It is helpful to think of Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern as a book written by two David Simpsons. One is the author of numerous articles and scholarly monographs on Romanticism and literature, including two previous books on Wordsworth. The other publishes more general essays on intellectual history, photography, war, and current events in periodicals like the London Review of Books. Both David Simpsons write with a clear, powerful intelligence. Both are often funny. But where the first David Simpson is rigorously academic, offering extended and very close readings that unearth allusions, build upon nuanced accounts of other critics, and pause for paragraphs at a time on a word or image, the second takes a wider view of things, occasionally deploying the close-reading skills of the former in order to home in on a particular image or thought, but always moving out again to make broad and compelling statements about trauma and history, politics and the present. These two Simpsons have overlapped occasionally before (they are, after all, the same person). But they have never come together like they do in Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern, an impressively argued book about Wordsworth that quite boldly reads his anxieties and engagements as our own.
I say it is helpful to think of this book as written by two David Simpsons not because I want to maintain the regrettable division between public, or belletristic, writing and the kinds of writing done by and for academics. I say it because Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern collapses this division in compelling and provocative ways. Readers who come to Simpson’s book looking for what it adds to Wordsworth studies or to Romanticism, in other words, may frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness as a result of the book’s other, less literary – and less academic – interest: namely, the present. In addition to accounting for some persistent features in his poetry (the presence of death and death-like figures, a curious lack of decidability in the face of social issues), Simpson means to show Wordsworth’s importance for understanding our post-9/11 world – and, more importantly, how we might position ourselves in relation to it. The book’s two interests are in fact interdependent: Wordsworth can speak to our present political moment because recent theoretical work on this moment has made it possible to hear the quite contemporary voice issuing from his poetry.
What links Wordsworth’s world and ours is the “extended development of the commodity form” that began “around 1800” (5). Simpson uses this phrase – “around 1800” – as a kind of refrain throughout his study. It comes from Jeffrey Sachs’s book, The End of Poverty (2005), which Simpson takes up in his first chapter. Sachs argues that the problem of “extreme” poverty is a relatively recent one: it emerged “around 1800” as an effect of modern – i.e. capitalist – economic growth. Overall, Simpson is skeptical about Sachs’s “rhetoric of compassionate problem-solving” (17). He thinks Wordsworth would be, too. But he uses the timeline of Sachs’s book to highlight “the strong conjunction of his concerns with those evident in a reading of Wordsworth’s poetry” (18). Extreme poverty is one of these; it is also the focus of Simpson’s first chapter (which features readings of the “hunger-bitten girl” episode from the Prelude, Book IX, and “The Ruined Cottage”). Other concerns include homelessness; war and its effects on individuals, families, and bodies; alienation; what Simpson calls (following Giorgio Agamben) “substitutability”; and most significantly, the spectral character of the commodity form itself, which remakes the world in its own image and converts living beings into “figures of death-in-life” (83).
Like Sachs, Wordsworth recognized his moment as one of momentous change. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, for instance, first published in 1800, he refers to “a multitude of causes, unknown to former times” (Wordsworth 284), including political and economic revolution, urbanization, and the mechanization of labor and leisure time. Although this passage is cited often, usually to preface a discussion of Wordsworth’s retreat from such causes or his embrace of rural life and small-scale, independent farming, the actual impact these causes had in and on his poetry has until fairly recently been less attended to. Certainly Wordsworth did seek to “counteract” (284), as he says in the Preface, the corrupting influence of modern economic growth. But neither a flat-out rejection of such growth nor a stated intention to counteract it can explain those instances (and Simpson finds many) where Wordsworth’s speakers seem unsettled in retreat, or when they encounter the anything-but-restful figures that populate the rural landscape. Wordsworth does not flinch from the implications of these figures, says Simpson. Rather, he sees in them the reach and penetration of economic forces otherwise associated with the city. What this suggests is that Wordsworth’s engagement with the specifics of modern economic growth, including its effects on his own imagination, runs deeper than readers have previously assumed.
These readers include Simpson himself. In his 1987 book, Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination, Simpson also engaged the alienating and reifying effects of modernization. But he did so in more indirect terms than he uses now. As he explains in the Introduction to that book, the word “alienation” implied a “greater degree of scientific or theoretical exactitude” (Simpson 1987, 13) than his approach required. He went with “displacement” instead (the book’s subtitle is “the poetry of displacement”): first, because it was a word that could “remain outside” the theoretical vocabulary of the time, and second, because its associations with psychoanalysis enabled Simpson to better address “the question of the relation between conscious and unconscious representation, and the historical position of that relation” (1987, 13). Simpson’s focus was on how social and historical conditions generally both limit and enable the imagination in ways a poet like Wordsworth may or may not have been aware of. At a time when “consciousness” was a more loaded word than it is today (at least in Romantic studies), Simpson was one of several important critics – loosely characterized as new historicist – who made readers attend to “the significance of silences” (1987, 11) and to what Fredric Jameson described as the “political unconscious” of literary works. At the same time, though, Simpson struck a pose of ambivalence about engaging too openly or too extensively with “theory,” dominant as it then was in the 1980s.
There is no such ambivalence in the present book. Simpson’s explicit engagement with theory has as much here to do with the current political climate in the West as it does with academic trends: he sees theory’s demise in the academy as a symptom of a larger ideological shift – a “neoliberal triumphalism” that gained sway following the end of the Cold War, in 1989, and which has become more pronounced in the aftermath of the events of September 11th, 2001. “This is no time to enlist in the campaign against theory,” Simpson writes in his 2006 book, 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration: “it is theory,” he says, “that offers an important alternative understanding, outside the neoliberal consensus of what may be entailed in moral vigilance and moral action” (2006, 128). Against a culture quick to delineate (and then blindly to accept) lines between “us” and “them” (or West and East), “theory” offers an alternative way of reading, thinking, and finally – possibly – of acting. For the public-intellectual Simpson of the 9/11 book, it is not a coincidence that the same major U.S. newspaper that failed to report anywhere near accurately or even-handedly on the buildup to war in Iraq also argued in its obituary pages that the work of theorists like Jacques Derrida and Edward Said made no meaningful or lasting contribution to humanist inquiry.
Derrida’s work in particular stands behind this latest reading of Wordsworth. Describing the complicated critical gesture that underpins Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern, Simpson explains that it was Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994) that “awakened” him to “a remarkable confluence of interests between Wordsworth and Marx” (4). “Reading Marx again after Derrida, and Wordsworth again after both,” he explains, “opens up a new way of understanding the affiliations between and determinations among spectral figures, commodities, factory time, machine labor, global war and poetic imagery” (4). In a sense, Simpson wants to do with Wordsworth what Derrida did with Marx: he wants to examine his prescient account of the modern economy as a way of throwing into relief a culture whose poetic imagery has for the most part only served to naturalize its more pronounced and brutalizing effects. Simpson may turn to theory in order to open up Wordsworth’s “poetic analysis” (50) of commodification. But he in turn shows how the poetry itself works like a theory, providing “evidence of things unseen” (159) and opening up for our inspection the world of commodities. These commodities are not just things to get or spend money on. They are ghostly forms that conceal their own workings and transform living relations into relations among things. At the moment when the commodity form came to govern “more of the operations of social and private life and thought than ever before” (117), it makes sense that a poet who so brilliantly represented social and personal life would be touched by this new order of things. Wordsworth’s poems not only describe the physical effects of this new governing form (hunger, homelessness, disfigurement, death), they register “something much more pervasive and baffling, a general condition of commodification as the secret agent threatening to govern all perception and expression” (155). Including the poet’s. As Simpson argues, poems like “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and the “spots of time” section of the Prelude mimic the processes of commodification even as they critique its effects.
Thus while some of the displacements of Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination are still in play in Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern, the latter book focuses on a more specific process of making and remaking the world: “not just a contingent overlap between a few interesting poems,” Simpson writes, “but a paradigm that recurs across many of the best-known works” (5). A brief example can illustrate the difference in approach. Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern begins with Wordsworth’s preoccupation with death and with some of the more obvious causes for it: the loss of both parents while he was still young, the loss of two children, the death of his brother. These, Simpson says, “go some way toward explaining why his poetry is haunted by ghostly apparitions, figures of death-in-life, of life shadowed and sometimes claimed by death” (1). But there is more. There are the military fatalities and disfigurements that accompanied mass warfare; the depopulation of the countryside and “the increasing spread of mechanized labor and factory discipline that damaged human bodies just as visibly as did weapons of war” (1); and there is the “harsh logic of exchange” (233) – of substitutability – that declared “that each of us could be in the place of the other without doing anything at all” (61). Wordsworth’s historical moment, in other words, made death visible in a way that required little imagination to grasp.
So far this sounds like the approach of the Historical Imagination book: Wordsworth’s near- obsession with death may be intensely personal but it is also overdetermined by larger historical forces that dealt death in new and terrifying ways. What I see that is different about the recent book is, first, these historical forces are all driven by the same “structuring energy” (9) – that of the commodity form; and second, for Simpson, Wordsworth’s poetry registers this structuring energy in ways that suggest a consciousness about the processes engaged and the effects wreaked. “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” for instance, exhibits “a powerful instance of Wordsworth’s understanding of the process Agamben calls substitutability” (66). And just as Adorno said Walter Benjamin had “fallen under the spell of the ‘phantasmagoria’ of commodification,” so Wordsworth “knows himself to be on the edge of being bewitched” (183). In short, Wordsworth’s poems “engage with what is uncomfortable without flattening out the discomfort or effacing the history that marks the condition of concern” (188). This condition of concern, however, requires conscious awareness.
By “concern” Simpson means a kind of engagement without resolution. “To be concerned,” he writes, “usually means not having an answer, not having finished with an issue, being in a state of suspended attention that may produce a resolution but has not done so yet” (5). Concern is an intellectual stance, of sorts – an openness to deeper understanding. It is not a politics – or an ethics. But it is a prelude to a politics; for it means being aware that there are problems and being aware of the limitations of immediately available solutions. In chapter one, Simpson shows how in poems like “The Ruined Cottage” and the “hunger-bitten girl” passage “the rhetoric of resolution is so fully withheld” (27). Wordsworth’s speaker sees the girl; he even talks with a friend about her. But he does not talk to her and he does not offer to help her. This could be read as callous (and it probably is). But as Simpson argues, Wordsworth uses the scene to highlight the limitations of a civility that was supposed – and still is supposed – to compensate for the increasing gap in inequality brought about by the privatization of resources. To demonstrate how Wordsworth withholds resolution, Simpson compares his stance with three theorists of civility and its analogues (dialogism and sympathy): Jürgen Habermas, Adam Smith, and Georg Simmel. What Simpson concludes is that Wordsworth not only points to the limitations of sympathy around 1800, he “proleptically” refutes “the fragile optimism that can be traced in so much of the current post-1989 civility talk” (25).
In chapter two, Simpson turns from the positive – if ultimately ineffective – models of the previous chapter to the more terrifying logic of “substitutability,” a term that is “stronger and less negotiable than sympathy” (61). Drawing on Agamben’s theory that to be a refugee is the normative model of citizenship, Simpson reads Wordsworth’s various displaced characters (soldiers, gypsies, beggars, orphans, etc.) as harbingers of the present – of a “future,” that is, “in which questions of home and homelessness […] would become more and more urgent and obsessive” (59). Wordsworth is haunted by homelessness, Simpson argues; it is an ever-present feature of the world he describes and it is an ever-looming threat – this possibility that he (or his speakers) could easily change places with the displaced people he meets. There is a radical, leveling potential here. But there is also something more sinister at work (and Wordsworth’s poetry, says Simpson, highlights both). As with current anxieties about Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, there is a threat that one of “us” can become or be substituted for one of “them” without warning. This more recent manifestation of substitutability is discussed in the 9/11 book: Referencing Agamben’s refugees and the death-in-life figure of the Muselmann from Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, Simpson looks at how common life itself can be or become a “state of exception”. He rehearses some of this argument in chapter two in order to read the old Cumberland beggar as just such a figure, an “automaton” (77) whose motions mimic the repetition of machine labor and circulation alike. The slowed-down time that characterizes his movements may suggest opposition to the quickening pace of modernization. But it is associated, as well, with “mechanical inertia and death” (76).
It is this connection that Simpson spends the rest of the book arguing. Wordsworth’s automaton figures – and some of his speakers – are not just reactions against the “inhuman mechanisms” (77) of the new economy; they are embodiments of it. Where the first two chapters, then, take up issues from Simpson’s writing on our political present and establish their relevance for discussing Wordsworth’s, the five chapters that follow provide a fuller picture of this time around 1800 when the commodity-form gained sway and show the considerable degree to which the processes of commodification are registered in and by Wordsworth’s poetry. In these five chapters, the public-intellectual Simpson of the 9/11 book and the LRB essays is for the most part overshadowed by the rigorously academic Simpson of the previous Wordsworth monographs. Agamben, Habermas, and Simmel are left behind for Wordsworth scholars like Alan Liu, Celeste Langan, and Alan Bewell, whose accounts of the poet and his modernity are crucial for establishing Simpson’s own. A good number of poems are examined carefully and at length: “Poor Susan” and the “Discharged Soldier” fragment (in chapter three); the “Spots of Time” passages from the Prelude (chapter four); the “Convent of Chartreuse” scene of the Prelude, Book VI, and the great “daffodils” lyric (chapter five); the “Leven Sands” episode of the Prelude, Book X (chapter six); and the account of reading and books in the Prelude, Book V (chapter seven). Taken together, these poems represent a body of work that “uncommonly and perhaps uniquely records what it is like to live within a culture impacted for the first time by the full dispersal of the commodity form throughout the economic system and the social imaginary” (233).
Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern is a remarkable and fascinating book. It is also a difficult book: not only because of the complexity of the readings it offers, which I can only nod to here, but also because of its engagement with the complexities of our current political moment. If I have gone on about Derrida, 9/11, and the Iraq War, it is because Wordsworth, Commodification, and Social Concern does the same: the book is related at least as much – and probably more – to Simpson’s book on 9/11 and his LRB essays as it is to his two previous monographs on Wordsworth. In the 9/11 book, Simpson remarked on Derrida’s statement, made in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, that we do not yet “know what we are talking about” (cited in Simpson, 1996, 9). An admission such as this is to be taken seriously, Simpson claimed, especially at a moment when millions of Americans who could not locate Iraq or Afghanistan on a map nevertheless somehow knew exactly what “we” should be doing in and to those countries. Likewise, in the concluding paragraph of Wordsworth, Commodification, and Social Concern, he writes, “Wordsworth’s greatest gift to literary history, and his greatest contribution to an understanding of history, is that he was never sure that he knew what to say, or how to say it” (234, Simpson’s emphasis). Simpson’s recent public-intellectual concerns have made Wordsworth both newly interesting and newly modern. The connections he makes between present and past may jar a bit at points (they are supposed to, I think); but the resulting readings do not suffer for this.
And in the end, it is the poetry itself, not any particular position or politics, that matters most to Simpson. This poetry does not tell us what to do; it shows us how to think about the world we inhabit. Where in Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination Simpson wanted to get beyond the question of whether a particular poem was good or bad, in Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern the question of Wordsworth’s politics is treated similarly: to analyze a particular poem for how it reveals a liberal, leftist, or conservative Wordsworth is to miss the unique perspective and true power of the writing. Simpson’s Wordsworth, then, is not a Marxist Wordsworth. Rather, he is a poet who “profoundly explore[d]” – as Marx later did – “the processes and consequences of modernization” (4) and who tried in his poetry to make that world visible, uncommon, and understandable to himself and to his readers. It is thus fitting that Simpson’s latest monograph on Wordsworth leaves off where the previous one started: with “Gipsies,” a “paradigm poem” for Wordsworth’s time whose “exact and detailed anatomy of commodification” (232) should perhaps be better understood in our own.
Anthony Jarrells teaches in the English Department at the University of South Carolina and is the author of Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions: 1688 and the Romantic Reform of Literature (2005) and the editor of volume 2 (“Selected Prose”) of Blackwood’s Magazine, 1817-1825 (2006). He is currently at work on a study of the Romantic-period tale.
- Simpson, David. 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- Simpson, David. Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement. New York: Methuen, 1987.
- Wordsworth, William. Selected Prose. Ed. John O. Hayden. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.