Tag Archives: Romanticism

Editing Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth’s Decision to Remove “The Convict”

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.


Romanticism: A State of the Union

Inspired by the President’s recent State of the Union address, I have decided to offer you, my Romantic brethren, a review of the state of Romantic studies. Despite our brooding Byronic ways, our Union is getting stronger. The house of cards may indeed have fallen, but our field is not languishing on the marble steps. Moneta will come!

::obligatory applause break::

The 2010 NASSR Conference in Vancouver, British Colombia took the idea of “Romantic Mediations” as its theme. Participants were encouraged to submit proposals that explored communication technologies and print culture. As the call for papers makes clear, “The era that saw the invention of semaphore, telegraphy, the continuous-feed press, and the difference engine, the Romantic in all its senses might be characterized as a period of significant experimentation in media and ideas of mediations” (NASSR). While many papers engaged with new inventions and their effects on Romantic era works – I heard an excellent paper regarding the influence semaphore had on theatrical gesturing practices – others utilized the concepts and language of media and mediation in order to offer new and perhaps more precise ways of engaging with and understanding key Romantic writers and texts.

The issues and concerns of last year’s NASSR conference are also being addressed by McGill University’s ongoing collaborative endeavor “Interacting with Print: Cultural Practices of Intermediality 1700-1900.” Founded in 2005, the interdisciplinary and interinstitutional research group headed by Susan Dalton, Andrew Piper, Tom Mole and others sets out to investigate “how people interacted with printed matter, how they used print media to interact with other people and how printed texts and images interacted within complex media ecologies.” The group focuses on the relations and interactions between various media. In order to more accurately, in its terms, “situate” print, the collaborative group sets out to debunk three prevalent scholarly “myths”: that print displaced other media, that print equals letterpress or engraving, and that print culture is national culture. In the online manifesto for “Interacting with Print,” the group claims that their “research activities will provide a more specific understanding of print’s place in the production, dissemination and reception of culture in a period that saw the development of mass media.” Print, as this quotation makes clear, was only one of many mediums for producing and disseminating culture and oftentimes incorporated other forms of media such as printed images.

Together, the conference and working research group speak to a set of issues being addressed by current critics of the Romantic period. Many scholars, including myself, have asked why this interest in media and mediation is emerging at the present moment. I believe that the answer, at least in part, lies in the new descriptions and definitions of the Romantic period and Romanticism offered by thinkers like Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler. In his 1982 work Orality and Literacy, Ong claims that the Romantic desire for “autonomous utterance” is facilitated by print and speaks to the “alliance of the Romantic movement with technology” (158). That is, print mediates the Romantic desire for interiority and individuality. According to Ong, there is a clear correlation between the mediums of Romantic art, in this instance print, and the prevalent artistic ideology of the period. Relying on and citing Ong’s work with notable frequency, John David Black’s recent book The Politics of Enchantment: Romanticism, Media, and Cultural Studies labels Romanticism as one of the effects of print: “Coming some three centuries after the invention of the mechanical press, romanticism was the mature cultural expression of the cumulative effects of Gutenberg’s breakthrough” (134). This quotation makes Romanticism the result of the proliferation of print that started with Gutenberg’s press.

Similarly to Ong, Kittler’s landmark work Discourse Networks 1800/1900, published in 1985 in the original German and translated into English in 1990, draws attention to the relationship between media and Romanticism. Especially important to Kittler’s text is Foucault’s essay “Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside.” In this early work, Foucault develops what David Wellbery calls “a lexicon of exteriority” (xii). The French thinker sets out to distinguish between language itself and “the apparatuses of power, storage, transmission, training, reproduction, and so forth that make up the conditions of factual discursive occurrences” (Wellbery xii). Like Foucault before him, Kittler’s work situates what is said or written in a secondary position and instead focuses on these “apparatuses.” His decision to title his 1987 follow up work Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter further underscores the important role communication and storage apparatuses play in his thinking. For Kittler, scholars are always dealing with media, with the technological possibilities of any given epoch because it is through the media of a given moment that “something like “poetry” or “literature” can take shape” (Wellbery xiii). As Thomas Streeter points out, Kittler “suggests that one should understand romanticism, not as a collection of texts or a historical period, but as a way of organizing discourse through practices of writing, reading, and relating” (777). Streeter and other critics, however, also feel that Kittler’s work often places too much emphasis on technologies and, at times, veers towards techno-determinism. Yet, these criticisms aside, the German thinker’s influence over contemporary literary studies in general as well as Romantic criticism is undeniable.

Clifford Siskin and William Warner’s collection of essays, This Is Enlightenment, elaborates upon the ideas present in Discourse Networks as well as Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter. The two critics argue that every history constructed by literary scholars has its benefits but a history of what they term “mediation” has the potential to “clarify both the singularity of each local event and what those events have in common” (11). They “use “mediation” here in its broadest sense as shorthand for the work done by tools, by what we now call “media” of every kind – everything that intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in between” (4). In this passage we can begin to see the similarities to Ong, Foucault, and Kittler’s focus on the technologies and “apparatuses” of given historical moments. Siskin and Warner, who were the keynote speakers at the NASSR conference referred to at the start of this post, show that “mediation was always necessary but the forms of mediation differ over time” and therefore there exists “a history of mediation” (9). Under this new framework, the Enlightenment becomes “an event in the history of mediation” (1). The Enlightenment was facilitated by a historically specific set of forms of mediation such as print, reading, writing, and other associational and relational practices.

Naturally, redefining the Enlightenment in such a manner leaves critics of the Romantic and Victorian eras asking what place in the new history their own periods hold. Siskin and Warner address this question in their 2011 article in The European Romantic Review, “If this is Enlightenment, Then What Is Romanticism?” According to the article, “Enlightenment is an event, Romanticism is an eventuality, and Victorianism is a variation” (290). The forms of mediation do not change or proliferate in equal measure. That is, some moments, in this instance the Enlightenment, have both a greater variety and number of forms of mediation than others. The claim that Romanticism can be seen as an “eventuality” also reflects John David Black’s claim that Romanticism is the “mature cultural” result of the Gutenberg press.

If the “apparatuses” of storage, transmission, communication, etc. are worthwhile objects of inquiry and if the Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation, then how is the current scholar of the Romantic period to engage with and comment upon a work or a collection of works? Or, as John Richetti asks in his review of the This Is Enlightenment collection, “How would foregrounding mediation change the kinds and areas of inquiry in our own epoch?”

Yours in Romanticism,

Randall Sessler, NYU

Romantic Living

I realize the title of my first piece sounds like a Redbook article. It isn’t. Yet. But, I thought for my first post it’d be good to introduce myself by talking a little about how I’ve come to do, and view, Romantic studies and, in so doing, gesture towards why I think our field is particularly special. I do this because as we’re making the turn toward the end of an academic term it’s good to pat one’s self on the back and to do the same for others pursuing similar interests. In order to rescue this piece, however, from being mere intellectual biography, which admittedly would be pretty drab, I hope some of you reading will chime in in the comments about what your initial experiences were that initiated you into the field and how that informs (or doesn’t) the work you do now.

I’m generally positioned in eighteenth and nineteenth century art, and moving towards specializing in Blake studies in the Department of Art History at the University of Oregon. What I’ve loved from the beginning about Romantic studies is how my intellectual, social, political, and environmental commitments can exist as an integrated whole—life as a romanticist has to some degree, for myself, as I know it has for others, always functioned as a way of living as a type of art in itself.  Continue reading Romantic Living