Frank Kermode

  • The Wreck of the ‘Abergavenny’ by Alethea Hayter
    Macmillan, 223 pp, £14.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 333 98917 1

There has of late been a vogue for what is sometimes called ‘micro-history’: the historian chooses some anecdote, some occurrence remote from the mainstream of historical writing, and from it deduces an entire culture, the conflicts or negotiations of power within a whole historical community. Alethea Hayter deals with a single event, focusing on a particular moment in history, but she is not a new or micro-historian and is innocent of Foucauldian or any other theoretical ambitions. Nevertheless she explores her subject in such depth that she really does illuminate the culture and society of her chosen moment.

Her interest in the wreck of the East-Indiaman Abergavenny arose primarily from the circumstance that its captain was John Wordsworth, brother of the more famous William and Dorothy. His death in 1805 at the outset of what was to have been his last voyage before he retired (at 34) caused convulsions of sorrow at Grasmere, where he had intended to join the family circle. The chief mourner was of course William, whose exceptional sensibility was recognised by all, and who had been hoping to spend his life as a dedicated poet, freed from irksome restrictions by the money John would make on this voyage. William’s welfare was the first concern of everybody. His grief was prolonged, and it was some time before he could assuage it with poems; but he was a specialist in the poetry of loss, and a little over a year after John’s death wrote the fine ‘Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont’.

This poem confronts the reader at the beginning of the present book, and is, very fittingly, quoted in full in its closing pages. It enacts a characteristic Wordsworthian gesture, the claim to have found consolation in tragic loss. Much of Wordsworth’s best poetry is a celebration of ‘something that is gone’. The cruel death of his brother joins all the other evidence of loss and emphasises the need to accept it as somehow humanly necessary, and, finally, as God’s will:

A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanised my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne’er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.

Hayter undertakes to describe the sorrows of the family and their friends, among them Lamb and De Quincey and Coleridge; but her purposes are not simply literary or literary-domestic. Much is known and much has been written about the loss of the Abergavenny; salvage work is still going on after almost two centuries. She has used this information and added to it the results of her own research. A foreword expresses mild regret that the book lacks references, but assures the reader that ‘everything . . . presented as fact is taken from letters, diaries and official records, newspapers and pamphlets . . . with no fictional additions or inventions,’ except the ones that figure in the contemporary reports of the wreck. One understands this hint of disappointment at the omission of supporting notes like those that added value to her earlier book, Opium and the Romantic Imagination. No doubt it was a publisher’s commercial decision; yet it is not really credible that anybody wanting to read this book would be so inveterate a ‘general reader’ as to be scared off by a few foot or endnotes.

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