Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth and Lyrical Archaeology: The Poetics of Prehistorical Imagination in "The Brothers"

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth and Lyrical Archaeology: The Poetics of Prehistorical Imagination in "The Brothers"

Article excerpt

Compared to equally familiar poems in Lyrical Ballads, "The Brothers" received little attention, despite Wordsworth's high opinion of it--at one point he intended to make it the first of the new poems to appear in the second volume of the 1800 edition (Reed 76n31). It grew out of a story he heard with Coleridge on a visit to Ennerdale during a walking tour of the Lake District in October and November, 1799, before he and Dorothy decided to settle in Grasmere. The poem reflects William's troubled thoughts about his relationship to his own brother, John, who had just left their company a week before and who, like Leonard Ewbank, Wordsworth's protagonist, had become a mariner to help support the brother he had left behind. The poem also expresses some of his anxieties at the thought of being mistaken, like the long-absent Leonard, for a "Tourist" in the very region where he was born and raised (Butler).

Several critics, including Parrish (133),Averill (227), and Galperin (125-132), noted the dramatic irony of the situation in which Leonard, now matured beyond recognition, converses with the elderly priest of his birthplace concerning the fate of his younger brother, James, and gets him to identify the young man's unmarked grave, all without ever acknowledging that he is James's sibling, Leonard, whom the priest believes is dead. He even listens patiently as the priest relates the lurid story of Leonard's supposed death after leaving for sea as a slave of "the Moors/Upon the Barbary Coast" (324-325). Leonard's decision not to identify himself appears, to some, to be motivated by guilt at having left his brother to die alone, or perhaps by a reluctance to recommit himself to the life of the village, as he had promised upon leaving, without knowing if his brother were alive to share in that jubilant return, or even if such a return were economically possible (Turner 211; Simpson 38-39).

Strictly speaking, one can only guess at Leonard's reasons: nothing more is known other than, after his leaving the vale, he wrote a letter to the Priest identifying himself and asking "to be forgiven,/That it was from the weakness of his heart,/ He had not dared to tell him, who be was" (445-7). As Francis Jeffrey said of The Excursion, "This will never do" (Gill 305). "Weakness of ... heart" is too vague and inadequate a motive to account for Leonard's deceiving, in such a calculated and deliberate manner, the old man who loved him. And what would be so "daring," after all, about telling the truth, especially after he's been assured that "If there was one among us who had heard/ That Leonard Ewbank was come home again, ... The day would be a very festival" (315-19)? "Weakness of ... heart" is so half-hearted an explanation that it makes the situational irony of the poem look contrived. Like the old sea-captain's deliberate decision in "The Thorn" to avoid Martha Ray--the one person who could reveal everything one would ever want to know about the thorn, the hill of moss, and the muddy pond she frequents--Leonard's secrecy impedes his own enlightenment, suggesting that Wordsworth is pursuing an ulterior goal similar to one in The Thorn: to examine the process by which one attaches stories to objects coming from a past beyond the reach of available narratives. For the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads the privileged artifacts upon which this preoccupation focuses is the unmarked stone, or series or pile of stones, or mounds of earth, like the many unmarked graves or "barrows" found near pre-Roman ruins such as Stonehenge.

At some point between 1793, when he first encountered Stonehenge, and 1800, when he published the two-volume Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth became interested in stones: they litter the Ballads like glacial erratics. The stones comprising the mossy "seat" in a yew tree, where the poet leaves his "Lines"; the "old gray stone" on which the poet sits in "Expostulation and Reply," while dreaming his time away; the three, uninscribed "rough hewn stone" pillars marking a stag's prodigious leaps to its death; stones rolling in "diurnal course" with rocks and trees and human remains; a "narrow girdle of rough stones and crags" and the pile of stones comprising a half-completed sheep-fold--a miniature Stonehenge, perhaps, with an old shepherd named Michael as patriarchal archdruid. …

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