Wordsworth’s Lost Satire

Nicholas Roe

Everyone knows that as a young English Jacobin Wordsworth visited France, becoming so intimately entangled in Revolutionary affairs that he might have remained there, eventually to be destroyed in the Terror. Later in life, though, he deliberately suppressed many aspects of his earlier career, in order to represent himself as an elect spirit – the prophet of nature, who had survived triumphantly undisfigured by the turmoil of contemporary history. A closer examination reveals a less impressive figure. Wordsworth was the revolutionary who abandoned Paris at the onset of the Terror; the democrat who was indifferent to the emancipation of slaves; the citizen reformer who remembered to forget state conspiracy and terrorism at the London treason trials of 1794. The French Revolution, which Wordsworth acknowledged as the most inspiring human cause in European history, became merely a subordinate scene in the drama of his self-justification.

This manipulation of the past is illuminated by the recovery of a poem dating from the mid-1790s, hitherto thought to exist only in a fragmentary state. Exactly two hundred years ago, in the summer of 1795, Wordsworth visited his university friend Francis Wrangham, a curate at Cobham, Surrey, and during the fortnight he spent there began a collaborative translation of Juvenal’s eighth satire. Wordsworth’s version of the second half of the satire survived in a letter to Wrangham of late February 1797, and there are scattered fragments in the poet’s notebooks. The recovery of numerous extracts from their collaboration on the first half (hitherto unpublished, and now in the Blackwood papers at the National Library of Scotland) makes it possible to see the lost satire as a substantial poem dating from an obscure period of Wordsworth’s life – a time when, it now appears, he considered poetry as a medium for active intervention in the nation’s political life.

It was evidence of this kind of activity that Wordsworth (like that ‘damn’d Jacobine’ Coleridge) strenuously tried to suppress, refusing in 1806 to sanction publication of the poem and citing his ‘fixed rule to steer clear of personal satire’. Wrangham was less squeamish. He retained a manuscript of the poem until May 1822, when he approached William Blackwood seeking publication of ‘some splendid fragments’ to which he had contributed as ‘a very humble adjunct’ to the principal author: ‘a Friend of mine who now ranks in the very foremost of the poetical world’. Writing again two weeks later, Wrangham enclosed 145 lines of the Juvenal imitation which he evidently expected to see published forthwith (and without the consent of his eminent friend) in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.

Juvenal’s eighth satire contrasts the worthless nobility of the present with the genuine achievements of their forebears, in order to expose the baneful influence of inherited power. Wordsworth had already tackled this theme in his republican pamphlet Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff of 1793, and it seems probable that he intended the satire to recommend a true democracy of talent which would revive the body politic of the country. Given the nervousness of the political establishment in the 1790s, publication of the poem would certainly have resulted in a prosecution for seditious libel.

The passages Wrangham offered to Blackwood’s indicate that they had set about their version with relish. The couplet verse has considerable dash and zest, presenting a sequence of brilliantly mocking vignettes of contemporary life: bankrupt aristocrats obsessed with family heirlooms, ‘banner’d halls’ and ‘mausolean glooms’ shrouding ‘proud memorials’ of ancestors. Pope’s voice, inflected by modern follies, was evidently one influence:

The lapdog sleek, my Lady’s dearer mate,
That sleeps within her bed and feeds on plate,
Is Pompey, Caesar, or – if these appear
Accents too bloodless for a modern ear,
Suwarrow, Buonaparte, Robespierre.
Such the caprice of names!

Elsewhere the satire is less capricious, excoriating a sleazy unrepresentative House of Commons (‘the house of taxes, turn-pike roads and laws’), and the frivolous ‘prattle and pomade’ of fashionable court life. This was not just empty abuse, a last scurrilous gesture by two defeated English Jacobins. The satire had a constructive purpose in attacking at its source the corruption which had had a widespread effect on public life: the injustice and barbarity of the legal system (‘Whips, racks, and torture! Flog the scoundrels well!’), and the ‘contract-thieving minions’ employed by commercial interests to oppress and exploit ‘India’s patient millions’.

It doesn’t take much imagination to apply this to Britain at the end of the 20th century. Perhaps the warning of imminent social upheaval is also worth attending to:

– Prudence whispers that too sharp a thong
May scourge those shoulders, which though bare are strong.
Even avarice, forced to leave the wretched soil
(For her own ends) its implements of toil,
Has learn’d to dread the vengeance lurking there –
Pikes in the scythe, and musquets in the share.

Many held that a British revolution was a real possibility in 1795. Here it was represented as the spontaneous redress of a ‘wretched’ land against avarice and exploitation.

In seeking to counsel against revolutionary violence, however, the modernised version of Juvenal put forward a controversial philosophical agenda drawn from William Godwin’s rational, disinterested model of human behaviour in Political Justice. Wordsworth had been living in London earner in 1795, and was much in Citizen Godwin’s company. One of the themes in Political Justice, ‘the removing as much as possible arbitrary distinctions, and leaving to talents and virtue the field of exertion unimpaired’, coincided exactly with the spirit of Juvenal’s satire as interpreted by Wordsworth and Wrangham. This sententious inquiry was undoubtedly written by Wordsworth:

Hast thou, through life, tenaciously refer’d
To truth and justice every deed and word?
Roused all thy faculties, and bade them tend
Right to the good of all, their one sole end –
Convinc’d that to thy kind belongs alone,
And not to thee, what most thou call’st thine own?

Rather than deriving from Juvenal, this is a distillation of the chapters on property in Political Justice: ‘If justice have any meaning,’ Godwin had written, ‘nothing can be more iniquitous, than for one man to possess superfluities, while there is a human being in existence that is not adequately supplied with these.’

The significance of the imitation of Juvenal in its now almost complete state is that it shows how closely its authors were concerned with contemporary political life at a period when many commentators have assumed that Wordsworth in particular was turning away from public goings-on towards an exploration of inner life. Perhaps he was, yet the satire allows us to see how the juxtaposition of a redundant Establishment and the individual who is the true centre of value presents, if only in outline, a pattern for the poetry Wordsworth wrote soon afterwards. In the 1798 ‘Advertisement’ to Lyrical Ballads, for instance, Wordsworth announced the poems as ‘experiments’ which would challenge prejudiced assumptions about poetry with what Wordsworth hoped was ‘a natural delineation of human passions, human characters and human incidents’. In this sense Wordsworth’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads continued the more overtly public argument of the Juvenal imitation: ‘Then let this truth sink deep into thy mind – / The virtuous only are of noble kind.’ This couplet effectively summarises the satirical point of Juvenal’s eighth satire: ‘virtue’ and ‘nobility’, disengaged from inherited rights, may readily be found in the broad diversity of humankind – in the Godwinian philosopher, no doubt, but also in the old, the sick, the disturbed, the marginal and unaccommodated human beings who populate many of Wordsworth’s poems in Lyrical Ballads.

More damaging, for Wordsworth, was a different kind of existence announced in the satire, ‘mild in manners, and in morals pure’: an apt description of the sage of Rydal Mount. To a large extent the forgetful romance of The Prelude was designed to conform to this passive formula, subordinating effort, expectation and desire to the influence of nature on human life. At the opening of the newly-recovered lines from the satire is an image which reappears in one of the most striking ‘spots of time’ in The Prelude:

What boots it ... that thy princely blood
Has pour’d through time’s dark waste its glittering flood?
That the huge tree within thy banner’d hall
Spreads its luxuriant arms athwart the wall;
And with fantastic fruit profusely blooms –
Dukes, Bishops, Masters of the Horse, and Grooms?
What boot thy galleries, whose grim warrior train
Have frown’d on time and hostile brooms in vain:
Or, blazon’d on yon monumental pile.
That signs armorial mock the herald’s toil;
Where cross-legg’d knights by broken shields repose,
Some without ears and more with half a nose?

The damaged effigy of the cross-legged knight was an appropriately ironic emblem for a satire in which the ‘good of former days’ are invoked in self-justification by a throng of contemptible heirs. This image recurs in The Prelude as an intimation of imaginative continuity, the rationale of the whole poem. The passage describes a schoolboy excursion to Furness Abbey:

Our steeds remounted, and the summons given, With whip and spur we by the chantry flew In uncouth race, and left the cross-legg’d knight And the stone abbot, and that single wren Which one day sang so sweetly in the nave Of the old church that, though from recent showers The earth was comfortless, and, touched by faint Internal breezes, from the roofless walls The shuddering ivy dripped large drops, yet still So sweetly mid the gloom the invisible bird Sang to itself that there I could have made My dwelling place, and lived for ever there. To hear such music.

In the combative public register of the Juvenal version, the ‘cross-legg’d knight’ was a reminder of false inheritance, the ‘bastard blood’ of contemporary aristocracy. Translated into the longer cadences of The Prelude, and the inner gloom of the ruined abbey, this image presides at the sanctuary of personal inspiration – the effigy of a man of action which has to be abandoned, half mockingly, as the boy charges by on his way to become a prophet of nature.

The markedly un-‘Wordsworthian’ manner of the Juvenal imitation, with its concern for the virtue of the individual, may have been a threshold between the revolutionary political concerns of Wordsworth’s early career and the introspective universe of the later poetry. The poem might also be thought to prefigure the less amenable character of the older poet, conscious of his standing ‘in the very foremost of the poetical world’. It seems probable that in 1822 William Blackwood knew who Wrangham’s famous collaborator was, and that this may have encouraged him not to publish the satire. Blackwood’s papers contain a sequence of letters from Archdeacon Wrangham, regretting ‘no insertions, – no returns of MSS (probably deemed worthless) though requested in more than one note – Surely, you have not let me slip too entirely from your memory.’