Thursday, March 26, 2009

Preface to Lyrical Ballads; "gross and violent stimulants"

For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.

This remarkable passage comes from Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (2nd. ed., 1800). Here, Wordsworth explains his purposes in writing poems that are so seemingly artless and rustic--poems that eschew the high-minded diction typical of the 18th-century poetic tradition that Wordsworth is writing against just as they eschew the spectacular extremes of an emerging popular press. At this point in the argument, Wordsworth turns his attention to a brief but pointed analysis of his contemporary culture. It sounds surprisingly like our own.

In Wordsworth's view, people are increasingly attracted to what he famously calls "gross and violent stimulants," and consequently they lose touch with the human mind's native "beauty and dignity." His poems are intended to counteract this cultural trend and to restore readers' sensitivity to their inherent "beauty and dignity." If Wordsworth left the argument here, it would certainly define his aesthetic and cultural aims, but it would be otherwise unremarkable. But Wordsworth pushes forward, offering his analysis of the current (that is, current at the turn of the 19th century) cultural moment.

As Wordsworth has it, his historical moment is distinguished by several unprecedented social and cultural forces which combine to "blunt the discriminating power of the mind" and "reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor." He identifies three such forces:

The "great national events which are daily taking place" — It's difficult to know exactly what Wordsworth means by this (and probably there is not a single referent) but given the historical moment it seems likely that he is referring obliquely to the French Revolution and the violence which followed on its heels, including the war between England and France. England, too, was struck with considerable domestic unrest which threatened to become a national insurrection of "the People" against the established aristocratic and ecclesiastical orders. (See the commentary on Charlotte Smith's Emigrants for further discussion.)

The "accumulation of men in cities" — This demographic marker indicates that Wordsworth wrote during an era when England was being transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society. One consequence of this shift of the economic base, in Wordsworth's eyes, was catastrophic because it uprooted people from any sustaining relationship with the natural world, leaving them stuck in mindless industrial jobs and, to relieve their boredom, "craving ... extraordinary incident." In other words, these are the people who have come so unmoored from the native dignity of the human mind that they can only be momentarily thrilled by "gross and violent stimulants" which they seek with an ever-increasing fervency.

The "rapid communication of intelligence" — In other words, the historical moment was also distinguished by an exponential advance in the circulation of print media. Suddenly at the end of the eighteenth century, newspapers and broadsheets could be produced with sufficient speed and at sufficiently low prices to be attractive to a large swath of the English population, and people responded with an increasing demand for news, particularly "news" of the most outrageous and spectacular kind.

All of these cultural, economic, and social forces were having their influence on the literary output of the British press (the "literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country"). It is precisely the "gross and violent [literary] stimulants" that Wordsworth's poems in Lyrical Ballads are implicitly arguing against.

In this sense, Wordsworth's critique of his contemporary culture sounds very much like the critiques one hears about our own historical moment, as pundits from both the Left and Right strike out against violent video games, outrageous TV and radio talk shows, and the psycho-social toll of an increasingly pervasive media--from cell phones to the internet. Much as these cultural critics today bemoan the fact that some older social order, some earlier form of small-townish community, is being demolished by our own seeking after "gross and violent stimulants" that our information technology hourly gratifies, so too did Wordsworth level similar charges against the media-fed culture of spectacle in his own day. The analysis certainly lends a significant cultural and historical backdrop for the better understanding of such poems as Wordsworth's Michael.

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