Page images

became much perplexed as to his plans for the future. He still found himself unable to comply with the wishes of his friends who desired to see him in holy orders, feeling that his mind was not disciplined enough for that sacred office, and that the struggle between his conscience and his impulse would have made life a torture. He also shrank from the law, but singularly enough fancied that he had talents for command, and having studied military history and the strategy of war with great interest, he at one time thought of a military life, but the want of interest and connexions deterred him. Among other neglected schemes, we find those of writing for a London newspaper, the conducting of a monthly miscellany, and school keeping. He would probably have entered into an engagement with the daily press, a task for which he was singularly unfitted, but the negociation was delayed by the tender care he felt it his duty to bestow upon his friend, Raisley Calvert, whose health was rapidly failing. This friend dying shortly after, it was found, on opening his will, that he had bequeathed to the companion of his dying hours, the sum of nine hundred pounds. This opportune legacy, which has been happily described as “ saving our author from the dangerous mountain-pass of poverty', gave him leisure to deliberate as to his future course,- meanwhile every aspiration of his soul inclining him towards a literary and poetic career.

Towards the close of the year 1798, the ‘Lyrical Ballads' were published at Bristol, where Wordsworth and his sister resided for a short time, that he night be nearer the printer and publisher, Cottle. Mr. Wordsworth received thirty guineas for his share of the copyright. The first edition consisted of five hundred copies, of a small duodecimo of two hundred and ten

pages. The opening poem was “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere', by Coleridge, who, in his 'Biographia Literaria', gives the following interesting particulars of the origin of the volume. “During the first years that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The thought suggested itself that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real.- In the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life : the characters and incidents were to be such as will be found in every village and its vicinity where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them when they present themselves.

'In this idea originated the plan of the “ Lyrical Ballads”, in which it was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic ; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a seniblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention to the

lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

With this view I wrote the “Ancient Mariner”, and was preparing, among other poems, “The Dark Ladie ” and the “ Christabel”, in which I should have more nearly realised my ideal than I had done in my first attempt. But Mr. Wordsworth's industry had proved so much more successful, and the number of his poems so much greater, that my compositions, instead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpolation of heterogeneous matter. Mr. Wordsworth added two or three poems written in his own character, in the impassioned, lofty, and sustained diction, which is characteristic of his genius. In this form the “ Lyrical Ballads” were published, and were presented by him as an experiment, whether subjects which from their nature rejected the usual ornaments and extracolloquial style of poems in general, might not be so managed in the language of ordinary life, as to produce the pleasurable interest which it is the peculiar business of poetry to impart.

'To the second edition he added a preface of considerable length, in which, notwithstanding some passages of apparently a contrary import, he was understood to contend for the extension of this style to poetry of all kinds, and to reject, as vicious and indefensible, all phrases and forms of speech that were not included in what he (unfortunately, I think, adopting an equivocal expression), called the language of real life. From this preface, prefixed to poems in which it was impos

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 forth with 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 »