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  • Suicide and Sovereignty in William Wordsworth
  • Andrew Bennett (bio)

The problem of suicide is the problem of sovereignty. Twentieth-century suicide theorists such as Jean Baechler, Jean Améry, Anthony Giddens, and Simon Critchley argue that in taking one's own life the individual "proclaims his autonomy and sovereignty" over that life; that the subject who decides to commit suicide acts in "full sovereignty"; that the act often involves a "grasping toward omnipotence"; and that in killing herself the subject assumes a "fantasy of total affirmation" and "absolute freedom" (Baechler 48; Améry 61; Giddens 113; Critchley, Very Little 80–81; see also Critchley, Notes).1 In fact, however, in this respect, twentieth-century writers draw on centuries-long traditions of commentary on suicide in philosophy, jurisprudence, ethics, and theology even as they challenge and indeed reverse traditional judgements on the act. Thus, for the majority of eighteenth-century writers on suicide—those who argued against the relatively rare "atheist," "infidel," "materialist," or "free-thinker" who was bold enough to explore and promulgate the thinking of luminaries such as Voltaire and David Hume—suicide contravenes fundamental dictates of religion, nation, and nature. As the historian Jeffrey Merrick puts it, for eighteenth-century writers the suicide "undermines the basis of all laws" because he or she avoids the possibility of punishment (5: ix).2 In discussions of the theology, law, psychology, and ethics of suicide in pamphlets, sermons, letters, and even book-length studies, appeals are regularly made to an assumed natural law of self-preservation, and, as an anonymous writer in the Annual Register for 1764 comments, once the legal prohibition on suicide is contravened, "the foundation of other laws is shaken" (qtd. in Merrick 6: 223). If life and death are the "unalienable prerogative of the universal Sovereign," as the Presbyterian minister Caleb Fleming contends in 1773, then the illegitimate adoption of that prerogative by a human subject is an act of "high-treason"; in this sense, it is an act that offends "not only against the sovereignty of the universal Lord, but against the laws of human society" (qtd. in Merrick 5: 47). William Davy spells out the standard rationale for such an argument in his 1799 "Sermons Against Suicide, or Self-Murder": [End Page 39]

We have no Right to destroy ourselves:—For, to do this without Blame, a Man must be at perfect Liberty both by the Laws of God and Man, and independent on them both: There must be no Obligation on him, either from the Law of Nature and right Reason, or from the revealed Law of God, or from his lawful Superiors upon Earth.

(qtd. in Merrick 5: 412)

By taking on itself the properly instituted rights of Nature, Reason, the Judicial System, and the Almighty, the act of suicide is conceived of as an affront to all forms of authority.

It is perhaps not surprising, in this context, that William Wordsworth's various poetic engagements with, and interventions in, debates on suicide revolve around the question of sovereignty. Wordsworth's views develop from the early 1790s to the early 1800s, beginning with a sense of suicide as a kind of instinct and a permanent human temptation, before moving to a more nuanced—and more troubled—consideration of the social, economic, and political conditions from which the impulse arises. In each case, the question of sovereignty is an essential but often disputed element in the text's poetic work. Although critics have rarely recognized suicide as a particular focus of concern for Wordsworth, a significant number of his poems refer to the act—even if in tentative, veiled, indirect, or allusive ways in poems that appear to have quite different themes. In this essay, I will examine poems in which Wordsworth addresses the question of the sovereignty of suicide in order both to highlight the extent of his engagement with this fundamental aspect of human behavior and to begin to analyze its implications and consequences. I will suggest that, in his representations of suicide and suicidal individuals, Wordsworth's poems work in varied and complex ways to contest the implicit assumption of the sovereignty of suicide embedded within absolutist religioethical and juridical proscriptions...


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