Mark Offord, Wordsworth and the Art of Philosophical Travel

Mark Offord, Wordsworth and the Art of Philosophical Travel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016) £64.99 Hb. ISBN: 9781107155589

From its title, Mark Offord’s book appears to offer a unique reworked reading of Wordsworth’s ‘pictures of Nature, Man and Society’ (1) as an art of travel. When Offord allows himself the space in which to directly examine Wordsworth’s poetry, he comes into his own with an obvious love and understanding of the language. However, despite the author’s enthused immersion in his subject matter, it is disappointing to note that this book is ultimately defeated by a lack of explication amongst the plethora of theoretical references which threaten to relegate Wordsworth’s words and possible motivations to secondary importance in comparison to Offord’s thesis about ‘how travel […] might also become an adventure into philosophy’ (dustcover). As Stephen Gill has commented, there is a ‘downside’ to this approach as it ‘encourages a way of looking through the verse to something beyond, rather than at it.’1 The book’s packed structure and dense style is symptomatic of the fact that it originates from a PhD thesis, something particularly evident in the introduction.

The introduction starts promisingly enough by restating Wordsworth’s aim as ensuring that his poetry has ‘an art of philosophical travel’ (1). The dustcover flap promised that ‘Wordworth’s remarkable originality and his ongoing ability to transform our theoretical prejudgements in the unknown territory of the travel encounter’. Consequently, the reader may then reasonably expect to receive an elucidation of what constitutes ‘philosophical travel’. However, the introduction does not give a clear and unequivocal definition, instead becoming bogged down in theoretical arguments. For example, instead of initially focusing on how ‘the travel metaphor’ is used to supreme effect by the traveller on the journey of life in The Prelude, Offord delves into tenuously linked theoretical arguments; for example, Wordsworth’s contradiction of De Quincey’s antithesis of a ‘literature of knowledge’ and literature of power’ (12-13) and Greenblatt’s description of Columbus’s first human contact in the Americas (5) to no obvious conclusive end in understanding Wordsworth’s poetics. Consequently, it feels that this introduction, and indeed the rest of the book, is addressing an exclusive readership of like-minded academics who have previously discussed these convoluted and unwieldy theoretical arguments focused on that ‘something beyond’.2

There appear very few illuminating references to contemporary travel writing or eighteenth-century understanding of anthropology which could elucidate the analysis of Wordsworth’s poems promised on the dustcover flap. Instead, Offord appears to contradict the dustcover claims that the ‘travel encounter’ is an ‘unknown territory’ by specifying that ‘the travel metaphor’ of Wordworth’s poetics was a ‘potent trope’ particularly in ‘scientific discourses’ (13). Moreover, the motif of the wanderer is well known in Wordsworth studies.

The seven chapters which follow have promising, albeit some of them nebulous, titles which on the whole address the subject in hand but it is unclear how they cohere into the argument about 'philosophical travel' promised by the title.

Offord’s analysis of ‘The Discharged Soldier’, in Chapter Three, is thought-provoking. But the first twelve of the twenty-three pages of the chapter are taken up with painstaking theoretical discussion of primitive encounters before the poem is analysed in depth. Whilst the theory is fairly useful in understanding Offord’s analysis, I remain unconvinced that such ruminations were entirely necessary. Nevertheless, Offord’s meticulous analysis of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ in Chapter Four is particularly informative. Someone coming new to Wordsworth’s poems would find this section illuminating and satisfying. But it would have been interesting if Offord had interrogated the possible effect of Wordsworth’s anosmia (lack of a sense of smell) on his poetics of travel and his emphasis on ‘the power of sound’ in ‘The Prelude’ and ‘The Solitary Reaper’ particularly as in Chapter Five, Offord makes reference to ‘spirituality [...] as physical as the scent of flowers or perfume’ (124-125) in Book 2 of The Prelude.

It is very unfortunate that the reading experience is disrupted by the enormous number of endnotes and the presentation of citations. Direct references to Wordworth’s poems are not consistent or clear, and often absent when quotations are embedded in Offord’s text. In addition, the book is peppered with specialized terminology which makes the reading experience even more difficult. For example, in Chapter Seven, with reference to ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, Offord analyses the image which ‘[t]he nails of cart or chariot wheel have left/Impress’d on the white road’ (ll.56-7). He comments that ‘the marks deposited by the wagon are not points in mathematical space – they have been inscribed with a punctum. What remains behind is a language of materiality, and the materiality of language itself’ (191). I would argue that as Roland Bartes coined the term punctum in his Camera Lucida as a detail which breaks a photographic frame for a particular purpose, at the very least he deserves a citation. I would also suggest that Offord’s analysis of the image produced by Wordsworth’s lines is an over reading and not a punctum but just an integral part of the overall image itself.

Over reading and bias also seem evident in Chapter Six. Offord references Wordsworth’s description of the ‘dignity of individual man’ as a ‘glorious Creature’, In Book 12 of The Prelude (148). But he misses the rhetorical questions that Wordsworth goes on to ask: ‘What one is/ Why may not many be? What bars are thrown /By nature in the way of such a hope?’ Nonetheless, Offord questions what bars are there to stand in the way of progress and that obstacles do not exist ‘if they are not an effect of natural necessity’ (149). Moreover, Offord’s statement that ‘[s]ocial catastrophes strike the poor with the blindness and contingency of natural forces’ (31) in his chapter on ‘Salisbury Plain’ seems to contradict his argument here. He seems to read Book 12 all too literally. I contend that Wordsworth’s is offering rhetorical questions whereby he is fulfilling his poetic aim by giving ‘pictures of Nature, Man and Society’ (1) and here particularly, societal injustices. He can be read as asking why barriers in society are laid before the poor because they too should be seen to have the ‘dignity of individual man’ (148). Acknowledging a variety of interpretative possibilities would have been useful. Moreover, the ‘project’ of The Prelude is referred to as ‘inevitably conjur[ing] the troubling "spectres of Marx"' (150) to no obvious purpose.

If only Offord had opened up the argument of his book to a wider readership and allowed more space for Wordsworth’s poetics to speak for themselves. He would have then allowed readers the opportunity to interrogate his thesis, as he did so successfully in analysing ‘The Solitary Reaper’. Consequently, his book would have been an effective communicative tool developing the readers’ knowledge of and engagement with Wordsworth’s ‘remarkable originality’ (dustcover).

Dr Elizabeth Askey, Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Canterbury, Kent.


1 Stephen Gill, ‘The Philosophical Poet’. The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill, pp 142-160, 152