The Mysterious Mr. Wordsworth

When Shelley, in Peter Bell the Third, satirized the Wordsworth of 1819 as a political turncoat, a conservative who formerly “wrote for freedom,” and also a constitutionally “solemn and unsexual man,” indeed a kind of “male prude,” there were a number of things he did not know. Shelley was aware, like everyone else, that Wordsworth in his youth—along with Coleridge and Southey—had not been a Tory, and had radical sympathies. Just how radical he never learned.

“Salisbury Plain,” the first and socially incendiary version of the poem Wordsworth later smoothed out into “Guilt and Sorrow,” the long Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, written in “a republican spirit” (it defended the recent execution of Louis XVI and attacked the entire English class and legal system for its oppression of the poor), and, above all, The Prelude, with its account of his 1791-1792 sojourn in France and support for the ideals of the revolution, all remained unpublished until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850—which occurred long after Shelley’s. Even more time was to pass before it became widely known (as opposed to being a carefully guarded family secret) that while in France Wordsworth had had an affair with Annette Vallon, and fathered an illegitimate child. “But from the first,” Shelley wrote,

‘t was Peter’s drift
To be a kind of moral eunuch;
He touched the hem of Nature’s shift,
Felt faint—and never dared uplift
The closest, all-concealing tunic.

She laughed the while, with an arch smile,
And kissed him with a sister’s kiss,
And said—“My best Diogenes,
I love you well—but, if you please,
Tempt not again my deepest bliss.

“‘T is you are cold—for I, not coy,
Yield love for love, frank, warm and true…”

Shelley would need to rethink those lines today, and not only because of Annette and her daughter, Caroline. Although resistance can still be detected among some Wordsworthians, it has seemed clear for some time now—especially since the publication in full of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal—that although it is virtually inconceivable that they ever went to bed together (as Byron and his married half-sister Augusta Leigh did), “a sister’s kiss,” as far as William and Dorothy were concerned, was not necessarily an asexual peck on the cheek.

In his splendid new book Wordsworth and the Victorians, Stephen Gill pays tribute to that eminent Victorian William Knight, editor of the first scholarly edition of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (1882-1886), and author of a three-volume Life in 1889. (Gill’s book is dedicated to the memory of Knight and another great contemporary Wordsworthian, Edward Dowden.) Knight was the first person given access to Dorothy’s journals (handed over in all innocence by her nephew) and, as Gill suggests, he must have been “both enthralled and discomfited by what he read.” Not only did Knight discover cryptic but distinctly suspicious references to a certain “Annette” and “Caroline” in France, to an extensive correspondence between Wordsworth and Annette, and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.