Language, Materiality, and Medium in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads
In this paper, I argue that, beginning with the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth puts forth a conception of language as being materially affected by its medium. In the Endnotes to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth mentions the existence of words “not as symbols…but as things,” emphasizing the material existence of the poet’s language through his use of italics (“Endnotes” 200).1 It is this corporeality, this materiality of the printed and written word, that drives Wordsworth to pay special attention to the material tools of writing through the addition of new titles like “Lines written with a Slate-Pencil upon a Stone” and “Lines written on a Tablet in a School” to the second edition. This new focus on the materiality of language urges Wordsworth to pay special attention to the visual and material nature of print media, as evidenced by the “Preface” and his personal letters. The prevalence of such self-reflexive elements in the Lyrical Ballads ultimately suggests that this focus on medium and materiality is central to the project of Romanticism as conceived by Wordsworth.2
This paper is divided into three sections. The first explores the extent to which Wordsworth emphasizes the materiality of language in the age of print. Central to this section is the role that the awareness of media plays in the type of poetry Wordsworth envisions. The second section looks at the special attention Wordsworth pays to the visual and material nature of print media in light of a new form of technology, namely the lithograph. The last section proposes a reading of Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray.” In this final section, I draw connections between the recent work of Nancy Yousef on solitude and Wordsworth’s emphasis on materiality. I argue that, although the “naming” of solitude which the poem attempts is in complete accordance with Yousef’s findings, this naming process would be impossible without an understanding of the material nature of language in the age of print.
1. Words “not as Symbols…, but as things”
In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, a text written for the collection’s more widely read second printing, Wordsworth begins to explore questions about the ontology of poetry and the complex, shifting relationships between poet, poetic language, and the public that were raised by the first edition (“Preface” 103). It is here that Wordsworth sets out to theorize the nature of the poetic experiment he had undertaken, which differed drastically from the poetry of his time, both in form and content. Rather than waxing poetic in the lofty, allusory style of his day, Wordsworth tries to engage with the life of the common man:
The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men… (“Preface” 96-97)
The difference described here is, of course, twofold. Not only are Wordsworth’s subjects taken from the ordinary lot of men, rather than the courts of royalty or pages of classical texts, but also Wordsworth’s poetic language is distinguished by a radical verisimilitude, which “adopt[s] the very language of men” (“Preface” 96). This engagement with the common man is clearly distinct and visible in the Lyrical Ballads, as unpretentious language is used to describe the plights of the homeless, the mentally disabled, and even criminals.
Formal realism, however, poses the risk of erasing distinctions between poetic language and the common language it aims to emulate. Wordsworth fully acknowledges the existence of such a problem, and is indeed not interested in entirely erasing categorical distinctions between the Poetic and the everyday life he believes poetry should aim to describe. “The Preface” asks the question “How, then, can [the language of poets] differ in any material degree from that of all other men…” (108). The difference, Wordsworth finds, lies not only in form but also in function.
After speculating about the possible distinctions that separate the clarity of vision and feelings of poets and those of common men, Wordsworth concludes, “Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men” (“Preface” 108). Although at first glance, this passage seems to express the commonplace Romantic argument that poets possess something akin to a universal spirit, embodying the whole of mankind, such an interpretation belies the equivocality of Wordsworth’s statement. Contextually, this argument is made in response to the perceived need to distinguish materially between the language of poets and the language of common people. Emphasizing the material nature of this distinction is key, as physicality was extremely important for Wordsworth and the type of poetry he envisioned. He wonders, for example, if the sciences of his time ever “created any material revolution” akin to what he is attempting with poetry, or whether such disciplines initiated any changes “manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings (“Preface” 107).
Although at first glance all of these passages seem to speak symbolically, as opposed to literally emphasizing the material character of life and language, Wordsworth leaves the reader with little question about how his statements should be read. In explaining his use of certain rhetorical devices in the “Endnotes” to the first volume, Wordsworth argues for an understanding of “words, not only as symbols…but as things” that exist as objects in the world (200).3 Such an explicit acknowledgment of the material existence of the poet’s language leaves little doubt as to the literality of the material distinction that is drawn between poetic language and common language. As the poet is “a man, speaking to men,” the materiality that distinguishes his language from that of his audience would be comprised of the technologies that allow poetry to reach a wider audience than is available to the spoken and handwritten language of most people (“Preface” 103). Print technology within the Gutenberg Galaxy, in effect, creates and maintains the distinction between the language of poets and that of others. The poet, in contradistinction to the common person, can utilize media such as the printing press and has access to a new public readership. The poet’s language is materially unique insofar as it becomes that of the printed word, rather than remaining unprinted, handwritten, or merely spoken. It is with words printed in ink on paper that the “truth [of Romantic poetry], not individual and local, but general and operative” is marked for, and disseminated to, the readers of Wordsworth and other published writers (“Preface” 105).4
This self-reflexivity about the printed page is of course far from the commonly held conception of the Romantic bard, who listens to folk songs and immerses himself or herself in local oral traditions. Rather than unreflexively romanticizing rural life and orality, these passages show an acute sensitivity to print as the medium through which the message of Romanticism was to be delivered and received. In the next section, I further explore this self-reflexivity in Wordsworth, focusing on the relationship between contemporary media scholarship and the project of Romanticism as Wordsworth conceives it.
2. Wordsworth’s World and Print Media
In looking for evidence of Wordsworth’s awareness of and engagement with print technology, one need look no further than personal letters written during the time between the first and second editions of Lyrical Ballads. The second edition presents a drastic personal turn from Wordsworth’s previous hesitation to engage with the world of print. Before the Lyrical Ballads went into second printing, Wordsworth writes to his publisher that his aversion from publishing increases daily and that only utter destitution would cause him to “commit [himself] to press again” (Letters 121). He was incensed by the mixed, sometimes personally irking, reviews that his collection’s first printing received, and refrained from publishing any new poetry between the first and second editions of Lyrical Ballads.5 A drastic shift in tone, however, is visible just one year after the first printing as Wordsworth underwent the process of publishing the second edition. In these letters, Wordsworth shows a marked willingness to acquiesce to the demands of commercial printing. In fact, letters written at the time also display an increasing interest in the material and visual nature of print. He requests, for example, additions and modifications in the ordering of poems in the new edition, and asks that the volumes contain no more than nineteen lines per page (Letters 122-3). He also suggests various modifications of the title page in order to improve the volume’s appearance. These changes, of course, suggest a new, marked interest in the visual nature of the printed page.
The second edition of Lyrical Ballads is rife with examples of Wordsworth’s interest in the materiality of words and their technological means of production. Whereas the first edition contained poems that were titled in a way that expresses what may be called the non-material or mental means of Wordsworth’s poetic production, such as the poet’s nostalgic state of mind when writing “a few miles above Tintern abbey,” new poems like “Lines written with a Slate-Pencil” and “Lines written on a Tablet in a School” relate more clearly the specific tools and technologies of their inscription. In “Lines written with a Slate-pencil, upon a Stone, the largest of a heap lying near a deserted Quarry, upon one of the Islands at Rydale,” Wordsworth takes great care to relate the specificity of the place he is writing about and within in the poem’s title. Equal attention, however, is given to the technologies used to perform such acts of poetic production, as it is the tablet, the stone, and the Slate-pencil that allow for such writing in the first place. The title Lines written with a Slate-pencil, in fact, presents the reader with a mixed media collage of sorts, combining allusions to writing, print, and brand new lithographic technology, invented four years prior to the poem’s publication. Lake Rydale, in this poem, is presented as a landscape broken by the colour of an abandoned, crumbling house (30). The white hue of the house is imprinted as a series of fragments on a dark forest backdrop (33). The fact that the inverted white color of the structure, which contrasts with the darker, more natural hues of the surrounding landscape, is an issue for Wordsworth becomes apparent when he describes similar houses in his popular Guide to the Lakes. Wordsworth argues that “objections to white, as a colour, in large spots or masses in landscape, especially in a mountainous country, are insurmountable” (85). Lady Holland later notes that Wordsworth prefers brown or black, colours that fit more congruently into the landscape (Woof 257).
It is well worth mentioning that the fragmentation of color experienced by the house-ridden landscape is a chromatic inversion of the fragmentation created by printed letters on a page—the very letters on a page that the contemporary reader of Wordsworth peruses. These lines, when the Lyrical Ballads reaches the hands and eyes of the reader, are printed in dark, fragmented ink letters on a white sheet, but describe a scene in which a dark landscape is fragmented by the imprint of white houses. Wordsworth thus provides the reader with a lithographic negative of the scene that his poem sets out to describe.6 What is referred to as the “Tracing Manner” of lithography, in fact, requires just the tools used in the handwriting and printing of this poem. Stone and pencil are used to trace a negative—the elements textually cited by Wordsworth’s poem. Ink and paper are then used to set the final print, just as Wordsworth’s written verse is set into disparate characters when poetry is sent to the press (Senefelder 101-109, 194).
In this way, the poem presents a quintessential example of what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call “Remediation.” Following Marshall Mcluhan in claiming that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (Understanding Media 23-24), Bolter and Grusin employ the term remediation in order to describe “the representation of one medium in another” (45). In “Lines written with a Slate-pencil,” Wordsworth presents us with the representation of writing and lithographic technology through print media. The pre-fragmented congruence of the landscape analogizes the pre-fragmented handwritten verse of Wordsworth’s hand. In a similar way, remediation comes to mirror memory as well, which can be viewed as a sort of primal self-reflexive medium for consciousness in Wordsworth’s poem. Like the congruence of Wordsworth’s harmoniously handwritten manuscript, the idyllic past in which no fragments of abandoned houses exist lies completely hidden from the reader. The reader has no direct access to the memories Wordsworth’s poem recalls, but must instead be satisfied with the mediated version provided by the text. This past is only made present to the reader via the mediation of Wordsworth’s tools of writing and print technologies of the Gutenberg Galaxy.
Print communication provides the material means of transmitting memory, while simultaneously demarcating its limits. The remote past of the countryside is consigned to exist in the same past as the slate pencil and stone which are used to produce the lithographic, handwritten “negative”—a negative which is just as removed from the reader as Wordsworth’s handwritten manuscript. Thus, when Wordsworth’s warning
But if thou art one
On fire with thy impatience to become
An inmate of these mountains, if disturb’d
By beautiful conceptions, thou hast hewn
Out of the quiet rock the elements
Of thy trim mansion destin’d soon to blaze
In snow-white glory, think again, and taught
By old Sir William and his quarry, leave
Thy fragments to the bramble and the rose;
There let the vernal Slow-worm sun himself,
And let the Red-breast hop from stone to stone. (25-35)
is read in this light, it appears as if Wordsworth insists on an epistemic chasm between an imagined, objective past and one that is itself already mediated via various technologies of the word. Like the eye perusing separated letters on a printed page, “the Red-breast” of the present is not fully inhibited from hopping from stone to stone amidst this rubble of memories (35). Both creature and reader are ultimately left to traverse their newly fragmented landscapes of stone and printed letters. Just as the bird’s fate is described with a touch of ambiguity, even indifference, the fate of the word in its printed form, while forcing readers to hop amongst fragmented letters and mediated memories, is explored but never mourned in this poem.
3. (Im)printing Solitude in “Lucy Gray”
Perhaps nowhere does the materiality of language deserve more attentive analysis than in the portrayal of solitude Wordsworth provides in “Lucy Gray.” This poem, given the added appellation of “or Solitude” in many printings, exists in a tumultuous relationship with the traditionally recognized canon of “Lucy Poems.” Many scholars, in fact, have argued that “Lucy Gray” lies completely outside the traditional cycle of “Lucy Gray” poems that are found within the pages Lyrical Ballads.7 The poem specifically titled “Lucy Gray” has not often been recognized as a member of the body of work which possesses its very name--an interesting twist of Paul De Man’s “loss of name in the Lucy Gray poems where death makes her into an anonymous entity” (“Time and History in Wordsworth” 12). The anonymity of this poetic entity, lying outside of scholarly taxonomizations or cycles such as “Michael” or “Lucy Gray,” yet marked by the proper name of the body of work which the poem borders but never fully inhabits, creates the macabre markings of what may, in fact, be the quintessential Lucy Gray poem, according to De Man’s description. The loss of name in “Lucy Gray” and the dispossession of her parents in the wake of the child’s disappearance, in effect, are echoed in the failure of “Lucy Gray” to become recognized by scholars as a Lucy poem.
The poem’s precarious appellation, “or Solitude,” makes the question of the naming of “Lucy Gray” both more elusive and more pressing of a concern for criticism. As the title “Lucy Gray” is not the only name proper to the poem, the “or Solitude” that is unevenly added to the title marks an equivocality of identity that fissures throughout the text. The supposed centrality given to the title character, in fact, is textually void even before “Lucy Gray” loses its position as the only title proper to the text--even before the second title is added by writer or publisher. Lucy Gray is a textual absence when the poem is read simply as “Lucy Gray.” “You yet may spy the Fawn at play, / the Hare upon the Green;” Wordsworth writes, “But the sweet face of Lucy Gray / Will never more be seen” (9-12). That “Lucy Gray” is no longer present in a poem that bears her name as its title suggests a rupture that fully surfaces with the printing of “or Solitude” next to her name.
The question of who is the true bearer of solitude within the poem, for example, is not only introduced but also brought front and center with the new naming of this poem. That Lucy is a bearer of solitude hardly needs explanation, as she is a “solitary child” who knew “No Mate, no comrade” (4-5). The young girl’s disappearance and implied death marks the ultimate form of solitude. Lucy is, however, not the only person who seems to be called forth as in possession of the solitude the poem bears as its thematic crux. Lucy’s parents experience a form of solitude when they search for their missing child on a cold, wintery night. “There was neither sound nor sight / To serve them for a guide” as they wandered through the hills during a storm (33-6). Even the narrator seems to possess a certain amount of removed solitude as he somberly recollects hearing the story of Lucy Gray and remembers seeing her before the unfortunate death (1-12).
Rather than positioning any one character at its center, solitude presents itself as a fissure that disparately affects all of the inhabitants of “Lucy Gray, or Solitude.” This is not to say, however, that the rupture in social and family life that the poem represents has no epicenter or point of origin. The poetic and thematic crux of the poem, in fact, is found in the imprinting of footsteps that the parents of Lucy follow. In terms of narrative structure, the footprints of Lucy are found and followed until the climactic moment of the narrator’s story. Lucy’s parents, finding a trace of hope in the marks left by Lucy’s feet, follow their child’s footprints across hills, through a field, and onto a bridge, where the trail definitively ends. The end of Lucy’s footprints thus mark the end of the narrator’s story. The line following “And further there was none” is made physically separate on the page by a dash Wordsworth adds in the third edition “—Yet some maintain…” (57). The narrator’s recollection of Lucy’s story is set apart in time from the concluding lines of the poem, which are written in the present tense and relate a current myth about Lucy, rather than further describing the past in which Lucy Gray existed.
The textual centrality placed upon Lucy’s footprints, rather than on the life of any individual character within the poem, necessarily raises questions about the relationship between solitude, these physical markings on the ground, and the characters inhabiting the text. Of what, the poem seems to ask, does solitude consist for characters standing upon such ground? The solitude of Lucy Gray and her parents are marked mainly by the absence of an “Other.” For Lucy’s parents, solitude manifests in an inability to follow their daughter across the bridge and into death. This absence is made recognizable by the physical imprints left on the ground by a no-longer-present body of origin—Lucy’s. Solitude and loneliness are made manifest by the absence of their daughter that the footsteps make present. For Lucy Gray however, solitude is marked more clearly—in print—as an allusion to death—her absence par excellence. Not only is textual centrality given to the solitude which fissures from the physical imprints left by Lucy’s absent feet when they “disperse the powd’ry snow” that covers the ground, “Lucy Gray, or, Solitude” literally prints solitude in ink onto the snow-white page that the reader holds in hand (27).
Solitude is thus both textually and para-textually a by-product of print and the materiality of the word. The materiality of Lucy’s markings, which show in print the solitude of the inhabitants of the poem, calls attention to the multiple levels of reading the poem requires. Like the fragmented letters printed in ink onto a white page, leading the reader’s eye amidst a sea of white, the imprint of Lucy’s disconnected steps lead Lucy’s parents through a snowy landscape until their caesura. The prints Lucy leaves behind are “read” as traces of hope by her parents until their abrupt end. It is at this point, when the prints cease, that Lucy’s absence “Or Solitude,” is read as complete by her parents. It is at this point of departure, at which “further there were none,” that Lucy’s parents are unable to follow any further the physical markings left behind by their daughter (“Lucy Gray, or Solitude” 56). This process analogizes the one the reader undergoes with “Lucy Gray,” which necessitates following the printed words on the page as Lucy’s story unfolds until the very end—when there is nothing left to read of “Lucy Gray.” Without the materiality of such markings—the dual imprint of “Lucy Gray”/Lucy Gray—the attempts at communication suggested by these readings could not occur.
The feelings of solitude and isolation the poem transmits are common thematic concerns of the Romantics, who are often believed to have held irrationally individualistic—even solipsistic—saccounts of selfhood. In “Lucy Gray,” it is important to keep in mind that solitude is an affect introduced by print in both a literal and metaphoric sense. The poem hints at connections between print, reading, and feelings of separation that reader, narrator, “Lucy Gray,” and her parents experience to different degrees. The poem thus presents an excellent case study for media theory and the role of print on theories of the subject. Much has been made in theory and criticism about the relationship between the historic rise of print and the new brand of isolated individualism produced in the “typographic man” that inhabits the Gutenberg Galaxy. The Romantic era is often seen as a shift in western culture towards visuality and literacy, indeed the introduction of modern individualism (Ong 115-20). In order to understand fully the effects of print on Romantic thinking about individuality, however, a more localized account is required not only of the relationships between Romantic writings and the printed word, but also of the very individuality that such relationships are purported by theorists to produce.
Over the last decade, the work of Nancy Yousef has forced scholars to rethink the type of personhood that is suggested by concepts such as solitude and silence prevalent in British Romantic poetry. Her most recent work, Romantic Intimacy, draws on numerous texts from both British Romantic poetry and Enlightenment England in order to suggest that the conception of selfhood employed by writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge differs greatly from the version of personhood that is traditionally attached to Romantic writings. The concept of intimacy, in fact, is used by Romantic poetry in order to circumvent the very epistemic and socio-political problems introduced by the self-willing, rational individual envisioned by thinkers like Locke and Kant:
The complexity of the phenomenal fact of intimacy in romanticism involves the demurral, disappointment, and frustration of the mutual identification and recognition that eighteenth-century theories of sympathy presupposed and that Kantian respect compels. (Yousef 24)
The simultaneous interpersonal relationality and failure to connect completely with another, which Yousef describes, is far from the impassioned, irrational, self-willing individual commonly associated with Romanticism. Rather than positing a self that is essentially isolated and separated from other beings, concepts such as solitude are actually complex expressions of disenchantment with strands of Enlightenment thinking that untenably promise total sympathy and complete mutual understanding between subjects. The solitude portrayed in “Lucy Gray” is presented in terms of a thwarted ability to relate to an other—most explicitly Lucy’s parents inability to relate to their deceased daughter. Such inwardness, however, is only made possible by a previously established, interconnected relationship with other beings (Yousef 123).
The solitude described by the poem, to return to “Lucy Gray,” is of course preconditioned on an already existing sociality for the stories’ inhabitants. The feelings of isolation and separation experienced by Lucy’s parents are only made possible by the existence of a family unit. Solitude is experienced when these ties are severed by an unexpected death. Print, however, while marking solitude on the one hand, simultaneously opens up new possibilities for sociality via expanded readership. As the material point of origin for the “readings” of solitude the poem presents, print opens up new lines of communication and relationality for the Romantic world’s inhabitants. Para-textually, to point out the obvious, it is print that allows Wordsworth’s narrator to relate the story to the reader.8 On this level, the words “Lucy Gray, or Solitude” are marked literally on the page that will be held by a reader. Textually, it is the printing of Lucy Gray’s feet that allows for an entire host of readers—her parents, narrator, Wordsworth, and the reader of the Lyrical Ballads—to try to connect with and feel sympathy for the character that is seemingly central to, yet never present within, the poem. By attempting to establish an interconnected readership of sorts, these marks allude to the unavoidable disconnect that exists amongst these individuals.
Print thus becomes the ground upon which discourse about solitude and relationality is established in Wordsworth’s poem—it is the site of an oscillation between isolation, on the one hand, and new attempts at communication on the other. The act of reading is placed at the center of this tension between loneliness and togetherness. The solitary reader—whether Wordsworth’s reader or the “readers” of Lucy’s footsteps, her parents—must traverse the fragmented world of print in much the same way that the Red-breast of Lines written on a stone is left to traverse the rubble-laden landscape of the present. It is yet to be seen, of course, if such acts of reading will fully alleviate the existential loneliness implicated by this position. For it cannot be denied that Lucy is truly absent and unreachable in the ultimate sense for her parents. In a similar fashion, Wordsworth remains absent to his reader today. Through the media employed by the “poet speaking to men,” however, Wordsworth manages to leave physical traces behind for the living to peruse. The materiality of the printed word--whether manifested in footsteps or printed text--opens up these new avenues of communication that allow lives and stories to be printed and shared for the reader.
By understanding “words, not only as symbols…, but as things” in the manner Wordsworth urges, it is possible to discern the influence of print and writing technologies on Wordsworth’s work (“Endnotes” 200). Throughout the Lyrical Ballads’ text and para-text, Wordsworth’s personal letters, and other writings from the poet, technologies of the letter are used to explore the role different media forms played in the project of Romantic poetry as envisioned by Wordsworth. In Lines written with a Slate-pencil upon a stone, Wordsworth presents us with a remediation of writing, printing, and lithography. In the case of “Lucy Gray,” such media self-reflexivity leads to an understanding of individuality that vastly differs from the conceptions of selfhood that are typically attached to Romantic poetry. The notion of solitude, when closely examined, marks new attempts at communicating the sense of isolation that the inhabitants of Romantic texts seem to possess. While concluding neither on the side of solipsistic inwardness nor total sympathy and communicability, Wordsworth presents print and media as comprising the very grounds upon which such discussions take place.
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1. Italics in original.
2. N.B. All quotes from the Lyrical Ballads, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the Oxford World’s Classics Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1802. Edited with a great amount of care and scholarship by Fiona Stafford, this edition contains both the first and third editions in their entirety and has proven to be a vital resource for my research.
3. Original italics.
4. The connections drawn between the truth Wordsworth hopes to transmit and the technologies of writing used in such transmission provide an interesting analogue to observations Heidegger makes in “The Question Concerning Technology.” In this essay, Heidegger argues that technology is not just a means towards an end, but a “mode of revealing,” coming to presence “where alethia, truth, happens” (295). Technologies of writing and printing are indeed the place where truth, materially imprinted onto the page, happens in Wordsworth.
5. For evidence of this hesitation, one need look no further than Wordsworth’s 1799 letter to Joseph Cottle regarding Southey’s review Lyrical Ballads. “The bulk of these poems he has described as destitute of merit,” Wordsworth writes--scathed by a negative appraisal from his professional acquaintance and later friend (Letters 122).
6. The lithograph, invented in Munich by Alois Senefelder in 1796, was produced by tracing a negative on a stone tablet, no doubt similar to the stone “on which these lines are trac’d” (Wordsworth 14). The lithographic print, news of which spread throughout Germany during the time Wordsworth and Coleridge were travelling in its country of origin, is produced by tracing with ink, chalk, or a pencil onto a stone and using a chemical mixture in order to create a relief onto paper. In 1799, one year prior to the second printing of Lyrical Ballads, Senefelder’s first lithographic publication was released in London--a set of drawings from the Swiss artist Conrad Gessner (Senefelder 38-40).
7. Many scholars do not consider “Lucy Gray” a ‘Lucy Gray’ poem proper. For more info on this debate, see M. H. Abrams’ notes on the “Lucy poems” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D: The Romantic Period.
8. The poem was written in response to a real incident in which a girl, lost in a snowstorm, disappeared. Her parents found nothing but traces of footprints in the snow (Stafford 352).