In the advertisement to the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth requests that we “consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.”1 And yet many readers decline—even stubbornly refuse—to be pleased by several of the poems. In particular, “The Idiot Boy” has frustrated, confused, or offended readers since its first appearance in print. John Wilson, a devoted fan, wrote to the poet in 1802, “[A]mong all the people ever I knew to have read this poem, I never met one who did not rise rather displeased from the perusal of it.”2 Byron satirized the poem, implicitly comparing Wordsworth to his intellectually disabled hero: “[A]ll who view the ‘idiot in his glory’, / Conceive the Bard the hero of the story.”3 Contemporary scholars like Geoffrey Hartman continue to echo Byron’s comparison: “[T]he poet’s obvious pleasure while narrating . . . draws too much attention to Wordsworth’s own ‘burring.’”4 Indeed, Wordsworth’s pleasure shows in every bouncy line; in 1843 he famously recalled that, “[I]n truth, I never wrote anything with so much glee.”5 But to attribute Johnny’s disability to Wordsworth, however glibly, oversimplifies the poet’s complex appropriation of intellectual disability as an image of the poetic imagination and forecloses the possibility of enjoying the poem beyond dismissive laughter at the poet’s expense.
For readers willing to distinguish Wordsworth from Johnny and from the narrator, “The Idiot Boy” offers a double pleasure, both satirical and sublime. As Brooke Hopkins points out, the poem’s pleasure comes from Wordsworth’s fulfillment of his objective in Lyrical Ballads to “purify the hearts of [his] readers by awakening them to the wonder that was, literally, right in front of their eyes” (Hopkins’s italics).6 As Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes, Wordsworth seeks to “give the charm of novelty to things of every day . . . by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom.”7 “The Idiot Boy” accomplishes this by surprising us with sublimity where we expect only silliness and imagination where we expect only idiocy.
Whereas Byron and Hartman compare Wordsworth and Johnny to the former’s detriment, contemporary scholars have been increasingly [End Page 66] willing to compare them to Johnny’s credit. For instance, without explicitly likening him to Wordsworth, Duncan Wu speculates that Johnny may have “experienced an ecstasy of some kind” and that he is “one of the few visionaries of Lyrical Ballads capable of perceiving the unified, idealized reality inherent in nature.”8 Others have made the comparison more explicitly, if less boldly.9 But I would argue that Johnny Foy is more than just “a dim type of the Wordsworthian poet.”10 When compared with Wordsworth’s lunar epiphany atop Mount Snowdon, as described in the 1805 Prelude, Johnny’s account of his adventure reveals that by using Johnny’s disability to invest him with visionary power,11 Wordsworth makes him an early figuration of the great poet and a possible source for his self-depiction in the Snowdon scene. For this reason, “The Idiot Boy” deserves to be recognized as an important lyrical ballad as well as a key poem for Wordsworth’s larger oeuvre and for Romantic conceptions of poetic imagination more generally.
To recognize the poet in Johnny, we must first enjoy the poem in which he appears. As Don Bialostosky argues, this requires active participation—an effort to understand the values implicit in the narrator’s tone and his attitudes toward others, including his subjects and implied listeners.12 This, in turn, requires that we draw a distinction between the poet and his narrator; the Lyrical Ballads are “a poetry of masks” rather than a “poetry of sincerity,” even when the mask closely resembles Wordsworth himself.13 Reading “The Idiot Boy” in this way helps identify and characterize several voices in the poem, each of which belongs to one of several poet figures who attempt to narrate Johnny’s moonlit adventure. Once we distinguish these perspectives, identify their characters’ attitudes toward each other, and, finally, locate ourselves in relationship to them, we can then...