Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Look in My Face": The Dramatic Ethics of the Borderers

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Look in My Face": The Dramatic Ethics of the Borderers

Article excerpt

REEVE PARKER'S EXCELLENT ARTICLE ON THE BORDERERS, "'IN SOME SORT Seeing With My Proper Eyes': Wordsworth and the Spectacles of Paris," begins with the specter of Mortimer wandering alone on the barren heath, where "[n]o human ear shall ever hear my voice" (V.iii.267), (1) and concludes that in this wandering Wordsworth rejects the kind of rhetorical coup de grace represented by Karl Moor in Schiller's Die Rauber (a hero Mortimer closely resembles) in favor of a "deist ex machina--inspired international brigade of heroes, of pentecostally vocal, aeolian worthies":

      Yea, I could almost
   Have prayed that throughout earth upon all souls,
   Worthy of liberty, upon every soul
   Matured to live in plainness and in truth,
   The gift of tongues might fall, and men arrive
   From the four corners of the winds to do
   For France what without help she could not do,
   A work of honour.
        (The Prelude 1805, 10.117-24) (2)

One might wonder exactly what the rhetorical politics of this sort of automatic writing is. At first, Parker's view of Wordsworth would seem to move Wordsworth firmly into the realm of the Romantic ideology--an illusory vision of the individual poet's consciousness turned into collective consciousness. But if Wordsworth's rhetorical stance is ultimately about consciousness, it is also about rhetoric--the "gift of tongues"--and particularly about active rhetoric--a speech that can "do / For France what without help she could not do." It is a rhetoric of immediate spontaneity, a rhetoric of "everyone already knows." But it is also a rhetoric of future promise, of the "wonderous power of words" that can do a work of honor.

In this article, I would like to suggest that Wordsworth set out to explore the implications of this rhetoric of "everyone already knows" in The Borderers. How is one to find this brigade of pentecostal worthies, souls "Matured to live in plainness and in truth"? How do they share the consensus that allows them to speak, if not persuaded through rhetoric? And what form might the rhetoric of inspired souls ultimately take, if not a coup de grace of rhetorical heroism?

To answer these questions, I would argue, would entail taking The Borderers seriously as belonging not only to a partially visual medium--the drama--but also to the only medium that offers the possibility of live contact between actors and audience. Although Wordsworth has always been known as the poet of the visual--there is perhaps no poet in the English canon whose work so powerfully engages the simple act of looking--the analysis of vision in Wordsworth's drama has been unambiguously negative. Mary Jacobus has argued that although Wordsworth is thrilled to see his dreams of parricide made startlingly concrete in the French Revolution books of The Prelude, his dominant feeling is one of helplessness as a startled spectator before his own creations, and David Marshall has argued that The Borderers deliberately places its spectators in a position where they are forced to repeat the hero's crime of leaving a helpless old man to die alone on the barren heath. (3) However, vision also has a more positive aspect in The Borderers. It is a non-verbal medium of knowledge and inspiration--a truer and more reliable index of the real than Rivers' and Herbert's "tales"--and a means for forming the collective knowledge that is ultimately required to speak that truth to a willing audience.

Moreover, there is, for Wordsworth, an almost mystical force to personal presence, to live contact between actors and audience, which is only hinted at in Marshall's analysis. Personal presence offers a form of contact that can produce the unanimity that Parker sees in Wordsworth's mysterious voices of Paris, and also produces the qualities that those voices sing: compassion, fellow feeling, and, somewhat counterintuitively, a recognition of difference and weakness that the leveling philosophies of Godwin and the French Revolutionaries deny. …

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