Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Ever on the Watch": Wordsworth's Attention

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Ever on the Watch": Wordsworth's Attention

Article excerpt

And, attention now relaxed, A heart-felt chillness crept along my veins.

--William Wordsworth, The Excursion 2.1.618-19 (1)

That portion of every day of our existence which is occupied by us with a mind attentive and on the alert, I would call life in a transcendent sense. The rest is scarcely better than a state of vegetation. And yet not so either. The happiest and most valuable thoughts of the human mind will sometimes come when they are least sought for, and we least anticipated any such thing.

--William Godwin, Thoughts on Man (2)

IN HIS 1839 RECOLLECTION OF WORDSWORTH, THOMAS DE QUINCEY RE calls an evening during the Peninsular War when he and Wordsworth went for a walk to await the mail carrier whom they expected to arrive with the newspaper. According to De Quincey, the two writers used to walk every evening--in what he calls "the deadly impatience for earlier intelligence"--to meet the carrier of the London newspapers. On this particular evening when, according to De Quincey, "some great crisis in Spain was daily apprehended," the two waited for over an hour with particular impatience. "At intervals," De Quincey explains, "Wordsworth had stretched himself at length on the high road, applying his ear to the ground, so as to catch any sound of wheels that might be groaning along at a distance." (3) Stretched out on the road, with his ear firmly pressed to the ground of Dunmail Raise--a peak in the Lake District and the mythic site of a battle from the year 945 where, according to legend, a slain king is buried--Wordsworth listens for the arrival of the Courier so he can read the daily news of the current war. (4) But that which Wordsworth, according to De Quincey's narrative, calls his "intense condition of vigilance," a phrase perhaps more likely to describe a posture in the current war itself than that of the quotidian wait for the post carrying news of it, is not only met with disappointment when the carrier does not arrive, but also encounters an effect that puts into question the very conditions and consequences of "vigilance" itself. For even though the gesture of stretching himself on the ground might seem the perfect caricature of attention, as though Wordsworth were acting out and literalizing the term's etymological link to the Latin words ad+tendere, meaning "to stretch towards," when Wordsworth reflects upon his act, he remarks neither on the distention of his body, nor on the application of his ear to the ground. (5) He is struck, rather, by what happens when he relaxes, when he interrupts, his attentive stretch. According to De Quincey, Wordsworth observes:

   I have remarked, from my earliest days, that, if under any
   circumstance, the attention is energetically braced up to an act of
   steady observation, or of steady expectation, then, if this intense
   condition of vigilance should suddenly relax, at that moment, any
   beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection of objects,
   falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not
   known under other circumstances. Just now, my ear was placed upon
   the stretch, in order to catch any sound of wheels that might come
   down upon the lake of Wythburn from the Keswick road; at the very
   instant ... when the organs of attention were all at once relaxing
   from their tension, the bright star hanging in the air above those
   outlines of massy blackness fell suddenly upon my eye, and
   penetrated my capacity of apprehension with a pathos and a sense of
   the infinite, that would not have arrested me under other
   circumstances. (6)

Wordsworth's emphasis here on slackening rather than contracting the organs of attention, this spontaneous and surprisingly productive gesture of no longer paying attention, signals an important contribution on the part of a poet to the discourses of attention at the time, redirecting the controversy in early psychology over whether attention is a voluntary act to ask, not unrelatedly, about the perception produced by a shift in, or withdrawal of, attention. …

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