"Some Unknown Man, Unheard Of": Wordsworth and the English Regicide

By Duggett, Tom | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

"Some Unknown Man, Unheard Of": Wordsworth and the English Regicide


Duggett, Tom, Wordsworth Circle


In Book I of Wordsworth's Prelude stand these inscrutable lines:

  ... Or I would record
  How, in tyrannic times, some unknown man,
  Unheard of in the chronicles of kings,
  Suffered in silence for the love of truth ...
  (1805 I, 201-204)

Who is the "unknown man"? Floods of ink have been spent on the identity of the "semi-Quixote" in The Prelude book on Books, and on tethering the romance of Vaudracour and Julia to its biographical origins, but this literary ghost, both intimate and unidentifiable, has gone unnoticed. (1) But Wordsworth's "unknown man" invites enquiry, positioned as a sort of human riddle, simultaneously actual and universal; unknown, unheard of, but suffering. Purged out of the historical record in proportion as his action is historical, indeed, agonizingly temporal in character, the "unknown man" raises the question of history at the outset of Wordsworth's poem on the history of his own mind. Moreover, it seems unlikely to be an accident that the "unknown man" stands at the exact mid-point of a sequence that is all about the porous boundary between historical record and mythology. The sequence in question is Wordsworth's catalogue of rejected themes for an epic poem, beginning with a thumbnail sketch of the Gothic conquest of Rome:

  Sometimes, more sternly moved, I would relate
  How vanquished Mithridates northward passed,
  And, hidden in the cloud of years, became
  That Odin, Father of a race by whom
  Perished the Roman Empire ...
  (I. 185-189)

Here is an historical action (Pompey's defeat of Mithridates) precipitating a mythical transformation ("Mithridates ... became ... Odin"), which leads into another historical action (the fall of Rome to Alaric's Goths), which then ushers in the supposed medieval relapse into darkness. This sequence sets the pattern for the following thirty-odd lines, in which Wordsworth accumulates examples of similar cases of the interfusion of history and mythology, including the "fifteen hundred years" survival of the "soul of liberty" brought to the Canaries by the Roman general Sertorius; the "black legend" of Spanish atrocities in Florida and the revenge of "one Frenchman" (Dominique de Gourges); and the legends of Gustavus Vasa and William Wallace. What Wordsworth is sketching is, in effect, an occult history, or a "Gothic" history that begins with Odin, "Father" of the Gothic conquerors of Rome, proceeds via stories of "Gothic" barbarity, and concludes with Wallace in Scotland and Gustavus in Sweden--the country that Henry Brooke's Gustavus Vasa (republished 1796), termed "one of those Gothic and glorious Nations, from whom our Form of Government is derived" (Brooke, 14). Coming at the exact middle of this sequence, the "unknown man" represents the point where the forgotten and the remembered join, and epitomizes Wordsworth's "Gothic" history.

But since this "Gothic" history depends for its effect upon the reader's conjuring, or, in the language of the poem, "summoning back" historical agents like Pompey and Alaric from their abstraction into the impersonal shapes of history, the archetypal "Gothic" status of the "unknown man" may in fact provide the vital clue to his specific historical identity. For Wordsworth, "Gothic" was above all a literary category, but one associated with the Republican poetics of Marvell and Milton rather than the "frantic" fantasies of Mrs. Radcliffe and the Minerva Press. If Wordsworth believed that the fire of England's "inward happiness" still smouldered sufficiently for the Miltonic spirit to rouse it into flame, it was in part because its ashes could be imagined as lying in the fireplaces of the nation's old Gothic halls--the nation itself imagined as something like the "hall," complete with "corslet" and "unused armour," from which Cromwell had burst in Marvell's "Horatian Ode." In Wordsworth's 1802 sonnets on liberty, a still-just-Miltonic Britain was thus the Gothic antitype of neo-classical France:

  In our halls is hung
  Armoury of the invincible Knights of old:
  We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
  That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
  Which Milton held. … 

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"Some Unknown Man, Unheard Of": Wordsworth and the English Regicide
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