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Wordsworth and Burke: a Contrast

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Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)

Abstract

What do Wordsworth’s life and work reveal about the nature and extent of his conservatism? Was it merely political? — a retreat for a disenchanted radical of the French Revolution? Or was it something ‘deeper, purer & higher’? — a yearning for a Golden Age vision of Old England?1 No quick and ready answer can be given to that question. It requires close study in the context of his own times as well as the whole history of English conservative thought from Hooker to Burke. Nevertheless, we have a starting point for our argument in Alfred Cobban’s book, Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century (1929), which was the first historical study to trace the different political and cultural effects of Burke’s life and work upon the ‘Lake Poets’.2 He was adamant that these Romantic writers owed their greatest intellectual debt to Edmund Burke and no other. The three Romantics started life as ardent followers of the French Revolution and scorned Burke’s rhetorical defence of the English Constitution in Church and State; Wordsworth declaring that it was ridiculous to believe ‘that we and our posterity to the end of time were riveted to a constitution by the indissoluble compact of a dead parchment’.3 They subscribed instead to the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), who argued that ‘Man is born free but is everywhere in chains’.

Keywords

Giant Killer Political Life French Revolution Rural Life Lake County 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Cf. William Wordsworth quoted in Jared Curtis, The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (1993), p. 41.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    W. Wordsworth, ‘A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’ (unfinished 1793) in J. O. Hayden, William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (1988), p. 158.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    W. Wordsworth, ‘Descriptive Sketches’ (1793), ll. 520–9, in J. O. Hayden, The Poems (1977), Vol. 1, p. 911.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Thomas Paine quoted in Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: the Radical Years (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 68–9.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    N. K. O’Sullivan, Conservatism (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1976), pp. 11–12.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Jean Jacques Rousseau quoted in Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1984), pp. 669–71.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    P. Viereck, Conservatism from John Adams to Churchill (1956), p. 13;Google Scholar
  8. and A. Cobban, Edmund Burke and the Revolt Against the Eighteenth Century, 2nd edn (1960), pp. 135–6.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Thus Napoleon reflected, at Saint Helena, in his diary entry for 3 March 1817, that: ‘I raised myself from nothing to be the most powerful monarch in the world. Europe was at my feet. I have always been of opinion that the sovereignty lay in the people. In fact, the imperial government was a kind of republic. Called to the head of it by the voice of the nation, my maxim was, la carrière est ouverte aux talens without distinction of birth or fortune, and this system of equality is the reason that your oligarchy hates me so much’. R. M. Johnston (ed.), ‘The Corsican: a Diary of Napoleon’s Life in His Own Words’ (1910), excerpts reprinted in Dennis Sherman (ed.), Western Civilisation: Images and Interpretations, Vol. 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1983), p. 116.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    A. Cobban, op. cit., p. 141. Cf. A. Briggs, The Age of Improvement 1783– 1867 (1959), pp. 144–5.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    C. Brinton, The Political Ideas of the English Romanticists (1962), p. 106;Google Scholar
  12. F. M. Todd, Politics and the Poet: a Study of Wordsworth (1957), p. 12; and N. Roe, op. cit., pp. 274–5.Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    W. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850 Text), Bk 7, l. 512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 21.
    R. Kirk, The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot, 6th rev. edn (1978), pp. 44–5.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    H. Melville, Typee. A Peep at Polynesian Life ([1st pub. 1846] Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 140.Google Scholar
  16. For a brief review of the ‘noble savage’ in French and English literature see: Basil Willey, The Eighteenth Century Background. Studies in the Idea of Nature in the Thought of the Period [1st pub. 1940] (London and New York: Ark Paperbacks, 1986), pp. 12–14.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790] (London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1910), p. 138.Google Scholar
  18. 32.
    Jean Jacques Rousseau quoted in Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 666. Cf. too N. Hampson, The Enlightenment (1968), p. 206.Google Scholar
  19. 42.
    W. Wordsworth, ‘Preface to’ the Lyrical Ballads (1800/2) in J. O. Hayden, loc. cit., Vol. 1, p. 881. Cf. J. Lucas, England and Englishness. Ideas of Nationhood in English Poetry 1688–1900 (1990), pp. 91–2. I have alluded to John Lucas’s chapter on this point because it is one of the most recent and controversial accounts. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the study of Wordsworth’s poetry from a political point of view is very old: if I were asked to give a sketch of its history I would start with Christopher Wordsworth (jnr) who wrote, in his Memoirs of William Wordsworth (1851), Vol. 1, p. 125, that: ‘The clue to his poetical theory’, in the Lyrical Ballads, ‘in some of its more questionable details, may be found in his political principles; these had been democratical and still, though in some degree modified, they were of a republican character’. By the early twentieth century, both G. M. Harper and T. S. Eliot recognised that ‘any radical change in poetic form is likely to be the symptom of some very much deeper change in society and in the individual’. Or, to put the matter another way, the poet’s poetry and criticism must be read with ‘the purposes and social passions which animated its author’.Google Scholar
  20. See T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism ([1st pub. 1933] 1964), pp. 72–6.Google Scholar
  21. 43.
    R. Frost, ‘Letter to’ The Amherst Student, dated 25 March 1935, in H. Cox and E. C. Latham (eds), Selected Prose of Robert Frost (New York: Collier Books, 1968), p. 105.Google Scholar
  22. 45.
    Ibid., pp. 87–96 and 168–9. In this regard Alfred Cobban rightly argued that, for Burke, ‘the State itself’ had ‘a religious sanction’. The church was ‘a national church not by accident but by its essential nature’. On the other hand, he went too far when he inferred from this political fact that Burke’s standpoint was ‘even more than Anglican’ (op. cit., p. 93). J. C. D. Clark, for instance, has shown that Burke’s conservative views of society, in general, and the state, in particular, were based to a large extent upon the widely shared assumptions of Anglican political theology which formed ‘a considered and long-standing component of the Whig defence of 1688 in the first half of the eighteenth century’. In fact, ‘the stress on political theology accounts far more fully’, in Clark’s eyes, ‘for the anti-utilitarian, anti-contractarian, “irrational” component of Burke’s account of political action and motivation’, in the last years of his life, than the conventional view of his ‘sudden wild reaction to [events in] 1789’. J. C. D. Clark, English Society 1688–1832 (1985), p. 257.Google Scholar
  23. 47.
    Contrast the comments on this passage made by Raymond Williams, in Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1963), p. 29.Google Scholar
  24. 58.
    According to Duncan Wu, in Wordsworth’s Reading 1770–1799 (1993), pp. 22–3, Wordsworth had read most of Burke’s major works on politics in the 1790s: he suggests the following works were read at the stated times (or thereabouts): Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): spring 1791, by 1793; A Letter from Mr. Burke, to a Member of the National Assembly (1791): by spring 1793; A Letter From the Right Honourable Edmund Burke to a Noble Lord (1796): 1796–7, by 1797; Two Letters Addressed to a Member of the Present Parliament on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France (1796): after 20 March 1797; A Letter to the Duke of Portland (1797): after 20 March 1797. My own research into the books owned by the poet at his death, in 1850, revealed a great interest in Burke’s social and political writings. For example he owned 54 volumes of the Annual Register, from its commencement (under the auspices of Edmund Burke), 1758 to 1820.Google Scholar
  25. J. Burton, Catalogue of the Varied and Valuable Historical, Theological, and Miscellaneous Library of the late Venerated Poet-Laureate, William Wordsworth, Esquire, D.L.C. (1859), p. 2. According to Alfred Cobban, Burke ‘almost certainly wrote the Annual Register from 1758 to 1765. Thomas English then began to work for it, and subsequently other assistants came in; though there is some evidence that as late as 1744 Burke was still the “principal conductor” and that he continued to be associated with the Register up to 1789’. A. Cobban, op. cit., ‘Note’ facing p. xiv.Google Scholar
  26. 63.
    S. T. Coleridge to George Coleridge (elder brother), letter dated April 1798, in S. Potter (ed.), Coleridge. Select Poetry & Prose (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1971), p. 576.Google Scholar
  27. 64.
    A point also emphasised in Peter Viereck’s conclusion to Conservatism from John Adams to Churchill (1956), p. 108.Google Scholar
  28. 66.
    A. Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection: the Religious and Secular Traditions of Conservative Thought in England from Hooker to Oakeshott (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), pp. 22–3.Google Scholar
  29. 69.
    C. Brinton, The Political Ideas of the English Romanticists (1962), p. 106;Google Scholar
  30. and F. D. Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution, rev. edn (1968), pp. 103–4. It was also a direct result ‘of the horrors perpetrated before his own eyes, in the sacred name of Liberty and Reason’ during the French Revolution; see: C. Wordsworth (jnr), op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 252. Indeed Wordsworth pre-empted, by a hundred years, George Orwell’s sceptical views of revolutionary idealists and academics who think ‘any ends can be so good as to justify wrong means for attaining them’: William Wordsworth quoted in Christopher Wordsworth (jnr), ibid., Vol. 2, p. 254.Google Scholar
  31. Cf. George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’, in W. F. Bolton and D. Crystal (eds), The English Language. Volume Two: Essays by Linguists and Men of Letters 1858–1964 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 224–6. In the next chapter we will see that Wordsworth learnt this lesson the hard way, by once subscribing to such revolutionary views. See, for example, his unfinished ‘Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’ (1793).Google Scholar
  32. 70.
    W. Wordsworth, ‘Not in the lucid intervals of life’ (1835), ll. 16–31 in J. O. Hayden, The Poems (1977), Vol. 2, p. 783.Google Scholar
  33. 74.
    M. H. Friedman, The Making of a Tory Humanist: William Wordsworth and the Idea of Community (1979).Google Scholar
  34. 75.
    P. Aries, Centuries of Childhood: a Social History of Family Life (tr. by R. Baldick) (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), pp. 26 and 413–14.Google Scholar
  35. 81.
    R. A. Houlbrooke, The English Family 1450–1700 (London and New York: Longman Group Ltd, 1984), p. 6.Google Scholar
  36. See too A. Wilson, ‘The Infancy of the History of Childhood: an Appraisal Of Philippe Aries’, HT, 19 (1980), pp. 132–53;Google Scholar
  37. P. Laslett, ‘Philippe Aries & “La Famille”’, Encounter, 46, No. 3 (March 1976), pp. 80–3; and idem, ‘Characteristics of the Western Family’, in P. Laslett, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 18–19 incl. n. 6.Google Scholar
  38. 84.
    H. Davies, William Wordsworth. A Biography (1980), p. 10.Google Scholar
  39. 85.
    She ‘was’, wrote Wordsworth, ‘the heart/ And hinge of all our learnings and our loves’. W. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805 Text), Bk 5, ll. 275 and 257–8, p. 74. Cf. A. M. Ellis, Rebels and Conservatives. Dorothy and William Wordsworth and their Circle (1967), pp. 4–5.Google Scholar
  40. 92.
    Cf. W. Wordsworth, Sonnet XXII, ‘Catechising’, in Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822) in J. O. Hayden, loc. cit., Vol. 2, pp. 492–3; and W. Wordsworth, ‘Autobiographical Memoranda’ (1847) in J. O. Hayden (ed.), William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (1988), p. 4.Google Scholar
  41. 96.
    Amanda M. Ellis claims that Ann Wordsworth taught her children ‘to scorn the fashionable Sandford and Merton books before they were nine’, op. cit., p. 6. She must mean ‘in principle’ because Thomas Day did not begin publishing his famous trilogy, called the History of Sandford and Merton, until 1783, when William Wordsworth was a teenager, and his mother had been dead for about five years. Likewise, Mrs Sherwood did not publish her popular History of the Fairchild Family until 1788. Furthermore, Maria Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant did not appear until 1792.Google Scholar
  42. I. Pinchbeck and M. Hewitt, Children in English Society (1969), Vol. 1, pp. 299–300.Google Scholar
  43. 103.
    Thomas Bowman Jnr quoted in T. W. Thompson, Wordsworth’s Hawkshead (1970), p. 344. These remarks were made by Bowman, in 1885, during the grammar school’s three hundredth birthday celebrations. Hence no specific date can be given for the poet’s letter to him regarding the schoolmaster and his famous pupil.Google Scholar
  44. 104.
    William Wordsworth to Samuel Carter Hall, letter dated 15 January 1837, in A. G. Hill (ed.), Letters of William Wordsworth (1984), p. 277.Google Scholar
  45. 107.
    Cf. S. Gill, op. cit., p. 27; E. De Selincourt’s edition of The Prelude (1805 Text), p. 303; and M. L. Reed, Wordsworth. The Chronology of the Early Years (1967), p. 67. Re. the teaching staff at Hawkshead Grammar School: cf. Robert Woof’s long and interesting note in T. W. Thompson, op. cit., pp. 342–5.Google Scholar
  46. 114.
    A. J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (1981), pp. 9–11. Cf. too J. C. D. Clark, op. cit., p. 74.Google Scholar
  47. 115.
    Cf. A. Macfarlane, The Origins of Modern English Individualism (1978), passim.Google Scholar
  48. 119.
    P. Laslett, ‘Introduction: the necessity of a historical sociology’, in idem, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (1977), pp. 4–5. Re. ‘the religious motive in the establishment and conduct of schools’, in the ‘Renascence’ period in England 1518–59, and especially in the ‘Puritan’ period 1559–60, see: I. Pinchbeck and M. Hewitt, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 276–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 120.
    M. D. George, England in Transition (1953), p. 136. Re. the role of religion in the Puritan and Anglican home, see: I. Pinchbeck and M. Hewitt, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 223, 265, 267; and ibid., Vol. 2, pp. 359–60.Google Scholar
  50. 122.
    Cf. J. L. and B. Hammond, The Town Labourer 1760–1832 (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1966), pp. 190–1. Cf. too I. Pinchbeck and M. Hewitt, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 299–300.Google Scholar
  51. 123.
    Cf. P. Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century (rev. edn) (1961), pp. 370 and 372–3; and R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (1938), pp. 99–101. Cf. too ‘The Factory Master’s Portrait’ by P. M. McDouall. This brilliant but biased composition from the pen of a leading Chartist helps one to focus upon the theoretical points made by Mantoux and Collingwood. ‘Examine him, and you will find that his whole knowledge extends to the revolution of wheels; and although possessed of immense wealth, he knows nothing except the process of making cotton cloth or the most cunning way to drive a bargain. Every action of his life is measured by a foot-rule, and every thing he does is regulated by pounds, shillings and pence. He is grossly ignorant on all other subjects, and will express as much surprise at the mention of any subject for discussion on religion or politics, as if he was only a machine for producing calico, or a patent ledger for calculating profit and loss.[…] He lives for no other purpose than to calculate, and the only end of his existence is to gain.’Google Scholar
  52. P. M. McDouall, Chartist Journal and Trades’ Advocate, 25 September 1841, quoted in Neville Kirk, ‘In Defence of Class. A Critique of Recent Revisionist Writing upon the Nineteenth-Century English Working Class’, IRSH, 32 (1987), p. 28.Google Scholar
  53. 126.
    J. H. Porter, ‘The Development of Rural Society’, in G. E. Mingay (ed.), AHEW, VI, 1750–1850 (1989), p. 873.Google Scholar
  54. 127.
    Ibid., p. 875. See too G. P. Jones, ‘Continuity and Change in Surnames in Four Northern Parishes’, CW2, 73, 10 (1973), pp. 143–47.Google Scholar
  55. 128.
    J. Thirsk, ‘Industries in the Countryside’, in F. J. Fisher (ed.), Essays in the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England (1961), pp. 83–4.Google Scholar
  56. 129.
    Cf. M. Arnold, ‘Wordsworth’, in idem, Essays in Criticism. Second Series (1888), p. 153.Google Scholar
  57. 133.
    For example, common weavers and their families, in the seventeenth century, were often reliant upon ‘cottoneers’, or clothiers, who normally lived in towns, for the purchase of their webs. C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, A Short Economic and Social History of the Lake Counties 1500–1830 (1961), pp. 140–1.Google Scholar
  58. 134.
    J. H. Clapham quoted in C. M. L. Bouch, Prelates and People of the Lake Counties (1948), pp. 408–9.Google Scholar
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    Henry Brougham quoted in F. W. Garnett, Westmorland Agriculture 1800–1900 (1912), p. 5.Google Scholar

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© Mark Keay 2001

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