The "Honourable Characteristic of Poetry":
Two Hundred Years of Lyrical Ballads
Wordsworth, the Lyrical Ballads, and Literary and
Social Reform in Nineteenth-Century America
Joel Pace, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire
The distinct allure of the Lyrical Ballads in America was its focus on the mind in a state of excitement. The first ballad to be reprinted was "Goody Blake and Harry Gill," in the New Hampshire Farmer's Museum of 1799. The editor, Joseph Dennie, introduced the piece by alluding to Darwin's Zoonomia. When the poems were published in Philadelphia in 1802, the printer, James Humphreys who had attended Medical School at what is now the University of Pennsylvania, advertised the collection in all of his medical books. The content of the poems was relevant to medical works which had been recently published, such as John Haslam's Observations on Insanity and Alexander Chrichton's Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Mental Derangement (Youngquist 153). In one of the works in which the Ballads was advertised (the Town and Country Friend and Physician), he recommended reading as the only therapy for ailments of the mind. The appeal of these poems as a literary elixir to early nineteenth-century America is understandable. The Ballads reflected the psyche of emigrants who were transplanted to the New World, and often felt uprooted from the old one. These emigrants were caught somewhere in between the harsh juxtaposition of squalid, overcrowded cities and the frontier where the indigenous flora, fauna and people were thought of as wild and potentially hostile. 
The poem "Ruth" addresses the American wilderness and how for Ruth's lover "whatever in those climes he found / Irregular in sight or sound / Did to his mind impart / A kindred impulse" (ll. 121-4). The lover has been affected to his detriment by the unruly habits of the Native Americans as well. "The Female Vagrant" portrays the distressed state of mind of someone whose circumstances have forced her to relocate to the New World. These ballads and others successfully blurred the distinction between insanity and the ne plus ultra of imaginative sublimity. Their precarious position on the cusp of these seemingly disparate realms caused them to appeal across the board to physicians, poets and reformers. This article will focus on the influence of Wordsworth and the Ballads on literary reforms, particularly those of Poe and Hawthorne, and the social reforms of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Passing mention will be made of others who use the Ballads as a model for their own endeavors to bring about change, and an emphasis will be placed on the Harvard Unitarians' persona of Wordsworth and the adverse reactions to it expressed by Poe and Orestes Brownson. The debates over literary and social reform in America were not entirely unrelated, and those named above participated in them by a devoted adherence to or vehement rejection of Wordsworthian theories as laid out in the Lyrical Ballads.
Of the American authors influenced by Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe seems among the least likely to have been inspired by Wordsworth's Ballads. The seeming justification for this lies in Poe's comments on Wordsworth; his Letter to B—— is an anti-Wordsworthian Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Poe is quick to notice the disparity between Wordsworth's poetic theory and practice, and complains that the "long wordy discussions by which he [Wordsworth] tries to reason us into admiration of his poetry, speak very little in his favor" (412). Even the poetry on its own is flawed, and to prove this Poe quotes a poem from each volume of the Ballads: "The Idiot Boy" and "The Pet Lamb". He also draws from the Preface in order to ridicule it (his comments are presented in italics):
Those who have been accustomed to the phraseology of modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to a conclusion (impossible!) will, no doubt, have to struggle with feelings of awkwardness; (ha! ha! ha!) they will look round for poetry (ha! ha! ha! ha!) and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts have been permitted to assume that title.... (414)Poe's Letter argues against "Lake School" conventions in the same way its predecessor questioned neo-Classical ones. Poe voices his "sovereign contempt" for the Lake Poets, whose popularity is increasing in America (415). Wordsworth's literature is "a throne in possession" of a poet who levies such a dear taxation of influence that the American author is left too indebted to ever be creatively solvent.
Poe notes that the problem with Wordsworth's and Coleridge's writings is that they "are professedly understood by the few, and it is the many who stand in need of salvation" (411). It is clear that Poe is thinking of the Wordsworth of The Excursion and the Coleridge of Biographia Literaria. To buttress his theory that the intellect and learning of Wordsworth and Coleridge have little to do with good poetry, Poe asks the reader to "witness...that moral mechanism by which the simplicity of a child may overbalance the wisdom of a man" (412). He invokes the Wordsworth of "We are Seven" against the apostasy of the epic Wordsworth. Poe's Wordsworth has never experienced childlike simplicity, but, like William of "Expostulation and Reply," dreamed "away his youth in contemplation with the end of poetizing his manhood" (412). It is conceded that Coleridge is infinitely wise, but composes poems to exemplify "prosaically" a laughable theory. Poe's own verses duplicate the Coleridgean counter-sublime to Wordsworth in that they (particularly "The City in the Sea" and "Dream-Land") consist of unearthly landscapes, like Xanadu, which have, at most, merely a nominal counterpart in reality. Ironically, Poe's most Coleridgean efforts are echoes in poetic prose of Coleridge's prosaic poetry. His Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym works in the sea voyage and the lifeless crew of the "Marinere," and, like the poem, portrays the mariner's fantastic superstition which becomes the "index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone" (Prelude, 1850, III, 62-3).
Poe's problem with Wordsworth's verse is just this, that the characters' flights of fancy are all too often curtailed by an imposing moral. The portrayal of the mind under the duress of its superstitions is, for Poe, inherently didactic and therapeutic to the reader. The Wordsworth poem that immediately comes to mind in this discussion is "Goody Blake and Harry Gill." Harry Gill achieves the ultimate goal of any creative artist; his imagination creates a world of its own, a hell as credible as Dante's or Milton's. To Harry Gill, it is so (in)credible that it distorts the fabric of reality, and makes his teeth "chatter, chatter still." The imaginative contrition fits well into the moral of the Ballads' ministry to the poor. This agenda is most obtrusive in the last lines: "Now think, ye farmers all, I pray, / Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill". He, like Lady Macbeth and Godwin's Falkland, receives this imaginative visitation as a result of wrongdoing, of being unsympathetic to Goody Blake's social and physical predicament.
Once again, Poe's efforts are very close to those he criticizes; the mind manifesting a guilty reality of its own is the cornerstone of Poe's Horror. The murderer of The Tell-Tale Heart is haunted by the sound of his victim's inordinately loud heartbeats, which he hears long after the crime was perpetrated. It is the imaginative prolongation of the initial feeling of guilt from the moment (or spot) of time when the misdeed was committed, the chattering of Harry Gill's teeth. Poe's story does not end with an intrusive request that the reader mark the tale and not commit murder, but inverts the social structure of the moral in "Goody Blake and Harry Gill" in that it is the servant that has wronged his innocent master. In reference to Poe's Letter to B—— it is sufficient to say that he would not have considered "puerile" rhyming verse an appropriate vehicle to convey the mind in its most disturbing state. The rhyme is too orderly and regular to reflect an erratic mind. The unadorned but agitated speech of the servant / murderer is, to Poe, truly the language of common men.
Only five years after Emerson mentioned to Wordsworth that "Tintern Abbey" appeared to be the favorite poem of the American public (recounted in English Traits), Poe published Ligeia. To an extent this work can be read as a reverse "Tintern Abbey" and Prelude, a tale of love of humankind leading to love of Nature. Ligeia, the narrator's deceased lover, had a restorative effect on him that is similar to that which Dorothy exercised over the Wordsworth of "Tintern Abbey":
[S]ubsequently to the period when Ligeia's beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine, I derived, from many existences in the material world a sentiment such as I felt always aroused, within me, by her large and luminous orbs....I recognized it...in the contemplation of a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, a stream of running water. I have felt it in the ocean....And there are one or two stars in heaven...in a telescopic scrutiny of which I have been made aware of the feeling. (83, emphasis added)Just as Wordsworth himself synecdochically becomes the abbey or temple of nature, Poe's narrator becomes the "shrine" of Ligeia who literally "haunts" him "like a passion...a feeling and a love." Poe's character reaches the conclusion that the feeling is far more deeply interfused and is part of the spirit which rolls through all things: "God is but a great will pervading things by nature of its intentness" (84). As the plot unfolds, this Divine Revelation is clouded by the narrator's mental deterioration.
In an ironic plot twist that makes Poe's story seem almost a parody of the poem, the character purchases "an abbey...in one of the wildest and least frequented portions of fair England" (87). It is replete with "verdant decay" and "dreary grandeur" and becomes a metaphor for his mind. He falls victim to supernatural horrors that invoke the disturbed mental state of "The Mad Mother" against the loftiness of "Tintern Abbey." This poem is the last one of the 1798 Lyrical Ballad and ends the collection with a tone of ascendancy, with the notion that the redeeming qualities of the mind have triumphed. The last lines of The Prelude illuminate and praise the beauty and divinity of the mind as well. Poe's story leaves the reader with no such consolation. The main character is vexed by a "mad disorder" in his thoughts, a "tumult unappeasable" (94). Poe's character exercises his imagination as a coping mechanism for the feelings concerning the death of his beloved. His imaginations become an upheaval which leaves him in a perpetual state of decay which is diametrically opposed to Wordsworth's state of mind in "Tintern Abbey."
A more obvious architectural metaphor for the mind can be found in "Michael," the poem that closes volume two of the 1800 Ballads (and the 1802 Philadelphia Ballads). The ruined sheepfold where Michael retreats and does not lift a single stone is the equivalent of the house where Roderick Usher slowly deteriorates mentally and seems to find companionship among the "crumbling condition of the individual stones" (97). Just as there is a certain sense of sublimity and beauty to a ruined structure (cottage, mansion or abbey) there is a corresponding aesthetic of the mind in a state of ruin. This idea is invoked in Wordsworth's "The Thorn" and Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, which begins with the narrator traveling alone and on horseback "through a singularly dreary tract of country" (95). He eventually comes across the House of Usher, and is filled with "a sense of insufferable gloom" which is "unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible" (95). The scene begins and unfolds like a spot of time. He is wandering alone as is Wordsworth in the Drowned Man scene or, more appropriately because on horseback, the Penrith Beacon scene. However, unlike the boy's emotional invulnerability due to, in one case, the shining streams of fairyland and, in the other, the pool's "visionary dreariness", Poe's narrator is vexed the "unredeemed dreariness" surrounding Usher's mansion and the "black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling" (95-6, Arac 658-60).
Poe reverses Wordsworth's notion of thoughts that lie too deep for tears and portrays tears and gloom that are too deep for thought: "there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth" (95). The explanation of these processes (through imposition of a moral or other means) is beyond the boundaries of human knowledge. The price Poe's characters pay for attempting to explain them is insanity. Even Dorothy's redeeming force as portrayed in "Tintern Abbey" is a foil to the gloom of Roderick Usher which the narrator traces "to the severe and long-continued illness...of a tenderly beloved sister, his sole companion for long years" (100). It is significant that Usher tries but fails to alleviate his condition by singing lyrics of his own composition. The "ballad" quoted in the tale only reflects Usher's insane (and very Wordsworthian) certainty of "the sentience of all vegetable things" (104). In the same way that the Wordsworth of "Tintern Abbey" believes nature has given him an uplifting revelation, it is the moldering house, its blasted trees and dreary pool that consign Usher to his despondent mania.
Imagination is unable to lift itself up and alter the progress of the song (tale), and its defeat is reflected by the downward spiral of Poe's narrative. The implied moral of the ascendant imagination, able to redeem the most traumatic moments in life, is deconstructed. In this sense, Poe's narratives are only partially built up (word by word, short story by short story) to form a plot structure that resembles Michael's sheepfold (stone by stone) in its incompleteness and surrounding despair. On a grander scale, Wordsworth and Coleridge's collection of poetry is, to Poe, an incomplete narrative sheepfold which is unable to keep the reader within the boundaries of its morals. Poe's short stories considered collectively are narratives of characters who are unable to keep their emotions controlled, but are contained by their emotions instead. Michael is bound to his sheepfold as Roderick Usher is to (his mansion and) "an anomalous species of terror", "a bounden slave" (100). In place of the Lyrical Ballads, Poe posits his own strain of pulp-fiction Horror and its treatment of the mental supernatural. This genre is, in part, firmly rooted in the Ballads and extends toward the twentieth-century stories of H.P. Lovecraft.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales are similar to Poe's stories and Wordsworth's Ballads in that they, too, are portraits of the mind in a "state of excitement." It is not that Lyrical Ballads was the first work of literature to represent the mind in this state, but that in grouping together (in one collection) short narratives of what amounts to a dysfunctional literary family—comprised of the lower classes yet exhibiting universal qualities of the human mind in an imaginative and agitated condition—Wordsworth and Coleridge had achieved a very influential literary precedent. Poe's review of Twice-Told Tales delineates concise poems and "the brief prose tale" as the ideal vehicles for the author (448, emphasis added). Hawthorne's inclusion of the Wordsworthian moral in his stories is part of the reason why Poe considers them "peculiar and not original" (449). In another instance Poe upbraids Hawthorne for not being Wordsworthian enough:
A skillful artist has constructed a tale. He has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents, but having deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought, he then invents such incidents, he then combines such events, and discusses them in such tone as may best serve him in establishing this preconceived effect. (448)This idea is very similar to Wordsworth's justification for the thoughts and incidents of the Ballads: "the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling" (248). In Wordsworth and Poe the action of the plot is subordinated to the portrayal of characters' minds in a 'state of excitement' and their accompanying associations, which then produce similar states and associations in the minds of their readers.
In her fine article on Hawthorne and Wordsworth, Roberta F. Weldon points out the similarities between the old apple-dealer and the leechgatherer. While being entirely accurate, the article does not acknowledge fully that the apple-dealer is a later manifestation of archetypes rooted firmly in the Lyrical Ballads and expressed initially in Twice-Told Tales. As the title of Hawthorne's book suggests, he, like Wordsworth, gathered together the folk-tales that he felt had defined the character of a community or class of people and altered them with imagination, fashioning them into his own stories. He and Wordsworth both seek to recount or (like Macpherson) even fabricate folk-tales which are made all the more real by references to actual places and people. As these tales are passed along they are added to by the imaginative, and sometimes superstitious, minds of their narrators. Wordsworth depicts this in "The Thorn" and Hawthorne in Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe. In this story different townspeople are convinced entirely by rumor of Mr. Higginbotham's murder and his niece's grief; Hawthorne gives a nod toward Wordsworth when he notes that the "village poet...commemorated the young lady's grief in seventeen stanzas of a ballad" (I, 145).
The role as village balladeer is one that Wordsworth and Hawthorne assume in these works. Both "The Thorn" and The Minister's Black Veil are twice-told tales to the extent that they relate the town gossip. "The Thorn" is replete with repetitions and variations of "some say" (line 216): "some will say" (214), "some had sworn" (232), "all and each agree" (218), etc.; and Hawthorne's story uses the same narrative device: "with one accord they started, expressing..." (I, 46), "one or two affirmed" (49-50), "the whole village of Milford talked of little else..." (53), etc. During a service, the townspeople see their minister wearing a veil that consists of "two folds of crape"; at
the close of the services, the people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement....Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the centre.... (49)The image of the collection of Wordsworth's ballads as an incomplete sheepfold (each poem a stone) which is unable to keep the narrator's feelings (and Michael's despair) contained, is reworked by Hawthorne into the "little circles" of gossips "eager to communicate their pent-up amazement." The veil's "two folds of crape" become a metaphor for the twice-told tale as well. Just as the double-barreled image of the thorn and its accompanying hill of moss are the catalysts and subjects of the villagers' speculations, the two folds of crape are the basis for the parishioners' well-wrought fictions concerning the minister.
The black veil becomes the symbolic equivalent of the story and thus can be considered a text of its own. It is the autobiography of the minister speaking strongly of a spot of time that has informed the rest of his life and thrown a color over his preceding existence as well. In this capacity it is in league with Martha's thorn and hill with their text: "Oh misery! oh misery! / Oh woe is me! oh misery"; the placard of the London beggar in The Prelude; the scarlet letter of Hester and, in its earlier form, of the young woman in Endicott and the Red Cross. The Twice-Told Tales and the Lyrical Ballads become during their sympathetic reading and writing, mental autobiographies (the (scarlet) letters stitched to the psyches) of their writers and readers. The behavioral patterns of the minister and Martha Ray, as well as the villagers' stories about them, are the burdens of minds in a state of distress. Individuals' feelings are projected onto objects, persons and narratives, and it is implicit that the reader will interpret the story in a similar way so that "the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement" will be explained by example (Preface 245). The ministry of these works is clear: they are an alternative and antidote to the "frantic novels...and idol and extravagant stories in verse" which "blunt the discriminating powers of the mind" by satisfying a "craving for extraordinary incident" (Preface 249).
Hawthorne was well acquainted with Wordsworth, and his Twice-Told Tales did not go entirely unrecognized by the poet either; this is due to Hawthorne's friend (and later sister-in-law) Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. In a letter of February, 1838, she makes Wordsworth aware of the devotion of his overseas disciple:
I send you also this little volume of Tales—as you will agree that the popular story tellers are the ballad makers of the nation; and I should like to show you—what I think is best in this line. The author is a very retired young man though for some years the inhabitant of a city—but his early & his college years were passed in the country—When Peabody speaks of the "Reflection" with which Hawthorne closes every piece she is referring to the Wordsworthian moral which Poe found obtrusive in both authors' works. The Tales share the same ministry as the Ballads in that both are "rectifiers" of feelings, and cause people to empathize with the poor.
"His daily teachers have been woods & rills—
The silence that is in the starry sky
The sleep that is among the lonely hills—"
...While he breathes the spirit of humanity with a tenderness & depth of tone to which utilitarianism and empirical politics are strangers, he dares to write for Beauty's sake, not doubting but this will involve the highest use, & result in the purest truth....If some of the...tales evince a morbid direction of the fancy—yet I think they are redeemed by the glimpses of the inner nature which he gives us in the Reflection with which he closes each...the broad humor of 'Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe' proves the essential soundness of his mind—for is not humour a rectifier of morbid feeling? That is a true American sketch—so exquisitely characteristic of the excitability of a Yankee village—that I can hardly believe it will suit any other place. (Neussendorfer 197-8)
Poe had disdain for the moral persona of Wordsworth and those who helped to create it because they judged Poe's writings by his persona (as a drunkard, an opium eater, and a rake). The idea of Wordsworth as a good, gray poet was disseminated by the Transcendentalists and Harvard Unitarians. Poe's review of Twice-Told Tales is a stab aimed mostly at the author and partially at his associates. In the review, Poe makes specific mention of the limitations of the "criticism of the...cultivated old clergymen of the 'North American Review'," and tells Hawthorne to "come out from the Old Manse [Emerson's family home], cut Mr. Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of 'The Dial' [a blow aimed at Peabody, Margaret Fuller, and Emerson], and throw out the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of 'The North American Review'" (442, 450). Poe must have been aware of Peabody's review of Twice-Told Tales for the New Yorker, in which she constructs a very Wordsworthian persona for Hawthorne: "he is frank and communicative in his character, winning thereby the experience of whatever hearts come in his path, to subject it to his Wordsworthian philosophy" (quoted in Harshbarger 124).
The anti-Wordsworthian element in the criticism of Orestes Brownson was also due to the fact that he took up station at the exact opposite political pole from the conservatives of Harvard Divinity School (who had made the poet's name synonymous with orthodox Unitarian politics and preaching). Peabody informs Wordsworth of his embroilment in this American political / critical faction:
I have been vexed—as well as a large portion of our people—at a review of your works in the Boston Quarterly—which undertakes to dethrone you from your Jupitereal seat on Parnassus. But if it ever comes to your eyes—you must remember what is true—that the Boston Quarterly speaks only the sentiments of its Editor [Orestes Brownson]—& that he has no party. (Neussendorfer 202)Many radicals, such as Emerson, paid their respect to the poet at Rydal Mount. They went in search of the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads, the Wordsworth concerned with the amelioration of the lower classes and improvement of the human mental, social and spiritual condition. Many visitors and correspondents were able to unearth his radicalism and find in him sympathy for their causes. As does Emerson in English Traits, Brownson separates Wordsworth the person from Wordsworth the persona, and the poet of the Ballads:
We have little faith in Wordsworth's democracy. He is a kind-hearted man that would hurt no living thing, and who shudders to see a single human being suffer. So far, so good. But he has no faith in anything like social equality. He compassionates the poor, and would give the beggar an "awmous"; but measures which would prevent begging, which would place the means of a comfortable subsistence in hands of all men, so that there should be no poor, he apparently contemplates not without horror. A man is not necessarily inclined to democracy because he sings wagoners, pedlars and beggars...A Wordsworthian society without beggars, or such feeble old paupers as Simon Lee, would be shorn of all its poetic beauty...Wordsworth goes with the high Tory party of his country, and opposes, as much as a man of his inertness can, the efforts of the friends of freedom (qtd. in Miller 435-6). 
The minister William Ellery Channing, visitor to Rydal and good friend of Wordsworth, immediately took up his pen to defend the poet, noting that Orestes Brownson "exaggerates the hardships of the laboring classes" (Howe 145). Channing had also preached to the poor about their spiritual "elevation" and was careful to distinguish his ideas from Brownson's: "by elevation of the laboring mass, I do not mean that they are to be released from their labor" (quoted in Howe 147). Brownson's idea of Wordsworth shuddering at the improvement of the poor stems from the Unitarian persona. The Unitarians interpreted the Ballads as part of their theory that the poor were to be pitied and helped, but not empowered. They saw poverty as a divine punishment and labor as moral improvement, so social leveling would be an interference with God's plan. (Howe 139, 145).
Like Hawthorne, the Unitarians authored short stories which were meant to bring about sympathy for the lower classes. Henry Ware, Jr., Unitarian clergyman, professor at Harvard Divinity School and visitor to Rydal Mount, published David Ellington, with Other Writings (1846). This work contained stories of a fictitious carpenter who worked contentedly at his hard labor rather than seeking to improve his position (Howe 147). Their message to the poor was to believe in Providence, and one of their means of conveying this message was a cheaply priced anthology which contained an excerpt from The Excursion entitled "A Belief in the Superintendence of Providence, the Only Adequate Support under Affliction".
Other works anthologized Wordsworth alongside author-reformers. The 1854 Gems for the Fireside contains "Practical Hints on Reading" by the Unitarian Orville Dewey, another one of Wordsworth's American friends. His essay advocates reading as a means of improving the lower classes (Dewey 7-10). The same anthology also contains a piece on the character of Wordsworth as well as "A Sketch" by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The sketch is of a rich man's house with its finely bound Bible resting, unread, on his drawing-room table. This scene is juxtaposed with that of a poor woman's apartment and its well-read penny edition of Scripture. Like Goody Blake the woman works industriously in her apartment but she cannot afford enough wood to keep her family warm. She huddles together with her children and by reading the Bible achieves a spiritual warmth that makes the rich man's heart seem as cold as Harry Gill's chattering teeth (Stowe 24-5). Her abandoned position brings "The Female Vagrant" and "Ruth" to mind as well. Once again reading for spiritual improvement and consolation is emphasized.
Another author of humanitarian literature was Dorothea Lynde Dix. Her Ten Short Stories for Children (1827-8) was later republished as American Moral Tales for Young Persons (1832). As the title suggests, these stories all contain a very prominent (and what Poe would deem Wordsworthian) moral. In addition to her own works, she compiled several readers for the young, including Hymns for Children (1825) and Garland of Flora (1829). Unlike other anthologies which merely included Wordsworth, Garland of Flora was compiled according to a Wordsworthian precept:
We admire the cultivated garden, but we love the garden of nature; for oh! believe thatHer main reason for compiling the anthology was to improve the condition of the young and poor through education. Dix's eleemosynary efforts were not only literary: she converted the Dix Mansion in Boston to a school which, according to her, rescued "America's miserable children from vice and guilt and dependence on the Almshouse" (Wilson 52).
"Nature never did betray the heart that loved her: 'tis her privilege
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy; for she can so inform
The mind that ...all which we behold
Is full of blessings." (26)
She was from the congregation of Channing and was a personal friend and travel companion of his, as well as being the instructor of his children. Channing had found in Wordsworth's poetry—particularly The Excursion—confirmation of his belief in the potential for improvement in every human being. When he visited Wordsworth in England their conversation touched on this topic and many other related ones. By the time Dix met Channing, he had already devoted 20 years to securing affordable housing for the poor and pecuniary support for Irish immigrants and free African-Americans. The Massachusetts Unitarians were reformers and aligned, nominally if nothing more, many British Romantic poets with their causes. Andrews Norton, another Unitarian minister, professor at Harvard Divinity School and visitor to Rydal Mount, also anthologized Wordsworth's poetry for the sake of moral improvement. He added a short sermon to his reprint of "My Heart Leaps up" in his edition of the 1829 Casket. In the letter Dix wrote to Norton to thank him for his help in her reforms, she pointed out to him that his "labors, though they may seem at a brief glance to be somewhat confined, are in fact not to be measured" (Howe 69).
Dix felt that her labors, as well as Wordsworth's literary ones, were part of Divine Providence. Her particular interest was in Wordsworth's focus on the mind in a state of mania or dementia. This interest in Wordsworth was enough to bring her to Rydal, with an introductory endorsement from Channing, to discuss these matters in 1836. The rest of her lifetime following this visit was devoted to bringing Wordsworthian theories into practice. "Idiots" were not the subjects of her poems but rather of her lifelong battle against the inhumane treatment of them. She received active support from several other humanitarian visitors to Rydal such as Charles Sumner, the Abolitionist; Horace Mann, the reformer of education in Massachusetts; Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the Unitarian founder of a school for the blind; and Charles Francis Barnard, the Harvard Divinity School graduate who opened the Warren Street Chapel where he educated hundreds of homeless children. Dix devoted her time to visiting the insane in every quarter of the United States, and found that many were inadequately cared for and kept in cages, cellars, almshouses, jails and other inappropriate places. Her 50 year humanitarian sojourn led to the founding and reform of several insane asylums in Europe as well as in every state in America, including Rhode Island's Butler Hospital, which is still among the leading treatment centers in the US.
Like Wordsworth, Dix revolutionized the way Americans and Europeans thought of the insane. Poetry and the societies that produced it had overlooked them, and Wordsworth helped rectify the former and Dix the latter. Dix's opinions of the poet and his work were the exact opposite of Orestes Brownson's. From her meeting with him, she gleaned that the poet was indeed concerned with the treatment of the mentally ill, and he did not, as Brownson implies, patronize them by merely deeming them poetic. Like Channing, she found a Wordsworth who retained many of the beliefs he had explored under the tutelage of Beaupuy. Brownson places those who sympathize with the revolutions in America and France as the true reformers, and actually numbers Wordsworth among those who were against the French Revolution from its inception. As Stephen Gill notes in Wordsworth and the Victorians, "however much Wordsworth's political complexion may have altered since Lyrical Ballads, his radical humanitarianism remained constant" (136). Wordsworth's poetry inspired some of America's most important reform movements, and this fact alone is a substantial rebuttal to Brownson's criticisms.
Although Brownson's attacks were aimed at the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads, this Wordsworth was the one after whom Dix modeled her own writing for changes in state legislation regarding the poor. Her first victory took place in her native Massachusetts. As a Sunday-school teacher in the East Cambridge House of Correction, she came across several insane persons who were kept in unheated rooms. The next two years were spent in a thorough documentation of the treatment and housing of the mentally ill throughout the state. The result of this was a memorial she delivered to the state legislature. In presenting something of such monumental importance as the plight of Massachusetts' mentally ill, Dix needed a means of documentation which portrayed actual details and facts so as to draw out the sympathy, empathy, and understanding of her auditors. She found her model in the Lyrical Ballads. The Memorial is a very powerful plea for the enlargement of the Worcester Insane Asylum, and it is also one of the most fascinating pieces of Wordsworthian influence. Unlike Brownson, Dix believed that Wordsworth's writing possessed a very efficacious means of displaying the disturbances of the mind. She introduces her collection of narratives about Massachusetts' "idiot boys" and "mad mothers" with a declaration similar to the of the Preface:
I shall be obliged to speak with great plainness, and to reveal many things revolting to the taste....If I inflict pain upon you, and move you to horror, it is to acquaint you with sufferings which you have the power to alleviate....I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane and idiotic men and women. (Memorial 3-4)In a similar way, the Preface is the declaration of equality for the citizens of the Ballads, and the ballads themselves are the voices of these characters, the representation of the under-represented.
Like the Ballads, each narrative is connected to a certain location and this small detail instantly makes the narrative much more credible to its reader. Dix introduces a seemingly deranged woman from Newburyport, who has been very poorly maintained in a cellar, and as a result has "wasted to a skeleton". Like Martha Ray of "The Thorn", this woman's misery also has a refrain: "Why am I consigned to hell? dark—dark—I used to pray, I used to read the Bible....I have done no crime in my heart" (8-9). Her words, like Martha's, are ones which corroborate the point that the narrator is seeking to prove, and are part of Dix's scrupulous attention to particulars. In another instance she notes that an insane woman was given a bed which was a mere "three feet long, and from a half to three quarters of a yard wide" (10).
The Newburyport woman is "consigned" to the "hell" that is the cellar and is being kept and treated like a beast even though she exhibits an almost angelic piety. Dix does not seek merely to present the facts of the cases, but makes her case even stronger by giving the insane a voice in her Memorial, and allowing them to plead for themselves. The skeletal qualities of the woman's body exemplify the adverse mental and physical effects of incarceration in a way that is similar to "The Dungeon":
Each pore and natural outlet shrivell'd upDix also implies that diseases of the mind like those of the body are curable, and she, like Coleridge, advocates Nature's healing power. It is understandable why Dix, a lover of "Tintern Abbey", declares that
By ignorance and parching poverty,
His energies roll back upon his heart,
And stagnate and corrupt; till changed to poison,
They break out on him, like a loathsome plague-spot (ll. 6-10)
Humanity shudders at the thought that those whom God in his providence has bereft of the light of reason, should be confined within the narrow bounds of a prison, deprived of the enjoyment of the pure air of heaven. (24)
The other cases she treats are the real counterparts of the characters of the Ballads. Wordsworth introduces "The Mad Mother" in a very shocking way by describing her features: "Her eyes are wild, her head is bare, / The sun has burnt her coal-black hair." Dix employs similar means. She prefaces her comments on individuals with descriptions: "There she stood with naked arms and disheveled hair" (5); "There she stood, shivering in that dreary place, the grey locks falling in disorder about the face gave a wild expression to the pallid features" (19). Her use of the word "dreary" is a clever utilization of a subjective adjective (and a very Wordsworthian one). One of Brownson claims against Wordsworth was that writing about those in need of society's aid is not enough; however, Dix refutes Brownson when she makes one of her most powerful statements with a mute image of "a demented Mother" and her "poor little child":
Disqualified for the performance of maternal cares and duties, regarding that helpless little creature with a perplexed, or indifferent gaze, she sat a silent, but O how eloquent, a pleader for the protection of others of her neglected and outraged sex!.... (24)
Dix also makes mention of those who are not incarcerated but are "vagrants": "I encountered during the last three months many poor creatures wandering reckless and unprotected through the country" (5). One particular case is of an "idiot boy" who was "unoffending, and competent to perform a variety of light labors under direction, and was often allowed a good deal of freedom in the open air" (14). In one instance when he was left entirely unsupervised he escaped from his keepers "rather through sudden waywardness than any distinct purpose" (14). Dix explains that months later while on a visit to a neighboring asylum, she heard one of the patients say:
'I know her, I know her,' and with a joyous laugh John hastened towards me. 'I'm so glad to see you! so glad to see you! I can't stay here long; I want to go out,' &c. It seems he had wandered to Salem, and was committed as an Insane or Idiot boy. (15)Dix relates "all his travel's story" and shows, just as Wordsworth's does, that the "idiot boy" is capable of enjoying Nature and that it is beneficial for him. Wordsworth convincingly portrayed that a mother loves her "idiot boy" as much as any other mother loves her children. This is an implicit statement against the poor treatment of Dix's cases who are physically abused and given inadequate food, clothing, and shelter. Dix shows that the boy is capable of making emotional attachments, and ends her tale with a moral: "I cannot but assert that most of the Idiotic subjects in the prisons of Massachusetts are unjustly committed, being wholly incapable of doing harm" (15). The statement has a theological underpinning that asserts the God imparted benevolence they exhibit.
Unlike many of the characters of the Ballads and Twice-Told Tales who are indelibly marked by their mental aberrations, the delirium of those Dix encounters is highly treatable and even curable. Wordsworth and Hawthorne redeem their characters and readers through the moral of the narrative, but Poe offers no moral or bright ending. He documents the imaginations of disturbed minds, leaving them in a perpetually pathological state. Dix's bright ending is her documentation of the improvement of her cases, and her moral is that the demented notions society has of the insane stand in need of realignment. As she informs the Massachusetts legislature of the unique condition of those she has visited, she points out that the treatment they receive often perpetuates and detrimentally affects their mania. Wordsworth and Dix present manifestos well adapted to interest humankind permanently "and not unimportant in the multiplicity and in the quality of its moral relations" (Preface 242). Dix uses literary techniques, as exemplified in the Ballads, to draw her audience into dialogue with her subjects. She ends her Memorial with an appeal to the heart, mind, and imagination of her listeners:
Could we in fancy place ourselves in the situation of some of these poor wretches...troubles without, and more dreary troubles within, overwhelming the wreck of the mind,—how should we, as the terrible illusion was cast off, not only offer the thank-offering of prayer, that so mighty a destruction had overwhelmed our mental nature, but as an offering more acceptable devote ourselves to alleviate that state from which we are so mercifully spared. (24)After Dix's efforts in the legislature, a bill was passed for the enlargement of the Worcester Insane Asylum.
These cases of the influence of Wordsworth and the Lyrical Ballads on nineteenth-century America are only a few of the many that stand in need of documentation. The poems can be viewed as literary configurations of characters exhibiting the way in which the mind associates ideas in a state of excitement. They are presented in such a way as to agitate the emotions of the reader who then in this "state of excitement" associates the individual ballads with each other in such a way that they form an organic whole. The use of several short narratives to elicit this reaction in the reader, and convey one theme through form matching content, becomes a very influential model for Poe, Hawthorne, Dix and others. As these examples indicate, there were major debates taking place in nineteenth-century America with regard to social and literary reform, and they were, in part, mediated by the Lyrical Ballads and the persona of its principal author.
It is no coincidence that many of Wordsworth's American admirers were Abolitionists, Feminists, and Transcendentalists. Little by little his American visitors, correspondents, and readers unearthed and to an extent rekindled his radical notions. William P. Atkinson wrote to Wordsworth to request a contribution to an anthology he was compiling to benefit the Abolitionist movement. Margaret Fuller not only quotes from but thanks Wordsworth in her Feminist manifesto: The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men, Woman versus Women. Peabody also expresses her gratitude at Wordsworth's efforts on this front: "Let me thank you in the first place for all you have sung of women (in the name of my sex)" (Neussendorfer 194). The letters and works as well as Brownson's and Poe's adverse criticism are all directed at the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads; the Wordsworth whose verse painted mental and physical portraits of the poor, insane and underrepresented.
1 On the relationship between British emigration and American literature, see Stephen Fender's Sea Changes (1992).
2 All references to Poe's writings are taken from the Davidson edition, and those from the Lyrical Ballads are from the Brett and Jones edition.
3 Quotations from Twice-Told Tales are taken from the second edition (1842).
4 I would to thank Jeff Cowton and Robert Woof of the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere for allowing me to consult the Peabody letters in MS form. I am indebted to Deanna Turner for her excellent analysis of Hawthorne.
5 This article originally appeared in The Boston Quarterly Review II (April 1839), 137-68.
6 See The American First Class Book; or, Exercises in Reading and Recitation: Selected Principally from Modern Authors of Great Britain and America; and Designed for the Use of the Highest Class in Publick and Private Schools, edited by John Pierpont (1823), 317.
This book sold 6,000 copies by 1826 and was still being printed in 1855. G. S. Hillard, the Unitarian visitor to Rydal Mount, published Wordsworth alongside Hawthorne and others in A First Class Reader (1856). Wordsworth was also anthologized with several Harvard Unitarians in Class Book of Prose and Poetry (1859).
7 See John Beer's full treatment of Channing's visit to English literary figures. Alan G. Hill's "Wordsworth and His American Friends" is the best source of information on Wordsworth's American visitors.
8 See Norton's The Offering for 1829.
Arac, Jonathan. "Local Narratives." The Cambridge History of American Literature, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994-5. II: 629-60.
Beer, John. "William Ellery Channings Visit to the Lake Poets." The Review of English Studies 42.166 (May 1991): 212-226.
Brownson, Orestes. "Wordsworth." 1839. The Transcendentalists. Ed. Perry Miller. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978. 434-36.
Dewey, Orville. "Practical Hints on Reading" Gems for the Fireside. New York: S.G. Mead, 1854. 7-10.
Dix, Lynde, ed. Garland of Flora. Boston: S. G. Goodrich and Co. and Carter and Hendee, 1829.
---. Memorial. To the Legislature of Massachusetts Protesting against the Confinement of Insane Persons and Idiots in Almshouses and Prisons. Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1843.
Gill, Stephen. Wordsworth and the Victorians. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Harshbarger, Scott. "Transatlantic Transcendentalism: The Wordsworth-Peabody-Hawthorne Connection". The Wordsworth Circle 21: 3 (Summer 1990): 123-6.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-Told Tales. 2 vols. Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1842.
Hill, Alan G. "Wordsworth and His American Friends." Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 81 (Summer 1978): 146-160.
Hillard, S., ed. A First Class Reader. Boston: Hickling, Swan, and Brown, 1856.
Howe, Daniel Walker. The Unitarian Conscience. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Neussendorfer, Margaret. "Elizabeth Peabody to William Wordsworth: Eight Letters, 1825-1845." Studies in the American Renaissance (1984): 181-211.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Edward H. Davidson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.
Norton, Andrews. The Offering for 1829. Cambridge, MA: Hilliard and Brown, 1829. 171-5
Rickard, Truman and Hiram Orcutt, eds. Class Book of Prose and Poetry. Boston: Robert S. Davis & CO, 1859.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. "A Sketch." Gems for the Fireside. New York: S.G. Mead, 1854. 24-5.
Pierpont, John, ed. The American First Class Book; or, Exercises in Reading and Recitation: Selected Principally from Modern Authors of Great Britain and America; and Designed for the Use of the Highest Class in Publick and Private Schools. Boston: Hilliard Gray, Little and Wilkins, and Richardson, Lord and Holbrook, 1823.
Turner, Deanna. "Coleridge, Hawthorne and the Obtrusive Moral." English Romanticism in America: A Romantic Realignments Symposium. Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, England. 26 Feb. 1999.
Weldon, Roberta F. "Hawthorne's Old Apple-Dealer and Wordsworth's Leechgatherer." Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal (1977): 249-59.
Wilson, Dorothy Clarke. Stranger and Traveler The Story of Dorothea Dix, American Reformer. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975.
Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R.L. Brett and A. R. Jones. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.
Youngquist, Paul. "Lyrical Bodies: Wordsworth's Physiological Aesthetics." European Romantic Review 10:2 (Spring 1999): 152-62.