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  • Online publication date: December 2014

12 - ‘Furnishing Light’: Wordsworth, Poetry and the Science of Man in Enlightenment Scotland

from III - Enlightenment and Romantic Poetologies


With settling judgements now of what would last

And what would disappear, prepared to find

Ambition, folly, madness in the men

Who thrust themselves upon this passive world

As Rulers of the world, to see in these,

Even when the public welfare is their aim,

Plans without thought, or bottom'd on false thought

And false philosophy: having brought to test

Of solid life and true result the Books

Of modern Statists, and thereby perceiv'd

The utter hollowness of what we name

The wealth of Nations, where alone that wealth

Is lodged, and how increased, and having gain'd

A more judicious knowledge of what makes

The dignity of individual Man …

Wordsworth's attack, in book 12 of the 1805 Prelude, on modern ‘Statists’ and ‘false philosophy’, has become a locus classicus for critics addressing the relationship between Wordsworth's poetry – associated with a ‘more judicious knowledge’ of man – and his late eighteenth-century inheritance of Enlightenment philosophy. Wordsworth's reference to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) is both specific and barbed, but the poet has in his sights here not just the emergent discourse of political economy which Smith founded, but the larger field of eighteenth-century human sciences and moral philosophy which Wordsworth imbibed, but against which – in the implied narrative offered here, at least – his poetry turns. That Wordsworth's alternative goal, a ‘more judicious knowledge’ of the ‘dignity of Man’, reiterates the ‘man’ who was the object or construct of the human sciences of previous decades – even whilst it attempts to transmute ‘Man’ as ‘Abstraction, shadow, image’ into ‘the man / Of whom we read, the man whom we behold / With our own eyes’ – already suggests the complexity of his relation to his philosophical forbears.