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Resistance and reproduction: The poetry of William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley

Maeng, Minho
“Resistance and Reproduction: The Poetry of William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley” examines how Wordsworth and Shelley responded to the epistemological transition from intrinsic to nominal in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Michel Foucault argued that social institutions deviated from people’s intuitive understanding and established arbitrary systems that alienated human community and subjectivity. While Wordsworth and Shelley focused on imagination and sympathy as the means by which to resist the tendency towards nominalization, I argue that these attempts at resistance could reproduce these nominal institutions instead.
In Wordsworth’s case, his recognition of this epistemological shift was evidenced by his anxiety about losing contact with readers in the mass print market. In the Lucy Poems and The Prelude, he attempted to deliver a universal message that could secure his readership by providing aesthetic experiences through his poetry. However, in doing so, Wordsworth assumes readers are biopolitical subjects who are driven by bodily impulses and external stimuli. In The Excursion, Wordsworth investigates the viability of his poetry in the mass print market. While reflecting on the absence of commonality or consensus between readers, within the dramatic confines of the poem, the Wanderer’s authority as the primary speaker is often challenged by other characters, such as The Solitary. This challenge extends to a critique of Wordsworth’s poetic language, which affirms the power of imagination and sympathy.
For Shelley, the shift to nominalism was represented by the advent of the paper money system. Paper money was originally introduced to promote convenient economic transactions, but this institution was subject to the influence of speculative and highly unstable financial markets. In A Philosophical View of Reform, Shelley accused the British government of arbitrarily manipulating the market by issuing excessive volumes of paper notes. In The Cenci, Shelley criticizes the British government’s abuse of the paper money system through the character of Count Cenci, who reifies his patriarchal authority to satisfy his sadistic pleasure. Shelley explores the potential for sympathy as an alternative medium of communication. However, he affirms that even sympathy can degenerate into an instrument of exploitation when it is circulated in society. By contrast, in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley attempts to discover the potential for liberation in the arbitrary language of contemporary financial institutions. By dismantling the narrative linearity of the drama, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound resists the indexical nature of paper money and the credit system. “Resistance and Reproduction” thus investigates the dynamic relationship between Wordsworth and Shelley’s poetry and its institutionalization in the Romantic era.