Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A Crowd of Strangers


London Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Snow in Chelsea: James Abbot McNeill Whistler, 1876 (Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

O Friend! one feeling was there which belong'd
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.
Thus have I look'd, nor ceas'd to look, oppress'd
By thoughts of what, and whither, when and how,
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.
And once, far-travell'd in such mood, beyond
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.

From William Wordsworth: The Prelude, Book VII (Residence in London): William Wordsworth, 1805

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)


TC said...

The flocks of occupiers taking pictures of each other up at the campus these nights have reminded me that the new solidarity has bred a kind of mutual photo-op mutation of the crowd-of-strangers feeling.

But the real provocation of this return to the venerable WW were these touchstone lines by Stevie Smith, the anti-Wordsworth, in the previous post:

When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch

By a curious antediluvian association of ideas, those lines made me think of "A slumber did my spirit seal".

I know everyone will be waiting breathlessly to know my #2 favourite passage from The Prelude: the strolling Bedlamites.

(The street people of those times were included in occupying a sort of knowable community, at least.)

And for more from the same ageless bard, see the middle bit here.

Nin Andrews said...

I love this post. I was never much of a Wordsworth fan, but now I am thinking I might need to revisit him. I love the London Nocturne, the shadowy figure there. And the Over London--by Rail, which looks almost Escher-ish.

TC said...

I thought -- "Escher!" -- too, with the Doré.

Happy you got into this one, Nin. Wordsworth has such a reputation as a partykiller ... but, maybe it's showing my age again (all over again!), I find the best of him enthralling.

That Whistler bowled me over. Another famous partykiller (well, I suppose it was the mother did him in).

(Sic transit Mom.)

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Williams's "The Country and the City" is the best chronicle (in Marxist scholarship certainly)of the effects of the 'enclosures' and migrations of displaced rural workers on literary sensibilities of the period (what he terms "structures of feelings"). The Wordsworth commentary is very illustrative.

I find particularly enlightening in Williams his critical reading of authors like Jonson, Carew(mostly rich, well-propertied types) who'd tried but couldn't quite conceal the exploitive relations between workers and landscape their poetry revealed.

Is the present Occupy movement in postindudstrial America an exact analogue??

Artemesia said...

Wonderful Wordsworth poem!



Thanks for these Wordsworth words, which with help from Whistle, Dore and anonymous begin to become readable (after all). Onward in occupying the campus and planet ("With rocks and stones and trees") ---


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, white circle of moon in branches
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

between leading to new next,
“beginning” following

from form in which, “itself
so to speak,” returns

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
shadowed canyon of ridge across from it



Thanks for these Wordsworth words, which with help from Whistler, Dore and anonymous become (almost) readable after all. Onward with occupying the campus and planet ("With rocks and stones and trees") ---


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, white circle of moon in branches
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

between leading to new next,
“beginning” following

from form in which, “itself
so to speak,” returns

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
shadowed canyon of ridge across from it

TC said...

Artemisia, Conrad, Steve, many thanks.

Steve, I am impressed by the close minute-to-minute recalibration of your response to the Wordsworth passage, which appears to have gone from "readable" to "almost" readable in the mere space of seven minutes.

(One of my -- several -- problems with the recent incessant re-orderings of literary history has to do with the way values tend to rise and fall in the stock market of critical opinion with the lightning speed of commodity futures & c. in the hands of hedge-fund managers. In propria persona, I'd -- almost! -- be tempted to suggest that the 1805 Prelude was actually readable from the get-go, and has somehow, miraculously, managed to stay that way, notwithstanding the progressive dumbing-down of the several waves of modernist, postmodernist & c. centuries.)

TC said...

Conrad, I'm delighted to find a fellow appreciator of Williams' magisterial work, which has opened many doors for this particular reader. Again, here, though, the category-location of RW's insights within the convenient box of "Marxist scholarship" tends to have two problematic effects. First, it overlooks the extremely close historical/literary study that underlies every word of Williams' text -- he had in a real sense "lived every word" before ordering his judgment of the words into what might be called theory. I find that uncommon among theorists, all too many of whose analyses of literature put the cart (the theory) before the horse (the work). (All that impartial close reading takes time, of course; and Time is Money, of course, when you're not having fun.) And second, given the fact that "Marxist" is currently a descriptive term that has fallen out of general favour -- as though the stubborn refusal of Marx's on-the-ground observations and consequent conclusions to equate with the present reality of academic conveniences, perks, tenure, dwarf-hauteur & c., all that good stuff which makes of every proper academic theorist these days, a little capitalist in sheep's clothing -- I find it more suitable simply to think of Williams as a reader, historian and critic first, a theorist only after that, and finally, a "Marxist" only because he correctly perceived the unavoidable historical implications and applications of Marx's extremely penetrating insights; which get harder and harder to swallow every day, for the ensconced academic classes.

But to get back to Williams' great book, it's surely to be recommended to anyone who would care to read and think about writing in English from the 16th through the 19th centuries.

In this acute critical examination of Wordsworth's account of the shock of coming from his village into the bewildering London streets, Williams correctly discovers an early encounter with an entirely new form of social organisation.

"This is direct observation of a new set of physical and sense relationships: a new way of seeing men in what is experienced as a new kind of society. It is, in this sense, a new kind of alienation..."

As to your very pertinent query --
"Is the present Occupy movement in postindustrial America an exact analogue??" -- I suspect it may be a rhetorical question. In any case, I'd say no, hardly. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think that a reorganisation of society is not being considered by many, many people right now. And high time it is that such thoughts occurred. It's just that in the two hundred years since Wordsworth's vision, the complications and elaborations of the structures of a society which he only dimly inkled have left us such a with a gargantuan, labyrinthine, monstrously cemented blow-up of that kind of horror-world, things have evolved to a point where nothing can be understood, everything is hidden, and the powers of authority supporting and simultaneously concealing this massive, grotesque construction are so massive and extensive, it's very hard to imagine that it will all be blown away by plopping some Ikea tents in a public plaza, chanting a bit, and taking lots and lots of pictures of the person/s adjacent taking pictures of you.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


your points are all well taken. Perhaps my characterizations of significant thinkers & social theorists like Raymond Williams as "Marxists" only serves to unfairly lump him in with the too comfortable academic ideologues (like Terry Eagleton,e.g.)who wouldn't have anything to say about most things without the "Kapital"-crutch. Jodi Dean also comes to mind.

I appreciate Williams's working class background, and sympathies. But what I learned from his great work is that nothing's beyond "critical reading" (a little reminiscent also of Derrida's "nothing beyond the text"): not even Williams himself.

TC said...

That's fair enough.

Funny, I was once a graduate student at the college next door to the one where Terry Eagleton was an undergrad. At that date, it seemed we both aspired to be poets.

"The road not taken" -- there must be a banal Robert Frost line to cover every occasion.

"Lumping-in," always a wee bit of a problem. But then I've always felt uneasy in lumpen situations, whether of the bought sort, or even the allegedly "free".

(This is the "Land of the Free", Conrad, but if I were you, I'd stay well away from your southern border, if all possible. That wiseguy poet who died while still a boy, Frank O'H, has that immortal line "Fuck Canada"... which has really backed-up on itself, over the years.)



Thanks for calling my attention back to WW's lines (yet again), which ARE readable indeed (second 'comment' below trying to remember what the first had said when it didn't seem to have gone through, and not getting it quite right), and in particular these '' "Until the shapes before my eyes became/A second-sight procession, such as glides/ Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;" And also for your note on "One of . . . several . . . problems with the recent incessant re-orderings of literary history has to do with the way values tend to rise and fall in the stock market of critical opinion with the lightning speed of commodity futures & c. in the hands of hedge-fund managers."

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Just a fantastic post, from the first Whistler image to all the fascinating end comments (you've sent this ignorant old man off - virtually - to reserve the Williams at the library) at the end.

I reread the Prelude this summer and you focus right on the sections that grab. This crowd scene a transcendent moment in literature - second sight, indeed.

As you speak to the odd leaps of the mind and how we get from one thing to the next, I'd just previous to arriving at this post (as I slowly go back through all I've missed these last couple of weeks) been reading Yeats' "Mad As The Mist And Snow" and it instantly blended in to the Wordsworth in my poor addled brainpan.

Nice to get a bit of sizzle going in the old pan now and again and I've you to thank.


TC said...


Lovely thought on a weatherish night.

The thing with Wordsworth's great poem -- far superior I think in the "young" version than in the later revision, which is often taken as the "official" text, though much of the early freshness has been lost -- is that a lot of people who would be poets now not only haven't read it, but would disdain doing so.

But as Phil Whalen once said in a poem (to paraphrase), most things that were once considered great ARE great, and have been considered so for good reason.

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.

(And that top Whistler, yes, just keeps getting better the more we look at it.)