Scholars have long noted the astonishing ubiquity of vagrancy in early Romantic poetry, and have—particularly in the case of Wordsworth—understood vagrancy as a key site for the articulation of poetic form, poetic labor, and poetic consciousness. Understandings of poetic vagrancy have long been dominated by attention to lyric subjectivity, and as Barbara Johnson has influentially argued, law and lyric are indeed startlingly convergent in their concerns with the figurative grounding of personhood. Vagrancy law, however, was not historically concerned with subjectivity or personhood. Vagrancy law allowed for the highly discretionary criminalization of a wide, miscellaneous array of people and required neither a trial nor proof of criminal intent or the commission of a criminal act. This places vagrancy less in the realm of penal law than that of police, which referred not to a uniformed law-enforcement agency but to the general maintenance of the peace and protection of the community against threat. By reading the poetry of Mary Robinson against the backdrop of police reform and vagrancy law at the end of the eighteenth century, I propose that we turn away from lyric or legal subjectivity in order to see other crucial poetic valences of what Celeste Langan has influentially termed “Romantic vagrancy.” Mary Robinson, in her final collection of poetry, the Lyrical Tales (1800), performs astonishing experiments with lyric form in a book dominated by the dispossessed, impoverished, stateless, and fugitive. Robinson not only pushes us to reconsider a literary-historical narrative that has long been dominated by Wordsworth but also offers an engagement with vagrancy that theorizes law and lyric as intersecting precisely where legal persons and lyric subjects disappear.
"Lyric Without Subjects and Law Without Persons: Vagrancy, Police Power, and the Lyrical Tales,"
Criticism: Vol. 60:
2, Article 2.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol60/iss2/2