Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Joshua Wilner

Committee Members

Joan Richardson

Nancy Yousef

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles


This essayistic dissertation attempts to frame an adequate reading of William Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad “The Idiot Boy,” a poem not often foremost in the consideration of Wordsworth critics but one that haunted, I suggest, Geoffrey Hartman, whose ambivalence is explicit in his estimation of it as “a minor poem but a major text” and otherwise manifest in its furtive but persistent presence in the whole of his work.

Taking the poem’s title character as one of Wordsworth’s “marginals”—one of the human subjects through which the poet pushes the boundaries of “fit” subjects for poetry and makes room for a nascent European anthropology—and considering the character’s relation to language, I first embrace the eighteenth-century theories of the origins of language with which the poet was familiar and set those against our contemporary evolutionary theories of the same, theories that inevitably invoke conceptions of the human as distinct from the animal. The first, somewhat independent, chapter, then, places Johann Gottfried Herder’s Essay on the Origin of Language alongside the evolutionary theory of Michael Tomasello, in a way that prompts a review of humanism and its critiques in the work of Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Hrdy is credited, after Derrida and Agamben, with a final unbinding of a necessary attachment of language to conceptions of the human, with her separation of affective, cognitive, and anatomical realms, each with its own evolutionary history within the human lineage.

The second chapter opens with a consideration of the ambivalent status of “The Idiot Boy” within Hartman’s Wordsworth criticism and then moves to an examination of what for this critic is the poet’s most characteristic lyric mode, evident in the moment of descensus—the embodied, situated poetic subject sinking “into landscape and mental landscape, to find at mutual depth an image of the ‘sole self.’” Implicit here is the question of how ”The Idiot Boy” might correspond, given the manifold ways it deflects our imputations of interiority.

Hartman associates descensus with the “apocalyptic” event of individual consciousness coming to awareness of its independence of nature. The chapter considers this apocalypse in relation to the French Revolution in the autobiographical narrative of The Prelude and in Hartman’s criticism. An extended reading of Books IX and X of The Prelude follows, after touching on new-historicist treatments of the material. Tacit throughout is a concern with how the pressure of “facts in their intensity” (a phrase from Wordsworth’s Essays upon Epitaphs, which also gets a reading)—that is, the experience of violent revolution—affects the poet’s conception of language’s capacity to address a limit experience of the human. The chapter leaves the poet-traveler of the autobiographical narrative on the shores of England’s Leven Sands (Book X), just after learning of Robespierre’s death and about to return to the village life that will be treated in Lyrical Ballads. A reading of the moment is extended with collated moments from Essays upon Epitaphs and Elegiac Stanzas. The poet stands at the threshold of a transformed politics, one without teleology and dependent only on a discipline—a kind of anthropology—of broaching immanent horizons, of seeing through to the evidence of unfallenness in our immediate vicinity. “The Idiot Boy” is a first manifestation.

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