Smith, Wordsworth, and the Model of the Romantic Poet
Jacqueline M. Labbe
University of Warwick
This essay examines how Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth manipulate the autobiographical and elements of poetical voicing as they explore the figure of the Romantic Poet. Focusing on Beachy Head (1807) and The Prelude (1805), I suggest that in devising separate, competing but eventually equal “personal” voices in Beachy Head, and in interrogating tropes of genre and composition in The Prelude, the two poets signal their interest in using poetry to provide an answer to Wordsworth’s famous question, “What is a Poet?” For each, the model of the Romantic poet is most viable when, like wet clay, it is still able to be shaped.
Once upon a time there was a general consensus that Romantic poets flooded their work with a sincerity that enabled readers to feel a privileged access to the growth of a poet’s mind, the fears that he might cease to be, the delight that came sudden on his heart. Although there exists a healthy critical debate of the terms, in the end sincerity and authenticity were held to be a main goal of Romantic writing. The Romantic poet spoke openly to men. Recent re-evaluations of this seemingly unmediated stance, led by Judith Pascoe, have helpfully complicated this picture. Admitting a level of performativity, even theatricality, in his self-presentation allows for a remolding of the model Romantic poet. What if the poet is not only fully alive to the spectacle that characterises late eighteenth-century culture, but uses poetry to exploit it? What if autobiography is treated as a genre—that is, as art—rather than as an opportunity for self-expression? What if the poet explores the possibilities of persona, speculates on the utility of sincerity, experiments with versions of self-oriented voice? Are there ways in which we can read the apparently autobiographical “I” as, nonetheless, “not-I”? Both Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth are historically read as exemplifying what Keats labelled, with a startling efficacy, the “wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”: that is, their main trope is a poetics of the Self, repeatedly recycled, always returned to. And yet, as extremely able poets, each spent a career exploring genres, forms, and structures of poetry (and, in Smith’s case, fiction); the work of each shows an active understanding of the act of composition, of putting words together; not merely reflecting the self but writing, and thereby re-presenting, a self. In this essay I would like to present a new way of reading what may be the key texts of these model Romantic poets, and in so doing I hope to suggest that, through the act of self-poeticising, Smith and Wordsworth reveal a thoroughly modern ability to manipulate and play with—to sculpt or fashion—the shape of the Romantic Poet. Their work shows what their later readers perhaps lost sight of: that the model Romantic Poet, rather than a fixed extension of the writing author, is as pliable as history, memory, and interpretation itself.
Beachy Head is concerned in a number of ways with history: the personal history that has fuelled two decades of poetry, the scientific history that has created the geography, botany, and anthropology of Beachy Head, the literary history that informs the creative structure of the poem, and the political and social history that anchors the identity of the speaker(s). The poem contains a number of voices whose characteristics flavour its different sections; like, for instance, The Giaour, it is a collection of monologues. Although it is the case that Smith “repeatedly emphasises the truthfulness of [her] poems’ images by reference to the places and people they describe” (Pascoe 226), creating a matrix of facts to support the speakers’ shifts of person, she also bypasses sincerity in Beachy Head, writing instead a dramatic reconstruction that involves memory and history but which reveals the specifically constructed nature of each when utilised in poetry. As Frances Ferguson says of Wordsworth, but which is just as applicable to Smith, “out of the discontinuities of both language and life, [the poet] wrests a poetry of memory which enacts and re-enacts the impossibility of constructing one individual self which would be ‘there’ for language to imitate” (xvi). Smith uses the intricacies of language, memory and history to devise a series of speaking selves, and to suggest that if a poet can speak convincingly in different and competing voices, then the plausibility of coherent poetic subjectivity is undermined. Beachy Head, as Smith’s final work, may or may not be complete; like so many Romantic fragments, its coherence and vision calls into question its denomination as unfinished. But even if it was “not completed according to the original design,” it nonetheless offers a consistent unravelling of the rapidly-establishing Romantically-subjective speaker. It dramatises, in other words, both wholeness and disunity, and it does this most forcefully through its delvings into varieties of history.
According to Theresa Kelley, in The Prelude Wordsworth’s speaker “hides” his sources so that he may appear “original” in his genius, “yet this sleight-of-hand is only a disguise, and a half-hearted one at that, for an inventional strategy that multiplies its effects as [it] proceeds” (130). Kelley is describing Book V, famously informed by Cervantes, the story of Scheherezade, and the Bible. In Beachy Head, Smith pursues a strategy that dispenses altogether with the hidden, using her footnotes to clarify and expand on the (hi)stories she poeticises. As I have discussed elsewhere, Smith is adept at suiting her voice to her genre, and hence the tone of the notes is factual and narrative-based, whereas the tone of the poem is colourful and image-based (Labbe 2003). However, this goes beyond tone: we see that the speaker of the notes is aware of the poem, and reacts to its content, although the speaker of the poem seems oblivious to this competition until rather late in the poem. The note-speaker, a well-read historian, provides a running commentary on the scenes devised by the self-consciously poetic Poet who speaks the poem. As Wordsworth will do in The Prelude, Smith writes a speaker in Beachy Head whose concern is to establish her, for want of a neutral pronoun, credentials as Poet. Where Wordsworth will use elements of composition to critique this figure, Smith uses, as she does to such effect in Elegiac Sonnets, structure: thus one part of the poem subtly evaluates another via differing understandings of the place and value of history.
This is most strikingly apparent when the poem’s speaker, at this point using the trope of the prospect view claimed in the first 117 lines of the poem, turns from sketching the progress of a day to a more ambitious topic: “bid[ding] recording Memory unfold/ Her scroll voluminous” (119-20). The speaker-poet here reveals her slippery diction: Memory refers not to personal memory, the history of the poet, but to a kind of public memory, History itself, beginning with the Norman invasion of Saxon England. Or, as the Poet has it, “when from Neustria’s hostile shore/ The Norman launch’d his galleys, and the bay/ O’er which that mass of ruin frowns even now/ In vain and sullen menace, then received/ The new invaders” (121-5). The Poet, grandiose and obscure, here institutes a policy of deliberate erudition: not Normandy but Neustria, and within the next few lines, not Sicily but Trinacria, not Naples but Parthenope (128, 130). The Poet devotes herself to a specifically poetic diction; the Historian of the notes quickly shows her impatience with such ornate elegance. Interjecting “Pevensey Castle” when the Poet mentions “that mass of ruin,” yet doing so only in her note (Poetry, 158), she then anticipates the Poet’s following vignette of only 5½ lines with a massive flow of information. Before the speaker even mentions “Scandinavia,” the Historian interrupts with four paragraphs of material that quickly moves on from Scandinavian invaders to those from “the coasts of Provence and Sicily” who in the year 844 “penetrated even to Paris: and the unfortunate Charles the Bald, king of France, purchased at a high price, the retreat of the banditti he had no other means of repelling” (Poetry, 158). There follows a very full paragraph that moves from “Rollo, otherwise Raoul” and his enlightened rule of “Neustria, since called Normandy” and Brittany; to the Crusades and the Norman rescue of Salerno from the “bas[e] and coward[ly]” “Mahometans” in 983; to the movement of “other bodies of Normans … into Sicily (anciently called Trinacria);” to the conquest of “the fertile island of Sicily” by “three brothers of Countance, the sons of Tancred de Hauteville, Guillaume Fier-a-bras, Drogon, and Humfroi” and the subsequent possession by the Normans of “Naples (Parthenope).” The Historian cannot resist the attractions of plain history; despite announcing that “How William, the natural son of Robert, duke of Normandy, possessed himself of England, is too well known to be repeated here,” she tells the tale anyway, and finishes in the present day: “In a marsh not far from Hastings, the skeletons of an armed man and horse were found a few years since, which are believed to have belonged to the Normans…” (Poetry, 159). The Historian then pauses for breath, having comprehensively countered the Poet’s worrying tendency to skip the details in favour of the abstract vista encouraged by the prospect view.
The Historian’s own “scroll voluminous” (120) ensures that the Poet’s offhand mention of “Dogon, Fier-a-bras, and Humfroi”—“Trinacria to their power/ Yielded her wheaten garland; and … thou,/ Parthenope! within thy fertile bay/ Receiv’d the victors” (127, 128-31)—is corrected and elaborated on before it even happens. The Poet’s casual and inaccurate naming (“Dogon” for “Drogon”), for instance, is shown up by the conscientious Historian, who also makes sure we all know to what Trinacria and the other place-names refer in modern usage. The Historian even corrects herself, deciding that, after all, the story of William the Conqueror was not “too well known to be repeated here.” At this point, it is the Historian who is the most intelligible, recognising the obscurities the Poet will fall into even before the Poet has done so (the Historian jumps in at the first mention of “the period” of the Norman conquest). Smith seems to grant the Historian an awareness that the Poet lacks; after the long note has gone over history so thoroughly, it seems superfluous to do so again, but in lines 131-42 the Poet moves on to Taillefer’s song of Roland as if the Historian has never spoken. This means the oft-repeated story of William is repeated yet again. True to her genre, the Poet does not stop to identify details, but sweeps through history rapidly, leaving the Historian once again to identify the “holy pile” of line 138 as “Battle Abbey … raised by the Conqueror, and endowed with an ample revenue, that masses might be said night and day for the souls of those who perished in battle” (Poetry, 159). As competing speakers, the Historian seems to have the edge over the Poet; Smith seems to support the facts over fanciful imagery.
However, it appears that the long note does more than simply allow the Historian to provide a full history. It also hints at the personal autonomy of the Historian. The Poet names William obliquely as “the conqueror” and moves directly from her description of the Battle of Hastings to a warning to “modern Gallia” that “the imperial mistress of the obedient sea” will never again fall to a conqueror (143, 151). The Historian, on the other hand, calls William “the Conqueror” in her note on Battle Abbey, but in the previous note has made clear his descent from the admired Roland, and even in this note emphasises his generosity rather than his status as violent invader. In the next note, the Historian again maps out the events the Poet calls France’s “one day of triumph” (159), recounting the 1690 sea battle between British and Dutch ships on the one side, and French ships on the other, wherein the “French, from ignorance of the coast, and misunderstanding among each other, failed to take all the advantage they might have done of [their] victory” (Poetry, 160). Once again, the Historian interrupts the flow of the Poet’s language, beginning her explanation at the word “Batavian” rather than “triumph” (“Thou, leagued with the Batavian,* gavest to France/ One day of triumph” [158-9]). The Historian chooses when she will gloss the poem, and she also adds her personal interpretations to the history she provides: so the French both win and lose their battle. The Historian makes a point of both veiled and outright disagreement; the Poet does not seem to notice.
With these two speakers alone, Smith “tell[s] and retell[s] tales … transform[ing] fixed categories by unfixing them” (Kelley 134). The Historian increasingly reveals her personal take on the facts she relays; the Poet, meanwhile, increasingly gains authority simply by declining to notice the Historian. Both speak in distinct and distinctive voices, and each dramatises a subjectivity indebted to Smith’s long experience in writing voices. And crucially, neither is privileged, since the foreknowledge that the Historian displays at the poem’s start comes more and more to bolster rather than undermine the Poet’s endeavours. For instance, the Historian cedes her descriptive abilities entirely to the Poet in her note to line 481, “how wide the view!” Stating baldly that “so extensive are some of the views from these hills, that only the want of power in the human eye to travel so far, prevents London itself from being discerned,” she then gives up: “Description falls so infinitely short of the reality, that only here and there, distinct features can be given” (Poetry, 169). Meanwhile, the Poet is undaunted:
But if the eye could reach so far, the mart
Of England’s capital, its domes and spires
Might be perceived—Yet hence the distant range
Of Kentish hills,** appear in purple haze;
And nearer, undulate the wooded heights,
And airy summits,†† that above the mole
Rise in green beauty; and the beacon’d ridge
Of Black-down shagg’d with heath,* and swelling rude
Like a dark island from the vale….
Despite the Historian’s dismissive tone, the Poet shows exactly what poetry is capable of; by now, the value of imagery has overtaken its earlier historical vagueness. The Historian even finds herself following the Poet: “the distant range/ Of Kentish hills” is reiterated as “A scar of chalk in a hill beyond Sevenoaks in Kent, is very distinctly seen of a clear day;” “the beacon’d ridge/ Of Black-down” becomes “This is an high ridge, extending between Sussex and Surry. It is covered with heath, and has almost always a dark appearance. On it is a telegraph” (Poetry, 169, 170). In both these cases, the Historian takes her cue from the Poet’s image, rather than vice-versa.
In this model, if the Poet has not taken precedence by the poem’s end she has at least achieved parity with the Historian; the final account of the man the Poet calls “the Hermit” and the Historian, factual as ever, names as “Parson Darby” is, it is true, narrated first by the Historian glossing the Poet’s introductory lines “Within a cavern mined by wintry tides/ Dwelt one, who long disgusted by the world” (673-4). But the Historian seems to have lost her certainty, for after briefly sketching the man’s story, she ends on a note of anxiety: “As it is above thirty years since I heard this tradition of Parson Darby (for so I think he was called): it may now perhaps be forgotten” (Poems, 245). “[S]o I think;” “it may now perhaps be forgotten”: what is merely “thought” is not evidence of fact, and what good is history if no one remembers it? The Historian has lost the confidence of her creator, who has stripped her of her authoritative primacy; meanwhile the Poet fleshes out the story of Parson Darby, using her creative abilities to paint the picture of a figure who offers a curious riposte to the recluse in "Lines Upon a Seat in a Yew—Tree": “his heart/ Was feelingly alive to all that breath’d;/ And outraged as he was, in sanguine youth,/ By human crimes, he still acutely felt/ For human misery” (687-91). History and Poetry have played off each other throughout the poem; Smith has used the two to comment on both style and substance. By privileging first one, and then the other, she has avoided a final judgement; rather, the poem has explored the potential of each viewpoint, giving to each a singular voice which resonates with an autobiographical authority. And this seems to be key: as alternate identities, the two counter expectations of a highly personal and self-based poetry; memory is as much about history as it is about the individual, and the individual embodies more than simply her own personal subjectivity. Smith explores, in Beachy Head, the landscape of a poetry that culminates both a literary career and an historical era. And by isolating her voices, by writing subjectivities distinct from her own, she requires her readers to recognise the mutual value and necessity of Poetry and History by vocalising the limitations of the two when divided.
Throughout her career Smith plays with voice and stance, channelling male precursors like Goethe or Petrarch; ventriloquising her own characters, both male and female, in her novel-sonnets; reprising her own plots as she moves from poetry to fiction to drama. Her poetical role-playing is readily apparent in a poem such as “Written for the benefit of a distressed player, detained at Brighthelmstone for debt, November 1792,” spoken as if by the player himself (“so we, the buskin and the sock who wear…” ) and thereby introducing the double meaning of “benefit”: both “for” his pecuniary assistance and “for” his benefit night (when all proceeds go to the author). Here, the poet is both player and author, male and female, genuinely concerned and play-acting. But even in poems where the autobiographical seems to be most searingly present, as in the sonnets memorialising Smith’s daughter Augusta, identity is not fixed, and so the same poem can present the bereaved as mother (for readers who know of the autobiographical event) and lover (for readers dependent on the poem’s evocative imagery alone). The doubling of voice in Beachy Head, therefore, literalises the multiples inherent in Smith’s poetic project. While she never voices the question “What is a Poet?” her poetry shows that this is one of her primary concerns. The “I” is always “not-I” at one and the same time.
In turning to The Prelude I want to suggest that, even as he writes his most convincing version of the autobiographical self, Wordsworth, like Smith before him, peppers his epic of the Self with a self-conscious use of compositional imagery that suggests the ultimate impossibility of ever achieving a fully authentic selfhood through the act of writing. Even as Smith’s miniature epic Beachy Head writes the Self through writing the Other, and her poetry as a corpus explores subjectivity through its inherent drama, so too Wordsworth in The Prelude presents the Man who, finally, tries to speak to men. Autobiographical, the poem is also inherently artificial, “staged” in Michael O’Neill’s terms (60), stocked with rhetorical devices in Kelley’s reading (122-38), “dialogic” according to Brooke Hopkins (282); even Abbie Findlay Potts tries to reconcile its “autobiography” with “its pre-Christian myth,” a script that effectively undoes its sincerity (362). Potts’s account is representative of readings that want to view Wordsworth as sincerely authentic even as they advance viewpoints that undermine this: for Potts, The Prelude “relates the Poet of Wordsworth with the Great Teacher, with Christ Himself” (345), since the speaker of the poem grows into the shape and character of the Poet via Biblical imagery. But unless Wordsworth’s sense of his own talent masked a deeper sense of his own divinity, Potts’s account serves mainly to underscore the essential drama of the poem: it is poetical for poetry’s sake, to reify and authorise the speaker as Poet, which also means revealing or exposing his self-preoccupation—his preoccupation with Self. Even as this allows the Poet to establish himself poetically, it also means that sometimes Wordsworth builds in to the poem a kind of distaste for such single-mindedness. With such self-aggrandisement, can this poet be a “true” Poet? Is there a danger that the growth of the poet’s mind will overcome and disable the poetry itself? The anxiety that inhabits the poem is both of the author and of the Poet: the author writes a subject who, often, writes only of writing, and in this way Wordsworth encodes a dissatisfaction with an ego-bound “Poet, gentle creature as he is” (The Prelude, I, 145).
The 1805 Prelude, as the first complete version of the poem, offers Wordsworth the opportunity to trace events and experiences from his past, poeticised and dramatised for his domestic readership. The limited number of readers, and their familiarity, suggests the instability of the poem’s project; in exploring the birth of the poetic soul or genius, Wordsworth was as yet unwilling to display his creation to a wider audience. Viewed as a constant work-in-progress, the poem “refers to Wordsworth’s own experiences, to historical events, to aesthetic and philosophic concepts, to other literature” (Gill 727). Despite the well-documented changes and manipulations to its autobiographical content, Gill and most others privilege, of the poem’s many directions, the single track of Wordsworth’s life. And of course he does reference many personal events, although he leaves out or disguises many others. The transformation of his love affair with Annette Vallon to the doomed romance of Vaudracour and Julia offers a broad hint to the poem’s basic artifice, however. By representing a key life event as a key poetic drama, Wordsworth indicates the prime place the dramatic and the newly-composed holds in this poem of his life. Hopkins, in noting Wordsworth’s self-quotation, extends this to self-impersonation, arguing that by Book IX “the narrative begins to represent the discourse of another,” another who is still Wordsworth but also no longer Wordsworth (287). Hopkins explains this using Bahktin’s theory of “double-voiced discourse” and argues that “the poem’s central rhetorical interest and source of pleasure is the relationship between the voices within the poem itself, particularly as the narrator impersonates and sometimes even parodies his earlier self” (281, 289, emphasis added). He notes, referencing the Victorian dramatic monologue, that in The Prelude the auditor is the poet himself: the drama is played out both by and for the author. By keeping his readership small, Wordsworth can use the poem to explore and establish the identity of the Poet, to enact and voice his subjectivity, to dispute and debate his limitations.
Most of the thirteen books of the 1805 Prelude are concerned with role-playing, story-telling, and a metaphorics of composition that suggest the speaker’s attempts to discover his poetic credentials by writing them into existence. To cover the poem thoroughly would require a separate study entirely devoted to The Prelude; here, I will concentrate on aspects of Books I, VII, VIII, IX, and XII. Book I immediately engages with its reader by assuming that sympathy exists between them and a speaker newly “free, enfranchised, and at large” (I, 9). Indeed, did we not know we are reading The Prelude, the speaker’s mention of “bondage,” “captiv[ity],” and “prison” would hardly be reassuring; that he speaks in metaphor is not readily apparent, and only gradually unfolds itself. Given generic convention—the conventions of the written—the opening lines might be spoken by a madman or a criminal, rather than a poet. By line 54, however, we can be reasonably sure that we have not stumbled across one or the other, assuming that “the holy life of music and of verse” would hold little appeal for either. But the mystery of the opening lines characterises the Book as a whole; the speaker presents himself as divided, unmanageable, blocked, and cloaked. The self-conscious role-playing means that each time the speaker calls himself a Poet, or invokes the name, the poem seems to call attention to his need to use poetry to cement his identity. When, for instance, he laments that he has “been discouraged,” unable to capture “those phantoms of conceit” peopling his imagination (I, 134, 130), he describes his creative impairment in lines of fluent poetry:
… gleams of light
Flash often from the East, then disappear
And mock me with a sky that ripens not
Into a steady morning: if my mind,
Remembering the sweet promise of the past,
Would gladly grapple with some noble theme,
Vain is her wish; where’er she turns she finds
Impediments from day to day renewed.
The speaker seems not so much blocked as in full stream; his subsequent rehearsal of chivalric and epic themes (I, 172-271) leads to the suspicion that the figure of the Poet is thematic rather than corporeal, more a subject for poetry than the figure who speaks. The speaker’s reference to “variegated stor[ies]” (I, 223) hints at his own multiple nature. And because he is able to poeticise his anxieties about writing so elegantly, this multiplicity seems both known to him, and hidden.
Throughout the Book, the speaker tries to convince himself and his reader that he is the Poet that he wants to be, moving from theme to theme and role to role, sometimes writing good poetry despite his fears, sometimes writing bad poetry despite his efforts. His mixed imagery of Book I, lines 490-501 demonstrates his attempt to overcome the material reality of landscape even as he appeals to its enlivened core:
Ye Presences of Nature, in the sky
Or on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!
And Souls of lonely places! can I think
A vulgar hope was yours when Ye employed
Such ministry, when Ye through many a year
Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,
On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,
Impressed upon all forms the characters
Of danger or desire, and thus did make
The surface of the universal earth
With triumph, and delight, and hope, and fear,
Work like a sea? (emphasis added)
The repetition of “thus” suggests a speaker whose control over his verse is shaky, and the simile linking land and sea is forced. It seems to mean that the power of Presences of Nature transforms the static landscape into something as changeable, as “variegated,” as the surface of the sea. Do the Presences, then, enliven only the “sky” and the “earth”? If so, why is the sea more atmospherically lively than the earth? And why the emphasis on surfaces? As he works through Book I, the speaker’s confusion is further conveyed through what emerges as a fear of poetry. His attraction to roles and accompanying inability to choose any one role transmutes into an anxiety over “lengthen[ing] out,/ With fond and feeble tongue, a tedious tale” (I, 646-7). His closing determination to settle on a “theme/ Single and of determined bounds” rather than “work/ Of ampler or more varied argument,/ Where I might be discomfited and lost” (I, 668-9, 670-2) elevates the speaker’s story in poetic significance, but it also indicates his anxiety that of all the roles he might seek, that of Poet is most elusive.
Throughout Book I, then, the speaker uses the mechanics of poetry to begin to assert his identity as Poet, while equally displaying his anxiety that he might be overcome by those mechanics. By Book VII, the speaker has developed a strategy to deal with his weaknesses: he foregrounds conflict in order to control it. In Book VII, the speaker concentrates on the theatre, juxtaposing its artifice to the authenticity of Nature. Underlying his self-conscious use of this comparison, however, is a sense of the drama that adheres to a Poet so concerned with promoting the natural. The speaker highlights the artifice of the Book almost immediately, proclaiming “I sang/ Aloud, in Dythyrambic fervour, deep/ But short-lived uproar, like a torrent…” (VII, 4-6). This is the Poet on stage, whose poetry is defined by its structure, rhythmic and imagistic. As the Book continues, the speaker continually resorts to theatrical and spectacular diction: multiple references to “scenes,” “the Prompte[r],” “a raree-show,” “files of ballads,” “the Spectacles/ within doors,” “half-rural Sadler’s Wells,” the fabric of “theatre,” “Hall or Court, Conventicle, or Shop,/ … public Room or private, Park or Street…,” “public Shows/ The capital City teems with” (VII, 108, 190, 245-6, 289, 374, 569-70, 544-5). Just as frequently, the speaker counters this with a naturalising impulse that smooths artifice into a kind of drama of the real: he “pitche[s his] vagrant tent,” “streets with clouds and sky above,” “some sequestered nook/ Still as a sheltered place when winds blow loud,” “the Spirit of Nature was upon me here” (VII, 60, 160, 186-7, 736). The speaker uses diction to convey his disgust at the city’s excesses, even as diction shows how flimsy his control is over his imagery: “shall I give way,/ Copying the impression of the memory”: the layers of artifice lead directly to “the work of Fancy” (VII,145-6, 148). This is especially evident in lines 244-280, a description of “the Spectacles/ within doors”: the speaker revels in the artifice he describes, “every tree/ Through all the landscape, tuft, stone, scratch minute,/ And every Cottage, lurking in the rocks,/ All that the Traveller sees….” The wealth of detail is such that the reader, and the speaker too it seems, forgets the artificiality of what is being described. So that when the speaker moves on to speculate on the stories of those he sees around him, he revels as well in picturing himself as a storyteller, acting vicariously the dramas he sees around him.
This is exacerbated in the highly literary, self-consciously poetic juxtaposing of fairs as we move from Book VII to VIII. The city’s dissipation and the country’s pure enjoyments stand as a highly poetic device by which the speaker can make his point about corruption versus wholesomeness. In this Book the speaker sets about making the familiar mysterious, and the mysterious familiar: his poetry works to insist on the inherent interest of the rural after having let himself run away with the fascinations of the city. Hence the fair that opens the Book emerges from “the depth of air/ Ascending,” and shepherds and dogs are “girt round with mists” (VIII, 2-3, 96). Book VIII gives the speaker a chance to romanticise his rural past, to encode his youthful experiences with meaning and drama and mystery, and to assert his ability to translate his past into a meaningful present. In order to do this, the speaker must poeticise the country and nature, and hence his pictures of the rural are more about “unlaborious pleasure” (VIII, 343) than harsh realities. The speaker’s emphasis in Book VII on the theatrical has trained him to look at that around him, to derive meaning from appearance, and his frequent use of the verb “beheld” underscores his impulse to look. As he looks at his subject, we look at him, and his reliance on poetry to grant meaning to what he sees is matched by the repetition of verbs of observation: “beheld,” “mine eyes have glanced,” “his Form hath flashed upon me,” “I descried,” “before mine eyes,” and again “beheld” (VIII, 391, 400, 404, 406, 411, 429). Piling up these verbs in one verse-paragraph, the speaker betrays his limitations: what he sees is what we get.
Wordsworth’s manipulations of diction and imagery turn, in Books IX and XII, directly to the act of writing itself. In Book IX, the speaker’s extended metaphor of the river points to the self-conscious artifice of a Poet aware of the need for forceful writing in a poem such as The Prelude; his exploration of his poetic development as a “genius” continually returns to his expressive skill, his ability to write poetically, and his consciousness that his self-presentation as divided and conflicted relies on an accumulation of metaphor and imagery. But as with the books discussed above, the speaker again is undercut when Wordsworth, impatient with poetic preciousness, traps him in a genre dichotomy that encodes its own fictitiousness. Book IX turns repeatedly to a romance narrative which competes with the “novel.” The story of Vaudracour and Julia is shaded by a quest-romance featuring the speaker, whose description of French soldiers and his own involvement with them relies absolutely on a romantic vision of purity. War is, here, a romantic occupation, and the speaker is simultaneously a troubadour and a hero. Even the “hunger-bitten Girl” (IX, 512) is subsumed to the “tragic Tale” of Vaudracour and Julia. This exemplary romance, however, which the speaker sees as representative of the tragedies brought by war and mistakenly calls a “plain history” (IX, 643), is so genre-bound and tied up in the romance of his own excitement at consorting with soldiers that it becomes, in the end, less revealing than the speaker’s unthinking repetition: “novel imaginations” (IX, 30), “novelties in speech” (IX, 82), “novelty and change” (IX, 333), “a novel scene” (IX, 466). In Book IX, the speaker’s failure to grasp the nature of the genre he writes in, and his blind reliance on a word so at odds with his desire to write romance, points to Wordsworth’s discomfort at the speaker’s subjective excesses.
The Prelude’s focus on writing culminates in Book XII. Nearly every verse-paragraph contains either images of reading and writing or the word “compose”/“composition;” indeed, the fourth uses “composition” twice and “read” once in 21 lines. As the speaker pursues the idea of his own regeneration in Nature and his maturation as a Poet, the Book embeds writing in its very fabric, composing the speaker along with his poetry. The speaker’s rote modesty (“I, the meanest of this Band,” XII, 306) leads directly into an image of Nature as a blank page on which to write:
… a Traveller …
Upon the Plain of Sarum was I raised;
There on the pastoral Downs without a track
To guide me, or along the bare white roads
Lengthening in solitude their dreary line
… before me on the downy Plain
Lines, circles, mounts, a mystery of shapes
With intricate profusion figuring o’er
The untilled ground…
XII, 313-17, 339-40, 342-3
It is a testament to the speaker’s self-obsession that he fails to recognise what he has composed. Instead, he falls into “an antiquarian’s dream” (XII, 348), rehearsing a vision of Druids before dismissing his opportunity with an indifferent “This for the past” (XII, 354). O’Neill remarks that in The Prelude, “the way the self is constituted finds a mirror in the poem’s process of imaginative self-constitution” (53), and suggests that the poem is self-conscious, that is, conscious of itself as a poem. That so much of the poem is devoted to images of artifice and writing suggests that the self Wordsworth constitutes is only a version of himself as Poet, and a compromised one at that. The speaker whose main concern is the development of his poetic genius both attracts and embarrasses Wordsworth: The Prelude ultimately cannot decide whether to support or critique a self so devoted to self. Using poetry in the way that Smith uses history, Wordsworth writes his indecision into his poem, creating a monologue that undercuts the integrity, the subjective and creative wholeness, of the Self-as-Poet.
In using poetry to create and model the Romantic poet, Smith and Wordsworth show how deeply they understand the malleable nature of this figure. The spectacle of the poet, someone who speaks through the act of writing, whose audience reads in a visual act that is presented as auditory, grows out of a display-oriented society, but Smith and Wordsworth do more than merely react to this trend. They recognise that in order to compose poetry they must also compose the Poet, and they assemble their raw materials from what is to hand: imaginative reconstructions of autobiography, generic convention, the utility of voice, their own skill at constructing and deconstructing poetic form. The very nature of autobiography comes into question, as does the viability of a successful poetic sincerity. Both Smith and Wordsworth seem to understand that committing an identity to print immediately compromises its authenticity, and so instead of making futile attempts to write actuality, they shape “Is” whose “I-ness” they repeatedly undermine. This is not to deny that for both poets, the personal could be poetical, or to suggest that basing poetry on or writing out of experience did not interest them. But their investment of autobiography with the ideology of performance, and their manipulations of the speaking “I” intimate that both poets enlivened poetry not just with images drawn from life, or from an irrepressible egotism, but also with a strong understanding that, in an age of poetry, the most complex model was that of the Poet.
Jacqueline Labbe is Professor of English at the University of Warwick. Her most recent publications include a book on Charlotte Smith’s poetics (2003), an edition of Smith’s complete poems (vol. 14 of The Works of Charlotte Smith, Pickering, 2007), and an essay on the trope of seduction in Smith’s The Old Manor House and Austen’s Mansfield Park. She is currently working on a book about how Smith and Wordsworth write Romanticism, and considering further work on Smith and Austen.
See, for instance, David Perkins, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity; Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity; William Galperin, Revision and Authority in Wordsworth: The Interpretation of a Career; Leon Guilhamet, The Sincere Ideal: Studies on Sincerity in Eighteenth-Century English Literature; Frances Ferguson, Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit; Sheila Kearns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography: Reading Strategies of Self-Representation; Deborah Forbes, Sincerity’s Shadow: Self-Consciousness in British Romantic and Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry.
See, besides Judith Pascoe, Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry and Spectatorship: Gillen D’Arcy Wood, The Shock of the Real; Adriana Craciun, Fatal Women of Romanticism; Tim Fulford, “The Electrifying Mrs. Robinson,” Women’s Writing; Claire Brock, “‘Then smile and know thyself supremely great’: Mary Robinson and the ‘splendour of a name’.” Women’s Writing; John Barrell, Imagining the King’s Death.
Keats’s letter to Woodhouse, 27 October 1818 (1, 387).
Elsewhere I have explored this via a new construct of the Romantic dramatic monologue as written by Smith and Wordsworth, arguing that the autobiographical acts as the feint for readers and that, in the space between this acted self and the writing self, lies a new understanding of who, or what, the Romantic poet is. See Labbe, “Revisiting the Egotistical Sublime”.
For a discussion of these identities that emphasises Smith’s gender play, see Chapter 5 on “Locating the Poet in Beachy Head” in Labbe, Charlotte Smith 142-64.
Charlotte Smith, Poetry, ed. Labbe 153. All quotations from this edition. References to the notes of Beachy Head are prefaced by Poetry in the text.
A close analogue to this technique can be found, of course, in Coleridge’s later version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the marginal glosses are presented as composed by a later reader of the poem itself.
The Historian persists in her contrariness: in the next note, smugglers are “a hardy and athletic race of men;” later, the authority represented by books on the subjects of natural history, botany, and poetry are called into question (Poetry, 160, 165, 169, 172). The Poet, meanwhile, carries on exploring the possibilities of imagery: the smuggler follows a “clandestine traffic …/ The crook abandoning;” fossilised seashells “with the pale calcareous soil/ Mingl[e], and see[m] of resembling substance;” “flies … lightly sport / In the green shade” (182-83, 374-5, 446-7).
Again, Kelley describes Wordsworth in Book 5 of The Prelude.
And yet most critics still want to read the poem as autobiographical.
This bears comparison with Smith’s double-voicing in Beachy Head.
Andrew Bennett observes, in an astute book, Wordsworth Writing, which appeared after this essay was written, that for Wordsworth “the act of writing is troubling, difficult, even traumatic;” it “both produce[s] a poetic self and, at the same time, disturb[s] any possibility of a coherent articulation of such a self” (12).
As with the other Books of The Prelude, it is deeply indebted to genre-derived diction: theatre, chivalry, heroic.
It is not just the meek Officer who “through events/ Of that great change wandered in perfect faith,/ As through a Book, and old Romance or Tale/ Of Fairy” (9: 305-8).
Brock, Claire. “‘Then smile and know thyself supremely great’: Mary Robinson and the ‘splendour of a name’.” Women’s Writing 9 (2002): 107-26.
Forbes, Deborah. Sincerity’s Shadow: Self-Consciousness in British Romantic and Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.
Galperin, William. Revision and Authority in Wordsworth: The Interpretation of a Career. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989.
Guilhamet, Leon. The Sincere Ideal: Studies on Sincerity in Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Montreal; London: McGill-Queen UP, 1974.
Hopkins, Brooke. “Wordsworth’s Voices: Ideology and Self-Critique in The Prelude.” Studies in Romanticism 33 (1994): 279-99.
Kearns, Sheila. Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography: Reading Strategies of Self-Representation. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh UP, 1995.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958.
Kelley, Theresa M. “The Case of William Wordsworth: Romantic Invention Versus Romantic Genius.” Rhetorical Traditions and British Romantic Literature. Eds. Don Bialostosky and Lawrence Needham. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995: 122-38.
Labbe, Jacqueline. Charlotte Smith: Romanticism, Poetry and the Culture of Gender. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003.
Labbe, Jacqueline. “Revisiting the Egotistical Sublime: Smith, Wordsworth, and the Romantic Dramatic Monologue.” Fellow Romantics: Women and Men Romantic Poets. Ed. Beth Lau. Aldershot; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, forthcoming 2009.
Pascoe, Judith. Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry and Spectatorship. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997.
Potts, Abbie Findlay. Wordsworth’s Prelude: A Study of its Literary Form. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1953.
Smith, Charlotte. Poetry. Ed. Jacqueline M. Labbe. Vol. 14. The Works of Charlotte Smith. London: Pickering, 2007. 14 vols. 2005-7.