Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


'I cried "Come, tell me how you live!" / And thumped him on the head': Wordsworth, Carroll and the 'Aged, Aged Man' [1]

  • Simon Malpas

…plus d’informations

  • Simon Malpas
    University of Wales, Cardiff

Corps de l’article

The question that lies behind this essay could not be simpler: what happens when a self meets or encounters an other? Its a simple, almost banal, question, but one that has important and far-reaching implications. It is the crucial question posed in Emmanuel Levinas's ethics; a theory of ethics which has, in turn, influenced thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard. I don't want to engage in an abstract argument here - that's not the point of this essay - but I will point to one key premise underlying my question. For Levinas, the self-other relationship is based on a fundamental and violent disequilibrium: the self experiences, thinks, comprehends and represents the other - it is active; the other is experienced, thought, comprehended, represented - passive. This is unavoidable: if the other were to remain wholly other to the self - unknown, unrepresented - no encounter could take place and knowledge would be impossible. The ethical implications concern the way in which this inevitable process of representation is performed and seeks to recognise and to think the violence that it entails.

So, what happens when a self meets an other? I want to contrast two versions of the same, quite simple, event: a meeting that happens and is subsequently reported, represented, by a narrator. I'll start with the second, revisionary, version of the encounter, the "report" of which begins:

I'll tell thee everything I can:
There's little to relate.
I saw an aged aged man
A-sitting on a gate.
"Who are you, aged man?" I said.
"And how is it you live?"
And his answer trickled through my head,
Like water through a sieve.  [2]

The encounter depicted in this passage is, of course, already familiar from Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence"; and yet, everything seems to have changed. The "White Knight's Song" from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass parodies the meeting between the narrator and the Leech-Gatherer that occurs in the second half of Wordsworth's poem, a meeting that strives to resolve the conflict which sets that poem in motion.

A very brief precis of the conflict to refresh memories... As I'm sure you recall, "Resolution and Independence" opens with the narrator out for a stroll, feeling "as happy as a boy" because "The pleasant season did my heart employ: / My old remembrances went from me wholly; / And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy".  [3] When suddenly, and apparently inexplicably, he undergoes a violent mood-swing: "As high as we have mounted in delight / In our dejection do we sink so low; / To me that morning did it happen so;". It is at this stage that the meeting occurs: the narrator is greeted by the sight of an old man beside a pond whom he engages in conversation; and it is the recognition of this old man's cheerful demeanour that finally inspires the narrator to prayer: "'God,' said I, 'be my help and stay secure; / I'll think of the Leech-Gatherer on the lonely moor!'".

While critical accounts of "Resolution and Independence" often differ quite widely in their opinions about the poem's precise meaning, a consensus seems to have emerged about its general tenor. This consensus places Wordsworth's poem at the centre of, what we might call, the liberal humanist tradition: through perceiving, and identifying with, the old man's perseverance, the narrator learns the value of resolution and independence in the face of suffering and adversity. The self is healed through an empathy with the suffering of the other - an old and familiar story.

Recently, Richard Bourke, in a comprehensive review of approaches to this poem, has cited Albert Gerard's and Jane Worthington's accounts as paradigmatic readings of the text, whose conclusions recur with little substantial alteration in a great deal of recent criticism. Gerard's argument is that through "identification with the leech-gatherer' ... the poet is released from 'puzzled recognition' and led to a 'mature acceptance of the position and value of suffering'"; and Worthington's earlier idea is that the poem presents a "stoic precept" that "warns against the anxious anticipation of misfortunes".  [4] So, from this, we have "Resolution and Independence" as a quintessentially humanist text charting the individual's progress towards enlightenment through a recognition of the value of stoicism in the face of suffering. In terms of the self-other problem however, it seems that this reading of the poem can secure its closure only at the cost of reducing the other, suppressing its otherness by converting it into a mere instrument in the self's process of maturation.

Lewis Carroll's poem will have nothing to do with this process; in fact, it is the violent reduction of the other by humanism that appears to be the main target of his satire. His parodic re-writing of Wordsworth refuses any notion of an "ennobling recognition of misfortune" by excluding any explanatory framing narrative and thereby presenting the meeting as a naked fact. Thus, what occurs in the encounter between the narrator and the old man expands to occupy the entire poem: there is no thematic introduction that sets the scene for the meeting and smoothes the relation between self and other by setting up a context in which the focus of all attention can become the self and its reactions.

Of course, other changes have also taken place: the Leech-Gatherer who teaches the fortitude of resolution and independence to the narrator of Wordsworth's poem is replaced with a half-crazed "Aged Aged Man" whose explanations of the bizarre schemes by which he earns his living are utterly ignored by a narrator who has his own, equally outrageous, plans to consider. I suspect Carroll's version of the encounter is familiar, but I'll cite a short section of it to refresh memories:

"Who are you, aged man?" I said.
"And how is it you live?"
And his answer trickled through my head,
Like water through a sieve.

He said "I look for butterflies
That sleep among the wheat:
I make them into mutton pies,
And sell them in the street.
I sell them unto men," he said,
"Who sail on stormy seas;
And that's the way I get my bread –
A trifle, if you please."

But I was thinking of a plan
To dye one's whiskers green,
And always use so large a fan
That they could not be seen.
So, having no reply to give
To what the old man said,
I cried "Come, tell me how you live!"
And thumped him on the head.

And so it continues... In Carroll's poem, the violence of the encounter comes straight to the fore. The Aged Man is forced to repeat his story under the duress of ever increasing physical abuse - in the Looking-Glass version he is "thumped on the head", shaken "well from side to side / Until his face was blue" and, in an earlier version of the poem intended for the less delicate taste of Carroll's fellow Oxford dons, he is "kicked", "pinched", his ears are boxed, his "grey and reverend locks" are "tweaked" and he is generally "put into pain".  [5] And, after all of this, all that the Aged Man manages to communicate to the narrator is that he is willing to "drink" his "noble health". The conclusions the narrator draws from his encounter, conclusions that clearly echo Wordsworth's, illustrate - through their wholly arbitrary relation to what has gone before - the problematic status of the closure of resolution discovered by the humanist reading of "Resolution and Independence" and the work of suppression undertaken by such an approach to the poem.

As I have already said, things are quite different in the later poem: the ludicrous schemes and the physical violence of Carroll's poem have an exuberance that is utterly foreign to Wordsworth's original. And yet, as a parodic rendering of the encounter that takes place in Wordsworth it also seems to be extremely apt. One is left with the impression that Carroll has discovered, has uncovered, a violent subtext that cannot - and perhaps should not - be wholly excised from a reading of the poem. Carroll's reading presents an injunction, a demand to the reader of "Resolution and Independence": "you must recognise the violence to which the other, the old man, is subjected".

What Carroll has picked up on and exposed quite mercilessly is the inattention of the narrator of Wordsworth's poem to the Leech-Gatherer's tale. The narrator's relationship with the Leech-Gatherer is characterised by what Steven Knapp identifies as "the speaker's well-known but still mysterious inability to concentrate on what he himself wants to interpret as a providential answer to his needs".  [6] This loss of attention within Wordsworth's poem - as contact with the old man gives way to internal musings about the self - seems to indicate what materialist critics have over the past few years identified as Romantic poetry's way of dealing with its objects.

Perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most well known, reading of this type is that offered by Jerome McGann in his book, The Romantic Ideology .  [7] McGann's general thesis is this: Romantic aesthetics indulges in political quietism by escaping from material reality to questions of self-reflection and self-consciousness - it is engaged in what McGann refers to as a "self-regarding spiritual economy" - and the modern critic must beware of identifying with the writers to the extent that his or her own account falls prey to this "Romantic ideology".

Now, as I have just said, this also seems to be the thrust of Carroll's parody. In fact, that this is so is even clearer in the earlier version of the poem which begins: "I met an aged, aged man / Upon the lonely moor: / I knew I was a gentleman, / And he was but a boor. / So I stopped and roughly questioned him... " Here, the explicit cultural reference to gentility is what allows Carroll's narrator to bully the aged man and thereby frames the nonsense verse with distinct social bounds. In Carroll's version of the meeting, there is no possibility of the development of a "spiritual economy", but simply the representation of the material reality of a violent class relation.

Yet, once one begins to take notice of the differences between Wordsworth's and Carroll's poems, questions emerge about the sort of reading that a materialist might propose. The thrust of McGann's critique is that Romanticism submits to an ideology of "spiritual economy" that negates the materiality of the other; but it seems that it is just this economy that is put on stage in "Resolution and Independence". Although a "spiritual economy" might legitimately be said to characterise the first half of the poem while the narrator walks "Far from the world, and from all care"; it is this economy that leads to the anxiety which the old man interrupts. Furthermore, the narrator appears aware of his "displacement" of the Leech-Gatherer, and his inability to listen to the story is explicitly discussed. In other words, the poem appears to contain its own self-conscious reflection on the supposedly unconscious ideological structure of Romantic art: within the narrative of the poem, the narrator carefully sets up and inhabits the very categories - performs the very actions - that are supposed to shape the poem's production.

However, simply noting that "Resolution and Independence" anticipates the critique levelled at it by materialism is not saying that the poem thereby becomes exempt from it. The "White Knight's song" is not critically redundant, but rather bears witness to a conflict at the heart of Wordsworth's text which that text cannot resolve or sublate: an awkwardness in the shape of the old man.

How does this awkwardness manifest itself? Stated in a brief and somewhat peremptory manner, it takes the form of an other that cannot be wholly sublated - comprehended and represented - by the narratorial self (this is the recognition pointed to by what I referred to earlier as Carroll's injunction). The poem presents the demand in the shape of the other that the narrative recognise the presence of this other in its material otherness.

What I have just called "the demand for the recognition of the other in its otherness" sounds suspiciously like sloganeering. I hope that it is more than this, and I want to try to explain what I am talking about by very briefly outlining a reading of the meeting that retains an idea of Carroll's injunction in the background.

It has become a bit of a commonplace to say that "Resolution and Independence", indicates a paradigmatic shift in the style and content of Wordsworth's poetry: at the same time it marks a move away from the style of the Lyrical Ballads and also suggests the trajectory that will be undertaken by Wordsworth's changing poetic practice. As such, it is a liminal text, a poem caught up in a transition towards the more orthodox Christian world-view of Wordsworth's later work, that is unable either to fully encompass this view or to retain the earlier modes of understanding that characterise the Lyrical Ballads . One can see the transition at work in the changes that occur in the poem between its first version of 1802 and the revision of 1807.

The earlier version of the poem is very clearly in the Lyrical Ballads tradition and bears a striking resemblance to poems such as "The Sailor's Mother", "Alice Fell" and "Beggars" that were written during the same period. They are all, what one might call "encounter poems", as they relate the conversation of people that the narrator meets during his travels. When Wordsworth revises the poem however, everything changes: the speech of the Leech-Gatherer that comprised the second half of the poem is excised, and the status of the old man undergoes a transformation.

The change in the old man is first marked by the deletion of the opening description which stated simply that "the old man was" there (a description, the power of which Wordsworth had insisted upon at length in a letter to Sarah Hutchinson). In the second version, this is replaced by the famous simile of the rock and the sea beast:

As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie
Couched on the bald top of an eminence;
Wonder to all who do the same espy,
By what means it could thither come and whence;
So that it seemed a thing endued with sense:
Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself;

Such seemed this Man, not all alive or dead,
Nor all asleep...

The terms of description have changed: the ontological "was" has been transformed into an aesthetic "seemed" that changes the man into "a thing endued with sense", a signifier, who requires decoding. And yet, as Wordsworth's own comments in the "Preface" to his Poems of 1815 make clear, decoding is almost impossible as the description refuses to stand still: rather, it veers between a "stone ... endowed with something of the power of life", "a sea-beast stripped of some of its vital qualities" and the old man "divested" of the "indications of life and motion" to produce a point where the "objects unite and coalesce in just comparison".  [8] The suggestions of resolution in the terms "unite" and "coalesce", however, mask a profound indeterminacy: the "just comparison" that the image suggests - and the ethical implication of this phrase calls for a whole essay of its own - indicates a point of contact between the narrator and the old man in which the latter is represented as neither material nor ideal, and is certainly not a synthesis of the two.

It is this slippage that underpins the description of the Leech-Gatherer: from his first appearance that "befalls" the narrator, breaking forcefully into his "spiritual economy", attempts at comprehension are thwarted by the multiplication of identities. The first question the narrator asks is about the providential nature of the meeting - does it occur "by peculiar grace, / A leading from above, a something given" (and one should not consider these possibilities as merely equivalent) - is a question that remains unanswered. Equally, the old man's "flash of mild surprise" that occurs before he replies to the narrator's question has all of the destabilising power that Paul de Man detects in a similar phrase during his reading of "The Winander Boy".  [9]

As their conversation proceeds, the narrator's inability to listen to the Leech-Gatherer's story is not simply inattention but the result of a failure to comprehend the other. As the old man continues speaking, epithets slide off him: he is neither alive, nor dead, nor a dream, nor a gift of providence; or else he is all of these things. The poem thus specifically and explicitly depicts the refusal of a resolution in the knowledge that arises from the comprehension and fixation of the other.

The indeterminacy of the old man reaches its climax in the penultimate stanza, directly following his most material appearance in the poem with the direct quotation of his speech:

While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The old Man's shape, and speech - all troubled me:
In my minds eye I seemed to see him pace
About the very moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.
While I these thoughts within myself pursued,
He, having made a pause the same discourse renewed.

By this stage, he seems both wholly external to the narrator: a material other, identified with and assimilated into the landscape; an other who is impossible to comprehend or even to hear. And yet he is also invested with a powerful metaphorical presence: internalised as a "troubling" image in the "mind's eye" that provides assistance as the narratorial self desperately attempts to seek the solace of firm knowledge and adequate representation.

The poem thus internalises McGann's "spiritual economy", doing violence not to the represented other but rather to the process of representation itself through a writing that invokes the absence of totalisation and of closure. And so, the reference to the man's "firm mind" and the invocation of "God's help" in the final stanza marks, neither the humanist certainty of resolution and independence nor the displacement from the world for which it is condemned by the materialist, but rather the desperate but impossible desire for knowledge and self-certainty in the face of the finally irreducible heterogeneity of the other.

Parties annexes