing it into a static space of “facts”—prior, indeed, to conceptualizing it in any complete fashion” (33). Bodies of water, in particular rivers, become exemplary metaphors for both “multiplicity and open-endedness” (Abram 33), foremost through the allure of their surface phenomena. In “Notes on the Reality of the Self,” the opening poem of the collection, Graham sees in the rushing river waters “Expression pouring forth, all content no meaning” (13). The river stands for a disorganised, monolithic mass of material, constantly in motion, that is presented to the poet-subject. From this excess of content, the poet must make selections and construct a legible set of meanings. It is notable, though, that Graham suggests this preconceptual chaos is expressive, raising further ontological questions of the material world I will return to later.
Prior to the imposition of the visionary, Wordsworth does survey a distinctly coalescent material world. Galperin writes that Wordsworth recognised “the levelling that a reduction of the world by sight will accomplish” (24), by a perception unburdened from the illusions of differentiation. For example, diegetic dramatization of the falsity of the “puny boundaries” (TBP 2.254) features in a waterborne passage from Book IV (“Summer Vacation”) of the 1805 Prelude. From the vantage point of a rowing boat, the poet lists the “beauteous sights” (252) on the “bottom of the deeps” (251), thereby ironizing the reductive gesture of naming, but “yet is often perplexed, and cannot part / The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky” (254-255) that are reflected on the surface of the water. This diffuse mass of images is redoubled by the appearance of “his own image” (259). This foregrounds a striking example of the “tyranny of the eye” (Galperin 4) but more specifically the eye as a helpless victim of the natural world itself. The deceitful but beguiling natural world – Wordsworth describes his own failure as “sweet” (4.261) – “resists being plumbed by [the] gaze once and for all” (Abram 40). Additionally, the narcissistic allure of (self-)reflection also evidences Catherine Sona Karagueuzian’s sense of the “imperialistic ability to project itself upon and also to obscure the objects of the material world” (129). In ‘Notes on the Reality of the Self’, Graham explicitly acknowledges these habitual gestures, as well as her elliptical attempt to resist it: “I see myself” but “I am a widening angle of” (35). As with Wordsworth, Graham’s visual encounter with the natural world inevitably also becomes a reflexive encounter with the self. But, unlike Wordsworth, this recognition is not a “pleasant office” (1805 4.262), and instead Graham seeks to inhabit a more pluralistic vision: “I see it from here and then / I see it from here.” (“NS1” 24-25). She is seen attempting to avoid the pitfalls of Wordsworth’s singular, confused sight through multiple, more expansive gazes that align themselves more closely with an ever-changing river.
The multiplicity of the river Graham encounters manifests the counterpoint to artificial differentiations imposed onto the material world by the poetic gaze: namely, attempts to construct coherent composites from a preconceptual fragmentation. This fragmentation is paradoxically commensurate with the preconceptual unity explored previously. Wordsworth writes that his young mind was “eager to combine / In one appearance all the elements / And parts of the same object, else detached / And loath to coalesce” (TBP 2.279-2.282). This underlines an ontological tension between “objects” and “appearances” that runs through The Two-Book Prelude. The latter term points both again to the trickery of surfaces as well as the poet’s often candid rendering of the objects he encounters directly within the material world into insubstantial but vivid “images” in his mind, and on the page.
Despite a subsequent search for an evasive interiority in material objects – “Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself” (TBP 2,463) – that proceeds in response to the “tyranny of the eye”, both poets align themselves with eco-phenomenological fallacies in attempting such a search. Abram acknowledges the visual limitations and trickery of surfaces, asserting that “each thing, each entity that my body sees, presents some face or facet of itself to my gaze while withholding other aspects from view” (40). In “Young Maples in the Wind” Graham observes the wind animating leaves to ask, “Is there an argument in all this turning and turning? / Is it towards presence—as it seems? Is it turning an absence / towards us, giving it face?” (75-78). Graham seems to suggest that perceptual experience is limited to that of a metonymic “face” that points to an ever-absent, and therefore unknowable, inside. Similarly, Wordsworth points to the material world presenting itself to the viewer only partially, remembering how the “common face of Nature spake to me” (TBP 1.422). Morton embraces these apparent constraints, writing that “the sense that causality must be happening “behind” objects is a phenomenological illusion” (33). This seems to align with Wordsworth’s “conviction that all you’ll ever know of an object is their negative form, their outline fastening on your brain” (Nersessian 90). Nersessian’s conception of “Wordsworth’s Obscurity” provides a useful frame of reference in this context: she asserts that “to be obscure is to appear both present and featureless,” that “the effects of obscurity pertain to contours rather than mass, to the surface area of objects rather than objects themselves” (Nersessian 66). Crucially, though, Nersessian suggests that the focus on “contours” (66) is welcomed by Wordsworth as part of his poetic world, seen in his pleasure at the difficulty of parting “the shadow from the substance” (1805 4.255). An acceptance that “every entity throws shadows of itself into the interobjective space, the sensual space that consists of relations between objects” (Morton 26) serves to affirm that the surface phenomena ultimately may be all the poetic gaze has access to, but it may nonetheless provide revealing insight into the material world.


Rivers, wind, and sunlight: intersubjective field or orbitals of the poet-subject?
Although these similarities can be traced through each poet’s conception of the visible world, the responses Wordsworth and Graham render in poetic form can be seen to diverge significantly. Whereas Wordsworth tends to situate these phenomena as revolving round a centred subject, Graham experiments with a form of intersubjectivity. In stark contrast to Wordsworth’s tracking of the temporal development of “objects” into remembered “images” (TBP 2.111) and associated “appearances” (TBP 1.426), Graham is primarily interested in an immediacy of encounter with the material world in order to test the parameters of the poetic gaze. In Materialism, sensory encounters take place in a network: between the human and a repeated set of nonhuman entities, as well as between these entities themselves. The poet poses the question of whether these nonhuman entities can be understood to perform a comparable focusing of attention that animates, organizes, and records as the poetic gaze. Graham thereby experiments simultaneously with a retreating poet-subject and the seeking of an existing “agency of site” (TBP 2.403) within the natural world to harness, whether embodied by river, wind, or sun beam, each of which I will explore in the paragraphs that follow. In this way, she stages both Abram’s intersubjectivity and object-oriented relationality of Morton’s decentred “aesthetic dimension” (RM 18), figured as an “interobjectivity” (RM 26). In each case, productive comparisons can be traced in Wordsworth’s use of the river, wind, and sun as means to metaphorically dramatize the constitution and growth of the poet-subject.
For Wordsworth, the organising force of rivers is figured through and in the poet-subject, emphasising the visionary. This emphasis is evident in particular at the outset of The Two-Book Prelude. Wordsworth apostrophises the Derwent, as “a voice / That flowed along my dreams” (TBP 1.6) and “composed my thoughts” (TBP 1.11), correcting “human waywardness” (TBP 1.11) through its linear transcendence. This visionary presence is reinforced by the figuring of the eponymous river in Sonnets from The River Duddon: After-Thought. The poet writes, “For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes, / I see what was, and is, and will abide; / Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide” (3-5). Here, by reversing the forward-flowing river in the service of the poet whose gaze is cast nostalgically into the past, the river becomes relegated to an allegorical platform for the poet’s all-seeing vision. Wordsworth’s Duddon is neatly temporarily apportioned, instilling a sense of autobiographical coherence and certainty, which is experienced visually. In contrast, Graham laments the “forgettings under the river of / my attention” (“TS” 11-12) even within a context of immediacy. Visual material, presumably deeper still than the “slowed-down drifting permanences” (“TS” 18-19) evades memorisation by the poet-subject. The river as visionary medium allows the Wordsworth to overcome ever-increasing distance from remembered objects, whereas for Graham the river stands for temporal impossibilities.
Materialism sees Graham harness the animating potential of the wind pointing towards a mobile subjectivity. In the second “Notes on the Reality of the Self” the poetic gaze retreats – the poet-subject is present only “in my bushes” (1), becoming not just a figure “in the landscape” (Hess 7) but of the landscape. In its place, the wind animates the scene, the objects within it, including the poet-subject’s “bushes” (“NS2” 1), and by extension the poem itself. It figures as an invisible, tactile force that seems to achieve an explication of material interiorities that the poetic gaze could not. Of her bushes, Graham writes that the wind travels “into them, through them” (“NS2” 19) and later than “the wind makes each / thing / kneel and rise, kneel and rise” (“NS2” 29). Morton’s “exploration of causality” (19) is relevant here. He builds on Graham Harman’s conception of an object-oriented ontology to argue that “causality is wholly an aesthetic phenomenon” (19). Indeed, in figuring the sequential and accumulated movement of wind, branch, and bush, Graham’s poem can be read as a decentred exploration of the “interobjectivity” underpinning Morton’s “aesthetic dimension” (RM 18). Graham’s poetry renders Morton’s assertion that “aesthetic events are not limited to interactions between humans” but occur equally without human bodies, “when a worm oozes out of some wet soil” (19) or, in Graham’s case, when the river’s “surface” is “rippling under the wind’s attention” (“TS” 17). Despite these interactions, Graham wrestles with the wind’s fleetingness, its inability to take an “inventory of events” that would be an externalized counterpoint to Wordsworth’s “mind” as a recording “mansion for all lovely things” (TA 140). Instead, Graham’s “dear history of the visible world” (“YM” 26) goes unaddressed and, instead of the river’s dialectical interplay between “accumulations” (“TS” 18) and “forgettings” (“TS” 11), the poet is faced with a troubling ahistoricism, a denial of “self-recording nature” (Corrington qtd. in Knickerbocker 20), compounded because the “wind does not now even really exist” (“NS2” 53-54).
The most prominent example of an external subjective vision in Materialism is the sun and its beams that traverse the material world. It is here that Abram’s intersubjectivity comes most clearly to the fore, though it is worth directing some suspicion at an interpretative anthropomorphism that positions the sun as a reformulation of Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball” (37), seeing nothing and everything simultaneously. Abram understands the concept of intersubjectivity as an acknowledgement that the “real world” is “an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles” (32). Such a field is seen in The Visible World; Graham writes: “the sun traverses now / and just begins / to touch my back” (58-60), her fingers then “suddenly touched, lit up,” “the ray / for a moment / on them alone” (62-64). The “beam” (96) seems to achieve a comparable spatial and temporal organising of the visible world with which we previously saw the poet grapple. When it “moves on” (96), the poem abruptly ends. The poem, therefore, resolves the atemporal interpellations of the wind, and instead seems to be anchored in Morton’s assertions that “to be located ‘in’ space or ‘in’ time is already to have been caught in a web of relations,” that objects do not “primordially ‘occupy’ some existing region of spacetime, but that they are caught in the fields of, and otherwise ‘spaced’ and ‘timed’ by other entities” (RM 21). Indeed, in the appropriately named Subjectivity the reader learns “a ray of sun is calling across the saltwood floor … making a meaning like a sharp wide thought” (51), understood here as “less place than time” (53). Graham then relays, “Meanwhile the transparent air / through or into which the beam / over the virtual and the material / over the world and over the world of the beholder— / glides” (102-106). Although the presence of a human “beholder” is maintained, the sunlight seems to perceive a “world” distinct from that visible to the human eye, as well as achieve the “Dream of the Unified Field” that is the title of another of Materialism’s poems. The poet even seems to nod to the visionary in providing an affirmative answer to Morton’s question of whether “nonhumans” are “capable of aesthetic contemplation?” (ET 13) Symbolically, in the conclusion of the poem materially (re)animates the moth where the poet’s “spiral / notebook” (“S” 6-7) had failed.
In further evidence of Wordsworth’s visionary affordances, sunlight in The Two-Book Prelude yields to “the apparition of the inner vision,” which McConnell sees as “central to the poetry of the great decade” (101). Wordsworth writes that “an auxiliar light / Came from my mind which on the setting sun / Bestowed new splendour” (TBP 2.421-2.423). Although poet’s vision as “auxillar” here goes some way in refuting a solipsism, it nonetheless fixes the sun as aestheticized object. Later, the poet claims:
I loved the sun ... as a pledge
and surety of my earthly life, a light
which while I view I feel I am alive
… I had seen him lay
his beauty on the morning hills, had seen
The western mountains touch his setting orb (TBP 2.219-2.225)

The sun here is experienced as metaphor, specifically as metaphor for human vitality. Although through the use of the active voice, as well as interaction with the hills and mountains, the poet nods to a sense of Abram’s “matrix of perceptions and sensations” (32), this is always contained syntactically by the seeing poet as evidenced by the repeated use of “seen.” Similarly, although, and as with Graham’s sunbeam, the “orb” places the landscape “in” time, marking morning and evening, its appearance is embedded within the pre-eminent timespan of the poet’s memory and “earthly life.” Anthropomorphism in fact results in a reinforced subservience to the poetic ‘I’: the sun in The Two-Book Prelude is not granted equivalent potential for visual subjectivity as in Materialism.
Through these explorations of the subjective potential of the river, wind, and sun, Graham offers an eco-phenomenological progression to the “deauthorization of the perceiving subject” (24) that Galperin sees traces of in Romanticism. However, Graham remains cognisant of the poet-subject’s inevitable intervention in the act of representation that transmutes perception or sensation into poetry. This necessarily maintains a centred poet-subject, the pre-eminence of which is tracked through Graham’s habitual return to a sense of upward motion in seen objects: soil is “upthrown, in my hands” (“VW” 9) and “the river still glinting-up” (“TS” 9). This is echoed by the haunting cliffs in The Two-Book Prelude that “rose up” (1.112) or “uprose” (1.106). In contrast to the horizontal, autonomous progression of the river, this vertical movement suggests a subservience to a poet-subject ‘above’ the scene. Indeed, Wordsworth eventually mounts cliffs, thus actualizing the “prospect in my mind” (TBP 2.405). Although Graham is careful to avoid a disinterested mode of seeing akin to prospect painting, she does note the onus on the nonhuman to present themselves to a human subject, to intersect with their raised line of sight and thereby be recognised as a living entity. This is underlined in “Subjectivity” when the poet notes that the moth, “the incandescent thing, must rise up to and spread into and almost burn / its way / clear through / to be” (“S” 38-42). This suggests a realisation that the nonhuman relies on the poet-subject to be animated by the written word, that ultimately Graham herself has “impelled the significance” (Karagueuzian 126) of the moth in a way the wind or sun could not.


River of my mind
Wordsworth’s poetic growth, arguably the organising principle offered up above all others in The Prelude, constitutes a shift of focus from the visible world onto the “river of my mind” (TBP 2.249). This sees a doubled move towards the visionary: Wordsworth foregrounds visual phenomena appearing within a subject whose centredness is never fundamentally destabilised, dependent also therefore on a retrospective mode, what McConnell terms the “memory of vision” (100). Abram follows Husserl in asserting “at least two regions of the experiential or phenomenal field” (32), and Wordsworth therefore appears to foreground that which involves “phenomena that unfold entirely for me—images that arise, as it were, on this side of my body” over that of “phenomena that are, evidently, responded to and experienced by other embodied subjects as well as by myself” (32). Through a process of “abstraction and generalization” (Hess 6), Wordsworth thereby risks approaching the solipsism that Husserl was attacked for, whereas Graham, as we have seen, experiments with the potentialities of “other embodied subjects” (Abram 32) within the material world. Wordsworth recounts how “Nature by collateral interest indirect / And by extrinsic passion peopled first / My mind with forms, or beautiful or grand, / And made me love them” (TBP 1.379-1.382). Wordsworth’s lexical choices in “collateral,” “indirect,” and “extrinsic” emphasise degrees of removal from ‘seen’ material object. Crucially, an embodied encounter is absent: the poet’s “mind” is the, notably passive, recipient of the generalized (also anthropomorphised) “forms.” Abstraction reigns in theme and form, and achieves a “visual permanence within his reintegrated consciousness” (McConnell 145). An early encounter with the natural world stages the process of this shift. The young poet is confronted by “a huge Cliff” (TBP 1.108) that “upreared its head” (TBP 1.110), but the directness of this encounter is written over by the imagined forms to which it gives rise. Wordsworth renders this gesture as an explicit negation of the visible world. He experiences an inner “darkness”, marked by:
no familiar objects
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through my mind
By day, and were the trouble of my dreams (TBP 1.124-1.129).

Although here the anthropomorphism is reversed, Wordsworth establishes a clear hierarchy of object, setting the mundane below the affective charge, hyperbolic scale, and infinitude of “high objects” and “eternal things” (TBP 1.136) seen within the mind, by the poet-subject alone.


River of my attention
A reader would be mistaken for thinking that Materialism, in which four of the poems go by the title Notes on the Reality of the Self, betrays a proximate solipsism to The Two-Book Prelude. But, in fact, from Graham’s phenomenological experimentation, the potential for a distinctive “intensely involved perception” (Knickerbocker 15) begins to emerge, which resists an inwardness on the part of the seeing subject. In the opening Notes on the Reality of the Self, Graham asks directly, “Is there a new way of looking – / valences and little hooks – inevitabilities, probabilities?” (25-27). This possible visual mode is conditional, framed as a question and regressing from certainty to “probabilities,” but, more importantly, contingent: “looking” does not presume an object, and “hooks” suggest an impermanence in contrast to the “invisible links” (TBP 1,444) that Wordsworth claims make “scenes” (TBP 1.432) that become “allied to the affections” (TBP 1.445). It remains ambiguous whether the seeing subject or seen object ‘hooks’ the other, which allows Graham to gesture towards a levelled reciprocity that approaches Abram’s assertion that “neither the perceiver nor the perceived, then, is wholly passive in the event of perception” (41). This, in turn, renders reductive Karagueuzian’s assertions that the “river water’s movement and its significance” remain “self-contained” (118); similarly, Graham uses the river for self-exploration, moving “seamlessly into a posture of utter self-absorption” (122). Graham’s self-proclaimed interest in “the world in the instant before we perceive it, or the dead or the invisible” (Graham qtd. in Karagueuzian 2) adheres to Abram’s theory of the “silent conversation that I carry on with things, a continuous dialogue that unfolds far below my verbal awareness” (41). Struck by “how the invisible roils” (“N1” 23-24) in “The Visible World”, Graham boldly, and somewhat counterintuitively in view of the poem’s title, then tells the reader, “make your revolution in the invisible temple, / make your temple in the invisible” (70-71). She recontextualizes the vitalism of the nineteenth century to the animated minutia of the material world, imperceptible for a poetic gaze constrained by a commitment to mimesis. The “invisible” here therefore points back to the preconceptual unknowable for Graham, in stark contrast to the “invisible links” (TBP 1.444) which are another expression of the visionary, somewhat elitist mode for Wordsworth. An open-ended “river of my attention” (“TS” 13), as opposed to an enclosed “river of my mind” (TBP 2.249), is the inner faculty Graham affords to her poet-subject.
In contrast, the tension between the visible and the visionary that run throughout Two-Book Prelude seems to be resolved in the final verses of the poem: the poet celebrates an explicit turn to the visionary, necessarily involving a turn away from the visible. This turn, pivoting on Wordsworth’s “critical distinction between ‘sight’ and ‘vision’,” (McConnell 101), appears to give credence to McConnell’s reading of the former in Romanticism as “a paralysis of the imagination, a freezing of natural mental growth” (101). Wordsworth writes that “I forgot / The agency of sight, and what I saw / Appeared like something in myself a dream, / A prospect in my mind” (2.402-2.405), and claims “by form / or image unprofaned … did I drink the visionary power” (2.358-2.363). The poet happily parts from the poetic gaze, visual frames become rooted in the poet’s mind, and indeed their status as visual is put into question.
However, Wordsworth’s apparent retreat into a visionary mode could also be read as giving shape to Morton’s theorising of imagination as indirectly anchored in the visible world. Morton questions an insurmountable separation between inner vision and material world, writing that:
imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible. (RM 44)
Following his celebration of the visionary mode, the poet returns to the “immediately given.” He warns, “if I should fail with grateful voice / To speak of you, ye mountains! and ye lakes” (TBP 2.475-2.476); eulogizing the visible world of his youth that maintains a causal relationship with his adult visions. This offers resolution to the well-rehearsed debates in Wordsworth criticism – the visible returns as per Galperin’s argument but is firmly “marshalled” (2) – recuperating the Burkean sublime through an ecocritical re-imagining of Wordsworth’s “alliance” (TBP 2.305) and “communion” (TBP 2.334) between the mind and the material, of what Morton terms as the aesthetic’s “ideological role as matchmaker between subject and object” (RM 19). In fact, Wordsworth gives us earlier evidence of this possibility: remembering his encounter with the rotting “gibbet mast” (TBP 1.312), the poet writes, “An ordinary sight but I should need / Colours and words that are unknown to man / To paint the visionary dreariness” (TBP 1.322-1.324). This repositions the “visionary power” as already in the material landscape and it is left to the poet’s imagination to make Morton’s “tentative contact” with this power.


By deploying eco-phenomenological positions as a ground on which to facilitate dialogue between Wordsworth and Graham – supported by the former’s generalised use of “objects,” “images,” and “appearances” and the latter’s explicit theorising – a surprising likeness between the dilemmas faced by the two poets is revealed. However, the poets, having grappled with the mercurial gestures of the poetic gaze, albeit with differing degrees of discomfort, have strikingly divergent responses. Graham attempts to advance into an intersubjective field, through an immediacy, a decentred subject and the “participatory nature of perception” (Abram 44), whereas Wordsworth retreats into the subject and into autobiographical memory, experimenting with the visual potentialities of the imaginative mind.
Neither turn presents a holistic poetic achievement. Despite the instability of Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field” and of Wordsworth’s belief in the “unified continuous field of being” (Fry 18), neither Wordsworth nor Graham relinquishes the deceptive allure of visuality. Indeed, it is the continued striving to see “in” and “through” the material world, beyond the shimmering surfaces of the ever-present river, that animates both The Two-Book Prelude and Materialism.

¹ The ‘Lebenswelt’ encompassed what Husserl understood to be self-evident in the natural world, which acts as a pre-existing common thread through all human experience. For further background see Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936).

Works Cited

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. First Vintage books ed., Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 1997.

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. London: Routledge, 2002.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Representative Selections. Edited by Frederic Ives Carpenter, American Book Company, 1934.

Fry, Paul. Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are. Yale University Press, 2008.

Galperin, William H. The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Graham, Jorie. Materialism. The Ecco Press, 1993.

Karagueuzian, Catherine. No Image There and the Gaze Remains: The Visual in the Work of Jorie Graham. Taylor and Francis, 2014.

Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

McConnell, Frank D. The Confessional Imagination: A Reading of Wordsworth's Prelude. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2010.

---. Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. First edition., First ed., Open Humanities Press, an Imprint of MPublishing - University of Michigan Library, 2013.

Owen, W. J. B. Understanding the Prelude. Humanities-Ebooks, 2007.

Nersessian, Anahid. "2: Wordsworth’s Obscurity". The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020, pp. 57-92.

Wordsworth, William. William Wordsworth: The Major Works, edited by Stephen Gill, Oxford University Press, 1984.

---. Lyrical Ballads. Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Date submitted: 07 January 2022

Date accepted: 20 March 2022

135 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


I’m thinking of ending things— To rephrase, my relationship with cold Horrible, unworthy thoughts That see me simmering, diffused, and hurt. I’m breaking up with despair, I’m blocking the blues, I’m r


bottom of page