This essay argues that William Wordsworth's poetry constructs a subject position analogous to that of the photographic viewer: hence, a photographic subjectivity. Critics have often read Wordsworth's writing as opposing imagination against visibility and mimetic realism. Many of the visual structures of his poetry, however, continue the structures of the picturesque, whose desire to capture the landscape as framed image culminated in the technology of photography. These structures of perception include the stationed point of view of the observer, focusing the scene from a single location; the tendency to reduce the multisensory, ambient experience of lived environment to pure vision; the separation of the observer from the landscape; and the resulting general disembodiment of that observer. Much of Wordsworth's poetry positions the observer in these ways in order to capture images that can then be viewed in private isolation (as in the “spots of time”), like a series of internalized photographs. These structures of visuality construct what would emerge, after the invention of photography, as a photographic subjectivity, complementing (rather than opposing) the objectivity of the photographic image. They define the viewing subject, in the manner of photography, as a mobile, seemingly autonomous self in an appropriative relationship to landscape—the paradigm of the modern self, taking a “view from nowhere” on a world captured as image. The stability, unity, and autonomy of the Wordsworthian self ultimately depend on these photographic relationships.
William Wordsworth and Photographic Subjectivity
Associate Professor of English at Earlham College, is the author of Authoring the Self: Self-Representation, Authorship, and the Print Market in British Poetry from Pope through Wordsworth (2005). He is now at work on a book-length study tentatively titled “William Wordsworth and the Ecology of Authorship: Nature, Class, Aesthetics, and the Roots of Environmentalism.”
Scott Hess; William Wordsworth and Photographic Subjectivity. Nineteenth-Century Literature 1 December 2008; 63 (3): 283–320. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2008.63.3.283
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