Relative speeds: Wordsworth, De Quincey, and the poetics of pace

Stefanie Head, University of Rhode Island


In Relative Speeds: Wordsworth, De Quincey, and the Poetics of Pace, I demonstrate that pace plays an influential role in the literature and thought of the British Romantic period. Functioning as a means of measuring and quantifying movement, pace enables writers and readers in the period to differentiate between fast and slow and productive and unproductive rates of movement. Focusing on the writings of William Wordsworth and Thomas De Quincey, I argue that these writers develop a poetics of pace that challenges the qualitative framework that celebrates or rejects political, literary, and social activities relative to the speed at which they take place. The complexities of Wordsworth's and De Quincey's study of pace are incompatible with an evaluative system that relies upon strict oppositions between fast and slow, city and country, and surface and depth. For both writers, moving or thinking at a faster or slower rate does not promise an inherently more critical, pleasurable, or productive mode of life. Rather, I demonstrate that they defamiliarize the qualitative values attached to pace as well as the literary and social systems that construct and perpetuate such values. In each of the following chapters, I consider the historical and literary contexts that inform Romantic assessments of the relative value of speed or slowness. Pace marks the changing values of work and leisure, style and substance, and order and disorder throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wordsworth and De Quincey respond to such changes through a poetics of pace that relies upon forms of active inactivity or strenuous idleness. In the course of their writings, they extend the eighteenth-century trope of strenua inertiato the representation and performance of restlessness, circularity, and digression. Through my readings of their poetry and prose, I argue that both writers evidence a fascination with, and anxiety about, pace and the (non)work of writing. Framed by the social, political, and economic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, I demonstrate that pace marks a point at which contesting discourses and value systems collide in the Romantic period and in Wordsworth's and De Quincey's writings.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Stefanie Head, "Relative speeds: Wordsworth, De Quincey, and the poetics of pace" (2011). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3449899.