Between late 1795 and late 1796, Wordsworth was known to have suffered a sudden and deep depression. Recollecting the ferocious onslaught of that debilitating experience years later in the song of his life, Wordsworth himself would hauntingly summarize it as "the crisis of that strong disease" and "the soul's last and lowest ebb" (1850 Prelude XI. 307, 308). At the time of the event, he was living in his cherished English countryside. He had with him then his beloved sister Dorothy Wordsworth. He had also already made acquaintance with his soulmate Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Against the backdrop of these seemingly auspicious circumstances, what is so interesting and instructive about this surprisingly severe and sustained personal trauma is not only how Wordsworth contracted it and then survived it, but also how the sequence of crisis and recovery helps to reveal a recurrent pattern in his thought and a crucial connection between radical politics and his greatest poetry in the late 1790s and the early 1800s.
Wordsworth was never a politician nor an activist, but he did often intend to fight passionately and publicly for the things he believed in. Upon hearing Richard Watson's expression of horror and outrage at the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793, for instance, he quickly dashed off the fiery Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, both defending and celebrating the deliberate exercise of violence by the French people against their former imperial rulers. While wandering lonely in the west country of England later in the same year, he also quickly conceptualized and subsequently composed Salisbury Plain, dramatizing not only the abject suffering of the rural poor but also the analogical need of English society for reform and even revolution. In their compositional context, both of these works seem to have emanated directly from Wordsworth's experiences in France in the previous year. In particular, two memories seem to have had a deep and lasting impact. First, there was the scene of those young French Army volunteers leaving their families and marching to war for "patriot love / And self-devotion, and terrestrial hope / Encouraged with a martyr's confidence" (Prelude IX. 278-80). Then, there was the occasion of his French friend Michel Beaupuy vowing to fight for the "hunger-bitten girl" (Prelude IX. 512). In both situations, there was a certain grand heroism mingled with and enhanced by a certain self-sacrificial gesture. Just as the chivalry of Beaupuy "meshed with Wordsworth's personal response to suffering and realized their objectives as 'philosophical warriors' with the force of sudden revelation" (Roe 58), so did the patriotism of the young French soldiers impress upon his mind "like arguments from Heaven" (Prelude IX. 289) the justification of the French Revolution as "the cause, not simply of a people struggling to be free, but of mankind" (Moorman, Early Years 221).
The heroic desires of Beaupuy and other patriots, however, ultimately did not do much good for the French Revolution. Similarly, Wordsworth's attempt at political activism also proved to be futile. His flaming patricidal letter never came off the press, and his poem of political protest also did not see the light of day either in its entirety or in its original form in his own life time. Before he left France in late 1792, he had foreseen the coming of difficulties for the revolution and he had for a while contemplated the possibility of staying with his Girondin friends through thick and thin, but his intention was soon vitiated by the banal circumstance of his own "absolute want / Of funds for [his] support" (Prelude X. 190-91). After he returned to England, he also planned in 1794 to launch a radical journal of literature and politics so as to help "the multitude walk[ing] in darkness" by putting "in each man's hand a lantern to guide him" (qtd. in Moorman, Early Years 254), but that activist project similarly failed to even get off the ground for the same trite reason of economics. In late 1795, he may very well still be wishing to fight for his radical cause, but the reality of Beaupuy and others as having all sacrificed themselves in vain must have made him realize finally that there was never, or ever, anything he could do on his part for the kind of revolution as he knew it in the early 1790s.
Since he was utterly disenchanted with his own activism, but was unable to change his perception of the French Revolution as what should or ought to succeed in theory, and since he was utterly disillusioned with the turns of events in France, but still unable to understand why the egalitarian aspiration did not and could not work out in practice, there seems to be no wonder that Wordsworth should have "lost / All feeling of conviction, and, in fine, / Sick and wearied out with contrarieties, / Yielded up moral questions in despair" (Prelude X. 897-900). In his despondency, he could have chosen to renounce his own earlier belief in the radical idealism of France, or opted to deny the disturbing discrepancy between theory and practice or between aspiration and actuality. Either way, he might have been able to move quickly out of his traumatic experience, but he would also have ended up becoming very different from what he subsequently came to be known.
Rather than a compromise of his self-consistency or or a sacrifice of himself for what had already proven to be a lost or losing cause, his response in the event, as it so richly and fruitfully worked itself out in the triumphant publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, was an instinctive and analogical movement toward nature. Without placing him back into "the happier and simpler world of his own youth" (Moorman, Later Years viii) and without pushing him regressively into the kind of eighteenth-century nature poetry as he himself used to write before 1793, such a movement "Conducted [him] again to open day, / Revived the feelings of [his] earlier life, / Gave [him] that strength and knowledge full of peace, / Enlarged, and never more to be disturbed" (Prelude X. 923-26). Allowing him both to maneuver away from what he had already failed to deal with directly and to confront it at the same time, his ingenious treatment of his crisis in political allegiance proved to be his winning way of reconstructing his circumstances so that the French Revolution and his social and political convictions could get into a positive rather than negative relationship and so that his understanding and acceptance of the former's failure would not result in the latter's demoralizing disarray.
Wordsworth's crisis and recovery both took place at Racedown, a small village far away from London where he had stayed much of the time in early and mid 1795. Since his movement from the cosmopolitan city to the rural community was symbolically already a recognition and a reflection of his defeat in radical politics, his promotion of the simple, the natural, and the ordinary over the extravagant and the extraordinary both in the Lyrical Ballads and in The Prelude cannot but seem to contradict whatever he says about his self-consistency and to suggest instead not only a self-serving cover-up but also a self-repudiating reversion to an …