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Chapter 3. Miss Wordsworth—Lyrical Ballads—Settlement at Grasmere.
From among many letters of Miss Wordsworth’s to a beloved friend, (Miss Jane Pollard, afterwards Mrs. Marshall, of Hallsteads), which have been kindly placed at my disposal, I may without impropriety quote a few passages which illustrate the character and the affection of brother and sister alike. And first, in a letter (Forncett, February 1792), comparing her brothers Christopher and William, she says: “Christopher is steady and sincere in his attachments. William has both these virtues in an eminent degree, and a sort of violence of affection, if I may so term it, which demonstrates itself every moment of the day, when the objects of his affection are present with him, in a thousand almost imperceptible attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness which I know not how to describe, a tenderness that never sleeps, and at the same time such a delicacy of manner as I have observed in few men.” And again (Forncett, June 1793), she writes to the same friend: “I have strolled into a neighbouring meadow, where I am enjoying the melody of birds, and the busy sounds of a fine summer’s evening. But oh! How imperfect is my pleasure whilst I am alone! Why are you not seated with me? And my dear William, why is he not here also? I could almost fancy that I see you both near me. I hear you point out a spot, where if we could erect a little cottage and call it our own we should be the happiest of human beings. I see my brother fired with the idea of leading his sister to such a retreat. Our parlour is in a moment furnished, our garden is adorned by magic; the roses and honeysuckles spring at our command; the wood behind the house lifts its head, and furnishes us with a winter’s shelter and a summer’s noonday shade. My dear friend, I trust that ere long you will be without the aid of imagination, the companion of my walks, and my dear William may be of our party. . . . He is now going upon a tour in the west of England, with a gentleman who was formerly a schoolfellow,—a man of fortune, who is to bear all the expenses of the journey, and only requests the favour of William’s company. He is perfectly at liberty to quit this companion as soon as anything more advantageous offers. But it is enough to say that I am likely to have the happiness of introducing you to my beloved brother. You must forgive me for talking so much of him; my affection hurries me on, and makes me forget that you cannot be so much interested in the subject as I am. You do not know him; you do not know how amiable he is. Perhaps you reply, ‘But I know how blinded you are.’ Well, my dearest. I plead guilty at once; I must be blind; he cannot be so pleasing as my fondness makes him. I am willing to allow that half the virtues with which I fancy him endowed are the creation of my love; but surely I may be excused! He was never tired of comforting his sister; he never left her in anger; he always met her with joy; he preferred her society to every other pleasure;—or rather, when we were so happy as to be within each other’s reach, he had no pleasure when we were compelled to be divided. Do not then expect too much from this brother of whom I have delighted so to talk to you. In the first place, you must be with him more than once before he will be perfectly easy in conversation. In the second place, his person is not in his favour—at least I should think not; but I soon ceased to discover this—nay, I almost thought that the opinion which I had formed was erroneous. He is, however, certainly rather plain; though otherwise has an extremely thoughtful countenance, but when he speaks it is often lighted up by a smile which I think very pleasing. But enough, he is my brother; why should I describe him? I shall be launching again into panegyric.”

The brother’s language to his sister is equally affectionate. “How much do I wish,” he writes in 1793, “that each emotion of pleasure or pain that visits your heart should excite a similar pleasure or a similar pain within me, by that sympathy which will almost identify us when we have stolen to our little cottage. . . . I will write to my uncle, and tell him that I cannot think of going anywhere before I have been with you. Whatever answer he gives me, I certainly will make a point of once more mingling my transports with yours. Alas! My dear sister, how soon must this happiness expire; yet there are moments worth ages.”

And again: in the same year he writes, “Oh, my dear, dear sister! With what transport shall I again meet you! With what rapture shall I again wear out the day in your sight! . . . I see you in a moment running, or rather flying, to my arms.”

Wordsworth was in all things fortunate, but in nothing more fortunate than in this, that so unique a companion should have been ready to devote herself to him with an affection wholly free from egotism or jealousy, an affection that yearned only to satisfy his subtlest needs, and to transfuse all that was best in herself into his larger being. And indeed that fortunate admixture or influence, whencesoever derived, which raised the race of Wordsworth to poetic fame, was almost more dominant and conspicuous in Dorothy Wordsworth than in the poet himself. “The shooting lights of her wild eyes” reflected to the full the strain of imaginative emotion which was mingled in the poet’s nature with that spirit of steadfast and conservative virtue which has already given to the family a Master of Trinity, two Bishops, and other divines and scholars of weight and consideration. In the poet himself the conservative and ecclesiastical tendencies of his character became more and more apparent as advancing years stiffened the movements of the mind. In his sister the ardent element was less restrained; it showed itself in a most innocent direction, but it brought with it a heavy punishment. Her passion for nature and her affection for her brother led her into mountain rambles which were beyond her strength, and her last years were spent in a condition of physical and mental decay.

But at the time of which we are now speaking there was, perhaps, no one in the world who could have been to the poet such a companion as his sister became. She had not, of course, his grasp of mind or his poetic power; but her sensitiveness to nature was quite as keen as his, and her disposition resembled his “with sunshine added to daylight.”

Birds in the bower, and lambs in the green field,

Could they have known her, would have loved; methought

Her very presence such a sweetness breathed,

That flowers, and trees, and even the silent hills,

And everything she looked on, should have had

An intimation how she bore herself

Towards them, and to all creatures.

Her journal of a tour in Scotland, and her description of a week on Ullswater, affixed to Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes,—diaries not written for publication but merely to communicate her own delight to intimate friends at a distance,—are surely indescribably attractive in their naive and tender feeling, combined with a delicacy of insight into natural beauty which was almost a new thing in the history of the world. If we compare, for instance, any of her descriptions of the Lakes with Southey’s, we see the difference between mere literary skill, which can now be rivalled in many quarters, and that sympathetic intuition which comes of love alone. Even if we compare her with Gray, whose short notice of Cumberland bears on every page the stamp of a true poet, we are struck by the way in which Miss Wordsworth’s tenderness for all living things gives character and pathos to her landscapes, and evokes from the wildest solitude some note that thrills the heart.

She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,

And humble cares, and delicate fears;

A heart the fountain of sweet tears;

And love, and thought, and joy.

The cottage life in her brother’s company which we have seen Miss Wordsworth picturing to herself with girlish ardour, was destined to be realized no long time afterwards, thanks to the unlooked-for outcome of another friendship. If the poet’s sister was his first admirer, Kaisley Calvert may fairly claim the second place. Calvert was the son of the steward of the Duke of Norfolk, who possessed large estates in Cumberland. He attached himself to Wordsworth, and in 1793 and 1794 the friends were much together. Calvert was then attacked by consumption, and Wordsworth, nursed him with patient care. It was found at his death that he had left his friend a legacy of 900£. “The act,” says Wordsworth, “was done entirely from a confidence on his part that I had powers and attainments—which might be of use to mankind. Upon the interest of the 900£—400£ being laid out in annuity—with 200£ deducted from the principal, and 100£ a legacy to my sister, and 100£ more which the Lyrical Ballads have brought me, my sister and I contrived to live seven years, nearly eight.”

Trusting in this small capital, and with nothing to look to in the future except the uncertain prospect of the payment of Lord Lonsdale’s debt to the family, Wordsworth settled with his sister at Racedown, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire, in the autumn of 1795, the choice of this locality being apparently determined by the offer of a cottage on easy terms. Here, in the first home which he had possessed, Wordsworth’s steady devotion to poetry began. He had already, in 1792 2, published two little poems, the Evening Walk: and Descriptive Sketches, which Miss Wordsworth, (to whom the Evening Walk was addressed) criticises with candour—in a letter to the same friend (Forncett, February 1792):—

2 The Memoirs say in 1793, but the following MS. letter of 1792 speaks of them as already published.]

“The scenes which he describes have been viewed with a poet’s eye, and are portrayed with a poet’s pencil; and the poems contain, many passages exquisitely beautiful; but they also contain many faults, the chief of which are obscurity and a too frequent use of some particular expressions and uncommon words; for instance, moveless, which he applies in a sense, if not new, at least different from, its ordinary one. By ‘moveless,’ when applied to the swan, he means that sort of motion which is smooth without agitation; it is a very beautiful epithet, but ought to have been cautiously used. The word viewless also is introduced far too often. I regret exceedingly that he did not submit the works to the inspection of some friend before their publication, and he also joins with me in this regret.”

These poems show a careful and minute observation of nature, but their versification—still reminding us of the imitators of Pope— has little originality or charm. They attracted the admiration of Coleridge, but had no further success.

At Racedown Wordsworth finished Guilt and Sorrow, a poem gloomy in tone and written mainly in his period of depression and unrest,—and wrote a tragedy called The Borderers, of which only a few lines show any promise of future excellence. He then wrote The Ruined Cottage, now incorporated in the Fist Book of the Excursion. This poem, on a subject thoroughly suited to his powers, was his first work of merit; and Coleridge, who visited the quiet household in June 1797, pronounces this poem “superior, I hesitate not to aver, to anything in our language which in any way resembles it.” In July 1797 the Wordsworths removed to Alfoxden, a large house in Somersetshire, near Netherstowey, where Coleridge was at that time living. Here Wordsworth added to his income by taking as pupil a young boy, the hero of the trifling poem Anecdote for Fathers, a son of Mr. Basil Montagu; and here he composed many of his smaller pieces. He has described the origin of the Ancient Mariner and the Lyrical Ballads in a well-known passage, part of which I must here repeat:—

“In the autumn of 1797, Mr. Coleridge, my sister, and myself started from Alfoxden pretty late in the afternoon, with a view to visit Linton, and the Valley of Stones near to it; and as our united funds were very small, we agreed to defray the expense of the tour by writing a poem, to be sent to the New Monthly Magazine. In the course of this walk was planned the poem of the Ancient Mariner, founded on a dream, as Mr. Coleridge said, of his friend Mr. Cruikshank. Much the greatest part of the story was Mr. Coleridge’s invention; but certain parts I suggested; for example, some crime was to be committed which was to bring upon the Old Navigator, as Coleridge afterwards delighted to call him, the spectral persecution, as a consequence of that crime and his own wanderings. I had been reading in Shelvocke’s Voyages, a day or two before, that, while doubling Cape Horn they frequently saw albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort of sea-fowl, some extending their wings twelve or thirteen feet, ‘Suppose,’ said I, ‘you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the South Sea, and that the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime. The incident was thought fit for the purpose, and adopted accordingly. I also suggested the navigation of the ship by the dead man, but do not recollect that I had anything more to do with the scheme of the poem. We began the composition together, on that to me memorable evening, I furnished two or three lines at the beginning of the poem, in particular—”

And listened like a three years’ child;

The Mariner had his will.

“As we endeavoured to proceed conjointly our respective manners proved so widely different, that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a clog. The Ancient Mariner grew and grew, till it became too important for our first object, which was limited to our expectation of five pounds; and we began to think of a volume, which was to consist, as Mr. Coleridge has told the world, of poems chiefly on supernatural subjects, taken from common life, but looked at, as much as might be, through an imaginative medium.”

The volume of Lyrical Ballads, whose first beginnings have here been traced, was published in the autumn of 1798, by Mr. Cottle, at Bristol. This volume contained several poems—which have been justly blamed for triviality,—as The Thorn, Goody Blake, The Idiot Boy; several in which, as in Simon Lee, triviality is mingled with much real pathos; and some, as Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned, which are of the very essence of Wordsworth’s nature. It is hardly too much to say, that if these two last-named poems—to the careless eye so slight and trifling—were all that had remained from Wordsworth’s hand, they would have “spoken to the comprehending” of a new individuality, as distinct and unmistakeable in its way as that which Sappho has left engraven on the world for ever in words even fewer than these. And the volume ended with a poem, which Wordsworth composed in 1798, in one day, during a tour with his sister to Tintern and Chepstow. The Lines written above Tintern Abbey have become, as it were, the locus classicus or consecrated formulary of the Wordsworthian faith. They say in brief what it is the work of the poet’s biographer to say in detail.

As soon as this volume was published Wordsworth and his sister sailed for Hamburg, in the hope that their imperfect acquaintance with the German language might be improved by the heroic remedy of a winter at Goslar. But at Goslar they do not seem to have made any acquaintances, and their self-improvement consisted mainly in reading German books to themselves. The four months spent at Goslar, however, were the very bloom of Wordsworth’s poetic career. Through none of his poems has the peculiar loveliness of English scenery and English girlhood shone more delicately than through those which came to him as he paced the frozen gardens of that desolate city. Here it was that he wrote Lucy Gray, and Ruth, and Nutting, and the Poet’s Epitaph, and other poems known now to most men as possessing in its full fragrance his especial charm. And here it was that the memory of some emotion prompted the lines on Lucy. Of the history of that emotion he has told us nothing; I forbear, therefore, to inquire concerning it, or even to speculate. That it was to the poet’s honour I do not doubt; but who ever learned such secrets rightly? Or who should wish to learn? It is best to leave the sanctuary of all hearts inviolate, and to respect the reserve not only of the living but of the dead. Of these poems, almost alone, Wordsworth in his autobiographical notes has said nothing whatever. One of them he suppressed for years, and printed only in a later volume. One can, indeed, well imagine that there may be poems which a man may be willing to give to the world only in the hope that their pathos will be, as it were, protected by its own intensity, and that those who are worthiest to comprehend will he least disposed to discuss them.

The autobiographical notes on his own works above alluded to were dictated by the poet to his friend Miss Isabella Fenwick, at her urgent request, in 1843, and preserve many interesting particulars as to the circumstances under which each poem was composed. They are to be found printed entire among Wordsworth’s prose works, and I shall therefore cite them only occasionally. Of Lucy Gray, for instance, he says,—“It was founded on a circumstance told me by my sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax, in Yorkshire, was bewildered in a snowstorm. Her footsteps were tracked by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her, backward or forward, could be traced. The body, however, was found in the canal. The way in which the incident was treated, and the spiritualizing of the character, might furnish hints for contrasting the imaginative influences which I have endeavoured to throw over common life, with Crabbe’s matter-of-fact style of handling subjects of the same kind.”

And of the Lines written in Germany, 1798–9,—

“A bitter winter it was when these verses were composed by the side of my sister, in our lodgings, at a draper’s house, in the romantic imperial town of Goslar, on the edge of the Hartz forest. So severe was the cold of this winter, that when we passed out of the parlour warmed by the stove our cheeks were struck by the air as by cold iron. I slept in a room over a passage that was not ceiled. The people of the house used to say, rather unfeelingly, that they expected I should be frozen to death some night; but with the protection of a pelisse lined with fur, and a dog’s-skin bonnet, such as was worn by the peasants, I walked daily on the ramparts or on a sort of public ground or garden, in which was a pond. Here I had no companion but a kingfisher, a beautiful creature that used to glance by me. I consequently became much attached to it. During these walks I composed The Poet’s Epitaph.”

Seldom has there been a more impressive instance of the contrast, familiar to biographers, between the apparent insignificance and the real importance of their hero in undistinguished youth. To any one considering Wordsworth as he then was,—a rough and somewhat stubborn young man, who, in nearly thirty years of life, had seemed alternately to idle without grace and to study without advantage,— it might well have seemed incredible that he could have anything new or valuable to communicate to mankind. Where had been his experience? Or where was the indication of that wealth of sensuous emotion which in such a nature as Keats’ seems almost to dispense with experience and to give novelty by giving vividness to such passions as are known to all? If Wordsworth were to impress mankind it must be, one might have thought, by travelling out of himself altogether—by revealing some such energy of imagination as can create a world of romance and adventure in the shyest heart. But this was not so to be. Already Wordsworth’s minor poems had dealt almost entirely with his own feelings, and with the objects actually before his eyes; and it was at Goslar that he planned, and on the day of his quitting Goslar that he began, a much longer poem, whose subject was to be still more intimately personal, being the development of his own mind. This poem, dedicated to Coleridge, and written in the form of a confidence bestowed on an intimate friend, was finished in 1805, but was not published till after the poet’s death. Mrs. Wordsworth then named it The Prelude, indicating thus the relation which it bears to the Excursion—or rather, to the projected poem of the Recluse, of which the Excursion was to form only the Second out of three Divisions. One Book of the First Division of the Recluse was written, but is yet unpublished; the Third Division was never even begun, and “the materials,” we are told, “of which it would have been formed have been incorporated, for the most part, in the author’s other publications.” Nor need this change of plan be regretted: didactic poems admit easily of mutilation; and all that can be called plot in this series of works is contained in the Prelude, in which we see Wordsworth arriving at those convictions which in the Excursion he pauses to expound.

It would be too much to say that Wordsworth has been wholly successful in the attempt—for such the Prelude virtually is—to write an epic poem on his own education. Such a poem must almost necessarily appear tedious and egoistic, and Wordsworth’s manner has not tact enough to prevent these defects from being felt to the full. On the contrary, in his constant desire frugally to extract, as it were, its full teaching from the minutest event which has befallen him, he supplements the self-complacency of the autobiographer with the conscientious exactness of the moralist, and is apt to insist on trifles such as lodge in the corners of every man’s memory, as if they were unique lessons vouchsafed to himself alone.

Yet it follows from this very temper of mind that there is scarcely any autobiography which we can read with such implicit confidence as the Prelude. In the case of this, as of so many of Wordsworth’s productions, our first dissatisfaction at the form which the poem assumes yields to a recognition of its fitness to express precisely what the poet intends. Nor are there many men who, in recounting the story of their own lives, could combine a candour so absolute with so much of dignity—who could treat their personal history so impartially as a means of conveying lessons of general truth—or who, while chronicling such small things, could remain so great. The Prelude is a book of good augury for human nature. We feel in reading it as if the stock of mankind were sound. The soul seems going on from strength to strength by the mere development of her inborn power. And the scene with which the poem at once opens and concludes—the return to the Lake country as to a permanent and satisfying home—places the poet at last amid his true surroundings, and leaves us to contemplate him as completed by a harmony without him, which he of all men most needed to evoke the harmony within.
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