William Wordsworth was able to run off with the nature poem because he passionately believed in it — in, as he always said, its psychological truth. But for all its merits as a poetic expression of behaviorism, The Prelude as it progressed represented a shrinking of the experimental base to one subject of observation: Wordsworth himself.
The subtitle “Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” indicates Wordsworth’s assumption that he himself was an adequate representative of the growth and supreme achievements of Imagination, and that he was his poetry. A poet’s mind is a great mind. Wordsworth went on in another long poem, The Excursion, to which The Prelude is the prelude, to dozens of other case histories, but as a lot of critics noted, the main such histories seem merely to be versions of Wordsworth himself.
In the spring of 1801 Samuel Taylor Coleridge (STC) produced another observation of Hartley, who is now five years old and evidently progressing well, racking up his “spots of time,” exhibiting his “glad animal movements,” and being very independent and free and forceful in saying what he wanted and thought. In a letter to his brother-in-law Southey, STC describes concerns about Hartley’s health and includes some poetry that, he tells Southey, is “a very metaphysical account of Fathers calling their children rogues, rascals, and little varlets.” The letter to Southey is the first manuscript version of what became the conclusion to Part II of the still unfinished “Christabel.” Since STC was never able to come up with an end to his story, it’s the conclusion to what we have of the poem:
A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round cheeks,
That always finds, and never seeks,
Makes such a vision to the sight
As fills a father’s eyes with light;
And pleasures flow in so thick and fast
Upon his heart, that he at last
Must needs express his love’s excess
With words of unmeant bitterness.
Perhaps ‘tis pretty to force together
Thoughts so all unlike each other;
To mutter and mock a broken charm,
To dally with wrong that does no harm.
Perhaps ‘tis tender too and pretty
At each wild word to feel within
A sweet recoil of love and pity.
And what if, in a world of sin
(O sorrow and shame should this be true!)
Such giddiness of heart and brain
Comes seldom save from rage and pain,
So talks as it’s most used to do.
The poem connects thematically to Hartley’s attack on the flowers, to transfer of guilt, but is about STC himself and how he deals with Hartley — where the whipping comes from. The connection with “Christabel” is that the poem’s heroine Christabel is at the end of her story (as STC left it) cast off by her own father Sir Leoline, “the Baron rich,” who thinks she has dishonored him by begging him to send away the daughter of his friend (she isn’t really). In other words the verbal whipping, the “rogue,” “varlet” appellations that one might attach to a child in mutually understood joking, were actually serious.
It seems that STC made a mistake of wrongly disciplining Hartley, and can neither explain nor admit that mistake. All he can do to assuage the guilt is place it on the shoulders of a fictional character, Sir Leoline. STC attributes the Baron’s mistake to his love for his daughter, but that leads to questions. If the Baron is voicing rage to instill pain in the child so the child can be pitied, which stirs greater love in him, how does this interpretation really fit the story? The Baron is possessed by a spirit, just as the Mariner is. He isn’t doing any emotional calculating.
As STC says, it would be a sorrow and shame if his description of the Baron’s action were actually true, if the Baron were conscious of what he was doing. In Hartleian terms, such actions on the part of a parent do not involve joy and could only do harm to the child. It would be an even greater “a sorrow and a shame” if such actions were actually required to prepare a child properly for life’s pain and grief. It would be to admit that real life was the constant that children must be adjusted to, rather than a temporary situation that, as Rousseau had it, educating children properly would slowly improve. It would be to suggest that parents are right to let loose with their emotional responses to their kids, no matter what these responses may be, because this is what the kids will face in real life.
The mistake STC made with Hartley probably arose out of opium-induced rage and pain, aggravated by Hartley’s incessant hyperactivity. One neighbor at Stowey described him as “a little chattering inquisitive rogue.” STC himself admitted that he was “something too rough.” Hartley later summed himself up at this age as “a sun-burnt, prattling elf/a froward urchin.” In a letter written just after the move to Keswick, STC says to Southey: “Hartley is a fairy elf, all motion — indefatigable in joy — a spirit of Joy dancing on an Aspen leaf. From morning to night he whirls about, whisks, whirls and eddies, like a blossom on a May breeze.” Hartley always moved like this, even as an adult. The locals joked that he should carry boulders in his pockets just to keep his feet on the ground.
But Hartley was changing, adjusting, growing strong. In November 1801 STC wrote Southey about that milestone in a boy’s life, breeching. Hartley was now five:
Hartley was breeched last Sunday — and looks far better than in petticoats. He ran to and fro in a sort of dance to the Jingle of the load of Money that had been put in his breeches pockets; but he did not roll and tumble over in his old joyous way — No! It was an eager and solemn gladness, as if he felt it to be an awful era in his life. Oh bless him! Bless him! Bless him! If my wife loved me, and I my wife, half as well as we both love our children, I should be the happiest man alive — but this is not — will not be! —
STC was obviously happy with Hartley’s development (if not with his marriage). Hartley is still free. He is still a source of precocious wisdom — STC delighting at that time in Hartley’s invention of the word “inquaintance” to refer to a girl “acquaintance”(one he really likes) of his. But he is also acquiring a sense of the responsibilities of added years, a “solemn gladness.”
But was this just the view of a fond father? Wordsworth was soon to provide a different analysis. A few months later he wrote a strange and, I think, pivotal poem, “To H.C. (Six Years Old).” He starts by describing Hartley as STC describes him: precocious, imaginative, free:
O Thou! Whose fancies from afar are brought;
Who of thy words dost make a mock apparel,
And fittest to unutterable thought
The breeze-like motion and the self-born carol;
Thou faery voyager!
Hartley’s words, breeze-like movements and imaginative songs clothe fancies and unutterable thoughts that seem to come from another (a fairy) world, like the “ocean of souls,” the pre-existent world that Wordsworth was to describe a couple of years later in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” However, the extremity of Hartley’s precocious freedom seems to worry Wordsworth. Will such a child be able to carry on into adult life when pain and grief assail him?
Thou art so exquisitely wild,
I think of thee with many fears
For what might be thy lot in future years.
I thought of times when pain might be thy guest
Lord of thy house and hospitality;
And Grief, uneasy lover! never rest
But when she sate within the touch of thee.
Wordsworth goes on to say that it is a matter of chance as to how much time nature gives a person, and if Hartley’s luck is bad he is finished:
Nature will either end thee quite;
Or lengthening out thy season of delight,
Preserve for thee, by individual right,
A young lamb’s heart among the full-grown flocks.
Wordsworth fears the worst:
Thou are a dew-drop, which the morn brings forth,
Ill fitted to sustain unkindly shocks . . . .
But at the touch of wrong, without a strife
Slips in a moment out of life.
This poem echoes the fears of STC in “The Foster-Mother’s Tale” about the youth who has to flee to the wilds. Here, though, the outcome is even worse: death. Hartley’s education would have proven a big mistake. Would STC have agreed that one of nature’s “severer interventions” could be death for those who cannot adapt to real life? STC left no record, and may not have been aware of the poem until 1804, when it was transcribed for him to take to Malta.
According to Derwent, Wordsworth recalled his poem shortly after Hartley’s death (from complications resulting from bronchitis), when he and Derwent went to the Grasmere graveyard to mark out a spot for Hartley.
Wordsworth wanted Hartley near his family, saying, “Let him lie by us — he would have wished it.” The space Wordsworth indicated to the sexton was where he’d seen Hartley standing during the funeral of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora: “When I lifted my eyes from my daughter’s grave, he was standing there!” Wordsworth said a few words that referred, Derwent thought, to the poem “To H.C:” “He had watched his hopeful, fearful childhood, had seem him as he lay a dying man . . . . Perhaps he remembered the fear which he had so beautifully expressed had proved more prophetic than the hope by which he had put it from him, and many a morrow with a full freight of ‘injuries’ — from which he had not been saved by an early, a sudden, or an easy death. He dropped some hint of these thoughts . . .”
“To H.C.” could be seen less as Wordsworth’s usual accurate observation than as the product of an emotional and intellectual crisis that, as indicated by a much better poem written at this time, assailed Wordsworth in 1802. The first four stanzas of what became “Intimations of Immortality,” started in March, end in a question:
But there’s a tree, of many, one
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
It seems that the spots of time that had gone on for the first thirty years of Wordsworth’s life were now weakening and abating. Nature hadn’t changed; Wordsworth concluded that she weaned children by engineering a change in them. But why? Especially when the imagination needs constant reinforcement to resist the accumulating pain and grief of adult life?
In May 1802, Wordsworth wrote another famous poem, “Resolution and Independence,” about an encounter that had happened some months before with an old man who was gathering leeches on the moors. The old man rescues Wordsworth from paranoid thoughts about the permanence of joy, thoughts like, “there may come another day to me/Solitude, pain of heart, distress and poverty.” Even poets, Wordsworth is thinking, are not immune to this, maybe even more open to it than most:
I thought of Chatterton, the marvelous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plow, along the mountainside;
By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness,
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
In a letter of 19 July 1802 to Asra— a letter written as a poem that soon became “Dejection: An Ode” — STC tried to answer Wordsworth’s question about the transience of “the visionary gleam.” He affirmed (what he’d been saying all along) that the gleam is joy:
Joy, Lady! Is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
A new Earth and new Heaven,
Undreampt of by the sensual and the proud —
Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud —
The syntax is hard to figure. Does the power of joy wed nature to us and endow us with new earth and new heaven? Or do we, when we wed nature to ourselves, endow ourselves with joy? The first implies that joy is present from the beginning, maybe pre-existent; the second that we become joyous when we find nature. STC may have wanted it both ways, but later in the poem he says that the “shaping spirit of Imagination” was endowed on him by nature at his birth.
By 1802, STC was disenchanted with Locke and David Hartley. He was engaging with Kant. Back in 1799 he’d named his second son after George Berkeley, a famous Platonist or as Berkeley himself put it “Immaterialist.” He believed that esse est percipi — that what we call the physical world exists only when it is perceived. It was Berkeley who moved Kant out of science towards moral philosophy, even though Kant refuted his conclusions.
In a Letter of 16 March 1801 STC wrote to Thomas Poole (in the grandiose manner that to Poole indicated opium) that, “I have not only completely extricated the notions of Time, and Space; but have overthrown the doctrine of Association, as taught by Hartley, and with it all the irreligious metaphysics of modern Infidels — especially, the doctrine of Necessity.” By necessity STC meant the scientific, not the religious, version of the conundrum of faith. He’d deduced that science proved that consciousness and conscience could not exist as we think of them — as mental faculties that effect our actions.
The vehemence of his rejection of scientific necessity was a result of his ongoing insecurity about nature. STC never had laid claims, as Wordsworth did, to “spots of time” that date back to his pre-school days and that generate “acts of love” in adulthood. For him there were, especially, no “severer ministrations” of nature that reinforced empathy. This violated what he understood of behaviorism. His one recorded early memory, his only “spot of time,” is of running away from home after going into a rage and trying to kill one of his older brothers with a kitchen knife. He spent that night outside, hiding.
This was not a joyous experience that could be written up for the Lyrical Ballads, though “Mariner” might contain emotional fallout from it. It implied a will overpowered by emotions like hatred and pride, even at what was supposed to be that ideal state of childhood in a secure and loving family in a rural area. It implied the unconsciousness — the world of the dream poems — had itself to be educated by constant prayer and contrition (psychoanalysis being unavailable at the time).
What STC does lay claim to in “Dejection” is an overwhelming youthful joy that lit up experience in childhood and youth, showing the ultimate unity and purpose of experience and so creating hope. His school days in the city did not snuff his joy in life, and that joy was re-charged in early adulthood by “spots of time,” the gentle, joyous kind that he registers in his early conversation poems. This was the joy that STC and Wordsworth saw, and regarded as so important, in Hartley.
The “afflictions” STC refers to in “Dejection,” the afflictions that destroy hope, are unspecified but are the two that, as we’ve seen, were laid out in a theoretical context in “The Nightingale,” where nature therapy works on the child Hartley but not always on adults who are disappointed in love or physically ill. Physical illness and heartache were exactly what was bowing STC down when he wrote the first version of “Dejection.” STC was always sick because of his addiction, and Asra refused to return his affection and remained friendly but distant.
STC says that, when the joy and hope that accompanies youth began to fade because of afflictions, his Imagination began to be “suspended:”
There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth:
But oh! Each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
In June 1802 STC made another observation about Hartley. Here STC seems concerned that Hartley’s rich inner life — another of the things STC admired in his son — was making him less receptive to outer influences. The Aeolian harp was adjusting its tune, not by opening itself up to nature’s influences but by closing itself off, or limiting its tonal range:
Hartley’s attachments are excessively strong — so strong, even to places, that he does not like to go into town — or on a visit/ The field, garden and river bank/ his kitchen and darling Friend — they are enough/ and Playfellows are burthensome to him/ excepting me/ because I can understand and sympathize with, his wild Fancies.
A few days later, Hartley freaked out at the sight of a madman passing by, chained. STC isn’t sure what to make of the fact that, as he interpreted the situation, fear overcame empathy in Hartley.
Shortly after that, STC reported in a letter: “That child is a poet, spite of the Forehead ‘villainous low,’ which his Mother smuggled into his face.” We have to ignore here the gratuitous insult to his wife and the joking reference to phrenology, a “science” that had come out of anatomical studies of the brain, inspired by the discovery that some brain functions were localized. Phrenology claimed to show that the shape of the skull indicated personality; a low forehead indicated a small frontal lobe that indicated a cretinous or insensitive, likely criminal, personality. Behind this was the idea of the localization of brain functions, and behind that atomization of conscious thought and further proof that free will was unlikely.
Phrenology was, at the time, being disputed by anatomists and psychologists, and was to fade as proofs against it piled up. STC thought it nonsense, but for the wrong reason: “Every intellectual act, however you may distinguish it by name in respect to the originating faculties, is truly the act of the entire man; the notion of distinct material organs . . . in the brain itself, is plainly absurd.” STC feared the “anatomizing” tendency of scientific speculation. This was to become an issue between him and his good friend Humphrey Davey, one of the prominent chemists of the age. Sometime around 1809, Davey accepted his colleague John Dalton’s elemental theory of chemistry, the idea that each element is irreducible and has its own weight/volume ratio. The implications to chemistry — rendering it mathematical — were immense. STC couldn’t see this and said of Davey, “you have arsenic in your gold!” He was objecting to science’s tendency to reduce biological and mental phenomena to physical phenomena — to what we call “reductionism.”
Any Daltonic anatomizing of the mind was threatening to STC. But it is now accepted that localization is a fact — that “intellectual functions” like language, math, and intuition can be mapped on the brain.
The main thing for Hartley, though was that STC identified him as (despite his having the wrong physiognomy) a poet, showing overall approval of his progress. STC goes on to note that Hartley and his brother Derwent are not “decently behaved, though they are the general Darlings of the whole town.” At the beginning of January 1803, on one of his visits to London, he writes to Sara remonstrating with her for giving Hartley coffee in the morning, “and this for a child whose nerves are as wakeful as the strings of an Eolian Harp, and as easily put out of tune!” He makes a good point, again sensitive to factors other than scenery that influence thought.
He might have been missing a more important point, though. You’d have to know how much coffee and with what. Hartley and Derwent had worms at that time, and shortly after added to their pathological menagerie scarlet fever and croup. Sara was as usual left on her own to deal with this. Hartley liked coffee, so she may have felt he needed a treat to re-tune the wakeful strings of his “lute,” which STC thought should, in a healthy person (which STC felt he himself wasn’t), be “wakeful.”
A major shift happened in Hartley’s life in 1803, when the Southeys moved north, to visit at first but then (at STC’s invitation) to take up residence in the Keswick house. A mini-Pantisocracy was taking shape, though this was in no way STC’s plan. He saw it as a chance to get away from Sara, to plant his eggs in another man’s nest.
It worked out well. Southey was a popular journalist, earning increasingly impressive sums for his book reviews, biographies and popular histories, and even for his poetry. He was generous in paying STC’s share of the rent etc. He added his massive library to Jackson’s and STC’s, making up what was probably the biggest congregation of books in northern England. By the end of Southey’s life (1843) it amounted to 14,000 volumes. Hartley was a major beneficiary of this. Sara greatly admired Southey’s openness and generosity (and there is some evidence that he greatly admired her).
Southey took over what STC called “vice-fathership.” He fulfilled the duties of home-schooling STC’s kids, with his own younger ones, averaging out (i.e. counting in the usual deaths) to about six kids. He taught Latin, Greek and Spanish while Sara continued with French and Mathematics. He was a great success with the kids, as Hartley, Derwent and Sara (who had arrived the year before) would always say. For example thirty years later Hartley would report to his sister Sara that he’d seen “uncle” and found him “quite as good, and sometimes as funny and light hearted.” Southey invented games for the kids and adults to play. He produced the first English translation of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” to read to them. He is thought to be the writer of the children’s poem “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” And Hartley, the oldest kid in the house, enjoyed Southey’s kids as much as he did his own brother and sister.
Having seen Southey comfortably set up in Jackson’s house, STC settled his Wedgewood annuity directly on Sara, bought life insurance on himself (he was always fairly confident that he was not long for this world) naming her as beneficiary, and went to Malta. He’d met the Governor, Sir Alexander Ball, who liked him and agreed to take him on as a secretary, and he thought that a hot climate would cure his ailments and reduce the need for opium. Once again he was an absentee father, at a time when he and Wordsworth thought Hartley to be in a critical period of his education.
While STC was away, from 1804 – 1806, Wordsworth came to agree with his view that the Imagination is innate, and moulds experience according to its own light. In his continuation of “Intimations” in 1804, he adds something to STC’s idea that Imagination is “endowed . . . at birth.” He says it comes from a pre-existent state:
Trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Here now is God, suddenly appearing in Wordsworth’s mature poetry. God is, like the universe, our home, but that home now includes an unremembered, pre-existent state. God is the ocean of souls — souls that are washed up onto the shores of life. Wordsworth was worried that such an image violated Christian orthodoxy and could cause hurt, not to mention trouble for him. So he defended it on both religious and commonsensical grounds, and not just as a “poetic” idea. First, he argues, the idea of a pre-existent state “has entered into the popular creeds of many nations.” Second, “though the idea is not advanced in revelation, there is nothing to contradict it.” Third, if the soul were immortal, it would always have existed.
Once the soul arrives in this life, “Earth,” the “homely Nurse,” “with something of a Mother’s mind,” starts to train the child to the virtues expected by “real” life: obedience, endurance, and purposefulness. Note that Wordworth isn’t using “Nature” here, though it seems that by “Earth” he means Nature. He’s trying to avoid saying that Nature is now wrapping the child in the chains of reality. That would go against the message of all his earlier poems.
That process is associationistic, but experiences in the landscape are no longer mentioned, and the child is no longer “exquisitely wild” like Hartley at six years of age, but obsessed with adult life:
Behold the Child among his newborn blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a pygmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See at his feet some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life . . . .
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little actor cons another part . . .
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.
David Hartley might’ve said, “At last!” Even though he would’ve objected to the whole concept of imagination. This was the most realistic (Aristotelian) and commonsensical view Wordsworth had yet presented of how a child learns. It may have been based on his hopes for his own son John, about a year old at the time, destined to become a clergyman in Grasmere (Hartley liked his sermons, though he thought his habit of wearing Wellingtons in the pulpit a trifle gauche). It was likely based on a second look at Hartley himself, not so much the joyful dreamer exclusively but also the serious explorer of “real” adult life.
Wordsworth notes that, although the child’s heaven-born freedom disappears as he imitates his way to adulthood, there are moments when memory allows him to revisit the ocean of souls and refresh his childish joy and idealism. This happens when the adult looks at rural landscape. Nature now has less of a formative, more of a restorative, role:
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty water rolling evermore.
Somewhere around this time Wordsworth revised a line (previously quoted) in The Prelude. The “fructive” virtues of his “spots of time,” become “renovative” virtues.
However, as Wordsworth had already admitted in previous poems, this recharging of the imaginative batteries gets harder as time passes. A year later, in 1805, in an elegy for his brother John who died at sea, Wordsworth admitted that he had been mistaken in his enthusiasm for Nature. Nature did after all betray the heart that loved her. It was, as STC had said in “Dejection,” his youthful Imagination that had caused him to
. . . add the gleam
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the poet’s dream . . . .
So would it once have been — ‘tis now no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore:
A deep distress hath humanized my Soul.
Wordsworth thought he’d arrived at a higher wisdom — that his soul had truly been humanized. Others, like Byron and Shelley, came to think he’d been de-humanized, that he’d actually just reached for the nearest comfort and consolation: Christianity (a sort of Buddhistic version). Religion was not for Wordsworth or even STC what it was for William Blake, a constant pulse of joyous revelation. It was a fallback position, a “plan B.” It represented defeat. The old man with the beard now appears regularly and Wordsworth’s later poems about Nature and the lives of rustics turn into epic versions of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” where the narrator feels “the still, sad music of humanity” second-hand, through subjects that are often dead and buried or close to it, and where the narrator’s awareness of pain and misfortune necessitates (in the sense of a deathbed confession), his awareness of God.
Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth’s successors, assumed that he had as a result of life’s misfortunes, which were relatively common misfortunes, betrayed youth, idealism and poetry for security. He had closed himself off, as STC described it in “The Nightingale.” Shelley addressed a sonnet to Wordsworth in 1816:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honored poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty, —
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.
Robert Browning in 1843 wrote “The Lost Leader,” contrasting Wordsworth to Shakespeare, Milton, Burns and Shelley and saying:
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen
— He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!
Arnold stuck to praising Wordsworth’s earlier poems. In these,
He laid us as we lay at birth,
On the cool flowery lap of earth . . . .
We should appreciate that about him, said Arnold. For understanding of life, we don’t go to Wordsworth, we go to Goethe. For the expression of unbreakable spirit we go to Byron. Only for a tonic, for renovation — and that is important — do we go to Wordsworth:
Time may restore us in his course
Goethe’s sage mind and Byron’s force;
But where will Europe’s latter hour
Again find Wordsworth’s healing power.
Hartley, a transition figure between the Romantic and Victorian poets (being slightly younger than Byron and Shelley, a dozen years older than Tennyson), tended to take, as we’ve seen, Arnold’s line.