By Professor Stephen Gill
Towards the end of the nineteenth century a group of devotees decided to save the cottage in Grasmere that had once been the home of William Wordsworth. Why did they do it? Who was this man they were honouring forty years after his death and why was it important to preserve the memory of him and his work? Were they thinking of the boy who spent his childhood running wild on the Lake District mountains or the old man who became Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria? The young man who day after day walked astonishing distances across France in 1790 and who privately thought that he would make a fine general, or the young man who came to believe that he had a vocation to a different field of action—what he termed ‘the holy life of music and of verse’—and to see himself as successor to England’s greatest poet after Shakespeare, John Milton. Or was it the Wordsworth who, after some years of unsettled wandering in war-torn France and England, returned to the Lake District, never again to leave it, who became identified with it and wrote a very successful guide to it, but who relished his frequent visits to London and loved European travel. And why did the purchasers of Dove Cottage in 1891—want to spread knowledge of the body of work called ‘Wordsworth’—why did it matter? Why does it matter?
Wordsworth’s own exploration of such questions in the long poem The Prelude, which though completed in 1805 occupied him on and off for the next thirty or so years, offers us what is still a useful model for understanding this historical figure and his life’s work.
He presents his life in three phases. The first is Wordsworth the child of the Lake District—born in Cockermouth, schooled in Hawkshead but, as he would see it, educated on the fells and lakes.
The second encompasses the young man’s entry into the world of politics in the 1790s—experience of France in the throes of revolution, of radical circles back home and alienation from the politics of his own country, of intellectual and emotional turbulence that threatened the disintegration of his sense of self and well-being. The third phase consists of the years from the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 to the writing of the last words of The Prelude in1805, during which Wordsworth took stock of his life so far and in what ways it had resulted in a conviction that his way of contributing to human betterment would be as a poet, whatever the cost might be. His life, of course, did not come to an end in 1805—Wordsworth died in 1850—but what followed in his life and writing rested upon conviction that had been hard won through experience in the first three decades of his life and pondered over in the act of making poetry throughout his middle years.
In the final lines of The Prelude Wordsworth presents himself (and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to whom the poem is addressed) as a prophet for his generation. He was and his writing spoke directly to his time. But not only to his time: it still speaks in many ways on topics which are as important now as they were when Wordsworth first touched on them. What are they?
One of his most moving poems, the story of the shepherd, Michael, was intended to show, Wordsworth told the statesman Charles James Fox, that ‘men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply’. That might be the motto for a still vital part of Wordsworth’s work. His poems are not tracts in verse, but imaginative embodiments of the variety of ways in which human beings survive in the face of adversity and loss. One of his very last poems voiced sympathy for an old man confined to the work-house and a protest against policies which put him there. And again and again what emerges from this unflinching gaze at the lowly or struggling or dispossessed of the world is not a mood of sadness, but one of hope and joy and faith in what one sonnet hails as ‘Man’s unconquerable mind’.
Fundamental to Wordsworth is a determination to try to understand what it means really to live. He repeatedly tests the word ‘profit’ and grounds many poems in the conviction that, ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’. Our power to feel, for example. The direct lyric, ‘It is the first mild day of March’ celebrates the wealth of just being able to luxuriate in physical well-being in the sun. Or our powers of seeing. Wordsworth evokes wonderfully our natural awe before mountains and lakes, the grand forms of Nature, but he is as often pointing us to see her overlooked and unregarded phenomena. No one has ever put this more beautifully than Coleridge, who declared that the strength of his friend’s poetry was its power of ‘awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.’
Coleridge’s words take us to Wordsworth as environmentalist. His concern for the natural world, his joy in trees and clouds and water, animals and birds, his anxiety about loss or ill-considered intervention in the landscape—all of these are so omnipresent in his poetry and in his descriptive prose, that paradoxically it is easy to stop registering their importance. ‘Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze’—Wordsworth’s tribute to his own upbringing in the Lake District in The Prelude begins with this heartfelt utterance. Like all his poems, this one exclamation brings together Nature and the Human Being in a simple but profound conjunction.
What more? A great deal, of course. Wordsworth’s work—and it’s a substantial and varied body of work—might appeal to us in all sorts of ways. For some it will be the poems about childhood that attract most powerfully; for others it will be those about rocks and stones and trees; for others it may be that the social and political aspects of his writing will speak most forcefully. For many, truths that do lie too deep for tears will be found in the poems about love and loss. But what needs to be stressed—at least to the mind of this long-time Wordsworthian writer—is that whatever its subject matter, whether it be the excitements of childhood or the deprivations of age, Wordsworth’s poetry offers us continual renewals of pleasure. Dr Johnson—invariably a wise commentator on essentials–declared that the only end of writing was to enable men the better to enjoy life or to endure it. Johnson died in 1784. Had he lived a little later, I’m sure he would have recognized in Wordsworth the real thing.
Stephen Gill is an Emeritus Professor of Oxford University and a Fellow of Lincoln College. For many years a Trustee, he is now a Fellow of the Wordsworth Trust. His edition of The Salisbury Plain Poems of William Wordsworth in 1975 inaugurated the Cornell Wordsworth Series and he has since twice edited selections of Wordsworth’s poetry and prose for Oxford University Press. In addition to editing collections of essays, he was written three books on the poet: William Wordsworth: A Life (1989), Wordsworth and the Victorians (1998) and Wordsworth’s Revisitings (2012).