What would Lord Byron say, I wonder. How might that quintessentially Romantic “man of affairs,” as Jerome McGann once delighted in punning, respond to our current state of affairs? What would he say of our endlessly streaming 24-hour news cycle, or to our social media? We can never know, of course. But as a politics and news junkie, as well as a Romanticist, I love to speculate.
My sister and I have two very important holiday traditions: 1) we always go to a haunted corn maze before Halloween, and 2) we always watch The Muppet Christmas Carol before Christmas. We don’t often admit to the second tradition (and when we do, we kind of pretend that we only enjoy the Muppets “ironically”), but it’s something we’ve done for as long as I can remember. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas until Katie and I are sitting on the couch, singing along to the song “Marley and Marley” while two enchained muppet ghosts rattle around the TV screen, bemoaning their eternal punishment.
Only one poem from the original 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads does not appear in the two volume 1800 edition: Wordsworth’s “The Convict.” The specific political goals of the poem do indeed make it difficult to situate among the other works in the collection (with the exception of Coleridge’s “The Dungeon”). For most critics, “The Convict” is out of keeping with the rest of the poems in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. When scholars such as Celeste Langan and Quentin Bailey do engage the poem, they usually do so under the larger category of vagrants or vagrancy. In other words, the convict, like Martha Ray of “The Thorn,” the mad mother, and the idiot boy, is one of the marginal figures that Wordsworth’s poetry pulls to forefront. Yet the convict receives his title not from a loquacious speaker or a gossipy group of townspeople but from a formal political institution. Furthermore, while crime, even violent crime, is implied in several poems in Lyrical Ballads, in “The Convict” clear action is taken. For example, while the speaker of “The Thorn” claims that “some had sworn an oath that she [Martha Ray] / Should be to public justice brought,” no punishment ever occurs (323-3). “The Convict,” in contrast, depends upon the presence of “public justice” for its very title.
Yet, for all of its differences, I want to suggest that the “The Convict” does share one crucial feature with the other poems in Lyrical Ballads: the centrality of the speaker. By examining the physical and imaginative movement of Wordsworth’s sympathetic speaker, I will show how “The Convict,” to a certain extent, “fits” with the larger project of the collection. When we turn to the poem, we see encounter the speaker standing on a mountain slope in the “glory of evening” (1). Reluctantly, he leaves his idyllic surroundings to visit the convict within the “thick ribbed walls” and “the glimmering gate” of his prison (9,11). As Kenneth Johnston notes, the poem “turns very abruptly from its opening scene of natural beauty to a highly articulated scene of human suffering” (419). The subject of the poem, an individual convicted of committing a crime, has already faced public judgment. There is also, as Quentin Bailey and others have noted, no suggestion that the convict is innocent. As judgment has been made and the guilty convict imprisoned, the public’s engagement with him, it would seem, is at a close.
In the fictional scenes of “The Convict,” Wordsworth’s speaker is able not only to represent the convict’s sad state but also use his “fancy” to see what lies in the man’s heart. Gazing at the convict as he sits staring dejectedly at his fetters, the speaker claims “’Tis sorrow enough on that visage to gaze, / That body dismiss’d from his care; / Yet my fancy has pierced to his heart, and pourtrays / More terrible images there” (17-20). Although the mere sight of the convict’s “visage” is “sorrow enough,” the speaker is able to push further, to offer more insight. Through his “fancy,” Wordsworth’s speaker can look not only on the convict’s “matted head,” neglected body, and the crippling effects imprisonment has on his body, but also gaze into the convict’s “heart” and find “the more terrible images there.” It is telling that rather than revealing details of the convict’s crime, these “terrible images” show the degree to which the convict “wishes the past to undo” (22). According to the speaker, the convict’s “crime, through the pains that o’erwhelm him, descried, / Still blackens and grows on his view” (23-4). The speaker suggests that it is remorse for his crime that “blackens” the convict’s appearance. Such insight, or perhaps more accurately, imaginative speculation, is possible in the fictional scenes of Wordsworth’s poem.
According to the speaker, the monarch has the potential to alleviate the convict’s sufferings. He imagines how different the convict’s situation might be if the king were standing in his place: “When from the dark synod, or blood-reeking field, / To his chamber the monarch is led, / All soothers of sense their soft virtue shall yield, / And quietness pillow his head” (25-8). Like his own movement from the mountain slope to the prison, the speaker imagines the king leaving a dark church or a bloody battlefield to come to the convict’s chamber. The speaker locates the monarch in three value-laden spaces: the church, the battlefield, and the prison are all places in which the public is constituted and acts (thinking here of Locke, Kames’s “publick” from Historical Law-Tracts, and Bentham). In others words, Wordsworth’s speaker refers to places that became metonymic for the common interest, places where the public is constituted. The monarch entering the convict’s cell is endowed with the necessary agency to assist him.
At the close of the poem, the speaker rewrites this earlier episode by imagining what he would do if he commanded the power of the monarch. The convict, so weighed down by his condition, lets out a tear which the speaker proceeds to read: “The motion unsettles a tear; / The silence of sorrow it seems to supply, / And asks me why I am here” (42-4). In the speech act that follows, the speaker offers his answer:
“Poor victim! no idle intruder has stood
With o’erweening complacence our state to compare,
But one, whose first wish is the wish to be good,
Is come as a brother thy sorrows to share.
“At thy name though compassion her nature resign,
Though in virtue’s proud mouth thy report be a stain,
My care, if the arm of the mighty were mine,
Would plant thee where yet thou might’st blossom again.” (45-52)
In these lines, the speaker identifies himself as a special type of observer. Unlike the “idle
intruder” who visit the convict’s cell to compare his state to that of the imprisoned criminal, Wordsworth’s speaker expresses a desire “to share” the convict’s “sorrows.” As Bailey points out, the speaker distinguishes himself from more sentimental visitors and the moralizing of writers like Robert Southey because in late eighteenth century Britain “visits to a prison could too easily be assimilated by the literature of sentimentality and suffering” (7). “The Convict,” then, strives to avoid falling into these generic pitfalls and puts forward a suggestion for penal reform. It is also important to note that in the closing stanza, the speaker states that the personified abstractions of “compassion” and “virtue” have named and judged the convict. The phrase “thy name” could refer to the title of the poem itself. The title of “convict” is a name that has been assigned to this man by “public justice,” which in turn has led to him being abandoned and condemned by “quietness,” “compassion,” and “virtue.”
Many critics have recognized the influence of Godwin in the poem’s crucial
final two lines and their call for reform. Emile Legouis points out that, like Godwin’s Political Justice, Wordsworth’s poem calls for “transportation as a substitute for capital punishment” and “kindness and compassion” for the convicted (309). The speaker’s desire to relocate the convict is indeed clear, but many critical studies do not consider the manner in which the speaker expresses this desire. The final eight lines of the poem can be read as the speaker’s attempt at a performative speech act. If “the arm of the mighty” were the speaker’s to command, his words would perform an action: they would transport the convict, “plant” him somewhere where he “might’st blossom again.” Such a closing further connects Wordsworth to Godwin. As Angela Esterhammer points out, Jeremy Bentham “interpreted laws as verbal utterances exchanged between sovereigns and subjects” (554). While Bentham describes laws as speech acts, Godwin believes, as is clear in Political Justice, that language’s “only legitimate purpose is the communication of truth” and that words should never do anything (Esterhammer 555). According to Esterhammer, for Godwin, “all speech acts that attempt to exert control over future behavior ultimately work against the improvement of society because they institutionalize error, protect existing abuses, and prevent reform” (557). In other words, temporality troubles
contracts, oaths, pledges, promises, and all other performative speech acts.
Bentham’s classification of laws and Godwin’s, to borrow the title of Esterhammer’s
essay, “suspicion of speech acts” provide an useful context for examining the close of “The
Convict.” The speaker imagines himself in a position to make a verbal utterance that would carry with it the weight of the law. “If” he commanded the power of the monarch, the speaker’s words would enact the very political reform that critics have identified in Godwin and Wordsworth.
While Godwin’s main anxiety about performative speech acts centers around time, the anxiety of Wordsworth’s speaker appears to have more to do with who has the capacity to make a performative utterance. “The Convict,” then, documents two types of representative failure. First, the “fancy” of the speaker shows the reader what lies in the convict’s heart after his judgment and imprisonment. Secondly, as is evident throughout the poem and forcefully so at its close, the monarch and “public justice” do not represent the will of the sympathetic speaker.
Perhaps the poem’s attempt to represent more “accurately” a marginalized figure and its meditation on the failure of political representation more generally connects it to the larger democratic purpose of Lyrical Ballads that will be announced in 1800.