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What Wordsworth Planted

  • Eric Lindstrom

…plus d’informations

  • Eric Lindstrom
    University of Vermont

Wide spreads thy race from Ganges to the pole,
O’er half the western world thy accents role:
Nations beyond the Apalachian hills
Thy hand has planted and thy spirit fills:
Soon as their gradual progress shall impart
The finer sense of morals and of art,
Thy stores of knowledge the new states shall know,
And think thy thoughts, and with thy fancy glow[.]

—Anna Barbauld, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a Poem (1812)

…the whole art of colonization—the planting of mankind…

—John Galt, Bogle Corbet (1830)

While for William Wordsworth “planting” was a cherished activity that shuttled from physical to verbal assays, from gardening to memory work, during the romantic period the word itself took off, Peter Bell-like, on a wild career. The uncontrollable promiscuity of this word should disrupt a received image of the poet as stodgy, self-directed, and somehow verbally and otherwise chaste. Thus my first epigraph comes from Barbauld’s heralding of the reproductive spread of the English language, even under a prospect of the historical demise of London in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven; the second is from Galt’s novel of emigration, now a staple of the “New Canadian Library” series if only for its third volume (actually set in Canada). Both add to horticultural practice a strikingly metaphorical extension of “planting,” a word whose use in all the various parts of speech bears a rich testimony in the Wordsworth Concordance (Cooper 718). As a complex word in the Empsonian sense, “planting” in these passages and many others like them in the romantic period raises a series of issues that involve underhandedness and aggression, criminality, empire, and sex. These are “themes”—if even with a knowing sense of inadequacy we can call them that—which still beg for essays yet to be written in relation to Wordsworth’s insistently local settings, but to which in equal measure should be applied David Simpson’s wry warning in his recent discussion of such topics, “Wordsworth and Empire—Just Joking.” At times in what follows, I heed the injunction of Simpson by pursuing the trace of an out of the way subject, Wordsworth’s jokes, rather than choosing simply to cancel associations of an imperial Wordsworth. If, as Cleanth Brooks attested to long ago in his important essay “Irony as a Principle of Structure” (1951), the hegemonic New Critical “irony” often had a difficult relation to the supposedly direct poetics of Wordsworth, here I push home that irony in a setting with quite different issues at stake: a setting in which “total context” refers not so much to the spatial form and enclosure of lyrical poems like the Lucy sequence, but to the very different set of concerns having to do with globalism and world-formation.

The small but growing body of criticism on this aspect of Wordsworth is split. Postcolonial reception studies often take for granted his downright thematic connection to empire (see Smith). Beyond the poet’s own intention (and indeed beyond his life), it is an official fact that the “Daffodils” lyric and others were impressed to serve the colonial paideia of English Nature. “Wordsworthianism” gets institutionalized as an oppressive school time ritual, a perverse sort of Gradgrinding of the religion of Wordsworth’s nature, attested to by writers including V.S. Naipaul and Jamaica Kincaid well into the twentieth century (Viswanathan; Smith). This perhaps is a heritage that recalls everything meant in Barbauld’s incredible line, “And think thy thoughts, and with thy fancy glow.” Romanticists on the other hand are not likely to see their poet in this second or third-hand appropriation of his image. New readings that stay accountable to the poet’s life and work must stretch to gain the empire any hold in these primary domains. In and out of the poems, Wordsworth’s own views and practices justify the circumspection Simpson imparts to the topic with an admirable balance of judgment and openness to rethinking. So what is the right way to address issues of Wordsworth and the empire? This essay, at least, takes an associative rather than a directly descriptive approach; and it focuses very little on Wordsworth’s small array of explicitly stated views (mostly from his later life). I follow instead the resonance of planting as an historically-charged word. It is an oblique route, to be sure. But for a poet who sets his final store in relation to things unmade [1]—to the world’s stony and permanent forms and their often uncanny internal echo in the human—my assumption is that this seasonal act leaves his footprint on a nearer order of time. What Wordsworth planted, what he placed in the world if not created originally, stands in his work as a kind of “secondary” imaginative effort as opposed to the primary imagination that invests his relation to the unmade. If not quite as much as for Coleridge (whose famous scheme I have just of course adapted), that recombinant aesthetic nonetheless should matter to Wordsworth Studies because there the poet confronts limit areas over which he may or may not project the will, and may or may not know or acknowledge such willful desires when indeed they are projected.


I plan a strategy of digression, in hopes better to explain the kind of approach I envisage. By contrast to Simpson’s title, there is a rather grave children’s book, Miss Rumphius, that I sometimes read to my young daughters. Its muted voice within a poetics of empire and touristic desire offers appropriate circumspection in raising the role of these issues in Wordsworth. Here is the plot of Miss Rumphius. A little girl named Alice grows up with her grandfather in a northeastern seaside town, where she helps him decorate cigar-store Indians and fashion figureheads for ships. He is also a painter, and when he is busy filling orders she sometimes paints his skies. She wants to be like him and travel as he did before settling down to his life as an “artist.” She wants to go out and come back to live in a similar seaside town. When she shares with her grandfather her wish to travel and see the world, he supports it, while urging her also to make the world more beautiful. (Something left unspoken proves signal: it is unclear whether he means more beautiful “along the way,” or simply “before you’re old like me,” or dead!) The book has a deliberately antiquated turn of the twentieth-century feel. It is told from a point of view where Alice/Miss Rumphius is the great-aunt of the narrator, for a book published in 1982, so she goes to some predictably exotic locations: a “spice island” in the Malaccas where she befriends the “Bapa Raja,” mountains that look like the Alps or maybe Himalayas, and the North African desert in what is Tunisia today (“the land of the lotus eaters”). There she gets hurt dismounting a camel and must return “home” to the house by the sea. Having selected where that will be—in at least the book’s second Johnsonian “choice of life,” the one that places her at the start of what could be called a re-gendered children’s book Prelude—Miss Rumphius falls very ill. After a long winter she recovers only to face action on the last item of her grandfather’s counsel. How will she beautify the world? From her sick room window she had seen lupine flowers sown by the wind. To make the world more beautiful, Miss Rumphius decides to cast even more lupine seeds about the village and paths along the cliffs, ultimately yielding the purple, blue and red flowers we had seen growing everywhere on the first pages of the book. The story ends with a return to the beginning frame, with this old woman initially designated the mad “Lupine lady” now speaking to an enthralled band of children—on the topic, one would think, of self-legislating duty with pleasure and the fusion of these two principles over time.

As a literature professor, it can be hard to read good children’s books without some almost Lévi-Straussian thought about their memes and mythic structure. What kind of fort da makes the poky little puppy’s siblings first look down “the other” side of the hill, and then down “this” one? Is there any plot in “Hickory Dickory Dock,” as opposed to just a mere happening? As one who teaches and writes on poetry for the most part, there invariably emerges some impression of a lyric poet. This book might intuitively remind you of Elizabeth Bishop. Though set in America (there is a flag on one page), the geographical palette of “home” seems like Nova Scotia to me, and Miss Rumphius too sees the world while remaining romantically unattached to men (for reasons that may or may not resemble Bishop’s). By contrast, continued reflection upon the story for me triggers some iteration of Wordsworth. Saying why, and what if any relation the thought may bear on assessing the difficult tone of Wordsworth and empire, hopefully can establish the stakes of applying that rubric to Wordsworth studies. He seems, in short, about as implicated as Miss Rumphius. No more, but certainly also no less so.

As is true of Simpson’s essay, the Miss Rumphius/ Wordsworth association formally works to delimit the topic in a cautionary manner. Yet the children’s book already gives a slightly more ambitious, or expanded, prompt. It gestures widely toward The Prelude rather than to Simpson’s thoughtfully circumscribed readings of the Captain Cook reference at the end of “Point Rash Judgment,” and of Book Nine of The Excursion (the monument Wordsworthians have long found it painless to deface); and, needless to say obliquely, the children’s book as a stimulation to thought adds to the diffuse presence of empire the determinate traces of touristic desire and even outright sex. Miss Rumphius’s exotic gift-exchange and promiscuous seeding can be literalized powerfully in the biography of Wordsworth, whose early life in Kenneth Johnston’s telling is often frankly erotic (Johnston; an idea cited in Fry 77). Grandfather’s ambiguity thus really is an important one, since the question of whether Alice is to beautify the world along route in travel, or will explore the world for fun only to return home to engage in edifying moral acts, indicates with barely softened gestures the contrasting logics by which global dynamics structure a poeticized choice of life. We either have something like twenty-first century global volunteer work here, or the older, though still operative, model of a grand tourist sowing his oats. As in Wordsworth’s life, these dynamics can exist in combination. The twist of Miss Rumphius is that it is a she sowing flowers, testing to what extent such an act of minimal imprinting can make for a legacy.

One risks exaggerating Wordsworth’s awareness and obliviousness by turns. The scholarship of Tim Fulford—not alone but in particular—has done much to canvass the record of Wordsworth’s poetry on areas including fictionalized Native American representations and the peripheries of the empire. The poet of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads and of the “Discharged Soldier” fragment records the human displacements of overseas wars, particularly in the Americas. Yet, as a recent essay on Wordsworth the “landscape architect” points out, the language of colonization for later Wordsworth would largely have concerned issues of plant biology, not the movements of displaced human populations. Though it hasn’t to date received the same large-scale attention as a vehicle for great poetry, the context of William Wordsworth’s patron relationship with Sir George Beaumont resembles and updates Pope’s view of landscape architecture laid out in his Epistle to Burlington of 1731:

 To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the Column, or the Arch to bend,
To swell the Terras, or to sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.

lines 47-50

Wordsworth opposed most incursions of species into the Lake District, with the difference between “self-planted” growth and “unnatural plantations” standing as a primary division of judgment (Thompson 197-199). Thus not all plantings and plantations are alike. Holding Wordsworth to account for a few of his poems’ later colonialist ministrations draws attention away from his model of resistance to incursions in any setting: an example that seems exportable beyond his own quoin of the realm. A change to an appropriative and excursive model serves at once to conceptually reduce and politically overstate his role in empire. However, insulating poems within their narrow settings and occasions, as though the poet could willfully dampen his own resonance once the words are set vibrating in the world, proves at least as uninteresting.

My argument circles around the idea that a direct approach to the topic is badly done. [2] A project in which sexual tourism characterizes Wordsworth’s travels in France and the Alps and his childbearing relationship with Annette Vallon would simply trivialize facts (and does trivialize them in the awful “Vaudracour and Julia” episode of the 1805 Prelude, although Simpson in his new Wordsworth book presents a miserable ethic in the very thinness of that fiction). Along these lines, a reading of the Erse-singing “Solitary Reaper” in his Scottish tour does little better. [3] Nonetheless something analogous to biological imperialism in the spread of his verse characterizes what Wordsworth meant to the Victorian Anglophone world. Therefore a discourse that sees sex and empire jointly as one language of reaction to Wordsworth by Shelley, Byron and De Quincey in the “second generation” also has a compelling interpretive basis. The latter two juxtapose Wordsworthian Lake School scenes with transgressive sexual situations, and Shelley in Peter Bell the Third (1819) makes over Peter’s (Wordsworth’s) alleged nature-worship into the “cold” brother-love of a “moral eunuch.” My main point, then, draws out the paradox of Wordsworth’s sexless seeding of future generations as a cultural heritage in touch with a trope related to sexual tourism. And all these layers of mediation are important to take into account. Like Miss Rumphius and the flowers she randomly sows, Wordsworth and his flowers—be they the actual backdrop of daffodils that the Cumbria tourism board turned into a promotional rap starring the squirrel MC Nuts (see figure 1: MC Nuts), or the more densely astral, de Manian flowers of rhetoric forever ungrounded by nature—engender by their very reputation for a cold, “early spring,” chastity. Wordsworth’s spread is checked most by those readers, Byron especially, who argue that lyric power cannot be found generative without its first submitting to the comedy of heated sex. [4] No Lucy without Moonstruck, is something like the winningly humanist supposition by which this argument runs.

Fig. 1

MC Nuts

(pointing to eye and crotch)

blogs.guardian.co.uk. April 11, 2007. Accessed May 7, 2008

MC Nuts(pointing to eye and crotch)

-> Voir la liste des figures

To honor the conceptual perils of mapping such themes upon Wordsworth and yet arrive at a place where his “planting” involves empire, sex, and the received themes of spiritual inquest and nature poetry, I move in three concentric layers starting in most recent time. A quick evocation of the image of Wordsworth to the late-Victorian Anglophone world is followed by uncanny or insouciant readings of Wordsworth by later Romantics in his own time, and culminates in a short close-reading of the implosive multiple valences of the work of planting things in Wordsworth’s own major poems. There we find uneasily overlaid attempts to naturalize memory alongside “plant” as period slang for criminal acts, sex and sleights of hand. In The Prelude he plants snowdrops—“Chaste Snowdrop,” in the 1819 sonnet dedicated to the flower—in the youthful “days disowned by memory” that the poet both “feels” and “fears.” And because they are planted in or even under a snow that is “white as they,” according, again, to the later sonnet, the snowdrops make us question whether Wordsworth situates historical memory so out in the open as to lose sight of it—sublating the brown on brown of nature into a visionary white on white [5] (see figure 2: snowdrops)— or to embed his dark doings for future growth into the light of day. David Bromwich argues that Wordsworth often consents to say of his childhood what he cannot say of the revolution (Bromwich 2). If that is right, the question in his figure of snowdrops emerges as another way of testing in turn our own critical legacies: we must ask whether in the “new lyric” or in Romantic studies now those legacies’ most resilient strains come down through deconstructing what is left open to view, or through the psychologizing and historicizing impulses of discerning a content that still, like a caved-in mine, leaves its human realities all buried underneath. In his last novel, Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald writes: “But if it’s all white, how do the squirrels know where they’ve buried their hoard?…Those were your very words, the question which constantly troubled you. How indeed the squirrels know, what do we know ourselves, how do we remember, and what is it we find in the end?” (Sebald 204). Even MC Nuts cannot escape Sebald’s idea of forgetting as an historical labor.

Fig. 2

Incipient snowdrops in Vermont

Photo by Laurie Broughton. March 2008

Incipient snowdrops in Vermont

-> Voir la liste des figures


Matthew Arnold’s 1879 introduction to his Golden Treasury selected Wordsworth complained he then was “not fully recognized at home” and “not recognized at all abroad” (Arnold 334). Yet enough had changed by 1916, when George McLean Harper initiated the modern tradition of Wordsworth biography in English by writing:

Wordsworth is more widely read and more often quoted than any other English poet, except Shakespeare and Milton. He is therefore a power in the world. Countless thousands of English-speaking men and women have died and been forgotten. The influence of every one of them lives, no doubt, and will live for ever, but only a few survive by name and with some degree of fullness. His mind and heart, his view of life as a whole, his most delicate perceptions, his innermost feelings, are still a part of the spiritual world in which we move, and there is every likelihood that what we may call his personality will continue to exist for many generations.

Harper 1

What interests me about the passage is the sense of Wordsworth as “a power in the world” in which not only his poems, but also his feelings, still almost as a material phenomenology make “a part”—and the reference to the idea that this is not just an English, but an “English-speaking” world. Though Harper’s two-volume biography does little to back up that sense of the Anglophone not just English Wordsworth, the feeling mentioned at the start offers a global reckoning of lives that are lost to history at least in terms of “degree of fullness.” Published at the height of the Great War, Harper’s study—for what it’s worth—also notes major debts to Emile Legouis’s Early Life of Wordsworth, a groundbreaking 1897 biography in French. Wordsworth’s French Daughter, a slim book Harper released soon after in 1921 and which he expected Legouis to supercede, was the first officially to break news concerning Annette Vallon and the title’s focus, Wordsworth’s till then “secret” daughter Caroline (Gill 233-34; Mahoney 46).

That small wave of exploration following the poet to France a century ago prompts the unfinished work of following him even further, outside the merely biographical footprint and beyond Europe. In a 1928 essay, “Wordsworth in the Tropics,” Aldous Huxley made some inroads to this area concern and speculation. His fascinating antipathetic essay, however, is by no means a plea on behalf of the colonized. Huxley argues that Wordsworth’s “pantheism” depends on an increasing domestication of the strangeness of nature—a strangeness he could do more to acknowledge Wordsworth as originally indicating:

He will not admit that a yellow primrose is simply a yellow primrose—beautiful, but essentially strange, having its own alien life apart. He wants it to possess some sort of soul, to exist humanly, not simply flowerily.

Huxley 117

This observation has all the charge of a basic discovery of the poet’s uncanny registers, except in my view it is oriented the wrong way. Any human intimation of modes of being that exist “flowerily” Huxley could only have gotten from modes of estrangement found in Wordsworth himself, starting in Peter Bell’s curious assertion that “A primrose by a river’s brim / A yellow primrose was to him, / And it was nothing more” (PW 190). Disingenuously, Huxley claims Wordsworth has suppressed impersonal modes of being he instead originally discloses. The distinction is one about habits that shape perceptual priorities, in which mere ambient contiguity is more important to notice than color for Wordsworth, a secondary quality based on Lockean “sense impressions.” “Wordsworthian” motives for travel nevertheless lead modern Europeans in the poet’s wake “to falsify their immediate intuitions of nature” as a potential threat or obstacle (117). “A few weeks in Malaya or Borneo would have undeceived him,” Huxley maintains (114). The idea of Wordsworthian chastity recurs:

Nature, under a vertical sun, and nourished by equatorial rains, is not at all like the chaste, mild deity who presides over the Gemüthlichkeit, the prettiness, the cozy sublimities of the Lake District.


Joel Pace and other scholars of transatlantic-American Wordsworth “convey,” in the words a foreword by Stephen Gill, “a sense of the intellectual excitement of trying to contribute to a new phase in the exploration of cultural traffic” (Pace and Scott xi). Yet the non-European significance of the poet remains a fascinating topic that awaits more definitive work: [6] a point that Gill as the standard-bearing contemporary biographer makes in a candid allowance to his splendid Wordsworth and the Victorians (1998):

During the excursion to the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, Ronnie and Adela draw momentarily closer together through a shared memory: ‘ “Do you remember Grasmere?” ‘ Wordsworth’s own landscape, ‘Romantic yet manageable,’ rises up between them and the alien, unassimilable, Marabar Hills. But what image of Grasmere was formed by children in Indian schools, for whom Wordsworth’s poetry was part of the curriculum, or by readers in Australia or Canada or the West Indies? Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest is a justly acclaimed pioneering study, but it lacks the kind of detail that could provide a sense of the imaginative experience of such readers encountering at several thousand miles distance the Englishness of English literature. Wordsworth in the Empire is a book waiting to be written[.]

Gill 9

Unless one just concedes to modernism’s willful simplification of the poet, what this comment suggests to me is that the “Romantic” must always be reassessed to throw off the “manageable.” A generation ago, isn’t that what deconstructive and otherwise theoretical approaches did to the Lakes: render their poet’s language “alien” again? As what amounts to Gill’s recommended title, Wordsworth in the Empire, too, has the added benefit of suggesting from the beginning an appropriation and use of the poet—not the self-presence of his life, voice, or ideas. The work of one of romanticism’s most astute theoretical commentators, David Simpson’s essay, “Wordsworth and Empire—Just Joking,” signals its bearings with the title. That “the anthropological other begins at home” is as far as even Simpson goes in claiming Wordsworth’s overt role in imperial ventures (192)—a bracing point that Alan Bewell had earlier substantiated in Wordsworth and the Enlightenment (1989). Bewell’s next book, Romanticism and Colonial Disease (1999), indicates that whether or not the biography supports it in Wordsworth’s case, urgency in the field has run from accounts of “domestic anthropology” to more fully global configurations. The key lies in moving beyond the narrow referential pale of Wordsworth’s chosen subjects, in which he writes about those returned from colonial ventures (as did Jane Austen) as the furthest we can say. Richard Matlak’s Deep Distresses (2003), a study of the poet and his brother John, who served as captain of an East India vessel that sunk famously in 1805, establishes a strong and (in a family way) obvious tether between Wordsworth and imperial ventures. Before his death, John at least had in mind financial support for William and Dorothy through the triangular opium trade.

East India House connections are nearly impossible to escape, in a period whose literary fixtures include gadabout employees like Lamb and Peacock, and later the Mills, father and son. Interestingly, then, when John Stuart Mill credits Wordsworth’s poetry as a saving force during what the Autobiography recounts as “A Crisis in my Mental History, One Stage Onward,” a deliberately unsexed contrast to Byron’s works—“the vehement sensual passion of his Giaours, or sullenness of his Laras”—directly encourages the sense in which the Wordsworthian lyric mode of Poems (1815) “proved to be the precise thing” (Mill 95). We see at its birth in Mill’s crisis the paradox of how a Wordsworthian, desensualized desire more fully hits the spot not roused by Byron. What makes Mill’s language here interesting, I am suggesting, is that he paradoxically hints at sexual or at least spirituous fulfillment in his praise of Wordsworth over Byron as the more chaste. Perhaps then Mill does not so much raise the testimonial to Wordsworth for his neuter solemnity, as point out a recipe for the hypersensitive. Hinting at a spirit that informs both imperialism and globally activist thought on either hand, Mill inherits Wordsworth’s own relation to poetic imagination as the habit to form most vivid reactions when less is made pressingly given—to build up greatest things from least suggestions—a kind of emotional action at a distance that takes intimacy itself out the realm of bodies colliding.


If Simpson’s “joke” structure of raising the topic of Wordsworth and empire has the effect of at once positing and pulling its relevance, it need not be so under slightly translated conditions. Obviously Wordsworth lived in an era whose colonialist fruits shipped to everyone, and whether it be in the occasional appearance of slavery in his poetry, his friends’ laudanum addictions, or the simple consumption of tea and sugar (the “blood sugar” of which Timothy Morton writes)—empire had saturated even the Lakes.

Empire always tangentially brushed Wordsworth through the presence of opium. Coleridge used most famously; that, and drink, led to a horrible falling out between them in 1810. But De Quincey’s record in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822) actually strikes closer to home. Large chunks of the text are set within Dove Cottage, The Prelude and Home at Grasmere’s receptive nest (the answer to The Prelude’s “what dwelling shall receive me?”) once it ended its role as the Wordsworth family omphalos. De Quincey resituates Wordsworthian seclusion in an uncanny way in The Confessions. The introduction to “The Pains of Opium” is extravagant in its scene-setting “analysis of happiness,” offering, as Bewell shows, a replay of God’s creation of the world on a nested, creaturely scale in the “Let there be a cottage” passage (De Quincey 58ff): “Let the mountains be real mountains,” with height specified; “Let [the season], however, not be spring…—but winter in its sternest shape” (59). De Quincey brilliantly diagnoses both Wordsworth’s odd practice of taking measurements in some lyrical ballads, and the more profound habit throughout his poetry to give jussive commands that either overspecify a weird content or tell nature to do what it already is doing. “De Quincey indeed is Wordsworth’s abjected other,” Bewell states (Romanticism and Colonial Disease 157). “The speed with which De Quincey moves from the world of Wordsworth to the fevered world of the East is extraordinary” (156). Taking his tea by the fire from 8pm till 4 (as though that didn’t keep the imperial other on yet more intimate terms, in this resolve not to take opium and stick to tea), the contiguous section in which a “Malay visitor” appears at the cottage and evokes specters of miscegenation by standing too close to De Quincey’s local “girl” (see Leask), brings issues round to Wordsworth as though his local, chaste muse were finally receiving its much–delayed supplement. There is a moment of recoil in the karmic activity of globalization. Here Wordsworth the domestic anthropologist is made to face the discomfiting, full resonance of that enterprise beyond its local circumscription. To adapt the famous ethnographic scene garnering the “thick description” of Clifford Geertz, we follow the Malay visitor surrealistically morphing into an anthropological reality coming home to roost on the poet. It is as if a Balinese cockfight had broken out at his door. In the narrative we do not know absolutely whether the Malay is “real” or not; nor whether, having been given a whole bar of opium on accident by De Quincey, he goes off to live or die. The unhinged treatment of this event in The Confessions is alternately careless and histrionic, and within the discontinuous flow of the self-account goes as far as to project a shifted reading of all those similar Wordsworthian characters—marginally-situated leech gatherers and beggars suddenly manifesting their creaturely opacity upon a landscape not so much to live or die later on, but to suggest both states indifferently merged at once in Wordsworth’s forerunner of Rilke and Heidegger’s “Open,” Agamben’s “bare,” or Santner’s “creaturely,” life.

Other second-generation accounts of Wordsworth bear a less devastatingly exact sense of their role in ironically expanding and fulfilling his mission, yet bring sexuality to the poet in an even more forthright way. Canto One of Byron’s Don Juan (begun 1818) notoriously portrays Juan as sleepwalking into sex with Donna Julia. Byron plays up the ardor of the allegedly platonic side of Lake Poetry, leaving self-deceit to its own devices to act as Juan’s pimp. He uses the word “plant” in Don Juan Canto Three: “But one thing’s pretty sure; a woman planted— / (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)— / After a decent interval must be gallanted” (Byron 488). Both the planting and the plunging here flaunt a male sexuality not witnessed so outrageously in literature since Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale. In Canto One Byron had already insinuated that metaphysical, “unutterable” desires (for “the stars”) are really determined lustfully (by Julia’s “eyes” [Byron 401]). Given this drive’s functioning independently of, or even against, the intellect, the opacity to self-knowledge for which Wordsworth is made to stand actually helps grease the wheels in fulfilling “nature’s ” urges. This is a poet of sexually enabling, and not just ontically disarming, inattention.

Shelley’s Peter Bell the Third (written 1819) shows a very different approach while nonetheless taking its cue from Don Juan’s conceit. Where Byron argues that philosophical poetry, or nature worship, acts to screen the everyday magnetic pull of sex, Shelley associates a Wordsworthian care for nature with a refusal to go all the way and achieve, in violating what he elsewhere calls nature’s “painted veil,” an independent humanism that stands on the other side of final knowledge:

Thus—though unimaginative,
 An apprehension clear, intense,
Of his mind’s work, had made alive
The things it wrought on; I believe
 Wakening a sort of thought in sense.

But from the first ‘twas Peter’s drift
 To be a kind of moral eunuch
He touched the hem of Nature’s shift,
Felt faint—and never dared uplift
 The closest, all-concealing tunic.

Shelley 351

Byron had portrayed a conveniently self-screening thought, which masks all-too understandable hungers so that they might proceed freely to their attainment, not hearing (as Wordsworth writes of Godwinism in The Prelude) the sound of their own names. Shelley by contrast has his Wordsworth-clone waken thinking out of a sensually dormant, wintry earth. But the encounter is foreshortened on both ends by his being alternately an idolater or a prude. Nature says Burns “knew…my joy” (352), but The Prelude on roughly the same topic decides not to pursue the randy nationalist theme of “How Wallace fought for Scotland, left the name / Of Wallace to be found like a wild flower / All over his dear country” (1805 Prelude, 1.213-215). In perhaps the only lines of his work I would want to insist are Byronically funny (see McGann 183-185), Wordsworth offers a continually fresh surprise here in how closely low humor and heights of honor are merged. Are the “Wallaces” everywhere planted verbally or biologically engendered? Is it a Christian or a surname? Or a mix? The difference between this and Don Juan speaks only through The Prelude’s contextualization of the Wallace story as what Wordsworth’s new form of epic will not pursue (or rather what it brings up, lavishes attention upon, and then says it cannot pursue) and therefore presumably what to the poet had not been known well enough.


Rewarding as it is to find the funny bits in The Prelude, the frisky dogs, the whole poem conceivably dubbed a protracted “lark” in scheme as well as in the flight of its song (1805, 13.380), it is misleading to imply that such a reading of Wordsworth’s flowers initiated my sense of planting as a topic. Rather, it was love for Wordsworth’s passage on the past being “disowned by memory,” and a sense of something not yet fully verbalized even in David Bromwich’s extraordinary writing about its contexts. The first book nearly ends:

 I began
My story early, feeling, as I fear,
The weakness of a human love for days
Disowned by memory—ere the birth of spring
Planting my snowdrops among winter snows.

1805, 1. 640-644

Wordsworth was a fine gardener (Buchanan) and by some accounts a “landscape architect” (Thompson). In 1803, he was exhorted by his patron Sir George Beaumont to “plant” and dwell on a gifted deed of land near the village of Applethwaite—a gift that Wordsworth complexly refused in an 1804 sonnet. In The Prelude, planting serves as a metaphor for constructive recollection, or better, it marks how he over-attributes significance back into an early time that perhaps then could not have supported it. Among the earliest flowers of spring in Britain, snowdrops are a figure for memory’s initial fruits: an unripe, insupportable, harvest. If he means planting bulbs here, it is an extended naturalistic metaphor that reflects Wordsworth’s faith in the fruition of an obscure past. The model would be organic. But then why is there a “fear,” instead of a georgic celebration, of generative latency? One answer is that there may still be some kind of killing frost. If, however, he is planting already-bloomed flowers of the Lowes garden- supply type—or the full flowers of rhetoric—it is both an act of transplantation and a denatured, figural image from the beginning. Such a notion seems to have prompted the Norton editors’ unadventurous note: “Attributing snowdrops—a full flowering of memory—to a period when there would have been only snow” (Prelude 62). Beyond this, the image of snowdrops on snow adds a complicating tint, a zone of indistinction to borrow Giorgio Agamben’s phrase, where both the arbitrary linguistic repetition of words (the same except for what’s “dropped”) and the “real” colors involved suggest Wordsworth wants to lose past experience as much as to preserve, arrange and ground it. Purer in language and in the mind’s eye than in actual winter inspection, snowdrops offer a kind of cover that is, at best, speckled and off-white.

Using a near tautology of figure (snowdrops) and ground (snow) to face an aporetic block between fictive and natural reference, this all is very reminiscent of de Man’s great analysis in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984) of “the intrinsic ontological primacy of the natural object.” “Poetic language seems to originate in the desire to draw closer to the ontological status of the object,” de Man writes. “There can be flowers that ‘are’ and poetic words that ‘originate,’ but no poetic words that ‘originate’ as if they ‘were’” (de Man 7). The poet wants to plant words like a gardener, and the gardener-poet to posit all the same out of nothing like God. By either means he would like to sustain, or reveal if possible, in words the fantasy of organic matter. And words are solid matter if only at the level of the materiality of the signifier, when their referential meaning is slit and sluiced out. What is of interest in Wordsworth’s rhetoric of planted memories lies as much in the way this verbal act disregards flowers, though, outside The Prelude. In the 1798 lyrical ballad, “The Convict,” there are the lines: “My care, if the arm of the mighty were mine, / Would plant thee where yet thou might’st blossom again” (PW 485). Here we have all the elements at a point of transition beyond flowers: the gardener-god (“the mighty”) and the fiction that a person saved for the future “might’st blossom again” like a perennial. But “The Convict” gives the whole maneuver a human referent: not just a person, but a marked and non-normative person that can be saved only if given a new start, planted or placed in alternately constructive environment. Or simply deported?

In Wordsworth’s other plantings he darkly implies a self that also is non-normative. “Peele Castle” (1806), the elegy written to cope with John’s death, holds:

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.

PW 453

No longer about the social arts of optimal resituating and the imagined conditions of future growth, this planting levels a charge on Huxley’s “cozy” Lake District repose as a Scheinkultur factitiously protected. Though the passage from The Prelude betrays no less sophistication in is volatile yet largely positive construction of what memory plants, Wordsworth’s argument in “Peele Castle” urges our consent to its demystifications as permanent news. Beyond even John Wordsworth’s death, the diminution and self-critique involved in such an effort goes toward reimagining what the artist had done while planting all this time. (“Peele Castle” enacts the performative and retroactive conditionality of all open “promises” of emotion—there are no mere emotions without this strictly unjustified, promissory, extension of each demystified “unit” of experience.) With acuity, Wordsworth realizes his poetry does not assign roles to inert objects, but is an effort of “spreading the tone” around in Coleridge’s manure-invoking image: an effort that either sustains or collapses within a total imaginaire of ambient environment. [7] The act of will points well beyond will, and applies to Wordsworth’s placement of the castle “pile” like a sandbox toy within the tonal surround of an entire “world.” In the guise of a painter who talks like a gardener, Wordsworth approaches the language of a God most directly in drowning his miscreation once he identifies an allegedly false sunniness and rejects it. Already in opposition to early eighteenth-century tastes for Palladian landscape architecture, Wordsworth’s elegy once more echoes and revises the “Epistle to Burlington” in its stoically naturalistic alignment of painting and planting. If, for Pope, the Genius of Nature itself “Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs” (line 64), at the very least “Peele Castle” refuses to naturalize the painting metaphor, drawing out this relationship instead in the poem’s ekphrastic identification with Beaumont’s painting: two entirely human arts of recognition, adaptation, and defense.

What, then, are Wordsworth’s intimations about the ongoing relevance of a non-human “design”? His aggressive self-revision defaces an idealism larger than anyone’s biography. The language of planting has a strong idealist precedent in Kant’s account of the dynamically sublime: “the faculty which is planted in us of estimating the might without fear, and of regarding our estate as exalted above it” (Kant 83). It also carries the internal force of Protestant moral invective in Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman (1792): “The father of a family will not then weaken his constitution and debase his sentiments, by visiting the harlot, nor forget, in obeying the call of appetite, the purpose for which it was implanted” (Wollstonecraft 105); and later: “The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty” (109). Yet emerging definitions of my keyword plant at the time simultaneously involved economic scheming and criminality. The OED gives: “a hoard of stolen goods”; “to hide, to conceal; esp. stolen goods”; “to place (gold dust, ore, etc.) in a mining claim in order to give a false impression of its productiveness; to ‘salt’ ” (definitions 7a, 8, 9a).

“Planting” women is what Byron bragged to have done as a cavalier servente, the gallant who at once had his way and observed the social arts of a “decent interval.” It is what you do to a “mark” or set-up victim of a crime, as in Blake’s “London.” It is what pirates do with their treasure, or the “hoard” itself; what miners do to misdirect others about the productivity of their finds. It also, of course, is what Wordsworth does with his uneasily grounded memories and snowdrops in what might still be taken as an innocent or provincial figurative language of flowers. But the variety of divergent cultural and thematic ends that planting serves, and the weed-like extensions of the economies of a Wordsworthian self beyond the Lake District, suggest a more heterogeneous conclusion. The human figure in “She dwelt among th’untrodden ways” is described as “A Violet by a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the Eye,” and even she gets more loving than we would expect, as “A Maid whom there were none to praise / And very few to love” (italics added). Like the lupines of Miss Rumphius, the snowdrop’s conceptual proliferation is enhanced by its being so “Chaste,” and this violet seems to have gotten some, or at least a few offers from the locals, before “Lucy ceased to be” (PW 86): a jarring but also humanizing note, in this set of lyrics about the allegorical female, minerals, and fits of alienation.

In an exciting and plausible reading of the poem that makes Wordsworth over unsurprisingly in the image of John Donne, Cleanth Brooks noted the presence of irony in his question, “Which is Lucy really like—the violet or the star? (“Irony as a Principle of Structure” 735). But his essay never quite extends the comparison to Donne in terms of sheer erotic display; Brooks follows up his analysis with the concession that instead plays toward the religious side of New Critical methodology: “Now one does not want to enter an Act of Uniformity against the poets. Wordsworth is entitled to his method of simple juxtaposition with no underscoring of ironical contrast” (Ibid., 735). In the telescoped remarks above, I’ve suggested not only locating that “ironical contrast” but hearing a downright sexual candor just under the surface of the poem, or under the pseudo-“Wordsworthian” crust of what we have been able to acknowledge in his poetry. If we are startled here, it is because we recognize that Wordsworth—the great poet of “spousal verse”— indirectly or even jokingly represents the experience of love without praise. True, poetic reflection upon this experience is perhaps kept “manageable” because of Lucy’s confinement to what “I travelled among unknown men” calls the mountains of his specifically English desire. Yet simply admitting such a frank mode to the possibility of loving is to understand a wholly non-transcendent register of Wordsworth living, and observing others to live, within the series of local horizons of his own life but also beyond them; he attests to others within and beyond the careful placement of his own language, his words’ contexts and tones, and their capacity for off-key multiplicities of implication. And it is that explosion of horizon beyond intent that sends forth the poet’s language as the seeds of his embodied choices into a poetics of at once imperial and postcolonial world-forming.

Parties annexes