[(essay date 1986) In the following essay, Galperin, after summarizing other critics’ readings of book 5 of The Prelude, suggests a reading that resists “symbolic transformation” of signifiers “or their co-optation by what we might term a Romantic imagination.”]
In recent years “Book V” of The Prelude, the pivotal book entitled “Books”, has assumed special prominence not only in Wordsworth studies, but in literary studies generally. To those who believe that Wordsworth’s poem is essentially faithful to its announced expectations, this avowedly difficult section—a mélange of invective, reverie, memory and allusion—has proven especially vexing. Even Geoffrey Hartman, who regards The Prelude as a massive exercise in bad faith, is sufficiently perplexed by “Book V” to make it two books: one that approximates the apocalyptic humanism of the succeeding book (“Cambridge and the Alps”) and another which seeks to “bind” the human imagination to Nature in what Hartman calls “akedah.” In struggling “valiantly,” then, “to shift its emphasis from apocalypse to akedah,” “Book V” not only avoids “poetic schizophrenia”; it avoids, Hartman shows, the thing it also privileges—specifically, the primacy of Imagination, or the book of Man, over Nature, “the book of God.”1
Hartman’s is an extreme position to be sure, yet not so extreme when one considers the lengths other critics have gone to to recuperate “Book V”. These have ranged from simple paraphrase, to psychoanalysis, to the employment of religious symbolism, to the elision, finally, of any part of “Books”, such as the Drowned Man episode, that might otherwise complicate what one critic terms its “structure and meaning.”2 Thus it is hardly surprising that for J. Hillis Miller, a deconstructive critic, The Prelude’s book on books is less an exegetical problem than a fortuitous accident. According to Miller, “Book V” illustrates why “meaning,” particularly poetic meaning, is essentially impossible.3 This, he contends, is the subject of the book’s initial episode—the well-known Arab dream—in which a book of poetry is reconstituted as a shell. This is done to show that poetry, far from being a spontaneous utterance, is an inscription, or radical displacement, which must therefore be interpreted. At the same time, such “demand” for interpretation—with reference, again, to the dream in which the Arab, a displacement of Don Quixote, wishes to bury a displaced book (the shell) to save it from destruction—only reinforces the “conferring, divesting or transforming energy [of] language.” In other words, the Arab dream “puts in question the possibility of literal naming and suggest[s] that all names are metaphors moved aside from any direct correspondence to the thing named by their reference to other names which precede and follow them in an endless chain.”4
Unlike Hartman’s, Miller’s argument is interesting less for its conviction than for the ease with which it is accomplished. Yet all this ease confirms is that Miller has simply transformed “Book V” to suit his purpose, doing away with the remainder of the book as with The Prelude of which “Book V” is a part....