AG: .. 1859-1840 “Sonnets on the Punishment of Death” – Sonnets in favor of capital punishment ! – he’d gone that far! – did you know that?. Wordsworth wrote sonnets in favor of capital punishment! Has anybody ever seen those? Well that really takes the rag off the bush. I mean, it’s so.. it’s sort of like a final horror. The great poet!, Shelley‘s beloved Wordsworth, writing sonnets in favor of capital punishment! This is now forty years after the French Revolution. So I want to read you a couple of little fragments of that so you get his cast of mind here. You’ve got to deal with it. You’ve got to deal with it. It’s got to be seen clearly, rather than avoided – okay?
[Allen reads from Sections VI, VII, VIII, IX from “Sonnets on the Punishment of Death”]
“Fit retribution, by the moral code/Determined, lies beyond the State’s embrace/Yet, as she may, for each peculiar case/ She plants well-measured terrors in the road…”..”And the “wild justice of revenge” prevail” – He’s proposing the State commit murder rather than “wild justice of revenge”! – “Though to give timely warning an deter/is one great aim of penalty, extend/Thy mental vision further and ascend/Far higher, else full surely shalt thou err”…”..to preclude or quell the strife/ Of individual will, to elevate/the grovelling mind, the erring to recall,/ And fortify the moral sense of all” – That’s why he wants capital punishment! – And he says capital punishment is better than exiling your criminals – “Ah, think how one compelled for life to abide/Locked in a dungeon needs must eat the heart/Out of his own humanity… “…”Leaving the final issue in His hands/Whose goodness knows no change, whose love is sure” – God, that is – “Who sees, foresees, who cannot judge amiss/And wafts at will the contrite soul to bliss” – So, finally, he concludes that the death-penalty is good for you! – “See the Condemned alone within his cell”…”…. “While yet the solemn head the State hath given/Helps him to meet the last Tribunal’s voice/In faith, which fresh offences, were he cast/On old temptations, might for ever blast” – In other words, so that he doesn’t commit more crimes, it’s better to kill him!
Philip Whalen: It’s exactly the argument of the Church about heretics – that you “save their soul”.. you destroy their bodies, but you save their souls!
Right, so, this far, the reaction in the class.. I’m going to continue on this theme, of poet as social prophet amiss (or on-the-mark), and continue with Wordsworth and (William) Blake, next time – Blake’s reaction to the French Revolution…
[Audio for the above, including Allen reading from Wordsworth’s “Sonnets on the Punishment of Death” may be heard here]