Discussing prose written by poets, Joseph Brodsky has remarked, “the tradition of dividing literature into poetry and prose dates from the beginnings of prose, since it was only in prose that such a distinction could be made.” This insight is worth bearing in mind when considering the various prose works of the poet William Wordsworth. For Wordsworth poetic composition was a primary mode of expression; prose was secondary. Wordsworth seems to have written prose mostly in order to find a structure for his poetic beliefs and political enthusiasms. Over the course of a prolific poetic career, in fact, Wordsworth produced little prose, though he did compose two works of lasting general interest, one on poetics—“Preface to Lyrical Ballads”—and the other on the landscape of his native region—his tourist handbook, A Guide through the District of the Lakes, which retains more than a local interest as geographical background to his poems and biography. Wordsworth is not, of course, remembered as a prose writer but as a poet of spiritual and epistemological speculation, a poet concerned with the human relationship to nature. Yet recently, certain critics, as part of a revisionist critique of older interpretations of Wordsworth’s verse, have turned to his political essays for evidence, especially concerning the poet's rejection of his youthful radicalism. Wordsworth's political writings, especially “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” The Convention of Cintra (1809), and Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmoreland (1818), while historically significant, are of primary interest as background for the poetry: for Wordsworth, poetics always determined politics.
William Wordsworth, son of John and Ann Cookson Wordsworth, was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland. The Wordsworth children—Richard, William, Dorothy, John, and Christopher—remained close throughout their lives, and the support Dorothy offered William during his long career has attained legendary status. John Wordsworth, William's father, was legal agent to Sir James Lowther, Baronet of Lowther (later Earl of Lonsdale), a political magnate and property owner. Wordsworth's deep love for the “beauteous forms” of the natural world was established early. The Wordsworth children seem to have lived in a sort of rural paradise along the Derwent River, which ran past the terraced garden below the ample house whose tenancy John Wordsworth had obtained from his employer before his marriage to Ann Cookson. William attended the grammar school near Cockermouth Church and Ann Birkett's school at Penrith, the home of his maternal grandparents. The intense lifelong friendship between Dorothy and William Wordsworth probably began when they, along with Mary Hutchinson, attended school at Penrith. Wordsworth's early childhood beside the Derwent and his schooling at Cockermouth are vividly recalled in various passages of The Prelude and in shorter poems such as the sonnet “Address from the Spirit of Cockermouth Castle.” His experiences in and around Hawkshead, where William and Richard Wordsworth began attending school in 1779, would also provide the poet with a store of images and sensory experience that he would continue to draw on throughout his poetic career, but especially during the “great decade” of 1798 to 1808. This childhood idyll was not to continue, however. In March of 1778 Ann Wordsworth died while visiting a friend in London. In June 1778 Dorothy was sent to live in Halifax, Yorkshire, with her mother's cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld, and she lived with a succession of relatives thereafter. She did not see William again until 1787.
In December of 1783 John Wordsworth, returning home from a business trip, lost his way and was forced to spend a cold night in the open. Very ill when he reached home, he died 30 December. Though separated from their sister, all the boys eventually attended school together at Hawkshead, staying in the house of Ann Tyson. In 1787, despite poor finances caused by ongoing litigation over Lord Lowther's debt to John Wordsworth's estate, Wordsworth went up to Cambridge as a sizar in St. John's College. As he himself later noted, Wordsworth's undergraduate career was not distinguished by particular brilliance. In the third book of The Prelude Wordsworth recorded his reactions to life at Cambridge and his changing attitude toward his studies. During his last summer as an undergraduate, he and his college friend Robert Jones—much influenced by William Coxe's Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland (1779)—decided to make a tour of the Alps, departing from Dover on 13 July 1790.
Though Wordsworth, encouraged by his headmaster William Taylor, had been composing verse since his days at Hawkshead Grammar School, his poetic career begins with this first trip to France and Switzerland. During this period he also formed his early political opinions—especially his hatred of tyranny. These opinions would be profoundly transformed over the coming years but never completely abandoned. Wordsworth was intoxicated by the combination of revolutionary fervor he found in France—he and Jones arrived on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille—and by the impressive natural beauty of the countryside and mountains. Returning to England in October, Wordsworth was awarded a pass degree from Cambridge in January 1791, spent several months in London, and then traveled to Jones's parents' home in North Wales. During 1791 Wordsworth's interest in both poetry and politics gained in sophistication, as natural sensitivity strengthened his perceptions of the natural and social scenes he encountered. In a letter to William Matthews, a Cambridge friend, he lamented his lack of Italian and weak Spanish—he would have liked to be reading modern poetry.
Wordsworth's passion for democracy, as is clear in his “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff” (also called “Apology for the French Revolution”), is the result of his two youthful trips to France. In November 1791 Wordsworth returned to France, where he attended sessions of the National Assembly and the Jacobin Club. In December he met and fell in love with Annette Vallon, and at the beginning of 1792 he became the close friend of an intellectual and philosophical army officer, Michel Beaupuy, with whom he discussed politics. Wordsworth had been an instinctive democrat since childhood, and his experiences in revolutionary France strengthened and developed his convictions. His sympathy for ordinary people would remain with Wordsworth even after his revolutionary fervor had been replaced with the “softened feudalism” he endorsed in his Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmoreland in 1818.
While still in France, Wordsworth began work on the first extended poetic efforts of his maturity, Descriptive Sketches, which was published in 1793, after the appearance of a poem written at Cambridge, An Evening Walk (1793). Having exhausted his money, he left France in early December 1792 before Annette Vallon gave birth to his child Caroline. Back in England, the young radical cast about for a suitable career. As a fervent democrat, he had serious reservations about “vegetating in a paltry curacy,” though he had written to William Matthews from France in May 1792 that he intended to be ordained the following winter or spring. Perhaps this plan was why he was reading sermons early in 1793, when he came across a sermon by Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, on “the Wisdom and Goodness of God” in making both rich and poor, with an appendix denouncing the French Revolution. His democratic sympathies aroused, he spent several weeks in February and March working on a reply.
By this time, his relationship with Annette Vallon had become known to his English relatives, and any further opportunity of entering the Church was foreclosed. In any case Wordsworth had been reading atheist William Godwin’s recently published Political Justice (1793), and had come powerfully under its sway. “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff”—not published until 1876, when it was included in Alexandere B. Grosart’s edition of Wordsworth’s prose—is the youthful poet and democrat’s indignant reply to the forces of darkness, repression, and monarchy. Its prose shares something of the revolutionary clarity of Thomas Paine’s. Wordsworth, in fact, quoted Paine in his refutation of Bishop Watson’s appendix: “If you had looked in the articles of the rights of man, you would have found your efforts superseded. Equality, without which liberty cannot exist, is to be met with in perfection in that state in which no distinctions are admitted but such as have evidently for their object the general good.” Just how radical Wordsworth’s political beliefs were during this period can be judged from other passages in this “Letter”: “At a period big with the fate of the human race, I am sorry that you attach so much importance to the personal sufferings of the late royal martyr.... You wish it to be supposed that you are one of those who are unpersuaded of the guilt of Louis XVI. If you had attended to the history of the French revolution as minutely as its importance demands, so far from stopping to bewail his death, you would rather have regretted that the blind fondness of his people had placed a human being in that monstrous situation....” Remarking upon the stripping of property from the French priesthood, Wordsworth asserted: “The assembly were true to justice and refused to compromise the interests of the Nation by accepting as a satisfaction the insidious offerings of compulsive charity. They enforced their right: they took from the clergy a considerable portion of their wealth, and applied it to the alleviation of the national misery.”
“A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff” is remarkable partly because Wordsworth seems to have begun relinquishing its tenets almost as soon as he had composed them. Though he remained for the time being a strong supporter of the French Revolution, the poetic side of Wordsworth’s personality began asserting itself, causing the poet to reexamine, between 1793 and 1796, his adherence to Godwin’s rationalistic model of human behavior, upon which Wordsworth’s republicanism was largely founded. Whether “A Letter to Bishop the of Llandaff” remained unpublished through caution or circumstance is not clear. As Wordsworth turned his attention to poetry, he developed, through the process of poetic composition, his own theory of human nature, one that had very little to do with Godwin’s rationalism. During this period Wordsworth met another radical young man with literary aspirations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In 1794 and 1795 Wordsworth divided his time between London and the Lake Country, at one point telling William Matthews that he would rather be in London because cataracts and mountains were good occasionally but would not do for constant companions. Nevertheless, in September 1795 William and Dorothy Wordsworth settled at Racedown Lodge in Dorset, where they would live for two years. In The Prelude Wordsworth wrote that his sister “Maintained a saving intercourse / With my true self,” and “preserved me still / A poet.” At Racedown Wordsworth composed The Borderers, a tragedy in which he came fully to terms with Godwin’s philosophy, finally rejecting it as an insufficiently rich approach to life for a poet. Then Wordsworth for the first time found his mature poetic voice, writing The Ruined Cottage, which would be published in 1814 as part of The Excursion, itself conceived as one part of a masterwork, The Recluse, which was to worry Wordsworth throughout his life, a poem proposed to him by Coleridge and planned as a full statement of the two poets’ emerging philosophy of life.
In 1797, to be closer to Coleridge, the Wordsworth’s moved to Alfoxden House, near the village of Nether Stowey. Because of the odd habits of the household—especially their walking over the countryside at all hours—the local population suspected that the Wordsworth’s and their visitors were French spies, and a government agent was actually dispatched to keep an eye on them. The years between 1797 and 1800 mark the period of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s close collaboration, and also the beginning of Wordsworth’s mature poetic career. Wordsworth wrote the poems that would go into the 1798 and 1800 editions of Lyrical Ballads—poems such as “Tintern Abbey,” “Expostulation and Reply,” “The Tables Turned,” “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” and “Michael” (written, Wordsworth told James Fox, “to shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply”). During 1798 Wordsworth also worked on a piece of prose setting out his evolving ideas on justice and morality. Called the “Essay on Morals” by later editors, it was set aside and never finished. Wordsworth seems to have been attempting to work out and justify his changing political and social ideas—ideas that had begun to develop intuitively during the process of poetic composition. The poet in Wordsworth was beginning to dominate the democrat, and the poet found a political philosophy based on power, violence, and reason anathema. In the “Essay on Morals” Wordsworth concerns himself with the relationship between writing and political justice, and, though he had explicitly rejected Edmund Burke’s philosophy in his scorching “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” he seems to be developing a Burkean idea of community.
In September 1798 the Wordsworth’s set off for Germany with Coleridge, returning separately, after some disagreements, in May 1799. In Germany Wordsworth continued to write poems, and when he returned to England he began to prepare a new edition of Lyrical Ballads. The second edition—that of 1800—included an extended preface by Wordsworth, explaining his reasons for choosing to write as he had and setting out a personal poetics that has remained influential and controversial to the present day. For Victorian readers such as Matthew Arnold, who tended to venerate Wordsworth, the preface was a fount of wisdom; but the modernists were deeply suspicious of Wordsworth’s reliance on feeling: poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, while they could accept the strictures on poetic diction, found the underlying theory unacceptable. Subsequent critics have focused on the literary and historical sources of Wordsworth’s ideas, demonstrating that, while the poet certainly reinvented English poetic diction, his theories were deeply rooted in the practice of earlier poets, especially John Milton. This preface, Wordsworth’s only extended statement of his poetics, has become the source of many of the commonplaces and controversies of poetic theory and criticism. For Wordsworth, poetry, which should be written in “the real language of men,” is nevertheless “the spontaneous overflow of feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
The “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (revised and expanded many times for later editions) is not a systematic poetics, but a partly polemical, partly pedantic, and still problematic statement of Wordsworth’s beliefs about poetry and poetic language. The preface in all its versions is highly discursive, the poet “thinking aloud” in an attempt to formulate ideas about poetry based on poems he has already written. It is important to remember when reading the preface that it both chronologically and logically follows the composition of most of the poems. The two central ideas of the preface are the need for reforming poetic diction—which, according to Wordsworth, had become far too artificial—and the role of the poet in society, which Wordsworth saw as having become too marginal. He had also come to the conclusion that the troubles of society were specifically urban in nature. This view finds eloquent expression in Wordsworth’s most powerful early poem, “Tintern Abbey.” Thinking of the way in which his memories of the Wye River valley had sustained him, Wordsworth wrote:
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet [.]
The poem concludes with a meditation on the power of nature to prevail against the false and superficial “dreary intercourse of daily life” that Wordsworth associated with city life, especially literary life in London. In the preface, Wordsworth characterized those forces as acting against the elevation of mind in which the poet specializes, and he identified them with urban life:
For a multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature of the atrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespear and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagent stories in verse.”
In a letter to Catherine Clarkson years later (4 June 1812), Wordsworth blamed not social institutions but people themselves for the ills of society: “As to public affairs; they are most alarming ... The [Prince Regent] seems neither respected or beloved; and the lower orders have been for upwards of thirty years accumulating in pestilential masses of ignorant population; the effects now begin to show themselves....” These words are remarkable in light of Wordsworth’s early identification with just such “masses of population,” though it is evident even in the preface that he had already begun to represent “the lower orders” as fundamentally removed from the affairs of both state and the arts. This belief is extraordinary considering the faith he had expressed in “the people” in “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff.”
Even before the publication of the first edition in 1798, Wordsworth was certainly aware that the poems in Lyrical Ballads were different from the conventional verse of the day, and he knew that fashionable reviewers would probably dismiss them as insufficiently elevated in tone and subject matter. They did, with a vengeance, and a good part of Wordsworth’s additions to the preface for the 1802 edition are attempts to answer his critics. But even in the 1800 version of the preface Wordsworth made an explicit connection between a plain poetic diction and a proper relationship to nature and society; that is, he makes the issue of a poetic diction a moral one, and his critique of a sonnet by Thomas Gray is an ethical demonstration as well as an example of literary criticism directed by one generation against the preceding one. As Wordsworth revised the preface for later editions, the changes reflected Wordsworth’s increasingly conservative and establishment views.
By December 1799 William and Dorothy Wordsworth were living in Dove Cottage, at Town End, Grasmere. In May 1802 Sir James Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale, died, and, though the litigation over his debt to the estate of Wordsworth’s father had not been settled, his heir, Sir William Lowther, agreed to pay the Wordsworth children the entire sum. With financial prospects, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson on 2 October 1802. The settlement helped to support a growing family and also allowed the Wordsworths to continue their generosity to various friends and men of letters, many of whom came to stay at Dove Cottage, sometimes for months on end. The death of the earl of Lonsdale also marked the beginning of a close economic and political relationship between William Wordsworth and Sir William Lowther (who became earl of Lonsdale in 1807) that would have a significant effect on the poet’s political philosophy in the years to come.
Wordsworth continued to write poetry with energy and passion over the next several years, and while fashionable critics such as Francis Jeffrey continued to snipe, his reputation and finances slowly improved. During these years he composed “The Solitary Reaper,” “Resolution and Independence,” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” perhaps the greatest lyrics of his maturity. In these poems Wordsworth presents a fully developed, yet morally flexible, picture of the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Influenced by Neoplatonism, these poems also prepare the way for Wordsworth’s return to conventional religious belief. In 1805 Wordsworth completed a massive revision of the “poem to Coleridge” that would be published, after undergoing periodic adjustment and revision, after the poet’s death in 1850. Many critics believe that the “1805 Prelude,” as it has come to be called, is Wordsworth’s greatest poetic achievement.
In May 1808, his “great decade” behind him, Wordsworth moved with his family to Allan Bank, a larger house in Grasmere. Thomas De Quincy took over Dove Cottage. Evidence of a decisive turn in Wordsworth’s social and political views—and, by extension, his poetical views as well—during this period is to be found in The Convention of Cintra (1809), an extended political tract concerning the British expedition to Portugal to fight against Napoleon’s forces encamped on the Spanish peninsula. In 1793 Wordsworth had written in his “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” “In France royalty is no more.” In 1808 he might have said “In William Wordsworth, Jacobinism is no more.” In place of Wordsworth’s early belief in equality, The Convention of Cintra presents a narrowly patriotic and nationalist view of European politics and a profoundly reactionary political philosophy expressed in tortured rhetoric:
But, from the moment of the rising of the people of the Pyrenean peninsula, there was a mighty change; we were instantaneously animated; and, from that moment, the contest assumed the dignity, which it is not in the power of any thing but hope to bestow; and, if I may dare to transfer language, prompted by a revelation of the state of being that admits not of decay or change, to the concerns and interests of our transitory planet, from that moment “this corruptible put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality.”
The rest of Wordsworth’s peroration is similarly tangled in syntax and thought. Furthermore, Wordsworth seems to have retreated into a form of rationalism he had rejected in order to become the great poet of 1797-1807:
Never, indeed, was the fellowship of our sentient nature more intimately felt—never was the irresistible power of justice more gloriously displayed than when the British and Spanish Nations, with an impulse like that of two ancient heros throwing down their weapons and reconciled in the field, ... embraced each other—to solemnize this conversion of love, not by festivities of peace, but by combating side by side through danger and under affliction in the devotedness of perfect brotherhood. This was a conjunction which excited hope as fervent as it was rational.
Throughout The Convention of Cintra Wordsworth seems to have given himself over to rigid abstractions such as Patriotism, Justice, and Power, and it is possible to argue that the diminution of Wordsworth’s poetic power dates from this period. If “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff” was derivative of Godwin, The Convention of Cintra is certainly derivative of Edmund Burke. When Henry Crabb Robinson showed a copy of Wordsworth’s pamphlet to Thomas Quayle, Quayle said that Wordsworth’s style resembled the worst of Burke’s. The radical republican of 1793 has by this point adopted not only Burke’s style but the essence of his thought as well. The transformation of his ideas seems to have cost Wordsworth his clarity of language, so apparent in “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” and even the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” which, though structurally complicated, is never obscure in the way of The Convention of Cintra.
In spite of his claim that he wrote “so few letters, and employ my pen so little in any way,” Wordsworth was a prolific correspondent throughout his life, and his letters provide a useful prose fabric upon which to trace the embroidery of the poems. One brief sequence of letters from 1811 and 1812 illustrates Wordsworth’s range of tone and subject in this literary subgenre. Writing on 28 March 1811 to C. W. Pasley, who had sent Wordsworth a copy of his Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire (1810), Wordsworth said how much he enjoyed the book, which he had “expected with great impatience,” and remarked that having read it carefully, he considered himself “in a high degree instructed” by the volume. Then the theorist of The Convention of Cintra began a critique of Pasley’s book, which according to Wordsworth is overly pessimistic about Britain’s chances for defeating France and overly belligerent in suggesting that the English must launch an all-out war of conquest, beginning in Sicily, on the European continent, planting the seeds of justice wherever the armies are successful. Wordsworth, whose life had taught him to be economically astute, saw the folly of such an expedition, and told Pasley so, in exquisite detail. In fact, one is able to gain a clearer appreciation of Wordsworth’s later political thinking from this and other letters of the period than from The Convention of Cintra with its overblown rhetoric. The letter to Pasley has the considerable virtue, for the sake of Wordsworth’s prose, that it is rooted in the specifics of replying to an actual text. The letter to Pasley still, however, exhibits the poet’s lamentable willingness to subscribe to the clichés of nationalism: “Was there ever an instance, since the world began, of the peaceful arts thriving under a despotism so oppressive as that of France is and must continue to be, and among a people so unsettled, so depraved, and so undisciplined in civil arts and habits as the French nation must now be?” In his youth, Wordsworth, while an enthusiast of the French Revolution, had the analytic ability of a historian; by 1811 he had only the empty categories of a pedant. His idealism, adopted for the purposes of poetic composition, led him to sweeping political conclusions unfounded in reality: “The mind of the Country [England] is so far before that of France, and that that mind has empowered the hands of the country to raise so much national wealth, that France must condescend to accept from us what she will be unable herself to produce” [emphasis in original]. Wordsworth argued that Pasley’s scheme is unnecessary because the mind and hands of England would produce the economic defeat of the French. There is, as has been noted, considerable economic acumen in this letter, though the commonsense insights are continually undercut by the rhetoric in which they are couched.
Another side of Wordsworth is revealed in a 6 February 1812 letter to the early of Lonsdale: “I regret that it is not in my power to wait upon you personally; as the experience which. I have had of your Lordship’s gracious manners would have rendered quite pleasing to me the delicate task, which, through the means of a Letter, I am undertaking not without some reluctance.” Wordsworth’s self-consciousness clings to every word, as well it might—he was asking that Lord Lonsdale consider appointing him to “any Office [that] should be at your Lordship’s disposal (the duties of which would not call so largely upon my exertions as to prevent me from giving a considerable portion of my time to study)....” Though he had to wait more than a year, in 1813 Wordsworth was appointed, under Lonsdale’s patronage, to the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland and Penrith.
On Wednesday evening, 2 December 1812, William Wordsworth wrote to his friend Robert Southey about the death of Thomas Wordsworth, the poet’s six-year-old son, the previous day. The simplicity and directness of this letter communicate Wordsworth’s sorrow with great power and integrity:
Symptoms of the measles appeared upon my Son Thomas last Thursday; he was most favorable held till Tuesday, between ten and eleven at that hour was particularly lightsome and comfortable; without any assignable cause a sudden change took place, an inflammation had commenced on the lungs which it was impossible to check and the sweet Innocent yielded up his soul to God before six in the evening. He did not appear to suffer much in body, but I fear something in mind as he was of an age to have thought much upon death a subject to which his mind was daily led by the grave of his Sister.
Thomas was the second child of William and Mary Wordsworth to die in childhood. Catherine had died the previous June, a few months before her fourth birthday.
In late 1812 Lord Lonsdale proposed that he provide one hundred pounds a year for the support of Wordsworth and his family until a salaried position became available. Wordsworth was at first somewhat reluctant to accept the patronage, but he accepted, and on 8 January 1813 he wrote to acknowledge receipt of payment. He was relieved when the post of Distributor of Stamps was offered to him a few months later. With this assurance of economic security, the Wordsworths moved to Rydal Mount, the poet’s final home, in May 1813. Lonsdale’s gift and patronage marked a deepening of the relations between the aristocratic earl and the formerly radical republican and supporter of revolution in France and democracy in England. Politically, Wordsworth had completely transformed himself; poetically, he repeated earlier formulas and began rearranging his poems in a seemingly infinite sequence of thematically organized volumes.
Other than letters and miscellaneous notes, Wordsworth’s political prose writings conclude with Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmoreland (1818). These have been described by one critic as “nearly unreadable,” but they are crucial to an understanding of Wordsworth’s entanglement in local and national politics. As Distributor of Stamps, Wordsworth should not have engaged in electioneering, but his two addresses back the local nobility in no uncertain terms. By this time, Wordsworth had come to believe that the only way to preserve the virtues celebrated in “Michael” and other early poems was to maintain the traditional social orders of English society. Fully the Tory mouthpiece, Wordsworth argued that the Whigs had put too much faith in human nature, as they (and he) did at the commencement of the French Revolution. The Two Addresses praise Edmund Burke for just those values Wordsworth had earlier excoriated. By this time Wordsworth had fully incorporated Burke’s system of beliefs into his own, and several passages of the 1850 Prelude are redolent with Burkean sentimental and political philosophy.
Wordsworth’s last major work in prose represents a return to his earliest interest in the land and scenery of the English Lake District. In 1810 artist Joseph Wilkinson published Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire , with an introduction by Wordsworth. In 1822 Wordsworth returned to his introduction, expanding it into a book most commonly known as A Guide through the District of the Lakes, which continues to be republished in a variety of editions. Wordsworth’s love of his native region is evident in the Guide, which remains useful for the reader of Wordsworth’s poetry as well as for the tourist of the Lake District.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge died in 1834, and, though the men had grown apart, Wordsworth continued to pay particular attention to Coleridge’s erratic first son, Hartley, a minor poet and biographer who haunted the Lake District on “pot house wanderings,” to use Wordsworth’s memorable phrase. Hartley, the child addressed in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “To H.C. Six Years Old,” as well as the basis for the child represented in the Immortality Ode, was a feckless figure beloved by the local farmers, and Wordsworth took a special interest in seeing to his welfare. Hartley died in 1849, only a few months before Wordsworth, who instructed that his friend’s son be buried in the Wordsworth plot in Grasmere Churchyard. “He would have wished it,” said Wordsworth.
In 1843 Wordsworth was named poet laureate of England, though by this time he had for the most part quit composing verse. He revised and rearranged his poems, published various editions, and entertained literary guests and friends. When he died in 1850 he had for some years been venerated as a sage, his most ardent detractors glossing over the radical origins of his poetics and politics. Wordsworth’s prose, while not extensive and often difficult, reveals the poet’s historical context. A careful reading of Wordsworth’s prose will lead, perhaps, to a clearer understanding of the path he traveled from the eighteenth century to the Victorian age, and modern readers will recognized the origins of their own literary and political culture.
The styles of Wordsworth’s poetry are many, although his most famous experiment in style was to compose “lyrical ballads” in simple language and simple meter to express the universal experience of common people in rural settings. These poems treat common incidents as if they are extraordinary; in other words, the lyrical quality of feeling gives importance to the traditional ballad tale. Sometimes these lyrical ballads are spoken by the poet, as in “Lines Written in Early Spring.” At other times, they are spoken by characters of Wordsworth’s imagination, as in “The Thorn.” Although the emotions of these people are common and universal, the incidents of their experiences are unusual and abnormal or undesirable. Thus, the poems are often treatments of outcasts from society, as in “The Female Vagrant,” or psychologically abnormal people, as in “The Idiot Boy.”
The first edition of the Lyrical Ballads contains poems of family affection and warm cordiality, as in “We Are Seven” and “The Last of the Flock.” It also contains humorous poems, including “Expostulation and Reply” and its companion, “The Tables Turned.” These poems consistently develop a special theme of Wordsworth’s enduring interest, that a special bonding occurs in the close relationship of a child reared close to nature. While the bond must be broken when the child has matured, it should neither be prematurely broken nor denied or repressed by too much emphasis on reason and social formulas. The therapy of recalling childhood’s passions in association with familiar landscapes is developed in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” which is included in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. This poem should be recalled as an exception to the rule of those poems, since it is a blank-verse monologue, not a rhyming, narrative “lyrical ballad.”
The same notice should be given to the inclusion of the blank-verse narrative of “Michael: A Pastoral Poem” in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. This poem exemplifies a favorite stylistic approach that Wordsworth held throughout his life: to tell a story of rural people, sometimes shepherds, in strong, unrhymed iambic pentameter. It is the style of “Nutting,” “The Brothers,” and, later, many of the parts of The Excursion, the only section of The Recluse that Wordsworth finished to his satisfaction. The second edition of Lyrical Ballads also contains some poems that are truly lyrical ballads but differ from the tone and subjects of those in the first edition: These are the poems known as the “Lucy” poems, and a group that could be called the “Matthew” poems. The striking feature common to these two groups is a deepening interest in the experience of death, of grieving the deaths of loved ones who can never be replaced in one’s affections.
A similar feature appears to mark many of Wordsworth’s new poems included in his two volumes published in 1807. The great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a major achievement of style in the treatment of a profoundly important theme, whether it is seen as one of growing old, maturity of vision, psychological development, or philosophical transition. Wordsworth made a permanently admirable use of the irregular ode, and he continued to have interest in the ode form, though without such success. He also sustained an interest in the sonnet, mainly in the English or Miltonic version; throughout his career, Wordsworth wrote sonnets and sometimes put them into sequences, as in The River Duddon. While his later poems fail to acquire the force of his earlier ones, Wordsworth’s continuing style is to balance simplicity of natural themes with the discipline of sophisticated art.
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
First published: 1798 (collected in Lyrical Ballads, 1798)
Type of work: Poem
A speaker revisits a scene first observed five years earlier; differences arise from changes in the speaker’s own mind more than from the landscape.
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is a shortened version of the poem’s full title, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” This full title more accurately locates the situation of the poem and anchors the experience of the poem in a particular place and time. In 160 lines of blank verse, the poet describes what he hears and sees again five years after he last visited this scene along the Wye River in Wales, near the ruins of an ancient abbey.
The poet first notices cliffs, trees, hedges, and farmhouses. Then, he imagines that someone might be camping amid the woods. What he cannot see becomes important, and he lets his imagination go. Then, he recalls how he has recently left a city, where he lived during some of the time since visiting the Wye River. He believes that his spirit was sustained by his memories of this natural scenery through a time of difficulty while in the city. The feelings attached to remembered scenes of nature became sources of imaginative power when detached from actual observation of those scenes.
The poet recalls his attention to the immediate scene before him again, and he compares his present feelings with those that he had when first visiting this spot. At that time, he was young and thoughtless, unaware of his differences from other animal life; now, however, he feels more burdened by the responsibilities of being human, of having a heart that sympathizes with the sufferings of other human beings. The feelings of youth have been revived by this revisit, and those feelings have energized his moral imagination to universal proportions.
Suddenly, the poet addresses his sister. She seems to be standing beside him, observing this same scene with him. This visit, however, is her first, and he imagines the future, when her memories of this scene will work for her as his do for him at this time. He utters a prayer that nature will supply his sister with the same restorative power of feeling in the future. In this way, each will be a “worshipper of Nature.”
Preface to Lyrical Ballads
First published: 1800 (published in Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 1800)
Type of work: Essay
Lyrical Ballads experimented in expressing common emotions through the simple language of “humble and rustic” people to please readers of popular ballads.
The preface to Lyrical Ballads was written to explain the theory of poetry guiding Wordsworth’s composition of the poems. Wordsworth defends the unusual style and subjects of the poems (some of which are actually composed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) as experiments to see how far popular poetry could be used to convey profound feeling.
There are three general reasons guiding the composition of the lyrical ballads. The first is in the choice of subject matter, which is limited to experiences of common life in the country. There, people use a simple language and directly express deep feeling. Their habit of speaking comes from associating feelings with the permanent forms of nature, such as mountains, rivers, and clouds. The challenge for the poet is to make these ordinary experiences interesting to readers; in other words, the poems attempt to take ordinary subjects and treat them in extraordinary ways. Doing so would cause readers to recognize fundamental truths of universal human experience.
The second reason guiding his poems is Wordsworth’s goal of emphasizing the purpose of poetry as art. This purpose is not a moralistic one; indeed, poetry comes from a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but it is disciplined by remembering those feelings in moods of peaceful meditation. The combination of feeling and meditation produces artful poetry with purpose. Specifically, the lyrical ballads have the purposes of enlightening readers’ understanding of basic human feeling, enhancing readers’ emotions, and helping readers to enjoy the common things of life. That is important, Wordsworth believes, because too many people seem to have a difficult time enjoying life. They need to search for the unusual, the strange, and the fantastic; they are missing the beauty of the world around them. People need to have more faith in their own imagination to provide the beauty and emotion that they are overlooking in the environment.
Moreover, Wordsworth believes that the style of the poems is important to capture and keep readers’ attention, or the other two reasons will fail. Wordsworth thought tricks of personification and artistic diction had dulled people’s feelings, and so he wanted to refresh poetry by eliminating ornamentation to return to basics. The strengths of good prose should also be the strengths of good poetry, he writes, and so poetry should be written as the language of a person who speaks directly to other people with the same basic feelings and experiences of all human beings. To this, meter can be added in order to control emotional excitement, as reflection can restrain spontaneous emotion.
Readers are urged to be thoughtful in judging the poems. They should judge with genuine feelings that have been educated by thought and long habits of reading from many good pieces of literature. Wordsworth ends by expressing his faith that such readers will recognize the success of his experiments in the poems that he calls lyrical ballads: poems that express a domination of feeling (lyrical) over form (ballads).
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality”
First published: 1807 (collected in Poems in Two Volumes, 1807)
Type of work: Poem
Something is missing from adulthood that once was present in childhood’s vision of life and nature, but there are compensations of wisdom and moral sensitivity.
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is a personal poem in a traditionally impersonal, formal verse form of eleven stanzas that vary in length and metrical design. Wordsworth uses the ancient Greek Pindaric ode, which had celebrated the virtues of athletic heroes, to examine the strangely compelling process of growing up from childhood to adult maturity. The hero is a child, but the victory is won by the adult who reflects upon childhood’s losses.
The epigraph of the poem states the paradox that childhood experiences provide the background and source of the adult’s identity, as if a child could be the parent of the adult who develops from childhood. The poet, recognizing that this is so, wishes therefore to be naturally faithful to his past, to build his maturity upon a continuous line of connections with his youth.
The first four stanzas express the poet’s strange experience of feeling wonderful on a lovely spring morning in May, when all nature celebrates a rebirth of vegetable and animal life. The poet sees and hears the signs of this rebirth, and he can even feel a stirring of sympathetic identification with the vitality all around him. Yet he also feels a disturbing emotion that shadows the bright landscape. He feels that there is something missing in his own being, that the natural scene does not have the same glorious promise that it had when he looked at it as a child. The rest of the poem is an attempt to identify what is missing and to recover it if possible.
Stanzas 5 through 8 recall childhood as if it were like the dawn of a new day, when the sun peers upon the earth through glowing clouds. The meaning behind the comparison is that a child comes from darkness and awakens to life with a vision still colored by its origins in eternity. Like the sun, a child moves from an exciting, hopeful dawn of life, rises toward the common light of midday’s adulthood, and casts shadows that, like a prison, seem to surround a person and block the vision of glorious origins. Human life is also compared to a foster child who is under the care of Mother Nature until it is time for the child to leave home and be independent of the fostering environment. Real parents teach their children games of role-playing, which prepare them for adult responsibilities, but those same games (which later concern marrying, working, and dying) drive children further away from their infant experience of immortality and omnipotence. Finally, the process of growing up is compared to putting layer after layer of ice over a glowing, energetic fire.
The last section of the poem, stanzas 9 through 11, turns from the desolation that ends stanza 8, where the poet sinks beneath the frigid thought of a buried vitality. Suddenly, he realizes that there is something still burning beneath the ice of experience and mortality; he feels an ember of energy remaining from childhood’s vitality. Ironically, the feeling of something missing from his joy at the opening of the poem has become a feeling of something present beneath his dejection in the middle of the poem. The question that he poses for himself is to wonder what this is that still lives deep inside him, what this is that refuses to die. There is the reason for the title of the poem: a hint of immortality remaining in the adult from his memory of childhood’s experiences.
Stanza 9 recalls the things of childhood that cannot be the source of this feeling of immortality. It is not the animal delight or the irresponsibility of childhood; it is not the unreflecting optimism, either. Instead, it is something more alien to ordinary adult experience: The reason to celebrate what remains from childhood is that childhood was a time when the mind refused to accept natural limitations, when the human creature did not yet feel that it was only a natural being. Babies and children have enormous egos, not yet shaped by an environment that makes them retreat from questioning all sensation and asserting subjective idealism as more real than objective nature. Such a defiant subjectivity and faith in oneself is more real than the world into which the child is born. That buried feeling is what rescues the adult from the dejection of maturity into a posture of power over nature. Maturity is a position from which the adult can look back and recover childhood faith, like a traveler who can look back from an inland mountain to see children playing by the sea and recall that as the place from where he also came.
Thus, the poet celebrates in the last two stanzas his recovery of imaginative power because he pays tribute to the ember of childhood idealism still glowing beneath his mortality. The loveliness of natural life is paradoxically more lovely now because the poet’s experience of mortality has taught him the lesson of loss, and that makes nature more precious to the mind of a person who knows that spiritual immortality will survive the natural beauty that fosters human growth.
First published: 1850
Type of work: Poem
The hero of a modern epic explores his memory of events, propelling him to undertake the great mission that nature has assigned to him.
The Prelude is a long, blank-verse poem with a complicated history. It was begun as early as 1798-1799. Then it may have been conceived as a short autobiographical poem, before it was expanded to thirteen books by 1805. The poem was never published during Wordsworth’s life, but when it was, soon after his death in 1850, The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind had been revised extensively and expanded to fourteen books. There are significant differences among the three versions of the poem. For convenience, the poem published in 1850 may be assumed for discussion.
The subject of the poem is a review by the poet of his life to explain the growth of his mind as a poet; it examines his past for evidence to account for the growth of his imagination and to justify his calling as a poet. Because Samuel Taylor Coleridge strongly urged Wordsworth to believe in himself as a poet and to use his talent to compose a modern epic poem, Coleridge is given credit for causing Wordsworth to write The Prelude. What Coleridge wanted from Wordsworth was not a poem about his own life, however, but rather a poem about the modern state of philosophy and science, as in the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), and Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Wordsworth planned to write such an epic, but he could not make progress on it until after he wrote a poem in which he justified his decision to be a poet of any kind. This self-justification would be a prefatory explanation, appearing as the “prelude” for the main movement that would be called The Recluse.
The prefatory poem, however, became so important that it became the main poem itself, and Wordsworth worked at it for most of his long life. The Prelude is more important, and nearer to completion, than The Recluse (1888), for which it was intended as an introduction. There are many epic features, nevertheless, in the style and structure of The Prelude itself. Epic similes appear in various places, allusions to epic stories recur, and the structure of the poem is loosely modeled upon the classical epic design that begins in medias res (in the middle of things).
The first book of The Prelude opens with a celebration of freedom, as the poet decides to visit his childhood and leave behind a city and a life of frustration and uncertainty. He composes aloud some verses of happiness as he strides confidently into the countryside, but suddenly he is unable to compose and begins to doubt his ability to continue. He believes that he is intended by nature to be a poet, but he is beginning to doubt himself and his judgment because he is experiencing “writer’s block.”
In this state of mind, he begins to review his life to see if he has correctly interpreted his vocation. The poem is a search of the poet’s past for evidence that the man is intended by nature to be a poet at all. The remainder of the first book is a short summary of the poet’s earliest years of boyhood, when he grew up in the Lake District of northern England. In four seasonal episodes, Wordsworth’s poem recalls experiences of seedlike origins for his growth of imagination.
The first is an autumn scene of taking woodcocks from other people’s traps and then feeling that the hills pursued him to punish him. The second is a springtime experience of robbing birds’ nests and then feeling that the wind accused him of being a violator. The third episode is a summer one of borrowing a boat without permission, rowing out onto a lake alone, and then feeling that the mountains rose in condemnation. The final scene is one of winter ice-skating at night on frozen lakes; he had stayed out later than he ought, and in a guilty state of mind he would skate alone, feeling nature alive with motion.
Such memories are exercises that raise the poet’s imaginative energies to feel regeneration and renewed confidence in himself. Book 2 contains memories of his mother’s death and his way of dealing with the threat of alienation it caused in his life; he substituted nature for his lost mother, and he nourished his imagination with lonely wanderings through the hills and among the lakes. That continued until he was old enough to be sent to the university in Cambridge, far from home and as threatening as had been the death of his mother.
Book 3 describes how Cambridge was a vast confusion at first, with its swirl of events and temptations. Gradually, it also nourished Wordsworth’s active imagination, both with learning and with urban scenery. Book 4 describes the joyful summer vacations when he revisited youthful scenes and revived his depressed spirits. He renewed social contacts and danced until dawn, when nature summoned him home with morning glory of bright sunrise. The next two books describe how the young undergraduate left England for a walking tour of France and the Alps, where he realized again that his imagination is more important than the natural scenery that nourishes it. Book 7 is a return to England, where the poet finished his education at Cambridge and moved to London.
The books on Wordsworth’s residence in France describe his introduction to the French patriot Michel Beaupuy in book 9 and the influence that Beaupuy had on the poet’s increasing sympathy for the revolutionaries. Book 10, however, narrates the intensifying pressure on Wordsworth to leave France for safety back in London, where the poet despaired at prospects for a peaceful recovery of freedom in France. Book 11 analyzes the spiritual depression that Wordsworth experienced over his loss of faith that the French Revolution could be conducted in a civilized way, combined with his disgust that Britain should have united to oppose Frenchmen fighting for freedom.
By the end of book 12, Wordsworth is back where the poem began, when he decided to leave London and return to his home in the Lake District. There, he revisited scenes of his childhood and youth, recovered his emotional energies, and realized that his imagination needed to be revived by recovering forgotten experiences. These are the “spots of time” that Wordsworth uses to illustrate his recovery of imaginative power. Book 12 ends with descriptions of two of these spots of time.
The final books are celebrations of restored imagination. Book 13 praises the gifts of nature and childhood for emotion and calm. Book 14 is dominated by a long description of the poet’s ascent of Mount Snowdon. On that occasion, the poet realized that his imagination is like the moonlight penetrating the mist that surrounded the mountaintop. The last book then ends with expressions of gratitude to Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, and to Coleridge’s friendship. They have inspired the poem by supporting the poet’s faith in himself.