William Wordsworth
September 1795 - July 1797: Racedown Lodge

Racedown Lodge
Racedown Lodge, Dorset

September 1795 - July 1797: Racedown Lodge
While political turmoil continued in the land with the passing of Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings Acts in December 1795, Wordsworth lived in solitude with his sister at Racedown. He writes to William Mathews on 24 October that they were both 'as happy as people can be who live in perfect solitude... We do not see a soul. Now and then we meet a miserable peasant in the road or an accidental traveller. The country people here are wretchedly poor, ignorant and overwhelmed with every vice that usually attends ignorance in that class, viz - lying and picking and stealing.'  It was an opinion that was to be modified over the next four years as vagrants, beggars and the rural poor became increasingly the subject matter of his poetry, and he began to try to persuade his fellow intellectuals and the poetry reading public (probably largely the same thing) that the real subject matter of poetry was the ordinary man. This process must have seemed largely irrelevant in the context of the immediate challenges to the established government and law and order. But William was neither a politician, nor a philosopher, he was a visionary: his perceptions were not of his time, nor indeed of any time. To have any validity, they had to be timeless.

The mental effort required to lift himself out of the complex of experiences he had undergone since leaving Cambridge was huge. The effect of his initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution, the influence of Michel Beaupuy, his affair with Annette Vallon, his mental and spiritual confusion while wandering the country during 1793 accompanied by reports of the onset of the Terror in France, the dawning realisation that he had been betrayed by the very revolution he had supported, the pressure on him to conform and get an 'ordinary' job, the failure of his poems to sell, the intellectual sophistry of Godwin and his fellow pseudo-philosophers; but above all his failure to find his own voice weighed on him. Yet in all this he was stumbling towards some extraordinary discoveries with regard to the wellspring of his own poetic inspiration. He apostrophises his muse, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as follows:

Times may come
When some dramatic story may afford
Shapes livelier to convey to thee, my friend,
What then I learned - or think I learned - of truth,
And the errors into which I was betrayed
By present objects, and by reasonings false
From the beginning, inasmuch as drawn
Out of a heart which had been turned aside
From Nature by external accidents,
And which was thus confounded more and more,
Misguiding and misguided. Thus I fared,
Dragging all passions, notions, shapes of faith,
Like culprits of the bar, suspiciously
Calling the mind to establish in plain day
Her titles and her honours, now believing,

Now disbelieving, endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of moral obligation - what the rule,
And what the sanction - till, demanding proof,
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair,
And for my future studies, as the sole
Employment of the inquiring faculty,
Turned towards mathematics, and their clear
And solid evidence.

The Prelude Book X, lines 884-910

William writes to Mathews on March 21, 1796: I was tolerably industrious in reading, if reading can ever deserve the name of industry, till our good friends the Pinneys came amongst us; and I have since returned to my books. As to writing, it is out of the question.

But now at least, at Racedown, he had the support and aid of his sister, Dorothy, herself a very perceptive and sensitive being, well tuned to her brother's extraordinary gift for poetry, and enthralled with the prospect of them at last living together more or less permanently in their own home. But one element was still missing: Wrangham, the polished gentleman, was certainly not the man to open the gates to the flood of creativity which was now bubbling just beneath the surface. But William would have to wait a little longer for the necessary impetus.

He made a further visit to London during June 1796, when he visited Godwin again and it was perhaps at this point of time that he began to question Godwin's ideas about rationality and benevolence, doubts articulated more extensively in the play The Borderers (composed 1796/7 but not published until 1842) and in the quotation from The Prelude above.

He writes to Wrangham (undated letter, but probably Winter 1796/71): I have been employed lately in writing a tragedy, - the first draught of which is nearly finished. He then takes a sideswipe at Godwin and Montagu, noting: Let me hear from you very soon, and I do promise - not a Godwynian, Montaguian, or Lincolnsonian promise - that I will become a prompt correspondent. Dorothy reports in a letter to Richard Wordsworth on May 28, 1797 that The Borderers was 'nearly finished' and that he [William] had 'good hopes of getting [it] shewn to Sheridan'.  

The drama in blank verse he had completed was based on his experiences during 1792 in revolutionary France, and was set in the lawless times during the reign of Henry III in the border country between Scotland and England. He asserts that he wrote the play 'to preserve in my distinct remembrance what I had observed of transition in character and the reflections I had been led to make during the time I was a witness of the changes through which the French Revolution passed' and in the Preface to the play comments on 'the dangerous use which may be made of reason when a man has committed a great crime'. It is sometimes thought that the reason for the transposition of the action to the Borders is the fact that he could not write about France because of the tense political situation, but this ignores a good part of the purpose of recreating an analogous situation: the transposition eliminates the inessential particular circumstances, eg the fact that the lawlessness stemmed from a revolution, the fact that the action took place on the Loire, the fact that the participants were French, in order to concentrate on the essential central issue: the disturbing nature of evil. From his own experiences in France, William knows that evil is not something that exists externally, that can be kept at arms length: the desire to harm, the will to power, the heady pleasure of destroying somebody else even when executed in a timid and almost apologetic way, as in The Borderers, gives a rush of energy similar to the effects of a powerful drug, and is felt by everybody, men, women and children. The after-feeling is, of course, guilt, but however one tries to suppress these anarchic forces there is a cost in terms of energy. Hence the problems William encounters when trying to readjust to 'normal' life. During the course of 1792, he got carried away not only politically, but also sexually, and the memory clearly haunts him.

This period marks the first time that William has allowed his own experiences to become the central idea in a work. Even so, the event occurs under a strict intellectual control both in terms of the analysis of the phenomenon that he pursues, and in terms of the quality of the blank verse he creates. But the overall lesson is that without the anarchic forces, the strict control produces only vapour, as, for example, is evident in the poetry of Francis Wrangham, in most of the poetry of the picturesque, and in the philosophy of Godwin. The poetry of Alexander Pope is only rescued by his exquisite vituperations, in which one sees manifested the full force of his twisted psychology, so appreciated by Lord Byron.

Dorothy, meanwhile, occupies herself with undermining the position of the French mistress, while writing the woman re-assuring letters. The plot is already on foot: Mary Hutchinson arrives at Racedown in November 1796 to visit. Annette has done as much as she can by letter to reassure Dorothy that she does not seek to replace her, but it is not enough, and Dorothy will now handle the whole affair with a cynical lack of feeling which has rarely been commented on because the evidence for such a conclusion has been, in the main, hidden, censored or expunged: but there are elements that remain. The bare fact of the invitation to Mary Hutchinson, for example, is no accident, and, in retrospect, it is clear where it led. Having seen the outcome, few could doubt the intention.

Dorothy's real feelings with regard to William's French mistress are clearly visible some twenty years later, on the occasion of her daughter Caroline's wedding. William and Dorothy had done everything they could to first of all avoid a visit to England by the poor girl, then prevaricated endlessly about either of them attending her wedding. Annette nevertheless provided a magnificent wedding for her daughter, and wrote an account of it for the Wordsworths. Dorothy writes to Mrs Clarkson on April 4: The mother's details of the wedding festivities would have amused you. She was to give the fête, she who perhaps for half a year to come will feel the effects of it at every dinner she cooks! Thirty persons were present to dinner, ball and supper. The deputies of the department and many other respectable people were there. The bride was dressed in white sarsenet, with a white veil - 'was the admiration of all who beheld her, but her modesty was her best ornament'. She kept her veil on the whole day. How truly French this is! And how truly two-faced this is! Still, we can forgive Dorothy much for her acute observations of nature.

So it was that Mary Hutchinson came to Racedown Lodge for a protracted visit at the end of November 1796. The entailment was not lost on William. Clearly, having invited her, Dorothy was prepared to accept her presence in a ménage à trois. And how successful was the arrangement! Whereas both Wordsworths had been previously bemoaning the fact that they were cut off from the world, Dorothy now wrote in glowing terms of their life at Racedown to Jane Marshall on March 19, 1797: You perhaps have heard that my friend Mary Hutchinson is staying with me; she is one of the best girls in the world, and we are as happy as human beings can be; that is when William is at home, for you cannot imagine how dull we feel and what a vacuum his loss [he had gone on a visit to Bristol with Basil Montagu] has occasioned, but this is the first day; to-morrow we shall be better.... Indeed William is as chearful as anybody can be; perhaps you may not think it but he is the life of the whole house. And the transformation is entirely due to the addition of Mary Hutchinson to the household. Dorothy has clearly presented a solution to at least one of William's pressing problems: not only will William ditch Annette and Caroline, but he will marry Mary Hutchinson. Managing the problematic parts of the process will be left entirely to Dorothy. It has to be said, nevertheless, that however convenient the solution might be in the short term, the long term consequences will be disastrous for both. But at this point of time, Annette was consigned to the past, she no longer hung about William's neck like an albatross, and he was free to frame his experiences in France, and thereby create the first of his poetry which spoke in his own voice, and, furthermore, go on to achieve sexual satisfaction by marrying Mary (which he did in 1802. Whether there was sexual consummation beforehand is uncertain, but probable). It was a moment of huge liberation, and the first fruits of this arrangement were not long in arriving.

Wordsworth describes Mary as 'a Phantom of delight'. Of her departure in May 1797, he writes ... if you had but taken the road through Bristol when you left Racedown ... I should certainly have accompanied you as far as Bristol; or further, perhaps and then I thought, that you would not have taken the coach at Bristol, but that you would have walked on Northwards with me at your side, till unable to part from each other we might have come in sight of those hills (the Malverns) ... and .... I fancied that we should have seen so deeply into each others hearts, and been so fondly locked in each others arms, that we should have braved the worst and parted no more.' (Letter to Mary Wordsworth August 11, 1810)

And there was more to come. Returning from a trip to Bristol in April, William had taken the opportunity to call on Samuel Taylor Coleridge at Nether Stowey. Coleridge returned the compliment a few weeks later. Dorothy writes in June 1797 to Mary Hutchinson, who had just left Racedown: You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind and spirit. Then he is so benevolent, so good tempered and cheerful, and, like William, interests himself so much about every little trifle.... The first thing that was read after he came was William's new poem, The Ruined Cottage, with which he was much delighted; and after tea he repeated to us two acts and a half of his tragedy Osorio. The next morning William read his tragedy The Borderers.

Three further works would seem to date, at least in part, from the time at Racedown: 
The Old Man Travelling, or Animal Tranquillity and Decay, a sketch April - June 1797
Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree April - June 1797
The Ruined Cottage - April 1797 - March 1798, with much later revision re-appearing as Book I of The Excursion.

At the end of June, the Wordsworths were whisked off to Nether Stowey by Coleridge never to return. more

1. It is difficult to conceive that the letter was sent out in April / May 1796 as de Selincourt proposes (note 4, p156, Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth), just a few weeks after the bald statement that 'writing was impossible'. Besides, William writes in the same letter: I have lately been living upon air and the essence of carrots, cabbages, turnips and other esculent vegetables, not excluding parsely, the produce of my garden. This, I think, is a winter diet.

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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