Vagrancy Smoked Out: Wordsworth 'betwixt Severn and Wye'[Notice]

  • David Chandler

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  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Wordsworth was 'betwixt Severn and Wye' when he wrote Tintern Abbey. Could he have known the proverb of the 'Blessed ... Eye'? It is a intriguing speculation given the poem's manifold references to the organ of sight ('Once again / Do I behold...'; 'I again... view'; 'Once again I see...'; 'These forms of beauty have not been to me / As is a landscape to a blind man's eye...'; 'with an eye made quiet...'; 'We see into the life of things'; 'had no need of... / ... any interest / Unborrowed from the eye'; 'I have learned / To look...'; 'all that we behold'; 'the mighty world / Of eye...'; 'thy wild eyes' (twice); 'May I behold...'; 'all which we behold...'). If Wordsworth did know the proverb, it was probably directly or indirectly from the account of the proverbs of Herefordshire in Thomas Fuller's classic History of the Worthies of England, and Fuller's gloss may illuminate a section of Wordsworth's poem that has been recently much discussed: A vision of 'Civil War' might well be marked by rising 'wreaths of smoke'. In the passage of Tintern Abbey in question, Wordsworth refers to: 'Wandering gypsies and a hermit appear, part of the traditional romantic landscape', Geoffrey Hartman wrote of these lines in 1954, immediately adding 'though much will eventually have to be said on Wordsworth's use of the hermit figure'. His reading of the passage is naturally a very fine one, but the disproportionate emphasis is worrying. If the hermit is invested with so much significance - Hartman proceeds to describe him as 'a relic of eternity and prophet of the immortal sea's return' (Hartman 1954, p. 35) - can the 'vagrant dwellers', part of the same smoke-inspired 'possibility of passionate fiction', (Hartman 1954, p. 10) be dismissed so lightly as a picturesque detail? In fact this disproportion was endemic to all Wordsworthian criticism before the 1980s, when a shift in critical focus inspired a new interest in the vagrants. The best-known reading of the passage since then has, of course, been Marjorie Levinson's: If this adjusts the balance between vagrants and hermit, the statement of the relationship between them is not, I think, unexceptionable. To read the vagrants as 'a sort of metonymic slide toward the hermit/poet' imposes an interpretation on the text, but one that squares a little oddly with what Levinson considers the 'perverse demystification' inherent in the 'gratuitous allusion to the vagrants'. The latter idea proposes a ruffled calm, the point of unease being the vagrants, and it is not clear to me how the vagrants can both mark disturbance and stand for 'a sort of metonymic slide' back to the undoubtedly calm hermit. In fact the 'Or' ('Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods / Or of some hermit's cave') may introduce a substitute term, but may, just as plausibly, introduce a contradictory term. Here it is worth recalling Kenneth Johnston's description of the hermit 'surmise' as an 'internally corrective supposition'. Despite the description, Johnston, like Levinson, actually regarded the 'surmise' as a second-order displacement: Wordsworth was aware of beggars in the woods, idealised them into 'vagrant dwellers', then 'further distanc[ed] them into the Hermit'. (Johnston, p. 9) As with aspects of Levinson's reading, the assumption seems to be that Wordsworth's scene of composition was a few yards rather than a 'Few Miles' from the abbey. But insistence on 'the facts' ought to be consistent: it is reasonable to assume that Wordsworth 'knew' the smoke came from charcoal burning and of the considerable difference between a charcoal burner and a …

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