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William Wordsworth: The Poet's Life

by Charles Francis Horne

William Wordsworth, the poet, was born at Cockermouth, on the Derwent, in Cumberland, on April 7, 1770. His parentage offers a curious parallel to Scott's; he was the son of an attorney, law-agent to the Earl of Lonsdale, a prosperous man in his profession, descended from an old Yorkshire family of landed gentry. On the mother's side, also, Wordsworth was connected with the middle territorial class; his mother, Anne Cookson, was the daughter of a well-to-do mercer in Penrith; but her mother was a Crackanthorpe, whose ancestors had been lords of the manor of Newbiggin, near Penrith, from the time of Edward III. He was thus, as Scott put it in his own case, come of "gentle" kin, and, like Scott, he was proud of it, and declared the fact in his short fragment of prose autobiography. The country squires and farmers whose blood flowed in Wordsworth's veins were not far enough above local life to be out of sympathy with it, and the poet's interest in the common scenes and common folk of the North Country hills and dales had a traceable hereditary bias.

Though his parents were of sturdy stock, both died prematurely, his mother when he was five years old, his father when he was thirteen, the ultimate cause of death in his mother's case being exposure to cold in "a best bedroom" in London; in his father's, exposure on a Cumberland hill, where he had been befogged and lost his way. At the age of eight Wordsworth was sent to school at Hawkshead, in the Esthwaite Valley, in Lancashire. His father died while he was there, and at the age of seventeen he was sent by his uncle to St. John's College, Cambridge. He did not distinguish himself in the studies of the university, and for some time after taking his degree of B.A., which he did in January, 1791, he showed what seemed to his relatives a most perverse reluctance to adopt any regular profession. His mother had noted his "stiff, moody, and violent temper" in childhood, and it seemed as if this family judgment was to be confirmed in his manhood. After taking his degree he was pressed to take holy orders, but would not; he had no taste for the law; he idled a few months aimlessly in London, a few months more with a Welsh college friend, with whom he had made a pedestrian tour in France and Switzerland, during his last Cambridge vacation; then, in November of 1791, he crossed to France, ostensibly to learn the language, made the acquaintance of revolutionaries, sympathized with them vehemently, and was within an ace of throwing in his lot with the Brissotins, to give them the steady direction that they needed. When it came to this his relatives cut off his supplies, and he was obliged to return to London toward the close of 1792. But still he resisted all pressure to enter any of the regular professions, published "An Evening Walk" and "Descriptive Sketches," in 1793, and in 1794, still moving about to all appearance in stubborn aimlessness among his friends and relatives, had no more rational purpose of livelihood than drawing up the prospectus of a periodical of strictly republican principles, to be called The Philanthropist. At this stage, at the age of twenty-four, Wordsworth seemed to his friends a very hopeless and impracticable young man.

But all the time from his boyhood upward a great purpose had been growing and maturing in his mind. Nature was little more than a picture-gallery to him; the pleasures of the eye had all but absolute dominion; and he

"Roamed from hill to hill, from rock to rock,
Still craving combinations of new forms,
New pleasures, wide empire for the sight,
Proud of her own endowments, and rejoiced
To lay the inner faculties asleep."

But, though he had not yet found his distinctive aim as a poet, he was inwardly bent, all the time that his relatives saw in him only a wayward and unpromising aversion to work in any regular line, upon poetry as "his office upon earth."

In this determination he was strengthened by his sister Dorothy, who with rare devotion consecrated her life henceforward to his service. A timely legacy enabled them to carry their purpose into effect. A friend of his, whom he had nursed in a last illness, Raisley Calvert, son of the steward of the Duke of Norfolk, who had large estates in Cumberland, died early in 1795, leaving him a legacy of £900. And here it may be well to notice how opportunely, as De Quincey half-ruefully remarked, money always fell in to Wordsworth, enabling him to pursue his poetic career without distraction. Calvert's bequest came to him when he was on the point of concluding an engagement as a journalist in London. On it and other small resources he and his sister, thanks to her frugal management, contrived to live for nearly eight years. By the end of that time Lord Lonsdale, who owed Wordsworth's father a large sum for professional services, and had steadily refused to pay it, died, and his successor paid the debt with interest. His wife, Mary Hutchinson, whom he married in 1802, brought him some fortune; and in 1813, when, in spite of his plain living, his family began to press upon his income, he was appointed stamp-distributor for Westmoreland, with an income of £500, afterward nearly doubled by the increase of his district. By this succession of timely godsends, Wordsworth, though he did not escape some periods of sharp anxiety, was saved from the necessity of turning aside from his vocation.

To return, however, to the course of his life from the time when he resolved to labor with all his powers in the office of poet. The first two years, during which he lived with his self-sacrificing sister at Racedown, in Dorset, were spent in half-hearted and very imperfectly successful experiments—satires in imitation of Juvenal, the tragedy of "The Borderers," and a poem in the Spenserian stanza, the poem now entitled "Guilt and Sorrow." How much longer this time of doubtful, self-distrustful endeavor might have continued is a subject for curious speculation; an end was put to it by a fortunate incident, a visit from Coleridge, who had read his first publication, and seen in it, what none of the public critics had discerned, the advent of "an original poetic genius." It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance for Wordsworth of the arrival of this enthusiastic Columbus. Under his sister's genial influence he was groping his way doubtfully out of the labyrinth of poetic conventions, beginning to see a new pathos and sublimity in human life, but not yet convinced, except by fits and starts, of the rightness of his own vision. Stubborn and independent as Wordsworth was, he needed some friendly voice from the outer world to give him confidence in himself. Coleridge rendered him this indispensable service. He read to his visitor one of his experiments, the story of the ruined cottage, afterward introduced into the first book of "The Excursion." Coleridge, who had already seen original poetic genius in the poems published before, was enthusiastic in his praise of them as having "a character by books not hitherto reflected," and his praise gave new heart and hope to the poet, hitherto hesitating and uncertain.

June, 1797, was the date of this memorable visit. So pleasant was the companionship on both sides that, when Coleridge returned to Nether Stowey, in Somerset, Wordsworth, at his instance, changed his quarters to Alfoxden, within a mile and a half of Coleridge's temporary residence, and the two poets lived in almost daily intercourse for the next twelve months. During that period Wordsworth's powers rapidly expanded and matured; ideas that had been gathering in his mind for years, and lying there in dim confusion, felt the stir of a new life and ranged themselves in clearer shapes under the fresh, quickening breath of Coleridge's swift and discursive dialect. The radiant restless vitality of the more variously gifted man stirred the stiffer and more sluggish nature of the recluse to its depths, and Coleridge's quick and generous appreciation of his power gave him precisely the encouragement that he needed.

It is interesting to compare with what he actually accomplished, the plan of life-work with which Wordsworth finally settled at Grasmere, in the last month of the eighteenth century. The plan was definitely conceived as he left the German town of Goslar, during a trip on the Continent, in the spring of 1799. Tired of the wandering, unsettled life that he had led hitherto; dissatisfied also with the fragmentary, occasional, and disconnected character of his lyrical poems, he longed for a permanent home among his native hills, where he might, as one called and consecrated to the task, devote his powers continuously to the composition of a great philosophical poem on Man, Nature, and Society. The poem was to be called "The Recluse." He communicated the design to Coleridge, who gave him enthusiastic encouragement to proceed. In the first transport of the conception he felt as if he needed only solitude and leisure for the continuous execution of it. But, though he had still before him fifty years of peaceful life amid his beloved scenery, the work in the projected form at least was destined to remain incomplete. Doubts and misgivings soon arose, and favorable moments of felt inspiration delayed their coming. To sustain him in his resolution he thought of writing as an introduction, or, as he put it, an antechapel to the church which he proposed to build, a history of his own mind up to the time when he recognized the great mission of his life. It appears from a letter to his friend, Sir George Beaumont, that his health was far from robust, and in particular that he could not write without intolerable physical uneasiness. We should probably not be wrong in connecting his physical weakness with his rule of waiting for favorable moments. His next start with "The Prelude," in the spring of 1804, was more prosperous; he dropped it for several months, but, resuming again in the spring of 1805, he completed it in the summer of that year. But still the composition of the great work to which it was intended to be a portico proceeded by fits and starts. It was not till 1814 that the second of the three divisions of "The Recluse," ultimately named "The Excursion," was ready for publication; and he went no further in the execution of his great design.

We shall speak presently of the reception of the "The Excursion." Meantime, we must look elsewhere for the virtual accomplishment of the great design of "The Recluse." The purpose was not, after all, betrayed; it was really fulfilled, though not in the form intended, in his various occasional poems. In relation to the edifice that he aspired to construct, he likened these poems to little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses; they are really the completed work, much more firmly united by their common purpose than by any formal and visible nexus of words. Formally disconnected, they really, as we read and feel them, range themselves to spiritual music, as the component parts of a great poetic temple, finding a rendezvous amid the scenery of the district where the poet had his local habitation. The Lake District, as transfigured by Wordsworth's imagination, is the fulfilment of his ambition after an enduring memorial. The Poems, collected and published in 1807, compose in effect "a philosophical poem on Man, Nature, and Society," the title of which might fitly have been "The Recluse," "as having for its principal subject the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement." As a realization of the idea of "The Recluse," these poems are, from every poetical point of view, infinitely superior to the kind of thing that he projected and failed to complete.

The derisive fury with which "The Excursion" was assailed upon its first appearance has long been a stock example of critical blindness, conceit, and malignity. And yet, if we look at the position now claimed for "The Excursion" by competent authorities, the error of the first critics is seen to be not in their indictment of faults, but in the prominence they gave to the faults, and their generally disrespectful tone toward a poet of Wordsworth's greatness. Jeffrey's petulant "This will never do," uttered, professedly, at least, more in sorrow than in anger, because the poet would persist, in spite of all friendly counsel, in misapplying his powers, has become a byword of ridiculous critical cocksureness. But the curious thing is that "The Excursion" has not "done," and that the Wordsworthians who laugh at Jeffrey are in the habit of repeating the substance of his criticism, though in more temperate and becoming language.

There can be little doubt that adverse criticism had a depressing influence on Wordsworth's poetical powers, notwithstanding his nobly expressed defiance of it, and his determination to hold on in his own path undisturbed. Its effect in retarding the sale of his poems, and thus depriving him of the legitimate fruits of his industry, was a favorite topic with him in his later years; but the absence of general appreciation, and the ridicule of what he considered his best and most distinctive work, contributed in all probability to a still more unfortunate result—the premature depression and deadening of his powers. He schooled himself to stoical endurance, but he was not superhuman, and in the absence of sympathy not only was any possibility of development checked, but he ceased to write with the spontaneity and rapture of his earlier verse. His resolute industry was productive of many wise, impressive, and charitable reflections, and many casual felicities of diction, but the poet very seldom reached the highest level of his earlier inspirations.

Wordsworth was appointed poet-laureate on the death of Southey, in 1843. His only official composition was an ode on the installation of the prince consort as chancellor of Cambridge University, in 1847. This was his last writing in verse. He died at Rydal Mount, after a short illness, on April 23, 1850, and was buried in Grasmere Churchyard.