Wordsworth on Capitalism: Powerlessness

Wordsworth on Capitalism: Powerlessness

By Pan Jiayi

When people think of William Wordsworth, a figure with a deep love of nature and hatred of capitalism would normally appear in their minds. This impression mostly comes from his literary works. For example, in “The World Is Too Much with Us,” he composes delicate lines to demonstrate the beauty of the “[s]ea”, “the moon” and “[t]he winds,” showing his affection to nature. He also criticizes capitalism that “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” (“The World” 5, 6, 11). Hence, it is surprising to find that, in real life, this poet actually gets much profit and sustains his life through “providential junctures, capitalist investments, and usury” (Jones 40). He is a poet who, on the one hand, expresses his opposition towards capitalism and industrialization in his poems, but also, on the other hand, engages a lot in commercial activities in reality. Wordsworth’s acts towards capitalism seem contradictory and confusing from the previous two examples. Therefore, a scholar, Mark Jones, makes an argument that Wordsworth is “hypocri[tical]” (56). Though it sounds too mean, it also opens a new question, namely, why he has these confusing acts? In this paper, we will argue that these acts are derived from his powerlessness to resist the capitalist society instead of being “hypocri[tical]” as Jones has argued (56). Moreover, we will use Marx’s various theories to closely analyze Wordsworth’s two poems, “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” and “The World Is Too Much with Us” to answer why he has these confusing acts. In detail, these theories include Marx’s theory of how capitalism overwhelmingly controls people and has harmful phycological effects on them and Marx’s historical materialism.
To analyze Wordsworth’s powerlessness more systematically, we use Benjamin P Myers’s theory of financial sublime to break down the powerlessness into three components. Myers’s theory of financial sublime derives from Kant’s theory of dynamical sublime, that when faced with overwhelming things, though one knows it is futile, he still makes efforts to resist it (85). Myers calls Wordsworth’s powerlessness the financial sublime because the overwhelming thing is the capitalist society. Three major components build up a financial sublime: the capitalist society is overwhelming to him, his resistance to that society, and the futile result.
Below, we will argue that Wordsworth’s confusing acts are signs that he experiences a financial sublime. The evidence we have given in the first paragraph matches the second and last components of his financial sublime. His poems express his opposition towards capitalism and industrialization, suggesting his resistance towards the capitalist society. Moreover, the various commercial activities are clear signs of his engagement with the capitalist society, which reveals that his resistance is futile. Finally, we will argue that the capitalist society is overwhelming to him to address the first component. The evidence that the quality of Wordsworth’s writing is profoundly affected by his financial status can strongly support this argument. The climax of Wordsworth’s writing career was when he was undergoing finical problems. During these days, he lived in the Dove Cottage, where he was away from capitalism and industrialization and close to nature. Later, when his financial status was improved, he moved out of the Dove Cottage. Accordingly, the quality of his poems began to go down (Worthen). It suggests that his spiritual world was dependent on the outer society and he was under the control of the financial condition. In other words, the capitalist society is overwhelming to him.
From the discussion above, we can then view Wordsworth’s confusing acts between his opposition towards capitalism and his engagement with the capitalist society as signs that he experiences a financial sublime. Therefore, we can use Marx’s theories to study what causes that financial sublime through a close analysis of Wordsworth’s two poems and answer the given question of why he has these confusing acts. We will organize our analysis into three parts: why the capitalist society is overwhelming, what causes his resistance, and why his resistance is futile.
Firstly, Wordsworth’s experience that the capitalist society is overwhelming to him matches Marx’s theory that people in a capitalist society are not free but under control of it. The title of “The World Is Too Much with Us” describes an unbalanced relationship between the society and humans. “The [w]orld” that Wordsworth referred to is specifically the world in the early nineteenth century when Britain was in its first industrial revolution, which helped the growth of capitalist activities. This title expresses Wordsworth’s feeling that “[t]he [capitalist] world” is “too much” and comparably we, “us,” are too small, demonstrating the overwhelming position of the capitalist society. From Marx’s theory, this overwhelming position is established because people are under the control of the capitalist process. Marx argues that in a developed capitalist society, labour is reduced to only a commodity, an attachment to the machines, and therefore loses its control over the whole production process. The rest of the people, the capitalists, are under the control of the inhuman market and are therefore also not free (West 4). This unbalanced relationship between the capitalist society and people in that society is just another way to say that the capitalist society is overwhelming to these people.
Secondly, Wordsworth’s resistance to capitalism can be well explained by Marx’s theory of how capitalism harms people psychologically. One will only resist something if it is harmful. For Wordsworth, his resistance results from the harmful psychological effects of the capitalist society. Loneliness is a significant harm that Wordsworth experiences. Just in his two short sonnets, the words associated with his loneliness have been repeated for four times. “[F]orlorn,” “lonely,” and “solitude” are direct evidence that he feels lonely (“The World” 12; “I Wandered” 1, 22). The “company” he gets from the daffodils also implicitly suggests his status of not being in a company before (“I Wandered” 16). Marx’s theory can well explain Wordsworth’s loneliness. In “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” Wordsworth relieves himself from the loneliness by reminding himself of his experience of engaging with nature, calling this experience “the bliss of solitude” (22). It suggests that the absence of nature in the capitalist society is what causes his loneliness. Marx has explicitly argued about it, that “nature is taken from him” for anyone in a capitalist society. From Marx’s point of view, it is because of the society unnaturally centering around the production process (Estranged Labour). We should also notice that these two poems were composed when he was in the dove cottage, as we said before, it is close to nature and far from capitalist activities. Nevertheless, he still experienced severe loneliness. It, on the other side, suggests how overwhelming that capitalist society is, so that it can profoundly affect someone, even if he is comparably far from that society.
In the previous discussion, we have only viewed Wordsworth’s loneliness as a personal feeling. However, by considering K. D. M. Snell’s study that people are significantly lonelier in a capitalist society, we can free ourselves from restricting Wordsworth’s loneliness only as a personal feeling but also as an instance of a social phenomenon. Therefore, we can apply Marx’s theory of how capitalism makes people feel lonely on the society level to study what makes Wordsworth lonely. In Snell’s study, to overcome the lack of data on the assessment of loneliness in the early centuries, he uses statistics to prove the strong correlation between living alone and feeling lonely. After that, Snell uses the solitude rate to estimate how much percentage of people are feeling lonely. He uses various data to explore the number and distribution of people who are living alone from 1564, a pre-industrial time, to now. The statistics demonstrate that through time, the solitude rate has increased incredibly 12 times. Therefore, he leads us to the conclusion that people are lonelier after the industrialization and the development of capitalism (2-17). Some would argue that this conclusion is not very convincing. Because he uses solitude rate to estimate the loneliness that people feel, and this estimation overlooks other factors that affect the solitude rate. For example, through the development of industrialization, many workers will leave home and live alone somewhere near the factory. This example is another way how industrialization and the development of capitalism can significantly increase the solitude rate. However, this technique of relating solitude with loneliness seems a proper way to overcome the lack of data on the assessment of loneliness. Moreover, he uses the solitude rate to estimate people’s loneliness and only shows a trend that people are lonelier than before but not numerically analyzes it and equals the two. Therefore, due to the strong correlation between living alone and feeling lonely, it is not quite possible that as the solitude rate grows for 12 times, people are feeling less lonely. Hence, the conclusion that people are lonelier after the industrialization and the development of capitalism is convincing, and we are still able to view Wordsworth’s loneliness as an instance of a social phenomenon.
We can then use Marx’s theory of how capitalism has harmful psychological effects on humans to analyze the loneliness that Wordsworth experienced on the society level. Marx argues that “only in association with others has each individual the means of cultivating his talent in all directions” (Capital 63-64). This argument directly points out that the lack of association, or in other words, loneliness, harms people, which is precisely what Wordsworth experienced. From Marx’s point of view, the overwhelming position of capitalist activities is unnatural and causes people estranged from “the species life”. By estranged from “the species life”, Marx means that the capitalist production process makes people unable to make choices, live lives that contradict with their inborn nature, and eventually making them merely animals (Marx, “Estranged Labour”). This estrangement is the general form of Wordsworth’s experience of loneliness.
When considering how he resists capitalism, we can find that Wordsworth’s resistance is mainly represented in his refusal to work in the capitalist society but not in his refusal to engage in capitalist activities. Through Wordsworth’s life, he earned money by running his capitals and writing poems, but never by being a worker (Jones). Some would criticize that maybe it is because Wordsworth can’t earn much from working but not because he refuses to work. However, Wordsworth chose to drop out of Cambridge, even though he knew that once he graduated, he would be in the church and earn a lot (Worthen 28, 65-66). This evidence strongly fought back that critic. Through his poems, we also see that Wordsworth is described as a leisure figure who “wandered lonely,” lay on his “couch” and “st[ood] on this pleasant lea,” having sights of natural scenery, but never a figure who works (“I Wandered” 1, 19; “The World” 11). From the evidence that he gave up that well-paid job and chose to live poorly for a long time, we can see that Wordsworth understood how labour can be estranged by capitalism, which is in accordance with Marx’s theory of how capitalism estranges labour as mentioned before. However, Wordsworth never refused to engage in commercial activities. On the contrary, he made various investments: “providential junctures, capitalist investments, and usury” (Jones 40). Nevertheless, as mentioned before, Marx has also argued that capitalists are also estranged by capitalism. Though Wordsworth explicitly wrote “[g]etting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” suggesting that through various capitalist activities, people lose their energy for nothingness. However, in Wordsworth’s real life, he still made various “getting and spending,” and the significantly decreased quality of his poems suggests that he did “waste [his] powers” and “give[s] [his] hear[t] away” (“The World” 2, 4).
Finally, while he made efforts to resist capitalism, his resistance to capitalism is futile. While Wordsworth claims that “I’d rather be/A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” to enjoy nature and escape capitalism, in real life, he did not do so (“The World” 9-10). He was enjoying natural scenery but never once successfully escaped from the capitalist society and capitalism. Even when he was living in the Dove Cottage, the tight budget was reminding him of his financial difficulty all the time. When he was having a conversation with his friends to discuss literature, he and his sister would have to say, “[i]f you like to have a cup of tea with us, you are very welcome; but . . . you must pay for your board” (qtd. in Worthen 209). Also, from his “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” we can find signs of his engagement in the capitalist society. This poem represents Wordsworth’s experience of wandering in nature, seeing beautiful daffodils, and later when in solitude, getting relief from that memory (“I Wandered” 1-14). However, in this poem, Wordsworth uses “wealth” to describe the experience of seeing daffodils (“I Wandered” 18). It is a term highly associated with capitalist activities. The usage of this word suggests that Wordsworth still has a connection with the capitalist society and accepts using the specific word which is highly related to that society. Also, the “couch” he lay upon was made as a commodity in the capitalist society and was owned by Wordsworth because he paid to rent the house and the furniture (Worthen 240). His ownership of the “couch” is also associated with capitalism.
From Marx’s historical materialism, the futile result is easy to understand. This theory emphasizes that we can only follow the trend of history but will never succeed if we are against it. Marx argues that the changing of the type of society, from feudalism to capitalism, is inevitable because a revolution has to happen when the dominant form begins to limit its development. He continues to argue that the development of capitalism also creates its enemy, socialism, and for the same reason, it will inevitably replace capitalism (Marx, Manifesto 1-8). As we can see, Marx’s response to the harms of the capitalist society is on the opposite side of Wordsworth’s. While Wordsworth wants to go back to nature, Marx wants to replace it with socialism through the development of society. While Wordsworth wrote that the natural beauties “[a]re up-gathered now like sleeping flowers” (“The World” 7), suggesting that natural way of living still has the potential to wake up, Marx argues the inevitability of the historical process, pointing out that we will only fail by going back against that process (Marx, Manifesto 6).
From the discussion above, we prove that Wordsworth’s confusing acts between his opposition towards capitalism and his engagement in commercial activities can be viewed as a financial sublime, in that, though he does oppose capitalism, due to the capitalist society being too overwhelming to him, his efforts to resist it are futile. We have also used various theories of Marx to study what causes the overwhelming position of capitalism towards people, why Wordsworth resists capitalism, and why his resistance is futile. Through this process, it is clear that Wordsworth is not “hypocri[tical]” as Jones suggested but is just powerless and fails to fight against the overwhelming capitalist society (56).

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