Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 8. Wordsworth’s Marriage

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

V. William Wordsworth

§ 8. Wordsworth’s Marriage

Then, in his very home, there happened changes that, whether fortunate or sad, impressed on his soul new habits and tendencies. As early as 1802, he had married a Westmorland girl, Mary Hutchinson, in whom he found one of the greatest blessings of his life. The quieting influence of this meek Mary, by degrees, though not at once, was added to, or even took the place of, the more impulsive and exciting companionship of Dorothy. Mrs. Wordsworth’s nature told for submission and repose. Besides, the mere fact of his being married checked gradually, though it did not suppress altogether, what might be called the guiltless Bohemianism of his youth. The duties and cares of the father of a large family grew upon him. Five children were born to the pair between 1803 and 1810, two of whom were to die almost simultaneously in 1812. As early as 1806, the increase of his family had led to a temporary, then to a definitive, abandonment of the narrow Dove cottage, to which clung many of his most poetical memories.

Before robbing him of two of his children, death had already struck Wordsworth a blow that went near his heart, one that ever after saddened his life—the loss of his brother John, a sailor shipwrecked in February, 1805. How deeply he was affected by it is known, not only by his poems, but from the letters of the Grasmere household and the journal of Dorothy. There was another cause of grievous sorrow in the state of “the brother of his soul,” Coleridge, now a prey to opium and drink, whose growing distress of body and mind was, for years, a depressing, heart-rending sight for his friend, and whose endless idle laments haunted Wordsworth’s sleep as well as his waking thoughts. Whether absent or present, Coleridge had become an increasing source of anxiety to Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s infinite patience and forbearance, in these circumstances, cannot be too highly praised. But nothing availed. The friends had to part in 1810, Coleridge betaking himself to London. More painful than all the rest, Coleridge, in one of his irresponsible moods, turned in anger against Wordsworth. An estrangement followed which was never wholly healed, and which left a lifelong scar in Wordsworth’s heart.

Yet, the change in Wordsworth’s poetry had still deeper causes than all these. Though he had little of Coleridge’s self-abandonment, he could not help feeling a decay of his strictly poetical powers—of that imagination and joy on which, till then, he had erected the structure of his verse. When Coleridge had written his ode Dejection in 1802, Wordsworth could immediately retort with his optimistic Leech-Gatherer. But, now, he, also, felt the wane of his “shaping spirit of imagination.” The earth no longer offered him the splendour it had for him in his youth. A glory had departed from the earth. He had, very early, felt the fading of that glory, but had long checked the onset of the unimaginative years to come by fondly dwelling on the memories of his childhood. In 1805, he had so copiously drawn from the treasurehouse for his Prelude that the store was becoming exhausted. He understood the meaning of the depression of his vital spirits: he was travelling further away from the springs of energy, drawing nearer to old age and death. This is a sad thought to all men—it was doubly so to him who had rested all his faith on the freshness of the senses and feelings, and on their gladsome guidance.