‘I am of that odious class of men called democrats,’ Wordsworth wrote to his friend William Mathews in 1794. Much the same can be said of Coleridge, on the evidence of his letters and publications of the mid-1790s. By the early decades of this century, British, French and American scholarship concurred in finding both poets to be, in the 1790s, republicans and advanced reformers, who then suffered disappointment in the course of the French Revolution and, in different ways and at different times, changed their minds. George McLean Harper’s William Wordsworth: His Life, Works and Influence (1919) set a coping-stone on the scholarship of that period.
In subsequent decades, despite much patient editorial scholarship, the matter of the poets’ ‘revolutionary’ youth has been obscured and marginalised. A new study was needed, consolidating and reviewing the evidence, and this is what Nicholas Roe offers. He claims no startling discoveries, but he brings together in one place much scattered information and a few new details from Godwin’s papers. His treatment of the tradition of Dissent in Cambridge fills out what Schneider, Chard and others have already shown. His treatment of London Godwinian and ‘Jacobin’ circles draws upon sources which literary scholars often ignore. Wordsworth and Coleridge are replaced within a credible human context, in the midst of a like-minded radical intelligentsia: William Frend, George Dyer, John Thelwall, Basil Montagu, John Tweddell, Felix Vaughan, James Losh, Joseph Fawcett.
Roe’s research has been strenuous, his attention to detail earnest, and his book will be useful. But it will not be quite as useful as the book which he intended to write, which would have brought poetic text and historical context into dialogue with each other. In this he succeeds best in his fourth chapter, which examines the genesis and transformation of poetry of ‘social protest’ between 1793 and 1798. Here he was able to take advantage of work already done: by Gill on ‘Salisbury Plain’, by Butler on ‘The Ruined Cottage’, by Jacobus, Jonathan Wordsworth and others.
Elsewhere he is less successful. His history is more literary-biographical than intellectual, and he passes by without comment significant work in intellectual history. James Chandler’s Wordsworth’s Second Nature (1984) goes unmentioned, and Chandler’s and Roe’s Wordsworths might be two different people. Were I forced to choose between them I would opt for Roe’s. I remain unconvinced by Chandler’s catch-all use of Burke and by his attribution of influences from Le Moniteur: that is too academic a portrait of how Wordsworth put together his ideas. Like many poets and like most lay-persons, Wordsworth (I suspect) grabbed ideas half-formed out of the discourse of his social environment and rarely read a work of political theory from end to end. (He would not pursue his reading of the second edition of Godwin’s Political Justice because he found the preface to be ‘a piece of barbarous writing’.) Yet Chandler’s arguments are open and challenging where Roe is sometimes anecdotal and even anti-intellectual. Rousseau’s work goes unmentioned, and while Godwin is mentioned frequently there is little attention to Godwin’s ideas, nor to the reasons why the poets were both attracted and repelled by them. Roe’s Wordsworth is not intellectual enough.
There was something secretive about Wordsworth through much of the 1790s, and secretive in more than the matter of Annette Vallon (which was so successfully hushed up). It must follow that any biographer must engage in speculations. But Roe offers too many speculations of this order: ‘As Wordsworth parted from Losh in July 1797 it seems highly likely that politics, poetry, his recent past and immediate future would have been much in his mind.’ Yes, and perhaps also the score at the Nag’s Head which Losh had left him to settle? At times he seems even to prefer speculations to actual findings. Thus he speculates that an anonymous review (‘The Matter of Coleridge’s Revolutionary Youth’, TLS, 6 August 1971) might have been written by E.P. Thompson, a speculation which could have been translated into a finding at the cost of a postage stamp. But his speculations do not always compel assent. Thus his book is illustrated by a Gillray cartoon of a London Corresponding Society open-air meeting, and in the caption we are informed that an obscure blob behind one speaker is ‘Citizen’ Wordsworth sitting in a tree. Why on earth should Gillray have taken notice of Wordsworth in 1795? (Perhaps Roe is pulling our leg?) On other occasions he introduces confusion by mingling together real findings and false conclusions. Thus he finds that two of the associates of the poets, James Losh and William Frend, were members of a committee concerned with raising funds for the defendants after the 1794 treason trials. This is of interest, but it is then translated into the untrue statement that ‘there was a very considerable Cambridge element among the leadership of the Corresponding Society.’ As attention to Mary Thale’s comprehensive and scrupulously-edited Selections from the Papers of the LCS makes clear, none of the supposed Cambridge element served on the Society’s executive or general committees, and it is doubtful whether any were ever members.
It is a borderline situation, perhaps not worth labouring. Of the poets’ known acquaintance, only John Thelwall was, off and on, a member (and de facto a leader) of the LCS. George Dyer contributed to the Society’s Moral and Political Magazine in 1796, and helped to raise funds for victims of persecution. Felix Vaughan appears more often in the Society’s Minutes, but in his capacity as a (generous) barrister, defending political victims. Frend, whom Roe several times claims as a ‘leader’ of the LCS, was probably never a member of the Society, but he did share the LCS platform in the final climactic public protest against the Two Acts in December 1795, and in that sense – as part of an alliance which stretched from Charles James Fox through the genteel supporters of the Society for Constitutional Information to the largely shopkeeper and artisan LCS – he did perform a leading role. With a scrupulous sense of this borderline distinction, Francis Place noted down Frend as ‘Mr’ but the other speakers as ‘Citizens’.
The SCI was intimidated by the treason trials and it scarcely resumed activity thereafter. When Wordsworth came to London early in 1795 there was no obvious reforming club or society for him to join. With few exceptions intellectuals or ‘gentlemen’ did not join the LCS. This was, no doubt, partly for reasons of social class, partly from a desire to hold themselves at a distance from the blunt Paineite or ‘Jacobinical’ discourse, and partly from a characteristic intellectual distaste for being committed to majority decisions or courses of action. But it is not impossible that Wordsworth and his friends might have visited divisions of the Society. In 1795, intellectual radicalism and the popular societies were bumping against each other all the time, and Nicholas Roe, if wrong in a few details, is right to bring them into such close juxtaposition.
Where Roe, in common with all researchers, becomes puzzled is in the matter of the Philanthropist. In 1794 Wordsworth (then in the North) was writing to his friend, William Mathews, drawing up proposals for their conduct of a magazine with this name, to be commenced when Wordsworth could get to London. Roe discusses these plans with great seriousness, as if they had indeed been fulfilled. He even deduces from them that Wordsworth in 1794 was already a convert to Godwin: ‘the Philanthropist scheme also provides clear evidence of William Godwin’s influence in reference to “Hereditary distinctions and privileged orders ... which must necessarily counteract the progress of human improvement”.’ But, apart from the elevated tone, that is plain Tom Paine talk, to be found in any reform publication of the time. Then Roe tells the reader, some thirty pages on, that the scheme for the Philanthropist was ‘never realised’. Wordsworth, writing to Mathews on 7 November 1794, had agreed that they must ‘decline the field’, since he was delayed in Keswick attending on his dying friend, Raisley Calvert. So there was no magazine. But then, in March 1795, shortly after Wordsworth had at last got to London, a Philanthropist does appear. This is a coincidence too large to pass off in a little cough in a footnote, although that is what scholars have generally done. Roe attends to it in an appendix, speculating upon possible contributors and reaching the cautious conclusion that Wordsworth ‘may well have contributed in some capacity’.
I think that on this occasion his speculations might have been more bold. The journal is ill-edited and lazily conducted. It is an eight-page sheet, coming from the press of Daniel Isaac Eaton, a printer of great audacity who was repeatedly tried for sedition. Scholars have assumed that a Great Poet could have had no hand in such a sheet. Mrs Moorman assures us that ‘it was scurrilous in style and contained nothing which could have issued from the pen of Wordsworth.’
I have in this matter one advantage over the majority of literary scholars. I have myself been involved in editing oppositional publications, immersed among beautiful and ineffectual utopians and hissing factionalists, and I know that substantial miscellanies (such as Wordsworth and Mathews proposed) are not conjured out of air. They require ready contributors and a constituency of readers; finance; proficiency in organisation and editorial application. If we put together what we know of Wordsworth in 1795, we have no reason to suppose that he would succeed as a radical editor. The Monthly Magazine and the Analytical Review already occupied the ground of liberal miscellanies. Wordsworth had no money to spare and Mathews had less. He had no experience in editing and few contacts with contributors. We know from his (unpublished) ‘Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’ that he could write in high-minded prose; and we know that he disliked the idea of taking on any regular journalistic chores (such as Parliamentary reporting) because that kind of thing gave him headaches. Any miscellany conducted by Wordsworth would have been short-lived.
The Philanthropist matches such expectations. It starts out sententiously, with each number given over to an essay in political morality. It later declines into a casually-edited collection of reprints and of satirical verses. The politics of the journal are constitutionalist-radical. The occasional Latin tag and the deference to Fox suggest the appeal to a polite rather than a popular audience. Several numbers are taken up with reprinting such matters as the Address to the Public of the Society for Constitutional Information in 1780, and John Trenchard’s tract against standing armies.
I agree with Roe that the journal contains several passages which could have come from Wordsworth’s pen. I would go further and suggest that Wordsworth may have been editorially involved. There are little signals which suggest some editorial confusion. The first number (16 March 1795) carries on its masthead: ‘Printed for and sold by DANIEL ISAAC EATON, Printer and Bookseller to the Supreme Majesty of the People, at the COCK and SWINE, No 74, Newgate Street’. But the third and fourth numbers (30 March and 6 April) carry on their last page a pointing finger and the advice: ‘Those who wish to promote the PHILANTHROPIST, by their assistance, will please address their favours to the Editors, at Mr EATON’S ...’ There is then an unexplained gap of three weeks and when the journal resumes on 27 April the plural ‘editors’ has become the singular ‘editor’. (Eaton’s previous journal, Politics for the People, had never suggested such a division of editorial and publishing roles.) This is repeated from time to time until No 22 (Monday, 24 August). Thereafter all reference to an editor is dropped. One notes another coincidence: Wordsworth left London precipitately on or about 18 August on his way to Racedown.
If one were to invent a story which was to fit these signals and coincidences, it might run like this ... Wordsworth comes to London in late February and gets together with Mathews. They find that they have little money and they also find that printers eager to issue odious democratic journals are not to be found on every street. They go and see Citizen Eaton, whose shop is in any case an obvious meeting-point for reformers. Eaton had, on 25 January, published the last number of Politics for the People, so there was perhaps some underemployment of his press. He takes Wordsworth and Mathews’s idea on, but talks them into scaling down their operation to a modest eight-page weekly. The partnership between the two editors survives for only four numbers, there is some collapse or quarrel, and then only one of them resumes. But the editor is increasingly inattentive or otherwise preoccupied, and Eaton has to fill up the pages with reprinted materials. Eventually (after Wordsworth left London) he conducts it himself. The Philanthropist continued until the 42nd number (18 January 1796), when, in the aftermath of the Two Acts, it was discontinued.
The Philanthropist was not so much ‘scurrilous’ as boring, and even if Wordsworth’s association with it could be proved it would not add to his stature. One of the more interesting essays – ‘On the Influence of Some Human Institutions on Human Happiness’, signed ‘W’ – I once thought could be Wordsworth’s and Roe suggests could be William Frend’s. But it turns out to have been lifted from a more lively Norwich journal, the Cabinet. Several manuscript keys survive to the Cabinet’s anonymous contributors, and in two of these ‘W’ is identified as a Dr Rigby. One might plead, of course, that the compiler of these keys guessed wrongly, or that Dr Rigby was the ‘front’ through which a secretive Wordsworth passed his manuscript to the editor. The doctor was, in one reminiscence, ‘a thorough-going Democrat of the French type, and in his country house a few miles from Norwich he had a Tree of Liberty around which his political confrères ... used to dance and sing the Marseillaise.’ But no reminiscence shows Wordsworth or Coleridge among the dancers, so there, for the time being, the trail runs out.
If Wordsworth had anything to do with the Philanthropist, he hid his name behind Eaton’s. Very little is known of that six months in London, apart from a few entries in Godwin’s diary which do no more than record calls and callers. One is tempted to probe this darkness because there is the suggestion in the poet’s subsequent writing that some profound moral crisis was associated with the Godwinian enchantment. Most critics find this in ‘The Borderers’ and also in the Prelude and Excursion. The crisis is associated less with ‘France’ than with ‘false philosophy’ in its bearing upon both public life and personal relations. One is tempted to speculate whether – just as the matter of Annette Vallon was covered up for a hundred years – there might not also be some political crisis or scandal hidden behind the verse?
In both the Prelude and Excursion this crisis is associated less with political commitment than with a retreat, in the aftermath of political disappointment and defeat, from immediate commitment to ‘wild theories’ and ‘abstraction’. In the Prelude, it was
Brought less encouragement, and unto these
The immediate proof of principles no more
Could be entrusted, while the events themselves,
Worn out in greatness, and in novelty,
Less occupied the mind
– it was then that ‘evidence/Safer, of universal application’ was sought elsewhere. There follows, after a reference to the French Republic’s new aggressiveness, the passage which is rightly identified with the Godwinian enchantment:
This was the time when all things tending fast
To depravation, the Philosophy
That promised to abstract the hopes of man
Out of his feelings, to be fix’d thenceforth
For ever in a purer element
Found ready welcome.
And after sixty or more lines of accusation and of self-accusation Wordworth turns away with the suggestion of something still unrevealed:
Time may come
When some dramatic Story may afford
Shapes livelier to convey to thee, my Friend,
What then I learn’d, or think I learn’d, of truth,
And the errors into which I was betray’d ...
This ‘dramatic Story’ perhaps came in the Excursion, in the figure of the Solitary, lampooned as a Janus-faced hypocrite, who in ‘private life licentiously displayed/Unhallowed actions’ and who in public drew
Hopeful prognostications from a creed,
That, in the light of false philosophy,
Spread like a halo round a misty moon,
Widening its circle as the storms advance.
And in the Solitary’s own account (or self-flagellation?) the same sequence is suggested. It was when the revolutionary cause encountered complexities and defeats and ‘confusion reigned’ that the Solitary espoused more extreme docrines. The passage is at Book Three, line 768, and concludes (787):
So charactered did I maintain a strife
Hopeless, and still more hopeless every hour;
But, in the process, I began to feel
That, if the emancipation of the world
Were missed, I should at least secure my own,
And be in part compensated. For rights,
Widely – inveterately usurped upon,
I spake with vehemence; and promptly seized
All that Abstraction furnished for my needs
Or purposes; nor scrupled to proclaim,
And propagate, by liberty of life,
Those new persuasions ...
In Roe’s work what is missing is any clear view of a climactic crisis with ‘false philosophy’, giving rise to a flight from its temptations and to a decade of arduous self-reflection. As Roe struggles through a thick undergrowth of associates and of speculations, no clear path of analysis is laid open. He has some helpful pages where he shows the ambiguity of both poets in their feelings towards Robespierre. This contributed to a crisis, which, however – if we are to follow the hints in the Prelude and Excursion – came about, not in terms of French politics, but in terms of English thought. Roe insists, on slender grounds, upon pre-dating Wordsworth’s enchantment with Godwinism to 1793-4, and as for his disenchantment this is attributed to nothing more dramatic than commonplace disillusion when he came to London and met his guru in the flesh. Godwin’s conversation was long-winded and dogmatic, and Roe suggests that Wordsworth’s ‘“sage” turned out to be a nit-picking pedant’. The explanation seems inadequate.
A poet’s internal crises may take place in private regions which biographers cannot reach. There need be no evident objective referents for tumults of the spirit. But if Roe had probed more closely into his own contexts, alternative explanations might have arisen. 1795 was the annus mirabilis of advanced intellectual radicalism, which moved in different ways and according to different rhythms from the popular societies. This was the time, which Hazlitt was to recall, when ‘the doctrine of Universal Benevolence, the belief in the Omnipotence of Truth and in the Perfectibility of Human Nature’, ‘were spoken on the house-tops, were whispered in secret, were published in quarto and duodecimo, in political treatises, in plays, poems, songs and romances – made their way to the bar, crept into the church, ascended the rostrum, thinned the classes of the universities ... ’ When Burke fulminated against ‘80,000 incorrigible Jacobins’ he was thinking not of the popular societies but of the young radical intelligentsia of Britain. These were the students, young attorneys, merchants’ sons and daughters, who signalled their advanced views by changes in dress and hair-style, in education and child care and breast-feeding, in pedestrian excursions – even genteel women could now get about the countryside, as Dorothy Wordsworth did, provided that they could find some boots. Here were the analogues of the notaries and curés of France, with their resentment at interest and patronage and their demand for the career open to talent. 1795, in the aftermath of the acquittals in the treason trials and before the passing of the Two Acts, was a brief moment of ‘glasnost’, when debating clubs for the enlightened intelligentsia sprang up: the Philomathaeans, where Roe has found Godwin, Holcroft and John Binns of the LCS, the Tusculan School which supplied contributors to the Cabinet, women’s discussion clubs in Norwich, Belfast and perhaps elsewhere.
This was the milieu in which Political Justice (and also the Rights of Woman) found enthusiastic audience. The tone (or cant) of the time is exemplified by a contribution concerning spies and informers in the Cabinet: ‘Whoever has been accustomed to reason abstractedly, on the moral estimation in which particular classes of men should be held, or on the advantages attending political institutions, and to deduce his principles from arguments, drawn a priori from the nature of man, and who at the same time has surveyed men with attention, will probably feel a diversity of opinion, according to the different media through which he examines the objects of his attention.’ One might not conclude, from this elevated passage, that the author was an articled attorney in his 20th year, Henry Crabb Robinson. Nor did Wordsworth in the Prelude ridicule the aspirations of the Rule of Benevolence and Reason – ‘a noble aspiration, yet I feel/The aspiration’:
Was flattering to the young ingenuous mind
Pleas’d with extremes, and not the least with that
Which makes the human Reason’s naked self
The object of its fervour.
In retrospect, Robinson still affirmed that reading Political Justice ‘made me feel more generously. I had never felt before, nor, I am afraid, have I ever since felt so strongly, the duty of not living to oneself, but of having for one’s sole object the good of the community.’ His private correspondence illustrates his Godwinian infatuation. Late in 1797, he was writing to his brother to congratulate him on the birth of a son, while not neglecting to warn him against the trap of ‘natural affections’: ‘Our Philosophy has freed us from a weighty pack of instincts – natural affections which antient philosophers have stuck upon the human frame – constitution like burrs – patches.’ And, in a discussion of marriage, he wrote: ‘You deprecate the progress of that philosophy which tends to diminish the individual – exclusive attachment. But the utmost asserted by Godwin or any of the new Philosophers ... is that our attachments should be regulated only by the moral – intellectual worth of the object regardless of the accidents of birth, early acquaintance, –c –c.’ This is the same Godwin as that recalled by Hazlitt, who ‘absolves man from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private and local attachment, in order that he may devote himself to the boundless pursuit of universal benevolence’.
To the historian of ideas Godwinism may appear as the ne plus ultra of advanced democratic thought in the 1790s. After plain Tom Paineism (1791-1794) the new wave of Godwin seems to have engulfed most advanced radical intellectuals between 1794 and 1797. Wordsworth by his own confession was engulfed. ‘Throw aside your books of chemistry,’ he is said to have advised a student in the Temple, ‘and read Godwin on Necessity.’ Coleridge with his usual ambivalence was attracted and repelled; wrote a sonnet in praise of Godwin and said he had never read him; denounced him offensively in public and apologised to him in private; had it down in his notebook to do a root-and-branch critique which never, of course, was done.
But the actual record was not so simple. Not one of the men who acquired notoriety as public reformers, as active opponents of government, as advocates of peace, friends of France, or supporters of the popular reform societies, were Godwinians. William Frend and Gilbert Wakefield were advanced Unitarians; Daniel Isaac Eaton was a Paineite deist and republican; Irish Catholics and Dissenters rose together in 1798; John Thelwall was certainly not – as Roe proposes – a ‘disciple’ of Godwin, even if he borrowed from Political Justice in several lectures. And there were Foxite Whigs, Baptist pacifists, and even (James Montgomery of Sheffield) at least one Moravian.
There is a sense in which the espousal of Godwinism represented an actual retreat from immediate political commitment. The very utopianism of Political Justice appealed in characteristic ways to the revolting intelligentsia. It enabled them to pose as far more enlightened and revolutionary (in theory) than the next man, to call in question – not the mere ephemera of daily life, the war, the high prices of food in 1795, the taxes, the corrupt representation – but (as philosophers above such tedious matters) to question the State, Law, Punishment, Marriage, Property, the Lot. And it enabled them to distance their theoretic revolutionism from humdrum actuality. Godwin did not involve them in any allegiance towards any part of the messy French revolutionary process. He disclaimed all sympathy for agitational methods or the popular societies. When the Two Acts were passing through Parliament, Godwin came forward in a pamphlet over the name of ‘A Lover of Order’ to censure, not the ministers, but his friend John Thelwall, the Jacobin lecturer. ‘Whether or no Political Lectures, upon fundamental principles of politics, to be delivered to a mixed and crowded audience be entitled to the approbation of an enlightened Statesman, it is somewhat difficult to pronounce’. But despite the difficulties, he was able to pronounce – against. The pronouncement afforded legitimation, and from the ultra-radical wing, to the authors of the Two Acts. Godwin’s proposed reforms – which included the abolition of the State and of private property – were, Thelwall commented, ‘to be produced by writing quarto volumes, and conversing with a few speculative philosophers by the fireside’.
I should declare an interest here and make it clear that Roe and I disagree on the question of Godwin. He makes valid points against me as to Godwin’s support for the accused in the treason trials, at a critical moment, and as to the philosopher’s own undoubted exposure to the onslaughts of anti-Jacobinism. As I have said, the popular and the polite reform movements were brushing against each other all the time. Even the breach over the Two Acts was repaired the following autumn. A friend of Crabb Robinson’s wrote to him from Norwich that Godwin and Thelwall had been in the city and had been reconciled: ‘I have since seen them walking together round our Castle Hill. Of course the former will no longer be accused of “cherishing a feebleness of spirit”, nor will the latter be again compared to Iago. Like Gog and Magog they will now go hand in hand in their glorious schemes.’
Yet I have looked enough into private papers of young Godwinians of the time to know how shallow and posturing some of their revolutionism was. Perhaps this is true of the revolting intelligentsia in most ages and most places, not excluding our own. Many young intellectuals of this time sowed wild Godwinian oats for two or three years, suffered nothing for it in person or in self-esteem, did nothing to aid the actual movements for reform, served with alacrity in the Volunteers against plebeian food rioters, and ended as pillars of complacent Utilitarianism.
Godwinism had rather little to do with ‘politics’, and that is where the literary-critical stereotypes, both ‘left’ and ‘right’, go wrong. It was rather – just as Wordsworth was to describe it – a withdrawal from politics at the point at which aspiration had met with defeat, a retreat from the complexity and confusion of reality, a glissade from engagement to speculation: ‘To abstract the hopes of man/Out of his feelings’. But, for a few, it was accompanied by authentic explorations of the intellectual dimensions of radicalism and by innovations in personal behaviour and relations. This had cultural consequences more profound than it had political.
Wordsworth’s crisis must surely be found somewhere in this contradictory milieu? There could well have been personal dimensions to this conflict, but these need not have taken any political form. Several of Wordsworth’s advanced friends underwent profound crises at this time. Roe directs us to John Tweddell. He might have looked more closely than he does at Basil Montagu, with whom Wordsworth shared lodgings in 1795 in Lincoln’s Inn. Montagu later wrote (somewhat cryptically) that Wordsworth saw him then ‘perplexed and misled by passions wild and strong’. A mutual friend, Francis Wrangham, wrote, defensively, of him in a letter of 1799: ‘Perhaps you will consider it as a fresh proof of his fickleness that he has at last determined to be steady – not carried about ... with every wind of doctrine – But, amidst all his fluctuations upon the wide ocean of opinion, he has never lost hold of his integrity – His humanity retained its warmth even in the frozen sea of Godwinism ...’ We see him momentarily in that frozen sea, like a whale coming up at a blowhole in Joseph Farington’s diary, where Montagu ‘seems to have imbibed in a violent degree the speculative principles of the new Philosophers. He pleaded against the existence of instinct, and said that Poets are made by education. That a Parent should not love his Child better than the Child of another, but in proportion as the Child might possess better qualities and endowments.’
It may be that at closer quarters Montagu was less amiable. ‘Two persons,’ Hazlitt commented, in his portrait of Godwin, ‘agree to live together in Chambers on principles of pure equality and mutual assistance – but when it comes to the push, one of them finds that the other always insists on his fetching water from the pump in Hare-court, and cleaning his shoes for him.’ That could perhaps be drawn from Montagu and one of his pupils, perhaps John Pinney. Montagu’s child, little Basil, was shed onto William and Dorothy Wordsworth at Racedown and the promised remittances for his care and keep came to hand as rarely as did promised visits from his father. Meanwhile Montagu was sponging on his friends (including Wordsworth), on the Wedgwoods, and on his pupils, and was courting Sarah Wedgwood and the £25,000 which went with her. Hazlitt once again (and this time he could have had Wordsworth’s loan to Montagu in mind): ‘A member of the ideal and perfect commonwealth of letters lends another a hundred pounds for immediate and pressing use; and when he applies for it again, the borrower has still more need of it than he, and retains it for his own especial, which is tantamount to the public, good. The Exchequer of pure reason, like that of the State, never refunds.’ In all these affairs Montagu evidently felt the self-approbation of a true Modern Philosopher. As he was eminently worthy of support as a most talented member of society, so he was glad to contribute to the happiness of his creditors by enabling them to gratify their own benevolence by lending him money. Wordsworth wrote grumpily some years later that Montagu was a man whose conduct is ‘little governed by the universally admitted laws of Friendship and regulations of society’. ‘Tempting region that,’ the Prelude added,
For Zeal to enter and refresh herself,
Where passions had the privilege to work,
And never hear the sound of their own names.
I am not trying to cast Montagu for a part in The Borderers. (David Erdman has recently found one good performer for that, in Colonel John Oswald.) But the ‘false philosophy’ undoubtedly had human attachments, and James Chandler is not going to persuade me that Wordsworth thought it all up while reading Rousseau. As for ‘the whole tribe of authors’ such as Godwin and Paley (Wordsworth decided at Goslar), ‘these bald and naked reasonings are impotent over our habits, they cannot form them ... They contain no picture of human life, they describe nothing.’ It is significant that Wordsworth rejects equally the revolutionary and the conservative philosopher. This is no movement from ‘Left’ to ‘Right’: if anything, it is a movement away from both, to an anti-politics or an anti-philosophy, or – as Chandler has it more happily in the title to one of his chapters – an ‘Ideology against “Ideology” ’.
The question, wrote Hazlitt, is ‘whether benevolence, constructed upon a logical scale, would not be merely nominal, whether duty, raised to too lofty a pitch of refinement, might not sink into callous indifference or hollow selfishness?’ And the questions stem not only from speculation but also from practical encounters with speculators: from the grotesque discrepancies between benevolent professions and petty self-interest; from the plain inadequacy of Reason to so many human situations. (As Mary Wollstonecraft lay dying, she regarded an interfering housemaid and pleaded with Godwin: ‘Pray, pray, do not let her reason with me.’) In this critical year Wordsworth had suffered some insight into moral nihilism – perhaps as much in his own nature as in that of his associates? – and he had found self-interest in the mask of reason, and self-love masked as philanthropy. There was a sudden motion of recoil, which took him from London to Racedown, Stowey and Goslar, and (in literary terms) from the ‘Descriptive Sketches’ to ‘Salisbury Plain’ and The Borderers. The ‘false philosophy’ associated with the Godwinian milieu was seen as a threat to his vocation. It was not only Montagu in that circle who was arguing that ‘poets are made by education.’ The pre-programmed forced growth of ‘genius’ came up frequently for discussion. Godwin addressed the question in the Enquirer. There was to come, late in 1797, Tom Wedgwood’s proposal for a ‘Nursery of Genius’, with Wordsworth and Coleridge proposed as possible tutors.
Although this proposal was discovered by David Erdman in 1956, it is passed over without mention by Roe. Yet one answer to plans for the mechanical manufacture of consciousness was to write a counter-statement as to how a child’s and a youth’s consciousness in fact were formed. For evidence, Wordsworth must look into himself. This was to lead to the Prelude: or Growth of a Poet’s Mind. And in some sense ‘a poet’ stood for any person – for the unplanned and self-creative path of human personality, the emphasis not upon planned rationality but upon awe, fancy, mystery, play, idleness and ‘nature’.
This has less to do with ‘politics’ than is generally supposed. It certainly entails a rejection of Godwinian speculative abstractions. But the error, so common in critical stereotypes, is to suppose that Godwinism was the only significant intellectual position on the ‘left’, just as some people suppose that Marxism is such today. It would follow from this error that if Wordsworth rejected Godwin he must have been moving to the ‘right’, whereas he could perfectly well have been moving back to a more engaged sympathy with the poor and with the victims of war. That is, indeed, my reading of Wordsworth’s trajectory. As Wordsworth gained in poetic power, he can be seen to be centrally concerned with the creative identity of everyman. And that is his own reading of his trajectory, as offered in Book 12 of the 1805 Prelude. This book includes some of the most unqualified affirmations in the poem, affirmations which some world-weary critics must find too boring to read since they do not appear in their critical discourse. It was on the roads, talking to travellers, vagrants, the returned soldier, the poor, that Wordsworth found
Hope to my hope, and to my pleasure peace,
And steadiness; and healing and repose
To every angry passion. There I heard,
From mouths of lowly men and of obscure
A tale of honour ...
In my view, Wordsworth remained an ‘odious democrat’ until after the Peace of Amiens, and his poems of national independence and liberty are often criticisms of the course of the French Revolution from the ‘left’, for its own self-betrayal. It is the equation Godwinism = True Radicalism which is wrong, and which Roe still has not got right. Very certainly Wordsworth later turned his hand to manipulating and falsifying his experience. One example is the cartoon character, the Solitary, in the Excursion. In an unfortunate moment Nicholas Roe makes the unlikely suggestion that Coleridge was the model for the Solitary. A much stronger case can be made for John Thelwall, to whose memory Roe dedicates his book, but to argue this would carry us into another essay. In any case, there is an important sense in which the Solitary was Wordsworth himself, or Wordsworth’s Jacobinical alter ego, now extruded and disowned, placed out there as a caricature, defeated in every aspiration – indeed an examplar that all affirmative social aspirations must be delusions. As Hazlitt saw when he reviewed the Excursion, ‘Wordsworth’s thoughts are the real subject ... Even the dialogues ... are soliloquies of the same character, taking different views of the subject. The recluse, the pastor and the pedlar are three persons in one poet.’ But even the dialogues are rigged. The Solitary has been beaten by every accident of life, beset by domestic tragedy, political defeat, philosophical bankruptcy. He is not allowed to answer back, as pedlar, parson and poet all set about him. And it should be remembered that the Excursion was published in 1814, whereas the Prelude lay in manuscript until Wordsworth’s death in 1850. Yet it is only when we have the second in our hand that we have a key to the first.
I wish that I could have given Nicholas Roe’s book a more enthusiastic review, since much work has gone into it, and it will become necessary reading among students of Wordsworth – its contribution to Coleridge studies is more slight. But by avoiding arguments with other critics his own views are left unclarified; his book becomes encumbered with detail and fails to suggest clearly the trajectory followed by each poet in the 1790s. If I wanted to show Wordsworth’s trajectory to a keen novice today I would still send her back to read George McLean Harper.
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