William Wordsworth Saves the Internet

Even in the 18th century, we were subject to the firehose of news and information—and poets had opinions about it

William Wordsworth disapproving of newfangled stuff, by Benjamin Haydon

About the year 1700, in London and other spots in the West, there was a lot of excitement about a new mode of communication, where information came so rapidly that people imagined they were interacting with each other in a virtual space. Fueled by new technologies of cheap paper-making and mass printing, and enabled by laws that permitted the spread of information, hundreds of newspapers, broadsheets, magazines, and little bound books were suddenly on offer. In this world of print, people could interact freely on topics ranging from politics to winemaking to books they liked. There were many names for that imagined space, and one really good one that eventually emerged was the beautiful-sounding phrase, the republic of letters

For the people of this time, the word “republic” was understood in its original Latin meaning—literally “thing” belonging to the “people”—but in an age of ever-stronger monarchies, the word had a sense of rebellion and subversion to it, too. As some modern social historians, such as Jurgen Habermas, have said, the imagined democracy of talkers eventually produced actual ones. But these virtual spaces also invited all sorts of ways to waste time, share rumors about celebrities, and make nasty comments about other members of this republic. In other words, this was the beginning of the internet—not the internet of wires, wireless signals, HTML interfaces, and screens, but the internet of information and interactivity. Habermas, as well as dozens of cutting edge social scientists and theorists of mediated communication, would say that in fact the older virtual space of the 18th century was not only as fully interactive as it is today, but actually had a bigger impact on politics and society. 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Gentleman%27s_Magazine_1731.JPG

Information in the 1700s could spread incredibly quickly, and there was almost no limit on the sorts of things you could read about.  For instance, in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1736, there were stock prices, death notices, weather, ship landings and details on their cargo, high tide, low tide, news, speeches in Parliament (transcribed from memory!), and most popular of all, tales of domestic disputes, adultery, murder and the adventures of handsome highwaymen upon the public roads. All this in one paper, and usually within mere days of the event, sometimes hours. If that wasn’t fast enough, you could get news of a fire at midnight, or a shipwreck of the morning earlier by means of broadsheets, large single sheets of the hottest, latest news hawked by young boys roaming the streets of London at all hours. And the reach of the virtual space may have been broader than it is today.

The reach of the virtual space may have been broader than it is today.

The accessibility to information was widespread, reaching all social classes (including illiterate people—who made up about 40% of the population).  If you couldn’t afford a broadsheet or you couldn’t read, often someone from your family or neighborhood would bring a Gentleman’s Magazine or Spectator home and would read it out loud and in public places. Locals grew fond of those readouts and went to certain spots in the city to hear the latest.  In Paris, as the historian Robert Darnton has shown, the news was sung daily under the famous Tree of Cracow, and so both literate and illiterate were caught up every day. And in comparison to today’s short-form communication, which both caters to and creates ever-shorter attention spans, conversations did not just come in the form of sniping, but also in vigorous discussions in salons and coffeehouses, in a bewildering range of genres. Looking in the Gentleman’s Magazine or the Female Spectator (published by the leading critic and torrid romance novelist Eliza Haywood), you see political and social commentary in poetry, songs, limericks, articles, dialogues, and letters to the editor numbering in the hundreds. Many of the debates—say, over whether Shakespeare was appropriate for children, or whether slavery was a sin upon all of society, or the growing scourge of addiction to gin, or election tampering—were quickly adapted in different forms, including children’s books, abridged and simplified editions sold for pennies, or lurid visual prints. Just take a look at the open-air bribing going on in William Hogarth’s hugely popular artworks, “Gin Lane” and “Canvassing for Votes”:

Hogarth's "Gin Lane," an engraving of a chaotic urban street scene
William Hogarth's "Canvassing for Votes," a painting showing opposing politicians both trying to bribe the same man

As the 18th century went on, the stream of information got faster but it also got deeper, as conversations along the virtual highways and byways became more serious and more substantial. Following the major periodicals of the time (which numbered in the thousands), you see fewer death row confessions, fewer tales of insane asylums and highwaymen, and more theorists, critics, scientists and philosophers taking to the new medium. People like Benjamin Franklin, and the philosopher and cultural critic David Hume appeared in the pages of these publications, followed by the philosopher of “sentiments” and economics Adam Smith, the brilliant educator and women’s advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, and her friend Thomas Paine, and even neo-conservatives like Edmund Burke. They all wrote their books and did it well, but they also went directly to the public by publishing in periodicals, writing neat little essays, publishing life hacks (Franklin’s almanacs), and writing hundreds of opinion pieces and reviews (Wollstonecraft’s day job). These publications could be in the public’s hands within days, and that included writing, typesetting, illustrating, printing, advertising, and finally selling. The turnaround time for an idea to become published writing beat most print matter today, and the spread of news through yelling, singing, gossiping added another dimension of speed, urgency, and drama to the words sent around. 

But as the stream became a river and the river became a torrent, people were seriously starting to worry. By the 19th century there were concerns about the spiritual and physiological effects of getting too much information too quickly. For instance, Henry David Thoreau wrote this in his famous book On Walden Pond

Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?” as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe” — and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.

This sort of thing is what drew him to his refuge in the cabin by the pond. People were plugged into the global torrent of information but missing out on the voices of actual streams, rivers, and lakes, the deep and rich voice of a forest breeze, and the chance to have a conversation that didn’t have something to do with the war we were in at the moment or the daily foibles of whatever city, state, or federal administration was in power.  

The best lines that I have read about the issue are by William Wordsworth, in his tremendous poem, The Prelude, an endless piece which traces how the young boy gathers a lifetime’s worth of strength and wonder, first by wandering in nature, then by understanding the deep generosity of friends and a brilliant sister, and finally by heeding the lyric of his own mind. At one point Wordsworth is reminiscing about the early years of the French Revolution, after the first flush of excitement and possibility. In his recollections, he had begun to lose faith, as early excitement about the fall of the ancient system turned to anxiety about the increasingly violent politics of Paris. Wordsworth remembers one fellow in particular, whose life was in disarray, and perhaps in danger, too, but in his quandary, he wasted even more time, so to speak, online:

His temper was quite mastered by the times, 
And they had blighted him, had eat away
The beauty of his person, doing wrong 
Alike to body and to mind: 
[…]
A ravage out of season, made by thoughts
Unhealthy and vexatious. At the hour, 
The most important of each day, in which 
The public news was read, the fever came, 
A punctual visitant, to shake this man, 
Disarmed his voice and fanned his yellow cheek
Into a thousand colours, While he read,
Or mused, his sword was haunted by his touch
Continually, like an uneasy place
In his own body. 

The pathetic fellow he’s talking about is a royalist who’s been sidelined by the Revolution of 1789, waiting at an undisclosed location with his other friends, yearning for a chance to go back into Paris and do something, anything to stop the course of this chaotic revolution. The young men hang on all the latest news, which is delivered daily by a messenger. All he can do while listening is finger the butt of his sword. Being exposed to the news daily, and then subject to the feelings that the news arouses in him has altered his face, his posture, and his mind. He is visibly changing before Wordsworth’s eyes. He is obsessed by the information, and as he ingests it, he diddles his sword, a metaphor for the potential snuffed out by an obsession with information rather than a commitment to action. 

It is an internet beneath the internet, the space of cultural memory and its primary vehicle, poetry.

But what is Wordsworth’s alternative? Strolling through the forest and dreaming about lyrical things? This would be the clichéd version of Wordsworth, the quintessential Romantic, a version that is so wrong in so many ways. I think Wordsworth is leaving another alternative on the table, a kind of access to another web, a deeper web, the oldest virtual space of all. It is an internet beneath the internet, the space of cultural memory and its primary vehicle, poetry. But rather than use poetry in its classical function, Wordsworth intended to create a poetry of the people, listening to common folk and attempting to capture their accents and stories in a stripped down, sweetened poetry. Lots of scholars and others in the expert class say he failed at this, and that all he did was rarefy what was already a rich and colorful canvas handed to him by the brilliant, contentious, visceral eighteenth century. Maybe yes, maybe no. But Wordsworth and poets like him, including William Blake, Charlotte Smith, and Coleridge, did show a way forward for the internet of their time—a way of listening hyper-attentively to what was local, different, and personal and letting those voices crowd out the automatic, the updated, and the urgent. In The Prelude, Wordsworth has a grand vision of what poetry can be, and that’s certainly not a droopy, musing, self-indulgent expression of “feelings,” in which people with the strongest feelings make the strongest poetry, which is utter nonsense. Poetry for Wordsworth is the exercise of the body and mind, where words embody exploration and then words become the chunks of sound and sense that the poet sculpts into everlasting, lovely shape. All through The Prelude, William is climbing, swimming, horseback riding, chatting all night with strangers, walking the charged air of Paris during the Revolution, crowding the entrance to Parliament at a protest, walking the long sands of Wales and Cornwall, reading with a mind on fire, and thinking deeply about how all this can bring him into communion with us as we read him. That’s what he brings to the table in contrast to a resentful young man playing with the handle of his saber. 

Wordsworth wasn’t the only one to attempt to save the public space for richer conversations, nor was he the most committed to following the truer voices of the people. Poets such as William Crabbe, who had spent their lives ministering to the working classes out in the sticks, dedicated long, beautifully wrought work to their experiences. A poem like The Village shows the possibilities of talking very concretely about lives far outside the glamour of London society: 

Thus groan the old, till, by disease oppressed,
They taste a final woe, and then they rest.
Theirs is yon house that holds the parish poor,
Whose walls of mud scarce bear the broken door;
There, where the putrid vapours, flagging, play,
And the dull wheel hums doleful through the day;
There children dwell, who know no parents’ care,
Parents, who know no children’s love, dwell there;
Heart-broken matrons on their joyless bed,
Forsaken wives, and mothers never wed;
Dejected widows with unheeded tears,
And crippled age with more than childhood-fears;

It’s not just that Crabbe’s poetry proudly avoids the musing, lazing, privileged perspectives of the famous Romantics, nor that he’s writing about the poor. Plenty of people wrote about the poor and, to keep on my rant about the power of the 18th-century “internet,” plenty of working class people were read very widely in British and American magazines. Crabbe, writing late in the century, still expected there to be the virtual space of The Gentleman’s Magazine and the periodicals by freshly minted commentators like Eliza Haywood in 1750, or in the vein of the bold new political writers like Mary Wollstonecraft in her two Vindications, one for “men” (1790) and one for “woman” (1792). The implication of Crabbe’s literary labor and well-wrought address to readers is that a social message could be couched in the form most attractive to the people of his time, and might change things. But Crabbe could only do this because he himself had been in these spaces, and had felt those feelings, been with those people. Of course, such writers are with us today as well, and they are also available on the internet, but I guess Wordsworth’s and Thoreau’s point was that these voices are always in danger of being crowded out, displaced. None of these worries are new, nor is it new to tell someone to take a break, walk in the woods, talk to real people, unplug. But what is valuable about the first internet is a vision of how complete, how imbued with power and substance it could yet be.

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