The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth
My Dearest Love: Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth, 1810 by Blackwell’s Rare Books, Fyfield Manor, Abingdon, Oxford, OX13 5LR
Wordsworth’s poems are like one’s parents’ clothes—always out of fashion. Donne is always our contemporary, even more so is Stendhal, who was in fact Wordsworth’s contemporary. How does one name these feelings, or rather how can one rationalize them? Why have Donne and Stendhal in their writings a modern mind and Wordsworth an irremediably dated one? He is as egotistic as they, as intent on impressing his own consciousness on paper. But perhaps, as Keats intuited, it is because Wordsworth in his poetry appears as the “Egotistical Sublime.” That, where posterity is concerned, is a fatal combination. Most artists redeem their natural solipsism as artists by continual suggestions in their art of personal chaos, drama, disaster, accident-proneness, what Auden calls “human unsuccess.” They are not in the least sublime, they are “human, all too human”; and we respond to that. We admire the artist’s talent for self-destruction.
But no poet could be less accident-prone than Wordsworth. If he fell he always fell on his feet. He is carried away by the Revolution; he meets a charming French girl; he gets her pregnant. Ten years later—the war having conveniently come between them—he is engaged to a charming English girl. He meets his former flame and illegitimate daughter. He explains; he regrets. They quite see the point. Annette must have been an admirable, generous woman. These qualities are probably what attracted William to her in the first place; his own virtues had the knack of bringing out the virtues in others. Women loved him, but, more remarkably, they loved him unpossessively. When he married his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson, his sister Dorothy lovingly accepted the situation with no evident strain, and became a sister to his wife and a second mother to his children.
“The family of love” their friends called them. Do we detect in that fond phrase a faint note of exasperation? Too close an exposure to the domestic sublime seems to have alienated Coleridge, who when he stayed with his old friends became withdrawn and lapsed into old habits of nipping at the brandy and the laudanum. His feelings were further exacerbated by his own love for Sara Hutchinson, Mary’s sister, but she, like the other women, had no eyes for anyone but William. William took their attentions sublimely for granted, but, as these new letters reveal, he was deeply and privately in love with his wife and loved her more with every month that passed. He had made the perfect choice.
A creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food….
A perfect woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and com- mand….
We don’t talk about it like that any more, and most writers never have; nor, in the midst of connubial bliss, would they be murmurously walking up and down composing The Excursion and revising The Prelude (“Yet another / Of these remembrances…”) until summoned in for a mid-morning snack of “two fresh scones baked by the cook.”
God and the cook are very good,
Says William, relishing his food
jingled Dorothy fondly. Ladies later on took a different view. “God, what a Pa-man!” Katherine Mansfield noted in her journal, after reading some Wordsworth memoirs. Coleridge, in all his troubles, seems to have thought so too, and this is probably at the back of his remarks on the subject to Henry Crabb Robinson in 1811. “Wordsworth is by nature incapable of being in Love, tho’ no man more tenderly attached; hence he ridicules the existence of any other passion, than a compound of Lust with Esteem & Friendship, & confined to one Object, first by accidents of Association, and permanently, by the force of Habit & a sense of Duty.”
This is a judgment with two interesting implications. Coleridge suggests that Wordsworth knew nothing of the wildness of the emotion, in life or in poetry, nothing of deep romantic chasms and women wailing for their demon lovers. But, more damagingly, that he had all the complacent connubial satisfactions of Monsieur Prudhomme, the phrases “confined to one Object” and “a sense of Duty” implying that something furtive on the side would not necessarily have come amiss if it could be arranged. Coleridge, in fact, while appearing to present his old friend as honnête homme and warmly honorable family man, in fact, and perhaps by intention, suggests how morally and emotionally commonplace he is.
This presentation is in a sense much more subtly depreciatory than Shelley’s jibe in Peter Bell the Third about Wordsworth as a “solemn and unsexual man” who “touched the hem of Nature’s shift / Felt faint and scarcely dared uplift / The closest, all-concealing garment.” An ascetic in spiritual love with nature is, or was at that time, a more impressive poetic persona than Coleridge’s philistine who scoffs at passion and sees himself and his fellows habituated to a mere mechanical uxoriousness. Shelley’s Peter Bell Wordsworth is a rum cove, a bit ludicrous, but hauntingly absorbed, single-mindedly intent on the places in which he finds poetry, the stones on the highway to which he gives a moral life.
It may be that Shelley’s lampoon is more just and more understanding than Coleridge’s utterances of friendship, though Coleridge at this time was writing in sorrowful envy and resentment. And yet perhaps Wordsworth was in essence a very ordinary man, an ordinary man speaking to men, and perhaps Keats’s exasperated phrase recognizes that in him mere human egotism did aspire, and not always without incongruity, to the quality and style of the sublime. From the beginning, and not just by 1810-1812, the dates of the newly discovered letters published by both Cornell University Press and the Trustees of Dove Cottage, the sublime was in the style rather than in the man himself. Indeed this must be the nub of our feeling that Wordsworth does belong so completely to the past, and more specifically to the poetic past as represented by the eighteenth century.
It was natural in that period for the man and his style to be two separate things, representing two recognized aspects of social behavior. Wordsworth changed both, but equally in his curious way kept them separate. We look in vain in his work for the true ease, the rambling and inconsequential but always growing and vivifying speech of Coleridge as poet and man combined. In his simplest poems Wordsworth has put on his singing robes, however unusual their design. Coleridge is not only more like us because of his habits of thought, but more like a modern poet because they are also his natural utterance and expression.
There is something both Augustan and wholly Wordsworthian about what Wordsworth wrote to his wife, his “dearest Mary,” as he looked forward to rejoining her in June 1812, after his absence from her in London. “That very evening, viz Tuesday, I had been reading at Lamb’s the Tintern abbey, and repeated a 100 times to myself the passage ‘O Sylvan Wye thou Wanderer through the woods,’ thinking of past times, & Dorothy, dear Dorothy, and you my Darling.” Who but Wordsworth would have talked about his own poem as “the Tintern abbey” in this way—that definite article is unmistakably characteristic—and what other poet than he would linger with such unabashed fondness on a poem he had written many years previously? Many poets, as one can tell from the way they recite their poems, abandon them after they have done with them and put them out of mind. Not so Wordsworth, and the relish with which he recalls the poem is like a family man fondly remembering a Christmas past, an anniversary or shared family treat. Even his poems were sacred lares and penates for him, to be mused over again and again in the bosom of his family.
What a Pa-man indeed, and one who combined all the paternal virtues and affections idealized in the eighteenth century with poetry’s new-style egotism (which we still so abundantly accept and possess), making them—incredibly—into one and the same thing. Wordsworth is both the modern poet creating and inhabiting his own unique and personal world of art, and the sublimely domestic family man. The two are not separated; and it is this that disconcerts and often repels the modern sensibility. We ought to respect and admire it—why don’t we?
The answer must lie deep in our tradition of dissociation of poetry from the family. “Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.” Philip Larkin jests in his own way, but that way is on the level: he has remarked that deprivation is to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth, and daffodils stand for the whole of Wordsworth’s natural-domestic style.
Of course the clever men at Yale and elsewhere—Bloom, Hartman, De Man, and many others—as well as the devoted work of the poet’s direct descendant, the scholar Jonathan Wordsworth, have—if one may try to use the word without any hint of patronage—rehabilitated the poet humanly as well as intellectually. They have put him back in fashion, in a visionary company which includes all the best people, as one of ourselves today. But this has been done by deconstructing the style, tracing the way tropes work, and analyzing such out-of-the-way and fascinating pieces as the “Essays upon Epitaphs”: it has not been done by restoring to us any intimacy with Wordsworth the man-poet and poet-man.
So will these newly discovered letters do the trick? It depends really what we want to see done; whether we feel that a red-blooded Wordsworth of not only warm domestic affections but of ardent sexual longings, a Wordsworth who passionately missed his wife in bed when he was away from her, is such a surprising and welcome figure to discover after the event. The publicity used in connection with the finding of the letters that revealed “Wordsworth in love” seems to me rather to miss the point here, and probably with intention. To think the more of a poet because he is revealed to have been sexually in love with his wife—this has surely all the vulgarity of the modern age about it.
The real interest of the letters is quite different. They show us neither a highly sexed man nor an egotistically sublime poet, but a comically familial human being, pouring out to his wife on paper what he was doing and whom he was meeting, what was the state of his digestion, his bowels, and his chronic piles (his “old enemy” as he called them); whether she should advise his leaving off wine altogether, and how the heavy breakfasts at grand houses made him feel uncomfortable all day. These domesticities are blended, often in a single and continuous sentence, with shrewd social and political comment, and even shrewder comments on the appearance and developments in their friends and relations. But—and this is the point—all such things are mixed up, too, with ecstatic avowals and happinesses of intimacy, which come caroling out of him all the more compellingly for the accents in which they are uttered.