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LILY GURTON-WACHTER “Ever on the Watch”: Wordsworth’s Attention And, attention now relaxed, A heart-felt chillness crept along my veins. —William Wordsworth, The Excursion 2.1.618-19 That portion of every day of our existence which is occupied by us with a mind attentive and on the alert, I would call life in a transcen­ dent sense. The rest is scarcely better than a state of vegetation. And yet not so either. The happiest and most valuable thoughts of the hu­ man mind will sometimes come when they are least sought for, and we least anticipated any such thing. —William Godwin, Thoughts on Man2 I N HIS 1839 RECOLLECTION OF WORDSWORTH, THOMAS DE QUINCEY REcalls an evening during the Peninsular War when he and Wordsworth went for a walk to await the mail carrier whom they expected to arrive with the newspaper. According to De Quincey, the two writers used to walk every evening—in what he calls “the deadly impatience for earlier intelligence”—to meet the carrier of the London newspapers. On this par­ ticular evening when, according to De Quincey, “some great crisis in Spain was daily apprehended,” the two waited for over an hour with particular impatience. “At intervals,” De Quincey explains, “Wordsworth had stretched himselfat length on the high road, applying his ear to the ground, so as to catch any sound of wheels that might be groaning along at a dis­ tance.”3 Stretched out on the road, with his ear firmly pressed to the I am grateful to Steven Goldsmith and Kevis Goodman for their instrumental comments and advice on numerous versions of this essay. 1. From William Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden (New Haven: Yale Univer­ sity Press, 1977). All quotations from Wordsworth’s poems, excluding The Prelude, are from this edition. 2. Godwin, Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries (London: E. Wilson, 1831), 160. 3. Thomas De Quincey, Reminiscences ofthe English Lake Poets (London: J. M. Dent, 1961), 122. SiR, 52 (Winter 2013) 511 512 LILY GURTON-WACHTER ground of Dunmail Raise—a peak in the Lake District and the mythic site of a battle from the year 945 where, according to legend, a slain king is buried—Wordsworth listens for the arrival ofthe Courier so he can read the daily news of the current war.4 But that which Wordsworth, according to De Quincey’s narrative, calls his “intense condition of vigilance,” a phrase perhaps more likely to describe a posture in the current war itself than that of the quotidian wait for the post carrying news of it, is not only met with disappointment when the carrier does not arrive, but also encounters an ef­ fect that puts into question the very conditions and consequences of “vigi­ lance” itself. For even though the gesture of stretching himself on the ground might seem the perfect caricature of attention, as though Words­ worth were acting out and literalizing the term’s etymological link to the Latin words ad+tendere, meaning “to stretch towards,” when Wordsworth reflects upon his act, he remarks neither on the distention of his body, nor on the application of his ear to the ground.5 He is struck, rather, by what happens when he relaxes, when he interrupts, his attentive stretch. Accord­ ing to De Quincey, Wordsworth observes: I have remarked, from my earliest days, that, if under any circum­ stance, the attention is energetically braced up to an act of steady ob­ servation, or of steady expectation, then, if this intense condition of vigilance should suddenly relax, at that moment, any beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection of objects, falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not known under other circum­ stances. Just now, my ear was placed upon the stretch, in order to catch any sound of wheels that might come down upon the lake of Wythburn from the Keswick road; at the very instant . . . when the organs of attention were all at once relaxing from their tension, the bright star hanging in the air above those outlines of massy blackness fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehen4 . De...