This essay seeks to explore Wordsworth’s ambivalent relation to the commodity culture emerging in England around the turn of the Nineteenth-century. It does so by examining his unpublished poem "The Ruined Cottage" and his preface to Lyrical Ballads in two related contexts: the discourse of advertising and the history of consumer culture, including the institution of peddling. Wordsworth’s promise of the possibility of "enjoyments of. . . a more exquisite nature" available in his poetry if readers are willing to "give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed" as poetry is similar to the structure of advertisement copy then as now: give up the product you now enjoy for a new and improved one. In the very essay in which he articulates a critique of industrialization and consumerism, Wordsworth unwittingly proposes a consumerist solution to the problem of consumerism. Drawing on the historical work of Colin Campbell and Neil McKendrick, this essay suggests that a dynamic similar to that operating in the preface holds for "The Ruined Cottage" as well. There is a distinct pattern in the poem, particularly in the Pedlar’s visits to Margaret, of intense but fleeting attachment which is similar to the process of consumption in which buyers form an intense attachment to a commodity which is abandoned a short time later as attachments to new products are formed. Far from being an example of the Romantic ideology in which poetry evades history, the poem can be seen as a Godwinian analysis of the ways which social forces and institutions "insinuate themselves" into the most intimate matters (82).
Corps de l’article
Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquences sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic. Promise, large promise is the soul of an Advertisement.Samuel Johnson, 1759
In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth proposes as a cure for the degradations of consumerism, with its "craving for extraordinary incident," the creation of a new taste, which, as he argues from Joshua Reynolds, is " an acquired talent " (156; emphasis added). He goes on to mount an elaborate argument which suggests, ultimately, that his readers should give up the habitual pleasures they derive from their customary poetry for the "new and improved" pleasure made possible by his own:
I am willing to allow, that, in order entirely to enjoy the poetry which I am recommending, it would be necessary to give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed. But [. . .] it is possible that poetry may give other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature.156
Although Wordsworth is clearly not recommending the pleasure of constant change which is typical of modern consumerism—to do so would be to plan his own obsolescence—he is, willy-nilly, ushering his readers into modernity.
As Jon Klancher has argued, Wordsworth's poetic project, especially as defined in the 1802 Preface, was bound up with a desire to reform public taste: "In 1800, Wordsworth intuited a commodified popular culture emerging to displace the reading of Shakespeare and Milton. He claimed that a new language of poetry could resist the cultural entropy of the middle class mind" (51). Klancher goes on to relate Wordsworth's "diagnosis" in the "Preface" of "the multitude of causes" degrading public taste: urbanization and consumption, and a "craving for extraordinary incident" which "hourly gratifies" (137). It is ironic that his cure for the degrading rapid fashion pattern in literary taste was the creation of a new one. This new taste, produced by an "acquired talent," actually repeats the problem he so astutely diagnoses. The process of "giving up" old pleasures for new ones is the engine of a consumer culture. A reader's reluctance to do so, he suggests, stems from what he calls the "habitual gratitude, and something of an honorable bigotry" which "all men feel" for the "objects which have long continued to please them" and which makes us "wish [. . .] to be pleased in that particular way in which we have been accustomed to be pleased" (156). In a strange turnabout that is deeply antithetical to his stated aims, he not only seeks to replace traditional or "habitual" values with new ones but also dismisses them as a species of "bigotry." This is not merely a matter of a new pleasure replacing an older one, but a modern system of pleasure replacing a traditional one.
Wordsworth's argument and language offering the possibility of "other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature" which would supplant those which are "ordinarily enjoyed" and to which people are tied by "habitual [. . .] bigotry" echoes the language and conceptual system of the burgeoning consumer culture in England. More precisely, it echoes the "puffery" of period advertisements and the structure of the commodity in consumer cultures, which demand intense but fleeting attachments to objects. I want to sketch out Wordsworth's ambivalent—and often unwitting—participation in these two central elements of commodity culture by situating this passage from the Preface within the discourse of advertising at the time and by showing how the structure of the commodity influenced such (unpublished) poems as "The Ruined Cottage." Wordsworth's participation is, I argue, highly ambivalent: both critical and complicit, even within the same text. The common trait shared by the Preface, "The Ruined Cottage," the discourse of advertising, and the commodity is the structure of intense attachments which soon dissipate.
As I read it, the central dilemma of "The Ruined Cottage" is the Pedlar's intense connection to Margaret—he loved her like a daughter—juxtaposed with his repeated departures at the very moments she expresses her greatest need for and dependence on him. The philosophical weight of the poem comes from the Pedlar's exhortations to himself and the poet-narrator to limit grieving to what reason demands. I argue that Wordsworth uses the poem to explore the nature of the commodity and its pervasive influence on culture, reshaping human relationships according to its demands. He does this through the medium of the Pedlar, widely known as a sort of alter ego to Wordsworth. While the distinguished critical tradition of McGann, Levinson, and Liu has offered insightful criticisms of Wordsworth for glossing over the social dimensions of his characters and their stories, I want to suggest that, in this poem at least, Wordsworth focuses directly on the ways in which social forces and institutions "insinuate themselves," to paraphrase Godwin, into the most intimate matters, such as, in this case, grief (82). Levinson's critique in The Romantic Fragment Poem can stand as representative. Noting the Pedlar's "ability to see around [him] things which" the narrator "cannot" (67-68), she writes that "the ruined cottage is not a memorial. It does not gesture toward an absent authorizing reality. It is itself a full and authorizing reality" (226). She sees this as typical of his evasion of the social and the political—since memory, like "referentiality, introduces the dimension of history" (228). Rather than seeing "The Ruined Cottage" as displacing the political context with a personal story of grief, I argue that the poem situates the personal tragedy within a strongly evoked social and economic context: the Pedlar's role as agent of the expansion of the market requires that all of his relations remain detachable. To make this argument, I will focus on the curious pattern of intense connection and abrupt departure which dominates the poem and argue that this derives from the analogy between poetic form and commodity form—and by extension, between poet and peddler—which Wordsworth investigates in this poem.
A "commodity," as Marx argues, "is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference" ( Capital 125). It is defined by its reified borders marking it off from other objects, allowing it to be extracted and transported. In Marx's terms, "all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time" (130). This congealing, as Marx and Lukacs argue, conceals human relations and transforms them into object relations (Marx 166; Lukacs 83). Thus congealed, an object is freed up for circulation as a commodity: blind to the human misery incurred in the production of, say, sugar, consumers can purchase it without being troubled by their human relation to the producers. While it cannot be wholly equated with a commodity, a poem transforms an experience into a commodity by congealing or reifying it into a discrete entity, capable of being extracted and transported into different "spots in time" and place, if you will. "The Ruined Cottage" represents this analogy between commodity form and aesthetic form when the Pedlar explains that "often on this cottage do I muse/ As on a picture, till my wiser mind / Sinks, yielding to the foolishness of grief" (117-20). By congealing the cottage and its inhabitants into a picture, the Pedlar is able to view Margaret as an object, not as a subject evoking painful memories of grief and guilt. That he sees this loss of the commodity status as a moral and intellectual failure ("my wiser mind / Sinks, yielding to the foolishness of grief") is perhaps Wordsworth's Godwinian insight into the insinuation of not just the spirit of government, but of economic institutions as well. For it is the Pedlar's historical place within a burgeoning consumer culture that leads him to see the commodity structure as a moral good. The narrator later repeats the same experience when he comments on the power of the Pedlar's story of Margaret's decline: "In my own despite / I thought of that poor Woman as of one / Whom I had known and loved" (206-08).
The need to objectify the cottage—already an objectifying metonymy for its human inhabitants—as poem or picture suggests the operation of what Marx would call a commodity fetish, when "social relations [. . .] do not appear as direct social relations between persons [. . .] but rather as material [literally "thingly"] relations between people, and social relations between things" (166). It is when the memory loses its sharp edges—its frame, so to speak—which separates it from the world of experience that it ceases to be a commodity and reassumes its status as a social and human relation between people.
In "The Ruined Cottage," then, Wordsworth uses the figure of the peddler to examine the contradictions inherent in any effort to cure the ills of consumerism by creating a new taste. While Alan Liu has admirably examined the importance of the institution of peddling to the poem, he neglects one important element of its role. He rightly argues that "pedlars were holdovers from a [precapitalist] system of production and distribution" which "became objectionable precisely because it represented the undocumented, unaccountable, and unregulated" (345). What Liu does not discuss is that peddlers were also simultaneously agents of the modern industrial market economy. By contrast, in a collection of Seventeenth-Century Economic Documents, Joan Thirsk and J.P. Cooper include a complaint about the "Great Decay of Trade," in which peddlers were cited as a novel threat to traditional market practices: peddling had brought trade "quite out of the channel in which it was wont formerly to run" (390-93). One member of the gentry defended the institution of peddling by saying that it saved them the trouble of sending out for what could, in an early instance of home shopping, be "brought home to your door" (420). Rather than diminishing with the advance of the market, as the "holdover" tag would suggest, one critic worried that "they multiply daily" (417). As the historian Edward Lipson has observed, peddlers defended themselves on the grounds that, because they were the means by which "goods are introduced into remote parts in great abundance for the encouragement of manufacturers and great increases of the revenue," they were a "great advantage to the internal commerce" and to the proliferation of trade" (420).
What is more, at the end of the eighteenth century, peddlers were, in McKendrick's words, "vital agents in the spread of fashion" (41) and a crucial link in "the great chain of enterprise": "the commercial hierarchy at the customer's service was long and varied. It led from peddler to packman, from auctions to seasonal sales and exhibitions. The experience of buying could vary from niggling at one's doorstep to helping oneself from a self-service counter in London" (33). Not only did Wordsworth see the peddler as a sort of alter ego, but he entertained fantasies of disseminating poetry to rural regions, much like Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts (Simpson 105). This bears out Earl Shorris's reminder that a salesman is more than a distributor of goods, he is also a "culture bearer" (130).
The eighteenth-century fashion cycle McKendrick describes —it was rapid enough to date clothing to the year—and even half year (by color, material, and cut) bears a striking resemblance to Wordsworth's own poetic project. Both relied on the creation of taste to incite demand for, and popularity of, new forms. As I explained at the outset, this was precisely the task he set for himself in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads ; it was also the very problem he set out to cure. An essential part of the rapidly changing modern fashion pattern was an intense but limited attachment to objects: marketers had to elicit a desire for the object strong enough to get consumers to purchase it, but detachable enough to get them to abandon it a short time later to buy another product.
The poem carefully demonstrates the degree to which the spirit of modern consumerism has insinuated itself into Pedlar's relationship to Margaret. As Joseph Barron and Kenneth Johnston argue, the Pedlar is struggling with guilt over having failed to help Margaret. His narrative carefully foregrounds this guilt by repeatedly emphasizing that he leaves her the moment she expresses her utter dependence on him. On his first visit, he reports that Margaret
Wept bitterly. I wist not what to do
Or how to speak to her. Poor wretch!. . . Oh Sir!
I cannot tell how she pronounced my name
With fervent love, and with a face of grief
Unutterably helpless, and a look
That seemed to cling on me.
The pervasive sense of powerlessness (he "cannot tell," her grief is "unutterably helpless") attests to their reciprocal need for each other and to his own increasing objectification. He reports that when she finished her tale, he
[. . .] had little power
To give her comfort, and was glad to take
Such words of hope from her own mouth as serv'd
To cheer us both.
Margaret's "look that seemed to cling on" him attests to the directness of her demand, a social relation which refuses to be reduced to the status of an object relation. The Pedlar continues the narrative:
[. . .] but long we had not talked
Ere we had built up a pile of better thoughts,
And with a brighter eye she looked around
As if she had been shedding tears of joy.
The Pedlar's account of the end of their visit treats their thoughts as objects that could form a "pile." Although tentatively advanced, the conclusion to the long (8 lines) sentence, that it looked "as if" her tears were joyous, is absurd and jarring. It sets up the abrupt sentence that follows: "We parted." Its abruptness is a function of both the brevity of the sentence and the surprising nature of the action. This abruptness is repeated with each visit.
On his next visit, he notes that he waited for her for hours, and when she appeared "her face was pale and thin, her figure too / Was chang'd" (338-39). His record of their conversation highlights his inability to understand or alleviate her condition:
[. . .] still she sighed,
But yet no motion of the breast was seen.
No heaving of the heart. While by the fire
We sate together, sighs came on my ear;
I knew not how, and hardly whence they came.
I took my staff, and when I kissed her babe
The tears stood in her eyes. I left her then
With the best hope and comfort I could give;
She thanked me for my will, but for my hope
It seemed she did not thank me.
During each visit, when Margaret expresses despair or need, the Pedlar leaves abruptly. The structure here is typical: first she expresses grief or dependence ("sighs came on my ear"), he feels powerless and ignorant ("I wist not"), and then he leaves. It is important to note that before he leaves, his passive construction abstracts her sigh to the point that he does not know where it came from; this is analogous to the process of reification in which the object of production is shorn of its visible traces of human labor and becomes a commodity. Indeed, Wordsworth's use of the passive voice here helps to emphasize the absurdity of the patent falsehood which follows it—he clearly knows where the sighs come from, but the process of commodification renders this human production invisible. It is telling that it is at the moment when he considers, or evades, the question of the production of the sighs—that is to say at the moment when the question of reification is considered—he abruptly picks up his staff and leaves. It is difficult for me to escape the irony that the Pedlar—whose calling is the distribution of goods to meet human needs—cannot bear the burden of a need for which he can furnish no commodity. The connection between the commodity and the Pedlar's repeated departure and wandering gives evidence of Lukacs's claim that the commodity-structure pervades every facet of a capitalist culture (83-85). This pattern of intense connection and abrupt departure is part and parcel of the exigencies of the vocation of both peddler and poet.
The poem goes beyond representing the fact of the insinuation into human relations of the play of attachment and abandonment characteristic of the commodity-relation. It also dramatizes the effect of that insinuation. Its account of Robert's unease before his departure sounds strikingly like the predicament of the modern consumer. Standing at his door, he
[…] whistled many a snatch of merry tunes
That had no mirth in them, or with his knife
Carved uncouth figures on the heads of sticks,
Then idly sought about through every nook
Of house or garden any casual task
Of use or ornament, and with a strange,
Amusing but uneasy novelty
Blended where he might the various tasks
Of summer, autumn, winter and of spring.
But this endured not; his good-humour soon
Became a weight in which no pleasure was.
The blending of seasonal tasks, and the blurring of distinctions between pleasure and unease anticipates Wordsworth's critique of the "undistinguishable world" of commercial London in book 7 of The Prelude, with the blurring
[. . .] swarm of its inhabitants
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.
The "merry tunes," the seasonal tasks and the "uncouth figures" have all been liberated like commodities to circulate, promising "strange amus[ement]" but hollowing out even his household labor. His idle search for "novelty" cannot, by definition, endure.
The proliferation of examples of short but intense attachments throughout the poem demonstrates the degree to which Wordsworth is deliberately examining both the structure and pervasive insinuation of commodities in the world of the poem. At the beginning of the poem's second part, just after the peddler criticizes him for "disturb[ing] the calm of Nature with restless thoughts" (197-98), the narrator reports that "A while on trivial things we held discourse, / To me soon tasteless" (205-06). Even more telling is Margaret's account of her own decay. She explains that she has been wandering,
"[. . .] knowing this
Only, that what I seek I cannot find.
And so I waste my time: for I am changed;
And to myself," said she, "have done much wrong."
William Galperin reads a parallel passage in TheExcursion as an example of Wordsworth's tough-minded confrontation of the intransigence of desire, insisting, as it does, that her "knowledge of 'what' she desires is exceeded only by her knowledge that the object, the only possible object of her desire, cannot and will not be regained" (359). We know, however, that for Wordsworth, the word "waste" here might be an important indicator of the self-degradation wrought by "getting and spending." Like Robert's, Margaret's chronic dissatisfaction can be seen as the characteristic element of a consumer society always looking for what cannot be bought. As Lukacs suggests, this is the hallmark of the modern capitalist state, which seeks "to satisfy all its needs in terms of commodity exchange" (91). Margaret's restless wandering in search of an unattainable satisfaction not only suggests the modern consumer but links her to the figure of the "piece of current money or the circulating commodity" in the "narratives of social circulation" that Deidre Lynch has identified as the forerunners of "modern" "round" fictional characters (100). These fictional lives and times of pound notes and corkscrews develop, she argues, into the narratives of the aspiring women who often fall into prostitution (100), the kinds of tales Karen Swann has suggested, in reference to another draft of the poem, the Pedlar was distributing (92). While I would not suggest that Margaret has become a prostitute, the very fact of her wandering would identify her, as Lynch argues, as a fallen woman to Wordsworth's contemporaries, and not only does her husband abandon her but she abandons her children. Margaret's wandering, suggestively, is set in motion by "a purse of gold" (264) left by her husband to stand in his stead. This exchange, an "intimate transaction" into which institutions have insinuated themselves (Godwin 81-82), intended to fill a "human need," propels Margaret's futile search for satisfaction. As Lynch argues, this is what the "market" does: it "makes people start into motion. Then it converts these working bodies into still lives" (199).
This play of attachment and abandonment accounts for much of the poem's dramatic tension; it also informs the Pedlar's moral and philosophical arguments. The poem is full of evidence of the Pedlar's attachment to Margaret. Barron and Johnston have explained that much of the Pedlar's emotional tie to Margaret is sustained by his feelings of guilt for not alleviating her sufferings (64-86). The tendency of his powerful feelings for her to spill out over the frame of the "picture" he would make of her cottage is paralleled by the narrator's response to the Pedlar's tale. Given his own inability to restrain his guilt and grief, the Pedlar's repeated cautions to the narrator to limit his grieving to what "wisdom asks," then, seem at odds with his own lingering guilt and grief. Indeed, as Simpson notes, the poem leaves some question as to whether he "has passed his first test" in demonstrating constancy in the face of suffering (202). Contrasting their disquiet with the natural scene around them, he concludes the first part of the narrative with these lines:
[. . .]'Tis now the hour of deepest noon.
At this still season of repose and peace,
This hour when all things which are not at rest
Are chearful, while the multitude of flies
Fills all the air with happy melody,
Why should a tear be in an old man's eye?
Why should we thus with an untoward mind
And in the weakness of humanity
From natural wisdom turn our hearts away,
To natural comfort shut our eyes and ears,
And feeding on disquiet thus disturb
The calm of nature with our restless thoughts?
These are the lines that bring critics such as McGann and Levinson to criticize the poem for subsuming social and political tragedy in a resigned and passive philosophy of "natural comfort." Even Stephen Gill calls this "an odd and disturbing question" (134). I suggest that what makes it disturbing is misreading the question as wholly Wordsworth's own rather than as part of his investigation into the formative power of the commodity, for Wordsworth has the Pedlar, a few lines earlier in the poem, praise Margaret, while standing at the side of a spring, in terms which suggest a competing philosophy of the necessity of disturbing the calm of nature in response to human suffering:
[. . .] time has been
When every day the touch of human hand
Disturbed their stillness, and they ministered
To human comfort.
Granted, Margaret's response to human suffering was still personal, not political, but it suggests a connection between people that is not nearly as passive as that suggested by the Pedlar's philosophy of "natural wisdom." Margaret's ministry, we may assume, stems from a sympathetic bond she feels with strangers. It is further suggestive that she must "disturb" the "stillness" or "calm of nature" to minister to the needs of strangers. To limit grieving, therefore, in order to preserve nature's stillness, is to limit the bonds between individuals, for grief is a sign of the bonds that link individuals beyond the "purposes of wisdom." Not only does grief serve to collapse the boundaries between individuals, thereby making the separation necessary for commodification more difficult to attain, but it propels action. Thus Margaret's activity in the face of suffering serves as a counter both to the Pedlar's philosophy of attachment and to his own passivity in the face of her suffering.
One of the most striking examples of the Pedlar's passivity emerges in a passing reference he makes to Margaret's infant on one of his visits while he waits outside the cottage for her to return. He reports that he heard, "from within / Her solitary infant [cry] aloud" (326-27). This is "a detail," as Barron and Johnston note, "and a failure of responsive action on his part, so extraordinary that we would feel better ascribing it to the poem's unfinished state than to the Pedlar's lack of alertness, except for the fact that it remains in The Excursion," the only version of the poem published in Wordsworth's lifetime, for which it was massively revised to form a part of a much larger work (70). But Barron and Johnston do not note that this "failure to administer" is more than a personal failure; it is actually essential to the vocation of the Pedlar: for obvious reasons, no salesman, as Shorris notes, can afford to get himself entangled in the lives of those on his route (37-38). The persistence of this detail into The Excursion suggests that far from being evidence of the poem's "unfinished state," it is part of Wordsworth's strategy to emphasize this aspect of the Pedlar's vocation.
But before finding fault, as DeQuincey did, with the Pedlar for failing to alleviate Margaret's suffering, we must first look at what kind of poem "The Ruined Cottage" would be if he had "ministered to [her] comfort." If Wordsworth would have had the Pedlar alleviate Margaret's suffering, he would have been vulnerable to the accusations McGann and Liu level against him: that he offered personal solutions to social and political problems—as if the kind service of a friend would counteract the triple burden of famine, war, and economic displacement of skilled artisans by factory workers. On a more simple level, if the Pedlar had solved her problems by his individual effort, the poem would have lost all of its dramatic tension. Levinson has made this point in the context of the cottage's poetic value as ruin:
the real value of the cottage [. . .] appreciates in proportion to its neglect. It is the entire want of anyone's practical interest in Margaret's house and grounds that so hugely increases the value of her home. This act, a failure to act, transforms the cottage from a directly and privately or locally utilitarian value—practical and emotional—into a symbolic, indirect, generally available and readily commutable value.Romantic Fragment 222
The pleasure in Margaret's misery, we might say, is all ours.
The question of our pleasure in Margaret's misery cuts to the heart of my argument. For, just as the Pedlar's vocation requires that he maintain a relationship with her such that he can leave (to pursue his peddling route), so too the poet's vocation requires that the Pedlar abandon his friend. It is in the nature of a commodity that relations and connections be at once intense and detachable. In this light, the guilt that is the subject of this poem and that is shared by both pedlar and poet fuses the social and personal dimensions of the tragedy. Far from personalizing the political as McGann and Liu suggest, the poem seeks to explore the social and institutional roots of such "personal dispositions" and "private transaction" as grief and moral failure. For Wordsworth's part, this guilt is an occupational hazard for one who sees poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of emotion [. . .] recollected in tranquility" (Preface 148). Wordsworth insists on both elements of the equation: "the spontaneous overflow" and its recollection in "tranquility." The "spontaneous overflow," at least in regard to "The Ruined Cottage," attests to the intense bond that Margaret and the Pedlar share; its recollection in tranquility—the distance necessary for the emotion to take its form as commodity, as poem—insists on the detachability of that intense bond.
Much of the philosophical weight of the poem—and it is considerable—derives from the Pedlar's articulation of that detachability. And it is the cognitive dissonance between the intensity of the Pedlar's connection to Margaret and his insistence on the moral necessity of limiting grief which gives the poem its unsettling power. Many readers have noted the strangeness, the philosophical coldness of his advice to the narrator to limit his grieving. It is this strangeness which calls out for critical explanation. Reading the poem as a meditation on the demands of the commodity to limit attachment provides some of that explanation. Without the rational limits on grieving, "the spontaneous overflow of emotion" would never congeal into the recognizable and consumable form of poetry. By consumable commodity, I mean that the sensory experience is consumed to be produced as a form (the Pedlar's narrative) which, in turn, is consumed to be produced as another form, the poem as produced by the poet-narrator, which is, in its turn, also consumed to be produced as another form (this essay, for example). This is, in part, Marx's concept of consumption. This explains the poem's preoccupation with productive grief. While Heinzelman defends Wordsworth's aesthetics because of the readerly labor it demands, this also can be a sign of its integration into a consumer economy. But since, as I have argued, the poem offers no indication of what that grief should produce, we are left with what Liu has called capitalization, the transformation of misery into poetry (346). But Wordsworth—the poet, not the peddler—is trying to explore what are the consequences of this reliance of poetry on the market for its dissemination. At the center of that exploration is this question: what happens to the poet who profits—both poetically and materially—from "the misery, even of the dead"? Does his "heart," as the Pedlar seems to impute to himself, become as "dry as summer dust" (97)?
In contrast, the Pedlar's narrative serves to bind his listener—the narrator—to Margaret. As the Pedlar had often mused on Margaret's cottage "as on a picture," so too the narrator mused on the events of Margaret as on a "simple tale" (203). In the opening lines of the second part, the narrator expresses a discomfort similar to the Pedlar's over his inability to maintain the frames around the narrative. He explains that "In my own despite / I thought of that poor Woman as of one / Whom I had known and loved" (206-08). So powerfully does he grieve her that the Pedlar feels constrained to tell him to limit his grieving. This involves erecting—and honoring—a clear separation between the sufferer and the griever. And yet, it is this very separation—the Pedlar's ability to extract himself physically and emotionally from Margaret's suffering which causes him so much guilt—which enables him to reify the experience as a story or a picture: that is, as a commodity. As Miriam Jones has argued in an essay on "Keats's Odes as Commodities," detachability and distance are essential to the production of a poem as a commodity (347, 351).
In spite of the tendency of his narrative to bind both himself and his listener to Margaret, at its end, the Pedlar chastens the narrator for his emotional response: "My Friend, enough to sorrow have you given. / The purposes of wisdom ask no more" (508-09). But as Karen Swann has argued in reference to an earlier version of this poem, that sorrow—even excessive sorrow—is precisely the response that the Pedlar's tale is designed to elicit. How else can we explain the repetition of a phrase such as "the worm is on her cheek" and the narrative of an abandoned woman who neglects her children in her misery and whose home is reclaimed by nature? Again, both experiences—the intense emotional reaction which threatens to debilitate by exceeding rational limits, and the rational limitation of that grief—are essential to commodities and a poetic theory which depends on the "spontaneous overflow of powerful [. . .] emotion recollected in tranquility." Further, in Wordsworth's poetics, this tranquility is itself productive—not "barren of future good." As he explains in the Preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads :
I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.611
This is all designed to create a situation in which "the mind will on the whole be in a state of pleasure" (611). But the phrases "on the whole," "overbalance of pleasure," and "complex feeling of delight" all suggest that the pleasure is not pure (which is obviously the case in a poem which focuses on such macabre events).
The Pedlar explains his moral philosophy in which consumption must be productive, at the beginning of the second part of the poem, in response to the narrator's request to resume his tale.
It were a wantonness and would demand
Severe reproof, if we were men whose hearts
Could hold vain dalliance with the misery
Even of the dead, contented thence to draw
A momentary pleasure never marked
By reason, barren of all future good.
But we have known that there is often found
In mournful thoughts, and always might be found,
A power to virtue friendly; were't not so,
I am a dreamer among men, indeed
An idle dreamer [. . .].
The Pedlar's moral question about their relation to "the misery / Even of the dead" raises considerable questions for a poet focusing on the "still sad music of humanity." Some of Wordsworth's most famous poetry draws its strength from tragedies such as Margaret's. And if we ask what "vain dalliance" with misery might entail, the poem offers no insight. Nor does it explain the good of which the "momentary pleasure" should not be barren. Heinzelman's account of the reader's labor demanded by Wordsworth's poetry goes some way towards explaining how Wordsworth might have responded here. But it does not eliminate the disturbing implications raised by this passage when read in the light of the Preface. Simpson notes these implications in a discussion of the parallel passage in The Excursion. Commenting on the strange nature of deriving pleasure from someone else's misery, he argues that
The narrated events of the first book make up our most testing experience of the Wanderer's credibility as the voice of consolatory wisdom. On no other occasion does he dare to pronounce so fully on the relation between another's grief and his own happiness. It is not in itself shocking that a man of faith should find a way of coming to terms with the miseries of the world; but Wordsworth elects to work up this acceptance into what is almost a language of pleasure.201
Simpson goes on to show that in "a canceled draft [. . .] the narrator confess[es] that the trouble in his thoughts" was "sweet. / I looked and looked, again, and to myself / I seemed a better and a wiser man" (Wordsworth 251; Simpson 201). Campbell argues that Wordsworth's identification of pleasure with virtue (here in the narrator's sweet trouble leading him to be a "better and a wiser man"—apparently not a "sadder and a wiser man") is a crucial step in the emergence of the modern consumerist society (191). The strangeness of combining pleasure, misery and virtue suggests the possibility that for Wordsworth—if not for the Pedlar—the very notion of taking pleasure, poetic profit, in misery, whether marked by reason or not, is itself inherently suspect. For, as he explains in the 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the one requirement of a poet is "the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human being" (139).
Wordsworth's elevation of pleasure links his poetic project to the burgeoning consumer culture in ways that are much less critical than those I have been exploring in "The Ruined Cottage." To examine this element of his relation to consumer culture, and in particular to the discourse of advertising, I return now to the passage from the Preface with which I began and in which Wordsworth acknowledges that his readers will have to "give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed" as poetry to experience the "enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature" provided by his own poetry. If we were to classify the passage from the Preface as a form of advertising, it would be a mild version of what Johnson and Addison called "polemical advertisements" or "controversies," which seek to advance their product at the expense of another (Turner 28; Presby 66). In this regard, Johnson, concerned about the due "subordination to the public good," asks "Whether [advertisers] do not sometimes play too wantonly on our passions" (qtd. in Turner 28). Johnson's anxieties about the effect of commercialization on the public anticipate the Pedlar's concern about the "wantonness" of a "vain dalliance with the misery/ Even of the dead."
While I would not suggest that Wordsworth's use of "wantonness" is a nod to Johnson's critique of advertising, I am not the first to suggest some connection between Wordsworth—and the story of the ruined cottage in particular—and the discourse of advertising. The first was probably William Frederick Deacon in his 1824 Warreniana, in which many leading writers of the period appeared as "hirelings of Robert Warren," the seller and advertiser of Warren's Blacking, a boot polish. It includes, as John Strachan notes, "The Old Cumberland Pedlar," a parody of The Excursion which identifies the pedlar as "a retired agent for Warren's blacking who still puffs his former employer in lapidary tribute" (n.pag.):
It chanced one summer morn I passed the clefts
Of Silver-How, and turning to the left,
Fast by the blacksmith's shop, two doors beyond
Old Stubb's, the tart-woman's, approached a glen
Secluded as a coy nun from the world.
Beauteous it was but lonesome, and while I
Leaped up for joy to think that earth was good
And lusty in her boyhood, I beheld
Graven on the tawny rock these magic words,
' buy warren's blacking.'
It is, of course, not necessary to turn to parody or to treat the Preface as if it were an advertisement to find Wordsworth engaged in advertising. Wordsworth introduced Lyrical Ballads in 1798 with an "Advertisement," penned for the purpose. While it does not have recourse to the "large promise" found in puffs and the Preface, it does invoke some of the same rhetorical strategies found in period advertisements. Its concern with directing readers' search for evidence ("not in the writings of Critics, but in those of Poets"), its flattering appeal to the "superior judgment" of readers, its concern that nothing "stand in the way of their gratification," as well as its interest in "taste," are familiar strategies of period advertisements (591).
By 1759, as Johnson's comments about advertising suggest, advertising had thoroughly pervaded British culture, puffing products and services ranging from abortion to razor strops (McKendrick 150). After pointing out that the "soul of an advertisement" is "promise, large promise," Johnson goes on to cite one typical example: a "washball" claimed to have "a quality truly wonderful—it gave an exquisite edge to the razor" (qtd. in Turner 27). I am not claiming that Wordsworth's "large promise" for his poetry in the Preface was influenced by this or any other particular advertisement, but when he uses such phrases as "enjoyments of a more exquisite nature" he is drawing on the same linguistic repertoire as the advertising industry. Indeed, the very structure of the argument is analogous to the classic formula for "new and improved products."
A quick survey of advertising of the late eighteenth century shows how sophisticated the industry had already become in its range of genres and the kinds of appeals it made to potential buyers. Indeed, the advertisements' attempts to clothe themselves in the accoutrements of refined culture—the frequent use of such words as "exquisite" and their deployment of poetic and dramatic forms—suggest the degree to which they are already exploiting a complex set of personal and social desires. One example, an advertisement for Packwood's razor strop, demonstrates the centrality of the rhetoric of newness. In The Telegraph of May 26 1795, Packwood's placed an ad which announced itself as "A New Song / Called / The Razor Strop":
qtd. in McKendrick 160
In this age of invention, improvement, and taste, sir,
To the times of greatest wonder, we'll haste, sir
What is it preserves the most eminent station,
But the new Razor Strop, the glory of the nation.
Thus happy such artists may now themselves confess,
As in the ancient golden days of good Queen Bess.
By inviting readers to imagine themselves as "happy artists" in the "ancient golden days," this "New Song" aligns advertising within the field of imaginative production. It is significant that the ad here celebrates not only the newness of the product, but the newness of the verse intended to sell it. As McKendrick explains, in "the fashionable world of London, where fresh wonders soon grew stale, it was essential to produce new promotional ideas to keep the capital's attention" (163). But the ad is selling much more than razor strops: by claiming (whether tongue in cheek or not) to "preserve the most eminent station," it is also selling an idea, a social aspiration. Part of the ideological inheritance of this aspiration, as I will suggest, is a concern about the health of popular culture.
It might appear that the most important thing to say about the relation between this example and Wordsworth's poetry is how strikingly different they are—indeed, how clearly ads represent the very kind of things Wordsworth was writing against: the "craving for extraordinary incident" which "hourly gratifies." My point is that in spite of these profound differences, Wordsworth uses the same terminology and conceptual apparatus to solve the problem. Indeed, part of the appeal of the theory outlined in the Preface is its announced novelty. The important critical work done by Robert Mayo and Heather Glen among others to qualify Wordsworth's claims to the novelty of the poems in Lyrical Ballads, and by extension the pleasure they afford, suggests the degree to which Wordsworth may have been engaged in a bit of puffery here (Mayo 486-510; Glen 33-109).
While it is true that Wordsworth's account of the necessity of acquiring a new taste so as to enjoy pleasures "of a more exquisite nature" is not mere puffery, it does fit into a general category of advertisements that was as popular in 1790s England as it is in twenty-first-century America. Another Packwood ad features "A Fable" in which "two slaves meet together, the one named Common Strop, the other Superior Strop." After Common Strop asserts his own utility as "a common strop for ages past," Superior Strop asserts that "my superiority has already convinced the most credulous into surprize, that my power will remove notches from a razor or common knife, and give a delectable smooth edge to shave the hardest beard, and that to admiration" (qtd. in McKendrick 157). This passage demonstrates both the similarities and differences between Wordsworth's and Packwood's strategies. In each there is an attempt to distinguish a product as superior to the habitual ones. The obviously allegorical name "Common Strop" suggests that Packwood is working against the "habitual" "bigotry" of consumers using other brands. A Packwood ad from May of 1796 invokes a rhetoric of trial and proof to work against this "habitual bigotry": "Prejudiced as the public may be against the nostrums set forth in a flow of advertisements" they need only try their "superior Razor Strop[s]" to recognize "they are worth their weight in gold" (qtd. in McKendrick 164). The "surprize"—a common claim in Packwood advertisements—in the "Common Strop" allegory above is at once analogous to the "feelings of strangeness and awkwardness" Wordsworth anticipates will be found among his readers—and the chief difference between the two claims. What sets Wordsworth's poetry apart from these puff pieces is the centrality of awkwardness in his rhetorical strategy. But like the advertisements which repeatedly invite readers to experiment (Frank Presby cites one 1795 Packwood ad which "generously allows a week's trial" for consumers to discover "an uncommon agreeable surprise" ), Wordsworth announces the experimental nature of his efforts: not only is Lyrical Ballads an "experiment" (118), but he invites the reader to perform his own experiment and "decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others" (154). This empirical method will, in the words of a Packwood advertisement, ensure "Merit meets it's [sic] own reward on a fair trial" (qtd. in McKendrick 157).
It is not merely the predominance of the empirical "taste test" which links Wordsworth's Preface with period advertisements. Indeed, Wordsworth's therapeutic concern with the ills of an emergent market culture finds an analog in ads for medicinals, one of the more frequently advertised products in the period. These ads are worth noting in this context because, in their promise to restore "the Noble faculties of the Soul" and "deliver a diffusive joy," they bear a family resemblance to Wordsworth's poetics. Ads for medicinals, as T.R. Nevett argues, were path-breakers in many areas of marketing, especially "branding," in which producers sought to distinguish their line of products as superior ("of a more exquisite nature") (24). Turner collects several ads that offer themselves as cures for maladies of many types: spiritual, psychological, and sexual. One ad claims a "Tincture" not only cures "Loss of Memory," but makes the
Head clear and easy, the Spirits free, active and undisturbed, corroborates and revives all the noble Faculties of the Soul, such as Thought, Judgment, Apprehension, Reason, and Memory, which last in particular it so strengthens as to render that Faculty exceeding quick and good beyond Imagination; thereby enabling those whose Memory was before almost totally lost to remember the minutest circumstances of their Affairs.qtd. in Turner 41
Another ad, puffing "Famous Drops for Hypochondriack Melancholy" which can attenuate "all viscous and tenacious Humours" —one might wonder if these would include "an almost savage torpor" —by
comforting the Brain and Nerves, composing the hurried Thoughts, and introducing bright lively Ideas, and pleasant Briskness, instead of dismal Apprehension and dark Incumbrance of the Soul, setting the Intellectuals at Liberty to act with Courage, Serenity, and steady Cheerfulness, and causing a visible diffusive joy to reign in the Room of uneasy Doubts, Fears, etc.qtd. in Turner 41
The two ads for medicinals suggest that a concern for the state of the "noble Faculties of the Soul" is entirely compatible with commercial appeals. That one would not be surprised to find the language in this ad in the service of a Wordsworthian account of the social role of poetry is justified by the fact that "The Famous Drops for Hypochondriack Melancholy" are "Sold only at Mr. Bell's book-seller at the Cross Keys and Bible in Cornhill" (qtd. in Turner 41). The concern to heal the maladies of the soul is part of the cultural inheritance of the aspiring middle classes in an age of self-care.
Wordsworth's debt to the conceptual apparatus of advertising demonstrates the degree to which what Campbell has called "the spirit of modern consumerism" has infused "the Romantic Ethic." Campbell argues that by identifying pleasure as imaginative and virtuous in nature, Romanticism aligns itself unwittingly with modern consumerism—in spite of what he recognizes as its incisive critique of that culture (37, 76-78, 191). Wordsworth's declared and often-discussed identification with the Pedlar—at once a holdover from a precapitalist past and agent of the market's expansion—then can serve as a figure for his own ambivalent stance in relation to the market. It is perhaps a sign of his honest recognition of the impossible dilemma posed by the homology between the poem and the commodity that he never offered "The Ruined Cottage," one of his finest poems, as a commodity for sale. In spite of his powerful critique of the rise of a consumer culture, Wordsworth's own poetic project ushers in the modern age, the world of commodities. The small plot of ground marked out by the story of the decline of Margaret—seeking what she cannot find—can stand for our own world, a world in which the promise of pleasure continually creates intense but fleeting attachments.
Quoted in Turner, 27.
Like "The Ruined Cottage," the "Preface" has a complicated publication history. Except where noted, I refer to the 1800 edition.
While the word "bigotry" did not carry the same moral political weight it does today, the OED cites usages as early as 1674 under the definition "obstinate and unenlightened attachment to a particular creed, system, or party." His use of "honorable" is clearly meant to mitigate some of the negative connotations, but he continues to see the bigotry as a stumbling block to perception.
Colin Campbell identifies the question of detachability as central to the structure of modern consumerism: "The puzzle to be resolved involves [. . .] the question [of. . .] how it is that individuals become detached from those products and services which supply their existing satisfaction." He identifies the solution as relying on daydreaming, or what he calls modern autonomous self-illusory hedonism (88-89).
I am thinking here of Raymond Williams's useful concept of "structures of feelings," which he defines as "a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which give the sense of a generation or a period." "We are talking," he continues, "about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness" (131-32).
The most significant critiques of Wordsworth's elisions of history in this poem (and elsewhere) can be found in Jerome McGann's The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation, Marjorie Levinson's, The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form, and Alan Liu's Wordsworth: The Sense of History. David Simpson, in Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement, offers a qualified defense suggesting Wordsworth was unable to escape history (7). Evan Radcliffe, in "'In dreams begin responsibility': Wordsworth's Ruined Cottage Story," is more confirmed in his celebration of the poem. Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition offers a groundbreaking ecocritical critique of the McGann school in its treatment of the poem.
All citations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from Ms. D. Since the Pedlar is named only in this version, I will refer to him as "the Pedlar" throughout.
Citing The Excursion, Simpson also refers to peddling as a "dying trade, one deemed debased now" (208).
Although Liu does call peddling "Wordsworth's blackmarket capitalism," it is to emphasize that it "had become a precisely parallel economy akin to a blackmarket," (343-44). Peddlers were, he argues, "reminders of an old Northern system now seen as itself an extralegal black market secreted within lawful business" (345) rather than an agent of market expansion, by encouraging consumption in rural districts.
Levinson cites the passage in the Preface about creating taste as the "great expression of the identification of poetry with consumption" ( Keats's 84). Kurt Heinzelman, however, sees Wordsworth's poetry in a more complicated light, for the consumption which Wordsworth's poetry demands is "productive consumption" (205, 233), the result of labor demanded (201).
Barron and Johnston call this the "the literalist or AntiJacobin response" since it recapitulates the satirical critique of the increasingly reactionary establishment press to the political "philanthropy" of much early Romantic writing (66). De Quincey offered this very criticism of The Excursion (see Jonathan Bate 13-17).
Jones discusses one half of this equation in reference to Keats's odes: "The problem faced by Keats, then, is one of engagement. Yet the dominant ideology of commodity production limits Keats's participatory aesthetic" (351).
Peter Larkin sees this detachability not as culpable, but as part of an ecological economy of scarcity (347-64).
In his "Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy," Marx explains that this is the nature of consumption. "Production is simultaneously consumption as well. [. . .] Consumption is simultaneously also production" (130-31). Baudrillard has argued that consumption is precisely the production of signs (63-87).
Barron and Johnston note the sexual connotations in this passage, centering on such words as "dalliance," "momentary pleasure," and "barren" (71-72).
Owen and Smyser include this in the 1850 edition of the Preface, but it was added to the 1802 edition. See, for example, the edition of Lyrical Ballads prepared by R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones (257).
Since Warren's Blacking campaign does not get started until long after the period in which Wordsworth was working on this version of "The Ruined Cottage" and the preface, it does not figure significantly in this essay.
Although Karen Swann, arguing about ms. B, identifies "The Ruined Cottage" as deeply indebted to "sensational fiction and magazine poetry of the late eighteenth century" (see especially 84-85).
See Mayo and Glen (especially chapters 2 and 3).
Not only does Coleridge use this diffusion as one of the primary acts of the imagination, but he identifies Wordsworth's "original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world, around forms, incidents and situations" as characteristic of Wordsworth's "genius" (80, 304).
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