I’d like to return to Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) to think through some of the ways in which Romanticism seems presciently attuned to issues that might seem entirely contemporary – mass surveillance, mutual informing (sometimes called "lateral surveillance") on Facebook, Snapchat and other social media platforms, as well as military practices such as “enhanced interrogation”. I'm particularly interested in Wordsworth’s rather odd poem, “The Thorn”, which focuses on the plight of an outcast woman in the Quantock Hills, Somerset. It's often read as an example of Romanticism's gothic mood, and a comment on intolerance in communities. However, it also offers a very specific, historically grounded set of insights into the psychology of interrogation that resonate afresh in post-9/11 contexts, especially in the light of the US Senate's recently declassified “CIA Torture Report”.
In the years before the publication of Lyrical Ballads, amid fears that the "Terror" of the French Revolution would soon be exported to Britain, an atmosphere of suspicion descended. The prime minister William Pitt established extensive surveillance webs, and closely policed debates, both in print and in the taverns and debating clubs where ultra radicals met and conspired. The chilling effects were felt in both civic society and the private realm. In The Spirit of Despotism (1795), Vicesimus Knox complained that the government's web of “spies and informers” had corrupted the “sequestered walks of private life” and destroyed life’s “confidential comforts and most valuable virtues”.
Such laments resonated among Romantic writers, who lived through this first age of public surveillance. In lectures delivered in February 1795, the twenty-two-year-old Coleridge used similar rhetoric, accusing Pitt’s “system of spies and informers” of destroying social confidence. He also observed that, worryingly, the population had internalized Pitt's logic of suspicion:
We have breathed so long the atmosphere of Imposture and Panic, that many honest minds have caught an aguish disorder; in their cold fits they shiver at Freedom, in their hot fits they turn savage against its advocates.
Three years later, in Lyrical Ballads (1798), Coleridge’s poetic and one-time radical confrère Wordsworth used “The Thorn” to meditate precisely on the atmosphere of “Imposture and Panic” in a rural community. In a poem “about” snitching and its psychological effects, Wordsworth offers a powerfully claustrophobic study of guilt, isolation and social disconsolidation. The poem's narrator is an ex-mariner, an agent of inspection who arrives in the rural community equipped with a telescope. He gleans local gossip about an outcast woman, Martha Ray, and conducts his own optical surveillance of her on the mountain head. As the poem begins, the ex-mariner finds himself in the role of the cross-questioned, as he passes on information to a shadowy, unnamed interlocuter, whose prompts become increasingly insistent. Indeed, the rhetorical scaffolding of the poem reads like an interrogation transcript:
“Now wherefore thus …
does this poor woman go.
O wherefore? wherefore? tell me why”
“I cannot tell; I wish I could;
For the true reason no one knows ...”
“But that she goes to this old Thorn …
which I described to you,
I will be sworn is true ...”
“But what’s the Thorn? and what the pond?
And what the hill of moss to her?”
“More know I not, I wish I did,
And it should all be told to you …”
Martha emerges as the focus of escalating suspicion: first as unmarried mother, then mad woman and finally as child murderer. The narrator, far from retailing “facts” about the outcast, which are scant, begins to offer ever more improbable and lurid explanations for her presence on the mountain top in a bid to mollify or impress his interrogator. What Wordsworth describes is a psychologically credible paradigm, and it resonates presciently in our own era of “enhanced interrogation”. In December 2014, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) published its declassified 6,000-page Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention Interrogation Program, widely known as the “CIA Torture Report”. The first of twenty key findings concluded that the “CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”, since under duress, detainees tended to say whatever they thought their captors wanted to hear, “provid[ing] fabricated information on critical intelligence issues”.
Toby Benis has argued suggestively that in framing Martha Ray’s experience, Wordsworth is remembering his own feelings at Alfoxden House, Somerset, when he and Coleridge were betrayed during their residency there by a servant who deciphered the poets’ interest in the sea and inland waterways as French spiery. The affair triggered the infamous “Spy Nozy” episode in which spycatcher James Walsh was dispatched from Whitehall to surveil the two men. Benis is right to see “The Thorn” as possessing personal significance for Wordsworth in the context of the surveillance the poet himself experienced. But it seems to me Wordsworth’s concern lies less with Martha Ray’s victimhood than with the effects that turning informer have on the narrator himself. Shortly after Walsh’s visit, Wordsworth and Coleridge, alarmed by the rapidity in which they found themselves at the centre of proliferating suspicion, “betrayed” a would-be member of their circle, the radical John Thelwall, refusing his overtures to establish a close-bosom community in Somerset. Thelwall was hot company, to be sure, having survived a trial for high treason in 1794. Indeed, the question-and-answer form of "The Thorn" possibly conjures the “enhanced” state inspection Thelwall had experienced at first-hand five years earlier in The Tower, and which Wordsworth and Coleridge were anxious to avoid in the future.
“The Thorn”, then, demonstrates Wordsworth’s sophisticated awareness of the profoundly disorienting and psychologically corrosive effects of constant surveillance and informing. It develops metaphors that attempt to identify and calibrate the violence of state intrusion into private and communal life. And, I suggest, it is precisely in such attempts where Romanticism communicates most resonantly with our own age of information – an age in which informing on our own and each other's movements, likes, orientations and dreams has become routine and habitualized. Indeed, social media check-ins have become normative, and those of us who don't regularly reveal our whereabouts or provide blow-by-blow accounts of our activities are often viewed with suspicion. What have we got to hide? Poems like "The Thorn" make visible, and dare us to dismantle, our own contract with the eavesdroppers.