XII. WORDSWORTH: CLIMAX, 1804–14

After some minor wanderings, the Wordsworth ménage moved (1808) from Dove Cottage to a larger house at nearby Allan Bank. There the poet blossomed out as a landscape gardener, surrounding the house with plants and flowers that frolicked in the Grasmere rains. In 1813 the family moved finally to a modest estate at Rydal Mount in Ambleside, a mile south of Grasmere. They were now prosperous, with several servants and some titled friends. In this year Lord Lonsdale arranged Wordsworth’s appointment as distributor of stamps for Westmorland County; this post, retained till 1842, brought the poet an additional two hundred pounds per year. Freed from economic worry, he spent more time in his garden, making it the paradise of rhododendra and other flowering plants which it still is. From his window on the second floor he had an inspiring view of Rydal Water (i.e., Lake) two miles away.

Meanwhile (1805) he completed The Prelude, begun in 1798; “every day,” Dorothy noted, he “brings us in a large treat” of it from his morning walk.88 She and Sara Hutchinson were kept busy taking dictation; Wordsworth had learned to think in blank verse. He subtitled the leisurely epic “The Growth of a Poet’s Mind”; it was intended as a mental autobiography, and as a prelude to The Excursion, which would expound in detail the philosophy reached in that growth. He gave the record an added intimacy by repeatedly addressing his memories to Coleridge. He apologized for the surface egotism of the poem; it was, he confessed, “a thing unprecedented that a man should talk so much about himself.”89 Perhaps for that reason he kept it unpublished during his life.

It is quite tolerable if taken in small doses. Most pleasant are the scenes of his childhood (Books I and II), his solitary woodland rambles, when it seemed to him that in the chatter of the animals, the rustling of the trees, even in the resonance of rocks and hills, he heard the voice of a hidden and multiform god. So, as he sat

Alone upon some jutting eminence,

At the first gleam of dawnlight…

Oft in these moments such a holy calm

Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes

Were utterly forgotten; and what I saw

Appeared like something in myself, a dream,

A prospect in the mind….

I, at this time,

Saw blessings spread around me like a sea…

with bliss ineffable

I felt the sentiment of Being spread

O’er all that moves and all that seemeth still,

O’er all that, lost beyond the reach of thought

And human knowledge, to the human eye

Invisible, yet liveth to the heart;

O’er all that leaps and runs, and shouts and sings,

Or beats the gladsome air; o’er all that glides

Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself,

And mighty depth of waters. Wonder not

If high the transport, great the joy I felt,

Communing in this sort through earth and Heaven

With every form of creation, as it looked

Towards the Uncreated…

(There may be a flaw or retrogression here; the last line suggests a division of reality between creation and its creator; we had supposed that in Wordsworth’s pantheistic vision God and nature, as in Spinoza, were one.)

At Cambridge (III) he sometimes joined in student frolics or forays, but he was disturbed by the reckless and undisciplined superficiality of undergraduate life; he took more pleasure in the English classics, or in boating on the Cam. In vacation time (IV) he returned to his early haunts, ate at the family table, nestled in his accustomed bed—

That lowly bed whence I had heard the wind

Roar, and the rain beat hard; where I so oft

Had lain awake on summer nights to watch

The moon in splendor couched among the leaves

Of a tall ash that near our cottage stood;

Had watched her with fixed eyes, while to and fro

In the dark summit of the waving tree

She rocked with every impulse of the breeze.

At Cockermouth he could walk with his old dog, who let him compose verses aloud and did not therefore think him “crazed in brain.”

Ah! need I say, dear Friend, that to the brim

My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows

Were then made for me,… that I should be…

A dedicated spirit,

living for poetry.

Pleasant, too, was that stolen jaunt across the Channel (VI), to feel the happy madness of France in revolution, the exaltation of the Alps, and then, returning, to see the “monstrous ant-hill” called London, with old Burke intoning in Parliament the virtues of tradition, and “with high disdain Exploding upstart Theory”; to watch the crowds frolicking at Vauxhall or worshiping at St. Paul’s; to see or hear the moving multitudes, the varied races, faces, garbs, and speech, the clatter of traffic, the smiles of prostitutes, the vendors’ cries, the flower women’s appeals, the street singer’s hopeful serenade, the artist chalking pictures on the flagstones, “the antic pair of monkeys on a camel’s back”—all this the poet felt as keenly as the woods, but he liked them not, and fled (VIII) to calmer scenes where love of allembracing nature could teach him to understand and forgive.

Then again to France (IX), where old despotism and ancient misery seemed to have justified and ennobled revolt, and even a Briton could join in its wild ecstasy (XI).

Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth

The beauty wore of promise…

What temper at the prospect did not wake

To happiness unthought of?

From that high rapture France descended to crime, and Wordsworth to prose:

But now, become oppressors in their turn,

Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence

For one of conquest, losing sight of all

Which they had struggled for…

Slowly, hesitantly, the poet drew his Prelude to a close (XIV), calling upon his friend to return (from Malta) and join in the effort to win mankind back from war and revolution to love of nature and mankind. He was discontent with his poem,90 knowing that there were spacious deserts around the oases. He had confessedly seen little difference between prose and poetry, and he too often mingled them in the steady, dulling march of his blank verse. He had made “emotion remembered in tranquillity” the essence of poetry, but an emotion tranquilized through fourteen cantos becomes an irresistible lullaby. Generally, the character of an epic is a great or noble action told; and thought is too private to be epical. Even so, The Prelude leaves the resolute reader with a sense of healthy acceptance surviving reality. Wordsworth, sometimes as childish as a nursery rhyme, cleanses us with the freshness of woods and fields, and bids us, like the imperturbable hills, bear the storm silently, and endure.

Before leaving for Germany in 1798 Wordsworth had begun The Recluse, on the theory that only a man who had known life and had then withdrawn from it could judge it fairly. Coleridge urged him to develop this into a full and final statement of his philosophy. More specifically Coleridge suggested: “I wish you would write a poem in blank verse, addressed to those who, in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes for the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness.”91 They agreed that the summit of literature would be a happy marriage of philosophy and poetry.

On second thought Wordsworth felt that he was not ready to meet this challenge. He had made considerable progress with The Prelude, which proposed to be a history of his mental development; how could he, before completing this, write an exposition of his views? He put The Recluse aside, and pursued The Prelude to its apparent end. Then he found his energy and confidence waning, and the passage of the once exuberant Coleridge out of his life had removed the living inspiration that once had spurred him on. In this condition of depleted vigor and prosperous ease he wrote The Excursion.

It begins well, with a description—apparently taken from the abandoned Recluse—of the ruined cottage where lives the “Wanderer.” This replica of Wordsworth leads the excursionist to the Solitary, who tells how he lost his religious faith, became sated with civilization, and retired to the peace of the mountains. The Wanderer offers religion as the only cure for despair; knowledge is good, but it increases our power rather than our happiness. Then he leads on to the Pastor, who submits that the simple faith and family unity of his peasant flock are wiser than the attempt of the philosopher to replace the wisdom of the ages with the webs of intellectual argument. The Wanderer deplores the artificial life of the city, and the evils of the Industrial Revolution; he advocates universal education, and prophesies its “glorious effects.” The Pastor, however, having the last word, entones a paean to a personal God.

The Excursion, being a Portion of the Recluse, a Poem, was published in 1814 at two guineas a copy. (Its supposed preface, The Prelude, was not printed till 1850.) Wordsworth asked his neighbors, the Clarksons, to help its sale among their Quaker friends, “who are wealthy and fond of instructive books”; he gave a copy to the novelist Charles Lloyd on the understanding that it should not be lent to anyone who could afford to buy it; and he refused to lend it to a rich widow, who considered two guineas as rather high a price for “part of a work.”92 Eight months after publication only three hundred copies had been sold.

The reviews were mixed. Lord Jeffrey, in the November, 1814, issue of the Edinburgh Review, condemned the poem with an ominous beginning: “This will never do.” Hazlitt, after praising “delightful passages, both of natural description and of inspired reflection,” found the poem as a whole “long and labored,” repeating “the same conclusions till they become flat and insipid.”93 And Coleridge, who had called for a masterpiece, saw in The Excursion “prolixity, repetition, and an eddying, instead of progression, of thought.”94 But in his later Table Talk Coleridge praised Books I and II (“The Deserted Cottage”) as “one of the most beautiful poems in the language.”95 Shelley disliked The Excursion as marking Wordsworth’s surrender of a naturalistic pantheism to a more orthodox conception of God; but Keats found many inspirations in the poem, and ranked Wordsworth, all in all, above Byron.96 Time has agreed with Keats.

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