“There’s a Landscape Between Us”
What is a medium? Is it a material thing, or just an idea? In the context of art, we think of the word as signifying what the artist uses in process, or the physical means by which a picture is made. It can take many forms, but it is always whatever comes between the artist’s hand and the product; What is intermediary between the image and it’s maker. However, the word means much more than what its artist connotation implies. With text, is it the actual process of writing, or is it the language itself that is medium? The latter makes more sense. If we allow something as broad as language to be a medium, then a greater spectrum of meaning should be considered.
Distinguishing what is medium becomes complicated when looking at the ideological realm. Really, anything that comes between one thing and another can be ‘medium’. Anything that is used as some sort of ‘means’, to progress towards some sort of ‘end’ is fair game for such classification. Anything that is essentially used at all earns the name.
In physical terms, medium is easy to point out. In philosophical terms, however, you can call a greater number of things by this name. To unpack this suggestion, we will be looking at one of history’s favorite romantic poets, William Wordsworth, and discussing his tactics of exploitation, and how the landscape is used as a means to his end.
“I came among these hills; when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, wherever nature led; more like a man flying from something he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved.”
William Wordsworth was alive between 1770 and 1850, what we could see as a turning point between the two highest times of the British Empire. He lived out his youth during the latter half of the Second Empire, and grew into the beginning of what became a century of totalitarian imperial rule. Looking at Wordsworth’s favorite subject, the landscape, tends to raise questions when his context is taken into consideration. To Wordsworth’s empire, land was something that was completely up for the taking. The displacement of who occupied the land first was irrelevant; instead the colonial view of progress took greater precedence.
The choice to muse on the ‘beauty’ of the land at such a time is curious. We could initially read this as unproblematic, possibly as a rejection of the way political affairs were handled by the imperialists. However, if we examine the language closely, it does not seem as though a ‘return to nature’ really means a return to a simpler time before imperial rule. Wordsworth seeks nature not as a form of liberation, but merely as an escape. He briefly escapes, and then returns. Shrouded somewhere in this language of escape, we can gather a desire for conservation. Considering that we know Wordsworth spent the majority of his own time in the city, and yet his work speaks of the rural land, furthers this notion. He does not seek liberation from those in power, as he is always quick to return home. After his return, he spends his time dwelling on mere memories of this untamed place.
As a young adult, Wordsworth came to inherit a large estate. He went from being excluded from the ranks of the ruling class, to becoming a part of it. His choice to escape the city can only be escape, as he is quick to return to his privileges, and revel in what he experienced while away. The landscape he paints for us is fabricated by memory, and sentimentalized to an extreme. He briefly larks about in the natural with gaiety, almost as if he wishes he could just take it home. His wealth allows him to come and go as he pleases, without any consideration of the social realm of what is outside his element. He never mentions the presence of any other humans in his paradise. He sees the land as public domain for his private fantasy. There is no regard for who might be there, or the history the land retains. The landscape is borrowed, and used as a way to get closer to a happier, more virtuous image of Wordsworth.
While not actually in the landscape, Wordsworth uses what he remembers to fuel his poetic disposition of privilege. This in a way resembles colonial thinking, in that he can dream of the land he conquers while on vacation from the comfort of home. In his mind, he dictates the land while he is away from it. There are great parallels between his exploitation of the land for the sake of poetics, and the benefits reaped by the empire while away from the colony. He is intrigued by the natural wilderness, but through his portrayal of it the environment it is again re-tamed. This reflects the imperial desire to tame surrounding areas, those not yet under control of the empire.
Wordsworth’s memory and description of the landscape work to package it in such a way so that his ideal version can be later sold to the reader of his own, and of future generations. However, we know that a packaged landscape is in no way the same as the actual landscape. We can see this in the simple fact that we know the memory of an event is not the actual event, but is instead a medium somewhere between reality and perception. This essential aspect in his writing process exposes a major flaw that is furthered by the fact that Wordsworth’s retellings of the landscape do not seem to even take the reality of the time and place into consideration. There is no mention of any culture, history, people, or evidence of people who might inhabit the land. We only hear of the beauty of the fields, and how this beauty makes Wordsworth feel. His wish is not to present the idea of a real place to us; he instead creates an image that appeals to himself, and the logic of his country.
In his traipsing about the countryside, and the later accounts of it he makes from home, Wordsworth does not only embody and project the colonial mind, but asserts his self-realized intellectual dominance in doing so. He does not only borrow the land, but personifies it by giving it human characteristics. He frequently refers to the land as ‘she’, assigning gender to whom he exploits. While in much of his language, he seems to attempt at granting power to the female landscape by commending the untamed power of the land, there is something that seems to linger below the surface here.
“By reason and truth; what we have loved others will love; and we may teach them how, instruct them how the mind of man becomes a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which he dwells”
These lines are found at the end of the last book of the prelude. While the prelude was written early in his poetic career, before his more apparent adoption of British nationalism, lines like these read as warning of what is to come. What is he trying to tell us? Considering the language that has been used to speak of the earth throughout, we can assume this is an affirmation of his philosophical stance in regard to his ‘others’, with whom he rarely even comes in contact with. He often romanticizes the hermit, and seems largely unconcerned with the social reality around him. Still, he declares the female land as ‘other’, and places himself above it in social hierarchy. Additionally, we often hear him slip and refer to ‘things’ as having qualities of humans. Around this time, Immanuel Kant outlined in his version of ethical theory saying that morality can only be exercised by to those with the ability to rationalize. Those who lacked this elitist notion of mental ability were not humans, but were tagged as mere ‘things’. This is a parallel that is hard to ignore. Following this typical 18th century rationale, Wordsworth decides his self-determined ability to reason ‘better’ makes him a greater human than the personification of the landscape itself, as well as those who inhabit the landscape he uses. He declares himself as superior to what he has appropriated, sentimentalized, and assigned gender; what is the very means he uses to escape his reality.
When is it that something traditionally classified within a genre, can in fact be more appropriately given the name of medium? When we can identify what it is that comes between author and product, or something that mediates an outcome; when something is used as a way to obtain something greater. The idea of landscape, in the context of Wordsworth and other British Romantics, becomes ‘medium’ because exploitation of the land is hard to deny. Wordsworth’s use of the landscape mirrors the Empire’s mentality towards the acquisition of land, and is used as the medium to realize his poetic voice. Acquisition of land equates to the acquisition of power. This comes at the cost of the land, and the ‘others’ implied through the language used to describe it. Wordsworth’s sentimentality for the landscape can be equated to the painted landscapes of the time, since they both frame a greater social problem within an idealized image, that does not get at any sense of social reality. It would be a stretch to even call what we are reading about a real place, if we go only by the author’s description. Instead, we see a desperate man’s simulacrum; an escapist notion of reality taken through a siphon of memory and post-editing. The language comes from the position of self, with no real sense of an attempt to become external. We are left to decode Wordsworth’s ciphers, and raise our eyebrows at what we might find. The romantic language of landscape functions as the intermediary between actual social reality, and the author’s clouded perceptions and retellings.