Wordsworth and Burke: a Contrast

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


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’.


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  1. 1.
    Cf. William Wordsworth quoted in Jared Curtis, The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (1993), p. 41.Google Scholar
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    W. Wordsworth, ‘A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’ (unfinished 1793) in J. O. Hayden, William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (1988), p. 158.Google Scholar
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    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
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    Jean Jacques Rousseau quoted in Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 666. Cf. too N. Hampson, The Enlightenment (1968), p. 206.Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    Contrast the comments on this passage made by Raymond Williams, in Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1963), p. 29.Google Scholar
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    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
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    A point also emphasised in Peter Viereck’s conclusion to Conservatism from John Adams to Churchill (1956), p. 108.Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    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
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  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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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