John Keats went walking in the Lake District in June 1818. It was the first decent summer since the eruption of an Indonesian volcano three years before had tipped postwar Europe into a crisis of failed harvests, mass hunger and widespread social unrest. In Britain, Lord Liverpool’s government had suspended Habeas Corpus; Luddite organisers, revolutionary Spenceans and radical journalists had been arrested and tried (with mixed results); the Peterloo Massacre and the repressive ‘Six Acts’ lay just ahead. Windermere surpassed Keats’s expectations: ‘Beautiful water – shores and islands green to the marge – mountains all round up to the clouds’. But it wasn’t just the landscape he had come for. He longed to meet Wordsworth, the poet of liberty and humanity, the great philanthropic voice of the rural poor. He made the seven-mile pilgrimage to Rydal Mount, Wordsworth’s scenic home near Ambleside, but it was election season in Westmorland, and the sage of Rydal was out canvassing for the Tories.
Not just any Tories. The Lowther family were landed gentry who also had vast coal-mining interests, and aspired to the political domination of the entire North-West. They had been running Westmorland like a giant pocket borough since the heyday of Sir James (‘Wicked Jimmy’) Lowther, 1st earl of Lonsdale: a man Thomas De Quincey called ‘a true Feudal Chieftain’, notorious for his ‘gloomy temper and habits of oppression’. Wicked Jimmy went to a better (or worse) place in 1802, at which point the large debt he owed Wordsworth’s late father, who had spent many thankless years as his law agent, was finally settled. But the Lowthers continued to operate much as they had before, and the nine seats they controlled in the Commons were at the heart of Lord Liverpool’s Westminster power base. No one had dared stand against them for more than forty years, but this time their opponent was formidable – Henry Brougham, an energetic liberal who promoted all the wrong causes – and the Lowthers weren’t the kind to leave anything to chance. They used every method available to ensure that nothing went awry: rigging land-tax assessments to disenfranchise Whig voters and bussing in hired heavies to police the hustings. Wordsworth was at the fancy end of the operation, and in Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmorland he serenely explained that free expression was poisoning minds and reformers were corroding social bonds, so that tough legislation was needed to avert revolution. Thomas Love Peacock’s summary wasn’t unfair: ‘Wordsworth has published an Address to the Freeholders, in which he says they ought not to choose so poor a man as Brougham, riches being the only guarantees of political integrity.’
Wordsworth wasn’t the only backslider among those who had been radicals during the French Revolution era 25 years earlier. The ‘Lakers’ (as Francis Jeffrey mockingly called them in 1814) all made the same move, whether from conviction, pragmatism, or both. Robert Southey, whose incendiary drama Wat Tyler (1794) had been too hot for even the most reckless publisher to touch at the height of the revolution panic, was now cheerfully knocking out loyal odes in his role as poet laureate. Southey was consistent, as William Hazlitt neatly observed, only in that he was always an extremist and always wrong: then, he had been an ‘Ultra-Jacobin’ and ‘frantic demagogue’ who ‘did not stop short of general anarchy’; now, he was an ‘Ultra-Royalist’ and ‘servile court-tool’ who ‘goes the whole length of despotism’. Then there was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom John Thelwall – a 1790s firebrand who did stick to his guns – remembered as being, in the heyday of Robespierre and Saint-Just, ‘a down right zealous leveller & indeed in one of the worst senses of the word … a Jacobin, a man of blood’. Now, along with high-minded exercises in conservative philosophy and theology like The Statesman’s Manual (1816), Coleridge was writing combat journalism for the Courier, chief propaganda organ of the Liverpool government.
Even so, there was something about Wordsworth’s political turn that stuck in the craw. The Lakers were all ‘violent and intolerant against their old opinions’, Leigh Hunt wrote during his celebrated stint in prison for seditious libel, but Wordsworth was the genius among them, and for that reason his apostasy was the most distressing. It’s hard to imagine Percy Shelley taking the trouble to write a poem to fluent, facile Southey or even brilliant, underachieving Coleridge (Mary Shelley’s claim that ‘O! there are spirits of the air’ is about him is very doubtful). But Wordsworth was the ‘Poet of Nature’, and Shelley’s sonnet, first published in Alastor (1816), laments the loss of a star that had shone in the winter’s midnight; a voice that had consecrated songs to liberty and truth. Wordsworth may still have been thriving, not least thanks to the Lowthers, who a few years earlier had set him up as distributor of stamps for Westmorland (not a sinecure; there was work involved), but to Shelley he was dead, and should be mourned: ‘Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,/Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.’
For Hazlitt, political disappointment was intensified by the affection he still had for Wordsworth. As well as the usual dismay, Hazlitt’s journalism offers vivid glimpses of Wordsworth’s 1790s prime, his eyes aflame ‘as if he saw something in objects more than the outward appearance’, and, despite his seriousness, ‘a convulsive inclination to laughter about the mouth’. When the two men first met in Somerset just before the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798), Wordsworth was wearing striped pantaloons (a French-inspired piece of radical chic) and demolishing a Cheshire cheese. He spoke with ‘clear, gushing accents in his voice, a deep guttural intonation, and a strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine’.
‘Apostasy’ is a strong term, though it was often used of Wordsworth at the time (he privately complained about critics ‘who have dealt so liberally with the words “Renegado”, “Apostate” etc’), and it’s still routinely used today. The idea of religious betrayal remains central, just as ‘renegade’ connotes treachery and rebellion that go beyond a mere change of allegiance. Yet how much, in practice, does Wordsworth’s apostasy really matter? Hazlitt and Hunt were smart and open-minded enough to see that being a conservative, or becoming one, doesn’t necessarily make you a bad poet. With far more eloquence than the Tory essayists of the Quarterly Review, they upheld Wordsworth’s literary reputation in the period of The Excursion (1814), extolling the poetry even as they deplored the politics, which they saw simply as a biographical circumstance. Byron lost patience with The Excursion, which he thought turgid, but captured the problem with perfect succinctness: ‘Wordsworth – stupendous genius! damned fool!’
The fact remains that Wordsworth wrote most of his best verse in the 1790s, certainly before 1805, and that his creative decline coincided with (who knows if it was caused by) his embrace of Toryism. In real life, he became poet laureate after Southey and died in 1850 at the age of eighty. But at one point in his lively new biography, Jonathan Bate offers an arresting counterfactual: a skating accident of 1807 in which Wordsworth falls fatally through the ice at 36, Byron’s age at his death in Greece. The two-volume Poems of 1807 would have been in press, but there would have been no Ecclesiastical Sketches (102 flatulent sonnets on Church history, published in 1822). As for The Prelude, Wordsworth’s groundbreaking epic of the self, it would have appeared promptly, one assumes, in the enthralling, exploratory version of 1805, ‘instead of Wordsworth spending nearly forty years revising it, almost always for the worse’. The family would have published other important manuscripts from the Lyrical Ballads era (‘The Ruined Cottage’, ‘The Pedlar’, ‘Home at Grasmere’) that appeared in Wordsworth’s lifetime only in The Excursion, cannabalised and attenuated. Not only his individual reputation but the whole course of poetry would have been changed.
It’s an intriguing thought experiment, entertained with just a bit more relish than you’d expect from a biographer. Bate then moves at speed through the later years (the book is avowedly selective, and mirrors Wordsworth’s aesthetic by preferring ‘spots of time’ to dutiful wholes), playing later poems like the ‘Thanksgiving Ode’ or the ecclesiastical sonnet on ‘American Episcopacy’ mainly for laughs. These are sitting ducks (‘But thy most dreaded instrument/In working out a pure intent/Is Man – arrayed for mutual slaughter, –/Yea, Carnage is thy daughter!’), but Wordsworth’s muse was always hit and miss. Bate cuts swathes through the canon, and not much survives after ‘The White Doe of Rylstone’, composed in 1807 but not published until 1815 (‘This, we think, has the merit of being the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume,’ the Edinburgh Review said). A handful of sonnets like the plangent, elegiac ‘Surprised by Joy’ and a few items from the 1820 River Duddon sequence are worth snatching from the flames, Bate thinks, along with the ‘Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg’ (which was not extempore at all – it went through nine manuscript versions and four published ones). But, essentially, ‘the second half of Wordsworth’s life was the longest, dullest decline in literary history.’
This narrative of creative atrophy remains the standard view, and Bate restates it with flair and conviction, while adding his own distinctive emphasis on Wordsworth as a proto-environmentalist. He sidesteps recent reassessments of the later verse, including Stephen Gill’s argument in Wordsworth’s Revisitings (2011) that the revised Prelude of 1850 was much more than a damage-limitation job on a heretical original text. Similar arguments animate the richly revised second edition of Gill’s biography (the first appeared in 1990), which refuses the usual trajectory and instead celebrates ‘a multifaceted, highly creative life of eighty years’. Gill’s Wordsworth is not only the 21-year-old visitor for whom revolutionary Paris was the dawn of bliss, but also the 70-year-old who climbed Helvellyn ‘and composed a fine sonnet as he did so’. The radicalism is one part of the story, and not the only valuable part.
It’s worth asking just how radical the early Wordsworth was. As a political term, the word came into use in the late 18th century (cognates like ‘radicalism’ followed in the early 19th) with a meaning that tended to stop short of ‘revolutionary’. A ‘radical’ advocated ‘thorough or far-reaching political reforms’ (the OED cites a 1793 instance referring to Charles James Fox); ‘Jacobin’ was the alternative used to describe more extreme positions that rejected reform. It’s hard to apply the latter term to Wordsworth, even if it was occasionally used of him (despite his meticulous Prelude revisions, Thomas Macaulay could still thunder in 1850 that ‘the poem is to the last degree Jacobinical, indeed Socialist’). He was one of many English visitors to Paris between the fall of the Bastille and Robespierre’s Terror, and the experience marked him deeply, but in complex ways. Thanks to a letter of introduction from the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith, he met and possibly lodged with the hardline revolutionary Jacques-Pierre Brissot, and is known to have attended a fiery Jacobin Club debate in December 1791. But Brissot broke with the Jacobins a few months later, and Wordsworth’s connections in Paris were chiefly Girondins – like the Jacobins, supporters of revolutionary violence, but a more moderate faction – such as the journalist Antoine-Joseph Gorsas, whose execution he may have witnessed in 1793, the same year Brissot was guillotined. During his months in Orléans and Blois Wordsworth fell in with royalists, and indeed fell in love with one of them, Annette Vallon, the mother of his first child, whose counter-revolutionary activities are recorded in surviving police archives. Personal connection isn’t the same as political conviction, but by the time of the September Massacres of 1792, Wordsworth was clearly questioning his early enthusiasm for a revolution that was already collapsing into mass slaughter and would eventually degenerate into imperialism (he especially deplored the invasion of Switzerland) and dictatorship (Napoleon). His experience is similar to that of the Solitary in Book 3 of The Excursion, who is at first inspired by the French Revolution and the ‘emancipation of the world’ it seems to promise, but then recoils from its militarism and despotism in ‘disappointment and disgust’.
One problem is that by far the fullest biographical source for the Girondin Wordsworth of the early 1790s is the 1805 Prelude, a work preoccupied with the unreliability of memory. The autobiographical subject becomes ‘two consciousnesses’, the described self of the past and the describing self in the present – the latter dealing in imaginative projection as much as in neutral recollection. The Prelude, in other words, explicitly acknowledges that in reconstructing earlier states of mind, it ‘cannot say what portion is in truth/The naked recollection of that time,/And what may rather have been called to life/By after-meditation’. Some of the after-meditation is emphatically political, so that even as the poem recalls a state of revolutionary idealism, it recoils from that state, ‘since juvenile errors are my theme’.
Wordsworth’s Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff is his closest approach to seditious writing, but this unsigned pamphlet, written in 1793, remained unpublished, and politically Wordsworth lay low, even as others in his circle became notorious. He didn’t make it into the most famous conservative satire of the era, James Gillray’s exuberant cartoon New Morality (1798), which places Coleridge and Southey alongside grotesque caricatures of the revolutionary virtues Justice, Philanthropy and Sensibility (Sensibility caresses a dead bird while trampling on a human head). His one action as a revolutionary was a non-event, best known from Coleridge’s comic version in Biographia Literaria (1817), in which a dim-witted Home Office agent called James Walsh overhears the pair discussing ‘Spy Nozy’ (Spinoza) and assumes they’ve found him out. Wordsworth and Coleridge were in Somerset at the time, walking, talking, composing material for Lyrical Ballads and receiving visitors including Thelwall in his trademark white hat (which falls into the same category as Wordsworth’s striped pantaloons). Wordsworth’s eccentricities scared the natives, the Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle recalled: one ‘saw him wander about by night, and look rather strangely at the moon!’; another ‘heard him mutter, as he walked, in some outlandish brogue, that nobody could understand!’; a third suspected that ‘he carries on a snug business in the smuggling line’; a fourth thought him ‘surely a desperd French jacobin, for he is so silent and dark, that no body ever heard him say one word about politics!’ The Home Office agent suspected that the group were prospecting for an invasion site, then concluded that this was ‘no French affair but a mischiefuous gang of disaffected Englishmen … a Sett of violent Democrats’. His bosses in London lost interest.
In his poetry, Wordsworth never went as far as Coleridge, whose ‘war eclogue’ of 1794, ‘Fire, Famine, and Slaughter’, imagines the assassination of the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, with alarming enthusiasm (‘They shall seize him and his brood –/They shall tear him limb from limb!’). In fragments like ‘The Pedlar’ as well as several of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth placed figures of dispossession at the heart of his verse, while frequently implying, and occasionally saying, that their plight demanded political action: ‘’Tis against that/Which we are fighting’, the revolutionary Beaupuy declares in The Prelude, pointing to ‘a hunger-bitten Girl’. It was Wordsworth’s attempt not only to imagine low rustic life but to adopt its language that led Hazlitt to talk of his ‘levelling Muse’. Hazlitt even claimed that ‘Jacobin principles’ gave rise in both Wordsworth and Coleridge to ‘Jacobin poetry … Their genius, their style, their versification, every thing down to their spelling, was revolutionary.’ But in terms of language at least, Wordsworth could never catch the authentic voice from below as Robert Burns or John Clare did, or deplore the politics of dispossession with anything like their authority. Some of the most interesting (and painful) moments in Lyrical Ballads come when he reflects self-consciously on his remoteness from peasant experience and language – his patrician distance (despite that northern burr) from subalterns who cannot speak. ‘Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman’ is a poem about poverty, age and tragic incapacity, from the perspective of an elite passer-by who tries to enter into the predicament of the once powerful hunter. He does so clumsily, and makes it worse. In a passage laden with sly hints of emasculation, old Simon hacks feebly for hours at a root which the speaker casually severs with a single blow. Simon weeps, superficially with thanks, but implicitly with a recognition of his own enfeeblement – his now irretrievable state of being ‘overtasked’ in life. The ballad ends in tones that include self-reproach: ‘I’ve heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds/With coldness still returning./Alas! the gratitude of men/Has oftner left me mourning.’
In 1801, Wordsworth congratulated a reader of Lyrical Ballads for identifying the pathos of the poems as ‘the pathos of humanity’ and not ‘jacobinal pathos’; only ‘bad poets and misguided men’, he wrote, would yoke their verse to a political cause. By the first years of the 19th century his retreat from radicalism was well under way, but perhaps the radicalism was never unqualified. And perhaps it never completely died. The elderly Wordsworth can still surprise us, as he certainly surprised the Chartist Thomas Cooper when, fresh from Stafford jail, Cooper showed up unannounced at Rydal Mount in 1846. Wordsworth welcomed Cooper in and applauded the aims, though not the methods, of the Chartist movement (‘I have no respect for Whigs, but I have a great deal of the Chartist in me,’ he said on another occasion). Cooper left ‘with a more intense feeling of having been in the presence of a good and great intelligence, than I had ever felt in any other moments of my life’.