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The Mysterious Mr. Wordsworth

Gill has an excellent chapter on Wordsworth as a marketable commodity, examining not only publishers’ altercations and records but the various formats in which the poems (before Knight’s academic edition) were offered to a Victorian reading public from the upper or, far more often, middle classes. Beautiful—and expensive—gift volumes, complete with gilt-edged pages, and blue or red casings sometimes decorated in gold, proliferated, as did illustrations tending to bear remarkably little relation to the poems themselves. Gill reproduces two especially repulsive attempts to visualize Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” in both of which Little Lord Fauntleroy immured in vaguely medieval fancy dress appears to have replaced anything that might be recognized as an active Lakeland boy.

Illustrations like these bear eloquent witness to the extent to which Wordsworth could now be willfully (or carelessly) sentimentalized and misread. There was, however, one aspect of his work that continued to receive close scrutiny, often with unsettling results. Despite his authorship of the “Ecclesiastical Sonnets,” and his apparently firm adherence to the Church of England (including vigorous objections to all proposals for Catholic Emancipation), the dreaded word “pantheism” continued, far more than “Jacobinism,” to disturb Wordsworth’s admirers throughout the period. For Mill, Hale White, and even the ordained Robertson, it presented no problem—it was, indeed, part of the attraction.

More orthodox readers tended to worry that, in “Lines written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” for instance, whatever the precise nature of that “something far more deeply interfused,” a presence “whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,” it did not seem to be Jesus Christ. Wordsworth never meddled with “Tintern Abbey” (indeed, it would be hard to see how he could). But he did make feeble efforts in 1845 to render Margaret’s tragic story in “The Ruined Cottage,” in which she waits futilely for her vanished husband, more demonstrably Christian, while revising certain passages in the as yet unpublished Prelude along similar lines. The results, however understandable in the climate of his later years, were not happy.

The middle chapters of Gill’s book, about the creative use made of Wordsworth by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Tennyson, are the most predictable in a study of this kind. They are sharpened, however, and made individual here by Gill’s acute understanding of these writers, and because he is less interested in identifying specific instances of indebtedness or allusion than in Wordsworth as a pervasive influence, and the temperamental and artistic reasons for the imaginative hold he acquired over individuals in themselves so unlike. All four of these Victorians actually met Wordsworth, in London or the Lakes. As a small boy, Arnold was surprised by the old poet as he was playing in the fort he had constructed on the slopes of Loughrigg Fell, an apt emblem, as Gill remarks, of what was to be their lifelong relationship: “Wordsworth was always coming upon him in his stronghold.”

Arnold (the only one of the four to produce an edition, selected according to what he regarded as the grain as opposed to the chaff) was steeped in Wordsworth. As Gill makes clear, he was haunted by his own inability to subsume loss in joy, as Wordsworth’s finest poetry does, or come to terms with the older poet’s sense of wholeness and connection between the visible universe, animate and inanimate, and the mind of man. Tennyson was similarly obsessed with the affirmatory side of Wordsworth, returning again and again to “Tintern Abbey,” in particular during the long composition of In Memoriam, in the effort to find for himself what he called “the sense of the abiding in the transient”—an effort that persistently failed.

The two women in this quartet, Gaskell and George Eliot, valued Wordsworth above all as the poet of human suffering and the primacy of feeling, George Eliot finding also an affirmation of the high calling of the writer, a sense of vocation, that answered to her own. Gill writes freshly and perceptively about the “Wordsworthian” in Ruth and Mary Barton, and in Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss. All four of these Victorians, as he demonstrates, took from a Wordsworth whose greatness as a thinker as well as poet they never doubted, what he or she needed, even if (as in the case of Arnold and Tennyson) that was largely a definition of difference.

Stephen Gill’s own biography of Wordsworth, the first major life since Mary Moorman’s monumental, and still valuable, two volumes of 1957 and 1965, appeared in 1989.2 It was written, as Gill announced in his preface, largely to take into account all the new information—from letters, family papers, notebooks, scholarly monographs, and new editions of the poems based on the astonishing cache of Wordsworth manuscripts—that had subsequently emerged. Gill covered the poet’s entire life, a task requiring five hundred and twenty-five pages. Kenneth R. Johnston’s The Hidden Wordsworth, by contrast, stops under halfway, in 1807, at the famous moment when Coleridge, after hearing his (by now substantially estranged) friend read the 1805 Prelude to him aloud, rose and “found myself in prayer.”

Johnston’s is not, apparently, the first of two volumes but complete in itself (“there is no sequel forthcoming”), an assurance perhaps not entirely dismaying to readers who have waded through its nearly one thousand pages. In an introduction, Johnston explains his reasons for writing the book, and they have little to do with new facts: “Wordsworthian biography does not need more facts, though these are always welcome, so much as it needs more speculation.” This is “a portrait in words that attempts to restore the fire to Wordsworth’s eyes, to overcome his own strenuous efforts to damp his youthful passions down,” and its avowed method “often consists of no more than raising questions. My rule of thumb has been: when there’s a choice of possibilities, investigate the riskier one.”

As an authorial statement of intent, this seems straightforward enough, especially if you want to write (as Johnston obviously did) a strikingly “sensational” biography. The problem is that as one proceeds through Johnston’s book, the relation of fact to speculation becomes, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.” Of the four descriptive nouns in Johnston’s catchy subtitle—“Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy”—the first is self-evident, while the second and third have been undisputed ever since the discovery of Annette Vallon, and the publication of (among other things) The Prelude and the Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff. The idea is scarcely new that Wordsworth may have had early sexual experiences with the various women in Cambridge who were available to undergraduates, with those “frank-hearted maids of rocky Cumberland” with whom he disported himself during the summer vacation, or with one of those “fair dark-ey’d maids” on the shores of Lake Como who clearly set his blood racing when he encountered them in the course of his European walking tour with Robert Jones in 1790.

In Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, published in 1922, Emile Legouis aired just these possibilities, observing tolerantly that “there was no strain of asceticism in the young poet’s nature, to make him an exception to his age.” What Legouis did not do was, in effect, to invent an entire short story, on the slenderest evidence, about Wordsworth’s deliberately separating himself from Jones at Como in the hope of spending the night with one of the Italian beauties, and even trying to return to her cottage the next day. Nor, one feels, would he have been much inclined to credit Johnston’s idea that poor Coleridge’s obviously demented ravings in 1806 about Wordsworth going to bed with his sister-in-law, Coleridge’s hopelessly adored Sara Hutchinson, on a Saturday morning in the “Queen’s Head” near Coleorton, nonetheless “cannot be ruled out” as fact,

given Wordsworth’s commanding sexual presence and the reality that Sara was much the liveliest and most attractive of the three rather plain women of the household—and the one whose critical opinions about his poetry Wordsworth paid most attention to.

It may be true that where there’s smoke there’s fire, but Johnston often seems able to fan the most minute ember into a conflagration.

Spy” is certainly the most novel and arresting of the four words in the subtitle of The Hidden Wordsworth. But is it true? That Coleridge’s hilarious account in Biographia Literaria of “Spy Nozy” is largely a fabrication has long been recognized. James Walsh, the government agent who actually was sent down to Somerset in 1797, when a French invasion seemed imminent, to investigate the activities, including walking tours, of a household of “disaffected Englishmen” who did not scruple to entertain the radical orator John Thelwall, was certainly not Coleridge’s footsore incompetent, a man blunderingly construing talk of “Spinoza” as an unflattering reference to himself. When reporting back to his superiors in London, Walsh mentioned “Wordsworth a name I think known to Mr. Ford.” Ford was a London Bow Street magistrate loosely connected with what would now be called the British Secret Service.

Just why Wordsworth’s name should be known to him remains, as Nicholas Roe has indicated in Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (1988), unclear. Letters passing between William and Annette may have been intercepted; Wordsworth’s radical contacts in London might have put him under suspicion, or it could simply be a reference to Wordsworth’s elder brother Richard, who practiced law in the city. For Johnston, however, pursuing (as ever) the “riskier” possibility, and unfazed by the lack of evidence, Walsh perhaps closed the case as quickly as he did because he “found that another operative was already on the ground: Our man in Somerset, Mr. Wordsworth.” Enter Wordsworth as spy, a tentative hypothesis which, by the time Johnston gets William and Dorothy across to Germany in 1799, has hardened into fact.

Johnston can see that there are difficulties surrounding his proclamation of the one important new fact presented in The Hidden Wordsworth: his discovery in 1993 of an entry in the Duke of Portland’s private journal: “To paid Mr. Wordsworth’s Draft, å£92.12,” an entry appearing among some other payments to men associated with the Secret Service. Was this particular Wordsworth really William? If so, one might ask, was this a payment for espionage or was it the kind of rudimentary travelers’ check common in the period, a draft which could be sold locally in Germany (often at a discount) and then find its way back to London to be encashed, thus sparing Wordsworth the need to carry abroad a substantial amount of gold?

We need something that Johnston fails to provide: a fuller account of the document from which this entry has been extracted. Rather touchingly Johnston confesses in a footnote that one of his reasons for espousing the espionage explanation is that it is not only “more plausible” but “frankly, more exciting.” Readers may well raise other queries. It is true that between late February and the end of April 1799 Wordsworth’s and Dorothy’s movements in Germany are unrecorded, and that some pages of their journals for the period are missing. The sum of å£92.12 was, however, at the time, a considerable amount of money, far more than a courier simply conveying a secret government message could expect to earn.

  1. 2

    William Wordsworth: A Life (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1989).

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