Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Objects, Cabinets, and Cities: Wordsworth and the Matter of the Romantic Mind

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Objects, Cabinets, and Cities: Wordsworth and the Matter of the Romantic Mind

Article excerpt

EXPLORING WILLIAM WORDSWORTH'S AESTHETIC RESPONSE TO LONDON'S panoramas, J. Jennifer Jones notes how the poet was "thinking through the new technologies of his era." (1) The passing remark is not central to Jones's argument, nor does she explore its implications for the city at large; still, it hints at an underlying logic that runs through much of the recent literary criticism on urban experience. Complicating the usual thought on Romanticism's rejection of the city--as a threat to knowledge formation and the transcendent imagination (2)--this criticism argues for new perceptual processes, mimetic modalities, and imaginative tendencies that urban experience inspired. (3) Implicit in this, but left unexplored in the criticism, is a sense of mental life as contingent on the objects and environments of the era. This logic, addressed more explicitly in cognitive archeology, is one in which the material and mental co-evolve, in which material culture along with social systems prove "as much the cause as the consequences of new ways of thinking. " (4) The purpose of this article is to excavate this underlying logic within Romantic literature, to explicate further its implications for literary studies, and to argue that the city's capacity to be thought through is precisely what made it so vital to Romantic mental life.

My focus falls primarily on Wordsworth's The Prelude; or Growth of a Poet's Mind (1805) and its portrayal of the built environment as a precarious yet productive apparatus for the poet's cognitive becoming. Essential to Wordsworth's sense of mental formation was the eighteenth-century intersection of sensationalist psychology, educational theory, and object-play practices, from which emerged a prescient view of material engagement as catalyst for mental growth. By the 1790s, object-play approaches had become widespread among tutors and educators. As an auspicious case in point, William and Dorothy Wordsworth adopted such an approach with Basil Montague, whom they taught "nothing at present but what he learns from the evidence of his senses," so that his attention "is directed to everything he sees, the sky, the fields, trees, shrubs, corn, the making of tools, carts, etc etc etc." (5) As the list suggests, object-play approaches relied on both natural objects and human artifacts, the distinction being less significant than whether the object could be engaged and manipulated. Such approaches would also motivate the mass production of objects with explicit epistemic functions, such as "jigsaw puzzles, cards, games, battledores, writing sheets, map sampler patterns, alphabet tiles, and maps." (6) By the end of the eighteenth century, then, a recognition had swelled within the cultural consciousness: the material world was a means to cultivate the mind's contents and power.

This recognition inspired more capacious and explicit thinking about the reciprocation between minds and objects, thinking that features centrally in canonical works from Wordsworth's great decade. It defines Wordsworth's view of humanity, such that he names it as a prime subject for poetic exploration in his "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads (1802): "What then does the Poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and reacting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure. ... " (7) Sensationalist psychology recognized this affective economy between subjects and objects as the engine behind knowledge formation, and it similarly underpins the educational value of object play. In The Prelude, Wordsworth extrapolates the educational view of object play to an engagement with the rural sphere at large, defining the objects of his youth as affectively and epistemically rich "playthings." (8) Yet, it is the built environment that brings the poet to his fullest recognition of the "blended might" of minds and materiality, (9) a might that further boosts his mental development. Not only does Wordsworth view the city through this educational lens, but so does the Romantic city demonstrate more emphatically than in prior ages the epistemic, associative, and imaginative influence of the material world. …

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