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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.

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Bayreuth Festspielhaus
William Wordworth
portrait by R Carruthers

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



Wordsworth took his B.A. degree in January, 1791, and quitted Cambridge with no fixed intentions as to his future career.

"He did not feel himself," he said long afterwards, "good enough for the Church; he felt that his mind was not properly disciplined for that holy office, and that the struggle between his conscience and his impulses would have made life a torture.

He also shrank from the law. He had studied military history with great interest, and the strategy of war; and he always fancied that he had talents for command; and he at one time thought of a military life; but then he was without connexions, and he felt if he were ordered to the West Indies his talents would not save him from the yellow fever, and he gave that up."

Cheapside 1837

He therefore repaired to London, and lived there for a time on a small allowance and with no definite aim. His relations with the great city were of a very slight and external kind. He had few acquaintances, and spent his time mainly in rambling about the streets. His descriptions of this phase of his life have little interest. There is some flatness in an enumeration of the nationalities observable in a London crowd, concluding thus: -

  Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese,
  And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns.

But Wordsworth's limitations were inseparably connected with his strength. And just as the flat scenery of Cambridgeshire had only served to intensify his love for such elements of beauty and grandeur as still were present in sky and fen, even so the bewilderment of London taught him to recognize with an intenser joy such fragments of things rustic, such aspects of things eternal, as were to be found amidst that rush and roar. To the frailer spirit of Hartley Coleridge the weight of London might seem a load impossible to shake off. "And what hath Nature," he plaintively asked, -

  And what hath Nature but the blank void sky
  And the thronged river toiling to the main?

But Wordsworth saw more than this. He became, as one may say, the poet not of London considered as London, but of London considered as a part of the country. Like his own Farmer of Tilsbury Vale -

  In the throng of the Town like a Stranger is he,
  Like one whose own Country's far over the sea;
  And Nature, while through the great city be hies,
  Full ten times a day takes his heart by surprise.

Among the poems describing these sudden shocks of vision and memory none is more exquisite than the Reverie of Poor Susan:

  At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
  Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years;
  Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
  In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.
  'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
  A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
  Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
  And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.
Westminster Bridge
Westminster Bridge

The picture is one of those which come home to many a country heart with one of those sudden "revulsions into the natural" which philosophers assert to be the essence of human joy. But noblest and best known of all these poems is the Sonnet on Westminster Bridge, "Earth hath not anything to show more fair;" in which nature has reasserted her dominion over the works of all the multitude of men; and in the early clearness the poet beholds the great City - as Sterling imagined it on his dying-bed - "not as full of noise and dust and confusion, but as something silent, grand and everlasting."

  Earth has not anything to show more fair:
  Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
  A sight so touching in its majesty:
  This City now doth like a garment wear

  The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
  Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
  Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
  All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

  Never did sun more beautifully steep
  In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
  Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

  The river glideth at his own sweet will:
  Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

And even in later life, when Wordsworth was often in London, and was welcome in any society, he never lost this external manner of regarding it. He was always of the same mind as the group of listeners in his Power of Music:

  Now, Coaches and Chariots! Roar on like a stream!
  Here are twenty Souls happy as souls in a dream:
  They are deaf to your murmurs, they care not for you,
  Nor what ye are flying, nor what ye pursue!

He never made the attempt, - vulgarized by so many a "fashionable novelist," and in which no poet has succeeded yet, - to disentangle from that turmoil its elements of romance and of greatness; to enter that realm of emotion where Nature's aspects become the scarcely noted accessory of vicissitudes that transcend her own; to trace the passion or the anguish which whirl along some lurid vista toward a sun that sets in storm, or gaze across silent squares by summer moonlight amid a smell of dust and flowers.

But although Wordsworth passed thus through London unmodified and indifferent, the current of things was sweeping him on to mingle in a fiercer tumult,—to be caught in the tides of a more violent and feverish life. In November 1791 he landed in France, meaning to pass the winter at Orleans and learn French. Up to this date the French Revolution had impressed him in a rather unusual manner, - namely, as being a matter of course. The explanation of this view is a somewhat singular one. Wordsworth's was an old family, and his connexions were some of them wealthy and well placed in the world; but the chances of his education had been such, that he could scarcely realize to himself any other than a democratic type of society. Scarcely once, he tells us, in his school days had he seen boy or man who claimed respect on the score of wealth and blood; and the manly atmosphere of Cambridge preserved even in her lowest days a society

          Where all stood thus far
  Upon equal ground; that we were brothers all
  In honour, as in one community,
  Scholars and gentlemen;
Orleans Cathedral

while the teachings of nature and the dignity of Cumbrian peasant life had confirmed his high opinion of the essential worth of man. The upheaval of the French people, therefore, and the downfall of privilege, seemed to him no portent for good or evil, but rather the tardy return of a society to its stable equilibrium. He passed through revolutionized Paris with satisfaction and sympathy, but with little active emotion, and proceeded first to Orleans, and then to Blois, between which places he spent nearly a year. At Orleans he became intimately acquainted with the nobly-born but republican general Beaupuis, an inspiring example of all in the Revolution that was self-devoted and chivalrous and had compassion on the wretched poor. In conversation with him Wordsworth learnt with what new force the well-worn adages of the moralist fall from the lips of one who is called upon to put them at once in action, and to stake life itself on the verity of his maxims of honour. The poet's heart burned within him as he listened. He could not indeed help mourning sometimes at the sight of a dismantled chapel, or peopling in imagination the forest-glades in which they sat with the chivalry of a bygone day. But he became increasingly absorbed in his friend's ardour, and the Revolution seemed to him big with all the hopes of man.

Presumed Portrait of
Annette Vallon

in the 1920's two letters came to light revealing that Wordsworth fell in love with Annette Vallon, who in December 1792 gave birth to their child, Caroline. Because of lack of money and Britain's tensions with France, he returned alone to England the next year. The circumstances of his return and his subsequent behaviour raise doubts as to his declared wish to marry Annette, but he supported her and his daughter as best he could in later life.

With the Peace of Amiens again allowing travel to France, in 1802 Wordsworth and Dorothy visited Annette and Caroline in Calais. Afterwards he wrote the sonnet "It is a beauteous evening, calm and free" recalling a seaside walk with the 9 year old Caroline he had never seen prior to that visit.

   It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
   The holy time is quiet as a Nun
   Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
   Is sinking down in its tranquility;
   The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea;
   Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
   And doth with his eternal motion make
   A sound like thunder - everlastingly.
   Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
   If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
   Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
   Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
   And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
   God being with thee when we know it not.
Paris Prison Massacre 1792

Meanwhile he returned to Paris in October 1792, - a month after the massacres of September; and he has described his agitation and dismay at the sight of such world-wide destinies swayed by the hands of such men. In a passage which curiously illustrates that reasoned self-confidence and deliberate boldness which for the most part he showed only in the peaceful incidents of a literary career, he has told us how he was on the point of putting himself forward as a leader of the Girondist party, in the conviction that his singleheartedness of aim would make him, in spite of foreign birth and imperfect speech, a point round which the confused instincts of the multitude might not impossibly rally.

The Execution of King Louis XVI

Such a course of action, - which, whatever its other results, would undoubtedly have conducted him to the guillotine with his political friends in May 1793,- was rendered impossible by a somewhat undignified hindrance. Wordsworth, while in his own eyes "a patriot of the world," was in the eyes of others a young man of twenty-two, travelling on a small allowance, and running his head into unnecessary dangers. His funds were stopped, and he reluctantly returned to England at the close of 1792.

And now to Wordsworth, as to many other English patriots, there came, on a great scale, that form of sorrow which in private life is one of the most agonizing of all - when two beloved beings, each of them erring greatly, become involved in bitter hate. The new-born Republic flung down to Europe as her battle-gage the head of a king. England, in an hour of horror that was almost panic, accepted the defiance, and war was declared between the two countries early in 1793. "No shock," says Wordsworth,

  Given to my moral nature had I known
  Down to that very moment; neither lapse
  Nor turn of sentiment that might be named
  A revolution, save at this one time;

and the sound of the evening gun-fire at Portsmouth seemed at once the embodiment and the premonition of England's guilt and woe.

Yet his distracted spirit could find no comfort in the thought of France. For in France the worst came to the worst; and everything vanished of liberty except the crimes committed in her name.

  Most melancholy at that time, O Friend!
  Were my day-thoughts, my nights were miserable.
  Through months, through years, long after the last beat
  Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
  To me came rarely charged with natural gifts -
  Such ghastly visions had I of despair,
  And tyranny, and implements of death; -
  And levity in dungeons, where the dust
  Was laid with tears. Then suddenly the scene
  Changed, and the unbroken dream entangled me
  In long orations, which I strove to plead
  Before unjust tribunals, - with a voice
  Labouring, a brain confounded, and a sense,
  Death-like, of treacherous desertion, felt
  In the last place of refuge - my own soul.

These years of perplexity and disappointment, following on a season of overstrained and violent hopes, were the sharpest trial through which Wordsworth ever passed. Those who, like Wordsworth, had been taught by that great convulsion to disdain the fetters of sentiment and tradition and to look on Reason as supreme were not willing to relinquish their belief because violence had conquered her in one more battle. Rather they clung with the greater tenacity, - "adhered," in Wordsworth's words,

  More firmly to old tenets, and to prove
  Their temper, strained them more;

cast off more decisively than ever the influences of tradition, and in their Utopian visions even wished to see the perfected race severed in its perfection from the memories of humanity, and from kinship with the struggling past.

Through a mood of this kind Wordsworth had to travel now. There is so little which Reason, divested of all emotional or instinctive supports, is able to prove to our satisfaction that a sceptical aridity is likely to take possession of the soul. It was thus with Wordsworth; he was driven to a perpetual questioning of all beliefs and analysis of all motives, -

  Till, demanding formal proof,
  And seeking it in everything, I lost
  All feeling of conviction; and, in fine,
  Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
  Yielded up moral questions in despair.

In this mood all those great generalized conceptions which are the food of our love, our reverence, our religion, dissolve away; and Wordsworth tells us that at this time

          Even the visible universe
  Fell under the dominion of a taste
  Less spiritual, with microscopic view
  Was scanned, as I had scanned the moral world.

He looked on the operations of nature "in disconnection dull and spiritless;" he could no longer apprehend her unity nor feel her charm. He retained indeed his craving for natural beauty, but in an uneasy and fastidious mood, -

                    Giving way
  To a comparison of scene with scene,
  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,
Cottages at Clappersgate
by Julius Ibbetson, 1803

Such cold fits are common to all religions: they haunt the artist, the philanthropist, the philosopher, the saint. Often they are due to some strain of egoism or ambition which has intermixed itself with the impersonal desire; sometimes, as in Wordsworth's case, to the persistent tension of a mind which has been bent too ardently towards an ideal scarce possible to man. And in this case, when the objects of a man's habitual admiration are true and noble, they will ever be found to suggest some antidote to the fatigues of their pursuit. We shall see as we proceed how a deepening insight into the lives of the peasantry around him, - the happiness and virtue of simple Cumbrian homes, - restored to the poet a serener confidence in human nature, amid all the shame and downfall of such hopes in France. And that still profounder loss of delight in Nature herself,- that viewing of all things "in disconnection dull and spiritless," which, as it has been well said, is the truest definition of Atheism, inasmuch as a unity in the universe is the first element in our conception of God, - this dark pathway also was not without its outlet into the day. For the God in Nature is not only a God of Beauty, but a God of Law; his unity can be apprehended in power as well as in glory; and Wordsworth's mind, "sinking inward upon itself from thought to thought," found rest for the time in that austere religion, - Hebrew at once and scientific, common to a Newton and a Job, - which is fostered by the prolonged contemplation of the mere Order of the sum of things.

                     Not in vain
  I had been taught to reverence a Power
  That is the visible quality and shape
  And image of right reason.

Not, indeed, in vain! For he felt now that there is no side of truth, however remote from human interests, no aspect of the universe, however awful and impersonal, which may not have power at some season to guide and support the spirit of man. When Goodness is obscured, when Beauty wearies, there are some souls which still can cling and grapple to the conception of eternal Law.

Dorothy Wordsworth

Of such stern consolations the poet speaks as having restored him in his hour of need. But he gratefully acknowledges also another solace of a gentler kind. It was about this time (1795) that Wordsworth was blessed with the permanent companionship of his sister, to whom he was tenderly attached, but whom, since childhood, he had seen only at long intervals. Miss Wordsworth, after her father's death, had lived mainly with her maternal grandfather, Mr. Cookson, at Penrith, occasionally at Halifax with other relations, or at Forncott with her uncle Dr. Cookson, Canon of Windsor. She was now able to join her favourite brother: and in this gifted woman Wordsworth found a gentler and sunnier likeness of himself; he found a love which never wearied, and a sympathy fervid without blindness, whose suggestions lay so directly in his mind's natural course that they seemed to spring from the same individuality, and to form at once a portion of his inmost being. The opening of this new era of domestic happiness demands a separate chapter.


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