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Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Language of Allusion$

Lucy Newlyn

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780199242597

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199242597.001.0001

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(p.205) Appendix ‘In City Pent’: Echo and Allusion in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb, 1797–1801

(p.205) Appendix ‘In City Pent’: Echo and Allusion in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb, 1797–1801

Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Language of Allusion
Oxford University Press

For Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the years 1797 to 1801, the opposition between city and country was not a literary cliché. It was a way of alluding to differences that were felt to lie very deep: differences on a personal level between their own childhood experiences, and on a purely symbolic level between states of mind.

John Alban Finch has shown how Wordsworth, writing the Preamble in November 1799, invents a fictitious urban setting—‘yon City's walls’, (Prelude 1805, i. 7)1—so as to evoke a sense of release from emotional imprisonment:

Combining allusions to Goslar and London, Wordsworth celebrates in the Preamble something more inclusive and significant than literal escape from either—escape from a deadening way of life into a free and creative existence.2

Finch comments on Wordsworth's verbal borrowings from Milton, but not on the way in which he draws on his own and Coleridge's earlier poetry. It is this I intend to examine, since there is during the early period a sustained undercurrent of allusions and cross-references that creates its own pattern of meaning.

In June 1797 Coleridge, writing ‘This Lime Tree Bower my Prison’, celebrated a moment of great confidence in Nature's regenerative power: a confidence that could only come from his new closeness with Wordsworth. The poem, like Wordsworth's ‘Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree’ (April-June 1797) is about the imprisonment of self, but it also enacts the breaking free from self that can come through a perception of the One Life. Coleridge shows us, on the one hand himself, ‘imprisoned’ in his lime-tree bower, excluded from the close companionship of Lamb (p.206) and the Wordsworths; and on the other, Lamb—who has been ‘imprisoned’ in the city, and who is feeling released for the first time:

  • But chiefly Thou,
  • My gentle-hearted Charles! thou, who hast pin'd
  • And hunger'd after Nature many a year
  • In the great City pent, winning thy way,
  • With sad yet bowed soul, thro’ evil … pain
  • And strange calamity.3
Coleridge has two important literary sources in his mind: Milton's simile in Paradise Lost, Book Nine:
  • As one who long in populous city pent,
  • Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air
  • Forth issuing on a summer's morn … (11. 445–7)
and Young's (derivative) simile in Book Four of Night Thoughts:
  • As when a Wretch, from thick, polluted Air,
  • Darkness, and Stench, and suffocating Damps,
  • And Dungeon Horrors, by kind Fate discharg'd,
  • Climbs some fair Eminence, where Ether pure
  • Surrounds him, and Elysian Prospects rise,
  • His Heart exults, his Spirits cast their Load,
  • As if new-born, he triumphs in the Change;
  • So joys the Soul, when from inglorious Aims,
  • And sordid Sweets, from Feculence and Froth
  • Of Ties terrestrial, set at large, she mounts
  • To Reason's Region, her own Element,
  • Breathes Hopes immortal, and affects the Skies. (1743, p. 151)
Imprisonment within the city and release into Nature are both traditional literary motifs4—so too, as Max Byrd has pointed out, is the symbolic (p.207) association between the city and corruption.5With not just the Old Testament but Milton, Thomson, and Cowper behind him, Coleridge moves his city one stage further into the world of metaphor. The city of ‘This Lime Tree Bower’ represents all that is at enmity with human virtue; but it is also an emotional state, poetic shorthand for the suffering that Lamb has gone through, with his sister's madness and the appalling disasters of 1796.6It is interesting that, in combining the symbolic and the personal, Coleridge should use the words ‘winning thy way, | With sad yet bowed soul’. Perhaps unconsciously, he is referring back to the apocalyptic lines of ‘Destiny of Nations’, where ‘heavenly Truth’ is seen ‘from Bethabra northward … | With gradual steps, winning her difficult way …’ (11. 124–5). In Coleridge's imagination, Lamb is assuming for the moment an allegorical role. The apocalyptic undertones implied by the echo are felt to inform its new context, so that the transition (“Ah! slowly sink behind the western ridge; thou glorious sun!’) seems less awkward and exaggerated.7Lamb's function in the poem is to bridge the gap between the two worlds of imprisoned self and visionary insight. As allegory, he is Truth ‘winning [his] way’ toward the central theoretical claim of the poem: ‘Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure’ (1. 60). And as a symbol, he is like the ‘companionable form’ of ‘Frost at Midnight’—an echo of the self that initiates human response and leads towards imaginative sharing. But behind this dual poetic function there is something much simpler and more (p.208) personal: although it is not made explicit, one is aware of Lamb as a ‘companionable form’ because Coleridge feels they share the same childhood experience. And when he writes ‘Frost at Midnight’, in February 1798, this comes into the foreground. In blessing his son Hartley, Coleridge wishes upon him the imaginative fulness which he sees as coming through communion with Nature. He himself had lacked this:
  • it thrills my heart
  • With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
  • And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
  • And in far other scenes! (11. 48–51)8
He is echoing the rhythms of ‘To the Rev. G. Coleridge’ (May 1797) in which he had contrasted his own and his brother's fortunes:
  • To me the Eternal Wisdom hath dispens'd
  • A different fortune and more different mind … (11. 15–16)
Just as his brother had been privileged, in being allowed to remain in the scenes of his childhood, so Hartley is seen to be elect, nurtured in a way that Coleridge never was. The affection and tenderness of the early poem had verged on the sentimental, but the writing in ‘Frost at Midnight’ has a new, and very different, power:
  • For I was reared
  • In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
  • And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
  • But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
  • By lakes and sandy shores. (11. 51–5)
The highly stylized contrast of two childhoods is made more potent, and more privately meaningful, by the echo from ‘This Lime Tree Bower’: ‘in the great City pent’. Despite the new romantic overtones of ‘cloisters dim’, one associates this ‘great city’ with imaginative deadness: Lamb's ‘hungering’ after Nature, his absence from the very source of the mind's nourishment. By his borrowing from the earlier poem, Coleridge is doing more than tacitly acknowledging his and Lamb's shared deprivation; he is also pulling into the new context all his original faith in a sharing which goes beyond just similarity. If he had achieved vicarious fulfilment before, by imagining Lamb's perception of the One Life, then it would certainly be possible to do so now, through this child: (p.209)
  • so shalt thou see and hear
  • The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
  • Of that eternal language, which thy God
  • Utters, who from eternity doth teach
  • Himself in all, and all things in himself.
  • Great universal Teacher! He shall mould
  • Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask. (11. 58–64)
As in ‘This Lime Tree Bower’, perception and release are achieved by wishing them on to someone else. It is only through blessing that Coleridge, like Lamb, can win his way through evil and pain. To take his words from ‘The Dungeon’, he
  • … can no more endure
  • To be a jarring and a dissonant thing,
  • Amid this general dance and minstrelsy;
  • But, bursting into tears, wins back his way,
  • His angry spirit hea'd and harmoniz'd
  • By the benignant touch of Love and Beauty. (11. 25–30)9

‘Blessing’ meant the same sort of thing to Wordsworth in late February 1798. He was expanding his ‘Description of a Beggar’ (begun c. May 1797) to form ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, which finally found its way into Lyrical Ballads, 1800. As he did so, he wrote a blessing on the old beggar that draws on Coleridge not only in mood and feeling, but in very close verbal ways too:

  • Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
  • And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
  • The freshness of the values, let his blood
  • Struggle with frosty air and winter snows,
  • And let the charter'd wind that sweeps the heath
  • Beat his grey locks against his wither'd face.
  • Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness
  • Gives the last human interest to his heart.
  • May never House, misnamed of industry,
  • Make him a captive; for that pent-up din,
  • Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,
  • Be his the natural silence of old age.
  • Let him be free of mountain solitudes,
  • And have around him, whether heard or not,
  • The pleasant melody of woodland birds. (11. 164–78)10
(p.210) Like Hartley in ‘Frost at Midnight’, the old man is seen as one of the elect, capable of achieving a vital communion with Nature. Instead of captivity, he will experience release. The House of Industry—really a House of Bondage—would be life-consuming; freedom among the ‘mountain solitudes’ will be a form of imaginative nourishment. Even the wind, with its apparent harshness, will be benignant—like the ‘touch of Love and Beauty’ in Coleridge's ‘Dungeon’ (1. 30), which both heals and harmonizes.

As Wordsworth writes this very tender blessing, he draws on Coleridge's ‘in the great City pent’, and creates another metaphor of imprisonment, the ‘pent-up din’ of the House of Industry. It is only a half-echo, probably unconscious; but it implies a pattern of associative meaning which gives a highly emotional, personal charge to his blessing on the old man. Wordsworth is thinking not only of Hartley, but of Lamb, achieving a release which is denied to Coleridge until it is imagined by him. In protecting the old beggar from the house of bondage, Wordsworth is conferring upon him the grandeur of vision which has come to be associated with release from the city. Coleridge's phrase ‘in city pent’ has developed into a way of conveying the deadness which is opposite to, but which immediately precedes, imaginative fulfilment.

In ‘Tintern Abbey’, composed four months after these lines from ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, the city is once again symbolic of an alien environment. But this time the sterility and the loneliness are there to be transcended, not escaped from or left behind:

  • Though absent long,
  • These forms of beauty have not been to me,
  • As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
  • But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
  • Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
  • In hours of weariness, sensations sweet … (11. 23–8)
So powerful is the mind's ability to retain the ‘forms of beauty’, and to create, in the act of memory, recurrent pleasure, that the crowded isolation of city life can be overcome. The symbolic ‘towns and cities’ are there simply as a foil; it is the mind's capacity to triumph that matters. And, by implication, it is despite being still in the city (or despite the alienation which the city represents), that Wordsworth arrives at the sublime:
  • that blessed mood,
  • In which the burthen of the mystery,
  • In which the heavy and the weary weight
  • (p.211)
  • Of all this unintelligible world
  • Is lighten'd … (11. 38–42)
Only when the poet is retreating from his full pantheist claim—‘We see into the life of things’—does the city take on its more personal significance as a mood, a seemingly inescapable state of mind:
  • If this
  • Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft,
  • In darkness, and amid the many shapes
  • Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
  • Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
  • Have hung upon the beatings of my heart,
  • How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
  • Oh sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods,
  • How often has my spirit turned to thee! (11. 50–8)
The city has lost the generalized quality it had earlier in the poem— ‘But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din | Of towns and cities’ (11. 26–7)—and has become detailed, particular, and symbolic in a fully personal way. As a prison, it resembles the House of Bondage in ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ with its ‘pent-up din’ and ‘life-consuming sounds’. But here the detail is not just physical, it is also painful: the life-consuming sounds had clogged the air, but the fever of the world hangs upon the beatings of the heart, capable—but for imagination's power—of smothering and denying liberty.11

The city in Book Three of Cowper's The Task had been nightmarish in its grotesqueness:

  • … are not wholesome airs, though unperfum'd
  • By roses; and clear suns, though scarcely felt …
  • To be preferred to smoke, to the eclipse
  • That Metropolitan volcanoes make,
  • Whose Stygian throats breathe darkness all day long;
  • And to the stir of commerce, driving slow,
  • And thund'rmg loud, with his ten thousand wheels?
  • (11. 723–3, 736–40)
But Wordsworth's city is haunting because it leaves so much unsaid. Its terrors are ambiguous ‘shapes’ belonging to the day rather than the night, and they could be either imagined or real. They are frightening (p.212) by their very blankness, like the ‘huge and mighty forms’ of terror in the ‘Boat-stealing’ episode of The Prelude, which move through the child's mind, displacing the ‘familiar shapes of hourly objects’ and heightening his sense of ‘blank desertion’.12It is in search of these ‘familiar shapes’—which he later calls the ‘ballast of familiar life’ (1805 vii. 604)—that Wordsworth turns once again to the river Wye:
  • How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
  • O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods,
  • How often has my spirit turned to thee! (11. 56–8)
As he does so, he echoes Coleridge in ‘Frost at Midnight’:
  • But O! how oft,
  • How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
  • Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
  • To watch that fluttering stranger!
  • (11. 23–6; Coleridge's italics)
In Coleridge's isolation, the grate on which the film fluttered had taken on the significance of a prison. He had ‘gazed upon the bars’ and longed for release from the imprisonment of self, and the ‘stranger’ had provided him with this by taking him back into the scenes of his childhood. Wordsworth, imprisoned in that part of himself that the city represents, similarly turns to the Wye as a means of release through recollection. The river, like Coleridge's ‘stranger’’ is a connective image that is both literal and figurative. It connects past with present, and internal feeling with external form—above all, it leads the poet's mind away from emotional imprisonment towards imaginative freedom.13

In November 1799, when Wordsworth wrote the Preamble, he was drawing very consciously on the patterns of associative meaning which had evolved during these two preceding years:

  • Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze
  • That blows from the green field and from the clouds
  • And from the sky: it beats against my cheek,
  • And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.
  • O welcome Messenger! Ο welcome Friend!
  • (p.213)
  • A captive greets thee, coming from a house
  • Of bondage, from yon City's walls set free,
  • A prison where he hath been long immured. (1805 i. 1–8)
It is a passage rich in private allusion, carefully designed as both a response and an address to Coleridge in his own idiom. The first line takes on back to the most confident and tender moments of the years which Wordsworth and Coleridge had shared: the ‘blessings’ which they had given to Lamb, Hartley, the Old Cumberland Beggar, and Dorothy. The ‘breeze’ had originally been associated with Hartley: ‘thou my babe shalt wander like a breeze …’ (‘Frost at Midnight’, 1. 54) and in Wordsworth's mind had become a formative and joy-giving principle, wished in turn on the Old Cumberland Beggar and Dorothy.14 Here in the Preamble it is closer to the ‘charter'd wind’ that beat against the withered cheek of the old beggar than to the ‘misty mountain wind’ of ‘Tintern Abbey’ which ‘simply blew against’ Dorothy. In the same way, the fictitious city of line 7 recalls the beggar's industrial prison rather than the ‘cloisters dim’ of ‘Frost at Midnight’. These strong verbal echoes suggest that Wordsworth has ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ very much at the back of his kind as he writes the Preamble; and this is confirmed by another (equally important) echo further on. In ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ Wordsworth had caught the monotony of the old man's existence in the words:
  • one little span of earth
  • Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day,
  • Bowbent, his eyes for ever on the ground,
  • He plies his weary journey, seeing still,
  • And never knowing that he sees, some straw,
  • Some scattered leaf … (11. 50–5)
(p.214) In the Preamble Wordsworth recalls these words and transforms them. Instead of ‘one little span of earth’, ‘The earth is all before [him]’ (1. 14). And the straw and scattered leaf become a ‘twig or any floating thing’, which are to guide him in his joyous wanderings:
  • Long months of ease and undisturb'd delight
  • Are mine in prospect; whither shall I turn
  • By road or pathway or through open field,
  • Or shall a twig or any floating thing
  • Upon the river, point me out my course? (1805 i. 26–30)
Whether consciously or not, he is identifying in the Preamble with the most extreme, the most downtrodden of all the figures who have received his or Coleridge's blessings. He wills upon himself a future immunity to imaginative deadness by recalling his own address to the beggar:
  • May never House, misnamed of industry,
  • Make him a captive … (11. 172–3)
At the same time, he acknowledges that he has experienced such deadness, and his use of the city metaphor is a form of acknowledgement that takes him closer to Coleridge's experience as he sees it. It is a way of arriving at deeply shared feelings, when, in another context, there could only be the underlying sense of difference:
  • …Thou, my friend, wast reared
  • In the great city, ‘mid far other scenes,
  • But we by different roads at length have gained
  • The self-same bourne …15
Above all, it is a way of pulling into this new context all the confidence that had been implied in his and Coleridge's early blessings. The biblical and Miltonic references in the Preamble imply—even if they do not deliberately invoke—very traditional notions of guidance.16 But the accumulation of private allusions makes Wordsworth seem ‘elect’ in a completely different way. He is chosen, like Moses, for the task before him; but he will receive a special sort of nurturing—one that has (p.215) intensely personal connotations for him and Coleridge, and has come to signify their complete sharing with Nature and with each other:
  • And let him, where and when he will, sit down
  • Beneath the trees, or by the grassy bank
  • Of high-way side, and with the little birds
  • Share his chance-gather'd meal, and, finally
  • As in the eye of Nature he has liv'd
  • So in the eye of Nature let him die.
  • (‘Old Cumberland Beggar’, 11. 184–9)

The voice that Wordsworth adopts in 1800 when talking about the city is very different from the voice of 1797–9. Quite suddenly there is a new vehemence in his tone, and it verges at times on the hysterical:

  • he truly is alone,
  • He of the multitude whose eyes are doomed
  • To hold a vacant commerce day by day
  • With that which he can neither know nor love—
  • Dead things, to him thrice dead—or worse than this,
  • With swarms of life, and, worse than all, of men,
  • His fellow men, that are to him no more
  • Than to the Forest Hermit are the leaves
  • That hang aloft in myriads—nay, far less,
  • Far less for aught that comforts or defends
  • Or lulls or chears. (Home at Grasmere, 11. 808–18)17
The city is the antithesis to all that Grasmere represents, but it is no longer felt simply as absence from natural forms of beauty, as it had been in ‘Tintern Abbey’. Instead, it is felt to be actively harmful: capable of reducing human response to ‘vacant commerce’, making man himself capable of deadening (‘dead things, to him thrice dead’), and obliterating all traces of sympathy or imagination in the mind.

Such vehemence may partly be due to Wordsworth's growing defensiveness about retreating to the seclusion of Grasmere. As his position becomes more embattled, a strained and exaggerated note enters his writing, expressing an unbalance that has not been there before. Against such a background, the tones of his more private and personal poetry become increasingly difficult to assess. The opening lines of ‘To Joanna’, composed in August and addressed to someone he was very fond of, are particularly puzzling, given their context: (p.216)

  • Amid the smoke of cities did you pass
  • Your time of early youth, and there you learn'd
  • From years of quiet industry, to love
  • The living Beings by your own fire-side,
  • With such a strong devotion, that your heart
  • Is slow towards the sympathies of them
  • Who look upon the hills with tenderness,
  • And make dear friendships with the streams and groves.
  • Yet we who are transgressors in this kind,
  • Dwelling retired in our simplicity
  • Among the woods and fields, we love you well,
  • Joanna! (11. 1–12)
It is not just that Wordsworth has deliberately distorted Joanna's ‘early youth’, and consigned her to imprisonment in the city when in fact she grew up in the country with the best of them.18 It is also that the mock humility (‘Yet we who are transgressors in this kind …’) so uncomfortably does not conceal the real condescension of Wordsworth's attitude. He may be writing playfully, and Joanna may not have minded very much, but there is still a seriousness in his tone when he charges her with being ‘slow towards the sympathies of them | Who look upon the hills with tenderness’. To say this is in a sense to estrange her from the most central of his values, and to make her representative of all that is unfeeling, impervious to Nature. Back in Alfoxden he had written more seriously about this lack of sympathy:
  • Why is it we feel
  • So little for each other, but for this,
  • That we with nature have no sympathy,
  • Or with such things as have no power to hold
  • Articulate language?
  • And never for each other shall we feel
  • As we may feel, till we have sympathy
  • With nature in her forms inanimate,
  • With objects such as have no power to hold
  • Articulate language. In all forms of things
  • There is a mind.19
(p.217) Though the context has changed, and with it the tones of Wordsworth's voice, these are the claims that he is making once again in ‘To Joanna’. At the centre of the poem is a moment of ambiguity which, interpreted in this way, might help to explain the oddity of the opening lines. When Joanna laughs, it is difficult to know quite what is intended:
  • … such delight I found
  • To note in shrub and tree, in stone and flower,
  • That intermixture of delicious hues,
  • Along so vast a surface, all at once,
  • In one impression, by connecting force
  • Of their own beauty imag'd in the heart.
  • —When I had gaz'd perhaps two minutes’ space,
  • Joanna, looking in my eyes, beheld
  • That ravishment of mine, and laugh'd aloud. (11. 45–53)
Given Wordsworth's normal association of laughter with spontaneity and joy,20 and given also the clear parallel between Dorothy and Joanna—‘that wild-hearted maid’ (1. 23)—one could very well interpret the laughter as a form of joyous response. But it is not so simple as that. Joanna is clearly laughing at Wordsworth's ‘ravishment’ and to do that is to be insensitive, both to the beauty of Nature and to Wordsworth's enjoyment of it. In terms of the Alfoxden lines, she lacks both forms of ‘sympathy’: she is detached from Nature and sceptical towards human response. Her laughter is not joyous in Wordsworth's sense because it does not share another's joy. It is uncomprehending and almost scornful. As if admonishing her, the landscape all around takes up her laugh, and becomes joyously alive:
  • The rock, like something starting from a sleep,
  • Took up the Lady's voice, and laugh'd again:
  • That ancient Woman seated on Helm-crag
  • Was ready with her cavern … (11. 54–7)
This laughter is not just a reproof for Joanna's scorn: it is also a proof that Nature is capable of response in a way that she is not. The mountains ‘hold no articulate language’, yet they communicate with each other and with her. Furthermore, they can transform her scorn into (p.218) joy—’ In all forms of things | There is a mind’. Joanna's sudden perception of this is not simple perplexity at their defiance, nor is it quite the ‘gentle shock of mild surprise’ which in ‘There was a Boy’ had ‘carried far into his heart the voice | Of mountain torrents’ (11. 18–21). Instead, it is a mingled sense of fear and recognition:
  • Now whether …
  • this were in simple truth
  • A work accomplish'd by the brotherhood
  • Of ancient mountains, or my ear was touch'd
  • With dreams and visionary impulses,
  • Is not for me to tell; but sure I am
  • That there was a loud uproar in the hills.
  • And, while we both were listening, to my side
  • The fair Joanna drew, as if she wish'd
  • To shelter from some object of her fear. (11. 66, 68…76)
She has been admonished, and Wordsworth's carving of her name in the rock, like the poem itself, is a commemoration of this moment. If one interprets the central passage in this way, the opening seems less awkward than it might if one took Joanna's laugh as itself a form of positive response.21 The central oddity of the poem is still there: Joanna the close personal friend is juxtaposed with Joanna as the representative of city life, herself a symbol. But the ambiguous laughter at least offers some justification for that oddity, and perhaps also for the condescension of the opening lines. Wordsworth sees her as questioning his assumptions. He consigns her to the prison of the city because in his terms she is imprisoned by her own lack of response. The tones of the entire poem are mixed: now light and playful, now serious and thoughtful, but the extremity expressed in Wordsworth's position remains constant. If the city represents a deadening way of life, then those whose sensibilities are dead might just as well belong to the city.

From this standpoint, it is possible to move into one that is even more extreme—as he does, for instance, in those lines from the end of The Prelude, Book Seven:

  • Oh, blank confusion! and a type not false
  • Of what the mighty City is itself
  • To all except a Straggler here and there,
  • To the whole Swarm of its inhabitants;
  • (p.219)
  • An undistinguishable world to men,
  • The slaves unrespited of low pursuits,
  • Living amid the same perpetual flow
  • Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
  • To one identity, by differences
  • That have no law, no meaning, and no end
  • (1805 vii. 695–704)
Referring to the London of Book Seven, Herbert Lindenberger writes: ‘The city, in short, assumes a consciously symbolic role—and often, indeed, it becomes grotesquely symbolic of hell, or of the whole multitude of evils in the modern world.’22 The danger of such a view is that it ignores conflicts and paradoxes that arise from the way the Book was put together. It comes as no surprise to find that the lines on ‘blank confusion’ were written for ‘Michael’ in 1800 and later grafted (in the form of a summary) on to material composed in 1804.23 The stridency of Wordsworth's tone, and the intensity of his moral condemnation, seem oddly intrusive—as they do also in the published text of ‘Michael’, where the ‘dissolute city’ deadens Luke's moral sensibilities, makes him a prey to vice, and removes him conveniently from the poem.24 But they are all the more inappropriate in The Prelude for coming at the end of a Book that appears so often to be celebrating vitality, excitement, change:
  • The broad high-way appearance, as it strikes,
  • On Strangers of all ages, the quick dance
  • Of colours, lights and forms, the Babel din
  • The endless stream of men and moving things …
  • (1805 vii. 155–8)
As a whole, Book Seven shows Wordsworth at last accepting the imaginative challenge of London, even while he writes of it as a threat to his sense of order; but at an odd moment, the voice of 1800 intrudes.

(p.220) At the end of 1800 Wordsworth wrote a passage in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads which might be taken as a factual summary of the attitudes expressed during the previous months:

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 encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid accumulation of intelligence hourly gratifies.25

In effect of course, what the passage offers is a defensive rationalization of the emotional attitude that has underlain his symbol-making. His vague reference to the war with France (‘the great national events which are daily taking place’) and his generalization about urban growth, offer only a thin factual disguise for prejudices that lie very deep. The emotive quality of his language (‘blunt’, ‘reduce’, ‘savage torpor’, ‘craving’) reveals the same crazed rejection of city life (its deadness and uniformity) as had come through, at the beginning of the year, in Home at Grasmere.

Wordsworth did not go unanswered: during the winter of 1800 and the early months of 1801, Charles Lamb wrote a series of letters to his acquaintances eulogizing London life.26 The letters are private in some of their references, but otherwise have a self-consciousness of style and intention that makes them seem not just literary but publicly so. They are also remarkably similar in phrasing, as though Lamb is reworking, and slightly embroidering each time, a single body of material. In the Morning Post, on 1 February 1802, he wrote an article, ‘The Londoner’, which drew together the thoughts he had been developing about London life.27 Material from the letters is recast here in an elegant and (p.221) genially expansive form, but in the process a lot of the subtlety in Lamb's tone is lost—the tone which, in a private context, could change from facetiousness to serious polemic at a moment's notice. It is in the letters, then, that one finds a wholly appropriate response to Wordsworth's extremity.

In the first of these he is writing to Manning, in November 1800, in response to his friend's invitation to go and stay with him in Cambridge. On one side of the page, he writes a mock refusal, couched in ‘Romantic’ terms which are deliberately parodic:

I have received a Very kind invitation from Lloyd and Sophia, to go and spend a month with them at the Lakes. … I need not describe to you the expectations which such an one as myself, pent up all my life in a dirty city, have formed of tour to the Lakes. Consider, Grassmere! Ambleside! Wordsworth! Coleridge! I hope you will.28

And on the reverse side, he declares his real preference: ‘Hills, woods, Lakes and mountains, to the Eternal Devil. I will eat snipes with thee, Thomas Manning. Only confess, confess a Bite’ (Marrs i. 248.) Apparently, Manning was indeed taken in by the initial teasing, and one can see why it might have been thought genuine. But Lamb's mock-wonderment is beautifully handled so as to reveal the condescension implied in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's attitude. And his facetious echo of ‘This Lime Tree Bower’ (‘pent up all my life in a dirty city’) takes Coleridge's phrase so literally that it succeeds entirely in debunking him. Lamb is clearly riled not just at the condescension of it all, but at certain sorts of over-simplification which he finds pretentious. Three months earlier he had written twice to Coleridge about the same passage in ‘This Lime Tree Bower’.29 In his first letter, the objection he raised was not just to condescension, but to diction:

For God's sake (I never was more serious), don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses. It did well enough five years ago when I came to see you, and was moral coxcomb enough at the time you wrote the lines, to feed upon such epithets; but, besides that, the meaning of gentle is equivocal at best, and almost always means poor-spirited, the very quality of gentleness is abhorrent to such vile trumpetings. My sentiment is long since vanished. I hope my virtues have done sucking. I can scarce think but you meant it in joke. I hope you did, for I should be ashamed to think (p.222) that you could think to gratify me by such praise, fit only to be a cordial to some green-sick sonneteer.30

The archness of his tone is heightened by the pedantry; he clearly delights in mocking the sentimental side of Coleridge. A week later, he writes about the same line, insisting on realism:

… please to blot out gentle hearted, and substitute drunken-dog, ragged-head, seld-shaven, odd-ey'd, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the Gentleman in question. And for Charles read Tom, or Bob, or Richard, for more delicacy.31

In Lamb's view, Coleridge dilutes what is real so as to make it endearing. What he values—and this is revealed by the exaggerated self-deprecation—is idiosyncrasy, or the oddity of what is ‘normal’. By the time he writes to Manning, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's distinctions between the city and the country have come to seem like gross oversimplifications. On the reverse of the letter Lamb abandons facetiousness for a direct confrontation with their views:

For my part, with reverence to my friends northward, I must confess that I am not romance-bit about Nature. The earth, and sea, and sky (when all is said) is but as a house to dwell in … (Marrs i. 248)

He is being half whimsical, half serious. The question he is really asking is ‘What excites the imagination?’ and the answer he gives is by no means orthodox:

Streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens, Shops sparkling with pretty faces of industrial milliners … Lamps lit at night, Pastry cook & Silver smith shops …. noise of coaches, drousy cry of mechanic watchmen at night …

And so it goes on: a long evocative catalogue of details, all minutely recollected, in which the prose-rhythms enact his sense of London's abundance and vitality.32 One is reminded of the Cowper who wrote excitedly in Book One of The Task: (p.223)
  • Where has commerce such a mart,
  • So rich, so throng'd, so drain'd, and so supplied,
  • As London—opulent, enlarg'd, and still
  • Increasing, London? (11. 719–22)
But Lamb does not distance himself—as Cowper does, for instance, in his formal conclusion to Book Three:
  • O thou, resort and mart of all the earth,
  • Chequer'd with all complexions of mankind,
  • And spotted with all crimes; in whom I see
  • Much that I love, and more that I admire,
  • And all that I abhor … (11. 835–9)
He is closer to the city's texture, and he writes in an affectionate manner that makes fun of formality, and teasingly defies all moral judgements:

These are thy Pleasures Ο London, with-the-many-sins—Ο City abounding in whores—for these may Keswick and her Giant Brood go hang.

When he wrote to Wordsworth in January 1801, Lamb drew on material from this letter to Manning, but gave it a new sharpness. His cavalier dismissal of ‘Keswick and her Giant Brood’ turns into whimsicality; but there is also a seriousness in what he is saying:

Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't mu[ch] care if I never see a mountain in my life—I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments, as any of you Mountaineers can have done with dead nature.33

The claim he is making is that, without friendship, the landscape has no meaning. In personal terms, ‘friendship’ is the pleasure of the Wordsworths’ company. In philosophical terms, it is ‘pleasure’ itself— ‘Joy’, or the power of the imagination to perceive joyousness in the landscape. With one of his most whimsical statements, Lamb is joining Blake (p.224) and taking up an extreme Romantic position: Nature itself is ‘dead’; it is the mind of man that enlivens.34

For Lamb, as for Wordsworth, the imagination was nourished by ‘intense local attachments’. In talking of London in this way he was not just being defensive; he was taking Wordsworth's ideas as far as they could go:

… parsons cheap'ning books, coffee houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes, London itself, a pantomime and a masquerade, all these things work themselves into my mind and feed me without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impells me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much Life.

The rhythms and language of Lamb's prose recall ‘Tintern Abbey’, with its world of substantial ‘things’ that become
  • sensations sweet,
  • Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
  • … passing even into [the] purer mind
  • With tranquil restoration … (11. 28–31)
The idea that the mind can physically be nourished is also distinctly Wordsworthian: in ‘Tintern Abbey’, colours and forms are ‘An appetite’ (1. 81); the perception of beauty provides ‘life and food | For future years’ (11. 65–6); and Nature feeds ‘With lofty thoughts’ (11. 128–9).35 Lamb perceives the full potential of this ‘language of the sense’, indeed takes it one step further—’ feed me without a power of satiating me’— so that one has an impression of permanent seeking, a whimsical alternative to the ‘something evermore about to be’. Lamb's use of the verb ‘impel’, in ‘the wonder of these sights impells me’ would surely summon up in Wordsworth's mind Ά motion and a spirit, that impels | All thinking things’. And his ‘fulness of Joy at so much Life’ is analogous to Wordsworth's early pantheism—his joy at apprehending ‘something far more deeply interfused’ (‘Tintern Abbey’, 1. 97). Whether consciously (p.225) or not, Lamb has couched his plea for the life of London in the language of ‘Tintern Abbey’. He is challenging Wordsworth in the Wordsworthian idiom.

As the letter continues, it becomes more whimsical, more obviously designed to tease:

My attachments are all local, purely local—. I have no passion … to groves and values … have I not enough without your mountains?—I do not envy you. I should pity you, did I not know, that the Mind will make friends of anything.

His tone has become ironically pitying, and his stress has shifted back on to ‘friendship’, but this time specifically in the philosophical sense: Lamb is implying that it is immaterial whether the poet talks of cities or mountains, since ‘Mind’ itself is what counts, and ‘Mind’ will share joy with whatever is readily available. In the last passage of his letter, Lamb takes this position as far as it can go—almost into the realm of absurdity. His eye is continually on the elegance of his own paradox:

I consider the clouds above me but as a roof beautifully painted, but unable to satisfy the mind, and at last, like the pictures of the apartment of a Connoisseur, unable to afford him any longer a pleasure. So fading upon me from disuse, have been the Beauties of Nature, as they have been confinedly called; so ever fresh … green and warm are all the inventions of men and assemblies of men in this great city—. I should certainly have laughed with dear Joanna.36

This picture of himself as an aging art-lover is delightful to Lamb, but not nearly so much as the closing comment. He is making an ally of Joanna because she, like him, is the victim not only of Wordsworth's condescension but of his wrong-headedness. The laughter which, in Wordsworth's poem, had suddenly become frightening to Joanna is triumphant here. It mocks the assumption that ‘friendships with the fields and groves’ (‘To Joanna’, 1. 8) are all that matter, and seems in its confidence to proclaim that ‘the Mind will make friends of anything’. For Lamb there is genuine wonderment to be felt in London—not ‘ravishment’ at perceiving what is sublime, but the sense of warmth and vitality that comes from things abundantly human: ‘so ever fresh … green and warm are all the inventions of men and assemblies of men in this great city.’37 Wordsworth's description of the torpor of city life (‘to hold (p.226) a vacant commerce day by day | With that which he can neither know nor love— | Dead things’)38is a denial of sensibility, and of the very tenderness towards things inanimate which he appears to offer in the Alfoxden lines.39What Lamb succeeds in showing is the inconsistency of Wordsworth's position. If there is indeed a mind ‘in all forms of things’, then nowhere is this more obvious than in the city, animated as it is by all that is human:

The wonder of these sights impells me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much Life.

It is the word ‘motley’ which, above all else, indicates Lamb's feeling for London. He uses it not only to evoke a sense of diversity—and even incongruity—but also to suggest the pathos and the humanity of the Fool. He may be rejecting Wordsworthian grandeur, which does not touch him (Ί should certainly have laughed with dear Joanna’), but he is not rejecting Wordsworthian tenderness.

The following year Wordsworth was to write his great sonnet on Westminster Bridge:

  • Earth has not anything to shew more fair:
  • Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
  • A sight so touching in its majesty:
  • Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
  • Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
  • All bright and glittering in the smokeless air … (11. 1–6)
It is not the motley Strand that touches him—as Dorothy said, London seemed at this moment before dawn to have ‘something like the purity of one of nature's own grand spectacles’40—but the old antipathy has gone none the less. Lamb at this stage could hardly have claimed a convert, but it was he who later in the summer of 1802 took Wordsworth and Dorothy to visit Bartholomew Fair; and it is the Fair which in The Prelude Book Seven shows the poet finally able to enter imaginatively into a world that is the opposite of his chosen tranquillity. The city, for so long a symbol or a foil, had come into its own.


(1) References are to the 1805 version of The Prelude, ed. E. de Selincourt (Oxford, 1926), revised H. Darbishire, 1959; hereafter abbreviated to 1805. Occasional reference will be made to the two-Part Prelude of 1798–9, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth and Stephen Gill, Norton Anthology of English Literature (3rd edn., New York, 1974), ii. 196–218, cited below as 1799.

(2) ‘Wordsworth's Two-Handed Engine’, Bicentenary Wordsworth Studies, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth (Ithaca, NY, 1970), pp 10–11; cited hereafter as BWS.

(3) All quotations from ‘This Lime-Tree Bower’ refer to the version Coleridge sent to Southey on 17 July 1797, and not to the (much-revised) poem as it was first published in The Annual Anthology, 1800. For complete 1797 text, see Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford, 1956–71), i. 334–6.

(4) See, for instance, James Thomson, The Seasons (1730), i. 99–102:

  • Now from the town
  • Buried in smoak, and sleep, and noisom damps,
  • Oft let me wander o'er the dewy fields,
  • Where freshness breathes …
And, in a more symbolic context, The Seasons iii. i. 250–3:
  • This is the life which those who fret in guilt,
  • And guilty cities, never knew; the life,
  • Led by primaeval ages, incorrupt,
  • When GOD himself, and ANGELS dwelt with men!
More recent, and better known by Coleridge, were Cowper's lines in Book One of the Task (1785), also based quite closely on Milton's simile:
  • He does nor scorn it, who, imprison'd long
  • In some unwholesome dungeon, and a prey
  • To sallow sickness, which the vapours, dank
  • And clammy, of his dark abode have bred,
  • Escapes at last to liberty and light …
  • (11. 436–40)

(5) Max Byrd, London Transformed: Images of the City in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, 1978), p. 39.

(6) In September 1796, Lamb's sister Mary, in a fit of madness, knifed her mother to death and wounded her father.

(7) Lamb particularly admired these lines from ‘Destiny of Nations’ and referred to them in a letter to Coleridge (13 February 1797) as ‘elegantly’ written. See The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. W. Marrs (Ithaca, NY, 1976–8), i. 101 (cited hereafter as Marrs). Wordsworth drew on the same description when he wrote the ‘Woman on the Hill’ episode in the 1799 Prelude, again creating a figure that has a half-allegorical, half-human function:

  • A girl who bore a pitcher on her head
  • And seemed with difficult steps to force her way
  • Against the blowing wind.
  • (1799 i. 317–19, 1805 xi. 305–7)
For a full account of Wordsworth's allusion here, see Reeve Parker, Coleridge's Meditative Art (Ithaca, NY, 1975), pp. 116–19.

(8) References are to the Everyman edition of Coleridge's Poems, ed. John Beer (1974).

(9) All italics are mine, unless it is otherwise stated

(10) All references are not Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (Edinburgh, 1963).

(11) The painful external pressures are very precisely contrasted with the ‘forms of beauty’ in Nature that create ‘sensations sweet | Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart’ and which pass into the ‘purer mind | With tranquil restoration’ (‘Tintern Abbey’, 11. 28–31)

(12) The passage comes at the end of the Boat-stealing episode; see 1799 i. 119–29.

(13) In the background is the ending of Coleridge's ‘Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement’, composed in February 1796 as he left Clevedon to work on The Watchman:

  • Yet oft when after honourable toil
  • Rests the tir'd mind, and waking loves to dream,
  • My spirit shall revisit thee, dear Cot!
  • (11. 63–5)

(14) Blessing and breeze were closely associated from the first. In ‘The Ancient Mariner’1, Coleridge had written of the breeze that welcomed him as he returned to his own country:

  • It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
  • Like a meadow-gale of spring—
  • It mingled strangely with my fears,
  • Yet it felt like a welcoming.
  • (11. 456–9)
And Wordsworth, in ‘Lines written at a small distance from my House; (March 1798), drew on the original Coleridgean context at a moment when he was celebrating joy and love:
  • There is a blessing in the air,
  • Which seems a sense of joy to yield
  • To the bare trees and mountains bare,
  • And grass in the green field. (11. 5–8)
Wordsworth clearly has both contexts at the back of his mind as he writes the Preamble.

(15) (1799 li. 496–9). Wordsworth's echo of ‘Frost at Midnight’, ‘in far other scenes’ (1. 51) is poignant and slightly ironic in its new context. See above, p. 411, for the optimism of Coleridge's original meaning.

(16) The house of bondage (11. 6–7) is from Exodus 13: 3 and describes Egypt as it seemed to Moses, searching for the promised land under the guidance of God. The words ‘The earth is all before me’ (1. 15) are drawn from the end of Paradise Lost, and describe Adam and Eve as they leave Paradise in search of their new home:

  • The world was all before them, where to choose
  • Their place of rest, and Providence their guide
  • (Paradise Lost xii. 646–7)

(17) The text is from Home at Grasmere, MS. B, ed. Beth Darlington (Ithaca, NY, 1977), pp. 38–106. In the most recent assessment of evidence for dating, Jonathan Wordsworth argues that MS. Β belongs almost entirely to 1800. See On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life’, RES ns xxxi (1980), 17–29.

(18) In an editorial note, Jonathan Wordsworth points out that this distortion is exactly parallel to the one in the Preamble, as an example of ‘the city as a symbol’. He goes on to say: ‘One is presumably to infer that for WW himself and the members of his circle this sort of poetic licence seemed normal and acceptable’ (BWS, p. 13).

(19) From the Alfoxden Notebook of January-March 1798, transcribed in Wordsworth's Poetical Works, ed. E. de Selincourt (Oxford, 1940–7), v. 340.

(20) See, for instance, ‘The Idiot Boy’, where laughter is seen in terms of a communion with Nature that is spontaneous and joyful, even when it seems to be ambiguous:

  • And Johnny burrs and laughs aloud,
  • Whether in cunning or in joy,I cannot tell; but while he laughs,
  • Betty a drunken pleasure quaffs,
  • To hear again her idiot boy.
  • (11. 387–91)

(21) For a reading of this passage in ‘To Joanna’ in terms of ‘the relationship between the daemonism of laughter and the daemonism of the sublime’, see John Beer, Wordsworth m Time (1979), pp. 100–7.

(22) On Wordsworth's ‘Prelude’ (Princeton, 1963), p. 241.

(23) The lines were written between early October and 19 Dec. 1800. See Mark Reed, William Wordsworth: The Chronology of the Middle Years (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), p. 13.


  • at length
  • He in the dissolute city gave himself
  • To evil courses: ignominy and shame
  • Fell on him, so that he was driven at last
  • To seek a hiding-place beyond the seas.
  • (11. 452–6)
The lines are described by John Jones as ‘typical of Wordsworth's use of the city as a pasteboard symbol of vice and artifice, the home of the unintelligible, the wholly random element in things’. See The Egotistical Sublime (1954), p. 100.

(25) The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (Oxford, 1974), i. 128. Wordworth's attitude here had been briefly anticipated in a letter to Coleridge, written from Germany in February 1799: Ί do not so ardently desire character m poems like Burger's, as manners, not transitory manners reflecting the wearisome unintelligible obliquities of city-life, but manners connected with the permanent objects of nature and partaking of the simplicity of those objects.’ See The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth; The Early Years, revised edn. C. L. Shaver (Oxford, 1967), p. 255; the edition is cited hereafter as EY.

(26) The first of these was to Manning on 29 Nov. 1800 (Marrs i. 247–8), the second to Wordsworth on 30 Jan. 1801 (ibid., 265–8), and the third to Robert Lloyd on 7 Feb. 1801 (ibid., 270–1). He made further comments on his feeling for London in a letter to Manning of 27 Feb. 1801 (ibid., 277).

(27) A copy of the article was sent in a letter to Manning on 15 Feb. 1802 (Marrs ii. 55–8).

(28) 29 Nov. 1800 (Marrs i. 247).

(29) Coleridge published ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’, for the first time, in The Annual Anthology of 1800. Until then it was probably regarded by Lamb as an intensely private poem. Two versions had been enclosed in letters to Coleridge's friends in July 1797, one to Southey, the other to Lloyd.

(30) 6 Aug. 1800 (Marrs i. 217–18). The letter reached Coleridge in the month when Wordsworth was writing ‘To Joanna’. If Wordsworth saw it, or discussed Lamb's attitude with Coleridge, this might explain the use of ‘wild-hearted’ as an epithet for Joanna (1. 23). In any case Lamb could well be in Wordsworth's mind as he writes the poem.

(31) 14 Aug. 1800 (Marrs i. 224).

(32) One at least of Lamb's atmospheric details is aimed, very directly and wryly, at Coleridge: the ‘drousy cry of mechanic watchmen’ refers to his early poem ‘The Nightingale’ (1795):

  • Sister of love-lorn Poets, Philomel!
  • How many Bards in city-garret pent,
  • While at their window they with downward eye
  • Mark the faint Lamp-beam on the kennell'd mud,
  • And listen to the drowsy cry of Watchmen,
  • (Those hoarse unfeather'd Nightingales of Time!)
  • How many wretched Bards address thy name.
  • (11. 1–7)

(33) Marrs i 267.

(34) In his annotations to Wordsworth's Poems, 1815, Blake writes boldly: ‘Natural Objects always did & now do Weaken deaden & obliterate Imagination in Me Wordsworth must know that what he Writes Valuable is Not to be found in Nature … ’ (The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York, 1970), p. 655).

(35) Use of the word ‘feed’ is mocked, very wittily, in a poem from The Annual Anthology, 1799. It was probably composed by Southey, and shows an immediate response to the language of Lyrical Ballads:

  • Then may the enthusiast Youth at eve's lone hour,
  • Led by mild Melancholy's placid power,
  • Go listen to the soothing Nightingale
  • And feed on meditation; while that I
  • Remain at home and feed on gooseberry-pie.
  • (Sonnet xv, 11. 10–14)

(36) Lamb had just read the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, and in addition had received a copy from Wordsworth himself, who ordered it for him when writing to Longman on 18 Dec. 1800 (ΕΥ, p 310)

(37) As Max Byrd points out, Lamb's London has very deep affinities with Samuel Johnson's: both feel it as ‘a fully human city, actual but not unacceptable’ (London Transformed, pp. 114, 118).

(38) Quoted above, p. 417.

(39) I refer to the lines beginning ‘Why is it we feel | So little for each other …’, which are quoted in full above, pp. 418–19.

(40) Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 2nd edn. Mary Moorman (Oxford, 1971), p. 151.