Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Wordsworths, the Greens, and the Limits of Sympathy

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Wordsworths, the Greens, and the Limits of Sympathy

Article excerpt

ON MARCH 19, 1808, GEORGE AND SARAH GREEN, HUSBAND AND WIFE, perished in Langdale Fell during a storm, leaving behind eight orphaned children, all under the age of sixteen and six under age eleven, an event which threw "the whole vale," in Dorothy Wordsworth's words, into "the greatest consternation." (1) Immediately Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth (William was in London) were "employed in laying schemes to prevent the children from falling into the hands of persons who may use them unkindly," which they regarded as likely if the children suffered the usual fate of orphans, being boarded out by the parish for a meager two shillings per week. (2) They began to solicit donations, and when William returned to Grasmere the following month the Wordsworths wrote a brief account of the events that they circulated to those who might be willing to contribute. (3) It seems that they were tireless in their efforts, as William was soon apologizing to Francis Wrangham for the "dim transcript made by a multiplying writer, we having had occasion to make so many copies." (4) One month after the tragedy, William sent S. T. Coleridge "Elegiac Stanzas composed in the Churchyard of Grasmere, Westmorland, a few days after the Internment there of a Man and his Wife, Inhabitants of the Vale, who were lost upon the neighbouring Mountains, on the night of the nineteenth of March last." The first lines read: "Who weeps for Strangers?--Many wept / For George and Sarah Green." He urged Coleridge to "turn these verses to any profit for the poor Orphans in any way, either by reciting, circulating in manuscript or publishing them." (5) Dorothy began her own record of the events, Narrative Concerning George and Sarah Green of the Parish of Grasmere addressed to a Friend, in April. Her Narrative was read by family members and close friends but remained unpublished during her lifetime. (6) By the middle of May more than 300 [pounds sterling] had been raised, and by September the subscription for the Green children approached 500 [pounds sterling]. For the next twenty-one years, the distribution of funds to the families who had taken in the orphans was overseen by a group of local women (including Mary Wordsworth), deservedly earning Ernest de Selincourt's praise as "a model of a simple act of charity wisely conceived and scrupulously administered" (11). For William, their involvement with the Greens represented the enormous potential of human sympathy to relieve poverty.

But one could read the story of the Wordsworths' involvement in the Greens' suffering quite differently. The brief account that William and Dorothy wrote immediately after the tragedy to raise money might be examined for the way it establishes rigid requirements for the truly deserving poor. Compassion for the children is "more deeply felt," and there is "a general desire that more than ordinary exertions should be made" because of the parents' "frugality and industry" and "even cheerful endurance of extreme poverty," as well as their independence, for they went "without any assistance from the parish." (7) That the children were deemed more worthy of private assistance because their parents had been "cheerful" in their suffering suggests a far more qualified sympathy for the poor. We might also look at the decision to cap the subscription at 500 [pounds sterling], the subject of some controversy between Coleridge and Wordsworth. While Coleridge's letter on the subject is not extant, from Wordsworth's defensive reply--he felt compelled to offer no less than six reasons, which he enumerates one by one, for his decision to accept no more donations--we may surmise a strong objection on Coleridge's part. Michael Friedman, one of the few scholars to consider William's involvement with the Greens, reads this explanation to Coleridge as exemplifying "a Tory humanist conception of community structured by traditional social rank and degree and a belief that such a hierarchic community must be preserved. …

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