“‘Shapeless Eagerness’: The Genre of Revolution in Books 9-10 of The Prelude

Citation: “‘Shapeless Eagerness’: The Genre of Revolution in Books 9-10 of The Prelude.” Modern Language Quarterly 43 (1982): 3-28.

Excerpt from pages 5-6

It is most fruitful to examine this form [of the Revolution books of The Prelude] at the level of generic structure: the bulk of Books 9-10 (9-11 in the 1850 poem) is enactive because Wordsworth engages the He wants to see a revolutionary country in which liberation arrives, not with the pike-thrusts of violence, but with the soft, fluid undulations of a necklace spilling from a box, of clouds rolling rhough a window, or of the clothes, hair, tears, and body of a woman flowing out of old constraints. Revolutionary France, in the pictorial terms of the eighteenth-century traveler, should be beautiful. . . . (p. 10)reader in his younger self’s perpetual confusion about the kind of thing the Revolution is and the kind of language appropriate to describe it. The poet portrays his younger consciousness wandering naively into a travel poem of history and then turning–in a moment of bewilderment–to the supplementary form of romance; romance introduces the dramatic framework; and drama shades into epic. Each generic frame creates conflicting expectations when stretched to fit both bright and dark aspects of the Revolution, and the accumulation of genres merely accentuates a sense of “shapeless eagerness.” Such shapelessness–really an excess of shapes–reduces the distance between the reader and the “I” on the page. We take on the character of the young Wordsworth in a process of bewilderment tht the poet figures as the reading, or misreading, of history.

Charles Le Brun, Sainte Marie-Madeleine repentante renonce à toutes les vanités de la vie (ca. 1656-57, Louvre; seen by Wordsworth at the Carmelite convent in Paris soon after his arrival in 1791)