Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth at Forty: Memoirs of a Lost Generation

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth at Forty: Memoirs of a Lost Generation

Article excerpt

On the occasion of the fortieth Wordsworth Summer Conference, I wondered what Wordsworth might have been doing at age forty, in 1810. Not a banner year, particularly, I supposed. Looking it up, I found that he was just getting into serious composition of The Excursion, which finally appeared in 1814. (1) Not a promising piece of data, was my first reaction. Another essay on The Excursion? But I looked at this fact with different eyes, now, than when I first studied The Excursion, in 1984 for The Recluse (Wordsworth and "The Recluse" Yale U.P.), because Wordsworth's re-start on The Recluse, out of which The Excursion came, fit in well with my current research on what I call the "lost generation" of the 1790s, under the working title, "Unusual Suspects, Unlikely Heroes. Pitt's Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s." The Solitary, the disillusioned antagonist of The Excursion, was always going to figure large in this study, as a representative case. But as I began to re-study the details of composition and The Excursion manuscripts, I was unprepared for the realization that Wordsworth was contemplating very nearly the same project, as he resumed composition on The Recluse, after having finished The Prelude in 1805.

Briefly, my project considers the many young men and women writers whose careers were derailed, detoured or destroyed by their run-ins with the vast security apparatus devised in the 1790s by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and his two Home Secretaries, Henry Dundas and William Cavendish, the third duke of Portland. I have found evidence that at least seventy-five people suffered in this way, people like Gilbert Wakefield, James Montgomery, Thomas Beddoes, Sr. and others. The best vignette I can give for it is the famous story of "Spy Nozy," sent down to Somerset from London in summer 1797 to spy on Wordsworth and Coleridge as possible French agents scouting out landing places for an invasion. It was all a big funny mistake, as Coleridge tells it in Biographia Literaria in 1817. No joke (nor mistake) at all, as agent James Walsh reported it to his controller, John King, in Portland's office. Dead on, in fact: "this will turn out to be no French affair," Walsh reported, "but a gang of disaffected Englishmen." Case closed.

Any after-effects or fall-out? There were no arrests or anything like that, of course--though the local Somerset doctor who sent in the report was operating very much under the letter of the King's proclamation of May, 1792, that his subjects should report any evidence they thought they might have found, of suspicious activity in their parts. As it says in American and British subways and airports now, "See something? Say something!" The only consequence was that the Wordsworths lost their lease, or rather their chance to renew it, on Alfoxden House, thus contributing to their decamping to Germany with Coleridge the next year. That, it might be said, was a very "fortunate fall" for the development of English Romanticism, for, isolated in Germany, thrown entirely back on himself and his own resources, Wordsworth began the series of sketches of his childhood experiences that gave him the impetus to compose "The Poem on the Growth of My Own Mind," later called The Prelude.

But the results for most of my other "suspects" were not so fortunate. Indeed, many of their lives--or rather, their careers--were ruined. In all cases there is a sharp demarcation between the promising "Before" of their youthful lives, and the sadder-but-wiser "After" of their later lives. I am not speaking, for the most part, about the more than 100 persons who were fried for sedition or treason between 1792 and 1798-more trials for these crimes than ever before or after in British history--and who were usually (two-thirds of the time) convicted and jailed, fined or transported; some even executed. No, I am talking about people, like Wordsworth and his Solitary, who took their disillusionment personally, as it were, escaping back to some place where they could nurse their wounds and sense of injustice in private--or else went into some other radically altered, downgraded line of work. …

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