Wordsworth’s Crisis

E.P. Thompson

  • 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.’

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