William Wordsworth

Synopsis, quotes from and critical appreciation of the Borderers

synopsis    critical appreciation

rugged landscape
JMW Turner Picturesque views in England and Wales

The Preface

Wordsworth writes in the Preface to The Borderers (published 1842):

This Dramatic Piece, as noted in its title-page, was composed in 1795-6. It lay nearly from that time till within the last two or three months unregarded among my papers, without being mentioned even to my most intimate friends. Having, however, impressions upon my mind which made me unwilling to destroy the MS, I determined to undertake the responsibility of publishing it during my own life, rather than impose upon my successors the task of deciding its fate. accordingly it has been revised with some care, but, as it was at first written, and is now published, without any view to its exhibition upon the stage, not the slightest alteration has been made in the conduct of the story, or the composition of the characters; above all, in respect to the two leading Persons of the Drama, I felt no inducement to make any change. The study of human nature suggests this awful truth, that, as in the trials to which life subjects us, sin and crime are apt to start from their very opposite qualities, so there are no limits to the hardening of the heart and the perversion of the understanding to which they may carry their slaves. During my long residence in France, while the Revolution was rapidly advancing to its extreme of wickedness, I had frequent opportunities of being an eye-witness of this process, and it was while that knowledge was fresh upon my memory, that the Tragedy of The Borderers was composed.

and later:

My care was almost exclusively given to the passions and the characters, and the position in which the persons in the drama stood relatively to each other, that the reader (for I had then no thought of the stage) might be moved, and to a degree instructed, by lights penetrating somewhat into the depths of our nature. In this endeavour, I cannot think, upon a very late review, that I have failed. As to the scene and period of action, little more was required for my purpose than the absence of established law and government, so that the agents might be at liberty to act on their own impulses.... In conclusion, I may observe, that while I was composing this play, I wrote a short essay, illustrative of that constitution and those tendencies of human nature which make the apparently motiveless actions of bad men intelligible to careful observers. This was partly done with reference to the character of Oswald, and his persevering endeavour to lead the man he disliked [Marmaduke] into so heinous a crime; but still more to preserve in my distinct remembrance, what I had observed of transitions 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.  


During the time of Henry III (1207-1272) in the lawless border country in the north of England, the blind Lord Herbert is making his way with his only daughter Idonea to the castle of the Lord Clifford, a noted voluptuary. Some years previous, returning from Palestine, the former had found his domains usurped, and he has hopes that said Lord Clifford will help him to regain his just title.

Marmaduke is the leader of the Borderers, a band whom the Lord Herbert considers to be outlaws, but who, during the lawless times in which the play is set, act as a sort of arbitrary law keeping force. He is in love since infancy with Idonea, who loves him in return, but her father has made her write a note repudiating him. The play opens with two of the Borderers lamenting the fact that (confiding, open-hearted) Marmaduke has taken up with Oswald (one of crooked ways).

In a Machiavellian scheme, Oswald succeeds in convincing Marmaduke that the Lord Herbert is not the true father of Idonea, and that, rejecting Marmaduke's suit for his daughter because Marmaduke is an outlaw, he is planning to sell her virgin innocence to the Lord Clifford.

Thus motivated to the act, Marmaduke, having posed as a guide, intentionally leaves the old man on the barren moor to die.

painting of wasteland
Landscape by Thomas Cole

Lacy and Wallace, two of the band of the Borderers, discover the truth about Oswald.

We have been fooled -
But for the motive?

Natures such as his
Spin motives out of their own bowels, Lacy!
I learn'd this when I was a Confessor.
I know him well; there needs no other motive
Than that most strange incontinence in crime
Which haunts this Oswald. Power is life to him
And breath and being; where he cannot govern,
He will destroy.

And later:

A most subtle doctor
Were that man, who could draw the line that parts
Pride and her daughter, Cruelty, from Madness,
That should be scourged, not pitied. Restless Minds,
Such Minds as find amid their fellow-men
No heart that loves them, none that they can love,
Will turn perforce and seek for sympathy
In dim relation to imagined Beings.

Marmaduke, still unaware of the fact that Oswald is spinning a fabric of lies to deceive him, has just left the Lord Herbert alone on the moor to die.

Deep, deep and vast, vast beyond human thought,
Yet calm. - I could believe, that there was here
The only quiet heart on earth. In terror,
Remembered terror, there is peace and rest.

[Enter Oswald]

Ha! my dear Captain.

A later meeting, Oswald,
Would have been better timed.

Alone, I see;
You have done your duty, I had hopes, which now
I feel that you will justify.

I had fears,
From which I have freed myself - but 'tis my wish
To be alone, and therefore we must part.

Nay, then - I am mistaken. There's a weakness
About you still: you talk of solitude -
I am your friend.

What need of this assurance
At any time? and why given now?

You are now in truth my Master; you have taught
What there is not another living man
Had strength to teach; - and therefore gratitude
Is bold, and would relieve itself by praise.

Wherefore press this on me?

Because I feel
That you have shown, and by a signal instance,
How they who would be just must seek the rule
By diving for it into their own bosoms.
To-day you have thrown off a tyranny
That lives but in the torpid acquiescence
Of our emasculated souls, the tyranny
Of the world's masters, with the musty rules
By which they uphold their craft from age to age:
You have obeyed the only law that sense
Submits to recognise; the immediate law,
From the clear light of circumstances, flashed
Upon an independent Intellect.

Henceforth new prospects open on your path;
Your faculties should grow with the demand;
I still will be your friend, will cleave to you
Through good and evil, obloquy and scorn,
Oft as they dare to follow on your steps.

I would be left alone.

Oswald (exultingly)
I know your motives!
I am not of the world's presumptuous judges,
Who damn where they can neither see nor feel,
With a hard-hearted ignorance; your struggles
I witness'd, and now hail your victory.

Spare me awhile that greeting.

It may be,
That some there are, squeamish half-thinking cowards,
Who will turn pale upon you, call you murderer,
And you will walk in solitude among them.
A mighty evil for a strong built mind! -
Join twenty tapers of unequal height
And light them joined, and you will see the less
How 'twill burn down the taller; and they all
Shall prey on the tallest. Solitude! -
The Eagle lives in Solitude!

Even so,
The Sparrow so on the house-top, and I,
The weakest of God's creatures, stand resolved
To abide the issue of my act, alone.

Now would you? and for ever? - My young Friend,
As time advances either we become
The prey or masters of our own past deeds.
Fellowship we must have, willing or no;
And if good Angels fail, slack in their duty,
Substitutes, turn our faces where we may,
Are still forthcoming; some which, though they bear
Ill names, can render no ill services,
In recompense for what themselves required.
So meet extremes in this mysterious world,
And opposites thus melt into each other.

Time, since Man first drew breath, has never moved
With such a weight upon his wings as now;
But they will soon be lightened.

Aye, look up -
Cast round you your mind's eye, and you will learn
Fortitude is the child of Enterprise:
Great actions move our admiration chiefly
Because they carry in themselves an earnest
That we can suffer greatly.

Very true.

Action is transitory - a step, a blow,
The motion of a muscle - this way or that -
'Tis done, and in the after-vacancy
We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed;
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And shares the nature of infinity.

Oswald continues to encourage Marmaduke to accept that his actions are justifiable, in terms that bring to mind strongly the justifications for the actions of those involved with the French revolution.

Mme de Lamballe, engraving 18th century

Compassion! - pity! - pride can do without them;
And what if you should never know them more!
He is a puny soul who, feeling pain,
Finds ease because another feels it too. 


Remorse -
It cannot live with thought; think on, think on,
And it will die.


Murder! - what's in the word! -
I have no cases by me ready made
To fit all deeds.

Oswald recounts his own, parrallel experience:

In my youth ....
I was the pleasure of all hearts, the darling
Of every tongue - as you are now. You've heard
That I embarked for Syria. On our voyage
Was hatched among the crew a foul Conspiracy
Against my honour, in which our Captain
Was, I believed, prime Agent.

With the help of the crew, Oswald contrives to leave the captain on a deserted island, mocking his distress at being left, but discovers later that the crew deceived him, and that he incorrectly suspected the captain. Marmaduke replies:

 We are all of one blood, our veins are filled
At the same poisonous fountain!

Oswald continues his commentary, observing:

I had been nourished by the sickly food
Of popular applause. I now perceived
That we are praised, only as men in us
Do recognise some image of themselves,
An abject counterpart of what they are,
Or the empty thing that they would wish to be.
I felt that merit has no surer test
Than obloquy, that, if we wish to serve
The world in substance, not deceive by show,
We must become obnoxious to its hate,
Or fear disguised in simulated scorn.

The play grinds on to its inevitable conclusion: the old man dies, the innocent virgin is led away weeping, Oswald is killed by the Borderers, Marmaduke dismisses the call of his comrades to rejoin them, and is left on stage to lament:

No more of that; in silence hear my doom:
A hermitage has furnished fit relief
To some offenders; other penitents,
Less patient in their wretchedness, have fallen,
Like the old Roman, on their own sword's point.
They had their choice: a wanderer must I go,
The Spectre of that innocent Man, my guide.
No human ear shall ever hear me speak:
No human dwelling ever give me food,
Or sleep, or rest: but, over waste and wild,
in search of nothing, that this earth can give,
But expiation, will I wander on -
A Man by pain and thought compelled to live,
Yet loathing life - till anger is appeased
In Heaven, and Mercy gives me leave to die.

guillotine of Robespierre, coloured engraving
Execution of Robespierre

Critical Appreciation

The whole comprises an interesting argument concerning the regulation of human affairs outside the law, or perhaps where there is no law, and an analysis of the psychological motivations for and consequences of acts carried out outside the framework of the law and ordinary morality. Oswald can speak from his own experience as he has caused the death of a man by abandoning him on a deserted island, and listened to his pitiful cries for mercy without responding.  

Taken with Wordsworth's statements in the Preface regarding the inspiration for the play, the work is clearly related to the period Wordsworth spent in the lawless State of France during the Revolution, and functions perhaps as some sort of expiation of some of the things Wordsworth himself saw, and did nothing about, or else participated in.

But the motivation for Oswald's actions in deceiving Marmaduke in the way he does is somewhat threadbare: he hates him because he owes him a debt of gratitude for having saved his life. And the fact that Marmaduke is convinced by Oswald's lies while the members of his band are clearly sceptical from the outset is difficult to reconcile. But the psychological analysis of the reasons why poeple commit evil deeds is nevertheless interesting, and clearly a subject that exercises some sort of fascination for Wordsworth himself.

Wordsworth himself tells us that the play was never intended to be acted:

My care was almost exclusively given to the passions and the characters, and the position in which the persons in the drama stood relatively to each other, that the reader (for I had then no thought of the stage) might be moved, and to a degree instructed, by lights penetrating somewhat into the depths of our nature. In this endeavour, I cannot think, upon a very late review, that I have failed.

The idea for the Borderers grew out of the poem now known as Fragment of a Gothic Tale in which Wordsworth describes a helpless, blind man who is led across a dangerous landscape by a youth who then plans to murder him when he hears that the old man has money. This idea in turn grew out of Wordsworth's reading of some of the many Gothic horror tales which were the fashion at the time. But while most of these other works were written with purely external effects of horror, presenting horror and evil in much the same way as the 'picturesque' movement in painting had presented ideal landscapes, Wordsworth developed the psychological aspect of the situation, questioning the motivation for and source of evil deeds in the soul of the protaganists, and adding to the purely external effects present in all gothic horror stories his own experience of real horror in the events of the French Revolution. The development of this interest in psychology, and the insistence on including his own personal experience bound into the work, stamped his poetry as different, and raised it above the works of trivial sensationalism of his contemporaries.

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