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Wordsworth's Revisitings$

Stephen Gill

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199268771

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199268771.001.0001

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On Sarum’s Plain

On Sarum’s Plain

(p.179) 6 On Sarum’s Plain
Wordsworth's Revisitings

Stephen Gill

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers Wordsworth’s last revisiting. In 1841, in a tour that took in Alfoxden and sites associated with Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth crossed Salisbury Plain. He had first done so in 1793. The poem produced then, Salisbury Plain, was not published, nor was the revision of it, Adventures on Salisbury Plain. Now, after a lapse of 40 years, Wordsworth returned to it and revised it into Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain. Examination of all versions of the poem brings out its significance for Wordsworth at various stages of his life and what the poem meant in the substantially revised version he was prepared to make public in 1842. Wordsworth’s place in early Victorian culture is once more stressed.

Keywords:   Alfoxden, Cottle, Salisbury Plain, Female Vagrant, Spenserian, war, poor law, capital punishment

‘These were farewell visits for life.’


The opening pages of Yarrow Revisited, and Other Poems strike the keynote of the collection itself and the era in Wordsworth’s creative life to which it belonged—retrospection. An epigraph on the title-page from Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination highlights an indebtedness that dates from as far back as school-days in Hawkshead and although its message is positive—‘Poets … dwell on earth | To clothe whate’er the soul admires and loves | With language and with numbers’—there is an air of belatedness about it. By 1835 it was late in the day to be invoking Akenside.1 The following page is given over entirely to a dedication ‘To Samuel Rogers, Esq. as a Testimony of Friendship, and an Acknowledgment of Intellectual Obligations’. Wordsworth read The Pleasures of Memory as soon as it was published in 1792 and with such a title it does not need explanation why, as Wu puts it, he ‘should have found Rogers’ poem interesting’.2 What intellectual obligation Wordsworth felt he owed to the author of The Voyage of Columbus (1814) and Italy (1822–8) would not be easy to identify and his letters to Rogers demonstrate that he found it a struggle to be honest and yet complimentary when called upon to make a judgement on his poetic achievement.3 But Rogers, the elder by seven years, was a survivor, one of the few who could still share memories of the heady 1790s, and by 1835 Wordsworth was naturally drawn to the dwindling number of his acquaintance who were. In 1829 William Calvert had died and the following years saw the deaths (p.180) of Scott (1832), James Losh (1833), Coleridge (1834), Lamb (1834), Sara Hutchinson (1835), John Fleming (1835), Richard Sharp (1835), Robert Jones (1835), Raisley Calvert (1838). Given such loss of friends, when Wordsworth reminded Rogers that several of his poems were ‘among my oldest and dearest acquaintance in the Literature of our day’, he might have added that their author too was increasingly valued simply for the longevity of their connection.4

There were other prompts to the exercise of memory in the years following Yarrow Revisited. In 1836, as already noted in Chapter One, Wordsworth issued a completely revised edition of his collected poetical works in six volumes. Looked at from one point of view, this venture could be regarded as forward-looking, for, making a significant break with his past, Wordsworth transferred his business from Longmans to Edward Moxon. But the truth is that the 1836 edition was the product of a sustained backward look. At 66 years old Wordsworth was consciously shaping the ‘Wordsworth’ he wanted to go down to posterity and that meant close attention to everything he had been prepared to make public from school-days onwards. The self-inflicted labour of revision was enormous and necessarily most taxing when the elderly poet worked on ‘the revisal of so many of the old Poems, to the re-modelling, and often re-writing whole Paragraphs’.5

Even public recognition, though welcome, could not but direct the glance backward. When Wordsworth was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University in 1839 it was in recognition of past achievement. To dwell, as Keble did at the presentation ceremony, on how over his poetic lifetime Wordsworth had explored that ‘secret and harmonious intimacy which exists between honourable Poverty, and the severer Muses, sublime Philosophy, yea, even our most holy Religion’, was to affirm the coherence of all that he had done since Lyrical Ballads but inevitably with the note of summation. To the young Arnold and Clough, both in the audience in the Sheldonian Theatre, the white-haired 69-year-old honorand was a figure from history, fascinating, perhaps grand, but one whose richest experiences must have taken place before they were born.6

A return to the past was also called for when Wordsworth was approached late in the same year by Thomas Powell, who was angling for a contribution to his proposed Poems of Geoff rey Chaucer, Modernized.7 Though wary—rightly—of the oleaginous Powell and (p.181) equally so of his co-worker Richard Hengist Horne, Wordsworth was ready to furnish material for the sake of fostering readership of the ‘mighty Genius’, Chaucer, but first he had to find it.8 Wordsworth had worked on translating The Manciple’s Tale and The Prioress’s Tale over the turn of the year 1801–2, but nothing had been published. As he and his growing family had moved from Dove Cottage to Allan Bank to the Grasmere vicarage and finally to Rydal Mount in the space of only a few years, however, it was not to be expected that his poetic archive would be sorted even if complete. ‘With great diligence have Mrs Wordsworth and I looked in vain among my papers for the Mss which contains the Manciple’s Tale, and if I am not mistaken a small portion of Troilus and Cressida’, Wordsworth reported to Powell on 18 January 1840, adding that the manuscript, he recalled, contained ‘also, by the bye, a Translation of two Books of Ariosto’s Orlando, and this and other of its contents, I should be sorry to lose altogether’. Any 70-year-old rummaging through relics of forty years earlier would be assailed by memories and for Wordsworth on this occasion they must have been particularly poignant, for in so many respects 1802 was a turning-point year in his poetic life. Triggered by the search through old manuscripts, memories would have returned of the last months of intimacy with Dorothy in Dove Cottage, recorded in the journal of the beloved sister now mostly confined to her room; memories of his renewed determination to get on with The Recluse, the grand project, which he had recently had to acknowledge, finally and painfully, as abandoned; memories of all the signs that indicated with increasing certainty that the annus mirabilis with Coleridge in the Quantocks would not be replicated in the Lakes.

The elusive manuscripts for Powell’s collection were found and so were many other fugitives, discoveries which prompted Wordsworth to one last effort at poetic husbandry, resulting in 1842 in the publication of his final discrete collection—Poems, Chiefl y of Early and Late Years. In this collection a number of poems, readers could infer from their subject matter, had been products of the ‘early’ years of the title. Examples—and some of these have already been touched on in earlier chapters—might be ‘Address to the Scholars of the Village School’, origin 1798–9; ‘At the Grave of Burns’, origin 1803; ‘Elegiac Verses’, origin 1805; ‘At Applethwaite’, origin 1803–4; ‘Lines on the Expected Invasion’, origin 1803; ‘Epistle to Sir G. H. (p.182) Beaumont’, origin 1811. All of these poems, to a greater or lesser degree, were the result of revisiting old unpublished work. But it was the poem that opened the collection, Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain, that embodied the most astonishing act of revisiting. It was one which spanned a greater period of time than any other revisiting Wordsworth dared to make.

That the poem belonged to a much earlier time Wordsworth revealed in a prefatory ‘Advertisement’, in which he dated it ‘before the close of the year 1794’. It had its origins, he also revealed, in ‘two days … wandering on foot over Salisbury Plain’.9 What he did not tell his readers was that he had just made the journey again.

In May 1841 William and Mary Wordsworth travelled south for their daughter’s wedding in Bath. Acknowledging that at his advanced age these ‘were farewell visits for life’, Wordsworth planned an itinerary almost guaranteed to stir depths of memory and emotion. A visit to the Wye Valley and Tintern was followed by what Mary Wordsworth called a ‘Pilgrimage’ to the Quantocks and Alfoxden, where, Isabella Fenwick reported, the poet ‘was delighted to see again those scenes … where he had thought and felt so much’. It seems likely that a visit to Racedown was fitted in before, continuing to reverse the chronological movement of Wordsworth’s actual life—1798–1795–1793—they crossed Salisbury Plain. Having a sense of the place as she did only through her husband’s accounts of it, Mary Wordsworth was mildly disappointed to find that ‘cultivation going on in many parts of the Plain takes sadly from the poetical feelings we had so elaborately attached to that region’.10 What Wordsworth thought and felt as he looked across at Stonehenge from the highroad to Salisbury is not recorded.


Whatever his feelings were on that day in May 1841, they had been stirring for some time. In 1837 Joseph Cottle had published his Early Recollections, Chiefly Relating to the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which, while giving an account of the negotiations that led to the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, he had divulged the existence of the unpublished ‘Salisbury Plain’, with the additional comment that it ‘was always with me a great favourite, and, with the exception (p.183) of the “Excursion,” the poem of all others, on which I thought Mr. Wordsworth might most advantageously rest his fame as a poet’.11 When news had reached them in 1836 that Cottle was planning to include material disclosing the existence of The Borderers, there was anxiety in the Rydal Mount circle that Wordsworth might decide to destroy the tragedy.12 Though Wordsworth certainly thought Cottle’s venture lamentable, both in conception and execution, there is no evidence that Wordsworth entertained such a thought about Salisbury Plain and it is not inconceivable that when he eventually did read the critically ludicrous, but nonetheless flattering footnote about the poem he was not wholly displeased by it.

A year later, in 1838, John Kenyon, a friend known for nearly twenty years, had sent Wordsworth a copy of his collection, Poems: For the Most Part Occasional.13 It was dedicated to Thomas Poole, who had died the previous year. For Kenyon, memories of Poole brought back his twenties, when he had lived near him over the years 1802–12 at Woodlands, between Alfoxden and Nether Stowey. With Wordsworth, though, memories of Poole reached back a decade earlier. It was Poole who had arranged for the Wordsworths to take a lease on Alfoxden House and who, after they had come to be regarded as dangerous undesirables, had vainly fought to help them retain it. It was Poole who had unobtrusively but vitally supported Coleridge, and Poole who through conversation and hospitality had been one of the strongest of the agents bonding the poetical inhabitants of Alfoxden and Nether Stowey. Memories of the tenor of his discourse must surely have been prompted by one poem in particular in Kenyon’s collection: ‘Inscription for a Vase’, footnoted as ‘Belonging to my late friend, Thomas Poole, Esq., and which enclosed a lock of Washington’s hair’.14 The glow of youthful radicalism had cooled since 1798, but Wordsworth’s regard for this embodiment of intellectual liberalism had not diminished, not least because Poole was inextricable from memories of Coleridge. ‘Your neighbourhood is very dear to me,’ Wordsworth told him in 1836, ‘the more so since poor Coleridge is gone.’15

Another poem in Kenyon’s collection, however, was a doorway to memories that reached back even earlier than Alfoxden. ‘Moonlight’ consists of blank verse recollections mostly of childhood, a long way away in quality from the opening books of The Prelude, but not dissimilar in tone. It progresses through meditations on what the moon (p.184) meant to the poet, both through first-hand experience and as mediated through books. One passage of heightened intensity concerns Stonehenge. Once he was led, the narrator claims,

  • To where the mighty mystery of Stonehenge
  • Broods o’er the silent plain, and with mute power
  • Rules the vast circuit of its sea-like space,
  • As Thou dost rule the sky.16

What is Stonehenge? What does it represent? What era does it belong to?—the monument prompts all the expected but unanswerable questions, reinforcing the sense that this indecipherable monument is indeed a ‘mighty mystery’.

Wordsworth worked conscientiously through Kenyon’s collection—‘entertained by parts … and instructed also’, he was, he declared, ‘not a little moved and pleased by others’. In particular, as his thank-you letter makes clear, ‘Moonlight’ stirred Wordsworth deeply with memories of his own journey on foot across Salisbury Plain in 1793. ‘I fall in exactly with your train of thinking and feeling in your Moonlight’, he told Kenyon. ‘Stonehenge has given you at your advanced years just such a feeling as he [sic] gave me when in my 23rd year, I passed a couple of days rambling about Salisbury Plain, the solitude and solemnities of which prompted me to write a Poem of some length in the Spenserian stanza.’17 But what was that feeling? When touching on his own history in his letters Wordsworth tended to veer towards the studiedly unsensational. He had done so a year before in a magnificent brush-off to Samuel Carter Hall: ‘nothing could be more bare of entertainment or interest than a biographical notice of me must prove, if true … my life … has been so retired and uniform.’18 He did so again now in the letter to Kenyon, bringing his little narrative to a close on a light-hearted note: ‘Overcome with heat and fatigue I took my Siesta among the Pillars of Stonehenge; but was not visited by the Muse in my Slumbers.’

As has already been outlined in Chapter Three, however, the other record of that time in The Prelude, Book XII, 312–53, tells a very different story. In this account three, not two, days of solitude induce hallucinatory reveries in which the traveller

  • Saw multitudes of men, and here and there
  • A single Briton in his wolf-skin vest,
  • With shield and stone ax stride across the Wold;
  • (p.185) The voice of spears was heard, the rattling spear
  • Shaken by arms of mighty bone, in strength
  • Long moulder’d of barbaric majesty.
  • I call’d upon the darkness; and it too,
  • A midnight darkness seem’d to come and take
  • All objects from my sight; and lo! again
  • The desart visible by dismal flames!
  • It is the sacrificial Altar, fed
  • With living men—how deep the groans! the voice
  • Of those in the gigantic wicker thrills
  • Throughout the region far and near, pervades
  • The monumental hillocks; and the pomp
  • Is for both worlds, the living and the dead.

Did anything like this actually happen? I think it did and that recollections of it fused with others as factors impelling Wordsworth towards the creation of Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain.

Wordsworth’s ‘a couple of days rambling’ makes his traverse of Salisbury Plain in 1793 sound like a pleasant summer jaunt, when in fact it must have been an ordeal. What Dorothy Wordsworth called her brother’s ‘firm Friends, a pair of stout legs’,19 had performed astonishing feats day after day in France three years earlier, but that expedition had been planned and Wordsworth had enjoyed the support of his companion, Robert Jones. This pedestrian tour had not been planned; Wordsworth was alone; he had no money; and Salisbury Plain was inhospitable terrain. Where did he sleep? What did he eat and drink? How was he dressed and shod? Wordsworth was in a highly over-wrought state before he began what must have been a physically exhausting journey. It is not at all improbable that something momentous, some experience of imaginative intensity took place.

A further reason for believing that a ‘spot of time’ did occur is simply that The Prelude says it did. When experience is reported as being known at second-hand—the tale of Vaudracour and Julia, for example, or The Matron’s Tale—it is presented as such, but otherwise The Prelude offers an account of what Wordsworth declares actually happened to him, not chronologically exact, maybe, but potentially verifiable. While one’s willingness to credit the account at any given point is fostered by specificity—the hedgehog on the ascent of Snowdon, for example—it is not important whether such (p.186) details can be verified or not; but it would be quite fatal to the poem were it to be proved that Wordsworth never did climb Snowdon or ever rowed a boat out into Ullswater at night. As he folded the crossing of Salisbury Plain into the Prelude’s narrative more than ten years after it took place, Wordsworth recalled the experience as including moments of hallucinatory vision. Kenyon’s ‘Moonlight’ brought these recollections from their hiding-places a quarter of a century deep and within months they were refreshed again as the final revision of The Prelude got under way.

What Kenyon’s poem also stirred in Wordsworth, of course, was memories of how crossing Salisbury Plain in 1793 had stirred him poetically, that is, both what composition it inspired and what it—the crossing and the composition—contributed to his sense (if any) of himself as ‘a poet’.


To say that what Wordsworth was remembering was one of the most turbulent periods of his life is so uncontentious an observation that it calls for only the briefest recapitulation of the evidence for making it. At barely 23 years of age, unemployed and without prospects but having fathered a child on a woman in France, Wordsworth returned to England to seek means of supporting himself and his family only to break irretrievably with relatives who might have helped. War was declared between the old enemies, France and Great Britain, and Wordsworth, who was already nursing, justifiably, a sense of personal injustice because of the Lonsdale debt, now discovered that he was at odds with not only the government, the aristocracy, and the institutions of his country, but also the rank and file of its people. The mood music about Liberty and Reform that was still being played when he had left England to live in France had given way to more martial tunes by 1793 and Wordsworth was unprepared for such a change. That the situation induced the torment both of internal conflict and of intense loneliness is caught wonderfully in the passage highlighted earlier in this book (Prelude, X, 227–74), in which the young man, seething with suppressed anger and feeding ‘on the day of vengeance, yet to come’, sits in a village church among the worshippers, ‘like an uninvited Guest’.

(p.187) A month’s stay on the Isle of Wight in July 1793 did nothing to alleviate the burden of anxiety. What Wordsworth recalled in the 1842 ‘Advertisement’ preceding Guilt and Sorrow was that, as he and William Calvert watched the fleet ‘which was then preparing for sea off Portsmouth at the commencement of the war’, he was filled with ‘melancholy forebodings’ that the struggle then beginning ‘would be of long continuance, and productive of distress and misery beyond all possible calculation’.20 The language of Prelude, X, 249–53 very strikingly conveys that what Wordsworth remembered most clearly about the pain of being torn by competing loyalties and affections was that it felt unnatural:

  • I felt
  • The ravage of this most unnatural strife
  • In my own heart: there lay it like a weight,
  • At enmity with all the tenderest springs
  • Of my enjoyments.

Something of the same sense of unnaturalness, of the natural order being out of kilter, is caught in an uncompleted poem of 1793 that belongs to the Isle of Wight sojourn. Wordsworth looks out over the sea at twilight as Nature passes tranquilly from light to darkness:

  • But hark from yon proud fleet in peal profound
  • Thunders the sunset cannon; at the sound
  • The star of life appears to set in blood
  • Old ocean shudders in offended mood
  • Deepening with moral gloom his angry flood.21

Quite what happened next remains unclear. In late July or early August Wordsworth and Calvert, it seems, returned to the mainland to resume their tour but decided to abandon it after an accident with their conveyance. They also, for whatever reason, decided to part company. When Wordsworth began the long haul across Salisbury Plain he was alone, shaken from an accident, and highly over-wrought. It is not surprising that his mind worked with a sense of unknown modes of being. Whatever did happen on the Plain, it is certain that it was brought back to Wordsworth by perusal of Kenyon’s ‘Moonlight’: ‘My ramble over many parts of Salisbury plain … left upon my mind imaginative impressions the force of wh[ich] I have felt to this day.’22 And that remark was made fifty years after the ‘ramble’ took place.

(p.188) As Wordsworth’s letter to Kenyon in the summer of 1838 makes clear, however, ‘Moonlight’ also stirred memories of how he had used his experience on Salisbury Plain poetically. The disclosure that he had written ‘a Poem of some length in the Spenserian stanza’ gave little away, but the preliminary ‘Advertisement’ to Guilt and Sorrow three years later was apparently more forthcoming. ‘The Female Vagrant’ had been known since its appearance in Lyrical Ballads, 1798, but actually, Wordsworth now revealed, it was an ‘extract’ from the longer poem being presented for the first time and ‘it was necessary to restore it to its original position, or the rest would have been unintelligible’.23 In the Fenwick Note to Guilt and Sorrow Wordsworth again commented on ‘The Female Vagrant’ as the earliest composition towards ‘this Poem’. Nothing here is strictly speaking mendacious, but as he looked back from the secured position of having completed and published Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain, Wordsworth tidied up the history of an imaginative project which had demanded not one but numerous revisitings.


As Wordsworth sifted his recent experiences during composition of a new poem over 1793 to 1794 the site of the most intense of them seemed to provide the most suitable title for it: Salisbury Plain. That he was uneasy about the title is suggested by the jocoseness with which he answered an enquiry from William Mathews: ‘You inquired after the name of one of my poetical bantlings, children of this species ought to be named after their characters, and here I am at a loss, as my offspring seems to have no character at all. I have however christened it by the appellation of Salisbury Plain, though A night on Salisbury plain, were it not so insufferably awkward, might better suit the thing itself.’24

Wordsworth’s play on ‘character’ was not meant to be taken too seriously, but it is in fact apt for the poem. Salisbury Plain, though for the most part a narrative poem, consists of figures, not characters. A traveller—no name, age, or occupation—trudges westward over ‘Sarum’s plain’.25 Late in the poem we learn that he ‘had withered young in sorrow’s deadly blight’, but nothing more about his past. As if in a nightmare, he hears voices warning him that he is trespassing (p.189) on a ‘baleful place’ that belongs to ‘hell’s most cursed sprites’, who will torment him to madness unless he carries on through the gathering storm. Exhausted to the point of ‘wishing the repose | Of death’, he eventually stumbles on a ruin that provides some shelter. It is already occupied by ‘a female wanderer’—no name—who tells of her encounter with an old man—no name—carrying a rusty gun. In sun and shower this feeble bird-scarer remains completely alone, save for his famished dog; his tottering step indicates that he too is barely clinging to life. Though familiar with the wide fields of corn, the old man knows that the plain is also a place of mystery and he tells the woman ‘Much of the wonders of that boundless heath’, speaking of fires lighting the night sky, sacrificial altars with living victims, huge crowds, and the Druids in ritual ceremonials. The Female Vagrant explains how she comes to be wandering alone across Salisbury Plain, but tells her story without revealing her name or her wronged father’s or her dead husband’s. Morning breaks, bringing some comfort as the ‘friendless hope-forsaken pair’ reach a cottage in a valley. Here they will be revived with a simple meal, but this is not a fade-out on a happy ending. ‘Friendless’—the word is repeated in successive lines—the two must take their several roads.

Salisbury Plain is a poem of encounters, but it is unlike the later encounter poems which are amongst Wordsworth’s finest work, in that the figures in Salisbury Plain are anonymous emblems, unrealized by names or occupations or idiosyncrasies, and in that the poet himself does not participate in the encounter. How different Salisbury Plain would be, if the Woman were named, as Margaret is in The Ruined Cottage, if she referred to her lost husband as Robert, or if it were the poet-speaker who hears her story, as he hears that of the shepherd in ‘The Last of the Flock’. In Salisbury Plain the human beings are figures in a tableau framed by the poet’s observations on them as emblems of contemporary life. The narrative ends with a rhetorical salute:

  • Adieu ye friendless hope-forsaken pair!
  • Yet friendless ere ye take your several road,
  • Enter that lowly cot and ye shall share
  • Comforts by prouder mansions unbestowed.
  • For you yon milkmaid bears her brimming load,
  • For you the board is piled with homely bread,
  • And think that life is like this desart broad,
  • (p.190) Where all the happiest find is but a shed
  • And a green spot ’mid wastes interminably spread.

But though the narrative has ended, the poem has not. It began with four stanzas of homiletic declamation and ends with thirteen more, which frame the story of the two vagrants as evidence that many thousands such as these are weeping now, ‘Beset with foes more fierce than e’er assail | The savage without home in winter’s keenest gale’.

Wordsworth’s observation that his poetic offspring ‘seems to have no character at all’ is worth examining, however, from a different point of view. It might be as accurate to say that on the contrary Salisbury Plain has too clearly identifiable a character, none of the elements of which are unique to it. Since the publication in 1975 of a complete and easily readable text of the poem, evidence of its allegiances and indebtednesses has accumulated.26 The pathos of the Female Vagrant’s tale has been seen to link her to comparable suffering figures in Goldsmith, Langhorne, and Shenstone—the latter two being poets praised by Wordsworth for bringing ‘the Muse into the Company of common life’.27 Echoes of Thomson and Chatterton have been identified. The overwhelming influence, of course, is Spenser, or rather, Spenser-through-James-Beattie. In Salisbury Plain Wordsworth recalls many phrases from The Minstrel (1771–4), a poem he had loved since Hawkshead school-days and which—although perhaps he never knew this—provided Dorothy Wordsworth with a way of understanding her brother—‘the whole character of Edwin resembles much what William was when I first knew him after my leaving Halifax.’28

The didactic thrust of the poem is similarly highly characterized, but not at all individual. Rousseau and Paine stand out amongst others as ideological progenitors. The sacrificial altars of the Druids owe as much, it seems, to what Wordsworth has absorbed from traditional and contemporary interpretations of Stonehenge as from his imaginative response to the monument itself. Salisbury Cathedral and its ancient clock, Old Sarum, the topography of the plain, even the emblem of the ‘smoking cottage’ that welcomes the vagrants—all these elements of the poem bring with them established meanings from other contemporary discourses, meanings which—consciously or unconsciously—Wordsworth exploits in Salisbury Plain. Philip (p.191) Shaw, for example, has highlighted how pervasive is the ‘image of the destitute and grieving widow in war poetry of the 1790s’. Stephen Behrendt notes how often ‘British writing of the war years’ voices the ‘bitter and largely inconsolable grief’ of the bereaved, especially women such as the Female Vagrant. John Barrell’s observation that the cottage ‘as the site of an idealized, private, domestic life, was far more widely invoked in the 1790s than in the 1770s or 1780s’ is directly apposite to the Female Vagrant’s account of her birth-place cottage and the description of the ‘lowly cot’ to which she walks in stanza 46 of Salisbury Plain. Reading the poem as ‘an engagement with the antiquarian strains of British radicalism in the early 1790s’, Tom Dugget demonstrates how the plain itself and Stonehenge have long figured in competing histories of British ‘Liberty’.29

Many more indebtednesses, echoes, and analogues could be paraded. In short, Salisbury Plain, just like the Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, is an identikit protest polemic of the early 1790s. In both the poem and the prose tract there is nothing factitious about either the generalized anger and bitterness that fuels them or about the denunciation of specific outrages, but the commanding structure of ideas consists essentially of radical commonplaces. In a world dominated by the tyranny of unjust power, the poor fare worse than the hungry savage; he at least shares his suffering with ‘men who all of his hard lot partake’ and together with them can subdue the evils he faces by the strength of his own arm. How unlike the lot of the Female Vagrant whose young life has been blighted by injustice, economic necessity, careless cruelty, and finally the loss of husband and children through the ravages of war. But hers is the common and inevitable lot of the powerless, whose rulers export ‘Injury and Strife, | Outrage and deadly Hate’, straining for empire, while denying ‘Justice and the kindly train | Of Peace and Truth’ in their own countries, whose peoples ‘crushed by their own fetters helpless sink, | Move their galled limbs in fear and eye each silent link’. Richard Gravil tartly but justifiably describes the stanzas in which these propositions are advanced as a ‘digest of Price and Priestley’.30

The author of Salisbury Plain may be marching under the same banner as Price and Priestley, but invoking them here serves to emphasize not similarity but a significant difference between them. In A Discourse on the Love of our Country, delivered in November 1789 in the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, Richard Price rapturously (p.192) welcomed the new era in which he saw ‘the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience’, a vision which was broadcast to a far greater audience the following year when Burke assailed him in Reflections on the Revolution in France.31 That Joseph Priestley, another Dissenter, had a public face and reputation was demonstrated unequivocally when a Birmingham mob burnt his house down in 1791. Both of these Friends of Liberty made a public impact through their writings and personal profile. Salisbury Plain made no impact outside its author’s small circle. Discussion of the poem’s merits as political protest, with citation of analogues from other contemporary verse featuring vagrants and bereaved women, ought always to register that its merits were unknown, its contemporaneity unnoticed, its impact nil, because it was not published.32

Why it was not published, or apparently not even offered for publication, remains an unsettled question. There were very good reasons for being cautious, as the Pitt government moved on to a war footing and began to clamp down on sedition in all its guises.33 It may be that Wordsworth was dissatisfied artistically and that even as Dorothy was completing the fair-copy manuscript of Salisbury Plain in 1794 he knew that the poem was not adequate. But whatever the cause of the non-appearance of the poem, the young radical, who forcefully spelt out his republican principles to William Mathews in 1794—‘I am of that odious class of men called democrats’—cannot but have been aware that the rhetoric of his poem, voiced but not heard, was impotent.34

  • Heroes of Truth pursue your march, up tear
  • Th’Oppressor’s dungeon from its deepest base;
  • High o’er the towers of Pride undaunted rear
  • Resistless in your might the herculean mace
  • Of Reason; let foul Error’s monster race
  • Dragged from their dens start at the light with pain
  • And die; pursue your toils, till not a trace
  • Be left on earth of Superstition’s reign,
  • Save that eternal pile which frowns on Sarum’s plain.

Richard Price similarly addressed comrades in arms: ‘Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom, and writers in its defence! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold (p.193) kingdoms, admonished by you, starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors!’35 Price, though, knew he had an audience and had ample evidence that his chosen means of reaching it—a prose sermon—had caused a stir, that it was a contribution to public debate. As Wordsworth looked over Salisbury Plain in 1794, the Treason Trials were opening in London. At this moment of high tension—what Godwin in his literally life-saving intervention called, ‘the most important crisis in the history of English liberty, that the world ever saw’36—Wordsworth must have pondered whether the voice of poetry could make itself heard in the current ideological cacophony and how any work of his might hope to be adequate in the cause of human liberty.37

He perhaps also wondered about the form he had chosen. As a poetic model and resource Spenser-through-Beattie was not without problems, or at least potential problems. Emphasizing Beattie’s significance for the Spenserian renaissance at the turn of the eighteenth century, Greg Kucich rightly points out that, ‘What made The Minstrel so attractive was its elaborate drama about a maturing poet’s division between imaginative beauty and intellectual truth.’38 To which one might add that The Minstrel, especially Book One, offered Wordsworth a model of the Spenserian stanza deployed with great skill and it must have been immensely heartening to the young Beattie admirer that he proved just as capable himself of handling it. But, as Kucich encapsulates in his formulation ‘division between imaginative beauty and intellectual truth’, by the time Wordsworth chose to use it, the Spenserian stanza was firmly fixed in an interpretative discourse that, playing off moralizing against the creation of beauty, determined to some extent the artistic freedoms available to any given poetic project. And so, at the all-important technical level, did the structure of the stanza itself. When Wordsworth commented on it at some length many years later, what he emphasized were the technical challenges of an ‘almost insurmountably difficult’ form. Solemnly passing on considered judgements to a fellow practitioner, it was perhaps with some ruefulness that Wordsworth recalled his own struggles with the stanza thirty and more years before. The Spenserian stanza, though ‘a fine structure of verse’, was, he advised Catherine Grace Godwin, ‘ill adapted to conflicting passion’, ‘unfit for narrative’ and, ‘for circumstantial narrative’, (p.194) impossible to succeed in, because of ‘the poverty of our language in rhymes’.39


At five hundred and forty-nine lines in a challenging verse form Salisbury Plain was a substantial achievement. A considerable amount of labour went into the composition of it; the imaginative organization of the disparate elements of the whole is impressive. Nonetheless, within a year of completing a fair-copy of it, Wordsworth was taking it apart and in so doing he confirmed the pattern of work he was to follow for the rest of his life. In 1793 he had published An Evening Walk. Less than a year later he greatly revised it.40 A year after that he returned to Salisbury Plain. By November 1795 he was referring to that poem as a ‘first draught’ to which, he told Francis Wrangham, he had ‘made alterations and additions so material as that it may be looked on almost as another work’.41 ‘Almost’ is quite telling. Wordsworth always revisited his work boldly, willing to engage in recasting to almost any extent, but the originating germ always remained in whatever form a poem might eventually take. So it was with Salisbury Plain. The Female Vagrant’s tale survived as a major element in the poem’s attempt to awaken humane sympathies through representative human stories, but what was added to it was so substantial that the next version could indeed be ‘looked on almost as another work’.

Adventures on Salisbury Plain opens directly with a human encounter. Gone are the declamatory stanzas that opened Salisbury Plain, replaced by a meeting between a sick old man, once a soldier, now barely able to totter along the skirt of Salisbury Plain, and a discharged sailor. Having assisted the old man, the sailor presses on and eventually meets the vagrant woman. His story has been related by the narrator—press-ganged, discharged, denied his just reward, the sailor has killed a traveller in a botched robbery and is now on the run—but the woman tells her own tale of comparable suffering. A soldier’s widow, she too is destitute. The two vagrants find comfort in one another’s company and share the same sense of sympathetic grief when they encounter another poor family, whose head has just beaten his infant son to the ground. But worse is to come. A further (p.195) chance encounter brings the sailor face to face with his wife and he learns that she has been driven out of her home by suspicion that her husband was the killer of the stranger lying dead by her door. Homeless, and denied relief by unfeeling overseers, she dies, but not before her husband has revealed himself to her and begged forgiveness. Kindly cottagers ensure that the sailor’s widow is properly buried, but it becomes clear to them that her husband is the guilty man. Now resolute, the sailor turns himself over to the authorities and ‘Justice’ is done. The poem ends with his gibbeted body swinging in the wind.

When Wordsworth told Wrangham about his recent composition late in 1795, he defined it through its social and ideological context: ‘… almost as another work. Its object is partly to expose the vices of the penal law and the calamities of war as they affect individuals.’ It is fully understandable why he should have thought of the poem in terms of its historical moment, for it was coming into being at a particularly bad one for reformers of every hue. The government’s failure to obtain guilty verdicts in the 1794 Treason Trials did not, as an exultant Wordsworth declared it would, ‘abate the insolence and presumption of the aristocracy by shewing it that neither the violence, nor the art, of power can crush even an unfriended individual, though engaged in the propagation of doctrines confessedly unpalatable to privilege’.42 On the contrary, the Treasonable Practices Bill and the Seditious Meetings Bill, both passed in November 1795, together with the continued suspension of Habeas Corpus, ensured that the propagation of such doctrines became increasingly difficult and risky. Had Thelwall, Tooke, Hardy, Holcroft, and the other defendants been found guilty, their lives would most probably have been gruesomely forfeited, but one did not need to engage in High Treason to end up on the gallows. In his Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff Wordsworth had inveighed against ‘laws partial and oppressive’ and a penal code ‘crowded with disproportioned penalties and indiscriminate severity’.43 When he returned to such language in his November 1795 letter to Wrangham—‘the vices of the penal law’—there were over two hundred offences for which a guilty verdict could mean death.44

For those among the poor who avoided the gallows, the recruiting sergeant, and the press-gang, conditions in general worsened dramatically in 1795 as a result of bad harvest and the economic impact of (p.196) funding a war.45 Evidence of poverty and distress, such as that which in this year prompted the creation of the Speenhamland system, was very obvious to the Wordsworths when they moved to Racedown.46 ‘The country people here are wretchedly poor’, Wordsworth reported to Mathews. Dorothy wrote in similar terms: ‘The peasants are miserably poor; their cottages are shapeless structures (I may almost say) of wood and clay—indeed they are not at all beyond what might be expected in savage life.’47 They could not know that historians would later characterize it without exaggeration as ‘a year of near-famine’. At the beginning of the year Sheridan had made play in the House of Commons on the contrast between ministers ‘scrambling for places and pensions’ and the poor struggling to afford bread and coal.48 Just how justified this rhetorical flourish was the Wordsworths knew from personal experience by the end of the winter 1795–6, for coal had become prohibitively expensive: ‘You would be surprized’, Dorothy told Jane Marshall, ‘to see what a small cart full we get for three or four and twenty shillings.’49

Wordsworth was keenly alive to the distresses of this dark time, but he was not alone in that. Where he was alone was in the struggle to find a voice and a role. To him as young would-be poet the duty to speak out on social issues necessarily presented itself in the form of artistic difficulties to be identified and surmounted.

The revised version of Salisbury Plain was intended, Wordsworth told Wrangham, ‘partly to expose the vices of the penal law and the calamities of war as they affect individuals’.50 As the synopsis just given has indicated, Adventures on Salisbury Plain is peopled with suffering figures whose history and present condition testify to the calamities of war—the sick and poor old soldier; the discharged sailor, who has been twice robbed, of his liberty by the press-gang and of his just reward for service by the ‘slaves of Office’; his destitute wife, harried by unfeeling Poor Law overseers; the traveller whom in desperation he robbed and killed; the impoverished labouring family with the violent father; the female vagrant, a soldier’s widow who has lost everything. That these are the stock figures of radical protest poetry, soon to be parodied in the Anti-Jacobin, does not reduce their representative weight—such figures really could be encountered as the war took its course. But successful depiction of how the calamities of war affect individuals requires something denser, more varied, and more interesting than just a parade of specimen figures in (p.197) tableaux. In its revised version the poem works through a structure in which declamation has been replaced by narrative and dramatic interplay. Some of the life-histories are only cursorily sketched in, such as that of the old soldier who opens the poem skirting Salisbury Plain. The two important ones are presented more fully. How and why the sailor and the soldier’s widow are in their present situation is accounted for in some detail, as is the desperate plight of the sailor’s wife.

In its deployment of these narratives the poem anticipates the story-telling poet of The Excursion and via that poem the author of Adam Bede and Silas Marner. That people’s lives are interconnected adventitiously is brought out clearly enough, but what is also emphasized is the moral dimension linking past and present acts and encounters and its relation to the irresistible force of Law and Power. It is chance that confronts the sailor with his wretched wife, but it is something more than chance that makes him realize his responsibility for her suffering and his guilt as a murderer. It is also important that most of the figures in Adventures on Salisbury Plain are at the bottom of the social pile and all of them are lowly. ‘Nature’s unambitious underwood’, the Pastor in The Excursion would later call them in a phrase that spoke to George Eliot at the very beginning of her career.51 The soldier’s widow is a Vagrant, a social category firmly recognized in the 1790s as a growing nuisance; the sailor’s widow is every Poor Law ratepayer’s nightmare, an out-of-parish dependant; the sailor is a fugitive thief and murderer; even the kindly housewife and her husband in the cottage can only offer the comforts of ‘a rustic Inn’.52 Each one of these figures, however, turns instinctively, open-heartedly, to their own like. When Wordsworth introduced ‘Michael’ and ‘The Brothers’ to Fox in 1801 he was commending much finer poems than Adventures on Salisbury Plain, but the terms of his commendation can be applied to the earlier as well as the later work: this is poetry ‘written with a view to shew that men who do not wear fine cloaths can feel deeply’.53

Viewed in the light of Wordsworth’s whole body of work Adventures on Salisbury Plain dwindles in stature, but it was important to Wordsworth, because it offered him further evidence of the depth of his own poetic resources and—as one may infer from what happened next—because with it Wordsworth reached the point of knowing that he wanted to be something more than a closet (p.198) intellectual radical who wrote verses. He wanted an actual, not a notional audience. At the beginning of 1796 he was confident enough to promise Joseph Cottle an early glimpse of his Salisbury Plain manuscript. A copy was dispatched to Bristol and in March he was contemplating publication by subscription. Coleridge was immensely taken with the poem; Lamb hurried through it ‘not without delight’; in April its appearance within a few weeks seemed certain. But the hopes of the early summer came to nothing.54 The second version of the Salisbury Plain poem circulated in a wider circle than the first, but it too remained unpublished, admired by a coterie but otherwise unknown.


The poem that had emerged from Wordsworth’s experiences on Salisbury Plain was losing its hold as an imaginative possibility. Sometime in 1796, perhaps even while the mirage of publication was still beckoning, Wordsworth seems to have worked on verse related to the landscape of the plain and the woman’s story, but by October he was ‘ardent in the composition of a tragedy’ and for the moment Adventures on Salisbury Plain ceased to engage him.55 Before long, however, the poem was again under consideration in reopened negotiations with Cottle: ‘I say nothing of the Salisbury plain ’till I see you, I am determined to finish it, and equally so that You shall publish.’56 It is a revealing declaration. No matter how much Wordsworth had done to the poem since moving into Racedown, he could not, characteristically, regard it as final, and though he may have thought he was ‘determined to finish it’, whatever he had in mind did not come into being.

The next step in the history of the poem’s revisiting entailed a lot more than tinkering: it was dismembered altogether. In the summer of 1798 the woman’s tale was excerpted under the title ‘The Female Vagrant’, an excision which helped bulk out the Lyrical Ballads collection which Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Cottle had finally agreed on, but which crippled the poem. Either substantial fresh composition was required for a narrative of specifically female sufferings to balance the sailor’s story, or the structure of the whole poem had to be reshaped. Neither happened.

(p.199) The raw material for a human drama with a local setting was given to Wordsworth and Coleridge by Tom Poole and it has been plausibly suggested that what Wordsworth worked up from it was for a while conceived as being integrated into Adventures on Salisbury Plain.57 The story concerns a Quantocks charcoal-burner called John Walford, who, though promised to a certain Ann Rice, is forced to marry a half-witted girl he has made pregnant. Eventually the misery of his marriage is such that he is driven to murder her. At his execution, which he makes no attempt to avoid, Walford is reconciled to his beloved Ann and he dies asking for the world’s and God’s forgiveness for a crime he never intended to commit.

Whether Wordsworth composed A Somersetshire Tragedy with the needs of Adventures on Salisbury Plain in mind or whether the poem was already written and he just saw the possibility of using it in the creation of a new version of the now mutilated Adventures cannot be determined from what little manuscript evidence has survived,58 but what is clear is that there are at least two grounds for thinking that the Walford story did not seem an artistic possibility for very long. The first is simply that Wordsworth needed a story that brought out a woman’s sufferings, whereas the focus of sympathy in A Somersetshire Tragedy must be the man’s. Ann (apparently Agnes in Wordsworth’s poem) does suffer, but she survives. The murdered woman is not presented in extant accounts as someone who could be dramatized as anything other than a sad victim of her sex and mental incapacity. But Walford is an essentially good man brought low, who goes to the gallows in the same spirit as the sailor in Adventures on Salisbury Plain.

The second ground is that from what little Wordsworth says about it, it sounds as if he had lost interest in, or patience with, the whole poetic venture. Towards the end of a very long catching-up letter to Coleridge early in 1799 Wordsworth vouchsafed:

I also took courage to devote two days (O Wonder) to the Salisbury Plain. I am resolved to discard Robert Walford and invent a new story for the woman. The poem is finished all but her tale. Now by way of a pretty moving accident and to bind together in palpable knots the story of the piece I have resolved to make her the widow or sister or daughter of the man whom the poor Tar murdered. So much for the vulgar. Further the Poets invention goeth not. This is by way of giving a physical totality to the piece, which I regard as finish’d minus 24 stanzas the utmost tether allowed to the poor Lady.59

(p.200) The substance of this declaration is interesting—the details of plotting changes help date and explain surviving manuscript materials, as does the assertion that the poem is ‘finished’ though admittedly up to twenty-four stanzas have yet to be written; the mention of Walford confirms some link between the poem and A Somersetshire Tragedy.60 What is altogether more revealing than the substance of this declaration, however, is its tone. The jocularity, the drop into archaism, above all the reference to the Female Vagrant as a ‘poor Lady’ who is to be allowed a certain ‘tether’, all indicate how far Wordsworth had travelled since the ‘vices of the penal law’ letter to Wrangham of November 1795. Then the emerging Adventures on Salisbury Plain was at the centre of Wordsworth’s creative endeavour: now he is barely taking the poem seriously.

The main reason why is suggested by one phrase in the progress report to Coleridge—‘pretty moving accident’. Wordsworth was to use it again only months later, when the narrator’s profession that ‘The moving accident is not my trade’ in ‘Hart-Leap Well’ was a significant element in the artistic manifesto embodied in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads 1800 and the poems in the second volume.61 It emerged from events and the pursuit of ideas that confirmed the direction of Wordsworth’s life and the nature of his identity as a poet which had been taking shape over the annus mirabilis. At the beginning of the period, 1797–8, Adventures on Salisbury Plain was already moribund, displaced by The Borderers and The Ruined Cottage. Its demise as a current project became inevitable when Wordsworth took stock over 1798 to 1799 and made his choice of life. Many factors coalesced. With Napoleon’s subjugation of the Swiss, it was farewell to those aspects of the earlier self that had identified with the French cause. Recognition of what obligations were entailed in acknowledging a vocation as the philosophic poet of The Recluse generated as much anxiety about the future as excitement, as did the courageous, if not foolhardy decision to return to a remote part of northern England in the hope of there ‘being enabled to construct a literary Work that might live’. All these factors were important, but the chief one in relation to Adventures on Salisbury Plain was that Wordsworth’s choice of life was inseparable from a new and confident sense of artistic direction.

Over the winter of 1798–9 Wordsworth had begun to theorize what was voiced in a variety of dramatic ways in the lyrics of (p.201) the summer of 1798, namely, that ‘Poetry is passion: it is the history or science of feelings’ and that it was to be valued according to the degree to which it either generated them afresh or called them from their hidden recesses. When he read Bürger, Wordsworth told Coleridge, he had no ‘recollection of delicate or minute feelings which he has either communicated to me, or taught me to recognise’, a shortcoming which was ascribed fundamentally to reliance on ‘incidents’.62 These, Wordsworth declared, ‘are among the lowest allurements of poetry’, preparing the ground for the most important claim in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, namely, that in these poems ‘the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling’.63 By the time of writing to Coleridge in February 1799 Wordsworth’s thinking about the manner in which poetry might offer stimulation, but not ‘outrageous stimulation’,64 and about the relation in any tale between story and incidents, was not yet fully developed, but it was firm enough in essentials for it to be clear that Adventures on Salisbury Plain belonged to the past. The ‘poor Lady’ was not to get the twenty-four new stanzas allowed her and quite soon Wordsworth’s judgement of the poem and the genre to which it belonged had hardened. By 1801 overt protest poetry had come to seem suspect as verging on ‘jacobinical pathos’. Reporting Coleridge’s ‘severest reprehension’ of ‘those writers who seem to estimate their power of exciting sorrow for suffering humanity, by the quantity of hatred and revenge which they are able to pour into the hearts of their Readers’, Wordsworth declared his own conviction that ‘the human heart can never be moved to any salutary purposes in this way’. And on the same day, in a separate letter to the sister of the recipient of the one just quoted, Wordsworth revealed how far he had left the Salisbury Plain poems behind. Commenting on ‘The Female Vagrant’ to Anne Taylor, he observed that ‘the diction of that Poem is often vicious and the descriptions are often false, giving proofs of a mind inattentive to the true nature of the subject on which it was employed’.65 This was self-criticism as pointed as it could be. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads the year before, Wordsworth (identified by name for the first time in this edition) had written, ‘I do not know how … I can give my Reader a more exact notion of the style in which I wished these poems to be written than by informing him that I have at all times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject …’.66

(p.202) Wordsworth’s comments to Anne Taylor in 1801 quickened, not unexpectedly, the impulse to revision. It was not enough to make a generalized point about what was wrong with ‘The Female Vagrant’: the opportunity was taken to make ‘a few corrections of this poem in which I have endeavoured to bring the language nearer to truth’. In fact ‘a few corrections’ amounted to radical surgery. Whole stanzas were deleted, others completely remodelled. As an admirer of Lyrical Ballads, Anne Taylor must have been astonished by the poet’s readiness to declare, ‘Omit the first stanza entirely … omit the 3rd and 4th stanzas’ and was perhaps left wondering how she was supposed to enter new readings into her volume by the unintentionally comical statement, ‘Page 70 the line “His little range of water was denied” must have another substituted for it which I have not written.’ By the time of the third edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1802 the line had been written and the other corrections had been incorporated, which notably softened the social protest element of the poem. As Basil Willey long ago pointed out,67 the description of soldiers as ‘the brood | That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood’, for example, was excised. For the 1815 collective Poems the process was taken still further. Classed under ‘Juvenile Pieces’, ‘The Female Vagrant’ was now reduced to such a severely truncated form (thirteen full stanzas only), with the abandonment of the accounts of how injustice destroyed her father and how her husband was driven to become a soldier, that an introductory sentence was required if readers were to make sense of what was left of the woman’s story: ‘Having described her own Situation with her Husband, serving in America during the War, she proceeds’. Then follows ‘All perished—all, in one remorseless year …’.

The full version of ‘The Female Vagrant’ was restored for the next collective edition in 1820, but though the restoration indicated some continuing attention to the poem, Wordsworth’s creative engagement with the Salisbury Plain project had lapsed.


Stirred by the various promptings discussed earlier in this chapter, Wordsworth returned to it in 1841. The manuscript version abandoned in 1799 was looked out and heavily worked over; a new (p.203) manuscript was prepared, largely by Mary Wordsworth, which was also revised. It was substantial labour and, as always, very pernickety. In some passages in the new manuscript, for example, Wordsworth revised the fair-copy so intensively that it became illegible. Recognizing that no printer could be expected to set type from such a mess, Wordsworth transferred the new readings to other slips of paper which were stuck on to the original with sealing wax. On occasion, though, even these versions were subjected to further crossings out and revision. Inevitably tinkering did not stop with the beginning of the production process. Both first and second proof stages enabled further scrutiny of the text. The result was a new poem and a new title. In every previous version the poem’s title had advertised its setting—Salisbury Plain; A Night on Salisbury Plain; Adventures on Salisbury Plain— now it did so only as a secondary consideration. Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain was its title when after such long gestation this poem finally appeared in Poems, Chiefl y of Early and Late Years (1842).

The historicizing note of the volume’s title was picked up by the ‘Advertisement’ that preceded Guilt and Sorrow. Declaring that ‘the whole [poem] was written before the close of the year 1794’, Wordsworth explained the relation of ‘The Female Vagrant’ to it before offering, ‘rather as a matter of literary biography than for any other reason’ an account of ‘the circumstances under which it was produced’. The main portion of it reads:

During the latter part of the summer of 1793, having passed a month in the Isle of Wight, in view of the fleet which was then preparing for sea off Portsmouth at the commencement of the war, I left the place with melancholy forebodings. The American war was still fresh in memory. The struggle which was beginning, and which many thought would be brought to a speedy close by the irresistible arms of Great Britain being added to those of the allies, I was assured in my own mind would be of long continuance, and productive of distress and misery beyond all possible calculation. This conviction was pressed upon me by having been a witness, during a long residence in revolutionary France, of the spirit which prevailed in that country. After leaving the Isle of Wight, I spent two days in wandering on foot over Salisbury Plain … .

The monuments and traces of antiquity, scattered in abundance over that region, led me unavoidably to compare what we know or guess of those remote times with certain aspects of modern society, and with calamities, principally those consequent upon war, to which, more than other classes of men, the poor are subject.

(p.204) Readers in 1842 would have needed to be intimate with Wordsworth’s particular way of conceiving the life of his poems—essentially the subject of this book—to have been able to register in what sense to understand the mendacious assertion that the whole of this newly-published poem was written before the end of 1794; and they might have been intrigued to probe further into the claims of the ‘Advertisement’ had they known that in drafting it Wordsworth had originally given a different date of composition—1795—and had declared, ‘How it came to be so long suppressed is of no importance to the Reader.’ ‘Suppressed’ has a power quite lost in the more anodyne, ‘I will detail, rather as a matter of literary biography, the circumstances under which it was produced’.68 In fact there was nothing here to agitate either Wordsworth’s loyal following or younger readers new to his work. Neither the ‘Advertisement’ to Guilt and Sorrow nor the poem itself need have shaken anyone’s sense of what kind of poet Wordsworth was. The ‘Advertisement’ declares that when the poem was composed the horrors of war were fresh in mind from the American campaigns—true; that Wordsworth had seen enough of the French to judge that a war with them would be bound to be of long duration—true; and that the inevitable suffering entailed in such a war would bear more hardly on the poor than on any other class—true. What the ‘Advertisement’ implicitly confirms is the complete congruence between the opinions of the young poet of the 1790s and those of his later self, the author of sonnets on National Independence and Liberty.

There was, moreover, almost nothing in the public domain to suggest anything else. None of the evidence which now informs scholarly treatments of Wordsworth’s radical years was available. The Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, Wordsworth’s long letters to William Mathews in 1794 avowing his ‘odious’ democratic allegiances, the unequivocal revelations of Books Nine and Ten of The Prelude—all remained private.69 When Coleridge had assured Joseph Cottle in 1798 that whereas his name stank, ‘Wordsworth’s name is nothing’, he was right.70 Of course something of the complexion of the young Wordsworth’s politics could be gleaned from Biographia Literaria (1817), from Hazlitt in The Spirit of the Age (1825), from Cottle’s Early Recollections, Chiefly Relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1837), and most recently from De Quincey’s unwelcome memoirs in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1839). Nothing at all in any of (p.205) these retrospective pieces, however, would suggest for a moment that Wordsworth had been anything other than an English patriot.71 Perhaps the knowledge that Byron and Shelley were amongst those who regarded Wordsworth as a one-time radical turncoat might have caused some readers to wonder whether the revelation provided in the ‘Advertisement’ of the circumstances in which Guilt and Sorrow was produced was all that might be said on the subject. But it was not very likely. And the most important reason why was simply that nothing in the poem that appeared for the first time in 1842 as Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents Upon Salisbury Plain need have given rise to questions about the political orientation of the young man who, roaming across Salisbury Plain, had been led ‘unavoidably to compare what we know or guess of those remote times with certain aspects of modern society …’.

In the substantial recasting that resulted in the version of 1842 the earlier poems had been changed in matters of detail in such a way that aspects of their historical significance were disguised or even eliminated. Overall the narrative was tightened by reducing the number of dramatis personae, by excising some of the Gothic heightening, such as the sailor’s trance in stanzas 45–6 of Adventures on Salisbury Plain, and by cutting out the episode in which the good cottagers wrestle with their feelings on learning of the sailor’s guilt. These changes, it could be argued, make Guilt and Sorrow a better poem rhetorically than Adventures on Salisbury Plain without really altering its impact as a whole. The apparently smaller, more local changes do.72 In the last version of the poem most of the painful details about the soldier’s past at the beginning of Adventures have been cut. The ‘ruffian press gang dire’ becomes a body of seamen who themselves have been victims and who act only reluctantly, ‘ ’Gainst all that in his heart, or theirs perhaps, said nay’ (l. 54). When the sailor returns to England he is denied his just reward by ‘fraud’ rather than ‘the slaves of office’. Details of why the Female Vagrant’s father ‘fails’ are spared. The earlier description of soldiers as ‘the brood | That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood’ is removed, as is the evocation of the Rape and Murder of Mother and Child as fixed features of War (Adventures, ll. 445–7). In earlier-stage revision to Salisbury Plain the sailor tries to cheer the woman by talk of ‘social Order’s care’, but it is made clear that this is ‘delusion fond’ invoked solely from his concern at her fragile psychological (p.206) state. In Guilt and Sorrow, a quite different sense is conveyed—there is reason to trust in an ultimately benevolent order. At the end of the Female Vagrant’s account of her sufferings, stanza 51 takes up the narrative:

  • True sympathy the Sailor’s looks expressed,
  • His looks—for pondering he was mute the while.
  • Of Social Order’s care for wretchedness,
  • Of Time’s sure help to calm and reconcile,
  • Joy’s second spring and Hope’s long-treasured smile,
  • ’Twas not for him to speak—a man so tried.
  • Yet to relieve her heart, in friendly style
  • Proverbial words of comfort he applied,
  • And not in vain, while they went pacing side by side.73

Cumulatively these changes tend to diminish the presence of malign agency, be it state or individual tyranny, in the life of the poor. What oppresses them is simply the law of life, which changes its forms from era to era but is always the same—the law of unending struggle. As the sailor puts it in his summation declaration, ‘Bad is the world, and hard the world’s law …’ (stanza 57).

If changes in detail have obscured the origins of Guilt and Sorrow in poems of protest at the historical realities of the 1790s, however, it does not mean that this final version has been depoliticized or that Wordsworth’s introductory note about its history would have seemed at odds with readers’ experience of it in 1842. To put it simply, Guilt and Sorrow is quite as historically located a protest poem as Adventures on Salisbury Plain, but, as Richard Gravil has finely put it, its historical moment is not ‘the hungry 90s’ but ‘the newly hungry 40s’.74 And the reason why the introductory note on the poem’s history would not have raised any eyebrows is that nothing in it jars with anything that readers had come to expect of the poet who in almost his earliest defence of his work explained why he had chosen as subject matter ‘Low and rustic life’.

By the time Keble reminded the assembled Oxford audience in 1839 that Wordsworth was being honoured in part for having exhibited ‘the manners, the pursuits, and the feelings, religious and traditional, of the poor’, the tribute was already familiar.75 Evidence of its appositeness had of course existed from the beginning of his career in poems such ‘Simon Lee’, ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’, and ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, but it had been strikingly confirmed more (p.207) recently in the ‘Postscript’ to the collection Yarrow Revisited in 1835. With links to the Prefaces to Lyrical Ballads and to Wordsworth’s manifesto letters to Charles James Fox (14 January 1801) and John Wilson (7 June 1802), this prose ‘Postscript’ testifies to continuities of bearing between his earlier and later work.76 In a response to changes ‘especially affecting the lower orders of society’, primarily the result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, this generously humanitarian discussion insists that in framing legislation ‘the prudence of the head’ must never ‘supplant the wisdom of the heart’. Declaring it a principle that ‘all persons who cannot find employment, or procure wages sufficient to support the body in health and strength, are entitled to maintenance by law’, Wordsworth acutely observes that the framing of the Act ‘proceeds too much upon the presumption that it is a labouring man’s own fault if he be not, as the phrase is, beforehand with the world’. In one passage the lot of ‘the famished Northern Indian’ and the ‘savage Islander’ is compared with that of those in the present day, who are reduced to ‘wandering about as strangers in streets and ways, with the hope of succour from casual charity’. Wretchedness of this kind is frequently endured ‘in civilised society’, it is timeless and universal: ‘multitudes, in all ages, have known it, of whom may be said:—

  • Homeless, near a thousand homes they stood,
  • And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food.’

A quotation from ‘The Female Vagrant’—there could not be surer evidence that on this topic Wordsworth’s imagination is working exactly as it did long ago in Salisbury Plain. Further evidence of continuities was offered when Wordsworth concluded the ‘Postscript’ with a long passage ‘extracted from my MSS. written above thirty years ago’ (The Prelude, 1805, XII, 223–77), because ‘it turns upon the individual dignity which humbleness of social condition does not preclude, but frequently promotes’.

Nor did his anxiety about the New Poor Law evaporate. When further development of the Act was being debated in 1842, Wordsworth set out his disquiet very bluntly. In a letter to the eminent physician Robert Ferguson he stressed his dislike of the attitudes to the poor being embodied in the legislation, deeming them inconsistent ‘with the dictates of humanity’. It seemed, he observed, that the labouring poor were to be punished to set an (p.208) example ‘for the benefit of the generation to come—Nay more … to be punished also for the faults of the preceding ones.’77

Such an emphasis on the rights, as well as the needs, of the labouring poor allies the Wordsworth of Guilt and Sorrow squarely with the Dickens of Oliver Twist (1836–9), the Carlyle of Chartism (1840) and Past and Present (1843), and the Gaskell of Mary Barton (1848). Whatever the differences between these works—and the differences in analysis and prognosis are considerable—each registers the impact of the mountingly severe conditions that prevailed as the 1830s became the ‘hungry-forties’ by telling stories about those whose lives are invariably the most affected by economic decline. The sufferings of the female vagrant and the sailor on Salisbury Plain may have begun before war against the French had even started, but the account of them is as apposite in 1842 as it would have been in the 1790s. The woman’s hunger ‘near a thousand tables’ is the same as Oliver Twist’s when he asks for more. There is a kinship between the sailor who is driven to murder by injustice and wretchedness and the good man, John Barton—whose pitiable story is set in the year of the publication of Guilt and Sorrow, 1842. And as an introduction to the poem, the opening sentences of Past and Present could serve as text: ‘The condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want of every kind; yet England is dying of inanition.’78

Guilt and Sorrow belongs to the hungry-forties, the era of Chartism when, as the ‘Prelude’ to Poems, Chiefl y of Early and Late Years puts it, ‘unforeseen distress spreads far and wide | Among a People mournfully cast down’. But there is another context also in which the poem’s appearance in 1842 might have been regarded as timely.

Guilt and Sorrow tells essentially the same story as Adventures on Salisbury Plain. The guilt and sorrow highlighted in the newly sombre title burdens the sailor figure in both poems. Though in a desperate plight and justifiably angered by the fraud that robs him of his expected reward for serving his country, what he does when he robs another hapless victim of his life is murder. But can it be extenuated? Ought it to be? And if the judgment is inexorable that the law must take its course, what ought that course properly to be? (p.209) In the earlier poem such questions are sifted in a thoroughly Godwinian, rationalist manner in which the anger and scorn vented in the Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff are heard again. The sailor is a victim of the state; an essentially good man, he is driven to crime by want; to condemn such a one to death violates the name of ‘Justice’; to let his corpse swing on the gibbet is a barbarity that shames a so-called civilized society. In the later poem, although, as has been indicated, the indictment of the apparatus of the state has been softened, it remains the case that the sailor is a victim, whose plight must raise the question in the mind of every compassionate and Christian reader, what is condign punishment for such a crime committed by such a man?

When Poems, Chiefl y of Early and Late Years was published these questions were matters of intense Parliamentary debate and wider public concern. Throughout the 1830s, especially following the report of a Royal Commission in 1837, legislation greatly reduced the severity of the penal law relating to capital punishment and there was powerful agitation for abolition of the death penalty altogether.79

That the poet was engaged by the capital punishment debate had become became public knowledge in 1841, when in the course of a substantial article on Wordsworth’s collected sonnets in the Quarterly Review, Henry Taylor gave an account of the as yet unpublished sequence ‘Sonnets Upon the Punishment of Death’. After a review of earlier measures to reduce greatly the number of capital offences, Taylor refers to the recent agitation for further reform and declares:

Thus the broad question which is left for the country to look at, in respect to the punishment by death, is in effect its abolition. It is to this question that Mr. Wordsworth’s Sonnets refer; and the general drift of the sentiments which they express is that there is a deeper charity and a more enlarged view of religious obligations than that which would dictate such a measure in this country in the present state of society.80

Dismissing the notion that the topic might not be suitable for poetry, Taylor commends Wordsworth’s treatment of it with the reverence which many of his younger admirers adopted the nearer he approached the end of his life:

the main subject, being a subject for deep feelings, large views, and high argumentation, is essentially a subject for poetry, and especially so in the hands of one who has been accustomed, during a life which has now reached to threescore years and ten, to consider the sentiments and (p.210) judgments which he utters in poetry with as deep a solicitude as to their justness as if they were delivered from the bench or pulpit.

The sonnet sequence was published very shortly afterwards in Poems, Chiefl y of Early and Late Years.

Taylor’s reference to the ‘pulpit’ is apt, for complementing each other, the ‘Sonnets Upon the Punishment of Death’ and Guilt and Sorrow make an avowedly Christian intervention in the debate about capital punishment, placing the poem firmly within the discourse of the Anglican revival of the 1830s and 1840s. In Sonnet XI the case is made that compared with life imprisonment in a dungeon cell or ‘life-long exile on a savage coast’, the penalty that the law demands for murder is actually merciful, in that it transfers the guilty one to a higher and more merciful judge,

  • Leaving the final issue in His hands
  • Whose goodness knows no change, whose love is sure,
  • Who sees, foresees; who cannot judge amiss,
  • And wafts at will the contrite soul to bliss.

The Sailor’s last words in Guilt and Sorrow even more explicitly invoke the Redeemer:

  • ‘O welcome sentence which will end though late,’
  • He said, ‘the pangs that to my conscience came
  • Out of that deed. My trust, Saviour! is in thy name!’

Such an appeal to the ‘Saviour’ is paralleled by Margaret’s gaze on the Cross in the late revision to Book One of The Excursion discussed in Chapter Two.81

In Adventures on Salisbury Plain the Sailor’s execution, the final horror he experiences, is inflicted by those ‘who of Justice bear’st the violated name’, and it closes a miserable life. But the execution itself is not Authority’s last act of violence against him: the Sailor’s body is gibbeted, ‘hung on high in iron case’. The ‘swinging corpse’ is supposed to act as a salutary warning to the ‘unthinking and untaught’, but is actually unheeded by the dissolute who have been hardened by such sights. The ending of Guilt and Sorrow could not be more different:

  • His fate was pitied. Him in iron case
  • (Reader, forgive the intolerable thought)
  • They hung not:—no one on his form or face
  • (p.211) Could gaze, as on a show by idlers sought;
  • No kindred sufferer, to his death-place brought
  • By lawless curiosity of chance,
  • When into storm the evening sky is wrought,
  • Upon his swinging corse an eye can glance,
  • And drop, as he once dropped, in miserable trance.

At first glance this seems an odd way to end the poem. The poet rejects thoughts that readers would not have entertained had he not introduced them, denying rather insistently (though unknown to readers in 1842) his own imaginative vision of over forty years before. Might it not have been better simply to close the poem with the Sailor’s heartfelt committal of himself to the mercy of God?

Perhaps, but the stanza does in fact chime with other declarations in the collection Poems, Chiefl y of Early and Late Years, which are unexpected from the poet whose life, as Henry Taylor solemnly put it, had reached threescore years and ten. Wordsworth’s gloom around the time of the 1832 reformed Parliament was so comically awful that in biographical treatments it tends to overshadow the presentation of Wordsworth’s outlook in his last decade. What needs to be emphasized is that although he remained very susceptible to local anxieties occasioned by political and social change, Wordsworth recovered a larger sense of the possibilities for human progress. In the ‘Prelude’ to the volume, lines already quoted in part in Chapter Four express the poet’s hope that in these difficult times his new work may serve to ‘console and reconcile’ and

  • both with young and old
  • Exalt the sense of thoughtful gratitude
  • For benefits that still survive, by faith
  • In progress, under laws divine, maintained.82

Sonnet XIII in the ‘Upon the Punishment of Death’ sequence likewise adverts to ‘hopeful signs’ of progress:

  • The social rights of man breathe purer air;
  • Religion deepens her preventive care;

In time—and ‘Oh, speed the blessed hour, Almighty God!’ the poet exclaims—the ‘awful rod’ of capital punishment will drop from ‘Law’s firm hand’ from ‘lack of use’. Gibbeting was prohibited in 1834. To remind readers in 1842 that not long ago the Sailor’s corpse would have swung in chains would have served justifiably as a (p.212) pointer that faith in progress ‘under laws divine’ was justified. That his most recent collection so firmly embodied this conviction is one of many reasons why Queen Victoria could have been assured that the choice of her next Poet Laureate in 1843 was a sound one. Of course, despite the ‘Advertisement’ to Guilt and Sorrow; or, Incidents on Salisbury Plain, neither she nor her advisers knew anything about the Salisbury Plain poems from which it had evolved, nor that its author, as he completed the first of them, had once declared, ‘I am of that odious class of men called democrats’.83


(p.216) (1.) Home at Grasmere, MS B, 620–2. Darlington, Home at Grasmere, 76.

(1.) WW to R. P. Gillies, 22 December 1814. WL, III, 179.

(1.) For some account of the marketing of Wordsworth after his death in 1850 see my Wordsworth and the Victorians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), ch. 3.

(2.) Butler and Green, Lyrical Ballads, 328. I first considered this passage many years ago in ‘“Affinities Preserved”: Poetic Self-Reference in Wordsworth’, Studies in Romanticism, 24 (1985), 531–49.

(2.) Quillinan’s diary is in the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere. This entry is quoted by Eric Birdsall in the introduction to his Cornell edition of Descriptive Sketches (1984), 19. It is striking that Housman should have used Wordsworth’s own term when he wrote to Grant Richards on 24 July 1898, ‘I think it best not to make any alterations, even the slightest, after one has printed a thing. It was Shelley’s plan, and is much wiser than Wordsworth’s perpetual tinkering …’. The Letters of A. E. Housman, ed. Archie Burnett, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), (p.218) I, 109. It is worth noting that W thought tinkers led a happy life—see his poem ‘The Tinker’.

(2.) Coleridge’s comment is recorded under 21 July 1832 in Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1835). See Table Talk, ed. Carl Woodring, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), II, 176–7.

(3.) Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802). Prose, I, 141.

(3.) The 1827 set was sold at Sothebys, 17 December 2003. The 1836 set is in Wellesley College Library. See Jared Curtis, ‘The Wellesley Copy of Wordsworth’s Poetical Works, 1832’, Harvard Library Bulletin, 28 (1980), 5–15.

(3.) WW to Alexander Dyce [c.19 April 1830]. WL, V, 236.

(4.) MW and WW to Henry Crabb Robinson, 21 June [1845]. WL, VII, 679.

(4.) WW to Nathaniel Biggs [19 December 1800]. WL, I, 311.

(4.) All quotations are taken from Butler, The Ruined Cottage and will only be noted separately if the reader will have difficulty finding the passage quoted without a page reference. Where it is likely to be useful, page references are inserted in the text.

(5.) Curtis, Last Poems, 397.

(5.) The phrase ‘great moral triumph’ comes from the prefatory ‘Advertisement’ to Thanksgiving Ode, January 18, 1816 (1816), p. iii.

(5.) This version constitutes Butler’s MS B Reading Text, The Ruined Cottage, 41–72.

(6.) Kendal and Windermere Railway. Prose, III, 352. The sonnets are ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’ and ‘Proud were ye, Mountains, when, in times of old’. Curtis, Last Poems, 389–90.

(6.) Just to be balanced, it is worth noting that Wordsworth’s friend Henry Crabb Robinson admired the whole section of the poem, remarking that one line of it, 267, ‘deserves to pass into a proverb’. See Ketcham, Shorter Poems, 537.

(6.) This version constitutes Butler’s MS D Reading Text, The Ruined Cottage, 43–75.

(7.) Curtis, Last Poems, 350. Curtis notes, p. 487, that WW recorded that the poem was ‘Retouched, or rather rewritten August 25th 1843’.

(7.) ‘You know what importance I attach to following strictly the last copy of the text of an author.’ WW to Alexander Dyce [c.19 April 1830]. WL, V, 236. In 1843 WW was agonizing over the inscription for the memorial to Robert Southey to be placed in Crosthwaite Church. At a very late stage he made an alteration which meant that the already carved wording on the monument had to be erased in favour of the new line. See WL, VII, 520, n. 4.

(7.) This version constitutes Butler’s MS E Reading Text, The Ruined Cottage, 382–448.

(8.) In 1874 Ruskin was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Causing much astonishment and dismay he refused to accept it and gave as one of his reasons the complicity of British Architects as a profession in acts of vandalism, such as that at Furness, where ‘The railway … is carried so near the Abbey that the ruins vibrate at the passing of every luggage train; and the buildings connected with the station block the window over the altar of the Abbot’s Chapel; so that nothing else can be seen through it’ (letter, 20 May 1874). The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903–12), XXXIV, 513–16. Jack Simmons’s indispensable The Victorian Railway (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 162–3 put me on track here.

(8.) WW to Edward Moxon [late December 1836]. WL, VI, 337.

(8.) This version constitutes Butler’s MS M transcription, The Ruined Cottage, 383–449.

(9.) Quotation from ‘Proud were ye, Mountains, when, in times of old’, as also the following quotation, ‘the passion of a just disdain.’

(9.) I have given a brief account of Wordsworth’s Chaucer work and Powell in The Oxford Companion to Chaucer, ed. Douglas Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 497–8.

(9.) WW to Sir George Beaumont, 25 December 1804. WL, I, 518.

(10.) Final words of ‘Proud were, ye, Mountains, when in times of old’. Curtis, Last Poems, 390.

(10.) WW to Thomas Powell, 18 January 1840. WL, VII, 8. Just one further example from many: on 26 October 1842 W thanked Elizabeth Barrett profusely for her sonnet inspired by Haydon’s Wordsworth on Helvellyn, but could not resist proposing a revision to make a line less liable to misreading, ‘The verse as I take it, would be somewhat clearer thus, if you could tolerate the redundant syllable …’. WW was, moreover, on this occasion, right. WL, VII, 384–5.

(10.) See the Cornell Wordsworth series, The Excursion, ed. Sally Bushell, James A. Butler, and Michael C. Jaye (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007), 48–76.

(11.) This bird returns in Wordsworth’s beautiful tribute to his sister, Dorothy, in Home at Grasmere, 109–13: ‘Where’er my footsteps turned, | Her voice was like a hidden Bird that sang; | The thought of her was like a flash of light | Or an unseen companionship, a breath | Of fragrance independent of the wind.’

(11.) By this date Quillinan recognized both the compulsiveness and the risk of WW’s revisionary practice. On 19 March he wrote to Henry Crabb Robinson about WW’s work on The Excursion: ‘to mend it without losing more in the freshness and the force of expression than he will gain in variety of cadence is in most cases I believe impracticable …’. WL, VII, 542.

(11.) In March 1798 the eventual publisher of Lyrical Ballads, Joseph Cottle, was being offered a two-volume possibility that would include Wordsworth’s ‘Tale of a Woman’. In 1800 Coleridge entertained the idea of a joint publication of his ‘Christabel’ and Wordsworth’s ‘The Pedlar’. See Butler, The Ruined Cottage, 22–4. It is unclear what texts are really under consideration here or how serious the possibility of publication was in either case.

(p.217) (12.) The summer is recalled at the opening of ‘Elegiac Stanzas … Peele Castle’. ‘So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!’, Wordsworth had written in 1806, recalling 1794. By the time of Wordsworth’s death the spot where he had once gazed across the ‘glassy sea’ at Piel Castle had become the coastal terminus of the Furness Railway line. The line officially opened for traffic 12 August 1846. See W. McGowan Gradon, Furness Railway: Its Rise and Development 1846–1923 (privately printed, 1946).

(12.) For a detailed and scrupulous assessment of the evidence about Wordsworth’s composition on-the-hoof, see Andrew Bennett, Wordsworth Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), esp. ch. 1.

(13.) Howard Erskine-Hill, Poetry of Opposition and Revolution: Dryden to Wordsworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 250. The Furness Abbey poetry is acutely discussed throughout chapters 6 and 7 of this fine book. When he divided Book Ten into two, Wordsworth chose to end the new Book Ten dramatically with this line, a clear case I think where the 1850 text is artistically superior to that of 1805.

(13.) The manuscript record of this encounter is in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The word Elizabeth Barrett noted as pronounced in a northern fashion was ‘livelong’. In August 1787 the young Dorothy Wordsworth told Jane Pollard that Hayley’s poems were among the books given to her by her brothers. WL, I, 8.

(14.) In The Lake District (London: Eyre Methuen, 1970; rev. edn. 1974), Roy Millward and Adrian Robinson give a good account of the railway age in the region. The map on p. 243 shows the perimeter of the Lake District entirely joined up by the 1860s, with penetration into its heart at Coniston and two points on Windermere.

(p.219) (14.) WW to Alexander Dyce, 22 June [1830]. WL, V, 292.

(15.) Home at Grasmere, 162–3.

(15.) Jackson, Sonnet Series, 197.

(16.) Closing lines of ‘The world is too much with us’, published 1807. In the Kendal and Windermere Railway letters Wordsworth writes of the enmity towards ‘moral sentiments and intellectual pleasures of a high order’ displayed by ‘“Utilitarianism,” serving as a mask for cupidity …’. Prose, III, 352.

(16.) Osborn, The Borderers, 752.

(17.) 1843 note to ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’. Curtis, Fenwick Notes, 56.

(17.) Ketcham, Shorter Poems, 243–4; 251–5. ‘“Lycoris” was the Latin poet C. Cornelius Gallus’ pseudonym for the beautiful freedwoman Cytheris’ (ibid. 544).

(18.) See the ‘Postscript’ to Yarrow Revisited (1835). Prose, III, 240–59.

(18.) See Eric C. Walker, Marriage, Writing and Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 111–28 for a discussion, including a detailed chart of the development of the poem(s). See also Douglass H. Thomson, ‘“Sport of Transmutations”: The Evolution of Wordsworth’s “To Lycoris”’, Studies in English Literature, 27 (1987), 581–93.

(19.) See Stephen Gill, Wordsworth and the Victorians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 274, n. 73 for full wording.

(19.) DW to Lady Beaumont, 4 May 1805. WL, I, 598.

(20.) WW to Henry Crabb Robinson [c.27 April 1835]. WL, VI, 44.

(20.) Ode: To Lycoris, 53. Ketcham, Shorter Poems, 244.

(21.) Quotations from Hardy’s ‘At Castle Boterel’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’.

(21.) Curtis, P2V, 611–14.

(22.) Butler and Green, Lyrical Ballads, 807. Appendix VI, pp. 807–19 documents the ‘Development of Mathew Elegies in Address to the Scholars of the Village School of —. (1842 Text)’.

(23.) Landon and Curtis, Early Poems, 452.

(24.) To be exact: there was a collected edition in seven volumes in 1846, re-issued in 1849. The six-volume set of 1849–50 is mentioned here as it was the final authorized edition.

(25.) This and the preceding quotation are from WW to David Laing, 11 December 1835. WL, VI, 136–9.

(26.) For a narrative of the critical reception see Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 266–71; and for the reviews themselves see Robert Woof’s William Wordsworth: The Critical Heritage. Vol. I: 1793–1820 (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 169–231.

(27.) See Gill, Life, 149–50.

(28.) All these quotations are from the note appended in 1842. See Osborn, The Borderers, 813.

(29.) The ‘Advertisement’ preceding Guilt and Sorrow in 1842. See Gill, SPP, 215–17.

(30.) WW to William Mathews, 23 May 1794. WL, I, 119.

(31.) WW to James Webbe Tobin, 6 March [1798]. WL, I, 211.

(32.) WW’s IF note to Epistle to Sir George Howland Beaumont, Bart. Curtis, Fenwick Notes, 66.

(33.) Barron Field to WW, 10 April 1828. Quoted WL, IV, 600–1. This letter, and a comparably detailed one of 28 April 1828, are included in Barron Field’s Memoirs of Wordsworth, ed. Geoffrey Little, Australian Academy of the Humanities Monograph 3 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1975), 132–42. Alongside Field’s comment might be put Mary Wordsworth’s admission some years later that her husband’s ‘alterations’ convince her ‘understanding and judgment … but … not (p.220) always my feelings …’. MW to Jane Marshall, 24 December 1836. WL, VI, 332.

(34.) WW to Barron Field, 24 October 1828. WL, IV, 645. See also the previous letter of 16 April 1828.

(35.) Curtis, P2V, 408.

(36.) W uses the term ‘discarded poem’ in the IF note to Lament of Mary Queen of Scots, cited Butler and Green, Lyrical Ballads, 357.

(37.) For a discussion of the theory and practice that have led to the dislodging of the poet’s authorized text and its arrangement, see Zachary Leader, Revision and Romantic Authorship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 19–77.

(38.) WW to Sir George Beaumont, 3 June 1805. WL, I, 594.

(39.) There is ample evidence that WW was thinking earlier about grouping poems for collective effect, such as his observation, 21 May 1807, that the sonnets in Poems, in Two Volumes, ‘while they each fix the attention upon some important sentiment separately considered, do at the same time collectively make a Poem on the subject of civil Liberty and independence’. WL, II, 147. On the other hand, he was introducing a new category, ‘Evening Voluntaries’, as late as 1835. See Curtis, Last Poems, 235–6. For a succinct but authoritative account of Wordsworth’s categorizing, see Ketcham, Shorter Poems, 19–32.

(40.) Poems, 2 vols. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815), I, p. xiii.

(41.) In view of the poor sales of the 1807 poems, one might wonder who Wordsworth imagined himself to be addressing in the note. For discussion of his growing anxiety about readership see Lucy Newlyn, Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 91–133.

(42.) The Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Walter Scott, 19 vols. (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1814), I, 89. Grateful thanks to David Womersley for locating this quotation for me.

(43.) ‘I have not ventured to call this Poem an Ode; but it was written with a hope that in the transitions, and in the impassioned music of the versification would be found the principal requisites of that species of composition.’ Note in 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads only.

(44.) Ketcham, Shorter Poems, 78–95; Curtis, Last Poems, 365. In Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years (1842) the two poems are, of course, printed straightforwardly in sequence.

(45.) DW journal entry for 29 April 1802. See Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography. The Early Years 1770–1803 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), 532–4.

(46.) WW to Robert Southey [24 June 1835]. WL, VI, 66.

(47.) For the complicated textual history of ‘Beggars’ see Curtis, P2V, 113–16; ibid. 206–7 for ‘Written in March’ and 100–1 for ‘To H.C. Six Years (p.221) Old’. On the education of Basil Montagu, see DW’s letter of 19 March [1797]. WL, I, 180.

(48.) Jackson, Sonnet Series, 384–7.

(50.) Ibid. 6.

(51.) Ibid. 23.