• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Group

p>On the 5th of February 1805, John Wordsworth, William’s sea captain younger brother, drowned at the age of thirty-two when his ship broke up in a gale off the south coast of England. News of the disaster reached London two days later, and Richard Wordsworth, eldest of the five Wordsworth siblings, a lawyer in the city, immediately dispatched a letter to the little cottage at Grasmere in the Lake District in which William and his unmarried sister Dorothy had been living since 1800, joined there toward the end of 1802 by William’s newly acquired wife, the former Mary Hutchinson. It was Mary’s sister Sara Hutchinson, visiting her old school-friend Mrs. Cookson some miles away at Kendal, who intercepted that letter on February 11, after it had got as far as Rydal, and walked on with it to Grasmere. She had probably been alerted to the catastrophe from a newspaper account. William, as she presumably knew, at this time saw no newspapers, “not even a weekly one, so that I am in utter ignorance of what is doing in the world.” Guessing that there might be a letter from London waiting, and what it would contain, she determined to deliver it personally to the Wordsworths, while offering what comfort she could in what she was aware would be a situation of appalling grief. Certainly she does not seem to have been expected on the 11th at Grasmere. Sara herself may well have been contemplating marriage to John Wordsworth, and her prompt action was not only generous but seems little short of heroic.

The adult inhabitants of the Grasmere cottage at Town End were indeed devastated. Dorothy wept uncontrollably for days, and remained ill for some time. William, distraught, would be blocked creatively for months. Mary (as usual), although also deeply upset, held the household together with, at least for a week, the help of her sister. Wordsworth did, however, manage a letter to his brother Richard on the evening of the 11th: “We wish you were with us,” he wrote. “God keep the rest of us together! the set is now broken. Farewell.” On March 19, more than a month later, in another emotional letter to Richard, he was admitting, “I am sometimes half superstitious, and think that as the number of us is now broken some more of the set will be following him.”

In both letters, Wordsworth clearly intended “the set” to be understood as Dorothy and himself, Richard, Christopher, and John, a family group of five siblings from which one brother was now missing. Beneath this, however, lurked another meaning. unavailable to his lawyer brother, but of great significance to Wordsworth himself: a partially overlapping but different, and even more closely knit, “set” of six. From this group too John had just been brutally subtracted. There was, moreover, one surviving member of it about whom all the others were now seriously worried.

Even on that first day of mourning for the “silent poet,” as the others thought of John—a man who rarely wrote down his responses to the natural world, although apparently gifted with the same extraordinary sensitivity that Dorothy Wordsworth possessed—William’s thoughts turned immediately to “poor Coleridge,” then far away in Malta. “I tremble for the moment when he is to hear of my brother’s death,” he told Sir George Beaumont; “it will distress him to the heart,—and his poor body cannot bear sorrow. He loved my brother….” And indeed, when the news finally reached Coleridge, on March 31, he appears to have collapsed in the middle of a diplomatic reception. For a fortnight, he was confined to his bed. “Oh dear John Wordsworth!” he scrawled in his notebook on April 8, remembering how likely it had seemed that after only a few more years, John would be able to abandon his perilous seafaring life, settle permanently in the Lakes, “and be verily one of the Concern.” Coleridge’s “Concern,” identical here with Wordsworth’s “set” of six, becomes a kind of litany in his notebook at this time: William and his wife Mary, John, Dorothy, and Sara Hutchinson—with whom Coleridge was hopelessly in love—all linked (of course) with Coleridge himself. These, in the form of initials, are the six names carved at different times by Coleridge and Wordsworth into “Sara’s Rock” (later called “The Rock of Names”), a large boulder harboring a spring of water on the road between Grasmere and Keswick, where Coleridge lived (increasingly unhappily) with his wife, Sara, and their children.

On a piece of blotting paper facing her journal entry on May 15, 1802, Dorothy felt impelled to arrange the same six in a double pattern, its two disparate configurations reflecting her own anxiety about the position she was likely to occupy once her brother had married Mary Hutchinson. Cole-ridge, quite independently, at some indeterminate time after Wordsworth’s marriage in October of that year, did much the same thing in one of his notebooks. In both cases, as on “Sara’s Rock,” the name of Coleridge’s wife was conspicuously absent.

It is understandable that John Worthen should have rejected “The Concern” and “The Set” as possible titles for a book about “Coleridge, the Hutchinsons and the Wordsworths in 1802.” “The Group,” although a designation frequently invoked in his text, would almost certainly have been too reminiscent of a well-known novel by Mary McCarthy (1963). The Gang, nevertheless, Worthen’s ultimate choice, seems unfortunate, and the three epigraphs which attempt to justify it only make matters worse.

For one thing, all three are unhelpfully pejorative. Dr. Johnson’s definition of “gang” in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755—“A number herding together; a troop; a company; a tribe; a herd. It is seldom used but in contempt or abhorrence”—scarcely seems apposite, nor does the government spy James Walsh’s reference in 1797 to “a mischiefuous [sic] gang of disaffected Englishmen,” even though Walsh included Wordsworth and Coleridge among them. As for Coleridge’s joke, in his poem “A Soliloquy of the full Moon” (1802), about “The head of the Gang, one Wordsworth by name,” that refers specifically to a “gang” of poets, among whom only that “Rogue” Wordsworth, Coleridge himself, and the German writer J. H. Voss figure specifically. It is not about the group of people with which Worthen is concerned.

Nor does his attempt to reinterpret “gang” as meaning “a borderline, fugitive, family” improve matters. There was nothing borderline or fugitive about the Hutchinson sisters and their two farmer brothers over at Bishop Middleham and Gallow Hill. That, indeed, as Worthen himself later points out, is why they probably seemed more acceptably genteel to Sara Coleridge than the unconventional Wordsworths, a brother and sister who spent much of their time walking about the countryside like tramps, night and day in all weathers. The book manages, however, to survive its title.

Worthen’s is by no means the first study to focus on Wordsworth and Coleridge at this particular moment in their lives. William Heath’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: A Study of Their Literary Relations in 1801–1802 appeared in 1970, and Gene W. Ruoff’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Making of the Major Lyrics 1802–1804 in 1989. Worthen’s time span—March 1, 1802, to October 4, 1802, with a snapshot in his epilogue of life in the Grasmere cottage on January 11, 1803—is considerably more restricted than theirs. Yet these earlier books inevitably concentrate on many of the same issues. The year 1802 was crucial for both poets. Wordsworth at last made up his mind to marry Mary Hutchinson. Before doing that, on August 1 he and Dorothy crossed over to France and spent a month at Calais with Annette Vallon, who in 1792 had given birth to his illegitimate daughter, Caroline. His relations with Coleridge, once extremely close—Coleridge had transported himself and his family to the Lakes in 1800 solely in order to be near Wordsworth—were already troubled. Coleridge himself was struggling with ill health, opium addiction, the wretchedness of his marriage, his irregular passion for Sara Hutchinson, and an increasingly difficult relationship with Wordsworth. In the end, after fleeing to Malta, he would separate from his wife and return to live in London.

Meanwhile, in 1802, he and Wordsworth found themselves engaged in a poetic dialogue different from the one that had produced Lyrical Ballads in 1798, but quite as important. This time, it involved the complicated interrelations among the texts of Wordsworth’s great ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” as it struggled through various stages toward completion; his much-revised poem “The Leech-gatherer” (subsequently called “Resolution and Independence”); and Coleridge’s multiple versions of the verse “Letter” to Sara Hutchinson, finally published, on Wordsworth’s wedding day (October 4), in a form stripped of direct reference to Sara or his own domestic circumstances, as “Dejection: An Ode.”

The question of how these poems interlock with each other has been explored before, and not only by Heath and Ruoff. What is new about Worthen’s book is its determination to pay serious attention to what Wordsworth and Coleridge were writing in 1802—two appendices painstakingly attempt to reconstruct Wordsworth’s May version of “The Leech-gatherer,” and what Worthen calls “Coleridge’s First Dejection“—while embedding these and other poems within a detailed account not only of their authors’ lives during this limited period but the lives of other members of the group.

He is interested not simply in literary activity but in all the gardening, strenuous walking, letter writing, copying out of poems, social visits, and journeys with which Wordsworth and Dorothy (and to a greater or lesser degree the others) were involved. There is, he maintains stoutly, something wrong (for instance) about plucking out from Dorothy’s journal entry for March 27 the fact that on that day William began what was probably the “Immortality” ode, while ignoring the fact that brother and sister were also anxiously awaiting the arrival of Mr. Oliff’s consignment of dung—manure that William needed to dig into the vegetable garden at Town End before they departed on the following day, via Keswick and the Coleridges, for the Clarksons’ house at Eusemere and then, in William’s case, for the all-important meeting with Mary Hutchinson at Middleham, at which the two would agree upon their marriage. The Gang is a literary biography with a difference, not least because (for all its sometimes microscopic detail) it is also, to a considerable extent, a book concerned to ask searching questions about literary biography as a form.

Worthen, the author of D.H. Lawrence: A Literary Life (1989) and D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885–1912 (1991), has worried at a few of these questions before. In “The Necessary Ignorance of the Biographer,” an essay included in The Art of Literary Biography, edited by John Batchelor,1 Worthen argued that biography in general has come to be so popular in our age because it pretends, soothingly, “that things as difficult as human lives can—for all their obvious complexity—be summed up, known, comprehended.” Worthen inveighed there, in particular, against what he saw as the widespread tendency to allow a subject’s later years (and especially his or her death) to color preceding events and years, making it seem, with hindsight, as though the whole trajectory was inevitable and could have been predicted from the start. And he came near to rejoicing over the constant threat to biographers of the discovery of new material—a cache of letters, previously unknown acquaintances or events, which invalidate such carefully plotted scenarios, throwing them into disarray.

  1. 1

    Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1995.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print