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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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Bayreuth Festspielhaus
William Wordworth
portrait by R Carruthers

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



With Wordsworth's settlement at Townend, Grasmere, in the closing days of the last century, the external events of his life may be said to come to an end. Even his marriage to Miss Mary Hutchinson, of Penrith, on October 4, 1802, was not so much an importation into his existence of new emotion, as a development and intensification of feelings which had long been there.

Mary Hutchinson
Mary Hutchinson

This marriage was the crowning stroke of Wordsworth's felicity - the poetic recompense for his steady advocacy of all simple and noble things.

When he wished to illustrate the true dignity and delicacy of rustic lives he was always accustomed to refer to the Cumbrian folk. And now it seemed that Cumberland requited him for his praises with her choicest boon; found for him in the country town of Penrith, and from the small and obscure circle of his connexions and acquaintance, - nay, from the same dame's school in which he was taught to read, - a wife such as neither rank nor young beauty nor glowing genius enabled his brother bards to win.

Mrs. Wordsworth's poetic appreciativeness, manifest to all who knew her, is attested by the poet's assertion that two of the best lines in the poem of The Daffodils -

  They flash, upon that inward eye
  Which is the bliss of solitude, -

were of her composition. And in all other matters, from the highest to the lowest, she was to him a true helpmate, a companion "dearer far than life and light are dear," and able "in his steep march to uphold him to the end." Devoted to her husband, she nevertheless welcomed not only without jealousy but with delight the household companionship through life of the sister who formed so large an element in his being.

Admiring the poet's genius to the full, and following the workings of his mind with a sympathy that never tired, she nevertheless was able to discern, and with unobtrusive care to hide or avert, those errors of manner into which retirement and sell-absorption will betray even the gentlest spirit.

The life which the young couple led was one of primitive simplicity. In some respects it was even less luxurious than that of the peasants around them. They drank water, and ate the simplest fare. Miss Wordsworth had long rendered existence possible for her brother on the narrowest of means by her unselfish energy and skill in household management; and "plain living and high thinking" were equally congenial to the new inmate of the frugal home. Wordsworth gardened; and all together, or oftenest the poet and his sister, wandered almost daily over the neighbouring hills.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

If narrow means did not prevent them from offering a generous welcome to their few friends, especially Coleridge and his family, who repeatedly stayed for months under Wordsworth's roof. Miss Wordsworth's unpublished letters breathe the very spirit of hospitality in their naive details of the little sacrifices gladly made for the sake of the presence of these honoured guests. But for the most part their life was solitary and uneventful. Books they had few; neighbours almost none; and Miss Wordsworth's diary of these early years describes a life seldom paralleled in its intimate dependence on external nature. I take, almost at random, her account of a single day.

"November 24, 1801. Read Chaucer. We walked by Gell's cottage. As we were going along we were stopped at once, at the distance, perhaps, of fifty yards from our favourite birch-tree; it was yielding to the gust of wind, with all its tender twigs; the sun shone upon it, and it glanced in the wind like a flying sunshiny shower. It was a tree in shape, with stem and branches; but it was like a spirit of water. After our return William read Spenser to us, and then walked to John's Grove. Went to meet W."

And from an unpublished letter of Miss Wordsworth's, of about the same period (September 10, 1800), I extract her description of the new home.

Dove Cottage
Dove Cottage

"We are daily more delighted with Grasmere and its neighbourhood. Our walks are perpetually varied, and we are more fond of the mountains as our acquaintance with them increases. We have a boat upon the lake, and a small orchard and smaller garden, which, as it is the work of our own hands, we regard with pride and partiality. Our cottage is quite large enough for us, though very small; and we have made it neat and comfortable within doors; and it looks very nice on the outside; for though the roses and honeysuckles which we have planted against it are only of this year's growth, yet it is covered all over with green leaves and scarlet flowers; for we have trained scarlet beans upon threads, which are not only exceedingly beautiful but very useful, as their produce is immense. We have made a lodging-room of the parlour below stairs, which has a stone floor, therefore we have covered it all over with matting. We sit in a room above stairs, and we have one lodging-room with two single beds, a sort of lumber-room, and a small low unceiled room, which I have papered with newspapers, and in which we have put a small bed. Our servant is an old woman of sixty years of age, whom we took partly out of charity. She was very ignorant, very foolish, and very difficult to teach. But the goodness of her disposition, and the great convenience we should find if my perseverance was successful, induced me to go on."

The sonnets entitled Personal Talk give a vivid picture of the blessings of such seclusion. There are many minds which will echo the exclamation with which the poet dismisses his visitors and their gossip:

  than such discourse doth silence long,
  Long barren silence, square with my desire;
  To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,
  In the loved presence of my cottage fire,
  And listen to the flapping of the flame,
  Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.

Many will look with envy on a life which has thus decisively cut itself loose from the world; which is secure from the influx of those distracting preoccupations, which split the river of life into channels so minute that it loses itself in the sand.

  Hence have I genial seasons; hence have I
  Smooth passions, smooth discourse, and joyous thought.

These delights of study and of solitude Wordsworth enjoyed to the full. In no other poet, perhaps, have the poet's heightened sensibilities been productive of a pleasure so unmixed with pain. The wind of his emotions blew right abaft; he "swam smoothly in the stream of his nature, and lived but one man."

Wordsworth's conception of human character retained to the end an extreme simplicity. Many of life's most impressive phenomena were hid from his eyes. He never encountered any of those rare figures whose aspect seems to justify all traditions of pomp and pre-eminence. He neither achieved nor underwent any of those experiences which can make all high romance seem a part of memory.


On the other hand, he almost wholly escaped those sufferings which exceptional natures must needs derive from too close a contact with this commonplace world. It was not his lot - as it has been the lot of so many poets - to move amongst mankind at once as an intimate and a stranger; to travel from disillusionment to disillusionment and from regret to regret. Such pain may become a discipline; and the close contact with many lives may teach to the poetic nature lessons of courage, of self-suppression, of resolute goodwill, and may transform into an added dignity the tumult of emotions which might else have run riot in his heart.

Yet it is less often from moods of self-control than from moods of self-abandonment that the fount of poetry springs; and herein it was that Wordsworth's especial felicity lay - that there was no one feeling in him which the world had either repressed or tainted; that he had no joy which might not be the harmless joy of all; and that therefore it was when he was most unreservedly himself that he was most profoundly human. All that was needful for him was to strike down into the deep of his heart. Or, using his own words, we may compare his tranquil existence to

      A crystal river,
  Diaphanous because it travels slowly,
Calais Sands by Turner
Calais Sands at Low Water by Turner

and in which poetic thoughts rose unimpeded to the surface, like bubbles through the pellucid stream.

The first hint of many of his briefer poems is to be found in his sister's diary:

"Arrived at Calais at four in the morning of July 31st. Delightful walks in the evenings, seeing far off in the west the coast of England like a cloud, crested with Dover Castle, the evening star, and the glory of the sky. The reflections in the water were more beautiful than the sky itself; purple waves brighter than precious stones for ever melting away upon the sands."

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 tranquillity;	 
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 untouch'd 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.

How simple are the elements of these delights! There is nothing here, except fraternal affection and a sunset; and yet the sonnet on Calais Sands, with the poems on the Daffodils and on Westminster Bridge, has taken its place among the permanent records of the profoundest human joy.

Calais Sands by Turner
Loch Lomond by Harry Sutton Palmer

Another tour, - this time through Scotland, - undertaken in August 1803, inspired Wordsworth with several of his best pieces. Miss Wordsworth's diary of this tour is the best introduction to the brother's poems. The travellers' encounter with two Highland girls on the shore of Loch Lomond is a good instance of this,

"One of the girls was exceedingly beautiful; and the figures of both of them, in grey plaids falling to their feet, their faces only being uncovered, excited our attention before we spoke to them; but they answered us so sweetly that we were quite delighted, at the same time that they stared at us with an innocent look of wonder. I think I never heard the English language sound more sweetly than from the mouth of the elder of these girls, while she stood at the gate answering our inquiries, her face flushed with the rain; her pronunciation was clear and distinct, without difficulty, yet slow, as if like a foreign speech."

  A face with gladness overspread!
  Soft smiles, by human kindness bred!
  And seemliness complete, that sways
  Thy courtesies, about thee plays;
  With no restraint, but such as springs
  From quick and eager visitings
  Of thoughts that lie beyond the reach
  Of thy few words of English speech:
  A bondage sweetly brooked, a strife
  That gives thy gestures grace and life!
  So have I, not unmoved in mind,
  Seen birds of tempest-loving kind
  Thus beating up against the wind.

The travellers saw more of this girl, and Miss Wordsworth's opinion was confirmed. But to Wordsworth his glimpse of her became a veritable romance. He commemorated it in his poem of The Highland Girl, soon after his return from Scotland; he narrated it once more in his poem of The Three Cottage Girls, written nearly twenty years afterwards; and "the sort of prophecy," he says in 1843, "with which the verses conclude, has, through God's goodness, been realized; and now, approaching the close of my seventy-third year, I have a most vivid remembrance of her, and the beautiful objects with which she was surrounded."

Nay, more; he has elsewhere informed us, with some naivete, that the first few lines of his exquisite poem to his wife, She was a phantom of delight, were originally composed as a description of this Highland maid, who would seem almost to have formed for him ever afterwards a kind of type and image of loveliness.

A Young Girl in Highland Dress with a Dove
by unknown artist
A Young Girl in
Highland Dress with a Dove
by unknown artist
SHE was a Phantom of delight	 
When first she gleam'd upon my sight;	 
A lovely Apparition, sent	 
To be a moment's ornament:	 
Her eyes as stars of twilight fair;	         
Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair;	 
But all things else about her drawn	 
From May-time and the cheerful dawn;	 
A dancing shape, an image gay,	 
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.	  
I saw her upon nearer view,	 
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!	 
Her household motions light and free,	 
And steps of virgin liberty;	 
A countenance in which did meet	  
Sweet records, promises as sweet;	 
A creature not too bright or good	 
For human nature's daily food,	 
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,	 
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.	  
And now I see with eye serene	 
The very pulse of the machine;	 
A being breathing thoughtful breath,	 
A traveller between life and death:	 
The reason firm, the temperate will,	  
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;	 
A perfect Woman, nobly plann'd	 
To warn, to comfort, and command;	 
And yet a Spirit still, and bright	 
With something of an angel light.

It was well, perhaps, that Wordsworth's romance should come to him in this remote and fleeting fashion. For to the Priest of Nature it was fitting that all things else should be harmonious, indeed, but accessory; that joy should not be so keen, nor sorrow no desolating, nor love itself so wildly strong, as to prevent him from going out upon the mountains with a heart at peace, and receiving "in a wise passiveness" the voices of earth and heaven.


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