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Vagrancy Smoked Out: Wordsworth 'betwixt Severn and Wye'

  • David Chandler

…plus d’informations

  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

Blessed is the Eye, / That is betwixt Severn and Wye

(Old Proverb)

Wordsworth was 'betwixt Severn and Wye' when he wrote Tintern Abbey. Could he have known the proverb of the 'Blessed ... Eye'? It is a intriguing speculation given the poem's manifold references to the organ of sight ('Once again / Do I behold...'; 'I again... view'; 'Once again I see...'; 'These forms of beauty have not been to me / As is a landscape to a blind man's eye...'; 'with an eye made quiet...'; 'We see into the life of things'; 'had no need of... / ... any interest / Unborrowed from the eye'; 'I have learned / To look...'; 'all that we behold'; 'the mighty world / Of eye...'; 'thy wild eyes' (twice); 'May I behold...'; 'all which we behold...'). If Wordsworth did know the proverb, it was probably directly or indirectly from the account of the proverbs of Herefordshire in Thomas Fuller's classic History of the Worthies of England, and Fuller's gloss may illuminate a section of Wordsworth's poem that has been recently much discussed:

Some will justly question the Truth hereof. True it is, the Eyes of those Inhabitants are entertained with a pleasant Prospect, yet such, as is equalled by other places. But it seems this is a prophetical promise of Safety to such that live secured within those great rivers, as if privileged from Martial impressions. But alas! Civil War is a vagrant, and will trace all corners, except they be surrounded with Gyges his ring. Surely some eyes in that place, besides the Sweet Rivers of Severn and Wye, running by them, have had Salt Waters flowing from them, since the beginning of our late Distractions.  [1]

'Civil War is a vagrant' is the type of strong conceit that lingers in the mind. If Wordsworth knew the proverb from Fuller, he is likely to have recalled this gloss as well. And if he did, can it be accidental that his view of the same 'pleasant Prospect', at a time of war, seems disturbed - in the reading of recent critics - by 'vagrant dwellers' (my emphasis) of 'strictly notional being'?  [2] At the least, I will argue that this passage in Fuller provides a striking parallel to Wordsworth's poem.

A vision of 'Civil War' might well be marked by rising 'wreaths of smoke'. In the passage of Tintern Abbey in question, Wordsworth refers to:

     wreaths of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,

With some uncertain notice, as might seem,

Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,

Or of some hermit's cave, where by his fire

The hermit sits alone.

ll. 18-23  [3]

'Wandering gypsies and a hermit appear, part of the traditional romantic landscape', Geoffrey Hartman wrote of these lines in 1954, immediately adding 'though much will eventually have to be said on Wordsworth's use of the hermit figure'.  [4] His reading of the passage is naturally a very fine one, but the disproportionate emphasis is worrying. If the hermit is invested with so much significance - Hartman proceeds to describe him as 'a relic of eternity and prophet of the immortal sea's return' (Hartman 1954, p. 35) - can the 'vagrant dwellers', part of the same smoke-inspired 'possibility of passionate fiction', (Hartman 1954, p. 10) be dismissed so lightly as a picturesque detail? In fact this disproportion was endemic to all Wordsworthian criticism before the 1980s, when a shift in critical focus inspired a new interest in the vagrants. The best-known reading of the passage since then has, of course, been Marjorie Levinson's:

... the smoke wreathes, which figure in the passage as a kind of natural sacrifice to the benevolent God responsible for the rich harmony of the scene, are perversely demystified by those curious lines, 'as might seem, / Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods'. The curiosity of the phrase is, of course, its gratuitous allusion to the vagrants. The strictly notional being of these figures ('as might seem...') marks an attempt to elide the confessed factual intelligence. Or, while the passage explicitly associate the smoke with the cosy pastoral farms, and situates the image as an instance of natural supernaturalism, the 'surmise' identifies the smoke as the effects of charcoal burning. More to the point, it identifies those idealised vagrants - a sort of metonymic slide toward the hermit/poet - as the actual charcoal burners who migrated according to the wood supply and the market.... Moreover, we observe that by equating the wanderers with the hermit - one who possesses even less than they but whose spirit is inversely enriched and exalted - Wordsworth further discredits the factual knowledge hiding in the representation. Following the text, we forget that hermits choose their poverty; vagrants suffer it.

Levinson, p. 43

If this adjusts the balance between vagrants and hermit, the statement of the relationship between them is not, I think, unexceptionable. To read the vagrants as 'a sort of metonymic slide toward the hermit/poet' imposes an interpretation on the text, but one that squares a little oddly with what Levinson considers the 'perverse demystification' inherent in the 'gratuitous allusion to the vagrants'. The latter idea proposes a ruffled calm, the point of unease being the vagrants, and it is not clear to me how the vagrants can both mark disturbance and stand for 'a sort of metonymic slide' back to the undoubtedly calm hermit. In fact the 'Or' ('Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods / Or of some hermit's cave') may introduce a substitute term, but may, just as plausibly, introduce a contradictory term. Here it is worth recalling Kenneth Johnston's description of the hermit 'surmise' as an 'internally corrective supposition'.  [5] Despite the description, Johnston, like Levinson, actually regarded the 'surmise' as a second-order displacement: Wordsworth was aware of beggars in the woods, idealised them into 'vagrant dwellers', then 'further distanc[ed] them into the Hermit'. (Johnston, p. 9) As with aspects of Levinson's reading, the assumption seems to be that Wordsworth's scene of composition was a few yards rather than a 'Few Miles' from the abbey. But insistence on 'the facts' ought to be consistent: it is reasonable to assume that Wordsworth 'knew' the smoke came from charcoal burning and of the considerable difference between a charcoal burner and a beggar. Despite Levinson's description of the former's 'obviously ... marginal livelihood' (Levinson, p. 29) the massive demand for charcoal by the local iron works  [6] must have ensured its producers a safe, albeit humble, occupation. Rather than idealising beggars, then, I would suggest that 'vagrant dwellers' rather de-idealises charcoal burners before decisively idealising them in the hermit 'surmise'. Thus Johnston's 'internally corrective supposition', though accurate in itself, would better describe a mind resisting rather than exaggerating its initial direction: a mind doubling back on itself. The vagrants, in short, mark one pole in Wordsworth's mental landscape, the hermit another.

If this is correct, and if, as most critics have assumed, the hermit is a type of self-projection,  [7] then the 'vagrant dwellers' too were presumably a kind of self-projection: one that, once spoken, inspired the 'corrective' 'surmise'. Within the terms of the poem the hermit is likely to reflect the Wordsworth of 1798, thus the 'vagrant dwellers' the Wordsworth of 1793. This conjecture is supported by a consideration of the poem's autobiographical fiction. As Stephen Gill tersely remarks:

... factually it [Tintern Abbey] is not true. It is not surprising that Wordsworth should have erased what he was in 1793 - tormented by his impotent hostility to his own country's policies, by his responsibility to Annette and their child, by lack of direction and financial independence.  [8]

Too much New Historicist emphasis on the erasure of historical markers from the scene of writing can distract attention from this, more fundamental, 'erasure'. Cracks in a poem's smooth surface can reflect a biographical-historical just as readily as a locodescriptive-historical tension. And this, I would argue, is the case here: in the shapes made by the smoke the reality of Wordsworth's situation in 1793 ghosted back to haunt him. That there had been something vagrant-like in that situation is clear enough, as witness Gill, who strikingly uses the word:

... what evidence there is ... indicates that Wordsworth had become a gentleman vagrant and that when in February 1794 he admitted to Mathews, 'I have been doing nothing and still continue to be doing nothing', he was summing up with unsparing accuracy. During the previous year he had lived briefly in London, the Isle of Wight, and Wales, and had slept under many roofs between Salisbury and Plas-yn-Llan. By the close of the year he had moved north again.  [9]

Mary Moorman had previously suggested that on his first Wye visit Wordsworth probably 'looked more like a common tramp than a gentleman on holiday' - and was treated accordingly.  [10]

'Five years have passed, five years since I came here as a ... "vagrant"'; this, I suggest, is the thought that briefly troubles Wordsworth, leading him to speculatively 'source' its immediate inspiration (the smoke) in a gipsy camp fire. (The woods were the dark part of the landscape, an appropriate home for dark thoughts.) Even if Wordsworth was under the impression that there were real 'vagrants' in his 'pleasant Prospect' it need not be assumed that they were his imaginative starting-point for the 'surmise', as Levinson and Johnston do. (In fact the primary direction of Wordsworth's mind may have been towards, rather than away from, 'reality'.) But Wordsworth's initial sourcing prompts an immediate 'corrective supposition', the basis of the larger fiction which the poem will develop. A hermit is always at home, his life taken up with worship. His existence is always focussed, always strengthened from without, which is just what Wordsworth's was not in 1793. The Fuller passage would offer powerful support for such a reading with its parallel emphasis on the dark places ('Martial impressions') in the same 'pleasant Prospect'. It was the outbreak of war in 1793 that had given Wordsworth the first 'shock' to his 'moral nature' 'that might be named / A revolution'. His vagrancy was thus coloured by feelings of being 'at war' with England; of being engaged, in other words, in a personal 'civil war':

[I] Exulted in the triumph of my soul

When Englishman by thousands were o'erthrown,

Left without glory on the field, or driven,

Brave hearts, to shameful flight.  [11]

Putting these ideas together - and one can reasonably imagine they were closely associated in Wordsworth's mind - 'Civil War [wa]s a vagrant' whenever and wherever William Wordsworth was on the move. Like Milton's Satan, who found his hell within, there was no escape for Wordsworth: no landscape, no 'Blessed eye', could, in 1793, free him from his civil war. Yet having, by 1798, come to build an imaginative faith quite specifically around the idea of the 'Blessed eye',  [12] Wordsworth became eager to redeem his former self. Thus he presented himself as a nature-worshipper in 1793, yet even in that description could not fully erase the memory of wartime vagrancy, of a fugitive self with danger's voice behind:

I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led: more like a man

Flying from something that he dreads, than one

Who sought the thing he loved.

ll. 69-73

If Wordsworth associated the 'vagrant dwellers' with his 1793 feelings about the war, then Damian Walford Davies' recent argument that the hermit too has specifically wartime resonances supports, and is supported by, mine.  [13] Walford Davies demonstrates that there was a specific hermit associated with Tintern: Tewdrig the Blessed, 'a sixth-to-early-seventh century king of Gwent and saint'. The point of the Tewdrig story, as Walford Davies emphasises, is that Tewdrig was called out of his hermitage to face a Saxon invasion: 'The hermit hints at the need Wordsworth felt in 1798 to keep fighting'. (Walford Davies, p. 424) The total shape of the 'surmise' inspired by the smoke would then be a sort of miniature Elijah-on-Horeb narrative: the despairing outlaw-prophet retreats into the wilderness (vagrant), is strengthened by the 'still small voice' of God (hermit), and finally emerges to confound his enemies (poet of The Recluse).

Could Wordsworth have known the Worthies? He later owned the book,  [14] but there is no evidence that he knew it this early - that, of course, is very different from evidence that he did not. He would appear to have known Fuller's History of the Holy Warre, a copy of which was in the Racedown Lodge library.  [15] The Worthies was an established classic by the 1790s, and in general was well known to the first generation Romantics. Southey borrowed it from Bristol Library in 1795 and quoted from 'Fuller, of quaint memory' in the preface to Joan of Arc (1796). Coleridge may well have read it then, and had certainly done so by November 1801; he later annotated the book and had a high opinion of it.  [16] Lamb published 'Specimens from Fuller, the Church Historian' in Leigh Hunt's Reflector in 1812: there he was concerned with displaying just such bold turns of expression (some of them from the Worthies) as the passage discussed here.  [17] If Wordsworth did know the Worthies, there were other reasons, beside the obvious applicability to his own case of Fuller's account of the 'Blessed ... Eye', for him to recall it when near Tintern. As Nicholas Roe has pointed out, Wordsworth was in 'geographically ambiguous country ... an area of historical conflict', with nearby Chepstow Castle 'a monument to the failure of the English Revolution' - a revolution manifest in just that 'vagrant' Civil War lamented by Fuller.  [18]

Roe's account is worth evoking more broadly for he too was interested in how other texts - primarily King Lear - may have shaped this passage of Tintern Abbey. Indeed these are the sort of con-texts, largely ignored in the New Historicist accounts of Wordsworth, which precisely do - pace Alan Liu - 'cue texts in the way the stick imparts spin and direction to the billiard ball'.  [19] Particularly, it might be added, Wordsworthian texts. The classic discussion is Geoffrey Hartman's 'Words, Wish, Worth: Wordsworth' which begins with an analysis of Wordsworth's 1816 poem '"A LITTLE onward lend thy guiding hand"' and its 'usurping' opening quotation from Samson Agonistes. Hartman argues that this poem makes explicit what is often implicit in Wordsworth's poetry:

The voluntary or involuntary utterances that rise in him are not allowed to gain even an artificial ascendancy.... Quotation or exclamation marks keep them in quarantine: no easy, integrating path leads from the absolute or abrupt image to the meditation that preserves it.  [20]

These 'utterances' can be inspired by, among other things, recollection of literary texts (as the 1816 poem makes clear) or troublesome memories. Because Tintern Abbey makes 'integration' look comparatively easy, one should not lose sight of the fact that it is going on: indeed this is why Levinson is troubled by 'perverse demystification', 'gratuitous allusion', and 'an attempt' (my emphasis) at elision. The smoke had given Wordsworth a shock of surprise, a shock which, recalled, would later prompt the addition of an explicit exclamation: 'wreaths of smoke / Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!' [21] Notably, in his earlier account of Tintern Abbey Hartman was puzzled by this added exclamation mark:

We find no climax [in the first verse paragraph], although the placing of the second exclamation mark is curious. Why is there such surprise at smoke rising from the trees? The sentence, in any case, even as after the first exclamation, does not stop, but goes on to a leisurely close.

Hartman 1954, p. 3

The obvious answer to Hartman's question, as I have argued here, is that Wordsworth was not surprised by the smoke (presumably in his ken all along) but by an idea released by the smoke. Because Hartman regarded the vagrants as no more than a picturesque fancy, he was reluctant to admit any check to the poet's smooth stream-of-consciousness, any 'abrupt image' that might require quarantining. But reading the conclusions of 'Words, Wish, Worth: Wordsworth' back through the added exclamation mark is to recognise a disturbance, a threat of discontinuity, being registered. Fuller, strikingly, in considering the same stretch of countryside as Wordsworth had also found himself imposing a sort of quarantine on his most disturbing idea: 'Civil War is a vagrant'. Fuller's quarantining took the form of giving the threat a timeless, proverbial air, and there is also something ageless about Wordsworth's solution, hence the 'oxymoronic quality', observed by Johnston, of 'vagrant dwellers'. (Johnston, p. 8) That Fuller's quarantined idea entered Wordsworth's consciousness to be submitted to a new form of quarantine is a real possibility, I have suggested, but Wordsworth did not need such a stimulus to be disturbed by an involuntary recollection of himself in 1793. In either case, we must, as Hartman says, 'read the writer as a reader' (Hartman 1979, p. 187) - as an interpreter of smoke signals.

Parties annexes