Regrets, Vexations, Lassitudes

Seamus Perry

  • BuyWilliam Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’: A Casebook edited by Stephen Gill
    Oxford, 406 pp, £19.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 19 518092 5

The greatest long poem in modern English letters began its life, unexpectedly, in the winter of 1798, in an uncomfortable lodging in Goslar, Lower Saxony, where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy found themselves marooned for four miserable months. The weather was terrible – it was reputedly the coldest winter of the century – and leaving town was practically impossible: ‘When we left the room where we sit we were obliged to wrap ourselves up in great coats &c in order not to suffer much pain from the transition,’ Dorothy wrote home to their brother Christopher, ‘though we only went into the next room or down stairs for a few minutes.’ The Wordsworths had travelled to Germany in September, ostensibly to learn the language, but really because they had nothing better to do in England, and were happy to be swept along in the charismatic wake of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom they had just shared an enchanted year of poetry and talk in the Quantocks in Somerset, and who was now eager to learn about German science. The principal production of their year together was the collaborative volume, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798). The little book opened with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and closed with ‘Tintern Abbey’, so it would scarcely have been unreasonable for the poets to have had high hopes at least of a succès d’estime; but their declared ambitions did not extend much further than raising some money for their Continental trip.

If they had all been looking forward to a new adventure together, however, that soon came to nothing: the poets went their separate ways almost as soon as they arrived in Germany. Coleridge headed for the bright lights of Ratzeburg, a pretty and expensive place, where he threw himself boisterously into a round of parties and top-notch chat: ‘A very different world,’ as Dorothy observed, ‘he is all in high life, among barons, counts and countesses.’ Goslar, by contrast, had financial prudence to recommend it but not much else: ‘an old decaying city’, thought Coleridge, who considered Wordsworth’s intellectual life hampered anyway by his unclubbable manners and the presence of Dorothy. ‘You have two things against you,’ he wrote, ‘your not loving smoke; and your sister.’

Stuck in this enforced, accompanied solitude, Wordsworth turned to writing. ‘William works hard,’ Dorothy reported, ‘but not very much in German.’ He worked with the utter absorption that would always mark his greatest periods of self-discovery, and not for the first time Dorothy worried that the strain of making verses was making him ill. Wordsworth was writing with troubled urgency, as though his poems were a necessary psychological bulwark: ‘As I have had no books I have been obliged to write in self-defence,’ he told Coleridge. His new work included some of the cryptic and beautiful lyrics known as the ‘Lucy’ poems: their relationship to Wordsworth’s own experience at the time is enigmatic, but the way they dwell on foreshortened lives spent in unvisited obscurity suggests the unhappy isolation of Goslar. Beside these poems, he was suddenly writing a lot of autobiographical blank verse that recollected incidents from his Lake District childhood. Dorothy transcribed a few passages in a letter they sent to Coleridge, including an account of ice-skating that she prefaced with a sturdy moral: ‘A race with William upon his native lakes would leave to the heart and the imagination something more dear and valuable than the gay sights of ladies and countesses whirling along the lake of Ratzeburg.’ This blank verse was unlike anything Wordsworth had written before. What would become The Prelude would occupy him in one way or another for the rest of his life.

Coleridge was on their minds all through that awful winter, quite apart from any disgruntlement at his dropping them for a glitzier life. If Dorothy sounded a little overprotective about William’s new work, that was doubtless because she knew that Coleridge was keenly expecting quite a different sort of poetry from him. Lyrical Ballads had not carried a very large burden of their authorial ambitions because Wordsworth had something much grander in prospect – and it was mostly of Coleridge’s devising. ‘The Recluse, or Views of Nature, Man, and Society’ was to be an immense work of philosophical blank verse in which, as Wordsworth had ingenuously explained to a friend, ‘I contrive to convey most of the knowledge of which I am possessed … Indeed, I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan.’ The encyclopedic ambitions are ringingly Coleridgean, and indeed Coleridge had himself entertained for a time thoughts of a similar long poem (his was to be called ‘The Brook’), which would have interwoven natural description and metaphysical reflections. Like many of Coleridge’s grandest schemes it came to nothing; but in Wordsworth, he clearly felt, he had found just the man to take over the testing commission. However sticky their relations became in later life, Coleridge never wavered from his earliest conviction that Wordsworth was the finest poet of the age, the peer of Shakespeare and Milton; and for such genius only one sort of production could possibly be appropriate: ‘the first & finest philosophical Poem’.

Wordsworth seems to have been only too happy to assume the task – his confidence no doubt boosted by Coleridge’s certainty that he had enjoyed just the right sort of childhood to prepare him for it. Coleridge had spent most of his boyhood in London, a place he represents in his poems as one of hellish confinement; but Wordsworth’s early life had been spent among the Cumbrian mountains and lakes, and, according to the quasi-pantheist theology Coleridge professed at the time, that was tantamount to spending it in the company of divinity itself. No wonder Wordsworth looked on Coleridge with such wonder during that year in Somerset: Wordsworth had had the experience but missed the meaning; and now here was Coleridge to supply it. When in ‘Frost at Midnight’ Coleridge imagined an ideal childhood for his infant son, it was a Wordsworthian childhood imagined in a fantasy Cumbria (he had, as yet, never been to the real place):

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores

And mountain crags …

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