Looking at sympathy in wordsworth's disability poetry

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Wordsworth's poems about disability - 'The Idiot Boy' and 'The Blind Highland Boy' and other long poems in which disability plays a tangential yet pivotal role like The Prelude and, less obviously, 'The Ruined Cottage' - posit the encounter with impairment as central to feelings of sympathy. Consequently, these poems are usually read as advocating the inclusion of people with disabilities. This article argues that Wordsworth's poems about disability reify a pattern of liberal identity that posits impairment as an obstacle to subjecthood reflecting Wordsworth's misreading of Adam Smith's moral theory. Departing from Smith's argument that disability is socially constructed, Wordsworth separates disabled and able-bodied lives into separate spheres, mediated by a voyeuristic aesthetic. As a result, characters with disabilities arouse intense curiosity and yearning in Wordsworth's poems, but also remain a spectacle of dependence and an adjunct to able identity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-74
Number of pages13
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Edinburgh University Press.


  • Ableism
  • Adam Smith
  • Disability
  • Spectatorship
  • Sympathy
  • Wordsworth

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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