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     English Wordplay ~ Listen and Enjoy

These pages are dedicated to my beloved son, Seamus, because, like Wordsworth, we have enjoyed wandering together in wild and beautiful places.  I am sure Tate will share the same joy with his Mum and Dad.

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William Wordsworth

Based on the 1914 biography by F. W. H. MYERS


Wordsworth was fond of travelling, and indulged this taste whenever he could afford it. Comparing himself and Southey, he says in 1843:

"My lamented friend Southey used to say that had he been a Papist, the course of life which in all probability would have been his was that of a Benedictine monk, in a convent furnished with an inexhaustible library. Books were, in fact, his passion; and wandering, I can with truth affirm, was mine; but this propensity in me was happily counteracted by inability from want of fortune to fulfil my wishes."

We find him, however, frequently able to contrive a change of scene. His Swiss tour in 1790, his residence in France in 1791-2, his residence in Germany, 1798-9, have been already touched on. Then came a short visit to France in August 1802, which produced the sonnets on Westminster Bridge and Calais Beach. The tour in Scotland which was so fertile in poetry took place in 1803. A second tour in Scotland, in 1814, produced the Brownie's Cell and a few other pieces. And in July, 1820, he set out with his wife and sister and two or three other friends for a tour through Switzerland and Italy.

The Engelberg
The Engelberg

This tour produced a good deal of poetry; and here and there are touches which recall the old inspiration. Such is the comparison of the clouds about the Engelberg to hovering angels;

For gentlest uses, oft-times Nature takes
The work of Fancy from her willing hands;
And such a beautiful creation makes
As renders needless spells and magic wands,
And for the boldest tale belief commands.
When first mine eyes beheld that famous Hill
The sacred ENGELBERG, celestial Bands,
With intermingling motions soft and still,
Hung round its top, on wings that changed their hues at will.

Clouds do not name those Visitants; they were
The very Angels whose authentic lays,
Sung from that heavenly ground in middle air,
Made known the spot where piety should raise
A holy Structure to the Almighty's praise.
Resplendent Apparition! if in vain
My ears did listen, 'twas enough to gaze;
And watch the slow departure of the train,
Whose skirts the glowing Mountain thirsted to detain!
Milan Cathedral
Milan Cathedral

also showing a touch of inspiration was the description of the eclipse falling upon the population of statues, which throng the pinnacles of Milan Cathedral.

          But Fancy with the speed of fire
          Hath passed to Milan's loftiest spire,
          And there alights 'mid that aerial host
          Of Figures human and divine,                                
          White as the snows of Apennine
          Indurated by frost.

          Awe-stricken she beholds the array
          That guards the Temple night and day;
          Angels she sees--that might from heaven have flown,
          And Virgin-saints, who not in vain
          Have striven by purity to gain
          The beatific crown--

For the most part the poems relating to this tour have an artificial look; the poet's admiration for the Italian maid and the Helvetian girl is a mere shadow of the old feeling for the Highland girl, to whom, in fact, he seems obliged to recur in order to give reality to his new emotion.

Devil's Bridge
Devil's Bridge
18th Century Engraving

In 1823 he made a tour in Holland, and in 1824 in North Wales, where his sonnet to the torrent at the Devil's Bridge recalls the Swiss scenery seen in his youth with vigour and dignity.

HOW art thou named? In search of what strange land,	
From what huge height, descending? Can such force	
Of waters issue from a British source,	
Or hath not Pindus fed thee, where the band	
Of patriots scoop their freedom out, with hand	        
Desperate as thine? Or come the incessant shocks	
From that young stream that smites the throbbing rocks	
Of Viamala? There I seem to stand,	
As in life's morn; permitted to behold,	
From the dread chasm, woods climbing above woods,	        
In pomp that fades not; everlasting snows;	
And skies that ne'er relinquish their repose:	
Such power possess the family of floods	
Over the minds of poets, young or old!
Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott

In 1828 he made another excursion in Belgium with Coleridge, and in 1829 he visited Ireland with his friend Mr. Marshall. Neither of these tours was productive. In 1831 he paid a visit with his daughter to Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, before his departure to seek health in Italy. Scott received them cordially, and had strength to take them to the Yarrow.

Eternal blessings on the Muse,	
  And her divine employment!	
The blameless Muse, who trains her Sons	
  For hope and calm enjoyment;	
Albeit sickness, lingering yet,	        
  Has o'er their pillow brooded;	
And Care waylays their steps—a Sprite	
  Not easily eluded.	
For thee, O SCOTT! compelled to change	
  Green Eildon-hill and Cheviot	        
For warm Vesuvio's vine-clad slopes,	
  And leave thy Tweed and Tiviot	
For mild Sorrento's breezy waves;	
  May classic Fancy, linking	
With native Fancy her fresh aid,	        
  Preserve thy heart from sinking!
The Eildon Hills
The Eildon Hills in Autumn
by C Johnson

"Of that excursion," says Wordsworth, "the verses Yarrow Revisited are a memorial. On our return in the afternoon we had to cross the Tweed, directly opposite Abbotsford. A rich, but sad light, of rather a purple than a golden hue, was spread over the Eildon hills at that moment; and, thinking it probable that it might be the last time Sir Walter would cross the stream (the Tweed), I was not a little moved, and expressed some of my feelings in the sonnet beginning, A trouble not of clouds nor weeping rain.

          A TROUBLE, not of clouds, or weeping rain,
          Nor of the setting sun's pathetic light
          Engendered, hangs o'er Eildon's triple height:
          Spirits of Power, assembled there, complain
          For kindred Power departing from their sight;
          While Tweed, best pleased in chanting a blithe strain,
          Saddens his voice again, and yet again.
          Lift up your hearts, ye Mourners! for the might
          Of the whole world's good wishes with him goes;
          Blessings and prayers, in nobler retinue                    
          Than sceptred king or laurelled conqueror knows
          Follow this wondrous Potentate. Be true,
          Ye winds of ocean, and the midland sea,
          Wafting your Charge to soft Parthenope!

At noon on Thursday we left Abbotsford, and on the morning of that day Sir Walter and I had a serious conversation, tete-a-tete, when he spoke with gratitude of the happy life which, upon the whole, he had led. He had written in my daughter's album, before he came into the breakfast-room that morning, a few stanzas addressed to her; and, while putting the book into her hand, in his own study, standing by his desk, he said to her, in my presence, 'I should not have done anything of this kind but for your father's sake; they are probably the last verses I shall ever write.' They show how much his mind was impaired: not by the strain of thought, but by the execution, some of the lines being imperfect, and one stanza wanting corresponding rhymes.

Scott wrote in his dairy: "Wordsworth and his daughter, a fine girl, were with us on the last day. I tried to write in her diary, and made an ill-favoured botch--no help for it. "Stitches will wear, and ill ones will out," as the tailor says."

Kings College Chapel
Kings College Chapel

The productions of Wordsworth's later years took for the most part a didactic rather than a descriptive form. In a few instances - as in the description of King's College, Cambridge - his sonnets possess force or charm enough to rank them high as poetry.

Tax not the royal Saint with vain expense,
With ill-matched aims the architect who planned
(Albeit labouring for a scanty band
Of white-robed scholars only) this immense

And glorious work of fine intelligence!
- Give all thou canst; high heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely-calculated less or more: - 
So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense

These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells

Lingering -and wandering on as loath to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.
George Herbert
George Herbert

The religion which these later poems of Wordsworth's embody is rather the stately tradition of a great Church than the pangs and aspirations of a holy soul. There is little in them - whether for good or evil - of the stuff of which a Paul, a Francis, a Dominic are made. That fervent emotion - akin to the passion of love rather than to intellectual or moral conviction - finds voice through singers of a very different tone. It is fed by an inward anguish, and felicity which, to those who have not felt them, seem as causeless as a lover's moods; by wrestlings not with flesh and blood; by nights of despairing self-abasement; by ecstasies of an incommunicable peace. How great the gulf between Wordsworth and George Herbert! - Herbert "offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither," - and Wordsworth, for whom the gentle regret of the lines, -

   Me this unchartered freedom tires,
   I feel the weight of chance desires, -

forms his most characteristic expression of the self-judgment of the solitary soul. Wordsworth accomplished one reconciliation of great importance to mankind. He showed, as plainly in his way as Socrates had shown it long ago, with what readiness a profoundly original conception of the scheme of things will shape itself into the mould of an established and venerable faith. He united the religion of the philosopher with the religion of the churchman; one rarer thing he could not do; he could not unite the religion of the philosopher with the religion of the saint.

The most inspiring feeling which breathes through Wordsworth's ecclesiastical pieces is not of a doctrinal, not even of a spiritual kind. The ecclesiastical as well as the political sentiments of his later years are prompted mainly by the admiring love with which he regarded the structure of English society. This concrete attachment to the scenes about him had always formed an important element in his character. Ideal politics, whether in Church or State, had never occupied his mind, which sought rather to find its informing principles embodied in the England of his day.

Souldern Church
Souldern Church, Oxfordshire

The sonnet On a Parsonage in Oxfordshire well illustrates the loving minuteness with which he draws out the beauty and fitness of the established scheme of things, - the power of English country life to satisfy so many moods of feeling.

The country-seat of the English squire or nobleman has become one of the world's chosen types of a happy and a stately home. And Wordsworth, especially in his poems which deal with Coleorton, has shown how deeply he felt the sway of such a home's hereditary majesty, its secure and tranquillizing charm. Yet there are moments when the broad park, the halls and towers, seem no longer the fitting frame of human greatness, but rather an isolating solitude, an unfeeling triumph over the poor.

In such a mood of mind it will not always satisfy us to dwell, as Wordsworth has so often done, on the virtue and happiness that gather round a cottage hearth. We turn rather to the "refined rusticity" of an English Parsonage home.

Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends,
Is marked by no distinguishable line;
The turf unites, the pathways intertwine;
And, wheresoe'er the stealing footstep tends,
Garden, and that domain where kindred, friends,
And neighbours rest together, here confound
Their several features, mingled like the sound
Of many waters, or as evening blends
With shady night. Soft airs, from shrub and flower,
Waft fragrant greetings to each silent grave; 
And while those lofty poplars gently wave
Their tops, between them comes and goes a sky
Bright as the glimpses of eternity,
To saints accorded in their mortal hour. 
Seathwaite Chapel
Seathwaite Chapel

The clergyman's abode has but so much of dignity as befits the minister of the Church which is the hamlet's centre; enough to suggest the old Athenian boast of beauty without extravagance, and study without effeminacy; enough to show that dwellings where not this life but another is the prevailing thought and care, yet need not lack the graces of culture, nor the loves of home. The sonnet on Seathwaite Chapel affords a more characteristic instance of the clerical ideal towards which Wordsworth naturally turned.

SACRED Religion! "mother of form and fear," 
Dread arbitress of mutable respect, 
New rites ordaining when the old are wrecked, 
Or cease to please the fickle worshipper; 
Mother of Love! (that name best suits thee here) 
Mother of Love! for this deep vale, protect 
Truth's holy lamp, pure source of bright effect, 
Gifted to purge the vapoury atmosphere 
That seeks to stifle it;--as in those days 
When this low Pile a Gospel Teacher knew, 
Whose good works formed an endless retinue: 
A Pastor such as Chaucer's verse portrays; 
Such as the heaven-taught skill of Herbert drew; 
And tender Goldsmith crowned with deathless praise!
Dr. Bell's School, Leith, Edinburgh
Dr. Bell's School, Leith, Edinburgh

It was in social and political matters that the consequences of this idealizing view of the facts around him in Cumberland were most apparent. Take education, for example. Wordsworth was one of the earliest and most impressive assertors of the national duty of teaching every English child to read. And yet as soon as, through the exertions of Bell and Lancaster, there seems to be some chance of really educating the poor, Dr. Bell, whom Coleridge fondly imagines as surrounded in heaven by multitudes of grateful angels, is to Wordsworth a name of horror. The mistresses trained on his system are called "Dr. Bell's sour-looking teachers in petticoats." And the instruction received in these new-fangled schools is compared to "the training that fits a boxer for victory in the ring."

The reason of this apparent inconsistency is not far to seek. Wordsworth's eyes were fixed on the village life around him. Observation of that life impressed on him the imperative necessity of instruction in reading. But it was from a moral, rather than an intellectual point of view that he regarded it as needful, and, this opening into the world of ideas once secured, he held that the cultivation of the home affections and home duties was all that was needed beyond. And thus the Westmoreland dame, "in her summer seat in the garden, and in winter by the fireside," was elevated into the unexpected position of the ideal instructress of youth. Conservatism of this kind could provoke nothing but a sympathetic smile.

Catholic Emancipation
Proponents of Catholic
Emancipation: Sir Francis Burdett,
Joseph Hume & Daniel O'Connell

The poet's gradually growing conservatism culminated in his opposition to the Catholic Relief Bill, before he was sixty years old. But there is nothing to wonder at in the fact that the mind of a man of brooding and solitary habits should show traces of advancing age earlier than is the case with statesmen or men of the world, who are obliged to keep themselves constantly alive to the ideas of the generation that is rising around them.

A deadness to new impressions, an unwillingness to make intellectual efforts in fresh directions, a tendency to travel the same mental pathways over and over again, and to wear the ruts of prejudice deeper at every step; such traces of age as these undoubtedly manifested themselves in the way, in which the poet confronted the great series of changes - Catholic Emancipation, Reform Bill, New Poor Law, on which England entered about the year 1829.

"My sixty-second year," Wordsworth writes, in 1832, "will soon be completed; and though I have been favoured thus far in health and strength beyond most men of my age, yet I feel its effects upon my spirits; they sink under a pressure of apprehension to which, at an earlier period of my life, they would probably have been superior."

To this it must be added, that the increasing weakness of the poet's eyes seriously limited his means of information. He had never read much contemporary literature, and he read less than ever now. He had no fresh or comprehensive knowledge of the general condition of the country, and he really believed in the prognostication which was uttered by many also who did not believe in it, that with the Reform Bill the England which he knew and loved would practically disappear.

To those, who realized how deeply he felt these changes, - how profoundly his notion of national happiness was bound up with a lovely and vanishing ideal, - the prominent reflection was that the hopes and principles which maintained through all an underlying hope and trust in the future must have been potent indeed. It was no easy optimism which prompted the lines written in 1837 - one of his latest utterances - in which he speaks to himself with strong self-judgment and resolute hope.

On reading them one shrinks from dwelling longer upon an old man's weakness and a brave man's fears.

   If this great world of joy and pain
   Revolve in one sure track;
   If Freedom, set, revive again,
   And Virtue, flown, come back, -
   Woe to the purblind crew who fill
   The heart with each day's care,
   Nor learn, from past and future, skill
   To bear and to forbear.

The poet had also during these years more of private sorrow than his tranquil life had for a long time experienced. In 1832 his sister had a most serious illness, which kept her for many months in a state of great prostration, and left her, when the physical symptoms abated, with her intellect painfully impaired, and her bright nature permanently overclouded. Coleridge, too, was nearing his end.

"He and my beloved sister," writes Wordsworth, in 1832, "are the two beings to whom my intellect is most indebted, and they are now proceeding, as it were, pari passu, along the path of sickness, I will not say towards the grave, but I trust towards a blessed immortality."


In July, 1834, "every mortal power of Coleridge was frozen at its marvellous source," And although the early intimacy had scarcely been maintained, - though the "comfortless and hidden well" had, for a time at least, replaced the "living murmuring fount of love" which used to spring beside Wordsworth's door, - yet the loss was one which the surviving poet deeply felt. Coleridge was the only contemporary man of letters with whom Wordsworth's connexion had been really close; and when Wordsworth is spoken of as one of a group of poets exemplifying in various ways the influence of the Revolution, it is not always remembered how very little he had to do with the other famous men of his time. Scott and Southey were valued friends, but he thought little of Scott's poetry, and less of Southey's. Byron and Shelley he seems scarcely to have read; and he failed altogether to appreciate Keats. But to Coleridge his mind constantly reverted; he called him "the most wonderful man he had ever known," and he kept him as the ideal auditor of his own poems, long after Coleridge had listened to the Prelude, -

   A song divine of high and passionate thoughts
   To their own music chanted.
Grasmere Churchyard
Grasmere Churchyard

In 1836, moreover, died one for whom Coleridge, as well as Wordsworth, had felt a very high respect and regard - Sarah Hutchinson, Mrs. Wordsworth's sister, and long the inmate of Wordsworth's household. This most valued friend had been another instance of the singular good fortune which attended Wordsworth in his domestic connexions; and when she was laid in Grasmere churchyard, the stone above her tomb expressed the wish of the poet and his wife that, even as her remains were laid beside their dead children's, so their own bodies also might be laid by hers.

And now, while the inner circle of friends and relations began, to pass away, the outer circle of admirers was rapidly spreading. Between the years 1830 and 1840 Wordsworth passed from the apostle of a clique into the most illustrious man of letters in England. The rapidity of this change was not due to any remarkable accident, nor to the appearance of any new work of genius. It was merely an extreme instance of what must always occur where an author, running counter to the fashion of his age, has to create his own public in defiance of the established critical powers. The disciples whom he draws round him are for the most part young; the established authorities are for the most part old; so that by the time that the original poet is about sixty years old, most of his admirers will be about forty, and most of his critics will be dead. His admirers now become his accredited critics; his works are widely introduced to the public; and if they are really good his reputation is secure.

Among the indications of growing popularity was the publication of an American edition of Wordsworth's poems in 1837, by Professor Reed of Philadelphia, with whom the poet interchanged many letters of interest. "The acknowledgments," he says in one of these, "which I receive from the vast continent of America are among the most grateful that reach me. What a vast field is there open to the English mind, acting through our noble language! Let us hope that our authors of true genius will not be unconscious of that thought, or inattentive to the duty which it imposes upon them, of doing their utmost to instruct, to purify, and to elevate their readers."

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

But of all the manifestations of the growing honour in which Wordsworth was held, none was more marked or welcome than the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law conferred on him by the University of Oxford in the summer of 1839. Keble, as Professor of Poetry, introduced him in words of admiring reverence, and the enthusiasm of the audience was such as had never been evoked in that place before, "except upon the occasions of the visits of the Duke of Wellington."

The collocation was an interesting one. The special claim advanced for Wordsworth by Keble in his Latin oration was "that he had shed a celestial light upon the affections, the occupations, the piety of the poor." And to many men besides the author of the Christian Year it seemed that this striking scene was, as it were, another visible triumph of the temper of mind which is of the essence of Christianity; a recognition that one spirit more had become as a little child, and had entered into the kingdom of heaven.

Poet Laureate
Wordsworth, Poet Laureate

In October, 1842, another token of public respect was bestowed on him in the shape of an annuity of £300 a year from the Civil List for distinguished literary merit. "I need scarcely add," says Sir Robert Peel, in making the offer, "that the acceptance by you of this mark of favour from the Crown, considering the grounds on which it is proposed, will impose no restraint upon your perfect independence, and involve no obligation of a personal nature." In March, 1843, came the death of Southey, and in a few days Wordsworth received a letter from Earl De la Warr, the Lord Chamberlain, offering him, in the most courteous terms, the office of Poet Laureate, which, however, he respectfully declined as imposing duties, "which, far advanced in life as I am, I cannot venture to undertake."

This letter brought a reply from the Lord Chamberlain, pressing the office on him again, and a letter from Sir Robert Peel which gave dignified expression to the national feeling in the matter. "The offer," he says, "was made to you by the Lord Chamberlain, with my entire concurrence, not for the purpose of imposing on you any onerous or disagreeable duties, but in order to pay you that tribute of respect which is justly due to the first of living poets. The Queen entirely approved of the nomination, and there is one unanimous feeling on the part of all who have heard of the proposal (and it is pretty generally known) that there could not be a question about the selection. Do not be deterred by the fear of any obligations which the appointment may be supposed to imply. I will undertake that you shall have nothing required from you. But as the Queen can select for this honourable appointment no one whose claims for respect and honour, on account of eminence as a poet, can be placed in competition with, yours, I trust you will not longer hesitate to accept it."

This letter overcame the aged poet's scruples; and he filled with silent dignity the post of Laureate till after seven years' space Alfred Lord Tennyson, a worthy successor, received

   This laurel greener from the brows
   Of him that uttered nothing base.


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