Wordsworth was the first poet I fell in love with as a teenager. My English teacher (who preferred Pope and Henry James) mocked me for my taste, reminding me of Shelley’s description of Wordsworth in ‘Peter Bell the Third’ as ‘a solemn and unsexual man’. Never afraid of being thought either solemn or unsexual I persevered, and even persuaded my history teacher to allow me to do an extended A-Level essay on Wordsworth’s political beliefs. I chugged through Wordsworth’s enthusiasm for Paine and Godwin, his period in France, his excitement about the Revolution, his horror about the Terror, his decay into stodgy conservatism. My ardour cooled a little after I read Milton (himself not unsolemn or un-unsexual, and rather less volatile than Wordsworth in his politics) and realised that a sachet of Milton at his driest and most forbidding plus a couple of gallons of Lake District rain would reconstitute quite a bit of Wordsworth.
What is there to love in Wordsworth? His particular genius is to make you believe things without really telling you what they are. He often does this by a characteristic and magical use of abstract nouns. ‘Expostulation and Reply’, one of the Lyrical Ballads of 1798, is about a poet being very poetical and sitting on an old grey stone for half a day just doing whatever it is that poets do when they sit on stones. His ‘good friend Matthew’ asks what exactly that might be, and Wordsworth’s reply, if you read it sceptically, isn’t much of a reply at all:
The eye – it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against, or with our will.
Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
If you want to think this is the lamest load of tosh you have ever read, go ahead. Wordsworth lays himself open to that charge by writing with a sublime flat-footedness. We all have daily experience of the involuntary nature of the senses, so that stanza rather ponderously tells us what most of us feel all the time. But then Wordsworth ups the stakes and invokes those unspecified Powers ‘which of themselves our minds impress’. Then he does the thing he was particularly good at when he was young: he takes a strongly tactile verb and conjoins it with a completely abstract (indeed not really paraphrasable) concept. We ‘feed’ this mind of ours ‘in a wise passiveness’. And at this point you’re made to realise that this is a poem by the very careful choice of preposition: we don’t feed our minds (banally) with a wise passiveness, an energy shake for the mind; we feed it in a wise passiveness, by adopting an attitude to the world which lets those Powers do something nutritious to us. And the way the metre slides away into the ‘wise passiveness’ invites you to follow it and yield. So the senses do their stuff whether we want them to or not, but if we let them get on with it in the right way, well, something else supervenes. And – if you’re prepared to go there, and to suppress the sceptical voice of the inner Matthew – that lets you see a world beyond the dreariness of a poet just sitting on an ‘old grey stone’.
The bigger and more ambitious poems in the Lyrical Ballads use similar techniques. They move from the potentially leaden to the abstract and, with an extraordinary poetical courage, dare their readers to be that cynical student in the back row, to be Byron or Shelley giggling as the old goat of Grasmere goes bleating on. In ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ you can hear exactly what J.K. Stephens meant when he said that Wordsworth had two voices:
one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
… And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three.
Actually, the two voices are just one voice:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
When I say Wordsworth was the first poet I fell in love with I mean exactly what I say. When you love someone you’re willing to assume that more is meant than meets the ear, or that the person you love has a magic that maybe only you can see and which will transport you outside yourself. What is actually there in this passage from ‘Tintern Abbey’? There are three periphrases for something transcendent, all of which are (that tactile language again) ‘felt’. There’s a ‘presence’, a ‘sense sublime of something’ which seems to be pretty much everywhere, and a universal animating spirit. These are not alternatives, but are linked by ‘And’.
The point here is one that is crucial for reading poetry in general: if you aren’t prepared to get it you won’t get it. If you don’t love someone there is nothing they can do about it, and love possibly has a natural affinity for very vague words which gesture to something that you feel but can’t really describe. A poet points you towards this thing it’s possible to feel or to have felt, and you can follow if you’re prepared to accept that it’s real even though you can’t see it.
Where does this aspect of Wordsworth come from? Where did he get that sublime sense of something indescribable but urgent? Nicholas Roe’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years first appeared thirty years ago – too late to help me with my A-Level essay. The new introduction to the second edition contains a persuasive reading of ‘Tintern Abbey’ as a ‘post-revolutionary’ work. Roe argues the poem is haunted by the spirit of John Thelwall, the radical orator who was extremely popular in the 1790s and to whom Roe’s book is dedicated. In 1798 Thelwall was living a few miles away from Tintern Abbey, having retired from political engagement after the wave of arrests which followed the so-called ‘gagging acts’ (the Treason Act and the Seditious Meetings Act) of 1795. The somethings and sublime unmentionables of ‘Tintern Abbey’ are, Roe suggests, products of post-revolutionary fervour. His book aims ‘to place Wordsworth and Coleridge among democratic “oppositionists” of the day’. When E.P. Thompson reviewed the first edition in the LRB (8 December 1988), at length and ungenerously, he complained that Roe made a lot of suppositions about the kinds of people Wordsworth may have known or may have met in order to fill in the blanks in his life story. Roe’s book does indeed say things like Wordsworth ‘could well have been’ among the Anglo-Jacobins who met at White’s Hotel in Paris in November 1792. But it’s churlish to object to these plausible conjectures, which are designed to reconstruct the world through which Wordsworth moved and which he later sought to obscure.
When Wordsworth wrote about his time at Cambridge in The Prelude he named no names, but he used his favoured word ‘something’ to evoke the intrinsically democratic nature of the university: he felt ‘that something there was holden up to view/Of a republic, where all stood thus far/Upon equal ground’. Roe tries to gloss that ‘something’. His Cambridge has in its foreground William Frend, a Unitarian fellow of Jesus who was in 1793 tried by the vice chancellor’s court for his pamphlet Peace and Union Recommended to the Associated Bodies of Republicans and Anti-Republicans. At his trial Frend asked: ‘Is there an Englishman who did not exult’ at the French Revolution? Roe notes that, after his ejection from Cambridge, Frend was one of many Cambridge men who mixed with the circle of William Godwin and with members of the London Corresponding Society – among them John Thelwall.
Wordsworth may have known these people at Cambridge and shared their views. Or he may not. I was at Cambridge at the same time as Chris Grayling, but I wouldn’t have recognised him in Sainsbury’s (I gather from those who did know him that he was known as Greything). But Roe’s achievement is not to name beyond a shadow of a doubt all those with whom Wordsworth took sherry or shared a view, but rather to show that the rapidly changing political environment of 1790-96 seeped into and had a permanent influence on the way he wrote. As the Revolution stopped being a force of liberation and turned into the Terror, as the English government adopted increasingly tyrannical measures to suppress radical discontent, and as England and France went to war, Wordsworth went from feeling ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!’ to saying that he ‘Yielded up moral questions in despair’. That mental trajectory had poetic consequences.
Roe takes us through that process moment by moment, and argues that Wordsworth’s ‘republican mind and the mind of “Tintern Abbey” were one and the same.’ Perhaps two and the same would be a better way of putting it, since Wordsworth did change a great deal between 1792 and 1798. And many of those changes, including his growing desire to make his earlier politics implicit rather than explicit, were good for his writing. So the early Spenserian poem ‘Salisbury Plain’ of 1793-94 concludes with vehemently direct and pedestrian poetry of protest:
Heroes of Truth pursue your march, uptear
Th’Oppressor’s dungeon from its deepest base;
High o’er the towers of Pride undaunted rear
Resistless in your might the herculean mace
And so on. Roe argues that by the time of the Lyrical Ballads things had changed. By the mid-1790s, ‘the popular movement for protest and reform reached an impasse, caught between the legal restrictions of the Two [gagging] Acts and Godwin’s philosophical quietism; confronted by this dilemma, both Thelwall and Wordsworth experienced an intellectual crisis late in 1795-96.’ In 1795 Wordsworth had befriended the younger and more philosophically and religiously inclined Coleridge, and in 1797 they spent time together in Nether Stowey in Somerset. Here they were watched by a government agent who thought they were French spies, and that when they babbled excitedly of Spinoza they had detected ‘Spy Nosy’ observing them. Influenced by the paralysis of the radicals and pressure from an increasingly repressive government, of which he was aware even if he was oblivious of Spy Nosy, Wordsworth moved away from the direct poetry of protest, in which abstract nouns are waved around like flags of virtue, towards what Roe terms the poetry of suffering.
In making that transition Wordsworth did two things. First, he focused on the particular – one particular beggar, a single lost idiot boy, one thorn tree. Second, and surprisingly, in addressing suffering he tended to avoid any suggestion of the wider social causality behind it. The question Wordsworth poses to the leech-gatherer in ‘Resolution and Independence’ in the Lyrical Ballads isn’t ‘What did war and famine do to you?’ but ‘How is it that you live, and what is it you do?’ This removal of framing and reforming contexts for representations of suffering, Roe suggests, is one reason the early readers of the Lyrical Ballads found them perplexing. The poems give off generic signals that they are protest poems, but they don’t fulfil the expectations those signals create.
That is a profound insight. Many of the Lyrical Ballads look hard at human events that might be connected to wider social questions – rapes, abandonments, murders, any of which could have origins in a wide range of social processes and deprivations – but usually shy away from a causal analysis that might explain the things they describe. This enabled Wordsworth to set aside the flat declamatory abstractions of ‘Salisbury Plain’ and create a poetry that depended on the charged portrayal of particulars. Now abstractions could point beyond, to a ‘something’ (Wordsworth is driven to meet the leech-gatherer by a Miltonic ‘peculiar grace’ and by ‘leading from above, a something given’), or to a vital force beyond the natural world. They could suggest rather than state a political perspective.
Wordsworth in effect dramatised the emergence of this way of writing in the books of The Prelude about his experiences in France. In about February 1792 he met a revolutionary soldier called Michel Beaupuy. In Book 9 of The Prelude he described the two of them conversing
Of civil government, and its wisest forms,
Of ancient prejudice and chartered rights,
Allegiance, faith, and laws by time matured.
This is very similar to the voice of ‘Salisbury Plain’, all radical vocabulary and abstract action plans, and the waving of rhetorical hands. But Wordsworth is a master of double consciousness. The Prelude is not so much about its subtitle, ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’, as about the ways in which an older person casts off and then re-creates and rewrites his younger self. This allows him a potentially ironised perspective on his earlier experiences while wistfully permitting the earlier intensities to glimmer through. So while Beaupuy and the young radical Wordsworth are passionately invoking a series of abstract nouns to improve the world, the older Wordsworth, who has seen the Terror in France and the oppressive reaction to it by the Pitt government in England, allows their zeal to be seen again from a different perspective. Beaupuy and young Wordsworth have more than a little in common with the devils in Milton’s hell, who seek to fill an eternity by debating a series of abstract nouns. Milton’s devils
Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
It’s tempting here to suppose that the revolutionary experience of Milton – who saw a republican government collapse into something approaching a monarchy under Cromwell – in effect scripted Wordsworth’s later political disillusionment. But it’s not quite that simple. A little further on in The Prelude, Wordsworth and Beaupuy see ‘a hunger-bitten girl/Who crept along fitting her languid self/Unto a heifer’s motion – by a cord/Tied to her arm’. That is exactly the kind of focus on specific examples of suffering that Roe sees emerging in the Lyrical Ballads. And in response to this one Beaupuy says:
‘’Tis against that
Which we are fighting’, I with him believed
Devoutly that a spirit was abroad
Which could not be withstood, that poverty,
At least like this, would in a little time
Be found no more, that we should see the earth
Unthwarted in her wish to recompense
The industrious, and the lowly child of toil,
All institutes for ever blotted out
That legalised exclusion, empty pomp
Abolished, sensual state and cruel power,
Whether by edict of the one or few –
And finally, as sum and crown of all,
Should see the people having a strong hand
In making their own laws, whence better days
To all mankind.
I had a particular love for these lines in the aftermath of Thatcher’s first election victory. It’s not hard to see why. The image of the girl following the heifer and scavenging for food stays in the mind’s eye as an image of poverty. Beaupuy’s passionate declaration ‘’Tis against that/Which we are fighting’ sits like a political slogan in the ear. But, with only a comma’s pause, this vivid moment leads on to what seems a timeless expression of the political will to change the world, in which devout belief in a ‘spirit’ and a force of natural redistributive justice that is waiting to be unloosed results in a desire for political change. Wild and ungovernable abstractions cluster around the particular instance of suffering, which in turn charges them with energy. That does seem as if it may have been an imaginative trigger for the manner of the Lyrical Ballads.
But even here there are traces of that sense of personal and historical irony which is endemic to Wordsworth’s ways of writing about himself. Either the older Wordsworth knows more than the younger, or the younger feels more than the older; whichever, the perspective yaws and pitches between the two, and the sum of the two Wordsworths always seems wiser than either the past or the present Wordsworth. The older Wordsworth keeps a very careful balance between these energies here, just allowing a little unease to creep in: when young Wordsworth leaps onto his soapbox to denounce the ills embodied in the sight of the girl tied to the heifer are we meant to notice that neither of these two revolutionary heroes pauses to give the poor girl a few sous?
That question, though, is held in check by another faint trace of Milton. The young Wordsworth’s political passion recalls the extraordinary outburst young(ish) Milton inserted into his aristocratic masque Comus, in which the Lady (sometimes seen as a self-portrait of the chaste and serious Milton) attacks the enchanter Comus:
If every just man that now pines with want
Had but a moderate and beseeming share
Of that which lewdly-pampered Luxury
Now heaps upon some few with vast excess,
Nature’s full blessings would be well dispensed
In unsuperfluous even proportion.
The Lady (who is of course part of a spectacular aristocratic entertainment) shows no sign of practising what she preaches. Milton’s differing political voices – his post-Restoration unease about revolutionary talkers who are immured like devils in hell within the walls of their own abstraction, and his pre-revolutionary zeal for the more equitable distribution of natural goods – are here made to articulate and shadow Wordsworth’s own shifts of mind. The zeal on the edges of Wordsworth’s vision had the potential to turn into powerful abstraction, and that abstraction was a useful way of both defusing and using his earlier radicalism. It could become a sense of something far more deeply interfused in the natural world or an emotional reaction prompted by a specific human instance of suffering. Both those aspects of Wordsworth’s art depended on his revolutionary zeal and on its dissipation, and Roe’s book remains a wonderful guide to the radical friendships and thoughts which animated, in suppressed form, Wordsworth’s later poetry.
Wordsworth’s propensity for irony might indicate that he was never simply a zealous soulmate of John Thelwall or a natural associate of William Frend, or someone who would spend a whole lifetime admiring William Godwin. His deep attraction towards the implicit and the transcendent was always a volatile thing. It could spin away into empty abstraction, or it could be used by the older poet to evoke the difficulty of recreating the intensity of his younger self’s experiences. And that could generate a tonal unsteadiness, an uncertainty about quite what – at any given time – Wordsworth’s beliefs actually were.
It is towards this ironical aspect of Wordsworth that Matthew Bevis directs our gaze in Wordsworth’s Fun. Bevis’s title equivocates between the bold declaration that ‘Wordsworth is fun’ and the less assertive claim that there might be some fun to find in Wordsworth. He favours the first of these senses, and argues that in Wordsworth ‘an inclination to laughter … is not a sideshow to some mirthless main event, but a formative influence on his work.’ This is, as he confesses, an unlikely thesis given that one of Wordsworth’s Westmorland neighbours said: ‘You could tell fra the man’s face his poetry would niver have no laugh in it.’ But Wordsworth’s readers have often found things to laugh at or about in his verse; and indeed his solemnity can often be comical, as though an undergraduate is acting a parson in a game of charades, or, in the later works, as though a parson is trying to remember what it was like to be an undergraduate. Wordsworth’s worst lines appear in the 1798 version of ‘The Thorn’. The narrator describes a solitary thorn tree by which a woman bewails her fate and the death of her illegitimate child. It has a pool at its foot: ‘I’ve measured it from side to side:/’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.’
In 1820 he revised the lines to read ‘Though but of compass small, and bare/To thirsty suns and parching air’. It’s not an improvement: deadpan faux naive flatness – here is a thing; look at it, measure it – is a vital part of the poetical effect of the Lyrical Ballads, and the risk of falling flat, indeed daring the reader to see it as falling flat, makes the original version so much better than the overloaded poeticism of ‘thirsty suns and parching air’. The measurement is part of a scene, carefully triangulated like a mystery story, described by someone who is trying to work out what happened to the woman’s baby, and who is wondering, without quite confessing that he is doing so, whether the pool is big enough for her to have drowned the child in it. But because it’s Wordsworth you are given the option of hearing this tragedy overlaid with a comically flat pedantry.
And that’s the reason Bevis has done something genuinely valuable by drawing attention to Wordsworth’s humour. A poem can be a risk akin to a joke. Like a joke it depends on an intricate connection between your own sense of timing and the good faith of an audience. As with a joke an audience has got to want to take it the right way for the performance of a poem to work. Bevis is particularly good on moments in Wordsworth that activate those risks. But what’s cumulatively impressive about his book is the multiplicity of kinds of comedy it explores. There are historical aspects: in 1799 Coleridge inhaled laughing gas with Humphry Davy in Bristol. Davy recorded accounts from those under the influence of the gas which included the claim that its effects ‘resembled those produced … by reading a sublime passage in poetry’. ‘Strange fits of passion I have known’ one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems began: the experience of sublime poetry and getting a fit of the giggles were not simple antitheses to a later 18th-century sensibility.
Bevis’s argument has a social dimension too, since he reminds us that writing seriously about leech-gatherers and waggoners and potters is potentially to risk the tonal instability of the mock-heroic. These people are (traditionally) laughable: a ‘clown’ could mean ‘a countryman, rustic, or peasant’ at the same time as ‘a fool or jester’. Part of the aesthetic challenge Lyrical Ballads lays before its readers is to ask them whether they are up to seeing the tragedy, or whether they are content just to laugh at these ‘clowns’. He also offers the striking suggestion that focusing the poetic gaze on particularities – old grey stones, thorns – and insisting that they are sublime carries with it a risk of bathos. Bevis describes this as ‘the oddity of the sublime’. Can a leech-gatherer really bear the amount of significance Wordsworth imposes on him? Can a man sitting on something as humdrum as an old grey stone really be a sage? Do the dimensions of a pool provide an index of a human tragedy or a diminutive comedy of pedantry? The risk of falling flat is a vital part Wordsworth’s poems because they rely so heavily on the reader’s trust and willingness to co-operate in the author’s vision: if you want to fly you have to risk falling.
And because they are often poems which reflect the divided consciousness of a poet through time they also often generate an ironical perspective within themselves: the voice of Matthew, or the world-weary tones of post-revolutionary Milton, can add a note of uneasy humour to a scene. Attempting to do justice to what you believe to be a class of person lower than yourself or a former self invites quizzical humour as a means of avoiding the danger of simply patronising the object of attention. Asking with a smile how they see things or how they live is perhaps the closest human beings who are not saints or prophets can come to understanding human beings who are radically different from themselves.
Bevis’s final chapter on The Prelude, which he regards as ‘permeated by mock-heroic impulses’ and as ‘a serious pantomime’, argues that Wordsworth has quite a lot in common with Don Quixote. Wordsworth did indeed admire Cervantes, and Hazlitt compared his gaunt physical appearance to that of Don Quixote, though some readers may feel that at this point Bevis’s self-consciously paradoxical argument unravels. How can a poem designed as a prelude to what Wordsworth called ‘a philosophical Poem, containing views of Man, Nature, and Society’ have anything at all in common with Cervantes’s novelistic spoof of chivalric romances? But even here Bevis hits on an unsettling truth. What is the difference between the deluded would-be knight who tilts at giants and sheep and the poet who sees a shepherd and his sheep through the mist as giant images of sublimity? Comparing Wordsworth with Don Quixote does say something about the wild effects of scale – both visual and emotional – on which Wordsworth’s best poems depend. An owl hooting, a thorn, a figure in the mist: any of these small particulars might take you into dark and wonderful realms of abstract ideas, or inspire imaginative insights into the sufferings and nature of humankind; but the poet who is transported by these things could be so far off in his own world that he is as comically deluded as Cervantes’s hero. The Westmorland equivalent of Sancho Panza – Matthew, or a quizzical child – often seems to be muttering in Wordsworth’s ear that ‘it’s nobbut an old grey stone.’
These two books are about as different as two studies of the same poet could be. But they have one thing in common. Both focus on things on the edges of Wordsworth: the radical politics he could not quite be explicit about by the later 1790s, the comedy that is never allowed to take centre stage. Wordsworth is so much a poet of things just beyond one’s vision that perhaps the best way to approach him is obliquely. Yet neither Roe nor Bevis has anything much to say about Wordsworth as he – increasingly conscious of the need to manage his future reputation as the sage of Rydal Mount – would have wanted to be remembered. There is a risk in wishing to believe that a poet, or indeed someone you love, is radically different from the way they present themselves. Love can be delusional; and Dulcinea del Toboso, when Don Quixote finally meets her, is very far from what he believes her to be. The comical or the radical Wordsworth may be what we want to see, the wonderful Wordsworth that flickers on the margins of the texts – but what of passages like this, when he describes going up to Cambridge?
Frank-hearted maids of rocky Cumberland,
You and your not unwelcome days of mirth
I quitted, and your nights of revelry,
And in my own unlovely cell sate down
In lightsome mood.
This Wordsworth is lordly and set apart, perhaps mock-heroically self-aggrandising (or so one hopes) in his ‘unlovely cell’ in that notorious slum known as St John’s College, Cambridge, while those rustic maids are left behind and with them all their innocent frolics. The double negative ‘not unwelcome’ doesn’t make those ‘days of mirth’ or late-night sessions with the frank-hearted maids sound like much fun. The elephant in Milton’s paradise, which weaves its lithe proboscis to make mirth for Adam and Eve, seems close kin to Wordsworth here. Immediately after the description in The Prelude of the chaotic urban delights of Bartholomew Fair – a passage that utterly vindicates Bevis, since it’s here that Wordsworth really does seem to be writing a pantomime or vaudeville act – there is another instance of Wordsworth using the laughter-killing double negative:
Nor was it unamusing here to view
Those samples, as of the ancient comedy
And Thespian times, dramas of living men
And recent things yet warm with life.
In the margin of this passage my impatient 17-year-old self wrote: ‘Oh come on, Willy.’ Is he (am I?) poking gentle fun at the solemn youth he once was? If you’re prepared to trust Wordsworth then perhaps he is, and perhaps the ironical revoicing of his earlier enthusiasms through a double negative just about works. But the older Wordsworth seems to have appreciated quite how ungamesome his description of comic theatrical delights sounded. He rewrote these lines, adding a solemn allusion to Hamlet to take them all the way towards a mock gravity that is hard to distinguish from pomposity:
Here, too, were ‘forms and pressures of the time’,
Rough, bold, as Grecian comedy displayed
When Art was young; dramas of living men
Could it be that by this point parson Wordsworth had forgotten how to play the wild undergraduate?
One of the good things about works of literary criticism is that they can’t say everything. This can often make them frustrating for readers who want to be told the whole truth, and is one reason that literary biography, particularly literary biography which creates the illusion of offering everything by supplying details about the starching of an author’s collars or his taste in geraniums, has become so much more marketable than the tentative and approximative skills of criticism. But seeing is partial, a thing done by glimpses, and what is not seen – or is regarded as insignificant – is partially constitutive of the overall picture. Literary criticism can reveal a lot by looking at the edges of what a poet wants to see. Neither of these books sees Wordsworth whole, and both of them are better for it. They draw attention to the shaping edges of Wordsworth’s vision. And both, in their entirely different ways, give you a Wordsworth who is pushing big things that matter or once mattered to him – revolutionary politics, laughter, grotesquerie, quixotic longings for a world of the imagination – to the borders of the visible. And it is the edges of our vision that define what we actually see, just as it can be the things we are really determined not to think about that shape what we actually think.