This essay traces Wordsworth's and Baudelaire's attempts to see into the lives of the unknown beggars they encountered on the streets of London and Paris and identifies those occasions on which both writers sought to appropriate the lives of the poor and vagrant for political ends. The essay argues that it is ultimately in those fleeting moments when the ability of the poet to enter into the lives of others is thwarted that the limits of a Romantic poetics can be established. In particular, the essay focuses on those occasions, in the work of both writers, when the process of identification with beggars — so sincerely wished for on account of its socio-political or aesthetic consequences — is interrupted, and the poet is exposed to an almost disabling moment of uncertainty. For Wordsworth, the essay contends, such moments occurred primarily when he moved out of the rural byways of England and into the crowded streets of London; for Baudelaire, they occurred when the “ineffable orgy” of the crowd failed to generate insights into the face of the stranger. For both writers, this failure of the poetic imagination on the streets of the metropolis, evident, for instance, in Wordsworth's encounter with the blind beggar in The Prelude and Baudelaire's with the old man in Les Sept Vieillards, marked the limit of a poetic activity based on identity, recognition, and empathy. The essay suggests that, while these moments were occasional and transitory, they delineate an imaginative terrain whose contours are visible in writers as diverse as Thomas De Quincey and T.S. Eliot.
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Quentin Bailey; Wordsworth, Baudelaire, and the Limits of Poetic Insight. Comparative Literature 1 June 2012; 64 (2): 150–168. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-1590119
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