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Toby R. Benis, Romanticism on the Road: The Marginal Gains of Wordsworth's Homeless. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. ISBN: 0312223021 (hardback). Price: US$59.95 (£47.50).

  • Patrick Vincent

…plus d’informations

  • Patrick Vincent
    University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Despite its title, this book is not really about the road, nor does it make Wordsworth into a Beat poet. But Toby Benis's Romanticism on the Road does address a very timely and still controversial subject: homelessness. In the past few years, the debate on homelessness in the United States has petered out at the same time that the homeless of New York City have been mysteriously eclipsed. Under the new Bush administration, it is likely that the Federal government will encourage Mayor Guliani's strong-armed homeless policy on a nation-wide scale. Thus Benis's study of vagrancy during the ideological wars of 1790s England, presented by the author as a "cultural history of vagrancy in the Georgian period as refracted through the early poetry of William Wordsworth" (p. 1), will be of interest not only to the Wordsworth specialist, but also to generalist readers seeking a historical perspective on the relation between homelessness, aesthetics and political ideology.

While Uvedale Price in 1794 was transforming gypsies and beggars into picturesque figures, a young man named William Wordsworth was completing a poem known much later as "Guilt and Sorrow," part of which was published in 1798 as "The Female Vagrant." In a 1795 letter to Francis Wrangham, Wordsworth noted that the purpose of the poem was "to expose the vices of penal law and the calamities of war as they affect individuals." While the final 1842 version of the poem does expose these "vices" and "calamities," it is in its earlier forms that Wordsworth's voice of protest is most strongly heard. His narrator's pathos-filled encounter on Salisbury Plain with the Soldier's Widow is perhaps the most powerful poetic indictment of government policies against marginal behavior in the English language. If the first "Female Vagrant" poem marks the apotheosis of the poet's identification, or literal empathy with the homeless, then Wordsworth's career as a whole may be seen as a repeated revision and distancing from such a figure. Romanticists by now are familiar with the poet's many revisions of himself in the Prelude, revisions intended to yoke together the poet's youthful radicalism with the conservatism of his maturity. Tony Benis's book gives Wordsworth's "politics of self-presentation" (to borrow another title, by Ashton Nichols, in the same 'Romanticism in Perspective' series) a new twist by tracing the figure of marginality from his earliest works such as "An Evening Walk" and "Descriptive Sketches" through the vagrant poems in the Lyrical Ballads all the way to the 1805 Prelude. Benis subtitles her work the "marginal gains of Wordsworth's homeless" not only because the book examines those living on the margins of society, but also because it demonstrates how small are the gains of marginality. If Wordsworth's greatest failure is his inability to finish The Recluse, it might have to something do, argues Benis, with his inability to make the public roles imposed on him coincide with his youthful identification with the homeless.

Romanticism on the Road is not the first history of vagrancy in eighteenth-century England (Benis, for example, quotes Ribton-Turner's 1887 treatise several times) nor is it the only study to examine Wordsworth in light of this history (see, for example, Gary Harrison, 1994 and David Simpson, 1987). However, by grounding her thesis on a Foucauldian set of paradigms, in particular on the contingency of social categories and on the disciplining power of the state, Benis is able to present us, in the earliest poems at least, with a refreshingly novel William Wordsworth. For Benis, "by virtue of the contradictory reactions they generate," the homeless are not on the margin but at the "center of a complex social matrix" (p. 3). A series of laws developed in the early eighteenth century makes vagrancy into a "catch-all" (p. 2), over-determined category revelatory of English society's deepest social and political anxieties. Threatening vagabonds are confused with paupers; war veterans and the victims of industrialization or enclosure are categorized as marginal, even criminal. One of the first studies to rely heavily on Kenneth Johnston's recent biography, The Hidden Wordsworth (and with the caveat that some of Johnston's evidence is inconclusive), Benis makes the case that Wordsworth himself felt marginalized by British society. By identifying in his poems with the homeless, the poet reveals the same effort as the homeless to resist the "ossification or manipulation" (p. 219) of social typecasting. Imagination in a sense comes to equal the freedom of homelessness, and Wordsworth attempts to sustain this imagination through the repeated recourse to marginal figures (much like Keats will do twenty years later with his knight, pale and loitering). However, writes the author, "a different kind of hidden Wordsworth emerges from these pages" (p. 21) than from Johnston's biography. "The puzzle of many of these poems, as incarnated through tropes of vagrancy is precisely a refusal" to see Wordsworth as either a reactionary spy or as a leftist radical (21). Rather, Benis portrays the poet as an ambivalent, perhaps even confused young man.

The Introduction very elegantly summarizes the problem of homelessness in the Georgian era based on historical and contemporary sociological sources as well as on the author's acute critical judgement. Very often in the study, the most perceptive and well-written passages are those in which Benis complements or "personalizes" theory with her own highly intelligent and sensitive comments derived from personal experience. For example, discussing our bad faith in regard to the homeless, she notes that "one's perceptions of the homeless change from day to day, from encounter to encounter" (p. 11) and that, between homelessness then and now, "certain core problems have remained the same" (p. 10). Perhaps the most obvious similarity is the difficulty a society has in pinning down, and therefore sanctioning vagrancy. While the laws against the homeless in the eighteenth century were strict, usually including whipping and jail, these laws were rarely applied by parish officers, who accepted bribes instead. By the turn-of-the-century, whipping had become the exception. Benis points to a "discrepancy between the official script of vagrancy law, which held the homeless were lazy and deserving of punishment, and the actual dramas of their often hapless lives" (p. 10).

Maybe the main critique one may make of Benis's study lies here, in the inability to pin down the term "vagrant." Benis admits that she uses the labels "homeless" and "vagrant" interchangeably, "taking both to signify either those who lack housing, or those with vexed relationships to the community" (p. 12). In fact, in Chapter Three, she introduces the label "quasi-vagrant" in order to be able to discuss characters such as Martha Ray, a figure who is obviously not homeless. Such a broad definition allows Benis, like the State, to see marginality in each and everyone, from veterans' widows to Swiss mercenaries, infanticidal mothers to wayward youth. While such ambiguity reinforces Benis's thesis that marginality necessarily escapes the strictures of social categorization, it does overextend the thematic "margins" of her monograph. In fact, so many different characters are lodged in the "homeless" category that I was surprised, and slightly disappointed to find out that the poet's most notorious homeless hero, the Pedlar, is left out in the cold. The author justifies this choice by arguing that "consolidating the themes concluding the 1805 Prelude, The Excursion presents a Wanderer whose homelessness provides practical and ideological support for community values and national stability" (p. 222).

Chapter One, entitled "Unsettling Powers in Early Landscapes," shows how Wordsworth's earliest homeless figures are still very distant from the hero of The Excursion, confirming Kenneth Johnston's assertion in his biography that the young Wordsworth is perhaps even more radical than we think. In an excellent reading of the earlier and later versions of "Descriptive Sketches," Benis suggests that the poem makes the claim that "we are all homeless in our hearts" (p. 25). After giving a short biographical sketch to demonstrate that Wordsworth in his youth himself felt marginalized by English society, she then shows how the "Descriptive Sketches" presents "psychic homelessness as an honest, even inevitable alternative to delusion in a world littered with the ruins of ideology's false hopes" (p. 37). Benis's postmodern take on the poem comes across even more strongly when she calls it a "qualified, ironic" depiction of the promise of revolutionary ideology rather than simply a radical statement (p. 25). In the context of the Great Fear of 1789, and intensified by his status as foreigner, the young man's walking excursion along the roads of France must have seemed to him as destabilizing an experience as for the lowliest itinerant beggar. Benis's analysis is pushed a little too far, however, when she applies his model of contingency to the figure of the Swiss mercenary. She associates mercenaries with vagrants, and later with "mercenary" poets, arguing that the mercenary tradition is "the most potent emblem of the contingency of national loyalties and local affections" (p. 50). While it is certain that Swiss mercenaries had to juggle with different identities and allegiances, I do not think this made them different from any professional soldier serving in Europe at the time, neither did it in any way diminish their local affection. If anything, the author's characterization is truer of the Swiss today, showing the dangers of anachronism inherent in applying postmodern theory wholesale onto the past.

Chapter Two and Three trace the changes in Wordsworth's representations of homelessness in light of the increasing polarization in 1790s between radical and conservative ideology. Focusing on "Salisbury Plain" in her second chapter, Benis examines how the poem(s) "explore the polyvalent social and legal status, not only of vagrancy itself, but also of the varieties of political expression under attack during the poem's composition" (p. 57). The author argues for a connection between the Government's Sedition Acts, its assault on radicals such as Thelwall and Hardy, and the "vexed domain of vagrancy acts." While interesting and informative, the causality is not established very clearly here: it seems that the influence of political forces upon vagrancy laws happens more through osmosis than through any direct link. Benis, however, convincingly shows how the core of the poem "challenges" definitions of vagrancy law and thus also the government delineating those laws. Particularly useful is the distinction she makes between the examination mode of presenting vagrants used in official reports and growing out of the new "ethic of detached surveillance," and Wordsworth's more humane story-telling mode (p. 66).

The revisions to "Salisbury Plain," much like the Lyrical Ballads as a whole, take into account the oppressive political climate in England, including the spying network which directly affects Wordsworth in Somerset. In a strong reading of "The Thorn," Benis claims that Martha Ray's experience mirrors Wordsworth's own feelings at Alfoxden. Martha is a victim of the loyalist sentiment and local paranoia induced by the invasion scares, fears intensifying at the same time that the poem takes shape in the poet's mind (p. 105). "Martha Ray's fundamental crime is not bastardy or infanticide but rather her position as a mysterious stranger, an abandoned vagrant woman" (p. 101). Infanticide, which, as Benis demonstrates, has traditionally been associated with vagrancy, symbolizes treason on a domestic level. "The Thorn,"argues the author, is a poem which "mourns the breakdown of community tolerance during the 1790s" (p. 108).

In the last two chapters, "Delinquency in the 1802 Poems" and "Errant Thoughts and Social Crimes in The Prelude," Benis shows how Wordsworth capitulates to the community's pressure to clearly define and police vagrancy. The 1802 poems, written during the more tolerant period of the Peace of Amiens, reflect the new emphasis on preventive policing enabled by the "Suspected Persons" Law of 1802. While the poet casts himself in these poems no longer as a vagrant but as a kind of government investigator (in "Beggars" for example), his often dubious speakers and ambiguous narratives (in "The Sailor's Mother" and "Alice Fell") ultimately unsettle these new methods of investigation and attempt to "validate the marginality of homelessness and by extension other kinds of suspect behavior" (p. 142). Just as his finest and most complex example of vagrancy, the old leach gatherer of "Resolution and Independence," begs for proof of his own innocence, Wordsworth seeks an expanded, more tolerant definition for another category of suspect persons, poets.

The Prelude illustrates the failure of this effort; in his autobiographical poem, Wordsworth attempts to make his earlier, equivocal views on vagrancy coincide with his later social conformity and ideological complacency. While the first part of the 1799 poem continues to invalidate the government perspective which allies deviance with political subversion, the 1805 Prelude acquiesces to historical and contemporary pressure, locating vagrancy in a clear "grid of moral and legal practice" (p. 168). This in turn enables the poet to avoid being classified within that grid. The later version of The Prelude treats homelessness as a necessary stage in a person's development, hence the deviant child of the early books, but a stage that cannot be lived eternally (p. 191). The author locates a "second beginning" to Wordsworth's views on vagrancy in Book 8. Thus, "the wanderers and homeless people that do appear late in the 1805 Prelude not only are purged of any subversive potential; they embody some of the most desirable qualities that enable the existing order of society to continue" (p. 192). It is at this point that Benis wraps up her study: after 1805, the political, ideological and creative gains of Wordsworth's marginal figures, most notably the Wanderer, are too slim to be worth examining in any depth. As I pointed out in the beginning of this review, I find this a shame. Whereas Benis's excellent study helps bridge the difference between "vagrant" Wordsworth and Wordsworth "Poet of the imagination," a chapter on The Excursion might have shed some light not only on the gains of vagrancy, but also on its losses. For all its "subversiveness," the homeless figure, unlike the poet (or critic) remains homeless at the end of the day. Benis's postmodern model of contingency suggests an alternative to the heavy handed homeless policies implemented, for example, in New York City, but it also flirts with Libertarian notions of individual freedom. This is another, perhaps even more dangerous approach the present US administration might latch onto in its effort to reduce social costs and to free itself of its responsibility toward the homeless.