Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


WORDSWORTH, WILLIAM (1770-1850), English poet, was born at Cockermouth, on the Derwent, in Cumberland, on the 7th of April 1770, He was the son of John Wordsworth (1741-1783), an attorney, law agent to the first earl of Lonsdale, a prosperous man in his profession, descended from an old Yorkshire family of landed gentry. On the mother’s side also Wordsworth was connected with the middle territorial class: his mother, Anne Cookson, was the daughter of a well-to-do mercer in Penrith, but her mother was Dorothy Crackanthorpe, whose ancestors had been lords of the manor of Newbiggin, near Penrith, from the time of Edward III. He thus came of gentle kin, and was proud of it. The country squires and farmers whose blood flowed in Wordsworth’s veins were not far enough above local life to be out of sympathy with it, and the poet’s interest in the common scenes and common folk of the North country hills and dales had a traceable hereditary bias. William Wordsworth was one of a family of five, the others being Richard (1768-1816), Dorothy (q.v.), John (1772-1805), and Christopher (q.v.).

Though his parents were of sturdy stock, both died prematurely, his mother when he was eight years old, his father when he was thirteen. At the age of eight Wordsworth was sent to school at Hawkshead, in the Esthwaite valley in Lancashire. His father died while he was there, and at the age of seventeen he was sent to St. John’s College, Cambridge. He did not distinguish himself in the studies of the university, and for some time after taking his degree of B.A., in January 1791, he showed what seemed to his relatives a most perverse reluctance to adopt any regular profession. His mother had noted his stiff, moody and violent temper in childhood, and it seemed as if this family judgment was to be confirmed in his manhood. After taking his degree, he was pressed to take holy orders, but would not; he had no taste for the law; he idled a few months aimlessly in London, a few months more with a Welsh college friend, with whom he had made a pedestrian tour in France and Switzerland during his last Cambridge vacation; then in the November of 1791 he crossed to France, ostensibly to learn the language, made the acquaintance of revolutionaries, sympathized with them vehemently, and was within an ace of throwing in his lot with the Girondins. When it came to this, his relatives cut off his supplies, and he was obliged to return to London towards the close of 1792. But still he resisted all pressure to enter any of the regular professions, published his poems An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches in 1793, and in 1794, still moving about to all appearance in stubborn aimlessness among his friends and relatives, had no more rational purpose of livelihood than drawing up the prospectus of a periodical of strictly republican principles to be called The Philanthropist.

But all the time from his boyhood upwards a great purpose had been growing and maturing in his mind. The Prelude expounds in lofty impassioned strain how his sensibility for nature was augmented and sustained, and how it never, except for a brief interval, ceased to be creative in the special sense of his subsequent theory. But it is with his feelings towards nature that The Prelude mainly deals; it says little regarding the history of his ambition to express those feelings in verse. It is the autobiography, not of the poet of nature, but of the worshipper and priest. The salient incidents in the history of the poet he communicated in prose notes and in familiar discourses. Commenting on the couplet in the Evening Walk

And, fronting the bright west, yon oak entwines
Its darkening boughs and leaves in stronger lines—

he said:

This is feebly and imperfectly exprest; but I recollect distinctly the very spot where this first struck me. It was on the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them; and I made a resolution to supply in some degree the deficiency. I could not at that time have been above fourteen years of age.

About the same time he wrote, as a school task at Hawkshead, verses that show considerable acquaintance with the poets of his own country at least, as well as some previous practice in the art of verse-making.[1] The fragment that stands at the beginning of his collected works, recording a resolution to end his life among his native hills, was the conclusion of a long poem written while he was still at school. And, undistinguished as he was at Cambridge in the contest for academic honours, the Evening Walk, his first publication, was written during his vacations.[2] He published it in 1793, to show, as he said, that he could do something, although he had not distinguished himself in university work. There are touches here and there of the bent of imagination that became dominant in him soon afterwards, notably in the moral aspiration that accompanies his Remembrance of Collins on the Thames:—

O glide, fair stream! for ever so
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
Till all our minds for ever flow
As thy deep waters now are flowing.

But in the main this first publication represents the poet in the stage described in the twelfth book of The Prelude:—

Bent overmuch on superficial things,
Pampering myself with meagre novelties
Of colour and proportion; to the moods
Of time and season, to the moral power,
The affections, and the spirit of the place

But, though he had not yet found his distinctive aim as a poet, he was inwardly bent upon poetry as his office upon earth.

In this determination he was strengthened by his sister Dorothy (q.v.), who with rare devotion consecrated her life henceforward to his service. A timely legacy enabled them to carry their purpose into effect. A friend of his, whom he had nursed in a last illness, Raisley Calvert, son of the steward of the duke of Norfolk, who had large estates in Cumberland, died early in 1795, leaving him a legacy of £900. It may be well to notice how opportunely, as De Quincey half-ruefully remarked, money always fell in to Wordsworth, enabling him to pursue his poetic career without distraction. Calvertʼs bequest came to him when he was on the point of concluding an engagement as a journalist in London. On it and other small resources he and his sister, thanks to her frugal management, contrived to live for nearly eight years. By the end of that time Lord Lonsdale, who owed Wordsworthʼs father a large sum for professional services, and had steadily refused to pay it, died, and his successor paid the debt with interest. His wife, Mary Hutchinson, whom he married on the 4th of October 1802, brought him some fortune; and in 1813, when in spite of his plain living his family began to press upon his income, he was appointed stamp-distributor for Westmorland, with an income of £500, afterwards nearly doubled by the increase of his district. In 1842, when he resigned his stamp-distributorship, Sir Robert Peel gave him a Civil List pension of £300.

To return, however, to the course of his life from the time when he resolved to labour with all his powers in the office of poet. The first two years, during which he lived with his self-sacrificing sister at Racedown, in Dorset, were spent in halfhearted and very imperfectly successful experiments, satires in imitation of Juvenal, the tragedy of The Borderers,[3] and a poem in the Spenserian stanza, now entitled Guilt and Sorrow. How much longer this time of self-distrustful endeavour might have continued is a subject for curious speculation, an end was put to it by a fortunate incident, a visit from Coleridge, who had read his first publication, and seen in it, what none of the public critics had discerned, the advent of an original poetic genius. Stubborn and independent as Wordsworth was, he needed some friendly voice from the outer world to give him confidence in himself. Coleridge rendered him this indispensable service. He had begun to seek his themes in

Sorrow, that is not sorrow, but delight;
And miserable love, that is not pain
To hear of, for the glory that redounds
Therefrom to human kind, and what we are.

He read to his visitor one of these experiments, the story of the ruined cottage, afterwards introduced into the first book of The Excursion.[4] Coleridge, who had already seen original poetic genius in the poems published before, was enthusiastic in his praise of them as having a character, by books not hitherto reflected.

June 1797 was the date of this memorable visit. So pleasant was the companionship on both sides that, when Coleridge returned to Nether Stowey, in Somerset, Wordsworth at his instance changed his quarters to Alfoxden, within a mile and a half of Coleridgeʼs temporary residence, and the two poets lived in almost daily intercourse for the next twelve months. During that period Wordsworthʼs powers rapidly expanded and matured; ideas that had been gathering in his mind for years, and lying there in dim confusion, felt the stir of a new life, and ranged themselves in clearer shapes under the fresh quickening breath of Coleridgeʼs swift and discursive dialectic.

The Lyrical Ballads were the poetic fruits of their companionship. Out of their frequent discussions of the relative value of common life and supernatural incidents as themes for imaginative treatment grew the idea of writing a volume together, composed of poems of the two kinds. Coleridge was to take the supernatural; and, as his industry was not equal to his friendʼs, this kind was represented by the Ancient Mariner alone. Among Wordsworthʼs contributions were The Female Vagrant, We are Seven, Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman, The Last of the Flock, The Idiot Boy, The Mad Mother (Her eyes are wild), The Thorn, Goody Blake and Harry Gill, The Reverie of Poor Susan, Simon Lee, Expostulation and Reply, The Tables Turned, Lines left upon a Yew-tree Seat, An Old Man Travelling (Animal Tranquillity and Decay), Lines above Tintern Abbey. The volume was published by Cottle of Bristol in September 1798.

It is necessary to enumerate the contents of this volume in fairness to the contemporaries of Wordsworth, for their cold or scoffing reception of his first distinctive work. Those Wordsworthians who give up The Idiot Boy,[5] Goody Blake and The Thorn as mistaken experiments have no right to triumph over the first derisive critics of the Lyrical Ballads, or to wonder at the dullness that failed to see at once in this humble issue from an obscure provincial press the advent of a great master in literature. It is true that Tintern Abbey was in the volume, and that all the highest qualities of Wordsworthʼs imagination and of his verse could be illustrated from the lyrical ballads proper in this first publication; but clear vision is easier for us than it was when the revelation was fragmentary and incomplete.

Although Wordsworth was not received at first with the respect to which he was entitled, his power was not entirely without recognition. There is a curious commercial evidence of this, which ought to be noted, because a perversion of the fact is sometimes used to exaggerate the supposed neglect of Wordsworth at the outset of his career. When the Longmans took over Cottleʼs publishing business in 1799, the value of the copyright of the Lyrical Ballads, for which Cottle had paid thirty guineas, was assessed at nil. Cottle therefore begged that it might be excluded altogether from the bargain, and presented it to the authors. But in 1800, when the first edition was exhausted, the Longmans offered Wordsworth £100 for two issues of a new edition with an additional volume and an explanatory preface. The sum was small compared with what Scott and Byron soon afterwards received, but it shows that the public neglect was not quite so complete as is sometimes represented. Another edition was called for in 1802, and a fourth in 1805. The new volume in the 1800 edition was made up of poems composed during his residence at Goslar in Germany (where he went with Coleridge) in the winter of 1798-1799, and after his settlement at Grasmere in December 1799. It contained a large portion of poems now universally accepted:—Ruth, Nutting, Three Years She Grew, A Poetʼs Epitaph, Hartleap Well, Lucy Gray, The Brothers, Michael, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Poems on the Naming of Places. But it contained also the famous Preface, in which he infuriated critics by presuming to defend his eccentricities in an elaborate theory of poetry and poetic diction.

This document (and let it be noted that all Wordsworthʼs Prefaces are of the utmost interest in historical literary criticism) is constantly referred to as a sort of revolutionary proclamation against the established taste of the 18th century. For one who has read Wordsworthʼs original, hundreds have read Coleridgeʼs brilliant criticism, and the fixed conception of the doctrines put forth by Wordsworth is taken from that.[6] It is desirable, therefore, considering the celebrity of the affair, that Wordsworthʼs own position should be made clear. Coleridgeʼs criticism of his friendʼs theory proceeded avowedly on the assumption that his words had been rightly interpreted, as purporting that the proper diction for poetry in general consists altogether in a language taken, with due exceptions, from the mouths of men in real life, a language which actually constitutes the natural conversation of men under the influence of natural feelings. Coleridge assumed further that, when Wordsworth spoke of there being no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition, he meant by language not the mere words but the style, the structure and the order of the sentences; on this assumption he argued as if Wordsworth had held that the metrical order should always be the same as the prose order. Given these assumptions, which formed the popular interpretation of the theory by its opponents, it was easy to demonstrate its absurdity, and Coleridge is very generally supposed to have given Wordsworthʼs theory in its bare and naked extravagance the coup de grâce. But the truth is that neither of the two assumptions is warranted; both were expressly disclaimed by Wordsworth in the Preface itself. There is not a single qualification introduced by Coleridge that was not made by Wordsworth himself in the original statement.[7] In the first place, it was not put forward as a theory of poetry in general, though from the vigour with which he carried the war into the enemyʼs country it was naturally enough for polemic purposes taken as such; it was a statement and defence of the principles on which his own poems of humbler life were composed. Wordsworth also assailed the public taste as depraved, first and mainly in so far as it was adverse to simple incidents simply treated, being accustomed to gross and violent stimulants, craving after extraordinary incident, possessed with a degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. This, and not adherence to the classical rule of Pope, which had really suffered deposition a good half century before, was the first count in Wordsworthʼs defensive indictment of the taste of his age. As regards the poetic diction, the liking for which was the second count in his indictment of the public taste, it is most explicitly clear that, when he said that there was no essential difference between the language of poetry and the language of prose, he meant words, plain and figurative, and not structure and order, or, as Coleridge otherwise puts it, the ordonnance of composition. Coleridge says that if he meant this he was only uttering a truism, which nobody who knew Wordsworth would suspect him of doing; but, strange to say, it is as a truism, nominally acknowledged by everybody, that Wordsworth does advance his doctrine on this point. Only he adds—if in what I am about to say it shall appear to some that my labour is unnecessary, and that I am like a man fighting a battle without enemies, such persons may be reminded that, whatever be the language outwardly holden by men, a practical faith in the opinions which I am wishing to establish is almost unknown.

What he wished to establish was the simple truth that what is false, unreal, affected, bombastic or nonsensical in prose is not less so in verse. The form in which he expresses the theory was conditioned by the circumstances of the polemic, and readers were put on a false scent by his purely incidental and collateral and very much overstrained defence of the language of rustics, as being less conventional and more permanent, and therefore better fitted to afford materials for the poetʼs selection. But this was a side issue, a paradoxical retort on his critics, seized upon by them in turn and made prominent as a matter for easy ridicule; all that he says on this head might be cut out of the Preface without affecting in the least his main thesis. The drift of this is fairly apparent all through, but stands out in unmistakable clearness in his criticism of the passages from Johnson and Cowper:—

But the sound of the church-going bell
These valleys and rocks never heard,
Neʼer sighed at the sound of a knell
Or smiled when a Sabbath appeared.

The epithet church-going offends him as a puritan in grammar; whether his objection is well founded or ill founded, it applies equally to prose and verse. To represent the valleys and rocks as sighing and smiling in the circumstances would appear feeble and absurd in prose composition, and is not less so in metrical composition; the occasion docs not justify such violent expressions. These are examples of all that Wordsworth meant by saying that there is no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. So far is Wordsworth from contending that the metrical order should always be the same as the prose order, that part of the Preface is devoted to a subtle analysis of the peculiar effect of metrical arrangement. What he objects to is not departure from the structure of prose, but the assumption, which seemed to him to underlie the criticisms of his ballads, that a writer of verse is not a poet unless he uses artificially ornamental language, not justified by the strength of the emotion expressed. The furthest that he went in defence of prose structure in poetry was to maintain that, if the words in a verse happened to be in the order of prose, it did not follow that they were prosaic in the sense of being unpoetic—a side-stroke at critics who complained of his prosaisms for no better reason than that the words stood in the order of prose composition. Wordsworth was far from repudiating elevation of style in poetry. If, he said, the poetʼs subject be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit occasion, lead him to passions the language of which, if selected truly and judiciously, must necessarily be dignified and variegated, and alive with metaphors and figures.

Such was Wordsworthʼs theory of poetic diction. Nothing could be more grossly mistaken than the notion that the greater part of Wordsworthʼs poetry was composed in defiance of his own theory, and that he succeeded best when he set his own theory most at defiance. The misconception is traceable to the authority of Coleridge. His just, sympathetic and penetrating criticism on Wordsworthʼs work as a poet did immense service in securing for him a wider recognition; but his proved friendship and brilliant style have done sad injustice to the poet as a theorist. It was natural to assume that Coleridge, if anybody, must have known what his friendʼs theory was; and it was natural also that readers under the charm of his lucid and melodious prose should gladly grant themselves a dispensation from the trouble of verifying his facts in the harsh and cumbrous exposition of the theorist himself.[8]

The question of diction made most noise, but it was far from being the most important point of poetic doctrine set forth in the Preface. If in this he merely enunciated a truism, generally admitted in words but too generally ignored in practice, there was real novelty in his plea for humble subjects, and in his theory of poetic composition. Wordsworthʼs remarks on poetry in general, on the supreme function of the imagination in dignifying humble and commonplace incidents, and on the need of active exercise of imagination in the reader as well as in the poet, are immeasurably more important than his theory of poetic diction. Such sayings as that poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity, or that it is the business of a poet to trace how men associate ideas in a state of excitement, are significant of Wordsworthʼs endeavour to lay the foundations of his art in an independent study of the feelings and faculties of men in real life, unbiased as far as possible by poetic custom and convention. This does not mean that the new poet was to turn his back on his predecessors and never look behind him to what they had done. Wordsworth was guilty of no such extravagance. He was from boyhood upwards a diligent student of poetry, and was not insensible to his obligations to the past. His purpose was only to use real life as a touchstone of poetic substance. The poet, in Wordsworthʼs conception, is distinctively a man in whom the beneficent energy of imagination, operative as a blind instinct more or less in all men, is stronger than in others, and is voluntarily and rationally exercised for the benefit of all in its proper work of increase and consolation. Not every image that the excited mind conjures up in real life is necessarily poetical. It is the business of the poet to select and modify for his special purpose of producing immediate pleasure.

There were several respects in which the formal recognition of such elementary principles of poetic evolution powerfully affected Wordsworthʼs practice. One of these may be indicated by saying that he endeavoured always to work out an emotional motive from within. Instead of choosing a striking theme and working at it like a decorative painter, embellishing, enriching, dressing to advantage, standing back from it and studying effects, his plan was to take incidents that had set his own imagination spontaneously to work, and to study and reproduce with artistic judgment the modification of the initial feeling, the emotional motive, within himself. To this method he owed much of his strength and also much of his unpopularity. By keeping his eye on the object, as spontaneously modified by his own imaginative energy, he was able to give full and undistracted scope to all his powers in poetic coinage of the wealth that his imagination brought. On the other hand, readers whose nature or education was different from his own, were repelled or left cold and indifferent, or obliged to make the sympathetic effort to see with his eyes, which he refused to make in order that he might see with theirs.

He is retired as noontide dew
Or fountain in a noon-day grove,
And you must love him ere to you
He will seem worthy of your love.

From this habit of taking the processes of his own mind as the standard of the way in which men associate ideas in a state of excitement, and language familiar to himself as the standard of the language of real men, arises a superficial anomaly in Wordsworthʼs poetry, an apparent contradiction between his practice and his theory. His own imagination, judged by ordinary standards, was easily excited by emotional motives that have little force with ordinary men. Most of his poems start from humbler, slighter, less generally striking themes than those of any other poet of high rank. But his poetry is not correspondingly simple. On the contrary, much of it, much of the best of it—for example, the Ode to Duty, and that on the Intimations of Immortality—is intricate, elaborate and abstruse. The emotional motive is simple; the passion has almost always a simple origin, and often is of no great intensity; but the imaginative structure is generally elaborate, and, when the poet is at his best, supremely splendid and gorgeous. No poet has built such magnificent palaces of rare material for the ordinary everyday homely human affections. It is because he has invested our ordinary everyday principles of conduct, which are so apt to become threadbare, with such imperishable robes of finest texture and richest design that Wordsworth holds so high a place among the great moralists in verse.

His practice was influenced also, and not always for good, by his theory that poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. This was a somewhat doubtful corollary from his general theory of poetic evolution. A poem is complete in itself; there must be no sting in it to disturb the readerʼs content with the whole; through whatever agitations it progresses, to whatever elevations it soars, to this end it must come, otherwise it is imperfect as a poem. Now the imagination in ordinary men, though the process is not expressed in verse, and the poetʼs special art has thus no share in producing the effect, reaches the poetic end when it has so transfigured a disturbing experience, whether of joy or grief, that this rests tranquilly in the memory, can be recalled without disquietude, and dwelt upon with some mode and degree of pleasure, more or less keen, more or less pure or mixed with pain. True to his idea of imitating real life, Wordsworth made it a rule for himself not to write on any theme till his imagination had operated upon it for some time involuntarily; it was not in his view ripe for poetic treatment till this transforming agency had subdued the original emotion to a state of tranquillity. Out of this tranquillity arises the favourable moment for poetic composition, some day when, as he contemplates the subject, the tranquillity disappears, an emotion kindred to the original emotion is reinstated, and the poet retraces and supplements with all his art the previous involuntary and perhaps unconscious imaginative chemistry.

When we study the moments that Wordsworth found favourable for successful composition, a very curious law reveals itself, somewhat at variance with the common conception of him as a poet who derived all his strength from solitary communion with nature. We find that the recluseʼs best poems were written under the excitement of some break in the monotony of his quiet life—change of scene, change of companionship, change of occupation. The law holds from the beginning to the end of his poetic career. An immense stimulus was given to his powers by his first contact with Coleridge after two years of solitary and abortive effort. Above Tintern Abbey was composed during a four daysʼ ramble with his sister; he began it on leaving Tintern, and concluded it as he was entering Bristol. His residence amidst strange scenes and unknown men at Goslar was particularly fruitful. She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways, Ruth, Nutting, There was a Boy, Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe, all belong to those few months of unfamiliar environment. The breeze that met him as he issued from the city gates on his homeward journey brought him the first thought of The Prelude.

At the end of 1790 he was settled at Grasmere, in the Lake District, and seeing much of Coleridge. The second year of his residence at Grasmere was unproductive, he was hard at work then on The Excursion, but the excitement of a tour on the Continent in the autumn of 1802, combined perhaps with a happy change in his pecuniary circumstances and the near prospect of marriage, roused him to one of his happiest fits of activity. His first great sonnet, the Lilies on Westminster Bridge, was composed on the roof of the Dover coach; the first of the splendid series dedicated to national independence and liberty, the most generally impressive and universally intelligible of his poems, Fair Star of Evening, Once did She hold the Gorgeous East in Fee, Toussaint; Milton, thou shouldst be Living at this Hour; It is not to be Thought of that the Flood, When I have Borne in Memory what has Tamed, were all written in the course of the tour, or in London in the month after his return. A tour in Scotland in the following year, 1803, yielded the Highland Girl and The Solitary Reaper. Soon after his return he resumed The Prelude; and The Affliction of Margaret and the Ode to Duty, his greatest poems in two different veins, were coincident with the exaltation of spirit due to the triumphant and successful prosecution of the long-delayed work. The Character of the Happy Warrior, which he described to Harriet Martineau as a chain of extremely valuable thoughts, though it did not fulfil poetic conditions,[10] was the product of a calmer period. The excitement of preparing for publication always had a rousing effect upon him; the preparation for the edition of 1807 resulted in the completion of the ode on the Intimations of Immortality, the sonnets The World is too much with us, Methought I saw the Footsteps of a Throne, Two Voices are there, and Lady, the Songs of Spring were in the Grove, and the Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle. After 1807 there is a marked falling off in the quality, though not in the quantity, of Wordsworthʼs poetic work. It is significant of the comparatively sober and laborious spirit in which he wrote The Excursion that its progress was accompanied by none of those casual sallies of exulting and exuberant power that mark the period of the happier Prelude. The completion of The Excursion was signalized by the production of Laodamia. The chorus of adverse criticism with which it was received inspired him in the noble sonnet to HaydonHigh is our Calling, Friend. He rarely or never again touched the same lofty height.

It is interesting to compare with what he actually accomplished the plan of life-work with which Wordsworth settled at Grasmere in the last month of 1799.[11] The plan was definitely conceived as he left the German town of Goslar in the spring of 1799. Tired of the wandering unsettled life that he had led hitherto, dissatisfied also with the fragmentary occasional and disconnected character of his lyrical poems, he longed for a permanent home among his native hills, where he might, as one called and consecrated to the task, devote his powers continuously to the composition of a great philosophical poem on Man, Nature and Society. The poem was to be called The Recluse, as having for its principal subject the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement. He communicated the design to Coleridge, who gave him enthusiastic encouragement to proceed. But, though he had still before him fifty years of peaceful life amidst his beloved scenery, the work in the projected form at least was destined to remain incomplete. Doubts and misgivings soon arose, and favourable moments of felt inspiration delayed their coming. To sustain him in his resolution he thought of writing as an introduction, or, as he put it, an antechapel to the church which he proposed to build, a history of his own mind up to the time when he recognized the great mission of his life. One of the many laughs at his expense by unsympathetic critics has been directed against his saying that he wrote this Prelude of fourteen books about himself out of diffidence. But in truth the original motive was distrust of his own powers. He turned aside to prepare the second volume of the Lyrical Ballads and write the explanatory Preface, which as a statement of his aims in poetry had partly the same purpose of strengthening his self-confidence. From his sisterʼs Journal we learn that in the winter of 1801-1802 he was hard at work on The Pedlar—the original title of The Excursion. But this experiment on the larger work was also soon abandoned. It appears from a letter to his friend Sir George Beaumont that his health was far from robust, and in particular that he could not write without intolerable physical uneasiness. His next start with The Prelude, in the spring of 1804, was more prosperous; he dropped it for several months, but, resuming again in the spring of 1805, he completed it in the summer of that year. In 1807 appeared two volumes of collected poems. It was not till 1814 that the second of the three divisions of The Recluse, ultimately named The Excursion, was ready for publication; and he went no further in the execution of his great design.

The derisive fury with which The Excursion was assailed upon its first appearance has long been a stock example of critical blindness, yet the error of the first critics is seen to lie not in their indictment of faults, but in the prominence they gave to the faults and their generally disrespectful tone towards a poet of Wordsworthʼs greatness. Jeffreyʼs petulant This will never do, uttered, professedly at least, more in sorrow than in anger, because the poet would persist in spite of all friendly counsel in misapplying his powers, has become a byword of critical cocksureness. But The Excursion has not done, and even Wordsworthians who laugh at Jeffrey are in the habit of repeating the substance of his criticism.

Jeffrey, it will be seen, was not blind to the occasional felicities and unforgettable lines celebrated by Coleridge, and his general judgment on The Excursion has been abundantly ratified.[12] It is not upon The Excursion that Wordsworthʼs reputation as a poet can ever rest. The two books entitled The Churchyard among the Mountains are the only parts of the poem that derive much force from the scenic setting; if they had been published separately, they would probably have obtained at once a reception very different from that given to The Excursion as a whole. The dramatic setting is merely dead weight, not because the chief speaker is a pedlar—Wordsworth fairly justifies this selection—but because the pedlar, as a personality to be known, and loved, and respected, and listened to with interest, is not completely created.

There can be little doubt that adverse criticism had a depressing influence on Wordsworthʼs poetical powers, notwithstanding his nobly expressed defiance of it and his determination to hold on in his own path undisturbed. Its effect in retarding the sale of his poems was a favourite topic with him in his later years;[13] but the absence of general appreciation, and the ridicule of what he considered his best and most distinctive work, contributed in all probability to a still more importunate result—the premature depression and deadening of his powers.

For five years after the condemnation of The Excursion Wordsworth published almost nothing that had not been composed before. The chief exception is the Thanksgiving Ode of 1816. In 1815 he published a new edition of his poems, in the arrangement according to faculties and feelings in which they have since stood; and he sought to explain his purposes more completely than before in an essay on Poetry as a Study. In the same year he was persuaded to publish The White Doe of Rylstone, written mainly eight years before. In purely poetic charm The White Doe ought to be ranked among the most perfect of Wordsworthʼs poems. But Jeffrey, who was too busy to enter into a vein of poetry so remote from common romantic sentiment, would have none of The White Doe: he pronounced it the very worst poem ever written, and the public too readily endorsed his judgment. Two other poems, with which Wordsworth made another appeal, were not more successful. Peter Bell, written in 1798, was published in 1819; and at the instigation of Charles Lamb it was followed by The Waggoner, written in 1805. Both were mercilessly ridiculed and parodied. These tales from humble life are written in Wordsworthʼs most unconventional style, and with them emphatically not to sympathize is not to understand.

Meantime, the great design of The Recluse languished. The neglect of what Wordsworth himself conceived to be his best and most characteristic work was not encouraging; and there was another reason why the philosophical poem on man, nature, and society did not make progress. Again and again in his poetry Wordsworth celebrates the value of constraint, and the disadvantage of too much liberty, of unchartered freedom.[14] The formlessness of the scheme prevented his working at it continuously. Hence his philosophy was expressed in casual disconnected sonnets, or in sonnets and other short poems connected by the simplest of all links, sequence in time or place. He stumbled upon three or four such serial ideas in the latter part of his life, and thus found beginning and end for chains of considerable length, which may be regarded as fragments of the project which he had not sufficient energy of constructive power to execute. The Sonnets on the River Duddon, written in 1820, follow the river from its source to the sea, and form a partial embodiment of his philosophy of nature. The Ecclesiastical Sonnets, written in 1820-1821, trace the history of the church from the Druids onwards, following one of the great streams of human affairs, and exhibit part of his philosophy of society. A tour on the continent in 1820, a tour in Scotland in 1831, a tour on the west coast in 1833, a tour in Italy in 1837, furnished him with other serial forms, serving to connect miscellaneous reflections on man, nature and society; and his views on the punishment of death were strung together in still another series in 1840.

It was Coleridgeʼs criticism in the Biographia Literaria (1817), together with the enthusiastic and unreserved championship of Wilson in Blackwoodʼs Magazine in a series of articles between 1819 and 1822 (Recreations of Christopher North), that formed the turning-point in Wordsworthʼs reputation. From 1820 to 1830 De Quincey says it was militant, from 1830 to 1840 triumphant. On the death of Southey in 1843 he was made poet laureate. He bargained with Sir Robert Peel, before accepting, that no official verse should be required of him; and his only official composition, an ode on the installation of the Prince Consort as chancellor of Cambridge university in 1847, is believed to have really been written either by his son-in-law Edward Quillinan or by his nephew Christopher (afterwards bishop of Lincoln). He died at Rydal Mount, after a short illness, on the 23rd of April 1850, and was buried in Grasmere churchyard. His wife survived him till 1859, when she died in her 90th year. They had five children, two of whom had died in 1812; the two surviving sons, John (d. 1875) and William (d. 1883), had families; the other child, a daughter, Dora, Wordsworthʼs favourite, married Edward Quillinan in 1841 and died in 1847.

Professor Knight brought out in 1882-1886 an eight-volume edition of the Poetical Works, and in 1889 a Life in three volumes. The Memoirs of the poet were published (1851) by his nephew, Bishop Christopher Wordsworth. The standard text of the works is the edition of 1849-1850. The Aldine edition (1892) is edited by Edward Dowden. The one-volume Oxford edition (1895), edited by Thomas Hutchinson, contains every piece of verse known to have been published or authorized by Wordsworth, his Prefaces, &c., and a useful chronology and notes. Among critics of Wordsworth especially interesting for various reasons we may mention De Quincey (Works, vols. ii. and v.), Sir Henry Taylor (Works, vol. v.), Matthew Arnold (preface to Selection), Swinburne (Miscellanies), F. W. H. Myers (Men of Letters series), Leslie Stephen (Hours in a Library, 3rd series, Wordsworthʼs Ethics), Walter Pater (Appreciations), Walter Raleigh (Wordsworth, 1903). Wordsworthʼs writings in prose were collected by Dr Grosart (London, 1876). This collection contained the previously unpublished Apology for a French Revolution, written in 1793, besides the scarce tract on the Convention of Cintra (1809) and the political addresses To the Freeholders of Westmoreland (1818). Wordsworthʼs Guide to the Lakes originally appeared in 1810 as an introduction to Wilkinsonʼs Select Views, and was first published separately in 1822.

(W. M.; H. CH.) [William Minto;Hugh Chisholm]

1. Memoirs of William Wordsworth, by Canon Wordsworth, vol. i. pp. 10, II. According to his own statement in the memoranda dictated to his biographer, it was the success of this exercise that put it into his head to compose verses from the impulse of his own mind. The resolution to supply the deficiencies of poetry in the exact description of natural appearances was probably formed while he was in this state of boyish ecstasy at the accidental revelation of his own powers. The date of his beginnings as a poet is confirmed by the lines in The Idiot Boy, written in 1798—

I to the Muses have been bound
These fourteen years by strong indentures.

2. In The Prelude, book iv., he speaks of himself during his first vacation as harassed with the toil of verse, much pains and little progress.

3. Not published till 1842. For the history of this tragedy see Memoirs, vol. i. p. 113; for a sound, if severe, criticism of it, A. C. Swinburneʼs Miscellanies, p. 118. And yet it was of the blank verse of The Borderers that Coleridge spoke when he wrote to Cottle that he felt a little man by the side of his friend.

4. The version read to Coleridge, however, must have been in Spenserian stanzas, if Coleridge was right in his recollection that it was in the same metre with The Female Vagrant, the original title of Guilt and Sorrow.

5. The defect of The Idiot Boy is really rhetorical, rather than poetic. Wordsworth himself said that he never wrote anything with so much glee, and, once the source of his glee is felt in the nobly affectionate relations between the two half-witted irrational old women and the glorious imbecile, the work is seen to be executed with a harmony that should satisfy the most exacting criticism. Poetically, therefore, the poem is a success. But rhetorically this particular attempt to breathe grandeur upon the very humblest face of human life must be pronounced a failure, inasmuch as the writer did not use sufficiently forcible means to disabuse his readers of vulgar prepossessions.

6. Sir Henry Taylor, one of the most acute and judicious of Wordsworthʼs champions, came to this conclusion in 1834.

7. Although Coleridge makes the qualifications more prominent than they were in the original statement, the two theories are at bottom so closely the same that one is sometimes inclined to suspect that parts, at least, of the original emanated from the fertile mind of Coleridge himself. The two poets certainly discussed the subject together in Somerset when the first ballads were written, and Coleridge was at Grasmere when the Preface was prepared in 1800. The diction of the Preface is curiously Hartleian, and, when they first met, Coleridge was a devoted disciple of Hartley, naming his first son after the philosopher, while Wordsworth detested analytic psychology. If Coleridge did contribute to the original theory in 1798 or 1800, he was likely enough to have forgotten the fact by 1814. At any rate, he evidently wrote his criticism without making a close study of the Preface, and what he did in effect was to restate the original theory against popular misconceptions of it.

8. Wordsworth was not an adroit expositor in prose, and he did not make his qualifications sufficiently prominent, but his theory of diction taken with those qualifications left him free without inconsistency to use any language that was not contrary to true taste and feeling. He acknowledged that he might occasionally have substituted particular for general associations, and that thus language charged with poetic feeling to himself might appear trivial and ridiculous to others, as in The Idiot Boy and Goody Blake; he even went so far as to withdraw Alice Fell, first published in 1807, from several subsequent editions; but he argued that it was dangerous for a poet to make alterations on the simple authority of a few individuals or even classes of men, because if he did not follow his own judgment and feelings his mind would infallibly be debilitated.

9. The Prelude contains a record of his practice, after the opening lines of the first book—

Thus far, O friend! did I, not used to make
A present joy the matter of a song Pour forth,

10. This casual estimate of his own work is not merely amusing but also instructive, as showing—what is sometimes denied—that Wordsworth himself knew well enough the difference between poetry and such valuable thoughts as he propounded in The Excursion.

11. Wordsworthʼs residences in the Lake District were at Dove Cottage, Townend, Grasmere, from December 1799 till the spring of 1808; Allen Bank, from 1808 to 1811; the parsonage at Grasmere from 1811 to 1813; Rydal Mount, for the rest of his life. Dove Cottage was bought in 1891 as a public memorial, and is held by trustees.

12. Wardʼs English Poets, iv. 13.

13. Matthew Arnold heard him say that for he knew not how many years his poetry had never brought him in enough to buy his shoe-strings (preface to Selection, p. v.). The literal facts are that he received £100 from the Longmans in 1800, and nothing more till he was sixty-five when Moxon bought the copyright of his writings for £1000 (Prose Works, iii. 437).

14. See the Sonnet, Nuns fret not, &c., The Pass of Kirkstone and the Ode to Duty.

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

WORDSWORTH, Willliam (1770-1850) by Duncan Wu

William Knight (1836-1916) was a Victorian, and the portrait he paints of William Wordsworth in the eleventh edition of Encyclopædia Britannica is shaped by the scholarship available to him. Even so, certain preoccupations are distinctive. For instance, he makes no mention of Wordsworth’s Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, which he knew as it was published in Alexander Grosartʼs 1867 edition of Wordsworth’s Prose Works. (Knight had, in fact, edited his own text of the Letter in 1896.)

William Wordsworth
Boxall, Sir William. William Wordsworth. 1831, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Not only that, Knight skates over the detail surrounding Wordsworth’s early radical politics: in the November of 1791 he crossed to France, ostensibly to learn the language, made the acquaintance of revolutionaries, sympathized with them vehemently, and was within an ace of throwing in his lot with the Girondins. The vagueness amounts to falsification. As the Letter shows, Wordsworth was capable of writing a pamphlet in favour of regicide. Moreover, he uses arguments borrowed from Robespierre—not a Girondin, but a Jacobin. Knight did not have modern scholarly discussions at hand, but if, as W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser point out in their edition of Wordsworth’s Prose Works (1974), the Letter was composed in the weeks prior to the execution of Louis XVI, Wordsworth was capable of arguing for regicide prior to its occurrence—on grounds of principle. It may be that Knight preferred not to acknowledge that, in which case he would not have understood that Wordsworth’s willingness to argue as he does was a form of misérabilisme born out of hatred of his conservative guardians, who would have been appalled by his French girlfriend and their love-child—guardians who, by the way, Wordsworth would have regarded as dusty relics of the early eighteenth century embodying all manner of old-fashioned irrelevance, particularly in their moral strictures. That Knight doesn’t mention Annette Vallon or the child she had with twenty-one-year-old Wordsworth is understandable; Emile Legouis in a short book would not make her existence generally known until 1922. (One can only imagine his prune-faced response had he been confronted by such vivid evidence of Wordsworth’s youthful incontinence.)

Perhaps Knight was wise to take the course he did. None of this, least of all Wordsworth’s essential atrabiliousness, would have done his reputation any favours in the years preceding World War I.

In some respects, Knight’s account of Wordsworth’s development is excellent for its time. He was right to incorporate into his account of Wordsworth’s mature career The Recluse—though he never explains what Wordsworth’s epic project was. That may be because he didn’t want to have to explain its indebtedness to the French Revolution, the aims of which Wordsworth was still intent on achieving as late as 1798—nor did he have to explain that, as in other utopias formulated in the nineteenth century, a deep-seated indifference to human needs lay at the heart of Wordsworth’s enterprize, which compelled the surrender of the individual will to the collective. And that in turn saves him from having to admit that Wordsworth could be as dogmatic, even dictatorial, as any of the other philosophers who were to envision universal equality.

It is not Knight’s fault that he was the product of an age in which The Excursion of 1814 was seen as Wordsworth’s great achievement; in that respect, he is prescient in not according it too much importance, but it’s hard not to wish he had foreseen the importance of The Prelude to later critics. This is what he says about it:

The Prelude expounds in lofty impassioned strain how his sensibility for nature was augmented and sustained, and how it never, except for a brief interval, ceased to be creative in the special sense of his subsequent theory. But it is with his feelings towards nature that The Prelude mainly deals; it says little regarding the history of his ambition to express those feelings in verse. It is the autobiography, not of the poet of nature, but of the worshipper and priest.

Were this true, it could be only in some mechanistic scheme of which Knight was ringmaster—but perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the way Knight boils down the poem’s ambitions to Wordsworth’s styling of himself as worshipper and priest of nature. To say that, it’s necessary to ignore everything Wordsworth says about his father’s death, about books, his travels, his developing self, and the French Revolution—that’s to say, most of it. Knight’s Procrustean argument reduces the poem to something it definitely wasn’t, even when it addresses nature. To peg Wordsworth as a worshipper or priest is to sanctify and essentialize Wordsworth in a way that modern criticism tends rightly to shun.

Part of the problem is that Knight is writing at the start of a century that, unbeknownst to him, would become increasingly preoccupied with writers’ lives—and that biographical emphasis would be especially pertinent when the existence of Annette and her daughter with Wordsworth became known. In time, the various scholarly editions of the correspondence of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge would become crucial to a thorough understanding of their relationship and Wordsworth’s breakthrough of 1797-1798—but again, the materials available to us were unknown to Knight. Moreover, Knight had only a partial understanding of The Prelude and its lengthy, complex evolution, and he didn’t see the manuscript that forms what we now call the two-part Prelude as containing a complete work in the way we do now. For the same reason, he wouldn’t have regarded The Ruined Cottage, The Pedlar, or Home at Grasmere as independent works; he can’t be faulted for that, but the impact of modern scholarship is to make possible a quite different view of Wordsworth—of many Wordsworths—than that offered by Knight.

Knight was born in 1836 and it wouldn’t be fanciful to say he was a product of the Enlightenment. That may well explain why the thing that seemed to excite him most was the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and its 1802 Appendix on Poetic Diction, a topic of almost transcendent dryness that lures us far from the poetry. His claim that Wordsworth’s best poetry is intricate, elaborate and abstruse betrays a surprising obliquity: Wordsworth is at his weakest when attempting to write philosophic poetry. That Knight argues the opposite indicates his lack of sensitivity to Wordsworth’s innocence and faith in a land that never was and never can be—the very beliefs that disarm criticism and inspire a belief in the unbelievable.

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