Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"The Mighty Commonwealth of Things": The Deep Characters of Knowledge in Wordsworth's the Excursion

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"The Mighty Commonwealth of Things": The Deep Characters of Knowledge in Wordsworth's the Excursion

Article excerpt

The Excursion (1814) teems with the "real" objects and concrete particulars that critics identify with "realism." This profusion of objects provoked Francis Jeffrey's accusations of "details of preposterous minuteness," "useless and most tedious minuteness," and "circumstances of no interest in themselves" (7, 15). (1) The Excursion has Wordsworth's typical natural objects: clouds, streams, rocks, turf, and fir trees; lofty elms, mists, crags, who knows how many vales, and shadows--even the shadow (as in reflection) of a "Shaggy and bold" ram (II, 280); The Excursion also has Wordsworth's typical urban objects: alabaster domes, silver spires, temples, a citadel, a palace, a pavilion and a terrace, towers, even a miniature city built by children but, under the ill-influence of a swollen volume of Candide, in ruins. The Solitary introduces his home with a litany of nouns--"my domain, my cell, / My hermitage, my cabin, what you will" (II, 85)--as if it were many different things.

The clutter of objects littering the Solitary's "domain ... cell ... hermitage ... cabin, what you will" disturbs the orderly sensibilities of the Poet and the Wanderer:

  What a wreck
  Had we about us! Scattered was the floor,
  And, in like sort, chair, window-seat, and shelf,
  With books, maps, fossils, withered plants and flowers,
  And tufts of mountain moss. Mechanic tools
  Lay intermixed with scraps of paper, some
  Scribbled with verse: a broken angling-rod
  And shattered telescope, together linked
  By cobwebs, stood within a dusty nook;
  And instruments of music, some half-made,
  Some in disgrace, hung dangling from the walls.
  (II, 86)

This disorderly miscellany of neglected, half-made, broken objects characterizes the Solitary's inability to regain the focused, productive order of his youthful faith in God, Enlightenment reason, and the ideals of the French Revolution: his life has been reduced to lifeless, fragmented, incomplete objects. These objects figure the affectless materialism of modern technology and science, which fail to ease the Solitary's despondency (the Solitary elsewhere scoffs at geologists who chip away specimens from his precious crags).

Having lost his wife, his two children, and his passions, the Solitary, surrounded by objects, ironically lacks an object. He cannot see, as the Wanderer later affirms, that "There is an active principle alive in all things." I here slide from material to immaterial objects, from objects to "things," because The Excursion also teems with the word "things"; and in The Excursion "things" embodies the concrete objectivity of objects as well as different kinds of invisible, interior, and incomprehensible life, law, and order. In The Excursion, "things" functions not so much as a simple object, but as a deep character that implies a hidden, "active principle"; "things" implies processes that are actual and real, like particular objects, but that nevertheless exceed representation and include and relate all things in general.

Notwithstanding the famous things in Wordsworth's shorter poems and The Prelude--"Things forever speaking" and the pantheistic "life of things," which is "[some-thing] far more deeply interfused," "a motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought" (I, 359, 360); just the first few books of The Excursion invoke "the things he saw," "The moral properties and scope of things," "the silent look of happy things," "All things" and "the least of things"; "things which you cannot see" and "the things of which we spake"; "trivial things," "eternal things," and "the few needful things that life requires"; "surrounding things," "the surfaces of things," "the map of things," and, the title of my paper, "the mighty commonwealth of things." The Excursion even includes the dead but wonderfully-aptly-named "Sir Alfred Irthing" in an Old English font that draws attention to the materiality of the engraved characters, a knight whose quixotic story the Pastor tells graveside (II, 248). …

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