Stuart Peterfreund


Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Guy L. Rotella

Date of Award


Date Accepted


Degree Grantor

Northeastern University

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department or Academic Unit

College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Department of English.


material, Paul de Man, rhetoric, sublime, trauma, Wordsworth


English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles


This dissertation introduces attention to the materiality of William Wordsworth's verse into a critical discourse that habitually limits itself to considerations of the verse's ideas and ideologies. Adopting the working premise that all poems must be recognized as physical artifacts crafted from the raw materials of letters and lines, I explore the friction that occasionally arises between the semantic content that poetry contains or transmits and the material structures (letters, lines, and punctuation) that provide a vehicle for that content. This exploration considers the possibility that some of the most dramatically affecting moments in Wordsworth's verse derive their aesthetic force from the tension generated when the way the poetry feels does not correspond to, or even actively subverts, what it says. By articulating the complex relationships between Paul de Man's materialist critiques of aesthetic ideology and the sensitive treatment of Wordsworth's lineation in William Empson, Christopher Ricks, Isobel Armstrong, and others, I extrapolate a general principle of poetic fragmentation that may be used to explore the disruptive operation of several related phenomena in Wordsworth's verse, phenomena for which I tentatively offer the nomenclature "the play of the line," or the disarticulation of a poetic argument that occurs when the multiple lines that compose it individually exhibit a material resistance to the semantic content they are conscripted to articulate. I argue that these and similar moments of the verse's material resistance to the rhetorical function imposed upon it may be a hitherto unacknowledged point of access for sublime feeling to manifest itself in Wordsworth, complicating the poet's own understanding of the sublime as a temporary, rhetorically manufactured stage in a secular theodicy that redeems the intensely traumatic aesthetic experiences of youth by binding them to beauty in a marriage of the mind to nature, which in turn facilitates a marriage of the solitary self to society. I trace the turbulent effects of these materially instantiated interventions of sublime affect into the semantic plane of Wordsworth's corpus, illustrating the ways in which his lyrics and epics, long recognized by scholars of Romanticism as spaces within which Wordsworth sought to construct a stable figure of his own subjectivity, may materially deconstruct the identity they manufacture tropologically and figuratively. I also consider the ramifications of the poetry's traumatic, self-deconstructing materiality upon the catachrestic images of Wordsworth produced by much of the normative critical commentary on his work. I posit Wordsworth as both self-constructed and self-deconstructed, and therefore irreducible to the stable positions or personas often used to render him susceptible to critique. Specifically, I seek to defend Wordsworth against the charges of solipsism leveled against him by certain strains of New Historicism by demonstrating how the tension between what the poetry feels like and what it says facilitates an autogenic aesthetic critique of its own ideologies, in what may be thought of as an exploration of the poetry's internal politics, which are inextricably connected, but never merely reducible to, the definitive historical and political events of the poet's lifetime.

Document Type


Rights Holder

Arturo R. Zilleruelo

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