William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

Wordsworth as a Cambridge undergraduate.

AMONG the band of my Compeers was one
My class-fellow at School, whose chance it was
To lodge in the Apartments which had been,
Time out of mind, honored by Milton's name;
The very shell reputed of the abode
Which he had tenanted. O temperate Bard!
One afternoon, the first time I set foot
In this thy innocent Nest and Oratory,
Seated with others in a festive ring
Of common-place convention, I to thee
Poured out libations, to thy memory drank,
Within my private thoughts, till my brain reel'd
Never so clouded by the fumes of wine Before that hour, or since. Thence forth I ran
From that assembly, through a length of streets,
Ran, Ostrich-like, to reach our Chapel Door
In not a desperate or opprobrious time,
Albeit long after the importunate Bell
Had stopp'd, with wearisome Cassandra voice
No longer haunting the dark winter night...

Empty thoughts!
I am ashamed of them; and that great Bard,
And thou, O Friend! who in thy ample mind
Hast station'd me for reverence and love,
Ye will forgive the weakness of that hour
In some of its unworthy vanities,
Brother of many more.

Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805-6 version), ed. E. De Selincourt (1926), Bk. iii, ll. 294-328.

Mr. Colerdige arrived in Bristol from Germany, and as he was about to pay Mr. Wordsworth a visit, he pressed me [Joseph Cottle] to accompany him. I had intended a journey to London, and now determined on proceeding with so agreeable a companion, and on so pleasant a journey and tour, taking the metropolis on my return. To notice the complicated incidents which occurred on this tour would occupy a large space. I therefore pass it all over, with the remark, that in this interview with Mr. Wordsworth the subject of the Lyrical Ballads was mentioned but once, and that casually, and only to account for its failure! which Mr. Wordsworth ascribed to two causes; first the Ancient Mariner, which, he said, no one seemed to understand; and secondly, the unfavorable notice of most of the Reviews.

On my reaching London, having an account to settle with Messrs. Longman and Rees, the booksellers, of Paternoster Row, I sold them all my copyrights, which were valued as one lot by a third party. On my next seeing Mr. Longman, he told me that in estimating the value of the copyrights Fox's Achmed and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads were `reckoned as nothing'. 'That being the case,' I replied, `as both these authors are my personal friends, I should be obliged if you would return me again these two copyrights, that I may have the pleasure of presenting them to their respective writers.' Mr. Longman answered, with his customary liberality, `You are welcome to them.' . . . On Mr. Coleridge's return from the north, I gave him Mr. Wordsworth's receipt for his thirty guineas; so that whatever advantage has arisen subsequently from the sale of this volume of the Lyrical Ballads has pertained exclusively to Mr. Wordsworth

I have been the more particular in these statements, as it furnishes, perhaps, the most remarkable instance on record of a volume of poems remaining for so long a time almost totally neglected, and afterwards acquiring, and that almost rapidly, so much deserved popularity.

Joseph Cottle, Early Recollections, Chiefly relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1837), ii. 25-27.

ONE day Wordsworth at a large party leaned forward to Sir Humphrey Davy at a moment of silence and said: `Davy, do you know the reason I publish my "White Doe" in quarto?' 'No', said Davy, slightly blushing at the attention this awakened. `To express my own opinion of it', replied Wordsworth.

Once as I was walking with Wordsworth in Pall Mall we ran into Christie's, where there was a very good copy of `The Transfiguration', which he abused through thick and thin. In the corner stood the group of Cupid and Psyche kissing. After looking some time he turned round to me with an expression I shall never forget, and said, `The Dev-ils!'

Haydon, Autobiography, i. 351.

SOMEONE having observed that the next Waverley novel was to be `Rob Roy', Wordsworth took down his volume of Ballads, and read to the company `Rob Roy's Grave'; then, returning it to the shelf, observed, `I do not know what more Mr. Scott can have to say upon the subject.'

Charles Cowden Clarke, Recollections of Writers (1878), pp. 149-50.

Carlyle recalls his memories of Wordsworth.

During the last seven or ten years of his life, Wordsworth felt himself to be a recognized lion, in certain considerable London circles, and was in the habit of coming up to town with his wife for a month or two every season, to enjoy his quiet triumph and collect his bits of tribute tales quales. . . . Wordsworth generally spoke a little with me on those occasions; sometimes, perhaps, we sat by one another; but there came from him nothing considerable, and happily at least nothing with an effort. `If you think me dull, be it just so!' this seemed to a most respectable extent to be his inspiring humour. Hardly above once (perhaps at the Stanleys' ) do I faintly recollect something of the contrary on his part for a little while, which was not pleasant or successful while it lasted.

The light was always afflictive to his eyes; he carried in his pocket something like a skeleton brass candlestick, in which, setting it on the dinner-table, between him and the most afflictive or nearest of the chief lights, he touched a little spring, and there flirted out, at the top of his brass implement, a small vertical green circle which prettily enough threw his eyes into shade, and screened him from that sorrow. In proof of his equanimity as lion I remember, in connection with this green shade, one little glimpse which shall be given presently as finis. But first let me say that all these Wordsworth phenomena appear to have been indifferent to me, and have melted to steamy oblivion in a singular degree. Of his talk to others in my hearing I remember simply nothing, not even a word or gesture. To myself it seemed once or twice as if he bore suspicions, thinking I was not a real worshipper, which threw him into something of embarrassment, till I hastened to get them laid by frank discourse on some suitable thing; nor, when we did talk, was there on his side or on mine the least utterance worth noting. The tone of his voice, when I got him afloat on some Cumberland or other matter germane to him, had a braced rustic vivacity, willingness, and solid precision, which alone rings in my ear when all else is gone. Of some Druid circle, for example, he prolonged his response to me with the addition, `And there is another some miles off, which the country people call Long Meg and her Daughters'; as to the now ownership of which `It', etc.; `and then it came into the hands of a Mr. Crackanthorpe'; the sound of those two phrases is still lively and present with me; meaning or sound of absolutely nothing more.

Still more memorable is an ocular glimpse I had in one of these Wordsworthian lion-dinners, very symbolic to me of his general deportment there.... Dinner was large, luminous, sumptuous; I sat a long way from Wordsworth; dessert I think had come in, and certainly there reigned in all quarters a cackle as of Babel (only politer perhaps), which far up in Wordsworth's quarter (who was leftward on my side of the table) seemed to have taken a sententious, rather louder, logical, and quasi-scientific turn, heartily unimportant to gods and men, so far as I could judge of it and of the other babble reigning. I looked upwards, leftwards, the coast being luckily for a moment clear; there, far off, beautifully screened in the shadow of his vertical green circle, sat Wordsworth, silent, slowly but steadily gnawing some portion of what I judged to be raisins, with his eye and attention placidly fixed on these and these alone. The sight of whom, and of his rock-like indifference to the babble, quasi-scientific and other, with attention turned on the small practical alone, was comfortable and amusing to me, who felt like him but could not eat raisins. This little glimpse I could still paint, so clear and bright is it, and this shall be symbolical of all.

Reminiscences by Thomas Carlyle, ed. J. A. Froude (1881), ii. 338-341.

HE said that when he met Wordsworth first he had been assured that he talked better than any man in England. It was his habit to speak whatever was in his mind at the time, with total indifference to the impression it produced on his hearers; on that occasion he kept discoursing on how far you could get carried out of London on this side or on that for sixpence. One was disappointed, perhaps; but, after all, that was the only healthy way of talking, to say what was actually in your mind, and let sane creatures make what they can of it. Wordsworth maintained a stern composure, and went his way, content that the world should go quite another road....

But though Wordsworth was the man of most practical mind of any of the persons connected with literature whom he had encountered, his pastoral pipings were far from being of the importance his admirers imagined. He was essentially a cold, hard, silent, practical man, who, if he had not fallen into poetry, would have done effectual work of some sort in the world. This was the impression one got of him as he looked out of his stern blue eyes, superior to men and circumstances.

I said I expected to hear of a man of softer mood, more sympathetic and less taciturn.

Carlyle said, `No, no, not at all; he was a man quite other than that; a man of an immense head and great jaws like a crocodile's, cast in a mould designed for prodigious work.'

Duffy, Conversations (1892), pp. 53-55.

AT a friend's house, after dinner the conversation turned upon wit and humour. The author of Lalla Rookh, who was present, gave some illustrations from Sheridan's `sayings, doings, and writings'. Starting from his reverie, Wordsworth said that he did not consider himself to be a witty poet. `Indeed,' continued he, `I do not think I was ever witty but once in my life.' A great desire was naturally expressed by all to know what this special drollery was. After some hesitation the old poet said—'Well, well, I will tell you. I was standing some time ago at the entrance of my cottage at Rydal Mount. A man accosted me with the question— 'Pray, sir, have you seen my wife pass by?"; whereupon I said, "Why, my good friend, I didn't know till this moment that you had a wife!", The company stared, and finding that the old bard had discharged his entire stock, burst into a roar of laughter, which the facetious Wordsworth, in his simplicity, accepted as a genuine compliment to the brilliancy of his wit.

Thomas Powell, The Living Authors of England (1849), p. 29.

I CALLED afterwards at Rogers's house to ask permission for some friends, who are coming to town for the day, to see his house and pictures tomorrow afternoon. He was at home, and sent word that he particularly wished to see me. I got out of the carriage and was shown into the drawing room, where, to my great surprise, I found him and dear old Wordsworth in court dresses, with swords and cocked hats dancing the minuet de la cour. Wordsworth said he was rehearsing his bows for the Queen's ball, and getting a lesson from Rogers about it. Wordsworth's dress did very well, except his thick grey worsted stockings which we all exclaimed against. He declared that he could not wear any other kind, so I persuaded him to put a black silk pair over them. This solved the difficulty; he consented, and we had the satisfaction of seeing the dear old poet in the evening looking very picturesque in his court dress.

Edward Heneage Dering, Memoirs of Georgiana, Lady Chatterton (1878), pp. 83-4.

« NEXT » « 18th Century Anecdotes » « All Anecdotes » « Humour » « Library »