Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 3. His Wanderings

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

V. William Wordsworth

§ 3. His Wanderings

From Hawkshead, Wordsworth went to Cambridge in October, 1787, and remained there at St. John’s college till the beginning of 1791. He took little interest either in the intellectual or social life of the university. He never opened a mathematical book and thus lost all chance of obtaining a fellowship. Even his literary studies were pursued irregularly, without any attention being paid to the prescribed course. He did not feel any abhorrence of the students’ life, which, at that time, consisted of alternate sloth and wildness. He first shared in it, but soon grew weary of it and lived more or less by himself. In his university years, his only deep enjoyments were the long rambles in which he indulged during vacations. Meanwhile, discussions with his uncles must, at times, have made life rather distasteful to him. He had no money in prospect. All his small patrimony had been spent on his university education; yet he showed himself vacillating and reluctant when required to make choice of a career. None was to his taste. The army, the church, the law, tutorial work, were all contemplated and discarded in turn. He showed no strong bent except for wandering and writing poetry. He was, indeed, a young man likely to make his elders anxious. In July, 1790, just at the time when he ought to have been working hard for his approaching examinations, he took it into his head to start for the Alps with a fellow student, on foot, equipped much like a pedlar—an escapade without precedent. As soon as he had taken his B.A., without distinction, he set fortune at defiance, and settled in London for a season, doing nothing in particular, “pitching a vagrant tent among the unfenced regions of society.” After this, other wanderings and abortive schemes of regular work followed for more than three years, till he threw aside all idea of a fixed career and settled down to resolute poverty. Such apparent restlessness and indolence could not but be attended by many a pang of remorse. He suffered from his growing estrangement from his relations. He was ill satisfied with himself and uneasy about the future, and these feelings (perhaps darkened by some passages of vexed love) found an outlet in his juvenile poems, all of which are tinged with melancholy.

It seems strange that such a childhood and youth should, afterwards, have furnished him with the optimistic basis of The Prelude. Beyond doubt, this poem was meant to be a selection of all the circumstances in his early life that told for joy and hope. Hence, a heightening of bright colours, and a voluntary omission of more sombre hues, in the picture he made of his youth. But the contrast between the dry facts of his early life and his rapture over the same period is, also, owing to a deeper truth. The joy he celebrates in The Prelude springs from sources hidden from all eyes, scarcely suspected by the child himself. Whatever shadows might pass over his days, abundant strength and happiness lay beneath the surface. He was not callous to grief, but, somehow, felt all the time that grief was transient, hope permanent, in his breast. His enjoyment of nature gave him those intense delights which are usually unnoticed in the tale of a life. So did his already passionate love of verse. Thus, The Prelude is all true, though it does not present us with the whole truth.

Of the young man’s passion for nature, his early poems, both published in 1793, furnish direct proof. They are the most minute and copious inventories of the aspects he saw, of the noises he heard, in his native lakes (An Evening Walk) or in his wanderings through Switzerland (Descriptive Sketches). Such acuteness and copiousness of observation were only possible in the case of a devotee. However contorted and knotty the verse may be, however artificial the diction, the poet’s fervour is as manifest here as in the most eloquent of his subsequent effusions. Though he follows in the train of a succession of descriptive poets, he outdoes them all in abundance of precise touches.