Studies of a Biographer/Wordsworth's Youth
A French critic, M. Émile Legouis, has written a singularly interesting study of Wordsworth's youth. Of M. Legouis's general qualifications, it need only be said that he has a thorough knowledge of English literature, and a minute acquaintance with all the special literature bearing upon Wordsworth's early career. He fully appreciates the qualities which, though they have endeared Wordsworth's poetry to his own countrymen, have hardly made him one of the cosmopolitan poets. I do not, however, propose to say anything of Wordsworth's general merits. M. Legouis's study is concerned with one stage in Wordsworth's development. Wordsworth was in France at the crisis of the Revolution, and there, as we know from the Prelude, became the enthusiastic admirer of Michel Beaupuy, afterwards a general and an incarnation of republican virtue. Wordsworth compares him to Dion as the philosophic assailant of a tyrant. M. Legouis has already given an account of Beaupuy, and has now pointed out the nature of his influence upon his young English disciple.
Browning's Lost Leader represented a view of Wordsworth which seemed strange to most readers. The name of Wordsworth had come to suggest belief in the Thirty-nine Articles, capital punishment, and rotten boroughs. Some of us can still remember the venerable grey head bowed in the little church at Grasmere, and typifying complete acquiescence in orthodox tradition. This 'lost leader,' however, had once defended the principles of Paine's Rights of Man; had condemned the crusade against the Revolution as a great national crime; and, so far from being orthodox, had been described by his intimate friend, Coleridge, as a 'semi-atheist.' How was this brand snatched from the burning, or what, as others will say, led to this lamentable apostasy? There is, of course, no question of moral blame. As Browning observes, the real Wordsworth was certainly not seduced by a 'bit of ribbon.' His change of attitude only suggested in a general way the theme of the poem. But a fair account of the way in which his change actually came about is interesting, both as explaining some of his literary tendencies and as illustrating a similar change in many of his contemporaries. Such an account may naturally be sought in Wordsworth's autobiographical poem, the Prelude, and there, indeed, it is implicitly given. Yet its significance is brought out by M. Legouis's careful study of the poem in connection with other documents and some of the earlier writings. M. Legouis has, I think, thrown new light upon the whole process; and in what I have to say I shall be mainly following his lead, though I may be making a slightly different estimate of certain elements of the question.
The Prelude, though it gives the clue, has one characteristic which obscures the self-revelation. Wordsworth describes facts till some of his readers are sick of them. Still, a fact is for him mainly a peg upon which to hang some poetical or philosophical conclusion. When, for example, he is crossing the Simplon, he supposes —rather oddly, it seems to an Alpine traveller—that the path is inviting him to 'ascend a lofty mountain.' A peasant, luckily, informs him that he has crossed the Alps already, and must go down hill thenceforwards. This remark does not (in the poem at least) suggest a prospect of dinner, but a series of reflections upon c that awful power' Imagination. It convinces, or reminds, him that 'our being's' heart and home
Is with infinitude and only there.
When a trivial incident starts a man at once upon such distant reveries, serving as a mere taking-off place for a flight into the clouds, we see that we must not count upon definite, concrete information. We pass at a bound from the common earth into a world lying beyond political or historical circumstance. Even when he speaks, not of external facts, but of the history of his own opinions, he generally plunges into generalities so wide that their precise application is not very easy to discover. We can see that Wordsworth was deeply moved by the Revolution, but the reflections stirred in him are beyond, or beneath, any tangible political issue. They seem at first sight as if they might be adopted with equal facility by men of all political creeds. If a man tells us that morality is, on the whole, a good thing, we cannot infer whether he thinks this or that political institution moral. Between the general truth and the particular application there are certain 'middle axioms' which Wordsworth leaves us to supply for ourselves. And, in fact, to follow his sentiments about the Revolution, we must fill in a good deal that is not directly stated. The generalities have to be clothed in circumstance.
To understand Wordsworth himself we must seek to reproduce him in the concrete. What manner of man was this youth in the first flush of enthusiasm? Wordsworth tells us how he came to Cambridge, 'and at The Hoop alighted, famous inn!' We can guess pretty well how the freshman then impressed his tutor, or the 'chattering popinjays' whom men called fellow-commoners. He was, he says, a 'stripling of the hills, a Northern villager,' and probably uncouth enough, even in the powdered hair and silk stockings which he commemorates. The type is familiar to all Cambridge men. Paley and Bishop Watson had represented it in the previous generation. A long procession of hard-headed North-countrymen came up from the grammar-schools of their district, and were among the toughest competitors in the tripos. Wordsworth, no doubt, looked like a senior wrangler in embryo. He had not, indeed, the special taste for mathematics. There is an entry, it is said, in one of the Cambridge registers about a youth who applied for admission: sed, Euclide viso, cohorruit et evasit. Wordsworth did not precisely adopt that course; but he neglected his Euclid, and took to learning Italian and reading Spenser. His poetical genius, however, was not revealed to others, and not shown by the ordinary symptoms. He was not, like Coleridge, who was to follow him to Cambridge, sensitive, emotional, and sentimental. However strong his feelings, he was stern and little given to expansive utterance. He formed no intimate friendships. Proud independence and power of standing on his own sturdy legs would be his most conspicuous qualities, and went naturally with the outside of a country bumpkin. His boyhood had stimulated these tendencies. He had been happy at his school at Hawkshead, and had found congenial masters; but their great merit had been that they had cared nothing for modern methods of drill and competition. They had left him free to take long rambles over the fells, scampers upon ponies, birds'-nesting expeditions, and skating parties on the frozen lakes. He had neither been trimmed into a model boy nor forced into rebellion, but had grown up after his own fashion. The early deaths of his parents had thrown him still more upon his own resources, and detached him from any close domestic ties. Every Englishman is an island, it is said, and Wordsworth was thoroughly insular or self-contained by temperament and circumstance. On the other hand, he was in thorough harmony with his social surroundings. He was on the friendliest terms with the old mistress of the dame-school, the 'statesmen,' and the country parsons of the district, whom he has idealised in his poetry. Wordsworth, in short, was as thorough a representative of the Cumbrian type as Scott of the Scottish borderers, though with a characteristic difference. He never cared, as he remarks in the Prelude, for history or tradition. While Scott's memory had recorded every legend and song connected with his beloved hills, Wordsworth was curiously indifferent to all the charm of historical association. He loved the lakes and mountains, it might seem, for their own sakes, not for the local heroes whose fame was accidentally connected with them. But he had not the less imbibed the spirit of his own district; and loved the Pillar or Scawfell, if not as the scene of any particular events, yet as the natural guardian of the social order from which he sprang. This, again, had predisposed him to a kind of old-fashioned republicanism. At this period, indeed, he was still unconscious of the true nature of his own feelings. He thought, he says, at this time of nature, not of man. But he tells us, too, how when he went to France he was a republican already, because he had been brought up in a homely district where .he had never seen a man of rank or wealth, and how, even at Cambridge, with all its faults, he had found a community in which men were respected for their own character and abilities, and all 'scholars and gentlemen' regarded as equals. At Cambridge, it is true, Wordsworth seems to have been amused rather than edified by the dons of his time, the queer old humorists and port wine drinking bachelors, who ought to have been described by Charles Lamb. Wordsworth passes them by, observing only that he compared them —with what results does not appear—to his own 'shepherd swains.' M. Legouis has formed a low—I am afraid not too low—estimate of the intellectual position of Cambridge in those days. It may, however, be noticed that there was a certain stir in the minds of its inhabitants even then; Cambridge held itself to be the Whig university, studying Locke and despising the Aristotelian logic of Oxford. One symptom was the development of certain free-thinking tendencies, and the proceedings against Frend for avowing Unitarianism were rousing an excitement which soon afterwards led Coleridge into some trouble. Young men, therefore, who aimed at enlightenment, as clever young men ought to do, were not without temptations to break bounds. Especially the uncouth young Cumberland student,
Child of the mountains, among shepherds reared,
despising the stupid old dons with their mechanical disciplines, conscious of great abilities, though not yet conscious of their proper aim, was disposed to cast the dust off his shoes and strike out a path of his own.
What it was to be, did not appear for some time. His unsympathetic guardians naturally wanted him to settle to a profession, and their desire was, if anything, a reason for going against it. To become a clergyman or a tutor was his only apparent chance, and yet either position involved concession, if not absolute subservience, to commonplaces and respectability. For some years, accordingly, Wordsworth lived what he calls an 'undomestic wanderer's life.' Travelling was congenial to his state of mind. A youth rambling with a knapsack on his back and a few pounds in his pocket can enjoy a sense of independence of the most exquisitely delightful kind. Wordsworth, before leaving Cambridge, had managed a tour in the Alps, and afterwards spent some time in London. He was equally in both cases a looker-on. The Swiss tour prompted a poem which (with the previous Evening Walk) shows that he was still in search of himself. He already shows his minute and first-hand observance of nature, but the form and the sentiment are imitative and partly fictitious. He is working the vein of Beattie's Minstrel and Goldsmith's Traveller; with some impulse, perhaps, from Rousseau. M. Legouis observes very truly that the sentimental sadness which he thinks proper to affect is in odd contrast with the hearty enjoyment betrayed in a letter of the same period to his sister. The Swiss tour took him through France during the early enthusiasm of the Revolution, and his sympathy was the natural expansion of the crude republicanism of the Cumberland shepherd and Cambridge undergraduate. His London experience is characteristic. He is essentially the countryman wondering at the metropolis. In the seventh book of the Prelude he gives a list of all the sights which bewildered him, from Burke in the House of Commons and Mrs. Siddons on the stage, down to waxworks and blind beggars in the streets and shameless women using bad language in public-houses. He passes from his quaint bits of prose—unconsciously humorous—to pathetic and elevating thoughts. But the spectacle passes before him without involving him; he has no talks, like Coleridge's, at the Cat and Salutation to record; he picks up no chums and joins no clubs; his proper position is that of the famous sonnet on Westminster Bridge, when he alone wakes and meditates on the 'mighty heart' that is 'lying still.' London is part of that vast machinery, including the universe in general, of which it sometimes seems to be the final cause that it is to mould the central object, William Wordsworth. It suggests to him, for a wonder, that there are other people in the world besides himself. It impresses upon him, in his own words, 'the unity of man.' As he approaches on his 'itinerant vehicle'—a coach, to wit—'a weight of ages' descends at once upon 'his heart.' He becomes aware, shall we say, that, besides the mountains and the lakes, there is a vast drama of human joy and suffering constantly developing itself, and that, though he still looks upon it from the outside, it means a great process in which he is to play his part—if only he can find his appropriate function.
This brings us to Wordsworth's important visit to France in 1791. He went there, it seems, on some vague pretext that a knowledge of the language might qualify him for a tutorship. His revolutionary fervour was still comparatively mild. He picked up a stone on the site of the Bastille, 'in guise of an enthusiast,' but 'in honest truth,' he affected 'more emotion than he felt,' and was more moved by the sight of Le Brun's 'Magdalene ' than by relics of the great events. Passing on to Orléans, however, he made acquaintance with some officers, and among them with Beaupuy, upon whom his comrades of royalist sympathies turned a cold shoulder. Wordsworth soon attached himself to Beaupuy, and one main secret of their sympathy is revealed in an anecdote. They met a 'hunger-bitten girl' leading a heifer by a cord tied to her arm, while she was 'knitting in a heartless mood of solitude.' 'Tis against that that we are fighting,' said his friend. Wordsworth took the Revolution to mean the destruction of 'abject poverty' by the abolition of exclusive privileges and the elevation of human beings intrusted with power over their own lives. He caught the contagion of the patriotic enthusiasm with which the French rose to meet their invaders in 1792. He became so hearty a sympathiser that he was almost inclined to join in some active movement, and might, he remarks, have ended his career by the guillotine. He was forced, probably by stress of money, to return to England, passing through Paris soon after the September massacres; and might have said afterwards, as Bolingbroke said to Atterbury, that he was being exchanged for Paine, who had just crossed in the opposite direction.
So far Wordsworth's case was not peculiar. He shared the sentiments of most generous and intelligent young men at the dawn of a new era.
Bliss was it at that time to be alive,
Wordsworth, however, had to discover, like his contemporaries, that the millennium was not to come so cheaply. The English war with France and the Reign of Terror in France roused a painful conflict of feeling. It has been suggested that Wordsworth was alienated from the Revolution, not by the horrors of 1793, but by his patriotic sentiment. He could pardon the Jacobins for their crimes in France, but not for opposing British interests. A closer observation shows that this partly misrepresents the facts. The war, indeed, as Wordsworth tells us, first broke up his placid optimism. He was in the Isle of Wight in 1793, listened with painful forebodings to the sunset gun, and watched the fleet gathering to join in 'the unworthy service' of suppressing liberty abroad. He even 'exulted,' he tells us, when the first attempts of Englishmen to resist the revolutionary armies met with shameful defeat; and sat gloomily in church when prayers were offered for victory, feeding on the day of vengeance yet to come. Some people were cosmopolitan enough to find no difficulty in suppressing patriotic compunctions; but Wordsworth, solitary and recluse as he was, was penetrated to the core by the sentiments of which patriotism is the natural growth. He only, he says, who 'loves the sight of a village steeple as I do' can judge of 'the conflict of sensations without name' with which he joined such congregations. His private and public sympathies were now clashing in the cruelest way. Meanwhile, he felt the taunts of those who were echoing Madame Roland's cry, 'O liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!' It was well that the infant republic had 'throttled the snakes about its cradle' with the might of a Hercules; but his soul was sick at thought of the odium that was being incurred by liberty. His thoughts by day were 'most melancholy,' and 'for months and years, after the last beat of those atrocities,' he could not sleep without hideous nightmares of cruel massacre and vain pleadings in unjust tribunals. The argument from atrocities, however, though the most popular, was ambiguous. Wordsworth had been profoundly affected by the September massacres when passing through Paris on his return; but he could still argue that such crimes were the natural fruit of the ignorance and misery of the people under the old system, and that when the wretches who had seized upon power were suppressed, the true reign of peace and reason would begin. The hope seemed to be justified by the fall of Robespierre (July 1794), and Wordsworth describes minutely how he heard the news in Morecambe Bay; what ecstasy it caused him, and how he now called upon the 'golden times' to appear. It became sufficiently clear, however, that, whatever else was to happen, the new rulers of France were not to be pure philanthropists, propagating a gospel of humanity by peaceful means. The French, he began to fear, were changing a war of self-defence for one of conquest. Yet he stuck resolutely to his opinions as long as he could. He adhered 'more firmly to old tenets'—that is, to his revolutionary creed—tried to 'hide the wounds of mortified presumption,' and, in fact, had to construct a theory to show that he had been right all along. Such theories are essential to one's comfort, but sometimes troublesome to construct. 'Opinions,' as he put it, grew 'into consequence,' and for instinctive sympathy he wished to substitute a reasoned system of principles.
Wordsworth was thus set down to a problem, and his solution was characteristic. In such mental crises the real process of decision is often very different from that of which the subject of the process is himself conscious. He fancies, in all sincerity, that he is considering a logical or philosophical question. He is asking whether reason, impartially consulted, will order him to accept one or the other of two conflicting systems; though hoping that it will enable him to decide at the smallest possible cost to his belief in his own consistency. He would prefer a theory which would enable him to think that the opinions which he has to abandon represent a merely superficial aberration. But this may practically come to asking what are his own strongest feelings, and assuming that they represent eternal truths. Wordsworth supposed himself to be asking simply, What is the true philosophy of the political creeds at issue? He was unconsciously asking. On what side are my really deepest sympathies? The last question might be put thus: A Cumberland 'statesman' could develop into a Girondin (or what he took to be a Girondin) by simply widening his sympathies. That might be a case of natural development, involving no shock or laceration of old ties; but, could he continue the process and grow into a Jacobin? That involved a strain upon his patriotism, painful but not absolutely coercive. He could manage to desire the defeat of British armies, and all the more readily when the British Government was alienating him by trying to suppress freedom of thought and language at home. Still, this position required an effort; and another trial was behind it. Could the 'statesman' sympathise with men who used such weapons as massacre and the guillotine? To that, of course, there could be only one answer—Wordsworth had been wayward and independent, but never a rebel against society or morality. He was thoroughly in harmony with the simple, homely society from which he sprang. Violence and confiscation were abhorrent to him. 'I recoil,' he tells a friend at the time, 'from the very idea of a revolution. I am a determined enemy to every species of violence.' Lord Lowther, let us say, should be made to pay his debts and give up his boroughs; but he certainly should not have his head placed on the walls of Carlisle, while his estates were divided among the peasantry. Wordsworth, however, could still hope that the Terrorists were a passing phenomenon, an 'ephemeral monster,' as he puts it; and was still firmly persuaded of this upon the fall of Robespierre. It was, however, essential to his peace of mind that the facts should confirm this view: and that the French people, freed from the incubus, should show themselves clearly in favour of peaceful progress at home, and free from thought of conquest abroad.
The mental crisis thus brought about is indicated by some remarkable writings. Wordsworth had been provoked to an utterance of his sentiments when the English declaration of war was stimulating his wrath. Watson—who, being Bishop of Llandaff and Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, passed his time as an intelligent country gentleman at Windermere—had preached the doctrine that every Englishman should be thoroughly contented with his lot. They could not all be non-resident bishops, but they had no grievances to speak of. Wordsworth hereupon wrote a letter in which he is, at least, unmistakably on the side of Paine against Burke. He had at this time adopted the opinions of Beaupuy. He objects on principle to monarchy and to privileged orders of nobility. At most it may be said that his argument is not so much that of the theorist arguing from abstract rights, as of the independent Briton who will not humble himself to a lord, and whose republicanism resembles Milton's rather than Rousseau's. But now, when he was roused by later developments to look into his first principles, he found himself in a cruel difficulty. In the first place, Wordsworth, though he was a philosophical poet, was not at home in metaphysical or logical subtleties. He is the antithesis of Coleridge, who combined in so singular a degree the poetical and the reasoning faculties. Coleridge could keep the two faculties apart; and his poems—the really exquisite poems, at least—are as free from any admixture of philosophy as if he had never heard of 'object' and 'subject.' The cause of the difference is simple, namely, that Wordsworth's philosophy, such as it is, represents intuitions or convictions; it embodies his faith as to the world and human nature, without reference to the logical justifications. Coleridge held, as a metaphysician naturally does, that his philosophic creed required to be justified by a whole apparatus of dialectics which would be out of place in verse. Whether this apparatus was really the base 'of his convictions, or represents the after-thought by which he justified them, does not matter. Wordsworth, in any case, is content to expound his philosophy as self-evident. He speaks as from inspiration, not as the builder of a logical system. One result was that when he tried to argue, he got, as he admits with his usual naïveté, 'endlessly perplexed' (p. 307). He wanted 'formal proof,' and could not find it. He did not, of course, join the 'scoffers'; a sufficient reason was, as the scoffers would say, that he was incompetent to appreciate them. When, in the Excursion, he audaciously calls Voltaire 'dull,' he is tacitly admitting that he could never see a joke. Anyhow, after bothering himself with metaphysics till his head turned, he fortunately resolved to be a poet; and here had a short cut to his conclusions. I do not mean to scoff at Wordsworth. My own belief is that he took more simply and openly the path which most of us take, and that impartial inquiry with him, as with nearly every one, meant simply discovering what he had really thought all along.
Another influence must be noticed here. M. Legouis dwells upon Wordsworth's relations to Godwin. There is not much direct evidence upon this matter; and I have some doubt whether M. Legouis does not rather overstate the case. But, in the main, I think that he is substantially right. That is to say, when Wordsworth set about what he called thinking, I suppose that Godwin's philosophy would represent political theory for him. Godwin's philosophy was transmuted by Shelley into something very exquisite if rather nonsensical, and probably is now remembered, when remembered at all, chiefly for that reason. Hazlitt, however, in his slashing way tells us that Godwin was at this period the 'very god of our idolatry'; Tom Paine was considered for a time a fool to him; Paley an old woman; Edmund Burke 'a flashy sophist' (Spirit of the Age, p. 33). Wordsworth, in particular, he adds, told a student to 'throw aside his books of chemistry and read Godwin on Necessity'! Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were in various ways connected with the Godwin circle. Now, Godwinism, presented as the gospel of the Revolution, indicates Wordsworth's difficulty with curious precision. Godwin, of course, appeals to Reason, and in general terms Wordsworth, like every one on his side of the question, agreed. Their essential aim was to get rid of superstition and obsolete tradition. Godwin, too, held Reason to be a peaceable goddess, whose only weapon was persuasion, not force. Godwin never erred from excess of passion, and was by no means the kind of wood of which martyrs or fanatics are made. Man, he thought, was perfectible, and a little calm argument would make him perfect. So far Wordsworth might agree during his early enthusiasm. The people, freed from the domination of their false guides, were to come to their senses and establish the reign of peace and liberty. But Godwin went a step further. Reason, according to him, leads straight to anarchy. Rulers, of course, will not be wanted when men are perfectly reasonable. But, moreover, rules in general will not be wanted. Men will not tie their hands by custom or prejudice. They will act in each case for the best, that is, for the happiness of the greatest number, without slavery to formulas. His political ideal is, therefore, individualism, or atomism; the doctrine of liberty raised to the highest terms. Thus, for example, marriage is an absurdity. If two people agree to live together, they are 'unreasonable' to enslave themselves to a tie which may become irksome. They should be free to part at any moment. Society should be nothing but an aggregate of independent units, bound together by no rules whatever. A rule should never survive its reason, and the only reason for a rule is the calculation that it will make us happy.
The doctrine had an apparent consistency, at least, which served to show Wordsworth whither he was going. Two curious poems of this period illustrate his feelings. After leaving the Isle of Wight, Wordsworth had rambled over Salisbury Plain and been profoundly impressed by the scenery. There, too, he had apparently heard the story which is told in one of the last Ingoldsby Legends. In 1786, one Jarvis Matcham had been startled by a thunderstorm, and confessed to a companion that he had committed a murder ('scuttled a poor little drummer-boy's nob,' as Barham puts it) some years before. In Wordsworth's version, the murderer is not a 'bloodthirsty swab,' but an amiable person, who 'would not have robbed the raven of its food.' He had been seized by a press gang, and, finding on his return that his family were in distress, had robbed and murdered a miscellaneous traveller for their benefit; an act possibly excusable on Godwin's principles. With this story Wordsworth combined another of the 'female vagrant,' whose cruel sufferings were due to her husband having been forced into the army. This represents, as he tells us, foreboding thoughts which came to him when watching the British Fleet at Spithead. He foresaw that the war was leading to 'misery beyond all possible calculation.' Wretched men were being forcibly torn from their families, and plunged not only into misery, but into crime. The horrors of war are bad enough, but they involve also a difficult moral problem when the victims not only suffer, but are demoralised: and painful forebodings were combined with bewilderment as to ethical puzzles. Was the murderer most to blame, or the tyrants who had crushed his life? and what are we to think of the Providential government under which such things are possible and even natural? The moral problem is more prominent in the curious tragedy, The Borderers. That tragedy, received with rapture by his new friend, Coleridge, was written, he says, to be read, not to be acted; and, like most tragedies so written, has almost failed to find readers, as it quite failed to find actors. Had he written it later, he says, he should have introduced a more complex plot and a greater variety of characters. He might have tried; but nobody could have a less dramatic genius than Wordsworth, who could never describe any character except his own. The Borderers, however, is noticeable here only as an illustration of his state of mind. It was meant to embody a theory, upon which at the time he wrote a prose essay, namely, how we are to explain the 'apparently motiveless actions of bad men.' His villain is a man who erroneously supposed that he was joining in an act of justice when he was really becoming accomplice in an atrocious crime. Having found out his mistake, he resolves, not to repent, but in future to commit any number of crimes on his own account. Conscience is a nuisance and remorse a mistake. The villain not only acts upon his principles, but endeavours to subject the hero of the piece to a similar process of conversion. The hero, in fact, is induced by his machinations to cause the death of a virtuous old gentleman, under specially atrocious circumstances. The villain calculates that, having thus become an unconscious sinner, the hero will in future be a systematic and deliberate sinner, and a convenient subordinate. I do not feel much clearer, I confess, as to apparently motiveless actions after reading the play than before. The villain's sophistry does not strike me as very plausible, nor his motives, on his own showing, as very intelligible. Wordsworth's own state of mind, however, is clearer. He had, he says, seen many such cases during the advance of the French Revolutionists 'to the extreme of wickedness.' Men are led into crime from originally good motives, and there is then no limit to the consequent 'hardening of the heart and perversion of the understanding.' Robespierre, whose fall had rejoiced him, had started from most benevolent principles, and ended by becoming the typical monster. The temporary success, too, of the villainy, and the perversion of power granted in the name of human liberty to a crushing and bloodthirsty tyranny, were bewildering. 'Often,' says Coleridge in The Friend, 'have I reflected with awe on the great and disproportionate power which an individual of no extraordinary talents or attainments may exert, by merely throwing off all restraints of conscience.' And what, he adds, must not be the power of an individual of consummate wickedness who can organise all the forces of a nation? Robespierre, or Napoleon, would have found conscience a great impediment; Godwin's theory seemed to Wordsworth to make it superfluous. Godwin would suppress conscience, and substitute calculation. No doubt for him the calculation was to include the happiness of all. Only, when you have suppressed all ties and associations, it becomes rather puzzling to say what reason you have for caring for others. If husbands and wives may part when it is agreeable to both, will they not part when it is agreeable to either? If a statesman may break through all laws when they oppose a useful end, will he not most simply define useful as useful to himself? Take leave, in other words, of all prejudices and all respect for social bonds, and are you not on the high road to become such a one as the villain of The Borderers? These are, in fact, the problems which Wordsworth tells us brought him into endless perplexity. What, after all, was the meaning of right and wrong, and obligation? (p. 307). What was the lordly 'attribute' of freewill but a mockery, if we have neither any real knowledge of what will do good, nor of why we should do it? He could, he says, 'unsoul by syllogistic words' the 'mysteries of being' which make 'of the whole human race one brotherhood.' It was in the name of the brotherhood that the revolutionary teachers appealed to him; and yet Godwin, as a prophet, ended by dissolving all society into a set of unconnected atoms. M. Legouis remarks that Wordsworth 'purged himself of his pessimism' after the fashion of Goethe, by putting it into a book. This, however, must not be taken to imply that Wordsworth ever shared the atrocious sentiments of his imaginary villain. The Borderers naturally recalls Schiller's Robbers, which had just been translated, and was not without influence upon Wordsworth. Wordsworth's villain and hero are contrasted much as Schiller's two Moors. But it could never have been expected that any young Englishman would, like the alleged German baron, have taken to the highway to realise Wordsworth's imaginary personages. The Borderers is not only without the imaginative vigour which at the time made Schiller's bombast excusable—the product of a contemplative speculation instead of youthful passion,—but it is plain enough that the poet loathes his villain too much to allow him the least attractiveness. The play represents the kind of moral spasm by which a man repels a totally uncongenial element of thought. He had found that what he took for a wholesome food contained a deadly poison, and to become conscious of its nature is to expel it with disgust.
What was the influence, then, which opened Wordsworth's eyes and caused what seemed, at least, to be a change of front? He answers that question himself by referring to two influences. The first was the influence of the devoted sister who now came to live with him. She pointed out to him that his 'office upon earth' was to be a poet. She persuaded him, one may say, to cease to bother himself with Godwin's metaphysics, with puzzles as to Freewill and Necessity and the ground of moral obligation, and to return to his early aspirations. If this bit of advice fell in with his own predisposition, the influence of Dorothy Wordsworth was something far more than could be summed up in any advice, however judicious. It meant, in brief, that Wordsworth had by his side a woman of high enthusiasm and cognate genius, thoroughly devoted to him and capable of sharing his inspiration; and that thus the 'undomestic wanderer' was to be bound by one of the sweetest and purest of human ties. His early affections, hitherto deprived of any outlet, could now revive, and his profound sense of their infinite value encouraged him to break the chains of logic, or rather to set down the logic as sophistry. Godwinism meant a direct assault upon the family tie; and that tie was now revealing its value by direct experience of its power. The friendship with Coleridge, then in the full flush of youthful genius, and the most delightful and generous of admirers, came to encourage the growth of such feelings; while Coleridge's mystical tendencies in philosophy probably suggested some solution of the Godwin 'syllogising.' Perhaps, after all, Godwin might be a humbug, and the true key to the great problems was to be found in Germany, where both the young men were soon to go for initiation. Meanwhile, however, another influence was affecting Wordsworth. His sister had led him back to nature, and he now found that nature should include the unsophisticated human being. He rambled as of old, and in his rambles found that the 'lonely roads were open schools' in which he might study the passions and thoughts of unsophisticated human beings. The result was remarkable. He found nobility and sense in the humble friends. The 'wealthy few' see by 'artificial lights,' and 'neglect the universal heart.' Nature is equally corrupted in the 'close and overcrowded haunts of cities.' But in the poor men, who reminded him of his early friends, of the schoolmaster 'Matthew,' and old Dame Tyson, he found the voice of the real man; and observed 'how oft high service is performed within' men's hearts which resemble not pompous temples, but the 'mere mountain chapel.' Was not this to go back to Rousseau, to denunciations of luxury and exaltations of the man of nature? Wordsworth had been converted to the Revolution by the sight of the poor peasant girl, the victim of feudal privileges—why should he renounce the Revolution by force of sympathy with the same class in England?
Before answering, I may remark that in any case the impression was deep and lasting. It shows how Wordsworth reached his famous theory that the language of poetry should be indistinguishable from that of ordinary life. That is merely the literary translation of his social doctrine. He and Coleridge have both told us how they agreed to divide labour, and, while Coleridge was to give human interest to the romantic, Wordsworth was to show the romance which is incorporated in commonplace things. Wordsworth proceeded to write the poems which appeared in the Lyrical Ballads; and, if his theory tripped him up sometimes, wrote some of those exquisite and pathetic passages which amply redeem intervening tracts of quaintly prosaic narrative and commonplace moralising—some of the passages, in short, which make one love Wordsworth, and feel his unequalled power of soothing and humanising sorrow. Simon Lee—to mention only one—was the portrait of an old man at Alfoxden. If you are apt to yawn in the middle, you recognise the true Wordsworth at the conclusion:
I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning;
Alas! the gratitude of man
Hath oftener left me mourning!
I must not, however, speak of Wordsworth's pathetic power, which, in its way, seems to me to be unapproachable. Henceforward, he found in such themes the inspiration of his truest poetry. The principle is given in the Song at the Feast at Brougham Castle, where he says of the shepherd lord:
Love had he found in huts where poor men lie,
and in countless other utterances of the same sentiment. A change, indeed, took place, of which M. Legouis gives a curious illustration. About the beginning of 1798, Wordsworth, as he shows, wrote the story of the ruined cottage which is now imbedded in the fifth book of the Excursion. M. Legouis translates the story, omitting the subsequent interpolations. Coleridge, long afterwards, declared it to be the finest poem of the same length in our language. The poem, as originally written, is a painfully pathetic story of undeserved misery patiently borne, and ending in the destruction of a peasant's household. In the later form the narrator has to interrupt himself by apologies for the sadness of the story and edifying remarks upon the ways of Providence. Wordsworth, somehow or other, had become reconciled.
The change was not the abandonment of his old sentiments, but the indication that they were again coming to the surface and casting off a heterogeneous element. The superficial change, indeed, was marked enough. To Wordsworth, the revolutionary movement now represented not progress—the natural expansion of his sympathies—but social disintegration and the attack upon all that he held to be the most valuable. The secret is revealed by his remarkable letter to Fox in 1801. There he calls the statesman's attention to two of his most significant poems, The Brothers and Michael. These poems are intended to describe the domestic affections 'as they exist among a class of men now almost confined to the North of England.' He observes that the little holdings of the 'statesmen' serve to strengthen the family tie, and thus protect a 'fountain of affection pure as his heart was intended for.' This class, he adds, is rapidly disappearing, and its disappearance indicates the greatest of our national dangers. These most touching poems, written in 1800, represent Wordsworth's final solution of his problem, and embody a sentiment which runs through his later work. Its meaning is clear enough. Wordsworth had begun to feel that Godwin's anti-social logic had an embodiment in facts. What he now saw behind it was not Rousseau's sentimentalism, but the harsh doctrinaire system of the economists. The theorists who professed to start from the rights of man were really attacking the essential social duties. Godwinism meant the 'individualism' of the later economists. Individualism meant the reckless competition and race for wealth which were destroying the very framework of peaceful society. The English Radical represented Adam Smith; and Wordsworth now perceived
How dire a thing,
The evils which now impressed him were the absorption of small freeholds by large estates, and the growth of the factory system in the place of domestic manufacture. He dwells upon these evils in the Excursion in language which gives a foretaste of much modern Socialism. Wordsworth had plenty of allies in this view of the case. While he was renouncing the principle of Individualism, Owen was beginning to put in practice the schemes suggested by the same evils, and leading to his later Socialism. Cobbett was lamenting the demoralisation of the agricultural labourer, and taking up his curious position of Radicalism inspired by regret for the 'good old times.' There is no need, at the present day, for expounding such views or explaining why it should appear to Wordsworth that the revolutionary movement which had started by taking up the cause of the poor had ended by assailing the very basis of order and morality. The foreign developments, the growth of a military despotism, and the oppression of Switzerland by France in the name of fraternity, no doubt seemed clear justifications of his attitude. But he had sufficient reasons at home. The Radical, with whom he had been allied, was attacking what he held dearest,—not only destroying the privileges of nobles, but breaking up the poor man's home, and creating a vast 'proletariat'—a mass of degraded humanity—instead of encouraging 'plain living and high thinking,' and destroying the classes whose simplicity and independence had made them the soundest element of mutual prosperity. I do not, of course, inquire how far Wordsworth's estimate of the situation was sound. I only say that this explains how he reached it naturally and consistently. It was, as 1 have said, anything but a purely logical process, though it may be said that it was guided by an implicit logic. It really meant that he became aware of the fact that his instincts had led him into the camp of his real enemies. When he realised the fact, he stuck to his instincts, and, indeed, regarded them as due to divine inspiration. They were attacked by the revolutionary party. He would find in them not only the source of happiness, but the ultimate revelation of religion and morality:
The primal duties shine aloft like stars;
Wordsworth's ultimate doctrine, one may say, is the duty of cherishing the 'intimations of immortality' which visit our infancy, to transmute sorrow into purifying and strengthening influence: and so to 'build up our moral being.' In his particular case, this, no doubt, meant that the boy of Hawkshead was to be the father of the man who could not be permanently held by the logical toils of Godwin. It meant, too, a certain self-complacency and an optimistic tendency which, however pleasant, dulled his poetic fervour, and made him acquiesce in much that he would once have rejected. But it was also the source of a power which should be recognised by men of a different belief. When J. S. Mill went through the mental crisis described in his Autobiography, he thought that he had injured his powers of feeling by the habit of constant analysis. He had so destroyed the associations and with them the sympathies which make life desirable. In this state of mind he found an admirable restorative in Wordsworth's poetry. 'Analysis' represents just the intellectual habit which Wordsworth denounces. It is the state of mind in which his imaginary man of science botanises on his mother's grave; picks the flowers to pieces and drops the sentiment. Mill, accordingly, tried and tried, he says, successfully, to adopt Wordsworth's method; and to find happiness in 'tranquil contemplation,' while yet strengthening his interest in the 'common feelings and common destiny of human beings.' With 'culture of this sort,' he says, 'there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis' (146-9). If Mill's great aim was to 'humanise' political economy, he drew from Wordsworth encouragement for the task. This point of contact between two men, each of whom represents much that was most antipathetic to the other, is significant. It suggests much upon which I cannot dwell; but it may hint to the Radical that Wordsworth, in giving up a doctrine which he never really assimilated, was faithful to convictions which, partial or capable of perversion as they may be, represent a very important aspect of truth.
- La Jeunesse de Wordsworth. Par Émile Legouis. Paris, 1896. An English translation appeared in 1897.
- See Wordsworth's poem upon Dion, written 1816.
- Le General Michel Beaupuy. Par G. Buissieres et Émile Legouis. Paris, 1891.
- The story, which Barham says came to him from Sir Walter Scott, is told in the New Annual Register for 1786.