Cognition and Representation in Wordsworth's London

By Bruhn, Mark J. | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Cognition and Representation in Wordsworth's London


Bruhn, Mark J., Studies in Romanticism


1. Introduction

THIS PAPER IS PARTLY AN EXPLORATION OF SPATIAL PROCESSING IN LITERARY cognition and partly an analysis of Wordsworth's mimetic theory and practice in Book 7 of The Prelude, "Residence in London." The yoking of these topics is less arbitrary than it may seem, though it was, I admit, fortuitous that I picked up the Wordsworth straight upon the heels of Stephen Levinson's definitive new treatise on Space in Language and Cognition. (1) Having Levinson's study in the background no doubt helped to foreground for me what is on any view a remarkable passage of spatial representation early in Book 7, in which Wordsworth bids London, "Rise up" and "Before me flow!" (149-50) and then proceeds to escort his readers (note the shift to the first person plural pronoun at line 169) through the streets and districts of the city thus conjured. (2) This seventy-line imitation of the phenomenal experience of London is unusually thorough-going and consequently absorbing; the obliging reader feels, for the duration at least, in the midst and on the move, advancing through a streaming scene of buildings, people, and objects, with attention shifting here and there among clusters of visual and auditory images that give way one to the next in steady succession--much as they appear to do when one is really walking in the city. (3) The passage thus provides an exemplary instance of what cognitive linguists like Levinson call a body or driving tour, that is, a mental or linguistic representation of embodied movement through a spatial array, such as one pictures to oneself in wayfinding or speaks to another when giving directions. For obvious reasons, body tours and route descriptions tend to be scrupulously and single-mindedly realistic, and that Wordsworth's passage is no exception in this regard should suggest at once how exceptional it therefore is with respect not just to the bulk of his verse but indeed to the better part of English romantic verse in general. (4) By happy conjunction, then, I found myself possessed of a deviant text, a new descriptive apparatus, and two substantial and potentially related questions (and if that's not a recipe for a scholarly article, I don't know what is): first, how exactly does this or indeed any text work its mimetic magic in the mind of the reader? And second, what is the function and status of this and other orders of mimesis in Book 7 specifically and Wordsworth's poetics generally?

Though simply fortunate in the event, I might have found my way to these important cognitive and mimetic matters more intentionally and systematically. As long ago as 1958 M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp traced the development of a new psychology of art in romantic criticism and philosophy, especially the English variety, which, though typically idealistic in its interpretation of psychological data, was nevertheless habitually empirical in their pursuit. As Abrams puts it, in language that suggests how deep the foundations of contemporary cognitivism lie,

   A salient aspect of the romantic era in general was the sharpened
   'Inner Sense,' as Coleridge called it, for the goings-on of the
   mind, and a new power, by these poets and critics who are
   'accustomed to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature,
   to venture at times into the twilight realms of consciousness.'
   Coleridge himself had no equal as a microscopic analyst of the
   interplay of sensation, thought, and feeling in the immediate
   cross-section, or 'fact of mind.' ... In this aspect, English
   criticism, of course, participated in the tendency of English
   empirical philosophy, which characteristically tried to establish
   the nature and limits of knowledge by an analysis of the elements
   and processes of the mind. (5)

Wordsworth, of course, is the poet foremost in Coleridge's mind when he speaks of watching "the flux and reflux of [our] inmost nature," and though Wordsworth writes in The Prelude that it is a "Hard task, vain hope, to analyze the mind,"

      . … 

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