The churchyard among the Wordsworthian mountains: mapping the common ground of death and the reconfiguration of romantic community.
We see life vanish but we express this fact by the use of a special language. . . The body of the deceased is not regarded like the carcass of some animal: specific care must be given to it and a correct burial; not merely for reasons of hygiene but out of moral obligation. Finally, with the occurrence of death a dismal period begins for the living during which special duties are imposed upon them.(1)
Death and the rituals that surround it, both public and private, are thus not to be seen as wholly individual phenomena but as social constructions. How and where individuals bury the dead, how individuals accomplish or fail to accomplish mourning, form a useful filter through which fundamental, although historically variable, traits of a given society come into focus.
It is with these considerations in mind that I turn my attention to William Wordsworth, the poet who, as Geoffrey Hartman has aptly noted, characteristically "reads landscape as if it were a monument or grave."(2) The topography of Wordsworth's poetry and prose is indeed littered with graves and traces of burial. An analysis of the deployment of these graves within the landscape and of the forces that come into play around them should provide us with the means to draw specific conclusions about how the notion of community functions in Wordsworth's thought, about where it ought to be located and what its defining traits should be. In particular, as we shall see, the distribution of burial sites and the rituals of mourning that surround them complicate Wordsworth's distribution and differentiation of urban and rural spaces. Indeed, a critical look at the persistent failure of the inhabitants of rural spaces successfully to mediate death and the loss that it figures - their persistent failure to put the dead to rest - suggests a subtle complicity or indifference between the urban and the rural. The emergence of this complicitous indifference challenges Wordsworth's argued - and ever controversial - preference for "humble and rustic life" as "that condition [in which] the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity."(3) It likewise presents a challenge to a critic such as David Simpson who, without any naivete or lack of critical rigor (and in opposition to recent trends in Wordsworth scholarship defined by James Chandler, Marjorie Levinson, and Alan Liu), takes Wordsworth at his word. Although Simpson is able to note in his analysis of The Excursion the extent to which this poem represents country life as "clearly tainted both from without and from within," and hence the "degree to which the rural idyll is questionable in its own, intrinsic terms, regardless of the threats of ulterior vested interests," he avers with the poem's narrator that "there is no doubt that rural life and solitude do . . . 'favour most / Most frequently call forth, and best sustain' the 'pure sensations' of both self-interest and the 'mutual bond.'"(4) Simpson finds in this poem a
paradigm of active retirement . . . possible only in small communities, of the sort that Wordsworth saw to be increasingly threatened. Here only can one combine "private life / And social neighborhood," mingling with others while remaining "self-governed, and apart."(5)
The point is precisely that these conditions were increasingly threatened. As Wordsworth wrote in his famous letter to Fox, an economy, like that of the Northern statesmen, based on the independent ownership of a small property, was (if it had ever existed) "rapidly disappearing."(6) And regardless of the potential benefits afforded to the small proprietors in a subsistence economy, the fixation on such an economy risks an atavism that falls short of the progressive orientation that Simpson is correct to see in Wordsworth. Indeed, the point to excavating the complicity between urban and rural spaces that occurs in the vicinity of burial sites is neither to devalue Wordsworth's liberal tendencies nor is it to convict him of bad faith, but rather to uncover Wordsworth's critical rigor and to suggest a paradigm shift of potentially important dimensions. For as I will argue in conclusion, Wordsworth deploys this indifference, which is surely another name for death, as the ground for a romantic subject and community predicated on singularity and hence on difference, a ground that suggests the possibility of a non-totalizing collectivity.
I. EPITAPH AS BURIAL
Wordsworth opens the first of his "Essays Upon Epitaphs" by invoking, with the help of Camden, the central place of burial in the constitution of civil society. "'Never any neglected burial but some savage nations,'" he quotes Camden (as quoted by Weever) as having written.(7) Having set burial at the head of his first "Essay," Wordsworth introduces epitaphic writing as not only the first use to which letters were put but as themselves a more efficient way of burying the dead. "As soon as nations had learned the use of letters, epitaphs were inscribed upon these monuments; in order that their intention might be more surely and adequately fulfilled" (PW, 2:50). Epitaph thus marks no essential difference from the original act of burial and differs from the rude stones and mounds of earth raised by primitive peoples only in its efficacity and relative permanence. Thus we find the Pastor of The Excursion retelling the story that Ellen's feet had inscribed on the earth in their perpetual return to the side of her infant's grave, for
the swelling turf reports of the fresh shower, but of poor Ellen's tears Is silent; nor is any vestige left Of the path worn by mournful tread of her Who, at her heart's light bidding, once had moved In virgin fearlessness.(8)
Wordsworth's compressed historical analysis of epitaph evinces a critical subtlety lacking in the sweeping generalization uttered by Dr. Johnson and cited by Wordsworth in a footnote to his first "Essay": "To define an Epitaph is useless; every one knows that it is an inscription on a Tomb [and] . . . implies no particular character of writing" (PW, 2:49), claimed Dr. Johnson. Wordsworth, on the other hand, recognizes the implication of epitaph and its historical modulations within the socio-historical constitution of human community. In its articulation of the relation of the living to the dead, epitaph is both an index to the health of society and, as the pedagogical scenario sketched out in the notes appended to the first "Essay" hints, an implement to its reform. Epitaph does indeed imply a particular character of writing, a character that varies according to the particular modes of burying the dead and commemorating the characters of the deceased. The well-wrought epitaph, the literary equivalent of the well-buried corpse, thus becomes a key to identifying the kind of idealized community that Wordsworth's "Essays" intend.
What, then, is the community to be constituted in and through a proper burial of the dead, a burial that might ideally provide a non-debilitating and healthful relation to death and loss? The obvious answer would certainly seem to be the sort of idealized rural community invoked everywhere in Wordsworth from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to The Excursion. Wordsworth's meditation on epitaph would seem to be no exception to this general rule. Indeed the rural community seems the site par excellence for the repose of the dead.
Early in his first "Essay," Wordsworth devotes several pages to a consideration of burial practices from ancient times to the present that place the dead at a proper remove from the urban milieu. Wordsworth praises the ancient custom of interring the dead beyond the walls of the city along roadways leading into and away from it, where the traveler, heeding the formulaic injunction of the epitaph to halt, would naturally be given to contemplate his own humanity and his ultimate destination. The physical setting and the disposition of the traveler there halted, resting in the shadow of a funeral monument, would have
supplied strong appeals to visible appearances or immediate impression, lively and affecting analogies of life as a journey - death as a sleep overcoming the tired wayfarer - of misfortune as a storm that falls suddenly upon him - beauty as a flower that passeth away, or of innocent pleasure as one that may be gathered - of virtue that standeth firm as a rock against the beating waves. (PW, 2:54)
While these beneficent effects were generally unavailable to the denizen of a modern-day, increasingly urban British society, they were, to some small degree, Wordsworth writes, "counterbalanced to the inhabitants of large towns and cities, by the custom of depositing the dead within, or contiguous to, their places of worship" (PW, 2:54). The dead are thus at a remove from the "getting and spending" so injurious to our vital powers.(9) But Wordsworth prefers above all else the site of the village church-yard for the burial of the dead. The rural cemetery, "lying as it does in the lap of nature" and "most favourably contrasted with that of a town of crowded population" (PW, 2:55), and contiguous to the community's site of worship, situates the dead at the heart of the natural, the communal, and the spiritual. The dead are there where the living, as they come together to worship, are most likely to contemplate their ultimate spiritual destination. Wordsworth describes such a scene in glowing terms:
The sensations of pious cheerfulness, which attend the celebration of the sabbath-day in rural places, are profitably chastised by the sight of the graves of kindred and friends, gathered together in that general home towards which the thoughtful yet happy spectators themselves are journeying. Hence a parish-church, in the stillness of the country, is a visible centre of a community of the living and the dead; a point to which are habitually referred the nearest concerns of both. (PW, 2:55-56)
Not only do the dead belong properly to the rural community, but putting the dead in their proper place, giving them a proper burial, comes to mark and identify the kind of rural community, a community that includes the dead with and within the living, so idealized by Wordsworth in his "Essays" and elsewhere. Rural burial customs - which here must include the rustic, unlearned, and monotonous epitaphic compositions that adorn their rough markers - insofar as they reflect the strength of the rural community, visibly present the strong affections and attachments that characterize such communities. Wordsworth describes the "strength and sanctity of these feelings which persons in humble stations of society connect with their departed Friends and Kindred" (PW, 2:65), and notes that these feelings translate into a general transfer of corpses from one locale to another that reverses the "general transfer of inhabitants" from their birth-places to other parts of the country:
Strong and inconquerable still continues to be the desire of all that their bones should rest by the side of their forefathers, and very poor Persons provide that their bodies should be conveyed if necessary to a great distance to obtain that last satisfaction. (PW, 2:66)
Implied in Wordsworth's argument is most certainly a critique of the various economic forces that would have given rise to this general transfer of inhabitants from one locale to another, or even worse, from village to city. Within and across the oblique movement of Wordsworth's logic, burial within the rural community comes to stand for burial in general, for the return of the body to its proper place. But the obverse is equally true. The return of the body to its proper place, giving it a proper burial, grounds the constitution of the ideal community.
II. THE CHURCHYARD BY THE SEA
The analogy that introduces the discussion in Wordsworth's second "Essay" of the "strength and sanctity of these feelings which persons in humble stations of society connect with their departed Friends, and kindred" (PW, 2:65) seems initially to argue just this point. Wordsworth imagines one of his characteristic "strangers" who, having come upon a rural cemetery and having read a number of the "brief Chronicles, as the tomb-stones usually contain, of faithful Wives, tender Husbands, dutiful Children, and good Men of all classes; . . . will be tempted to exclaim, . . . 'Where are all the bad People buried?'" (PW, 2:63). But such a reading indicates a misunderstanding of the nature of epitaph and paints an illusory picture of life in the community. It is indeed a delusion akin to a specifically hallucinatory experience, and one to which Wordsworth himself claims to have been prone: "Amid the quiet of a Church-yard thus decorated as it seemed by the hand of Memory, and shining, if I may so say, in the light of love," he writes, "I have been affected by sensations akin to those which have risen in my mind while I have been standing by the side of a smooth Sea, on a Summer's day" (PW, 2:63). As in book 6 of The Excursion, and in language that echoes Wordsworth's blessing of nature in "Tintern Abbey," he compares the village church-yard to an "enclosure" within an "unkind World . . . where the voice of detraction is not heard; where the traces of evil inclinations are unknown; where contentment prevails, and there is no jarring tone in the peaceful Concert of amity and gratitude" (PW, 2:64).
But Wordsworth's choice of analogy is both odd and revealing. The banal and monotonously laudatory language of the rural epitaphs is an overtly incomplete and inaccurate representation of the life that these rural dead must have led and which those that survive them continue to lead. The rigorous deletion of anything that might detract from the beneficent portrayal of the dead creates in Wordsworth's mind an image of a smooth, unruffled Sea, a surface. Oddly, this surface creates the illusion of an inside, an "Enclosure" within and against the acrimonious world that Wordsworth consistently finds the public, particularly the urban to be. In "Tintern Abbey" Wordsworth recalls "oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din / Of towns and cities" having found "tranquil restoration" in the memories of "these beauteous forms" seen again after five years. The city is a restless place, a "fretful stir / Unprofitable," the site of a "dreary intercourse of daily life," where "evil tongues," "rash judgements," and "sneers of selfish men" predominate and preclude the possibility of a more humane interaction.(10) The monotonous epitaphic record lulls Wordsworth into a sense of being secluded and protected from the public, enclosed within the comforting confines of the rural community whose sentimental bonds have precipitated the banal record, introducing him, as he had earlier intoned, into the company of a friend. But as the earlier invocation of the illusory quality of this experience may already have suggested, a wrong turn has been made, for the reverie provoked by the monotonous record draws the stranger not into the lap of nature with its community of the living and the dead, but out of the world of the living and into the world of the dead. The enclosure within an unkind world is that of the tomb. The hallucinatory nature of the experience constitutes a lesson in reading that addresses both the proper reading of epitaph and the proper reading of Wordsworth reading epitaph, a reading that, in the latter case, points to the proper siting of the churchyard among the mountains and of epitaph as the topographical intersection of the earlier and later Wordsworth. This is a reading lesson that points in two directions, both toward a retrospective reading of several of the deaths that punctuate Wordsworth's earlier work and forward to The Excursion and beyond.
The lesson to be gleaned from the stranger's misdirected reading of the simple epitaphs found in the village churchyard pertains to the danger of a literal reading. The stranger's mistake is to have read the epitaphs as a literally accurate representation of rural life, with the unsympathetic, uneducated eye of "a rigorous observer deficient in the spirit of forbearance and those kindly prepossessions, without which human life can in no condition be profitably looked at or described" (PW, 2:64). The stranger mistakes the absence of any negative mark on the tombstones as signifying the absence of any negative trait in the lives of the rural denizens it documents. He assumes the perfect correlation of a mirror image, the perfect replication, in all its detail, of the object of representation in its representing epitaphic text, thus mistaking the village Churchyard for a new-found rural Arcadia. But, as Wordsworth has demonstrated in what might constitute the writing lesson of the "Essays Upon Epitaphs," the truth of the epitaphic register resides not in its literal representation of the deceased - and by extension, the community wherein he or she had resided - but rather in its indirect presentation of the sentiment that had prompted such an inaccurate, blatantly abbreviated representation.(11) The absence of any deleterious mark represents not the absence of vice, greed, or dissention from the rural community, but rather the presence of an affection that properly hides such vice from the view of a stranger's eyes. Thus, Wordsworth's delusory "reverie" and mistaken reading of the smooth, unruffled sea, as an enclosure against the jarring tones of public life, quickly gives rise to an explicit vision of death. Wordsworth reports being roused from his reverie
by a consciousness, suddenly flashing upon me, of the anxieties, the perturbations and in many instances the vices and rancorous dispositions, by which the hearts of those who lie under so smooth a surface and so fair an outside must have been agitated. The image of an unruffled Sea has still remained; but my fancy has penetrated into the depths of the Sea - with accompanying thoughts of Shipwreck, of the destruction of the Mariner's hopes, the bones of drowned Men heaped together, monsters of the deep, and all the hideous and confused sights which Clarence saw in his Dream. (PW, 2:64; emphasis added)
On the surface of an outside that becomes the sheltered interior of the tomb, follows a vision of the inside that had been thought to be the outside, all that was excluded by the calm, monotonous, and loving epitaphic record.
Reading the epitaphic record literally, without the subtle eye of the sympathetic reader, gives rise to a vision of the death that such a model of indifference portends. Rather than faithfully imaging the deceased, such a reading ends by imagining the corpse, disinterring the body that burial properly hides from view. Indeed, the unburied body figures the collapse of difference implicit to the literal reading. Thus the passage below the smooth surface of the epitaph to the interior of the grave reveals not an image of a properly buried corpse, but the utter impossibility of burial. The hallucination provoked by the literalist reading finds its complement in an image of death at sea, a death whose particular horror consists in the state of radical indeterminacy in which it leaves the deceased, a state in which burial, and hence resolution of mourning, is impossible.(12)
The model of misreading that Wordsworth articulates in the opening paragraphs of his second "Essay" associates the indifference of the literal reading of the rural epitaphic text and its concomitant vision of loss at sea with forever unresolved mourning. Keeping in mind the power of burial to perform mourning and hence to center and consolidate human community, the surprising association of an idealized reading of rural community with a shocking failure to bury the dead becomes highly significant. Wordsworth's prose here suggests a remapping of his idealized rural community of the living and the dead. The contours of this new geography, the definition and re-definition of space that it suggests, may be sketched by an investigation of the opposed spaces of the rural and the urban as they inhere in Wordsworth's two long, near-epic poems, The Excursion and The Prelude.
III. AN EXCURSION THROUGH THE FIXED CENTER OF A TROUBLED WORLD
Hartman somewhat flippantly remarks that
Those famous misreaders of Wordsworth who say he advocates rural nature as a panacea should be condemned to read The Excursion once a day. It might not raise their estimate of the poem, but it would certainly be fit punishment. Nowhere does Wordsworth acknowledge more explicitly the difficulty in reforming human nature.(13)
The rural space of The Excursion indeed seems qualitatively different from that of the earlier poetry and evidences an enhanced realism of description. Rural space is no longer the idyll invoked in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, for example. Its enclosed self-sufficiency has been breached not only by capitalistic economic forces but also by exactly the vice, rancor, and unresolved anguish that follows upon Wordsworth's reverie of a calm enclosure secured against the jarring tones of an unkind public space in the opening paragraphs of the second "Essay Upon Epitaphs." Indeed, The Excursion seems an explicit commentary on and corrective to the misreading of the rural space. As Simpson notes, The Excursion, in addition to bearing witness to the incursion of urban structures of economic relations within the rural space - as evidenced by the break-neck ride of the peasant, good and moral in every respect, bearing timbers to fuel the ship-building industry - "also suggests the degree to which the rural idyll is questionable in its own, intrinsic terms, regardless of the threats of ulterior vested interests."(14) The Excursion's community of the living and the dead, the tight-knit community organized, as in "The Brothers," around the unmarked graves of its village cemetery, has been virtually taken over by the graveyard. Hartman, largely critical of this poem whose "defect," as he puts it, "is to show us death and to word hope," for example, writes, "The poem declines . . . into a massive communion with the dead, noble raptures spoken above their graves," and continues to add, "I doubt that there exists another poem of such length in which death and tragic mutation become so literally the ground of the whole." He notes as well that "as the poem proceeds, and more ghosts are raised, nature takes on the aspect of a large graveyard."(15) The Vicar, as he relates the "authentic epitaphs" of those buried in the cemetery, thus passes effortlessly from speaking of the living to speaking of the dead. The stories of those alive in the vale blend insensibly into the stories of those there buried. Indeed, the dwellings of the living, like the graves of the dead, rise barely differentiated from the landscape. Like the dead, the living seem to reside within the earth, within the walls of the tomb. Thus the first of the "authentic epitaphs" to be shared by the Vicar tells the tale of the yet living humble and virtuous inhabitants of the mountain cottage who reside in
A house of stones collected on the spot, By rude hands built, with rocky knolls in front, Backed also by a ledge of rock, whose crest Of birch-trees waves over the chimney top; A rough abode - in colour, shape, and size, Such as in unsafe times of border-war Might have been wished for and contrived, to elude The eye of roving plunderer - for their need Suffices; and unshaken bears the assault Of their most dreaded foe, the strong South-west In anger blowing from the distant sea.
The couple live precariously perched on their mountainside like birds in a "shallow nest" (or should we say a shallow grave?), and seem to be relics, ghostly survivors, of a distant past.
When the inhabitants of the vale are not odd and misplaced relics of an almost lost past, they are obsessively fixated on a vision of just such an irretrievable past. Indeed, the vale is peopled almost exclusively by individuals with a pathological relation to death and loss that gives them the aspect of the living dead long before their actual deaths. In The Excursion death becomes the literalization of an already existent state of affairs. Let me illuminate but a few of the participants of this deathly parade. Second only in prominence to Margaret of "The Ruined Cottage," is the Solitary, the intended beneficiary of the kindly efforts of the Poet and Wanderer. The poet describes the secluded valley of which the Solitary is the sole inhabitant as "Urn-like . . . in shape, deep as an urn" (E, 2.332-33). In this "sweet Recess" with its single dwelling, the Poet throws "down [his] limbs at ease / Upon a bed of heath" (E, 2.350-51). He is delighted with the spot,
So lonesome, and so perfectly secure; Not melancholy - no, for it is green, And bright, and fertile, furnished in itself With the few needful things that life requires. - In rugged arms how softly does it lie, How tenderly protected! Far and near We have an image of the pristine earth, The planet in its nakedness: were this Man's only dwelling, sole appointed seat, First, last, and single, in the breathing world, It could not be more quiet; peace is here Or nowhere; days unruffled by the gale Of public news or private; years that pass Forgetfully; uncalled upon to pay The common penalties of mortal life, Sickness, or accident, or grief, or pain.
This spot, like the grave, shelters its sole inhabitant from the rancor, the sickness, accident, grief, and pain, the "common penalties of mortal life," indeed from mortal life itself. Thus in book 5, the Poet will see the Solitary, the inhabitant of the urn-like vale, as himself become a funerary marker. "Puzzling out" the "faded narrative" of an epitaph, the Poet is interrupted by the whisper of the Wanderer who draws his attention to the spectacle of the Solitary,
Standing apart; with curved arm reclined On the baptismal font; his pallid face Upturned, as if his mind were rapt, or lost In some abstraction; - gracefully he stood, The semblance bearing of a sculptured form That leans upon a monumental urn In peace, from morn to night, from year to year.
As in Milton's description of the effect of Shakespeare's death on those who mourn him, whose "too much conceiving" transforms to marble, the Solitary, his mind "rapt, or lost / In some abstraction," has turned himself to stone, created himself as his own monumental tombstone.
This theme is much in evidence in The Excursion, a poem full of depictions of individuals who, plagued by memory, by excessive grief, write their own epitaphs or become their own tombstones. Thus in book 4, "Despondency Corrected," the Wanderer will diagnose the Solitary's illness as that of those who, "With bodily eyes, . . . are borne down by love / Of what is lost, and perish through regret" (E, 4.172-73). Such an "innocent Sufferer," the Wanderer explains,
"often sees Too clearly; feels too vividly; and longs To realize the vision, with intense And over-constant yearning; - there - there lies The excess, by which the balance is destroyed. Too, too contracted are these walls of flesh, This vital warmth too cold, these visual orbs, Though inconceivably endowed, too dim For any passion of the soul that leads To ecstasy; and, all the crooked paths Of time and change disdaining, takes its course Along the line of limitless desires."
And this melancholic disease is not unique to Margaret, the Solitary, and his wife. This "dreadful appetite of death" (E, 4.604) is indeed endemic to the sheltered vale, touching nearly all of those whose histories we come to know.
In The Excursion, then, the rural space has become explicitly a place of death or death-in-life, of pathological and excessive memory, a space wherein the dead are never determinately buried and grief never resolved. The rural milieu misread as a secluded idyll has thus come perceptibly into explicit relation with its other, the urban. We need only to recur to Wordsworth's pained description of London in book 7 of The Prelude to seal the resemblance.
IV. DESCENT TO THE UNDERWORLD
The Prelude's London and The Excursion's secluded vale, as Hartman has most perceptively but only implicitly pointed out, both figure the poet's epic descent into the underworld. If in The Excursion, nature, as Hartman has noted, subtly "takes on the aspect of a large graveyard," a region inhabited by the dead and the living dead, a topography in which the dead and the living have entirely too much in common, then we must read London as its metonymic, spectral figuration.(16) Wordsworth's London is overtly and explicitly a city of the dead, a place of "Private courts, / Gloomy as coffins" and "unsightly lanes," entangling and labyrinthine.(17) It bombards the eye with
Shop after shop, with symbols, blazoned names, And all the tradesman's honours overhead: Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page With letters huge inscribed from top to toe; Stationed above the door like guardian saints, There, allegoric shapes, female or male, Or physiognomies of real men.
The blazoned names, inscribed letters, and guardian saints model the streets of London as those of a vast city of the dead, a necropolis, an enormous urban cemetery wherein a "weary throng," an "endless stream of men and moving things," an "illimitable walk," circulates restlessly or lies statically inert. These somnambulistic, ghostly residents of London whose nameless faces glide before the poet, "shapes" only, like those of "A second-sight procession, . . . Over still mountains" (P, 7.602) are the walking dead, with epitaphs affixed to their wraith-like or skeletal bodies. The narrator singles out: the actor at Sadler's Wells rendered miraculously invisible by the label flaming forth upon his black garb; Mary of Buttermere, the subject of a drama of "living men / And recent things yet warm with life" (P, 7.313-14), "doubtless treated with irreverence, / Albeit with their very best of skill" (P, 7.319-20), and who, although alive, can double the dead Lycidas as the subject of the poet's "memorial verse." The catalogue continues with the "rosy babe" whom Wordsworth imagines
embalmed By Nature - through some special privilege Stopped at the growth he had - destined to live, To be, to have been, come, and go, a child.
The poet oddly imagines the child envious of the grave and peaceful sleep of Mary of Buttermere's "nameless babe." Finally, there are an "Italian, with his frame of images / Upon his head," virtually a walking sepulchral monument, and a nearly inert beggar "in sailor's garb" who "lies at length beside a range / Of written characters, with chalk inscribed / Upon the smooth flat stones" (P, 7.220-23). What all of these figures have in common is the static immobility of statuary and the deathly silence of the corpse. They are figures of death, walking memento mori, the skeletal participants in a dance macabre. But the most famous and most extensively commented on of these spectral figures is certainly the blind beggar. Many have noted the man's deathly physiognomy. He is "unmoving," "propped against a wall," of "fixed face and sightless eyes," on whose "shape" (a term that can only recall Milton's Death) is affixed a written history that emblematizes "the utmost that we know / Both of ourselves and of the universe" (7.619-20). This episode has most frequently been read in the context of the sublime, as, to quote Stephen Knapp, a "translation of discrepancy into a revelation of power," in which an "experience of failure indirectly reveals the preternatural strength of desire and hope."(18) Thus Thomas Weiskel argues that Wordsworth's encounter with the blind beggar
is the epiphany of absolute limitation which precipitates the sublime moment. . . . The beggar is our epitome or type; he represents our world, what we can know at the point where earthly limits become definitive But just at this point - which corresponds to the flash when the light of sense goes out - the other, unknown world comes into being, like the invisible world of the Simplon Pass passage. We are "admonished" and placed in an attitude of respect as we feel our incapacity of attaining that "other" world.(19)
While these analyses are of extraordinary conceptual vigor and intelligence, I would like to deflect them in a slightly different direction. "These I fear / Are falsely catalogued" (P, 7.642-43) as the poet will soon say. The poet's encounter with the blind beggar is the acute enactment of the failed, egotistical modes of representation whose catalogue is the list of figures to which we have already pointed. The blind beggar is only the penultimate of the spectacles to be seen on the streets of London, a milieu virtually over-run with bad art. Wordsworth's long introduction to the theater of Sadler's Wells focuses again and again on the spectacular mimesis of the tide of images that doubles the weary throng of London's spectral inhabitants.(20) These images are "mimic sights that ape / The absolute presence of reality" (P, 7.248-49), "imitations fondly made in plain / Confession of man's weakness and his loves" (P, 7.254-55). And Wordsworth is unequivocal as to the deleterious potential of these "greedy" images that ape the absolute presence of reality. They are the focal point of a faceless, monstrous community, that of the "many-headed mass" (P, 7.467) of spectators, a hideous, amorphous entity "alive with heads," a "parliament of monsters." As the reference to "Samson Agonistes" in the description of Jack the Giant-killer intimates, this is a violently destructive art, one that, like the blasphemous woman, "split[s] the race of man / In twain, yet leaving the same outward shape" (P, 7.426-27). The erosion of difference or distinction between the objects of representation and the representation of the objects toward which all these examples tend - the latter figures a walking corpse, an undead spirit restlessly envious of burial, like the child embalmed in the poet's memory - inheres finally in the encounter with the blind beggar, and culminates in the depiction of Bartholomew Fair. The blind beggar with his affixed epitaphic history dramatically and spectacularly enacts an unchaste and deleterious relation of text to thing, a relation into which the constitutive differences inhering between text and thing are sucked as into a whirlpool, sending the mind, "at this spectacle[,] turn[ing] round / As with the might of waters" (P, 7.616-17). Hertz maintains that
in the play between the Beggar's blank face and the minimally informative text on his chest, the difference between what Wordsworth can see and what he can read is hardly reestablished in any plenitude: it is a fixed difference - the text won't float up and blur into the lineaments of the Beggar's face - but it is still almost no difference at all. However, it is precisely the fixity that is the point.(21)
It is true that we are at no point tempted to identify the man and his label in the happy communion of a semiotic symbiosis, and that in this sense, the difference, as Hertz would have it, is fixed. But the difference that is fixed is more indifference than anything else, the rigor mortis of a denatured sign. The relation between the man and the text, between the "fixed face" and affixed history, makes it impossible for us to decide whether the man is alive or dead, whether he should be buried or fed, gaped at or spoken to. Just as the illicit representational preservation of Mary of Buttermere as a recent thing "yet warm with life" confuses the difference between life and death, making her the apt subject even for the poet's "memorial verse," the juxtaposition of text and man in the case of the blind beggar confuses our response. This spectacular confusion redounds on the poet, resulting in an intimation of unredeemable mortality:
and it seemed To me that in this label was a type Or emblem of the utmost that we know Both of ourselves and of the universe.
The editors of the Norton critical edition of The Prelude helpfully draw our attention to Wordsworth's original formulation of these lines, preserved in MS. X:
and I thought That even the very most of what we know Both of ourselves and of the universe, The whole of what is written to our view, Is but a label on a blind man's chest.
(P, 260, n.7)
This intimation of limitation smites the poet with astonishment. He is subject to the same perceptual loss that he had encountered staring mutely at the grave of the Winander boy:
And on the shape of this unmoving man, His fixed face and sightless eyes, I looked, As if admonished from another world.
These lines evince a destabilizing confusion of perspective that inheres in the poet's "as if." Does the speaker look with the fixity of gaze of someone admonished from another world, or does he just look like someone who has been so admonished? Does he describe what his looking was like, or what his looking looked like? This confusion threatens to fix him in his tracks, to drown him, as Hartman puts it, in "the engulfing solipsism of Imagination."(22)
London's spectral inhabitants and mimic art thus figure the death-in-life of the melancholy dwellers of The Excursion, ever prey to the furies of memory, to the relentless vision of the dead. The churchyard among the mountains and the urban necropolis are two faces of death, the calm enclosure and watery anguish juxtaposed in the second "Essay" that have thus come into a relation of specular duplicity. The easy passage between the idyllic enclosure, a place shielded from the "common penalties of mortal life" (E, 2.368) - from, as we earlier stated, mortal life itself - to the vision of radical indeterminacy and indifferentiation of loss at sea that figures the urban milieu, reveals the inner relation that holds between these two very different settings. Like the satanic and the divine in the Miltonic intertext that figures so prominently in Wordsworth's "Essays," the urban and the rural are inverted mirror images of each other. The peaceful stasis of the rural, its self-enclosed sanctity, is as much the hermetic seal of the tomb as the deathly proliferation of types that constitutes the urban. The indifferentiation of the urban is as static as the rural and the stasis of the rural is as undifferentiated as the urban. Both are marked by confusion - confusion of past and present, of the same and the different, such that similitude and difference are no longer meaningful.
V. DEATH'S COMMON GROUND
But if London has become the metonymic double of The Excursion's rural community - the spectral interpretation that haunts its calm enclosure - are we then to conclude, as so many others have done, that Wordsworth has failed as a social theorist? In order to frame a response to this question I would like to invoke Wordsworth's own deployment of frames in The Excursion. For while, as we have noted, the tendency toward misreading that becomes so salient amid the gently mounded graves of the churchyard seems to instill itself as much on the inside of the tales - the "authentic epitaphs" told by the Vicar - as on the part of the active interlocutors - the Poet, Wanderer, and Solitary -, these interlocutors, as a corporate subject - a subject refracted into a plurality of voices - inscribe The Excursion with its own critique. It is indeed, I would argue, The Excursion's corporate subject, a subject in conversation, that forms Wordsworth's response to the endemic confusion and misreading that marks the rural as much as the urban milieu. With the dramatic frame of The Excursion, Wordsworth reads his own misreading, his own (unavoidable) error, by multiplying points of view. As Susan J. Wolfson aptly notes:
To the extent that Wordsworth shows view to be point of view, and emphasizes the self-reflecting configurations of what one sees, he unsettles the absolute claim of any one speaker or any one moment of speech.(23)
The Excursion has no universally authorized poet or reader. Like the deaf Dalesman and the blind Dalesman, each falls prey to his or her own excess or deficit of vision or memory. But as the companion tales of these two Dalesmen demonstrate, if one mode of sensing the world is defective or lacking, another might compensate, preserving each from tumbling (unlike James in "The Brothers") over the edge of the precipice:
What terror doth it strike into the mind To think of one, blind and alone, advancing Straight toward some precipice's airy brink? But timely warned, He would have stayed his steps, Protected, say enlightened, by his ear; And on the very edge of vacancy Not more endangered than a man whose eye Beholds the gulf beneath.
(E, 7.491-98; second emphasis added)
The dramatic form of The Excursion embeds an "intermittent," but nevertheless ongoing "disclosure of limitation in the poem's didactic voices."(24) But in this disclosure of limitation there is correction and complementation as well that, as Frances Ferguson notes, shelters an "essential reserve."(25) And this reserve, this fundament of being, is that of the grave, the ownership of a bare "six feet of earth where our forefathers lie!"(26)
If The Excursion begins with the juxtaposition of two poetic spaces, that of the twilight cave and the wide bare common, it ends with a third:
From that exalted station to the plain Descending, we pursued our homeward course, In mute composure, o'er the shadowy lake, Under a faded sky. No trace remained Of those celestial splendours; grey the vault - Pure, cloudless, ether; and the star of eve Was wanting; but inferior lights appeared Faintly, too faint almost for sight; and some Above the darkened hills stood boldly forth In twinkling lustre, ere the boat attained Her mooring-place;
This plain, where the early evening sky stretches like a luminous vault in which only lesser stars shine, figures the reconfiguration of subjectivity that Wordsworth's meditation on epitaph both evidences and forces. This is a subject essentially constituted by its finitude, its mortality, which is also to say, by its singularity. Early in his career, in "The Old Cumberland Beggar," for example, Wordsworth could invoke the "one human heart" bodied forth in the gesture of charity to the old man, the "silent monitor" of the community. But by 1810, following the deaths of his brother John and his two children, Thomas and Catharine, this human heart no longer provides the same sort of unified ground supposed in "The Old Cumberland Beggar," or the common human nature to which Wordsworth makes regular reference in the Preface. Indeed, the one human heart, by 1810, has become something much more modern, more a heart of darkness than any readily available ground of commonality. The ground of commonality has become the common ground of the grave, the "all-uniting and equalizing receptacle of the dead" (PW, 2:57). The community centered around the graves of the dead, around the gesture of burial, is thus a community centered around its own mortality, centered by the inscription of singularity, and hence of difference, at its heart. If we have left the definition of this new community only hazily marked out, this is because it is nowhere explicit in Wordsworth. Indeed, Wordsworth is always better at describing what he dislikes than what he likes. But the end of The Excursion, like Adam and Eve's descent out of Eden and into history, nevertheless points forward, opens onto a reconfigured subjective and intersubjective space, a space not only incorporating, but founded on difference and singularity, on multiple points of view, and on the conversation that ensues. The latent impropriety of the land and of the Romantic subject has been recast onto and into the new property of six feet of earth. The interruption of death has become the center, the anchor, of a newly valuated (post-romantic) subject and a newly valuated community founded on the common ground of the grave, of mortality, and singularity.
1 Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand, trans. Rodney and Claudia Needham (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960), 27-28.
2 Geoffrey Hartman, "Inscriptions and Romantic Nature Poetry," The Unremarkable Wordsworth (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987), 40.
3 William Wordsworth, Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, Selected Poems and Prefaces by William Wordsworth, ed. Jack Stillinger (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965), 447.
4 David Simpson, Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement (New York: Metheun, 1987) 189, 190.
5 Simpson (note 4), 206.
6 William Wordsworth to Charles James Fox, 14 January 1801, "The Early Years 1787-1805," The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 8 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), 1:314-15.
7 William Wordsworth, "Essays Upon Epitaphs," The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), 49-50; hereafter cited parenthetically in text by volume and page as PW.
8 William Wordsworth, The Excursion, The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949) 6:815-20; hereafter cited parenthetically in text by book and line number as E; other poems from the edition cited in notes by volume, page and line number.
9 William Wordsworth (note 8), "The World Is Too Much With Us; Late and Soon," 3:18.2.
10 William Wordsworth (note 8), "Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During A Tour, July 13, 1798," 2:259.
11 See Wordsworth's first "Essay," where he explains that in the well-wrought epitaph, "The character of a deceased friend or beloved kinsman is not seen, no - nor ought to be seen, otherwise than as a tree through a tender haze or a luminous mist, that spiritualises and beautifies it; that takes away, indeed, but only to the end that the parts which are not abstracted may appear more dignified and lovely: may impress and affect the more" (PW, 2:58).
12 Death at sea certainly had a personal salience for Wordsworth in the death of his brother John. Although there was never any doubt that John had perished in the sinking of the Earl of Abergavenny, his body was not recovered for burial until six months after the wreck. The loss of the body was a source of pain to Wordsworth, who was much concerned that it be properly buried. He wrote to his brother Richard inquiring if it would "not be proper to write to the Clergyman at Weymouth or to some other fit person there, informing him of your address, or desiring him to take upon himself the charge of having John properly buried in case his body whould be found" (letter to Richard Wordsworth, 7 March 1805, Letters [note 6], 552). Not long after William's inquiry, Dorothy writes to Lady Beaumont informing her of the recovery of the body by dragging, and its burial at Wyke near Weymouth. "This is a great comfort to us - his grave is a resting-place for our thought - the end of all in this world. We have nothing more to hope or expect in connection with him but the time when we shall go together to visit the spot. My dead Friend I am much comforted - I have many happy thoughts" (Letters [note 6], 574).
13 Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry: 1787-1814, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), 320.
14 Simpson (note 4), 190.
15 Hartman (note 13), 295-96, 299.
16 Hartman, 299. Hartman calls London an "underworld" in which the poet moves with a "strange immunity" like that of "Aeneas in his cloud" (234). And he appends a note to his perceptive imagination of the parallel between Wordsworth/Aeneas pointing to the image of "the cloud / Of infancy" (4.83-84) found nowhere else than in the Excursion. He seems further to have been the first to comment on the similarity that the epitaph books of The Excursion bear to the epic nekya (the descent into the world of the dead), although he mistakenly reads the nekya of The Excursion, I would hold, as a parody (296).
17 William Wordsworth, The Prelude, William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), 7.196-97. Except where otherwise noted, all citations refer to the 1805 version of The Prelude and will hereafter be cited parenthetically in the text by book and line as P.
18 Stephen Knapp, Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985), 106, 107.
19 Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), 44. The blind beggar figures likewise in Neil Hertz's reading of the sublime moment in Wordsworth. See chapter three of his book, The End of the Line (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), 40-60.
20 Wordsworth makes explicit the parallel between the "weary throng" of London's inhabitants and the images when he writes of Bartholomew Fair, "the midway region and above / Is thronged with staring pictures and huge scrolls, / Dumb proclamations of the prodigies" (P,7.665-67). The staring pictures, huge scrolls, and dumb proclamations have as much vitality as the "chattering monkeys" and "children whirling in their roundabouts," the buffoons, hurdy gurdy player, "silver-collared negro," the equestrians, tumblers, women, girls, and boys, albinos, painted Indians, dwarfs, "the horse of knowledge and the learned pig," that partially complete the list.
21 Hertz (note 19), 59-60.
22 Hartman (note 13), 242.
23 Susan J. Wolfson, The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986), 124.
24 Wolfson (note 23), 124.
25 Frances Ferguson, Wordsworth: Language As Counter-Spirit (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), 241.
26 This is the concluding line of "Repentance: A Pastoral Ballad"; Wordsworth (note 8), 2:46.36.
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|Author:||Sharp, Michele Turner|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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