An Evening Walk and the Politics of the Picturesque

An Evening Walk and the Politics of the Picturesque

An Evening Walk, Wordsworth’s first published poem, has usually been
taken as a product of his poetic apprenticeship, a preparation for his maturing
poetic genius. It is a traditional 18th century meditative landscape poem full of
picturesque descriptions which seems to have little to do with radical politics
and humanitarian concerns, the hallmark of Wordsworth’s early masterpieces.
This paper re-examines the quality of An Evening Walk’s picturesque
descriptions to establish a closer connection between An Evening Walk and the
poems of Wordsworth's golden decade(1798-1808) that are supposed to contain
more genuinely Wordsworthian poetic quality. The main agenda, therefore, is to
explore the political implication of the picturesque both as an artistic discipline
and a descriptive practice as is materialized in An Evening Walk.
In the later 18th century, the picturesque was established as an aesthetic
category by William Gilpin and Uvedale Price, and their versions of the
picturesque were markedly aesthetic in their orientation, which implies
paradoxically that they were under great pressure to accommodate more social
reality in their picture of the picturesque landscape. The picturesque descriptions
of An Evening Walk, in fact, are based on the artistic compromise the Gilpin’s
aesthetic picturesque had to make, which tends to suppress or “adapt" the human
figures of the picture into the natural landscape in which they are placed.
Such descriptive strategy of “adaptation" is by and large successfully applied in 
An Evening Walk until it reaches the episode of a female vagrant, a
stock character of the humanitarian social protest poems. Wordsworth tries to
contain the moral implication of the episode but only with partial success. The
poetic narrator of An Evening Walk, safely distanced, sober, and objective a1l
along, fails here to suppress his emotional involvement with the pathetic case
of the female vagrant. Sudden change of the scene into that of the swans, an
emblem of “tender Cares and mild domestic Loves," which, in my view, is his
desperate measure to maintain the aestheticism of the picture, only testifies to
the depth and intensity of the poet’s moral impulse that is due to articulate
itself more clearly in the ensuing poems. The politics of the picturesque in An
Evening Walk; and the invisible, yet powerful existence of Wordsworth’s moral
impulse behind the picturesque description, therefore, should be more properly
appreciated to allow a fair share of poetic esteem to Wordsworth’s first
published poem.

Journal of the 19th century literature in English 2(1999): 121-144