- Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years by Nicholas Roe
Oxford, 306 pp, £27.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 19 812868 1
‘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.’
Vol. 11 No. 4 · 16 February 1989
From Nicholas Roe
E.P. Thompson’s review of my Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (LRB, 8 December 1988) contains many fascinating speculations about Wordsworth’s revolutionary youth and his Godwinian ‘crisis’. But Thompson’s preoccupation with the book that he claims I ‘intended to write’ has distracted him from the one I have published, which explains his misrepresentation of my argument on several points relevant to his own conjectures.
It would indeed be ‘false’ and rather foolish if I had argued that there was ‘a very considerable Cambridge element’ leading the Corresponding Society solely on the basis of Losh’s and Frend’s membership of one of its committees. Fortunately, however, this is one of Thompson’s inventions. What I do show is that out of 16 men on this particular committee eight had studied at Cambridge University. By way of explaining their presence I trace how, from the 1770s on, radicals and dissenters from Cambridge University provided the intellectual leadership for the democratic reform movement in London. This link helps to explain why, in the 1790s, so many of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s university friends moved in circles associated with the Corresponding Society and with William Godwin, and why the two poets nearly coincided in this company in London late in 1794-5.
As Thompson says, membership of the Corresponding Society was a ‘borderline situation’: a person could attend meetings or speak at the tribune while not formally affiliated to the society. But Thompson might have paused before citing Francis Place as ‘scrupulous’ evidence for his assertion that William Frend was ‘never a member’. John Thelwall was equally well-placed to know, and in his lecture of 1 May 1795 he refers to ‘Citizen Frend [in the belief that] he will be better pleased to be called Citizen than Reverend and Mr’. Frida Knight’s excellent biography of Citizen Frend has Frend as a member of the society and I agree with her.
Thompson is too eager to constrain the reform movement within discrete categories, and to project the careers of Wordsworth and Coleridge along ideal ‘trajectories’. So he claims that ‘not one of the … public reformers … or supporters of the reform societies, were Godwinians’. This begs the question as to what a pure ‘Godwinian’ might have been in 1794-5, but I doubt if this animal (if it ever existed) was only to be found among Thompson’s ‘young radical intelligentsia’. Equally, there is no reason why those young people should not respond to Political Justice and also participate in the reform movement. Thompson implies that because Frend was a Unitarian he was not a ‘Godwinian’, yet oddly enough, Wordsworth first met Godwin at William Frend’s house in February 1795. Are we to believe that the discussion then did not turn to some extent upon Godwin’s writings, and that Frend remained completely unaffected by Godwin’s ideas? It was possible for him to respond favourably to the rational perfectibility of Political Justice (as Coleridge did for a short time) while rejecting Godwin’s atheism. The same point can be made about George Dyer, one of the most active London reformists and a Unitarian to boot, who was also present at Frend’s house and frequently met Godwin on other occasions. The complicated reality of London radicalism appears particularly clearly in the careers of John Binns and Francis Place: both were regularly in Godwin’s company, demonstrably influenced by his thinking, and paid-up members of the Corresponding Society as well.
What we should be seeing, I think, is a vital intersection between the radical intelligentsia and the reform movement, such that Wordsworth, Thelwall, Frend, Place and Binns – among others – could respond to Godwin’s ideas while retaining an active commitment to political change and formal membership of the Corresponding Society. If one accepts this possibility, Thompson’s pother about whether ‘Godwinism = True Radicalism’ becomes irrelevant, and his interpretation of Wordsworth’s ‘climactic crisis’ solely ‘in terms of English thought’ unhelpfully narrow. With one or two side-lights from Crabb Robinson and Basil Montague, Thompson’s version of Wordsworth’s ‘crisis’ is identical to Wordworth’s own in The Prelude and in The Excursion. Both poems idealise an experience which had a lived, historical milieu that I have tried to recover – in this instance, by relating Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s doubts about Godwin to their perception of the French Terror and fears of similar violence in Britain. This was not a matter of the poets’ ‘sudden recoil’ to rural retreat, as Thompson has it, but a drawn-out process of self-interrogation and realignment: only in retrospect could Wordsworth assess Godwin to have been a ‘threat to his vocation’ as a poet. While Thompson objects that my book is ‘encumbered with detail’, his own reading of the poets’ lives as ‘trajectories’ simplified a complex experience that I have deliberately not reduced to ideal patterns.
Finally, it is unfortunate that his last paragraph dismisses all other 20th-century comment on Wordsworth’s revolutionary years in favour of Harper’s 1919 Life of the poet. One hopes Thompson doesn’t include his own work in this wholesale rejection, and he might have added that Harper was indebted to, and admired, the work of Wordsworth’s great French biographer Emile Legouis. Legouis’s Early Life of William Wordsworth (1896) was reissued last year, and his reading of Wordsworth’s Godwinian ‘crisis’ as it appears in The Prelude is in no way challenged or improved by Thompson’s.
University of St Andrews
Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989
From E.P. Thompson
No, there wasn’t ‘a very considerable Cambridge element’ leading the London Corresponding Society. This is clear from the Society’s minutes and papers. Nicholas Roe (Letters, 16 February) has found his Cambridge alumni on an ad hoc committee which was set up to raise funds for the victims of the Treason Trials. Probably William Frend, who was certainly a warm supporter of the LCS, helped to get the committee together and drew in several of his Cambridge associates. He was to do the same in the last year of the LCS, when many members were in prison and when Francis Place applied to him for help: ‘He readily undertook to do so and said he would assemble some of his friends … for the purpose.’ The committee had no other role in the Society. It is possible that Frend did join the Society in 1795, although his name has not been found in the minutes or in the lists of any division. His biographer, Frida Knight, says that he did, and so does Albert Goodwin (The Friends of Liberty), but neither offers evidence, whereas Mary Thale in her Selections from LCS papers says that he probably did not (page 329), and offers reasons. Frend seems to have belonged to the Whig Club in January 1796, and was trying, without success, to bring it into a ‘junction’ with the LCS.
I don’t want to make much of all this, although historical evidence, like poetry, requires careful reading. Roe and I agree that in 1795 intellectual reformers (of various hues) and the more plebeian members of the LCS were brushing shoulders with each other. And of course the radical intelligentsia were continually exchanging views with each other, and on some issues making common cause. Roe quotes me as writing that ‘not one of … the public reformers, or supporters of the reform societies, were Godwinians.’ That would be easy to disprove. But what in fact I wrote was: ‘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.’ These are different statements. Certainly the popular societies included, for a time, enthusiastic readers of Political Justice as well as of works by Paine and Volney. But for many young intellectuals Godwinian philosophy was an alternative to poltical commitment, and it was this ‘abstraction’ which Wordsworth came to reject. The date of Harper’s Wordsworth should be 1929, and not 1919 (as given in my article and Roe’s letter).
Upper Wick, Worcester
Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989
From Jenny Graham
E.P. Thompson in his review of Nicholas Roe’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (LRB, 8 December 1988) comments on the improbability of the identification of ‘Citizen Wordsworth’ sitting in a tree, in Gillray’s cartoon of the meeting of the London Corresponding Society in Copenhagen Fields on 12 November 1795. Equally improbable is Roe’s surmise that ‘Joseph Priestley appears in the centre forground facing Thelwall.’ Priestley left England for America in April 1794. There seems even less reason why Gillray should depict him in Copenhagen Fields in 1795.
Lucy Cavendish College,
Vol. 11 No. 10 · 18 May 1989
From Jonathan Bate
Jenny Graham (Letters, 20 April) dismisses as an improbable surmise the identification by Nicholas Roe in his book Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years of the figure of Joseph Priestley in James Gillray’s 1795 caricature Copenhagen House, on the grounds that Priestley left England for America in 1794. Ms Graham should be informed that Gillray did not care about such details. The figure in the caricature is unquestionably that of Priestley. Furthermore, in 1798 Gillray included in his Anti-Jacobin caricature New Morality representations of both Priestley (he has a paper on ‘Inflammable Air’ in his pocket and ‘Priestley’s Political Sermons’ in his hand) and a pamphlet called ‘Original Letters to Dr Priestley in America’. In caricature you can be in two places at the same time. As for Roe’s supposedly improbable identification of ‘Citizen Wordsworth’ sitting in a tree, that, as E.P. Thompson saw in his original review (‘Perhaps Roe is pulling our leg?’), is a joke. Roe’s point in making it was, I assume, to suggest that Wordsworth remained in the background: since he did not publish his subversive writings, such as ‘A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’, he was not publicly identifiable as a radical in the way that his fellow poets were. In this respect, it is noteworthy that among the Jacobins in New Morality are Southey, Coleridge, Lamb, ‘&Co’ – as Stephen Gill points out in his new biography. ‘& Co’ is Wordsworth.
May I suggest that the correspondence about whether Wordsworth was a Red (under the bed, up a tree, or anywhere else) be closed and one about whether he was a Green be opened? In his review of Geoffrey Hartman’s The Unremarkable Wordsworth, in the same issue, Peter Swaab claims that Wordsworth ‘quite strikingly didn’t’ write ‘proto-ecological poems about a ravished countryside’. What is the ‘Sonnet on the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’, if not such a poem? (‘Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?’) Or the section in Book Eight of The Excursion concerning ‘changes in the country from the manufacturing spirit’? ‘Where does Wordsworth call to “save” nature, and what would it be to do this?’ Swaab asks. The answer is that Wordsworth made such a call in his most ‘proto-ecological’ text, ‘A Guide to the Lakes’. As for the question of what saving nature would involve, those who established the Lake District Defence Society in the later 19th century took their cue from Wordsworth’s remark in the ‘Guide’ about the Lakes being ‘a sort of national property’: in many ways, it is Wordsworth we have to thank for the National Trust (in its original function as the preserver of land, not its 1930s aberration as the custodian of stately homes) and the National Park system.
Trinity Hall, Cambridge
From Nicholas Roe
I identified the caricature in the foreground of Copenhagen House as Joseph Priestley, given its slight resemblance to the figure that stands at the centre of Gillray’s New Morality cartoon holding a volume labelled ‘Priestley’s Political Sermons’. Jenny Graham asserts that this identification is ‘improbable’, since Priestley had left for America in 1794 and so could not have been at the 1795 meeting depicted by Gillray in Copenhagen House. But she misses the point. Gillray’s purpose was to give the massed London ‘Jacobins’ a recognisable image, and a caricature of the well-known dissenter and reformist enabled him to do so. The matter of Priestley’s emigration is irrrelevant. Mary George’s catalogue of prints in the British Museum lists five cartoon allusions to Priestley between 1795 and 1800. With reference to Copenhagen House, she says that ‘in the centre … with his back to the woman selling drams, is Priestley, caricatured, standing with folded arms facing Thelwall.’ Priestley’s appearance there is an instance of his enduring reputation in English political and intellectual life, and is in no way ‘improbable’
University of St Andrews
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
From Jenny Graham
Nicholas Roe is entirely correct in asserting that Joseph Priestley exercised, even in exile, a profound influence upon English intellectual life, and that his political stance in the years before he left England was not forgotten (Letters, 18 May). His appearance in Gillray’s cartoon New Morality is in this context entirely understandable. New Morality, however, was above all a cartoon of allegory. Copenhagen Fields was a pictorial representation of an actual event. To compare the two – even making allowances for the conventions of caricature, in which Gillray undoubtedly did indulge with Priestley in 1791 – is, I think, to make a false analogy. Priestley was not even when in England a figure likely to be found at such a gathering: he never, as he wrote, attended ‘any public meeting, if I could decently avoid it’. And although Gillray did, in 1791, depict him at convivial gatherings of radical politicians – which he did attend – his sudden reappearance in Copenhagen Fields, unrecognisable except possibly for the wig and the nose, seems to me still on more than one count improbable.
Gillray’s depiction of Priestley in the earlier cartoons of the 1790s consistently captures the expression of many of his portraits – in particular, those by Artaud and Fuseli. It is one of alert, quizzical, playful, slightly demoniac intelligence, and it is hard to reconcile it with the expression of sullen and inert gloom which characterises the figure standing so prominently in front of Thelwall. Even as a symbolic figure this is a depiction of Priestley which it is hard to recognise, and it is perhaps worth pointing out that Grego, in his detailed study of Gillray, while identifying – I think rightly – several of the members of the Foxite opposition in the background of the cartoon, makes no identification of Priestley. The Priestley depicted by Gillray in New Morality, by contrast, still has the features of the earlier cartoons. That this is Priestley there can be no doubt, and the resemblance, as Nicholas Roe does admit, to the figure in Copenhagen Fields is ‘slight’. This, I would argue, is the only certain depiction by Gillray of Priestley after his emigration: all other allusions to him are to his works only. It was moreover surely prompted by Cobbett’s publication of the compromising correspondence from Hurford Stone in Paris, which made Priestley in the summer of 1798 once more a figure of some notoriety. In 1795, however, as the absence of other allusions to him at this time suggests, he had effectively left the English political scene.
Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge
Vol. 11 No. 18 · 28 September 1989
From Nicholas Roe
Jenny Graham is right to point out that Priestley’s appearance in Copenhagen House is historically inaccurate in that he was living in America by 1795 (Letters, 17 August). But as Jonathan Bate shows (Letters, 18 May), his presence in Gillray’s cartoon is understandable as imaginative caricature. Gillray was not offering a ‘pictorial representation’ of the Corresponding Society as a factual image of the event, although a number of individuals known to have attended the mass meeting do appear in the cartoon. Priestley’s sullen, saturnine figure is, as Ms Graham says, at odds with Gillray’s earlier and comparatively vital likenesses of him. In Copenhagen House he appears at the focal point of the cartoon, but as a spectator ab extra. His figure is a reminder that – as Ms Graham says – ‘Priestley exercised, even in exile, a profound influence upon English intellectual life’; his rueful detachment is congruent with his forced retreat abroad.
That Gillray’s likeness of Priestley should be ‘unrecognisable except possibly for the wig and the nose’, as Jenny Graham puts it, is wholly unsurprising. How else does she think caricature works?
University of São Paulo, Brazil