William Wordsworth

Synopsis, quotes from and critical appreciation of the four versions of

Salisbury Plain

first version, composed 1793

full text

Stonehenge, engraving

Second Version    The Female Vagrant    Guilt and Sorrow

The first version of Salisbury Plain was composed while walking between Salisbury and Clwyd during William's peregrination of 1793. It begins with a description of the naked savage in a state of nature, beset by hunger and surrounded by trains of boars, bears and wolves. But, the poet observes, the savage has nothing to compare with this state, whereas the person who has fallen on hard times can lament his previous ease, a fact which necessarily increases his suffering.

The tale picks up a lonely traveller who looks in vain for a human habitation, sheds a tear, and resigns himself to passing the night out in the open. Then he spies a ruined castle, and makes his way towards it, but he thinks he hears a voice issuing from the earth, warning of 'warrior spectres of gigantic bones, / Forth-issuing from a thousand rifted tombs,' which 'Wheel on their fiery steeds amid the infernal glooms,' and makes his way instead to a ruined building, where he comes across a 'female wanderer' who 'hither turned / And found a comfortless half-sheltered bed.' She has heard a tale about a murdered man found in the ruined building, and wakes with feelings of 'cold stony horror', but is reassured when the wanderer addresses to her 'low words of chearing sound.' She recounts to him stories told to her by an old man who spends his time crow scaring on the heath, stories about 'Gigantic beings ranged in dread array / Such beings thwarting oft the traveller's way / With shield and stone-ax...'

She continues with descriptions of druidic rituals until the storm relents and we are transported to the woman's youth and told of her snow white breasts:

Like swans, twin swans, that when on the sweet brink
Of Derwent's stream the south winds hardly blow,
'Mid Derwent's water lilies swell and sink
In union, rose her sister breasts of snow,
(Fair emblem of two lovers' hearts that know
No separate impulse) or like infants played,
Like infants strangers yet to pain and woe.
Unwearied Hope to tend their motions made
Long Vigils, and Delight her cheek between them laid.

The poet invites us to lament the passing of youth, and the female vagrant then begins the tale of her own misfortunes.

She is from the North and benefitted from the 'finny flood' (fish) and the 'fleecy store' (sheep), living with her aged father. She had a nice garden with 'peas and mint and thyme', and flowers and so on. But then 'My father's substance fell into decay./ Oppression trampled on his tresses grey: / His little range of water was denied; / Even to the bed where his old body lay/ His all was seized; and weeping side by side / Turned out on the cold winds, alone we wandered wide.'

Fortunately, she had a boyfriend who took charge of the situation, looked after her father until he died, and, in four years, gave her three lovely children. But then war caused economic problems, he had to enlist, and they all went off to the 'western world', presumably America, where 'All perished, all in one remorseless year, / Husband and children one by one, by sword /And scourge of fiery fever...'

Dawn arrives, and the wanderer encourages his female companion to cheer up. They meet a carman (driver of a cart), who tells them that there is a cottage two miles distant. They set off together, and the female vagrant takes up her tale again.

She recounts that she came back to England where '.. homeless near a thousand homes I stood, / And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.' And thus she has been wandering for three years 'no house in prospect but the tomb.' The poet comments that 'human sufferings and that tale of woe, / Had dimmed the traveller's eye with Pity's tear,/ And in the youthful mourner's doom severe / He half forgot the terrors of the night, / Striving with counsel sweet her soul to chear,/ Her soul for ever widowed of delight. / He too had withered young in sorrow's deadly blight.' They come at last upon a cottage in a fertile valley, and the poet suggests that they 'Enter that lowly cot and ye shall share / Comforts by prouder mansions unbestowed..' He concludes 'Where all die, happiest find is but a shed / And a green spot 'mid wastes interminably spread.'

There follow some thoughts on the state of mankind, and the role of reason: 'Though Treachery her sword no longer dyes / In the cold blood of Truce, still, reason's ray, / What does it more than while the tempests rise, / With starless glooms and sounds of loud dismay, / Reveal with still-born glimpse the terrors of our way?' The poet tries to pin responsibility for this state of affairs, and invites the reader to look around him, where he will find that even in nations where plenty reigns, there are still the poor:

Nor only is the walk of private life
Unblessed by justice and the kindly train
Of peace and truth, while Injury and Strife,
Outrage and deadly Hate usurp their reign;
From the pale line to either frozen main
The nations, though at home in bonds they drink
The dregs of wretchedness, for empire strain,
And crushed by their own fetters helpless sink,
Move their galled limbs in fear and eye each silent sink.

A survey of the whole world finds the place universally corrupted:

How changed that paradise, those happy bounds
Where once through his own groves the Hindoo strayed;
No more the voice of jocund toil resounds
Along the crowded banyan's high arcade.


How weak the solace such fond thoughts afford,
When with untimely stroke the virtuous bleed.
Say, rulers of the nations, from the sword
Can ought but murder, pain, and tears proceed?
Oh! what can war but endless war still breed?
Or whence but from the labours of the sage
Can poor benighted mortals pin the meed
Of happiness and virtue, how assuage
But by his gentle words their self consuming rage?

But we end on a high note:

Heroes of Truth pursue your march, uptear
Th'Oppressor's dungeon from its deepest base;
High o'er the towers of Pride undaunted rear
Resistless in your might the herculean mace
Of Reason; let foul Error's monster race
Dragged from their dens start at the light with pain
And die; pursue your toils, till not a trace
Be left on earth of Superstition's reign,
Save that eternal pile which frowns on Sarum's plain.

Commentary : This is the first of four poems based on Salisbury Plain with more or less the same story line. William weaves his own experience of wandering on Salisbury Plain with a few elements of Gothic horror and the tale of the female vagrant, adding at the end some radical political invective. Here, however, the vagrant is no longer a picturesque figure in a picturesque landscape, as she was in The Evening Walk, she is brought into the foreground, her story is interesting to the poet in its own right, as an example of injustice, and injustice that needs correction. It is not enough to appeal to traditional values of charity towards the poor. The poetic public is being pushed to recognise that there is something fundamentally wrong with a society that operates in this way to grind people into penury, and is being encouraged to do something about it. The final appeal is to Reason, not Charity, and the final words are a call to action, though it is not specified exactly what action.

The idea that Reason could sweep away old Superstition and put right the ills of society was of short duration. Even as William was writing, Robespierre's Reign of Terror had begun in France, and Reason was being perverted to the cause of violence and injustice.

He writes to William Mathews from Whitehaven on May 23, 1794: I have another poem [Salisbury Plain] written last summer ready for the press though I certainly should not publish it unless I hoped to derive from it some pecuniary recompense - as I am speaking to you on this subject pray let me request you to have the goodness to call on Johnson my publisher... Johnson (the publisher of The Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches in January 1793) had possibly already declined in February 1793 to publish William's Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, probably finding it too inflammatory, and it would be unlikely that he would now publish a poem which threatened Pitt's government with the 'herculean mace of Reason' and promised to drag 'foul Error's monster race' from their dens. Nonetheless, William still clearly regarded Johnson as his publisher.

On June 8, 1794, he writes again to Mathews: I disaprove of monarchical and aristocratical governments, however modified. Hereditary distinctions and privileged orders of every species I think must necessarily conteract the progress of human improvement: hence it follows that I am not amongst the admirers of the British constitution... Writing this to a friend was one thing, publishing it in the form of a poem or tract was another, and would probably have led to either him or the publisher, or both, being imprisoned awaiting trial at His Majesty's pleasure. Not only was dissent becoming extremely dangerous, but the news from France was becoming increasingly discouraging for those who had been enthusiastic supporters of reform on the French model.

But the thread of political radicalism is only one of the thematic strands of this poem. As has been noted, the vagrant woman has stepped out of the anonymity of her role in The Evening Walk, but this also means that she is now subjected to a close inspection. She becomes not only an object for our sympathy, but also a sex object (see the stanza quoted above beginning 'Like swans..'). Interestingly, Coleridge comments on William: Although Wordsworth and Goethe are not much alike, to be sure, upon the whole; yet they both have this peculiarity of utter non-sympathy with the subjects of their poetry. They are always, both of them, spectators ab extra - feeling for, but never with, their characters. (Table Talk, February 16, 1833) The effect of detachment from his characters is always striking in William's poetry. He presents them and their feelings rather in the manner of an entomologist presenting an insect for dissection, pokes them about to see what they will do, exploits their helplessness to excite sympathy in his middle class readers, distances them further by interposing another character who recounts their story, or simply acts as a means of exposing them more fully to the reader's view. As has been noted elsewhere, the machinery for telling the story sometimes becomes more important than the story itself (see, for example, Lines left on a seat, or The Thorn). Whether this pre-occupation is moral or healthy is debatable, but it certainly falls into the category of ways of enticing readers. Great poetry it is not. We are more in the realm of a man practising ways of exploiting his undeniable talent for versifying to sell poetry.

Salisbury Plain

second version, revised 1795 

William writes to Francis Wrangham on November 20, 1795: Have you any interest with the booksellers. I have a poem which I should wish to dispose of provided I could get any thing for it. I recollect reading the first draught of it to you in London. But since I came to Racedown, I have made alterations and additions so material as that it may be looked on almost as another work. Its object is partly to expose the vices of the penal law and the calamities of war as they affect individuals.

Presumably William had no reply from Wrangham as the poem was still on his hands in March 1796: Azariah Pinney writes on March 25: You would have heard from me before, but I waited to collect all the intelligence, that lay in my power, concerning the publication of your Poem - I delivered it on my arrival here [Bristol] to Cottle and requested that Coleridge would inspect it, which he appears to have done with considerable attention for, I understand he has interleaved it with white papers to mark down whatever may strike him as worthy your notice and intends forwarding it to you in that form... You may expect to hear from him soon... I have pleasure to inform you that he feels so lively an interest to bring forward so valuable a Poem (as he terms it) that he assures me his Bookseller will assist him in such a manner in the Publication that he can secure you from every Expense...

James Tobin visited the Wordsworths in April 1796. Tobin writes to Pinney on April 12: His Salisbury Plain is so much altered that I think it may in truth be called a new Poem - I doubt not but you will see it in Print within the duration of a few Weeks.

Charles Lamb writes to Coleridge in late May, 1796: Wordsworth's poem I have hurried thro' not without delight. The double negative leads one to suspect that possibly there were problems with the poem.

At all events, the poem in this form appears to have disappeared almost without trace, though a reconstruction has been attempted more recently by Stephen Gill. William has effectively taken out all of the politically radical sentiments that appear in the 1793 version, and added much additional matter relating to other unfortunate individuals who happen to be wandering on Salisbury Plain at the same time. The effect of introducing so many pitiful tales is to completely inure the reader to any tale of woe. It is a dismal failure as a poem, much worse than the original version, and it is no surprise that it appears to have been ditched by William, and never published in this form.

Excision of the contentious political material from the poem removed one cause of it being unpublishable, ie the danger of both publisher and author being prosecuted for seditious libel, but the logic of the poem itself was changed. The reason for the story about the Female Vagrant was to support the political invective with a pitiful case of the effects of the vicissitudes of the present political system, so that the emotion evoked by the story could be used in support of the radical agenda. It constitutes an almost exact parrallel for the effect of Michel Beaupuy's words when he and William crossed a poor girl on the road near Blois. But the material that has been introduced to replace the political invective is thin stuff which has much in common with other cheap sensationalist literature of the time. It is, perhaps, William's attempt to cash in on the fashion for Gothic Horror and make a bob or two. We see above in his correspondence with Wrangham and others that this was indeed uppermost in his mind at this time.

At all events, Coleridge offered the poem to Joseph Cottle: Wordsworth's Salisbury Plain and Tale of a Woman, which two poems, with a few others which he will add, and the notes, will make a volume. This is to be delivered to you within three weeks of the date of your answer, and the money to be paid as before, at the end of four months from the present date. (Cottle, Reminiscences, p126)

William writes to Cottle on May 9: We look for you with great impatience. We will never forgive you if you do not come. I say nothing of the Salisbury Plain till I see you. I am determined to finish it, and equally so that you shall publish. I have lately been busy about another plan, which I do not wish to mention till I see you; let this be very, very soon, and stay a week if possible...

Determined as he might have been, the decision was subsequently made to publish only the section recounting the story of the Vagrant Woman. Cottle writes in his Reminiscences (1847, p135): ... it was determined that the volume should be published under the title of Lyrical Ballads on the terms stipulated in a former letter; that this volume should not contain the poem of Salisbury Plain, but only an extract from it; that it should not contain the poem Peter Bell, but consist rather of sundry shorter poems, and, for the most part, of pieces more recently written.

Given William's stated determination to publish Salisbury Plain, one has to ask who was exercising editorial control here?

They left him hung on high in iron case,
And dissolute men, unthinking and untaught,
Planted their festive booths beneath his face,
And to that spot, which idle thousands sought,
Women and children were by fathers brought;
And now some kindred sufferer driven, perchance,
That way when into storm the sky is wrought,
Upon his swinging corpse his eye may glance
And drop, as he once dropp'd, in miserable trance.

The Female Vagrant

being a part of Salisbury Plain

That part of the poem which was common to both the first and second versions was published in 1798 with the collection Lyrical Ballads. As the title suggests, it tells the story of the Female Vagrant who appears as a character in the longer versions of Salisbury Plain, and whose story makes up about one third of those poems.

There is little political comment in this version, though the following lines might be interpreted as a pre-emptive strike against an accusation of fecklessness:

What could I do, unaided and unblest?
Poor Father! gone was every friend of thine:
And kindred of dead husband are at best
Small help, and, after marriage such as mine,
With little kindness would to me incline.
Ill was I then for toil or service fit:
With tears whose course no effort could confine,
By high-way side forgetful would I sit
Whole hours, my idle arms in moping sorrow knit.

full text

Guilt and Sorrow or Incidents on Salisbury Plain

final version

The final version of the poem was published in 1842. It is a tidied up, somewhat expanded and rationalised rendering of version two. It frames the tale of the Female Vagrant in the story of the Old Sailor who takes the place of the lonely traveller of the first version. It is now the Old Sailor who meets the Female Vagrant in the ruined house, who comforts her, and who listens to her story. The ending adds the additional matter of the discovery of a dying woman who is brought to the cottage where the Old Sailor and the Female Vagrant have breakfasted. She tells her story of being chased from her home after the discovery of a murdered man near her door, a murder which her neighbours ascribe to her husband, though he had never returned from his service in the military. The Old Sailor confesses to the deed, and is reconciled to his wife, the dying woman, on her deathbed. He then presents himself to the authorities to be condemned and hanged.

Again, most of the politics has been omitted, but we do get a double dose of commentary on the collateral damage caused by war. The interest and weight of the poem, however, is now almost entirely with the story of the Old Sailor, who comes across as a sympathetic character who probably does not deserve to be hanged for his crime. He therefore has the necessary requirements of a tragic hero in that he is a flawed character, but probably does not deserve the fate he suffers. On the other hand the two stories do not appear to be entirely compatible or complementary, and the passage that handles what actually happened when the Old Sailor returned from his service is not entirely convincing. This is an important flaw which effectively undermines the credibility of the story as a whole.

The evolution and publication of Salisbury Plain is interesting from the point of view of the light it sheds onto the dynamics of the relationship between William and Coleridge. It also gives a useful perspective onto the development of William's poetry.

We can only conclude that it was Coleridge who objected to the parts of the poem which descended into cheap sensationalism, and refused to have them included in the Lyrical Ballads.

In terms of William's development, it is clear that he is wholly prepared to abandon the radical cause for commercial success. Replacing the political dimension of his writing by introducing sensationalist, Gothic horror subject matter, however, certainly does not advance his art. Happily, his association with Coleridge successfully blocks this path, and suggests other ways of developing his poetry, though it is evident that he nonetheless never gives up on Salisbury Plain and the Gothic horror school altogether. The association with Coleridge suggests much more interesting ways for him to develop his art, the first fruit of which comes with Lines left on a Seat in a Yew Tree. It is often suggested that Coleridge copied William's style here displayed in his own poetry, but it is clearly the other way round. A cursory glance at Coleridge's Eolian Harp of 1795 shows that Coleridge had already fully developed the style at this point.

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