Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Dramatic End of the Excursion

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Dramatic End of the Excursion

Article excerpt

At the end of The Excursion, the Wanderer calls for "a System of National Education established universally by Government" (Cornell ed. 47):

   Oh for the coming of that glorious time
   When, prizing knowledge as her noblest wealth
   And best protection, this Imperial Realm,
   While she exacts allegiance, shall admit
   An obligation, on her part, to leach
   Them who are born to serve her and obey;
   Binding herself by Statute ...

   (IX 292-98)

An endnote to the line on "Binding ... by Statute"--the last piece of text in The Excursion--cites Andrew Bell 's monitorial system of education using the "engine" of "tuition by the scholars themselves" (Madras School [1808] 96, 23):

P. 400. Line 19.--"Binding herself by Statute." The discovery of Dr. Bell affords marvellous facilities for carrying this into effect, and it is impossible to overrate the benefit which might accrue to humanity from the universal application of this simple engine under an enlightened and conscientious government. (The Excursion 1814, 447; Cornell ed., 314)

Wordsworth claimed that The Excursion had "something of a dramatic form" ("Preface" 1814 x; Cornell ed. 39). But his friendship with Bell and personal interest in the "Madras" system suggest that there is very little "drama" left by the end of the poem. The Wanderer calling for statutory education reads like Wordsworth "ventriloquizing through another man's mouth" (Coleridge, Table Talk I 308-9, 307).

Wordsworth was the last of the Lake Poets publicly to endorse Bell and the Madras system. As De Quincey put it, Bell was "taken up by the Westmoreland people": by "Southey with his usual temperate fervor;" by Coleridge with such "monomaniac liking" that London was abuzz with his "lecture on Bell and the Dragon" (De Quincey II 278). This "Dragon" was Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker and author of a rival system, allied with the "ministry of all the talents" and the Edinburgh Review. "Bell and the Dragon" was the working title of Southey's October, 1811, essay on education in the Quarterly (CLRS letter 1992). Thomas Rowlandson's cartoon of December 1811 reflects the public impact.

Historical scholarship has recovered the context of "reactionary progressivism" (Gilmartin 66-7) that solves the problem of the Romantic poets supporting the "Gradgrind" school. The "multiplication of power" in Bell's system reflected new industrial and colonial conditions. It was also traditionally English: "framed in the same spirit, on the same principle" as the Anglican Church (Bell 321). Madras thus modelled the Lake Poets' developing ideas of Clerisy, National Church, and transformative historical genius. (1) By supporting Bell and his Anglican "intellectual steam-engine" (Southey, QR 15:29 [1816], 227), Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey became "champion [s] of the old order ... in an ideal form" (Butler 165).

But is the Wanderer's call for "unambitious Schools" and "rudimentary" teaching for those "born to serve . . . and obey" (IX 297-398) really Wordsworth's "authentic comment" on education? Any more than the Wanderer's advocacy of early rising, hill-climbing, and goat chasing (IV 489-504) adequately reflects Wordsworth's philosophy of nature? (2) Wordsworth's correspondence suggests rather a continual ambivalence on the issue. A letter of June, 1808, to Francis Wrangham sets the tone. National education will not take in a complex commercial society:

Heaven and Hell are scarcely more different from each other than Sheffield and Manchester, etc. differ from the plains and Vallies of Surrey, Essex, Cumberland, or Westmoreland. We have mighty cities, and towns of all sizes, with villages and cottages scattered everywhere. We are mariners, miners, manufacturers in tens of thousands, traders, husbandmen, everything. What form of discipline, what books or doctrines --I will not say would equally suit all these--but which, if happily fitted for one, would not perhaps be an absolute nuisance in another? …

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