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of previous literary theory, despite his railing against modern society™s
obsession with ˜ends™.µ When these discordant elements of empiri-
cism, functionalism, and a new aestheticism (which rejects the pre-
conceived ˜end™ of the functionalist view) come together, as they do in
Wordsworth, the result is the famous hesitation which one witnesses in
passages such as that in the ±°° Preface:
·
Wordsworth™s prose
[Each poem] has a worthy purpose. Not that I mean to say, that I always began
to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but I believe that my habits
of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such
objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a
purpose.°
Utilitarianism had grown in eighteenth-century thought as the notion
of a priori moral truth, having been tarred with the brush of innatism,
had declined. Just as sense experience now determined knowledge, so
the aggregate total of the public pleasure or pain came to constitute the
index of practical and moral reasoning. Before it had been codi¬ed by
Bentham and Mill, however, the utilitarianism of Hume, Paley and Adam
Smith had circulated in eighteenth-century thought as a more loosely
connected series of convictions and beliefs which was never entirely
free of the anxiety that a consequentialist moral theory which paid no
attention to motive or intention might slip back into Hobbesian notions
of self-interest. This fear is present in Wordsworth, but his more imme-
diate dif¬culties with utilitarianism echo his ambiguous relation to em-
piricism. For just as empiricism denies poetry epistemic autonomy, so
utilitarianism, particularly hedonistic act-utilitarianism, with its appeal
to aggregate public pleasure, threatens to have a levelling effect upon
poetic value.± Wordsworth appears to make a concession to the spirit of
utilitarianism when he claims that it is his intention to reinvigorate poetic
language by adopting ˜the very language of men™, that is to say, ordinary
(rural) men in a state of excitement. Accordingly, he initially casts the
poet as ˜a man speaking to men™. This, however, brings Wordsworth™s
radical political stance into confrontation with his aesthetic theory, which
reserves for the poet a unique voice in human affairs. Consequently,
Wordsworth tags on the proviso that more than just being a man speak-
ing to men, that is, one who imitates their passions and pleasures and
reproduces their language, the poet must take a leading role in shaping
those values. This presumes a creative power in the poet not found in
other men, for ˜he has acquired a greater readiness and power in express-
ing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings
which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise
in him without immediate external excitement™.
But this represents merely a deferral of Wordsworth™s problem; that
is, the paradox lying within the very idea of empirically valid epistemic
creativity; or of the poet as a ˜common™ genius, who, though de¬ned by
his experience, transcends it by spontaneous poetic creation; and who,
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
despite taking the feelings of common men as his model, retains the
authority to give the rule to their sensibilities. Everywhere the pull of
empiricism and ˜vulgar™ utilitarianism is strong for Wordsworth, leading
him into a pattern of vacillation whereby either of these perspectives
may be rejected at one moment, and quietly embraced at the next. This
is a worrying equivocation at the heart of Wordsworth™s thinking about
the function and status of poetry; one for which he was to be heavily
criticized by Coleridge in Biographia Literaria. Without Coleridge™s tran-
scendental framework, Wordsworth™s epistemology of creative, ˜poetic
truth™ struggled to establish a space outside both the rule-following of
Neoclassical dogma, and the reductiveness of the utilitarian values which
empiricism threatened to install in their place. Similarly, Wordsworth™s
writing on the social location of the poet recognizes the need for a con-
nection between the poetic voice and the common language of men,
but is bothered by the possibility that that voice might disappear in the
crowd. As Hazlitt was later to write, and Wordsworth was increasingly
to realize, in this age it seemed that ˜[t]he principle of poetry is a very
anti-levelling principle™.µ
However, in his later additions to the Preface, Wordsworth does pro-
pose an alternative tack, based on a compromise by which he attempts
to combine utilitarian precept with a sense of aesthetic freedom. After
mounting his argument in defence of the internal ˜tribunal™ of poetic
truth, he adds that ˜[t]he Poet writes under one restriction only, namely,
the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed
of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a
physician [. . .] or a natural philosopher, but as a Man.™ As it stands, this
seems in danger of collapsing into a merely Epicurean theory of poetic
value, but Wordsworth™s innovation is to suggest that aesthetic pleasure
might itself be a species of knowledge; a species which is uniquely the
territory of the poet, and which, unlike the contingencies of scienti¬c
knowledge, ˜cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our nat-
ural and unalienable inheritance™. This territory is not only ˜necessary™,
but political, for it is also the domain of the habitual affections, or human
sympathy: ˜[w]e have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure
[. . .]. We have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from
the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by plea-
sure, and exists in us by pleasure alone.™ It is this capacity of poetry to
access the ˜habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow
beings™ which entitles it to be described as ˜the breath and ¬ner spirit of
all knowledge™.·

Wordsworth™s prose
Such phrases are intriguing. At certain times Wordsworth seems to
be arguing merely that knowledge such as the poet brings is always at-
tended by a pleasure which enhances its apprehension: at other times,
the more radical and interesting thesis that the pleasure of human sym-
pathy is actually a form of knowledge itself, perhaps even the essence
of knowledge; ˜the ¬rst and last of all knowledge™. At ¬rst sight, this
appears to be a striking move to set aside foundationalist conceptions
of knowledge for a poetic pleasure principle altogether more holistic
and less ˜grounded™. Such, it seems clear, is certainly the inclination of
one axis of Wordsworth™s thinking. But curling round to enclose and
subdue this is the continuing quest for certainty. Poetic pleasure may be
ungrounded, but only because it itself forms ˜the ¬rst and last™ of knowl-
edge. It marks the beginning and the end of knowledge, but does not
signal the ending of knowledge as veri¬able fact. Indeed, for Wordsworth
this kind of pleasure has the authority of a necessary law. It is by working
through it that the poet appreciates the veridicality of mental representa-
tion, in that he ˜considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each
other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most
interesting properties of nature.™ The decentred ˜breath and ¬ner spirit™
of knowledge in other hands might come to displace ˜knowledge™ itself,
but in Wordsworth™s it is meant to support it.
Moreover, for other, familiar reasons this settlement is a double-edged
one for Wordsworth: put simply, there is nothing in the communication
of sympathetic pleasure, as such, to mark the poet out as anyone special.
Admittedly, there is his skill as a craftsman of words (as has been seen,
Wordsworth was wont to stress the value of poetic ˜workmanship™). But
at other times, even in the ±°° Preface, there is a sense that this is
insuf¬cient to sustain the more elevated view of the poet™s calling being
harboured. At this stage the ±±µ anatomy of the poetic imagination
is some way off, by which time the ˜cognitive theory™ of pleasure had
all but disappeared. There is at least one reason for this: namely, that
within an empirical or naturalistic framework, pleasure is notoriously
dif¬cult to differentiate qualitatively. Bentham maintained that it was a
basic notion which resisted further analysis. The thought behind this
proceeds along the lines that no sooner does one try to imagine different
kinds of pleasure-value “ as in, for instance, the difference between the
pleasure taken in scratching an itch and reading a sonnet “ than one ¬nds
oneself compelled to articulate the distinction in terms of something other
than the pleasure itself, whether that ˜something™ is a sensation on the
skin, or the compression of a complex conceit. These qualities may attend
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
pleasure or, according to some views, have a causal relationship with it,
but they are not identical with it. There is not a pleasure-essence of which
they all partake, therefore they are not instances of a species of it. Seen in
this way, qualitatively, pleasure is a leveller: it is always undifferentiated,
and varies only in degrees of quantity. In the ¬rst Preface, however,
Wordsworth seeks not only to identify a discrete mode of pleasure-based
value, but to identify this with empirical knowledge, taken in its broadest
sense. His prose soon begins to exhibit the strains of such a position. For
example, having already identi¬ed poetic pleasure with the profoundest
and most fundamental kind of knowledge, he then envisages its role in
composition as merely that of a bridle for poetic passion, tempering
it with metrical regularity. The poet ought to take great care that the
passions which he communicates
should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure. Now the music
of harmonious metrical language, the sense of dif¬culty overcome, and the
blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works
of rhyme or metre [. . .] make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the
most important use in tempering the painful feeling which will always be found
intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions.·°

Wordsworth™s identi¬cation of pleasure with the quotidian wisdom of
˜ordinary feeling™, even as it supercedes knowledge, regrounds itself in
knowledge. He continued to oscillate between the potentially subversive
position whereby the poetic or creative act was seen as generative of a
kind of value which put ˜knowledge™ in its place and af¬rmed a richer,
more experiential relation between mind and nature than that envis-
aged by empiricism (expressed, possibly, by the term ˜pleasure™), and a
more conservative line which feared the anarchic implications of knowl-
edge as merely another ˜form of life™, to adopt Wittgenstein™s much-used
phrase, without beginning or end. Despite his protests, on many levels
Wordsworth™s language accords with scienti¬c utilitarianism™s vaunting
of ˜ends™ over means, demonstrating an ongoing if reluctant debt to
empiricism. At the root of this problem lies his ambivalence about the
nature of poetic spontaneity itself, and its relation to ˜truth™.


°   ©   µ   :  °  ®  ®  ©  ,  ° °    ®    ® ¤ ° ·  
Problems with the cognitive theory of pleasure propounded in later edi-
tions of the Preface betray the true direction of Wordsworth™s theorizing
about poetic truth. This gravitates towards a conception of the poet or
±
Wordsworth™s prose
artist as a legislative ¬gure; someone who spontaneously con¬gures a new
object of knowledge, the truth of which, though made, gives the rule to
the understanding of his fellow man. Yet because of his foundationalist
inheritance, Wordsworth continued to strive to articulate the ˜grounds™
or the validity of such a truth. In this, the notion of knowledge as repre-
sentative of truth was bound with the idea of the poet as representative
of humanity. He experimented with a number of alternatives, includ-
ing notions of poetry as the truth of phenomenal experience (that is, of
appearances alone) and later, by making knowledge itself a function of
poetic power. The earliest manifestation of the tension between poetic
value and grounded fact or knowledge, however, appears in the relation-
ship between spontaneity and re¬‚ection in the Preface, or the question of
how sincerity as such can have independent truth. The paradigm of sin-
cere language is that of men in a state of healthy intercourse with nature,
but the product of this is a language in which mere purposefulness (the
pursuit of an end) is secretly guided by an instinctive awareness of ˜what
is really important to men™.·± Thus is sown the dialectic of conscious-
ness, whereby the ˜purposeful™ poet must reproduce this sincerity, while
remaining conscious of his preconceived attempt to imitate ordinary
language.
Wordsworth attempts to resolve this in two related ways. First, he
admits that the poet is a re¬‚ective being: it is a condition of having a
poetic purpose at all, that one should have ˜thought long and deeply™
about the object concerned; that one should not be held captive by
it. Nonetheless, poetic re¬‚ection is insuf¬cient if not carried out by a
man ˜possessed of more than usual organic sensibility™.· Yet the question
arises: what could be meant by ˜organic™ in the context of sensibility?
Some active epistemic function is hinted at in this formula. Once again,
however, when Wordsworth comes to ¬ll out this picture, his instinct is
to do so in the manner of Gerard and the Scottish aestheticians, that
is, in terms of a naturalistic explanation of the association of ideas “
speci¬cally, the blind and mechanical prompting of the form of habit
which association manifests in its ˜healthful state™. In a sense, Wordsworth
is straining to recover humanity™s ˜second nature™ through the poetic
voice. Such poetry, it is envisaged, will recapture the truth in the ancient
poets™ ˜original ¬gurative language of passion™ without merely mimicking
that language; that is, without reassimilating the poetical register within a
broader social voice which would efface what made it distinctly modern,
namely its awareness of its status as a privileged mode of discourse.·
The idea of a process of sincere expression subject to the re¬‚ection of
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
an organic sensibility is intended to harmonize these priorities, in that
it promises a spontaneous means of production; an echo of that original
¬gurative language which is self-regulating and self-adjudicating. Poetic
re¬‚exivity, through a subtle co-ordination of process and purposefulness,
or means and ends, thus becomes productive:
I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous over¬‚ow of powerful feelings: it takes
its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated
till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion,
similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced,
and does itself actually exist in the mind.·

The political contradiction this masks, however, between represen-
tation or re¬‚ection on one hand, and poetic spontaneity and privi-
lege on the other, parallels the epistemological problem which affects
both Wordsworth™s argument and, since ˜second nature™ by de¬nition
resists articulation (this, after all, is the domain of poetry), the very
act of his making it. By attempting to synthesize Rousseau and Burke,
Wordsworth™s exploration of the idea of a recovered ¬gurative language
which reconciles spontaneity and re¬‚ection or self-consciousness through
an organic sensibility, reveals the instability of English Romantic indif-
ference. First, Wordsworth suggests that poetic language can recover the
uni¬ed experience lost by philosophy because it partly creates that expe-
rience through ¬guration. In this way, the boundary between literal and
¬gurative meaning (between hard, confrontational fact and soft, created
value) which led philosophy into both Terror and scepticism, is blurred, if
not erased. Philosophy™s ills thus demand a non-philosophical, aesthetic
therapy: the healing power of the extraordinary yet ordinary, natural yet
supernatural voice of the poet. Wordsworth™s prose writing is itself over-
ripe with metaphor. His description of poetry as the ˜breath and ¬ner
spirit of all knowledge™ attempts to practise what it preaches: the col-
lapsing of form and content and the rehabilitation of knowing through
¬guration. This is noticeable elsewhere. In the ˜Reply to “Mathetes”,™ for
instance, he claims that ˜[t]here is a life and spirit in knowledge which
we extract from truths scattered for the bene¬t of all, and which the
mind, by its own activity, has appropriated to itself [. . .]™.·µ In both cases
Wordsworth eschews argument, opting for a mode of expression which
is studiedly non-philosophical. Unwilling to theorize the aesthetic, he
aestheticizes theory.
Yet at the same time (and quite apart from the very fact of its existence)
Wordsworth™s prefatory prose writing teaches another lesson. Despite his

Wordsworth™s prose
professed reluctance to write the Preface, he was not, in the end, about
to allow his own poetry to uncoil its meanings without a frame of re¬‚ec-
tion; a frame intended to demonstrate, moreover, that his poems were
not without a ˜purpose™ which was connected to all that was ˜permanent™
in human nature. To this predetermined end, Wordsworth constructs in
discursive prose a theory of a philosophy-transcending ˜poetic™ truth, all
the time deploying many of the terms and the assumptions of eighteenth-
century British philosophy. The very term ˜poetic truth™ indeed, neatly
expresses Wordsworth™s ambivalence between indifference and episte-
mology, ¬guration and demonstration. Though I have maintained that
this tension is at its most pronounced in his prose writing, this is not to
say that it is undetectable in his poetry, where, as Elridge observes, ˜narra-
tive particularity not only situates and humanizes, but also continuously
competes with, transcendental claims [. . .]™.· This is particularly true of
The Prelude, which oscillates between two major rhetorical modes: one
of ontological exploration (the Wordsworth of ˜Oh there is a blessing in
this gentle breeze™·· ), and one of demonstration and argumentation (the
Wordsworth of ˜Was it for this [. . .]?™· ). As Michael Cooke puts it, The
Prelude ˜is not a thing of argument [. . .] but neither is it a thing innocent of
argument™.· Some of the most telling passages in this respect are those
which recount his bewitchment by Godwin and philosophy in the ±·°s.
This one is from Book Eleven:
Thus strangely did I war against myself;
A bigot to a new idolatry
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
And, as by simple waving of a wand,
The wizard instantaneously dissolves
Palace or grove, even so did I unsoul
As readily by syllogistic words
(Some charm of logic, ever within reach)
Those mysteries of passion which have made,
And shall continue evermore to make “
In spite of all that reason hath performed,
And shall perform, to exalt and to re¬ne “
One brotherhood of all the human race,
Through all the habitations of past years,
And those to come: and hence an emptiness
Fell on the historian™s page, and even on that
Of poets, pregnant with more absolute truth.°
At ¬rst sight, the dismissal of the synchronic foundationalism of the
Ideologues, which ˜instantaneously dissolves™ the feudal wisdom of ˜Palace
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
or grove™ garnered ˜[t]hrough all the habitations of past years™ seems
complete. Yet Wordsworth remained dissatis¬ed with the passage, con-
tinuing to worry at it over the years, and even here there is much to
suggest that his strange war with himself was far from over.± On one
hand, he implies that when set against the second nature bestowed by
cumulative historical experience, logic and ratiocination are facile pro-
cesses, rushing towards the soulless truth of the philosophical conclusion
and missing the ˜more absolute truth™ with which history and poetry
are ˜pregnant™. On the other, the notion of an ˜absolute™ truth which
yet remains in a permanent state of gestation or becoming is a troubled
one, and its pressures are echoed by Wordsworth™s style, in which the
cumulative signi¬cance of ever-pregnant clauses is stapled into place by
his own favourite locutions of consecutive reasoning, ˜Thus™ and ˜hence™.
Indeed, the passage itself makes an argument, one which is based
upon a distinction between ˜charm™ and ˜mystery™. This in turn, like
Wordsworth™s separation of ˜public™ and ˜people™, is fundamentally un-
stable, endeavouring to prevent the slippage between two terms which
it only manages to underscore. Wordsworth attempts to turn the tables
on philosophy by endowing it with the quality which poetry more often
stands accused of harbouring: beguiling, facile charm. But this inversion
threatens to highlight, by repressing, the more common feeling (which
Hazlitt, for one, was given to voicing) that poetry is really the idolator™s
sanctuary, and that the poet™s ˜mysteries of passion™ themselves amount
to little more than Prospero-like wizardry, bardic smoke and mirrors.
To understand this, it helps to recall that the word ˜charm™ features
in another notable moment of Wordsworthian edginess, when in the
Preface to the Lyrical Ballads he defends his decision to write in verse,
protesting that ˜why am I to be condemned if to [. . .] description I have
endeavoured to superadd the charm which by the consent of all nations
is acknowledged to exist in metrical language?™ Thus, the charm of
words arranged in verse is innocent, that of words arranged in syllogism,
malign. Yet Wordsworth™s breezy take-it-or-leave-it attitude to versi¬ca-
tion is belied by his belief that song, or lyrical poetry, re¬‚ects the primal
state of language, the ˜original ¬gurative language of passion™ which he
sometimes hears within the ordinary language of rural folk and children.
Coleridge would later argue that the elevation of poetry on epistemic
rather than metrical grounds presupposed the organic relationship of
linguistic form and content, rendering poetic ˜truth™ irreducible to any
scienti¬c notion of truth as correspondence between conceptual scheme
and world. But for Wordsworth, still married (albeit unhappily) to such
µ
Wordsworth™s prose
dualisms of empiricism, ˜truth™ always carries the de¬‚ating implication
of facticity, just as ¬guration suggests the lawless activity of sheer crea-
tion. This meant that any notion of ˜poetic truth™ was always in peril of
sliding, on one hand, into a factual but arid ¬eld of demonstrably true
philosophic knowledge, or on the other, a domain of value and feeling
bereft of grounds upon which it might raise its ˜mystery™ above mere
˜charm™.
Wordsworth™s dilemma over the limits and validity of poetic spontan-
eity are paralleled by an anxiety about the possibility of unconstrained
political action. He makes this plain as early as ±·, in a letter to William
Matthews, writing that ˜I recoil from the bare idea of a revolution™; adding
that the only guard against ˜the miserable situation of the French™ is ˜the
undaunted efforts of good men in propagating with unremitting activity
those doctrines which long and severe meditation has taught them are
essential to the welfare of mankind™. In this, the teachings of the re¬‚ective
poet achieve their political potential as a counterweight to the dangerous
agitation of an impressionable public by ill-conceived and ˜in¬‚ammatory
addresses™. As Wordsworth puts it, ˜I know that the multitude walk in
darkness. I would put into each man™s hand a lantern to guide him and
not have him to set out upon his journey depending for illumination on
abortive ¬‚ashes of lightning, or the coruscations of transitory meteors.™
The poetic genius must not be a rabble-rouser. ˜Every great Poet is a
Teacher™, he writes to Sir George Beaumont in ±°; ˜I wish either to
be considered as a Teacher, or as nothing.™ But the question remained:
what was it that the poet actually taught, which no other person could
teach; which was founded upon necessary law, while compatible with the
natural birthright of every human being; which maintained its own centre
and circumference as knowledge, yet arose from creative mental activity?
In other words, by what criteria was the poet to be distinguished both
from the detached scientist, or observer, on one side, and the ˜transitory
meteor™ or political agitator on the other?
By his frequent suggestions in the Preface that the truth of poetic lan-
guage is of a lower order than the words of passionate men, ˜the emana-
tions of reality and truth™,µ which it seeks to emulate, Wordsworth
compromises his effort to demarcate poetic truth from scienti¬c fact. He
is in a bind: if poetic language is to be rigidly factual and representative, its
claim to a higher truth would seem to be a hollow one. On the other hand,
if poetry is de¬ned by its spontaneity, there needs to be some principle
of containment or veri¬cation for its products. Without this, the notion
of lawless creativity threatens to overthrow that of free expression, and
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
so undermine the foundations of knowledge with a promiscuous prolif-
eration of meaning. Yet again, such a principle cannot be empirical, for
that would be to succumb to the ˜charm of logic™ and reduce poetry™s
truth-value, once more, to the numerical values of science. One of
Wordsworth™s more innovative attempts to cut across this problem is
outlined in the ˜Essay, Supplementary to the Preface™ of ±±µ. In this, he
endeavours to make a virtue of poetry™s representational inadequacy:
The appropriate business of poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as per-
manent as pure science,) her appropriate employment, her privilege and her
duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in
themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions.

This signals a important departure for Wordsworth™s theory. Whereas
in the past he had striven to articulate a special, non-scienti¬c way by
which poetry might approach ˜things as they are™, here that project is
relinquished completely. For the ¬rst time, Wordsworth suggests a model
of poetic truth which does not strain to conform to the empirical stip-
ulation that experience must correspond to a causally effective object.
By designating the treatment of the realm of appearances as the proper
business of poetry, and by further con¬ning these appearances to those
mediated by the passions, Wordsworth turns his back upon the Lockean
inheritance which had proved such an encumbrance: the doctrine of
representative realism. The poet is ¬nally permitted to take his eye off
the ˜subject™.
Such apparent indifferentism, however, should not be taken at face
value. Without a supplementary, positive thesis of poetic truth which
proposed an alternative to the empirical standard, this concession itself
represented little more than a surrender to empiricism; a desertion of
poetry™s claims to knowledge. This would effectively collapse the question

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