Page images
PDF
EPUB

where he was brought up: the conclusion appears among his collected Poems; it commences, Dear native regions'.

In the year 1783, on his return home for the vacation, he lost his father, who had for some time been in a declining state. The family, thus early bereft of parental guidance, consisted of four sons and one daughter. Their worldly prospects were unpromising. A large sum owing to their father as law agent to Sir James Lowther, was withheld by that eccentric and arbitrary man, who, if he were sane, merited the title generally bestowed on him of the 'bad Lord Lonsdale'. His successor, in a prompt and liberal manner, discharged the debt, and sought every opportunity of promoting the interests of the family so long deprived of their due. Richard and William Wordsworth were, at their father's decease, placed under the care of their two uncles, and in the year 1787, William was sent by them to the University of Cambridge, where he entered St. John's College. Great must have been the change to a youth scarcely eighteen, whose days had hitherto been spent in a kind of rustic seclusion among the rocky mountains of the north, to find himself removed to a 'paved world', hemmed in by lofty quadrangles ; and how tame and uninteresting must the scenery around Cambridge have appeared to one accustomed to roam the hills.

Southey, who was not a born mountaineer, writing from somewhere in Norfolk, says, “This part of England looks as if Nature had wearied herself with adorning the rest with hill and dale, and squatted down here to rest'. Not more complimentary to the classic scenery of Cambridge, was Robert Hall, who, when passing over King's College Bridge, and for the first time seeing the Cam — that 'sweetly flowing stream' of the last prize poem - could not help exclaiming, 'why the stream is standing still to see people drown themselves'. At another time, when indulging in the same strain, he remarked, “beyond the college precincts there is not a tree for a man to hang himself upon when he is weary of the barrenness of the place'. A gentleman present reminded him that there were some trees in the way to Grantchester, a village about two miles from Cambridge. Mr. Hall replied, 'Yes, Sir, I recollect; willows, I believe, Sir; Nature hanging out signals of distress'..

To the young student, however, the novelty and bustle of the scene, and the self-importance of being a Cambridge 'man', for a while interested and pleased him. In the ‘Prelude' he alludes to this period as a fresh day

Of pride and pleasure ! to myself I seemed
A man of business and expense, and went
From shop to shop about my own affairs,
To Tutor or to Tailor, as befel,
From street to street with loose and careless mind'.

Taking his cue from this and following passages of the poem, De Quincey writes, “It will excite some astonishment when I mention that, on coming to Cambridge, Wordsworth actually assumed the beau, or, in modern slang, the 'dandy'. 'He dressed in silk stockings; had his hair powdered ; and in all things plumed himself on his gentlemanly habits. To those who remember the slovenly dress of his middle and philosophic life, this will furnish matter for a smile'.

Much to the disappointment of his friends, Wordsworth made no effort to distinguish himself at College.

DEGREE EASILY ACQUIRED.

II

His previous training had not prepared him to submit to restraint and discipline, nor had it qualified him to enter into competition with those who had received their early culture at either of our more noted public schools. Unfortunately, too, he saw little worthy of reverence or esteem in the men then in authority at Cambridge. And as to the system pursued there, the reader will find in the ‘Prelude' a discriininating, yet resolute, exposure of the hollowness and deadness of our English University training at the period of his youth, but little altered to that of his age.

Although Cambridge contributed so little towards inspiring Wordsworth's muse, it has been noticed by a Professor in Yale College, that this University has produced all the great poets, and Oxford none. “Milton were glory enough, but Spenser, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, may be thrown in'. It might be said of Cambridge, as Dr. Johnson said of Pembroke College, We are a nest of singing birds here'.

Persuading himself that he was not for that hour, nor for that place, he took no interest in the lectureroom and general routine of college labour, but pursued a course of independent study, reading, in a desultory manner, the literature of his own country; he also made some proficiency in French and Italian, and we learn from his published reminiscences that he had mastered the first six books of Euclid when a schoolboy. The college examinations were then of such a mere nominal character that he was enabled to take his degree of B.A. in regular course, though he gave up the previous week to the reading of Clarissa Harlowe. With so little that was congenial to his nature in collegiate life, it is not surprising that his muse should have been silent, or nearly so, during that period : yet the poet's soul was with him, he had a world of his own which he created around him.

"To every natural form, rock, fruit, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the high-way,
I gave a moral life : I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling : the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning'.

The reader will not be surprised to learn that his companions attributed it to madness when he betrayed these feelings or emotions by looks or gestures. · Reviewing his position at this time, and considering how little he could have benefited by home influences,

- his friends moreover, in some degree, estranged by his opposition to their wishes,— no one at hand to sympathize with his peculiarities, and being himself devoid of any high or settled purpose, - we must admire that strength of principle and innate goodness which enabled a youth, of eager and impetuous temperament, to pass unscathed through this trying season, so that he could report of himself,

"Happy is the gowned youth,
Who only misses what I missed, who falls
No lower than I fell’.

And certainly he was entitled to write thus, the list of whose faults could be summed up by the mention of a lax performance of routine college duties in which he took no interest; and in once overstepping the bounds of moderation in the use of wine. And strange to tell, the occasion of this excess was in celebration of his first visit to the rooms at Christ Church, once occupied by Milton. 'Intoxication’ adds De Quincey, by way of homage to the most temperate of men;

RAMBLING PROPENSITIES.

13

and this homage offered by one who has turned out to the full as temperate. Besides which I have heard from his own lips that he was not too far gone to attend chapel decorously during the very acme of his elevation'.

With each recurring vacation we find him indulging his favourite passion of rambling. The hills and mountains were to him not mere places where to breathe a purer atmosphere and invigorate the frame, but he viewed these misty heights as regions in which the earth itself seems going up into heaven with adoration, and the excitement he experienced from natural emotion ripened into devotional thoughts and religious aspirations.

In the year 1790, in companionship with Robert Jones, a fellow collegian, he started, with very scanty provision, on a pedestrian tour on the continent, to use his own words, 'we went staff in hand, without knapsack and carrying each his needments tied up in our pocket handkerchiefs, with about twenty pounds a-piece in our pockets.

After taking his degree in 1791, he went in the autumn of that year to Paris, and thence to Orleans, for the sake of retirement and perfecting himself in the language. In various parts of France he spent a full year, and that year the terrific one when the moral tempest of the Revolution raged most fiercely. He returned to England before the execution of the king, and remained for a year or more in London, overwhelmed with shame and despondency for the disgrace and scandal brought upon Liberty, by the atrocities committed in that holy name. As he gives us but a slender intimation of his personal doings while moving among the Revolutionists, it is not easy to determine

« PreviousContinue »