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Theatrical Spectacles and the Spectators’ Positions in Wordsworth’s London

Michael Meyer

The seventh book of The Prelude, ‘Residence in London’, represents Wordsworth’s subjective experience of urban aesthetics and society. He perceives the capital as a series of spectacles for a mass audience. The autobiographical poem establishes two double perspectives, the diachronic view of Wordsworth’s present self and past self, and the synchronic view of his younger self and other spectators.[1] Most critics claim that Wordsworth maintains distance towards the spectacles and the mass society of London.[2] I would suggest 1. that both Wordsworth’s present and past attitudes are very ambivalent. It is true that Wordsworth often assumes the role of the spectator ab extra but he also enjoys the communal experience of theatrical scenes.[3] 2. Wordsworth’s modern city is a space of multiplied theatricality which verges on simulation[4] because the boundaries between reality and illusion as well as the spectator and the spectacle are dissolved.[5] 3. The writer imitates rather than opposes the art of the theatre because he stages himself as a past spectator of London, which in turn is represented in the present theatre of his mind and externalized on the stage of his text.

Wordsworth does not delineate London as it was but through present recollection and daydreams of his past experience, which was coloured by disappointment because the capital did not live up to his imaginative anticipation.[6] As a boy, Wordsworth had imagined London as a place of wonders, ‘sights and shows’ (109), which even surpassed the worlds of romances. In view of his early predilection for the marvellous, his interest in the sensational entertainment provided by the theatres of London does not come as a surprise.

Wordsworth enjoyed watching both the play and the audience in the theatre. Max Byrd argues that ‘indispensable to his pleasure . . . is the knowledge that the theatre’s surface of illusion is penetrable’.[7] He was also fascinated by the effect of theatrical illusions upon ‘untaught minds’ (297), who seemed to lack the adequate aesthetic attitude towards stage performances. Wordsworth shared in the communal willing suspension of disbelief but also ridicules the spectators’ faith in a clumsy ‘Delusion’ (307) of invisibility by a dark coat and the word ‘Invisible’ (309) on the character’s chest.[8] However, the poet is less amused than his earlier self about a melodrama concerning the corruption of innocence, The Maid of Buttermere, which staged a bigamist’s seduction of a country girl. In the theatre of the poetic mind, the maid enters the stage again as an innocent maiden after her betrayal. The poet effaces her sexual initiation and her fall and defies the transformation of her experience into a sensational entertainment, but he himself exposes another ‘fallen’ woman to the voyeuristic gaze of the reader.[9]

Wordsworth juxtaposes the rural maid who lost her child but not her honour and an urban woman who lost her honour but not her child.[10] The delusion of innocence on stage is reduplicated by a tableau among the spectators. A beautiful child was placed on the miniature stage of a wooden tray, ‘environed with a ring/Of chance spectators, chiefly dissolute men/And shameless women’ (385-87). The mother dabbed a ‘painted bloom’ on her cheeks (373), and the little crowd appeared to be ‘falsely gay’ (396) to the spectator Wordsworth, but (presumably) natural to the boy as ‘songs of birds/In springtime after showers’ (390-91). The theatrical situation is multiplied because the boy involuntarily becomes a spectacle for an audience of performers, who in turn are a spectacle for the boy. The whole scene is regarded as a delusion by Wordsworth, who performs the sophisticated spectator on the stage of his poem. Thus, the spectator ab extra is literally and metaphorically located within the theatre.[11] Theatricality repeats itself in the Chinese box of the writer’s mind, the text as its expression, and the theatre with its play, the audience, and the former self.

Social institutions resemble theatres but are suspect because they pretend to sincerity and credibility. The respectable leaders of society imitate professional entertainers in their public shows of religion, law, and politics (543). The preacher captivated his audience in the church (565) as the lawyer did in court (516) and the politician in Parliament. Wordsworth satirically describes how he saw a preacher ‘Fresh from a toilette of two hours, ascend/The pulpit, with seraphic glance look up’ (547-8) and deliver a melodious speech with an occasional ‘smile/Of rapt irradiation’ (555-6).[12] The ‘pretty shepherd’ (564) borrows his words from religious and profane writers as a ‘crook of eloquence’ (563) in order to lead his innocent audience on an imaginary journey. Wordsworth remained the detached spectator in the church, looking down on the ‘captivated flock’ (565). He despised ‘the brawls of lawyers in their courts’ (520) but shared for some time the audience’s ‘enchantment’ (536) by the speakers in Parliament.[13] Wordsworth dramatizes the audience’s experience of the political performances ‘we’ (525) admired. He mentions ‘the beating heart’ (523) of the spectators, throws in the interjections ‘Silence! hush!’ (528), and reports their reactions: ‘Marvellous — the enchantment spreads and rises — all are rapt,/Astonished!’ (525-27). But he juxtaposes the rapture by his mocking comparison of the orator to Aurora and a hero in a romance, concluding with the observation of growing tediousness among the spectators and the present assessment that these performances were ‘grave follies’ (542). Wordsworth recreates the past for his present readers when he invites their aesthetic reading of the performances which are then debunked by ironic and moralizing arguments. He gives us no guidance to discover the theatrical nature of institutions unless we approach them with an aesthetic perspective in the first place in order to both enjoy their shows and understand their duplicity, which is bound to undermine our trust in social leaders. Pervasive scepticism among the citizens seems to be essential because these public speakers do not, as players on the stage, reveal their identity as actors at the end of their performances.

Life in the streets is even more deceptive because it does not clearly separate the stage from the audience and the spectacle from the spectator as the theatre, the court or the church. Wordsworth dramatises his experience of London street life: the description ‘And now I looked upon the real scene’ (139, my italics) suggests that the poetic representation aspires to the presence of reality, which is seen in theatrical terms. The poem, which represents London in retrospect, ‘a frequent daydream’ (153), imitates rather than opposes the spectacles of the past. Wordsworth denotes his past physical and perceptual movements to the left and to the right, into and out of the throng. The rhetoric establishes the illusion of immediacy — a ‘here’ (190, 209) and ‘Now’ (224) — with the help of the present tense, and involves the reader with the imperative ‘See’ (228), and the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ (185, 190, 200, 205, 215, 216, 233, 236, 244, 261, 264). The traveller is impressed by the continuous visual and auditory dynamics of the city, ‘the quick dance/Of colours, lights, and forms; the Babel din;/The endless stream of men, and moving things’ (156-8), which the poet specifies in catalogues of nouns and present participles (154-243). The juxtaposition of numerous images reproduces the ‘random sights’ (233) of the urban chaos and gives the reader a vivid imaginary tour through the streets of London.[14] Wordsworth’s rhetorical accomplishment offers an imaginary tour of London to readers that rivals the preacher’s sermon. Wordsworth debunks theatricality as a devious means of achieving moral ends in religion but does not deprecate theatricality per se. The poet uses the rhetoric of dramatic presence in order to appropriately capture the aesthetic impact of the theatrical city which threatens to overwhelm the traveller.

The spectator loses his aesthetic detachment from the stage of public life when he enters a ‘scene’ (207), and is confronted with an advertisement, a ‘most imposing word . . . peradventure one in masquerade’ (213-4; my italics). The poet presents London as a stage where the spectator Wordsworth turns into a character, who enters a potentially deluding play-within-the-play.[15] Whereas the theatre sells an aesthetic illusion, which relies upon the half-faith of suspended disbelief, commercial urban spectacles only pay off if their functional delusion meets with complete belief and passes for reality. Consequently, the suspicious spectator Wordsworth tries to avoid the role of the dupe and assumes an aesthetic attitude towards commerce, but not explicitly towards the beggars whose display of blatant poverty remarkably resembles that of richly emblazoned shops:

Shop after shop, with symbols, blazoned names,
And all the tradesman’s honours overhead —
Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page,
With letters huge inscribed from top to toe;
Stationed above the door, like guardian saints,
There, allegoric shapes, female or male,
Or physiognomies of real men . . . (176-180)

Behold a face turned up towards us, strong
In lineaments, and red with over-toil.
‘Tis one perhaps already met elsewhere,
A travelling cripple, by the trunk cut short
and stumping with his arms. In sailor‘s garb
Another lies at length beside a range
Of written characters with chalk inscribed
Upon the smooth flat stones. (216-223)

Wordsworth represents the shapes of the poor and the lines on their faces and on the ground as a distorted mirror image of the sculptures and advertisements on the tradesmen’s houses. He leaves the interpretation of the economic and social relationship between them up to the reader and does not comment upon the fact that both want to direct the spectator‘s attention to their goods or their fates and to ‘buy’ them.[16] In the country, Raymond Williams asserts, Wordsworth’s solitary beggars embody ‘the spirit of community’ because they motivate pity and acts of charity.[17] In the city, they seem to be lined up like the shops in the streets, exposed to a cut-throat competition that forces them to rival each other for money. Being crippled is not sufficient to receive donations, the beggar must turn his face towards the passer-by in order to appeal to his compassion. The person lying on the ground was not necessarily a sailor but was dressed in sailor’s clothes and his words, which presumably appealed to the help of a ‘deserving poor’, may have clothed and therefore hidden the truth. The urban beggar is a spectacle, a performer and a spectator at the same time. He observes people who may be moved to drop a coin into his lap upon the implicit direction of pity that is motivated by an effective performance of misery, which is credible thanks to the abundance of abject urban poverty.

Why didn’t Wordsworth pause in order to decipher these words and faces? The sheer number of subjective impressions tends to prevent close attention to individuals or details. ‘The more efficiently city dwellers,’ William C. Sharpe maintains, ‘screen out the adverse stimuli that buffet them — what Wordsworth himself alludes to as the city’s ‘shock/For eyes and ears‘ (1850: 685-86).[18] I would add that the uncertainty engendered by the pervasive theatricality of life may induce a desire to avoid any involvement with individuals.[19] In addition, Wordsworth, who exposed the preacher’s contradiction between morals and theatricality, would have to admit that in the urban mass the beggars were forced to put on a good performance in order to appeal to the moral conscience of spectators and to survive on alms. But then, why did Wordsworth stop in order to gaze at the Blind Beggar?

Wordsworth’s visual description of the Blind Beggar with his story written on a piece of paper remains as sketchy as that of the other faces he picked out of the crowd. The written paper seems to give answers to the questions Wordsworth asked of the anonymous faces in the crowd, ‘the what and whither, when and how’ (599).[20] Wordsworth neither delineates the beggar’s face nor the beggar’s story in detail, but merely stresses the ‘unmoving man,/His fixèd face and sightless eyes’ (620-1): the arrested and mystified observer finds his mirror-image in the blind and unmoving object of his attention.[21] Wordsworth generalizes the beggar’s label as ‘a type/Or emblem of the utmost that we know/Both of ourselves and of the universe’ (617-19): we are ignorant of ourselves and the world because we are blind to the visible and cannot read what is written.[22] The ‘self turns out to be Other’,[23] but the other, the beggar as well as his own and Wordsworth’s textual supplement, refuses reciprocity, so that specular knowledge is questioned.[24] Thus, the alienating encounters between individuals in mass society do not generate identities and relationships but suspend isolated subjects between unknown and unknowable differences.[25]

Geraldine Friedman interprets this beggar as Wordsworth’s example of the ‘redemptive negation of theatricality’, but later admits that the beggar in fact is one of the ‘self-stagers’ in London, who puts on life as a show but ‘is nothing but a label’.[26] Her metaphors suggest that her arguments are based on the potential separation of the actor and the role, the concealing cloth and its revealing label. I would rather argue that the Blind Beggar shocked Wordsworth because he is nothing but his performance, a fact that Wordsworth seems to have been oblivious to in the case of the other beggars. The beggar’s pose does not provide proof for the discourse on his label, which in turn does not explain but reiterate the pose: the label props up the pose in a circular assertion of the performance but neither can prove the truth of the other. In addition, the beggar’s blindness prevents his control of the spectators’ visual responses to his performance. The traveller finds himself in a similar situation in the large city because he is always subject to the gaze of others of whom he may be oblivious to due to the anonymity of the urban masses. Thus, the visitor himself is never free from observation and may always be regarded as a performer by an anonymous audience, even if he or she does not voluntarily play a role. In turn, Wordsworth may have felt temporarily relieved from the asymmetric specularity of an individual in the mass, and felt free to gaze at the Blind Beggar without being observed as a spectacle or a performer himself.[27] In a large urban society, the individual and the crowd are both spectator(s) and spectacle(s) at the same time.

Wordsworth’s encounters with individuals in the city compound the alienation experienced in the mass. To the outside observer, individuals in the mass remain obscure visual impressions, but the mass of individuals distinctly impresses the traveller. As a member of the crowd, the individual becomes alienated from others and himself, loses all bearings in reality and gets lost in his own associations[28]:

How often in the overflowing streets
Have I gone forwards with the crowd, and said
Unto myself. The face of everyone
That passes by me is a mystery!‘
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed
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. (594-606)

However the encounter with individuals is as disconcerting as that of the crowd because in spite of the fact that Wordsworth spots ‘the lies to every sense’ (564), he cannot discover any reality behind their masks because his metaphysics of illusion and truth cannot come to terms with the endless performative simulation of life. Wordsworth is fascinated with, but also alienated from the ‘living shapes’ (575) people wear in ‘public shows’ (543), as if mechanical puppets have grotesquely appropriated life. Because there ‘is no end’ (576) to artifice, life itself becomes indistinguishable from the performance of life and the original presence upon which the representation is based vanishes. Wordsworth is probably the first writer to discover and expose the performative simulation of life as a central characteristic of modern urban culture.

Bartholomew Fair highlights the confusion of the spectator, the spectacle of the mass, and the mass of spectacles. Wordsworth explicitly performs the spectator on a showman’s stage at Bartholomew Fair, watching the grotesque spectacle of mass enjoyments that dangerously resemble ‘riots’ (648) of earlier times (or future ones). The poet invokes the muse to place him as a spectator ‘Above the press and danger of the crowd,/Upon some showman’s platform’ (657-8), which forms an essential part of the commercial entertainment at the Fair.[29] Jonathan Wordsworth understands this elevated position as ‘an emblem of his relationship to the whole experience of London. He is distanced from it . . . Wordsworth on his platform plays no part’ (298). But here, spatial distance does not entail cognitive control because even the elevated observer cannot come to terms with the overwhelming spectacle.[30] Jonathan Wordsworth is correct but oblivious to his insight: the poet does not play a part but impersonates the spectator, who in turn embodies the poet. What is more, the staged spectator’s amazed stare looks similar to the ‘staring pictures’ (665) of elevated advertisements, which in turn mirror the crowd’s astonished gaze at the fair.[31] In a parallel way, the spectator’s perspectives alternate between those of the showmen’s observations of the crowd and the crowd’s gazes at the shows. Wordsworth introduces his enumeration of the chaotic sights and noise with indications of spatial distance, which, however, does not protect his senses and emotions from the violent impact of impressions:

What a hell
For eyes and ears, what anarchy and din
Barbarian and infernal — ‘tis a dream
Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound!
Below, the open space, through every nook
Of the wide area, twinkles, is alive
With heads [. . .] (658-64).

However the speaker concludes his report of random impressions with the implicit admission that the preceding catalogue registers the

. . . blank confusion, and a type not false
Of what the mighty city is itself
To all except a straggler here and there —
to the whole swarm of its inhabitants —
An undistinguishable world to men, . . .
Living amid the same perpetual flow
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end. (695-704)

This conclusion about the loss of cognitive control strikingly resembles that of his earlier self who lost all bearings in the mass and which Sharpe aptly summarizes as: ‘total difference has the effect of producing an undifferentiated totality.'[32] In spite of being elevated, Wordsworth felt overwhelmed and appalled by the anarchic shows and the people:

All out-o‘-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man — his dullness, madness, and their feats —
All jumbled up together to make up
This parliament of monsters. Tents and booths
Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,
Are vomiting, receiving, on all sides,
Men, women, three-years‘ children, babes in arms. (687-94)

The fair becomes a metaphor for the nineteenth-century industrial age because even the ordinary people in the crowd seem to be produced by industrial mass production from ‘one vast mill’ (692).[33] In the fairground, the natural, organic, and individual reproduction of society is displaced by the unnatural, mechanical and serial production of the masses. Individuality is no longer a natural fact but a freakish deviation from the regular mould of human beings. What is more, the spectator loses his distance from the spectacles and takes part in the mimicry of an aesthetic reality that prefigures the simulation of life, which Jean Baudrillard located in the twentieth century.[34] In retrospect, Wordsworth maintains that the ‘unmanageable sight,/Is not wholly so to him who looks/In steadiness, who hath among least things an under-sense of greatest — sees the parts/As parts, but with a feeling for the whole’ (708-12). But his (apparently) random accumulation of impressions does not at all reveal the ‘Composure and ennobling harmony’ (740) he claims to have seen in ‘self-destroying, transitory things’ (739).[35] The fair, as an epitome of the city, surpasses theatricality and approaches simulation because it obliterates the oppositions between spectator and actor, distance and involvement, essence and performance, and reality and appearance. Wordsworth’s cognitive and perceptual distance is as staged as the London spectacles because after all, his city, although based on past impressions, is presently generated by the dreamlike theatre of his mind and performed on the stage of his text. Geraldine Friedman explains Wordsworth’s ‘theatrical refusal of theatricality'[36] by his ‘self-divided politics of representation, which to denounce theatricality must put itself on stage.'[37] I would go further and argue that Wordsworth is not only one of the greatest self-stagers himself but that his autopoetic Prelude seems to share the performative simulation that pervades the modern city because he creates himself as a major poet by writing a poem about the creation of a poet.


[1] The double shifting of Wordsworth’s past and present perspectives is the topic of my paper “Revisions and Specular Inversions in The Prelude,” Proceedings Anglistentag 1998 Erfurt, ed. Fritz-Wilhelm Neumann (Trier, WVT, 1999) 297-306.

[2] Coleridge remarked on Wordsworth’s distance from the world, and numerous critics followed his line of argument: Herbert Lindenberger, On Wordsworth’s Prelude (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1963; Westport: Greenwood, 1976) 206, 235; Charles Rzepka, The Self as Mind. Vision and Identity in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard U P, 1986) 48, Jonathan Wordsworth, William Wordsworth. The Borders of Vision (1982. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) 298; Timothy Webb, ‘Dangerous Plurals: Wordsworth’s Bartholomew Fair and the Challenge of Urban Poetics,’ London in Literature. Visionary Mappings of the Metropolis, ed. Susana Onega and John A. Stotesbury (Heidelberg: Winter, 2002) 78. William C. Sharpe, however, argues that Wordsworth yields his customary distance in the encounter with the Blind Beggar. See Unreal Cities: Urban Figuration in Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot and Williams (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1990) 38.

[3] Other critics affirm that Wordsworth was both attracted to and alienated from spectacles. See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chattoo and Windus, New York: OUP, 1973) 149-50, and William B. Thesing, The London Muse: Victorian Poetic Responses to the City (Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1982) 17-18.

[4] In “The Precession of Simulacra,” Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1995) 1, Baudrillard defines simulation as ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality’, which effaces the difference between appearance and reality. Ross King relates the representation of the city by the panorama to industrial simulacra (‘Wordsworth, Panoramas, and the Prospect of London,’ Studies in Romanticism 32 (Spring 1993): 73) but he does not discuss the particular difference between the model of urban space and the simulation of life, which is of importance because the spectator easily gains insight into the artifice of the panorama but is less aware of his own performance of life.

To Cite This Article:

Michael Meyer, ‘Theatrical Spectacles and the Spectators’ Positions in Wordsworth’s London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at Accessed on [date of access].