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Wordsworth and De Quincey

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsioorth, 1787-1805. Edited by Ernest de Selincourt. New York: Oxford University Press. $8.75. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth; The Middle Years, 1806-1820. Edited by Ernest de Selincourt. New York: Oxford University Press. Two Volumes. $14.00. Thomas De Quincey. By Horace Ainsworth Eaton. New York: Oxford University Press. $5.00. Thomas De Quincey. By Edward Sackville West. New Haven: Yale University Press, $4.00.

Thanks to the diligence and skill of Professor Ernest de Selincourt and the helpfulness of numerous museums, owners, and collectors, we now possess a scholarly and exact edition of the letters of Wordsworth and his sister, inclusive beyond any previous edition or any combination of previous editions. The “Early Letters” and the “Middle Years” contain, in some fifteen hundred pages, a total of 658 letters, of which less than one-third (217) have been printed before; and no fewer than 271 are printed here for the first time—including 140 in the most interesting period of Wordsworth’s life, that is, before 1810. This represents a far richer collection of the letters than any previously made. In one year, for instance, 1805, Professor de Selincourt is able to give twenty-seven wholly new letters out of a total of fifty-two; and of the remaining twenty-five only eleven had been printed in full.

It goes without saying also that this edition largely increases our knowledge of the Wordsworth household. Many of the new letters have rich and substantial interest. No works previously published, separately or in toto, give a comparable account of the Wordsworthian home life. In Dorothy Wordsworth’s letters chiefly we get a picture of their pattern of homely intimate life written with intelligence and feeling and spirit—a picture no doubt of great fidelity and certainly quite unavailable up to the present time. We know from these letters more of the domestic detail of Wordsworth’s life than that of any other figure, probably, in English literature: household events, investments, speculations, windfalls, family usages; cold and damp houses, clothing, kegs of brown porter, confinements and deaths, toothaches, headaches, piles and influenza, eye-trouble, shortness of breath, appalling medical prescriptions, the construction of a winter garden, travel, servants, juvenile education, domestic catastrophes, Dorothy’s new teeth (Mr. Dumer-gue: fifty guineas), and so on. At the same time new information is presented on matters of larger moment; on William and Dorothy’s critical ideas and creative processes, for one thing—such as their hatred of the French, carried to an incredible extreme in Dorothy’s judgment that if Pascal had been an Englishman his religious sentiments would have had more dignity. We are given still more about Coleridge, whom we see in his struggle to separate from his wife, in his long and bitter misunderstanding with Wordsworth, in his processes of vacillating and irresolution, drinking brandy and being weaned to ale, with lengthy and detailed accounts of his medical history—a subject particularly fascinating to Dorothy: in general his lucky faculty of continuing to “rise up from the dead” . . . though rarely far enough, or long enough.

Good as all this is—and the paragraphs above are a very inadequate account of it—it is still true that these letters are disappointing, though not through any fault of Professor de Selincourt. So much in them of a harmless or respectable nature is new that the evidence of old suppressions, years ago, is striking. Nearly all of Wordsworth’s letters of critical or biographical value had been published; the noteworthy exception is a long letter of 1808 to Coleridge. The three volumes together contain only eighty-eight letters of William Wordsworth’s, of any sort, important or trivial, that had not been published before, wholly or in part. The important new information is contained very largely in the 179 new letters entirely by Dorothy Wordsworth. It would seem to be evidence of a two-fold censorship established long ago, relaxing gradually as it applied only to domestic details once considered unsuited for publication, rigorous still as it applied to Wordsworth’s youthful political radicalism, for instance, and to other aberrations. There are many points— the most moot, in fact—on which these new volumes offer little or nothing. There is nothing important in them about Annette Vallon, or William Godwin, or Dorothy’s feeling toward Coleridge; nothing important about Wordsworth’s change from radicalism to conservatism, from love of France to hatred of it, except for further, unneeded evidence that such changes took place. Professor de Selincourt’s work being of the scholarly sort that it is, it would seem reasonable to conclude that on such points we probably now have all the evidence that we shall ever have; that we run here into an old family censorship that was carefully designed to be permanent.

In November, 1807, Dorothy mentions the visit of a young Oxonian, very diminutive, modest and shy, “a lovely and contemplative mind, unwarped by any established laws of taste.” That was Mr. De Quincey, who turned out to be unwarped by several established laws. After many decades of strange neglect—he is one of the lucky people who escaped the ironic biographer—he is the subject of two valuable biographies in a year, of which Mr. Edward Sackville West’s is the more literary, articulate, and analytic, and Professor Eaton’s by a substantial margin the more informed, detailed, inclusive and, to use Mr. Sackville West’s word for it, “monumental.” It would be unjust to imply that Professor Eaton’s life of De Quincey is not well written or thoughtful, or that Mr. Sackville West’s is inaccurate; but it is true that the first of these works does notably include all the facts, arrived at from long study and mastery of the printed and manuscript sources, and that in it they are thoroughly digested and well arranged; while the second, much less inclusive and making no pretension to the authoritative or “definitive” quality of Professor Eaton, has occasional penetrating and sympathetic analyses of situations and relationships in De Quincey’s tortured and elusive life—such, for instance, as the attitude of the Wordsworths on De Quincey’s mar-riage—that Professor Eaton does not have. On the whole, in spite of an occasional heaviness and undue piling up of detail, it is Professor Eaton’s Life that makes another study of De Quincey unnecessary until—if ever—there should be substantial new discoveries about him.


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