. 3
( 8)


fered in¬‚ation, that facts have lost their value by becoming too ˜common™,
crosses political divides and allies some unexpected voices. Shelley™s diag-
nosis in the Defence of Poetry that ˜[w]e want the creative faculty to imagine
that which we know™ in this light has a kinship with Francis Jeffrey™s ac-
knowledgement in an ±± review that both the increased discovery, and
˜the general diffusion of knowledge tends [. . .] powerfully to repress all
original and independent speculation in individuals [. . .]™.± Thus was
born what Thomas Pfau terms ˜the professionalization of leisure™, whereby
the aesthetic was transformed by a culturally insurgent but politically
disenfranchised middle class into the privileged commodity of superior
subjectivity, a product that can only be experienced productively.±° In this
way, pure creativity is saved from the grinding mill of the utilitarian econ-
omy and rehabilitated by means of a self-re¬‚exive social consciousness.
As will be seen, however, the anxious tension with knowledge persists.
·° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
This ¬nally brings us up to date with Wordsworth and Hazlitt, and how
in their hands poetry or creative ˜power™ turns the tables upon knowledge
by challenging epistemology itself. Yet at the same time they struggled to
reconcile the numinous halo surrounding genius and poetic value with a
concept of knowledge which remained anchored in foundationalism of
a distinctly empirical cast. Kant™s ±·° discussion of genius in the Critique
of Judgement was not yet available in Britain. As Leslie Stephen points
out, ˜[i]f Kant had never lived, or had lived in Pekin[g], English thinkers
in the eighteenth century would not have been less conscious of his
position™.±± Indeed, though his work was to become more widely known
in Britain in the ¬rst few decades of the next century, it was generally
perceived as either sunk in mysticism or harking back to the exploded
thesis of innatism. Stewart™s biting remark in the belated second volume
of his Elements (±±) that ˜I can, without much vanity, say, that, with
less expense of thought, I could have rivalled the obscurity of Kant™ is
not untypical.± Coleridge alone fully engaged with the implications of
Kant™s new deal: it was the task of writers such as Wordsworth and Hazlitt
to mediate between creative indifference and foundational knowledge
without the apparatus of transcendental method.

The charm of logic: Wordsworth™s prose

A tranquillizing spirit presses now
On my corporeal frame, so wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days,
Which yet have such self-presence in my mind
That sometimes when I think of them I seem
Two consciousnesses “ conscious of myself,
And of some other being.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude ±

By the time Coleridge proclaimed that Wordsworth was capable of pro-
ducing England™s ˜F©   G ® µ ©®  P© ¬   ° ©  P ™, the state of
philosophy itself in Britain was at a crossroads, caught between an empiri-
cism sunk in scepticism and a descriptive naturalism which harboured,
it seemed, a freedom-denying materialism. As a result, Wordsworth™s
problems in living up to this accolade are as much to do with the
fact that philosophy was beginning a long process of rede¬ning itself
as they are to do with the impossible expectations of Coleridge. The
Romantic notion of ˜philosophy™ is inherently unstable, oscillating be-
tween an Enlightenment foundationalism collapsed by Hume, and some,
as yet unde¬ned, new way of knowledge which did not sever value from
fact. The responsibility of ˜knowing™, taken as the detached perspective
of the neutral spectator, continued to weigh heavily on Wordsworth™s
brave new poetics of engagement. Thus, as Kenneth Johnston observes,
the obstacle facing Wordsworth in his attempts to compose The Recluse
˜is rather too much philosophy than too little, giving rise to expecta-
tions that it cannot satisfy™. By refashioning a model of poetic truth
according to a creative paradigm of imagination more dynamic than
the native logic could accommodate, Wordsworth mounted a challenge
to conventional epistemology. Yet he never entirely overturned empiri-
cism™s principle of truth, namely, the doctrine that if an utterance is
to be both true and informative, it is so only because its statement™s
· Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
proposition corresponds to facts attested by sense experience. Conse-
quently, Wordsworth struggled to reconcile a creationist poetics with
a notion of truth as correspondence. There is a detectable edge of
uncertainty, for instance, in his Coleridgean-sounding description of
truth, recollected by Aubrey de Vere, according to whom ˜truth in its
largest sense, as a thing at once real and ideal, a truth including exact
and accurate detail, and yet everywhere subordinating mere detail to
the spirit of the whole this, he [ Wordsworth] af¬rmed, was the soul and
essence not only of descriptive poetry, but of all poetry™.
Viewed epistemologically, the dif¬culty for Wordsworth is that with-
out Coleridge™s a priori schema, he faces the problem of demonstrating
this relation of ˜mere detail to the spirit of the whole™. So long as they
remain unreconciled, the ˜ideal™ will always threaten to slip back into the
merely ˜real™. This tension between ideal and real is a well-travelled road
in Wordsworth studies, particularly since Geoffrey Hartman™s render-
ing of the poet™s phenomenological via naturaliter negativa, or dialectical
consciousness of consciousness, whereby ˜apocalyptic™ vision and the
binding impulse or ˜akedah™ of nature progressively supervene each other
in a providential poetics of error, so producing in Wordsworth™s poetry
˜a web of transfers™, or ˜to-and-fros (“traf¬ckings”) between inner and
outer, literal and ¬gurative™.µ The providentiality of this dialectic, how-
ever, is something the early Hartman, like Wordsworth, was apt to take
on trust. As de Man observed, since the Victorian era Wordsworth has
been appropriated by philosophers keen to test philosophical discourse
in order to legitimate it, and who have transformed him from nineteenth-
century ˜moral™ philosopher to twentieth-century phenomenologist en
route. This conversion, de Man adds, is ˜a move to which Wordsworth™s
texts respond with almost suspicious docility. The threat from which we
were to be sheltered [i.e. temporality, mutability] and consoled is now
identi¬ed as a condition of consciousness™. Elridge makes a similar point
from a positivist perspective when he reads in Wordsworth™s poetry the
˜simultaneous inevitability and impossibility of philosophy itself as a con-
dition of human life™. With Johnston, he identi¬es Wordsworth™s as a ˜new
condition of philosophy™, an emergent media res between poetic creation
(or postmodern images of unconstrained freedom), and the closures of
foundational philosophy.·
Other commentators have adopted a more politically suspicious atti-
tude to this ambivalence. For John Barrell, Wordsworth™s ¬‚ight from an
inescapable empiricism manifests a con¬‚ict between ˜two con¬‚icting
desires: to demonstrate how abstract words refer to the results of complex
Wordsworth™s prose
operations performed on the objects of sense, and are in some way
founded on these objects; but also to insist on that abstract language as en-
tirely sundered from sense, so as to con¬rm a clear division between those
who are, and who are not fully human [. . .]™. Alternatively, some have
been more sympathetic to Wordsworth™s dilemma. Alan Bewell charts
how Wordsworth™s disillusionment with philosophy drew him towards an
Enlightenment tradition of descriptive naturalism whose ˜explicit avoid-
ance and wholescale suppression of philosophical statement™ belied its
own status as philosophy gone ˜underground™. Yet though Wordsworth
˜occasionally succumbed to the temptation of writing moral philosophy
through empirical ¬gures™, Bewell stresses the poet™s ˜attempt to write the
Enlightenment discourse on marginality out of existence by seeking to
undo its pleasure in producing marginals [. . .]™. This thought is echoed
by Rajan, who argues that Wordsworth™s project ˜is better understood as
emergently self-critical than as an instance of either middle-class hybris
or na¨vet´ ™, forever moving ˜between center and periphery, between
authority and its displacement™.±°
Generally, my own linkage of this dynamic to a post-Humean con-
text of alienated fact and value is closest to Elridge and Johnston in its
refusal to reduce its tension to a question of rhetoric, the discourse of
political power or hermeneutic re¬‚exivity. However, where Johnston and
Elridge see in Wordsworth a latent dialectic between epistemic and non-
epistemic voices which might be maintained (if not resolved) in what
Cavell calls a process of ˜acceptance™ instead of ˜knowledge™, I represent
the exchange between these perspectives as more fraught and unstable.
I highlight the anxiety within Wordsworth™s response to the post-
Humean predicament, and stress how the standpoint of epistemic indif-
ference itself harbours an ambivalence which the ˜new condition™ story is
apt to gloss over, namely between, on one hand, the kind of therapeutic,
non-apodeictic ˜poetic™ philosophy described by Hartman, and, on the
other, the abandonment of knowledge (and thus philosophizing) in favour
of other modes of ˜being.™ Foremost among these is the Romantic answer
to Hume™s philosophy-indifferent recreational pursuits of backgammon,
wine and friends: poetic creation. In this light, Wordsworth™s ˜two con-
sciousnesses™ actually contain at least three major moments: the philo-
sophic or knowing, and an indifference to knowledge which vacillates
between dialectical para-philosophy and pure ¬guration, the outright
denial of knowledge. None of these points is stable, and the slippage
between them is constant: just as the foundational ˜know™ will not
ground itself, so indifferentism always betrays its own knowingness. As a
· Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
consequence, the ideal of an equipoise in which a perfectly poetical phil-
osophy is also a perfectly philosophical poetry, is lost. The Romantic
medium of poetry is itself a troubled one: pure ¬guration offers no ulti-
mate escape from knowing: contrary to Hartman, with Wordsworth, as
with other Romantic writers, the prose determines the poetry as much
as it is determined by poetry. Indeed, the medium of discursive prose is
where the Romantic repression of argument and resistance to the cate-
gorical is most severely tested, and the site at which Wordsworth™s media
res of indifferent para-philosophy is at its most strained. For this reason,
it is the evidence of the prose which is decisive.±±
Wordsworth™s poetics form just one chapter in the story of Anglo-
phone philosophy™s attempt to cope with Hume™s division of fact and
value, a story which has yet to end, and which may never come
to an end. Johnston writes of how Wordsworth and Coleridge were
˜seeking to become what Richard Rorty has recently de¬ned as edifying
philosophers, for whom knowledge is a ¬eld of force (in W. V. Quine™s
metaphor)™.± Indeed, despite their obvious differences, Wordsworth
and Quine share two important traits. In the ¬rst place, both turn
against the foundational empiricism of (in Wordsworth™s case) eighteenth-
century epistemology and (in Quine™s) twentieth-century logical positi-
vism, while simultaneously remaining within a broad tradition of
empirical naturalism “ the ˜fact™ prong, to put it crudely, of Hume™s
fork. As James Chandler has detailed, for Wordsworth this was a highly
political move, representing a turn away from the foundationalist phil-
osophy of the French Ideologues and Rousseau™s nature, and towards the
˜epistemological no-man™s land™ of Burke™s ˜second nature™; of the affec-
tions, prejudice and poetry. By attempting to have it both ways, Chandler
claims, the notion of a human second nature involves a doubling of logic,
intimating that ˜there is a Nature and there is a second nature which is
at once within Nature yet parallel to it™.± At the same time, I would
maintain that this double-mindedness is itself the direct descendant of
Hume™s uneasy settlement between empiricism and a quasi-epistemic
naturalism, or between knowledge and a belief which is justi¬ed but ulti-
mately not demonstrable as ˜true™. In other words, as he reached for the
higher ground of value, Wordsworth attempted to keep his feet planted
on the foundation of fact. Thus, while he sought to interrogate knowl-
edge or ˜science™ with poetic ˜sensation™, Wordsworth maintained in the
±±µ Preface that all the higher powers of poetic production were based
on ˜those of Observation and Description “ i.e., the ability to describe
with accuracy things as they are in themselves [. . .] unmodi¬ed by any
Wordsworth™s prose
passion or feeling [. . .]™.± Quine, meanwhile, abandons positivism™s ideal
of a logical lexicon for experience and embraces Mill™s principle that
˜[w]hatever we are capable of knowing must belong [. . .] in the number
of the primitive data [i.e., of sensation], or of the conclusions which can
be drawn from these™.±µ Consequently, while attacking empirical knowl-
edge in its foundational form, he happily admits that the basic principle
of his ˜naturalized™ form of epistemology was ˜simply the watchword of
empiricism: nihil in mente quod non prius in sensu™.±
This leads both poet and philosopher to a common problem: that
of the underdetermination, in Wordsworth, of the rich over¬‚ow of poetic
truth by the meagre input of ˜observation and description™, and in Quine,
of scienti¬c theory by sensory stimulus. But what for Quine is a welcome
outcome, the reformation of epistemology into the naturalized, non-
foundational ˜chapter of theoretical science [. . .] the technology of anti-
cipating sensory stimulation™,±· for Wordsworth is a dilemma between the
epistemic security of the language of observation and the risky business
of af¬rming in poetry ˜a life and spirit in knowledge™ which exceeds the
reach of empirical veri¬cation.± With this, one comes to the second trait
shared by Wordsworth and Quine, namely the emphasis they place on
the creative element in knowing. For Quine, this operates on two levels.
First in a Wittgensteinian way, it determines the initial language-game
chosen. For the science of naturalized epistemology, he admits, is just one
among an in¬nite number of other ˜good language games such as ¬ction
and poetry™.± More importantly, however, science monitors the creative
input of the human mind as it constructs a coherent conceptual scheme
from its raw sensory data: ˜Subtracting his cues from his world view™,
Quine claims, ˜we get the man™s net contribution as the difference. This
difference marks the extent of man™s conceptual sovereignty “ the domain
within which he can revise theory while saving the data.™° Similarly, and
famously, the autonomy of poetic truth for Wordsworth is tied to its origin
in an undetermined, spontaneous over¬‚ow of powerful feelings.
It might be argued that this is a facile comparison. When considered
apart from Hume™s dichotomies, it will seem so. But when the post-
empirical poet and post-analytic philosopher are read in the context of a
shared predicament whereby knowledge and value have been estranged
by scepticism, a common strategy can be perceived; one of marginalizing
the ideal of epistemic certainty, either for a naturalistic account of the
creative relation between conceptual scheme and sensation, or a natural-
istic account of the creative relation between poetic value and sensation.
Indeed, one might go further by noting that, at the same time, neither
· Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
writer is entirely comfortable with the complete elision of foundational
knowledge. Wordsworth™s outline in the ±°° Preface of a creative lan-
guage of pure feeling and value plays leap-frog with tropes of empirical
veri¬cation, as spontaneity is checked by veridical observation. Such is
his assurance, for example, that he has ˜at all times endeavoured to look
steadily at my subject™.± Furthermore, like most writers of his genera-
tion, he was troubled by scepticism in art and morals as well as in episte-
mology. ˜So strange indeed are the obliquities of admiration™, he writes
in the ˜Essay™ with evident disapproval, ˜that they whose opinions are
much in¬‚uenced by authority will often be tempted to think that there
are no ¬xed principles in human nature for this art [i.e. criticism] to rest
upon [. . .]™. It is in a footnote to this remark that he singles out as an
example of this tendency, ˜Adam Smith, the worst critic, David Hume
not excepted, that Scotland, a soil to which this sort of weed seems
natural, has produced [. . .].™ Similarly, some critics have argued that
Quine™s holism sits ill with his perseverance with epistemology as an
autonomous discipline. Henryk Skolimowski for one points to what he
sees as a tension between Quine™s earlier work, which emphasises the
extent to which ˜we are at liberty to choose among various conceptual
frameworks that are available to us™ and his later ˜bias™ toward the view
that ˜[i]t is science [. . .] that determines our conceptual and philosophical
One of Wordsworth™s greatest endeavours, then, was to create a space
within discourse which was distinctly ˜poetic™, but at the same time
socially ˜grounded™. His concern with the current state of literature was
twofold: impatient with the triviality of traditional poetic form, and the
irrelevance of Neoclassical dogma, he also interpreted the tastes of the
broadening reading ˜public™, fed by an ever more commodi¬ed literary
culture, as symptomatic of social malaise. If the poet was to be for the
˜people™, then, and not merely of the people, he must take a leading role:
he must be autonomous. The problem with this arrangement, however,
concerned the conditions according to which the poet was entitled to
institute the new discourse. What gave him this privilege? Wordsworth
was, in effect, proposing that the poet might ˜give the rule™ to taste,
and thereby to the people. This he supported by proposing that the
poet was creative in a special, unique kind of way: an exemplary way. As
he puts it in his ˜Essay, Supplementary to the Preface™ of ±±µ, poetic
genius ˜is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual uni-
verse™. Yet this remained an idea which was fundamentally at odds
with empirical thought; indeed, with foundationalism in general. Kant™s
Wordsworth™s prose
account of the autonomy of genius was certainly available to him (albeit
with Coleridgean colouring) but Wordsworth had little understanding
of, and still less interest in transcendental schema. Consequently, the
main question confronting him was that of how he could make good
his claim that his idea of the creative aesthetic was in some way exem-
plary or legislative in the concrete realm of human affairs, when the only
philosophical language available to him proscribed the notion of (poetic)
truth as something made. This remained a dispute, in Burkean terms,
between ordinary nature and the poet™s second nature or, in Humean
terms, between fact and value.

µ ¬ µ¬ ° ¤ µ  ©®  ®¤     ©    ©  
Wordsworth™s poetic theory can be read as an attempt to cope with (but
not always reply to) one of the most pressing problems in contemporary
epistemology.µ Following Hume™s identi¬cation of the imagination as
a signi¬cant factor in the formation of knowledge, one question which
occupied philosophy more than most was: how can the creations of this
faculty be candidates for knowledge? What occurs in the theoretical writ-
ing of Wordsworth is the recon¬guration of this problem as a poetic or
aesthetic one. Impressed by the creative implications of the mind™s asso-
ciative capacities, but loath to rescind empiricism entirely, Wordsworth
invests the poet with a peculiar insight:
Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of
all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general,
and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the
heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and
con¬dence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same

Wordsworth institutes the notion of a discrete and irreducible poetic
truth; one which is exclusively the domain of the poet, by right of his
creative powers. Here, the stress on aesthetic autonomy (and by implica-
tion the epistemic freedom of the poet) is evident: poetic truth ˜is its own
testimony™; it gives the rule to the ˜tribunal™ by which it is rati¬ed. The
formulation poses a striking challenge to foundationalist conceptions of
truth. The poet himself creates the criteria of the validity, or ˜truth™ of his
poetic products. This in turn endows him with the freedom to legislate
for the conditions of the profounder feelings of his fellow man, without
appearing either to condescend to him, or pander to his ruder impulses
· Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
and desires. In the Prelude, Wordsworth confesses to having harboured a
vision of poets as a class of the spiritually elect, ˜even as prophets, each
with each / Connected in a mighty stream of truth™, leading to the hope

That unto me had also been vouchsafed
An in¬‚ux, that in some sort I possessed
A privilege, and that a work of mine,
Proceeding from the depth of untaught things,
Enduring and creative, might become
A power like one of Nature™s.·

But the impulses and desires of the public were of considerable concern
to Wordsworth. In late ±° he wrote in The Friend that ˜ours is, notwith-
standing its manifold excellences, a degenerate Age [. . .]™. What wor-
ried him in particular was the way in which changes in the habits of the
reading public were affecting the nature and status of poetry itself. In the
±°° Preface, he complained of how ˜a multitude of causes unknown to
former times are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discrim-
inating powers of the mind, and un¬tting it for all voluntary exertion to
reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor™; the most pernicious aspect of
which is ˜a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid commu-
nication of intelligence hourly grati¬es™. Such conditions were being
fuelled by a number of changes affecting the socio-economic location
of the contemporary writer, foremost among which were the increasing
ef¬ciency and productivity of the mechanized printing press; the expan-
sion of the metropolitan and provincial book trade following London™s
loss of copyright privileges in ±·· (in a House of Lords judgement which
¬nally laid to rest the notion of perpetual common-law copyright); and
the growing and diversifying appetite of the reading public, buoyed by
an ever more literate artisan class.
The resulting ˜literature™ question, that of its status and social func-
tion, was born of a general cultural anxiety of which Wordsworth™s ±°°
Preface is only one of the more famous examples. With the rapid dif-
fusion of knowledge it appeared to many, Wordsworth included, that
the liberation of fact had been at the cost of value, of a sense of the
˜depth of untaught things™. At the same time, as labour specialized, and
the writer became at once more professionalized and isolated, the con-
cept of ˜literature™ itself fragmented. While discussing the fate of the
Philanthropist in a ±· letter to William Matthews, Wordsworth can barely
conceal his distaste for the business of professional writing: ˜All the pe-
riodical miscellanies that I am acquainted with, except one or two of
Wordsworth™s prose
the reviews, appear to be written to maintain the existence of prejudice
and to disseminate error. To such purpose I have already said I will
not prostitute my pen.™° Thus, the emergence of the idea of art as a
specialized and privileged mode of production marked a change in the
relationship between writer and reader, which in turn signalled a new atti-
tude among writers towards the ˜public™. Creating the taste by which it
is to be measured, as Pfau puts it, ˜Romantic pedagogy seeks to convert
the individual™s self-consciousness into its own disciplinary authority™,
whereby ˜cognitive mobility is inevitably experienced as a form of social
The seeds of this change were already present in Edward Young™s
disparaging use of industrial metaphors to describe imitation, which in
his view becomes ˜a sort of Manufacture wrought up by those Mechanics,
Art, and Labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own™, as well as
Isaac D™Israeli™s injunction to the writer to pay ˜to himself that reverence,
which will be refuted by the multitude™. Both of these remarks betray a
creeping sense of alarm at the manner in which commerce was altering
the nature of the writer™s vocation, and in particular, the way in which it
was alienating him from his own productions by replacing the familiarity
of private circulation with a mass market of anonymous readers. The
culmination of this is Keats™s defensive declaration to Reynolds in a
letter of ±± that ˜I never wrote one single Line of Poetry with the least
Shadow of public thought™. At moments like this, Keats embodies the
reactionary spirit of the aesthetic response to the commodi¬cation of
art. Wordsworth himself drew a distinction between the ˜public™, about
whom he usually writes with disdain, and a more idealized notion of the
˜People™. In the earlier part of his career, his tone when writing about the
public moved between resignation and resentment. In an ±°· letter to
Lady Beaumont, less than a month after the publication of the Poems, in
Two Volumes, he avers that ˜[i]t is impossible that any expectations can be
lower than mine concerning the immediate effect of this little work upon
what is called the Public™. They are, indeed, ˜altogether incompetent
judges™ of poetry. ˜These people™, he continues, ˜in the senseless hurry of
their idle lives do not read books, they merely snatch a glance at them that
they may talk about them.™µ Writing to Sir George Beaumont a year
later, he reports that he is ˜in sorrow for the sickly taste of the Public in
verse. The People would love the Poem of Peter Bell, but the Public (a very
different Being) will never love it.™ Lamb, meanwhile, characterized the
reading public as a ˜reluctant monster™ gorging on its unsavory diet of
periodicals, and asked, ˜[i]s there no stopping the eternal wheels of the
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Press for a half century or two, till the nation recover its senses?™· As a
consequence, genuine poetry becomes for Wordsworth what Pfau calls
the ˜supreme anticommodity™.
Since Jerome McGann™s The Romantic Ideology ¬rst appeared in ±,
much has been written on the politics of the Romantic ˜aesthetic™, and
there is no need to rehearse that work here. My purpose is merely to
note how Wordsworth™s struggle with foundationalism had wider rami-
¬cations, in that the empiricism which he challenged underwrote a sys-
tem of utilitarian values which seemed to re¬‚ect certain developments
in contemporary culture, developments which many of the Romantics
found, for varying reasons, deeply disturbing. Wordsworth™s efforts to
rede¬ne the nature of poetry and the poet on epistemic grounds are of
particular interest in that they are made within the same discourse of
sensation, feeling, and public pleasure. Typically, he attempts to reform
these ideas along qualitative lines, suggesting the possibility of intuitions
which are not merely sensory; pleasure which is not simply a feeling
of happiness; and a ˜People™ who are more than just an aggregate or
sum of the ˜public™. Where he encounters dif¬culty, however, is at the
point at which empiricism will not permit these distinctions to be made,
and where he is left grasping for a theoretical language that might. At
this point, Wordsworth™s language vacillates between the perspective of
knowledge and an indifference to knowing which hesitates between the
therapeutic dialectic of ˜poetic truth™ and a simple af¬rmation of the
activity of creative writing.

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    ©©®  ®¤ °¬   µ 
Philosophy in Britain after Hume had been struggling to accommo-
date the very ideas which it was raising, borrowing from the latter™s
associationism where it was convenient, while adopting the naturalistic
perspective of Reid™s commonsensism when scepticism threatened. But
however reassuring such an arrangement may have seemed, this con-
tract contained a clause which was troubling for Wordsworth in a way in
which it had not been for predecessors like Alexander Gerard and Lord
Kames. It is a corollary of the empiricist thesis that knowledge derives its
mandate from observable objects, that empirical science, as the reposi-
tory of such observations, must ˜give the rule™ to art. In epistemological
terms, art “ and with art, poetry “ has no cognitive function if removed
from this foundation.
Wordsworth™s prose
Wordsworth, however, particularly after ±°, seeks to de¬ne the
autonomy of poetic discourse according to epistemic criteria. In the
revisions to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads he argues that ˜much confusion
has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and
Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact,
or Science™.° Insofar as he is committed to this position, Wordsworth
identi¬es poetry in terms of its content; in terms of the knowledge it pro-
vides, rather than the manner or style in which it conveys this material.
He also distinguishes such knowledge, in the most unambiguous terms
possible, from Humean ˜Matter of Fact™. Poetry has not so much cogni-
tive, as supercognitive properties. As he unwraps his thesis, Wordsworth
increasingly comes to rest the burden of this epistemic value upon the
poet™s creativity, as if he would have it alone be the ground of poetic
validity. In the second ˜Essay upon Epitaphs™ of ±±°, he claims that the
demand for sincerity in the writing of an epitaph forbids ˜all modes of
¬ction, except those which the very strength of passion has created™.±
Wordsworth remained divided about the political signi¬cance of these
paradigms, however. Even as he began distancing himself from the fact-
foundationalism of the Ideologues, he retained a distrust of creative imagi-
nation and unfettered genius, in a manner comparable to how some of his
quieter political convictions tempered his commitment to radical theo-
ries of individual liberty. In the later versions of the Preface, Wordsworth
insists that ˜[a]mong the qualities [. . .] principally conducing to form
a Poet, is implied nothing differing in kind from other men, but only
in degree™. Yet he often seems concerned that this difference in mere
degree might not be suf¬cient to prevent the poet™s voice from being
overwhelmed by that of the public, or that the masses might act on the
implication that the freedom which is the privilege of the poet by virtue of
his creativity is equally their right, treading too closely in his footsteps for
comfort. Wordsworth inherits the problem German philosophers iden-
ti¬ed with empiricist or ˜negative™ accounts of freedom in that any asser-
tion of human freedom seems to amount only to a removal of restraint “
just as, from the same perspective, any declaration of poetic creativity
might appear to be the glori¬cation of singularity. Consequently, his val-
orization of the imagination is subjected to constant quali¬cation and
caveat. Particularly in later life, Wordsworth would place ever greater
emphasis on the role of ˜workmanship™ in poetic composition, even over
that of natural genius or inspiration. For example, he criticizes some
verses of William Hamilton for the want of ˜what appears in itself of little
moment, and yet is of incalculably great, that is, workmanship “ the art
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
by which the thoughts are made to melt into each other and to fall into
light and shadow regulated by distinct preconception of the best general
effect they are capable of producing™. By this time, ˜craft™ has taken
on the task which had been allocated to ˜feeling™ in the ¬rst Preface:
that of harmoniously reconciling spontaneous effusion and calculated
effect. This is just one of the many different forms taken by a recurrent
tension in Wordsworth™s writing between sincerity and verity which in
its turn is an aspect of the more general problem of how to reconcile an
empirically given notion of truth with the poet™s spontaneity, his fullest
treatment of the dynamics of which appears in the ±±µ Preface to Poems,
in Two Volumes.
Here, Wordsworth articulates six powers of poetic production: ¬rst,
accurate observation, which is passive; second, exquisite sensibility; third,
re¬‚ection, which perceives the connection of feelings in sensibility; fourth,
imagination and fancy, ˜to modify, to create, and to associate™; ¬fth, in-
vention, that is, of characters ˜composed out of materials supplied by
observation™ (either of the poet™s own mind, or of nature); and ¬nally,
judgement, which regulates each of these activities.µ Two aspects of this
scheme merit immediate attention. First, Wordsworth chooses to distin-
guish creation, as such, from the processes of modi¬cation and associa-
tion. Second, he suggests that the peculiar function of imagination/fancy
is not identical with invention, which relies more heavily upon observa-
tional data. Clearly, Wordsworth is extending his sense of ˜creation™ to
denote something different from each of these functions.
But here a familiar pattern reappears. Even given the fact that he has
already taken pains to deny that the power of imagination is suf¬cient
for poetic production (that is, in the absence of accurate observation and
re¬‚ection) Wordsworth remains uneasy about the extent of its jurisdic-
tion. In the ±°° Preface, it was ˜feeling™ that had united imagination and
reason. In lyrical poetry ˜the feeling therein developed gives importance
to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling
[. . .]™. Poetic language itself should not be seen as forming the mere
dress of thought, but its very essence and spirit. The same thought lay
behind his complaint in the second ˜Essay upon Epitaphs™ about the
neglect in modern poetry of ˜those feelings which are the pure emana-
tions of nature, those thoughts which have the in¬nitude of truth, and
those expressions which are not what the garb is to the body but what the
body is to the soul, themselves a constituent part and power or function in the
thought [. . .]™.· In the ±±µ Preface, however, though Wordsworth re-
jects at ¬rst the old de¬nition of imagination as simply an image-making
Wordsworth™s prose
faculty, he insists that it is ˜a word of higher import, denoting oper-
ations of the mind [. . .] and processes of creation or of composition,
governed by certain ¬xed laws™. The emphasis upon ˜¬xed laws™ is sig-
ni¬cant, as nowhere does Wordsworth, unlike Coleridge, suggest that
these laws might themselves be self-originated, i.e. made, not ˜given™.
Imagination effectively acts upon individual images, either by endowing
them with properties or abstracting them, thus enabling them to ˜re-act
upon the mind which hath performed the process, like a new existence
[. . .]™. Further, it changes images by association, or by aligning them ˜in a
conjunction by which they modify each other [. . .]™. But above all:
Imagination also shapes and creates; and how? By innumerable processes; and
in none does it more delight than in that of consolidating numbers into unity,
and dissolving and separating unity into number, alternations proceeding from,
and governed by, a sublime consciousness of the soul in her own mighty and
almost divine powers.

The ministration of the ˜sublime consciousness of the soul™ is as close
as Wordsworth comes to identifying a limiting principle for a process of
creation which he conceives as at once unifying, diversifying and, in one
of its modes at least, productive of something which is (in some way) ˜like
a new existence™. On the other hand, he is much more forthcoming on
the question of the (empirical) principles which circumscribe this activity.
Fearful of allowing imagination the freedom to produce, under rules of its
own devising, an aesthetic product which is both ineffable and exemplary,
Wordsworth argues, against Coleridge, that as a faculty it is no differ-
ent in kind from fancy. He is, in fact, attempting to have it both ways:
while his placing of imagination under the regulation of some (as yet
unspeci¬ed) ˜¬xed laws™ suggests a higher validity, his statement that ˜[t]o
aggregate and to associate, to evoke and to combine, belong as well to
the Imagination as to the Fancy™ reins imagination back within the more
familiar and reassuring ambit of faculty psychology and also, as a conse-
quence, the domain of empirical rule. By the end of this disquisition,
then, Wordsworth has brought his account of the creative imagination
back to a point where, though it is supposed to be a faculty given, in some
vague way, ˜to incite and to support the eternal™;µ° in terms of epistemic
value empirical science is still ˜giving the rule™ to the poet. The ˜truth™ in
˜poetic truth™ remains elusive.
Historically, as has been seen, the roots of this problem lay in the
insistence of eighteenth-century theorists such as Addison and Gerard
that poetic creation is de¬nable as a process of discovery not distinct in
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
kind from that of scienti¬c procedure, and that its products are invalid if
unsupervised by judgement. This is the ancestor of the logical positivist™s
conviction that moral or aesthetic statements are meaningless. Yet a
cardinal tenet of Wordsworth™s poetics is that poetry should have an
independent and productive; that is, a legislative function in terms of
human knowledge; that it represents the ˜introduction of a new element
into the intellectual universe™.µ± Again, by so doing, it presumes a capacity
for a kind of epistemic creation whereby the mind spontaneously ˜gives
the rule™ to truth: it makes it.
Placed as it is, cheek by jowl with references to Lamb™s view of the
imagination, and pronouncements on the sublime creativity of the poetic
consciousness, Wordsworth™s insistence in the ±±µ Preface that imagi-
nation and fancy share a common process of association bounded by
judgement, demonstrates the breach between the impulses lying behind
his emerging idea of a free aesthetic space, and the capabilities of contem-
porary British psychological thought. The story of Wordsworth™s gradual
withdrawal from associationism, under the in¬‚uence of Coleridge, is too
well known to need repeating here, but it is also true that Wordsworth
never completely purged association from his theoretical work. There
are a number of reasons for this, but among the foremost is the epistemic
priority he grants to feeling, and the Humean way in which he con-
ceived of the cultivation of ¬ner feeling as a matter largely determined
by mental habit.
An early example of this is the fragment of an essay on morals from
±·. In this, Wordsworth claims that even though ˜all our actions are
the result of our habits™, he knows of ˜no book or system of moral phil-
osophy written with suf¬cient power to melt into our affection[?s], to
incorporate itself with the blood & vital juices of our minds, & thence to
have any in¬‚uence worth our notice in forming those habits™.µ The
thought behind this, as he makes plain in the Preface two years later, is
that where philosophy has failed to lead because of its lack of sympathetic
power, poetry can succeed.µ Again, it is an indication of Wordsworth™s
belief in the cognitive and moral seriousness of poetry that he describes
the primary function of the lyrical ballad as the tracing of ˜the pri-
mary laws of our nature™. It is, moreover, a measure of his ¬delity to
eighteenth-century psychology that this is to be carried out ˜chie¬‚y as
far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of ex-
citement™.µ Indeed, it is association itself which regulates feeling, and
endows the poet with the authority to give the rule to the sensibilities of
Wordsworth™s prose
For our continued in¬‚uxes of feeling are modi¬ed and directed by our thoughts,
which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and as by contem-
plating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover
what is really important to men, so by the repetition and continuance of this act
feelings connected with important subjects will be nourished, till at length, if
we be originally possessed of much organic sensibility, such habits of mind will be
produced that by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits
we shall describe objects and utter sentiments of such a nature and in such a
connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we
address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in
some degree enlightened, his taste exalted, and his affections ameliorated.µµ

Wordsworth is following the trend of late eighteenth-century natural-
ism by ignoring the sceptical consequences of extending the psychology
of associationism and ˜habit™ into epistemology. The only philosopher
to confront this problem directly had been Reid, but Reid™s common-
sensism was founded on an opposition to the representational theory
of perception which engendered a general denigration of imaginative
processes. The ¬gure of the poet, then, stands on shaky ground. In one
mood, that of normative epistemology, Wordsworth de¬nes him in terms
of a process of association fraught with sceptical sliproads; in another,
that of naturalistic psychology, he is rendered in the language of natural
(or ˜second-natural™) habit. It is perhaps due in part to an awareness of
this tension that Wordsworth places greater emphasis upon the creativity
of the poet™s activity in subsequent versions of the Preface. But since this
activity is still seen as an associative one, bearing with it the risk of
arbitrariness, he remains caught between af¬rming the priority of this
˜feeling™, and restricting it within the compass of a process of selection.
Jacobi was later to arrive at the same predicament when in the ±±µ
preface to David Hume on Faith he defended his vision of the ¬nal standoff
between knowledge and faith: ˜And so we admit without fear that our
philosophy begins with feeling, but with a feeling that is objective and pure
[. . .].™µ Jacobi™s defensive tone betrays an awkwardness which he shares
with Wordsworth. For the latter, the binding of feeling implies, rather
embarrassingly, that though studied and therefore more trustworthy, in
one respect at least the poet™s outpourings are somehow less genuine and
˜real™ than those of the men they seek to imitate. No words suggested by
the poet™s imagination or fancy can be compared to those of men in a
real state of excitement; ˜the emanations of reality and truth™.
It is this rather de¬‚ating conclusion which leads into the passage where
Wordsworth attempts to recoup some ground for poetry by claiming for
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
it a truth which is ˜not individual and local, but general and operative™.
But the cognitive autonomy of the creative, aesthetic sphere in human
experience has already been compromised. Poetry may have its own
value and even its own ˜tribunal™, but as ˜the image of man and nature™ it
will always be at one remove from truth, as truth is generally conceived
by Wordsworth himself.µ· That this truth is de¬ned by empirical criteria is
disturbed, but not overturned by his negotiations with associationism or
the language of ˜habit™. Nor could it be: associationism, as an account of
human psychological processes, was simply not the kind of theory which
proposed an alternative to the notion (implied elswhere in Wordsworth™s
writing) of knowledge as true justi¬ed belief, where truth is grounded in
The implications of this for broader questions of the relations between
literature, truth and value are acute. Empiricism had developed a two-
fold function for poetry which was at once didactic and utilitarian: by
adding to the stock of knowledge, literature, including poetry, would also
increase the sum total of human well-being or happiness. Neither of
these operations was peculiar to poetry. It was itself simply a matter of
fact that poetry was best ¬tted to execute them simultaneously. Though
its content may have been unpalatable to Wordsworth, however, utili-
tarianism™s consequentialist stress upon an extra-poetic end to poetry
itself neatly overlaid the kind of Aristotelian, functional thinking about art
which, despite philosophical developments and changes of emphasis, still
revolved around Sidney™s stipulation that the end of poetry was ˜to teach
and delight™.µ Any attempt, then, to articulate a sense of poetic value
which was irreducible to this pragmatic-hedonic calculus would have to
confront such a tradition. Wordsworth™s prose writings in particular dis-
play the stress of this undertaking, in that he develops a conception of a
cognitively privileged poetic utterance, while at the same time deferring
to the general empirical principle that all truthful propositions can be rati-
¬ed only against the data of sense-experience. Moreover, by frequently
writing of poetry in functional terms (that is, in terms of speci¬ed means
working towards speci¬ed goals or ends), he was not immune to the legacy
of previous literary theory, despite his railing against modern society™s
obsession with ˜ends™.µ When these discordant elements of empiri-
cism, functionalism, and a new aestheticism (which rejects the pre-
conceived ˜end™ of the functionalist view) come together, as they do in
Wordsworth, the result is the famous hesitation which one witnesses in
passages such as that in the ±°° Preface:
Wordsworth™s prose
[Each poem] has a worthy purpose. Not that I mean to say, that I always began
to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but I believe that my habits
of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such
objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a
Utilitarianism had grown in eighteenth-century thought as the notion
of a priori moral truth, having been tarred with the brush of innatism,
had declined. Just as sense experience now determined knowledge, so
the aggregate total of the public pleasure or pain came to constitute the
index of practical and moral reasoning. Before it had been codi¬ed by
Bentham and Mill, however, the utilitarianism of Hume, Paley and Adam
Smith had circulated in eighteenth-century thought as a more loosely
connected series of convictions and beliefs which was never entirely
free of the anxiety that a consequentialist moral theory which paid no
attention to motive or intention might slip back into Hobbesian notions
of self-interest. This fear is present in Wordsworth, but his more imme-
diate dif¬culties with utilitarianism echo his ambiguous relation to em-
piricism. For just as empiricism denies poetry epistemic autonomy, so
utilitarianism, particularly hedonistic act-utilitarianism, with its appeal
to aggregate public pleasure, threatens to have a levelling effect upon
poetic value.± Wordsworth appears to make a concession to the spirit of
utilitarianism when he claims that it is his intention to reinvigorate poetic
language by adopting ˜the very language of men™, that is to say, ordinary
(rural) men in a state of excitement. Accordingly, he initially casts the
poet as ˜a man speaking to men™. This, however, brings Wordsworth™s
radical political stance into confrontation with his aesthetic theory, which
reserves for the poet a unique voice in human affairs. Consequently,
Wordsworth tags on the proviso that more than just being a man speak-
ing to men, that is, one who imitates their passions and pleasures and
reproduces their language, the poet must take a leading role in shaping
those values. This presumes a creative power in the poet not found in
other men, for ˜he has acquired a greater readiness and power in express-
ing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings
which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise
in him without immediate external excitement™.
But this represents merely a deferral of Wordsworth™s problem; that
is, the paradox lying within the very idea of empirically valid epistemic
creativity; or of the poet as a ˜common™ genius, who, though de¬ned by
his experience, transcends it by spontaneous poetic creation; and who,
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
despite taking the feelings of common men as his model, retains the
authority to give the rule to their sensibilities. Everywhere the pull of
empiricism and ˜vulgar™ utilitarianism is strong for Wordsworth, leading
him into a pattern of vacillation whereby either of these perspectives
may be rejected at one moment, and quietly embraced at the next. This
is a worrying equivocation at the heart of Wordsworth™s thinking about
the function and status of poetry; one for which he was to be heavily
criticized by Coleridge in Biographia Literaria. Without Coleridge™s tran-
scendental framework, Wordsworth™s epistemology of creative, ˜poetic
truth™ struggled to establish a space outside both the rule-following of
Neoclassical dogma, and the reductiveness of the utilitarian values which
empiricism threatened to install in their place. Similarly, Wordsworth™s
writing on the social location of the poet recognizes the need for a con-
nection between the poetic voice and the common language of men,
but is bothered by the possibility that that voice might disappear in the
crowd. As Hazlitt was later to write, and Wordsworth was increasingly
to realize, in this age it seemed that ˜[t]he principle of poetry is a very
anti-levelling principle™.µ
However, in his later additions to the Preface, Wordsworth does pro-
pose an alternative tack, based on a compromise by which he attempts
to combine utilitarian precept with a sense of aesthetic freedom. After
mounting his argument in defence of the internal ˜tribunal™ of poetic
truth, he adds that ˜[t]he Poet writes under one restriction only, namely,
the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed
of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a
physician [. . .] or a natural philosopher, but as a Man.™ As it stands, this
seems in danger of collapsing into a merely Epicurean theory of poetic
value, but Wordsworth™s innovation is to suggest that aesthetic pleasure
might itself be a species of knowledge; a species which is uniquely the
territory of the poet, and which, unlike the contingencies of scienti¬c
knowledge, ˜cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our nat-
ural and unalienable inheritance™. This territory is not only ˜necessary™,
but political, for it is also the domain of the habitual affections, or human
sympathy: ˜[w]e have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure
[. . .]. We have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from
the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by plea-
sure, and exists in us by pleasure alone.™ It is this capacity of poetry to
access the ˜habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow
beings™ which entitles it to be described as ˜the breath and ¬ner spirit of
all knowledge™.·
Wordsworth™s prose
Such phrases are intriguing. At certain times Wordsworth seems to
be arguing merely that knowledge such as the poet brings is always at-
tended by a pleasure which enhances its apprehension: at other times,
the more radical and interesting thesis that the pleasure of human sym-
pathy is actually a form of knowledge itself, perhaps even the essence
of knowledge; ˜the ¬rst and last of all knowledge™. At ¬rst sight, this
appears to be a striking move to set aside foundationalist conceptions
of knowledge for a poetic pleasure principle altogether more holistic
and less ˜grounded™. Such, it seems clear, is certainly the inclination of
one axis of Wordsworth™s thinking. But curling round to enclose and
subdue this is the continuing quest for certainty. Poetic pleasure may be
ungrounded, but only because it itself forms ˜the ¬rst and last™ of knowl-
edge. It marks the beginning and the end of knowledge, but does not
signal the ending of knowledge as veri¬able fact. Indeed, for Wordsworth
this kind of pleasure has the authority of a necessary law. It is by working
through it that the poet appreciates the veridicality of mental representa-
tion, in that he ˜considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each
other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most
interesting properties of nature.™ The decentred ˜breath and ¬ner spirit™
of knowledge in other hands might come to displace ˜knowledge™ itself,
but in Wordsworth™s it is meant to support it.
Moreover, for other, familiar reasons this settlement is a double-edged
one for Wordsworth: put simply, there is nothing in the communication
of sympathetic pleasure, as such, to mark the poet out as anyone special.
Admittedly, there is his skill as a craftsman of words (as has been seen,
Wordsworth was wont to stress the value of poetic ˜workmanship™). But
at other times, even in the ±°° Preface, there is a sense that this is
insuf¬cient to sustain the more elevated view of the poet™s calling being
harboured. At this stage the ±±µ anatomy of the poetic imagination
is some way off, by which time the ˜cognitive theory™ of pleasure had
all but disappeared. There is at least one reason for this: namely, that
within an empirical or naturalistic framework, pleasure is notoriously
dif¬cult to differentiate qualitatively. Bentham maintained that it was a
basic notion which resisted further analysis. The thought behind this
proceeds along the lines that no sooner does one try to imagine different
kinds of pleasure-value “ as in, for instance, the difference between the
pleasure taken in scratching an itch and reading a sonnet “ than one ¬nds
oneself compelled to articulate the distinction in terms of something other
than the pleasure itself, whether that ˜something™ is a sensation on the
skin, or the compression of a complex conceit. These qualities may attend
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
pleasure or, according to some views, have a causal relationship with it,
but they are not identical with it. There is not a pleasure-essence of which
they all partake, therefore they are not instances of a species of it. Seen in
this way, qualitatively, pleasure is a leveller: it is always undifferentiated,
and varies only in degrees of quantity. In the ¬rst Preface, however,
Wordsworth seeks not only to identify a discrete mode of pleasure-based
value, but to identify this with empirical knowledge, taken in its broadest
sense. His prose soon begins to exhibit the strains of such a position. For
example, having already identi¬ed poetic pleasure with the profoundest
and most fundamental kind of knowledge, he then envisages its role in
composition as merely that of a bridle for poetic passion, tempering
it with metrical regularity. The poet ought to take great care that the
passions which he communicates
should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure. Now the music
of harmonious metrical language, the sense of dif¬culty overcome, and the
blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works
of rhyme or metre [. . .] make up a complex feeling of delight, which is of the
most important use in tempering the painful feeling which will always be found
intermingled with powerful descriptions of the deeper passions.·°

Wordsworth™s identi¬cation of pleasure with the quotidian wisdom of
˜ordinary feeling™, even as it supercedes knowledge, regrounds itself in
knowledge. He continued to oscillate between the potentially subversive
position whereby the poetic or creative act was seen as generative of a
kind of value which put ˜knowledge™ in its place and af¬rmed a richer,
more experiential relation between mind and nature than that envis-
aged by empiricism (expressed, possibly, by the term ˜pleasure™), and a
more conservative line which feared the anarchic implications of knowl-
edge as merely another ˜form of life™, to adopt Wittgenstein™s much-used
phrase, without beginning or end. Despite his protests, on many levels
Wordsworth™s language accords with scienti¬c utilitarianism™s vaunting
of ˜ends™ over means, demonstrating an ongoing if reluctant debt to
empiricism. At the root of this problem lies his ambivalence about the
nature of poetic spontaneity itself, and its relation to ˜truth™.

°   ©   µ   :  °  ®  ®  ©  ,  ° °    ®    ® ¤ ° ·  
Problems with the cognitive theory of pleasure propounded in later edi-
tions of the Preface betray the true direction of Wordsworth™s theorizing
about poetic truth. This gravitates towards a conception of the poet or
Wordsworth™s prose
artist as a legislative ¬gure; someone who spontaneously con¬gures a new
object of knowledge, the truth of which, though made, gives the rule to
the understanding of his fellow man. Yet because of his foundationalist
inheritance, Wordsworth continued to strive to articulate the ˜grounds™
or the validity of such a truth. In this, the notion of knowledge as repre-
sentative of truth was bound with the idea of the poet as representative
of humanity. He experimented with a number of alternatives, includ-
ing notions of poetry as the truth of phenomenal experience (that is, of
appearances alone) and later, by making knowledge itself a function of
poetic power. The earliest manifestation of the tension between poetic
value and grounded fact or knowledge, however, appears in the relation-
ship between spontaneity and re¬‚ection in the Preface, or the question of
how sincerity as such can have independent truth. The paradigm of sin-
cere language is that of men in a state of healthy intercourse with nature,
but the product of this is a language in which mere purposefulness (the
pursuit of an end) is secretly guided by an instinctive awareness of ˜what
is really important to men™.·± Thus is sown the dialectic of conscious-
ness, whereby the ˜purposeful™ poet must reproduce this sincerity, while
remaining conscious of his preconceived attempt to imitate ordinary
Wordsworth attempts to resolve this in two related ways. First, he
admits that the poet is a re¬‚ective being: it is a condition of having a
poetic purpose at all, that one should have ˜thought long and deeply™
about the object concerned; that one should not be held captive by
it. Nonetheless, poetic re¬‚ection is insuf¬cient if not carried out by a
man ˜possessed of more than usual organic sensibility™.· Yet the question
arises: what could be meant by ˜organic™ in the context of sensibility?
Some active epistemic function is hinted at in this formula. Once again,
however, when Wordsworth comes to ¬ll out this picture, his instinct is
to do so in the manner of Gerard and the Scottish aestheticians, that
is, in terms of a naturalistic explanation of the association of ideas “
speci¬cally, the blind and mechanical prompting of the form of habit
which association manifests in its ˜healthful state™. In a sense, Wordsworth
is straining to recover humanity™s ˜second nature™ through the poetic
voice. Such poetry, it is envisaged, will recapture the truth in the ancient
poets™ ˜original ¬gurative language of passion™ without merely mimicking
that language; that is, without reassimilating the poetical register within a
broader social voice which would efface what made it distinctly modern,
namely its awareness of its status as a privileged mode of discourse.·
The idea of a process of sincere expression subject to the re¬‚ection of
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
an organic sensibility is intended to harmonize these priorities, in that
it promises a spontaneous means of production; an echo of that original
¬gurative language which is self-regulating and self-adjudicating. Poetic
re¬‚exivity, through a subtle co-ordination of process and purposefulness,
or means and ends, thus becomes productive:
I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous over¬‚ow of powerful feelings: it takes
its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated
till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion,
similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced,
and does itself actually exist in the mind.·

The political contradiction this masks, however, between represen-
tation or re¬‚ection on one hand, and poetic spontaneity and privi-
lege on the other, parallels the epistemological problem which affects
both Wordsworth™s argument and, since ˜second nature™ by de¬nition
resists articulation (this, after all, is the domain of poetry), the very
act of his making it. By attempting to synthesize Rousseau and Burke,
Wordsworth™s exploration of the idea of a recovered ¬gurative language
which reconciles spontaneity and re¬‚ection or self-consciousness through
an organic sensibility, reveals the instability of English Romantic indif-
ference. First, Wordsworth suggests that poetic language can recover the
uni¬ed experience lost by philosophy because it partly creates that expe-
rience through ¬guration. In this way, the boundary between literal and
¬gurative meaning (between hard, confrontational fact and soft, created
value) which led philosophy into both Terror and scepticism, is blurred, if
not erased. Philosophy™s ills thus demand a non-philosophical, aesthetic
therapy: the healing power of the extraordinary yet ordinary, natural yet
supernatural voice of the poet. Wordsworth™s prose writing is itself over-
ripe with metaphor. His description of poetry as the ˜breath and ¬ner
spirit of all knowledge™ attempts to practise what it preaches: the col-
lapsing of form and content and the rehabilitation of knowing through
¬guration. This is noticeable elsewhere. In the ˜Reply to “Mathetes”,™ for
instance, he claims that ˜[t]here is a life and spirit in knowledge which
we extract from truths scattered for the bene¬t of all, and which the
mind, by its own activity, has appropriated to itself [. . .]™.·µ In both cases
Wordsworth eschews argument, opting for a mode of expression which
is studiedly non-philosophical. Unwilling to theorize the aesthetic, he
aestheticizes theory.
Yet at the same time (and quite apart from the very fact of its existence)
Wordsworth™s prefatory prose writing teaches another lesson. Despite his
Wordsworth™s prose
professed reluctance to write the Preface, he was not, in the end, about
to allow his own poetry to uncoil its meanings without a frame of re¬‚ec-
tion; a frame intended to demonstrate, moreover, that his poems were
not without a ˜purpose™ which was connected to all that was ˜permanent™
in human nature. To this predetermined end, Wordsworth constructs in
discursive prose a theory of a philosophy-transcending ˜poetic™ truth, all
the time deploying many of the terms and the assumptions of eighteenth-
century British philosophy. The very term ˜poetic truth™ indeed, neatly
expresses Wordsworth™s ambivalence between indifference and episte-
mology, ¬guration and demonstration. Though I have maintained that
this tension is at its most pronounced in his prose writing, this is not to
say that it is undetectable in his poetry, where, as Elridge observes, ˜narra-
tive particularity not only situates and humanizes, but also continuously
competes with, transcendental claims [. . .]™.· This is particularly true of
The Prelude, which oscillates between two major rhetorical modes: one
of ontological exploration (the Wordsworth of ˜Oh there is a blessing in
this gentle breeze™·· ), and one of demonstration and argumentation (the
Wordsworth of ˜Was it for this [. . .]?™· ). As Michael Cooke puts it, The
Prelude ˜is not a thing of argument [. . .] but neither is it a thing innocent of
argument™.· Some of the most telling passages in this respect are those
which recount his bewitchment by Godwin and philosophy in the ±·°s.
This one is from Book Eleven:
Thus strangely did I war against myself;
A bigot to a new idolatry
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
And, as by simple waving of a wand,
The wizard instantaneously dissolves
Palace or grove, even so did I unsoul
As readily by syllogistic words
(Some charm of logic, ever within reach)
Those mysteries of passion which have made,
And shall continue evermore to make “
In spite of all that reason hath performed,
And shall perform, to exalt and to re¬ne “
One brotherhood of all the human race,
Through all the habitations of past years,
And those to come: and hence an emptiness
Fell on the historian™s page, and even on that
Of poets, pregnant with more absolute truth.°
At ¬rst sight, the dismissal of the synchronic foundationalism of the
Ideologues, which ˜instantaneously dissolves™ the feudal wisdom of ˜Palace
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
or grove™ garnered ˜[t]hrough all the habitations of past years™ seems
complete. Yet Wordsworth remained dissatis¬ed with the passage, con-
tinuing to worry at it over the years, and even here there is much to
suggest that his strange war with himself was far from over.± On one
hand, he implies that when set against the second nature bestowed by
cumulative historical experience, logic and ratiocination are facile pro-
cesses, rushing towards the soulless truth of the philosophical conclusion
and missing the ˜more absolute truth™ with which history and poetry
are ˜pregnant™. On the other, the notion of an ˜absolute™ truth which
yet remains in a permanent state of gestation or becoming is a troubled
one, and its pressures are echoed by Wordsworth™s style, in which the
cumulative signi¬cance of ever-pregnant clauses is stapled into place by
his own favourite locutions of consecutive reasoning, ˜Thus™ and ˜hence™.
Indeed, the passage itself makes an argument, one which is based
upon a distinction between ˜charm™ and ˜mystery™. This in turn, like
Wordsworth™s separation of ˜public™ and ˜people™, is fundamentally un-
stable, endeavouring to prevent the slippage between two terms which
it only manages to underscore. Wordsworth attempts to turn the tables
on philosophy by endowing it with the quality which poetry more often
stands accused of harbouring: beguiling, facile charm. But this inversion
threatens to highlight, by repressing, the more common feeling (which
Hazlitt, for one, was given to voicing) that poetry is really the idolator™s
sanctuary, and that the poet™s ˜mysteries of passion™ themselves amount
to little more than Prospero-like wizardry, bardic smoke and mirrors.
To understand this, it helps to recall that the word ˜charm™ features
in another notable moment of Wordsworthian edginess, when in the
Preface to the Lyrical Ballads he defends his decision to write in verse,
protesting that ˜why am I to be condemned if to [. . .] description I have
endeavoured to superadd the charm which by the consent of all nations
is acknowledged to exist in metrical language?™ Thus, the charm of
words arranged in verse is innocent, that of words arranged in syllogism,
malign. Yet Wordsworth™s breezy take-it-or-leave-it attitude to versi¬ca-
tion is belied by his belief that song, or lyrical poetry, re¬‚ects the primal
state of language, the ˜original ¬gurative language of passion™ which he
sometimes hears within the ordinary language of rural folk and children.
Coleridge would later argue that the elevation of poetry on epistemic
rather than metrical grounds presupposed the organic relationship of
linguistic form and content, rendering poetic ˜truth™ irreducible to any
scienti¬c notion of truth as correspondence between conceptual scheme
and world. But for Wordsworth, still married (albeit unhappily) to such
Wordsworth™s prose
dualisms of empiricism, ˜truth™ always carries the de¬‚ating implication
of facticity, just as ¬guration suggests the lawless activity of sheer crea-
tion. This meant that any notion of ˜poetic truth™ was always in peril of
sliding, on one hand, into a factual but arid ¬eld of demonstrably true
philosophic knowledge, or on the other, a domain of value and feeling
bereft of grounds upon which it might raise its ˜mystery™ above mere
Wordsworth™s dilemma over the limits and validity of poetic spontan-
eity are paralleled by an anxiety about the possibility of unconstrained
political action. He makes this plain as early as ±·, in a letter to William
Matthews, writing that ˜I recoil from the bare idea of a revolution™; adding
that the only guard against ˜the miserable situation of the French™ is ˜the
undaunted efforts of good men in propagating with unremitting activity
those doctrines which long and severe meditation has taught them are
essential to the welfare of mankind™. In this, the teachings of the re¬‚ective
poet achieve their political potential as a counterweight to the dangerous
agitation of an impressionable public by ill-conceived and ˜in¬‚ammatory
addresses™. As Wordsworth puts it, ˜I know that the multitude walk in
darkness. I would put into each man™s hand a lantern to guide him and
not have him to set out upon his journey depending for illumination on
abortive ¬‚ashes of lightning, or the coruscations of transitory meteors.™
The poetic genius must not be a rabble-rouser. ˜Every great Poet is a
Teacher™, he writes to Sir George Beaumont in ±°; ˜I wish either to
be considered as a Teacher, or as nothing.™ But the question remained:
what was it that the poet actually taught, which no other person could
teach; which was founded upon necessary law, while compatible with the
natural birthright of every human being; which maintained its own centre
and circumference as knowledge, yet arose from creative mental activity?
In other words, by what criteria was the poet to be distinguished both
from the detached scientist, or observer, on one side, and the ˜transitory
meteor™ or political agitator on the other?
By his frequent suggestions in the Preface that the truth of poetic lan-
guage is of a lower order than the words of passionate men, ˜the emana-
tions of reality and truth™,µ which it seeks to emulate, Wordsworth
compromises his effort to demarcate poetic truth from scienti¬c fact. He
is in a bind: if poetic language is to be rigidly factual and representative, its
claim to a higher truth would seem to be a hollow one. On the other hand,
if poetry is de¬ned by its spontaneity, there needs to be some principle
of containment or veri¬cation for its products. Without this, the notion
of lawless creativity threatens to overthrow that of free expression, and
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
so undermine the foundations of knowledge with a promiscuous prolif-
eration of meaning. Yet again, such a principle cannot be empirical, for
that would be to succumb to the ˜charm of logic™ and reduce poetry™s
truth-value, once more, to the numerical values of science. One of
Wordsworth™s more innovative attempts to cut across this problem is
outlined in the ˜Essay, Supplementary to the Preface™ of ±±µ. In this, he
endeavours to make a virtue of poetry™s representational inadequacy:
The appropriate business of poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as per-
manent as pure science,) her appropriate employment, her privilege and her
duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in
themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions.

This signals a important departure for Wordsworth™s theory. Whereas
in the past he had striven to articulate a special, non-scienti¬c way by
which poetry might approach ˜things as they are™, here that project is
relinquished completely. For the ¬rst time, Wordsworth suggests a model
of poetic truth which does not strain to conform to the empirical stip-
ulation that experience must correspond to a causally effective object.
By designating the treatment of the realm of appearances as the proper
business of poetry, and by further con¬ning these appearances to those
mediated by the passions, Wordsworth turns his back upon the Lockean
inheritance which had proved such an encumbrance: the doctrine of
representative realism. The poet is ¬nally permitted to take his eye off
the ˜subject™.
Such apparent indifferentism, however, should not be taken at face
value. Without a supplementary, positive thesis of poetic truth which
proposed an alternative to the empirical standard, this concession itself
represented little more than a surrender to empiricism; a desertion of
poetry™s claims to knowledge. This would effectively collapse the question
of poetry™s status back into the terms of the ˜pleasure versus function™
debate; leaving it exposed to appropriation by the Epicurean, who might
seek to reduce it to a pleasurable pastime; the fanatic, who would merely
capitalize upon its rhetorical effectiveness for the end of instilling religious
or political dogma into his readers; or the utilitarian, who would buy into
either of these persuasions where it promoted the general interest. Such
a capitulation was unacceptable.
At this point in the ˜Essay™ Wordsworth deploys a provoking analogy,
which itself bears the marks of Coleridgean in¬‚uence. He remarks upon a
similarity between poetry and religion, in which the ˜commerce between
Man and his Maker cannot be carried on but by a process where much
Wordsworth™s prose
is represented in little, and the In¬nite Being accommodates himself to
a ¬nite capacity™. He continues:

In all this may be perceived the af¬nity between religion and poetry; between
religion making up the de¬ciencies of reason by faith; and poetry passionate
for the instruction of reason; between religion whose element is in¬nitude, and
whose ultimate trust is the supreme of things, submitting herself to circumscrip-
tion, and reconciled to substitutions; and poetry ethereal and transcendent, yet
incapable to sustain her existence without sensuous incarnation.·

This analogy has its limits. Inasmuch as he saw the poet as a ˜teacher™,
Wordsworth envisaged poetry™s task as legislative, but not dogmatic in
the manner of a religious teacher or a priest. The misuse of poetry for
devotional proposes was, he maintained, the result of a ˜kindred error™.
Nonetheless, the passage is signi¬cant in the way it highlights a change in
emphasis in Wordsworth™s conception of poetic truth, which here turns
away from the language of association, re¬‚ection, and sympathetic plea-
sure; and moves towards notions of the ˜ethereal and transcendent™; of a
poetry which, ˜passionate for the instruction of reason™, might even serve
as a surrogate religion in its own right. In this light, the apprehension
of appearances, the incorporation of the in¬nite within the ¬nite for the
purpose of communication, becomes the sensuous embodiment of pas-
sionate truth, and tutor to scienti¬c reason and philosophic system alike.
At moments like this Wordsworth™s professed indifference to knowing,
his emphasis on faith as an antidote to philosophy, sounds remarkably
Jacobian. Unlike Jacobi, Wordsworth has the advantage of writing not
as a philosopher but as a poet. In this way, he is not the captive of the
discourse which he is trying to overturn. On another level, however,
Wordsworth is still engaged in a process of theoretical self-justi¬cation,
and to this extent, his prose remains troubled by the possibility that by
putting reason to one side his pronouncements concerning the relation
of poetry to religion may be little more than a grand but unsupported
declaration of the mystical autonomy of imaginative poetry.
Part of the reason why Wordsworth is not as concerned as one might
expect in the ˜Essay™ about the relegation of poetry to the realm of
appearances is his account of poetic ˜power™, a power which might com-
pensate for loss of knowledge. Wordsworth™s interest in the concept of
power is already evident in ˜The Sublime and the Beautiful™, written a
few years before the ˜Essay™. While analyzing the impression of a moun-
tain at close range, Wordsworth discerns three principal sensations: ˜a
sense of individual form or forms; a sense of duration; and a sense of
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
power [. . .]™. Though each of these is individually necessary, and none
alone suf¬cient for an experience of the sublime, the sense of power is
the most distinctive and important: ˜works of Nature [. . .] must be com-
bined [with] impressions of power, to a sympathy with & a participation
of which the mind must be elevated or to a dread and awe of which, as
existing out of itself, it must be subdued™. Power, then, ˜awakens the
sublime either when it rouses us to a sympathetic energy & calls upon the
mind to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but
which it is incapable of attaining yet so that it participates force which
is acting upon it; or, dly, by producing a humiliation or prostration of
the mind before some external agency [. . .]™. In both events, however,
˜the head & the front of the sensation is intense unity™ which is killed by
any suggestion of immediate personal fear.° This sense of unity in the
sublime is fundamentally a consolation for epistemic loss, a disempow-
erment which Wordsworth is keener to mitigate than Burke had been.
Nonetheless, the direction of both accounts of the sublime is broadly
similar: the aestheticization of the epistemological (and, by implication,
political) disenfranchisement of the subject.
However, the stress which Wordsworth places upon the renovating
quality of the sublime remains rooted in the same, familiar discourse of
impression and sensation which places the subject in a position of acqui-
escence, answering to the effective causal object of perception. His sen-
sation of ˜intense unity™, whether bound up with a ˜sympathetic energy™
or not, lacks Kant™s transcendental securities.± There is an instability
within the subject here which Wordsworth appears to believe can be
counteracted by ¬xed laws of behaviour, or the ˜grand constitutional
laws under which it has been ordained that these objects should everlast-
ingly affect the mind [. . .]™. Wordsworth had no means of quantifying
such laws, however, other than empirically. And Hume had devastatingly
shown that no empirical rules, no matter how grand, were adequate to
establish the kind of teleological principle which Wordsworth seeks to
connect to the sublime. Wordsworth™s thought pulls in two directions.
It is hard to reconcile his insistence on the lawfulness and unity which
characterizes the sublime with his statement that the thoughts connected
with it ˜are free, and tolerate neither limit nor circumscription [. . .]™.
At one point Wordsworth appears to propose that the action of the
sublime is best understood dialectically. Using the image of a rock be-
neath a waterfall, he writes that ˜objects will be found to have exalted the
mind to the highest state of sublimity when they are thought of in that
state of opposition & yet reconcilement, analogous to parallel lines in
Wordsworth™s prose
mathematics [. . .]™. This is similar in some respects to his claim in the
¬rst ˜Essay Upon Epitaphs™, written around the same time, of feelings
of temporality and immortality, that ˜though they seem opposite to each
other, have another and a ¬ner connection than that of contrast. “ It
is a connection formed through the subtle progress by which, both in
the natural and the moral world, qualities pass insensibly into their con-
traries, and things resolve upon each other™. Yet there is an important
difference between the two images: in the ¬rst, the power in the objects is
conceived as a polarity of irreducible difference in unity, an ˜opposition &
yet reconcilement™. Wordsworth™s account of the relationship between
temporality and immortality, on the other hand, seems more weighted
towards the erasure of difference in favour of a ˜subtle progress™ towards
dialectical synthesis or resolution, by which ˜qualities pass insensibly into
their contraries™. In both passages one can the detect the effect of the
long evening talks with Coleridge, and in particular the in¬‚uence of
the latter™s organicist models of uni¬ed difference, or distinction without
division. Once again, however, Coleridge™s treatment of the relationship
between difference and identity is mediated through his transcenden-
tal construction of subjectivity and objectivity, a perspective not readily
available to Wordsworth. In this light, passages such as the above, as
well as Wordsworth™s related claim that in¬nity is a ˜modi¬cation™ of
unity, can be seen to be different in kind to Coleridge™s metaphysical
theses, and thus more obviously vulnerable to contingency.µ This is not
to claim that Coleridge™s organicism is less troubled that Wordsworth™s
modi¬ed Burkeian sublime. Indeed, more important than their differ-
ences is a shared ambivalence between dialectic as ˜resolution™ and as
the non-elimination of difference, which in this instance is played out by
Wordsworth as a contest between knowledge and power.
In the ˜Essay™ Wordsworth was to extend his notion of power to the
process of poetic production itself. Before doing so, he returns to the
problem which had dogged his speculations on poetry since the ±°°
Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: namely, that of the nature of the cultural
authority of the poet. Citing a remark made to him by Coleridge, ˜the
philosophical Friend™, Wordsworth agrees ˜that every author, as far as
he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the
taste by which he is to be enjoyed [. . .]™. To put it another way, ˜for
what is peculiarly his own, he will be called upon to clear and often to
shape his own road: he will be in the condition of Hannibal among the
Alps™. The real dif¬culty of such an enterprise, he continues, will be ˜in
establishing that dominion over the spirits of readers by which they are
±°° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
to be humbled and humanised [. . .]™. This is one of Wordsworth™s most
explicit statements on the pre-eminence of poetic genius, and the capacity
it retains to give the rule, aesthetically, to men of feeling. Imaginative
activity, he argues, is rightly prior to judgements of taste, and so bestows
legitimacy upon the creative process of the artist; a process which is
founded upon power. Consequently, ˜[i]f every great poet [. . .] has to call
forth and to communicate power, this service, in a still greater degree,
falls upon an original writer [. . .]™.
Accordingly, the further Wordsworth™s description of genius progresses
in the ˜Essay™, the more it turns upon two qualities: the power of epistemic
creation, and the authority that this confers upon the poet:

Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what is worthy to be done,
and what was never done before: Of genius, in the ¬ne arts, the only infallible
sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honour, and
bene¬t of human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into the
intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the application of powers
to objects on which they had not before been exercised, or the employment of
them in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown. What is all this
but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the poet?·

The last line effectively captures the uncompromising way in which
Wordworth was now prepared to maintain the primacy of the poet.
The role of the reader, on the other hand, was to be ˜invigorated and
inspirited by his leader™. To a great extent Wordsworth is here adopt-
ing a militaristic metaphor suggesting cultural colonization which was
common to eighteenth-century discussions of the ascendant, appropri-
ating genius. The difference is that the discourse of power upon which
it is based in this instance springs from an epistemological and politi-
cal problem which did not present itself with such urgency even in late
eighteenth-century British aesthetics. The solution proposed is no less
radical than that of making poetic power itself a condition of knowledge,
and thus of ending knowledge as construed by philosophy since Descartes.
Human interaction with the world, Wordsworth suggests, need not begin
with knowing, but with another kind of process, which might well be called
creation: ˜to create taste is to call forth and bestow power™, he explains,
˜of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true dif¬culty™.
And yet the ¬nal clause is crucial, for his formulation does indeed
present a dif¬culty; in other words, something to be argued over, resolved,
overcome. The dif¬culty, as Wittgenstein put it, is to begin at the be-
ginning. ˜And not try to go further back.™±°° In English Romantic prose,
Wordsworth™s prose
however, the epistemological imperative remains, as De Quincey, in¬‚u-
enced by Wordsworth™s notion of power, was himself to ¬nd. The dis-
course of power, with all its Nietzschean echoes for the modern reader,
is never fully deployed against the foundationalist edi¬ce of empirical
knowledge. This in turn produces more localized tensions. For instance,
if a criterion of ˜knowledge™ (or the conditions under which some mental
entity is to be counted as true or not), is a function or effect of power,
then the stipulation in Wordsworth™s account of genius that it should
extend human sensibility for the ˜delight, honour, and bene¬t of human
nature™ is otiose, as the self-legitimizing power of genius will have already
guaranteed such an outcome. Nonetheless, that he feels it necessary
to include such a proviso suggests that he is not as comfortable with
poetic power as might at ¬rst appear. This is most tellingly revealed in
his hesitation over the possibility that genius might actually be responsi-
ble for ˜the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe™.
At this point, Wordsworth has arrived at the conclusion that a condition
of almost all of his most signi¬cant claims about the status of the poet is
that he is capable of a kind of creation which goes beyond that explainable
by the empirical-psychological mechanism, however complex. Instead,
it embodies an element of the sheer contingency and freedom of creatio
ex nihilo. Suddenly balking at this, however, he retreats into a scienti¬c
conception of creation-as-discovery; of power producing ˜effects hitherto
Part of what makes Wordsworth as a prose writer and theorist so
challenging, but also dif¬cult, is his habit of embroidering antifounda-
tional lines of thought into the language of empiricism. He challenges
knowledge with the notion that truth is made, not found, and having
used creation as a ground for (poetic) truth, redresses truth with power.
Once again, with no means of setting a boundary or limit on what
power might produce, he is left sounding almost regretful for subordi-
nating poetry™s cognitive role to a principle of naked power about which,
elsewhere, he shows a great deal of apprehension. Writing in opposi-
tion to the idea of a universal (male) franchise in an ±± letter to Lord
Lonsdale, for instance, he argues that ˜[t]he People are already power-
ful far beyond the increase of their information, or their improvement
in morals™.±°± Wordsworth sees foundationalism as inevitably producing
scepticism and cynical tyranny. At the same time, he fears that a culture
of unbridled poetic self-creation might slip into anarchy. Indeed, he re-
mained anxious about both an over-passive and an over-active public.
At the root of this ambivalence is his attempt, as it were, to ˜revalue™
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
knowledge through poetry, or aesthetic therapy. But remaining captive
to the foundationalism which Hume crushed, Wordsworth™s thought in-
volutes, as epistemology vies endlessly with indifference, and truth and
value remain unreconciled.

® ¬µ © ®
As it is represented in the works produced in his most theoretically con-
centrated period between ±°° and ±±µ, the pattern of Wordsworth™s
prefatory and prose writing is one whereby a problem of how the mind
can be said to create forms of experience which surpass knowledge (itself
echoed by a political paradox regarding the authority by which the peo-
ple might become self-determining) is reformulated in terms of aesthetic
production. Accordingly, the domain of poetic activity, with its capacity
spontaneously to create ˜new elements™ in the intellectual universe, be-
comes a site at which otherwise lawless action is legitimized. The status
of the poet had been undermined by the possibility that the value of
his work might be determined by the public, or (worse) the marketplace.
Now, however, ˜creating the taste™ by which he is to be judged, he becomes
a teacher, or a legislative ¬gure who spontaneously gives the rule both to
the most general principles of scienti¬c knowledge, and the higher politi-
cal aspirations of the People. As a consequence, however, the dif¬culty
which Wordsworth encounters repeatedly in trying to formulate this in
theoretical terms is that he is compelled to do so in the very language which
generated these dilemmas: that of empiricism.
Writing to William Hamilton in ±, Wordsworth claimed that
˜[t]hough prevailed upon by Mr. Coleridge to write the ¬rst Preface
to my poems which tempted, or rather forced, me to add a Supplement
to it [. . .] I have never felt inclined to write criticism, tho™ I have talked,
and am daily talking, a great deal.™±° What is most interesting about
Wordsworth™s prose is that, pulling against his reluctance to engage in
an intellectual justi¬cation of his work, is the resistance of his empiricist
instincts to the claims of creative imagination. Yet without the imagina-
tion, his ambition to capture an autonomous space for the poet is handi-
capped. Moreover, as the possibility of de¬ning that space as a mediating
ground between tradition and progress faded, his later, more conserva-
tive tones seem more comprehensible. Attempting to put knowledge in
its place without letting creation off the leash, he considers a range of
alternative strategies, running from the imitated real language of men in
the ±°° Preface, to the notion of power in the ˜Essay, Supplementary
Wordsworth™s prose
to the Preface™ of ±±µ. Yet each of these ideas either sailed too close to
empiricism to be able to steer poetry in its new direction, or (as with his
notion of spontaneity in the ¬rst Preface) having broken free of empirical
rule, suffered from the damaging quali¬cation and equivocation which
resulted from Wordsworth™s reluctance to see such principles completely
In this light, a ¬nal comparison of two passages proves instructive.
Their point of interest lies in the different meaning which they attach to
the term ˜subject™, and what they imply about Wordsworth™s developing
attitude to the nature of poetic truth. In the ±°° Preface, much of his
con¬dence in the ˜truth™ of the poems in Lyrical Ballads lies in the fact that
while in the act of composition he has, as he puts it, ˜at all times endeav-
oured to look steadily at my subject™.±° Not unusually for Wordsworth
at this point, this implies an empirical standard of truth: the verity or
objectivity of the artistic product is given by its relation to a prior ˜subject™. In
her essay, ˜Insight and Oversight: Reading “Tintern Abbey” ™, Levinson
undertakes to ˜hold Wordsworth to his claim™, only to ¬nd, in the case
of ˜Tintern Abbey™ at least, that ˜one learns that the narrator achieves
his penetrating vision through the exercise of a selective blindness™ “ in
other words, the suppression of the social for the personal. Yet, avoiding
for a moment the assumption that the subject/object dichotomy is dis-
pensable, it appears that there is at least something democratic in this
epistemic arrangement: the poet™s mandate to express himself is derived
from his representational ¬delity to the community of impressions which
link him to the world.±° The problem with this, however, is that his ac-
tivity remains circumscribed within empirical boundaries, and certainly
does not extend to the liberty of free creation. Indeed, already contained
in the notion of ˜subject™, as used in this context, is a subordination of
the perceived to the perceiver; a sense further suggested by the idea of
the poet ˜looking steadily™ at that subject. To know one™s subject is, in
more than a merely metaphorical sense, to have command of it. It is
but a short distance from this to the poetic objective of establishing a
˜dominion over the spirits of readers™.±°µ
Such, as has been seen, is the direction that Wordsworth™s theory of
poetic value was taking even at this early stage, a direction which empiri-
cism could not sustain. Unable entirely to escape the Lockean conviction
that knowledge lay in a relationship of correspondence between things
(fundamentally, between mind and world) Wordsworth oscillates between
the perspectives of epistemology and indifference, and then again be-
tween an indifference that would bring knowledge into a dialectic with
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
being, and an indifference that would write it out of existence. At times he
suggests that the creativity of poetry might free humanity from a tyranny
of knowing, replacing demonstration and linear argument with the sym-
pathetic communication of pleasure. At more authoritarian moments,
however, like Kant, he seeks to support the foundations of epistemology
by preserving the dualism of the correspondence theory of perception,
reversing empiricism™s priority of world over mind. Thus, the under-
determination of total experience by the data of sense for Wordsworth
meant not, as it would to Quine, the rejection of the very discourse of
˜objectivity™, but that the individual and, pre-eminently, the poet, must
carry the grounds of objectivity within himself. In other words, the poet
should become his own world, his own ˜subject™, as the ±°° Preface
intends that term. But by this process, the subject is transformed into
something quite different from itself. It becomes something which is
closer to what Wordsworth has in mind when he writes in ˜The Sublime
and the Beautiful™, that ˜[t]o talk of an object as being sublime or beau-
tiful in itself, without references to some subject by whom that sublimity
or beauty is perceived, is absurd [. . .]™.±° As Althusser observed, the
term ˜subject™ itself oscillates between two senses, namely ˜a free sub-
jectivity, a center of initiatives™ and ˜a subjected being who submits to
a higher authority [. . .]™.±°· Finding that the policy of looking ˜steadily
at the subject™ failed to remove that contradiction (that is, between the
domination of the mass of contingent particulars by poetic perception,
and the overdetermination of poetic perception by that same unruly
mass), Wordsworth transforms the empirical, ˜external™ subject of the
Preface into the poetic, ˜internal™ subject, one which, with its objectivity
now self-inscribed, creates its own epistemic authority. But the nature
of such authority remained uncertain, precariously balanced between a
disengenuous knowing ˜charm™ and an unknowing ˜mystery™.

The dry romance: Hazlitt™s immanent idealism

Metaphysics themselves are but a dry romance.
William Hazlitt, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action±

The gradual renewal of interest in Hazlitt studies over the past few
decades has recently intensi¬ed, and in doing so has taken a striking
turn. Thanks to the earlier work of students such as W. P. Albrecht, Roy
Park, John Mahoney, John Kinnaird and David Bromwich, Hazlitt™s
intellectual reputation has long since emerged from the shadow of
Coleridge, to the extent that it is now unsustainable to characterize him
simply as the latter™s wayward disciple. As this picture has faded, so
too has the image of Hazlitt as the gifted but ˜impressionistic™ critic and
prose stylist who might safely be studied with only cursory reference to
his works in metaphysics and moral philosophy. Lately, however, Hazlitt
has drawn the attention of a number of commentators who have identi-
¬ed in his work a philosophical and theoretical outlook which is not just
unique, but internally coherent and (some have claimed) quite ahead
of its time. Rather in the manner in which Coleridge™s standing as a
serious and consistent thinker was assembled over the years despite the
dispersed and fragmentary nature of his writings, the fact that much of
Hazlitt™s philosophical thought (with the notable exception of the Essay
on the Principles of Human Action) is scattered throughout a wide range
of essays and reviews has not prevented scholars from measuring the
telling regularity with which he deploys certain arguments concerning
such questions as identity and moral agency, the limits of knowledge, or
the nature of creative genius.
Yet this increased attention has also thrown into sharper relief some
of the deeper paradoxes in Hazlitt™s work; paradoxes which, despite
the attempts of at least one critic to identify in them the journalistic
writer™s attempts to articulate subtle and dif¬cult issues through single,
arresting expressions, remain troubling to those who would take him
±° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
seriously as a thinker.µ Foremost among these is his dif¬cult relation to
empiricism. Doubt has been cast over the standard view of Hazlitt as a
˜Romantic empiricist™, whose work provides a bridge between the ideals
of his contemporaries and the philosophies of the previous era which they
ostensibly rejected. Certainly, given that Hazlitt™s outward opposition to
empiricism was more or less constant throughout his career, it may seem
remarkable that such a view has persisted. In his ±° Prospectus of a
History of English Philosophy, for example, one of the touchstones for his
criticism of Locke is his conviction that ˜reason is a distinct source of
knowledge or inlet of truth, over and above experience.™ However, it can
been seen that even this assertion harbours an equivocation. Hazlitt™s
description of reason as another inlet of truth itself suggests a concession
to inductivism. In fact, despite his hostility to Locke, what makes Hazlitt
noteworthy among theorists of the period is his reluctance to jettison
the language of empiricism outright, preferring instead to amend or
reform it according to new paradigms. One of those paradigms was the
concept of creation, which, when given an epistemic function, drove his
oft-repeated conviction that ˜[t]he mind alone is formative™, and that ˜[i]deas
[. . .] are the offspring of the understanding, not of the senses™.·
As with Wordsworth, however, the question remained as to just how
susceptible the language of empiricism was to such radical reform.
Hazlitt™s statements to the effect that the mind alone is spontaneously
formative often acknowledge Kant as their source or authority, but, un-
like Coleridge, Hazlitt™s access to the German philosopher was con¬ned
to Willich™s questionable translation. Consequently, he would not draw
to the same extent upon Kant™s work in his struggle with the problem
which continually worries at the root of his thought, viz. what are the
grounds of the truth of the mind™s creations? Having found that even a revised


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