A Stasis in Motion: Wordsworth’s Poetics
academic essay by Reuben Jentink
William Wordsworth’s “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” is “concerned with the variations” (Simpson xi) in perspectival positionality. For David Simpson, “it is the mind that sees, not the eye” (xi). The forsaken woman’s “perspectival” death-song is a dialectic between, on the one hand, her static, decaying body, and on the other, her mobile, elusive voice; it is this dialectic that ensures her identity. Two modes emerge from Simpson’s “seeing” mind (or, in the Indian woman’s case, moving mind). First, the woman’s body becomes a metaphor for an “embedded” form of what Martin Heidegger calls dwelling (wohnen), unpossessable by the Romantic explorers and poets. Second, the woman’s voice becomes a Spinozic identifier: “what we are  . . . is where and how we move within the ceaselessly interactive network of . . . [n]ature” (Levinson 383). Timothy Morton’s suggestion for a reading of “ambient poetics,” which calls for a deconstructing of personhood into ambience, atmosphere, surroundings, dwelling, and environment helps link—albeit loosely—Heidegger’s dwelling and “natural” self with the Spinozic (“Ambient Poetics” 54). This paper, then, will explore the positionality of the Indian woman’s identity, specifically that found in the interstice between the woman’s static (dying) body and her mobile voice.
Wordsworth, in the Advertisement to the first edition (1798) of Lyrical Ballads, notes that “the majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments” (34). Let us briefly consider the word “experiment,” for which the OED contains no fewer than eight definitions. Pertinent to our discussion, however, is one usage from 1794 linking ascertained or learned certainty with experiment, and investigation: “to get to know.” Considering this definition, the experiment in question, then, is an endeavor to understand the North American Indian women of the Romantic explorers’ travel narratives: in particular, those of Samuel Hearne. Tim Fulford, in Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830, suggests that the women in Hearne’s narratives “seemed conventionally sublime and/or beautiful” (168, emphasis original). Fulford carries on, noting it was the women’s “elusive otherness” (168) that made it impossible to characterize them as either sublime or as beautiful. Their elusivity, then, is what makes their identity an investigation—something to get to know.
Similarly, Wordsworth’s personal fluidity suggests his own identity was a type of ongoing experiment: “I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature” (qtd. in de Man 196). This wavering identity—elusive in its own right—reflects the poetical dichotomy between the Indian woman’s body—dying and physical—and the mobile, transient voice: a wavering between the object and subject.
Examined alongside Hearne’s account, which describes that “the friends or relations of the sick generally leave them some victuals and water” (Hearne 219), the Indian woman, as such, appears “abandoned” (Fulford 173) in the forest. But Marjorie Levinson’s work on Spinoza frees us from such a limiting account and liberates the ambiguous “existence” of the woman. Levinson claims that Spinoza’s theories “of the individual and its ‘composability’ . . . negotiate [the] tensions” of the formation of the “narrator-interlocutor’s identity” and can be read in Wordsworth’s “statements of unmediated body-knowledge” (368). The frozen remains of a fire, for example, come to compose part of the Indian woman’s body—even if such part is only known in death: “All stiff with ice the ashes lie; / And they are dead, and I will die” (ln.13-14). Moreover, Levinson notes that throughout Wordsworth’s early poetry “there is an insistence of the body and its motions as being at the heart of, if not simply being, individual identity” (Levinson 368, emphasis original). Her suggestion of motion brings together the highly mobile travel narrative of Samuel Hearne—indeed the greater experience of Romantic mobility—and the defining mobility of the Indian woman’s voice.
As the lyric progresses, the woman’s voice maintains a recursive conversation, a dialectic of active and static states. The voice—seeing, hearing, and feeling—darts around her immobile body with its eyes, dreams, and “heartless spirit” (ln.1-24). Levinson suggests that, “in motion…embedded in nature, [one] continues to ‘feel,’ not as consciousness of sensation but as undergoing modification, being affected” (391). This “embeddedness,” as Levinson has termed, suggests two possibilities: first, the decomposition of the Indian woman into the surrounding nature; and second, a defining-of-self in relation to that same nature. In his Wordsworth and the Figurings of the Real, Simpson clarifies these two possibilities when he posits, “the absolute integration of man in nature…precludes any problem of selection or figuration” (23). He further suggests that where identity cannot sustain a subjective perspective, neither can we “mistake part for whole, or the figurative for the real” (23). With Simpson’s suggestion in mind, the Indian woman’s voice and her corporeal body harmonize into, what we might call, her presence in nature.
Her presence, then, is similar to what Fulford has called an “[embodiment] of a natural wilderness” (168). And like the dissolving into nature, this wilderness “could never be fully possessed” (Fulford 168); the woman slips, as it were, through our fingers (168). Her ambiguous identity is equally ungraspable by Wordsworth, himself—words such as “yet,” “alas,” and “in spite” capture (without possessing) the Indian woman (ln.7, 21, 53). In short, just as the natural wilderness is unattainable to the Romantic explorers, the Indian woman’s presence eludes the poet.
Her evasive presence is perhaps strongest in the fifth stanza. To her son, she laments, “In two days more I must have died” (ln.42). Given the linear narrative of the Indian woman’s death-song, this premature confession should, in fact, come two stanzas later. During the two days between her abandonment and eventual death—occurring only part way through the poem—the woman’s spatial and temporal locations are lost. When she is most alone, the woman, like the reader, is unable to discern herself from the wilderness.
Referring back to Levinson’s Spinozic “embeddedness,” whereby the motion of the Indian woman’s voice maintains her identity even while her body decomposes into nature, the closing lines of stanzas one and seven most explicitly suggest this blurring: respectively, “Oh let my body die away!” and, “I feel my body die away, / I shall not see another day” (ln.10, 69-70, emphasis added). The woman’s voice and body are united, and the image presented is one of a Gilpinic aesthetic: her decaying body is blended, dying away in-situ, into the “natural wilderness.” For Heidegger, “[p]lace is the aperture of Being” (Morton, Ecology without Nature 172). As with the icy ashes that become part of the woman’s body and identity, it is the place she inhabits that not only precedes but allows being. From an ecological perspective, this blurring might be seen temporally as the decaying body is literally absorbed back into nature. Indeed, as Fulford suggests, the woman is “sublime—a human who speaks from as close to nature as…possible” (174).
Fulford’s reluctance, however, to allow the Indian woman’s integration into nature (only allowing her a close proximity) might be eased by engaging Morton’s “ambient poetics.” He defines ambience as the “poetic enactment of a state of nondual awareness that collapses the subject-object division” (“Ambient Poetics” 52). Noting that an awareness is necessary, we might suggest that only in the woman’s self-reflexivity is this dissolution possible. Such a reading would relax the woman’s strained dualism. When we read the ambient poetics of her world, the Indian woman’s identity, collapsed, is as distinct as it is encompassed—suggestive of Levinson’s Spinozic “embeddedness.”
We might further develop a reading of the Indian woman (in just such an ambient world) through the framework of Heideggerian dwelling (wohnen): “to be set at peace . . . to remain at peace within the free” and to safeguard “each thing in its essence” (351). The Indian woman appears at-first-glance to be a dual presence (with static body and positional voice) but is, in fact, a collapsed “thing in its essence”—a monistic presence with two stases. Having been set at peace, or, in Morton’s terms, made aware of the nonduality, the woman exists in both her voice and her body—where “both” is encompassing, not exclusive. The title itself is suggestive of her freedom; to whom is the forsaken Indian woman complaining, if not herself? To her essence?
The implication of Heideggerian dwelling (wohnen) brings us back from the decaying body’s ecological temporality with the spatial essence of the Indian woman’s voice. In another essay, Morton suggests, “environment is what cannot be indicated directly;” in Gestalt terms, the environment “is not-in-the-foreground” and once in focus “loses its environmental quality” (“Question of Place” 109). In the same way that background and foreground flex depending upon the viewer’s, or in this case reader’s, perspective so too does the Indian woman’s self flex between subject and object. Though, as we have just noted, the distinction between subject and object is already collapsed. Background and foreground, voice and body are only distinct in the perspective of the viewer. The woman’s elusive presence persists in the reader’s (and poet’s) attempt to locate her from a particular positioned perspective.
If we transform our understanding of “looking” into a “searching” then we see the mobility of the Indian woman’s self; in turn, the self becomes visible in its mobility. Jonathon Mulrooney suggests, “the body comes to know itself through its movements rather than by virtue of a static, integral position in space” (315). The positionality of the Indian woman’s voice, as it moves about her corporeal self, “is at once bodily and cognitive…inseparable from existential experience” (317).
Despite the “embedded” nature of the Indian woman’s body, the movement of her voice affirms her distinct identity. Miranda Burgess’ description of Romantic transport as “exchange between interior and exterior” coincides with Levinson’s idea of Spinozic identity through motion (Burgess 237; Levinson 368). The Indian woman’s mobile voice (exterior) and her decaying body (interior), though distinct, become muddled by way of transport. And, as Burgess suggests, transport, or in this case mobility, “becomes at once both means and metaphor for affective circulation” (237).
The Indian woman’s invocation: “Oh wind that o’er my head art flying, / . . . Could I with thee a message send” brings together these affective expressions of mobility and identity (ln.45-48). Here, Spinoza’s doctrine of conatus as described by Levinson applies: “[equating] individuals with their endeavor to preserve a kinetic poise within a dynamic ensemble of relations…that also composes them as individuals” (376, emphasis original). One can hear the resonance of the Indian woman’s dependencies upon the wind. Rather than the canals of commerce, the wind’s currents link the woman’s unique experience to the intersecting experiences of the clan. This “ensemble of relations” embodies Simpson’s perception of Romantic consciousness, “based . . . in the dialectic of self and other” (23).
For Wordsworth, the “dialectic between self and nature” (other) is experienced temporally. Paul de Man suggest that the “movements of nature are for [Wordsworth] instances of . . . endurance within a pattern of change” (196-197). This reading of Wordsworth’s poetics suggests that the woman, in death, undergoes an outward, bodily “decay;” her identity, however, remains constant. The ensemble of nature’s relations is the medium by which the woman endures.
In “The Complaint” this dialectic of self and nature (other) necessarily maintains the distinction between voice and body. Morton suggests that Hegelian subjectivity “perceives a chasm between consciousness and the world” (Morton, “Question of Place” 105). The woman persists on either side of the chasm: as both distinct identity and as encompassed body, mother, and clan member.
This chasm, however, “cannot be fully bridged without compromising the soul’s beauty” (Morton, Question of Place 105). Note the use of “bridged.” The metaphors of transport (canals of commerce, wind’s current, and Morton’s bridge) must be unstable enough so as not to allow, metonymically, one to stand for the other. The internal linking between the woman’s mobile voice and her already-dying body is “a relationship of the subject to itself” that maintains her presence even after her death (de Man 196). Once broken, the Indian woman’s voice relies on the audience of her surroundings and the audience of the reader.
The Indian woman is “embedded” in her surroundings, and requires these relationships to maintain her voice. Her experience is dependent on the presence of another: “individual existence depends not just on what is internal to the body…but on the impacts and pressures of external forces” (Levinson 383). As death draws nearer, without the audience of these relations, the woman’s voice loses mobility—whether viewed as Heideggerian freedom or Spinozic intention (stanzas two and six respectively). The woman laments “Alone I cannot fear to die . . . / . . . Forever left alone am I, / Then wherefore should I fear to die?” (ln.20, 59-60). Alone, fear is usurped by acceptance; alone, fear has no audience.
Returning, once more, to Morton’s “Why Ambient Poetics?” he cites a particular discussion between Wordsworth and De Quincey, whereby the latter interlocutor recognizes that “the apophasis of ‘no sound’ makes us hear the absence of sound” (52, emphasis original). The Indian woman’s identity exists much the same: the dialectic between her decaying body and mobile transient voice is, in some sense, an open space; dwelling and motion-full, the woman captures—and yet simultaneously evades—our perception. Having thus mentioned the forsaken Indian woman, Wordsworth allows the reader to see, hear, or read something otherwise absent.
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- Marjorie Levinson’s work on Benedict de Spinoza and his concept of “striving” (conatus), as will become evident, will aid in our discussion of the Indian Woman’s presence. For now, however, it is important to note that by “we” Levinson “mean[s] persons, rocks, trees, and all the ‘individuals’ that compose those entities” (383). Note the earthiness of Levinson’s categorization. [↩]
- William Gilpin’s (1724-1804) picturesque aesthetic theorizes that a work of art’s beauty is reliant on a harmonized viewing of all the component intricacies. [↩]
- Mulrooney’s thought follows that of Brian Massumi’s in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, where Massumi notes “positionality is an emergent quality of movement” (8). [↩]