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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 16, novembre 1999

Romanticism and its Others

Sous la direction de Neville Newman

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005880ar

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Between Memory and History: Wordsworth's Excursion

Lisa Hirschfield

New York University


Despite—or perhaps, because of—its own mixed reception history, The Excursion (1814) remains an interesting comment on the process of historical and cultural change. Like The Prelude (1850), the poem addresses the status of the self, the passage of time, and memory—issues that have revived critical interest in the poem over the last two decades. [1] As the arguments of critics like William H. Galperin and David Simpson have implied, The Excursion engages with these issues by "displacing" them as symptoms or "anxieties." The poem seems to indicate Wordsworth's revision, or at least his questioning, of assumptions about self, imagination, and memory on which The Prelude operated. [2] Instead of undertaking a further interrogation of the poem's "anxieties" in this essay, I want to suggest another way of reading them—a reading that also suggests a schema for re-reading critical and editorial interventions that seek to determine any poem's meaning.

"The history of …memory is the history of its transmission." [3]


While considerations of Wordsworth and memory are nothing new, such readings have usually sought to interpret or critique Wordsworth's own relationship to memory, with regard to language, landscape, or an apriori concept of historical "truth." But these investigations do not, usually, read Wordsworth as memory—that is, as a mode of knowledge, that responds to, draws from, and narrates historical events, but has no necessary allegiance to history. All narrative genres, whether documentary or fictional, create "typical patterns in which we experience and interpret events" (Fentress and Wickham, 73). As we know, these patterns always operate in terms of a particular discourse; comprising a grammar of conceptualized images and figures, all narratives are purely rhetorical at some level. Impure Conceits, Alison Hickey's recent book-length study of The Excursion, provides an in-depth examination of such rhetorical figures, and how they structure meaning in the poem. [4] These rhetorical figures also structure memory; and this suggests that memory is less a corollary to history than a system of meaning unto itself, albeit one that draws its material from history. But Hickey's reading is important to my discussion for another reason: she focuses her attention on the failure of tropes in The Excursion. It is this failure—a failure of memory, in a sense—that leaves the poem caught between memory and history, and ultimately questions the power of memory to sustain and nourish the modern imagination.


Hickey notes that The Prelude's unified force of memory—the narrative authority of an "imperial self"—is almost entirely absent in The Excursion (15). Instead, The Excursion presents us with far more uncertain "gaps and strayings...plots of deviation and deferral, usurpations and broken lineages, and unfulfilled promises" (14). What The Excursion demonstrates is not a memory that recreates or in some way reenacts the past, but a memory that can only represent, by signs and figures, the broken narratives of a past that is and always was irretrievable. In many ways, the poem revises Wordsworth's former, more hopeful view of memory as a redemptive, restorative, and absolute power—a view that informs The Prelude and poems like Tintern Abbey.


"Memory has never known more than two forms of legitimacy: historical and literary," writes the historian Pierre Nora. [5] Nora, who recently published his decade-long collaborative historical study, Les Lieux de Mémoire, or "Realms of Memory," is concerned with the way in which cultural or collective memory is "in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting. . . vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived" (8). Echoing Nora, Hickey's focus on The Excursion's "gaps and strayings" would support a claim that this poem is remarkable for its very problematic relationship to memory, and for the way it sketches out the boundaries between memory and history.

"The ages live in history through their anachronisms" Oscar Wilde


Nora writes that memory and history, "far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition" (8). The Excursion was written during a process of cultural change; demonstrating the beginnings of this opposition, the forces of memory and history struggle within the text like conjoined twins. Contemporary critics' persistent and well-intentioned efforts to reclaim or reallocate memory—to wrest the displaced "truth" from historical or literary narrative—suggests that Nora's theory of a once-organic relationship between memory and history is correct. Such critical trends also attest to our difficulty, now, in comprehending such a relationship. Moreover, it demonstrates that the formerly recreative act of memory Nora postulates has mostly survived as an object: a product, itself, of history. It is not surprising then, that one of "the costs of the historical metamorphosis of memory has been a wholesale preoccupation with the individual psychology of remembering," creating a new "economy of the identity of the self, the mechanics of memory, and the relevance of the past" (15). His argument entails the very conditions which appear, now, to have shaped Wordsworth's poetry, and by which we generally characterize the poet himself.


The Excursion strikes me as a text under extreme historical pressure. Whereas The Prelude attempts to trace the development of a consciousness in the grip of, but not entirely "besieged" by history, The Excursion repeatedly, and defensively, invokes the name of memory against history. It attempts to stave off what is perceived as time's destructive nature, by establishing memorial sites and appealing to an apparently immanent desire for their preservation. In this sense, The Excursion strives to be not a witness to change, nor an occasion for historical speculation, but a book-length elegy. An elegy for what? For memory itself.


Nora's introduction to Realms, republished in the Spring 1989 issue of Representations, has already found its way outside of the historical field, [6] perhaps because the essay establishes a useful critical schema for examining the familiar binary of "memory vs. history." [7] For this reason I think it successfully illuminates a text like The Excursion. Like Fentress and Wickham, Nora treats memory not as an alternative to history, but as an affective and unpredictable mode of truth in itself, one which "only accommodates those facts that suit it" (p.8). Above all, memory is always in movement; it is a process that "nourishes recollections that may be out of focus, or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic— responsive...to every censorship or projection" (p.8). Likewise, his definition of history implies an equally selective (or defective) function: History, even as idea, is "the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer . . . [It is] a representation of the past" (p.8, my emphasis).


While some historicist criticism—especially of Romantic literature—has called attention to memory's telescoping, projecting and censoring functions, it has tended to posit a very deterministic relationship between literature and the historical record. [8] Even the title of David Simpson's book, Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement, implies a kind of literary text that could be entirely "in place." [9] Yet this concept of displacement invokes the very terms by which memory operates. And like literature, history is also a text, with its own uncertain gaps and strayings, its own rhetoric, and its own memory. In this light, I would argue that what appear to be historical "truths" breaking through the surface of a literary text are more often than not "memorial" truths. However, if we choose not to hold texts responsible to history, neither can we make them answer to the fugitive authority of memory. Perhaps we can read any historically conscious text as a means of mapping out a realm between them.


Whereas historical narrative is, generally speaking, "bound strictly to temporal continuities, to progression and relations between things," the narrative recreated by memory "takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images and objects" (Nora, 8-9). Realms, or sites of memory, "are created by a play of memory and history, an interaction of the two factors that result in their reciprocal overdetermination. To begin with, there must be a will to remember" (p. 19, my emphasis). As this "will to remember" increases under the pressure of an historical consciousness (a will to write history, in a sense), it produces sites of memory—narratives, monuments, and cultural artifacts. These sites begin to constitute one's experience of the past, until it is reduced ultimately to a history of ideas, and the scars or traces left by those ideas upon a culture and the landscape it inhabits. Nora argues that, with the "acceleration of history" in the industrial era, temporal continuity in traditional societies experienced a division—between memory, "social and unviolated," and history, "which is how our hopelessly forgotten modern societies, propelled by change, organize the past" (p.8).


The Excursion "opens onto profound societal shifts in whose midst it is located" (Hickey, 8); the poem is also notable for the way it addresses the problems of individual versus collective memory, natural process versus historical change, and nature versus culture. Reading The Excursion with these issues in mind, the poem demonstrates a change in Wordsworth's relationship to memory, and perhaps narrates the process of a larger cultural change—more or less contemporaneous with the poem—from a tradition or ritual practice of memory, to a history or narrative of such practice.


Each of The Excursion's narrative "clusters" attempts to make the processes of time intelligible; each of its four principle characters—the Wanderer, the Solitary, the Pastor, and the Poet—engages the others in a "dialogue of perspectives" on memory (Hickey, 45), and on its role in individual, communal, and national consciousness. The Wanderer is the threatened voice of tradition; he represents a (nearly outmoded) relationship to nature and time which allows him to transcend the impulse to memorialize. The Solitary is the Wanderer's antithesis—an example of the alienated, "modern subject"—a figure for memory that has become utterly transformed by history. The Pastor, appearing in Book Six, is the producer and transmitter of a community's memorial sites. The Poet, Wordsworth's ironically silent narrator, is the ostensible author of The Excursion's lengthy realm of memory. The Poet's "silence," and his deferral of (narrative) authority to the Wanderer in Book First, already indicates that Wordsworth was somewhat skeptical of memory's power. As William Galperin argues, this deferral suggests that the poetic stance is inadequate "to order nature in a secularized, unorthodox way" (32). For poetry must draw on previous models to fashion its "own" patterns of narrative and imagery. It must defer to preexisting modes of social and intellectual order to create its own rationale for ordering, conceptualizing, and remembering.

'I would enshrine the spirit of the past for future restoration'


In most of Wordsworth's writing, poetry and prose, a sense of the past is embedded in and extended by landscape, which becomes an analogue for memory or, as Christopher Salvesen described it, "a kind of reservoir...of mystically diffused memory." [10] Within The Excursion the interactive cycles of natural, geologic time and the span of human lives reach a point of crisis. Human memory, once bound in a symbiotic, metonymic relationship to the land, now interferes with the memorial landmarks it created, or is itself erased by natural and social processes. This sense of crisis is evident, especially, in work from the latter half of Wordsworth's career. In his essay "Description of the Scenery of the Lakes" (1810), and pamphlet "Kendal and Windermere Railway" (1845) Wordsworth complains bitterly about technological and "picturesque" incursions of man on his beloved, wild landscape. While a similar apprehension of crisis operates throughout The Excursion, it transforms the poem into something more than the historical portrait of a rural community, or a protest of its inevitable modernization. In Hickey's words, "The Excursion is a vast landscape of epitaphs...but such [literary] objects, and the truths they yield to those who invest their interpretive labor in them, are held in the balance as the spread of industrialism changes the face of the signifying landscape, raising the disturbing possibility that the entire epitaphic poem itself may mark the demise of the actual landscape in which epitaphs have borne meaning...An epitaph for epitaphs...[and ] for a way of life..."(103-4). To read the poem in this way means to name it, for ourselves, as a site of memory.


As an epitaph serves to perpetuate a community's memory of an individual, The Excursion attempts to re-order the "diffused" memory of a landscape and community, thereby ensuring its futurity for individuals (characters and readers alike). Hickey rightly characterizes the poem as an epitaph—at once a "lament" for memory, and for the very need to elegize the once-organic, mytho-poeic practice of memory. In its lamentation, the poem calls attention to the relationship between "signifying object and plot"—the site and the story - "stressing the difficulty of interpretation and the threat of error"(Hickey, 103). It lays bare the hybrid function of a site, as well as the inherent problems of authority that arise in the process of interpreting memorials. Yet the poem-as-epitaph must also mourn "its own erasure, which has already begun"(98).


The voices of memory that speak throughout The Excursion seem to anticipate many of Nora's claims. In Book I ("The Ruined Cottage"), The Wanderer explains to the poet that as lived experience recedes in time, it is the self-conscious "will to remember" that constitutes memory, effecting its transmission through the ages, for

...we die, my Friend,

Nor we alone, but that which each man loved

And prized in his peculiar nook of earth

Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon

Even of the good is no memorial left. [11]

I, 469-474

The Wanderer was a "pedlar" earlier in life—already an antiquated occupation by the time he relates this story to the Poet. Despite Francis Jeffrey's objections, it is this status which grants the Wanderer authority to speak for the memory of an agrarian, pre-industrial society. The story of Margaret's dilapidated cottage seems to be a product of his spontaneous memory, that is, not produced by specific pressures of history. While war and economic instability are primary catalysts in this narrative, such events are related as "history sought in the continuity of memory," rather than as "memory cast in the discontinuity of history" (Nora, 17). As his narrative progresses, the Wanderer builds an argument for the relinquishment of "the will to remember," showing how the monuments or ruins by which memory can transcend individual lives cannot themselves escape effacement by nature and "natural time." Yet the cottage, even in its gradual disappearance, has become the Wanderer's site of memory, a way to generate narrative and tap into a stream of remembrance.


A site of memory exists between "living memory"—spontaneous, repetitive—and historical memory: "that which has already happened." As a sign or relic of the Wanderer's past, the ruined cottage consolidates his relationship with Margaret, her tragedy, and the years he spent as a pedlar in a world that has since changed. But as it is also a place of natural process—of death and reintegration—the physical site itself is analogous to the Wanderer's relationship to the past. Rather than struggle against the forces of nature and time to erect a more permanent and artificial monument—to consciously fix this memory— he puts his faith in the life cycles of weeds and spear-grass, themselves fragile and subject to weather, growth and decay.


Throughout The Excursion, the Wanderer reminds his companions that, inevitably, it is the natural process that endures, vanquishing all memorial effort:

So fails, so languishes, grows dim, and dies...

All that this World is proud of. From their spheres

The stars of human glory are cast down;...

Their virtue, service, happiness, and state

Expire; and nature's pleasant robe of green

Humanity's appointed shroud, enwraps

Their monuments and their memory.

VII, 986-1009

The Wanderer's stance toward time approaches what Christopher Salvesen called, in Wordsworth's terms, a "wise passiveness." It indicates a disposition content with the dialectic of remembering and forgetting—free from nostalgia or the desire to fix, stabilize, or preserve consciousness—beyond time, in a sense. This mode of "removal, tranquil though severe," affords a "Fresh power to commune with the invisible world...inaudible / To the vast multitude." (IX, 82-90) A character of both moral and memorial stability, the Wanderer sustains the possibility of memory's redemption, but only by its relinquishment to nature and a higher spiritual consciousness. This "higher power" is, in terms of my argument, a faith in the continuity of memory, its ultimate capability to withstand the disruptions of history, by virtue of the dialectics of remembering and forgetting.


Because the Wanderer's relationship to memory is itself representative, because this figure functions as a conceptualization of a disappearing mode of memory, he—unlike the other characters—is somewhat of a "site" in his own right. Conversely, the Solitary is more representative of Wordsworth's own problematic relationship to memory. "His life story is a generalized version of Wordsworth's, fleshed out with historical and literary analogs" (Johnston, 264). Perhaps it is more accurate to characterize the Solitary as representative of Wordsworth's skepticism, embodying his doubt of memory's redemptive power. Even before his appearance, the Solitary enters the poem as a memory. When the Wanderer and the Poet first believe him to be dead, the Wanderer recounts his friend's life in a rambling epitaph. Not coincidentally, the Solitary exhibits the most "memorial" consciousness in the poem, one in which the function of memory, under the extreme pressure of history, has overwhelmed all else. In this sense, the Solitary is most clearly a negative figure for Wordsworth himself—portraying a sensitive imagination caught in the time-lapse between experience and remembrance, between feeling and articulation, unable to make the cognitive leap of faith which will grant him the privilege of "recollection in tranquillity." Instead, the Solitary seeks solace in the sublimity of mountains and storms, which exceed imagination, memory, and everything subject to failure.


The poem begins its "meta-dialogue" on the power of memory, when the Wanderer attempts to reassure the Solitary that nature can redeem human life, even as it overwhelms and transcends it:

...living things, and things inanimate,

Do speak, at Heaven's command, to eye and ear,

And speak to social reason's inner sense,

With inarticulate language...

And further, by contemplating these Forms

In the relations which they bear to man,

He shall discern, how, through the various means

Which silently they yield, are multiplied

The spiritual presences of absent things.

IV, 1212-43

Yet the Solitary remains mistrustful of "social reason," which has betrayed him. Ghostlike himself, his life is haunted by the presences of absent things—failed ideals, a dead family—and he is trapped in the narrative of his own history. His apartment is littered with cultural detritus, "sites of memory" in parvo—a telescope, fishing rod, scraps of poetry, musical instruments. Likewise, his memory is littered with lasting images he'd prefer to avoid, while transient figures of light and shadow in the vale still allow some respite for his imagination. When he denounces his companions' habits of conscious introspection and recollection, it is because such pursuits, for him, are occasions for remembered pain (V, l. 225). He sees little value in the memory's redemptive possibilities.

"Et in Arcadia Ego"


Despite the Solitary's apparent resistance, he too participates in the processes of individual rememoration, and his skepticism inscribes a new mode of cultural memory on the larger landscape of the poem. The Excursion's landscape figures for both cultural and individual memory on several levels. It is continually described in terms of gravesites or Arcadian recesses: a ruined cottage, the Solitary's little "urn-like vale," the children's abandoned play garden, an altar-like formation of rocks and vegetation, a series of marked and unmarked graves and monuments. These "spots" as Hickey calls them, are not spots of time, but sites that are both "radical and radically ambivalent." The positioning of each "emphasizes the opening of the image for double interpretation" (49-9). The urn-like vale is, for instance, envisioned as a place of death for the old pensioner, a sign for death (the urn), and a refuge for the Solitary from his own memory. This resistance to fixed, allegorical meanings confounds efforts on the part of characters, or critics, to name any place as a definitive memorial site, to delineate and assign to it a stable and unambiguous meaning.


Each of these locations generates a story: personal narrative, community history, or local legend. Midday rest at the ruined cottage was the occasion for the Wanderer's story of Margaret; the primeval nook to which the Solitary leads his friends in Book Three is the location for life story. It is also the scene of an extended conversation that chronicles a "history" of the world. In the graveyard, the Pastor recites his "oral histories" in order to persevere in the (already eroded) tradition of local memory in his village—to "bring to life" his community for the visitors. Throughout the poem, elegy and genesis often blend, suggesting that such narratives are analogous in The Excursion's system of memory. Origins beseech remembrance, as do departures.


Inviting his companions to rest upon "a slope of mossy turf," the Solitary begins his tale—primarily a history of crisis, for "times of quiet and unbroken peace. . .give back faint echoes from the historian's page" (606-8). While his most sensational experiences are circumscribed by historically-relevant events or institutions such as the French Revolution and the Church, the "faint echoes" he refers to are traces of a more vulnerable, spontaneous memory, one that is inscribed in the landscape and that continues, for awhile, to reside there. Such is the recollection of the "low cottage" where the Solitary lived with his wife,

On Devon's leafy shores; —a sheltered hold...

See, rooted in the earth, her kindly bed,

The unendangered myrtle, decked with flowers,

Before the threshold stands to welcome us!...

—Wild were the walks on those lonely downs,

Track leading into track; how marked, how worn

Into the bright verdure, between fern and gorse

Winding away its never ending line...

...there, lay open to our daily haunt,

A range of unappropriated earth...


The "unendangered myrtle," mentioned twice in this tale, is a simple but telling metaphor. In light of her subsequent death, it can be read as an ironic figure for the Solitary's wife. It also serves for a homespun "tree of life," and this passage is undeniably pastoral and Edenic in its associations. Indeed, the Solitary describes the Devonshire landscape as a biblical Eden; both locale and witness. This particular landscape functions as a site of memory in several ways. The tracks that the Solitary and his wife made together are their life-story written into the ground. This inscription, on a figurative level, allows the Solitary to draw a "never ending line" of memory recycled in time. However, the Solitary's idealization of this landscape also suggests the utter irretrievability of the memory it records. What he has is the track, the mark on the land—only a representation. The Solitary's ideal life is no longer available to him as a re-livable experience in memory. Nor for that matter, is it possible to reanimate any of the portraits of ideal community in The Excursion, as David Simpson notes (195, 205).


This passage also introduces, quite subtly, the process of land enclosure, as the couple wandered across what was notably "a range of unappropriated earth." By the time Wordsworth was writing The Excursion, "the enclosure of arable and pasture" had affected England's southern and Midland regions, but "did not apply to ... [the Lake District] region of partially self-contained farms." [12] Here, the Solitary recalls enclosure as a condition of his youth, and it exists wholly within the "continuity" of his memory. However, the enclosure of common grazing lands "did affect these great open mountain wastes of the Lake District, though not seriously until the middle years of the nineteenth century" (MacLean, 92-93). I point this out because these later results of enclosure, as well as of subsequent economic developments that changed the face of the landscape, appear throughout The Excursion as both subject and subtext. Such man-made, physical, and long-lasting changes begin to put a new pressure on the memory—landscape relationship so fundamental to the poem's constructions of memory, and its historically-produced sites.

'Oh! that memory should survive to speak the word'


Frances Ferguson writes that "there is no tomb which does not awaken the memory of the community from which the deceased sprang." [13] Situated in a churchyard, the second half of The Excursion concerns members of the surrounding community, both living and dead. In the early passages of Book Five, Wordsworth also took the opportunity to include a detailed description of the church for, "As chanced, the portals of the sacred Pile / Stood open." This pile is conjectured by William Knight, the editor of the 1884 Paterson edition I used for this essay, to be St. Oswald's —"the Church at Grasmere" (p. 207). The church's monuments, "sepulchral stones" and "foot-worn epitaphs" enumerated in this section are objects of the community's history. Such a history provides the context, the historical "pressure," for the Pastor's ensuing tales.


Cemeteries and sanctuaries are the obvious sites of communal memory, places of "spontaneous devotion" and unconscious tradition—funeral rites, for example (Nora, p. 23). In Book Second, the Wanderer, spying the small funeral procession which bears the body of the old shepherd from The Solitary's steep valley home, observes that already, "Many precious rites / And customs of our rural ancestry / Are gone." As these customs disappear—such as the carrying of the dead past the doors of the living before burial—so does a community's means of integrating its tradition of memory into daily life. This preoccupation with tradition —which is as integral to the identity of a culture as personal memory is to an individual—seems to have infected the editor William Knight. He notes that "The custom of mourners kneeling around the coffin was, till quite lately, in common use. It is still observed in some churches in Cumberland and Westmoreland, but is generally passing away" (90). I mention these editorial notes because they indicate the editor's present concerns, add an extra-textual layer of historical pressure to the poem, and affirm its status as a site of memory.


The shift to the churchyard in Book Fifth is more than a change of locale. The Pastor's retelling of his parishioners' lives "shapes these lives within the institutional context he represents" (Johnston, 292-3). His pastoral authority as a transmitter of community memory is what brings these lives into narrative, and as Johnston notes, just "telling the story of a life is not sufficient to give it meaning" (292-3). In Book Fifth, there is a noticeable shift in emphasis from storytelling that appeals to a more traditional or organic model of rememoration, to a memory narrative that exists only for its social and institutional usefulness as memory.


Possessing only a mental "map" of the churchyard, the Pastor guides his visitors around it, eulogizing the dead. It is important to note that these graves are unmarked, and it is the Pastor who "marks" them, representing them as sites of memory by which ideal virtues and communal values are defined.. The Wanderer enjoins him to

Epitomise the life; pronounce, you can

Authentic epitaphs of some of these

Who, from their lowly mansions hither brought,

Beneath this turf lie mouldering at our feet...


True indeed it is

That they whom death has hidden from our sight

Are worthiest of the mind's regard; with these

The future cannot contradict the past...


So begins the Pastor's narrative, one that moves back and forth between the

...heaving surface, almost wholly free

From interruption of sepulchral stones,

And mantled o'er with aboriginal turf

And everlasting flowers...

VI, 613-15

to the undulating, aboriginal mountain landscape which surrounds them. Moreover, these histories in the poem incorporate the local oral history.


Ferguson makes the claim that such 'authentic epitaphs' serve to "recapture...past experience...uniting the present with the past, and the human with the natural" (244). Hickey goes further, proposing that epitaphs become "a link in the metonymical chain, pointing to past and future but enclosing neither"(73). In light of Nora's discussion, however, I'd argue that these epitaphs are sites. They are already representations, divorced from any unconscious "living" tradition, and therefore make impossible any true reunion of past and present. Such "representations of truth in biographical form," as Kenneth Johnston terms them, are conceptualizations, narrative images made to serve a purpose. As such, they mark a reversal of the "spots of time," Wordsworth's celebrated mode of memory. "Instead of arresting visionary moments expanding into lifetime significance, these stories represent whole lifetimes compressed into a single summary account" (Johnston, 297).


As Nora explains, sites are evidence of a society's nostalgia for itself, for "if what they defended were not threatened, there would be no need to build them"(12). Moreover, enclaves of memory—such as modern cemeteries—"originate with the sense that there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies … because such activities no longer occur naturally" (12). These sites act metonymically as functional reminders or "translations" of past experience, but they cannot effect an unbroken continuum between past and present. The Pastor's invention of epitaphic narratives that order and preserve local memory admits that such memory is already "besieged by history." This is true, at least, for the wandering threesome; being foreign, they are not participants in local memory, and request short epitomes in its place—representations. In other words, a truly "authentic" tradition of memory is somewhat proprietary, and therefore not available to these outsiders. This circumstance also suggests that, soon, such authenticity won't be available to anyone, and only increases the pressure of nostalgia, the "will to remember."


As the Wanderer's words suggests, epitaphs are brief, stylized representations of memory, not necessarily "links" to the memory itself. In his second Essay on Epitaphs, Wordsworth acknowledges the purely abstract, representative nature of the epitaph, as well as its "signifying" role, for

the writer of an epitaph is not an anatomist, who dissects the internal frame of the mind; he is not even a painter, who executes a portrait at leisure ...The character of a deceased friend of beloved kinsman is not seen, no—nor ought to be seen, otherwise than as a tree through a tender haze or a luminous mist, that spiritualises and beautifies it; that takes away, indeed, but only to the end that parts which are not abstracted may appear more dignified and lovely; may impress and affect the more. [14]

Rather than providing an authentic link to the past, an epitaph serves to "impress and affect" a graveside visitor, referring to a feeling or sense of memory which is not necessarily his own. Yet, Wordsworth suggests in the Essay that survivors of a deceased friend or beloved kinsman may trust the abstraction of the epitaph, for it is authentic if it is " truth hallowed by love—the joint offspring of the worth of the dead and the affections of the living!" (332-3). Only if performed in the tradition of elusive and temporal "living memory," can epitaphs serve as links to the past.


As I suggested before, this section of The Excursion signifies an historical threshold, at which the epitaph soon ceases to serve such a tradition of memory. The Pastor's audience—and, we can assume, his parishioners—do not question the historical accuracy of what he has to say. His poetic epitaphs, they know, are at one with "those precious rites and customs" of his community. "These Dalesmen," observes the Poet, trust

The lingering gleam of their departed lives

To oral record, and the silent heart;

Depositories faithful and more kind

Than fondest [written] epitaph: for if these fail,

What boots the sculptured tomb?...


Yet, the Poet admits that "in less simple districts" where "stone lifts its forehead emulous of stone," the ground "all paved with commendations of departed worth," he finds security in more careful efforts to enclose, preserve, and fix memory. The Pastor is, in effect, the "author" of the community's sites of memory, in that he determines how and why people and events are remembered, and how memory itself is represented. His function in the community illuminates the complex relationship of memory and authority, demonstrating how sites of memory are manipulated and controlled by dominant cultural forces or social convention. Ironically, the Poet's "skepticism about the interpretation of narrative signs"(Hickey, 42) suggests the absence, already, of a reliable tradition of memory in his experience; he cannot really understand it. Despite his assertion otherwise, I suspect the Poet would not trust his own epitaph to a country preacher. Like Margaret's cottage, the sculptured tomb must eventually submit to weather and time, but its words are not so easily revised as 'oral record.' While the vulnerability of community memory to revision and reinterpretation may not disturb the dalesmen's confidence, the Poet speaks for those divested of such "living" memory. He is a modern individual, already besieged by a sense of history, and because he is not a member of any particular community, he can only appreciate graves as fixed sites, emblematic of the past and those who lived in it. Moreover, the Poet's preoccupation with the preservation of identity is an example of the "new economy and identity of the self" Nora describes—a shift from a tradition of memory to a history of memory.


These passages imply, as well, a nostalgia in the wake of history, for even " as traditional memory disappears, we feel obliged...to collect its remains, testimonies, documents, images, speeches, any visible sign of what has been" (Nora, 13). What is recovered serves to buttress identity and authority on both individual and cultural levels, for "recorded feelings and attitudes of people no longer living are remarkably effective in sanctioning and confirming one's own ways of living." [15] This desire to confirm, validate and reinforce former and present "ways of living" against futurity is much of what drives The Excursion. In this sense the poem is both producer and product of nostalgia : an act of rememoration, more than a reenactment or "re-visioning" of poetic tradition, despite Wordsworth's and Coleridge's grand plans for the revolutionary philosophical poem called The Recluse, which included both The Prelude and The Excursion.


A relationship to the past is informed by "a subtle play between its intractability and its disappearance," and the emerging "question of ... representation" [is] ... radically different from the old ideal of resurrecting the past" (Nora, 17). In The Excursion, this difference is most evident in the story of the "flaming Jacobite" and "sullen Hanoverian"—enemies who, by degrees, became friends and whose latter "days were spent in constant fellowship" (Ex., p. 260).

There live who yet remember here to have seen

Their courtly figures, seated on the stump

Of an old yew...

They, with joint care, determined to erect,

Upon its site, a dial, that might stand

For public use preserved, and thus survive

As their own private monument.

VI, 486-504

Knight notes that "of this 'dial' ... there is no trace in Grasmere churchyard." While the sundial in the poem serves as a "private monument," it does not function as a monument to the past. It cannot reanimate the yew, neither does it memorialize the men's prior political relationship. Rather, it functions as an emblem of their recent "revised" friendship, and as such, it publicly revises and preserves both personal and community history (for only the Pastor can relate the "true" history of the friends). The sundial is, literally and figuratively, a means of ordering and controlling time and futurity. As an example of extremely self-conscious memorializing, it also traces a shift from a memory entrusted to natural process to a memory produced by history, under the "pressure" of forgetfulness and time's passage.


Just as each of The Excursion's main characters represents a particular stance toward memory, the Pastor's epitaphs also demonstrate various stances or relationships between memory and history. His engagement with a more modern historical consciousness in the previous narrative is countered in Book Seventh with his "chivalric tale" of Sir Alfred Erthing. This sort of shift is demonstrative of what Hickey calls "deviations" or "unfulfilled promises" in The Excursion. It also suggests that the poem is not structured by a single, stable paradigm of memory, but illustrates the historical threshold at which memory stands. In this "knight's tale," history is still recalled in the continuity of memory, "if belief may rest / Upon unwritten story fondly traced / From sire to son in this obscure retreat..." (VII, 952-54). The transformation, over generations, of Sir Alfred Erthing's mansion's ruins into dalesmen's cottages manifests the same process by which living memory is transformed and ceaselessly reinvented. Likewise, the memory of Sir Alfred Erthing is subject to new interpretations. For the Wanderer, the knight is a figure of identification: an emblem of virtue and endurance in a time of political upheaval and social change, "conspicuous as our own / For strife and ferment in the minds of men," and a symbol of shifting cultural and economic realities, as his own "poor calling," once esteemed, grows increasingly obsolete (VII, 1064-66).


Noting how these realities effect historical change and the technological usurpation of the bond between man and nature, the Wanderer observes that he has

...lived to mark

A new and unforeseen creation rise

From out the labours of a peaceful Land

Wielding her potent enginery to frame

And to produce, with appetite as keen

As that of war...

The foot-path faintly marked, the horse-track wild,

And formidable plashy lane...

Have vanished—swallowed up by stately roads,

Easy and bold, that penetrate the gloom

Of Britain's farthest glens.

VIII, 90-112

While nature provides the raw material for this new and unforeseen creation, human endeavor is effacing the "slow rhythms of the past," and the shape of the landscape itself is being transformed. This is no integration of human and natural processes, but rather the imposition of industrial culture upon a rural or agrarian memory, diverting the streams of living tradition to power mills and factories, so that remaining springs and rivulets must be consecrated in memory's name. Moreover, when the Wanderer complains that "whersoe'er the traveller turns his steps, / He sees the barren wilderness erased, or disappearing" (VIII, 129-31), he invokes the concept of "barrenness" in positive terms. The wilderness must remain wilderness—open and undeveloped— if it is to sustain the particular, topographical, nature—memory crucial to the survival of The Excursion's ideal rural community. Hickey corroborates The Excursion's "green thought"; the poem depicts a world "that is rapidly being overtaken by forces of industrialism and political and economic systematization—and by an accompanying mental machinery—that threaten to overwhelm the more modest process of cultivating the landscape as the ground for local and personal meanings" (69). This ambivalence toward human impact on the land, and its "accompanying mental machinery," are symptomatic of a worldview that has ceased, or is ceasing, to comprehend the acts of human beings as natural. The physical effects of human endeavor—such as the Solitary's "never ending line" eroded into the landscape—are no longer folded into the concept of natural process. Rather, such changes are here conceived of as antagonistic to the landscape and its ground of "local and personal meanings."

"Even of the good is no memorial left"


As with the knight's history, the epitaph of Oswald provides a site of local memory that extends beyond the surrounding fellsides and achieves a greater cultural significance, opposing the social "erosion" coinciding with industrialization. The pairing of Oswald's story with Sir Erthing's, which follows it, also demonstrates the way memory narrative is generated in response to a group's or community's needs, and therefore, often repeats itself in different forms. Cultural memory does not exist to preserve a sense of "what happened," but works as a means of social instruction. Oswald, as a figure of cultural authority, appropriates and represents the same values as Erthing, but in a more contemporary form that would appeal to the young men of his own time. Likened to a Pan or an Apollo "veiled in human form," this "Child of Nature"—as he is described posthumously by the Pastor—is a paragon of rustic virtue and fortitude. Or, perhaps he is only such a paragon by virtue of his status as a site of memory.

...through the impediment of rural acres

In him revealed a scholar's genius shone;

And so, not wholly hidden from men's sight,

In him the spirit of a hero walked

Our unpretending valley...

VII, 743-47

An adept hunter, and veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Oswald is the ultimate peasant-patriot, defender of "Albion's shores" and the ancient, indigenous, and sacred memory there enclosed. So pronounces the Pastor:

No braver Youth

Descended from Judean heights, to march

With righteous Joshua; nor appeared in arms

When grove was felled, and altar was cast down

And Gideon blew the trumpet, soul-inflamed...


Moreover, Oswald, once a participant in communal and national life, becomes via his epitaph, representative of everything that is "worth" remembering:

The old domestic morals of the land,

Her simple manners, and the stable worth

That dignified a low estate...

...the character of peace,

Sobriety, and order, and chaste love,

And honest dealing, and untainted speech,

And pure good-will, and hospitable cheer,

That made the very thought of country-life

A thought of refuge...

VIII, 235-45

Wordsworth not only articulates what, in his view, is disappearing, but in doing so reifies an idealized notion of rural manners and morals, "the very thought of country-life" which informs his imagination and provides the foundation for his poetry. The Excursion is a multidimensional poem, in that it performs different "memorative" functions throughout its narrative. In this passage and those that follow, Wordsworth makes an earnest appeal that we not forget such values. The earnest panegyric on rural virtue in Oswald's story is set against Book Eighth's diatribe on the economic and social conditions that keep both the urban and rural poor from achieving an imaginative connection to the world—in short, that keep them from realizing their own tradition of "living memory." Kenneth Johnston suggests that, for critics and citizens alike, this sobering portrait of an industrializing England really did serve a social purpose in representing the hardships of the poor (290). In this way, The Excursion strives to be memory, to represent its chosen truths, rather than question the act of memorial representation itself.


But the poem is too unstable, its irony makes a purely historical reading difficult. Such irony is most clearly expressed in the figure of an old logger. In the pursuit of his traditional occupation, he nevertheless participates in physical and social erosion. This issue— the effacement of the land and its "organic" values, by the very culture which depends upon them both—arises toward the end of Book Seventh, when

A team of horses, with a ponderous freight

Pressing behind, adown a rugged slope...

Came at that moment ringing noisily.

"Here," said the Pastor, "do we muse, and mourn

The waste of death; and lo! the giant oak

Stretched on its bier—that massy timber wain;

Nor fail to note the man who guides the team."

VII, 547-54

The Pastor, with no little hint of contempt, describes how this "peasant of the lowest class" has already outlived his life's "ordinary bounds" by ten years— and each year decreases the standing population of ancient oaks in the region. The Pastor admits his "motion of despite" toward this hardy old man,

...whose bold contrivances and skill...

bear such conspicuous part

In works of havoc; taking from these vales

One after one, their proudest ornaments.


Although he describes the logger in positive and vegetal terms—"green in age and lusty" —this indicates a deeper anxiety for the Pastor, who cannot reconcile this man's own simple manners and otherwise virtuous conduct with his repeated violations of nature, for which he reaps reward. Indeed, this logger makes his small living selling timber, and with the slow but "undaunted enterprise" of men such as he comes also the "acceleration of history."

Many a ship

Launched into Morecamb-bay to him hath owed

Her strong knee-timbers, and the mast that bears

The loftiest of her pendants; He, from park

Or forest, fetched the enormous axle-tree

That whirls (how slow itself!) ten thousand spindles:

And the vast engine laboring in the mine,

Content with meaner prowess, must have lacked

The trunk and body of its marvelous strength,

If his undaunted enterprise had failed

Among the mountain coves.


Even in his tottering old age, the logger represents to the Pastor the ambition-driven, individualistic, modern man. Divorced from agrarian and communal ideals, this modern figure has begun make drastic changes in the landscape, interfering with natural cycles of time and threatening the cultural memory invested in those cycles. The Pastor even offers brief eulogies for some of the trees sacrificed to "progress." And, he argues, if one old tree is like the next, what is to stop the logger from felling "The Joyful Tree" (a site of community ritual) or "The Lord's Oak"?

"A Will to Remember"


Throughout The Excursion, and in much of his prose and shorter poetry, Wordsworth acknowledges the effects of a modernizing society and increasing industrialization on the landscape of the Lake District and those who lived there. The Excursion now functions as an important site of memory in several ways. It is the poetic "record" of an individual attempting to come to terms with the visible, surface transformation of landscape—with the recognition that what was once perceived as permanent is nearly as vulnerable as human memory. It also documents a traditional way of life in the Lake District and chronicles a communal, living memory under siege. Like many of Wordsworth's other editors, William Knight included prolific textual notes to the Paterson edition, seventy years after the poem's initial publication—revealing his own interest in establishing and preserving an historical, stable context within and without the poem. But what emerges via these acts of recording is a sense of memory enshrined "under the sign of that which has already happened" (Nora, 7).


The Excursion's preoccupation with the past and its catalogue of "new and unforeseen creation" in the present imply a condition of discontinuity fast approaching, if not already present. In addition to its contrasting of rural and industrial economies, the poem emphasizes a struggle " between opposed economies of the imagination," and opposed modes of memory (Hickey, 70). This conflict is played out differently in the poem's various narratives. The story of Oswald, for example, is a site of "local memory" within the plot of poem, but stresses particularly memorable social values for readers of the poem as well. Other narratives, such as the story of little Margaret Green (VII), are "unmomentous"—recollections of unrepresentative lives that do not appear to formally signify anything but themselves (Hickey, 70). This sort of retelling is more illustrative of spontaneous "rememoration" than of conscious memorialization. It is an act that invokes a community's living, changing system of interrelated histories, and it speaks to a dying mode of social memory. The Solitary's skepticism interrogates both modes of memory. His inquiry, in Book Sixth, "into all the many lives that are never memorialized" is "generalized to the doubtful usefulness of all stories and myths" (Johnston, 301).


This disturbing question, "what is the use of memory?" haunts The Excursion; it undermines Wordsworth's entire project, even as he seeks to answer it. Thus, the poem stakes out a critical territory in literary history, dramatizing the divorce of memory from history, and simultaneously seeking to intervene in this process. Once memory is "besieged" by history, according to Nora's argument, we can only seek to decipher our experience in terms of what we can no longer experience. And The Excursion—both text and notes—demonstrates just this act of decipherment, emerging from, and thereby defining, the remains of ancestral, customary traditions of rural English life and Lake District communities. While The Excursion's concerted "will to remember" confirms that a shift from memory to history is irrevocable, before the poem begins, this has already happened.


Can literature ever be a legitimate form of memory, as Nora claims, or can it only function as a "site"? Wordsworth provides one answer in Book Ninth, in a dialogue between the Poet and the Pastor's wife. When the two spy a white ram, mirrored in a pool at sunset, the Pastor's wife exclaims

Ah! what a pity were it to...disperse,

Or to disturb, so fair a spectacle,

And yet a breath can do it!

IX, 454-56

The Poet responds:

Ah! that such beauty, varying in the light

Of living nature, cannot be portrayed

By words, nor by the pencil's silent skill;

But is the property of him alone

Who hath beheld it, noted it with care,

And in his mind recorded it with love!

IX, 514-19

This suggests that such visions, kept "alive" in the imaginations of living people, are vulnerable in the larger, social realm of representation. According to the Poet, art is inadequate to incorporate certain experiences, which might only survive as private, internal recollections. Like the twofold reflection, memory and narrative representation are joined, and yet remain "antipodes."


Perhaps all modern literature is created under historical pressure, produced by a fear of memory's erasure. Wordsworth's changing relationship to memory is demonstrated by what Kenneth Johnston terms the "apocalyptic discontinuity and the naturalistic continuities," of his poetry—the "fundamental poles of Wordsworth's imagination" (294). Such a dialectic marks The Excursion as well as The Prelude's Book Fifth. In that famous passage, the Poet dreamed of a deluge that threatened poetry, a natural process that would, by extension, overwhelm memory. [16] In The Prelude this fear remains a terrible fantasy; The Excursion suggests it is already reality. And in the wake of the flood, we are left with a will to remember.


I am indebted to Professor Laurence Lockridge for his critique of an early draft of this essay.




For recent criticism, see especially: William H. Galperin, Revision and Authority in Wordsworth, and" ' Then the Voice was Silent': 'The Wanderer' vs. The Ruined Cottage," ELH 51; Kenneth Johnston, Wordsworth and The Recluse; Alan Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History; Susan E. Meisenhelder, Wordsworth's Informed Reader; Sharon Setzer, "Wordsworth's Wanderer, the Epitaph, and the Uncanny," Genre XXIV; David Simpson, Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement. Most of these arguments read The Excursion in and against the historical milieu of its composition or reception; while they are extremely useful for any comprehensive historicist treatment of the poem, my purpose is to suggest a memory-oriented, rather than historically-oriented, reading. Therefore, I have chosen not to engage specific historicist arguments.


William H. Galperin, Revision and Authority in Wordsworth. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).


James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992).


Alison Hickey, Impure Conceits: Rhetoric and Ideology in Wordsworth's Excursion. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).


Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, under the direction of Pierre Nora, edited and with a foreword by Lawrence D. Kritzman, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). This collaboration comprises a series of critical examinations of French "sites" or loci of memory, and how these sites contribute to historical constructions of cultural identity and authority.


History and Memory in African American Culture. Genevieve Fabre and Robert O'Meally, editors. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). This volume of essays grows out of Nora's introductory article in Representations (26: 7-24), which is reprinted as the conclusion of the book. The project re-examines several African American art forms, adapting his conceptualizations of memory and history to a specifically American context.


Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire," trans. by Marx Roudebush, Representations 26: 7-24. All citations are taken from this article.


See, for example, Paul H. Fry, "History, Existence, and 'To Autumn,'" which reads Keats's poem against the Peterloo Massacre; and Kenneth Johnston, "The Politics of Tintern Abbey," which reads that poem as a deliberate, defensive fictionalization of the Wordsworths' tour along the Wye in the summer of 1798. In "Keats and the Historical Method," Jerome McGann asserts what seems to be history's epistemological supremacy over memory, as well as its sole claim to truth: "The explicit character of …[a poem's subject matter] only reveals itself to an historical analysis, since analysis alone can overcome the loss of memory which necessarily occurs over a period of time…a lapsed memory of the past." All three essays are reprinted in Romantic Poetry: Recent Revisionary Criticism, edited by Karl Kroeber and Gene W. Ruoff. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993).


David Simpson, Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement. (New York and London: Methuen, 1987).


Christopher Salvesen, The Landscape of Memory, (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1965) p. 123.


William Wordsworth, The Excursion, in Poetical Works, Volume 5. edited by William Knight, L.L.D. (Edinburgh: William Paterson, 1884). All citations taken from this edition.


Kenneth MacLean, Agrarian Age; A Background for Wordsworth. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950) pp. 92-3.


Frances Ferguson, Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) p. 157.


William Wordsworth, Selected Prose, edited by John O. Hayden. (New York: Penguin Books, 1988) p. 332.


.W. Harding, "A Note on Nostalgia," in Determinations: Critical Essays, F.R. Leavis, ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1934) p. 63.


William Wordsworth, The Prelude, in Poetical Works, New Edition, Ernest de Selincourt and Thomas Hutchinson, editors. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936) pp. 522-524.

Auteur : Lisa Hirschfield
Titre : Between Memory and History: Wordsworth's Excursion
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 16, novembre 1999
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005880ar
DOI : 10.7202/005880ar

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