To this great City, by exclusive right;
How often in the overflowing Streets,
Have I gone forward with the Crowd, and said
Unto myself, the face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery.
Until the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
And all the ballast of familiar life,
The present, and the past; hope, fear; all stays,
All laws of acting, thinking, speaking man
Went from me, neither knowing me, nor known.
The reach of common indications, lost
Amid the moving pageant, 'twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood propp'd against a Wall, upon his Chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
The story of the Man, and who he was.
My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seem'd
To me that in this Label was a type,
Or emblem, of the utmost that we know
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And, on the shape of that unmoving man,
His fixèd face and sightless eyes, I looked,
As if admonish'd from another world.
- Raymond Williams speaks of Wordsworth's lines on the shock and bewilderment of his experience of a first visit to London as an early attempt to describe the modern city as a unique form of society.
Where William Blake saw a common condition of "weakness and woe," says Williams, "Wordsworth saw strangeness, a loss of connection, not at first in social but in perceptual ways: a failure of identity in the crowd of others which worked back to a loss of identity in the self, and then, in these ways, in society itself, its overcoming and replacement by a procession of images..."
And Williams again, elsewhere, on this same passage: "What is evident here is the rapid transition from the mundane fact that the people in the crowd are unknown to the observer -- though we now forget what a novel experience that must in any case have been to people used to customary small settlements -- to the now characteristic interpretation of 'strangeness' as 'mystery'. Ordinary modes of perceiving others are seen as overborne by the collapse of normal relationships and their laws: a loss of 'the ballast of familiar life'. Other people are then seen as if in 'second sight' or, crucially, as in dreams: a major point of reference for many subsequent modern artistic techniques."
Williams goes on to cite Engels on "the dissolution of mankind into monads": "They crowd one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another..."
This sense of the crowd as meaningless blur was of course less of a shock by the time of Engels than it had been a few years earlier for Wordsworth. And by now that blur feeling is so common and ingrained as to feel almost "natural" as we proceed defensively through the pressing nightmare of the urban crowd of strangers.
See: the de Selincourt edition of the 1805 Prelude; also Williams: The Country and the City, and an essay, Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism (collected in The Politics of Modernism).
Over London -- by Rail: Paul-Gustave Doré (1832-1883), from Paul-Gustave Doré and Jerrold Blanchard: London: A Pilgrimage, 1872 (Cardiff University Library)
St. Mary le Strand, London: artist unknown, 19th century
Cartoon of a rabid dog in a London street: artist unknown, 1826; from Teri Shors: Understanding Viruses, 2009; image by GrahamColm, 2 December 2010
The Great Chartist Meeting, Kennington Common, London: photo by William Kilburn, 10 April 1848, from Naomi Rosenblum: A World History of Photography, 1984 (Royal Archives, Windsor Castle)