Family Man

The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth

edited by Beth Darlington
Cornell University Press, 265 pp., $17.95

My Dearest Love: Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth, 1810 by Blackwell's Rare Books, Fyfield Manor, Abingdon, Oxford, OX13 5LR

edited in facsimile by Beth Darlington, foreword by Jonathan Wordsworth
The Trustees of Dove Cottage, printed by the Scolar Press, distributed, 81 pp., £215; limited edition £450

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 /…

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