Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 13. Sonnets; Later Years

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 13. Sonnets; Later Years

The rest of Wordsworth’s career (1814–50) adds comparatively little to his best verse. No works of magnitude are to be found in it, the most considerable being collected memorials of one or other of the many tours he made either in the British Isles or on the continent, or series of sonnets, like The River Duddon (1820), and Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822). Though several of these sonnets or short pieces are as exquisite as any in the former volumes, these gems are now far between, and no new departure is perceptible. The days of original thought and spontaneous creation are over. Perhaps the most lyrical burst of the period is the poem entitled Composed upon an Evening of extraordinary splendour and beauty, in 1818, which breathes his former enthusiasm for the aspects of nature; yet it is to be noticed that an “extraordinary” magnificence is now needed to revive youthful ecstasies that used to feed on what was common in the beauty of things. The character of his later verse is other than this. Scandalised by the fame of Byron and the success of the new cynical and pessimistic poetry, Wordsworth exaggerates his own sermonising tendencies. There is now a fixed and rigid attitude, a sort of optimistic trick, in the poems which extol the minute joys of life and endeavour to tone down its sorrows. He does his best to convert himself to Anglicanism, which, however, he celebrates with more copiousness than real warmth. His Ecclesiastical Sonnets are the Anglican counterpart, on a much narrower basis, of Châteaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme. In politics, his evolution has become complete to the point of appearing a recantation. He pursues against liberalism the campaign upon which, for liberal reasons, he had entered against Napoleon. He seems to find everything for the best in Europe after the French emperor’s overthrow. He approves and upholds the Holy Alliance and opposes, with might and main, every attempt at reform in his own country. He protests against the too advanced instruction which the liberals desire to impart to girls in the lake district, against the spread of mechanics’ institutes, against the emancipation of Irish catholics, against the abolition of slavery by parliament, against the abolition of capital punishment, against parliamentary reform, and so forth. The one change he supports is the extension of copyright, which affects his own interests as a writer. That he was sincere in all his opinions, and that he had strong arguments for his absolute conservatism, cannot be doubted. No apostasy is to be laid to his charge. The evolution of his ideas, which made his old age diametrically opposed to his youth, can be traced, step by step, accounted for by outward circumstances and earnest meditations. Yet we cannot help feeling that, all the same, it is a progress from poetry to prose, from bold imaginings to timorousness, from hope to mistrust, from life to death.

In the meantime, his worldly prosperity and his public reputation were steadily increasing. From the gladsome frugality of the Grasmere days he passed into ease and comfort, thanks to his appointment, in 1813, as stamp distributor for Westmorland, which enabled him to remove to Rydal Mount in 1814. There, he was to live till his death, courted by members of the nobility and higher clergy, visited by a growing number of pilgrims, sincere admirers and mere tourists. His fame, which was at a low ebb at the beginning of that period, partly on account of the ridicule thrown on his poems by reviewers, partly because the public turned in preference to Scott and Byron, gradually rose after 1820, till it culminated in a triumphant reception at Oxford in 1839, a state pension bestowed on him in 1842 and the laureateship in 1843. Before the close of his life in 1850, Wordsworth could feel assured that he had become one of the great poetical influences of the age.

It is inevitable that, when retracing Wordsworth’s career, one should insist on the main streams of thought which flowed through his mind. The temptation to look upon him as a prophet is great, and, thus, in any estimate of him, to give chief prominence to the more or less systematic philosophy woven by him out of experience. True, few poets blended philosophy and poetry more intimately together. Yet, the two remain distinct; they are things of a different order. They were in conflict more than once; so, our estimate of Wordsworth’s poetical genius should not be reduced to an appreciation of his moral code.