This essay argues that the slippery boundary between “mind” and “media” drives William Wordsworth’s experimental poetics and looks at two poems’ attempts to reimagine that boundary. Whereas “Lines Written in Early Spring” struggles to understand mental states as the common medium that links the system of nature, “The Old Cumberland Beggar” gives up that desire for a common medium and focuses instead on the ways that mental processes arise from the interaction between heterogeneous elements of village life. If the latter poem appears more overtly conservative in its defense of a traditional way of life, it continues to experiment with counterintuitive or unsettling ways of depicting mediated activity between minds.
Wordsworth between Minds
University of Waterloo
1. This essay asks how the emerging field of Romantic media studies has changed (or should change) our understanding of Romantic-era concepts of mind by placing additional pressure on the question of how William Wordsworth understood minds to be mediated by their environments. Wordsworth’s most canonical statements about the Romantic era’s media situation demonstrate that he saw a close connection between private thinking and its social extensions. That connection is most familiar from the account of media saturation in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), with its diagnosis of a “multitude of causes unknown to former times,” from the reorganization of social space through urbanization to news media and cheap, sensationalist literature that “are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind” (xviii-xix). Despite all that he does to distance poetry from mass media, Wordsworth invests it with a similar task: poetry is itself a mode of communication that, when treated properly, would see a reader’s “understanding […] enlightened,” “taste exalted,” and “affections ameliorated” (xv).  Mental acts as basic as thinking, judging, and feeling are not self-contained but depend on their environment in ways that can be assistive or debilitating. For better or worse, in Wordsworth’s account, people’s mental powers are conditioned by their media situation.
2. It is fairly well established, then, that the preface to Lyrical Ballads paints a picture of a media ecology and marks one of the more explicitly polemical ways that Wordsworth “grappled,” like more recent media theorists, “with the impact of new media on bodies, imaginations, and sensoria” (Langan and McLane 239). Yet, from his earliest and most materialist poetry to a number of other sites—the Platonism of the “Intimations” ode (1807), the psychoanalytic overtones of the Prelude’s (1799, 1805, 1850) spots of time, or, more to my purpose, the fragment “There is an active principle alive in all things” (1798)—Wordsworth frequently makes a stronger claim that essential parts of the mind are located outside the individual altogether. There is an important difference between picturing the mind as conditioned by its material circumstances and, in the words of philosopher Andy Clark, as “extended” or enlarged by a material environment including technologies and prostheses (xxviii). It is hardly controversial, after all, to claim that minds lean upon their environments or depend upon tools and only slightly more so to suggest, in a posthuman spirit, that what appears as human agency is better understood in terms of assemblages or networks. It is a somewhat different claim, however, to assert that parts of an individual’s cognitive system are networked and, accordingly, that what happens “out there” in the network should be considered part of an individual mind.
3. This essay argues that such a distinction matters to Wordsworth, not only in his account of media saturation but also in his many poetic attempts to articulate the relation between mind and world. To clarify what is at stake in approaching this well-trodden ground from the point of view of media and mediation, I first consider how recent work on Romantic-era media has framed the issue of the mind’s entanglement with technologies. I then turn to two poems—“Lines Written in Early Spring” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar”—where Wordsworth sought to extend the mind into the environment. My aim is to show that, for Wordsworth, attending to “the whole media situation” (Langan and McLane 243) was indeed a way to make claims about individual minds—most importantly by experimenting with ways to picture thinking as a networked activity that takes place between minds, or as a collaboration between minds and their environments.
4. Romantic media studies has by now done much to argue that by the late-eighteenth century questions of mind were already framed in terms of what we might, following Clifford Siskin and William Warner’s lead in This Is Enlightenment (2010), retrospectively call “mediation” (1). In their essay “The Medium of Romantic Poetry,” for example, Celeste Langan and Maureen McLane propose reading the period’s poetry as “the product of a ‘media revolution,’” even and especially when the poetry itself seems to resist that formulation (241). Even when Romantic poetry focuses on the “operations of internalization” with which it was once overwhelmingly associated, Langan and McLane argue, it draws attention in the process to that sensory medium’s contours and offers a “media allegory” that maps “the synapses of interiority, what we might today call the network of the nervous system” (258). In an age of rapidly expanding mass media, it became easier to picture the sensorium itself as a communication technology continuous with other conduits of information. Just as the rise of print created a heightened focus on the medium of oral poetry (and resulted in the multi-media echoes Langan and McLane locate in Romantic poetics), so too even the most internalizing, idealist poems foreground the ways that the mind itself is mediated materially through the sensorium, the nerves, or the brain, which had come to appear as an assemblage of sensory channels. If David Hartley’s theory of vibrations—that ideas in the mind consist of patterned motions of the mental substrate—offered the science of perception a model analogous to Newtonian mechanics, it also reinforced the sense that perception itself entailed translation and mediation.
5. In fact, as Kevis Goodman has shown, the sense organs had long been understood in much this way, as channels that provided mediated access to particular features of the world. As Goodman argues in Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism (2004), the term “medium” itself has close ties to the senses and came into English usage as a term for the “intervening space” or “in-between” that, for Aristotle, characterized the mediating spaces of perception (17-18). Much of the enlightenment’s epistemology would rehearse the recognition that even those most embodied, immediate avenues of knowledge are imperfect media prone to disturbance or “noise” (10). Yet one of the things Goodman highlights is that reframing the senses in this way did not simply analogize them to other things we would now call “media” (such as print, or optical technologies), but weakened the boundary between the “private” life of sensation and the external mediations of technology and history. Indeed, Goodman tracks the history of mediation through the georgic mode in part because of how closely that mode was linked to the early enlightenment obsession with technological aids, supplements, and prostheses—its “efforts to extend, by means of an array of artificial ‘organs,’ what Francis Bacon called ‘the reports of the senses’” (9). As the mind’s materials came to resemble communication technologies, in other words, it became easier to imagine that other such technologies also formed part of the life of the mind: that terms like “sensation” or “thinking” were names for processes that were larger than an individual’s embodied faculties. The concept of media ecology, we might say, was from the start bound up with the concept of an ecology of mind.
6. In the interest of showing how this history of mediation bequeathed to Romanticism a “multi-media” understanding of the mind, it is worth putting some pressure on that path’s related ideas, as taken in more recent philosophy of mind and media studies. One provocative way into Wordsworth’s mediated minds would be through a more recent development of the Baconian logic of extension, under the rubric of the “extended mind” thesis. Proponents of an extended mind advance the claim that at least some of the things that should count as thinking occur outside of the brain and body in the “physical machinery that realizes some of our cognitive processes and mental states” (Clark 76). Clark and other “extended mind” theorists follow Susan Hurley’s suggestion in Consciousness in Action (2002) that it would be a fallacy to see external props and machinery as merely causing or conditioning mental processes: the difference between the “causal” and the “constitutive” is not a given, but a philosophical prejudice (Clark 130). So, on this argument, we would be wrong to insist that the media called out in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, such as news media or poetry, can have only causal effects—blunting, enlightening, ameliorating—on a reader’s mind, and we ought not to preclude the possibility that such external factors might actually form part of those processes we call mental. If extended mind theorists are right, then at least in some cases cognition is not simply conditioned or aided by technologies but is partially constituted by them.
7. In keeping with this volume’s focus on intermediality, one slightly different way to rephrase this claim might be that mental activity takes place in multiple media, including those located in the mind’s material correlates as well as in writing, print, and the other communication technologies more traditionally associated with media studies. Indeed, theorists of media have long modeled thinking as extended or distributed in much this way. We might think, for instance, of Marshall McLuhan’s description of media as “extensions of man.”  This formulation is subject to an objection much like the “causal-constitutive” distinction: calculators, notebooks, and radio transmitters are things minds make and use, and it is easy to describe them for that reason as being like the mind or to describe them metaphorically as extensions of the mind. Yet that does not mean it would be philosophically precise to say that their activities should be considered part of human mental activity, rather than remaining sequestered in the realm of social and cultural artifacts. As it approaches this “media studies” version, then, extended mind theory risks tending toward the metaphorical, asserting that human minds are constituted by their tools and technological supplements, but only showing that human thinking depends on its tools.  How one responds to that objection depends, in effect, on how one sees the relation between McLuhan and Clark, between the claim that the mind is entangled with its technologies and the claim that thinking happens in those technologies. Either the extended mind thesis is simply media theory putting on airs, and thus not actually an authentic account of the cognitive; or—if the thesis is correct—it would follow that media theory already is a theory of how the mind spills over the confines of brain and body.
8. If our goal is to see how these issues play out in Wordsworth’s poetry, then, we should look at some places where he pictures the mind as spilling over in this way. We know that Wordsworth was interested in a networked or externalized approach to mental states because of his engagement with a materialism for which “Lines Written in Early Spring” will serve as a good point of reference. One way to read the poem is as an experiment in just how far the speaker can carry a counterintuitive theory: that affective states exist in the physical world in a manner akin to or identical with physical motion and, as a result, that human thinking and feeling consist of exchanges or transactions between the mind and its environment. What it ostensibly tries to show is that, just as undiscerned processes of association can make “pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind,” thinking in the first place is provoked and influenced by the natural surround—the “fair works” to which “nature link[ed] / The human soul that through me ran” (3-6). It is the third stanza’s confession of faith—“And ’tis my faith that every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes” (11-12)—that has done the most to place the poem within the tradition of Romantic materialism, most recently in Marjorie Levinson’s call to hear a “Spinozistic echo” in these lines and in Wordsworth’s early poetry more generally (367). Wordsworth knew of such propositions from various sources. Most directly, the claim in “Lines Written in Early Spring” draws on Erasmus Darwin’s hypothesis that plants “are furnished with a common sensorium belonging to each bud” (I:107).  To suggest that flowers enjoy the air they breathe implies that mental states do not only exist in highly organized systems like animals, but in all living systems, or still more scandalously, in all matter. Beyond the already scandalous proposition that the mind was material, in its boldest and most Spinozistic construction, the poem alludes to a philosophical position that now goes by the name “panpsychism.” A panpsychist holds that mental properties are basic attributes of all matter, components of the basic building blocks of life, rather than something that (for example) emerges from complex systems. 
9. Ultimately, the poem raises as many doubts as convictions. If the first half of the poem asserts such a faith, the second half emphasizes that it is an item of faith precisely because it is so uncertain. Though thoughts may well be material and therefore in theory measurable, the speaker “cannot measure” the thoughts of birds but can only guess that their motions “seem’d” (but perhaps only seemed) “a thrill of pleasure” (16). The fifth stanza in particular is a difficult one to read as a straightforward statement of belief:
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there. (17-20)
10. In short, the idea that every flower enjoys the air it breathes comes to appear, as Simon Jarvis has put it, as a form of “wishful thinking” (31). This statement of faith might seem to be the paradigmatic case for what Jarvis describes as an optative mood that bleeds even into many of Wordsworth’s “apparently unequivocal assertions” on the subject of the life of things, making them appear as “credal declaration[s]” or “confession[s] of faith” (31). “Lines Written in Early Spring” does not just seem like a creed: the poem calls itself one and for that matter does so only conditionally—“If such be of my creed the plan, / Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?” (22-24). The goal is not to establish what is true but to work out the relations among various parts of a proposition: if I think this, must I not also think that? Or, more precisely, if I believe that mental properties exist in all things, must I not also feel a certain way as a result? The poem does not quite confirm, then, that the speaker actually holds fast to this creed, much less that the panpsychist belief has asserted itself through the kind of self-evidence named in line 21 (the also conditional or optative “If I these thoughts may not prevent”). Instead, the poem dramatizes a set of questionable tendencies or habits: to personify, to project intentions onto objects, and to translate motions into affects and affects into thoughts.
11. Yet the confession of faith captures a wished-for remedy to its own problem: if mental properties are properties of physical systems rather than individuals, if feelings are actually more like motions, then bouncing twigs can transmit those feelings through sensory channels with the irresistible force of physical law. Most importantly, by making mental states properties of physical systems, the poem envisions a world where human and nonhuman objects communicate in a common medium. “Lines Written in Early Spring” rehearses, and perhaps pushes to the breaking point, one way of picturing nature as a connected system. This matters for Romantic media studies because the poem offers a way of talking about the mind’s mediation by its environment in which “mediation” means more than “influence” or “causation.” One of the things the panpsychism of “Early Spring” marks, I suggest, is a desire to go beyond the picture of the mind as conditioned or determined by objects in the environment and instead to ensure that those environmental factors were already authentically mentalistic. Its Spinozistic wish is something we might also read as a wish for unmediated communication, or, failing that, at least for a guarantee that the causal relationship between mind and environment occurred reliably, in a common medium.
The “Mild Necessity” of Networks
12. In its doubts and hesitations, “Lines Written in Early Spring” already begins to frame that wish as being a bit too much to ask. Yet Wordsworth continued to experiment with networked accounts of mental life. An alternate formulation is on offer in “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” a poem Wordsworth had begun years earlier and turned to once it became clear that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel” would not appear in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. The poem narrates an encounter with “an aged Beggar” the speaker has known since childhood and who seems to live a largely automatic life: he seems unfathomably old, hardly moves (“so still” he is “[i]n look and motion”), and has a field of vision restricted to “one little span of earth” (61, 50). Yet, though referred to as “solitary” three times in the poem and apparently oblivious to other people, he elicits unasked-for charity from them with clockwork regularity (24, 44, 110).
13. Wordsworth described the poem as demonstrating the value of traditional practices of mendicancy and almsgiving, practices preferable to newer systematized ones of recruiting mendicants to workhouses. In the course of describing the traditional practices of unquestioned almsgiving, one of the most interesting things the poem does is portray such practices as reflexive, unthinking acts of charity:
Where’er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,
The mild necessity of use compels
To acts of love; and habit does the work
Of reason. (90-93)
While thus he creeps
From door to door, the Villagers in him
Behold a record which together binds
Past deeds and offices of charity
Else unremember’d (79-83)
14. We have learned to read this celebration of a traditional social organization and its daily habits in terms of a Burkean conservatism present even in Wordsworth’s early poetry. If the beggar models a “faculty in which habit does the work of reason,” that faculty has close ties to the Burkean language of custom, where, as James Chandler argues, “feeling [does] the work of willing, divine law the work of human law, providence the work of political science” (89). Yet, as Levinson has provocatively noted, what appears to be Burke’s custom may well be Spinoza’s conatus by another name: their entanglement “put[s] a reverse spin on Wordsworth’s Burkean politics” (377). As a result, I suggest, the urge toward embodied intersubjectivity depicted in “Early Spring” could endure even in a pose more likely to be called traditionalist, conservative, or counter-enlightenment. Another way to put this would be that what we might call a Romantic-era extended mind thesis formed a hinge by which earlier, radical ideas could migrate and endure. In spite of its Burkean conclusion—that preserving tradition is preferable to political intervention—the poem retains that focus on inter-mental relationships and attempts to describe “traditional” social forms more specifically in terms of individuals’ cognitive dependency upon the beggar.
15. As Wordsworth wrote to Charles Fox regarding the poem, his own poetic practice was a reckoning with the “rapid decay of the domestic affections among the lower orders of society,” the decay that “The Old Cumberland Beggar” aligns with the house of industry (260). The work the beggar does—tying together past and present and assisting in cognitive labor in ways that replaced individual memory—applies to almsgiving, but also to poetry. If, as Alex Dick has argued, the poem “invites questions about the value of poetry,” Wordsworth reframes both mendicancy and poetry as usefully embedded in a society’s collective mental life (365).  In the oral culture with which Wordsworth’s multi-media poetics were always in dialogue, traditional literature could, like the beggar, come to supplement internal or “in-house” memory. “Offloading” of this sort can point to collectivity via the communalism of ballad tradition or to a particular way of framing socially-supported existence through the division of labor. But when read as a reworking of his earlier dalliance with panpsychism—one that already in “Early Spring” seemed a bit too good to be true—“The Old Cumberland Beggar” underscores a particular, Wordsworthian argument about the role that external things (whether embodied habits, poems, or workhouses) can play in thinking.
16. Literary critics have lately had much to say about the livelihood of things, given what Mary Jacobus, in Romantic Things (2012), calls our “current interest in theorizing [. . .] the expressivity of the nonhuman and inanimate” and in recognizing “that what does not know (itself), or even lay claim to sense, can nonetheless make claims on us” (5).  For Adam Potkay, too, Wordsworth’s poetry is defined by its engagement with “the determining system of things,” a system which is “not incompatible with human [. . .] agency, but neither is it fully answerable to it” (393). Wordsworth has been an attractive figure in this climate and with good reason: it is, after all, offering renewed attention to the Spinozistic Wordsworth, who was keen to foreground humanity’s continuity and entanglement with the world of “mute insensate things” (“Three years she grew in sun and shower” 18). Accordingly, much of my argument could surely be rephrased in more “object-oriented” terms, in which case it would likely wind up framing Wordsworth’s collaborative model of thinking as a decentered interaction between objects of various kinds (humans, birds, and flowers alongside nerves, words, poems, coins, and workhouses). That does seem like a stance that would do justice to some of the starkest moments of Wordsworthian materiality. But at least in the poems under consideration here, Wordsworth seems far more interested in an interaction that does have a center, and a fairly traditional one at that. What holds value is the interaction or exchange by which environmental objects come to serve a role in the inner lives of particular human thinkers.
17. To be sure, these moments in “Early Spring” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar” reframe people as systems and blur the boundaries between those systems and their environments. The question of where thinking happens matters, and it frequently happens in the spaces in between an individual mind and the environment. “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” in particular, can be read as an attempt to underscore human thinking as the chief concern, and the poem’s exploration of the objects and interstitial spaces that thinking inhabits does not, for all that, encourage the dispersal of “mind” into a fully posthuman vocabulary. Yet it does ask for the built environment to do more work than simply influence or condition thinking. When we retroactively place Wordsworth in the long history of media theory, in other words, one result is that he demands in return a more robust account of mediation: if indeed the embodied senses had come to appear as media in their own right, then Wordsworth works from the other direction to bring parts of the media environment into the circuit of individuals’ cognitive processes. It is a matter—to quote “Early Spring” once more—of “what man has made of man” (8, 24): leaning upon tools that, rather than merely assisting, actually enlarge and extend the mind; or, alternately, as in the passage of the preface with which I began, becoming too extended, blunting or eroding one’s embodied faculties by leaving too much of the labor to other hands.
Chandler, James. Wordsworth’s Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Print.
Clark, Andy. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Darwin, Erasmus. Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life. 2 vols. London: Joseph Johnson, 1794-1796. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Dick, Alex J. “Poverty, Charity, Poetry: The Unproductive Labors of ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar.’” Studies in Romanticism 39.3 (2000): 365-396. Print.
Fodor, Jerry. “Where Is My Mind?” London Review of Books 31.3 (2009): 13-15. Print.
Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.
Hessell, Nikki. “The Opposite of News: Rethinking the 1800 Lyrical Ballads and the Mass Media.” Studies in Romanticism 45.3 (2006): 331-355. Print.
Hogan, Angie. “Lines Written in Early Spring.” Poets on Poets. Romantic Circles. 15 Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Hurley, Susan L. Consciousness in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.
Jacobus, Mary. Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012. Print.
Jarvis, Simon. Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.
Langan, Celeste. Romantic Vagrancy: Wordsworth and the Simulation of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.
Langan, Celeste and Maureen N. McLane. “The Medium of Romantic Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry. Ed. James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 239-262. Print.
Levinson, Marjorie. “A Motion and a Spirit: Romancing Spinoza.” Studies in Romanticism 46.4 (2007): 367-408. Print.
Logan, Robert K. Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.
Matlak, Richard. “Wordsworth’s Reading of Zoonomia in Early Spring.” The Wordsworth Circle 21 (1990): 76-81. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.
Potkay, Adam. “Wordsworth and the Ethics of Things.” PMLA 123.2 (2008): 390-404. Print.
Richardson, Alan. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
Sexton, Elaine. “Lines Written in Early Spring.” Poets on Poets. Romantic Circles. 13 June 2007. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Siskin, Clifford and William Warner, eds. This Is Enlightenment. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. Print.
Skrbina, David. Panpsychism in the West. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2005. Print.
Strawson, Galen. “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 13.10-11 (2006): 3-31. IngentaConnect. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads with Other Poems. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1800. Romantic Circles. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Wordsworth, William and Dorothy Wordsworth. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years 1787-1805. Ed. Ernest De Selincourt. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967. Print.
 On the “overlap” between Lyrical Ballads (1800) and mass media, see Nikki Hessell. Thanks to Celeste Langan in particular for the reminder that this sort of extension of the mind is something William Wordsworth often describes in pathological terms. BACK
 I am thinking here of the halting commas in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” that Marjorie Levinson draws out, through her dialogue with Marshall Brown, as suggesting a difficult recognition or admission (388). BACK