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of poetry™s status back into the terms of the ˜pleasure versus function™
debate; leaving it exposed to appropriation by the Epicurean, who might
seek to reduce it to a pleasurable pastime; the fanatic, who would merely
capitalize upon its rhetorical effectiveness for the end of instilling religious
or political dogma into his readers; or the utilitarian, who would buy into
either of these persuasions where it promoted the general interest. Such
a capitulation was unacceptable.
At this point in the ˜Essay™ Wordsworth deploys a provoking analogy,
which itself bears the marks of Coleridgean in¬‚uence. He remarks upon a
similarity between poetry and religion, in which the ˜commerce between
Man and his Maker cannot be carried on but by a process where much
·
Wordsworth™s prose
is represented in little, and the In¬nite Being accommodates himself to
a ¬nite capacity™. He continues:

In all this may be perceived the af¬nity between religion and poetry; between
religion making up the de¬ciencies of reason by faith; and poetry passionate
for the instruction of reason; between religion whose element is in¬nitude, and
whose ultimate trust is the supreme of things, submitting herself to circumscrip-
tion, and reconciled to substitutions; and poetry ethereal and transcendent, yet
incapable to sustain her existence without sensuous incarnation.·

This analogy has its limits. Inasmuch as he saw the poet as a ˜teacher™,
Wordsworth envisaged poetry™s task as legislative, but not dogmatic in
the manner of a religious teacher or a priest. The misuse of poetry for
devotional proposes was, he maintained, the result of a ˜kindred error™.
Nonetheless, the passage is signi¬cant in the way it highlights a change in
emphasis in Wordsworth™s conception of poetic truth, which here turns
away from the language of association, re¬‚ection, and sympathetic plea-
sure; and moves towards notions of the ˜ethereal and transcendent™; of a
poetry which, ˜passionate for the instruction of reason™, might even serve
as a surrogate religion in its own right. In this light, the apprehension
of appearances, the incorporation of the in¬nite within the ¬nite for the
purpose of communication, becomes the sensuous embodiment of pas-
sionate truth, and tutor to scienti¬c reason and philosophic system alike.
At moments like this Wordsworth™s professed indifference to knowing,
his emphasis on faith as an antidote to philosophy, sounds remarkably
Jacobian. Unlike Jacobi, Wordsworth has the advantage of writing not
as a philosopher but as a poet. In this way, he is not the captive of the
discourse which he is trying to overturn. On another level, however,
Wordsworth is still engaged in a process of theoretical self-justi¬cation,
and to this extent, his prose remains troubled by the possibility that by
putting reason to one side his pronouncements concerning the relation
of poetry to religion may be little more than a grand but unsupported
declaration of the mystical autonomy of imaginative poetry.
Part of the reason why Wordsworth is not as concerned as one might
expect in the ˜Essay™ about the relegation of poetry to the realm of
appearances is his account of poetic ˜power™, a power which might com-
pensate for loss of knowledge. Wordsworth™s interest in the concept of
power is already evident in ˜The Sublime and the Beautiful™, written a
few years before the ˜Essay™. While analyzing the impression of a moun-
tain at close range, Wordsworth discerns three principal sensations: ˜a
sense of individual form or forms; a sense of duration; and a sense of
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
power [. . .]™. Though each of these is individually necessary, and none
alone suf¬cient for an experience of the sublime, the sense of power is
the most distinctive and important: ˜works of Nature [. . .] must be com-
bined [with] impressions of power, to a sympathy with & a participation
of which the mind must be elevated or to a dread and awe of which, as
existing out of itself, it must be subdued™. Power, then, ˜awakens the
sublime either when it rouses us to a sympathetic energy & calls upon the
mind to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but
which it is incapable of attaining yet so that it participates force which
is acting upon it; or, dly, by producing a humiliation or prostration of
the mind before some external agency [. . .]™. In both events, however,
˜the head & the front of the sensation is intense unity™ which is killed by
any suggestion of immediate personal fear.° This sense of unity in the
sublime is fundamentally a consolation for epistemic loss, a disempow-
erment which Wordsworth is keener to mitigate than Burke had been.
Nonetheless, the direction of both accounts of the sublime is broadly
similar: the aestheticization of the epistemological (and, by implication,
political) disenfranchisement of the subject.
However, the stress which Wordsworth places upon the renovating
quality of the sublime remains rooted in the same, familiar discourse of
impression and sensation which places the subject in a position of acqui-
escence, answering to the effective causal object of perception. His sen-
sation of ˜intense unity™, whether bound up with a ˜sympathetic energy™
or not, lacks Kant™s transcendental securities.± There is an instability
within the subject here which Wordsworth appears to believe can be
counteracted by ¬xed laws of behaviour, or the ˜grand constitutional
laws under which it has been ordained that these objects should everlast-
ingly affect the mind [. . .]™. Wordsworth had no means of quantifying
such laws, however, other than empirically. And Hume had devastatingly
shown that no empirical rules, no matter how grand, were adequate to
establish the kind of teleological principle which Wordsworth seeks to
connect to the sublime. Wordsworth™s thought pulls in two directions.
It is hard to reconcile his insistence on the lawfulness and unity which
characterizes the sublime with his statement that the thoughts connected
with it ˜are free, and tolerate neither limit nor circumscription [. . .]™.
At one point Wordsworth appears to propose that the action of the
sublime is best understood dialectically. Using the image of a rock be-
neath a waterfall, he writes that ˜objects will be found to have exalted the
mind to the highest state of sublimity when they are thought of in that
state of opposition & yet reconcilement, analogous to parallel lines in

Wordsworth™s prose
mathematics [. . .]™. This is similar in some respects to his claim in the
¬rst ˜Essay Upon Epitaphs™, written around the same time, of feelings
of temporality and immortality, that ˜though they seem opposite to each
other, have another and a ¬ner connection than that of contrast. “ It
is a connection formed through the subtle progress by which, both in
the natural and the moral world, qualities pass insensibly into their con-
traries, and things resolve upon each other™. Yet there is an important
difference between the two images: in the ¬rst, the power in the objects is
conceived as a polarity of irreducible difference in unity, an ˜opposition &
yet reconcilement™. Wordsworth™s account of the relationship between
temporality and immortality, on the other hand, seems more weighted
towards the erasure of difference in favour of a ˜subtle progress™ towards
dialectical synthesis or resolution, by which ˜qualities pass insensibly into
their contraries™. In both passages one can the detect the effect of the
long evening talks with Coleridge, and in particular the in¬‚uence of
the latter™s organicist models of uni¬ed difference, or distinction without
division. Once again, however, Coleridge™s treatment of the relationship
between difference and identity is mediated through his transcenden-
tal construction of subjectivity and objectivity, a perspective not readily
available to Wordsworth. In this light, passages such as the above, as
well as Wordsworth™s related claim that in¬nity is a ˜modi¬cation™ of
unity, can be seen to be different in kind to Coleridge™s metaphysical
theses, and thus more obviously vulnerable to contingency.µ This is not
to claim that Coleridge™s organicism is less troubled that Wordsworth™s
modi¬ed Burkeian sublime. Indeed, more important than their differ-
ences is a shared ambivalence between dialectic as ˜resolution™ and as
the non-elimination of difference, which in this instance is played out by
Wordsworth as a contest between knowledge and power.
In the ˜Essay™ Wordsworth was to extend his notion of power to the
process of poetic production itself. Before doing so, he returns to the
problem which had dogged his speculations on poetry since the ±°°
Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: namely, that of the nature of the cultural
authority of the poet. Citing a remark made to him by Coleridge, ˜the
philosophical Friend™, Wordsworth agrees ˜that every author, as far as
he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the
taste by which he is to be enjoyed [. . .]™. To put it another way, ˜for
what is peculiarly his own, he will be called upon to clear and often to
shape his own road: he will be in the condition of Hannibal among the
Alps™. The real dif¬culty of such an enterprise, he continues, will be ˜in
establishing that dominion over the spirits of readers by which they are
±°° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
to be humbled and humanised [. . .]™. This is one of Wordsworth™s most
explicit statements on the pre-eminence of poetic genius, and the capacity
it retains to give the rule, aesthetically, to men of feeling. Imaginative
activity, he argues, is rightly prior to judgements of taste, and so bestows
legitimacy upon the creative process of the artist; a process which is
founded upon power. Consequently, ˜[i]f every great poet [. . .] has to call
forth and to communicate power, this service, in a still greater degree,
falls upon an original writer [. . .]™.
Accordingly, the further Wordsworth™s description of genius progresses
in the ˜Essay™, the more it turns upon two qualities: the power of epistemic
creation, and the authority that this confers upon the poet:

Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what is worthy to be done,
and what was never done before: Of genius, in the ¬ne arts, the only infallible
sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honour, and
bene¬t of human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into the
intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the application of powers
to objects on which they had not before been exercised, or the employment of
them in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown. What is all this
but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the poet?·

The last line effectively captures the uncompromising way in which
Wordworth was now prepared to maintain the primacy of the poet.
The role of the reader, on the other hand, was to be ˜invigorated and
inspirited by his leader™. To a great extent Wordsworth is here adopt-
ing a militaristic metaphor suggesting cultural colonization which was
common to eighteenth-century discussions of the ascendant, appropri-
ating genius. The difference is that the discourse of power upon which
it is based in this instance springs from an epistemological and politi-
cal problem which did not present itself with such urgency even in late
eighteenth-century British aesthetics. The solution proposed is no less
radical than that of making poetic power itself a condition of knowledge,
and thus of ending knowledge as construed by philosophy since Descartes.
Human interaction with the world, Wordsworth suggests, need not begin
with knowing, but with another kind of process, which might well be called
creation: ˜to create taste is to call forth and bestow power™, he explains,
˜of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true dif¬culty™.
And yet the ¬nal clause is crucial, for his formulation does indeed
present a dif¬culty; in other words, something to be argued over, resolved,
overcome. The dif¬culty, as Wittgenstein put it, is to begin at the be-
ginning. ˜And not try to go further back.™±°° In English Romantic prose,
±°±
Wordsworth™s prose
however, the epistemological imperative remains, as De Quincey, in¬‚u-
enced by Wordsworth™s notion of power, was himself to ¬nd. The dis-
course of power, with all its Nietzschean echoes for the modern reader,
is never fully deployed against the foundationalist edi¬ce of empirical
knowledge. This in turn produces more localized tensions. For instance,
if a criterion of ˜knowledge™ (or the conditions under which some mental
entity is to be counted as true or not), is a function or effect of power,
then the stipulation in Wordsworth™s account of genius that it should
extend human sensibility for the ˜delight, honour, and bene¬t of human
nature™ is otiose, as the self-legitimizing power of genius will have already
guaranteed such an outcome. Nonetheless, that he feels it necessary
to include such a proviso suggests that he is not as comfortable with
poetic power as might at ¬rst appear. This is most tellingly revealed in
his hesitation over the possibility that genius might actually be responsi-
ble for ˜the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe™.
At this point, Wordsworth has arrived at the conclusion that a condition
of almost all of his most signi¬cant claims about the status of the poet is
that he is capable of a kind of creation which goes beyond that explainable
by the empirical-psychological mechanism, however complex. Instead,
it embodies an element of the sheer contingency and freedom of creatio
ex nihilo. Suddenly balking at this, however, he retreats into a scienti¬c
conception of creation-as-discovery; of power producing ˜effects hitherto
unknown™.
Part of what makes Wordsworth as a prose writer and theorist so
challenging, but also dif¬cult, is his habit of embroidering antifounda-
tional lines of thought into the language of empiricism. He challenges
knowledge with the notion that truth is made, not found, and having
used creation as a ground for (poetic) truth, redresses truth with power.
Once again, with no means of setting a boundary or limit on what
power might produce, he is left sounding almost regretful for subordi-
nating poetry™s cognitive role to a principle of naked power about which,
elsewhere, he shows a great deal of apprehension. Writing in opposi-
tion to the idea of a universal (male) franchise in an ±± letter to Lord
Lonsdale, for instance, he argues that ˜[t]he People are already power-
ful far beyond the increase of their information, or their improvement
in morals™.±°± Wordsworth sees foundationalism as inevitably producing
scepticism and cynical tyranny. At the same time, he fears that a culture
of unbridled poetic self-creation might slip into anarchy. Indeed, he re-
mained anxious about both an over-passive and an over-active public.
At the root of this ambivalence is his attempt, as it were, to ˜revalue™
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
knowledge through poetry, or aesthetic therapy. But remaining captive
to the foundationalism which Hume crushed, Wordsworth™s thought in-
volutes, as epistemology vies endlessly with indifference, and truth and
value remain unreconciled.

® ¬µ © ®
As it is represented in the works produced in his most theoretically con-
centrated period between ±°° and ±±µ, the pattern of Wordsworth™s
prefatory and prose writing is one whereby a problem of how the mind
can be said to create forms of experience which surpass knowledge (itself
echoed by a political paradox regarding the authority by which the peo-
ple might become self-determining) is reformulated in terms of aesthetic
production. Accordingly, the domain of poetic activity, with its capacity
spontaneously to create ˜new elements™ in the intellectual universe, be-
comes a site at which otherwise lawless action is legitimized. The status
of the poet had been undermined by the possibility that the value of
his work might be determined by the public, or (worse) the marketplace.
Now, however, ˜creating the taste™ by which he is to be judged, he becomes
a teacher, or a legislative ¬gure who spontaneously gives the rule both to
the most general principles of scienti¬c knowledge, and the higher politi-
cal aspirations of the People. As a consequence, however, the dif¬culty
which Wordsworth encounters repeatedly in trying to formulate this in
theoretical terms is that he is compelled to do so in the very language which
generated these dilemmas: that of empiricism.
Writing to William Hamilton in ±, Wordsworth claimed that
˜[t]hough prevailed upon by Mr. Coleridge to write the ¬rst Preface
to my poems which tempted, or rather forced, me to add a Supplement
to it [. . .] I have never felt inclined to write criticism, tho™ I have talked,
and am daily talking, a great deal.™±° What is most interesting about
Wordsworth™s prose is that, pulling against his reluctance to engage in
an intellectual justi¬cation of his work, is the resistance of his empiricist
instincts to the claims of creative imagination. Yet without the imagina-
tion, his ambition to capture an autonomous space for the poet is handi-
capped. Moreover, as the possibility of de¬ning that space as a mediating
ground between tradition and progress faded, his later, more conserva-
tive tones seem more comprehensible. Attempting to put knowledge in
its place without letting creation off the leash, he considers a range of
alternative strategies, running from the imitated real language of men in
the ±°° Preface, to the notion of power in the ˜Essay, Supplementary
±°
Wordsworth™s prose
to the Preface™ of ±±µ. Yet each of these ideas either sailed too close to
empiricism to be able to steer poetry in its new direction, or (as with his
notion of spontaneity in the ¬rst Preface) having broken free of empirical
rule, suffered from the damaging quali¬cation and equivocation which
resulted from Wordsworth™s reluctance to see such principles completely
rescinded.
In this light, a ¬nal comparison of two passages proves instructive.
Their point of interest lies in the different meaning which they attach to
the term ˜subject™, and what they imply about Wordsworth™s developing
attitude to the nature of poetic truth. In the ±°° Preface, much of his
con¬dence in the ˜truth™ of the poems in Lyrical Ballads lies in the fact that
while in the act of composition he has, as he puts it, ˜at all times endeav-
oured to look steadily at my subject™.±° Not unusually for Wordsworth
at this point, this implies an empirical standard of truth: the verity or
objectivity of the artistic product is given by its relation to a prior ˜subject™. In
her essay, ˜Insight and Oversight: Reading “Tintern Abbey” ™, Levinson
undertakes to ˜hold Wordsworth to his claim™, only to ¬nd, in the case
of ˜Tintern Abbey™ at least, that ˜one learns that the narrator achieves
his penetrating vision through the exercise of a selective blindness™ “ in
other words, the suppression of the social for the personal. Yet, avoiding
for a moment the assumption that the subject/object dichotomy is dis-
pensable, it appears that there is at least something democratic in this
epistemic arrangement: the poet™s mandate to express himself is derived
from his representational ¬delity to the community of impressions which
link him to the world.±° The problem with this, however, is that his ac-
tivity remains circumscribed within empirical boundaries, and certainly
does not extend to the liberty of free creation. Indeed, already contained
in the notion of ˜subject™, as used in this context, is a subordination of
the perceived to the perceiver; a sense further suggested by the idea of
the poet ˜looking steadily™ at that subject. To know one™s subject is, in
more than a merely metaphorical sense, to have command of it. It is
but a short distance from this to the poetic objective of establishing a
˜dominion over the spirits of readers™.±°µ
Such, as has been seen, is the direction that Wordsworth™s theory of
poetic value was taking even at this early stage, a direction which empiri-
cism could not sustain. Unable entirely to escape the Lockean conviction
that knowledge lay in a relationship of correspondence between things
(fundamentally, between mind and world) Wordsworth oscillates between
the perspectives of epistemology and indifference, and then again be-
tween an indifference that would bring knowledge into a dialectic with
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
being, and an indifference that would write it out of existence. At times he
suggests that the creativity of poetry might free humanity from a tyranny
of knowing, replacing demonstration and linear argument with the sym-
pathetic communication of pleasure. At more authoritarian moments,
however, like Kant, he seeks to support the foundations of epistemology
by preserving the dualism of the correspondence theory of perception,
reversing empiricism™s priority of world over mind. Thus, the under-
determination of total experience by the data of sense for Wordsworth
meant not, as it would to Quine, the rejection of the very discourse of
˜objectivity™, but that the individual and, pre-eminently, the poet, must
carry the grounds of objectivity within himself. In other words, the poet
should become his own world, his own ˜subject™, as the ±°° Preface
intends that term. But by this process, the subject is transformed into
something quite different from itself. It becomes something which is
closer to what Wordsworth has in mind when he writes in ˜The Sublime
and the Beautiful™, that ˜[t]o talk of an object as being sublime or beau-
tiful in itself, without references to some subject by whom that sublimity
or beauty is perceived, is absurd [. . .]™.±° As Althusser observed, the
term ˜subject™ itself oscillates between two senses, namely ˜a free sub-
jectivity, a center of initiatives™ and ˜a subjected being who submits to
a higher authority [. . .]™.±°· Finding that the policy of looking ˜steadily
at the subject™ failed to remove that contradiction (that is, between the
domination of the mass of contingent particulars by poetic perception,
and the overdetermination of poetic perception by that same unruly
mass), Wordsworth transforms the empirical, ˜external™ subject of the
Preface into the poetic, ˜internal™ subject, one which, with its objectivity
now self-inscribed, creates its own epistemic authority. But the nature
of such authority remained uncertain, precariously balanced between a
disengenuous knowing ˜charm™ and an unknowing ˜mystery™.


The dry romance: Hazlitt™s immanent idealism




Metaphysics themselves are but a dry romance.
William Hazlitt, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action±

The gradual renewal of interest in Hazlitt studies over the past few
decades has recently intensi¬ed, and in doing so has taken a striking
turn. Thanks to the earlier work of students such as W. P. Albrecht, Roy
Park, John Mahoney, John Kinnaird and David Bromwich, Hazlitt™s
intellectual reputation has long since emerged from the shadow of
Coleridge, to the extent that it is now unsustainable to characterize him
simply as the latter™s wayward disciple. As this picture has faded, so
too has the image of Hazlitt as the gifted but ˜impressionistic™ critic and
prose stylist who might safely be studied with only cursory reference to
his works in metaphysics and moral philosophy. Lately, however, Hazlitt
has drawn the attention of a number of commentators who have identi-
¬ed in his work a philosophical and theoretical outlook which is not just
unique, but internally coherent and (some have claimed) quite ahead
of its time. Rather in the manner in which Coleridge™s standing as a
serious and consistent thinker was assembled over the years despite the
dispersed and fragmentary nature of his writings, the fact that much of
Hazlitt™s philosophical thought (with the notable exception of the Essay
on the Principles of Human Action) is scattered throughout a wide range
of essays and reviews has not prevented scholars from measuring the
telling regularity with which he deploys certain arguments concerning
such questions as identity and moral agency, the limits of knowledge, or
the nature of creative genius.
Yet this increased attention has also thrown into sharper relief some
of the deeper paradoxes in Hazlitt™s work; paradoxes which, despite
the attempts of at least one critic to identify in them the journalistic
writer™s attempts to articulate subtle and dif¬cult issues through single,
arresting expressions, remain troubling to those who would take him
±°µ
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
seriously as a thinker.µ Foremost among these is his dif¬cult relation to
empiricism. Doubt has been cast over the standard view of Hazlitt as a
˜Romantic empiricist™, whose work provides a bridge between the ideals
of his contemporaries and the philosophies of the previous era which they
ostensibly rejected. Certainly, given that Hazlitt™s outward opposition to
empiricism was more or less constant throughout his career, it may seem
remarkable that such a view has persisted. In his ±° Prospectus of a
History of English Philosophy, for example, one of the touchstones for his
criticism of Locke is his conviction that ˜reason is a distinct source of
knowledge or inlet of truth, over and above experience.™ However, it can
been seen that even this assertion harbours an equivocation. Hazlitt™s
description of reason as another inlet of truth itself suggests a concession
to inductivism. In fact, despite his hostility to Locke, what makes Hazlitt
noteworthy among theorists of the period is his reluctance to jettison
the language of empiricism outright, preferring instead to amend or
reform it according to new paradigms. One of those paradigms was the
concept of creation, which, when given an epistemic function, drove his
oft-repeated conviction that ˜[t]he mind alone is formative™, and that ˜[i]deas
[. . .] are the offspring of the understanding, not of the senses™.·
As with Wordsworth, however, the question remained as to just how
susceptible the language of empiricism was to such radical reform.
Hazlitt™s statements to the effect that the mind alone is spontaneously
formative often acknowledge Kant as their source or authority, but, un-
like Coleridge, Hazlitt™s access to the German philosopher was con¬ned
to Willich™s questionable translation. Consequently, he would not draw
to the same extent upon Kant™s work in his struggle with the problem
which continually worries at the root of his thought, viz. what are the
grounds of the truth of the mind™s creations? Having found that even a revised
version of the native epistemology was inadequate to the task at hand,
Hazlitt, unwilling and unable to follow Coleridge on the high road to
transcendentalism, proceeds in his later work to question the jurisdic-
tion of ˜knowledge™ itself, and moves to replace it with a principle of pure
power. Yet the principal tension in Hazlitt™s theory “ traceable through-
out his writing “ is the product of his reluctance completely to implement
such a move. Revoking the epistemological perspective, yet tied by habit
and tradition to empiricism™s demand for a criterion of (factual) truth,
Hazlitt™s thought oscillates between the need for a foundation, and the
attraction of a theory of human psychological activity based upon the

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