The Inescapable Wordsworth

My dissertation began as an attempt to distill a current of Romantic writing that has no use for the elegiac or the morbid—a Romanticism indifferent to death. I wanted to dilate moments that seemed to stray from the program of what Frances Ferguson called Wordsworth’s epitaphic mode—a mode of remembrance that Paul de Man recast as the figural anticipation of death. My suspicion was that the coherence of Romanticism as the object of literary history relied, at least in part, on the fetishization of death. (I place this argument in a broader historical context here).

There is of course plenty of morbidity in Romantic-period writing (and eighteenth-century writing, and Restoration writing, to say nothing of Victorian writing…), but I hoped to show that death was by no means as essential or decisive for the period as literary history sometimes suggests. At core, I was imagining a Romanticism without Wordsworth—at least without the Wordsworth who was christened by Matthew Arnold the “English Orpheus.” Though the reception of Wordsworth’s engagement with death would shift from the Excursive Wordsworth of the Victorians to the Preludial Wordsworth of the twentieth century, the centrality of elegy and epitaph persisted. (Remarks on Wordsworth and elegy, and also James Bond, here.) So I was going to try to read Wordsworth out of Romantic-period writing. In the space I would clear by evicting Wordsworth, I wanted to sketch an alternative history in miniature that, I hoped, would be truer to the multifariousness of the period in its thinking—and not thinking—about death.

Midway through my dissertation’s journey, it occurs to me that it is a strange thing to build a project around an anti-topic. Such a project may find itself with no topic at all, or, even more ominously, it may find itself defined by the very topos it set out to undo. The result is so predictable that I am certain I must have desired it from the outset: Wordsworth and his epitaphic mode, in its most canonical instances, have steadily colonized my dissertation.


I have long known this is what writing is: writing simply is this finding yourself backwards, inside out, elsewhere than intended. But I have known this only in some abstract sense. The consequences of an idea cannot be foreseen. It develops unpredictably, refracted and compounded by the myriads of other ideas (and texts) against which it jostles in the space of the undertaking. This I knew. But I know it with a different intimacy now, in the intensity and scale of a dissertation-length project. It induces a sheepish and pleasurable humility to continually discover what everyone already knows.


I know many of us are interested in the processes of scholarship, its writing, reading, thinking. It would fascinate me to see a representation of the time and research that went into each sentence of a book—the rise and fall from sentence to sentence, page to page would present a kind of topography of effort. And yet part of the rhetorical function of the book is to disappear that effort into a seamless, placid surface. Inspired by Arden Hegele’s brief cuts, I’ve snipped some Wordsworth off the project’s margins for the present occasion. My hope is that these framing remarks will agitate and disturb the readings that follow, restoring a sense of their originary confusion, or, if that confusion remains plainly perceivable, perhaps these remarks can offer a precise etiology of the symptoms exhibited here. In keeping with the nature of this problem, I’ll work with a text that is itself about the process of attempting (and failing) to produce second-order coherence out of first-order confusion: Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray.”

We recall that the poem’s first three stanzas relate the myth of Lucy Gray:

Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray,
And, when I cross’d the Wild,
I chanc’d to see at break of day
The solitary Child.

No Mate, no comrade Lucy knew;
She dwelt on a wide Moor,
The sweetest Thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!

You yet may spy the fawn at play,
The Hare upon the Green;
But the sweet face of Lucy Gray
Will never more be seen.

These stanzas, as well as the poem’s final two stanzas, do the work of organizing and framing its central story. The center of the poem is first-order reading; the frame is second-order reading, which aims to contain, manage, and give meaning to the tale of Lucy Gray’s disappearance. Lucy, we are told at the outset, is solitary and wild. She is set in parallel with fawn and hare, a Rousseauvian child of nature that grew not in but “Beside a human door!” (Humans grow up, they don’t just grow. Imagine saying, “That’s the house where I grew!” You’re not a plant. But Lucy Gray kind of was, we are led to believe.)

When we enter the body of the poem, it becomes clear that this framing myth is totally incommensurate with its source text. Lucy is a farm girl with a mother and a father. She is no wild child, no solitary enfant sauvage, but rather participates in the domestic economy of rural life. At her father’s behest, she goes a long ways to town to help her mother return, gets lost, and disappears. She presumably dies, and her body is never found. That’s it.

Or at least, this is the disenchanted, naturalistic explanation the poem suggests, just as Wordsworth makes sure to license a naturalistic explanation of “Goody Blake and Harry Gill.” The latter poem goes to redundant pains to convey to the reader that Harry hears Goody’s curse, and that it is thus his own guilt, not the intervention of whatever heterodox God Goody appeals to, that enacts the “curse.” If you want a supernatural explanation, you can have it, but it arrives only as an inessential supplement. The poem is constructed to tolerate both the supernaturalism of Harry Gill’s world and the naturalism of the reader’s world, but these are not equal perspectives, since the former perspective is enveloped by the latter. It is in this sense that the poem offers its winking subtitle, “A true story.” 1

We could say more about what I’m calling the first-order text, the primary narrative of Lucy’s disappearance. But in a rough sense, my paraphrase captures the action: we end with Lucy’s trail of footprints disappearing in the middle of a bridge. And then we get two stanzas of folk theology to make sense of this primary text:

Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.

O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.

What is at stake here is the refusal of death. The village—for I take the village itself to be the true narrator of the poem—keeps Lucy a “living Child,” in presence, however translucent and evasive. The cost of her indefinite life is that she becomes the text of nature. If nothing in her homely domestic life seems to license that transformation, that fact isn’t going to get in the way of the mythmaking apparatus at work here. The upshot is that by holding onto the “living Child,” the community is effectively denying the necessity of a transcendental afterlife in favor of immanent life, however spectral. Lucy will not be committed to deathly alteriority of heaven.

This process is, I suggest, the socialized version of the perspective voiced by the eight-year-old girl that stars in “We are seven.” Her present-tense insistence on ARE is an assertion of the continued life of her dead siblings, albeit in changed form:

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
“And they are side by side.

Sure enough, the poet-narrator flips out and tries to convince her that her siblings are really, really dead. But psychologically and phenomenologically, her dead brother and sister are far more alive than her siblings at sea—who are not only decisively absent, but may soon (may already) be casualties of war with France.

What she demonstrates is that “natural” psychology cannot yield the text of Anglican orthodoxy. The ideological foundations of the Church depend absolutely upon the special kind of absence represented by death, which can only be redeemed by a special kind of return to life, the Resurrection. But this “wildly clad” child of nature, with her “rustic, woodland air,” is immune to the logics of the church, despite the fact that she is living on the property of that esteemed institution.

The myth that emerges in “Lucy Gray” is what happens when the little girl of “We are seven” lives on to be integrated into the local community. We have moved from a simple assertion of continuing vitality (“Their graves are green”) to the more elaborate machinery of perdurance that is myth, whose composition has surely required the collective ingenuity of the community. But the refusal of death, and thus of the afterlife in heaven, persists between the two poems, at the respective levels of individual and social psychology. If the Wordsworth persona cannot be persuaded to refuse death its privilege as transcendent absence, that refusal is precisely what he finds in the marginalized and broken rural milieu of Lyrical Ballads, a deeply heterodox world of “natural” belief that does not believe in death.


  1. This is a decent preliminary sketch of Wordsworthian secularization: the poet persona is fascinated by the capacity for belief he finds in the shattered rural cultures his poems survey. But these forms of belief are of interest precisely insofar as the poet cannot share in them, and so he labors instead to dramatize and record them for posterity as aesthetic objects framed in advance by anthropological curiosity.