Departmental Bulletin Paper Wordsworth’s Cabinets and Virtuosi: Unstable Forms of Knowledge in The Prelude

Simons, Christopher E. J.

 This paper examines examples of the language of the Kunstkammer orWunderkammer (the collector’s cabinet of art, antiquities, ‘curiosities’, and‘wonders’), and the character of the ‘virtuoso’ (the collector, antiquary,connoisseur, and natural philosopher) and its parodies in WilliamWordsworth’s autobiographical epic poem, The Prelude (completed 1805).The paper uses a theoretical methodology based on ideas in Foucault’s TheOrder of Things and Horst Bredekamp’s The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult ofthe Machine. It further draws on the historical context of tensions betweenscholasticism and naturalism in the work of writers including Basil Willey,Walter Houghton, and John Brewer. Close readings of four passages in ThePrelude related to cabinets and virtuosi then invite discussion of the text’scomplex positions on nature, classification, and mechanistic philosophy inthe context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century epistemologies. Thepaper argues that the images of the ‘cabinet’ and the ‘virtuoso’ are highlyunstable signifiers in their historical contexts. These images allow thepoem to simultaneously critique opposing forces in intellectual history. Onthe one hand, these images critique the naturalism of the ‘New Science’ ofthe Enlightenment—the legacies of Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, and Locke—while making assumptions about its mechanistic and utilitarian goals, andits devotion to classifying and categorising objects and phenomena. On theother hand, these images also carry an implicit critique of the supernaturalscholasticism of the classical and pre-Early-Modern periods, whichmanifests in the late eighteenth century as retrograde antiquarianism,scientific dilettantism, and the character of the myopic antiquary orcollector. Here the text makes contrasting assumptions about the disorder,anti-historicism, and superstitions of the Kunstkammer as the prototypicalmuseum. While the Prelude texts generally position Wordsworth againstmechanistic natural philosophy, in favour of a more superstitiousscholasticism, they simultaneously display a methodical, analyticalEnlightenment mind at work. Through readings of passages of cabinetsand virtuosos in Books 2, 3, and 5 of The Prelude, the paper concludes thatWordsworth’s occasional use of these images in his work—what he mightterm objects removed from context in order to be classified, arranged, andpositioned ‘In disconnection, dead and spiritless’—significantly bears on acentral concern in his poetry: the relationship between history, nature, andthe creative imagination.

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