<< . .

. 9
( : 30)



. . >>

with empirical thought; indeed, with foundationalism in general. Kant™s
··
Wordsworth™s prose
account of the autonomy of genius was certainly available to him (albeit
with Coleridgean colouring) but Wordsworth had little understanding
of, and still less interest in transcendental schema. Consequently, the
main question confronting him was that of how he could make good
his claim that his idea of the creative aesthetic was in some way exem-
plary or legislative in the concrete realm of human affairs, when the only
philosophical language available to him proscribed the notion of (poetic)
truth as something made. This remained a dispute, in Burkean terms,
between ordinary nature and the poet™s second nature or, in Humean
terms, between fact and value.


µ ¬ µ¬ ° ¤ µ  ©®  ®¤     ©    ©  
Wordsworth™s poetic theory can be read as an attempt to cope with (but
not always reply to) one of the most pressing problems in contemporary
epistemology.µ Following Hume™s identi¬cation of the imagination as
a signi¬cant factor in the formation of knowledge, one question which
occupied philosophy more than most was: how can the creations of this
faculty be candidates for knowledge? What occurs in the theoretical writ-
ing of Wordsworth is the recon¬guration of this problem as a poetic or
aesthetic one. Impressed by the creative implications of the mind™s asso-
ciative capacities, but loath to rescind empiricism entirely, Wordsworth
invests the poet with a peculiar insight:
Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of
all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general,
and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the
heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and
con¬dence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same
tribunal.

Wordsworth institutes the notion of a discrete and irreducible poetic
truth; one which is exclusively the domain of the poet, by right of his
creative powers. Here, the stress on aesthetic autonomy (and by implica-
tion the epistemic freedom of the poet) is evident: poetic truth ˜is its own
testimony™; it gives the rule to the ˜tribunal™ by which it is rati¬ed. The
formulation poses a striking challenge to foundationalist conceptions of
truth. The poet himself creates the criteria of the validity, or ˜truth™ of his
poetic products. This in turn endows him with the freedom to legislate
for the conditions of the profounder feelings of his fellow man, without
appearing either to condescend to him, or pander to his ruder impulses
· Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
and desires. In the Prelude, Wordsworth confesses to having harboured a
vision of poets as a class of the spiritually elect, ˜even as prophets, each
with each / Connected in a mighty stream of truth™, leading to the hope

That unto me had also been vouchsafed
An in¬‚ux, that in some sort I possessed
A privilege, and that a work of mine,
Proceeding from the depth of untaught things,
Enduring and creative, might become
A power like one of Nature™s.·

But the impulses and desires of the public were of considerable concern
to Wordsworth. In late ±° he wrote in The Friend that ˜ours is, notwith-
standing its manifold excellences, a degenerate Age [. . .]™. What wor-
ried him in particular was the way in which changes in the habits of the
reading public were affecting the nature and status of poetry itself. In the
±°° Preface, he complained of how ˜a multitude of causes unknown to
former times are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discrim-
inating powers of the mind, and un¬tting it for all voluntary exertion to
reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor™; the most pernicious aspect of
which is ˜a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid commu-
nication of intelligence hourly grati¬es™. Such conditions were being
fuelled by a number of changes affecting the socio-economic location
of the contemporary writer, foremost among which were the increasing
ef¬ciency and productivity of the mechanized printing press; the expan-
sion of the metropolitan and provincial book trade following London™s
loss of copyright privileges in ±·· (in a House of Lords judgement which
¬nally laid to rest the notion of perpetual common-law copyright); and
the growing and diversifying appetite of the reading public, buoyed by
an ever more literate artisan class.
The resulting ˜literature™ question, that of its status and social func-
tion, was born of a general cultural anxiety of which Wordsworth™s ±°°
Preface is only one of the more famous examples. With the rapid dif-
fusion of knowledge it appeared to many, Wordsworth included, that
the liberation of fact had been at the cost of value, of a sense of the
˜depth of untaught things™. At the same time, as labour specialized, and
the writer became at once more professionalized and isolated, the con-
cept of ˜literature™ itself fragmented. While discussing the fate of the
Philanthropist in a ±· letter to William Matthews, Wordsworth can barely
conceal his distaste for the business of professional writing: ˜All the pe-
riodical miscellanies that I am acquainted with, except one or two of
·
Wordsworth™s prose
the reviews, appear to be written to maintain the existence of prejudice
and to disseminate error. To such purpose I have already said I will
not prostitute my pen.™° Thus, the emergence of the idea of art as a
specialized and privileged mode of production marked a change in the
relationship between writer and reader, which in turn signalled a new atti-
tude among writers towards the ˜public™. Creating the taste by which it
is to be measured, as Pfau puts it, ˜Romantic pedagogy seeks to convert
the individual™s self-consciousness into its own disciplinary authority™,
whereby ˜cognitive mobility is inevitably experienced as a form of social
ascendancy™.±
The seeds of this change were already present in Edward Young™s
disparaging use of industrial metaphors to describe imitation, which in
his view becomes ˜a sort of Manufacture wrought up by those Mechanics,
Art, and Labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own™, as well as
Isaac D™Israeli™s injunction to the writer to pay ˜to himself that reverence,
which will be refuted by the multitude™. Both of these remarks betray a
creeping sense of alarm at the manner in which commerce was altering
the nature of the writer™s vocation, and in particular, the way in which it
was alienating him from his own productions by replacing the familiarity
of private circulation with a mass market of anonymous readers. The
culmination of this is Keats™s defensive declaration to Reynolds in a
letter of ±± that ˜I never wrote one single Line of Poetry with the least
Shadow of public thought™. At moments like this, Keats embodies the
reactionary spirit of the aesthetic response to the commodi¬cation of
art. Wordsworth himself drew a distinction between the ˜public™, about
whom he usually writes with disdain, and a more idealized notion of the
˜People™. In the earlier part of his career, his tone when writing about the
public moved between resignation and resentment. In an ±°· letter to
Lady Beaumont, less than a month after the publication of the Poems, in
Two Volumes, he avers that ˜[i]t is impossible that any expectations can be
lower than mine concerning the immediate effect of this little work upon
what is called the Public™. They are, indeed, ˜altogether incompetent
judges™ of poetry. ˜These people™, he continues, ˜in the senseless hurry of
their idle lives do not read books, they merely snatch a glance at them that
they may talk about them.™µ Writing to Sir George Beaumont a year
later, he reports that he is ˜in sorrow for the sickly taste of the Public in
verse. The People would love the Poem of Peter Bell, but the Public (a very
different Being) will never love it.™ Lamb, meanwhile, characterized the
reading public as a ˜reluctant monster™ gorging on its unsavory diet of
periodicals, and asked, ˜[i]s there no stopping the eternal wheels of the
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Press for a half century or two, till the nation recover its senses?™· As a
consequence, genuine poetry becomes for Wordsworth what Pfau calls
the ˜supreme anticommodity™.
Since Jerome McGann™s The Romantic Ideology ¬rst appeared in ±,
much has been written on the politics of the Romantic ˜aesthetic™, and
there is no need to rehearse that work here. My purpose is merely to
note how Wordsworth™s struggle with foundationalism had wider rami-
¬cations, in that the empiricism which he challenged underwrote a sys-
tem of utilitarian values which seemed to re¬‚ect certain developments
in contemporary culture, developments which many of the Romantics
found, for varying reasons, deeply disturbing. Wordsworth™s efforts to
rede¬ne the nature of poetry and the poet on epistemic grounds are of
particular interest in that they are made within the same discourse of
sensation, feeling, and public pleasure. Typically, he attempts to reform
these ideas along qualitative lines, suggesting the possibility of intuitions
which are not merely sensory; pleasure which is not simply a feeling
of happiness; and a ˜People™ who are more than just an aggregate or
sum of the ˜public™. Where he encounters dif¬culty, however, is at the
point at which empiricism will not permit these distinctions to be made,
and where he is left grasping for a theoretical language that might. At
this point, Wordsworth™s language vacillates between the perspective of
knowledge and an indifference to knowing which hesitates between the
therapeutic dialectic of ˜poetic truth™ and a simple af¬rmation of the
activity of creative writing.

   © ¦ « ® · ¬ ¤ § : ©  § © ® ©  ®,
    ©©®  ®¤ °¬   µ 
Philosophy in Britain after Hume had been struggling to accommo-
date the very ideas which it was raising, borrowing from the latter™s
associationism where it was convenient, while adopting the naturalistic
perspective of Reid™s commonsensism when scepticism threatened. But
however reassuring such an arrangement may have seemed, this con-
tract contained a clause which was troubling for Wordsworth in a way in
which it had not been for predecessors like Alexander Gerard and Lord
Kames. It is a corollary of the empiricist thesis that knowledge derives its
mandate from observable objects, that empirical science, as the reposi-
tory of such observations, must ˜give the rule™ to art. In epistemological
terms, art “ and with art, poetry “ has no cognitive function if removed
from this foundation.
±
Wordsworth™s prose
Wordsworth, however, particularly after ±°, seeks to de¬ne the
autonomy of poetic discourse according to epistemic criteria. In the
revisions to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads he argues that ˜much confusion
has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and
Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact,
or Science™.° Insofar as he is committed to this position, Wordsworth
identi¬es poetry in terms of its content; in terms of the knowledge it pro-
vides, rather than the manner or style in which it conveys this material.
He also distinguishes such knowledge, in the most unambiguous terms
possible, from Humean ˜Matter of Fact™. Poetry has not so much cogni-
tive, as supercognitive properties. As he unwraps his thesis, Wordsworth
increasingly comes to rest the burden of this epistemic value upon the
poet™s creativity, as if he would have it alone be the ground of poetic
validity. In the second ˜Essay upon Epitaphs™ of ±±°, he claims that the
demand for sincerity in the writing of an epitaph forbids ˜all modes of
¬ction, except those which the very strength of passion has created™.±
Wordsworth remained divided about the political signi¬cance of these
paradigms, however. Even as he began distancing himself from the fact-
foundationalism of the Ideologues, he retained a distrust of creative imagi-
nation and unfettered genius, in a manner comparable to how some of his
quieter political convictions tempered his commitment to radical theo-
ries of individual liberty. In the later versions of the Preface, Wordsworth
insists that ˜[a]mong the qualities [. . .] principally conducing to form
a Poet, is implied nothing differing in kind from other men, but only
in degree™. Yet he often seems concerned that this difference in mere
degree might not be suf¬cient to prevent the poet™s voice from being
overwhelmed by that of the public, or that the masses might act on the
implication that the freedom which is the privilege of the poet by virtue of
his creativity is equally their right, treading too closely in his footsteps for
comfort. Wordsworth inherits the problem German philosophers iden-
ti¬ed with empiricist or ˜negative™ accounts of freedom in that any asser-
tion of human freedom seems to amount only to a removal of restraint “
just as, from the same perspective, any declaration of poetic creativity
might appear to be the glori¬cation of singularity. Consequently, his val-
orization of the imagination is subjected to constant quali¬cation and
caveat. Particularly in later life, Wordsworth would place ever greater
emphasis on the role of ˜workmanship™ in poetic composition, even over
that of natural genius or inspiration. For example, he criticizes some
verses of William Hamilton for the want of ˜what appears in itself of little
moment, and yet is of incalculably great, that is, workmanship “ the art
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
by which the thoughts are made to melt into each other and to fall into
light and shadow regulated by distinct preconception of the best general
effect they are capable of producing™. By this time, ˜craft™ has taken
on the task which had been allocated to ˜feeling™ in the ¬rst Preface:
that of harmoniously reconciling spontaneous effusion and calculated
effect. This is just one of the many different forms taken by a recurrent
tension in Wordsworth™s writing between sincerity and verity which in
its turn is an aspect of the more general problem of how to reconcile an
empirically given notion of truth with the poet™s spontaneity, his fullest
treatment of the dynamics of which appears in the ±±µ Preface to Poems,
in Two Volumes.
Here, Wordsworth articulates six powers of poetic production: ¬rst,
accurate observation, which is passive; second, exquisite sensibility; third,
re¬‚ection, which perceives the connection of feelings in sensibility; fourth,
imagination and fancy, ˜to modify, to create, and to associate™; ¬fth, in-
vention, that is, of characters ˜composed out of materials supplied by
observation™ (either of the poet™s own mind, or of nature); and ¬nally,
judgement, which regulates each of these activities.µ Two aspects of this
scheme merit immediate attention. First, Wordsworth chooses to distin-
guish creation, as such, from the processes of modi¬cation and associa-
tion. Second, he suggests that the peculiar function of imagination/fancy
is not identical with invention, which relies more heavily upon observa-
tional data. Clearly, Wordsworth is extending his sense of ˜creation™ to
denote something different from each of these functions.
But here a familiar pattern reappears. Even given the fact that he has
already taken pains to deny that the power of imagination is suf¬cient
for poetic production (that is, in the absence of accurate observation and
re¬‚ection) Wordsworth remains uneasy about the extent of its jurisdic-
tion. In the ±°° Preface, it was ˜feeling™ that had united imagination and
reason. In lyrical poetry ˜the feeling therein developed gives importance
to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling
[. . .]™. Poetic language itself should not be seen as forming the mere
dress of thought, but its very essence and spirit. The same thought lay
behind his complaint in the second ˜Essay upon Epitaphs™ about the
neglect in modern poetry of ˜those feelings which are the pure emana-
tions of nature, those thoughts which have the in¬nitude of truth, and
those expressions which are not what the garb is to the body but what the
body is to the soul, themselves a constituent part and power or function in the
thought [. . .]™.· In the ±±µ Preface, however, though Wordsworth re-
jects at ¬rst the old de¬nition of imagination as simply an image-making

Wordsworth™s prose
faculty, he insists that it is ˜a word of higher import, denoting oper-
ations of the mind [. . .] and processes of creation or of composition,
governed by certain ¬xed laws™. The emphasis upon ˜¬xed laws™ is sig-
ni¬cant, as nowhere does Wordsworth, unlike Coleridge, suggest that
these laws might themselves be self-originated, i.e. made, not ˜given™.
Imagination effectively acts upon individual images, either by endowing
them with properties or abstracting them, thus enabling them to ˜re-act
upon the mind which hath performed the process, like a new existence
[. . .]™. Further, it changes images by association, or by aligning them ˜in a
conjunction by which they modify each other [. . .]™. But above all:
Imagination also shapes and creates; and how? By innumerable processes; and
in none does it more delight than in that of consolidating numbers into unity,
and dissolving and separating unity into number, alternations proceeding from,
and governed by, a sublime consciousness of the soul in her own mighty and
almost divine powers.

The ministration of the ˜sublime consciousness of the soul™ is as close
as Wordsworth comes to identifying a limiting principle for a process of
creation which he conceives as at once unifying, diversifying and, in one
of its modes at least, productive of something which is (in some way) ˜like
a new existence™. On the other hand, he is much more forthcoming on
the question of the (empirical) principles which circumscribe this activity.
Fearful of allowing imagination the freedom to produce, under rules of its
own devising, an aesthetic product which is both ineffable and exemplary,
Wordsworth argues, against Coleridge, that as a faculty it is no differ-
ent in kind from fancy. He is, in fact, attempting to have it both ways:
while his placing of imagination under the regulation of some (as yet
unspeci¬ed) ˜¬xed laws™ suggests a higher validity, his statement that ˜[t]o
aggregate and to associate, to evoke and to combine, belong as well to
the Imagination as to the Fancy™ reins imagination back within the more
familiar and reassuring ambit of faculty psychology and also, as a conse-
quence, the domain of empirical rule. By the end of this disquisition,
then, Wordsworth has brought his account of the creative imagination
back to a point where, though it is supposed to be a faculty given, in some
vague way, ˜to incite and to support the eternal™;µ° in terms of epistemic
value empirical science is still ˜giving the rule™ to the poet. The ˜truth™ in
˜poetic truth™ remains elusive.
Historically, as has been seen, the roots of this problem lay in the
insistence of eighteenth-century theorists such as Addison and Gerard
that poetic creation is de¬nable as a process of discovery not distinct in
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
kind from that of scienti¬c procedure, and that its products are invalid if
unsupervised by judgement. This is the ancestor of the logical positivist™s
conviction that moral or aesthetic statements are meaningless. Yet a
cardinal tenet of Wordsworth™s poetics is that poetry should have an
independent and productive; that is, a legislative function in terms of
human knowledge; that it represents the ˜introduction of a new element
into the intellectual universe™.µ± Again, by so doing, it presumes a capacity
for a kind of epistemic creation whereby the mind spontaneously ˜gives
the rule™ to truth: it makes it.
Placed as it is, cheek by jowl with references to Lamb™s view of the
imagination, and pronouncements on the sublime creativity of the poetic
consciousness, Wordsworth™s insistence in the ±±µ Preface that imagi-
nation and fancy share a common process of association bounded by
judgement, demonstrates the breach between the impulses lying behind
his emerging idea of a free aesthetic space, and the capabilities of contem-
porary British psychological thought. The story of Wordsworth™s gradual
withdrawal from associationism, under the in¬‚uence of Coleridge, is too
well known to need repeating here, but it is also true that Wordsworth
never completely purged association from his theoretical work. There
are a number of reasons for this, but among the foremost is the epistemic
priority he grants to feeling, and the Humean way in which he con-
ceived of the cultivation of ¬ner feeling as a matter largely determined
by mental habit.
An early example of this is the fragment of an essay on morals from
±·. In this, Wordsworth claims that even though ˜all our actions are
the result of our habits™, he knows of ˜no book or system of moral phil-
osophy written with suf¬cient power to melt into our affection[?s], to
incorporate itself with the blood & vital juices of our minds, & thence to
have any in¬‚uence worth our notice in forming those habits™.µ The
thought behind this, as he makes plain in the Preface two years later, is
that where philosophy has failed to lead because of its lack of sympathetic
power, poetry can succeed.µ Again, it is an indication of Wordsworth™s
belief in the cognitive and moral seriousness of poetry that he describes
the primary function of the lyrical ballad as the tracing of ˜the pri-
mary laws of our nature™. It is, moreover, a measure of his ¬delity to
eighteenth-century psychology that this is to be carried out ˜chie¬‚y as
far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of ex-
citement™.µ Indeed, it is association itself which regulates feeling, and
endows the poet with the authority to give the rule to the sensibilities of
society:
µ
Wordsworth™s prose
For our continued in¬‚uxes of feeling are modi¬ed and directed by our thoughts,
which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and as by contem-
plating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover
what is really important to men, so by the repetition and continuance of this act
feelings connected with important subjects will be nourished, till at length, if
we be originally possessed of much organic sensibility, such habits of mind will be
produced that by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits
we shall describe objects and utter sentiments of such a nature and in such a
connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we
address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in
some degree enlightened, his taste exalted, and his affections ameliorated.µµ

Wordsworth is following the trend of late eighteenth-century natural-
ism by ignoring the sceptical consequences of extending the psychology
of associationism and ˜habit™ into epistemology. The only philosopher
to confront this problem directly had been Reid, but Reid™s common-
sensism was founded on an opposition to the representational theory
of perception which engendered a general denigration of imaginative
processes. The ¬gure of the poet, then, stands on shaky ground. In one
mood, that of normative epistemology, Wordsworth de¬nes him in terms
of a process of association fraught with sceptical sliproads; in another,
that of naturalistic psychology, he is rendered in the language of natural
(or ˜second-natural™) habit. It is perhaps due in part to an awareness of
this tension that Wordsworth places greater emphasis upon the creativity
of the poet™s activity in subsequent versions of the Preface. But since this
activity is still seen as an associative one, bearing with it the risk of
arbitrariness, he remains caught between af¬rming the priority of this
˜feeling™, and restricting it within the compass of a process of selection.
Jacobi was later to arrive at the same predicament when in the ±±µ
preface to David Hume on Faith he defended his vision of the ¬nal standoff
between knowledge and faith: ˜And so we admit without fear that our
philosophy begins with feeling, but with a feeling that is objective and pure
[. . .].™µ Jacobi™s defensive tone betrays an awkwardness which he shares
with Wordsworth. For the latter, the binding of feeling implies, rather
embarrassingly, that though studied and therefore more trustworthy, in
one respect at least the poet™s outpourings are somehow less genuine and
˜real™ than those of the men they seek to imitate. No words suggested by
the poet™s imagination or fancy can be compared to those of men in a
real state of excitement; ˜the emanations of reality and truth™.
It is this rather de¬‚ating conclusion which leads into the passage where
Wordsworth attempts to recoup some ground for poetry by claiming for
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
it a truth which is ˜not individual and local, but general and operative™.
But the cognitive autonomy of the creative, aesthetic sphere in human
experience has already been compromised. Poetry may have its own
value and even its own ˜tribunal™, but as ˜the image of man and nature™ it
will always be at one remove from truth, as truth is generally conceived
by Wordsworth himself.µ· That this truth is de¬ned by empirical criteria is
disturbed, but not overturned by his negotiations with associationism or
the language of ˜habit™. Nor could it be: associationism, as an account of
human psychological processes, was simply not the kind of theory which
proposed an alternative to the notion (implied elswhere in Wordsworth™s
writing) of knowledge as true justi¬ed belief, where truth is grounded in
fact.
The implications of this for broader questions of the relations between
literature, truth and value are acute. Empiricism had developed a two-
fold function for poetry which was at once didactic and utilitarian: by
adding to the stock of knowledge, literature, including poetry, would also
increase the sum total of human well-being or happiness. Neither of
these operations was peculiar to poetry. It was itself simply a matter of
fact that poetry was best ¬tted to execute them simultaneously. Though
its content may have been unpalatable to Wordsworth, however, utili-
tarianism™s consequentialist stress upon an extra-poetic end to poetry
itself neatly overlaid the kind of Aristotelian, functional thinking about art
which, despite philosophical developments and changes of emphasis, still
revolved around Sidney™s stipulation that the end of poetry was ˜to teach
and delight™.µ Any attempt, then, to articulate a sense of poetic value
which was irreducible to this pragmatic-hedonic calculus would have to
confront such a tradition. Wordsworth™s prose writings in particular dis-
play the stress of this undertaking, in that he develops a conception of a
cognitively privileged poetic utterance, while at the same time deferring
to the general empirical principle that all truthful propositions can be rati-
¬ed only against the data of sense-experience. Moreover, by frequently
writing of poetry in functional terms (that is, in terms of speci¬ed means
working towards speci¬ed goals or ends), he was not immune to the legacy

<< . .

. 9
( : 30)



. . >>