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Michael Fischer WORDSWORTH AND THE RECOVERY OF HOPE Acrisis dominates Book Eleventh of The Prelude (1850 edition), where Wordsworth recalls Dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds, Like culprits to the bar; calling the mind, Suspiciously, to establish in plain day Her titles and her honours; now believing, Now disbelieving; endlessly perplexed With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground Of obligation, what the rule and whence The sanction; till, demanding formal proof, And seeking it in every thing, I lost AU feeling of conviction, and, in fine, Sick, wearied out with contrarieties, Yielded up moral questions in despair. This, Wordsworth concludes, was the crisis of that strong disease, This the soul's last and lowest ebb; I drooped, Deeming our blessed reason of least use Where wanted most. . . . (U. 294-310)' Wordsworth's disappointment with reason exacerbates his disillusionment with the French Revolution, which has become for him a spectacle of woe, oppressing him Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 292-303 Michael Fischer293 With sorrow, disappointment, vexing thoughts, Confusion of the judgment, zeal decayed, And, lastly, utter loss of hope itself And things to hope for. (Book Twelfth, U. 4-7) At least since M. H. Abrams's wide-ranging 1963 essay "English Romanticism : The Spirit of the Age," critics have agreed that Wordsworth wants in The Prelude "to reconstitute the grounds of hope," as Abrams puts it, after the failure of the French Revolution has plunged him into despair. But exactly what Wordsworth recovers—what he now feels entitled to hope for—remains controversial. Abrams pictures Wordsworth regaining his composure, his grace under historical pressure, by turning from "overt political action" to "spiritual quietism."2 "Blest in thoughts that are their own perfection and reward," Wordsworth now "seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils" (Book Sixth, 11. 610—12) but cultivates a seemingly imperturbable "wise passiveness." He still expects the best: mankind's deliverance from oppression is "surely yet to come," presumably aided by his writing. But he is prepared for the worst: Though men return to servitude as fast As the tide ebbs, to ignominy and shame By nations sink together, we shall still Find solace. . . . (Book Fourteenth, 11. 435-38) Political developments cannot jeopardize his equanimity because it comes from within. He has found "freedom in himself" (Book Fourteenth , 1. 131). Recent commentators on Wordsworth have accepted this accountonly to hold it against him. Jerome J. McGann's influential comments on "Tintern Abbey" in The Romantic Ideology also fit The Prelude. "What appears to be an immense gain"—the mind's triumph over its times— "is in reality the deepest and most piteous loss": "Between 1793 and 1798 Wordsworth lost the world merely to gain his own immortal soul."3 From this point ofview, Wordsworth gives up his capacity to be affected by the world because his sensitivity has brought up so much pain. His composure results not from his transcendence of history but from his refusal to let its turmoil matter too much. As McGann observes, "had he merely 'yielded up moral questions in despair' ... his case would 294Philosophy and Literature have been pitiful."4 Instead, his case is tragic because he thinks that he is dealing with these questions—that he is carrying out his responsibilities —when in fact he is evading them. Wordsworth cannot have it both ways: his equanimity and optimism belie his claim still to take human misery seriously. McGann emphasizes the cost ofa solace that can coexist with nations' returning to servitude, ignominy, and shame. Wordsworth 's situation "is a very emblem of the tragedy of his epoch, for in that conceptualization Wordsworth imprisoned his true voice of feeling within the bastille of his consciousness. Wordsworth made a solitude and he called it peace."5 Wordsworth purchases his cheerful confidence by selling off, or out, his capacity to care. McGann raises crucial questions left dangling in Abrams's account. How can we reconcile Wordsworth's vaunted solace with his claim still to be concerned about history? What is "militant" about Wordsworth's "quietism" if not its vigilant warding off of the outside world?6 Focusing on the moment in The Prelude that I cite at the outset, I want to...


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