John Wilson to William Wordsworth (1802): A New Text

By Dundas, Philip | Wordsworth Circle, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

John Wilson to William Wordsworth (1802): A New Text


Dundas, Philip, Wordsworth Circle


John Wilson was profoundly affected by his first reading of Lyrical Ballads. At age sixteen in June, 1802, he wrote a remarkably insightful letter to Wordsworth praising the volume--to which Wordsworth replied ["William Wordsworth's Letter to John Wilson, 1802: A Corrected Version," ed. John O. Hayden, TWC, XVIII (1987)33-38]. This sensitivity to Wordsworth's poetic philosophy was rare at the time, and began a relationship, which, despite controversy, was always marked by Wilson's high regard for Wordsworth's poetry. Many years later in an essay in Blackwood's Magazine, Wilson, as his alter-ego Christopher North, describes the praise he has courted from all corners of the earth, for his role in extending and promoting Wordsworth's reputation from "the banks of the Mississippi" to "the Ganges." In the same essay North claims that in Scotland in the early 1800s, there "were not twenty copies [of Lyrical Ballads]--we question if there were ten" ("Stroll to Grasmere," Collected Works).

Despite his youth, Wilson's exuberant letter marks him out as a vigorously independent thinker and clearly able to extrapolate some of the key concepts in Wordsworth's Preface. He conceives of the poet's readers as connected by a "delightful sympathy of Souls"; a union of common interest in the spontaneous appreciation of poetry. This system of philosophy, is embodied in poetry that, Wilson writes, "flash on our Souls a conviction of immortality."

Crucially here, Wilson recognises and responds to the poet's intention. In his Preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth makes the claim for the poems that their purpose is to "illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement ... to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature." Wilson is excited by Wordsworth's radical views on the duty of the poet and he even embraces the tone of his writing. The letter opens effusively praising Wordsworth's "simple and forcible language" in rhetoric that bears all the hallmarks of an imagination profoundly coloured by Lyrical Ballads and its Preface.

Once he graduated and moved to the Lake District, Wilson became a friend of both the Wordsworths and Coleridges. At one point he was assisting Coleridge's research for The Friend by running errands to the library at Calgarth Park, the home of Richard Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff. The Wordsworths were frequent visitors to Wilson's home at Elleray, which was far more comfortable than their own. It is not unlikely either that the two friends, Coleridge and Wordsworth, would have discussed their young acolyte's earlier letter. After all, it was a rare critical correspondence that had elicited an equally uncharacteristic reply, especially on the subject of the "The Idiot Boy." Wilson's lucid comments on the poem in 1802 are so clearly articulated that it may well be with them in mind, some fifteen years later, that Coleridge refers to the "only plausible objections, which I have heard to that fine poem."

   The one is, that the author has not, in the poem itself, taken
   care to preclude from the reader's fancy, the disgusting
   images of ordinary, morbid idiocy, which yet it was by no
   means his intention to represent. He has even by the 'burr.
   burr, burr,' uncounteracted by any preceding description of
   the boy's beauty, assisted in recalling them. The other is, that
   the idiocy of the boy is so evenly balanced by the folly of the
   mother, as to present to the general reader rather a laughable
   burlesque on the blindness of anile dotage, rather than an
   analytic display of maternal affection in its ordinary workings.
   (Biographia Literaria, xvii)

Wilson is torn between his genuine admiration for the poet and his uncertainty that the design of the poem achieves its motive. He questions the validity of the subject as a suitable vehicle for the moral intention of the poem. …

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