Wordsworth and Empire — Just Joking

  • David Simpson
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)

Abstract

The dynamics of Empire and their presence in Romantic writing have been lately much inspected, and most people probably think they know what Wordsworth thought about them. He did not, one might say, think much about them at all, lining up with a number of other major writers who seem to have said very little on the difficult topics of slavery, imperialism, commerce and conquest. To be sure there is the vigorous critique of militarist empire-building in the ‘Salisbury Plain’ poem, along with the more or less sympathetic 1802 sonnets on Toussaint and on the ‘female Passenger’ exiled from France because of her race; but then there are those purple passages in The Excursion which might well continue to make us wince even if we convince ourselves that they are dramatic and not doctrinal, the property of the poem’s speakers and not (or not simply) of its author. We may wince because it is after all the ‘poet’, and not one of the more obviously distanced characters, who launches into an encomium on the state and church of England — ‘Hail to the State of England!’ (BK. 6, 1.6)1 — in a moment of hyperbole that elides the controversial unions of 1707 and 1800 with Scotland and Ireland, and quite forgets the earlier one with Wales. We are sensitive to these matters now. It is hard to make the case that this voice is not Wordsworth’s own — for the poet says hardly anything in this poem, at least not enough to deserve the attribution of a dramatic personality clearly or interestingly distinct from that of the author.

Keywords

Beach Fishing Alan Mist Vale 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, eds E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940–49), vol 5, p. 186. All further references to the Excursion in text are to CW, vol 5.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Lyrical Balladsand Other Poems, 1797–1800, eds James Butler and Karen Green (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 236. [Henceforth LB in text.]Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    David Simpson, Irony and Authority in Romantic Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 72–6; Alan Bewell, Wordsworth and the Enlightenment: Nature, Man and Society in the Experimental Poetry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 71–105; Michael Wiley, Romantic Geography: Wordsworth and Anglo-European Spaces (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 79–126.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    John Barrell, TheDark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Greg Dening, Mr. Blighs Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 262.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The Journals of Captain Cook, ed. Philip Edwards (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 32, 138, 135, 141. [Henceforth Journals in text.] The importance of Cook’s narratives is the topic of Bernard Smith’s Imagining the Pacific: In the Wake of the Cook Voyages (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992). Smith suggests their influence upon ‘The Ancient Mariner’.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay: An Explanation of Landscape and History (New York: Knopf, 1988), p. 31.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    John Barrell’s The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991) is a powerful demonstration of the fact that one does not have to leave the country in order to absorb and reproduce the commonplaces of an imperialist culture.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850: A Study in the History of Art and Ideas (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 20.Google Scholar
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    The importance of this debate to the theory of fine art is the subject of John Barrell’s The Political Theory of Painting From Reynolds to Hazlitt: ‘The Body of the Public’ (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
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    David Mackay, ‘Agents of Empire: The Banksian Collectors and Evaluation of New Lands’, in David Philip Miller and Peter Hanns Reill, eds, Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 38–57. See pp. 39, 43.Google Scholar
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    James Jenkinson, A Generic and Specific Description of British Plants, Translated from the Genera et Species Plantarum of the Celebrated Linnaeus (Kendal: T. Caslon, etc., 1775), p. ix.Google Scholar
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    This is the major topic of my Wordsworths Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement (New York and London: Methuen, 1987).Google Scholar
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    The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume One, 1794–1804, ed. Kathleen Coburn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), N 863. Wordsworth owned the third edition (1796) of Withering’s book, and in August 1801 he ordered two botanical microscopes advertized in the endpages. For information on the Wordsworth household’s botanizing habits I am most grateful to Robert and Pamela Woof, Ann Lambert and Molly Lefebure.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    A Dissertation on the Sexes of Plants. Translated from the Latin of Linnaeus by James Edward Smith (London: George Nicol, 1786), pp. 660. I am grateful to Marijane Osborne for help with the detective work on osmunda regalis. Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, Part II. Containing the Loves of the Plants, a Poem (Lichfield: J. Jackson, 1789). Facsimile edn. Oxford and New York: Woodstock Books, 1991, p. 11.Google Scholar
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    William Withering, An Arrangement of British Plants, According to the Latest Improvements of the Linnaean System, with an Easy Introduction to the Study ofBotany, 6th edn, 4 vols (London, 1818). The preface to the third edition is reprinted here (I: xvi).Google Scholar
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    Alan Bewell, “Jacobin Plants”: Botany as Social Theory in the 1790s’, The Wordsworth Circle, 20 (1989), pp. 132–9. The 1790s saw a huge increase in the number of publications on botanical subjects: see John Gascoigne, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: Useful Knowledge and Polite Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 109. Gascoigne also describes the competition between rival classification systems (pp. 98–107): not everyone subscribed to the Linnaean taxonomy. See also Judith Pascoe, ‘Female Botanists and the Poetry of Charlotte Smith’, in Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, eds, Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–1837 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), pp. 193–209. Nicola Trott, in ‘Wordsworth’s Loves of the Plants’, in Nicola Trott and Seamus Perry, eds, 1800: The New Lyrical Ballads (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp. 141–68, thinks that ‘Queen Osmunda’ is an invented figure and suggests a purposively muted address on Wordsworth’s part to the very visible debate about sex and botany. (p. 162).Google Scholar
  19. 21.
    See Dava Sobel and William J.H. Andrewes, The Illustrated Longitude (New York: Walker & Co., 1998), pp. 165–77.Google Scholar
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    James McCusick, ‘Coleridge and the Economy of Nature’, Studies in Romanticism, 35 (1996), pp. 375–92.Google Scholar
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    Alison Hickey, ‘Dark Characters, Native Grounds: Wordsworth’s Imagination of Imperialism’, in Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh, eds, Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780–1834 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 284, 290.Google Scholar
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    Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and tne c,utture or naoaerniry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 32.Google Scholar

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© David Simpson 2005

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  • David Simpson

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