William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth; drawing by David Levine

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an exposure to the domestic sublime seems to have alienated Coleridge, who when he stayed with his old friends became withdrawn and lapsed into old habits of nipping at the brandy and the laudanum.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.

My sweet love how I long to see thee; think of me, wish for me, pray for me, pronounce my name when thou art alone, and upon thy pillow; and dream of me happily and sweetly.

It would not be quite true to say that any happy husband might write as artlessly as that, and in such heartfelt tones, for an artist has a way of conveying art’s own sincerities even in his most unformal moments. But this is certainly Wordsworth at the furthest remove from the egotistical sublime, at the closest to all uxorious and happy husbands. What is more, in declaring his feelings his tone confirms hers, for even if we had no letters of Mary’s to match these we could be sure she felt about him the same way; and sure, too, that she would know he took as close and devoted an interest in all her views and ways, feelings and doings, as she in his. William required, nay, clamored, for as much and as detailed information about her poor sore mouth as he himself was furnishing about his poor sore behind.

This is the blessed small change of any truly happy relation. Whether it makes the discovery of these letters an important literary event is another matter. One thing that becomes plain is that William, like other young men, was prepared to sow wild oats abroad but certainly not at home. He had been very much attracted to Mary, once his childhood friend, and when she stayed for six months with him and Dorothy at Racedown in 1797 he fell deeply in love with her. An early letter almost uncannily anticipates a Hardy poem in its lyrically tender evocation of what might have happened.

…unable to part from each other we might have come in sight of those hills which skirt the road for so many miles [the Malverns], and thus continuing our journey (for we should have moved on at small expense) I fancied that we should have seen so deep into each others hearts, and been so fondly locked in each others arms that we should have braved the worst and parted no more. Under that tree I thought as I passed along we might have rested, of that stream might have drunk, in that thicket we might have hidden ourselves from the sun and from the eyes of the passenger.

Typically, and most endearingly, the passage mingles amiable thoughts of a nice cuddle under the bushes with an image of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. But it was not to be. Their financial situation made the idea of immediate marriage and a family not to be “braved” by a prudent young couple. William recalls it without regret, indeed as a natural augmentation of the love he now bears her (“O Mary I love you with a passion of love which grows till I tremble to think of its strength”) and also with a desire for her to be with him now to share whatever he sees (“not having you at my side my pleasure is so imperfect that after a short look I had rather not see the objects at all”).

William really did have cause to believe in a power that changes, as The Excursion informs us, “all accidents, converting them to good.” Nothing mystical involved, he had found it empirically. Shortly after this correspondence closes, his little daughter Catharine and little son Thomas both died. Such child mortality was common, though Mary was heartbroken and William too. But the sorrows did not change, one feels, his profound inner conviction that mortal chances were on his side in some secret sense, that as a poet he was the equivalent of one of those favored generals of Napoleon who were considered “lucky.”

This is the cause of his prolonged and in reality permanent estrangement from Coleridge. Coleridge was not lucky. The blind goddess had never been known to do him a good turn, even arranging (if his own report is to be trusted) that a person from Porlock should cut short the effusion of one of his greatest poems. Oddly enough the effective cause of these love letters between William and his wife was William’s absence in 1812, staying in Grosvenor Square with his patrons Sir George and Lady Beaumont; his chief purpose was to effect a complete reconciliation with his old friend.

In this he was only partially successful. The trouble had started when Coleridge had been staying with the Wordsworths at Allan Bank, not too propitiously; and a rich friend, Basil Montagu, had suggested making a home for him in London, keeping him as tame poet and talker. Wordsworth very prudently warned Montagu of the possible drawback of Coleridge’s habit and was going to counsel Coleridge against the scheme too, but found no opportunity. In consequence Montagu told Coleridge what Wordsworth had said, and it wounded Coleridge deeply. The formal reconciliation in London was at last made, but there was no getting over the real cause. Besides the old friends were now in some sense rivals; both in their various ways had made the fashion that was now sweeping polite society in England: for scenery and for cultured conversation. The wars had cut off the traditional Continental sources of these commodities. William was clearly gratified to find he was quite a lion in London circles, but Coleridge had set out to exploit the situation more methodically.

Coleridge is to commence a course of six Lectures, One guinea the course upon the Drama. This is a most odious way of picking up money, and scattering about his own & his friend’s thoughts. Lady B[eaumont] has taken 30 tickets, which she will have to force upon her friends and where she cannot succeed must abide by the Loss.

Alas, “his own and his friend’s thoughts” tells us all. The two friends who had once held every inspiration in common were now assiduously cultivating their own sensibilities, their own plots of the new ground. And Coleridge, thought Wordsworth writing to Mary, was not only using his old friend’s ideas but was doing his best to horn in on Wordsworth’s particular patrons, the Beaumonts, and even slandering him to them. No, certainly that much-publicized reconciliation was in name only.

Nonetheless Wordsworth enjoyed London, enjoyed being taken seriously, being made much of in society. Eighteen hundred and twelve was the year of England’s greatness as the forge and center of war planning and production; the titanic struggle with Napoleon was at its height, the unnecessary American sideshow just coming on. No need for Wordsworth to mention these matters, or what he thought of them; but he attended the debate in the House at which that silly radical Sir Francis Burdett, who thought that civil liberties were more important than beating Boney, was ably answered by the prime minister, Spencer Perceval. Two days later Perceval was dead, shot down in the lobby of the House by a crazy Liverpool merchant who had lost goods and money in the war at sea. The poet’s sentiments on the subject were very much to the point.

…the Country is in a most awful state. The Monster is to be executed on Monday Morning. I hope to procure, by means of the Poet Bowles a stand upon the Top of Westminster Abbey whence I may see the Execution without risk or danger.

Meanwhile Mary was pouring out her own news and doings. “What would I not give to wander with thee in the opposite meadow that looks so green & so beautiful—the trees by the pool & the one in the court are ready to burst into leaf, but there is not a green leaf to be seen, except upon the goose berry trees, & here & there upon a shy hawthorn that has been in compleat shelter.” The nature poet watches executions in London and his wife the budding of the hawthorn at Grasmere—well, no doubt that is what life is all about.

It remains, and perhaps rather ungraciously late in the day, to praise without stint the editorial work that has been done on these letters. Beth Darlington’s utility edition from Cornell University Press is a model of how to carry out such a task: there is a first-rate introduction, and just the right amount of information interspersed between the sections of letters at the right moments. The nature of the letters is such—their extraordinary density and charm of domestic detail—that the grand Trustees edition’s meticulous facsimiles, in which each printed page exactly mirrors the manuscripts opposite, gives an astonishing feel of their true and scribbled actuality. For the layman at least comparatively few facsimile manuscripts are worth reading in this way, but here we have one: the difference is between the tap water of plain print, and the writhing mass of preserved animalculae—each onrush and error of actual composition—brought under one’s eye as if in a powerful microscope, the very seconds and sentience of the past still wriggling about on paper. However daunting the price, the magificent Trustees edition is worth having for this experience alone.

Most sumptuously bound and produced editions by private presses today merely reproduce some well-known classic—Lycidas, The Song of Songs, or whatever. This edition really justifies itself by its wholly novel and fascinating material; and for that reason alone its value is bound to appreciate.

Though it has done a superb job, the Scolar Press is in fact only the printer. Publishing and editorial design have been carried out by the Trustees of Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere. All proceeds from sales will go to the Wordsworth Heritage Appeal, to rehouse and reequip the library at Grasmere, which contains more than ninety percent of Wordsworthian manuscripts, and which must be the only institution of its kind where a great poet’s writings can actually be read and examined on the site where they were composed. The excellence of this cause would justify the price even if it were excessive, which considering the material and the production it is certainly not. The whole enterprise must be among the truly worth-while publishing ventures of recent years.

And from where did the letters suddenly appear? There are still mysterious vanishings and reappearances of such historic material in England, unregarded hoards of Aspern Papers which have escaped from any family keeping and responsibility. Three years ago a large collection of such Wordsworthiana was auctioned at Sotheby’s as “the Property of a Gentleman.” To the firm their client’s name was sacrosanct, and to this day the Wordsworth family has not been able to find out exactly what took place. But it seems that a Carlisle stamp dealer had a garden shed full of papers which he had bought for their value as “franks,” the printed signs on correspondence that preceded the attachable stamp of 1840. Even family solicitors have periodically to clear out their cellars, and thus the mass of papers set out on their anonymous journey, like the wares of a pedlar in one of Wordsworth’s own poems.

Besides this correspondence the sale included the hitherto unknown manuscript of Coleridge’s “Dejection, An Ode”, the great love poem which he wrote to Sara Hutchinson, and which her sister Mary transcribed and kept among her papers. The publication of that, with its later variants, will be an event of some importance. Neither Coleridge, nor Mary, nor William—most certainly not William—would have wished the world to see these letters, which had been placed in sequence by the couple as a keepsake for the one who survived the other. Henry James would have had a fit too, and Miss Bordereau, the heroine of The Aspern Papers, would certainly have denounced those responsible for these editions as “publishing scoundrels.” But other times, other manners. It is impossible not to feel more warmly toward Wordsworth after reading these letters, even though they bring his personality no further in line with contemporary fashion. A great poet becomes his admirers, as Auden wrote in his poem on the death of Yeats. Wordsworth has vanished so utterly that it is idle even to ask how much he would have resented our intrusion. As we read them, the letters, and the facsimiles especially, give back almost uncannily what Auden called “his last afternoon as himself.”

This Issue

February 18, 1982