In this essay, I contest the view of recent historicist and New Historicist critics that the London books of The Prelude feature a “conservative view” of the city and capitalism. I argue that Wordsworth does not flee the social variety and perceived chaos of London in preference for his bourgeois domestic retreat in Grasmere. However, nor do I suggest that Wordsworth offers a “proto-Marxist” critique of capitalism. Instead, I show that the use of allegory in The Prelude enables Wordsworth not only to convey the alienating character of the city (and the law of the market dominating it), but also to explore London’s affective and imaginative potential. I argue that Wordsworth affirms the city and nature, and that his critique of certain aspects of London cannot be reduced to any ideological position – Burkean or Painite, for example.
Drawing on Adorno’s claim that the successful work of art “transcends false consciousness”, I submit that Wordsworth’s commitment to the autonomy of the aesthetic reflects a distinctly undogmatic politics (“Lyric” 214). Embodied solely as art, Wordsworth’s critique balks at any instrumental realisation. Opposing the anti-aesthetic bent of some historicist writers, I argue that Wordsworth’s art is permanently adversarial and does not harden into either a political manifesto or false consciousness. Simultaneously affirmatory and critical, The Prelude is relatively free of ideological prejudice in its exploration of the full diversity of feeling.
As early as Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth treats the city with great suspicion. In “Michael”, for example, Luke leaves the family home, travels to “the dissolute city” and is lost forever “To evil courses” (443-4). However, it is in the 1800 Preface that Wordsworth most famously bemoans
the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.128
This association of the city with dissipation and a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” is characteristic of a widespread suspicion of luxury in the eighteenth-century, much of which is to be found in specifically Whig, civic humanist discourse. According to John Barrell, civic humanist writers (including figures as politically diverse as the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and Edmund Burke) define the virtuous gentleman – in contrast to the subject mired in luxury or vice – as disinterested, able “to regulate and subdue that variety of contrary passions and interests” (English Literature 22). In order to qualify as virtuous and disinterested, the civic humanist gentleman is, by and large, “of independent means, for the best guarantee of political independence is economic independence” and the freedom from want it brings (English Literature 64). This describes, in effect, the Whig landowner whose inherited wealth liberated him from the seductive caprice of the market and elevated him above the self-interested “considerations of ambition, possession, consumption, and desire” (Paulson 4-5). Although civic humanists agreed that commerce threatened to dissolve society into a multiplicity of competing interests, they also conceded that without it society would be impossible. As a consequence, they accepted the fact of the market on the proviso that only those abstracted from private interest conduct politics. From his lofty prospect above the fret of daily business, the disinterested gentleman thought himself capable of discerning the path to social harmony. Thus, the “disinterest” afforded by wealth was presented by the wealthy as the most compelling reason for their continued control over the nation.
Drawing on the work of Duncan Wu, Mary Jacobus and Michael Meehan, Jon Mee has recently argued that Shaftesbury is an important influence on Wordsworth’s poetics. Mee finds in Shaftesbury’s recommendation of solitude for the purpose of regulation “the outlines of a Wordsworthian definition of poetry as ‘emotion, recollected in tranquility’” (“Mopping” §5), and reads Wordsworth’s response to London in Book Seven of The Prelude as that of a Shaftesburean “confronted with the infectious proximity of the crowd” (Romanticism 246). London makes such a forceful assault on the poet that “Only a deep training in a version of Shaftesbury’s techniques of regulation, above all, an ability gained through habitual practice in solitude to relate the confusion of the senses to a larger harmonious whole, ultimately preserves Wordsworth from ‘the endless stream of men and moving things’” (Romanticism 246). For Mee, Wordsworth’s rejection of London in favour of the peace of Grasmere and its surrounds suggests a classic civic humanist attitude towards modernity.
Without focussing on either Shaftesbury, civic humanism or Whiggism, other recent critics have arrived at similar conclusions about Wordsworth’s political outlook, identifying Book Seven of The Prelude with a high distain for the market and a “conservative” critique of the excesses of capitalism. In “Wordsworth, Panoramas, and the Prospect of London”, for example, Ross King synthesises some of the major theoretically informed writing on Book Seven in an attempt to clarify Wordsworth’s politics. To support his contention that the poet rejects London in order to preserve, or re-establish, a prospect that distinguishes him from the common mass of men, King cites Mary Jacobus’ thesis that Wordsworth abhors London because it puts “the this-worldly profits of the eye in place of the other-worldly gains of the mind” (58 ff; “Dream” 56). In a footnote, King also borrows Neil Hertz’s psychoanalytic reading of The Prelude:
Hertz suggests that the modes of experience elsewhere so appropriate to the text – “seeing and gazing, listening, remembering, feeling” – are finally baffled in Book Seventh, where the billboards and tradesmen’s signs are intended to be legible, not merely visible, and consequently must be read or deciphered rather than experienced phenomenologically.
Like Jacobus, Hertz provides tacit agreement with King’s proposal that Wordsworth flees London because unable to achieve “the perspective required for an ordering, all-embracing view” – such a “perspective” resembling the civic humanist prospect in both form and function (70). All the same, rather than link Wordsworth with Whiggism, King concludes that “in The Prelude London is for the most part the corrupt metropolis condemned with rhetoric recalling that of Queen Anne Toryism” (72).
By contrast, in “Lamb, Lloyd, London: A Perspective on Book Seven of The Prelude”, Lucy Newlyn brilliantly argues that, for the most part, Wordsworth presents “the city as a formative experience – as crucial as the country in moulding his imagination, just as exciting as the ‘changeful language’ of the ‘ancient hills’” (181). Remarking on the poet’s success in writing about the city not simply as “‘the quick dance / Of colours, lights and forms’, but with an awareness of things purely human”, Newlyn eludes the anti-aesthetic prohibitions of much current historicist criticism (183). Nevertheless, she finishes her piece in conformity with critical orthodoxy: “Wordsworth retreats from the implications of his most imaginative writing. The last section of Book Seven is astonishing in its apparent insensitivity to the claims that have gone before” (181-2). Ultimately, Newlyn agrees with Mee and King that Book Seven represents a withdrawal, in the name of reactionary self-preservation (or “conservation”), from the disorientating influence of the commercial capital.
In this essay, I argue that Wordsworth’s view of London is not simply that of a Whig or Tory appalled by the vulgarity of capitalism. I show that, despite outlawing it in the Preface, Wordsworth deploys allegory in The Prelude to not only convey the alienating character of the city, and the law of the market dominating it, but also to comprehend London’s social, affective and imaginative potential. In other words, I contest the assumption that, flying from the “craving for extraordinary incident” he sometimes believes characterises London, Wordsworth establishes in nature a sense of visionary harmony compatible with a conservative politics. I propose, instead, that the critique of capitalism Wordsworth presents in the London books of The Prelude does not correspond with an easily identifiable ideological position. Drawing on Theodor Adorno’s claim that the successful work of art “transcends false consciousness”, I submit that Wordsworth’s commitment to the relative autonomy of the aesthetic reflects a politics always vigilant against the poverty of dogma (“Lyric” 214). The formal integrity of the artwork acts, in the event, as an ongoing critical negation of the damaged capitalist world, of its “falsity and meanness” (“Lyric” 215). Yet, embodied solely as art, Wordsworth’s critique balks at any instrumental realisation that could be named either conservative or radical: permanently adversarial, it refuses to harden into a politics limited by ideological blinkers. Thus, with The Prelude as the origin and end of composition, the relatively autonomous resolve of Wordsworth’s writing results in a political art without either party or manifesto. The poem is interested in the full diversity of feeling – even the frequently unsettling feelings aroused by London. Unfettered by determinate political goals, Wordsworth’s art resists both a society and a politics that would restrict the palette of experience.
In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth declares that the language of his poetry is natural, that it resembles conversational language rather than the elevated idiom of his eighteenth-century poetic predecessors. With the expression “personifications of abstract ideas”, he makes particular reference to writing that comes under the umbrella of allegory, and insists on its absence from his work:
Except in a very few instances the Reader will find no personifications of abstract ideas in these volumes, not that I mean to censure such personifications: they may be well fitted for certain sorts of composition, but in these poems I propose to myself to imitate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men, and I do not find that such personifications make any regular or natural part of the language.130
Wordsworth implies that allegory and personification (a version of allegory) are of a different order to what he takes to be natural, ordinary, or common language. He rejects these figures because they are grafted arbitrarily onto the “real language of men” (118): mere ornament, a sign of passion rather than passion itself, they render poetic expression inauthentic. As Chester F. Chaplin notes, the attack on abstract personifications in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads was part of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s attempt to distance themselves from the kind of verse associated with Erasmus Darwin – a verse that, by simply dressing prosaic thought in poetic ornament, failed to authentically unite language and feeling (81-97). In The Prelude, however, there are episodes that skilfully employ such “artificial” language. Personification suits Wordsworth’s youthful appraisal of Cambridge University as stultifying, in Book Three, for instance:
... Shapes of spurious fame, and short-liv’d praise
Here sate in state, and fed with daily alms
Retainers won away from solid good;
And here was Labour, his own Bond-slave, Hope
That never set the pains against the prize;
Idleness, halting with his weary clog;
... The Idol weak as the Idolator;
And Decency and Custom starving Truth;
And blind Authority, beating with his Staff
The Child that might have led him; Emptiness
Followed, as of good omen; and meek Worth
Left to itself unheard-of, and unknown.
Just as Cambridge scholarship seems barren of any purpose other than self-perpetuation, so personification – with its fantastic desertion of reality in favour of an infinitely expanding universe populated exclusively by words – battens itself in an unwholesome parody of nourishment. Through the brittle convention of personification, Wordsworth represents the university as an airless place, overcrowded with dull, self-serving language and customs.
Recalling his studies, Wordsworth writes that he was initially unaware that he favoured “the more homely produce” (602) of the countryside. Only with hindsight can he
... smile in many a mountain solitude
At passages and fragments that remain
Of that inferior exhibition, play’d
By wooden images, a theatre
For Wake or Fair.
He states plainly that as a student, he would often leave the town and seek repose in nature: “Oft did I leave / My Comrades and the Crowd, Buildings and Groves, / And walked the fields, the level fields, / With Heaven’s blue concave rear’d above my head” (97-100). Far from the press of the colleges and streets, and with a benign sense of his place on earth, Wordsworth achieves a kind of prospect: he can distance himself from the rush and roar, and secure a still point of watchful repose. In this condition, Wordsworth claims he
... look’d for universal things; perused
The common countenance of earth and heaven:
And, turning the mind in upon itself,
Pored, watch’d, expected, listen’d; spread my thoughts,
And spread them with a wider creeping; felt
Incumbences more awful, visitings
Of the Upholder, of the tranquil Soul,
Which underneath all passion lives secure,
A steadfast life.
Finding the commotion of the university town bewildering, the young Wordsworth is soothed by this natural prospect, and able to attend to the “incommunicable powers” (188) of mystery and spirit.
Even in this book of The Prelude, however, Wordsworth does not introduce nature in bald opposition to the urban. It is only while in Cambridge, far “from those shapes sublime / Wherewith I had been conversant” (102-3), that his mind begins to penetrate the surface of things: nature is not hailed, simplistically, as an antidote to the apparent malaise of town. On the contrary, Wordsworth values the alienation he experiences in Cambridge as a negative index of a possible – and joyful – plenitude. In short, Wordsworth does not regard alienation as something to be fled: it is, instead, essential to harmony, either as a spur to reconciliation or as a mark, a memory, of its loss.
Having escaped the troublesome air of Cambridge, and discovered the ameliorating influence of nature’s eternal forms, Wordsworth represents himself as able to return refreshed, and hungry for delight. He is elated at the sight of
So many happy Youths, so wide and fair
A congregation, in its budding time
Of health, and hope, and beauty; all at once
So many divers samples of the growth
Of life’s sweet season.
“To me, at least, / It was a goodly prospect” (228-9), he recalls. The kind of solitude and perspective Wordsworth has enjoyed shares little with the will-to-isolation implicit in the civic humanist prospect or “conservative” retreat into nature. The young poet is conspicuously outgoing: “if a throng was near / That way I lean’d by nature; for my heart / Was social, and lov’d idleness and joy” (234-6). Nature facilitates the sociable in Wordsworth.
If Wordsworth rejects Cambridge University primarily, rather than the town itself, he emphasises that he did not therefore slight books:
That were to lack
All sense; but other passions had been mine
More fervent, making me less prompt, perhaps,
To in-door study than was wise or well
Or suited to my years.
It is not even scholarship that repels him. He loves to read, but also enjoys the physical pleasures of the countryside; he likes talk, yet is glad of his own company. What Wordsworth objects to in Cambridge is the slavery to intellectual competition – the principle that dominates the colleges and tarnishes otherwise pleasing activities:
I griev’d to see among the Band
Of those who in the field of contest stood
As combatants, passions that did to me
Seem low and mean; from ignorance of mine,
In part, and want of just forbearance, yet
My wiser mind grieves now for what I saw.
Willingly did I part from these.
For Wordsworth, the University becomes a sign of modernity. The culture of (mental) antagonism and battle that define the academy spread beyond its bounds, inevitably shaping the spirit of the town. The University’s influence, however, does not necessarily distort the town. On the contrary, it renders Cambridge a representative city: “in dwarf proportions were express’d / The limbs of the great world, its goings-on / Collaterally pourtray’d, as in mock fight, / A Tournament of blows, some hardly dealt” (616-9). A wondrous stage for the exploration of human creativity and potential, Cambridge and its halls is also an alienating sink of fateful struggle and brutish rivalry.
Paul de Man defines allegory as a mechanical and arbitrary figure, in which the allegorical signifier is structurally divided from its signified. In other words, there is nothing natural, or motivated, about the allegorical sign:
The relationship between the allegorical sign and its meaning (signifié) is not decreed by dogma ... We have, instead, a relationship between signs in which the reference to their respective meanings has become of secondary importance. But this relationship between signs necessarily contains a constitutive temporal element; it remains necessary, if there is to be allegory, that the allegorical sign refer to another sign that precedes it. The meaning constituted by the allegorical sign can then consist only in the repetition (in the Kierkegaardian sense of the term) of a previous sign with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority.207
Although the meaning of secular allegory is, in effect, determined in advance, there is no fixed code for either its composition or interpretation. The allegorical sign does not, then, realise an identity with the earlier sign. Meaning is, rather, produced by the difference between the two signs, indeterminacy resulting from the allegorical sign’s ceaseless appeal to the authority of an anterior sign that is never perfectly revealed. Thus, de Man suggests, “allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin, and, renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference” (207). Defined by time, allegory demystifies the illusory identifications of language. Yet its critical purchase does not allow allegory to transcend such illusions: it is forever negative, exposing untruth without making an appeal to positive terms. Although able to reveal the falsehood of identity, it is a language of disillusion and disenchantment that is unable to convert “knowledge” into truth. Translated into the terms of Ross King, it might be said that allegory undermines – or even destroys – all claims to a disinterested and objective perspective. This point can be further clarified by an example de Man takes from Baudelaire – that of a man who laughs knowingly as he slips in the street. Splitting himself into two – an empirical, bodily self, and a conscious, that is, ironic and linguistic self – the man believes he overcomes the ‘thingness’ to which the fall might reduce him. A sense of pride ensues from this new awareness of frail inauthenticity. Such self-regard, indeed, is almost forgivable when others are walking around oblivious to the danger lurking on the pavement. Yet, as de Man points out, the superiority felt by the man who laughs as he falls is misplaced, ‘for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic’ (214). Allegory and irony might acknowledge error, but as their insight is bound up with failure it can never claim objectivity, disinterest or truth.
In Book Seven of The Prelude, however, allegory does not always perform the self-dissolving critique of perspective (or the civic humanist prospect) described by de Man. Its Wordsworthian form maintains an air of superiority, examining the activities in the streets and markets of London from above. Wordsworth recognises that allegory’s enslavement to arbitrary conventions (its “perverse” self-referentiality) is analogous to what looks to be the fruitless and self-replicating circulation of people and commodities. At this stage, Wordsworth seems to use allegory’s disclosure of inauthenticity as a badge of his own authenticity. Wordsworthian allegory does, then, seem to work to “conservative” effect when deployed with conscious deliberation: abstracted from its ephemeral objects, his allegory passes judgement upon the degeneracy of capitalism from on high.
At the beginning of Book Seven, Wordsworth portrays his younger self as naive in his expectations of the capital:
My fancy had shaped forth, of sights and shows,
Processions, Equipages, Lords and Dukes,
The King and the King’s Palace, and not last
Or least, heaven bless him! the renown’d Lord Mayor,
Dreams hardly less intense than those which wrought
A change of purpose in young Whittington.
The youthful poet anticipates discovering London a place out of popular history and fairy tale. The reality, though, is very different: in the capital, “men lived / Even next-door neighbours ... yet still / Strangers, and knowing not each other’s names” (118-20). The city is chaotic, its “Babel din” (157) impossible to measure into a simple pattern or master from any perspective or prospect. “The endless stream of moving men and moving things” (158) defies comprehension and the maintenance of distinctions. As Theresa Kelley notes, there is little difference between the movement of people and goods, as both are “unnaturally” animated. Either men “are pushed, or move of their own will, or ... are so cleverly mechanised that they seem to move on their own”, like automata (129). Wordsworth can neither distinguish between people and goods, nor fathom the origin of the force that propels them.
He recalls, in what Shaftesbury might call a state of “Phrenzy, and Distraction”, the crowds, the visual impression of the shops, and the over-stimulation that consumes subjectivity (255):
Here, there, and everywhere, a weary Throng!
The Comers and the Goers face to face,
Face after face; the string of dazzling Wares,
Shop after Shop, with Symbols, blazon’d Names,
And all the Tradesman’s honours overhead;
Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page,
With letters huge inscribed from top to toe;
Stationed above the door like guardian Saints,
There, allegoric shapes, female or male;
Or physiognomies of real men,
Land Warriors, Kings, or Admirals of the Sea,
Boyle, Shakespear, Newton; or the attractive head
Of some Scotch Doctor, famous in his day.
People and objects are difficult to tell apart, individual faces substitute with other faces and, in turn, become interchangeable with shop fronts. Wordsworth cannot even say whether the shop fronts themselves bear allegorical designs or are human. But allegory allows him to reveal the seeming misery of reality whilst retaining some distance from it: he can describe London as hell because it structurally resembles a reviled trope. Although figure and reality are an undecidable blur, Wordsworth composes the allegory: understanding how it works, he thus appears to occupy a guaranteed spot – a disinterested perspective or prospect.
Wordsworth observes the way London distils national and racial characteristics into abstract personifications:
The Italian, with his Frame of Images
Upon his head; with Basket at his waist
The Jew; the stately and slow-moving Turk
With freight of slippers piled beneath his arm!
People are defined by the goods they peddle: commodity and vendor bleed into one another. Again, a slippage between the real and its allegorical figuration occurs. However, even in such circumstances, there is hope: a memory endures of the bright and energising sociability Wordsworth enjoyed in Cambridge. For all the anxiety London causes him, the poet is clearly invigorated by the demonic energy trade unleashes, and the new relationships, thoughts and feelings it creates.
The city remains, nevertheless, an unsettling theatre in which nothing means anything in itself; definitions are always caught up in an economy of circulating and mutually defining objects. Entertainers, like ‘saw Singers, Rope-dancers, Giants and Dwarfs, / Clowns, Conjurers, Posture-masters, Harlequins, / Amid the uproar of the rabblement, / Perform their feats” (294-97) before an audience consisting of individuals who dissolve in the spectacle. The city is a place where subjects are transformed into objects, inseparable from the things they sell or consume. Even the actor playing Jack the Giant-killer bears the sign invisible on his chest, as if himself another shop front.
To Wordsworth, people appear hopelessly shorn of their proper identities. He recoils from a prostitute he sees in the street. Inhabiting a Godless world of blasphemy and “public vice” (7.420), she is both literally and figuratively a fallen woman. Wordsworth is shocked, but feels little pity:
... the pain was almost lost,
Absorb’d and buried, in the immensity
Of the effect: a barrier seem’d at once
Thrown in, that from humanity divorced
The human Form, splitting the race of Man
In twain, yet leaving the same outward shape.
The city is so alien that the poet can muster little sympathy for some who suffer there. Like other characters in Book Seven, the prostitute is less an individual than a representative of vice. In allegorical mode, Wordsworth fixes on the most marginalized, even freakish, characters: monkeys, buffoons, “Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs, / The Horse of Knowledge, and the learned Pig, / The Stone-eater, the Man that swallows fire, / Giants, Ventriloquists” (681-4) in order to abstract purposeful meaning from what he views. He observes people in bond to work and the commodities they make or trade:
The slaves unrespited of low pursuits,
Living amid the same perpetual flow
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end.
From his vantage point, surveying society and its apparent detritus, Wordsworth declares that he can see “the parts / As parts, but with a feeling of the whole” (712-13), and make sense of pandemonium.
However, it is also the case that Wordsworth frequently sees appearances and cannot make out substance; he is often left with fragments that will not combine into an organic whole. Intent on grasping London in its totality, then, he turns again to thoughts of disciplining intercourse with nature. As in Cambridge, Wordsworth summons to mind the pure outline of a mountain and calls on the ‘spirit of Nature” (736) to help him reach “Through meagre lines and colours, and the press / Of self-destroying, transitory things, / Composure and ennobling harmony” (739-41). Such behaviour is, of course, quite in accord with Shaftesbury’s civic humanist philosophy that self-discovery and composure be attained through retreat into nature’s bosom. Yet the unease that has preceded this neat resolution remains.
It is not only the prevalence of allegorical figures and unusual characters that undercuts Wordsworth’s supposed preference for nature’s organic unity, rather than London’s broken pieces, at the end of Book Seven. The centrality of the theatre to his vision of London also disrupts any confirmation of a stable identity that is predicated on a disinterested and objective perspective or prospect. Wordsworth admits to the appeal of theatre, its “lustres, lights, / The carving and the gilding” (441-2). Instead of praising its generation of affects, though, he deplores its power to seduce and unseat the will. When the older poet thinks of the stage, he suggests that his youthful imagination would languish in the dark:
... even then it slept,
When, wrought upon by tragic sufferings,
The heart was full; amid my sobs and tears
It slept, even in the season of my youth:
For though I was most passionately moved,
And yielded to the changes of the scene
With most obsequious feeling, yet all this
Pass’d not beyond the suburbs of the mind.
Wordsworth dislikes the passivity induced by theatre. Anxious that its luxurious spectacle “feminises” him, he denies that theatre has any deep impact on his mind. Only Shakespeare, articulating what the young poet has already ‘shaped / ... yet not shaped” (514-5), is permitted the capacity to truly seduce.
For Wordsworth, the theatre is essentially bogus. It reminds him of the stage-managed performances of dishonest lawyers, politicians and effete preachers who “perform a toilette of two hours” (548); certain dangerously rhetorical orations from the pulpit, by which the “pretty Shepherd ... / Leads up and down his captivated Flock” (565-6). It is as bewildering as the crowded market, and spectators are effectively caged by such displays. Later, when wandering around St Bartholomew’s Fair, Wordsworth notices an audience staring at “chattering monkeys dangling from their poles, / ... children whirling in their roundabouts” (668-9), and other extraordinary sights. Clearly, the audience is as much a spectacle as the drama on stage. There is no happy (and “manly”) prospect for contemplation:
Tents and Booths,
Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast Mill,
Are vomiting, receiving, on all sides,
Men, Women, three years Children, Babes in arms.
The performers are grotesque commodities, their value exhausted in their talent; but the spectators are similarly processed. Wordsworth is barely able to preserve a distance from this vision of subjects running to objects of equivalence. He is lured into the maelstrom.
But does Wordsworth respond to the collapse of his disinterested prospect by abandoning the perceived turmoil of the city for the quiet order and certainty of nature? Book Eight begins with the poet in Grasmere, far from the “blank confusion” (696) of London. In this book, nature is again the teacher described in Book Five, enabling the poet to discern London from a distance, and thus imbue the city’s “temporal shapes / Of vice and folly” (496-7) with some kind of stability. Through nature, Wordsworth has learned to withhold scorn for the residents of London:
... I already had been taught to love
My Fellow-beings, to such habits train’d
Among the woods and mountains, where I found
In thee a glorious Guide, to lead me forth
Beyond the bosom of my Family.
Indeed, it is significant that following this (perhaps Burkean) meditation on the social benefits of habit, Wordsworth addresses nature thus:
‘Twas thy power
That rais’d the first complacency in me,
And noticeable kindliness of heart,
Love human to the Creature in himself
As he appear’d, a Stranger in my path,
Before my eyes a Brother of this world.
This statement echoes Shaftesbury’s advocacy of the spiritual balm that is retirement into nature. But whereas Shaftesbury praises solitude and social intercourse confined to class peers, Wordsworth emphasises a more capacious kind of sociability. There is an important ambivalence in Wordsworth’s sentiments towards London and nature. London is certainly cavalier with distinctions, and frequently denies the individual his proper affections. However, while restful contemplation in nature is at times acclaimed as an end in itself, it is often also presented as preparation for the kind of unrestricted social interaction that is available only in the metropolis.
Wordsworth’s poetry does not, then, piously maintain a ‘deep devotion” (62) to nature, the basic regularity of rural life and solitude. In fact, anxiety creeps beneath the pastoral of Book Eight:
Call ye these appearances
Which I beheld of Shepherds in my youth,
This sanctity of nature given to man,
A shadow, a delusion, ye who are fed
By the dead letter, not the spirit of things,
Whose truth is not a motion or a shape
Instinct with vital functions, but a Block
Or waxen Image which yourselves have made,
And ye adore.
He fears that he cannot save those already captive to the turmoil of city life and the market, and suspects that his vision will only appear a desperate contrivance, implausible or even nostalgic. As a consequence, he resorts to the paradox of denying his authority on utterance, purging writing with writing. At this moment, Wordsworth relinquishes his aspiration to a disinterested perspective. Presenting The Prelude as the incarnation of natural wisdom, he considers himself a conduit rather than a disembodied purveyor of the dead letter of false spiritualisation.
The Cave of Yordas episode in Book Eight suggests that it is impossible to intuit, and then communicate, the vitality of nature from a standpoint that abjures matter for the sake of disinterest: the world is frozen under such a cool gaze. Wordsworth compares the poet’s situation with that of a traveller entering a vast cavern that, like London, initially bedazzles comprehension:
He sees, erelong, the roof above his head,
Which instantly unsettles and recedes
Substance and shadow, light and darkness, all
Commingled, making up a Canopy
Of Shapes and Forms, and Tendencies to Shape,
That shift and vanish, change and interchange
Like Spectres ...
There is only shape and form, no substance, and the unsettled mind cannot command anything it sees. Until, that is, the traveller’s spirit steadies, finds a perspective and unifies the disparate. The cost, though, is that at once “the scene before him lies in perfect view, / Exposed and lifeless as a written book” (726-7). Ailing imagination then intervenes again to produce a “new quickening” (729) and choreographs the cavern once more into scenes of splendour: “forests and lakes, / Ships, rivers, towers, the Warrior clad in Mail, / The prancing Steed, the Pilgrim with his Staff, / The mitred Bishop and the thronèd King” (737-40).
Jacobus holds that in this passage Wordsworth trumps the power of the eye – the organ that threatens to make him hostage to the fearful masses he sees in London and at the fair. He subsumes “spectacle into spectrality, animating the show in the visionary cinema of the imagination” (110). The failure, or suppression, of the visual engenders the visionary poetic mind. However, although Wordsworth claims that, situated among the masses but without abdicating selfhood, he is “moved with such a swell of feeling” and thus able to sense “the unity of man, / One spirit over ignorance and vice” (743, 827-8), his vision in the Cave of Yordas episode remains uninspiring. The pageant he describes reads like a parody of the Burkean chivalric tradition. It is a parade of clichéd literary subjects – kings, churchmen, knights –, and fails to make good the conservative insistence on Imagination’s triumph over reality. There is an understanding in the poetry that the attempt to divorce spirit from matter, the fleeting stuff of the city from the eternal forms of nature, will result in an empty and derelict poetry – aesthetic failure.
Books Seven and Eight of The Prelude attend carefully to form. Although the intense scrutiny Wordsworth directs at London and the Cave of Yordas suggests the close proximity of his art to reality, the ability of Imagination to adequately penetrate ordinary experience is based on the distance it keeps from life’s ordinary objects and pursuits. What may resemble at times a conservative hauteur towards the labours and pleasures of city-dwellers is, in the event, a function of his effort to know the affective possibilities of the city. For Wordsworth, poetry – or simply, the aesthetic – transforms raw stimulation into experience by revealing the dialectical relationship between feeling and thinking, immediacy and distance.
But how can an art that frequently resorts to allegory – by definition, a mode that negates the material in preference for the abstract – accomplish such a task? According to Wordsworth (and, indeed, de Man) allegory is a figure that is not only abstract but also arbitrary and mechanistic. In Books Seven and Eight of The Prelude, these aspects of allegory become both a mimesis of London life and the categories used to analyse the “vulgar forms / Of houses, pavement, streets, of men and things, / Mean shapes on every side” (8. 695-7). The figure retains a degree of objectivity, then, through its commitment to the abstract and general, yet is marked by the society it represents. On the one hand, allegory resembles the objects it reflects; on the other, deriving its significance from poetic tradition (Romantic theories of the difference between symbol and allegory, for instance) rather than a particular extra-aesthetic historical moment, it is relatively autonomous. Thus, refracting spirit through matter – that is, fastening the mental clarity of the prospect, or perspective, to the bodily confusion of affect – Wordsworthian allegory simultaneously discloses the social dimension of the aesthetic and utilises the cognitive force of its relative autonomy. Unable to fully distinguish between people and things, these allegorical books of The Prelude reveal the social and material variety of affect in London, whilst at the same time shrinking from the tendency of the commercial capital to devour and dehumanise its inhabitants.
Wordsworthian allegory both criticises and celebrates the city. Finding absolute escape undesirable (and, indeed, impossible), the poem mimics the spell reification casts over London’s predominantly commercial society. However, Wordsworth’s love of allegorical abstraction also casts a spell on that spell. According to Adorno, art is only ever “as abstract as social relations have in fact become” (Aesthetic Theory 31). Abstraction thus stands as a negative – but determinate – reminder that real sociability is still possible: it maintains that society might one day be liberated from the blind law of competition and that people can be freed from function. In The Prelude, the dry bones of such abstract hope are given flesh by the poet’s fond recollection of the exuberance and vigour of London’s population. Through allegorical mimesis, Wordsworth attempts to render experiential the reservoirs of affect in London that also threaten to destroy experience for its inhabitants. In short, then, Wordsworthian allegory is not servant to a broadly conservative critique of capitalism. Instead, it is part of Wordsworth’s attempt to think capitalism dialectically – as containing fecundity within disaster, elation within misery.
A problem remains, however: at the end of Book Seven and the beginning of Book Eight, Wordsworth vacates the city and returns to Grasmere and nature. How can one account for this act whilst still asserting that the poet is not the conservative that so many critics describe? In Book Seven, Wordsworth states that he arrived in London “wholly free / From dangerous passions” (71-2). He is no green youth, vulnerable to the size and pace of the city. His residence in Cambridge, after all, has taught him how to negotiate life in densely populated environments. There, Wordsworth realised the value of nature – its calming influence enabling him to enter more fully into the novelty of Cambridge life. Thus, he is already prepared for London: he carries nature’s ‘shapes sublime / Wherewith I had been conversant” (3. 102-3) in his breast. Wordsworth recalls his younger self’s imaginative, and highly poetical, expectation of an urban pastoral:
Vauxhall and Ranelagh! I then had heard
Of your green groves, and wilderness of lamps,
Your gorgeous Ladies, fairy cataracts,
And pageant fire-works.
The calmness, beauty of the spectacle;
Sky, stillness, moonshine, empty streets, and sounds
Unfrequent as in desarts ...
In these passages, he refuses to choose between the natural and the man-made, real people and fictional beings. A little later, furthermore, he describes the “natural” refuges close to the most boisterous commercial areas:
Meanwhile the roar continues, till, at length,
Escaped as from an enemy, we turn
Abruptly into some sequester’d nook
Still as shelter’d place when winds blow loud.
London is likened to a mountainside blasted by storms, scattered with rocky havens. Gladly conflating nature and the city in this way, Wordsworth admires “the Spectacles / Within doors, troops of wild Beasts, birds and beasts / Of every nature” (245-7). His delight and pleasure is only heightened by the dissonance of seeing animals in an unexpected context.
Even the crowd has a double character. At times an alienating throng, it can also attain a curious beauty:
The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery!
Thus have I look’d, nor ceas’d to look, oppress’d
By thoughts of what, and whither, when and how,
Until the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
And all the ballast of familiar life,
Went from me.
There is little doubt that St Bartholomew’s Fair is a scene of “anarchy and din / Barbarian and infernal” (660-61); but, equally, Wordsworth finds in it “A work that’s finish’d to our hands, that lays, / If any spectacle on earth can do, / The whole creative powers of man asleep!” (653-5). This “unmanageable sight” (709) exhausts and evades Imagination. Yet, the passivity induced by this display of complete power contains a joy for one also devoted to the “under-sense”, who ‘sees the parts / As parts, but with a feeling for the whole” (712-3). Difficult complexity fascinates. Of course, such passages could still be drawn back into a reading of Wordsworth as reactionary – and it is certainly true that he has something like a civic humanist’s desire to command all he sees. Habitual intercourse with nature,
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur, and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
It would be over-literal, though, to claim that the above passage represents a retreat from the city. Only through exposure to the city’s accelerated, and sometimes gruelling, culture does Wordsworth learn that his early and habitual fellowship with nature enables him to dwell among “transitory things” (740). One could argue that here Wordsworth is quite in accord with Shaftesbury’s demand that through the friendly, or otherwise, collisions of social intercourse “We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides” (39). However, the kind of sociability Shaftesbury advocates occurs among polite gentlemen whose manners have already been cultivated through a liberal education. In essence, Shaftesbury’s civic humanism adheres to a top-down model: the sociable gentleman achieves an even greater refinement, and resultant distinction from the masses, through further society with his distinguished fellows. In Wordsworth, by contrast, it is the disorder and social blend of the city that expresses the soothing “refinement” of nature. This, in turn, encourages further, unbound, social activity. The permanent forms of nature are mediated by the ephemeral; the ephemeral is mediated by nature. As a consequence, this dialectic produces an affirmatory critique of many aspects of the city. His thinking refracted through the beneficial, and more “natural”, social relations he observes and experiences there, Wordsworth criticises those aspects of London found damaging. He does not promote a reactionary critique of capitalism, but instead reads the condition of man in the capital dialectically – as, at once, deadening and creative, mindlessly competitive and affectionate, atomising and communal.
The beginning of Book Eight finds Wordsworth once more in the Lakes:
What sounds are those, Helvellyn, which are heard
Up to thy summit? Through the depth of air
Ascending, as if distance had the power
To make the sounds more audible: what Crowd
Is yon, assembled in the gay green Field?
Crowd seems it, solitary Hill! to thee.
He envisions Helvellyn looking down upon a small, summer festival. Again, although the rustic setting is obviously very different from that of the previous book, nature does not negate the human activities it oversees. Rather, the poem reflects the sociable liveliness of the festival by mediating it through the still image of the solitary mountain. Indeed, the solitary and distant qualities of Helvellyn, which watches the activity below “in the silence of his rest” (13), could itself be an allegory of the role of allegory in the London books. The self-division of allegory – the contradiction between its rejection of, and mimesis of, the world – introduces the element of distance necessary for it to become a form that both affirms and criticises society. The relative autonomy of Wordsworth’s art ensures that while The Prelude sometimes denounces London’s “trivial” objects, it also embraces the intellect’s dependence on affective contact with them.
J. G. A. Pocock suggests there was great anxiety in the eighteenth century that Britain’s economic success produced a subject who was
on the whole a feminised, even effeminate being, still wrestling with his own passions and exteriors and with interior and exterior forces let loose by his fantasies and appetites, and symbolised by such archetypically female goddesses of disorder as Fortune, Luxury, and most recently Credit herself.114
John Barrell also makes a link between Wordsworth’s “language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society” (Prose 116) and civic humanist disinterest: “by virtue of his lack of occupation, the gentleman ... was believed to be the only member of society who spoke a language universally intelligible: his usage was ‘common’, in the sense of being neither a local dialect nor infected by the terms of any particular art” (English Literature 33-4).
See Neil Hertz, The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime, 56.
It might be argued that the relatively autonomous artwork is no different from the “escapist” products of the culture industry, and thus more than likely a variety of false consciousness. However, Adorno remarks, importantly, that “No authentic work of art ... has ever exhausted itself in itself alone, in its being-in-itself. They have always stood in relation to the actual life-process of society from which they distinguish themselves” (“Culture Criticism and Society” 200). Poetic language is simultaneously a product of social reality and of “a created art-language” (“Lyric ” 219) – that is, a language some meanings of which are specifically determined by literary tradition. In the case of Wordsworth, as shall become apparent, allegory is used because of both its mimetic suitability for the treatment of urban life and because of the place it occupies in eighteenth-century poetic theory and practice. Wordsworthian allegory – and his relatively autonomous art, in general – is, then, far from socially disengaged.
All references to The Prelude are to the 1805 version.
It is important to note that, for all his misgivings, Wordsworth often describes his happiness in Cambridge:
That, in an easy temper lull’d asleep,
Is still with innocence its own reward,
This surely was not wanting. Carelessly
I gaz’d, roving as through a Cabinet
Or wide Museum (thronged with fishes, gems,
Birds, crocodiles, shells) where little can be seen
Well understood, or naturally endear’d,
Yet still does every step bring something forth
That quickens, pleases, stings; and here and there
A casual rarity is singled out,
And has its brief perusal.
In this odd passage, Wordsworth expresses an enjoyment of the town that is actually enhanced by the “detachment” he achieves by finding a prospect from which he can observe.
De Man contrasts allegory to symbol, which is characterised by the “organic” unity of signifier and signified. It is the mechanistic repetition inherent in allegory that renders it a figure of division.
Kelley notes that front means “face or forehead” (129).
Kelley remarks that “Exaggerated figures like catachresis, prosopopeia, and synecdoche are what allegory requires to make border raids on what is real, or what mimesis represents as real, even as allegorical figures are something ‘other’ to reality” (Reinventing 131). She continues that many of the sights described in Book Seven are not necessarily allegorical, but are object fragments suitable for allegorical transformation.
Saree Makdisi argues that the representation of the London crowd in Book Seven betrays the more “conservative” tendency of Wordsworth’s politics:
There is, indeed, a very fine line in The Prelude between the London crowd and its politically charged Janus-face, the mob of the revolutionary panic of 1790s London. Part of Wordsworth’s ongoing effort to distinguish individual faces in the crowd is an attempt to keep the crowd from working any sudden (and not quite understood) transformation into a mob29
However, it is also reasonable to claim that the Revolutionary mob is, in fact, modelled on the London hordes:
I stared and listen’d with a stranger’s ears
To Hawkers and Haranguers, hubbub wild!
And hissing Factionists with ardent eyes,
In knots, or pairs, or single, ant-like swarms
Of Builders and Subverters, every face
That hope or apprehension could put on,
Joy, anger, and vexation, in the midst
Of gaiety and dissolute idleness.
The peculiar intermingling of fear and fascination, abstraction and particularity, with which this paper is concerned, can be seen even here.
For a detailed account of civic humanism and masculinity, see John Barrell's The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge, 64.
See 5. 10-17.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke argues that the habits of family affection extend organically to the local community, the nation and, finally, Christendom:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of our country and to mankind.97-8
See 11. 176.
See 6. 525-48 for the paean to Imagination that follows the anti-climactic crossing of the Alps.
Chivalry is vital to the aesthetic ideology motivating Burke’s contention that “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely” (Writings and Speeches 129).
The final section of this piece is indebted to Simon Jarvis’ comments in “Wordsworth and Idolatry”:
The London books of the poem to Coleridge . . . are less a satire on urban degeneracy than a phenomenology of urban feeling. The poem would understand the ineliminable entanglement of all our shapes of feeling and cognition with things, with “idle objects” and with “great and permanent objects” alike.27
Part of the importance of Wordsworthian allegory is its imagination of an alternative to reified social relations. Although captured by the enchantment of the commodity, his allegory is able to “transcend” the world-as-it-is – without, however, resorting to a nihilistic renunciation of the same world.
- Adorno, Theodor. AestheticTheory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. London: The Athlone Press, 1999.
- ———. “Lyric Poetry and Society”. Trans. Bruce Mayo. The Adorno Reader. Ed. Brian O’Connor. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
- ———. “Culture Criticism and Society”. Trans. Bruce Mayo. The Adorno Reader. Ed. Brian O’Connor. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
- Barrell, John. English Literature in History, 1730-80: An Equal, Wide Survey. London: Hutchinson, 1983.
- ———. The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge. London: Macmillan, 1992.
- Burke, Edmund. The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, VIII: The French Revolution. Ed. L. G. Mitchell and William B. Todd. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
- Chaplin, Chester. Personification in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry. New York: King’s Crown Press, 1955.
- de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. London: Routledge, 1989.
- Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
- Jacobus, Mary. “Wordsworth and the Language of the Dream”. ELH 46 (1979): 618-44.
- ———. Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
- Jarvis, Simon. “Wordsworth and Idolatry”. SIR 38 (Spring 1999): 30-27.
- Kelley, Theresa. Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
- King, Ross. “Wordsworth, Panoramas, and the Prospect of London”. SIR 32 (Spring 1993): 57-73.
- Makdisi, Saree. Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
- Mee, Jon. “Mopping up Spilt Religion: The Problem of Enthusiasm”. Romanticism on the Net 25 (2002) <http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2002/v/n25/006009ar.html>.
- ———. Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
- Newlyn, Lucy. “Lamb, Lloyd and London: A Perspective on Book Seven of The Prelude”. Charles Lamb Bulletin (1984): 169-85.
- Paulson, Donald. The Beautiful, Novel, and Strange: Aesthetics and Heterodoxy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.
- Pocock, J.G.A. Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
- Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of. Characteristicks of Men,Manners, Opinions, Times. 2 Volumes. Ed. Philip Ayres. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
- Wordsworth, William. Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Volume 1. Ed. W. J. B. Owen and J. W. Smyser. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
- ———. The Thirteen-Book Prelude. Volume 1. Ed. Mark L. Reed, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- ———. Lyrical Ballads, and Other Poems, 1797-1800. Ed. James Butler and Karen Green. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.