Felicity James reads

Presences that Disturb: Models of Romantic Identity in the Literature and Culture of the 1790s

by Damian Walford Davies (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002)

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp 72-76)



Presences that Disturb is an act of imaginative recovery and reconstruction.  Damian Walford Davies sets out to convey the cultural impact of certain figures, and certain landscapes, political and geographical, on writers of the 1790s—from William Henry Ireland to William Wordsworth.  He is on the track of, as Harold Bloom would have it, those ‘hidden roads’ which go between poems.  Significantly, however, Walford Davies does not refer to influences, but rather to presences, revealing an interlocking network of historical references, political implications, and intertextual allusions behind the poems he explores.  He brilliantly succeeds in re-placing the reader in the radical writing community of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thelwall, David Williams and Iolo Morganwg, showing the ways in which they drew from the same cultural and literary sources.  We are afforded an intimate glimpse into what Walford Davies terms the ‘reticular culture of conversation and allusion’ (p.96) in which their writing is placed. 

       Walford Davies skilfully analyses the ways in which a writer may be ‘haunted’ by a particular work or landscape.  Fittingly, therefore, his book is itself informed and shaped by the dilemmas and the deep insights of ‘Tintern Abbey’:


                 And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me…


Using the poem as framework and guide, Walford Davies explores the formation of the Romantic creative imagination.  Many of the issues raised in the book spring from Wordsworth’s own preoccupations in ‘Tintern Abbey’: the relationship of the writer to his former self, for example, or the attempt to reconcile personal crisis with political commitment.  Similarly, Walford Davies seeks to explore the connection of landscape, such as the ‘wild secluded scene’ of the Wye Valley, with patterns of thought.  Questions of personal and national identity are brought sharply into focus in the context of the Welsh landscape: ‘Wales itself is revealed in this book to be a presence that disturbs and energizes the Romantic Imagination’ (p.2).  This nicely demonstrates the way in which Walford Davies pays attention to the marginal aspects of Romantic culture.  Moving outward from the canonical text, he ranges through diverse letters, plays, pamphlets and political tracts, showing how a community, past and present, impinges on the writings of an individual. 




       He opens up a way into this culture by examining the ways in which writers identify with and respond to a range of ‘emblematic human presences—both historical and contemporary’.  The opening chapter gives a fine example of this range: it examines the link between Tewdrig, the saint and king of Morgannwg commemorated in the name ‘Tintern’, and the Welsh historian who documented his life, David Williams.  Williams, whom his friend Benjamin Franklin termed the ‘English Rousseau’, was a powerful intellectual presence, whose importance as preacher, reformer and critic went far beyond Dissenting circles.  His work, including Letters on Political Liberty and The History of Monmouthshire, was widely influential.  Walford Davies shows how Wordsworth may have felt a particular identification with the radical Williams, and how this imperceptibly filters into his poetry.  Wordsworth would have been particularly interested in Williams’ intense commitment to revolutionary ideals.  Might the two men even have met, asks Walford Davies, in France in late 1792? 

       Certainly, there are interesting parallels between Williams’ despondency after leaving France and Wordsworth’s own disillusionment: both men tried to deal with the frustration of their ideals by developing personal conceptions of active sympathy.  Williams, as Walford Davies shows, may have acted as an important model for Wordsworth, demonstrating how political involvement could be maintained even in solitude.  As well as his writing, David Williams was channelling his energies into acts of benevolence, such as the establishment of the Royal Literary Fund in 1790, which was of course to help the young Coleridge with a gift of 10 guineas in 1796.  He seemed to embody the ideal of radical commitment in retirement which was causing Coleridge so much anxiety at this point—Williams, after all, was an active participant in the ‘bloodless fight’ of ‘Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement’. 

       Coleridge’s poem was published in the Monthly Magazine just a few months after Williams’ History of Monmouthshire had been well-reviewed there by Dyer and Enfield, and Walford Davies shows just how widespread the cultural effect of the History might have been.  He resurrects and analyses the work, showing how it turned figures of the past, such as the hermit Tewdrig, into a part of radical discourse.  Tewdrig’s fight against the Saxons, narrated by Williams, became invested with patriotic and heroic significance—read by Wordsworth, in the context of his own earlier revolutionary ideals, it might have taken on a personal symbolism, also.  ‘Tintern Abbey’, written at the place of Tewdrig’s death, brings together all Wordsworth’s various strands of thought about commitment, retirement and duty at the time, so that it forms ‘part of a politically and socially aware vision inherited from Williams—and from Coleridge’ (p.9).  Both the History and ‘Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement’ lie in the background of the poem: Walford Davies allows us a fresh appreciation of the poem’s great subtlety in blending myths, literature and politics.

       This study shows that, like the hermit Tewdrig, history is a continual,




troubling presence in the background of ‘Tintern Abbey’.  And it is significant that this book examines presences that disturb: Walford Davies particularly takes issue with the ‘troubling absences’ of New Historicist criticism.  The well-publicised line of argument adopted by Marjorie Levinson and Jerome McGann puts forward an idea of ‘Tintern Abbey’ as an ‘allegory of absence’: a private, exclusive, escapist work.[1]  Levinson in particular has read ‘Tintern Abbey’ as an example of the poet’s euphemistic imagination: he simply denies the socio-political context of his own work.  Levinson’s Wordsworth airily overlooks the suffering of the poor in the Wye Valley—he is too engrossed in his own self-centred relationships.  Similarly Alan Liu, despite recognising the importance of ‘background reminders of historicity’ in Wordsworth, concludes that his poem ultimately functions as a denial of history.  Walford Davies gives these New Historicist readings their due, but his analysis of the wider context of Wordsworth’s reading and thinking shows them to be woefully partial.  As his discussion of the Tewdrig myth beautifully demonstrates, histories are told and retold to reflect changing preoccupations—so too, as is evident here, is criticism. 

       This skill at showing how historical figures are adapted and used to represent different ideas emerges still more strongly in the second chapter of the book.  The discussion of Tewdrig and Williams as models of solitude and involvement is balanced by an examination of a parallel embodiment of betrayal and guilt: the figure of Vortigern, the fifth-century king whose treachery resulted in the loss of Britain to the Saxons.  If the heroic Tewdrig is present in Wordsworth’s conception of the Wye Valley, so too is the fugitive Vortigern, pursued there after betraying his people—a figure, possibly, who might have been ‘Flying from something that he dreads’.  With admirable delicacy, Walford Davies attempts to trace Wordsworth’s own anxieties over betrayal at this time.  He gives an idea of how deeply Wordsworth was considering ideas of guilt and failure, both of ideals and of relationships, and how his own situation might have intersected with his readings of Vortigern, a ‘resonant’ figure in the culture of the 1790s.  The “Shakespeare” play written by the forger Ireland, and performed to general amusement in 1796—as Coleridge wrote, it ended up ‘completely DAMNED!!’—did much to raise the profile of Vortigern.  There is a good section on this play: undeniably risible in parts, it may in fact be read as an interesting dramatization of ‘contemporary anxieties and political positions’.  Also interesting is the way in which John Thelwall, himself seeking refuge in the Wye Valley, reacted to the Vortigern figure, who functioned ‘both as a prototype of his own hunted radical self and as a political antitype’ (p.83).  Walford Davies suggests how Thelwall’s ideas of Vortigern are filtered through his readings of Wordsworth and Coleridge, to emerge in his poems of 1800, with their emphasis on wanderers and exiles.  Thelwall is shown to be a ‘dark second self’ of Wordsworth and Coleridge




(p.78)—tormented in his ‘enchanted dormitory’ by questions of political commitment and action, his situation reflects their own self-doubt. 

       This discussion of two differing models—one of benevolent action in solitude, one of betrayal and guilt—sets the scene for a wider examination of the ways in which history was being constructed and reported in the 1790s.  The complex picture of allegiances built up in the first two chapters helps Walford Davies to determine attitudes towards a contemporary ‘emblem’ of revolutionary involvement: Kosciusko.  The subtle explorations of historical context and interest in antiquarianism allow us to understand contemporary reactions to him better.  How was this man, in all his uncompromising physical presence, read?  How was he portrayed, in art, literature and journalism?  ‘Did you seize the opportunity of seeing Kosciusko while he was at Bristol?’ Lamb playfully asked Coleridge in June 1797.  ‘I never saw a hero; I wonder how they look’.  Coleridge didn’t see him, despite the sonnet he had written in his honour in December 1794, but he shared the widespread fascination with the actual appearance of heroism.  Walford Davies augments the excellent work in this area by Thomas McLean, tracing appropriations and uses of imagery relating to Kosciusko’s body—the ‘dark eagle eye’ remarked on by Richard Warner, and the ‘countenance pale, painful and emaciated’ observed by Southey.[2]  

       The promotion of Kosciusko as hero and patriot is set alongside a discussion of a ‘masterful piece of self-promotion’ (p.137), by Edward Williams, ‘Iolo Morganwg’.  The ways in which he constructed his own identity as the ‘Bard of Liberty’ are strange and diverting.  In an article undoubtedly written by himself in the Gentleman’s Magazine of November 1789, he set himself up as a self-taught poet, hermit and ‘Pythagorean’—as Walford Davies puts it, a ‘humble, rustic, industrious, abstemious, vegetarian artisan, brimful of genius’ (p.137).  Another of the radical and eccentric polymaths who enlivened this era, he deserves, as this book rightly insists, to be read alongside canonical authors.  The discussion here forms a welcome part of the ongoing project to open up his manuscript work for serious criticism.  It also demonstrates how important Williams is as a way into understanding Coleridge’s attitudes to Unitarian radicalism.  Both, suggests Walford Davies, ‘recognized Jesus as the model reformer’ (p.147).  Like Thelwall, Williams may have been viewed by Coleridge as another self; fascinating in his own right, he was also a model or template important in forming the creative identities of others. 


The final chapter knits together all these ideas of friendship and identification, showing how writers read one another.  Taking his cue from the dialogic criticism of Lucy Newlyn and Paul Magnuson, Walford Davies delicately teases apart patterns of allusion and quotation within the friendship of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Thelwall, showing how ‘identity is defined through allusion’




(p.211).  Presences that Disturb begins with a discussion of the ways in which Wordsworth read the story of Tewdrig through the history of David Williams.  It closes with an overview of the ways in which Wordsworth himself is read, how others use his writing as part of their own imaginative self-projections: for example, the way in which ‘Tintern Abbey’ is re-written by Thelwall in ‘On the Banks of the Wye’.  This idea is supported by the Thelwall letters which are published for the first time here in a highly useful appendix—they give a wonderfully fresh perspective of Coleridge and the Wordsworths in the summer of 1797, when Thelwall visited the ‘Academus of Stowey’ (p.296).  We see the walks of ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’ through another’s eyes:


We have been having a delightful ramble to day among the plantations & along…a wild romantic dell in these grounds thro which a foaming, murmuring, rushing torrent of water winds its long artless course—There have we sometime sitting on a tree—sometimes wading boot-top deep thro the stream… a literary & political triumvirate…passed sentence on the productions and characters of the age—burst forth in poetical enthusiasm – & philosophised our minds into a state of tranquility which the leaders of nations might envy and the residents of Cities can never know.


It’s Alfoxden from another angle, beautifully glimpsed: we see here exactly how the same phrases and ideas are used by different friends to form an interconnected conversation.  ‘A literary & political triumvirate’—the same words which Coleridge himself had used to describe his relationship with Lamb and Lloyd.  Now the participants of the triumvirate had changed, showing Coleridge’s great ability to fire others with friendly enthusiasm.  Yet this enthusiasm, as Walford Davies shows in his sensitive reading of Thelwall’s dark poetry, seldom endured, and often left bitterness behind. 

       This is an excellent study of the intersections between life, literature and history.  Walford Davies manages to convey a real sense of the ‘discursive community’ of these diverse readers and writers.  He in his turn, with his insights into the marginalized and non-canonical, appears to have adopted the radical democracy of his subjects.  And in recovering the conversations and connections of the 1790s, he allows us to pick up the tones which Wordsworth might have heard in that ‘still, sad music of humanity’.


[1]              See Marjorie Levinson, Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems: Four Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 14 – 57; J. J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983)

[2]              See Thomas McLean, “Transformed, not Inly Altered”: Kosciuszko and Poland in Post-Waterloo Britain’, Keats-Shelley Journal 50 (2001), 64-83