Crisis and Recovery: The Wordsworthian Poetics and Politics

By Liu, Yu | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Crisis and Recovery: The Wordsworthian Poetics and Politics


Liu, Yu, Papers on Language & Literature


Between late 1795 and late 1796, Wordsworth was known to have suffered a sudden and deep depression. Recollecting the ferocious onslaught of that debilitating experience years later in the song of his life, Wordsworth himself would hauntingly summarize it as "the crisis of that strong disease" and "the soul's last and lowest ebb" (1850 Prelude XI. 307, 308).[1] At the time of the event, he was living in his cherished English countryside. He had with him then his beloved sister Dorothy Wordsworth. He had also already made acquaintance with his soulmate Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Against the backdrop of these seemingly auspicious circumstances, what is so interesting and instructive about this surprisingly severe and sustained personal trauma is not only how Wordsworth contracted it and then survived it, but also how the sequence of crisis and recovery helps to reveal a recurrent pattern in his thought and a crucial connection between radical politics and his greatest poetry in the late 1790s and the early 1800s.

Wordsworth was never a politician nor an activist, but he did often intend to fight passionately and publicly for the things he believed in. Upon hearing Richard Watson's expression of horror and outrage at the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793, for instance, he quickly dashed off the fiery Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, both defending and celebrating the deliberate exercise of violence by the French people against their former imperial rulers. While wandering lonely in the west country of England later in the same year, he also quickly conceptualized and subsequently composed Salisbury Plain, dramatizing not only the abject suffering of the rural poor but also the analogical need of English society for reform and even revolution. In their compositional context, both of these works seem to have emanated directly from Wordsworth's experiences in France in the previous year. In particular, two memories seem to have had a deep and lasting impact. First, there was the scene of those young French Army volunteers leaving their families and marching to war for "patriot love / And self-devotion, and terrestrial hope / Encouraged with a martyr's confidence" (Prelude IX. 278-80). Then, there was the occasion of his French friend Michel Beaupuy vowing to fight for the "hunger-bitten girl" (Prelude IX. 512). In both situations, there was a certain grand heroism mingled with and enhanced by a certain self-sacrificial gesture. Just as the chivalry of Beaupuy "meshed with Wordsworth's personal response to suffering and realized their objectives as 'philosophical warriors' with the force of sudden revelation" (Roe 58), so did the patriotism of the young French soldiers impress upon his mind "like arguments from Heaven" (Prelude IX. 289) the justification of the French Revolution as "the cause, not simply of a people struggling to be free, but of mankind" (Moorman, Early Years 221).

The heroic desires of Beaupuy and other patriots, however, ultimately did not do much good for the French Revolution. Similarly, Wordsworth's attempt at political activism also proved to be futile. His flaming patricidal letter never came off the press, and his poem of political protest also did not see the light of day either in its entirety or in its original form in his own life time. Before he left France in late 1792, he had foreseen the coming of difficulties for the revolution and he had for a while contemplated the possibility of staying with his Girondin friends through thick and thin, but his intention was soon vitiated by the banal circumstance of his own "absolute want / Of funds for [his] support" (Prelude X. 190-91). After he returned to England, he also planned in 1794 to launch a radical journal of literature and politics so as to help "the multitude walk[ing] in darkness" by putting "in each man's hand a lantern to guide him" (qtd. in Moorman, Early Years 254), but that activist project similarly failed to even get off the ground for the same trite reason of economics.

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