'the unimaginable touch of Time'
: Wordsworth's Agon with Futurity

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


William Wordsworth wrote in an unpublished fragment from 1800 that he ‘look[ed] into past times
as prophets look / Into futurity’. In this thesis, I argue that Wordsworth endeavoured to achieve
success as a poet by simultaneously engaging with futurity and reconfiguring the past. ‘Futurity’ in
this context may be understood to denote both modernity as such – characterised by developments
in print culture, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, new modes of transport, and scientific
and technological innovation – and the future self, the proleptic notion of the poet in the future,
both living and posthumous. I argue that Wordsworth frequently found aspects of modernity
threatening to his career and to his chosen domestic environment, and that he was disposed to
adopt an agonistic approach to these perceived threats.
By ‘look[ing] into past times’, then, Wordsworth may be understood as seeking to bolster his sense
of a future poetic self in the face of a modernising world. He deployed traditional poetic and
intellectual models, but adapted them to fulfil the self-declared originality of his literary project,
while acknowledging the power of the literary and scientific traditions that they represent. I examine
how Wordsworth deploys older literary models such as the Ballad and Pastoral, as well as physicotheological paradigms such as the Newtonian system, in order to address the questions that futurity
posed for him.
In the face of critical hostility, particularly in the period between 1807 and 1814, Wordsworth
betrays a strain of anxiety that his engagement with futurity through print culture will be
unsuccessful, and I argue that he seeks to alleviate this anxiety by attempting to re-create an
authorial self through a re-shaping of his own past in order to assure a future in writing. We can
therefore observe him shaping an evolving oeuvre by means of re-collection and revision, and
through efforts to prolong copyright. Finally, still future-haunted – troubled by the fear of a double
death of corpse and corpus, and by the loss of legacy that this implies – towards the end of his life,
Wordsworth looks to his own landscape of the Lake District in order to frame a future that will have
the poet at its centre and will thereby preserve his reputation in an ecological fusion of the
environment and the written word.
Date of Award19 Mar 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorRalph R G Pite (Supervisor) & Andrew Bennett (Supervisor)

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