William Wordsworth
July 1797 - July 1798: Alfoxden House

Alfoxden House

Here we are in a large mansion in a large park, with seventy head of deer around us. But I must begin with the day of leaving Racedown to pay Coleridge a visit... We spent a fortnight at Coleridge's; in the course of that time we heard that this house was to let, applied for it, and took it. Our principal inducement was Coleridge's society. so writes Dorothy Wordsworth to Mary Hutchinson on August 14, 1797.

It was truly a whirlwind romance. William had seen Coleridge only a couple of times previously in Bristol, and subsequently made a brief visit to Nether Stowey at the end of March 1797. Now the three were in daily contact. It seemed that they could not live without each other, and Coleridge prevailed on the Wordsworths to up sticks and move at the end of June. Given the cramped conditions in Coleridge's cottage at Stowey, it was fortunate that they stumbled on Alfoxden House, just three miles away. It was to let, and the Wordsworths immediately took a lease on the property. The scene was set for William's miraculous years of productivity.

Amongst the works completed during his stay at Alfoxden were the following, which were in the main included in Lyrical Ballads published in October 1798 and in a second, two volume edition in December 1800:
The Ruined Cottage April 1797 - March 1798
A Night Piece Jan - March 1798
The Discharged Soldier Jan - March 1798, never published by Wordsworth as such but incorporated into The Recluse.
The Old Cumberland Beggar Jan - March 1798
Lines written at a small distance from my House March 1798
Goody Blake and Harry Gill March 1798
The Thorn March 1798
A Whirl-blast from behind the Hill March 1798
The Idiot Boy March 1798
Lines written in early Spring April 1798
Anecdote for Fathers April - May 1798
We are seven April - May 1798
Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman April - May 1798
The Last of the Flock April - May 1798
Peter Bell April - May 1798
The Tables turned May 1798
Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey July 1798
Additionally, William writes to James Tobin on March 6, 1798: I have written 1300 lines of a poem in which I contrive to convey most of the knowledge of which I am possessed [ie The Recluse]. My object is to give pictures of Nature, Man and Society. Indeed I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan.

The west country
The West Country

It's difficult to generalise about these poems: the inspiration comes from various different sources. The tale of misfortune is still prominent, and can be related back to Salisbury Plain and The Evening Walk, but the emphasis on Gothic horror has gone, as has, generally speaking, the step from examples of human misery to the appeal for social change.

The Idiot Boy derives its inspiration from the ballad form. The subject matter, however, is no longer knights in search of damsels in distress who encounter and vanquish monsters and other redoubtable foes, but rather an idiot boy wandering over a landscape in search of the doctor for an old woman who is ill. The question is, how far can the noble subject matter be removed and the poem still retain its power to move? Opinion is split: there are those who think that the poem fails because it is not possible to sympathise with such base characters as these, and there are those who think that the simplicity and domestication of the characters is fundamentally interesting and arouses our compassion. The fact that the poem divides opinion surely means that the question is worth asking.

The poem could be considered as a parody of the ballad form, except that the objective of parody is to make people laugh at the expense of the original. William's interest, on the other hand, is serious, and centres on the issue as to whether the ballad form can sustain a story that is completely banal, and, by implication, questions what is banal. Perhaps it is princes, princesses, knights and so on that are fundamentally banal, and those who are dismissed as banal who are truly important.

The cocks did crow, to-whoo to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold.
(
From The Idiot Boy, Lyrical Ballads)

Other poems in the series, most notably Lines left on a seat, Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and the Night Piece, are more sophisticated studies in consciousness and the persona, in depth analyses of moments of poetic experience, how they arise and what they signify, and give some account of the relationship between consciousness, memory and poetic experience.

Goody Blake and Harry Gill, a true story recounts the tale of a man who tries to stop a poor old woman from gathering twigs from his hedge to warm herself in winter. He is subsequently cursed by her never to be able to warm himself again. It is the sort of poetic justice in which everybody would like to believe ie that evil acts rebound on their perpetrator. It is, of course, true, but the mechanism acts in a more subtle manner, so that it is actually rarely directly evident that this is the case. The come-uppance generally takes a more roundabout way, and also takes more time. Take, for example, the case of the man who abandons his lover and their daughter, marries somebody else and fails to recognise his first offspring....

The true story claim is, of course, important because the tale is in part targeted at the superstitious farmers who control the hedges in the land, and William is still in the business of trying to do good in pursuing his calling as a poet. He evidently feels that Harry Gill's fate will act as a warning to others.

The Thorn has given much difficulty to commentators, who are undecided as to whether this is a story about a credulous old man or about an abandoned woman. The elements exist, however, to give the poem a much more personal reading, as a composite of observed natural phenomena, personal experience and imaginative constructs.

Martha Ray by Nathaniel Dance
Martha Ray by Nathaniel Dance

The Last of the Flock was apparently written after hearing a story recounted by Tom Poole, who encountered just such a man as this crying shepherd. As such it holds much in common with The Thorn (an imaginative construct built around a thorn tree seen in a storm), The Idiot Boy (an imaginative construct built around a phrase) and Goody Blake and Harry Gill (an imaginative construct built around a short story from the works of Erasmus Darwin). It is also related to Michael and The Brothers in its demonstration of the ill effects on society of the loss of independence of the poor when their means of subsistence is taken away.

 Clearly, William had found his subject matter, and his style. What his poems now hold in common is their investigative nature. As William notes in the Advertisement, the poems are experiments.  

It is the combined effect of Dorothy, Mary Hutchinson and Coleridge on his own poetic understanding. From Dorothy, he takes the precise observation of natural phenomena, from Coleridge he takes the philosophical analysis of consciousness, and from Mary... Well, Mary lets him understand that understanding does not necessarily mean being able to rationally explain phenomena. It was enough just to let them be, or, for the poet, to show them as being. The reader would understand, or not.

At all events, things seemed to be looking up for the Wordsworths: Coleridge had already been asked by Sheridan to present a play for his theatre at Covent Garden, and he used his contact with the theatre to get Wordsworth's The Borderers presented. Dorothy writes to Mary Hutchinson on November 20, 1797: William's play is finished, and sent to the managers of the Covent Garden Theatre. We have not the faintest expectation that it will be accepted. William writes to Cottle from London on December 13: I have deferred writing to you till this time, hoping I might have to communicate some pleasant intelligence; but I am disappointed. Mr Harris has pronounced it impossible that my play should succeed in the representation. The theatre also rejected Coleridge's Osorio. The Wordsworths returned to Alfoxden. But Coleridge was not one to be put off by a little setback. The poets began planning a joint publication of poems, and they set about writing those poems.

Neither did the fact that the Wordsworths had been given notice to quit Alfoxden in June stop the course of history. They decided to make a trip to Germany with Coleridge, and any others who might be persuaded to join them. The money they were to receive from Cottle for the copyright of the poems would go towards paying their expenses. In addition, they would learn German, and earn money by translating. With Coleridge alongside, anything was possible. His attitude towards problems with his various projects is well summarised by Cottle with reference to his recently abandoned plan to settle in America with various like minded friends and their wives: If any difficulties were now started, and many such there were, a profusion of words demonstrated the reasonableness of the whole design; impressing all who heard, with the conviction that the citadel was too strong for assault. (Cottle, p8)

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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