Wordsworth on Language

Another Tangent

I’m intrigued by a bit of Wordsworth quoted by Jonathon Culler in his essay “The Mirror Stage” from The Pursuit of Signs:

Language disrupts or displaces the self-sufficient visual presence of object to subject in the mirror stage. Poets may, of course, hope for a perfect correspondence between language and thought, knowing, as Wordsworth wrote, that

If words be not an incarnation of the thought but only the clothing for it, then surely they will prove an ill gift; such a one as those poisoned vestments, read of in stories of superstitious times, which had power to consume and to alienate from his right mind the victim who put them on.

The child, told that in the language of adults he is “William” or “George” or “Mary,” might well, if he could rise to philosophic complaint, find language an ill gift, garments he is loth to put on; but it is a gift he must accept—in the hope, as Wordsworth says, that it will become a sustaining yet invisible medium, like the air we breathe, or else a stable operative principle that can be taken for granted like a force of gravity. “Language,” Wordsworth continues after raising the spectre of poisoned vestments, “Language, if it do not uphold and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve.” (166-7)

The Wordsworth Culler cites is from “Essay on Epitaphs III” from Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism (1974). I wish I had time to track it down, but for now I’ll just note it here. Lisa Hirschfield’s article
Between Memory and History: Wordsworth’s Excursion is also interesting and worth a look.