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Chapter 6. Sir George Beaumont—Death of John Wordsworth.
The year 1803 saw the beginning of a friendship which formed a valuable element in Wordsworth’s life. Sir George Beaumont, of Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire, a descendant of the dramatist, and representative of a family long distinguished for talent and culture, was staying with Coleridge at Greta Hall, Keswick, when, hearing of Coleridge’s affection for Wordsworth, he was struck with the wish to bring Wordsworth also to Keswick, and bought and presented to him a beautiful piece of land at Applethwaite, under Skiddaw, in the hope that he might be induced to settle there. Coleridge was soon afterwards obliged to leave England in search of health, and the plan fell through. A characteristic letter of Wordsworth’s records his feelings on the occasion. “Dear Sir George,” he writes, “if any person were to be informed of the particulars of your kindness to me, if it were described to him in all its delicacy and nobleness, and he should afterwards be told that I suffered eight weeks to elapse without writing to you one word of thanks or acknowledgment, he would deem it a thing absolutely impossible. It is nevertheless true.”

“Owing to a set of painful and uneasy sensations which I have, more or less, at all times about my chest. I deferred writing to you, being at first made still more uncomfortable by travelling, and loathing to do violence to myself in what ought to be an act of pure pleasure and enjoyment, viz., the expression of my deep sense of your goodness. This feeling was indeed so strong in me, as to make me look upon the act of writing to you as a thing not to be done but in my best, my purest, and my happiest moments. Many of these I had, but then I had not my pen, ink, and paper before me, my conveniences, ‘my appliances and means to boot;’ all which, the moment that I thought of them, seemed to disturb and impair the sanctity of my pleasure, I contented myself with thinking over my complacent feelings, and breathing forth solitary gratulations and thanksgivings, which I did in many a sweet and many a wild place, during my late tour.”

The friendship of which this act of delicate generosity was the beginning was maintained till Sir George Beaumont’s death in 1827, and formed for many years Wordsworth’s closest link with the world of art and culture. Sir George was himself a painter as well as a connoisseur, and his landscapes are not without indications of the strong feeling for nature which he undoubtedly possessed. Wordsworth, who had seen very few pictures, but was a penetrating critic of those which he knew, discerned this vein of true feeling in his friend’s work, and has idealized a small landscape which Sir George had given him, in a sonnet which reproduces the sense of happy pause and voluntary fixation with which the mind throws itself into some scene where Art has given

To one brief moment caught from fleeting time

The appropriate calm of blest eternity.

There was another pursuit in which Sir George Beaumont was much interested, and in which painter and poet were well fitted to unite. The landscape-gardener, as Wordsworth says, should “work in the spirit of Nature, with an invisible hand of art.” And he shows how any real success can only be achieved when the designer is willing to incorporate himself with the scenery around him; to postpone to its indications the promptings of his own pride or caprice; to interpret Nature to herself by completing touches; to correct her with deference, and as it were to caress her without importunity. And rising to that aspect of the question which connects it with human society, he is strenuous in condemnation of that taste, not so much for solitude as for isolation, which can tolerate no neighbourhood, and finds its only enjoyment in the sense of monopoly.

“Laying out grounds, as it is called, may be considered as a

liberal art, in some sort like poetry and painting; its object

ought to be to move the affections under the control of good

sense; and surely the affections of those who have the deepest

perception of the beauty of Nature,—who have the most valuable

feelings, that is the most permanent, the most independent, the

most ennobling, connected with Nature and human life. No

liberal art aims merely at the gratification of an individual or a

class; the painter or poet is degraded in proportion as he does

so. The true servants of the arts pay homage to the human

kind as impersonated in unwarped and enlightened minds.

If this be so when we are merely putting together words or

colours, how much more ought the feeling to prevail when

we are in the midst of the realities of things; of the beauty

and harmony, of the joy and happiness, of loving creatures;

of men and children, of birds and beasts, of hills and streams,

and trees and flowers; with the changes of night and day, evening

and morning, summer and winter; and all their unwearied

actions and energies, as benign in the spirit that animates them

as they are beautiful and grand in that form of clothing which

is given to them for the delight of our senses! What then

shall we say of many great mansions, with their unqualified

expulsion of human creatures from their neighbourhood,

happy or not; houses which do what is fabled of the upas

tree—breathe out death and desolation! For my part, strip

my neighbourhood of human beings, and I should think it

one of the greatest privations I could undergo. You have

all the poverty of solitude, nothing of its elevation.”

This passage is from a letter of Wordsworth’s to Sir George Beaumont, who was engaged at the time in rebuilding and laying out Coleorton. The poet himself planned and superintended some of these improvements, and wrote for various points of interest in the grounds inscriptions which form dignified examples of that kind of composition.

Nor was Sir George Beaumont the only friend whom the poet’s taste assisted in the choice of a site or the disposition of pleasure-grounds. More than one seat in the Lake-country—among them one home of preeminent beauty—have owed to Wordsworth no small part of their ordered charm. In this way, too, the poet is with us still; his presence has a strange reality as we look on some majestic prospect of interwinding lake and mountain which his design has made more beautifully visible to the children’s children of those he loved; as we stand, perhaps, in some shadowed garden-ground where his will has had its way,—has framed Helvellyn’s far-off summit in an arch of tossing green, and embayed in towering forest-trees the long lawns of a silent Valley,—fit haunt for lofty aspiration and for brooding calm.

But of all woodland ways which Wordsworth’s skill designed or his feet frequented, not one was dearer to him, (if I may pass thus by a gentle transition to another of the strong affections of his life), than a narrow path through a firwood near his cottage, which “was known to the poet’s household by the name of John’s Grove.” For in the year 1800 his brother, John Wordsworth, a few years younger than himself, and captain of an East Indiaman, had spent eight months in the poet’s cottage at Grasmere. The two brothers had seen little of each other since childhood, and the poet had now the delight of discovering in the sailor a character congenial to his own, and an appreciation of poetry—and of the Lyrical Ballads especially—which was intense and delicate in an unusual degree. In both brothers, too, there was the same love of nature; and after John’s departure, the poet pleased himself with imagining the visions of Grasmere which beguiled the watches of many a night at sea, or with tracing the pathway which the sailor’s instinct had planned and trodden amid trees so thickly planted as to baffle a less practised skill. John Wordsworth, on the other hand, looked forward to Grasmere as the final goal of his wanderings, and intended to use his own savings to set the poet free from worldly cares.

Two more voyages the sailor made with such hopes as these, and amid a frequent interchange of books and letters with his brother at home. Then, in February 1805, he set sail from Portsmouth, in command of the “Abergavenny” East Indiaman, bound for India and China. Through the incompetence of the pilot who was taking her out of the Channel, the ship struck on the Shambles off the Bill of Portland, on February 5, 1805. “She struck,” says Wordsworth, “at 5 p.m. Guns were fired immediately, and were continued to be fired. She was gotten off the rock at half-past seven, but had taken in so much water, in spite of constant pumping, as to be water-logged. They had, however, hope that she might still be run upon Weymouth sands, and with this view continued pumping and baling till eleven, when she went down. . . . A few minutes before the ship went down my brother was seen talking to the first mate, with apparent cheerfulness; and he was standing on the hen-coop, which is the point from which he could overlook the whole ship, the moment she went down—dying, as he had lived, in the very place and point where his duty stationed him.”

“For myself,” he continues elsewhere, “I feel that there is something cut out of my life which cannot be restored. I never thought of him but with hope and delight. We looked forward to the time, not distant, as we thought, when he would settle near us—when the task of his life would be over, and he would have nothing to do but reap his reward. By that time I hoped also that the chief part of my labours would be executed, and that I should be able to show him that he had not placed a false confidence in me. I never wrote a line without a thought of giving him pleasure; my writings, printed and manuscript, were his delight, and one of the chief solaces of his long voyages. But let me stop. I will not be cast down: were it only for his sake I will not be dejected. I have much yet to do, and pray God to give me strength and power: his part of the agreement between us is brought to an end, mine continues; and I hope when I shall be able to think of him with a calmer mind, that the remembrance of him dead will even animate me more than the joy which I had in him living.”

In these and the following reflections there is nothing of novelty; yet there is an interest in the spectacle of this strong and simple mind confronted with the universal problems, and taking refuge in the thoughts which have satisfied, or scarcely satisfied, so many generations of mourning men.

“A thousand times have I asked myself, as your tender sympathy led me to do, ‘Why was he taken away?’ and I have answered the question as you have done. In fact there is no other answer which can satisfy, and lay the mind at rest. Why have we a choice, and a will, and a notion of justice and injustice, enabling us to be moral agents? Why have we sympathies that make the best of us so afraid of inflicting pain and sorrow, which yet we see dealt about so lavishly by the Supreme Governor? Why should our notions of right towards each other, and to all sentient beings within our influence, differ so widely from what appears to be His notion and rule, if every thing were to end here? Would it not be blasphemy to say that, upon the supposition of the thinking principle being destroyed by death, however inferior we may be to the great Cause and Ruler of things we have more of love in our nature than He has? The thought is monstrous; and yet how to get rid of it, except upon the supposition of another and a better world, I do not see.”

From this calamity, as from all the lessons of life, Wordsworth drew all the benefit which it was empowered to bring. “A deep distress hath humanized my soul,”—what lover of poetry does not know the pathetic lines in which he bears witness to the teaching of sorrow? Other griefs, too, he had—the loss of two children in 1812; his sister’s chronic illness, beginning in 1832; his daughter’s death in 1847. All these he felt to the full; and yet, until his daughter’s death, which was more than his failing energies could bear, these bereavements were but the thinly-scattered clouds “in a great sea of blue”—seasons of mourning here and there among years which never lost their hold on peace; which knew no shame and no remorse, no desolation and no fear; whose days were never long with weariness, nor their nights broken at the touch of woe. Even when we speak of his tribulations, it is his happiness which rises in our minds.

And inasmuch as this felicity is the great fact of Wordsworth’s life— since his history is for the most part but the history of a halycon calm—we find ourselves forced upon the question whether such a life is to be held desirable or no. Happiness with honour was the ideal of Solon; is it also ours? To the modern spirit,—to the Christian, in whose ears counsels of perfection have left “a presence that is not to be put by,” this question, at which a Greek would have smiled, is of no such easy solution.

To us, perhaps, in computing the fortune of any one whom we hold dear, it may seem more needful to inquire not whether he has had enough of joy, but whether he has had enough of sorrow; whether the blows of circumstance have wholly shaped his character from the rock; whether his soul has taken lustre and purity in the refiner’s fire. Nor is it only (as some might say) for violent and faulty natures that sorrow is the best. It is true that by sorrow only can the headstrong and presumptuous spirit be shamed into gentleness and solemnized into humility. But sorrow is used also by the Power above as in cases where we men would have shrunk in horror from so rough a touch. Natures that were already of a heroic unselfishness, of a childlike purity, have been raised ere now by anguish upon anguish, woe after woe, to a height of holiness which we may believe that they could have reached by no other road. Why should it not be so I since there is no limit to the soul’s possible elevation, why should her purifying trials have any assignable end? She is of a metal which can grow for ever brighter in the fiercening flame. And if, then, we would still pronounce the true Beatitudes not on the rejoicing, the satisfied, the highly-honoured, but after an ancient and sterner pattern, what account are we to give of Wordsworth’s long years of blissful calm?

In the first place, we may say that his happiness was as wholly free from vulgar or transitory elements as a man’s can be. It lay in a life which most men would have found austere and blank indeed; a life from which not Croesus only, but Solon would have turned in scorn, a life of poverty and retirement, of long apparent failure, and honour that came tardily at the close; it was a happiness nourished on no sacrifice of other men, on no eager appropriation of the goods of earth, but springing from, a single eye and a loving spirit, and wrought from those primary emotions which are the innocent birthright of all. And if it be answered that however truly philosophic, however sacredly pure, his happiness may have been, yet its wisdom and its holiness were without an effort, and, that it is effort which makes the philosopher and the saint: then we must use in answer his own Platonic scheme of things, to express a thought which we can but dimly apprehend; and we must say that though progress be inevitably linked in our minds with struggle, yet neither do we conceive of struggle as without a pause; there must be prospect-places in the long ascent of souls; and the whole of this earthly life—this one existence, standing we know not where among the myriad that have been for us or shall be-may not be too much to occupy with one of those outlooks of vision and of prophecy, when

    In a season of calm weather

Though inland far we be,

Our souls have sight of that immortal sea,

Which brought us hither;

Can in a moment travel thither.

And see the children sport upon the shore.

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
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