Wordsworth and Bureaucratic Form
Wordsworth and Bureaucratic Form
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers William Wordsworth’s thirty-year civil service career as a Distributor of Stamps to examine how Romantic literature was shaped by several intertwined developments: the formation of a fiscal bureaucracy in Britain during the long eighteenth century, the attendant proliferation of bureaucratic genres and media, and utilitarian theories of administrative efficiency. This chapter argues that Wordsworth’s writing responds to what it calls bureaucratic form: the form taken by writing when the efficient capturing and communicating of data, or “particulars,” are principal considerations. Operating in concert with the contemporaneous virtue of brevity in writing and long-standing concerns about brevitas in literature, bureaucratic form made the economical collection and delivery of information an ideal for all kinds of writing. This chapter shows that Lyrical Ballads (1798), Essays upon Epitaphs (comp. 1810), and above all, The Excursion (1814) accommodate, as much as they ignore, the rule of streamlined writing.
The duty of a Distributor of Stamps is, upon application made by him to receive Stamps from the Head Office to supply the demands of his District. These Stamps are forwarded by him to his Subdistributors in the quantity required by them. … The Collection of Legacy Duty which is naturally attached to this Office is performed by supplying to Executors and Administrators certain papers called Forms to be by them filled up according to the directions contained in them and returned to the Distributor.
William Wordsworth to William Lowther (Viscount Lowther), March 28, 1821
- To humbler functions, awful Power!
- I call thee …
William Wordsworth, “Ode to Duty”
Our Poet Distributor
In 1813, William Wordsworth began his job as Distributor of Stamps, and he worked in that capacity for three decades until his retirement from the office. He initially served as distributor for the Westmorland, Whitehaven, and Penrith districts, but came to be responsible for additional areas as he continually sought to increase his official purview and profit. During these years, in order to support his family, Wordsworth divided his time between his artistic and administrative occupations. “Our Poet Distributor” is the dual title by which his wife, Mary, refers to him in a letter to relatives, where she also muses that “his skill in numbers as a Poet” prepared him well “to do justice to the accounts of the Stamp Off[ice],” alluding to his metrical and financial know-how.1 During this segment of his poetic career, his contemporaries too were unable to think about Wordsworth’s poetry without thinking about his other job. Byron begins Don Juan (1819) by censuring The Excursion (1814) and (p.75) observing that “Wordsworth has his place in the Excise” (actually Wordsworth worked for the Stamp Office, but Byron’s mistake either retains or sharpens the comment’s edge).2 Similarly, Francis Jeffrey’s review of Wordsworth’s Memorials of a Tour on the Continent (1822) observes that “since [Wordsworth] has openly taken to the office of a publican, and exchanged the company of leech-gatherers for that of tax-gatherers, he has fallen into a way of writing which is equally distasteful to his old friends and his old monitors.”3 From Wordsworth’s own closest family members to other Romantic poets and unsympathetic reviewers in the periodical press, many of his contemporaries regarded him—whether positively or negatively—in terms of his dual work as “Poet Distributor.”
Yet what is most curious is that despite his identity as “Poet Distributor,” Wordsworth’s literary writings seem never to have been influenced by his tax-collecting job at all. If Wordsworth scholarship has, with few exceptions, avoided using the distributorship as an interpretive frame for the poetry, it is probably not only because the context of taxation can be a boring topic or that greater scholarly attention is still accorded to Wordsworth’s poetry before that career, focusing on works from the “Great Decade,” but also because Wordsworth’s literary writings never explicitly bring up his other vocation or taxation in general (although other policy and political issues to which he was much less directly connected appear in them). Moreover, it is not immediately apparent that his poetry was affected at all upon “exchang[ing] the company of leech-gatherers for that of tax-gatherers.”4 How best to approach this puzzle? His poetic silence about his civil service work might be referred to the concepts of displacement, effacement, and the like, all of which were activated and rigorously theorized in connection with New Historicist methodologies in Romantic studies. Or, better yet, because the problem at hand concerns the relation between literary genres and genres that belong in part to the fiscal domain (for example, tax forms), the problem can be referred to Mary Poovey’s argument in Genres of the Credit Economy, especially her account of Wordsworth’s role in “generic differentiation.”5 According to Poovey, Wordsworth played an exemplary role in the Romantic contraction of imaginative writing to “Literary writing,” and then the consequential differentiation of “Literary writing” from (p.76) monetary genres and financial commentary.6 The partition Wordsworth kept up between literary genres (his poetry, essays, and prefaces) and financial genres (money and writing about money)—notwithstanding the proximity of these two sets of genres in his actual life as “Poet Distributor,” his interest in book sales, his worries about supporting his family—could be said to confirm Wordsworth’s commitment to the ideological exaltation of literary writing at the exclusion and suppression of non-literary genres from non-literary discourses.
I would nevertheless like to show how I reach different conclusions based on the biographical datum of Wordsworth’s career in the British civil service and on the question of how his job distributing stamps and processing tax forms might have shaped his poetry. This chapter approaches Wordsworth by way of the dramatic development of the British fiscal-bureaucratic system during the eighteenth century and the Romantic era, including the media, genres, and practices of impression and inscription generated by, and comprising, this bureaucratic infrastructure.7 Occurring at the same time as the Romantic differentiation of literary writing from other genres was another process (a reverse process, more or less) by which imaginative writing absorbed communicative norms from bureaucratic genres; what was happening, to borrow one of Kenneth Burke’s formulas, was the “bureaucratization of the imaginative.”8 Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), Essays upon Epitaphs (comp. 1810), and The Excursion negotiate the communicative norms of administrative, informational media—norms aimed at the efficient communication, collection, and processing of information. This chapter calls the instantiation of such norms in writing bureaucratic form, and attempts a “formal” reading of Wordsworth where form indicates the implementation of a utilitarian logic of efficiency in written genres—a logic exemplified by the standardized blank forms Wordsworth processed as part of his second job.9 Although Wordsworth’s contemporaries, chiefly Jeffrey, posited a direct mimetic relation between Wordsworth’s later poetry and a generalized notion of the “prosy,” “feeble” language of bureaucratic administration, my argument supposes that Wordsworth’s writings respond not to bureaucratese but to bureaucratic form.10 As we will see, Wordsworth’s writings acknowledge, (p.77) but also ignore, the social imperative to be short and swift in the so-called delivery of information. That Wordsworth’s literary writings from both before and after his distributor career show the impact of bureaucratic form suggests that the start of his government job was not the only factor involved: bureaucratic form gained social force from being in mutually reinforcing relations with the later eighteenth-century New Rhetorical curriculum, which drilled British students in the norm of brevity in writing and the older, traditional rhetorical-literary principle of brevitas.11 All three of these factors made efficiency in writing, and attempts to reduce writing to information, the order of the day—a dream of perfectly streamlined communication.
The account I am proposing leads to a twofold recognition, one relating to the sociology of modern officialdom, and the other relating to what Foucault calls “the power of the Norm” (see my discussion of this concept in the introduction).12 The first recognition lets us view Wordsworth’s strict compartmentalization of his administrative work in terms of the specialized, professional, modern bureaucrat.13 The gradual formation of this figure, for our purposes, stretches from the quasi-rationalization of the British state’s administrative infrastructure during the reforms of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, up through the mid-twentieth-century compartmentalization of white-collar work from every other part of the white-collar worker’s life—what C. Wright Mills calls “the Big Split.”14 In other words, if Wordsworth appears never to let his publican work bleed into his poetic work, this suggests the not insignificant degree of rationalization and modernization characterizing the still incompletely rationalized and modernized fiscal bureaucracy of which he was a part.15 At the same time, and this is the second recognition, “the power of the Norm” of efficient inscription emanates from the fiscal-bureaucratic realm and exerts pressure on other genres of writing, including literature, thus overriding to some extent the professional compartmentalization and generic differentiation by which Wordsworth kept his poetic and bureaucratic work separate. Lyrical Ballads, Essays upon Epitaphs, and The Excursion are therefore not about fiscal bureaucracy, but they are in a variety of ways about the exigencies of bureaucratic form.
The broadest context for Wordsworth’s distributorship is the remarkable growth and organization attained by Great Britain’s fiscal-bureaucratic infrastructure in the period.16 With the state needing to finance one military commitment after the next and trying to avoid bankruptcy, the fiscal-bureaucratic infrastructure—although by all accounts still far from a modern bureaucracy as Max Weber would define it—transformed during this period, growing significantly in number of employees, coordination, and efficiency. There were also staggering increases in the rates and kinds of taxes levied by the government, and a proliferation of the media and genres associated with this expanding bureaucracy. For this reason, according to John Brewer, Britain’s transformation into a global economic and military power during the long eighteenth century can be attributed not to military might alone but also to changes in the structure, protocols, and personnel of the centralized government administration: to “bookkeeping not battles,” or rather bookkeeping in order to underwrite battles, to borrow Brewer’s formulation about the period’s rapidly evolving “fiscal-military state.”17
The ballooning size of the British fiscal bureaucracy’s ranks was impressive, as William Blackstone’s observation about them conveys:
Witness the commissioners, and the multitude of dependents on the customs, in every port of the kingdom; the commissioners of excise, and their numerous subalterns, in every inland district; the postmasters, and their servants, planted in every town, and upon every public road; the commissioners of the stamps, and their distributors, which are full as scattered and full as numerous; the officers of the salt duty, which, though a species of excise and conducted in the same manner, are yet made a distinct corps from the ordinary managers of that revenue; the surveyors of houses and windows; the receivers of the land tax; the managers of lotteries; and the commissioners of hackney coaches.18
Wordsworth was just one of these multitudes of administrative personnel and, even within the Stamp Office, just one of the “distributors … full (p.79) as scattered and full as numerous” as Blackstone put it. Yet we know the specific tasks that Wordsworth performed because of a job description he was compelled to write about his own position. In 1821, the utilitarian reformer Joseph Hume invoked Wordsworth as an example of the venal political practices that eighteenth-century and Romantic-era radicals called “Old Corruption,” and characterized the poet’s appointment as a sinecure. This left Wordsworth having to answer the same question that the speaker in “Resolution and Independence” puts to the Leech-Gatherer: “How is it that you live, and what is it you do?” (126). Defending himself, he substantiated his responsibilities in a description that he drafted, which eventually made its way up to, and passed muster with, England’s Solicitor General.19 Here is his description, a different kind of ode to duty:
The duty of a Distributor of Stamps is, upon application made by him to receive Stamps from the Head Office to supply the demands of his District. These Stamps are forwarded by him to his Subdistributors in the quantity required by them. … The Collection of Legacy Duty which is naturally attached to this Office is performed by supplying to Executors and Administrators certain papers called Forms to be by them filled up according to the directions contained in them and returned to the Distributor.20
His responsibilities can be broken down into three areas: (1) the distribution of “Stamps,” that is, stamped paper, in order “to supply the demands of his District”; (2) the collection of other kinds of “stamp” duties on consumer goods and certain kinds of licenses, which he does not mention above, but which we know about from his bond of office; and (3) “the Collection of Legacy Duty” and the processing of the paperwork associated with it.21 The three main responsibilities of Wordsworth’s position—stamped paper, duties on goods and licenses, and the legacy duty—each seem to deal with disparate species of taxation, but they reflect the motley assortment of taxes that over the course of the eighteenth century came under the control of the Stamp Office. These taxes were locally collected by distributors like Wordsworth, “a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism” (as Max Weber would characterize the official) or, in Wordsworth’s (p.80) own terms, “a tool/Or implement, a passive Thing employed/As a brute mean” (The Excursion, 9.116–18).22 The part of Wordsworth’s job involving the collection of the legacy duty is the most relevant for bureaucratic form as it relates to Wordsworth’s poetry. Still, it is worth briefly describing his other responsibilities, because they provide us with a sense of the ubiquity of fiscal-bureaucratic genres and media.
By “Stamps,” Wordsworth is referring not to postage stamps (which were not introduced in Britain until 1840), but stamped paper. After the General Stamp Act of 1694, and a steady series of related laws after it, the paper, parchment, or vellum on which legal and business documents were written needed to be embossed, or “stamped,” with an official mark in order to be valid, like today’s embossed notary seals required on certain legal documents. At first there were six denominations of stamps, but newer stamps of different values continually appeared as the duties on documents kept rising during the eighteenth century. The range of legal and business documents that came to be taxed was nearly comprehensive: most documents in legal proceedings and also deeds, bonds, contracts, leases, marriage certificates, wills, passports, insurance policies, certificates of admission to the college of physicians or the Inns of Court, academic degrees, and more.23 Looking back over the period from the introduction of stamp duties up to 1815, the Victorian lawyer and legal historian Stephen Dowell concludes that “every species of written or printed document necessary for carrying on the business of mankind … had now been drawn within the grasp of the stamp laws.”24 These documents could be taken to the Stamp Office after they were written in large hand (that is, engrossed), at which point the duty could be paid and the document stamped: if the document was paper, it could be directly embossed; if the document was vellum or parchment, it would have a small embossed piece of paper (an escutcheon) affixed to it, since skins did not hold impressions as well as paper. But individuals could also purchase blank pre-stamped paper on which to inscribe a variety of transactions and instruments, and these are the government-issued stamps that Wordsworth distributed.25 (This (p.81) kind of blank, pre-stamped paper was the very sort that caused American colonists to protest violently the Stamp Act of 1765 in the lead-up to the American Revolution.)26 Wordsworth hired and supervised a crew of “Subdistributors,” or “subs” as they were called, who sold the stamped paper to individuals and from whom he collected earnings.27 In turn, he reported and sent revenue back up to his superordinates: “at the close of every quarter, an account is sent to the Head Office in London of the Stamps on Hand, and at the same time Money is remitted to the amount of those sold.”28
Other Stamp Duties
In Wordsworth’s time, “stamps” referred to other kinds of duties too.29 The state introduced these other sorts of stamp duties during the eighteenth century as it sought to increase revenue beyond that earned from the taxing of documents, and in some cases, in order to control social activities (for example, gambling) and the circulation of information (for example, via almanacs and newspapers). Although some of these duties were quite unlike those charged on the paperwork “necessary for carrying on the business of mankind,” they too involved stamps in the sense of official impressions or markings and during this period were also under the management of the Stamp Office. For example, there were stamp duties on certain consumer items that were required to feature an official mark: these items included playing cards, dice, lottery tickets, gloves, hats, hair powder, horses, and medicines. Then there were the so-called taxes on knowledge, which notoriously levied taxes on, and attempted to regulate, newspapers and almanacs. The Stamp Office also administered duties on licenses for certain kinds of work, such as the work done by hawkers and pedlars, tavern keepers, bankers, and lawyers.30 Although Wordsworth celebrates, and strives to identify himself with, “Pedlarism” (“Fenwick Note,” 1216) in The Excursion, he was much less an instance of Pedlarism than he was a functionary in the state regulation of it. The fact that his position entailed licensing individuals in that line of work suggests that Wordsworth’s administrative work and the British fiscal-bureaucratic system at large need to be central considerations in (p.82) thinking through the different forms of labor treated in The Excursion and instanced by the literary work itself.31 In short, it was simply impossible in the eighteenth century and the Romantic period not only to carry on the “business of mankind” but also to indulge in quotidian consumer activities without coming into contact with stamps—along with the documentary media and genres connected with them, as well as the practices of impression, inscription, seeing, using, reading, and paying associated with them.
The Legacy Duty and “Certain Papers Called Forms”
Often categorized under the genus of death duties, the legacy duty was a tax on personal property passed on by death to another individual—that is, a tax on “legacies” or “successions.” In general, the remoter an inheritor’s relation was to the deceased, the steeper the tax as a percentage of the value of the bequest.32 Legacies figure largely in Wordsworth’s own life, or perhaps one should say livelihood. As is well known, he was himself a legatee in 1795, when he received a £900 legacy upon the death of Raisley Calvert, the brother of a grammar school friend, which allowed him to write poetry rather than to find other employment at a critical juncture early in his career.33
Recall that Wordsworth’s job entailed “supplying to Executors and Administrators certain papers called Forms to be by them filled up according to the directions contained in them and returned to the Distributor.” The Legacy Act of 1796 had introduced the provision that the Stamp Office board of commissioners would “appoint proper persons to collect and receive the duties hereby imposed, and to keep proper accounts thereof, to be transmitted to the head office of the said commissioners.”34 Wordsworth was one of these persons. If the Calvert Legacy is a familiar landmark in Wordsworth’s biography, less well known is that Wordsworth later on, as distributor, had to carry out the grim task of vigilantly discovering deaths in his region—especially those associated with wealthy estates—so that he could collect the legacy duty, these occasions yielding rare windfalls much greater than the office’s other forms of revenue through stamped paper and the other kinds of stamp duty.35
(p.83) Furthermore, the 1796 Act mandates the printing of a standardized form, but also provides that an entirely handwritten document (“entirely handwritten” because even printed standardized forms call for handwritten answers) containing the same information will be valid:
It shall be lawful for the said commissioners of stamp duties, from time to time, to provide sufficient quantities of paper adapted for such receipts or discharges as aforesaid, and to cause to be printed thereon the form of words in the schedule hereunto annexed; and it shall also be lawful for any of His Majesty’s subjects, requiring such receipts or discharges, to cause the same to be duly filled up with sums, names, and date, according to the provisions before-mentioned, and also upon any vellum or parchment, or upon any other paper not provided by the said commissioners, to use the like form whenever there shall be occasion.36
Appended to the Act is the exemplary “schedule” of the government-issued printed form that was to serve as the basis for the vellum or parchment version of the same form (see Figure 2.1).
This is the form to which Wordsworth alludes when he writes of “certain papers called Forms.” While the Act frames the form primarily as a receipt or discharge, Wordsworth’s description of his job responsibilities reveals that the form served additional important functions as it circulated. Blank forms tend to evoke a sense of fixity, even deadened stasis, yet Lisa Gitelman has observed that blank forms are equally definable by their mobility.37 The Romantic-era legacy duty form is no exception in this regard. After the Stamp Office provided sheets of the printed blank form to distributors like Wordsworth, these distributors provided the form to executors and administrators. At this point, the form functioned as a means for the British government to collect data in a manner consistent with its increasing function as an “information state.”38 Meanwhile, the form acted also like a bill in that it compelled payment of the tax from the legatee or the executor or administrator. Next, Wordsworth checked with “minute attention” each completed form for the correctness of its information and payment amount, and then sent off batches of the forms to the (p.84) central Stamp Office.39 Presumably Wordsworth dealt as well with entirely manuscript versions of the forms on vellum or parchment, but in his job description he focuses on the printed paper forms that are “filled up” with handwriting. Next, “these papers are forwarded by him once a month to the Head Office where (if found correct) they are stamped, then returned to the Distributor.”40 At these stages, the form served as an “original,”
(p.85) whose information was transcribed and duplicated for recordkeeping in both Wordsworth’s and the central Stamp Office’s account books.41 Finally, in Wordsworth’s words, the form was “from him forwarded through his Subdistributors to the Executors, who in these papers receive a Discharge for the Duty due under the Will.”42 When the form made its way back to executors or administrators by way of Wordsworth and his “subs,” it became a receipt or discharge. As Section 27 of the 1796 Act states, “no legacy [is] liable to the duty, to be paid without a receipt, containing certain particulars.”43 These “particulars” are those pieces of information that populate the blank fields of the form shown in Figure 2.1:
1. Name of the deceased individual leaving the legacy (the testator or testatrix)
2. Name of the executor or administrator
3. Name of the legatee
4. Value of the legacy
5. Rate (“at the rate of _______ per centum”) and amount of the duty on that legacy
6. Balance received by the legatee after paying the legacy duty
7. Month and date when the legatee received the balance
8. Signature of the legatee
The same particulars recorded by the government served, then, as key details of the form in its function as proof of payment by the legatee or executor or administrator. By now, it will come as no surprise that, in order to be a valid receipt, the form—whether printed with handwritten answers or entirely handwritten—needed to bear a stamp, like all the other “document[s] necessary for carrying on the business of mankind.”
The legacy duty form as a document may or may not be interesting in itself, but for this argument it is of interest as an especially vivid example of bureaucratic form. Bureaucratic form names a set of features of writing, features that can traverse media (paper or vellum or parchment) and genres (those belonging to fiscal-bureaucratic or to literary (p.86) discourse). Bureaucratic form manifests itself in writing in which the efficient communicating and recording of information are the principal considerations. Defining characteristics of bureaucratic form thus include rationalization by way of simplification, abstraction, quantification, and standardization; as James R. Beniger puts it, “rationalization might be defined as the destruction or ignoring of information in order to facilitate its processing,” and “one example from within bureaucracy is the development of standardized paper forms.”44 Bureaucratic form is related to but different from long-winded and obscurantist bureaucratese—another style associated with administrative writing—because it is motivated by the reductions that typify “seeing like a state,” and what Foucault has analyzed as “biopolitics.” Viewing human beings as a population, states see only what they need or want to see, and perform “the administrative ordering of nature and society” through “transformative … simplifications.”45 By these simplifications, human and social matters are reduced to certain particulars that are then aggregable and subject to “forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures.”46 The legacy duty form, for example, reduces a gift left by a deceased relative, along with everything else that gift may have meant to the benefactor and may mean to the recipient and other living individuals, into a relatively simple series of discrete pieces of information that matter to the government for the purposes of enforcing the payment of a duty in order to wage war elsewhere. The all-important Calvert Legacy, without which Wordsworth probably would not have had a poetic career at all, could be reduced in the same way—if one were “seeing like a state”—to “sums, names, and date,” as the 1796 Act states. A donation can be converted into data, but that conversion comes with not only gains (the ability to aggregate data) but also losses (simplification).
For literary scholars, including those of Romantic literature, form usually signifies, among other things, the features involved in literary genres or literariness itself. But we may also note that in the later eighteenth century, the word form did not possess wide currency in any sense relating to literature; it was not associated with any of the later literary-critical concerns of “formalism.”47 My intention is not to insist (p.87) that there is one right way to understand form, whether it denotes the familiar features of “literary form” or some other kind of form. Rather, I hope to reconstruct as richly as possible what “certain papers called Forms” were for Wordsworth—given his location at the intersection of bureaucracy and poetry—while also advancing a concept of form that may be used to examine the writings of other historical periods. For example, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) offers thirteen denotations of form as noun, seven of form as verb, seven of the adjective formal, four of the adverb formally, one for the noun formalist, and so on, yet not a single one of these definitions and their related quotations refers to literature or its genres.48 Some of the broader senses may have been used to describe literature in a loosely metaphorical way, but what is striking is that Johnson does not apply even these senses to literature, even though many of Johnson’s quotations are, of course, drawn from a literary archive. A perusal of the archive Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) similarly shows that form was seldom used in connection with literary writing, aside from a few scattered instances: “poetic form” appears only fifteen times across the entire archive, “literary form” yields a single result, “sonnet form” none.49 According to Johnson’s Dictionary, form typically denotes shapes, methods, rituals, and the arrangements of things (including words) in the world, particularly in the domains of the law, the church, the school, and the military.
This semantic due diligence of a historically specific sort allows one to appreciate that the word form in the eighteenth century was seldom uttered, written, or imagined in connection with literary writing. Neither did it point primarily to the fiscal-bureaucratic domain. But senses of form widely operative in the later eighteenth century—originating in religious and legal discourse, among other areas—along with the emergent sense captured by Wordsworth’s “certain papers called Forms” (that is, the standardized form) are carrying into, and constituting, bureaucratic form. In other words, the concept of bureaucratic form is a key site for form, in the various senses used in the Romantic era and before. What follows is a disquisition on three overlapping senses of the word—senses that meet in, and help to make, bureaucratic form what it was in Wordsworth’s time.
(p.88) First, there is form as we have seen it used in the 1796 Act: “it shall be lawful for the said commissioners of stamp duties … to cause to be printed thereon the form of words” (emphasis mine). Bureaucratic form depends on such “form[s] of words,” that is, prescribed, standardized sequences of words and numerical information as well as blank spaces on the document, whether in a combination of print and manuscript or entirely handwritten: for example, “On account of the personal estate of ___________ deceased, between ___________ taking the administration of the said estate, and ___________ legatee.” In Johnson’s Dictionary, “form of words” appears under the word form defined as “Particular model of modification,” and the citation, from Addison, refers to prayer (“form of words that are uttered in the ordinary method of religions worship”), but it is also close to the denotation “Stated method; established practice.”50 Form in this sense overlaps a great deal with formulary. Formulary can be either a noun referring to a book or manual containing religious, legal, or letter-writing procedures and templates, or, of more relevance here, an adjective describing a prescribed arrangement of words—that is, a formula. In anticipation of this chapter’s later engagement of Wordsworth’s Essays upon Epitaphs, I note that elsewhere Johnson observes that in an epitaph, the “part of it … which tells the birth and marriage is formulary, and can be expressed only one way” (emphasis mine).51 Tombstone inscriptions and documents manifesting bureaucratic form (like tax forms) both involve formula or “form of words.”
Second, in addition to form-as-formulariness, bureaucratic form relies on a closely related sense of form as formatting, the arranging of information on documents.52 For instance, Sir John Sinclair, in compiling his Statistical Account of Scotland (1791–1799)—with which Wordsworth was familiar and which may even have partly inspired “We Are Seven”—provided clergy throughout Scotland with “a particular form … for drawing up the Statistical Account of their respective Parishes.”53 That form took the shape of a list of prompts (basically a questionnaire), compelling those completing the prompts to provide certain kinds of information: “The name [of the parish], and its origin”; “Situation and extent of the parish”; “Number of acres”; and so on.54 Although the words format and formatting do not appear until later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the word form (p.89) is used in a manner that suggests an increasing coordination of information with visual-spatial strategies of ordering that information in various administrative genres, like Sinclair’s “particular form.” True, there is much earlier evidence, in medieval accounting documents, of formatting, or what the field of technical writing has since the 1970s called, and analyzed under the subject of, “document design.”55 But there is also sufficient evidence of a marked rise in printed forms (that is, printed but soliciting handwriting) in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and on these printed forms, it was becoming more and more common to find formatting, especially tabular configurations.56 Studying British census forms and income tax forms, Mike Esbester has concluded that tables were increasingly common on early nineteenth-century printed forms. He explains, “although information recorded in tables could have been gathered by sentence-completion tasks, tables offered the advantage that they could incorporate unanticipated details from respondents, while retaining a standardized layout that made data-processing more efficient.”57 The Romantic-era legacy duty form perhaps captures the transitional moment when tabular layout on forms becomes more and more commonplace: transitional because, on the one hand, the law still allowed for handwritten versions of the form, presumably without tabular configuration, and on the other hand, the printed legacy duty form issued by the state, much like the British census form of 1801, relies on this kind of form (that is, formatting) within the printed form for what is imagined to be the easy filling-in and efficient processing of particulars.58 There is good reason to believe that Romantic-era forms increasingly relied on form-as-formatting.
Third, and intertwined with form-as-formulariness and form-as-formatting, bureaucratic form is instantiated materially in the subgenre of the informational document, “the form” itself. Wordsworth’s phrasing about forms—“certain papers called Forms”—implies that he is invoking a largely obscure class of object. This is curious, because historical research on blank forms, which has been undertaken by scholars in diverse fields—book and media history, technical and business writing, and information design—suggests that they long predate the Romantic era. Peter Stallybrass, Pamela Neville-Sington, Lisa Gitelman, and others have demonstrated that the (p.90) earliest printed standardized forms were the later fifteenth-century forms for Catholic indulgences, which featured blanks soliciting manuscript bits of information such as the purchaser’s name, the date, and the place. As these scholars remind us, the first things printed by Gutenberg and by Caxton were not Bibles—were not books at all—but indulgences, and these unbound sheets were printed in the millions.59 These papal indulgence forms were the model for the earliest printed fiscal-bureaucratic forms, devised around 1512 by Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, for the collection of the subsidy (essentially a kind of income tax) to raise money for war with France.60 The legacy duty form that Wordsworth distributed and processed beginning in 1813 is thus one of many distant descendants of the tax form used by Wolsey to tax citizens for the same purpose of war. And yet Wordsworth is also watching the form—specifically by that name, “form”—either just approaching, or in the process of crossing, or just having passed, a threshold of cultural salience in the Romantic period.61 It is quite late in the history of formulary documents that the specific medial-generic object, the document itself, rather than the formulaic language found on it, comes to be known as a “form.” The OED cites Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1856) as the earliest example of the word form in the sense of “a formulary document with blanks for the insertion of particulars.”62 Yet the government forms that were so central to Wordsworth’s distributorship come earlier than the OED suggests, intimating that the form-as-blank-form is coming into being, in Wordsworth’s moment, as a medial-generic object by that name.63 The Designing Information for Everyday Life, 1815–1914, project suggests that “by the late eighteenth century it became more economical to print forms using movable type,” and adduces, for example, catalogues and advertisements by printers from 1780 and the 1820s offering to print various kinds of “blank forms.”64 Similarly, Jeremy Bentham and his brother, Samuel, in their writings on accounting methods, recommended that organizations—whether Jeremy’s planned prisons and poorhouses (ca. 1798), or the Admiralty’s dockyards for which Samuel came up with a bookkeeping system—use standardized or uniform “blank books or forms” for more effective management.65 Wordsworth witnessed the blank form approaching or achieving a kind of social recognizability.
(p.91) To summarize this disquisition on form, then: “bureaucratic form” is a highly charged locus that attracts, intermingles and relies upon various kinds of form in the senses that were active or emergent in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: formulariness, formatting, and the standardized blank form. Bureaucratic form is perhaps the single most important site for form in Wordsworth’s time, and it lives on as modernity’s ideal of efficiency in writing, an ideal with which literature has had to reckon ever since.
The Long and Short of It:Brevitas Brevity, and Bureaucratic Form in Lyrical Ballads
In Wordsworth’s time, bureaucratic form operated in concert with at least a few other norms pertaining to economical writing; bureaucratic form exerts pressure on Romantic literature, but it does not act alone. For example, the strain of Romantic literary writing that embraces an aesthetic of minimalism can be seen also to be modeling the ethical and ecological imperative of making the most of finite resources, as Anahid Nersessian has argued recently.66 Yet Romantic minimalism is also to a great extent determined by the tangle of priorities involved in bureaucratic form, along with the norm of brevity deriving from the New Rhetorical curriculum, and a related norm internal to the literary tradition, namely brevitas. Beginning with the older literary norm of brevitas: I surmise that starting in the later eighteenth century, the New Rhetorical curriculum and bureaucratic form amplified the residual, long-standing concern with brevitas, but it can be appreciated too that brevitas, the imperative that authors observe decorous length, is a relatively consistent concern persevering throughout the long history of rhetoric and literature itself, before the New Rhetoric or bureaucratic form. On the roots of brevitas, E. R. Curtius’s account remains an illuminating resource. Curtius tracks brevitas from its treatment in classical rhetoric as one of the fundamental virtute narrationis through its considerable, unruly expansion in medieval poetry and rhetoric into a much theorized and generalized form of poetic artifice. Brevitas and brevitas topoi in poetry are in many ways inseparable from their opposites, taedium and fastidium, both of which point to the (p.92) reader’s side and the phenomenology of reading, and indicate the worry of eliciting the reader’s distaste through tiresome, excessive length—these worries too are articulated through recognizable topoi.67
In Lyrical Ballads (1798; 1800), Wordsworth works through his fascination with brevitas and taedium/fastidium by assuming that stories have an appropriate length, and that the greater violation is lengthiness rather than concision. These would be tacit, nearly imperceptible features of the poems, were it not for two closely related markers. The first is Wordsworth’s recurring signature for these concerns: the premise that readers’ time or words can be “wasted.” His narrators share (quite casually or in asides) their worries about the time or space extraneous words might take up. His storytellers fret about verbal redundancies and superfluities, about imposing on and detaining readerly attention beyond the bounds of propriety. One gets the sense that Wordsworth’s narrators are always counting words. Alternatively, they imagine themselves, and their addressees, to be on the clock—perhaps the “clock” that is the time discipline of industrial capitalism, best exemplified, in Wordsworth’s moment and in his mind, by the Wedgwood pottery manufactories.68 But the poems’ acknowledgments of brevitas also often take the second form of ignoring the imperative to be brief: the poems thematize various kinds of wastefulness or inefficiency, or the poems themselves perform their own contrarian acts of long-windedness, delay, deferral, and digression. These latter responses do not amount to a critique of brevity—because the poems in Lyrical Ballads tend to be on be brief side—so much as to subtle answers to the norm of efficient communication guiding not only referential, informational genres but literary writing too.
Conventional brevitas and taedium/fastidium formulas are especially noticeable in narrative gestures toward omissions. As for what is left out, the gestures come close to the rhetorical device of paralepsis, but the things readers are spared, or rather alerted to being spared, are characterized in Wordsworth’s poems not so much as events as extraneous words. In “The Idiot Boy,” for example, Betty is said to curse Johnny with a series of “other names, an endless string,/But now that time is gone and past” (170–171; emphasis mine): the “endless string” of names is gestured (p.93) to but never recounted, presumably for the sake of time.69 The strangeness of such conspicuous indications of verbal parsimony is only heightened by the excessive repetitions and refrains of this and other ballads; after all, recurring strings of words, often the same words, are a defining stylistic feature of “The Idiot Boy.” Still, the reason for this particular omission (“But now that time is gone and past”) points to a heightened sense of the value of time, that there is little use taking up the present time with what has already taken up “time” in the past. Similarly, Johnny’s speech is not (or not only) meaningless noise (“his lips with joy they burr at you” ), but an abundance of meaningful words: “his words were not a few,/Which Betty well could understand” (75–76). But these words too are skipped over. Even when the poem gives a positive portrait of Johnny’s particular brand of volubility (“his words were not a few”), the narrator mentions these “words” or speech sounds, but does not quote them, perhaps in this case too because “that time is gone and past.”
Nevertheless, the same poem at other moments gleefully suspends the same brevitas principle it seems to have internalized. The poem’s narrator, for his or her part, prepares the reader to expect an account of Johnny’s adventures—“Oh reader! now that I might tell/What Johnny and his horse are doing” (322–23)—only to begin these anaphoric stanzas:
- Perhaps, and no unlikely thought!
- He with his pony now doth roam
- Perhaps he’s turned himself about,
- His face unto his horse’s tail
- And now, perhaps, he’s hunting sheep,
- A fierce and dreadful hunter he!
- Perhaps, with head and heels on fire … (337–342)
As the poem nears its conclusion, the narrator, rather remarkably, stalls for several stanzas with a series of conjectures about what Johnny might have been doing, each marked by “perhaps.” Like the image of (p.94) Johnny himself riding his horse backward (“perhaps he’s turned himself about,/His face unto his horse’s tail”), the poem fails to move forward in a predictable manner, looping back to utter certain refrains (most memorably those on Johnny’s burring), or, in this case, dawdling to entertain a series of hypotheticals. The poem delays when it should be wrapping up. “The Idiot Boy” as a tale revolves around Johnny’s “sauntering,” an aimless circuitousness; as I noted in the introduction, “sauntering” was also a term used to describe a wandering, inattentive reader, usually a child.70 But the poem itself, mimicking its central figure’s sauntering journey, meanders in its telling. There is thus a tension between the poem’s own intention to proceed expeditiously by invoking but omitting strings of words, and the value it places on generating strings of words whose only function appears to be to delay.
The deferral strategies in “The Idiot Boy” complicate the poem’s time-saving or (as we might say) time-sensitive gestures, and prompt us to read the poem’s ending differently too:
- “The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
- And the sun did shine so cold.”
- —Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
- And that was all his travel’s story. (460–63)
When the poem finally reaches its conclusion, Wordsworth leaves us with a brilliant parody of brevity, a pointed rejoinder about the limits of short reports. Answering his mother’s questions—“Tell us Johnny, do,/Where all this long night you have been” (448–49; emphasis mine)—Johnny gives a most laconic account of his “long night.” But his synopsis aligns brevity not with explanatory, informational, or communicative value: rather, we get a confused inversion of archetypal elements (owls and cocks, moon and sun, night and day) and paradoxical combinations of objects and features (as in the “cold” sun). The poem’s final comment on brevity is akin to a vexing epigram or proto-Imagist poem: “The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo/And the sun did shine so cold.” And that was all. The final line in the poem (like Robert Frost’s use of “and (p.95) that was all” as the final line in his Wordsworthian poem “The Most of It”) captures the poem’s reflections on quantity, length, and comprehensiveness: “that was all” in the sense of littleness or shortness, and “that was all” as in “that was everything.”71
“Simon Lee” likewise negotiates the principle of verbal economy. At times, like “The Idiot Boy,” the poem indicates, only to withhold, the words that spill out of that character: “And thanks and praises seemed to run/So fast out of his heart, I thought/They never would have done” (98–100). Here too, it is as though the narrator senses that this “endless string” of words would be too excessive, too voluminous to quote in the poem, and thus glosses over what sounds possibly worth retelling, namely, the “thanks and praises” that prompt the narrator’s culminating meditation about “gratitude” (103). The most memorable lines in “Simon Lee” are, of course, the narrator’s address to the reader (reminiscent of the similar kinds of address in “The Idiot Boy,” described earlier): Wordsworth portrays a solicitous-sounding narrator anxious about brevitas, who apologizes, “my gentle reader, I perceive/How patiently you’ve waited” (69–70), and who also tries to reassure us that “What more I have to say is short” (77; emphasis mine). Then again, although the poem is concerned to be “short,” readers cannot help but notice the narrator’s inefficiencies in storytelling, which do not delight so much as delay, as in “The Idiot Boy.” The title promises an “incident,” but also deliberately subordinates it to the character portrait (“The Old Huntsman, with an Incident … ”), making the incident a kind of afterthought. True to form, the narrator does not get to the incident until the poem is nearly over. As a strategy bound to provoke self-awareness (at best) or annoyance (at worst) in readers inhabiting modern life and with their “craving for extraordinary incident” (“Preface,” 294; emphasis mine), the poem defers incident for three-quarters of its duration by a series of contrasting sketches of young versus old Simon Lee, which give the poem an oscillating, rather than forward-propelling, effect. And, of course, the incident is hardly an incident, and when we do arrive at it, it is quickly glossed over.
- And though you with your utmost skill
- From labor could not wean them,
- Alas! ’tis very little, all
- Which they can do between them. (53–56)
There is a perverse kind of celebration of inefficacy, a gap between a greater input and a lesser output. First, there is the addressed reader expending “utmost skill,” but failing to “wean them” from their work, a futile endeavor; and second, we have Simon Lee and Old Ruth themselves expending their energy only to do “very little.” The poem self-consciously describes an excess of invested energy and a poverty of yield. If some passages in “Simon Lee,” like those in “The Idiot Boy,” betray an anxiety about getting to the point—about keeping things “short” and respecting the reader’s patience—other passages, like this one, intimate a poetic license to be inefficient. The description of Simon Lee that seems to go nowhere, the deferred telling of the incident, and the testing of readers who are waiting “patiently” for some kind of significance (“the tale”) in the story: all of these instantiate Wordsworth’s interest in exploring a ratio between “labor” (the poem’s, the narrator’s, the readers’) and the resulting “very little,” which is insignificant or significant depending on any given reader’s capacity for appreciation (“but should you think,/Perhaps a tale you’ll make it” [79–80]).
Where “The Idiot Boy” and “Simon Lee” gesture to their attempts at brevity even as they disregard the principle, “Michael” features a justification about an inclusion, about something left in the poem:
- Not with a waste of words, but for the sake
- Of pleasure, which I know that I shall give
- To many living now, I of this Lamp
- Speak thus minutely. (131–134; emphasis mine)
The narrator pauses the poem to interpolate a rationale for the forty or so lines on the cottage’s lamp. This description might seem to be, but it is (p.97) not, the narrator assures us, superfluous. But given that the poem begins by framing itself assuredly as the transmission of a lengthy “Tale” (27) for future generations—for “youthful Poets, who among these Hills/Will be my second self when I am gone” (38–39)—what is causing the defensive justification about “a waste of words” if not the brevitas expectation itself? The poem discloses a sensitivity to the possibility of wasting the reader’s time, to the assumption that the poem should be economical in its telling: “not with a waste of words,” meaning at once excessive and barren verbiage. Wordsworth’s statements elsewhere that Lyrical Ballads is an experiment about “language … in a state of vivid sensation” (“Preface,” 287) or what “impassioned feelings” do to our words (“Note on ‘The Thorn,’” 332) would have us expect that the narrators of the poems should feel entirely authorized to narrate precisely such moments involving “impassioned feelings” like “pleasure.” But the fact that these moments are deliberately passed over by the poems—or, as in the case of “Michael,” told only with great anxiety about a perceived “waste of words”—suggests the potency of the rule of appropriate length. Wordsworth’s poetic experiments are highly conscious about the bounds of propriety when it comes to literary length, and he turns to traditional rhetorical and literary formulas for these soundings. And yet, the poems simultaneously skirt or test the brevitas principle in both playful and nervous ways. As soon as readers are alerted to the possibility of word “waste,” the narrator proceeds anyway to tell us “minutely” of the cottage lamp.
Functioning alongside or on top of this already active concern with brevitas was another, closely related norm deriving from the New Rhetorical curriculum: the norm of brevity, not restricted to narrative. As exemplified and disseminated by the tremendously influential lectures of Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, and others, the New Rhetorical curriculum drilled into students the stylistic norm of brevity in written composition in a manner that persists through William Strunk’s early twentieth-century lectures at Cornell (which become the basis of The Elements of Style ) and crystallized in his version of Smith’s and Blair’s imperative: “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”72 Bureaucratic form was, I would think, particularly reinforced by this contemporary version of brevity—probably more than it was by brevitas—and New (p.98) Rhetorical brevity was, in turn, reinforced by bureaucratic form; but both are operating upon long-standing, underlying anxieties about brevitas and literary propriety.
The particular cooperative force of the New Rhetorical rule of concision and the utilitarian ideals of bureaucratic form can be glimpsed in Wordsworth’s “Note on ‘The Thorn.’” There it becomes apparent that he is thinking in terms of “space … upon paper” (332). Where several of the poems in Lyrical Ballads worry about the problem of the waste of words or readers’ time, the “Note” includes a striking revelation that Wordsworth feels himself to be answerable to concerns about economical or uneconomical uses of paper space, a highly material version of the same underlying worry. He writes:
There is a numerous class of readers who imagine that the same words cannot be repeated without tautology: this is a great error: virtual tautology is more oftener produced by using different words when the meaning is exactly the same. Words, a Poet’s words more particularly, ought to be weighed in the balance of feeling, and not measured by the space which they occupy upon paper (332).
Wordsworth’s polemic is cogent in large part due to a strategic ambiguity about “space … upon paper.” On the one hand, he is arguing that it is the poet’s prerogative to repeat “the same words” (the good kind of tautology he is arguing for) and occupy as much paper space as he sees fit. He appears to be anticipating that, to an unsympathetic reader, the repetition of the same words may look like an especially egregious form of “waste of words” in the practical, material register of a waste of “space … upon paper,” given the expensiveness of paper.73 His response is that the policy of brevity for the sake of the parsimonious use of paper does not apply to the poet. In “Simon Lee,” “The Idiot Boy,” and “Michael,” Wordsworth invokes the ideal of conciseness but reserves the right to ignore it: narrators tease, dawdle, and digress; incidents are invoked but then deferred and then treated in perfunctory fashion; characters like Johnny, the “idiot boy,” get lost and wander; and Wordsworth himself indulges in a particularly excessive kind of repetition that critics have noticed since the volume’s first appearance. (p.99) On the other hand—and indeed his wording allows him to have it both ways—he is claiming that it is the poet’s right or responsibility to be brief, and readers are mistaken if they are evaluating poetry on the measure of the space that words occupy upon paper, perhaps against the standard of weightier, lengthier forms like the epic. Rather, fewer words, and the same few words repeated, can be more heavily freighted with feeling than any string of words generated by the unthinking automatic stylistic variation typical of poetic diction. Like Strunk later—“Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”—Wordsworth recognizes that brevity goes hand in hand with repetition to potent effect.
Thus when Wordsworth later in his “Note” describes words as “efficient” (333) things, the immediate context calls for the idea of efficaciousness or the real materiality of words as “things,” but this earlier passage colors that word with a more utilitarian sense: words are ideally efficient in the sense that they communicate maximum feeling with a minimum of words. There is much virtue, argues Wordsworth, in a high feeling/word ratio, in readers getting each word’s worth of feeling. In either case, the New Rhetorical compositional ideal of brevity blends with a noticeably administrative- and efficiency-minded way of thinking about the efficient use of “space … upon paper”—the very logic we saw in the dimension of bureaucratic form that bears on the streamlined organization of words and on the formatting of information on paper or parchment administrative genres. But for Wordsworth, this ethos of verbal frugality is inextricable from his experiments in excess and inefficiency, which are only recognizable as such because of the norms about shortness. Geoffrey Hartman observed about “The Idiot Boy” that “the release [Wordsworth] feels in telling the story is too wastefully apparent,” noticing the strange “delight” Wordsworth derives from the troubling material.74 But Hartman’s invocation of the idea of wastefulness is also revealing and critical to our understanding of Lyrical Ballads: the poems are never able to lose sight of a series of ratios pertaining to efficiency, wastefulness, and productivity in the context of writing itself, in the medium of words.
For us, then, it might remain customary or expedient in pedagogical contexts to emphasize the revolutionary nature of Lyrical Ballads, to (p.100) rely on a shorthand whereby the volume marks a sudden departure from eighteenth-century poetics and ushers in a particularly modern kind of poetry. But it is equally valuable to recall Wilbur Samuel Howell’s observation that “Wordsworth’s reforms in poetry were part of a great trend, begun in the Renaissance,” a trend consolidated by both the New Rhetoric and bureaucratic form: “the great change in the theory of rhetorical style since [the Renaissance] has been a change from the convention of imperial dress to the convention of the business suit.”75 The gradual, consequential trend toward a business- and bureaucracy-oriented style in communication and writing as the standard for all communication and writing impinges on Wordsworth, and his “reforms”—and the parodying of these same reforms—might be most accurately grasped as a piece of that long-term trend. But this also alerts us to the extreme sensitivity of Lyrical Ballads to the slower, longer tectonic shift in style that leads to nothing less than rules of communication in modernity. Courses in technical and business writing—oftentimes well-subscribed for obvious reasons—would be wise, then, to look further back historically to figures like Wordsworth, who are reflecting on the implications of informational and communicative efficiency (“waste of words”) and perhaps even streamlined document design (“space … upon paper”) when these desiderata were hardening into our laws of writing.
Seeing Like a Poet; or, How to Do Things with Bureaucratic Form
If Lyrical Ballads responds to a bundle of norms of writing, from different domains and belonging to different historical timelines—bureaucratic form around the time of Romanticism, the Enlightenment priority of stylistic brevity, and long-standing brevitas from the classical-rhetorical and literary tradition—Essays upon Epitaphs (comp. 1810) points to the literary uses to which bureaucratic form, in its starkest manifestations, can be put. The tripartite Essays functions as a reminder that the “fill-in-the-blanks” format belongs not only to standardized blank forms but to commemorative practices and literary discourse too, where it is used for very different ends. Above all, the three essays show Wordsworth not only engaging deeply with individual epitaphs but also thinking about epitaphs en masse and the large-scale aggregation of information that can (p.101) be found across “a thousand church-yards” (56).76 That is, while his turn to sepulchral inscription might seem to correspond to a backward-looking impulse, Essays reveals Wordsworth to be comfortable with what today goes by “big data,” capably negotiating different scales of information.
Recall Samuel Johnson’s comment on the epitaph: “part of it … which tells the birth and marriage is formulary, and can be expressed only one way.” Johnson’s note prompts a strange thought: if bureaucratic form is attaining a kind of cultural salience in the later eighteenth century—as this chapter has been arguing—would it not have been drawn into relation with the genre that had since antiquity, and in Johnson’s mind, been strongly identified with formulaic writing, namely the epitaphic inscription? It seems at first like a perverse question, yoking together heartfelt memorials and dry documents. But then again, the form of an epitaph is not unlike the form of certain bureaucratic documents, such as the standardized form. Writing in both epitaphic and bureaucratic form must be “brief” (Essays, 59), the latter because of the administrative consideration that we have seen Wordsworth call “space … upon paper,” the former because of the obvious constraint of finite space upon stone.77 In close relation to brevity is an allied consideration that both epitaphs and administrative forms take into account: the individuals encountering them are, as Wordsworth says about passersby of epitaphs, “busy” (54) or “impatient” (59). Both forms assume the efficient shape that they do not only due to limited space on the medium but also based on certain assumptions about the distractedness of people—“men occupied with the cares of the world” in “modern times” (54)—and how best to make the most of their attention for the short time it can be claimed.
Yet these are only adventitious resemblances between epitaphic and bureaucratic form, and it is not until one notices Wordsworth’s allusions in Essays to other kinds of documents that one begins to recognize that his essays, in their peculiarly insightful way, place epitaphs among other informational genres and practices of Wordsworth’s time.78 One might say that the essays combine and thus contrast those “inscriptions” so influential on Wordsworth’s poetry as suggested by Geoffrey Hartman in “Inscriptions and Romantic Nature Poetry,” and “inscriptions” in the (p.102) documentary, epistemological sense suggested by Bruno Latour in “Drawing Things Together.”79 Wordsworth’s reflections on memorials and mortality might have proceeded just as well without reference to the landmark state administrative project the Statistical Account of Scotland—which, as we have seen, sought to gather certain pieces of information about the parishes of Scotland—but there it is in the Essays (65), making a curious appearance. Elsewhere Wordsworth compares a village churchyard to the informational genre of the “report,” arguing that the sum of inscriptions in a churchyard captures more about “a Community … than any report which might be made by a rigorous observer” (64). Finally, Wordsworth likens the collection of epitaphs in a churchyard to a traditional means of registering and amassing information, in fact much the same information as epitaphs, but inscribed in books and not on stone: he describes a graveyard as “a favorable Register” (64) and invokes with this telling figure the genre of the parish register. By Wordsworth’s time, the recording of births, marriages, deaths—sometimes referred to as “hatches, matches, and dispatches”—in parish registers had been a long-standing practice.80 Whatever Wordsworth’s other motives may have been for his extended treatment of epitaphs—his interest in Chiabrera’s epitaphs and in the tradition of Greek epigrammatic inscriptions, the wish to criticize Pope’s epitaphs and Samuel Johnson’s writings on the topic, the chance to continue his polemic against poetic diction and “artifices” (84) begun in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads—he sets sepulchral inscriptions against the backdrop of other inscriptions that attended Great Britain’s coming into being as a modern information state. As the local parish register is giving way to the establishment of the General Register Office, and amid systematic endeavors like the Statistical Account, the essays juxtapose epitaphs and other administrative writing and point to their similar features, forms, and functions.
Thus while the essays are on the surface treating the “notion of a perfect Epitaph” (76) and prosecuting their negative evaluation of bad inscriptions (literary and lapidary), they are also intimating the underlying similarities between the “massifying” of humans in biopolitics as described by Foucault—a massifying carried out in part through (p.103) documentation—and the “points, of nature and condition, wherein all men resemble each other” (59) as revealed by epitaphs. It would be mistaken to characterize Wordsworth’s preoccupation in Essays, Lyrical Ballads, and The Excursion with what is commonly human as an unappealing form of universalism, naive or presumptuous at best, and effacing socioeconomic differences at worst. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that his interest in what individuals hold in “common with the species” (89), as the Essays puts it, is driven by his alertness to the biopolitical logic that grasps its object of administration at the level of “man-as-species”—that is, the management of humans-as-population—and his own corresponding sense that there is a similar version of this logic in the traditional form of the sepulchral inscription.81 Epitaphic inscriptions too presuppose that “to be born and to die are the two points in which all men feel themselves to be in absolute coincidence” (57), in a manner that is not unlike the biopolitical view of humans as “a global mass that is affected by overall processes characteristic of birth, death, production, illness, and so on.”82 This may help to explain what one notices while reading the essays, that they are rhetorically excessive in insisting on how boring and predictable epitaphs are: “wholly uninteresting” (68) and “even trite” (78) with their “uniform language” (65) and their “monotonous language” (66). Wordsworth insists that epitaphs are homogeneous in terms of the kinds of information they record (for example, hatches, matches, dispatches) and, beyond those particulars, in terms of the utter conventionality of their sentiments: “a husband bewails a wife; a parent breathes a sigh of disappointed hope over a lost child; a son utters a sentiment of filial reverence for a departed father or mother; a friend perhaps inscribes an encomium recording the companionable qualities, or the solid virtues, of the tenant of the grave, whose departure has left a sadness upon his memory” (56). But his hyperbole should tip us off to the secondary agenda operating beneath these meditations, one that brings epitaphs into closer relation with those other “uninteresting,” “uniform,” and “monotonous” records: standardized paper or parchment records that also presuppose certain regularities of humans when humans are viewed—seeing like a state—as a species.
(p.104) Wordsworth therefore responds in an unexpected manner to the problem of depersonalization. There is a “want of discrimination in sepulchral memorials” (56), and their clichéd inscriptions are “the language of a thousand church-yards; and it does not often happen that anything, in a greater degree discriminate … is to be found in them” (56). One might note the same depersonalizing effects of bureaucratic documents, a frequently lamented fact. Yet his response does not at all entail a lament about depersonalization or dehumanization, either explicitly in connection with epitaphs or implicitly in connection with the administrative data-amassing practices the essays name. Instead these essays undertake a criticism on the subject of epitaphic form, a criticism that foregrounds his appreciation for how good epitaphs have “a due proportion of the common or universal feeling of humanity to sensations excited by a distinct and personal clear conception, conveyed to the reader’s mind, of the individual” (57). In other words, administrative records and epitaphs alike reinforce what humans have in common, but they also make perceptible “individualities” (67), details that allow one to discriminate one individual from another. As Frances Ferguson has suggested, large-scale grouping (whether in the context of utilitarianism or in biopolitics) has an oft-overlooked reverse side, and that is the ability to provide social and institutional structures against whose backdrop the crucial ability to “make individuals distinctive” emerges.83 In short, the massifying of humans—a view that humans form “a global mass that is affected by overall processes”—is at once an eraser and guarantor of individuality, and Wordsworth seems to recognize this in connection with epitaphic and bureaucratic data alike.
At the end of the final essay, Wordsworth leaves readers with a vivid portrayal of the most moving tombstone he ever saw:
In an obscure corner of a Country Church-yard I once espied … a very small Stone laid upon the ground, bearing nothing more than the name of the Deceased with the date of birth and death, importing that it was an Infant which had been born one day and died the following. I know not how far the Reader may be in sympathy with me, (p.105) but more awful thoughts of rights conferred, of hopes awakened, of remembrances stealing away or vanishing were imparted to my mind by that Inscription there before my eyes than by any other that it has ever been my lot to meet with upon a Tomb-stone. (93)
Again, Wordsworth’s reaction is somewhat unexpected. The cold presentation of three particulars—a name and two dates—does not lead him to deplore bureaucratic form, but rather to recognize the tombstone as an aesthetic object that prompts a kind of sympathetic-imaginative “filling-in”: “thoughts of rights conferred, of hopes awakened, of remembrances stealing away or vanishing.” Essays upon Epitaphs invites us to ask: if lapidary and literary epitaphs invite such imaginings, can similar imaginative games be played with the details found on boring standardized forms, conjectures about the person behind the abstract pieces of data? Do we not construct similar “thoughts” and narratives about the human being behind the discrete particulars found in job applications or online dating profiles? The essays remind us of the other things one can do, and typically does, with bureaucratic form, particularly when thinking poetically—beyond thoughtless and hurried filling out, processing, or filing away. Wordsworth’s response exemplifies what Robert Mitchell has astutely identified as “population aesthetics,” an aesthetics arising from biopolitics: “the logic of population establishes the enabling frame for intense experiences of hope and fear; fundamental judgments concerning what is beautiful and ugly, sublime and mundane; and our intuitive sense of how individuals ought to relate to collectives.”84 Perhaps more than we would expect, Wordsworth is surprisingly at ease with a world of populations and information at large scales, navigating it, and finding in it the possibility of aesthetic experience. Wordsworth is capable of moving from one “very small Stone” to “the language of a thousand churchyards.” In this context, what may be of greatest interest about Essays upon Epitaphs is that it shares a rare side of Wordsworth, negotiating different scales of information in modernity—from the individual instance to the aggregate, from the single epitaph to what Wallace Stevens called “Anecdote of Men by the Thousand.”85
The Excursion is a poem that in multiple ways demands to be read in connection with Wordsworth’s administrative work. While many parts of the poem’s composition history are speculative, and complicated due to the poem’s entwinement with compositions for the projected long poem The Recluse (for example, “The Ruined Cottage,” “Home at Grasmere”), we do know that Wordsworth worked on crucial parts of The Excursion in the period between early 1813 and May 1814. According to Mark Reed’s chronology, Wordsworth composed and reworked substantial portions of Book 2 through Book 9 during these months; it was during this period when the poem truly took on its final form.86 It was in this same stretch of time that Wordsworth began to seek out a second job, and, succeeding, began his work as Distributor of Stamps. As early as August 1812, Wordsworth and his intermediaries had inquired of Sir William Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale (the longtime patron of the Wordsworth family), about an office. Lowther informed Wordsworth in March 1813 that he had recommended the poet for the office of Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland and Penrith. And a month later, Wordsworth signed his bond of office.87 The ensuing months are occupied by major work on The Excursion alongside a flurry of distributorship business. On top of managing the accounts, Wordsworth hired John Carter for clerical assistance, visited and checked on his subs, identified instances of tax evasion, and more.88 His job as a tax collector frames the poem in another, more apparent way: The Excursion begins with a dedicatory poem to Lowther, a sonnet written by a Wordsworth grateful at the prospect of greater financial security from the appointment. When Wordsworth writes, “I appear/Before thee, LONSDALE, and this Work present” (5–6), the word “Work” indicates The Excursion, but as Mark Schoenfield too has noted, one cannot help but think also of the government “work” provided by Lowther.89 More speculatively, one wonders how it must have felt for Wordsworth to be revising and reviewing passages that might have taken on new significance because of his distributorship. For example, two of the longer stories told during the sequence of embedded narratives, those of the Prodigal (6.285–390) and Oswald the volunteer (7.720–912), are based on the sons of one of Wordsworth’s (p.107) acquaintances, a man who had served as a clerk to one of Wordsworth’s predecessors in the distributor position.90 Wordsworth would have also been collecting the legacy duty at the same time that he was reviewing passages like the “small inheritance [that] had fallen” (7.454) to the Deaf Man’s older brother. There is also the Sympson family narrative, which would have been a good potential example of luctuosa hereditas under the period’s tax law: that is, the situation arising when a parent outlives his or her descendants and is taxed on legacies left by them, rather than the other way around.91
Yet these correspondences—some made solid by chronology, others admittedly conjectural—are themselves less interesting than the possibility that, even if Wordsworth in his poem never makes explicit reference to the British fiscal bureaucracy, The Excursion works through norms pertaining to efficiency in writing powerfully exemplified in standardized bureaucratic genres. Recall that one of the main contentions of this chapter is that the compartmentalization by which Wordsworth kept his poetic and administrative labors separate indexes the degree to which both kinds of work were in his moment rationalized and professionalized; simultaneously, this specialized seriousness was attended by a countermovement, where certain rules of writing flowed out from the domain of bureaucracy (and business) and into literary writing.
Does The Excursion react at all to the social imperative of efficient writing? The most obvious social question toward which the poem tends is not bureaucratization but industrialization—“changes in the Country from the manufacturing spirit” (“Summary of Contents,” 46)—the subject of sustained discussion in Books 8 and 9. Yet in Byron’s mind, as we have seen, The Excursion could not be mentioned without invoking Wordsworth’s civil servant job, and the start of his career as a bureaucrat overlapped with his big final push on the poem. It is better to recognize The Excursion not only as a poem about industrial work, then, but rather as a poem taking part in a set of interrelations between several different kinds of labor: the factory work that is the pressing, topical problem discussed at the work’s culmination; the administrative work that becomes so conspicuous in British society during the long eighteenth century (recall Blackstone: (p.108) “Witness the commissioners and the multitude of dependents”), and that occupies Wordsworth himself after 1813; and, of course, the work of poetry as embodied by The Excursion itself. Alison Hickey’s terrific monograph on The Excursion frames the poem as an ambivalent response to various systematizations—the “perceived systemization of the British nation and empire … economic systemization, political and military systemization, the manufacturing system”—but one needs to add to Hickey’s list the fiscal-bureaucratic system that employed Wordsworth, and more significantly, drove the British fiscal-military state of the long eighteenth century.92 The poem’s vexed response to bureaucratic form can thus be tracked along the coordinates provided by industrial, administrative, and poetic work—or, the Romantic-era complex of blue-collar, white-collar, and poetic worker (Muse-caller?). From this perspective, Wordsworth’s poem is remarkably prescient. Standard accounts of the emergence of modern information societies characterize bureaucratic organization as a belated mid- and later nineteenth-century response to the need created by the industrial revolution for rationalized feedback systems; in the view of these narratives, the “control revolution” follows industrialization.93 Yet we see Wordsworth already thinking through the contemporaneous relation between early bureaucratization (of the administrative state) and manufacturing, and in this context pondering the fate of writing under the dominion of the utilitarian logic of the closely allied bureaucratic and industrial orders. What becomes of literature when writing comes more and more to be viewed as something from which to extract, “mine,” or process data? When writing becomes principally about producing “useful” information, about so-called knowledge production?
In this final section of this chapter, I would like to show, focusing mostly on the “oral records” (6.628) narrated in the middle books of The Excursion (Books 5 to 7), that Wordsworth internalizes bureaucratic form and its utilitarian spirit, an internalization that helps to account for some of the fascinating contradictions in this frequently unfascinating poem. Most readings of the poem’s encounter with utilitarian thought focus on Wordsworth’s passing references to the utilitarian instructional approach known as the Madras system, but I would like to focus instead on (p.109) the poem’s response to a utilitarian approach to something much closer to Wordsworth’s life and work: writing. That an extended exercise in the documenting of human lives and extended ruminations upon the act of documenting sit at the heart of The Excursion suggests the poem’s engagement with the documentary genres so ubiquitous in its historical moment, not least what Wordsworth called “certain papers called Forms.” But the manner in which Wordsworth has his characters carry out these tales, and the ensuing discussions and digressions, portray a contradictory response on Wordsworth’s part to the norms of bureaucratic documents. It would overstate matters to characterize The Excursion as an intervention into or a critique of bureaucratization or industrialization and more accurate to describe it as an internalization responsible for the poem’s paradoxical positions and for the peculiar features and form of the poem. In the spirit of the poem’s description of the Prodigal—“within his frame/Two several Souls alternately had lodged” (6.297–98)—one might say that The Excursion lodges within its unwieldy frame at least two impulses with regard to writing made utilitarian.
If, as I have suggested, Essays upon Epitaphs intimates striking connections between epitaphs and administrative documents insofar as both can be grasped as written records molded by the logic of efficient communication, The Excursion’s medial status as a written poem remediating and celebrating speech appears at first to express Wordsworth’s notably different, romantic wish to portray a world where humans are documented by means other than writing—other than contemporary paperwork or parchment-work, other even than traditional epitaphic writing. The poet describes a “Church-yard … almost wholly free/From interruption of sepulchral stones,” and praises the rural dead who “trust/The lingering gleam of their departed Lives/To oral records,” that is, to oral tradition or “Depositories faithful and more kind/Than fondest Epitaphs” (6.621–30). The glorification of “oral records” in the poem, then, seems to be an almost apotropaic gesture both acknowledging and warding off records in any medium other than the oral. As we have seen, the inscribed records of Wordsworth’s moment are primarily definable by their standardization and radical simplifications—or, recalling James Beniger’s words above, (p.110) by “the destruction or ignoring of information in order to facilitate … processing.” By design, bureaucratic documents abstract certain particulars about the living, the dead, and the transactions between them (such as legacies) to relatively few data points: for example, the eight particulars recorded in the legacy duty form, the three registered by the British state in “hatches, matches, and dispatches,” or the three carved into the most memorable epitaph Wordsworth encountered (“name of the Deceased, with the date of birth and death”). By contrast, The Excursion prizes “pathetic Records” by “voice/ … delivered” (7.1075–76) precisely because they are meandering as well as unsystematic in the details they include, exclude, or gloss over; unlike administrative documents, these oral records are short on facts, dates, and all manner of otherwise “useful” information.94 Wordsworth’s Fenwick note on this poem, in accounting for his choice to make the Wanderer one of the poem’s principals, confesses that “wandering” was his own main passion, and this confession, as much as the work’s very title, strongly suggests that the poem quite deliberately suspends for itself the social imperatives related to streamlined writing, perhaps suspending the idea of effective communication more generally (“Fenwick Note,” 1215). Another way to view this is that one impulse in The Excursion is the one defining the “disorderly abundance” of the responses Sinclair received from parishes in the making of the Statistical Account of Scotland: bureaucratic form begat not concise information but unruly, locally tinged, copiousness.95
But the poem does not fulfill, at least not entirely, the atavistic wish for a world before or without modern bureaucratic recordkeeping systems. Much to Wordsworth’s credit, The Excursion maintains a saving level of self-ironizing energy. For one thing, the story of the Deaf Man—whose love of books recalls Wordsworth’s own, as treated in Book 5 of The Prelude—whose very being is defined by reading (7.456–71), or rather the consumption of writing, counters the inscription-aversion elsewhere in the poem. More importantly, the poem identifies an unlikely likeness between its own spoken “depositories” and administrative genres. Wordsworth makes this identification in an involved way: he associates, in a mediated fashion, the poem’s own storytelling activity with bureaucratic form by associating (p.111) the former with the industrial ethos of efficiency (“the manufacturing spirit”) that closely parallels the ideals behind bureaucratic form. That is to say, he indirectly discloses the imprint of bureaucratic form on his poem and his historical moment. Wordsworth is thereby able—without engaging in anything like a direct critique of the bureaucratic system of which he is a part, but also without making any overt concessions to bureaucratic form—to observe how the oral records of The Excursion paradoxically resemble writing shaped by bureaucratic form by linking those oral records to industrialization, particularly the manufacturing emphasis on input, output, and efficiency.
Nowhere is the poem’s drawing of these connections more apparent than when Wordsworth has the Wanderer let slip that the Pastor’s oral records should ultimately be about “gain” (6.597). The Wanderer proceeds to puzzle over, and qualify, his own revealing phrasing in a series of questions, the significance of which belies their placement within parentheses: “(Gain shall I call it?—gain of what?—for whom?)” (6.598). Immediately prior, the Solitary had noted that the Pastor’s stories about the rural dead all seem to lead to an overwhelming sense of fatality (“Of poor humanity’s afflicted will/Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny” [6.571–72]) and are therefore like ready-made tragedies: the deceased “generations are prepared” and their “internal pangs … are ready” (6.569–70) to be converted with little effort into literary art by “the tragic Muse” (6.566). The Solitary overstates matters, and with a great deal of cynicism, but we must grant the accuracy of his observation. He is pointing out the utilitarian ethos by which the Pastor’s “Authentic epitaphs” (5.653) are “prepared” and “ready”—almost too prepared, too ready—for the function of imparting “genuine knowledge” (6.610), usually aimed at edifying the despondent Solitary himself. That is to say, the Solitary puts his finger on the disconcerting feeling that the group’s activity somewhat resembles the industrial processes that become the subject of concern in Books 8 and 9. It is no accident, then, that the Wanderer, in urging the Pastor to steer clear of narrating the most grotesque lives marked by “brutish vice” (6.590), says that such anecdotes would yield only “poor gain” (6.597). “Gain,” after all, is The Excursion’s byword for the ethos of industrialization and utilitarianism: “Gain—the (p.112) Master Idol of the Realm” (8.186).96 The departed lives are treated like raw materials subject to processing by the Pastor and others, oddly like the industrial materials described throughout The Excursion, both sorts of materials being harvested or mined for “gain.”
The figural resonances between the spoken narratives and industrial processes aimed at “gain” take different forms. The peasant who bursts into the poem in Book 7 insinuates the uncanny similarity between the activity of producing gain from stories of the dead and his own lumbering. The peasant too makes use of the dead, an arboreal corpse (he hauls a “giant Oak/Stretched on his bier” [7.564–65]), and the Pastor imagines a variety of manufacturing tools as well as products: the wood becomes “strong knee-timbers, and the mast that bears/The loftiest of her pendants” for a ship, a “wheel that turns ten thousand spindles,” and “the trunk and body” of “the vast engine laboring in the mine” (6.622–26). As several important readings of the poem have pointed out, the chief figure that bridges the characters’ pursuit of learning “truths” from the epitaphic anecdotes and heavy industry is that of mining.97 It appears in the wording of the Wanderer’s original request to the Pastor that initiates the sequences of narratives:
- The mine of real life
- Dig for us; and present us, in the shape
- Of virgin ore, that gold which we by pains
- Fruitless as those of aery Alchemists
- Seek from the torturing crucible.
- Epitomize the life; pronounce, You can,
- Authentic epitaphs
- So, by your records, may our doubts be solved. (5.631–56)
The Excursion’s main activity of documenting the lives of the dead is a kind of mining—“The mine of real life/Dig for us” enjoins the Wanderer—and it is for a very specific kind of didactic recompense; the storytelling, as Kevis Goodman has aptly put it, “hovers between mining and (p.113) grave-digging.”98 Note too the lines that extend the Wanderer’s mining conceit: “present us, in the shape/Of virgin ore, that gold … ” Reminiscent of the Solitary’s intuition that the tragic stories of the rural poor seem overly “prepared and “ready” for the purpose of edification, these lines suggest that there is something backward about the group’s exercise: so overdetermined is the tendency of the stories toward didactic gold, that it is almost as if the group is not truly mining meaning from the authentic epitaphs so much as being presented didactic gold reverted to look like virgin ore (that is, it is as though the stories have been back-constructed into raw form from a predetermined moral). Notwithstanding the considerable emphasis on the spoken—“pronounce[d]”—status of the epitomes, then, there is always an air of scriptedness and fable about them. Or, expanding on the Solitary’s comment that the Pastor’s narratives resemble “Fictions in form” (6.560), we might say that the pronounced stories have been given the literary treatment—written, formed into fiction—perhaps “literaturized.” Wordsworth alloys his didactic poem with a significant degree of self-consciousness—figured in such exchanges about storytelling and mining—that his poem treats narratives, and perhaps poetry at large (including The Excursion itself), as something from which didactic gold can be extracted and designed from the outset with this extraction in mind. He resorts to the same imagery when he assures readers that they “will have no difficulty in extracting” the poem’s philosophical-didactic “system” for themselves (“Preface to The Excursion,” 39; emphasis mine). In sum, Wordsworth is self-aware that The Excursion, though it seems to celebrate unruly orality, oftentimes takes an approach that treats writing from the industrial and bureaucratic perspective of efficient processing. The poem acknowledges its management of inputs into outputs with an eye toward gain.
But if, at times, the poem seems too preoccupied with gain, at other moments, it appears to contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of gain and the logic of efficiency. Francis Jeffrey, whose review of The Excursion remains as insightful as it is prejudicial, senses that efficiency in writing is the real issue with the poem. In a telling analogy, Jeffrey describes Wordsworth’s writing (of The Excursion as well as of the projected (p.114) Recluse) as a textile manufacturing business: “All this is so much capital already sunk in the concern; which must be sacrificed if it be abandoned: and no man likes to give up for lost the time and talent and labor which he has embodied in any permanent production.”99 It is not only that the poem internally thematizes the problem of gain in its embedded narratives: the poem as a whole, as Jeffrey sensed, can be understood in terms of investments, costs, or expenses (“capital,” “labor,” and “raw material”) to be converted into some sort of “production” (such as “articles of this very fabric”) for gain.100 Furthermore, in Jeffrey’s eyes, the poem emblematizes a specific form of failure, defined by excessive input with useless output, something Wordsworth himself portrayed in “Simon Lee.” Jeffrey’s wording discloses the utilitarian formula for efficiency against which Wordsworth’s failed textual production is tacitly being measured. Jeremy Bentham articulated this formula in the form of a motto: aptitude (or, we might say, any desired outcome) maximized, expense minimized.101 And Bentham insisted that the latter caused the former:
Official aptitude maximized; expense minimized … Of these two states of things—these two mutually concomitantly desirable objects—one bears to the other the relation of cause to effect; for, that from the same arrangement from which the expense so employed will experience diminution, the aptitude in question will, in the natural order of things, receive increase: in a word, that caeteris paribus, the less the expense so bestowed as above, the greater, not the lesser, will be the aptitude.102
The utilitarian version of efficiency thus rejects, for example, the idea that more upfront investment might lead to more productivity; nor does it countenance the possibility that expenses and aptitude might interact in more complex ways (for example, that there might be a minimum baseline expense necessary below which aptitude would not increase, or that high aptitude would in the long run make up for earlier expenditure). A simplistic, penurious model, Bentham’s efficiency formula posits only that minimized input will lead to maximized output. According to Jeffrey’s analysis of The Excursion—and as many readers since him have also concluded—the poem flagrantly violates this simple formula, with (p.115) Wordsworth having invested so much time, work, words, writing, and pages into something that provides so little of worth. By this logic, he should have poured less effort into his poetic “concern,” which would have increased the gain.
But then again, we cannot forget that the Wanderer had asked about gain, spoken in the interrogative mood: “Gain shall I call it?—gain of what?—for whom?” In the Fenwick note, Wordsworth explains the background of the Miner anecdote and explains that he had heard stories of little effort followed by great gain leading to madness: “I have heard of sudden influxes of great wealth being followed by derangement & in one instance the shock of good fortune was so great as to produce absolute Idiotcy … but these all happened where there had been little or no previous effort to acquire the riches” (“Fenwick Note,” 1220; emphasis mine). In this case, the utilitarian formula for efficiency—input minimized, output maximized—leads to madness. And there is more: in the actual anecdote of the Miner in The Excursion, great expenditure of effort is followed by great wealth, but this too leads to disaster, as the Miner “proved all unable to support the weight/Of prosperous fortune” (6.247–48). It seems to matter little whether the initial effort is small or large: for Wordsworth, the problem lies with the utilitarian formula itself, the way it converts human lives into an administrative or mechanical process. Although the Pastor, in customary fashion, concludes the story with a certain kind of gain—the unconsoling consolation that the Miner has named after him, for posterity, a “Path of Perseverance” (6.264)—the narrative, as much as the scenario narrated in the Fenwick note, casts doubt on the Benthamite efficiency equation. They too seem to ask: Gain shall we call it?
We turn finally to Jeffrey’s indictment of The Excursion’s notorious lengthiness and perceived tediousness: its “profuse and irrepressible wordiness,” its “long words, long sentences,” the fact that it is “four hundred and twenty good quarto pages,” and so on.103 In Jeffrey’s famous words, “What Mr. Wordsworth’s ideas of length are, we have no means of accurately judging.” He continues: “the quarto before us contains an account of one of his youthful rambles in the vales of Cumberland, and occupies precisely the period of three days; so that, by the use of a very powerful (p.116) calculus, some estimate may be formed of the probable extent of the entire biography.”104 Yet the sprawling form of The Excursion becomes a very different phenomenon once related to bureaucratic form, as in the “certain papers called Forms” that Wordsworth himself processed as he completed the poem. Although we are accustomed to looking for, and discussing, certain things under the headings of literary form or poetic form, perhaps we are missing what is most obvious about the form of The Excursion—its sheer length. As we have seen, Wordsworth, without ever explicitly invoking bureaucracy, responds in various ways to the expectations of writing that accompany modernity, the seemingly non-negotiable imperative to present information or particulars in the most streamlined manner. It is no stretch to say that Wordsworth glimpses in bureaucratic form an early version of our world where the rule is TL;DR—internet slang for “too long; didn’t read.”105 What might be mined or quickly gained from the present discussion—can it be rendered in bullet points, an instance of bureaucratic form very familiar to us today?
• Lyrical Ballads worries about brevity, but also sometimes ignores it.
• Essays upon Epitaphs shows Wordsworth surprisingly at ease in a world of big data.
• Written communications should be as short as possible. The Excursion knows this, treats this imperative as a theme, and yet it is a very long poem.
One would like to say that such short synopses are not the whole story, and neither are they the gold, but the allure of bureaucratic form—the power of the norm—is strong too. Might we nevertheless ask: Gain shall we call it? Gain of what? For whom?
(1.) Mary Wordsworth, The Letters of Mary Wordsworth, 80. According to Mary Moorman’s indispensable biography, Wordsworth approached his distributorship with extreme meticulousness. See Moorman, William Wordsworth, 249.
(4.) While Jeffrey and others posit that “the contact of the Stamp-office” had a “bad … effect” on Wordsworth ([Jeffrey], Review of Memorials of a Tour on the Continent,” 456), this characterization is somewhat specious: for one thing, (p.194) Jeffrey had been writing politically motivated negative reviews of Wordsworth before the poet’s work with the Stamp Office. Regarding the relative neglect of Wordsworth’s other job: the biographies of Wordsworth, of course, treat the civil servant position, and Mary Moorman’s research is particularly helpful, but there has been very little criticism relating his other career to his poetry. The few exceptions to this neglect include Frey, British State Romanticism: Authorship, Agency, and Bureaucratic Nationalism, esp. the Introduction, 1–19, and Chapter 2, “Wordsworth’s Establishment Poetics,” 54–87; Manning, “Wordsworth at St. Bees: Scandals, Sisterhoods, and Wordsworth’s Later Poetry,” esp. 291; and Mark Schoenfield’s brief but valuable comments in Schoenfield, The Professional Wordsworth: Law, Labor, and the Poet’s Contract, 241, 247–48.
(5.) Although there are excellent studies on the general topic of Wordsworth and inscription—e.g., Andrew Bennett’s Wordsworth Writing—Poovey’s Genres of the Credit Economy is particularly helpful for this chapter because it relates Wordsworth’s views on writing to the broader scriptural economy, to non-literary genres. This is unlike Bennett’s aims. See Bennett, Wordsworth Writing, 10–12.
(7.) On paperwork and bureaucracy, see Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, 30–32. As James Brooke-Smith has also observed, “institutions are artefacts fashioned from media.” See Brooke-Smith, “Classification and Communication in Romantic-era Knowledge Institutions,” 240.
(9.) As Kramnick and Nersessian point out in their level-headed account, the kind of “form” examined can depend on the inquiry and sought-after explanation; there is no single, true kind of “formal” analysis. If this chapter is more interested in bureaucratic form than in the very familiar units of poetic form, that is because this chapter’s concerns—as will become evident—are standardized forms, formulas, formatting, etc., in the context of the interaction between literary and administrative genres. See Kramnick and Nersessian, “Form and Explanation.”
(10.) [Jeffrey], Review of Memorials of a Tour on the Continent, 450; “prosy” and “feeble” are also from Jeffrey’s review.
(13.) For a recent call to redress the neglect of Romantic-era administrators and bureaucrats—a proposal with which this chapter is clearly sympathetic—see Klancher, Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences, 51.
(15.) The degree to which the British administrative apparatus was a rationalized bureaucracy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is debatable. I (p.195) am presupposing a quasi-rationalization or a rationalization in process, based on Brewer’s The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783. Brewer argues that “the board and departments that were either established or revamped in the late seventeenth century were almost all marked by some features which we would describe as ‘bureaucratic’” (69); but, then again, “the administrative apparatus of eighteenth-century England” remained “a mixture of medieval and modern institutions” (70) and there persisted sinecurists, pluralists, absent officers whose work was performed by deputies, and various forms of corruption (69–75). There was, in other words, a “compromise between political clientage and administrative efficiency” (75). For slightly different accounts, with relatively stronger emphases on the perseverance of “Old Corruption” and the English ancien régime, see Rubinstein, “The End of ‘Old Corruption’ in Britain 1780–1860”; and David Roberts, “Jeremy Bentham and the Victorian Administrative State.” That Wordsworth seems to have strictly separated his distributorship from his poetic career, and that he was so conscientious about his tax collecting work, might be due to his seeking to distinguish his work from the pluralism that was a symptomatic practice of “Old Corruption.” See, e.g., Rubinstein, “The End of ‘Old Corruption,’” 57.
(17.) Brewer, The Sinews of Power, xvi; also see Higgs, The Information State in England, 31. For a useful work on some of the issues discussed in this chapter—Wordsworth and the “information state”—but reaching different conclusions, see Garrett, Wordsworth and the Writing of the Nation, esp. chapters 1 and 2.
(21.) On Wordsworth’s licensing responsibilities, see Moorman, William Wordsworth, 245n1. He was assisted throughout in the accounting work by a clerk whom he hired, John Carter, who also acted during the forty years he worked for the Wordsworth family as gardener, transcriber (including of The Prelude), and teacher to the Wordsworth children (Moorman, 245). Wordsworth scholarship awaits a richer biographical account of Carter, a support staff member who facilitated Wordsworth’s poetic and bureaucratic work as well as the Wordsworth family’s everyday life.
(22.) See Dowell, A History of Taxation and Taxes in England, 285–86; Dagnall, Creating a Good Impression: Three Hundred Years of The Stamp Office and Stamp Duties, 1, 11; and Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 228. This and all subsequent quotations from The Excursion are from Wordsworth, The Excursion, edited by Bushell, Butler, and Jaye, and are cited parenthetically in the text by book and line number(s). Quotations from the dedicatory sonnet (“To the Right (p.196) Honorable … ”) are cited by line number; quotations from the “Preface to The Excursion” and its “Summary of Contents” are cited by page number.
(28.) Wordsworth, The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 4, 56. Because distributors like Wordsworth earned a percentage of the sales (Moorman, William Wordsworth, 246) rather than earning a salary, there is some ambiguity about the extent to which Wordsworth can be considered a bureaucrat in the modern sense. Dagnall, for example, considers distributors as working for, but not employed by, the Stamp Office, because they were not technically full-time workers and they were paid on a poundage basis. See Dagnall, Creating a Good Impression, 11, 95. Nonetheless this chapter adopts a view closer to Higgs’s in The Information State in England, which demonstrates that the state in this epoch was both centralized and decentralized insofar as the tax-collecting and information-gathering operations of the state included a variety of groups, particularly at the local level—e.g., distributors. See also Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History, 98–99; and Frey, British State Romanticism, 55.
(29.) Wordsworth’s bond of office confirms that he did indeed grant licenses to different kinds of vendors, to “Pawnbrokers, Appraisers, Dealers in Thread, Lace, medicines, persons letting to hire Stage Coaches, Diligences,” and that he collected duties on “Race Horses [and] Gold and Silver Plate” among other articles (qtd. in Moorman, William Wordsworth, 245n1).
(32.) This tax was originally inspired by an allusion in Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) to an ancient Roman tax on hereditaments. England’s then Prime Minister, Lord North, introduced the legacy duty in 1780, and it was expanded in 1796 and subsequent years by North’s successor, William Pitt. See Dowell, A History of Taxation, 133–35.
(33.) Gill, William Wordsworth, 83–84; See also Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History, 335. Given the significance of legacies for Wordsworth, one might wish to analogize legacies and literary versions of “inheritance”—the national literary canon (e.g., the “legacies” of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton) or the deferred (p.197) appreciation by a future reading public (a poetic “legacy” for later readers)—both matters of deep concern for Wordsworth, of course, and notable topoi across Romantic literature. Yet the “certain papers called Forms” that Wordsworth processed raise a different question than that of the broad theme of legacies as it appears in Wordsworth’s writing, a question more to do with how certain norms of written communication, most starkly exemplified by standardized forms, are met with subtle accommodations and counteractions in his literary writing.
(34.) This Act is Statute 36 Geo. III., c.52. The legacy duty, although in place since 1780, was easily evaded, either deliberately or through ignorance (one could simply not report the bequest), hence the 1796 Act’s provisions. See Lovelass, An Abstract of, and Observations on, the Statutes Imposing Stamp Duty [ … ], 10. Before 1796, the legacy duty was a stamp tax only on the paper form, so if no form was completed, no tax was collected; after 1796, the tax was placed on the personal property of the deceased. See also Hanson, The Acts Relating to Probate, Legacy, and Succession Duties [ … ], 10–11. After 1802, the Stamp Office sought to remedy the problem of tax evasion by having ecclesiastical registers (which recorded information on wills and administrators) transmitted to them (Hanson, 61–62).
(35.) Moorman, William Wordsworth, 247. Wordsworth also purchased government annuities hinging on the lives of the elderly (i.e., the ages to which they lived); these investments are described in Mitchell and Mitchell, “Wordsworth and the Old Men,” 31–52.
(47.) In her rousing recent work Forms, Caroline Levine also sets out from the historical fact that “form has never belonged only to the discourse of aesthetics” (2). Yet where Levine calls for an equivalence—a removal of distinctions—between (p.198) sociopolitical forms and literary forms, I find it is important to maintain them in in the context of my discussion. It is only by observing the differences between, and the specificities of, social forms (e.g., the arrangements of bodies or spaces) and literary forms (e.g., the arrangements of sounds, words, poetic lines, etc.) that one can observe shadowing forth between the two, and mediating between them, sets of practices in writing—one important set is what I am calling bureaucratic form. Occupying this mediating position, bureaucratic form, in one direction, has an organizing effect on social form: it is well known that social forms assume and maintain the orderings they do because of bureaucratic form and its orderings, classifications, and standards. One might invoke any number of works in connection with this well-established idea, but among them, I would point to Geoffrey Bowker’s and Susan Leigh Star’s indispensable Sorting Things Out and Scott’s aforementioned Seeing Like a State. In Scott’s words, “the state, of all institutions, is best equipped to insist on treating people according to its schemata, [and] categories that may have begun as … artificial inventions … can end by becoming categories that organize people’s daily experience precisely because they are embedded in state-created institutions that structure that experience” (82–83). That is, social forms are registered—i.e., inscribed and officially filed—and reproduced by bureaucratic form, which finds instantiations in various kinds of identifying documents (e.g., birth certificates, passports) and administrative genres (e.g., the forms one fills out when visiting a doctor’s office or when filing one’s taxes). As for the effects of bureaucratic form in the other direction, on literary form, that is the substance of this chapter’s readings of Wordsworth’s literary writings. See also Kramnick and Nersessian, “Form and Explanation.”
(50.) Johnson, s.v. “form”
(51.) Johnson, s.v., “formulary”; OED, s.v., “formulary,” quotes Johnson (emphasis mine).
(53.) Sinclair, The Statistical Account of Scotland, viii (emphasis mine). On Wordsworth and Sinclair, see Glen, “‘We Are Seven’ in the 1790s.”
(54.) Sinclair, viii–x. Nevertheless, as Mark Salber Phillips has recently stressed, against Sinclair’s utilitarian, scientific, information-centric approach, the responses he got back from parish clergy—and what he ended up publishing—created a portrait of “disorderly abundance.” See Phillips, On Historical Distance, 113.
(55.) The historian of technical writing, Elizabeth Tebeaux, has argued that early medieval estate accounting manuscripts (ca. 1200), as well as early Exchequer accounts show deliberate strategies of visual-spatial design for the purposes (p.199) of ease of use (in a time of very uneven literacy) and standardization, prior even to the early modern commercial practice of double-entry bookkeeping. See Tebeaux, “Visual Texts: Format and the Evolution of English Accounting Texts, 1100–1700.”
(56.) I rely on a helpful series of essays written by members of the Designing Information for Everyday Life, 1815–1914, project at the University of Reading: namely, Paul Stiff, Paul Dobraszczyk, and Mike Esbester.
(57.) See Esbester, “Taxing Design? Design and Readers in British Tax Forms before 1914,” 88. See also Dobraszczyk, “‘Give in Your Account’: Using and Abusing Victorian Census Forms”; and Stiff, Dobraszczyk, and Esbester, “Designing and Gathering Information: Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Forms,” esp. 65. Aside from my reservation about this group’s understanding of forms as facilitating “dialogue”—many forms are not read at all and only filed away for potential later relevance, and many forms seem designed to prevent anything like real “dialogue,” since only one side is demanding only certain particulars—I have learned much from the research done by the Designing Information for Everyday Life, 1815–1914, project.
(58.) See also Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” 127–28. Guillory observes that modern informational genres like the memo, report, form, etc., depend on graphical arrangement: these written bureaucratic genres do away with classical rhetorical strategies of verbally conveying arrangement and hierarchy in favor of manipulating “the spatial organization of the page” and drawing attention to the structure of the information to be communicated by using headings, indentations, bullet points, and the like.
(62.) OED, s.v. “form.” A useful account by the business historian JoAnne Yates tracks the rise of internal forms in the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American corporation (see Yates, Control through Communication, 80–85), but the point here is that Wordsworth and his moment’s British fiscal-bureaucracy saw a similar rise.
(63.) See also Mitchell and Mitchell, “Wordsworth and the Old Men,” 34, where Wordsworth is, in 1831, referring again to blank forms, this time for the collection of data for an annuities scheme with which he was involved.
(69.) All quotations of poems from Lyrical Ballads are from Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, edited by Brett and Jones, and are cited parenthetically in the text by line number(s). Quotations from the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads and “Note on ‘The Thorn’” are also from this edition, and are cited by page number.
(70.) See the introduction to this volume for a discussion of “sauntering” as a type of inattentive reader.
(73.) For an interesting thesis that relates poetic concision to the supply and cost of paper during the Romantic period, see Erickson, The Economy of Literary Form: English Literature and the Industrialization of Publishing, 19–27. My account may be compatible with Erickson’s, although it should be apparent that I am suggesting that brevity in poetry involves several other factors (the New Rhetoric, the consideration of brevitas, bureaucratic form, etc.).
(76.) Wordsworth, Essays, 57. This and subsequent quotations from the three essays are from Essays upon Epitaphs, in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. 2, edited by Owen and Smyser, and are cited parenthetically in the text as Essays followed by page number. I refer to all three essays together as Essays—although the second and third essays were not published until 1876—acknowledging their thematic continuity and the fact that Wordsworth wrote all three essays in a short time frame. See Owen and Smyser, “Introduction: General” [to Essays upon Epitaphs], 45–47.
(78.) There is also consideration in legal discourse during this era about the relation between documentary writing on paper and writing on stone and other media, in the context of the relative durabilities of different media and the potential for tampering with writing on them. For example, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769), William Blackstone notes: “The deed must be written, or I presume printed; for it may be in any character or any language; but it must be upon paper, or parchment. For if it be written on stone, board, linen, leather, or (p.201) the like, it is no deed. Wood or stone may be more durable, and linen less liable to [e]rasures; but writing on paper or parchment unites in itself, more perfectly than any other way, both those desirable qualities: for there is nothing else so durable, and at the same time so little liable to alteration; nothing so secure from alteration, that is at the same time so durable” (Blackstone, Commentaries, 2:297).
(80.) Nissel, People Count: A History of the General Register Office, 2. Beginning with a 1538 injunction by Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, parochial clergymen were required to record baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Mandated by the state but in practice carried out at the local ecclesiastical level, the registers did not amount to an entirely reliable record of the three particulars they recorded, for reasons ranging from the fact that they did not include information about those who did not belong to the Established Church to the problem of furtive marriages and spotty recordkeeping. From the inception of parish registers, then, various arguments were raised against them. And in 1597 it was mandated that parishes send transcripts of their registers to a diocesan registrar, where information from many parishes was combined in order to be more useful as a larger data set and to ensure that the diocese held a duplicate of local registers in case of fire, floods, or mice. In the later eighteenth century there was a further push toward a national, centralized state registry, which was finally established by law in 1837. See Nissel, 6–11.
(83.) See Ferguson, Pornography, 18. For a similar line of thinking, see Robert Mitchell, “Biopolitics and Population Aesthetics,” which emphasizes how the biopolitical concept of “population” depends on individual idiosyncrasies as much as general statistical similarities.
(87.) On the Wordsworth family’s multi-generational ties to the Lowthers, see Manning, “Wordsworth at St. Bees.” As Manning urges us to remember, “Wordsworth’s revolutionary ardors … [are] an aberration from a pattern of family service to the Lowthers” (291).
(101.) Bentham, Official Aptitude Maximized, Expense Minimized, 6. Bentham’s comment is in the context of his Constitutional Code, and its project of making governments more efficient. But the motto can be applied to the Benthamic notion of efficiency in general. It is also of interest that Bentham is credited with coining the very terms maximize and minimize.
(105.) OED, s.v. ”tl;dr.”: “colloq. (orig. and chiefly in electronic communications) (a) int. ‘too long; didn’t read’ (also occasionally ‘don’t read’); used as a dismissive response to an account, narrative, etc., considered excessively or unnecessarily long, or to introduce a summary of a longer piece of text; (b) adj. designating a short summary of a longer text.”