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Chapter 8. Children—Life at Rydal Mount—“The Excursion.”
It may be well at this point to return to the quiet chronicle of the poet’s life at Grasmere; where his cottage was becoming too small for an increasing family. His eldest son, John, was born in 1803; his eldest daughter, Dorothy or Dora, in 1804. Then came Thomas, born 1806; and Catherine, born 1808; and the list is ended by William, born 1810, and now (1880) the only survivor. In the spring of 1808 Wordsworth left Townend for Allan Bank,—a more roomy, but an uncomfortable house, at the north end of Grasmere. From thence he removed for a time, in 1811, to the Parsonage at Grasmere.

Wordsworth was the most affectionate of fathers, and allusions to his children occur frequently in his poetry. Dora—who was the delight of his later years—has been described at length in The Triad. Shorter and simpler, but more completely successful, is the picture of Catherine in the little poem which begins “Loving she is, and tractable, though wild,” with its homely simile for childhood— its own existence sufficient to fill it with gladness:

        As a faggot sparkles on the hearth

Not less if unattended and alone

Than when both young and old sit gathered round

And take delight in its activity.

The next notice of this beloved child is in the sonnet, “Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind,” written when she had already been removed from his side. She died in 1812, and was closely followed by her brother Thomas. Wordsworth’s grief for these children was profound, violent, and lasting, to an extent which those who imagine him as not only calm but passionless might have some difficulty in believing. “Referring once,” says his friend Mr. Aubrey de Vere, “to two young children of his who had died about forty years previously, he described the details of their illnesses with an exactness and an impetuosity of troubled excitement, such as might have been expected if the bereavement had taken place but a few weeks before. The lapse of time seemed to have left the sorrow submerged indeed, but still in all its first freshness. Yet I afterwards heard that at the time of the illness, at least in the case of one of the two children, it was impossible to rouse his attention to the danger. He chanced to be then under the immediate spell of one of those fits of poetic inspiration which descended on him like a cloud. Till the cloud had drifted, he could see nothing beyond.”

This anecdote illustrates the fact, which to those who knew Wordsworth well was sufficiently obvious, that the characteristic calm of his writings was the result of no coldness of temperament but of a deliberate philosophy. The pregnant force of his language in dealing with those dearest to him—his wife, his sister, his brother—is proof enough of this. The frequent allusions in his correspondence to the physical exhaustion brought on by the act of poetical composition indicate a frame which, though made robust by exercise and temperance, was by nature excitable rather than strong. And even in the direction in which we should least have expected it, there is reason to believe that there were capacities of feeling in him which never broke from his control. “Had I been a writer of love-poetry,” he is reported to have said, “it would have been natural to me to write it with a degree of warmth which could hardly have been approved by my principles, and which might have been undesirable for the reader.”

Wordsworth’s paternal feelings, at any rate, were, as has been said, exceptionally strong; and the impossibility of remaining in a house filled with sorrowful memories rendered him doubly anxious to obtain a permanent home. “The house which I have for some time occupied,” he writes to Lord Lonsdale, in January 1813, “is the Parsonage of Grasmere. It stands close by the churchyard, and I have found it absolutely necessary that we should quit a place which, by recalling to our minds at every moment the losses we have sustained in the course of the last year, would grievously retard our progress towards that tranquillity which it is our duty to aim at.” It happened that Rydal Mount became vacant at this moment, and in the spring of 1813 the Wordsworths migrated to this their favourite and last abode.

Rydal Mount has probably been oftener described than any other English poet’s home since Shakespeare; and few homes, certainly, have been moulded into such close accordance with their inmates’ nature. The house, which has been altered since Wordsworth’s day, stands looking southward, on the rocky side of Nab Scar, above Rydal Lake. The garden was described by Bishop Wordsworth immediately after his uncle’s death, while every terrace-walk and flowering alley spoke of the poet’s loving care. He tells of the “tall ash-tree, in which a thrush has sung, for hours together, during many years;” of the “laburnum in which the osier cage of the doves was hung;” of the stone steps “in the interstices of which grow the yellow flowering poppy, and the wild geranium or Poor Robin,”—


With his red stalks upon a sunny day.

And then of the terraces—one levelled for Miss Fenwick’s use, and welcome to himself in aged years; and one ascending, and leading to the “far terrace” on the mountain’s side, where the poet was wont to murmur his verses as they came. Within the house were disposed his simple treasures: the ancestral almery, on which the names of unknown Wordsworths may be deciphered still; Sir George Beaumont’s pictures of “The White Doe of Rylstone” and “The Thorn,” and the cuckoo clock which brought vernal thoughts to cheer the sleepless bed of age, and which sounded its noonday summons when his spirit fled.

Wordsworth’s worldly fortunes, as if by some benignant guardianship of Providence, were at all times proportioned to his successive needs. About the date of his removal to Rydal (in March 1813) he was appointed, through Lord Lonsdale’s interest, to the distributorship of stamps for the county of Westmoreland, to which office the same post for Cumberland was afterwards added. He held this post till August 1842, when he resigned it without a retiring pension, and it was conferred on his second son. He was allowed to reside at Rydal, which was counted as a suburb of Ambleside: and as the duties of the place were light, and mainly performed by a most competent and devoted clerk, there was no drawback to the advantage of an increase of income which released him from anxiety as to the future. A more lucrative office—the collectorship of Whitehaven—was subsequently offered to him; but he declined it, “nor would exchange his Sabine valley for riches and a load of care.”

Though Wordsworth’s life at Rydal was a retired one, it was not that of a recluse. As years went on he became more and more recognized as a centre of spiritual strength and illumination, and was sought not only by those who were already his neighbours, but by some who became so mainly for his sake. Southey at Keswick was a valued friend, though Wordsworth did not greatly esteem him as a poet. De Quincey, originally attracted to the district by admiration for Wordsworth, remained there for many years, and poured forth a criticism strangely compounded of the utterances of the hero-worshipper and the valet-dechambre. Professor Wilson, of the Noctes Ambrosianae, never showed, perhaps, to so much advantage as when he walked by the side of the master whose greatness he was one of the first to detect. Dr. Arnold of Rugby made the neighbouring home at Fox How a focus of warm affections and of intellectual life. And Hartley Coleridge, whose fairy childhood had inspired one of Wordsworth’s happiest pieces, continued to lead among the dales of Westmoreland a life which showed how much of genius and goodness a single weakness can nullify.

Other friends there were, too, less known to fame, but of exceptional powers of appreciation and sympathy. The names of Mrs. Fletcher and her daughters, Lady Richardson and Mrs. Davy, should not be omitted in any record of the poet’s life at Rydal. And many humbler neighbours may be recognized in the characters of the Excursion and other poems. The Wanderer, indeed, is a picture of Wordsworth himself—“an idea,” as he says, “of what I fancied my own character might have become in his circumstances.” But the Solitary was suggested by a broken man who took refuge in Grasmere from the world in which he had found no peace; and the characters described as lying in the churchyard among the mountains are almost all of them portraits. The clergyman and his family described in Book VII were among the poet’s principal associates in the vale of Grasmere. “There was much talent in the family,” says Wordsworth in the memoranda dictated to Miss Fenwick; “and the eldest son was distinguished for poetical talent, of which a specimen is given in my Notes to the Sonnets on the Duddon. Once when, in our cottage at Townend, I was talking with him about poetry, in the course of our conversation I presumed to find fault with the versification of Pope, of whom he was an enthusiastic admirer. He defended him with a warmth that indicated much irritation; nevertheless I could not abandon my point, and said, ‘In compass and variety of sound your own versification surpasses his.’ Never shall I forget the change in his countenance and tone of voice. The storm was laid in a moment; he no longer disputed my judgment; and I passed immediately in his mind, no doubt, for as great a critic as ever lived.”

It was with personages simple and unromantic as these that Wordsworth filled the canvas of his longest poem. Judged by ordinary standards the Excursion appears an epic without action, and with two heroes, the Pastor and the Wanderer, whose characters are identical. Its form is cumbrous in the extreme, and large tracts of it have little claim to the name of poetry. Wordsworth compares the Excursion to a temple of which his smaller poems form subsidiary shrines; but the reader will more often liken the small poems to gems, and the Excursion to the rock from which they were extracted. The long poem contains, indeed, magnificent passages, but as a whole it is a diffused description of scenery which the poet has elsewhere caught in brighter glimpses; a diffused statement of hopes and beliefs which have crystallized more exquisitely elsewhere round moments of inspiring emotion. The Excursion, in short, has the drawbacks of a didactic poem as compared with lyrical poems; but, judged as a didactic poem, it has the advantage of containing teaching of true and permanent value.

I shall not attempt to deduce a settled scheme of philosophy from these discourses among the mountains. I would urge only that as a guide to conduct Wordsworth’s precepts are not in themselves either unintelligible or visionary. For whereas some moralists would have us amend nature, and others bid us follow her, there is apt to be something impracticable in the first maxim, and something vague in the second. Asceticism, quietism, enthusiasm, ecstasy—all systems which imply an unnatural repression or an unnatural excitation of our faculties—are ill-suited for the mass of mankind. And on the other hand, if we are told to follow nature, to develope our original character, we are too often in doubt as to which of our conflicting instincts to follow, what part of our complex nature to accept as our regulating self. But Wordsworth, while impressing on us conformity to nature as the rule of life, suggests a test of such conformity which can be practically applied. “The child is father of the man,”—in the words which stand as introduction to his poetical works, and Wordsworth holds that the instincts and pleasures of a healthy childhood sufficiently indicate the lines on which our maturer character should be formed. The joy which began in the mere sense of existence should be maintained by hopeful faith; the simplicity which began in inexperience should be recovered by meditation; the love which originated in the family circle should expand itself over the race of men. And the calming and elevating influence of Nature—which to Wordsworth’s memory seemed the inseparable concomitant of childish years—should be constantly invoked throughout life to keep the heart fresh and the eyes open to the mysteries discernible through her radiant veil. In a word, the family affections, if duly fostered, the influences of Nature, if duly sought, with some knowledge of the best books, are material enough to “build up our moral being” and to outweigh the less deep-seated impulses which prompt to wrong-doing.

If, then, surrounding influences make so decisive a difference in man’s moral lot, what are we to say of those who never have the chance of receiving those influences aright; who are reared, with little parental supervision, in smoky cities, and spend their lives in confined and monotonous labour? One of the most impressive passages in the Excursion is an indignant complaint of the injustice thus done to the factory child. Wordsworth was no fanatical opponent of manufacturing industry. He had intimate friends among manufacturers; and in one of his letters he speaks of promising himself much pleasure from witnessing the increased regard for the welfare of factory hands of which one of these friends had set the example. But he never lost sight of the fact that the life of the mill-hand is an anomaly—is a life not in the order of nature, and which requires to be justified by manifest necessity and by continuous care. The question to what extent we may acquiesce in the continuance of a low order of human beings, existing for our enjoyment rather than for their own, may be answered with plausibility in very different tones; from the Communist who cannot rest content in the inferiority of any one man’s position to any other’s, to the philosopher who holds that mankind has made the most eminent progress when a few chosen individuals have been supported in easy brilliancy by a population of serfs or slaves. Wordsworth’s answer to this question is at once conservative and philanthropic. He holds to the distinction of classes, and thus admits a difference in the fulness and value of human lots. But he will not consent to any social arrangement which implies a necessary moral inferiority in any section of the body politic; and he esteems it the statesman’s first duty to provide that all citizens shall be placed under conditions of life which, however humble, shall not be unfavourable to virtue.

His views on national education, which at first sight appear so inconsistent, depend on the same conception of national welfare. Wordsworth was one of the earliest and most emphatic proclaimers of the duty of the State in this respect. The lines in which he insists that every child ought to be taught to read are, indeed, often quoted as an example of the moralizing baldness of much of his blank verse. But, on the other hand, when a great impulse was given to education (1820–30) by Bell and Lancaster, by the introduction of what was called the “Madras system” of tuition by pupil-teachers, and the spread of infant schools, Wordsworth was found unexpectedly in the opposite camp. Considering as he did all mental requirements as entirely subsidiary to moral progress, and in themselves of very little value, he objected to a system which, instead of confining itself to reading—that indispensable channel of moral nutriment— aimed at communicating knowledge as varied and advanced as time and funds would allow. He objected to the dissociation of school and home life—to that relegation of domestic interests and duties to the background, which large and highly-organized schools, and teachers much above the home level, must necessarily involve. And yet more strongly, and, as it may still seem to many minds, with convincing reason, he objected to an eleemosynary system, which “precludes the poor mother from the strongest motive human nature can be actuated by for industry, for forethought, and self-denial.” “The Spartan,” he said, “and other ancient communities, might disregard domestic ties, because they had the substitution of country, which ............
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