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Wordsworth's 'Are There no Groans?': Source, Meaning, Significance

  • David Chandler

…plus d’informations

  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

James Butler and Karen Green's recent Cornell edition of Lyrical Ballads included a previously unpublished Wordsworth fragment of spring 1798:

Are there no groans no breeze or wind?
Does misery leave no track behind?
Why is the earth without a shape and why
Thus silent is the sky?
Is every glimmering of the sky,
Is every [?lamphole] in the world an eye?
Has every star a tongue?  [1]

Their text, given here, poses several problems. First, Damian Walford Davies has pointed out that the ambiguous word is probably 'loophole' (Wordsworth actually wrote it 'loop hole').  [2] Secondly, the manuscript indicates a line break between lines 4 and 5.  [3] Finally, the punctuation, which with the exception of the final question mark is editorial, forces a strange reading - 'Is every glimmering of the sky (and every loophole/lamphole in the world) an eye?' - which affords no very obvious connection with the previous lines.

Textual issues quickly lead to interpretive questions. In 1979 James Butler noted that the lines were 'probably related' to another fragment of the period, 'Away, away, it is the air' (Butler 1979, p. 125), and in 1992 he improved on the suggestion:

On the page opposite Description of a Thorn in DC MS. 14 stands the fragment 'Are there no groans no breeze or wind', written at least partially in the same couplet form as Description of a Thorn and discussing 'misery', a word that becomes a refrain in The Thorn. 'Are there no groans' may possibly be related to 'Away, away' (the latter written in a form closer to the stanza form of The Thorn) in Wordsworth's search for a narrative to accompany his description of the tree.

Butler 1992, p. 455

The tendency of this is to associate 'Are there no groans?' with 'The Thorn' (either directly or via its satellites) while essentially avoiding the question of what it means; in this reading the fragment is of slight interest. In the present article, however, 'Are there no groans?' is considered on its own merits, and it is argued that it is both more interesting and more significant than may at first appear the case. It is also, except in very general terms, dissociated from 'The Thorn'.

It may be as well to begin by reviewing Butler's case, which essentially rests on four points:

  1. Proximity in the manuscriptto the 'Description of the Thorn'. Superficially this is the most compelling part of the case, of course, but any consideration of the manuscript as a whole (indeed Wordsworth's manuscripts as a whole) demonstrates that it counts for little unless otherwise supported. Butler admits that there is no evidence that the two fragments are of the same date. The proximity argument would actually connect 'Are there no groans?' even more firmly with Ruined Cottage material (a connection made below).

  2. Stylistic comparison with the 'Description of the Thorn'. 'Are there no groans?' does start with an octosyllabic couplet, but this is less striking than its subsequent metrical departure from the 'couplet form' of the 'Description'. 'Are there no groans?' is surely an example of Wordsworth's 'using poetry as a channel for thinking aloud'  [4] and seizing on a flexible metrical shape that could fit itself to the speed of his thoughts. That he may have been initially prompted by the couplets he had already written on the next page is plausible, but no grounds for arguing a thematic connection.

  3. The word 'misery' shared with 'The Thorn'. This would possibly be valid if the larger case was already made; otherwise the word is simply too commonplace to count. Wordsworth had already used it on a number of occasions.

  4. A connection with 'Away, away'. This argument is in fact subsumed in (i).

The fairest way of summarising all this would be to say that it leaves the proof to the pudding. If 'Are there no groans?' can be shown to be thematically linked to 'The Thorn' and its satellites these other details would all slide into place; otherwise they make no sort of argument, whether read singly or cumulatively.

Damian Walford Davies has made a brave attempt to establish such a thematic link: 'brave', because he recognises that in the concluding 'Has every star a tongue?' Wordsworth was alluding to a religious poem by Anna Laetitia Barbauld and that the allusion (Walford Davies even calls it part of a 'dialogue') carries with it issues that would appear to have little to do with 'The Thorn'.  [5] 'Are there no groans?', he suggests cautiously, 'might ... be related in some way to the anguish of Martha Ray ... who ... is "known to every star"'. So she is, but there is a lot of ground to be covered between the lines that Walford Davies refers to -

And she is known to every star,
And every wind that blows

- which is just a ballad-like way of saying Martha Ray is out-of-doors a lot, and his reading of 'Are there no groans?' as 'Is every glimmering of the sky / [And] every loophole in the world an eye?'  [6] Attempting to relate the two, he imagines the speaker of 'Are there no groans?' rejecting Barbauld's reassuring view of the world as a 'transcript' of God:  [7]

The speaker of 'Are there no groans ... ?' provides no answers to the questions thrown up, but the tone of the poem suggests that in the shapeless and disturbingly silent universe portrayed - or to the deadened and disturbed mind no longer receptive to the language of Creation - 'every glimmering of the sky' and every aperture admitting illumination and revelation ('loophole') do not signify God's looking at, and after, his world. 'Is every loophole in the world an eye?' also suggests a very different fear - that of being constantly watched and spied on...

The final idea - 'heaven['s] countless eyes to view men's acts'  [8] - could possibly be accommodated to an embryonic 'Thorn' project; the sentiment is not typical of Wordsworth, but may have been intended for some such narrator as he finally employed. In terms of Walford Davies' overall analysis of the fragment, however, this comes across as a saving manouevre designed to keep Martha Ray in the picture. His previous sentence carries 'Are there no groans?' a long way from the world of the superstitious ballad, and in that movement, it is argued here, he was going in essentially the right direction. Barbauld's presence in the fragment is a fact that interpretation needs to take account of, but Martha Ray's is not; Walford Davies' 'or' and 'also' attempt too much.

Some of the underlying assumptions in Walford Davies' reading are questionable. As regards the unity of the speaking voice, the fragment surely discourages any easy association of the 'silent' sky of line 4 with the 'glimmering' sky of line 5. This is one case in which the Cornell editors' refusal to acknowledge an authorial line break is unnecessarily misleading. In so far as lines 5-7 introduce Barbauld and the question of nature-as-divine-'transcript' they appear to be 'about' the 'real' universe. But the same can hardly be said of lines 1-4: they describe not the external, but an imaginatively shaped landscape. And though this is 'the "desert-shape" of [an] imagination',  [9] the reference to 'misery' effectively precludes it from being Wordsworth's own: spring 1798 was, as Jonathan Wordsworth has written, a period when Wordsworth was 'assert[ing] a universe of blessedness and love, based on the assumption that the individual could perceive as well as share "the life of things".'  [10] The fragment moves, then, from a view of an imaginary world shaped and inhabited by 'misery', to a series of interrogations respecting the 'real' universe. What Wordsworth was doing can be better understood when another literary source hiding behind that key word 'loophole' is identified.

'Loophole' was Walford Davies' reading, it will be recalled, and it is certainly the correct one. He could indeed have made a stronger case. According to the most recent version of the English Poetry Database no poet has ever referred to 'lamphole(s)' or 'lamp hole(s)' (words not in OED), but a number of eighteenth-century poets employed 'loopholes(s)' and 'loop hole(s)'.  [11] Much the most important, from the present point of view, is William Cowper. In Book Four of The Task he describes his reading of the newspaper:

What is it but a map of busy life
Its fluctuations and its vast concerns?
Here runs the mountainous and craggy ridge
That tempts ambition...
Here rills of oily eloquence in soft
Meanders lubricate the course they take...
Cataracts of declamation thunder here,
There forests of no-meaning spread the page...
While fields of pleasantry amuse us...  [12]

ll. 55-76

Cowper then continues ''Tis pleasant through the loop-holes of retreat / To peep at such a world' (ll. 89-90). The context is extremely suggestive for 'Are there no groans?'. Cowper imaginatively shapes 'busy life' - human activity and experience - as landscape, and it is a similar shaping of the life of the miserable that the first four lines of Wordsworth's fragment are concerned with. It may be noted, in passing, that Wordsworth gives his picture a specifically 1790s inflection. Miserable characters struggling across dreary landscapes had been a standard feature of 'Jacobin' poems such as Southey's 'The Widow' of 1795 (published 1797):

Cold was the night wind, drifting fast the snow fell,
Wide were the downs and shelterless and naked,
When a poor Wanderer struggled on her journey,
Weary and way-sore.  [13]

Southey's 'shelterless and naked', describing the downs, though just as applicable (it would seem) to a person, indicates that the landscape both colours, and is coloured by, the woman's feelings. Wordsworth takes the process rather further, but Cowper had supplied a model. In describing 'busy life' at two imaginative removes - he pictures 'ambition' tempted not by high office but by a 'mountainous and craggy ridge' - Cowper was claiming to imagine what the protagonists of that life were imagining, or, perhaps more accurately, supplying an imaginative and symbolic landscape to image their world. With his earnest interrogations Wordsworth implicitly does the same; he enters the imaginative world of the miserable, but is shocked rather than entertained by the spectacle. The contrast between the richly varied landscape of 'busy life' and the barren plain of 'misery' is thereby emphasised both pictorially and emotionally. After these parallel vicarious imaginings it is surely unlikely to be chance that both poets introduce the idea of 'loop-holes' - which in each case, I suggest, are imaginative windows out of one's own world.

A precondition for an argument like this must be that Wordsworth knew The Task well. Duncan Wu suggests that he probably read the poem as early as 1785, then again in 1789 and 1791-2.  [14] Spring 1798, moreover, was a period when The Task was particularly likely to be in his mind. Wordsworth and Coleridge were living the life of rural retirement that Cowper had popularised as an idea for many young poets of the 1780s and 90s, and the best indication of how they could sentimentalise (render literary) their experiences through Cowper is Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight', approximately contemporary with 'Are there no groans?' and also drawing heavily on Book Four of The Task.  [15] Given this, the argument for Cowper's shaping influence on 'Are there no groans?' seems sound, and it is reasonable to suppose that Wordsworth had some idea of the significance of Cowper's 'loop-holes'. He would have known that they signalled freedom - particularly imaginative freedom - from the concerns of society at large, a point stressed in Cowper's continuation:

... sitting and surveying thus at ease
The globe and its concerns, I seem advanc'd
To some secure and more than mortal height,
That lib'rates and exempts me from them all.
It turns submitted to my view, turns round
With all its generations; I behold
The tumult and am still.

ll. 94-100

Wordsworth may have recalled this passage at the end of the year when he wrote his description of ice skating as a boy, subsequently incorporated into The Prelude. The important point in the present context, though, is that in the spring the plight of the miserable was rather bothering him than allowing such godlike escape. The very fact of contrast with Cowper emphasises the point. But why question whether every 'loop hole' - every (potentially) imaginative window out of one's own world in Cowper - is an 'eye'?

A consideration of Wordsworth's other writings of the period actually makes the question seem rather predictable than surprising. Here, Cowper's demonstration of imagination-at-work shaded off, no doubt inevitably, into Wordsworth's own understanding of that faculty, so Wordsworth's 'major theoretical fragment'  [16] of the Alfoxden period is accordingly apropos:

There is creation in the eye,
Nor less in all the other senses; powers
They are that colour, model, and combine
The things perceived with such an absolute
Essential energy that we may say
That those most godlike faculties of ours
At one and the same moment are the mind
And the mind's minister.

Butler 1992, pp. 323-4

Wordsworth might experience this 'absolute / Essential energy', but 'Are there no groans?' clearly points to the fact that the miserable are not so fortunate. It is precisely their inability to 'colour, model, and combine' that gives their world a pre-Creation shapelessness: 'And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep' (Genesis 1:2). Put simply, Wordsworth can see into misery's imaginative world, but the miserable cannot see out of it - they cannot obtain a creative and redemptive grasp on the 'things' around them. Wordsworth's creative 'eye', the basis of any imaginative loop hole‚ out of a self-absorbed state of mind, thus seems peculiarly privileged and accordingly becomes the subject of interrogation. Is his faith in it justified, or is he deluding himself? The second part of 'Are there no groans?' raises this question in three guises, and should be punctuated:

Is every glimmering of [i.e. supplied by] the sky?
Is every loop hole in the world an eye?
Has every star a tongue?

The questions are all concerned with the dynamic between mind and world, springing from this fear that Wordsworth's 'godlike faculties' may be delusive. The first points to the alternative that the 'glimmering' is supplied by the perceiver: 'The light that never was, on sea or land'. In the 'wise passiveness' Wordsworth was working out any aerial 'glimmering' registered by the eye/mind ought to be one of Nature's 'shapes / As she has made them',  [17] or, in the present formulation, 'of the sky'. Given that the miserable simply see the blank darkness on the face of the deep, however, he is driven to question whether an act of mind is being confused with an act of nature (the central drama of his poetry as defined by Geoffrey Hartman). Wordsworth subsequently adapted the image of the delusive sky in the 1805 Prelude, Book One:

But I have been discouraged: gleams of light
Flash often from the east, then disappear,
And mock me with a sky that ripens not
Into a steady morning.

ll. 134-7

The third question - 'Has every star a tongue?' - as noted already, virtually quotes Anna Laetitia Barbauld's 'Summer Evening's Meditation', where Barbauld, writing under the strong influence of Night Thoughts, had asked:

But are they [the stars] silent all? or is there not
A tongue in every star that talks with man
And wooes him to be wise [?]  [18]

The difference is that where Barbauld implicitly affirms, Wordsworth implicitly denies. He had already done so, alluding to this passage in the 'Meditation', in his slightly earlier 'Night-Piece'.  [19] In the present case he appears to allude to Barbauld by way of demonstrating how readily the truth-seeking mind can confuse a fantasy of nature with nature. This final question heightens the issue to the point where scepticism must ensue. All three questions are implicitly answered in the negative.

All this makes the fragment extremely interesting. The strength of Wordsworth's (Cowperian) imagination pictures the miserable in their imaginative world, but the deadly stasis he sees there so contradicts his own regenerative view of imaginative perception that he is led to interrogate his beliefs. It is suggestive that 'Are there no groans?' appears in the Alfoxden Notebook at the bottom of a page mainly taken up with rejected lines for The Ruined Cottage. The original innovation in that poem had been to show what E. P. Thompson some years ago termed 'the interior life of the poor',  [20] and both there, and in the mid and late 1790s more generally, 'poor' can readily be equated with 'miserable'. But by 1798 the poem was being innovative in a quite different way as Wordsworth developed a philosophical blank verse to characterise the pedlar's 'One Life' creed, or rather to give expression to his own (Coleridge influenced) beliefs through that character. As Jonathan Wordsworth argued very forcefully in The Music of Humanity, this led to a bipartite work in which the 'unrelieved sadness' of Margaret's story 'is quite incompatible' with the pedlar's 'Philosophy of Joy'.  [21] This is not just a critic's view, for it is clear that Wordsworth himself struggled to unify the poem. 'Are there no groans?' is best read as both indicative of, and a product of that struggle. Taking a hint from Cowper, Wordsworth imagined misery's imaginings in a way that was quite compatible with the interiorising story of Margaret but which jarred with his philosophical arguments respecting the creative 'eye'. To dismiss the fragment as just a useful footnote to The Ruined Cottage would miss its larger significance in Wordsworth's work of the period, however, and make it no more interesting than if it were surplus 'Thorn' material. The real importance of this apparently extemporaneous fragment is that it encapsulates a tension long understood as central in Wordsworth's development, and particularly emphasised in this and the last decade's historicising criticism. If it is true, as Marjorie Levinson has famously written of 'Tintern Abbey', that

By narrowing and skewing his field of vision, Wordsworth manages to 'see into the life of things'. At the same time and quite casually ... exclud[ing] from his field certain conflictual sights and meanings - roughly, the life of things -  [22]

- then 'Are there no groans?' captures a moment in which that 'skewing' had not come easily.

Parties annexes