William Wordsworth
1793: Return to England and radical ideas

Execution of Louis XVI
The execution of Louis XVI

1793: He returns to England and radical ideas
Financial problems and the political situation forced him to return to England in December 1792, where he began to give wholehearted support to the radical philosophy of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, openly expressing their ideas in his own poetry, and penning a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (unfinished and not published until 1876) in which he clearly expressed his republican sentiments.

He lost no time on his return to England in seeking a publisher for the work he had completed in France. An Evening Walk, a poem of some 370 lines begun in 1787 and dedicated to his sister Dorothy, is securely tied to the poetic traditions of the picturesque, and with little serious political import. Descriptive Sketches , on the other hand, a poem of 670 lines taking his tour of the Alps in 1790 as its subject, is clearly strongly influenced by his experiences in France during the revolutionary turmoil of 1792 and his exposure to the ideas of Michel Beaupuy. The two poems were published under separate cover by Joseph Johnson in January 1793. William writes later (on May 23, 1794) to his friend William Mathews : I had done nothing to distinguish myself at the university. I thought these little things might shew that I could do something. But they were well received neither by the critics nor by his own family. Dorothy Wordsworth, perhaps showing pique at not being shown the poems prior to publication, writes in a letter to Jane Pollard, on February 16: .. the Poems contain many passages exquisitely beautiful, but they also contain many Faults, the chief of which are Obscurity, and a too frequent use of some particular expressions and uncommon words ... of which she cited 'moveless' and 'viewless' as examples. At all events, the books did not sell. The effect on Wordsworth was possibly sketched in a section of the poem Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree:

He was one who own'd
No common soul. In youth, by genius nurs'd,
And big with lofty views, he to the world
Went forth pure in his heart, against the taint
Of dissolute tongues, 'gainst jealousy, and hate,
And scorn, against all enemies prepared, 
All but neglect: and so, his spirit damp'd 
At once, with rash disdain he turned away,
And with the food of pride sustain'd his soul
In solitude.

On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed. At this point, liberal opinion in Great Britain swung against radicalism and the ideas of the French Revolution. One notable apostate was Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, native of Heversham, Westmormand, and former Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, whose Appendix to his Sermon of 1785, published in 1793, backtracked on his original enthusiasm for republican ideas. William, however, tried to cling to his newly found radicalism, penning a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (unfinished and not published until 1876) in which he clearly expressed his republican sentiments and his support for the execution of Louis XVI. The letter was heavily indebted to Thomas Paine's writings. The text, had it been published, would certainly have brought him to the attention of the government, which was in the process of ramping up its pursuit of radicals, a process which would culminate in the Treason Trials of 1794, in which the radicals Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were put on trial for their lives. Fortunately they had very able advocates who were able to show that the government's case was largely based on hysteria, and the three defendants were acquitted, but the government's pursuit of radicals under William Pitt continued, involving the incitement of mobs to attack their property, the confiscation of their property, the imposition of huge fines, the pursuit of a general policy of harrassment, and, in the case of Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestley, constant encouragement to leave the country.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

France's declaration of war on Great Britain on February 1, 1793, further complicated the situation for radicals in Great Britain, since any support for the ideals of the French Revolution could now be interpreted as high treason. Wordsworth himself was here confronted with an uncomfortable choice between his patriotism and his belief in those revolutionary ideals.

His stay in London with his lawyer brother Richard, who had been pursuing Sir James Lowther (Lord Lonsdale) for the debt due to their father, must also have convinced him that there was now little prospect of Sir James settling. His predicament with regard to his finances had therefore now become pressing. The experience must have given added fuel to his dissatisfaction with the system that allowed such flagrant abuses of justice to occur. As Dorothy Wordsworth had written on February 16, 1792, speaking of herself and her brother William: We have been endeared to each other by early misfortune. We in the same moment lost a father, a mother, a home, we have been equally deprived of our patrimony by the cruel Hand of lordly Tyranny.

map of englan
Map of England showing Wordsworth's tour of 1793

Having exhausted the patience of his uncles, and clearly in no position to take Holy Orders owing to his political non-conformity, William took to the road, all expenses paid, with his old school friend from Hawkshead, William Calvert who had recently come into his inheritance. They made their way in July to the Isle of Wight (2), where they stayed for a month. The choice of the Isle of Wight cannot have been accidental. William was almost certainly canvassing the possibility of crossing to France, perhaps to visit or perhaps even to bring Annette Vallon and their baby over to England. Under the circumstances, however, this clearly proved impossible, with the British fleet in daily preparations for the war with France declared in February.

They moved on, towards Salisbury (3), where an accident to the gig in which they were travelling caused them to split up. William continued on foot to Salisbury and Stonehenge. His wanderings on Salisbury Plain at this time gave at least part of the inspiration for a poem on which he was to work off and on for a decade, variously called Adventures on Salisbury Plain, The Female Vagrant and Guilt and Sorrow, or Incidents on Salisbury Plain, in which the female vagrant of an Evening Walk is taken out of her picturesque environment and placed solidly in her socio-historical context as a collateral victim of economic exploitation and war.

William continued to Bath, and Bristol, then up the River Wye (4) to the Vale of Clwyd (5), where he stayed once again with his friend Jones.

Two pieces of evidence now point to William actually being in Paris on October 7 at the time of the execution of Antoine-Joseph Gorsas, the first being a reference by Carlyle to the fact that William had told him that he had witnessed the French deputy's execution, and the second a reference by Bailie, probably Thomas Bailey, to the effect that he had warned a certain 'W' in Paris that his life was in danger due to his connection with the Mountain (one of the factions in the power struggle during the French Revolution), whereupon he said 'W' had 'decamped with great precipitation'. A general arrest of Englishmen took place in Paris between 14-15 October.

Barred from visiting Dorothy at Forncett in Norfolk (where Dorothy was staying with their uncle William Cookson) William and Dorothy plotted to meet up in Halifax (8), where William had a standing invitation to visit the Rawson's (Aunt Threlkeld had re-married and was now Mrs Rawson), and where Dorothy was to spend the winter. Brother and sister were thus re-united for a spell, first at Halifax, then during the course of a peregrination towards Whitehaven (9), where Dorothy was to visit Uncle Richard.

A letter from his brother, Richard, dated May 23, 1794 warns him of the perils of trying to publish radical material: I hope you will be cautious in writing or expressing your political Opinions by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus acts the Ministers have great powers.... 

Poems

Poems written in youth
Lines left on a Seat in a Yew Tree  
  Descriptive Sketches
An Evening Walk 

Poems on the naming of places
Joanna's Rock  

Poems of the Fancy
   The Linnet

Poems of the Imagination
  Lines written above Tintern Abbey
   Night Piece

Miscellaneous Sonnets
   Upon Westminster Bridge
It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free  
   Composed in the Valley near Dover
The Poet's Work  

Poems dedicated to National Independence and Liberty
On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic  

Links to external sites

Recording of The Wanderer

Comprehensive poetry resource

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