115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Tyranny of Sight in Wordsworth's Prelude

Kathleen Lundeen, Western Washington University

In The Prelude, William Wordsworth indicts “the bodily eye” as “the most despotic” sense. Notwithstanding, as he demonstrates, art and literature often mediate and mitigate the impact of brutal events. The complicated nature of seeing, however, in which physical sight competes with metaphysical vision, can subvert the moral witnessing of crises.


Toward the close of Book V of The Prelude, William Wordsworth describes a scene in which people seek a drowned body in a lake: “At last, the dead man, ‘mid that beauteous scene / Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright / Rose, with his ghastly face, a spectre shape / Of terror.” Though only nine years old at the time, he recalls:

          . . . no soul-debasing fear, . . .

          Possessed me, for my inner eye had seen

          Such sights before, among the shining streams

          Of faery land, the forest of romance.

 He goes on to describe how his literary adventures mitigated the sight of the corpse:

          Their spirit hallowed the sad spectacle

          With decoration of ideal grace;

          A dignity, a smoothness, like the works

          Of Grecian art, and purest poesy.

Though literature and art sometimes soften the harshness of actual tragedy for Wordsworth, they also, at times, create such a heightened response in him, the actual place or event has no enduring impact on him. A couple of years after the storming of the Bastille, Wordsworth wanders around the ruins of the prison: “from the rubbish [I] gathered up a stone, / And pocketed the relic, in the guise / Of an enthusiast.” Though the reader might expect that standing in the rubble of that brutal institution would have a strong visceral impact on him, Wordsworth confesses, “in honest truth, / I looked for something that I could not find, / Affecting more emotion that I felt.” He then admits:

          ‘tis most certain, that these various sights,

          However potent their first shock, with me

          Appeared to recompense the traveller’s pains

          Less than the painted Magdalene of Le Brun,

          A beauty exquisitely wrought, with hair

          Dishevelled, gleaming eyes, and rueful cheek

          Pale and bedropped with everflowing tears.

In 1790, Helen Maria Williams published her first volume of literary letters from France, which describe atrocities of the monarchy, including the torture chambers in the Bastille. Wordsworth, who in 1787 wrote a tribute to Williams in the form of a sonnet, was, no doubt, deeply affected by her literary representations of France, to the point that the actual Bastille had no emotional impact on him. Though the quintessential site of the Revolution failed to move Wordsworth, art (in this instance, painting) continued to elicit a strong response from him.

            Notwithstanding the visual density of the epic, toward the end of the poem Wordsworth describes “the bodily eye” as “the most despotic of our senses” and admits that at one time, it “gained / Such strength in me as often held my mind / In absolute dominion.” When he encounters a blind beggar in London, he romanticizes his condition, seeing the blind man as free of the tyranny of sight. Throughout the poem, however, Wordsworth reveals how the imagination, fired up by literature, supersedes the optical mechanism in forming images of the world. He further shows how the complicated nature of seeing, in which physical sight competes with metaphysical vision, can subvert the moral witnessing of crises.