Skip to main content

Wordsworth’s Later Years

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years. Arranged and edited by Ernest de Selincourt. New York: Oxford University Press. Three volumes. $21.00.

These three volumes of “The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth” form the third and last part of Professor Ernest de Selincourt’s monumental edition of the Wordsworth correspondence. The letters cover the long period from 1821 to 1850; and an appendix has been added in which are included letters found after the publication of the previous volumes.

The text follows the manuscripts, even to “vagaries in the use of capitals and in spelling,” but obvious slips of the pen are silently corrected. Brief information concerning the source of the text of each letter (whether from manuscript or from a printed copy) has been supplied by the editor, and the place of previous publication is given. There are a good many omissions; most of them occur in letters reprinted from published sources, but the editor should have given some clue as to the principles followed in omitting parts of letters. The annotation is excellent as far as it goes; most readers, I believe, would prefer fuller and more numerous footnotes, both bibliographical and biographical. Professor de Selincourt has done his work with scholarly care and has performed a valuable service not only for scholars but for the wide circle of “Wordsworthians,” who will welcome this addendum to the poet’s works.

Most of the letters are Wordsworth’s; in the earlier years Dorothy wrote frequently, but in the 1830’s physical and mental debility overtook her. A few letters of Dora and Mary Wordsworth have been included. Wordsworth’s letters are the most important ones, but the reader will enjoy Dorothy’s intimate revelations to Catherine Clarkson, Dora’s sprightly remarks, and Mary’s sensible and affec-tionate epistles.

The usual portrait of the aging poet is hardly a pleasing one. Critics have emphasized the hardening of his sensibilities, his inflexible Toryism, his immunity to criticism, and his despotic egotism. These letters belie the correctness of such statements. Wordsworth read the poetry of his younger contemporaries as long as his eyes permitted him to do so and until requests for critical approval became too great a burden. He modestly accepted criticism of his own poetry, as the letters to Landor amply testify. He remained alert, too, to the political events of his day, and on several occasions showed the utmost concern for his country’s welfare. And he was a devoted brother, husband, and father, always solicitous about the health and happiness of others.

Wordsworth wrote much of his children, and as his sons grew up he tried to place them advantageously in the world. He seems to have ignored the evils of nepotism, but we should note that he was also indefatigable in his efforts to assist those of his friends deserving help. He wrote much about his own health, but less frequently during the last years, when the illness of others occupied his attention. He( interested himself in the affairs of his neighborhood and once tried to raise a subscription for the building of a church in Cockermouth, his birthplace. He opposed the projected railway through the Lake Country. He wrote at great length of his travels, particularly of those to Ireland and Italy. When the poet-laureateship was offered to him in 1843, he at first declined in a dignified and humble manner; but later, when he understood the honorary nature of the appointment, he courteously accepted.

Death stalks its way through these pages. The deaths of Scott, Coleridge, Lamb, Sara Hutchinson, Southey, Dora, I and Hartley Coleridge left great gaps in the poet’s life. The warm humanitarianism of Wordsworth’s nature and his deep capacity for friendship characterize him until the end, and his letters of condolence are remarkable for their dignified and direct simplicity. He who early heard “the still sad music of humanity” never ceased to listen.

The letters on political subjects cover a wide range. He bitterly attacked the Catholic Bills, for his staunch Protestantism made him hate Roman Catholicism with amazing passion. He opposed the Reform Bill of 1832 with equal ardor, for he greatly feared the growth of popular representation. Authority should rest mainly, he believed, in the hands of the aristocracy. France presented to him a case in point. “In France incompatible things are aimed at—a monarchy and democracy to be united without an intervening aristocracy to constitute a graduated scale of power and influence.” He resented any educational system not primarily religious, and he saw much harm in elevating the children of the poor to a position of intellectual superiority to their parents. He looked with considerable disfavor on the foundation of the University of London, and he did not approve of the establishment of cheaper medical training. He fought a manful fight on behalf of copyright laws. All in all, his political activities were not wide, but certainly his conservative attitude was not the result of blindness to reality, as has been claimed.

Wordsworth was shrewd in business affairs. He invested his money wisely; he demanded and received favorable terms from publishers and editors, though it should be remarked that his relations with Edward Maxon were more friendly than businesslike; and he handled his postmastership wisely and well. One is a little disconcerted, perhaps, to see Wordsworth seeking patronage from the government and writing at times almost humiliatory letters about a pension; but even so, his dealings were honest, such actions were customary during his day, and he never made overtures to the Whig ministers, with whom he was in political disagreement.

The letters with critical comments are very valuable. They show that he both gave and received criticism with genuine pleasure. At times he went to endless trouble to help a younger poet and offered the most minute criticism of his poetry. He knew well the major and minor poets of England and on several occasions wrote with scholarly acumen to various editors. Of his own times he was hardly the best judge, which explains, perhaps, his utter failure to do justice to Shelley and Byron; but he saw great promise in the poetry of Tennyson and highly esteemed the work of Elizabeth Barrett. He spoke of his own poetry with fitting humility, and no matter how outrageous, exaggerated, or naive the adulation offered to him, he kept his head. Graciously he answered a tribute by Landor: “It could not but be grateful to me to be praised by a Poet who has written verses of which I would rather have been the Author than of any produced in our time.” There is something refreshing, too, in his remark about Coleridge and Dorothy, when each seemed on the brink of the grave: “He and my beloved sister are the two beings to whom my intellect is most indebted, and they are now proceeding, as it were, pari passu, along the path of sickness, I will not say towards the grave, but I trust towards a blessed immortality.”

We have, then, in Professor de Selincourt’s work a splendid commentary on the life of Wordsworth and a necessary supplement to Harper’s definitive biography of the poet and Miss Bathos’s study of his later life. The older edition of Wordsworth letters, that by Knight, has become outmoded, and we are, therefore, greatly in Professor de Selincourt’s debt.

Finally, I cannot forbear mentioning the charm of these letters. They by no means approach the letters of Lamb, Shelley, Keats, or even Hartley Coleridge in literary style; but perhaps the fact that Wordsworth wrote so directly, and obviously not for publication, makes his letters more revealing than they otherwise might have been. Wordsworth himself remarks: “But I will not conceal from you that I have never set any value upon my Letters; and that it has ever been my wish that they should be destroyed as soon as read, and that I have frequently requested this should be done.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading