The text of this essay, which first appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette for April 1889, comes from David Price’s Project Gutenberg online version [eBook #30191] of A Critic in Pall Mall. In transcribing the following text I have reformatted it in accordance with the Victorian Web’s HTML style sheet and added links to material on this site. — George P. Landow
‘In modern life,’ said Matthew Arnold once, ‘you cannot well enter a monastery; but you can enter the Wordsworth Society.’ I fear that this will sound to many a somewhat uninviting description of this admirable and useful body, whose papers and productions have been recently published by Professor Knight, under the title of Wordsworthiana. ‘Plain living and high thinking’ are not popular ideals. Most people prefer to live in luxury, and to think with the majority. However, there is really nothing in the essays and addresses of the Wordsworth Society that need cause the public any unnecessary alarm; and it is gratifying to note that, although the society is still in the first blush of enthusiasm, it has not yet insisted upon our admiring Wordsworth’s inferior work. It praises what is worthy of praise, reverences what should be reverenced, and explains what does not require explanation. One paper is quite delightful; it is from the pen of Mr. Rawnsley, and deals with such reminiscences of Wordsworth as still linger among the peasantry of Westmoreland. Mr. Rawnsley grew up, he tells us, in the immediate vicinity of the present Poet-Laureate’s old home in Lincolnshire, and had been struck with the swiftness with which,
As year by year the labourer tills
His wonted glebe, or lops the glades,
the memories of the poet of the Somersby Wold had ‘faded from off the circle of the hills’ — had, indeed, been astonished to note how little real interest was taken in him or his fame, and how seldom his works were met with in the houses of the rich or poor in the very neighbourhood. Accordingly, when he came to reside in the Lake Country, he endeavoured to find out what of Wordsworth’s memory among the men of the Dales still lingered on — how far he was still a moving presence among them — how far his works had made their way into the cottages and farmhouses of the valleys. He also tried to discover how far the race of Westmoreland and Cumberland farm-folk — the ‘Matthews’ and the ‘Michaels’ of the poet, as described by him — were real or fancy pictures, or how far the characters of the Dalesmen had been altered in any remarkable manner by tourist influences during the thirty-two years that have passed since the Lake poet was laid to rest.
With regard to the latter point, it will be remembered that Mr. Ruskin, writing in 1876, said that ‘the Border peasantry, painted with absolute fidelity by Scott and Wordsworth,’ are, as hitherto, a scarcely injured race; that in his fields at Coniston he had men who might have fought with Henry V. at Agincourt without being distinguished from any of his knights; that he could take his tradesmen’s word for a thousand pounds, and need never latch his garden gate; and that he did not fear molestation, in wood or on moor, for his girl guests. Mr. Rawnsley, however, found that a certain beauty had vanished which the simple retirement of old valley days fifty years ago gave to the men among whom Wordsworth lived. ‘The strangers,’ he says, ‘with their gifts of gold, their vulgarity, and their requirements, have much to answer for.’ As for their impressions of Wordsworth, to understand them one must understand the vernacular of the Lake District. ‘What was Mr. Wordsworth like in personal appearance?’ said Mr. Rawnsley once to an old retainer, who still lives not far from Rydal Mount. ‘He was a ugly-faäced man, and a meän-liver,’ was the answer; but all that was really meant was that he was a man of marked features, and led a very simple life in matters of food and raiment. Another old man, who believed that Wordsworth ‘got most of his poetry out of Hartley,’ spoke of the poet’s wife as ‘a very onpleasant woman, very onpleasant indeed. A close-fisted woman, that’s what she was.’ This, however, seems to have been merely a tribute to Mrs. Wordsworth’s admirable housekeeping qualities.
The first person interviewed by Mr. Rawnsley was an old lady who had been once in service at Rydal Mount, and was, in 1870, a lodging-house keeper at Grasmere. She was not a very imaginative person, as may be gathered from the following anecdote: —
Mr. Rawnsley’s sister came in from a late evening walk, and said, ‘O Mrs. D---, have you seen the wonderful sunset?’ The good lady turned sharply round and, drawing herself to her full height, as if mortally offended, answered: ‘No, miss; I’m a tidy cook, I know, and “they say” a decentish body for a landlady, but I don’t knaw nothing about sunsets or them sort of things, they’ve never been in my line.’
Her reminiscence of Wordsworth was as worthy of tradition as it was explanatory, from her point of view, of the method in which Wordsworth composed, and was helped in his labours by his enthusiastic sister.
‘Well, you know,’ she said, ‘Mr. Wordsworth went humming and booing about, and she, Miss Dorothy, kept close behint him, and she picked up the bits as he let ’em fall, and tak’ ’em down, and put ’em together on paper for him. And you may be very well sure as how she didn’t understand nor make sense out of ’em, and I doubt that he didn’t know much about them either himself, but, howivver, there’s a great many folk as do, I dare say.’
Of Wordsworth’s habit of talking to himself, and composing aloud, we hear a great deal.
‘Was Mr. Wordsworth a sociable man?’ asked Mr. Rawnsley of a Rydal farmer. ‘Wudsworth, for a’ he had noa pride nor nowt,’ was the answer, ‘was a man who was quite one to hissel, ye kna. He was not a man as folks could crack wi’, nor not a man as could crack wi’ folks. But there was another thing as kep’ folk off, he had a ter’ble girt deep voice, and ye might see his faace agaan for long enuff. I’ve knoan folks, village lads and lasses, coming over by old road above, which runs from Grasmere to Rydal, flayt a’most to death there by Wishing Gaate to hear the girt voice a groanin’ and mutterin’ and thunderin’ of a still evening. And he had a way of standin’ quite still by the rock there in t’ path under Rydal, and folks could hear sounds like a wild beast coming from the rocks, and childer were scared fit to be dead a’most.’
Wordsworth’s description of himself constantly recurs to one:
And who is he with modest looks,
And clad in sober russet gown?
He murmurs by the running brooks,
A music sweeter than their own;
He is retired as noontide dew,
Or fountain in a noonday grove.
But the corroboration comes in strange guise. Mr. Rawnsley asked one of the Dalesmen about Wordsworth’s dress and habits. This was the reply: ‘Wudsworth wore a Jem Crow, never seed him in a boxer in my life, — a Jem Crow and an old blue cloak was his rig, and as for his habits, he had noan; niver knew him with a pot i’ his hand, or a pipe i’ his mouth. But he was a greät skater, for a’ that — noan better in these parts — why, he could cut his own naäme upo’ the ice, could Mr. Wudsworth.’ Skating seems to have been Wordsworth’s one form of amusement. He was ‘over feckless i’ his hands’ — could not drive or ride — ‘not a bit of fish in him,’ and ‘nowt of a mountaineer.’ But he could skate. The rapture of the time when, as a boy, on Esthwaite’s frozen lake, he had
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home, and, shod with steel,
Had hissed along the polished ice,
was continued, Mr. Rawnsley tells us, into manhood’s later day; and Mr. Rawnsley found many proofs that the skill the poet had gained, when
Not seldom from the uproar he retired,
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideways, leaving the tumultuous throng
To cut across the reflex of a star,
was of such a kind as to astonish the natives among whom he dwelt. The recollection of a fall he once had, when his skate caught on a stone, still lingers in the district. A boy had been sent to sweep the snow from the White Moss Tarn for him. ‘Did Mr. Wudsworth gie ye owt?’ he was asked, when he returned from his labour. ‘Na, but I seed him tumlle, though!’ was the answer. ‘He was a ter’ble girt skater, was Wudsworth now,’ says one of Mr. Rawnsley’s informants; ‘he would put one hand i’ his breast (he wore a frill shirt i’ them days), and t’ other hand i’ his waistband, same as shepherds does to keep their hands warm, and he would stand up straight and sway and swing away grandly.’
Of his poetry they did not think much, and whatever was good in it they ascribed to his wife, his sister, and Hartley Coleridge. He wrote poetry, they said, ‘because he couldn’t help it — because it was his hobby’ — for sheer love, and not for money. They could not understand his doing work ‘for nowt,’ and held his occupation in somewhat light esteem because it did not bring in ‘a deal o’ brass to the pocket.’ ‘Did you ever read his poetry, or see any books about in the farmhouses?’ asked Mr. Rawnsley. The answer was curious:
‘Ay, ay, time or two. But ya’re weel aware there’s potry and potry. There’s potry wi’ a li’le bit pleasant in it, and potry sic as a man can laugh at or the childer understand, and some as takes a deal of mastery to make out what’s said, and a deal of Wudsworth’s was this sort, ye kna. You could tell fra the man’s faace his potry would niver have no laugh in it. His potry was quite different work from li’le Hartley. Hartley ’ud goa running along beside o’ the brooks and mak his, and goa in the first oppen door and write what he had got upo’ paper. But Wudsworth’s potry was real hard stuff, and bided a deal of makking, and he’d keep it in his head for long enough. Eh, but it’s queer, mon, different ways folks hes of making potry now. . . . Not but what Mr. Wudsworth didn’t stand very high, and was a well-spoken man enough.’
The best criticism on Wordsworth that Mr. Rawnsley heard was this: ‘He was an open-air man, and a great critic of trees.’
There are many useful and well-written essays in Professor Knight’s volume, but Mr. Rawnsley’s is far the most interesting of all. It gives us a graphic picture of the poet as he appeared in outward semblance and manner to those about whom he wrote.
Wilde, Oscar. A Critic in Pall Mall; Being Extracts from Reviews and Miscellanies by Oscar Wilde. Ed. E. V. Lucas. London: Methuen, 1919. Source of text: Project Gutenberg eBook #30191 release date October 6, 2009 transcribed by by David Price.
Wordsworthiana: A Selection from Papers read to the Wordsworth Society. Ed. William Knight. London: Macmillan and Co., 1889.
Last modified 14 February 2019