With Wordsworth’s settlement at Townend, Grasmere, in the closing days of the last century, the external events of his life may be said to come to an end. Even his marriage to Miss Mary Hutchinson, of Penrith, on October 4, 1802, was not so much an importation into his existence of new emotion, as a development and intensification of feelings which had long been there. This marriage was the crowning stroke of Wordsworth’s felicity—the poetic recompense for his steady advocacy of all simple and noble things. When he wished to illustrate the true dignity and delicacy of rustic lives he was always accustomed to refer to the Cumbrian folk. And now it seemed that Cumberland requited him for his praises with her choicest boon; found for him in the country town of Penrith, and from the small and obscure circle of his connexions and acquaintance,—nay, from the same dame’s school in which he was taught to read,—a wife such as neither rank nor young beauty nor glowing genius enabled his brother bards to win.
Mrs. Wordsworth’s poetic appreciativeness, manifest to all who knew her, is attested by the poet’s assertion that two of the best lines in the poem of The Daffodils—
They flash, upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,—
were of her composition. And in all other matters, from the highest to the lowest, she was to him a true helpmate, a companion “dearer far than life and light are dear,” and able “in his steep march to uphold him to the end.” Devoted to her husband, she nevertheless welcomed not only without jealousy but with delight the household companionship through life of the sister who formed so large an element in his being. Admiring the poet’s genius to the full, and following the workings of his mind with a sympathy that never tired, she nevertheless was able to discern, and with unobtrusive care to hide or avert, those errors of manner into which retirement and sell-absorption will betray even the gentlest spirit. It speaks, perhaps, equally well for Wordsworth’s character that this tendency to a lengthy insistence, in general conversation, on his own feelings and ideas is the worst charge that can he brought against him; and for Mrs. Wordsworth’s, that her simple and rustic upbringing had gifted her with a manner so gracious and a tact so ready that in her presence all things could not but go well.
The life which the young couple led was one of primitive simplicity. In some respects it was even less luxurious than that of the peasants around them. They drank water, and ate the simplest fare. Miss Wordsworth had long rendered existence possible for her brother on the narrowest of means by her unselfish energy and skill in household management; and “plain living and high thinking” were equally congenial to the new inmate of the frugal home. Wordsworth gardened; and all together, or oftenest the poet and his sister, wandered almost daily over the neighbouring hills. If arrow means did not prevent them from offering a generous welcome to their few friends, especially Coleridge and his family, who repeatedly stayed for months under Wordsworth’s roof. Miss Wordsworth’s unpublished letters breathe the very spirit of hospitality in their naive details of the little sacrifices gladly made for the sake of the presence of these honoured guests. But for the most part their life was solitary and uneventful. Books they had few; neighbours almost none; and Miss Wordsworth’s diary of these early years describes a life seldom paralleled in its intimate dependence on external nature. I take, almost at random, her account of a single day. “November 24, 1801. Read Chaucer. We walked by Gell’s cottage. As we were going along we were stopped at once, at the distance, perhaps, of fifty yards from our favourite birch-tree; it was yielding to the gust of wind, with all its tender twigs; the sun shone upon it, and it glanced in the wind like a flying sunshiny shower. It was a tree in shape, with stem and branches; but it was like a spirit of water. After our return William read Spenser to us, and then walked to John’s Grove. Went to meet W.” And from an unpublished letter of Miss Wordsworth’s, of about the same period (September 10, 1800), I extract her description of the new home. “We are daily more delighted with Grasmere and its neighbourhood. Our walks are perpetually varied, and we are more fond of the mountains as our acquaintance with them increases. We have a boat upon the lake, and a small orchard and smaller garden, which, as it is the work of our own hands, we regard with pride and partiality. Our cottage is quite large enough for us, though very small; and we have made it neat and comfortable within doors; and it looks very nice on the outside; for though the roses and honeysuckles which we have planted against it are only of this year’s growth, yet it is covered all over with green leaves and scarlet flowers; for we have trained scarlet beans upon threads, which are not only exceedingly beautiful but very useful, as their produce is immense. We have made a lodging-room of the parlour below stairs, which has a stone floor, therefore we have covered it all over with matting. We sit in a room above stairs, and we have one lodging-room with two single beds, a sort of lumber-room, and a small low unceiled room, which I have papered with newspapers, and in which we have put a small bed. Our servant is an old woman of sixty years of age, whom we took partly out of charity. She was very ignorant, very foolish, and very difficult to teach. But the goodness of her disposition, and the great convenience we should find if my perseverance was successful, induced me to go on.”
The sonnets entitled Personal Talk give a vivid picture of the blessings of such seclusion. There are many minds which will echo the exclamation with which the poet dismisses his visitors and their gossip:
Better than such discourse doth silence long,
Long barren silence, square with my desire;
To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,
In the loved presence of my cottage fire,
And listen to the flapping of the flame,
Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.
Many will look with envy on a life which has thus decisively cut itself loose from the world; which is secure from the influx of those preoccupations, at once distracting and nugatory, which deaden the mind to all other stimulus, and split the river of life into channels so minute that it loses itself in the sand.
Hence have I genial seasons; hence have I
Smooth passions, smooth discourse, and joyous thought.
Left to herself, the mind can expatiate in those kingdoms of the spirit bequeathed to us by past generations and distant men, which to the idle are but a garden of idleness, but to those who choose it become a true possession and an ever widening home. Among those “nobler loves and nobler cares” there is excitement without reaction, there is an unwearied and impersonal joy—a joy which can only be held cheap because it is so abundant, and can only disappoint us through our own incapacity to contain it. These delights of study and of solitude Wordsworth enjoyed to the full. In no other poet, perhaps, have the poet’s heightened sensibilities been productive of a pleasure so unmixed with pain. The wind of his emotions blew right abaft; he “swam smoothly in the stream of his nature, and lived but one man.”
The blessing of meditative and lonely hours must of course be purchased by corresponding limitations. Wordsworth’s conception of human character retained to the end an extreme simplicity. Many of life’s most impressive phenomena were hid from his eyes. He never encountered any of those rare figures whose aspect seems to justify all traditions of pomp and preeminence when they appear amid stately scenes as with a natural sovereignty. He neither achieved nor underwent any of those experiences which can make all high romance seem a part of memory, and bestow as it were a password and introduction into the very innermost of human fates. On the other hand, he almost wholly escaped those sufferings which exceptional natures must needs derive from too close a contact with this commonplace world. It was not his lot—as it has been the lot of so many poets—to move amongst mankind at once as an intimate and a stranger; to travel from disillusionment to disillusionment and from regret to regret; to construct around him a world of ideal beings, who crumble into dust at his touch; to hope from them, what they can neither understand nor accomplish, to lavish on them what they can never repay. Such pain, indeed, may become a discipline; and the close contact with many lives may teach to the poetic nature lessons of courage, of self-suppression, of resolute goodwill, and may transform into an added dignity the tumult of emotions which might else have run riot in his heart. Yet it is less often from moods of self-control than from moods of self-abandonment that the fount of poetry springs; and herein it was that Wordsworth’s especial felicity lay—that there was no one feeling in him which the world had either repressed or tainted; that he had no joy which might not be the harmless joy of all; and that therefore it was when he was most unreservedly himself that he was most profoundly human. All that was needful for him was to strike down into the deep of his heart. Or, using his own words, we may compare his tranquil existence to
A crystal river,
Diaphanous because it travels slowly,
and in which poetic thoughts rose unimpeded to the surface, like bubbles through the pellucid stream.
The first hint of many of his briefer poems is to be found in his sister’s diary:
“April 15. 1802. When we were in the woods below Gowbarrow
Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side.
As we went along there were more, and yet more; and at last,
under the boughs of the trees, we saw there was a long belt of
them along the shore. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They
grew among the mossy stones about them; some rested their
heads on the stones as on a pillow; the rest tossed, and reeled,
and danced, and seemed as if they verily danced with the wind,
they looked so gay and glancing.”
“July 30, 1802. Left London between five and six o’clock
of the morning, outside the Dover coach. A beautiful morning.
The city, St. Paul’s, with the river, a multitude of little boats,
made a beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge;
the houses not overhung by their clouds of smoke, were spread
out endlessly; yet the sun shone so brightly, with such a
pure light, that there was something like the purity of one
of Nature’s own grand spectacles. Arrived at Calais at four
in the morning of July 31st. Delightful walks in the evenings,
seeing far off in the west the coast of England like a
cloud, crested with Dover Castle, the evening star, and the
glory of the sky. The reflections in the water were more
beautiful than the sky itself; purple waves brighter than
precious stones for ever melting away upon the sands.”
How simple are the elements of these delights! There is nothing here, except fraternal affection, a sunrise, a sunset, a flock of bright wild flowers; and yet the sonnets on Westminster Bridge and Calais Sands, and the stanzas on the Daffodils, have taken their place among the permanent records of the profoundest human joy.
Another tour,—this time through Scotland,—undertaken in August 1803, inspired Wordsworth with several of his best pieces. Miss Wordsworth’s diary of this tour has been lately published, and should be familiar to all lovers of Nature. The sister’s journal is indeed the best introduction to the brother’s poems. It has not—it cannot have—their dignity and beauty; but it exemplifies the same method of regarding Nature, the same self-identification with her subtler aspects and entrance into her profounder charm. It is interesting to notice how the same impression strikes both minds at once. From the sister’s it is quickly reflected in words of exquisite delicacy and simplicity; in the brother’s it germinates, and reappears, it may be months or years afterwards, as the nucleus of a mass of thought and feeling which has grown round it in his musing soul. The travellers’ encounter with two Highland girls on the shore of Loch Lomond is a good instance of this, “One of the girls,” writes Miss Wordsworth, “was exceedingly beautiful; and the figures of both of them, in grey plaids falling to their feet, their faces only being uncovered, excited our attention before we spoke to them; but they answered us so sweetly that we were quite delighted, at the same time that they stared at us with an innocent look of wonder. I think I never heard the English language sound more sweetly than from the mouth of the elder of these girls, while she stood at the gate answering our inquiries, her face flushed with the rain; her pronunciation was clear and distinct, without difficulty, yet slow, as if like a foreign speech.”
A face with gladness overspread!
Soft smiles, by human kindness bred!
And seemliness complete, that sways
Thy courtesies, about thee plays;
With no restraint, but such as springs
From quick and eager visitings
Of thoughts that lie beyond the reach
Of thy few words of English speech:
A bondage sweetly brooked, a strife
That gives thy gestures grace and life!
So have I, not unmoved in mind,
Seen birds of tempest-loving kind
Thus beating up against the wind.
The travellers saw more of this girl, and Miss Wordsworth’s opinion was confirmed. But to Wordsworth his glimpse of her became a veritable romance. He commemorated it in his poem of The Highland Girl, soon after his return from Scotland; he narrated it once more in his poem of The Three Cottage Girls, written nearly twenty years afterwards; and “the sort of prophecy,” he says in 1843, “with which the verses conclude, has, through God’s goodness, been realized; and now, approaching the close of my seventy-third year, I have a most vivid remembrance of her, and the beautiful objects with which she was surrounded.” Nay, more; he has elsewhere informed us, with some naïveté, that the first few lines of his exquisite poem to his wife, She was a phantom of delight, were originally composed as a description of this Highland maid, who would seem almost to have formed for him ever afterwards a kind of type and image of loveliness.
That such a meeting as this should have formed so long-remembered an incident in the poet’s life will appear, perhaps, equally ridiculous to the philosopher and to the man of the world. The one would have given less, the other would have demanded more. And yet the quest of beauty, like the quest of truth, reaps its surest reward when it is disinterested as well as keen; and the true lover of human-kind will often draw his most exquisite moments from what to most men seems but the shadow of a joy. Especially, as in this case, his heart will be prodigal of the impulses of that protecting tenderness which it is the blessing of early girlhood to draw forth unwittingly, and to enjoy unknown,—affections which lead to no declaration, and desire no return; which are the spontaneous effluence of the very Spirit of Love in man; and which play and hover around winning innocence like the coruscations round the head of the unconscious Iulus, a soft and unconsuming flame.
It was well, perhaps, that Wordsworth’s romance should come to him in this remote and fleeting fashion. For to the Priest of Nature it was fitting that all things else should be harmonious, indeed, but accessory; that joy should not be so keen, nor sorrow no desolating, nor love itself so wildly strong, as to prevent him from going out upon the mountains with a heart at peace, and receiving “in a wise passiveness” the voices of earth and heaven.