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Myers, F. W. H. (Frederic William Henry) / Wordsworth
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"From worlds not quickened by the sun
A portion of the gift is won;
An intermingling of Heaven's pomp is spread
On ground which British shepherds tread."
















I cannot, perhaps, more fitly begin this short biography than with
some words in which its subject has expressed his own feelings as to
the spirit in which such a task should be approached. "Silence,"
says Wordsworth, "is a privilege of the grave, a right of the
departed: let him, therefore, who infringes that right by speaking
publicly of, for, or against, those who cannot speak for themselves,
take heed that he opens not his mouth without a sufficient sanction.
Only to philosophy enlightened by the affections does it belong
justly to estimate the claims of the deceased on the one hand, and
of the present age and future generations on the other, and to
strike a balance between them. Such philosophy runs a risk of
becoming extinct among us, if the coarse intrusions into the recesses,
the gross breaches upon the sanctities, of domestic life, to which we
have lately been more and more accustomed, are to be regarded as
indications of a vigorous state of public feeling. The wise and good
respect, as one of the noblest characteristics of Englishmen, that
jealousy of familiar approach which, while it contributes to the
maintenance of private dignity, is one of the most efficacious
guardians of rational public freedom."

In accordance with these views the poet entrusted to his nephew, the
late Bishop of Lincoln, the task of composing memoirs of his life,
in the just confidence that nothing would by such hands be given to
the world which was inconsistent with the dignity either of the
living or of the dead. From those memoirs the facts contained in the
present work have been for the most part drawn. It has, however,
been my fortune, through hereditary friendships, to have access to
many manuscript letters and much oral tradition bearing upon the
poet's private life;[1] and some details and some passages of
letters hitherto unpublished, will appear in these pages. It would
seem, however, that there is but little of public interest, in
Wordsworth's life which has not already been given to the world, and
I have shrunk from narrating such minor personal incidents as he
would himself have thought it needless to dwell upon. I have
endeavoured, in short, to write as though the Subject of this
biography were himself its Auditor, listening, indeed, from some
region where all of truth is discerned, and nothing but truth desired,
but checking by his venerable presence, any such revelation as
public advantage does not call for, and private delicacy would

As regards the critical remarks which these pages contain. I have
only to say that I have carefully consulted such notices of the poet
as his personal friends have left us[1], and also, I believe,
nearly every criticism of importance which has appeared on his works.
I find with pleasure that a considerable agreement of opinion exists,--
though less among professed poets or critics, than among men of
eminence in other departments of thought or action whose attention
has been directed to Wordsworth's poems. And although I have felt it
right to express in each case my own views with exactness, I have
been able to feel that I am not obtruding on the reader any merely
fanciful estimate in which better accredited judges would refuse to

[Footnote 1: I take this opportunity of thanking Mr. William
Wordsworth, the son (now deceased), and Mr. William Wordsworth, the
grandson, of the poet, for help most valuable in enabling me to give
a true impression of the poet's personality.]

Without further preface I now begin my story of Wordsworth's life,
in words which he himself dictated to his intended biographer.
"I was born," he said, "at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, on April 7th,
1770, the second son of John Wordsworth, attorney-at-law--as
lawyers of this class were then called--and law-agent to Sir James
Lowther, afterwards Earl of Lonsdale. My mother was Anne, only
daughter of William Cookson, mercer, of Penrith, and of Dorothy,
born Crackanthorp, of the ancient family of that name, who from the
times of Edward the Third had lived in Newbiggen Hall, Westmoreland.
My grandfather was the first of the name of Wordsworth who came into
Westmoreland, where he purchased the small estate of Sockbridge. He
was descended from a family who had been settled at Peniston, in
Yorkshire, near the sources of the Don, probably before the Norman
Conquest. Their names appear on different occasions in all the
transactions, personal and public, connected with that parish; and I
possess, through the kindness of Colonel Beaumont, an almery, made in
1525, at the expense of a William Wordsworth, as is expressed in a
Latin inscription carved upon it, which carries the pedigree of the
family back four generations from himself. The time of my infancy
and early boyhood was passed, partly at Cockermouth, and partly with
my mother's parents at Penrith, where my mother, in the year 1778,
died of a decline, brought on by a cold, in consequence of being put,
at a friend's house in London, in what used to be called 'a best
bedroom.' My father never recovered his usual cheerfulness of mind
after this loss, and died when I was in my fourteenth year, a
schoolboy, just returned from Hawkshead, whither I had been sent with
my elder brother Richard, in my ninth year."

"I remember my mother only in some few situations, one of which was
her pinning a nosegay to my breast, when I was going to say the
catechism in the church, as was customary before Easter. An intimate
friend of hers told me that she once said to her, that the only one
of her five children about whose future life she was anxious was
William; and he, she said, would be remarkable, either for good or
for evil. The cause of this was, that I was of a stiff, moody, and
violent temper; so much so that I remember going once into the
attics of my grandfather's house at Penrith, upon some indignity
having been put upon me, with an intention of destroying myself with
one of the foils, which I knew was kept there. I took the foil in
hand, but my heart failed. Upon another occasion, while I was at my
grandfather's house at Penrith, along with my eldest brother, Richard,
we were whipping tops together in the large drawing-room, on which
the carpet was only laid down upon particular occasions. The walls
were hung round with family pictures, and I said to my brother,
'Dare you strike your whip through that old lady's petticoat?' He
replied, 'No, I won't.' 'Then', said I, 'here goes!' and I struck my
lash through her hooped petticoat; for which, no doubt, though I have
forgotten it, I was properly punished. But, possibly from some want
of judgment in punishments inflicted, I had become perverse and
obstinate in defying chastisement, and rather proud of it than

"Of my earliest days at school I have little to say, but that they
were very happy ones, chiefly because I was left at liberty then,
and in the vacations, to read whatever books I liked. For example, I
read all Fielding's works, _Don Quixote, Gil Bias_, and any part of
Swift that I liked--_Gulliver's Travels_, and the _Tale of the Tub_,
being both much to my taste. It may be, perhaps, as well to mention,
that the first verses which I wrote were a task imposed by my master;
the subject, _The Summer Vacation_; and of my own accord I added
others upon _Return to School_. There was nothing remarkable in
either poem; but I was called upon, among other scholars, to write
verses upon the completion of the second centenary from the
foundation of the school in 1585 by Archbishop Sandys. These verses
were much admired--far more than they deserved, for they were but a
tame imitation of Pope's versification, and a little in his style."

But it was not from exercises of this kind that Wordsworth's
school-days drew their inspiration. No years of his life, perhaps,
were richer in strong impressions; but they were impressions derived
neither from books nor from companions, but from the majesty and
loveliness of the scenes around him;--from Nature, his life-long
mistress, loved with the first heats of youth. To her influence we
shall again recur; it will be most convenient first to trace
Wordsworth's progress through the curriculum of ordinary education.

It was due to the liberality of Wordsworth's two uncles, Richard
Wordsworth and Christopher Crackanthorp (under whose care he and his
brothers were placed at there father's death, in 1783), that his
education was prolonged beyond his school-days. For Sir James
Lowther, afterwards Lord Lonsdale,--whose agent Wordsworth's father,
Mr. John Wordsworth, was--becoming aware that his agent had about
5000£ at the bank, and wishing, partly on political grounds, to
make his power over him absolute, had forcibly borrowed this sum of
him, and then refused to repay it. After Mr. John Wordsworth's death
much of the remaining fortune which he left behind him was wasted in
efforts to compel Lord Lonsdale to refund this sum; out it was never
recovered till his death in 1801, when his successor repaid 8500£
to the Wordsworths, being a full acquittal, with interest, of
the original debt. The fortunes of the Wordsworth family were,
therefore, at a low ebb in 1787, and much credit is due to the
uncles who discerned the talents of William and Christopher, and
bestowed a Cambridge education on the future Poet Laureate, and the
future Master of Trinity.

In October, 1787, then, Wordsworth went up as an undergraduate to St.
John's College, Cambridge. The first court of this College, in the
south-western corner of which were Wordsworth's rooms, is divided
only by a narrow lane from the Chapel of Trinity College, and his
first memories are of the Trinity clock, telling the hours "twice
over, with a male and female voice", of the pealing organ, and of
the prospect when

From my pillow looking forth, by light
Of moon or favouring stars I could behold
The antechapel, where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face.
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

For the most part the recollections which Wordsworth brought away
from Cambridge are such as had already found expression more than
once in English literature; for it has been the fortune of that
ancient University to receive in her bosom most of that long line of
poets who form the peculiar glory of our English speech. Spenser,
Ben Jonson, and Marlowe; Dryden, Cowley, and Waller; Milton, George
Herbert, and Gray--to mention only the most familiar names--had owed
allegiance to that mother who received Wordsworth now, and Coleridge
and Byron immediately after him. "Not obvious, not obtrusive, she;"
but yet her sober dignity has often seemed no unworthy setting for
minds, like Wordsworth's, meditative without languor, and energies
advancing without shock or storm. Never, perhaps, has the spirit of
Cambridge been more truly caught than in Milton's _Penseroso_; for
this poem obviously reflects the seat of learning which the poet had
lately left, just as the _Allegro_ depicts the cheerful rusticity of
the Buckinghamshire village which was his now home. And thus the
_Penseroso_ was understood by Gray, who, in his _Installation Ode_,
introduces Milton among the bards and sages who lean from heaven,

To bless the place where, on their opening soul,
First the genuine ardour stole.

"'Twas Milton struck the deep-toned shell," and invoked with the old
affection the scenes which witnessed his best and early years:

Ye brown o'er-arching groves,
That contemplation loves,
Where willowy Camus lingers with delight!
Oft at the blush of dawn

I trod your level lawn.
Oft wooed the gleam of Cynthia silver-bright
In cloisters dim, far from the haunts of Folly,
With Freedom by my side, and soft-eyed Melancholy.

And Wordsworth also "on the dry smooth-shaven green" paced on
solitary evenings "to the far-off curfew's sound," beneath those
groves of forest-trees among which "Philomel still deigns a song"
and the spirit of contemplation lingers still; whether the silent
avenues stand in the summer twilight filled with fragrance of the
lime, or the long rows of chestnut engirdle the autumn river-lawns
with walls of golden glow, or the tall elms cluster in garden or
_Wilderness_ into towering citadels of green. Beneath one
exquisite ash-tree, wreathed with ivy, and hung in autumn with
yellow tassels from every spray, Wordsworth used to linger long
"Scarcely Spenser's self," he tells us,

Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms with superhuman powers,
Than I beheld loitering on calm clear nights
Alone, beneath this fairy work of earth.

And there was another element in Wordsworth's life at Cambridge more
peculiarly his own--that exultation which a boy born among the
mountains may feel when he perceives that the delight in the
external world which the mountains have taught him has not perished
by uprooting, nor waned for want of nourishment in field or fen; that
even here, where nature is unadorned, and scenery, as it were,
reduced to its elements,--where the prospect is but the plain
surface of the earth, stretched wide beneath an open heaven,--even
here he can still feel the early glow, can take delight in that
broad and tranquil greenness, and in the august procession of the day.

As if awakened, summoned, roused, constrained,
I looked for universal things; perused
The common countenance of earth and sky--
Earth, nowhere unembellished by some trace
Of that first Paradise whence man was driven;
And sky, whose beauty and bounty are expressed
By the proud name she bears--the name of Heaven.

Nor is it only in these open-air scenes that Wordsworth has added to
the long tradition a memory of his own. The "storied windows richly
dight," which have passed into a proverb in Milton's song, cast in
King's College Chapel the same "soft chequerings" upon their
framework of stone while Wordsworth watched through the pauses of
the anthem the winter afternoon's departing glow:

Martyr, or King, or sainted Eremite,
Whoe'er ye be that thus, yourselves unseen,
Imbue your prison-bars with solemn sheen,
Shine on, until ye fade with coming Night.

From those shadowy seats whence Milton had heard "the pealing organ
blow to the full-voiced choir below," Wordsworth too gazed upon--

That branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering, and wandering on as both to die--
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.

Thus much, and more, there was of ennobling and unchangeable in the
very aspect and structure of that ancient University, by which
Wordsworth's mind was bent towards a kindred greatness. But of
active moral and intellectual life there was at that time little to
be found within her walls. The floodtide of her new life had not yet
set in: she was still slumbering, as she had slumbered long, content
to add to her majesty by the mere lapse of generations, and
increment of her ancestral calm. Even had the intellectual life of
the place been more stirring, it is doubtful how far Wordsworth
would have been welcomed, or deserved, to be welcomed, by
authorities or students. He began residence at seventeen, and his
northern nature was late to flower. There seems, in fact, to have
been even less of visible promise about him than we should have
expected; but rather something untamed and insubordinate, something
heady and self-confident; an independence that seemed only rusticity,
and an indolent ignorance which assumed too readily the tones of
scorn. He was as yet a creature of the lakes and mountains, and love
for Nature was only slowly leading him to love and reverence for man.
Nay, such attraction as he had hitherto felt for the human race had
been interwoven with her influence in a way so strange that to many
minds it will seem a childish fancy not worth recounting. The
objects of his boyish idealization had been Cumbrian shepherds--a
race whose personality seems to melt into Nature's--who are united
as intimately with moor and mountain as the petrel with the sea.

A rambling schoolboy, thus
I felt his presence in his own domain
As of a lord and master--or a power,
Or genius, under Nature, under God;
Presiding; and severest solitude
Had more commanding looks when he was there.
When up the lonely brooks on rainy days
Angling I went, or trod the trackless hills
By mists bewildered, suddenly mine eyes
Have glanced upon him distant a few steps,
In size a giant, stalking through thick fog,
His sheep like Greenland bears; or, as he stepped
Beyond the boundary line of some hill-shadow,
His form hath flashed upon me, glorified
By the deep radiance of the setting sun;
Or him have I descried in distant sky,
A solitary object and sublime,
Above all height! Like an aŽrial cross
Stationed alone upon a spiry rock
Of the Chartreuse, for worship. Thus was man
Ennobled outwardly before my sight;
And thus my heart was early introduced
To an unconscious love and reverence
Of human nature; hence the human form
To me became an index of delight,
Of grace and honour, power and worthiness.

"This sanctity of Nature given to man,"--this interfusion of human
interest with the sublimity of moor and hill,--formed a typical
introduction to the manner in which Wordsworth regarded mankind to
the end,--depicting him as set, as it were, amid impersonal
influences, which make his passion and struggle but a little thing;
as when painters give but a strip of their canvas to the fields and
cities of men, and overhang the narrowed landscape with the space
and serenity of heaven.

To this distant perception of man--of man "purified, removed, and to
a distance that was fit"--was added, in his first summer vacation, a
somewhat closer interest in the small joys and sorrows of the
villagers of Hawkshead,--a new sympathy for the old Dame in whose
house the poet still lodged, for "the quiet woodman in the woods,"
and even for the "frank-hearted maids of rocky Cumberland," with
whom he now delighted to spend an occasional evening in dancing and
country mirth. And since the events in this poet's life are for the
most part inward and unseen, and depend upon some stock and
coincidence between the operations of his spirit and the cosmorama
of the external world, he has recorded with especial emphasis a
certain sunrise which met him as he walked homewards from one of
these scenes of rustic gaiety,--a sunrise which may be said to have
begun that poetic career which a sunset was to close:

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; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit.

His second long vacation brought him a further gain in human
affections. His sister, of whom he had seen little for some years,
was with him once more at Penrith, and with her another maiden,

By her exulting outside look of youth
And placid under-countenance, first endeared;

whose presence now laid the foundation of a love which was to be
renewed and perfected when his need for it was full, and was to be
his support and solace to his life's end. His third long vacation he
spent in a walking tour in Switzerland. Of this, now the commonest
relaxation of studious youth, he speaks as of an "unprecedented
course," indicating "a hardy slight of college studies and their set
rewards." And it seems, indeed, probable that Wordsworth and his
friend Jones were actually the first undergraduates who ever spent
their summer in this way. The pages of the _Prelude_ which narrate
this excursion, and especially the description of the crossing of
the Simplon,--

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,--

form one of the most impressive parts of that singular
autobiographical poem, which, at first sight so tedious and insipid,
seems to gather force and meaning with each fresh perusal. These
pages, which carry up to the verge of manhood the story of
Wordsworth's career, contain, perhaps, as strong and simple a
picture as we shall anywhere find of hardy English youth,--its proud
self-sufficingness and careless independence of all human things.
Excitement, and thought, and joy, seem to come at once at its bidding;
and the chequered and struggling existence of adult men seems
something which it need never enter, and hardly deigns to comprehend.

Wordsworth and his friend encountered on this tour many a stirring
symbol of the expectancy that was running through the nations of
Europe. They landed at Calais "on the very eve of that great federal
day" when the Trees of Liberty were planted all over France. They
met on their return

The Brabant armies on the fret
For battle in the cause of liberty.

But the exulting pulse that ran through the poet's veins could
hardly yet pause to sympathize deeply even with what in the world's
life appealed most directly to ardent youth.

A stripling, scarcely of the household then
Of social life, I looked upon these things
As from a distance; heard, and saw, and felt--
Was touched, but with no intimate concern.
I seemed to move along them as a bird
Moves through the air--or as a fish pursues
Its sport, or feeds in its proper element.
I wanted not that joy, I did not need
Such help. The ever-living universe,
Turn where I might, was opening out its glories;
And the independent spirit of pure youth
Called forth at every season new delights,
Spread round my steps like sunshine o'er green fields.



Wordsworth took his B.A. degree in January, 1791, and quitted
Cambridge with no fixed intentions as to his future career.
"He did not feel himself," he said long afterwards, "good enough for
the Church; he felt that his mind was not properly disciplined for
that holy office, and that the struggle between his conscience and
his impulses would have made life a torture. He also shrank from the
law. He had studied military history with great interest, and the
strategy of war; and he always fancied that he had talents for
command; and he at one time thought of a military life; but then he
was without connexions, and he felt if he were ordered to the West
Indies his talents would not save him from the yellow fever, and he
gave that up." He therefore repaired to London, and lived there for
a time on a small allowance and with no definite aim. His relations
with the great city were of a very slight and external kind. He had
few acquaintances, and spent his time mainly in rambling about the
streets. His descriptions of this phase of his life have little
interest. There is some flatness in an enumeration of the
nationalities observable in a London crowd, concluding thus:--

Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese,
And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns.

But Wordsworth's limitations were inseparably connected with his
strength. And just as the flat scenery of Cambridgeshire had only
served to intensify his love for such elements of beauty and
grandeur as still were present in sky and fen, even so the
bewilderment of London taught him to recognize with an intenser joy
such fragments of things rustic, such aspects of things eternal, as
were to be found amidst that rush and roar. To the frailer spirit of
Hartley Coleridge the weight of London might seem a load impossible
to shake off. "And what hath Nature," he plaintively asked,--

And what hath Nature but the blank void sky
And the thronged river toiling to the main?

But Wordsworth saw more than this. He became, as one may say, the
poet not of London considered as London, but of London considered as
a part of the country. Like his own _Farmer of Tilsbury Vale_--

In the throng of the Town like a Stranger is he,
Like one whose own Country's far over the sea;
And Nature, while through the great city be hies,
Full ten times a day takes his heart by surprise.

Among the poems describing these sudden shocks of vision and memory
none is more exquisite than the _Reverie of Poor Susan_:

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years;
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

The picture is one of those which come home to many a country heart
with one of those sudden "revulsions into the natural" which
philosophers assert to be the essence of human joy. But noblest and
hest known of all these poems is the _Sonnet on Westminster Bridge_,
"Earth hath not anything to show more fair;" in which nature has
reasserted her dominion over the works of all the multitude of men;
and in the early clearness the poet beholds the great City--as
Sterling imagined it on his dying-bed--"not as full of noise and
dust and confusion, but as something silent, grand and everlasting."
And even in later life, when Wordsworth was often in London, and was
welcome in any society, he never lost this external manner of
regarding it. He was always of the same mind as the group of
listeners in his _Power of Music_:

Now, Coaches and Chariots! Roar on like a stream!
Here are twenty Souls happy as souls in a dream:
They are deaf to your murmurs, they care not for you,
Nor what ye are flying, nor what ye pursue!

He never made the attempt,--vulgarized by so many a "fashionable
novelist," and in which no poet has succeeded yet,--to disentangle
from that turmoil its elements of romance and of greatness; to enter
that realm of emotion where Nature's aspects become the scarcely
noted accessory of vicissitudes that transcend her own; to trace the
passion or the anguish which whirl along some lurid vista toward a
sun that sets in storm, or gaze across silent squares by summer
moonlight amid a smell of dust and flowers.

But although Wordsworth passed thus through London unmodified and
indifferent, the current of things was sweeping him on to mingle in
a fiercer tumult,--to be caught in the tides of a more violent and
feverish life. In November 1791 he landed in France, meaning to pass
the winter at Orleans and learn French. Up to this date the French
Revolution had impressed him in a rather unusual manner,--namely, as
being a matter of course. The explanation of this view is a somewhat
singular one. Wordsworth's was an old family, and his connexions
were some of them wealthy and well placed in the world; but the
chances of his education had been such, that he could scarcely
realize to himself any other than a democratic type of society.
Scarcely once, he tells us, in his school days had he seen boy or
man who claimed respect on the score of wealth and blood; and the
manly atmosphere of Cambridge preserved even in her lowest days a

Where all stood thus far
Upon equal ground; that we were brothers all
In honour, as in one community,
Scholars and gentlemen;

while the teachings of nature and the dignity of Cumbrian peasant
life had confirmed his high opinion of the essential worth of man.
The upheaval of the French people, therefore, and the downfall of
privilege, seemed to him no portent for good or evil, but rather the
tardy return of a society to its stable equilibrium. He passed
through revolutionized Paris with satisfaction and sympathy, but
with little active emotion, and proceeded first to Orleans, and then
to Blois, between which places he spent nearly a year. At Orleans he
became intimately acquainted with the nobly-born but republican
general Beaupuis, an inspiring example of all in the Revolution that
was self-devoted and chivalrous and had compassion on the wretched
poor. In conversation with him Wordsworth learnt with what new force
the well-worn adages of the moralist fall from the lips of one who
is called upon to put them at once in action, and to stake life
itself on the verity of his maxims of honour. The poet's heart
burned within him as he listened. He could not indeed help mourning
sometimes at the sight of a dismantled chapel, or peopling in
imagination the forest-glades in which they sat with the chivalry of
a bygone day. But he became increasingly absorbed in his friend's
ardour, and the Revolution--_mulier formosa superne_--seemed to him
big with all the hopes of man.

He returned to Paris in October 1792,--a month after the massacres
of September; and he has described his agitation and dismay at
the sight of such world-wide destinies swayed by the hands of
such men. In a passage which curiously illustrates that reasoned
self-confidence and deliberate boldness which for the most part he
showed only in the peaceful incidents of a literary career, he has
told us how he was on the point of putting himself forward as a
leader of the Girondist party, in the conviction that his
singleheartedness of aim would make him, in spite of foreign birth
and imperfect speech, a point round which the confused instincts of
the multitude might not impossibly rally.

Such a course of action,--which, whatever its other results, would
undoubtedly have conducted him to the guillotine with his political
friends in May 1793,--was rendered impossible by a somewhat
undignified hindrance. Wordsworth, while in his own eyes "a patriot
of the world," was in the eyes of others a young man of twenty-two,
travelling on a small allowance, and running his head into
unnecessary dangers. His funds were stopped, and he reluctantly
returned to England at the close of 1792.

And now to Wordsworth, as to many other English patriots, there came,
on a great scale, that form of sorrow which in private life is one
of the most agonizing of all--when two beloved beings, each of them
erring greatly, become involved in bitter hate. The new-born Republic
flung down to Europe as her battle-gage the head of a king. England,
in an hour of horror that was almost panic, accepted the defiance,
and war was declared between the two countries early in 1793.
"No shock," says Wordsworth,

Given to my moral nature had I known
Down to that very moment; neither lapse
Nor turn of sentiment that might be named
A revolution, save at this one time;

and the sound of the evening gun-fire at Portsmouth seemed at once
the embodiment and the premonition of England's guilt and woe.

Yet his distracted spirit could find no comfort in the thought of
France. For in France the worst came to the worst; and everything
vanished of liberty except the crimes committed in her name.

Most melancholy at that time, O Friend!
Were my day-thoughts, my nights were miserable.
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
To me came rarely charged with natural gifts--
Such ghastly visions had I of despair,
And tyranny, and implements of death;...
And levity in dungeons, where the dust
Was laid with tears. Then suddenly the scene
Changed, and the unbroken dream entangled me
In long orations, which I strove to plead
Before unjust tribunals,--with a voice
Labouring, a brain confounded, and a sense,
Death-like, of treacherous desertion, felt
In the last place of refuge--my own soul.

These years of perplexity and disappointment, following on a season
of overstrained and violent hopes, were the sharpest trial through
which Wordsworth ever passed. The course of affairs in France, indeed,
was such as seemed by an irony of fate to drive the noblest and
firmest hearts into the worst aberrations. For first of all in that
Revolution, Reason had appeared as it were in visible shape, and
hand in hand with Pity and Virtue; then, as the welfare of the
oppressed peasantry began to be lost sight of amid the brawls of the
factions of Paris, all that was attractive and enthusiastic in the
great movement seemed to disappear, but yet Reason might still be
thought to find a closer realization here than among scenes more
serene and fair; and, lastly, Reason set in blood and tyranny and
there was no more hope from France. But those who, like Wordsworth,
had been taught by that great convulsion to disdain the fetters of
sentiment and tradition and to look on Reason as supreme were not
willing to relinquish their belief because violence had conquered
her in one more battle. Rather they clung with the greater tenacity,--
"adhered," in Wordsworth's words,

More firmly to old tenets, and to prove
Their temper, strained them more;

cast off more decisively than ever the influences of tradition, and
in their Utopian visions even wished to see the perfected race
severed in its perfection from the memories of humanity, and from
kinship with the struggling past.

Through a mood of this kind Wordsworth had to travel now. And his
nature, formed for pervading attachments and steady memories,
suffered grievously from the privation of much which even the
coldest and calmest temper cannot forego without detriment and pain.
For it is not with impunity that men commit themselves to the sole
guidance of either of the two great elements of their being. The
penalties of trusting to the emotions alone are notorious; and every
day affords some instance of a character that has degenerated into a
bundle of impulses, of a will that has become caprice. But the
consequences of making Reason our tyrant instead of our king are
almost equally disastrous. There is so little which Reason,
divested of all emotional or instinctive supports, is able to prove
to our satisfaction that a sceptical aridity is likely to take
possession of the soul. It was thus with Wordsworth; he was driven
to a perpetual questioning of all beliefs and analysis of all motives,--

Till, demanding formal proof,
And seeking it in everything, I lost
All feeling of conviction; and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.

In this mood all those great generalized conceptions which are the
food of our love, our reverence, our religion, dissolve away; and
Wordsworth tells us that at this time

Even the visible universe
Fell under the dominion of a taste
Less spiritual, with microscopic view
Was scanned, as I had scanned the moral world.

He looked on the operations of nature "in disconnection dull and
spiritless;" he could no longer apprehend her unity nor feel her
charm. He retained indeed his craving for natural beauty, but in an
uneasy and fastidious mood,--

Giving way
To a comparison of scene with scene,
Bent overmuch on superficial things,
Pampering myself with meagre novelties
Of colour and proportion; to the moods
Of time and season, to the moral power,
The affections, and the spirit of the place,

Such cold fits are common to all religions: they haunt the artist,
the philanthropist, the philosopher, the saint. Often they are due
to some strain of egoism or ambition which has intermixed itself
with the impersonal desire; sometimes, as in Wordsworth's case, to
the persistent tension of a mind which has been bent too ardently
towards an ideal scarce possible to man. And in this case, when the
objects of a man's habitual admiration are true and noble, they will
ever be found to suggest some antidote to the fatigues of their
pursuit. We shall see as we proceed how a deepening insight into the
lives of the peasantry around him,--the happiness and virtue of
simple Cumbrian homes,--restored to the poet a serener confidence in
human nature, amid all the shame and downfall of such hopes in France.
And that still profounder loss of delight in Nature herself,--that
viewing of all things "in disconnection dull and spiritless," which,
as it has been well said, is the truest definition of Atheism,
inasmuch as a unity in the universe is the first element in our
conception of God,--this dark pathway also was not without its
outlet into the day. For the God in Nature is not only a God of
Beauty, but a God of Law; his unity can be apprehended in power as
well as in glory; and Wordsworth's mind, "sinking inward upon itself
from thought to thought," found rest for the time in that austere
religion,--Hebrew at once and scientific, common to a Newton and a
Job,--which is fostered by the prolonged contemplation of the mere
Order of the sum of things.

Not in vain
I had been taught to reverence a Power
That is the visible quality and shape
And image of right reason.

Not, indeed, in vain! For he felt now that there is no side of truth,
however remote from human interests, no aspect of the universe,
however awful and impersonal, which may not have power at some
season to guide and support the spirit of man. When Goodness is
obscured, when Beauty wearies, there are some souls which still can
cling and grapple to the conception of eternal Law.

Of such stem consolations the poet speaks as having restored him in
his hour of need. But he gratefully acknowledges also another solace
of a gentler kind. It was about this time (1795) that Wordsworth was
blessed with the permanent companionship of his sister, to whom he
was tenderly attached, but whom, since childhood, he had seen only
at long intervals. Miss Wordsworth, after her father's death, had
lived mainly with her maternal grandfather, Mr. Cookson, at Penrith,
occasionally at Halifax with other relations, or at Forncott with
her uncle Dr. Cookson, Canon of Windsor. She was now able to join
her favourite brother: and in this gifted woman Wordsworth found a
gentler and sunnier likeness of himself; he found a love which never
wearied, and a sympathy fervid without blindness, whose suggestions
lay so directly in his mind's natural course that they seemed to
spring from the same individuality, and to form at once a portion of
his inmost being. The opening of this new era of domestic happiness
demands a separate chapter.



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.

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