The Language of Semblance in The Prelude

by Chris Townsend

There are features of Wordsworth’s poetry that are so obvious as to not really need stating; he was obviously concerned with visual perception, and he very clearly had an interest in nature. But sometimes when we let the most obvious parts of poems slip by us, they silently carry with them a wealth of significance that might change how we read the rest of the work. It’s for that reason that it’s not a bad idea to take a close look at Wordsworth’s all-but ubiquitous language of semblance — that is, his frequent use of words like seems and appears.

‘Semblance’ relates to external appearances — especially when the appearance of a thing is different from its reality. But we all use terms of semblance so often and casually that’s it’s not always clear what we mean. If you ask a friend what they think of your boyfriend or girlfriend and they reply “they seem very nice”, you might be satisfied with the response — or you might wonder why they only “seem” nice, as if your friend is really thinking “they seem nice, but…”. The verb ‘to seem’ is a ghostly relative of the verb ‘to be’; the former is about the surface of a thing, the latter gets to its actual nature. And whilst Wordsworth rarely wrote poems about the relative merits or demerits of anyone’s boyfriend or girlfriend, but there are deep philosophical implications to this difference between appearance and reality. Let’s have a look at The Prelude.

The 1805 version of Wordsworth’s Prelude opens with the following image of an ‘intellectual breeze’:

Oh, there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky; it beats against my cheek,
And seems half conscious of the joy it gives. (I.1-4)

The poem, which is many thousands of lines in length, begins with what can only be viewed as a tentative claim about the nature of Nature: the breeze only ‘seems’ conscious, and only half-conscious, at that. True enough, the opening lines do feature the verb ‘to be’ — there is blessing in the breeze — but it is not clear who put it there, nor if the breeze really knows about it. Is this a poem about human consciousness, a natural-spiritual consciousness, or half-and-half?

Following the many instances of this kind of language, you can quickly detect two patterns in The Prelude. One is that terms of semblance often accompany doublings, dichotomies, and things that come in halves. Consider the following (with italics added by me):

       his figure seemed
Half sitting, and half standing (IV.413.-414)

        I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other Being (II.31-33)

        things remembered idly do half seem
The work of fancy (VII.148)

The other discernible pattern is that Wordsworth’s language of semblance tends to pop up in those moments in The Prelude when nature is (or seems) most spiritualized or active. Here’s the famous image of a cliff bearing down on the young Wordsworth as he rows on a lake at night:

When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear’d its head. (I.408-411).

As if with voluntary power. But not actually? Nature again and again gets this treatment in The Prelude, with the poet writing: ‘Upon this lustre have I gazed, that seemed / To have some meaning which I could not find’ (VIII.576-577); ‘in life’s everyday appearances / I seemed about this period to have sight / Of a new world’ (XII.369-372); and ‘the sky seem’d not a sky / Of earth, and with what motion mov’d the clouds!’ (I.351-323). What motion, indeed?

This language, of seemingness and appearance, ultimately plays a crucial role in Wordsworth’s philosophic vision. He won’t confirm for us whether he is merely seeing the world as a spiritualized entity, or whether it really is that way. It’s the difference between subjective and objective truth, and Wordsworth’s uncertain language plots a course somewhere between the two. We can’t apply the hard and fast categories of philosophy to Wordsworth — such as Materialism, Idealism, Realism — because he by turns looks to occupy all those positions, and none. Put differently, it would be difficult to say for sure whether Wordsworth thinks the whole world is in his head, or if it exists ‘out there’ — and if there were no humans left to observe it, whether the world would carry on being half-conscious of the joy it gives.

A last example can be found in the concluding sections of The Prelude, which deal directly with the question of the relation between mind and world. Wordsworth flags up the theme of uncertainty early in the thirteenth book of the poem, during a climb up Mount Snowdon. A ‘huge sea of mist’ parts at the top of the mountain, and he gains a view of ‘the sea, the real sea, that seemed / To dwindle and give up its majesty’ (XIII.49-50). This is a much-discussed pair of images, as Wordsworth goes from a common metaphor (‘sea of mist’) to a literal image of the ocean one. And yet, Even that ‘real sea’ is awash with semblance, seeming to ‘dwindle’, to appear somehow smaller, in the eye of the poet.

View of Mount Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, by Richard Wilson

View of Mount Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, by Richard Wilson

The passage atop Snowdon then gives way to the climactic episode of the book, the experience of the poetic imagination:

A meditation rose in me that night
Upon the lonely mountain when the scene
Had passed away, and it appeared to me
The perfect image of a mighty mind,
Of one that feeds upon infinity,
That is exalted by an under-presence,
The sense of God, or whatsoe’er is dim
Or vast in its own being (XIII.66-73)

If it’s hard to tell what’s going on here, it’s because Wordsworth in part wants to keep it that way (there isn’t actually a full-stop for another 10 lines after this, it just keeps going). He sees the image of his own mind, which is imbued with a ‘sense of God’. ‘Sense’ is a complicated word in itself, as Wordsworth could mean it in its technical deployment as a bodily or mental function — as in ‘the sense of smell’ — or as only a faint, intuited knowledge of something — ‘sensing his presence’. More difficult still is the pairing ‘it appeared’. ‘Appeared’ might mean ‘it looked like’, or else ‘it really made itself visible before me’ — the difference between ‘it seems like a mind’ or ‘a mind appeared’. That’s confusing enough before even asking what ‘it’ refers to. There’s a tendency to read ‘it’ as what we call a pleonastic pronoun — as in the phrase ‘it rained’. But maybe ‘it’ looks forward: ‘the perfect image of a mighty mind appeared to me’. Or maybe ‘it’ looks back to the previous lines: ‘A meditation rose and appeared like a mind’, or ‘the lonely mountain appeared to me as a mind’, or even ‘the scene, after it had passed, (somehow) appeared to me as a mighty mind’. Where we’d hope for answers from the poem, though, we find none.

The job of a poet, after all, relates more to offering perspectives than it does to providing hard and fast answers, and The Prelude artfully manages to give us several pictures of reality at once; images of ‘the real sea’ relate to the scientist’s view of the world, as out there, real, and indifferent to us. The spiritualized vision of a natural world that interacts with the human mind is, for Wordsworth, the most tantalizing view of things. And there is also the possibility of solipsism in Wordsworth — of a mind that only sees the world as a collection of its own thoughts. Keats famously referred to this aspect of Wordsworth as the ‘egotistical sublime’ — as the mind that encounters the natural world, but only seems to see itself. Such an experience is, though, only one facet of Wordsworth’s poetry, and across his most philosophic poetry he uses semblance, and uncertainty, to leave the options open for his reader. In closing, here are the opening lines of his great ode, ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

At the centre of these opening lines is the word ‘seem’. And the uncertainty of semblance is here reinforced through the emphatic movement of the poem’s rhymes: from stream, to seem, to dream. A natural image, the dreaming mind that produces its own images, and, in the middle, the experience of a world ‘seeming’ to be, which holds both nature and mind together. It is masterful.

Chris Townsend is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. He works on the philosopher George Berkeley and his influence on the Romantic-era poets William Blake, Chris TSamuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. Outside of academia, he writes about literature, art, and popular culture, and he also blogs about professional cycling. His Twitter ID is @marmeladrome

The Maid of Buttermere

by Sinéad Fitzgibbon

It takes a lot to shock us these days. I doubt it would be stretching the bounds of credulity, in fact, if I were to say that, living as we do in this media age, we have evolved into a fairly unshockable species. Never before have we been so connected to the world, and so exposed to all it has to offer, both good and bad. We are, for the most part, more informed than ever before, but we have also become more jaded, sceptical, and desensitized to scandal, violence, and vice. Prurient voyeurism has become so pervasive as to become a cultural norm, and not much has retained the power to truly scandalize.
Bigamy, however, is one of the few things that can still manage to offend our general sense of morality. The act of deceptively taking on more than one spouse is among the last remaining societal taboos – in an age when proscription of the likes of divorce, premarital sex and same-sex marriage have largely fallen by the wayside, bigamy can still ignite some degree of moral indignation.
Imagine, then, the impact of bigamous marriage in the early years of the 19th century – a simpler, more innocent age, when moral indignation had a much lower tolerance threshold. Now consider the extent of outrage when the duped victim was a well-known but guileless young woman, who was feted throughout the Lake District and beyond for her winsome beauty and unblemished virtue. Add to that the fact that her seducer was a man of low birth who had the temerity to pass himself off as the brother of a respected Establishment figure and … well, you get the picture.
Mary Robinson, the aforementioned duped victim (who is described rather disconcertingly in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a ‘shepherdess and social celebrity’), first gained some measure of fame in 1792 when Joseph Budworth (writing as Joseph Palmer) made mention of her, and her abundance of physical charms, in his guidebook, A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes in Westmoreland, Lancashire and Cumberland. Listed by Palmer (without, it seems, any discernible hint of irony) as one of the area’s tourist attractions, the then 15-year-old daughter of an inn-keeper was somewhat breathlessly described as an ‘angel’ possessing ‘a fine oval face, with full eyes and lips as sweet as vermillion [and] her cheeks had more of the lily than the rose.’
The effect of Palmer’s panegyric was immediate: Mary Robinson became the late 18th-century equivalent to an overnight sensation and soon became known as the Beauty of Buttermere. Quite of a sudden, her family’s establishment, The Fish Inn, became the destination of choice for many travellers keen to witness this Cumbrian Aphrodite in the flesh – not least of whom were Coleridge and Wordsworth. The pair encountered Mary Robinson together on a month-long perambulatory tour of the Lakes in 1799 – on the night of November 11 to be exact – when they stayed the night in Buttermere after walking from Ouse Bridge via the village of Lorton and Crummock Water.
Fish Inn
It’s not difficult to see why Mary caught the poets’ attention. Her rustic appearance and gentle demeanour appealed to the Romantic notion of natural beauty, as did her wide-eyed and artless innocence which was, for the most part, a result of her lack of any worldly experience beyond her immediate Lakeland environment. Wordsworth would later write his own ode to Mary in Book VII of The Prelude. In it, her referred to ‘the Maid of Buttermere’ as an ‘artless daughter of the hills’ of ‘modest mien / And carriage marked by unexampled grace.’ He goes on to extol ‘Her just opinions, delicate reserve / Her patience and humility of mind.’ Coleridge, in a later newspaper article, is somewhat more frank in his assessment: ‘To beauty, however, in the strict sense of the word, she has small pretensions, for she is rather gap-toothed, and somewhat pock-fretten. But her face,’ he handsomely concedes, ‘is very expressive, and the expression extremely interesting, and her figure and movements are graceful to a miracle. She ought indeed to have been called the Grace of Buttermere, rather than Beauty.’
Despite the unexpected and unsought attention lavished on her as a result of being thrust into the limelight, Mary, it seems, was unaffected. Wordsworth, again in The Prelude, claimed that she remained ‘Unspoiled by commendation and the excess / Of public notice.’ Later, Edward Baines would go even further in his A Companion to the Lakes of Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire (1834), insisting that she ‘preserved her virtue, unsullied and unsuspected.’ So far, so praiseworthy.
But this was all to change, alas, with the appearance in the Lake District of the fraudster John Hatfield in the summer of 1802, some ten years after Mary was first gained public notice. Presenting himself as Colonel Alexander Augustus Hope, MP for Linlithgowshire in Scotland and the brother of the Earl of Hopetoun, the new arrival caused a stir from the outset. So impressed was John Crump, a Liverpudlian merchant whom ‘Hope’ met in Grasmere, he advanced the ‘Colonel’ a substantial sum of money on the basis of his apparent credentials. Hatfield then directed his malign and mercenary attentions to a wealthy heiress, but his plans to marry her were frustrated when he was asked to provide proof of his identity before the marriage took place.
John hatfield
Unfortunately for Mary, whom Hatfield met while staying at her family’s inn, her parents weren’t quite so cautious; dazzled by his blandishments and high-flown eloquence, Joseph Robinson was only too happy to consent to ‘Hope’s’ marriage to his beautiful daughter. The pair were wed on 2 October 1802 in Lorton. (Incidentally, Hatfield’s motives for marrying Mary are unclear. While her family had some means, she certainly wasn’t wealthy. The only explanation that makes any sense is that he was attracted to her fame and the cachet that came with netting such a celebrated beauty.)
Matrimonial bliss was not, however, destined to last long. The wedding of a minor member of the aristocracy to an inn-keeper’s daughter inevitably drew attention, and it was at this point that Hatfield’s elaborate subterfuge fell spectacularly asunder. Just a few days after his marriage, he was summoned to Keswick where he was confronted by George Hardinge, a Welsh judge and a friend of the real Colonel Hope (who had, it transpired, been abroad for the summer). In desperation, the rogue tried to change his story, claiming he was in fact Charles Hope, MP for Dumfries. This slippery side-step bought Hatfield some time which allowed him to abscond. When his belongings were subsequently searched and incriminatory letters discovered, realisation finally dawned that not only was Hatfield a forger (a capital offence at the time), but also that Mary Robinson, the lovely Maid of Buttermere, had been conned into a bigamous marriage.
On 11 October 1802, Coleridge wrote the first of five accounts of the affair in the Morning Post under the headline ‘Romantic Marriage.’ In it, Coleridge reveals that many in Buttermere and beyond had been suspicious of ‘Hope’s’ intentions. ‘The good people of Keswick,’ he writes, ‘await with anxiety the moment when they shall receive decisive proofs that the bridegroom is the real person whom he describes himself to be.’
But the good people of Keswick were to be disappointed. An advertisement was issued, which appeared in the Morning Post under the headline ‘Fraudulent Marriage’ on November 8, outlining Hatfield’s physical appearance and listing his many crimes. It was a long notice. Denounced as a ‘notorious imposter, swindler, and felon,’ he was described as ‘Height about five feet ten inches, aged about 44, full face, bright eyes, thick eye-brows, strong but light beard, good complection [sic] with some colour, thick but not very prominent nose, smiling countenance, fine teeth, a scar on one of his cheeks near the chin; very long, thick, light hair, with a great deal of it grey; stout, square-shouldered, full breast and chest, rather corpulent and stout-limbed but very active…’ And on it went for many more column inches.
Hatfield would remain on the run for some weeks, until he was finally apprehended in early December in south Wales and sent for questioning by magistrates at Bow Street. Neither Mary Robinson nor Michelli Nation (Hatfield’s legal wife, whom he had abandoned pregnant and penniless, along with their first child) would speak against him at his subsequent trial in Carlisle. Nonetheless, he was found guilty of forgery and sentenced to death.
In her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, 1803¸ Dorothy Wordsworth provides a fascinating eye-witness account of the day Hatfield learned of his fate, 16 August 1803, a Tuesday. ‘Dined at Carlisle,’ she recalls, ‘the town in a bustle with the assizes; so many strange faces known in former times and recognised, that it half seemed as if I ought to know them all, and, together with the noise, the fine ladies, etc., they put me into confusion. This day Hatfield was condemned I stood at the door of the gaoler’s house, where he was; William entered the house, and Coleridge saw him; I fell into conversation with a debtor, who told me in a dry way that he was “far over-learned,” and another man observed to William that we might learn from Hatfield’s fate “not to meddle with pen and ink.”’
John Hatfield, bigamist, fraudster, debtor, forger, gambler, confidence trickster, adventurer, liar, thief, and all-round ne’er-do-well, lost his life on 3 September 1803 at the end of a hangman’s noose. He was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Carlisle, in a spot specially intended to receive the executed bodies of criminals. Or, to quote a newspaper report at the time, in ‘the usual place of internment for those who come to an untimely end,’ with ‘the parishoners [sic] of the Burgh objecting to his being laid there.’
And what of the unfortunate Maid of Buttermere? Her few days of marital bliss had left her with child. Alas, the baby, a little girl, died just three weeks after her birth from pneumonia. Sympathy for Mary remained undiminished. She was deemed blameless and received no censure for her short-sighted and rash actions in marrying such a man as Hatfield. In fact, money was donated by generous members of the public for her welfare. Would Mary, one wonders, have gotten off so lightly if she wasn’t the famed beauty of lore? One suspects not.
Mary Robinson would ultimately find her happy ever after. Three years after Hatfield’s demise, she married a local man and would go on to have four children. In The Prelude (1807), Wordsworth tells us that, happily, ‘She lives in peace / Upon the spot where she was born and reared / Without contamination doth she live / In quietness, without anxiety.’
She died in 1837, just a little short of her 60th birthday.

Sinéad Fitzgibbon is the author of five titles for the popular History In An Hour series, including The Queen, Titantic, and JFK. She has also embarked on a series of city histories including A Short History of London .Sinead Fitzgibbon