Wordsworth: a Weberian Account

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


Wordsworth’s social ideal of Old England was partly the result of his lifelong dependence upon others for financial and social support in the Old Regime. Readers might be forgiven if they find this particular conclusion unremarkable. Biographers have long known the outward ‘facts’ of Wordsworth’s life and career as the orphaned son of John Wordsworth (land-agent and man of business for Sir James Lowther): for example, they have dwelt upon his early days as a promising scholar at Hawkshead Grammar School under the distant charge of his uncles; his several years as a wayward and wilful youth at Cambridge University; his early involvement and late disaffection with the cause of the French Revolution in the 1790s; his growing friendship with Sir George Beaumont (Baronet); and his final years as a tory placeholder under William, Lord Lonsdale. What more need be said? A great deal, I would argue. No one, to my knowledge, has yet noted the nature and extent of the poet’s dependence upon patronage as a major reason for his support of the Old Regime, in general, and the old landed order, in particular. What follows is a specific survey of Wordsworth’s private society — that is to say, his family, friends and associates — who kept him firmly within the web of patronage, connection and dependence among the middle and upper ranks of the old landed order.


Private Tutor Mystical Experience Rural Education Middle Rank Romantic Poet 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    V. G. Kiernan, ‘Wordsworth and the People’ (1956) and ‘Postscript’ thereto (1973), pp. 174–5, 184, 187–8, 196, and 204–5. E. P. Thompson, ‘Disenchantment or Default? A Lay Sermon’, in C. C. O’Brien and W. D. Vanech (eds), Power & Consciousness (London: University of London Press Ltd, 1969), p. 173 ff; and idem, ‘Hunting the Jacobin Fox’, in PP, 142, Feb. (1994), p. 130 ff, esp. pp. 136–7.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    D. Simpson, Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination. The Poetry of Displacement (1987), p. 155.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., p. 126: ‘As Wordsworth is unsure of his own place in this ideal economy, so too is his portrayal of it as an objective entity also unstable and inscribed with conflict’. Similar arguments have been used to understand and stigmatise the Golden Age ideals of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, ‘The Deserted Village’ (1770). Ibid., pp. 22–5 and passim; and J. Lucas, England and Englishness. Ideas of Nationhood in English Poetry 1688–1900 (1990), pp. 5 and 55–70 and passim. The weaknesses of their historical arguments about enclosure, population growth and distribution and so on have been dealt with in Chapters 1–3.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Robert Browning labelled Wordsworth as the ‘lost leader’ of radical poetry, but Shelley had already attacked the Lake poet in similar terms for his tory politics in The Excursion (1814). See, for instance, J. K. Chandler, ‘“Wordsworth” after Waterloo’, in K. R. Johnston and G. W. Ruoff (eds), The Age of William Wordsworth. Critical Essays on the Romantic Tradition (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 84–111.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Dorothy Wordsworth to Jane Pollard, letter dated 6 and 7 August 1787, in E. De Selincourt, ibid., Vol. 1 (1787–1805), p. 7. Wordsworth’s liking for the legal profession was, one gathers, mainly the result of his father’s role model. Nevertheless, it was also highly conventional. At least, nearly 60 per cent of Cambridge graduates entered ‘the Anglican clergy until after the 1860s and another significant portion’ entered the bar. W. D. Rubinstein, Capitalism, Culture, and Decline in Britain 1750–1990 (1993), p. 137.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Cf. A. M. Ellis, Rebels and Conservatives. Dorothy and William Wordsworth and their Circle (1967), p. 16.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    B. R. Schneider Jr, Wordsworth’s Cambridge Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957), pp. 15–16 and 28–9.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Clement Carlyon, Early Years and Late Reflections (1836) quoted in F. M. Todd, Politics and the Poet. A Study of Wordsworth (1957), pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  9. 25.
    Cf. W. Wilberforce, Journey to the Lake District from Cambridge 1779. [A diary written by William Wilberforce] (ed. by C. E. Wrangham) (Stockfield: Oriel Press, 1983), passim.Google Scholar
  10. 26.
    B. R. Schneider, op. cit., pp. 44–6. Cf. the strictures on whig historians in J. C. D. Clark, English Society 1688–1832 (1985), p. 102 incl. n. 196.Google Scholar
  11. 28.
    R. Williams, The Long Revolution (1961), p. 247.Google Scholar
  12. 30.
    Elie Halevy quoted in Michael H. Friedman, The Making of a Tory Humanist: William Wordsworth and the Idea of Community (1979), p. 77.Google Scholar
  13. 32.
    M. Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography (1957) [= Vol. 1], p. 124.Google Scholar
  14. 46.
    M. Weber, ‘The Sociology of Charismatic Authority’, in H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (ed. and tr.), From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology (1948), pp. 248–54.Google Scholar
  15. A more extensive translation of Max Weber’s views of the difference between bureaucratic, patriarchal, and charismatic authority is found in W. G. Runciman and E. Matthews (ed. and tr.), Max Weber. Selections in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), Ch.11: ‘The Nature of Charismatic Domination’, pp. 226–50.Google Scholar
  16. 47.
    William Wordsworth, ‘The Pedlar’ (draft comp. 1798), quoted in John Williams, Wordsworth: Romantic Poetry and Revolution Politics (1989), p. 86.Google Scholar
  17. 53.
    M. Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology (tr. and intro. by H. P. Secher) (London: Peter Owen, 1962), p. 36; cf. pp. 30–2 and 15–16 Secher’s ‘Introduction’.Google Scholar
  18. 56.
    Cf. W. Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ (1798), l. 22 in J. O. Hayden (ed.), William Wordsworth. The Poems (1977), Vol. 1, p. 312.Google Scholar
  19. 61.
    M. Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology (1962), pp. 31–2.Google Scholar
  20. 76.
    The most credible view of Wordsworth’s friendship with the Calverts, in the period 1794–5, is given by Mary Moorman, ibid., Vol. 1, Ch. 8; but a shrewd account of the poet’s dependence is found in Hunter Davies’s book, William Wordsworth. A Biography (1980), pp. 68–74.Google Scholar
  21. 85.
    R. Williams, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1963), Ch. 2, esp. pp. 49–51; and idem, The Long Revolution (1961), Part Two.Google Scholar
  22. See too the standard accounts of ‘Arts and Letters’ at the time, for example, E. Halevy, England in 1815 (1960 edn), Pt III, Ch. ii.Google Scholar
  23. 88.
    Cf. M. Moorman, William Wordsworth. A Biography (1965) [= Vol. 2], pp. 100–1.Google Scholar
  24. 106.
    Cf. W. Wordsworth, ‘To B. R. Haydon’ (1816), l. 1 in J. O. Hayden, The Poems (1977), Vol. 2, p. 317.Google Scholar
  25. 112.
    H. Havelock Ellis, Psychology of Sex (London: Pan Books Ltd, 1959), p. 85. In the same way, the anthropologist Malinowski argued that Freud overlooked the culture-specific nature of the ‘Oedipal complex’, which could only arise in the patriarchal family of modern times (ibid, pp. 85–6).Google Scholar
  26. 113.
    Ibid., p. 85. Cf. too S. Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (tr. by J. Riviere) (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1923), p. 175.Google Scholar
  27. 119.
    W. Wordsworth, ‘Autobiographical Memoranda’, in J. O. Hayden, William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (1988), pp. 4–5.Google Scholar
  28. 120.
    Cf. too the note on this famous poem in Jared Curtis, The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (1993), p. 56.Google Scholar
  29. 124.
    N. Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: the Radical Years (1988), pp. 36–7 and 45–6.Google Scholar
  30. 128.
    H. Perkin, Origins of Modern English Society (1969), p. 182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 129.
    W. Wordsworth, The Prelude (Text of 1805), Bk 9, ll. 218–49, pp. 157–8. Wordsworth’s actual school life at Hawkshead was spent, as G. M. Trevelyan observed, ‘amid the healthy companionship of north-country yeomen’s sons’. Nor was it burdened with ‘organised athleticism, examination, inspection or competition’. When combined with his ‘scrambling and rambling’ among the hills and dales of the north, and other ‘boyish pursuits’, we can better balance the competing claims of Wordsworth’s formal education and ‘mountain liberty’ as general social causes of his early republican creed. Above all, the social and economic equality of Old Lakeland was epitomised in the old system of endowed grammar schools as much as the statesmen system of farming. No major distinctions were made between the boys in the classroom or between them and their community. Even their ‘diversions’ were the same: they wandered everywhere; they raided raven’s nests; boated on Coniston water; went horse-riding among the ruins of Furness Abbey; rattled hazel-trees for fresh nuts, and fished for trout, char and pike; and so on. In consequence, ‘the poet in the child survived into the man’. Cf. G. M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century and After (1782–1919) (1939), p. 28 incl. n. 1. See too idem, History of England (1926), pp. 522–3.Google Scholar
  32. 130.
    J. Williams, Wordsworth: Romantic Poetry and Revolution Politics (1989), p. 5.Google Scholar
  33. 132.
    Ibid., p. 162. Wordsworth’s reading of classical literature at Hawkshead Grammar School has been studied by Ben Ross Schneider as basic to his early republican beliefs — for instance, his knowledge of Cicero’s famous book De Officiis offered him a moral ideal of political virtue and civic responsibility like that found in ancient Rome and her provinces. Above all, it gave him a classical version of human law and behaviour which was subject to the universal law of Nature — even though the idea of Nature was very different in Wordsworth’s day. Cf. B. R. Schneider, op. cit., p. 76. Cf. too B. Willey, The Eighteenth Century Background (1989 edn), passim.Google Scholar
  34. 135.
    J. Brewer, op. cit., pp. 342–4. Cf. too R. E. Richey, ‘The Origins of British Radicalism: the Changing Rationale for Dissent’, ECS, 7 (1973–74), pp. 179–92. Richey concludes that: ‘Dissent had come into being in loyalty to Puritan ideals and Puritan objections to Anglicanism … But in the course of the [eighteenth] century the language used in self-defense, the language of the Toleration Act, of Locke and of Whiggery came gradually to displace the objections to Anglicanism. This language was internalized as a self-understanding and the identity of Dissent was thereby transformed. The Dissenting radicalism of the late eighteenth century was then a working out of new roles consistent with the new sense of identity’ (ibid., pp. 191–2).Google Scholar
  35. 136.
    I. Kramnick, Bolingbroke and his Circle. The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 252–60.Google Scholar
  36. 141.
    W. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), Bk 9, ll. 518–32, p. 331.Google Scholar
  37. 142.
    E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1968), pp. 103–4.Google Scholar
  38. 144.
    E. N. Hooker, ‘Wordsworth’s Letter to the Bishop Of Llandaff’, SIP, 28 (1931), pp. 522–31. Wordsworth probably read Paine’s books during the spring of 1791 (Rights of Man, Part 1 [1791], and Common Sense [1776]) and the spring of 1792–3 (Rights of Man, Part 2 [1792]). He definitely read the said books by the spring of 1793.Google Scholar
  39. D. Wu, Wordsworth’s Reading 1770–1799 (1993), pp. 109–10.Google Scholar
  40. 148.
    W. D. Rubinstein, ibid., p. 355. Cf. too A. Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection: the Religious and Secular Traditions of Conservative Thought in England from Hooker to Oakeshott (1978), p. 44.Google Scholar
  41. 151.
    An Historical Essay on the Constitution of England (1771) quoted in Christopher Hill, ‘The Norman Yoke’ (1954), p. 43. It is worth noting that Bolingbroke was also one of the ablest defenders of the Englishman’s ‘spirit of liberty’. According to Hugh MacDougall, he ‘skilfully used what can only be called a Whig interpretation of history to attack the policy of Robert Walpole’. Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, quoted and discussed in Hugh A. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History (1982), pp. 79–80.Google Scholar
  42. 153.
    Dr Robert Brady paraphrased by Isaac Kramnick in op. cit., p. 128. The reader, however, is referred back to Sir Charles Elton’s views of the feudal system of government as a legal fiction and the actual growth of land-tenures in the countryside, especially in the Lake Counties of England, from comparatively free Anglo-Saxon and Danish communities. See Chapter 2. Cf. also S. B. Chrimes, English Constitutional History, 4th edn (1967), p. 75 ff,Google Scholar
  43. and H. Butterfield, The Englishman and his History (1945), pp. 75–7.Google Scholar
  44. 165.
    Cf. the interesting remarks by Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish on the democratic tone and direct style of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and their relevance to the American War of Independence. J. Bronowski and B. Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition: from Leonardo to Hegel (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962), pp. 376–9.Google Scholar
  45. 173.
    G. M. Trevelyan, British History in the 19th Century and After (1782–1919), 2nd edn (1937), pp. 90–1.Google Scholar
  46. 179.
    H. Perkin, op. cit., pp. 179–81 re. urbanisation; 188–9 re. reluctance of the ‘lower orders’ to reject old paternal relationships and codes; and 271–3 re. the imposition of the new middle class ideal upon the rest of society. On the one hand, Perkin argues that ‘urbanisation was, in part the link between industrialism and class’ — though he distinguished between the traditional towns of the old kind where paternal relationships and discipline were still comparatively common and effective and the large industrial towns where they were not. On the other hand, he shows that the ‘midwife of class’ was sectarian dissent in the nation’s new towns and cities: his statistical tables show two trends, namely, ‘the larger the town the smaller the proportion of the population attending any place of worship’; and, ‘the larger the town, with the exception of London, the smaller the proportion of Anglican to all attenders’ (ibid., p. 200; cf. pp. 196–208). For his part, J. C. D. Clark does not see industrial and urban growth as responsible, in itself, for ‘a rejection of Anglican doctrine by the labouring population’ in the period 1800–1832: ‘What changed was not the theoretical validity or potential success of Anglicanism in an urban or industrial society, but the emergence of that society very largely beyond the pale of the traditional Anglican parochial structure. First, new industrial centres were very often located in places which had never been within the nexus of squire and parson, and the Church did not act swiftly to extend her parochial ministrations to such areas. Secondly, English society in the early nineteenth century experienced unprecedentedly rapid demographic change’. J. C. D. Clark, English Society 1688–1832 (1985), pp. 372–3 and 375;Google Scholar
  47. and E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789–1848 (1962), Ch. 12, pp. 258–64.Google Scholar
  48. 184.
    How else can we explain the famous visit to Rydal Mount by the Chartist, Thomas Cooper, in September, 1846? Nothing struck me so much in Wordsworth’s conversation as his remark concerning Chartism — after the subject of my imprisonment had been touched upon. ‘You were right’, he said; ‘I have always said the people were right in what they asked; but you went the wrong way to get it.’ I almost doubted my ears — being in the presence of the ‘Tory’ Wordsworth. He read the inquiring expression of my look in a moment, — and immediately repeated what he had said. ‘You were quite right: there is nothing unreasonable in your Charter: it is the foolish attempt at physical force for which many of you have been blameable.’ T. Cooper, The Life of Thomas Cooper. Written by Himself (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1872), p. 290.Google Scholar
  49. 186.
    Thus his ‘Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmorland’ (1818) which defend the Lowther candidates and interest in Westmorland make better reading today than his several sonnets on the family and their affairs such as ‘TO THE EARL OF LONSDALE’ (comp. 1833; pub. 1835) in J. O. Hayden, ibid., Vol. 2, p. 770. Re. the strengths and weaknesses of Wordsworth’s ‘ethical’, or ‘scientific’, system in poetry, see: M. Arnold, Essays in Criticism: Second Series (1888), pp. 148–53 esp. pp. 152–3.Google Scholar
  50. Re. the political bases of newspapers in the Lake District see: C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, A Short Economic and Social History of the Lake Counties 1500–1830 (1961), p. 208.Google Scholar
  51. 187.
    M. Weber, ‘The Sociology of Charismatic Authority’ (1948), p. 248.Google Scholar
  52. 188.
    See the typical accounts of Wordsworth’s development given by V. G. Kiernan, in ‘Wordsworth and the People’ (1956; 1973), pp. 161–206;Google Scholar
  53. and J. Lucas, in England and Englishness (1990), pp. 89–118. Even E. P. Thompson subscribed in a great measure to this view in ‘Disenchantment of Default? A Lay Sermon’ (1969), pp. 176–81 and ‘Hunting the Jacobin Fox’ (1994), pp. 128–39.Google Scholar
  54. 193.
    Cf. S. Gill, ibid., pp. 343–4. Although he mainly wrote ‘Petrarchan’ sonnets, his ‘Republican’ sympathies and regional interests often found expression in Miltonic ones: see the brief but interesting paper by Jonathan Bate, called Romantic Regionalism, Romantic Nationalism (The Centre for British Studies, Occasional Papers, No. 2: The University of Adelaide, 1994).Google Scholar
  55. 195.
    Cf. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1964), p. 72.Google Scholar
  56. 196.
    William Wordsworth quoted in Jared Curtis, op. cit., p. 42. Cf. Basil Willey, ‘On Wordsworth and the Locke Tradition’, in M. A. Abrams (ed.), English Romantic Poets. Modern Essays in Criticism, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 112–22.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Mark Keay 2001

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations