Title: Speaker as Questioner in Lyrical Ballads, 1798 Author(s)

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Speaker as Questioner in Lyrical Ballads, 1798


Susan J. Wolfson

Publication Details:

Critical Essays on William Wordsworth. Ed. George H. Gilpin. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990. p23-51.


Poetry Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 67. Detroit: Gale, 2006. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type:

Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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[(essay date 1986) In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Wolfson examines the poetic technique of question and response in the Lyrical Ballads.]

"the fluxes and refluxes of the mind"
That many of the poems in Lyrical Ballads turn upon exchanges of question and response is nothing extraordinary in view of social custom and literary tradition. Wordsworth tunes such exchanges to a variety of purposes. Following the convention of pastoral dialogue, he may use a question to provoke a debate: "Why William, sit you thus alone, / "And dream your time away?" ("Expostulation and Reply"). Or as in the convention of the ballad, his speaker may begin with a query designed to arouse our interest:
--Why bustle thus about your door,

What means this bustle, Betty Foy?

Why are you in this mighty fret?

And why on horseback have you set

Him whom you love, your idiot boy?

("The Idiot Boy")

Sometimes he uses a question to engage our sympathy:
Now, when the frost was past enduring,

And made her poor old bones to ache,

Could any thing be more alluring,

Than an old hedge to Goody Blake?

("Goody Blake, and Harry Gill")
At other times, a question produces an expansive lyric: "My friend / "What ails you? wherefore weep you so?" ("The Last of the Flock"). A speaker may exploit interrogative syntax to make a point--"Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks, / Why all this toil and trouble?" ("The Tables Turned")--or to convey an agitated state of feeling--"For ever left alone am I, / Then wherefore should I fear to die?" ("The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman"). Except for this last case, in which fact and feeling resist reconciliation, sooner or later an answer satisfies. We find out why Betty Foy frets, what this bustle means, what Johnny's mission is, why the friends weep so.

Yet if in these poems Wordsworth uses questions and responses in fairly conventional ways, he does so as part of an unconventional poetic program. Their speakers are not the invisible or purely perfunctory rehearsers of traditional ballads but agents of "feeling" that "gives importance," Wordsworth says, to the poetic "action and situation" (LB [Lyrical Ballads] 248). Indeed, in certain poems we see him locating "action and situation" in the play of voice itself. In "Old Man Travelling," for instance, the speaker describes a figure of such "mild composure," that "patience now doth seem a thing, of which / He hath no need." Yet when the speaker "asked him whither he was bound, and what / The object of his journey," the Old Man's reply that he is "going many miles to take / "A last leave" of his son, who is dying of battle wounds in a hospital far away, at once belies the "perfect" peace his questioner may have hoped to understand. In the 1800 version Wordsworth substitutes indirect discourse for the original dialogue, with the effect of diminishing the rhetorical impact of the interview, and in the Poems of 1815 he drops the interview altogether, replacing it with a much less troubled fourteen-line, sonnet-like Sketch titled "Animal Tranquility and Decay" (the subtitle of 1798). Although such revisions reflect Wordsworth's later movement away from interrogative drama, what is compelling about the 1798 poem is the way its entire action and situation are contained in an exchange of question and answer--an exchange, moreover, that confronts the speaker with his error of interpretation. In other poems in this volume, Wordsworth uses the interrogative mode to advance these dramas of interpretation into a confrontation with mystery. These are occasions when no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, the response often eluding the terms in which the question has been posed. Consider, for instance, the questions that interrupt the narrator of "The Thorn":

"But what's the thorn? and what's the pond?

"And what's the hill of moss to her?

"And what's the creeping breeze that comes

"The little pond to stir?"

Despite their insistence, these petitions fail to clarify the report that provoked them: "I cannot tell; I wish I could; / For the true reason no one knows." Similarly, when Johnny, the Idiot Boy, is asked to tell "Where all this long night you have been, / "What you have heard, what you have seen," his answer fits the questions in syntax only: "The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, / "And the sun did shine so cold." As in "The Thorn," an innocent appeal for information produces an unexpectedly enigmatic reply. When such questions and answers fail to link, when there seems to be no common frame of reference, our attention is drawn to the presence of a mystery beyond the reach of simple interrogation.

The 1798 volume shows Wordsworth's interest in probing these situations from a variety of angles, his willingness to entertain a troubling question or uncertain answer varying with the degree of apparent personal implication. In "We are seven" and "Anecdote for Fathers," Wordsworth stages dialogues featuring distinct dramatic characters--an adult questioner and a contrary child--whose difference gives each poem its rhetorical force. In "The Thorn" he presents a single narrator who is less a character than a voice, and who engages not another character but a second disembodied voice by which he is relentlessly questioned. Yet the fact that there is less opposition than repetition in this dialogue places both questioner and narrator under a common burden of mystery that no answer can lighten completely. The most complex interrogative texture in the 1798 volume is that of its concluding poem, "Tintern Abbey," where, in propria persona, Wordsworth asks no questions. The poem carries an interrogative charge nonetheless in several of its most crucial utterances, and the verse throughout seems constrained by unvoiced concerns--with the effect of making the poem's reader a sympathetic but skeptical questioner of the poem's speaker. Here especially, and implicitly throughout Lyrical Ballads, the play of questions voiced or resisted and answers proffered or denied requires the reader to participate in the rhetorical drama of the occasion.

Adult Questioners, Child Respondents
The adult questioners in "We are seven," "Anecdote for Fathers," and "The Idiot Boy" attempt to impose logic on children who live under different, often "silent laws." "We are seven," in fact, opens with a question that seems no question at all, but rather an invitation to share the speaker's bemused condescension:
A simple child, dear brother Jim,

That lightly draws its breath,

And feels its life in every limb,

What should it know of death?

"Nothing" is the implied answer to a question whose tone blends marvel and annoyance. The occasion is a telling interview with an eight-year-old cottage girl:
"Sisters and brothers, little maid,

"How many may you be?"

"How many? seven in all," she said,

And wondering looked at me.

The question seems simple enough and so does the reply. Yet the Maid's wondering poses a kind of baffled counterquestion--a signal of the gap that opens between the two when the speaker persists. "And where are they, I pray you tell?" and she replies:
"... two of us at Conway dwell,

"And two are gone to sea.

"Two of us in the church-yard lie,

"My sister and my brother,

"And in the church-yard cottage, I

"Dwell near them with my mother."

The adult perceives death as division and subtraction; the Maid sees it as (at worst) displacement, as her syntax demonstrates: "in Heaven" seems no different from "at Conway" or "to sea." The Maid's claim that "we are seven" may be quite adequate to her experience, for the graves of her brother and sister offer more visible companionship ("they may be seen") than do her living but absent siblings:
"My stockings there I often knit,

"My 'kerchief there I hem;

"And there upon the ground I sit--

"I sit and sing to them."

But as his previous rhyme of "alive" with "five" may indicate, the adult resists the child's addition. He repeats his question, this time posing it as a testy test of logic: "How many are you then," said I, / "If they two are in Heaven?" The should of his opening question ("What should it know of death?") has by this point gained a resonance of moral obligation.

The Maid will not let herself be lessoned (and lessened) so, however, and persists with her refrain: "O Master! we are seven." Abandoning all questions to insist, "But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!" the adult regards the child's tenacity as perverse willfulness: "'Twas throwing words away; for still / The little Maid would have her will." His own tenacity at last provokes denial instead of mere reiteration: "Nay, we are seven!" The poem ends there. The adult can neither persuade nor bully the little girl with his logic; nor can her simplicity prevail. This standoff is again mirrored in Wordsworth's rhymes. The adult's final cry that a sister and a brother "are in Heaven!" is countered by the Maid's insistence that "we are seven!" And completely isolated from the ballad's rhyme scheme, as an odd fifth line in a poem of four-line stanzas, is the adult's final protest--"But they are dead; those two are dead!"--in which the word dead knocks against itself in a singular internal rhyme. These oppositions include the reader, for in the face of two orders of knowledge that are self-enclosed and irreconcilable, Wordsworth allows us no easy alignment. However "right" the adult may be, he is overbearing and humorless. Even so, the denial of death by a child who "feels its life in every limb" is something the most forgiving of adult readers knows is doomed to revision as she matures.1 Moreover, without the relentless literalism of her opponent, the Maid's simple wit might cloy. Instead of making this conversation a mere occasion to endorse or reject childish sentiment, Wordsworth deftly exploits the gap between question and reply to provoke his reader to wonder at the mysteries of a child's sensibility and its complete insulation from one kind of adult intelligence.2

In "Anecdote for Fathers" Wordsworth again uses a conversation of question and reply to contrast the mysteries of a child's logic with the constraints of adult reason. While walking with his son at Liswyn farm, the adult is (once again) preoccupied with absences and presences. As he remembers the "former pleasures" of Kilve, their "pleasant home ... A long, long year before," he entertains some fond regrets about their present home and decides to enlist his son's opinion. "My little boy, which like you more ...
"And tell me, had you rather be,"

I said and held him by the arm,

"At Kilve's smooth shore by the green sea,

"Or here at Liswyn farm?"

Despite the avowed idleness of his inquiry, the father has his son "by the arm"--unwilling, it seems, to let go until he gets an answer. The son, perhaps discerning a preference for smooth shores and green seas and still feeling his father's hold on his arm, replies cooperatively, "At Kilve I'd rather be / "Than here at Liswyn farm." Not satisfied with mere indication, however, the father insists, "Now, little Edward, say why so; / My little Edward, tell me why; ... There surely must some reason be." Obsessed with weighing, comparing, and analyzing the moods of his own mind, the father wants his son to do likewise, "To think, and think, and think again." But Edward's moods do not naturally yield to such negotiations; they are immediate and unified. He runs happily along, or, upset, he blushes and hangs his head. To the rush of whys, he responds the same way the confused narrator of "The Thorn" does: "I cannot tell, I do not know." Edward's evasion of the cause-and-consequence demands of his father's question invites only further harassment. "And five times did I say to him, / 'Why? Edward, tell me why?'" he persists, almost becoming Harry Gill to Edward's Goody Blake ("And fiercely by the arm he took her, / And by the arm he held her fast, / And fiercely by the arm he shook her" [89-91]). Edward succumbs: "At Kilve there was no weather-cock, / "And that's the reason why." On the surface this answer seems no reason at all, but it may betray a deeper emotional logic in its preference for something absent. At Kilve there was also no inquisition to plague a "careless mood"--a good enough reason for him to say he'd rather be there than here. The father, at least, understands this reason is no more than a convenience. In later versions of the poem, Wordsworth has him note that his son "eased his mind with this reply," and in all editions the adult concludes the "Anecdote" by claiming to have learned a lesson:
O dearest, dearest boy! my heart

For better lore would seldom yearn,

Could I but teach the hundredth part

Of what from thee I learn.

However tempting it is to credit such adult notices with humble acknowledgment of error, it is difficult to give an exact measure to the anecdote. What has the speaker really learned, and what fraction of lore still remains locked up in the child's mind? The way the "Anecdote" is framed gives some indication. The subtitle of 1798, shewing how the art of lying may be taught, supplies a seemingly self-aware piece of irony, but if it spells out a rueful lesson and the substance of what the speaker wishes he could teach, it is not free from error, for it assumes that the child's reply is an artful, cunning lie. The subtitle does not seem to recognize that for the boy, any answer would be a lie, a coercion of spontaneous feeling into the logic of cause and effect. Within the dialogue, the boy's resort to the gilded vane seems a contingency or pretext, but Wordsworth himself may have had an ulterior "reason." As an object that shows the direction of the invisible wind, the weathercock emerges as a sign that parodies all logic-minded attempts to apply instruments of analysis to the flow of obscure and elusive moods. In a letter written many years after the poem, Wordsworth records that his "intention was to point out the injurious effects of putting inconsiderate questions to Children, and urging them to give answers upon matters either uninteresting to them, or upon which they had no decided opinion" (LY [The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, 1821-1850] 1:486). In 1845 he added an epigraph to the poem to emphasize the point--"Retine vim istam, falsa enim dicam, si coges" ("Restrain that force, for I will speak false, if you insist")--which was, according to Eusebius, Apollo's warning to those who would coerce the oracle. The forced exercise in analysis in this poem parallels the arithmetic lesson conducted by the adult questioner in "We are seven." But here the child proves vulnerable to the adult, while the adult, though still unaware of the basic limitations in the way he thinks, flatters himself that he has learned otherwise.

Such contrariety between adult and childhood orders of knowing is a fundamental Wordsworthian issue, and the absence of connection a perpetual Wordsworthian concern, negotiated most intensely through several drafts of The Prelude. In the first part of a two-part version he finished the year after he published Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth finds himself able to "call to mind," even to feel again, the sensations of days he feared were "Disowned by memory" (445). But the opening verse paragraph of the second part produces two questions and a brief meditation that together subvert the illusion of recovery:

Ah, is there one who ever has been young

And needs a monitory voice to tame

The pride of virtue and of intellect?

In the dialogue poems, that monitory voice is nowhere heard, except perhaps in the limited apology of Edward's father. That coda, however, does not carry the tone of yearning the poet's next question does:

And is there one, the wisest and the best

Of all mankind, who does not sometimes wish

For things which cannot be, who would not give,

If so he might, to duty and to truth

The eagerness of infantine desire?

The question asks for our assent in imagining an ideal state that would blend adult orders of knowledge (virtue, intellect, duty, and truth) with the exuberance of a child's sensations, but its accents of regret and resignation suggest that this speaker, checked by the knowledge that it "cannot be," might wish to trade the one for the other.

Access to the sensations of childhood seems to require an almost magical or visionary telescoping of intervening vacancies:
                                                                                                              so wide appears

The vacancy between me and those days,

Which yet have such self-presence in my heart

That sometimes when I think of them I seem

Two consciousnesses--conscious of myself,

And of some other being.

The dialogues between adults and children in Lyrical Ballads display two consciousnesses, and the poet, like the autobiographer of The Prelude, stands somewhat outside, thinking of the difference with a sense and syntax that alternates uncertainly between heartfelt presence and the apprehension of a vacancy so wide that those days seem totally "other," not even of the self at all. That stance, like the dramatic format of the dialogues, promotes for the moment a poetry of disinterested speculation--the mode Keats consciously cultivates to explore the mysteries that play in his imagination. But Wordsworth is never entirely disinterested: to the extent that "We are seven" and "Anecdote for Fathers" show the worlds of adult and child to be qualitatively and mutually exclusive, Wordsworth necessarily shares the consciousness that views the child in question as "some other being." It is from the adult's point of view, however qualified, that each dialogue is reported. These dialogues, in fact, originated in his own experience. "The little girl who is the heroine [of "We are seven"] I met [in] 1793"; a conversation he had with a child who stayed in his household inspired "Anecdote for Fathers" (LB 285-86). Wordsworth's affinity with the adults suggests that these encounters are more crucial than their anecdotal tone indicates, for the questions betray disturbing evidence of a reduced, and reducing, imagination. Yet it is precisely such limitations that keep Wordsworth's own imagination tuned to the child's mysteries. Affinities with the adults' party notwithstanding, other poetic features and other notes suggest Wordsworth's "self-presence" in the child's voice. The title "Anecdote for Fathers," as well as the early subtitle and later epigraph, implicitly credits the child's prerogative, and it is the child's logic that gives "We are seven" its title. Indeed, Wordsworth recalls of his own childhood, "Nothing was more difficult for me ... than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being" (LB 286), and in the "Preface" of 1800 he includes us all in this difficulty. "We are seven" shows, he says, "the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attend our notion of death, or rather our utter inability to admit that notion" (LB 247-48). In the 1802 "Preface," in fact, he implicitly converts this difficulty to creative advantage by applying analogous terms to the general "disposition" of imaginative power. The "Poet," like the Maid, is especially prone "to be affected ... by absent things as if they were present" (LB 256).

The most mysterious of Wordsworth's questioned children is the Idiot Boy. Sent into the moonlit night by his mother to fetch a doctor, Johnny is fortified with answers to all matters of possible importance: "What to follow, what to shun, / What to do, and what to leave undone, / How turn to left, and how to right" (64-66). His prolonged absence makes it clear that these prescriptions have failed their purpose, however, and the consequence registers in the questions that now beset the women at home: "How can it be he is so late?" (174); "Oh saints! what is become of him?" (232); "where's my Johnny?" (262). Yet these queries, despite the tone and atmosphere of mystery, do not write a poetics of mystery, for the world of this poem is essentially comic. Answers do emerge, however delayed for narrative effect, and the narrator can safely say, "Then calm your terrors, Betty Foy!" (373).

There are nonetheless certain gaps in his narrative and certain gaps between its questions and answers which directly confront the reader with the inadequacy of narrative logic to pre- or alogical modes of perception. Wordsworth's narrator is everywhere attentive to latent threats to his powers of telling. His opening stanza reports an owlet that "shouts from nobody knows where" (4), anticipating another more important mystery of origin: Betty Foy and Susan Gale "cannot guess" what ails the latter (36). These potentially tale-baffling mysteries are aggravated by the scant or nonexistent powers of communication in the protagonist of this tale, Johnny himself: "The moon that shines above his head / Is not more still and mute than he" (90-91); "How quietly her Johnny goes. / The silence of her idiot boy" (101-2). That silence encompasses Betty, too, as Johnny's delay stirs fears that she "to Susan will not tell" (150-51).

The narrator verges on this failure of voice himself, for in the face of Johnny's disappearance, he seems unable to produce anything more than a teasing set of questions that echo Betty's anxieties, as his tale recedes into the realm of a merely fantasized possibility:

Oh reader! now that I might tell

What Johnny and his horse are doing

What they've been doing all this time,

Oh could I put it into rhyme,

A most delightful tale pursuing!

He can pursue this unanswered what with no more than a series of conjectures, each, like Betty's earlier fantasies, prefaced by "Perhaps," and none solving the mystery of Johnny's "strange adventures" (327-51). The interrogative effort driving these supplements and surmises becomes explicit as they culminate in an exasperated petition, as if on our behalf, to the absent muses of this narrative of absences:

Oh gentle muses! is this kind?

Why will ye thus my suit repel?

Why of your further aid bereave me?

And can ye thus unfriended leave me?

Ye muses! whom I love so well.

At exactly this climax of unrequited questioning, however, the narrator relinquishes his complaints about the muses' (and Johnny's) absence to venture a necessary act of interrogative imagination, one that in effect summons his nearly defeated story and its wayward hero back into presence:

Who's yon, that, near the waterfall,

Which thunders down with headlong force,

Beneath the moon, yet shining fair,

As careless as if nothing were,

Sits upright on a feeding horse?

This question, unlike all the questioning by which it is preceded, is fully within the narrator's control. Through its agency, he returns his protagonist and reclaims his tale with mock-epic tones of victory.3

The narrator's emergence from confounded questioning to renewed powers of answering is given an ironic counterpart in the career of another potential narrator, Johnny himself. For most of the night, the Idiot Boy remains "still and mute, in wonder lost" (334), his bewilderment a more extreme version of the narrator's own bafflement. That opacity is hardly redeemed when he speaks, however, for his language defies interpretation. "Johnny burrs and laughs aloud, / Whether in cunning or in joy, / I cannot tell," the narrator reports (387-89). And when his mother asks the question to which all would like an answer--"Tell us Johnny, do, / "Where all this long night you have been, / "What you have heard, what you have seen, / "And Johnny, mind you tell us true" (448-51)--the answer that issues--"The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, / "And the sun did shine so cold" (460-61)--seems scarcely adequate to the experience to which it refers. The narrator's prefacing surmise that "Johnny all night long had heard / The owls in tuneful concert strive; / No doubt too he the moon had seen" (452-54) is a deliberate and knowing reduction, an affront to the expectations of any Idiot Questioner.

Wordsworth himself credited the scriptural expression that an idiot's "life is hidden with God" (EY [The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years, 1787-1805] 357), and in "The Idiot Boy" he allows Johnny's summary answer to remain enfolded in that benevolent and essentially mysterious rationale. Like the children of "We are seven" and "Anecdote for Fathers," Johnny's intelligence is innocent of logic, particularly the logic of plot and argument. He forgets his errand (a logic imposed on him) as he burrs happily under the perpetual present of the "moon that shines above his head" (90); his answers to the questions "what?" and "where?" issue in language so self-enclosed as to defy certain translation--like the replies of Edward and the little Maid. The tone of impersonal declaration in all three speakers, in fact, gives their utterances a resonance of obscure symbolic import and leaves the reader with a corresponding sensation of exclusion. When Keats's speaker imagines the Grecian Urn meeting his questions with the quasi-oracular utterance, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," we are struck by the sheer self-referential circularity of these terms and may wonder uneasily about the tone of the voice that tells us, "That is all ... ye need to know." Keats had a precedent for this take-it-or-leave-it totality in Wordsworth's conclusion to "The Idiot Boy," for the narrator there signs off gleefully, "--Thus answered Johnny in his glory, / And that was all his travel's story." If Johnny had told us "true," the mysterious "glory" of his answer remains radically private, hidden from adult (or perhaps any) inquiry, and the reader is left wondering at, but consigned to, its tantalizing periphery.

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