True and False Princesses
The Wordsworth Family's plot in St. Olaf's Churchyard, Grasmere, Cumbria, England
True and False Princesses
in Wordsworth's Excursion
by George Soule
This essay is a revised and expanded version of an article first published as "True and False Princesses in The Excursion" in The Wordsworth Circle, XXVI, Number 3 (Summer, 1995), 137-140.
Wordsworth's Excursion differs from The Prelude and from other parts of his projected Recluse in that it is not autobiography, but fiction. Although the places where the principal action takes place are real, they are not configured as in reality: one cannot simply walk from Blea Tarn down a fell to Grasmere village. Wordsworth invents the story's four main characters; one of these, the Poet, tells the main story. Moreover, it is a fiction that is chock full of stories; many of the characters in the Poet's story tell stories of their own. The Wanderer tells of Margaret's ruined cottage and death. After he and the Poet find the despairing Solitary, that character relates the story of his life. Then in order to console the Solitary, the Pastor tells the life-stories of people buried in Grasmere churchyard. These stories are at the heart of the poem.
Critics often gloss over the Pastor's stories, which make up Books Six and Seven of The Excursion, with remarks about their general themes, but I do not think it is widely recognized that the Parson has composed his stories with great art.1 Not only has the Pastor focused on some appropriate themes, but he has tailored the stories' worlds and their structures and the actions of the characters within those structures so that they are appropriate to the Solitary's situation.2 Once we understand the way these stories are meant to work, we can compare them to the Solitary's own stories and understand even more about him.
The Solitary's situation is an unhappy one-unhappy in a way that was particularly painful to the generation for whom Wordsworth was writing. Like many people of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's generation, he believed in the promise of the French Revolution, which had begun about a quarter-century before the publication of The Excursion. He had been a hopeful young man, but when the Revolution turned violent, he (like many others) became disillusioned. The Revolution was only one of his disappointments. The Solitary was once a military chaplain and after that a popular preacher in the cause of Liberty; still later he led the life of a libertine; none of these activities satisfied him. He traveled to America to search for salvation among noble savages in wide open spaces; he did not find it. He loved his wife and children deeply; their deaths broke his heart. As a result, the Solitary chose to live alone in despair and apathy.
What the Solitary demanded from God, from love, from sex, from human nature, from forms of social organization, and from social justice-what he demanded was total satisfaction. As the term theodicy refers to justifying God's ways to man, new terms may describe what the Solitary wanted: a pantodicy, a system by which all things are asked to justify his life. Or, rather, a serial monodicy. The Solitary is a familiar type, a man who seeks for persons or causes or ways of life to which he can give his entire psychic allegiance in order to feel his life is worthwhile. Every time that he thinks he has found his heaven on earth, he is proved wrong. Then he is off on another search.
The Wanderer understands what is wrong. As Kenneth Johnston has shown, the Wanderer in Book Four urges the Solitary to find salvation through his sight and his imagination.3 When such consolations appear to fail, the Wanderer takes a different tack by leading the Solitary towards a different kind of consolation. Books Six and Seven show what this new tack is. Like the Wanderer's earlier arguments, the Parson's stories about persons buried in Grasmere churchyard are intended to help heal the Solitary's psychic wounds. To put it another way, the Parson offers a justification by tales, a way of using stories to make the world livable--or (to invent another term) a mythodicy.4
How does a mythodicy work? For one thing, the stories reawaken the Solitary's human sympathies. Anyone who is moved by any of Wordsworth's other narratives will, like Charles Lamb, be touched by many of these tales; perhaps if they awaken the Solitary's latent human feelings, he will be a better man. Moreover, the Solitary will perhaps heed some of the tale's specific warnings. The miner resembles the young Solitary in the "unsettled liberty of thought" which make him "Giddy and restless" (6.238-241). Like the Solitary, the Prodigal is enticed by the excitement and sensuality of high life (6.376-91). The Old Pair show what unrest patriotic and political passions can lead to, and Aggie Fisher does the same for intellectual pride. In Ellen's story, the Solitary could identify with her seducer. He has a lot in common with Richard Sympson--his abilities, his lack of patronage, and his bitterness. The greatest number of stories tell about what the Solitary himself suffers from--heartbreak at the loss of loved ones. Most importantly, in almost all cases The Pastor's stories, like the Solitary's life, display obsessions and losses that in turn create more obsession and despair. The obsessions may differ from story to story, but the despair seems much the same.
But the most forceful appeal of the Pastor's mythodicy works in deeper ways. In this essay I wish to investigate how the Pastor's mythodicy speaks to the Solitary's needs by means of plot: in a well-defined narrative world, specific kinds of characters act in carefully structured stories.
First, the narrative world. The world of the stories in Books Six and Seven has few extremes. It is neither idyllically edenic and "thaliatic" (to use a term of Thomas McFarland's), nor extremely evil and "demonic" (in Northrop Frye's terms).5 It is apparently an everyday world of nice things (family joys, walks in the woods) and bad things (betrayal and selfishness). But the usual consolations of Wordsworth's realistic poems are absent. Places are not routinely humanized. Unlike other Wordsworthian worlds, no one here names a place or inscribes a message; few places are even named; the few monuments are ephemeral. The world lacks any joyous communication among human beings, nature, and spirits behind nature (unlike "Home at Grasmere" or "Tintern Abbey"). Communication in Books Six and Seven is one-way: only graves speak, and they speak only with the assistance of a story-teller. What is more, solutions here are partial, not total; truths are probable, not certain; in logical terms, it is a world of enthymemes, not syllogisms. Seekers for absolute systems are doomed to disappointment. This is not the idyllic world that the Solitary tried to find, and it is not even as pleasant as many ordinary worlds that Wordsworth creates. But it is better than the totally bleak one the Solitary lives in now.
In order to talk about The Pastor's characters and plots, I propose conjuring up a stock folk-tale along the lines drawn by the theorist Vladimir Propp and to use this tale as a basis for comparison. Propp's tale has conventional characters: the hero, his sidekick or helper, the antagonist to be defeated, and the princess and throne to quest for.6 Books Six and Seven have many heroes. As in most folk tales, these heroes usually leave home. (Only Aggie, the widower who stays with his daughters, little Margaret's family, and the Wonderful priest do not.) Some heroes, mainly lovers, go only a little way. Many leave never to return: the miner, Rev. Sympson, the Elizabethan knight Sir Alfred Irthing, the Hanoverian and the Jacobite. Like their folk-tale counterparts, almost all these heroes seem lonely.
Although these lonely heroes go on quests, they are not cast in the usual heroic mold. Although most are male, some are female, and only three or four (again Sir Alfred, the Jacobean and Hanoverian old pair, and Rev. Sympson) have upper-class connections. Only a few have military backgrounds or are noted for their piety. Some are handsome (young Oswald) or beautiful (Ellen, the deserted girl) or exceptionally tough (Aggie Fisher, the thrifty householder), but such distinctions are not the rule. Only a few are markedly intelligent or talented. By most standards, they are an unremarkable lot.
Although the protagonists of the stories of Books Six and Seven lack the luster of most folk-tale heroes, they do resemble such heroes in their energy. Yet their energy often takes the form, not of heroic deeds to obtain a praiseworthy goal, but of sheer dogged persistence, a persistence that is not always directed to good ends. The miner who discovers gold after twenty years is a man who shows the virtue of perseverance, even though he uses his profits to drink himself to death (in a rare moment of humor, Wordsworth remarks that he died of joy). The unrequited lover, The Wonderful priest, the blind naturalist, Oswald, and Sir Alfred also display notable persistence over the long haul. So do Aggie Fisher and the old pair, though Aggie's goals are also not very admirable. The deaf man is a hard worker, as are the boorish Woodcutter and even the Reverend Sympson--up to a point. No matter how blameless or blameworthy their lives may be, they keep going on.
When we compare the structures of the Pastor's stories to those of usual folk-tales, we find even more significant differences. As in folk-tales, the Pastor's heroes fight antagonists (let us call them villains) to gain their goals (let us call them princesses). But unlike a folk-tale, when the Pastor's heroes gain their goals, these goals prove unsatisfactory, delusive. I propose to call these delusive goals False Princesses. Whereas the princesses in folk-tales are strongly guarded (by despotic king-fathers or hated rivals), the Pastor's False Princesses usually are not. Though two men violate sexual taboos to get them, most of the Pastor's heroes do not encounter mysterious interdictions or harsh laws to hinder their progress. In fact, most of them have very little trouble finding their False Princesses.7 The prodigal son and Rev. Sympson find high society, Ellen finds her seducer, widowers-to-be find their first wives, the Adulterer finds his girl--all too easily.
Even though the way to their False Princesses is smooth, the Pastor does not blame his heroes harshly for taking the easy way; only the Adulterer seems fully accountable. For some, there is no question of responsibility, and others can hardly be faulted for giving in to their passions. Here is the common denominator to most of the Pastor's stories: heroes are impelled toward their False Princesses by violent passions; their obsessions border on madness. Rejection crazes the unrequited lover; the prodigal can not resist the extravagance of debauchery; the miner lusts for gold; the Adulterer lusts for a servant-girl; Ellen craves affection; Rev. Sympson is addicted to the smiles of dukes--the list of obsessions goes on and on.
What makes the False Princesses false is not so simple as one might think. Some cannot be obtained (beauty and victory elude our grasp), though others are easier to get. All are false, not just because they are fickle, but because they do not satisfy. Sexual conquest and buried gold bring troubles; knowledge, possessions, local eminence, and the pleasures of high life do not bring happiness. Pleasures fade, seducers leave town, patrons disappoint, glories pall--familiar stuff. What is surprising is that in the structure of these stories many innocent, simple, and admirable things function as False Princesses. Village festivities, youthful love, marriage, children--they also do not last. Beloved daughters, sons, wives, and husbands die. Even the senses betray, for a man may go deaf or blind. Here is another important aspect of the Pastor's stories: False Princesses are not necessarily evil; things we usually think of as admirable can function as False Princesses. Good or bad, they are impermanent. Either way, the obsessed heroes must suffer--a point that would not be lost on the Solitary.
But after the False Princess betrays, the hero's life is not over. Except for poor Oswald, who died too young, those who need it are given a second chance by life. (The Wonderful is an exception; he does not need a second chance because he never envisioned a False Princess.) The heroes recover from their False Princesses to strive for and attain (sometimes only briefly) their True Princesses. Wordsworth seems to imply that their energy for good or evil means that they (even the Woodcutter) have the potential for good.
It is deceptive to speak of True Princesses in the plural. That is to say, even though their False Princesses are very different, all the heroes try to win much the same thing: not the throne and beautiful mate of a folk-tale, but peace and contentment. Although several fail (the miner and the Adulterer) and many fall short, many more succeed. To do so, some must repent; others must find a new home. Success may take the form of a happy marriage, even a second happy marriage. The result of their efforts and the emblem of their success is often a neat and cozy cottage, usually housing in harmony more than one generation. Often a cultivated garden lies outside, and once a hive of industrious bees. These tranquil conditions can be summarized in the singular: the True Princess.
Unlike False Princesses, the True Princess is not easily won (except, perhaps, by the aristocratic Sir Alfred Irthing). Here is the place in the structure of these stories for their most powerful villains. The Pastor again departs significantly from usual folk-tales to evade assigning blame to other persons. Villains are not other human beings, but poverty, bleak habitations, rough roads, mountainous country, storms, debts, shame, alcohol, sickness, and physical handicaps. The most formidable opponent of all is mental; many heroes are crazed by losing their False Princess. They remain prisoners of their obsessions, and their task is to overcome these obsessions to win the True Princess.8
The Pastor's heroes are assisted in this task by many agents (the helpers of folk-tales). Simple faith in God is sometimes a help, though the divine is communicated by different sorts of messengers: nature, a churchyard, the prayers of a congregation, or the Pastor himself. Sometimes help comes from the spirit of a mountain or that of a dead mother. Most helpers are very much of this world: herbs, flowers, a garden, a horse (!), books (several times), a new place, the senses, the passage of time. In contrast to the villains, the greatest number of helpers are human: parents, a baby, daughters, wives, and friends (like the Wanderer and the Poet in the Solitary's own story).
Then comes the moment of change when the Pastor's heroes overcome their obsessions. As usual in Wordsworth, this moment is mysterious. It does not seem necessary for the heroes to repent or forgive; some do, many do not. But most heroes do defeat their villains to win the true princess--that is, they rise above their obsessions and achieve peace in an ordinary world, at least for a while.9
In short, the Pastor's stories generally offer a picture of an obsessed person who is led or lured into unhappiness, but who can achieve a measure of tranquil contentment if he or she fights against hostile forces, both external and internal. In this fight, this person can be aided by loving friends. This is the hope the Pastor offers the Solitary.
Although the Pastor's stories are directly intended to help the Solitary, if they are compared to the stories of the Solitary's own life they can help readers better to understand that unhappy man as well. The two accounts of the Solitary's life, one by the Wanderer and one by the Solitary himself, are very much different from the Pastor's stories. Unlike the Pastor's everyday world, the world of the stories of the Solitary's life shows great extremes--thaliatic and demonic extremes. Understandably, the Solitary emphasizes the edenic wonder of his marriage; the woman he loves is an "earthly Providence" (3.565). At the other extreme, the Wanderer associates him with messengers from hell (2.231), and both versions give him demonic vices: pride, despair, alienation, betrayal, and cold apathy. The Solitary is particularly demonic when, in echoing Milton's Satan (Paradise Lost, 4.392), he admits he once "relished" (3.816) the Terror's bloodbath and wished to join in it.
The stories of the Solitary's life also differ from the Pastor's stories in structure. It is ironic that the Solitary could make a more conventional hero than almost all the protagonists of the Pastor's stories; in his youth he was intelligent, well-educated, talented, and energetic. He differs mainly from the Pastor's heroes in that he has a surfeit of False Princesses. Instead of their usual one, for him I count five: the military world, his wife and children and their home, the French Revolution's progress and ideals, the pleasures of a libertine, and the promises of America. In other words, his life is marked by the great number of his obsessions (his serial monodicy). Like the Parson's heroes, he reaches his False Princesses with little interference, but death, fate, detachment, folly, and madness tear him away from one false princess after another.
The most important way that the Solitary's life stories differ from the Pastor's stories is that for the Solitary there is no True Princess, either envisioned or obtained, either for others or for himself. His life in retirement is neither a sixth false princess (it is not chosen with passion) nor a true princess of quiet repose. His apathy contrasts to the energy and persistence of other heroes. The structure of his own story is truncated. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no third acts in American lives; the Solitary's life stories do not shows even a rudimentary third act.10
The stories the Solitary tells about other people are also unlike the Parson's. The tragic heroes he points to in Book Six seem to be simply defeated by fate. The story of pensioner in Book Two has some superficial similarities to the Pastor's stories. The old man lives through several stages. He finds a False Princess and a human villain rolled into one woman, who sends him off into the storm. He has helpers who preserve him (a ruined chapel and the searching party), and he has a few weeks of cozy comfort before he dies. Yet the pensioner almost sub-human. He is without an obsession and by the time he is rescued almost completely passive. The Solitary draws his own moral from this tale: the old man was full of "selfishness, cruelty, and vice" (5.889), and no one will remember him for more than an hour (2.601). In short, the Solitary's own stories show a teller who does not believe in the True Princess.
To sum up, the Pastor's stories in Books Six and Seven of The Excursion offer much more than consolation and admonitions. The stories Wordsworth gives his Pastor to tell generally have a particular kind of plot, and this plot is precisely tailored to the Solitary's needs. He is not asking the Solitary to meditate on graves and death. He tries to prepare the Solitary, not to die, but to live.
Because a rhetorician like the Pastor knows he must persuade an audience that a proposed course of action does not have disadvantages greater than its benefits, these stories imply that people can change without having to suffer a great deal of guilt, that therefore the Solitary can change even though he has pursued more than his share of False Princesses. The Pastor understands that obsessions are almost irresistible and can take hold of good people. The Solitary is forgiven.
Moreover, a rhetorician argues the possible. The stories of Books Six and Seven are tailored to the Solitary's needs by the structural feature most conspicuously missing from his story of his own life: the Parson's stories give heroes a second chance. The True Princess of moderate happiness and ease is always there to be won. Although she is difficult to attain, the task is not impossible. The greatest obstacle to the Solitary's winning the True Princess of happy repose is simply that he cannot conceive of her. The stories he knows stop short; unaided, the best he can do is to cease imagining False Princesses.
Despite his loneliness, the Solitary is not alone. In the Pastor's stories, there are always helpers if the hero will only see them. Likewise, although the Solitary had very little assistance in his early life, three sympathetic helpers are now at his side: the Wanderer, the Poet, and the Pastor himself. In the Pastor's judgment, the Solitary is the perfect audience for his tales--if he will but take them to heart, if he will envision the True Princess. We find at the end of the poem that these artful tactics are not entirely effective, but that is another story.
1. See Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry 1787-1814, New Haven (Yale University Press, 1971), 319-323, and Kenneth R. Johnston, Wordsworth and The Recluse, New Haven (Yale University Press, 1984), 296-313.
2. I focus here only upon the Pastor's stories in Books Six and Seven. I include the man and his second wife from Book Six in The Excursion's first edition. I call the tall and hardy woman Aggie Fisher or just Aggie, the name of Wordsworth's neighbor, though like the Rev. Sympson, she is not named in the poem. In Little Margaret's story, I treat her family as collective heroes. I largely ignore the evil Woodcutter--a villain, not a hero.
We should keep in mind that even though the overall story on the poem is a fiction, it contains elements that must have been drawn from Wordsworth's own experience. Moreover, the stories that the fictional characters tell are offered to us as real within the overall fiction, and in many cases they are in fact real. The Wonderful really lived; I have traced his name on his real gravestone at the church far up the Duddon valley. Other of the Pastor's stories are told of real people whose real graves are really in the real Grasmere churchyard: Little Margaret of the Gold Rill and the Rev. Sympson lay in Wordsworth's day not far from the plot that would become the real grave of the real William Wordsworth, and they lie there today. Incidentally, the Gold Rill or stream actually exists a few hundred yards from the church and has given its name to an excellent hotel.
My references to The Excursion are to Wordsworth's Poetical Works, Vol. 5, ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).
3. "Wordsworth's Reckless Recluse: The Solitary," The Wordsworth Circle (IX, 2), 131-44.
4. A justification by stories is clearly not so satisfying as the total justification of a theodicy; it is a partial, everyday sort of justification. I wish to thank Professor Jackson Bryce of Carleton College for help with these terms. . . . . I describe other ways these stories give satisfaction in "`Spots of Earth' in The Excursion" in The Charles Lamb Bulletin, New Series No. 85 (January, 1994), 19-24.
5. McFarland, Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981) 414-15; Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957), 147-50. In Frye's terms, the predominant world of these stories and of much of the whole poem is the realistic mode of the fourth phase of irony (Pp. 236-37). This realism is not satiric, but elegiac. As the plots of irony are parodies of romance plots, we have romance-like quests, but for False Princesses. Yet in many of the character's second chances of a calm peace and in the figure of the old, wise Wanderer himself, the poem sometimes metamorphoses into the sixth phase of romance (Pp. 202-03). According to Frye, the mood of this phase is pensive and contemplative. The central figure is an old man in a tower, as in Yeats' poems and as in the Wanderer's achieving a "final Eminence" (9.52) of age. The sixth phase of romance shows a small group in a sheltered spot about to experience new life, much like what we have at the end of Book Nine of this poem. Perhaps we can say that in The Excursion, Wordsworth wanted to envision a world in which everyday realism could exist side by side with another, wiser, and more contemplative world which was no less real.
6. I do not suggest that Wordsworth drew his stories from folk material, simply that comparing them to a folk-tale will make their features more clear. For the ingredients of folk-tales, see the account of Propp as described by Robert Scholes in Structuralism: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 60-68. . . . The accounts of the characters mentioned in my text can be found beginning at these lines: The unrequited lover: 6.95; the miner: 6.212; the prodigal son: 6.275; the old pair (the Jacobite and the Hanoverian or Whig): 6.404; Aggie Fisher: 6.675; Ellen: 6.787; the Adulterer: 6.1069; the widower: 6.1115; the man with a second wife: 6. 1192; Rev. Sympson: 7.31; The Wonderful priest: 7.315; the deaf man: 7.395; the blind man: 7.482; the Woodcutter: 7.537; Little Margaret: 7.632; young Oswald: 7.714; Sir Alfred Irthing: 7.911.
7. The exceptions are the unrequited lover, who does not win the haughty beauty; the Scot and the Hanoverian, who are defeated; and the miner, who must work hard for his gold. Two heroes are held back by civil laws.
8. The Pastor usually prefigures the peace his heroes attain by pointing to a peaceful grave as he begins a story. . . . My description of the structure of the Pastor's stories is necessarily general. Each individual story produces its own variations, no more so that the longest story, and for many readers the most moving story-that of Ellen, the Village Magdalene (6.787-1052). Ellen's suffering may be the most moving because she, like the Solitary himself, repeats the usual pattern more than once. She first finds the False Princess-or let us call that figure here the False Prince-of what she thought was true love. What she got instead was betrayal (her False Prince left town) and shame (she became an unmarried mother). But when her child arrived, he seemed to Ellen a True Prince, a gift from God, and she was happy and energized again. Yet however innocent a five-month old baby must be, he turned out to be another False Prince. Ellen needed money, so she left False Prince #2 with her parents and took a job as a wet-nurse for a rich family who (villains that they were) prohibited her from visiting her baby. False Prince #2 promptly died, by implication from eating food other than his mother's milk, and Ellen is again betrayed. Ellen is strong, and insists on visiting his grave and weeping over it. Once again the rich family intervenes to prohibit her from such visits-though now they may function not as villains but as unwitting helpers. The Pastor remarks that with this prohibition "the green stalk of Ellen's life was snapped" (6.1000). But as Ellen wastes away toward death, she attains a rather muted version of the True Prince. She forgives her seducer, she works at achieving "peace / And pleasure in endurance" (6.1026-1027). She talks often with the Pastor, her spiritual advisor, and she attains a Job-like composure.
9. Although the Pastor's stories are often compared to those told by Thomas Gray and George Crabbe, such comparisons are largely superficial. (See Judson Stanley Lyon, The Excursion, A Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 39-40.) The structures of the Pastor's stories differ greatly from those of Gray and Crabbe, and for that reason the implications of the stories differ greatly as well. The peasants in Gray's "Elegy" hardly have stories at all; their "simple annals" tell of people without the energy to envision False Princesses. In contrast, Crabbe's villagers in The Parish Register III (Burials) are energetic in their pursuit of the False Princesses of vice, but they are struck down without ever imagining a true princess. In different ways, both Gray and Crabbe denigrate the lower classes by denying them the possibility of progress, whereas Wordsworth as usual does not.
10. The story of The Excursion's most anthologized character can also be better understood in this context. Margaret in Book One is as obsessed as the Solitary with her False Princess (the hope her husband will return), but she is worse off than he or than the protagonists of Books Six and Seven, because she lacks energy and because she has no idea of what a True (in her case) Prince would be. Like the Solitary, her life has no third act. Read by itself as "The Ruined Cottage" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, her story is wonderfully touching; in the context of The Excursion, it is that and much more. It begins the poem with an example of passivity to be shunned, prefiguring the cold and unattractive passivity of a greater character, the Solitary.
June 26, 2000.