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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Donne and Wordsworth

Abstract Humanisms

William Wordsworth’s mid-Nineteenth Century poem ‘We Are Seven’, which is my favourite poem, articulates a view of human relationships and meaning in the context of an increasingly belligerent encroachment in new, dehumanising logics. In the first stanza we meet its central character:

———A simple Child, 

That lightly draws its breath, 

And feels its life in every limb, 

What should it know of death? 

A little later, the voice of the poem, who articulates a starkly different worldview from that of the child, asks her, ‘“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,/ How many may you be?”’ To this she insists, over and over, ‘we are seven’. It soon transpires, however, that two of the seven are deceased. And this produces an intractable argument between the poetic voice and the child. All of which culminates in the final stanzas, which are humorous in the mutual misunderstanding that drives the dialogue:

“How many are you, then,” said I, 

“If they two are in heaven?” 

Quick was the little Maid’s reply, 

“O Master! we are seven.” 

“But they are dead; those two are dead! 

Their spirits are in heaven!” 

’Twas throwing words away; for still 

The little Maid would have her will, 

And said, “Nay, we are seven!”


Literary theorists like Frances Ferguson have repositioned the poem in its context of early state censuses as well as Thomas Malthus’s infamous publication of An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus postulated—falsely—that increasing populations inexorably led to famine and disaster and therefore should be checked by morality; it is in an argument since roundedly debunked by everyone from Charles Dicken’s in his A Christmas Carol to Karl Marx to later writers, but which to this day carries a tremendous ideological force in justifying the ruling class’s conflicts against surplus humanity, those redundant to capital’s requirements and therefore marked for persecution in some form. In truth, Malthus ignores the real social relations of society that lead to evils such as famines, relations built on a system of property ownership he instinctively sought to defend.

As Wordsworth’s poem occurs against the backdrop of arguments that explicitly reduce people to merely problematic numbers, his fictional child’s humanist insistence against the poetic voice’s reduction of life to statistics is coded as utopian. It is an insistence on a better world, one with a different regard for human life. Besides all of the other numerological connotations of the number seven, the insistence ‘we are seven!’ is about the significance of individual, irreplaceable life against bourgeois, explicitly anti-human philosophies.

That is why, then, when deciding on a title for my doctorate utopian novel—which recounts urban occupations in protest to worsening living conditions—I hit on We are Seven. (I am still working on this novel, but hope to one day see it published.)


A short while ago a comrade recommended John Carey’s biographical and artistic study, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art.The reason for his recommendation was to contextualise the famous passage in Donne’s Devotions (from the early Seventeenth Century) about the tolling of the bell for death. I had recently quoted it quite naïvely. For anyone unfamiliar—and it is even better known than Wordsworth’s poem—here is the important extract:

No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee

Carey offers a characteristically sharp reading, at odds with the naïve one. ‘Yet even here,’ he observes ‘it has been shrewdly’ noted, ‘there is in fact no thought about the man for whom the bell might be tolling, nor any inclination, in the entire meditation, to imagine sympathetically his life and death. On the contrary, the tone and advice are entirely self-regarding’. That is, the poem sees in the tragedy of the death of an anonymous person, the tragedy of the death of all or any of humanity. This fits Carey’s broader claims about the central contradictions motivating Donne’s work (sermons and poems), which was—he argues—borne out of his traumatic apostacy from Catholicism in the context of vicious persecution:

On the one side is the desire for a single, all-eclipsing viewpoint, together with the need to vilify those who dissent from it[…] But on the other side, the side of his family sympathies, there is Donne’s imaginative world, and which inclines him to restraint.


In the juxtaposition between Donne’s tolling bell and Wordsworth’s child we find different, but not wholly contrasting, humanisms. Both express, forcefully, a belief in the centrality of humanity that contradicts the barbarous bourgeois ideals of Malthus. However, they do so at different levels. Donne, the metaphysical poet, expresses his insistence at the level of an abstracted, ‘universal’ human, while for the Romantic Wordsworth individual people are at issue: ‘Sister Jane;/ In bed she moaning lay,’ and ‘My brother John’ who ‘was forced to go’. Even after their deaths, far from diminished, the girl retains them in that individuality.

Considering the same issue at different levels of abstraction continues to create such contrasts. Sometimes, unlike with the poets, these contrasts can even come into conflict. On the contemporary left, the divide between the particular concerns of identity politics and the attempt to universalise those concerns in an understanding of class disguises all kinds of confusions and miscommunications. From the risk of no longer recognising the form of oppression in its different, specific guises, to the risk of imagining our ‘universals’ can float independently of their particular, material substantiations, or that—in an act of reification—the particular can be reduced to the general.


‘In my more honest moments,’ writes the contemporary philosopher and humanist Raymond Tallis, ‘I am inclined to admit that I find only two things in the world truly fascinating: metaphysics and gossip.’ Without the reminder of the particular struggles of the oppressed, the particular deaths of real people, the abstracted is hollowed out; without the abstraction, any broader claims on our sympathies are potentially lost.

To recognise the value of human life we have to recognise both the universal, as it has come to us through a historical and therefore social process, and the individuals that interact to produce that process as well as being sorted into that universality—with all their particular concerns. Philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx and Raya Dunayevskaya offer us clues as to how. And poets such as Donne and Wordsworth remind us that it is a worthwhile undertaking, even as it comes about at different levels of abstraction in reflection of different contexts and lives.


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