The diarist Henry Crabb Robinson records a conversation in which William Blake, after decrying Wordsworth’s naturalism, represented him “as a Pagan, but still with great praise as the greatest poet of the age.” In this assessment of Wordsworth’s stature almost all the other major literary figures of his own and the following generation agreed, including Coleridge, Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Shelley, Keats. Each took exception to qualities in Wordsworth’s temperament and writings—his aloofness, his matter-of-factness, his austerity, and the self-concern that Keats called “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” But none doubted his position as the most original and representative poet of the age we now call the Romantic period. A quarter-century after Wordsworth’s death Matthew Arnold ranked him (as Coleridge had done seventy-five years earlier) after only Shakespeare and Milton among English poets. Our own age of criticism distrusts literary canons and rankings, but the substance as well as the remarkable quantity of recent critical discussions of Wordsworth attests to the recognition that beyond all but a very few poets he has affected our consciousness and our culture. Either directly or by way of his influence on other writers, he has altered the way we perceive and describe not only the natural world, but our own selves and other men and women, as well as the ways in which we respond to what we perceive.
The standard life has long been Mary Moorman’s full and admirable two volumes, William Wordsworth: A Biography, completed in 1965. The quarter-century since that publication, however, has been what Stephen Gill in his preface describes enthusiastically as “a golden age of Wordsworth and Coleridge studies.” There have been new editions of the poems, letters, and prose writings, and a flood of scholarly and critical writings.
Three new sources, recently made available, are of special importance to the biographer. One is Mark L. Reed’s Wordsworth: A Chronology, whose two volumes provide a meticulous record, day by day, of Wordsworth’s activities, literary and other. A second is the Cornell Wordsworth series, under the general editorship of Stephen M. Parrish, which has now reached thirteen of twenty-one volumes, and which will make available, from the voluminous manuscripts and the printed texts, all stages of the composition and emendation of his poems.
Wordsworth was a compulsive reviser of his work, whether unpublished or published, even though the act of revision exhausted him and gave him a variety of psychosomatic ailments. In each of the many successive editions of his poems he introduced changes; as Gill points out, even in the edition of his Collected Works which he published in 1845, only five years before his death, Wordsworth subjected the body of his poems, early as well as late, to extensive revision.
In some instances, especially in poems he kept in manuscript, Wordsworth’s changes were drastic enough to produce very different poems; and since, although often for the better, the changes were sometimes (increasingly as he grew older) for the worse, the Cornell Wordsworth not only provides detailed information about the way Wordsworth composed and recomposed, but raises the fundamental question: Which of the successive, complete versions of a Wordsworth text shall we take as the entity designated by the poem’s title?
A third item of importance to the biographer is the unexpected appearance of a cache of family papers that were acquired in 1977 by the Wordsworth Library in Grasmere. Among these, the most surprising was an exchange of thirty-one letters, written in 1810 and 1812, between William and his wife, Mary Hutchinson, whom he had known since childhood and had married in 1802. During Wordsworth’s lifetime it had been remarked that, unlike his major English predecessors, he was not only an austere but a conspicuously asexual poet. Hazlitt commented that “one would suppose, from the tenor of his subjects, that on this earth there was neither marrying nor giving in marriage.” And Shelley—although, as Mary Shelley tells us, “no man ever admired Wordsworth’s poetry more”—wrote a good-humored satire on Wordsworth, “Peter Bell the Third,” in which he remarked that
He touched the hem of Nature’s shift,
Felt faint—and never dared uplift
The closest, all-concealing tunic.
Such an opinion doubtless fostered the vogue in the Age of Victoria of published collections of Wordsworth’s poems designed for the education of children. It came therefore as a shock when the French scholar Emile Legouis and the American George McLean Harper, author of the standard biography that had preceded Mary Moorman’s, published almost simultaneously in the early 1920s their independent discovery of the fact (which had never been a secret to Wordsworth’s family) that while in France in 1792, during the heyday of the French Revolution, he had had a love affair with Annette Vallon and fathered a daughter, Caroline.1 We lack evidence of Wordsworth’s precise feelings for Annette Vallon; but his correspondence with his wife, though written after ten years of marriage and the birth of five children, expresses a blend of deep devotion with a strong and candidly physical sexuality.2
Stephen Gill, of Lincoln College, Oxford, is best known for his edition in the Cornell Wordsworth of The Salisbury Plain Poems and of the very useful William Wordsworth in the Oxford Authors series, which for the first time presents a selection of Wordsworth’s major poems in the order of their composition and in their earliest completed version. In Wordsworth: A Life Gill adroitly organizes the available information, old and new, his judgments are trustworthy, and he writes with economy and verve, as well as precision. The result is a single-volume Life which is not only informed and up-to-date, but interesting and eminently readable, even when it deals with the recalcitrant matter of the least eventful in the many years of Wordsworth’s retirement in the Lake Country.
Gill tells us that his “subject is Wordsworth the writer,” and that he has “not hesitated to sacrifice domestic detail” when “material about Wordsworth’s writing and publication competed for space.” In line with this purpose, he gives us not only the biographical circumstances of Wordsworth’s writings, but appreciative and revealing commentary on selected poems as well. But a single-volume biography that tries to do justice to the entire span of the work of a man who lived eighty years and wrote and published poems during sixty of those years sets limits to what can be said by way of commentary. Admirers of Wordsworth may feel that the Life does not sufficiently convey the inventiveness and variety, indeed the audacity, of his early and greatest poetry. In a manuscript for the poem “Home at Grasmere” probably written about 1800 Wordsworth describes himself, in the boldness of his poetic enterprise, as “in part a Fellow citizen, in part / An outlaw, and a borderer of his Age.” A.C. Bradley, in an essay on Wordsworth written eighty years ago, noted how “audacious” and “strange” some of his poems are. “The road into Wordsworth’s mind,” Bradley advised us, “must be through his strangeness and his paradoxes, and not round them.”
Wordsworth is commonly thought of as above all a nature poet, but he himself asserted that “the mind of man” is “the main region of my song.” Wordsworth’s young contemporary John Keats read him as a poet especially of human suffering who in this aspect “is deeper than Milton,” in that Milton, relying on creedal Christianity, “did not think into the human heart, as Wordsworth has done.” Wordsworth’s earliest undisputed masterpiece, “The Ruined Cottage” (first written in 1797 but expanded in 1799), was what he himself called “a tale of silent suffering,” on the part of Margaret, who has been abandoned by her husband. We owe our knowledge of the story of Margaret as an independent poem to the scholarship that recently retrieved it from manuscript;3 Wordsworth himself had published the story of Margaret only as incorporated in the first book of The Excursion (1814), and had weakened its effect in later editions by inserting passages of conventional religious piety.
As a separate work “The Ruined Cottage” is a companion piece to Wordsworth’s other early poem of silent suffering, “Michael,” published in 1800, but in its austere naturalism, flexible blank verse, and masterful management of a complex narrative point of view, it is an even more impressive instance of what the critic Walter Raleigh, early in this century, called Wordsworth’s “calm and almost terrible strength.” In a time of war and devastating rural depression, Margaret’s husband has secretly left her and their two children in order that they might have the bonus money he received for enlisting in the army. In her fierce and single-minded but finally hopeless waiting for her husband’s return, Margaret deteriorates in a way that is matched by the decay of her neglected cottage. Hers, however, is a moral as well as physical deterioration: she gives up her older boy to the parish while her infant son dies of neglect.
Wordsworth passes no moral judgment on Margaret, but poses the implicit question, What are we to make of life in a world where such things happen? The auditor of the story does not resort for comfort to a beneficent power, whether in or beyond the natural world, but derives solace from his own fellow-feeling, however helpless—
To comfort me while with a brother’s love
I blessed her in the impotence of grief.
Unexpectedly his change of mood turns on the recognition of the nonhuman insentience of nature, its “calm oblivious tendencies,” and of the fact that the “secret spirit of humanity” embodied in the ruined cottage survives its ceaseless assimilation into the processes of nature’s independent life. The Pedlar who narrates the story has already achieved this calm of mind, and in a reversal as sharp as Wordsworth could make it, he declares
I turned away
And walked along my road in happiness.
The completion of “The Ruined Cottage,” and the extraordinary creative burst that began in Wordsworth’s twenty-seventh year, coincided with his moving in 1797 to Alfoxden, Somersetshire, to be near Coleridge, and with the daily and intense communion and interchange of ideas and work between the two men, always in the company of Dorothy, whom Coleridge in a letter of 1797 called Wordsworth’s “exquisite sister”—exquisite in her perceptiveness and quick intelligence and in the prose of her wonderful journals as in her vivacious presence. The intimacy of the relationship continued in 1800 when Coleridge moved to the Lake Country after the Wordsworths, who had settled at Grasmere. Developing tensions, however, led to a break between the two in 1810, leaving on both sides emotional wounds that were later patched over but never entirely healed. Precisely what, and how much, each poet owed to the other is a matter of scholarly dispute and can never be known with certainty. But it is clear that their early association and mutual encouragement stimulated each of them to major poetic achievement.
The immediate product of that association was a joint anonymous publication of 1798 entitled Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems. This small book, which opened with Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” and closed with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” is a boon to literary historians, for it serves to date a genuine literary departure. All but five of the twenty-four poems are by Wordsworth, a number of them terse narratives of humble rural life—“Simon Lee,” “We Are Seven,” “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”—presented as subjects for poetry of high seriousness. Hazlitt in an essay of 1825 said that such poems were new because they partook of “the revolutionary movement of our age” and were modeled on “the political changes of the day.” Wordsworth’s Muse, Hazlitt said, “is a leveling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality.” What Hazlitt recognized was that, implicitly in his poems and more openly in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, which he added in 1800 and enlarged in 1802, Wordsworth had translated the egalitarianism of French revolutionary politics into the egalitarianism of a revolutionary poetics. He thereby leveled the social hierarchy that was built into traditional European poetic theory, in which the reigning principle of “decorum” fitted the literary genre and style to the social rank of the main characters.
In his Preface Wordsworth announced that he had chosen “low and rustic life” as the norm for what is elemental and universal in human nature and poetic language, and declared provocatively that his express aim was to reform the taste of the reading public of his day, indicating that this taste was permeated by what we would now call ideology—that is, an upper-class consciousness working in the guise of a refined literary sensibility.
As Gill points out, the Scottish critic Francis Jeffrey at once detected the radical social and political challenge in Wordsworth’s early practice and theory of poetry, and attacked him in the first issue of the Edinburgh Review, October 1802, as the leader of a “sect of poets” who are engaged in a “formidable conspiracy…against sound judgment” and against “the established systems in poetry and criticism”—a literary subversiveness that is politically motivated by “a splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society.” From then on Jeffrey, who quickly established himself as the most influential reviewer of his day, conducted a remorseless and witty vendetta against Wordsworth’s poetry, showing the way to many other reviewers, who ridiculed Wordsworth’s simple poems of the lowly and outcast as puerile and his elevated poetic modes as pretentious and unintelligible.
In the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800, Wordsworth put his name (but not Coleridge’s) on the title page and added not only the Preface but a second volume of poems. These included “Michael” and the series of great dirges on the death of Lucy (we still do not know who Lucy was, or even whether she existed outside the poet’s imagination), in which, as Gill beautifully says, he expresses the universal experience of loss “in irreducible spareness of form.”
In the remarkable year 1798 Wordsworth also began writing verse that developed into his supreme achievement, The Prelude. That work is now available in three separate texts, the first two salvaged by scholars from manuscripts and the third published (according to Wordsworth’s wish) several months after his death, and only then named The Prelude by his wife. To Isabella Fenwick as late as 1843, Wordsworth had referred to it as “the poem on the growth of my own mind,” and in his Preface to The Excursion (1814) had described it as a biographical “preparatory poem” to what he planned to be his masterwork, The Recluse. This enormous and ill-advised project was designed to consist of three epic-length parts, at which, egged on by Coleridge and his family, Wordsworth labored fitfully and in anguish over several decades, but never finished. His description of it in the Preface to The Excursion—the only one of the three parts to be completed—shows the unfeasibility of the enterprise, especially for a poet like Wordsworth, whose genius lay in a poetry of immediate experience in which ideas are implicit. The Recluse, he wrote, is to be “a philosophical poem, containing views of Man, Nature, and Society,” whose principal subject will be “the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement.”
The first Prelude is a work in two parts, completed in 1799, in which Wordsworth reviews his early life from his infancy in the little town of Cockermouth, at the northern edge of the Lake District, through his days at Hawkshead Grammar School, in the heart of that District, which he left at seventeen. His mother had died when he was eight; his father, the chief law agent to Sir James Lowther, had died when he was thirteen. This early version already included the superlative passages on a child’s modes of consciousness and visionary experiences in nature—robbing his friends’ bird snares, stealing a rowboat at night, ice skating, the two episodes he called “spots of time”—which were without precedent in any earlier poetry. The second Prelude, completed in 1805, extended the account of his life through his career as an undistinguished student at Cambridge University, his two fateful sojourns in France during the early and relatively peaceful period of the French Revolution in 1790 and 1791–1792, and his restless wanderings up to the time of settling with his beloved sister Dorothy at Grasmere and undertaking The Recluse. The third version, published in 1850, was the product of some thirty-five years of tinkering with the 1805 text, in which Wordsworth polished the style and modified some of his radical statements about the divine sufficiency of the mind in its interaction with nature, but without altering in any essential way the subject matter or overall design.
When Wordsworth completed the expanded Prelude of 1805 in thirteen books, he wrote to his friend Sir George Beaumont that it was “a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.” There was, however, a precedent, not in literary history, but in theological and devotional history—the Christian spiritual autobiography of crisis and conversion, of which the great exemplar was Saint Augustine’s Confessions, written late in the fourth century. Establishing what became the structural pattern of this form, Augustine begins his account as a mature man writing in the present, then reverts to a narrative of the development of his inner life from its beginnings; this history, represented in the recurrent figure of a peregrinatio vitae, a journey of life, turns on a spiritual crisis from which, after a painful annihilation of his old self, Augustine emerges as a new self in a new world, secure in his Christian vocation, or divine “calling,” and able to recognize now that the seeming contingencies of his life have all along been ordered to this end by the secret management of God, by whom he had been “chosen” as one of His “sons.”
Wordsworth too begins The Prelude in his mature years, as he sets out on a pedestrian journey to Grasmere, then turns back to the development of his inner life as, from its infancy, it interacts with the natural setting. His life, often represented in the figure of a toilsome journey, turns on the crisis brought about by his disillusion with the French Revolution, which the youthful Wordsworth had seen at first hand during his two trips to France in the early 1790s, and in which, like many of his contemporaries in Germany as well as England, he had invested millennial hopes for “a new heaven and a new earth” as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. He narrates with graphic power his increasing dismay at the grim escalation of violence in France, the outbreak of war against England, the turn of France to wars of conquest, and the insatiable guillotine during the Reign of Terror—“Head after head, and never heads enough/For those that bade them fall.” The outer conflict was mirrored in his inner conflict; he experienced Kafkaesque nightmares, in which
I strove to plead
Before unjust tribunals—with a voice
Labouring, a brain confounded, and a sense,
Death-like, of treacherous desertion, felt
In the last place of refuge—my own soul.
His account of his recovery from what he calls this “crisis…the soul’s last and lowest ebb” rounds back to end where it had begun, with Wordsworth an adult, settled at Grasmere to which in the opening of the poem he had set out, and assured now of his vocation.
Early on, he had been granted intimations that he “was a chosen son” invested with “holy powers/and faculties”; now he recognizes that all his life has been directed to his vocation, although not by a supervisory Deity but by an inherent natural force or entelechy. That vocation, in the lineage of his revered predecessor Milton, is to be not simply a poet, but a poet-prophet. That is, Wordsworth conceives himself as destined to serve as an authoritative poetic spokesman for his time, which he sees as an era of despair and cultural demoralization—“these times of fear…of hopes o’erthrown…of dereliction and dismay.” At the end of The Prelude Wordsworth calls on Coleridge to join him in the work of mankind’s “redemption, surely yet to come”; not, however, as prophets of a religious creed, but as “Prophets of Nature,” and even more eminently, of “the mind of man.” By retaining the form and many of the concepts of the Christian spiritual biography but putting them in a secular frame Wordsworth achieved the first modern work about the development of the predestined artist. He is a precursor, in this literary mode, of Proust and Joyce.
Like other poets who thought themselves to have been elected for a great public end—including not only Dante and Milton but Wordsworth’s older contemporary William Blake—Wordsworth knew what he was saying in such vaunting passages and intended them seriously, and we should read them seriously, on Bradley’s principle that the road to understanding Wordsworth must go through his audacities and strangeness, and not around them.
The common belief that Wordsworth is above all a poet of nature is a justified one, in that “nature” is pervasive in his poetry. But we must be aware that the term has variable meanings and serves diverse functions. Although Wordsworth insisted on accuracy in the description of natural objects, he stressed the fact that accuracy, while necessary, is not a sufficient condition for poetry. The verbal representation of a natural image or scene for its own delightful sake, frequent in Dorothy’s journals, is rare in her brother’s poems—
The cattle are grazing Their heads never raising;
There are forty feeding like one!
The swan on still St. Mary’s lake
Float double, swan and shadow.
Against such perceptual moments we can set the passage in the fifth book of The Prelude which is so distinctively Wordsworthian that Coleridge remarked, “Had I met these lines running wild in the deserts of Arabia, I should instantly have screamed out, ‘Wordsworth.” The boy of Winander (an early manuscript indicates that the boy is Wordsworth himself) has been hooting at the owls to evoke their responsive outcry. But sometimes he is met with a deep silence, and then,
While he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents, or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.
In this passage, with its delicate suspensions and closures, objects of the outer world have been subtly humanized, but at the same time the receptive mind of the observer has been spatialized, as one aspect of a pervasive interchange between nature and mind in which there is no discrimination between the given and its analogue: the reflected rocks, woods, and sky are received into the depth of the lake; the lake, together with the objects it reflects, is received into the depth of the mind. The passage exemplifies what Coleridge, in an essay “On Poesy or Art,” called the “mystery of genius in the Fine Arts,” which is “to make the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature.” Or, to use the subject–object idiom that Coleridge shared with the German metaphysicians of the time, the passage shows “the coalescence of subject and object” that Coleridge conceived as overcoming the radical dualism between the conscious ego and the alien “other.”
In this respect it is notable that in Wordsworth’s lines the observed natural phenomenon—the tremor of a reflection even in a still watery surface—is not only made human, but made unobtrusively maternal: the trembling sky is comforted by being received “into the bosom of the steady lake.” This passage is resonant with a number of others in The Prelude in which the natural world is quietly invested with a maternal presence and maternal functions. The basic instance is the discussion in the second book about “the babe/Nursed in his mother’s arms.” Here Wordsworth, who was eight when his mother died, struggles to invent a vocabulary to express the insight that an infant who comes to know the natural world in the security of being cherished “upon his mother’s breast,” apprehends that world not as something alien, but as “irradiated” by his assurance of his mother’s love, hence as connected to him by the physical pull of gravity that (in a great figure) he experiences as an emotional bond between mother and son:
No outcast he, bewildered and depressed;
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of Nature that connect him with the world.
A persistent theme in The Prelude is the way in which human beings come to feel at home in the world, and the stresses that tend to alienate us from it.
In some of the most eloquent passages in Wordsworth the natural world is presented as imbued with a presence that “rolls through all things,” or as evoking moments when “we see into the life of things,” or as profoundly influencing his moral life. In their preoccupation with such splendid statements, readers of Wordsworth often overlook the fact that his extended lyrics set in the natural world are not designed to inculcate a creed of nature; instead, they advert to the outward scene in order to evoke a meditation on the human significance of time. That is, they are poems on what it is to be human and therefore to live in time, with the certainty of change, loss, suffering, and mortality.
“Tintern Abbey,” the first of his long lyrics of temporal life, introduced the stratagem that Wordsworth later employed, with variations, in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” and “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm”: a change in the observer’s response to a natural scene, revisited after an interval of time, evokes a realization of the differences that time has wrought, and raises the question of how to rationalize the losses and sufferings effected by growing older. Wordsworth’s answer is based on our life in this world (as he puts it in The Prelude) “as natural beings in the strength of nature.” Growing older, by the very fact of our growing experience of suffering and mortality, may make us more deeply, diversely, and sensitively human.
In “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth incorporates this concept of “abundant recompense” in the figure of a somber chord of music that in his maturity accompanies his altered experience of the visible scene:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
His great “Ode” on this subject Wordsworth completed six years later, in 1804; the subtitle “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” was not added until 1815, and is misleading as well as awkward. In this poem Wordsworth exchanges the auditory for an optical metaphor—the altered perception of a sunset effected by a mind that has been matured by the “thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering” is figured as a sober coloring projected on the radiant natural phenomenon:
The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober coloring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.
Between 1797 and his publication of Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807, Wordsworth wrote poetry which, at its best, was equal to the greatest; but these ten years were followed by forty years in which he wrote diligently but—except for some fine passages in The Excursion and a limited number of shorter poems—without high distinction. Stephen Gill, properly, does not scant his attention to the later writings, but does not oppose “the modern critical consensus…that Wordsworth’s best poetry was written before he was forty.” The poetry after that time would by itself have sufficed to earn Wordsworth a respectful notice in literary history. But for the most part the Ecclesiastical Sketches and the volumes in which Wordsworth memorialized his tours in Scotland and Europe, with their unsurprising sentiments and elaborately formal language, make rueful reading for someone coming to them after the earlier poems.
Doubtless there are a number of reasons for the rapid falling-off in his poetry, but one of the most important was proposed by Wordsworth himself. His greatest poetry is largely a remembrance of things past. An event in the present triggers a recurrence of the past, in a way that Wordsworth, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, described as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” But memories of strongly emotional or visionary early experiences are not an inexhaustible resource; as Wordsworth recognized in a prescient moment when, at the height of his powers, he was recalling a “spot of time” in The Prelude of 1805:
The days gone by
Come back upon me from the dawn almost
Of life: the hiding-places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now, when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all….
It was during his period of political conservatism and poetic decline that Wordsworth’s critical fortunes turned. Gill describes well Wordsworth’s rapid and astonishing emergence, in the 1830s, not only as a famous poet, but as a celebrity in the modern sense. His house at Rydal Mount came to be regarded as a poetic shrine, with Wordsworth as its monument, to which crowds of pilgrims resorted, among whom Americans were conspicuous. Gill quotes the patient Mrs. Wordsworth’s mild complaint that it seems “as if America had broken loose, so many, especially from New York, of that country make their way to the Poet.”
Now and again in Wordsworth’s middle or later years an event would jolt him into a revival of his poetic power; usually this was a sharp reminder of time, loss, and mortality. In his forties he wrote his most moving personal sonnet, “Surprized by Joy,” out of the pain of discovering that his anguish at the death of his three-year-old daughter Catherine was being mitigated by time:
Love, faithful love recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee!
In his early fifties he broke into the sequence of his Ecclesiastical Sketches with the great sonnet “Mutability,” in the realization that even the most durable “outward forms” must succumb to temporality, like that ancient tower—
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
Its crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air
Or the unimaginable touch of time.
And in his mid-sixties an unexpected newspaper report of the death of the Scottish poet James Hogg brought to mind the recent deaths of other and greater poets, younger than Wordsworth, whom he had loved and outlived. His niece tells us that he disappeared for a half hour, then came back to dictate the poem “Extempore Effusion Upon the Death of James Hogg,” in which he returns to the simple ballad stanza of some of the Lyrical Ballads and recovers the voice that had uttered the elegies to Lucy thirty-five years before.
Nor has the rolling year twice measured,
From sign to sign, its steadfast course,
Since every mortal power of Coleridge
Was frozen at its marvelous source;
The rapt One, of the godlike forehead
The heaven-eyed creature sleeps in earth:
And Lamb, the frolic and the gentle,
Has vanished from his lonely hearth.
At sixty-five Wordsworth reverts also from the often hesitant pieties of his later work, to confront mortality without recourse to a life beyond time:
Like clouds that rake the mountain- summits,
Or waves that own no curbing hand,
How fast has brother followed brother,
From sunshine to the sunless land!
…Our haughty life is crowned with darkness,
Like London with its own black wreath….
December 21, 1989
George Harper, Wordsworth’s French Daughter (Princeton University Press, 1921); Emile Legouis, William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon (J.M. Dent, 1922). At the time of the affair William was twenty-two, a partisan of the Revolution, almost penniless, and with no immediate prospect for earning a living. Annette belonged to a Roman Catholic family whose sympathies were Royalist. Just before he married Mary in 1802, William and his sister, Dorothy, paid an amicable visit to Annette and Caroline at Calais. Thereafter the relations between the Vallons and the Wordsworths—including the generous and warm-hearted Mary Wordsworth—remained cordial, even affectionate. ↩
The correspondence has been sensitively edited by Beth Darlington, The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth (Cornell University Press, 1981). ↩
Jonathan Wordsworth, The Music of Humanity (Thomas Nelson, 1969). The various texts are minutely reconstructed by James Butler, editor, “The Ruined Cottage” and “The Pedlar” (Cornell University Press, 1979). ↩