Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Excursion: Route and Destination

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Excursion: Route and Destination

Article excerpt

Honoring The Excursion at two hundred---the poem that Keats called one of the "three things to rejoice at in this Age"--requires honoring our own experience as readers. Hence, in choosing to speak of the destination, 1 must also point out places where I think the poem takes wrong turns. In this respect, the route is more important than the destination, which it does not reach. I am not speaking of the three or four locales in England where the action occurs--those long conversations--but of the philosophical goals, social, political, and moral. The ideological destination of The Excursion, precisely if narrowly conceived, is to cure--"correct" is Wordsworth's word--the Solitary's despondency over the failed idealism of the French Revolution, his "loss of confidence in social man." (IV.262) I see his despondency as a symptom of his membership in a lost generation of post-war, post-revolutionary disillusionment, some of whose stories I tell in Unusual Suspects. Pitt's Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s (2013). There are other aspects of interest in this very long poem, to be sure, but the core rhetorical contract with the readers--the point of the excursion--is the promised redemption of the despondent Solitary, and that is what I am solely concerned with here.

The Solitary's life-experience, his isolation and dejection, can be directly linked to the social and political apparatus of Prime Minister William Pitt's regime of domestic Alarmism: not only the system of spies, special courts and rigged juries that convicted nearly seventy "usual suspects"-- political activists--but also the informal, vigilante, or hegemonic overflows of this system which damaged or ruined the careers of many more "unusual suspects"--liberal sympathizers or fellow travelers. Their experience resembled the talented young people in the arts and academia whose careers were ruined by the rumors and blacklists emanating from the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist witch-hunts in 1940s and 1950s America.

When Wordsworth re-started his work on The Recluse in 1806, with materials that eventually became Book II of The Excursion, titled "The Solitary"--having just completed his prefatory poem, The Prelude, in 1805--The Recluse was "going somewhere," according to the heroic editors of the Cornell edition (382): it was on a mission to rescue The Solitary. Book II, "The Solitary," and Books III and IV ("Despondency" and "Despondency Corrected") present a typological version of Wordsworth's own story of imaginative crisis in the similarly titled Books IX-X of the 1805 Prelude: "Imagination, How Impaired and Restored." A little-remarked internal quotation from Gilbert Wakefield in Book II is one sign among many that Wordsworth had persons from his "lost generation" in mind. The Wanderer tells the Poet that the Solitary has come back to the mountains "resolved ... that he will live and die / Forgotten, --at safe distance from 'a world / Not moving to his mind'." (11.312-15) The last seven words are from George Dyer's 1802 poem, "On the Death of Gilbert Wakefield." Wordsworth underscores them by calling them "serious words." The source is not identified in the 1814 text, nor anywhere else by Wordsworth, not even in the Fenwick notes of 1843. They were first traced by Nowell Smith, one of Wordsworth's best early editors, later in the 19th century.

It's significant that Wordsworth should allude to Wakefield so specifically, yet so anonymously, at this point in his renewed effort to revive The Recluse. For Wakefield's 1798-99 trial for seditious libel marked the successful conclusion of Pitt's "Reign of Alarm," 1792-98. Charles James Fox declared that Wakefield's conviction (and subsequent death from prison fever) marked the end of the freedom of the press in England. Fox was right: this sedition or treason trial was the last in Britain for more than five years, after an average of about twenty a year between 1792 and 1798. …

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