Book Review

In book 11 of The Prelude (1805), Wordsworth recalls a scene featuring a six-year-old version of himself on a horse ride through the rocky moors of Northern England, accompanied by his servant and companion-guide, “honest James”; honest James, who, honest though he may be, turns out a rather wretched babysitter. As the poem progresses, young Wordsworth and Honest James are, through “mischance…, disjoined,” and, as a result, Wordsworth finds himself wandering through the site of an old mouldering gallows, where a condemned murderer’s name, engraved nearby, is yearly cleared of overgrowth by some unknown hand. Wordsworth, we read, comes to look back on this “spot of time” with a “spirit of pleasure”—strange to say the least, as I struggle to imagine a typical six-year-old wandering un-self-soiled through this bolgia of bones and mouldering gibbets. Serving as one of Wordsworth’s famous “spots of time,” the scene functions as a wellspring of memory for the soul, one of many wellsprings respawning the poet’s genius when it’s been worn thin by the world.

It is some version of this scene’s honest James we meet, Wordsworth-less, stumping through Christian Schlegel’s book by the same name—itself a warped and weedy bildungsroman that, in addition to many other things, serves as a reflection of The Prelude. That is, if Wordsworth’s long meditation on mind and metaphysics were to wander off in the waste moors of the Lake District to catch a glimpse of itself at the edge of a brackish highland mere. Indeed, so much of Honest James is a meditation on deviance and digression, both in language as in thought. So much of Honest James is an aside to itself, or “a brash youth” of a text, which, having “refused a secret…grows mute, and makes camp far from the mere.”

But what that secret? And where this mere? Under the sign of honest James’s spirit, Schlegel examines the nature of “tending” in at least two senses of the word—tending as stewardship, and tending as tending away—in both cases essentially mapping the bildungsroman of every writer, every reader, every user of language, in that all these must foster and diverge from those voices that gave them voice. Honest James seeks and negotiates its own “new tendency” in language, cut off from prior guides—a dense, Boschian heteroglossia of parallel texts and dialects and figures. Much of Honest James reads as if its speaker(s), midway through a tour of hell guided by the poet Virgil, becomes by “mischance” separated, and then must enter on a solitary and tortuous pilgrim’s progress through numberless wicket gates, toward no sure light. As the speaker muses in the book’s title poem, “Honest James”: “Oh well, I am my own master now…The step, / the tramped-earth track are mine…and I cannot be lost.” In “Picture of C. S.,” Schlegel offers a similar sentiment:

So I took to myself and I kept thee away—
we had not time nor common aim—
and the midnight-glow of the clouds and snow
was never the same.

These passages contain a sentiment pervading the collection: a sense of self-disjoining, of having been set out of joint—from time, from sign, and from other poets, other texts. The seeker here purposefully veers from its Virgils, grimly accepting of having lost young William in the moor, while acknowledging, all the same, the remnant tatters of these figures that still cling to them—the “brown wool” scarf belonging to a missing literary charge, worn in his absence. The “step” and the “track” described here are remarkable, too, reminding us of the broken, idiosyncratic metrical foot tramping through the book—disembodied feet having wandered off from the set songs of their time, through and into time, making and “marking their own time,” as Schlegel notes in his epigraph. I’m thinking especially of the “Little Ballad” we encounter at the outset, a brambly invocation spoken “skew” from the grave, whose quatrains of iambic tetrameter curdle into dimeter every fourth line, seeming to simulate an ax-wielding woodsman’s trudge:

A wreath is a lay is a chanterelle
beside a gutted bream and bread;
come gather round and bid me tell
that I am dead.

Of course, the genius of Honest James is that it engages with the trouble of disjointment in content, in form, and in sign and symbol. It knows itself as “an imitation of a tapestry,” as a simulacrum of a simulacrum, and goads itself from this intertextual mise en abyme of poetic and textual reflection, seeking metaphysical the reality of flection itself. Its crisis is fundamentally semiotic, like the semiotic crises of Faust in the opening scene of Goethe’s drama, where the Doctor, in a kind of ecstasy at reading in his occult tomes the sign of the microcosm, exclaims: “O what a sight!—A sign, but nothing more. / Where can I grasp you, Nature without end?” Likewise, Schlegel interrogates the movable, diffuse nature of the sign, seeking beneath it (or beyond it) nature itself, or perhaps the realest supernatural. Putting supreme pressure on textual and transtextual signification, Schlegel seeks in language the reality of the referent, long bracketed off. Or, more compellingly, Schlegel’s poems show signs as somehow offering access to the more-real (“some signs give way to signs unmarked nearer the light”), the surreal, the hyperreal, signs  implicated in building the world, being the world, and being in it, too. When, in “Three Men and One Garden,” Schlegel toggles between tokens of nature, the

perfect tree, perfect idiomatic tree-signifier, “this here poplar,”
for example—alongside the unproblematic sideplane of bramble
bushes, the prating dumph-flower with its photoreceptacles…

then inquiring, in the next stanza:

is this a rutabaga I have uncovered in the sterile earth? It reflects
like a rutabaga ought. It is, however, a parsnip,

he performs the subject’s incursion into the sign, pushing it out of langue and into parole—out of the monolithic word and into its spoken, rhythmic, timely chimera. He considers the “strange communion” in the simultaneity of speakers speaking signs, signs realized—and so momentarily stabilized—then, in voice, in dialect, proliferating endlessly. Perhaps the speaking subject, in speaking, sets itself apart in language, disjoins itself, but nevertheless is set off afoot in the world, and—being afoot in it—comprises it, too. This feels like an advancement on the metaphysical project of The Prelude. In at least one sense, Schlegel describes the effort of the poems in Honest James (an effort that accelerates Wordsworthian models of reciprocal fabrics of mind and world, memory and nature): “I made the prolongation of surprise—ennui—and eyes / to goad my thoughts into the world. I made my hand.” Here, in these poems of spatial, textual, rhythmic, and imagistic surprise, Schlegel suggests that being is comprised of an endlessly reciprocal becoming. That the eye goads the thoughts that make it so the eye can see the world; that the hand that writes the word hand becomes a hand. That “Adam and stream were part and whole / made doubly whole in silent mirth / and the green became the oaks.” Schlegel sets out not only to describe the process of differentiation, of the metaphysical distillation of things into objects—the mad proliferation of all into a garden of earthly delights—but also begins to envision what it might mean to be “doubly whole.”  How might the idiom, the “anagram,” the “paratactic,” the “aphorism”—in other words, the advent of the individual speaker into language—set its speaker afoot, into a world where “words will approach actual things, [then] drift away.”

And here we have honest James—honest James who is Everyman; honest James who keeps the light, binding himself to self-made bonds of self-sacrifice, and holding himself in “strange communion” with absent others in an absent world; who seeks peace, who seeks to give peace, but utters this wish alone, utterly now his own master, unable ever to be lost.

About the Reviewer

Kylan Rice has poetry published or forthcoming in The Seattle Review, Gauss-PDF, Inter|rupture, [Out of Nothing], and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where he produces the Colorado Review podcast. Contact info: