Page images

turbed by the fanaticism or the divisions of Dissent the touching solemnity of traditionary usages observed by generation after generation — and in a wider field the spiritual triumphs and temporal reverses of the Church of England — the courage, the steadfastness, the piety, and the learning, which adorn her history — these are the subjects which warmed the poet's imagination and dictated his verse ; and in that verse, so far removed from any self-glorification of a sect, every catholic-minded christian can delight.

In 1793 he published his poem entitled ' Descriptive Sketches', the materials for which he gathered during his tour in 1790. With it appeared the ' Evening Walk', written in 1787-88–89, and addressed to his sister. These poems were little noticed by the public, but they arrested the attention of Coleridge, who thus speaks of them in his 'Biographia Literaria.' 'During the last year of my residence at Cambridge, I became acquainted with Mr. Wordsworth’s ‘Descriptive Sketches', and seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon more evidently announced'.

It has been a favourite theme for speculation, what might have been the mutual result, if Coleridge and Wordsworth had been fellow students at Cambridge. That the stimulus imparted to each other would have been greatly beneficial there can be no doubt : as it was, Coleridge, the 'poetic philosopher', entered on his career at college just as Wordsworth, the philosophic poet', was leaving.

Wordsworth and his sister had seldom met since the dispersion of the family at their father's death, but in 1794 they were restored to each other's society : she became his constant companion, and he has made re

peated and grateful mention of the influence she exercised over him both morally and intellectually ; indeed its effects are traceable through most of his after life.

In the autumn of the year 1795, they found their first home in Dorset, at Racedown Lodge, near Crewkerne, a spot so retired as at that time to have had a post only once a week. Here was composed his littleread tragedy of 'The Borderers', which was offered to the manager of Covent Garden Theatre, but was, as the author admits, judiciously rejected. A competent critic has characterized this piece as repulsive in the development of both story and plot, having been composed in that feverish state of mind produced by the French Revolution. It may therefore be noted as a proof of the complacency with which Wordsworth regarded his own productions, that some fifty years afterwards he should have published it. Though, perhaps, we shall cease to wonder at this persistency when we call to mind how, in all ages, authors have clung to their worst productions, as mothers have done to their most ill-favoured bantlings. Is it not matter of history that Heliodorus, the African bishop, thought so well of his ' Æthiopica', which has been denounced as having no claim to attention either by right of its Christianity or its poetry, that, when commanded, under ecclesiastical censure, to burn his romance or give up his bishopric, he chose the latter alternative.

After a stay of about two years at Racedown, the Wordsworths took a house at Alfoxden, a village near Nether Stowey, in Somersetshire, not far from Bristol, and near the Quantock Hills. This place was doubly attractive to them, as presenting the most entrancing scenery and bringing them near to their friend Coleridge.

To this sequestered region the famous political orator, John Thelwall, retired, seeking refuge from further persecution, after his trial for high treason. As Coleridge had also been a public lecturer, the claim of Thelwall to acquaintanceship was admitted on that plea, and Wordsworth frequently met him there, and speaks of him as a man of extraordinary talent, an affectionate husband, and a good father devoting himself to the education of his children. His sensibility to the beauty of natural objects also obtained for him an increase of regard from the poet, who mentions that on a day when they were all enjoying a lovely scene on the bank of the stream which flows down the beautiful glen of Alfoxden, Coleridge exclaimed, “This is a place to reconcile one to all the jarrings and conflicts of the wide world'; 'Nay', said Thelwall, 'to make one forget them altogether'.

The retreat of Thelwall, however, led the suspicious and tyrannical government of the day to send a spy to watch the proceedings of these arch-conspirators : the ramblings and consultations of Thelwall, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and sometimes Southey, being presumed to have some deep political meaning.

The wiseacres in power were rivalled by the clodpoles of the village, who singled out Wordsworth as the object of their most lively suspicion. Had they not seen him constantly roaming the country, or wandering over the hills at night, looking with strange earnestness at the moon ? Another had heard him mutter to himself in an outlandish gibberish which no one could understand : he must, they concluded, be a wise-man, videlicet (conjurer). But the most knowing of them said, “You are every one of you wrong ; I know what he is; we have all seen him tramping away towards

the sea : depend on’t, he carries on a snug business in the smuggling line'. But, perhaps, the most notable conclusion arrived at was that ‘he must surely be a desperd French Jacobin, for he is so silent and dark that nobody ever heard un say a word abaut politics'.

Ridiculous as all this appears, yet the consequence was that the tenant of the Alfoxden estate could not be prevailed on to let him the house after their first agreement had transpired. We are reminded by these absurd sayings and doings of the zealous informer who accused Beaumont and Fletcher of treasonable designs, because, while concerting the plan of a tragedy, one of them was overheard to say, ' I'll kill the King'.

It is alarming to contemplate what might have been the result to Southey and Wordsworth, had one of the conversations of their early Republican days taken place in the presence of one less friendly than De Quincey, who reports having heard opinions avowed most hostile to the reigning family. It had been agreed that no good was to be hoped for, as respected England, until the royal family should be expatriated ; and Southey, jestingly, considering to what country they should be exiled, with mutual benefit for that country and themselves, had supposed the case that with a large allowance of money, such as might stimulate the industry of a rising colony, they should be transported to New South Wales; which project amusing his fancy he improvised about eight or ten lines, of which the three last I perfectly remember.

“Therefore, old George, our king, we pray
Of thee forthwith to extend thy sway

Over the great Botanic Bay.”

Cottle relates an incident, which, however trying and

disastrous at the time, did not lead to any such after annoyance. His account is as follows : ‘Soon after our acquaintance commenced, Mr. Wordsworth happened to be in Bristol, and asked me to spend a day or two with him at Alfoxden. I consented and drove him down in a gig. We called for Mr. Coleridge, Miss Wordsworth, and the servant, at Stowey, and they walked, while we rode, to Mr. Wordsworth's house, distant two or three miles, where we purposed to dine. A London alderman would smile at our bill of fare. It consisted of a bottle of brandy, a noble loaf, and a stout piece of cheese : and as there were plenty of lettuces in the garden, with all these comforts we calculated on doing very well. Our fond hopes, however, were somewhat damped by finding that our stout piece of cheese had vanished! A sturdy rat of a beggar, whom we had relieved on the road, with his olfactories all alive, no doubt smelt our cheese, and while we were gazing at the magnificent clouds, contrived to abstract our treasure ! Cruel tramp! an ill return for our pence. We both wished the rind might not choke him. The mournful fact was ascertained a little before we drove into the court-yard of the house. Mr. Coleridge bore the loss with great fortitude, observing that he should never starve with a loaf of bread and a bottle of brandy. He, now, with the dexterity of an adept, unbuckled the horse, and putting down the shafts with a jerk, as a triumphant conclusion of his work — lo! the bottle of brandy that had been placed most carefully behind us on the seat, suddenly rolled down, and pitching right on the stones, was dashed to pieces. We all beheld the spectacle silent and petrified.

‘One little untoward thing often follows another, and while the rest stood musing, chained to the place, re

« PreviousContinue »