What’s the difference between a work of art and a dream? Literary critic Jacques Barzun gives a concise and convincing answer: “the difference between a work of art and a dream is precisely this, that the work of art leads us back to the outer reality by taking account of it.” (Quoted by Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, pp. 190-191.)
Lionel Trilling observes that Romanticism “despite its avowals, was itself scientific, for it was passionately devoted to a research into the self.” (Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, p. 182) Literary fantasies are in other words composed by conscious minds, which apprehend dreamlike subject matter from the vantage point of reality and within the context of reality.
But it’s also true that Romantic writers sometimes rebel against reality so fiercely as to misrepresent it without acknowledging the lie—without being aware of it, maybe. There is no more blatant case of such distortion among the English Romantic poets than Wordsworth’s saccharine depictions of peasants. Take, for example, WW’s poem “The Solitary Reaper” about a peasant woman working a Scottish field, cutting and binding grain, and singing while she works. Here is the last stanza:
Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
Trilling says the Romantics were preoccupied “with children, women, peasants, savages, because their mental life, it is felt, is less overlaid than that of the educated adult male by the proprieties of social habit.” (Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, p. 184) That is well-meaning, I guess, if patronizing. Wordsworth was terribly well-meaning, socially progressive, and had a revolutionary and salutary effect on English literature. He didn’t have a particularly easy life either, being orphaned by age 13. But he misrepresents and sentimentalizes the hard work of reaping grain in a way that rings particularly false. He is selling himself the fantasy that peasant girls sing because they live simple lives, free of modern problems. But even a horse has been known to object to manual labor, and I’ve never seen a bucket list with the line item, before I die, I must reap some grain.
What is unfortunately irritating about Wordsworth’s poem is that it’s an extreme sort of fantasy that does not seem to take hardly any account of reality. I will speculate that his mother’s death when he was 7 caused him to wish to idealize suffering women in his poetry and to want to make their suffering disappear in visions of imperturbable beauty and unstained, unstainable virtue. If we could see the ground of real suffering out of which this keening hallucination sprang—that is, if the fantasy poem took some slight account of the difficult realities underpinning it, it would be more artistically successful. As such, it’s too insubstantial for me to swallow.
The irony is that the associations and etymology of the very word peasant completely undermine the airy, patronizing, Wordsworthian fantasy of the carefree singing Solitary Reaper. Peasant comes from paysanne in French, which comes from pays, meaning land. WW has tried to fill his peasant girl with helium and untether her from the hard material ground that gave peasants their earthy name. Gustave Flaubert, who effected a rebellion against the excesses of literary romance, by contrast weighs his peasants down with crude, unflattering reality. To juxtapose “The Solitary Reaper” and this passage from Madame Bovary about a naïve peasant woman being honored at the Yonville Agricultural Show is to puncture the Wordsworthian fantasy in a comic way:
Then to the platform came a frightened-looking little old lady who seemed shrunken in her shabby garments. On her feet were heavy wooden clogs and around her hips a large blue apron. Her scrawny face, framed by a borderless cap, was more wrinkled than a shriveled apple, and bony knuckles dangled from the sleeves of her red bodice. They were so encrusted, roughened, and gnarled from barn dust, soapsuds and grease from sheep’s wool that they seemed dirty even though they had been washed in clean water. They remained half bent from having worked so long, humble witnesses of so much suffering. The expression on her face was of an almost nunlike inflexibility. Having lived in the company of animals, she had acquired their muteness and placidity. This was the first time that she found herself in the midst of such a numerous group, and inwardly frightened by the flags and drums, by the gentlemen in frock coats, and by the counselor’s Cross of Honor, she remained stock-still, not knowing whether to move forward or run off, nor why the people were pushing her and the examiners smiling. There, before these expansive townspeople, stood this half-century of servitude.
“Come forth, venerable Catherine-Nicaise-Elizabeth Leroux!” said the counselor, who had taken the list of winners from the president’s hands. “Come up, come up,” he repeated in a paternal tone, alternately looking at the sheet of paper and the old woman.
“Are you deaf?” said Tuvache, hopping up from his chair.
He began to shout in her ear: “Fifty-four years of service! A silver medal. Twenty-five francs. For you.”
Madame Bovary, Signet Classics trans., pp. 153-154
Flaubert’s hilarious description of the peasant lady crushed and compacted by a lifetime of menial labor is a far cry from the fairy-creature singing in that Scottish field with her magic sickle. The counselor figure in the above passage seems to satirize Wordsworth in his unseeing fantasy. It’s funny; but in the pairing you can also see a tectonic movement in literary history. There is Romanticism—and in particular Wordsworth’s denial of death mixed with Rousseau’s rebellion against the starched aristocratic order—giving way to a later generation’s rebellion in the form of a radical modern realism.