Having written a first draft in 1799, William Wordsworth completed The Prelude
in 1805, a thirteen-book epic of the development of the poet's mind. He considered
it too personal and arrogant for publication - he felt he needed a lifetime
to prove the poetic gifts it claimed - and tinkered with it the rest of his
life. It was first published in 1850, shortly after his death, by which time
he was Poet Laureate and in receipt of a Civil Pension. In 1850 the lyric intensity
of John Keats was all the rage, so the discursive ease and breadth of The
Prelude - recollection of inspired 'spots of time' interspersed with more
banal reminiscence - looked old-fashioned. However, Wordworth's fame and status
meant the work was widely read. The Prelude proposes communion with Nature
as a moral foundation to replace a Christianity challenged by new developments
in historical research, geology and evolutionary biology. Such British institutions
as the National Trust, the Right to Roam, Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts, the autobiographical
novel, Lake District tourism and eco-protest are all inconceivable without his
Wordsworth (1770-1850) also set the mold for the trajectory of the bourgeois personality, which is to steer a path from radical youth to conservative old age. In 1792, fired up with the ideals of the French Revolution, he'd considered marrying Annette Vallon from Blois (by whom he'd had a daughter), and throwing himself into support of the Girondist faction. However, as often with drop-outs drawn to poetry and revolution, he ran out of cash, and returned home. He read Tom Paine and William Godwin, and continued to support revolutionary France, though he hated Robespierre's reign of terror. He nursed a friend named Raisley Calvert through a consumptive death, and received a legacy of £900 (Calvert understood that Wordsworth's poetry was aimed at posterity rather than paying readers). This made him economically secure. When Britain declared war on France, he was shocked to find himself dissenting from church congregations praying - and raising money - for British troops. When France invaded Switzerland in 1798, he turned against the revolutionary regime. He lacked the internationalist, working-class perspective which enabled the Chartists to view imperial adventures as the corollary of repression at home: the ability to move to the LEFT when faced with atrocious regimes. In 1802, Wordsworth inherited money owed to his father by the Earl of Lonsdale (whose failure to pay John Wordsworth, his attorney, meant that William grew up poor, separated from his beloved sister Dorothy). In 1813, he obtained the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland (£400 per annum), and by 1818 was campaigning for Lord Lonsdale's election as Tory candidate. Keats was shocked. This decline into reaction, piety and nationalism was regretted by the second generation of romantics.
It is commonly held that, despite prunings which make some phrases more concise, the 1850 Prelude is no improvement. As might be expected, the 1805 original is fresher, and the later ban on commonplace expressions now appears mannered. Not that this matters much to socialists, since the quote we use to show that Wordsworth is 'one of us' is the same in both (apart from punctuation):
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven;
The Prelude (1805) X, 692-3; (1850) XI, 108-9
On the Left (Paul Foot's Red Shelley; Mark Steel's Viva La Revolution), this
is celebrated as Wordsworth's response to the French Revolution. However, it's
not quite the literary equivalent of sans-culottes hurling their red caps in
the air as the Bastille went up in flames. When it was first published, in The
Friend No. 11, 26 October 1809, Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained that it
was a reponse to the Peace of Amiens (1802), a brief respite in the Napoleonic
Wars. Coleridge - then to the right of Wordsworth - glossed it as a response
to France's 'Oath of Peace and Good-will to all Mankind'. The Peace meant that
Wordsworth and Dorothy were able to cross the Channel to visit Annette and see
his daughter Caroline (then ten years old). Of course, it was commitment to
the ideals of the Revolution which meant that Wordsworth had a family in France
and found the war with France abhorrent, but socialists expecting revolutionary
fervour from The Prelude will be disappointed. The cause of Modernism
in poetry - which can legitimately claim Vladimir Mayakovsky, André Breton
and Bertolt Brecht for the side of Revolution - is damaged when commentators
pretend that bourgeois poets like Wordsworth are already there. The reality
may be disappointing to a socialist identity-politics, but it's actually more
During this dawn of bliss, the 'meagre, stale, forbidding ways/Of custom, law, and statute' were not blown away, but on the contrary, 'took at once the attraction of a Country in Romance' (X, 694-7). The passage is a paean - a moving paean - to those moments when the alienated idealist feels called upon by history, when politics no longer seem irrelevant and sordid, and all things seem possible. He talks of poets ('play-fellows of fancy'; 'mild schemers') being
... call'd upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterraneous Fields,
Or some secreted Island, Heaven knows where,
But in the very world which is the world
Of all of us, the place on which, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all. (X, 722-7)
The close of this passage shows how far Wordsworth was in 1804 from the Christian
dogma which later reclaimed him. Nevertheless, he observes there will also be
unpropitious times in which the idealist's skills will not be called upon. This
implies a stable, customary - and comfortable - life as an alternative to politics.
This is very far from the stance of the Marxist revolutionary, for whom capitalist
business-as-usual is a nightmare from which we're trying to awake.
Canons in literature look impregnable. It's therefore tempting for socialists to treat them like the landscape, and simply raid them for useful material. However, the notion of Great Literature is created afresh by each generation. It's a collective, dialogic endeavour. His ears ringing with the high-toned speeches of Shakespeare and the politico-religious reformulations of Milton, Wordsworth wanted to create something similar for his own age. The Prelude was explicitly written for his friend Coleridge, who would recite his lines and test them against passages from the classics. However, although he revived Shakespeare's blank verse for the poem, Wordsworth also understood William Cowper's hilarious riposte to epic heroism in The Task (1785), which began:
I sing the Sofa. I who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touch'd with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand
Escaped with pain from that adventurous flight,
Now seek repose upon an humbler theme;
The Prelude attempts to find morality and nobility in everyday things, and respects the experiences of untutored shepherds and vagrants. It has a level-headed, democratic address, an attempt to take the reader to the heights of vision with the poet. Wordsworth was shocked by the wordly sophistication he encountered as a student at Cambridge, and recoiled into his books. In Book III of The Prelude ('Residence at Cambridge'), he denounces university life with an uncharacteristic rash of Augustan personifications ('Honour misplaced, and Dignity astray;/Feuds, Factions, Flatteries, Enmity, and Guile,' 635-6) and concludes:
and meek Worth
Left to itself unheard of, and unknown. (III, 642-3)
It's hard not to see a projection of himself - William Wordsworth - in this
'meek Worth'. The Prelude engages with the philosophical issues of his day -
especially the ideas of perception debated by Locke, Hume and Berkeley - but
did not seek resolution so much as a vivid depiction of the poet's mental trials.
Wordsworth initiated the idea of literature as self expression, something that
persisted until modernism laid bare the social determinants of culture.
Coleridge wrestled with the new German idealist philosophy of Kant and Schelling - whose dialectical philosophy would finally provide the answer to many of the romantics' dilemmas - but when he took Wordsworth to Germany in 1798, he couldn't persuade him to study in Göttingen (instead, Wordsworth and his sister stayed the winter in a tiny town named Goslar). Wordsworth was convinced that unless his 'feelings' were involved, intellectual activity was mechanical and worthless. Although Coleridge's appropriations of German philosophy were frazzled and cock-eyed enough to make anyone wary, this anti-intellectualism limited Wordsworth's politics, and arguably his poetry too.
In his lectures on The Prelude at Cambridge in 1975, the poet J.H. Prynne commented that Wordsworth's homeliness implied that 'the only happiness surviving the Fall is domestic virtue'. Making a religion of the home has been the core of middle-class ideology ever since, from the nineteenth-century emphasis on the respectable family unit as the cure for all social ills to the current epidemic of home-improvement programmes on TV (where family values become property specualtion and landlordism). Social criticism which points out the repercussions of bourgeois home comfort (and its aggressive mobile unit, the private car) - alienation, abuse, impossible house prices, exploitative rents, wars for oil, exploitation of international labour torn from its safe havens, eco-devastation - is condemned by middle-class ideologists as 'abstract' and 'impersonal'. With Wordsworth on their side, it's also called 'unpoetic'.
As a reaction to William Godwin's rationalism, Wordsworth's emphasis on feeling is understandable. However, although middle-class ideology (and editorials in the Sun) calls Marxism 'soulless', Marx's passionate intellectualism is something very different. His dialectic includes the thinking subject, and sought to discover the specific determinants of its desires and cravings (social class). Likewise, Freud argued that feelings are not simply the voice of Nature, but currents determined by individual aetiology, instinctual drives which psychoanalysis can unravel. Wordsworth's sentimentality about his feelings easily becomes a defence of injustice and privilege. Politicians who warn charitable liberals that they need to take into account the 'fears' of those who believe poverty is created by asylum seekers are speaking a similar language. Respect for feeling blots out facts and realistic debate. György Lukács explained Nazism as the ultimate conclusion of this assault on reason.
However, Prynne's exposition shows there's something beyond quietism and anti-intellectualism in The Prelude. These may have been what Wordsworth ended up expressing, but we can learn from his path there. This is the transformation of poetic language required to bring the heroic language of Homer, Shakespeare and Milton down to earth. The Augustan poetry of Alexander Pope talked of nature in the present tense, analysing a mechanical, unchanging universe. Wordsworth read John Hutton's Theory of the Earth (1788) and understood fluvial erosion: rivers were not natural fixtures, but historical phenomena. The sound of flowing water recurs, and the words 'flow', 'flux', 'influx' and 'influence' form a guiding cluster. The Prelude is not a finished work, but a process. Wordsworth's flowing diction allows him to include the observations of previous poems as part of a discussion about the nature of feeling and intellect. In Milton, persistent personification aligns individual to general values as part of a symbolic contract; for Wordsworth, the sense of self and others is emergent, the result of activity. This is why, even if we find the honeyed homeliness and nature-rapture stifling, self-congratulatory and slightly ridiculous, The Prelude still matters. The Prelude is full of bright, visionary moments amidst 'dull' egoistic observation because it has the idea of the self as self-made rather than defined by an absolute social structure. This makes his poetry revolutionary and critical.
Strikingly, this parallels what Theodor Adorno observed about Beethoven, whose Fidelio was first performed in 1805, just as Wordsworth finished The Prelude. Unlike baroque music, whose form is architectural and static, Beethoven's structures are emergent, created anew for each occasion. Even tonality - taken by Roger Scruton to be some kind of over-arching natural law of music - was invented for the purposes of each composition. In Beethoven, argues Adorno, tonality is a 'becoming' (Beethoven: The Philsophy of Music §35). Wordsworth and Beethoven exerted a powerful influence over literature and music for a reason. They made of inherited form something able to articulate the experience of individuals in a new social order, the thrust towards freedom and universality which is part of the contradictory movement of capital.
Fidelio is Beethoven's only opera. Because he saw something revolutionary in harmonic development itself - a musical seriousness which, in the twentieth century, only John Coltrane managed to equal - Beethoven usually did without representational trappings. His stormy relationship to audiences was a product of the same problem which faced Wordsworth and Coleridge: the transition from feudal patronage to marketplace relations. In an attempt to make the music he wanted to hear, he juggled patrons, promoters and publishers. The story of Fidelio is about bourgeois defiance of aristocratic tyranny, as a faithful wife enters a prison in disguise to free her husband. Its central image is that of light - the Enlightenment - breaking into the cobweb-encrusted dungeon of feudal despair. Its most touching moment (the quartet "Mir ist so wunderbar") is a canon, with four unhappy lovers weaving their lines together in an exquisitely refined, slow-motion folk song. This provided the basis for the erotic tensions of Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier, but Beethoven's music is earthy rather than decadent. It was deemed sufficiently 'German' to be exploited by the Nazis, as it was in a performance in Graz in Austria in 1933. When the Nazis annexed Austria, Fidelio was the first opera to be performed, at a gala concert in Vienna in March 1938 with Hermann Goering in attendance. My mother, who visited Germany as an exchange student shortly before the war remembered attending a performance of Fidelio where the some of the audience wept during the prison scene because so many had loved-ones incarcerated by the Nazi regime.
In the Black Dog Opera Library CD edition of Fidelio, Robert Levine says this 'indicates its compelling complexity ... only a work of art of great import can be both used and misused with such potency'. Actually, this 'misuse' merely indicates that the bourgeois national revolutions provided insufficient politics for an epoch of mass communications and imperialism, which require an internationalist, working-class perspective. When Fidelio was performed in 1945 to celebrate the Allied victory - rather than something by Brecht/Weill or Schoenberg, whose works had actually been banned by the Nazis - it signalled, not radical denazification, but 'back to normal' for capitalist Germany.
Even though Beethoven treats the vocal parts instrumentally in Fidelio, the drama inhibits the musical argument, creating quaint throwbacks to courtly formality. Although the singers engage in dialogue, they must continually negotiate song forms which lack the open-ended nature of conversation. It's like viewing photographs through panes of distorting glass. Whereas Beethoven's symphonies and chamber music treat traditional forms as starting materials to be burst apart and played with ('developed'), here they keep locking the action into tragic predestiny. The celebration of freedom is bland and generalised; the affirmations of the chorus might serve any ideology: fascist, communist or liberal. One can be seduced by its hymn to freedom, but there is something cloying at work. Unlike the composers and writers the Nazis banned, the listener must surrender an aspect of critical intelligence.
Marx's argument at the start of Capital is that commodity fetishism prevents us grasping the social basis of production under capitalism. When Coleridge and Wordsworth engaged in stale evaluations of their phrases - the anxiety over 'signs of genius' we now associate with the mindset of the bright sixthformer, or with the most banal broadsheet remarks on culture - they are similarly bewitched. They are dealing with an early form of celebrity brokering, when, no longer able to secure patronage from aristocrats, cultural producers looked to the market. The claim to be writing for posterity is a ruse, a secular replacement for the imaginary rewards of religion. However, it did allow them to develop poetry which disregarded the tastes of the time and ended up transforming literary standards. Although when it's marketed, the concept of 'genius' becomes the inevitable tag, pertinent writing emerges from collective endeavour and shared aesthetic and political tenets, not from lonely genius.
Despite the attempts of the establishment to preserve 'classical' music in aspic, the social conditions of making and hearing music have changed completely today ('Beethoven - his language, his substance and tonality in general, that is, the whole system of bourgeois music - is irrecoverably lost to us', Adorno §11). Today, individual composers seeking the exalted heights of Beethoven founder on the conservatism of orchestral technique. Although in line with the middle-class ideology which sees classical music as 'above' market values, Levine's case for Fidelio also relies on marketplace fetishism. He presents it as a 'masterpiece', an unassailable commodity. His defence of its political ambiguity is an ideology to prevent music becoming a nuisance for the authorities. Contrary to his statement, great music (Beethoven's included) emerges precisly when its makers understand and amplify its political import. In the twentieth century, this meant tapping the revolutionary potential of industrialised culture, and revealing mass opposition to racism, capitalism and authority (Coltrane, Hendrix, Sex Pistols).
The Prelude and Fidelio may only be freed from their reactionary roles today by breaking with the myth of the genius and the transcendent artwork - the consumable, commodified entity - and viewing them as attempts to realise moments of spontaneity and freedom with the artistic means available at the time. That these means have multiplied exponentially - a baffling array of cultural practices designed to separate us from our hard-earned cash - is the challenge facing anti-capitalist artists and political revolutionaries today.
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