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From Relics to Remains: Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” and the Emergence of Secular History

  • Charles J. Rzepka

…plus d’informations

  • Charles J. Rzepka
    Boston University

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Corps de l’article

Now Thomas, one of the twelve [. . .] was not with them when Jesus came. [. . .] . But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

John 20.24-29

The story of Doubting Thomas tells us that skepticism with respect to visible remains is very old. It also tells us that, if seeing is not believing, touching almost invariably is. Eighteen hundred years after Thomas reached out to touch a wound, the young William Wordsworth reached out to touch a wall. Thomas needed to confirm the truth of a narrated event, Wordsworth to confirm the very presence of the world. As he told Isabella Fenwick long afterwards, the power of his conviction, even as a young boy, that his “immaterial” soul was immortal sometimes made the material world appear unreal:

I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality.

De Selincourt, 463

I once cited this passage as an example of what the philosopher A. D. Nuttall calls “solipsism as an experience,” a not uncommon event in the writings of the late eighteenth century. “On the whole,” says Fredric Bogel, “the Augustan writer’s typical concern is epistemological and the later eighteenth-century writer’s ontological” (4). That being so, Samuel Johnson’s famous kicking of a rock to refute Berkeleyan idealism places the good doctor more firmly in his end of the century than literary historians were once inclined to admit. Insofar as Johnson’s violent rebuttal demonstrates a desire to recover the substantiality of the perceived world, we must assume that, like the young Wordsworth, he felt that substantiality to be at risk.

Of course, there is nothing about the sense of touch, abstractly considered, that privileges it as a source of ontological certainty above any of the other senses: the tactile sensation, the image or idea of the rough, cold, stony surface of the wall remained as securely enclosed in Wordsworth’s private “abyss of idealism,” his “own immaterial nature,” as its visual image. What touch restored (that sight alone could not) was not the reality of the world, or not only that, but the boy’s sense of himself as something in the world. Reaching out to touch a stone wall ratifies not only the existence of the stones that are touched, but of the self as a physical thing that touches, that encounters resistance and is touched in return. Tactile sensations help draw the immaterial, immortal self back into its real material form, which is to say, back into history.

At some point between 1793, the year of his first encounter with Stonehenge, and 1800, the publication date of the second, two-volume edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth became interested in stones. They seem to litter Lyrical Ballads like glacial erratics: the stones comprising the mossy “Seat” in a yew tree, where the poet leaves his “Lines” (“Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree,” 9); the “old gray stone” on which the poet sits in “Expostulation and Reply,” while dreaming his time away (1); the three “rough hewn stone” pillars marking a stag’s prodigious leap to its death (“Hart-Leap Well,” 67); stones rolling in “diurnal course” with rocks and trees and human remains (“A slumber did my spirit seal,” 7-8); “A narrow girdle of rough stones and crags” and the pile of stones comprising an uncompleted sheep-fold—a more recent, miniature Stonehenge, perhaps, with an old shepherd named Michael in the role of patriarchal arch-druid (“Michael,” 471-81). [1]

There is, oddly enough, only one explicit reference to a gravestone, in “Ellen Irwin, or the Braes of Kirtle,” although there are graves, of course, and anonymous piles of earth, resembling the many unmarked barrows around Stonehenge: the infant’s grave of “The Thorn”; the unidentified graves of Leonard Ewbanks’ family in “The Brothers”; perhaps, even, the “green” graves that may still be “seen” near the little maid’s cottage in “We are Seven” (37)—mounds of earth whose grave-stones, if they exist, go unremarked. Finally, concomitant with the writing of the Ballads, there are the earliest versions of The Prelude, with its suggestive mound of sod at the foot of the gibbet beneath Penrith Beacon (11.291-99), and The Ruined Cottage, with its crumbling stone walls surmounted by spear-grass, whose story the Pedlar, Armitage, tells as they might, if they could speak.

In short, I wish to talk about Wordsworth as our first archaeological poet, the first to focus specifically on that liminal moment when the world of physical, inorganic “things” looms up in the shape of what Bill Brown, in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry devoted to “Things,” calls “the entifiable that is unspecified,” an “illegible remainder” that is “retroprojected” by the subject’s encounter with a world of intelligible objects (2). That moment of “retroprojection,” I would argue, is never more vividly realized than by the sense of touch. In Wordsworth, it seems to occur simultaneously with the recession of objects from the second-order grid of historical, as opposed to the first-order grid of denotative, intelligibility. As Hayden White and other postmodern historians like F. R. Ankersmit and Ian Hodder have taught us, our sense of the past as intelligible always takes a narrative form: legend, myth, chronicle, tale—what I will call, for my purposes here, “testimony.”

Recurring testimonial breakdown and reconstruction was crucial to the emergence of secular history and its increasingly revisable narratives, for at some point in the West’s transition from sacred to secular explanations of the past, the accelerating tempo of these reiterated crises of testimony created a change in people’s understanding of the relative priority and weight to be given to material evidence, to what we might call the physical “clues” of history as opposed to the “testimony,” the oral or written accounts of past events, enlisted to explain those “clues.” Up to that point, as Stuart Piggott notes, “there was no place for the study of the past by means of its material culture” (23). By the end of the romantic period, however, this crucial shift in evidentiary priority was all but complete: the unimpeachable authority of the sacred “testimony” whose chronology of creation had informed the “cosmogonies” of early “theorists of the earth” like Burnet, Whiston, and Woodward was rapidly giving way to the new authority of material “clues,” such as the stratigraphical evidence of multiple deluges and serial extinctions. In the process, geology and paleontology emerged as discrete reconstructive sciences of the secular prehistory, respectively, of the earth and of the animals and plants living upon it.

Archaeology, the reconstructive science of human prehistory, took longer to emerge from the shadows cast by Genesis on “the dark backward and abysm of time” (Tempest, 1.2). This was true in England, at any rate. As Bruce Trigger observes in his history of archaeological thought, most English antiquarians, even the most advanced, continued to believe up until the end of the eighteenth century that the world had been created approximately 6000 years before, and that written records, above all the Bible, were roughly accurate back to the creation. As a result, says Trigger, it was assumed “that artifacts and monuments merely illustrated the historically recorded accomplishments of the past” (72). William Wordsworth was our first poet-philosopher of a newly emerging archaeological forensics in which artifacts were to assume a critical, and not just an illustrative, function.

Peter Manning has noted correspondences between certain themes in Wordsworth’s later poetry and the emerging discipline of archaeology (286-7). But even as early as Lyrical Ballads we discover a particularly modern, archaeological frame of mind with respect to those material “clues” of human activity—usually stones or other landscape features—that appear, initially, at the margin of narrative, and specifically oral narrative—at the point, that is, where reliable (in some cases, even unreliable) “testimony” falters, or is in the process of construction or reconstruction. For the Wordsworth who begins to consider them with earnest attention in Lyrical Ballads, these material clues lacking reliable testimony are never interrogated under the pre-modern, sanctified rubric of “relics,” but under the secular rubric of “remains.”

I use these words as terms of art. In practice, of course, we make little distinction between them. And yet they have distinct etymologies that Wordsworth generally seems to respect. [2]Relic comes from the Latin “reliquiae” (ultimately from the verb “relinquo,” “to leave behind”), from which we derive the word relinquish, while remains comes from the Latin verb “remanere” “to stay back or behind.” Relic therefore refers, etymologically, to something that has been abandoned by someone who has moved on, while remains resist moving on, stay in the present and thereby make present their beholder.

Because relics point away from the present moment toward a “hereafter” into which their former owners have “moved on,” they have a religious valence that mere remains do not. This may explain why the appearance of the word relic predates that of remains in the history of English: the OED offers, as its first definition of the former term, “Some object, such as a part of the body or clothing, an article of personal use, or the like, which remains as a memorial of a departed saint, martyr, or other holy person, and as such is carefully preserved,” for instance, in “reliquaries,” “and held in esteem or veneration.” Relics in this sense appear as early as the reign of the Emperor Constantine, and derive their meaning and value from the gospel narratives and saints’ lives that they are assumed to illustrate. [3]

Those who have left material relics behind have moved on to an eternal but incorporeal life that anticipates both the apocalyptic end of time and the revealed end for time: not just time’s terminus, but its transcendent point or meaning, which has already been revealed, for the living, as the telos of the Judaeo-Christian narrative—a narrative, it is worth noting, that includes the Doubting Thomas story that comprises the epigraph of this essay. The history that relics occupy is thus a sacred history, a “testimony” whose authority is taken for granted because it rests, ultimately, on an authoritative “Word” that relics may, as Trigger says, “illustrate,” or perhaps augment, but not refute or significantly revise. [4]

Remains have an obduracy that relics lack because they can resist any given narratological schema—“what stays back” is, finally, what “remains” beyond the intelligibility imposed by narrative because it is always and only “present,” and its status as “present” is confirmed by its “presencing” of the human subject who takes it as an object of investigation. In this respect, Wordsworth’s reaching out to touch a wall in order to make “present” not only the world but his embodied self in the world corresponds to the radically new presentism of his scientific contemporary, James Hutton, for whom what is happening in the present is presumed to be the key to understanding the geological past. It also anticipates twentieth-century philosophers of history like Michael Oakshott, for whom there is no mode of experiencing the past that does not take place in the enduring present “world of ideas” (29) that is experience itself, and R. G. Collingwood (himself an archaeologist), for whom historical events can be known only by being imaginatively “re-enacted” in the present, “and in that re-enactment,” says Collingwood, “known as past” (158). Wordsworth goes beyond both Oakshott and Collingwood, however, in the seriousness with which he interrogates the sheer possibility of “presencing” the past in a material, pre-narrative or “pre-historical” form.

Alan Bewell once described Wordsworth’s attitude toward his neighbors at Grasmere as similar to that of Malinowski among the Trobriand islanders (34). The same analogy can be drawn between the poet’s attitude toward material remains in the landscape and that of the modern archaeologist, except that Wordsworth wants to position himself, as a poet or Bard (one of the orders of Druidical initiates), at that point in the act of interpretation where remains can be observed either entering the present moment of shared narrative, usually an oral tradition, or threatening to escape altogether into the irrecoverable silence of prehistory, yielding only geometrical or arithmetical information: the precise location of a half-built sheep-fold, the size of a little pond: “‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide” (32-33).

No one would deny the visual bias of the sciences generally during and since the Enlightenment. This bias, however, arose in response to an epistemological, not an ontological problem—the problem of knowing, not of being. The ontological problem raised by the desacralization of history called for a tactile solution, with all that the word tactile implies: “handling” and “manipulation,” the testing—not just the passive, sensory taking-in—of the physical world. This includes the proprioceptive estimate of weight and resistance—sometimes painful—to the body (think of Johnson’s toe!), as well as bodily navigation in and among ruins, down into mines and buried cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum; the application of chisels and hammers to mineralogical formations; the planting of the surveyor’s transit on a granite outcropping; the uprooting of a botanical specimen from a crevice in the same spot. These activities evince an empirical desire, not just to “see for oneself,” but to experience the physical embodiment of the seeing self in the presence of “what stays back,” what has resisted the forces of mutability and decay in the past and what materially resists them now in the moment of scientific interrogation. “What stays back” is what resists the willful impositions of the examining subject, impositions always informed by a prior narrative, and this resistance, like these impositions, always takes, fundamentally, a tactile form.

Viewed from this perspective, remains in Wordsworth’s poetry offer themselves primarily as sites of past habitation open to re-inhabitation or re-traversal by present bodies, and the recurrent epitaphs or inscriptions in Lyrical Ballads, like its measurements and enumerations—“three feet long and two feet wide,” three stone pillars, two “green” graves—all bespeak, before announcing the deconstructive mysteries of “deferral” and “prosopopaeia,” the ontological mystery of embodied encounters with the earth on which other bodies have left physical signs of their presence or passage. To inscribe, to engrave, to measure “from side to side,” to enumerate, all presuppose touching (in its attenuated form, pointing) or pacing off. Even the blind beggar of London, in book 7 of The Prelude (1805; 608-23), whose “story” has been pinned to his chest like a label to a geological specimen, must (we presume) have been touched by a sighted person in the process.

Explicit connections between the early, pre-1800 Wordsworth and the nascent archaeological sciences of his day are about as rare as those that, according to John Wyatt, obtain between the poet and geology. The most we can usually do when trying to link the Wordsworth of the Great Decade to developments in any of the so-called historical sciences is to look for internal evidence of the poet’s familiarity with concepts, approaches, or questions germane to these sciences. Very fine work has been done by Marjorie Nicolson, Paul Sheats, Theresa Kelly, Peter Manning, and Alan Bewell on stones and shells and early conceptions of geological or evolutionary pre-history in Wordsworth’s poetic development. There is much still to be done on his relation to the emerging concept of a specifically human pre-history.

However, we can make some inferences. A. L. Owen was among the first to observe that Wordsworth apparently knew the work of the early-eighteenth-century archaeologist of Stonehenge, William Stukeley, who believed the Druids built the stone circle as a temple of worship for their proto-Christian religion. While there is no evidence as to when Wordsworth first read Stukeley, or that Wordsworth himself subscribed to Stukeley’s fatuous theories, we know from poems like “Salisbury Plain” that he was fascinated by Druid lore, and in the 1805 version of The Prelude he even characterized himself, during his studies at Cambridge (Stukeley’s alma mater), as a youthful initiate into the Druid class of Bards (Owen 163).

As Trigger and Alain Schnapp point out, modern archaeology is indebted to Stukeley not for his Druidical conclusions, but for his innovative methods, especially his precise stratigraphical and site measurements—height and depth, length and width, thickness and weight, distance and orientation. What interests me about Stukeley’s possible influence on the Wordsworth of 1793 to 1800 is this attention to measurements, locations, and positions, not so much regarding the architecture of Stonehenge, but with respect to the disposition and stratification of the numerous graves or “barrows” appearing on the plain surrounding it, many of which Stukeley excavated with his own hands. Here are excerpts from his findings at several sites, as recorded in Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids: “About three foot below the surface, a layer of flints [. . .] about a foot thick, rested on a layer of soft mould another foot: in which was inclos’ed an urn full of bones [. . .] “ (44); “The bones had been burnt, and crouded all together in a little heap, not so much as a hat would contain” (44); “We made a cross-section ten foot each way, three foot broad over its center [. . .]” (45); “At length we found a squarish hole cut into the solid chalk, in the center of the tumulus. It was three foot and a half, i.e., two cubits long, and near two foot broad, i.e. one cubit: pointing to Stonehenge directly. It was a cubit and a half deep from the surface” (45-46). Regarding “one of the small ones, 20 cubits in diameter,” Stukeley writes: “A child’s body (as it seems) had been burnt here, and cover’d up in that hole: but thro’ the length of time consum’d. From three foot deep, we found much wood ashes soft and black as ink [. . .]” (45).

Perhaps Stukeley’s influence on Wordsworth’s poetry is not to be found in the surface layer of his Druidic lore and “hieroglyphic” temples, but at a deeper level, in a humbler concern to register the opacity of remains that arrive in the present moment of embodied encounter lacking narratives, offering little more than an inventory of anonymous bones and ashes, and a handful of measurements:

Not five yards from this mountain-path,
This thorn you on your left espy;
And to the left, three yards beyond,
You see a little muddy pond
Of water, never dry;
I’ve measured it from side to side:
‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

And close beside this aged thorn,
There is a fresh and lovely sight,
A beauteous heap, a hill of moss,
Just half a foot in height [. . .]

This heap of earth o’ergrown with moss
Which close beside the thorn you see,
So fresh in all its beauteous dyes,
Is like an infant’s grave in size
As like as like can be[. . .].

“The Thorn,” 27-53

Parties annexes