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The Masses

New ArtPolitical exchange with the masses is shown here in James' Gillray's "Corresponding Society Meeting."
The primary function of the city for the literature of this time lies in the fact that the city connected these poets to the people of their time and place. The main difference between an urban space and a rural space is population, as a city is simply a place in which a great number of people live and work. Cities provides opportunities for being in touch with other people and understanding others. This immediate proximity to others enabled poets to construct a sociological understanding of their country. This is one of the important features of Romantic poetry: many of poems written by major Romantic poets express an understanding of their society and ways in which politics effect the people within it. The French and American Revolutions inspired many of the people in London and inspired these poets to alter the manner in which poetry was written, which reflected their desire to see changes in way their country governed. Contact with the masses increased these poets’ awareness and inspired them to make these changes.

William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” is one of the most notable pastorally-oriented poems of this period, but even in this poem, the city and its masses augment the speaker’s experience of the woods he so enjoys. The woods are perceived as quiet and serene because they are removed from the noise of the city and its masses. Essentially, they are a desirable locale because of their difference from the city. This consideration indicates that time spent among the masses of the city enabled these poets to have the appreciation of nature that is so associated with this poetry.

In Book VII of Wordworth’s work The Prelude, he describes the experience of walking down the streets of London. The tone alternates from a sense wonder to sense of contempt throughout this section of the poem. The poet describes the St. Bartholomew fair in a tone of disgust and horror; in this moment, the masses are frightening and confuse the mind of the poet. This section of the poem illustrates the reasons for which Wordsworth preferred the quiet aspects of nature. However, the masses do seem to stimulate the mind of the poet. Romantic critic Eugene Stelzig says of this section, “…the rising action of the poet’s condemnation of the St. Bartholomew set piece is countered by a sense of amazement and even wonder at the theatrical variety of the urban scenery that strikes his attentive eye as he wanders its streets.” While Wordsworth seems ambivalent about the crowd, he does seem to admire the vitality present in the city’s masses on some level. In another section of the poem, he encounters a blind beggar who is provided with transcendental properties:
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 the Label was a type,
Or emblem, of the utmost that we know,
Both of ourselves and of the universe

In this passage, the poet, by this encounter in the city, witnesses a man who serves as a metaphor for all who are suffering and are oppressed. Ultimately, in this poem, Wordsworth conveys that, though the city and its masses may be distracting, one can encounter others in the city and gain an understanding of humanity.

Brandon Haynes

Select Bibliography

Stelzig, Eugene. “Wordsworth’s Invigoration Hell: London in Book 7 of The Prelude.” Romanticism and the City.
     Larry H. Peer. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2011. 181-197.

Romantic Metropolis. Eds. James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.