Wordsworth’s Children


John Powell Ward


(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 8, Autumn 1996, pp. 46-67)


Dorothy Wordsworth writes a letter to Coleridge. She is talking about one of the Wordsworth children. “[He] is far more happy in the day-time... when we leave him to himself upon the carpet with a good store of playthings than when he is upon our knees. Give him but a work-basket full of tape and thread and other oddments and he riots among it like a little pussy-cat. He can sit upright on the carpet, and so we leave him... could you but see him look up at you when he is sitting upon the ground, it would fill your heart top-full of pleasure” (Dorothy’s emphasis)  [1] .

Dorothy, William and Mary often referred to the Wordsworth children in letters, but almost invariably as to character or general action. It is seldom a set-piece or picture, as in this case. It surely recalls:




Behold the Child among his new-born bliss,

A six years’ darling of a pigmy size!

See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,

Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,

With light upon him from his father’s eyes!

See, at his feet, some little plan or chart... [etc]


According to Wordsworth’s biographer Mary Moorman, the “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” was probably written in the first week in March 1804  [2]  . Dorothy’s letter is dated 6 March 1804, the end of that very week. Dorothy had probably simply read the poem that week and had it in mind. One notes how she says “Could you but see”, just as the ode had said “Behold...See...See...”. But the “six years’ darling” is of course Hartley Coleridge, while Dorothy’s letter is about the Wordsworth’s own first child John, eight months old. This surely raises a question. Could Wordsworth have conceivably written a poem like the Ode without even having in mind a child of their own, perhaps yards from where he was himself writing, in the tiny Dove Cottage? If he wasn’t at least partly thinking of his eldest son John, why wasn’t he? Why indeed do we ever hear so little about John Wordsworth at all?  [3] 

The “Immortality Ode” is commonly seen as Wordsworth’s major statement on childhood and infancy, and one of our key imaginative writings about childhood. But its timing is noteworthy. It joins two stages: the end of Wordsworth’s great period of writing about childhood (begun in Goslar in Germany in 1799); and the beginning of Wordsworth’s and Mary’s setting up of their own family.

As far as childhood is concerned, until the visit to Germany there had only been “abandoned mother” (and babe) poems, the early lines in the clearly autobiographical “The Pedlar” (1798) and “The Idiot Boy”, “Anecdote for Fathers” and




“We Are Seven”. From Goslar to the Immortality Ode, by contrast, are numerous major poems and passages on imaginary children and on Wordsworth’s own childhood. “The Winander Boy”, “Nutting”, all six spots of time (and much else) in The Prelude, the sonnet “it is a beauteous evening”, “Gathering Flowers”, “The Pet-Lamb”, “Rural Architecture”, “The Idle Shepherd Boys”, “Alice Fell”, “Lucy Gray”, - and the “Lucy” poems themselves.

Here is a question. If you are a poet of childhood (and nature of course, in Wordsworth’s case), what happens to you when your own children begin to appear—and what happens to them? What follows is hardly a full answer, but I would like to look at just a few aspects of the lives of the five children of William and Mary Wordsworth  [4] , mainly from the years 1804 to 1814, and draw some inferences. Their lives were not eventful, except sadly so; they had much love but were often ill and didn’t find learning easy. In later years they were always overshadowed by the glamorous Coleridge boys and the brilliant sons of Christopher Wordsworth, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. But our starting-point is still that, for whatever reason, the end of the period of Wordsworth’s great poetry on childhood coincides roughly with the beginning of his setting up his family. The third decade of poetry, 1804 to 1814, follows.


* * *


John Wordsworth was born in June 1803. In the family letters each child ends up with a characteristic adjective, and the common term for John is “noble”. Dorothy writes to her brother Richard Wordsworth: “...your Godson is as fine a Lad as ever was born, not a great Beauty but a noble looking creature — he has a very fine countenance and is wonderfully strong and active”. Elsewhere,”... he is certainly the noblest




Child I ever beheld”. William also calls him noble to Richard; and to his friend Francis Wrangham writes, “l have a son; a noble one too, he is as ever was seen”  [5] .

This nobility lies not just in his looks. John was “never cross”, and had a “placid dignity...steadiness...the sweetest smiles in the world”. But Dorothy is not all praise. John soon becomes “a turbulent Fellow”, “boisterous” and “terribly passionate...”. He is “strong” too, “remarkably large”, and later, according to his other aunt Sara Hutchinson “most distressingly shy” [6] . But it was an idyllic period.

Then comes the shattering news. In February 1805 the poet’s younger brother, John Wordsworth the seaman, is drowned when the ship he captains sinks in a storm off Portland Bill. John was a quiet man, greatly loved, who was working to support his brother in his poetic vocation. His death has a double effect. Because as William put it “the set (of bonded young adults) is broken”, the family of children becomes more central; yet at first, Dorothy, William and Mary seem distracted from the children by this grief. At one point Mary even says: “these dear Darlings...how many melancholy thoughts do they bring to us all!” Dorothy is more pragmatic: “No one who has not been an Inmate with Children in a Cottage can have a notion of the quietness that takes possession of it when they are gone to sleep”  [7] .

But they also start to see that John is intellectually backward. Dorothy writes to Thomas De Quincey: “I cannot’ say that (John) seems much to love learning for its own sake”. De Quincey was blatantly trying to join the Wordsworth circle, and was often tactless. But he had a gift with children, and was trying to teach John printing. He had noticed the real trouble. John was almost dyslexic. A year later Dorothy writes to another friend: “(with John) I find that we have not advanced the smallest point. I am sure he never will do till




he is at another school”. But John’s case brings on a deeper worry, for Sara Hutchinson later writes: “John learns so badly that they are sadly frightened about them all”. They may be wondering whether Wordsworth’s own youthful dictum of “Up up and quit your books” has bitten irreversibly into his family. Again and again a Wordsworth child is bright enough, except at its books. Certainly, they still have John’s fine character. At five he is “your very soul’s delight... his temper is delightful... (he has) a natural goodness about him”. He is also “the best endurer of wet and cold (they) ever saw...” All this is sincere, but sounds at times like whistling in the dark too.  [8]

Meanwhile there is now the second child, John’s younger sister Dora, born August 1804. If John was “noble”: Dora is a “chatterer”. Dorothy writes: “(Dora) is the sweetest chatterer you ever heard, and the loveliest child I ever saw, and very pretty”. Again: “She is uncommonly lively and entertaining, chatters from morning to night, and is beloved by everybody...”. But Dora is more than this. “... she has a manner about her... (which) I am sure must be genius”. Dorothy explains, after a trip in 1806: “Our little Darling had been the sweetest companion that travellers ever had; she noticed the crags, the streams, every thing we saw; and when we passed by any living creature, sheep or cows, she began to sing her...songs which she has learned from us”. Dora is seemingly learning perception from the Dorothy of the Journals, for these are early signs of what will later make Dora, too, a remarkable writer.  [9]

But there is another aspect. Dora is “twice as sharp as Johnny”, and as a result “is her Father’s darling. I think he is more tender over her than he ever was over her Brother.” Later Dorothy avers, “he can refuse her nothing”. What comes clearer all the time is that Dora is her father’s favourite. Naturally, the elder boy felt this favouritism.




“(John is) very jealous, and often gives (Dora) a blow that makes her cry”  [10] . One might ask why Dora mattered so much to her father, but in a patriarchal society, his continuing silence over his eldest son is equally eloquent.


* * *


The decade continues. Wordsworth tried again at The Recluse; Coleridge visits Malta; in 1810 there is the quarrel, perhaps never really forgotten. Three more children are born: Thomas in 1806, Catharine in 1808, and in 1810 William (“Willy”). The family move to Rydal Mount after a bad experience at Allan Bank. In 1810 Mary Wordsworth is tragically prophetic: “We may thank god if we get out of this house with the children alive”  [11] .

Dora goes to school, is later lively but wayward, then improves vastly and wins the French prize. At a children’s dance Dora is “in ecstasy” while John was “as grave as an old man”. John, so uncharismatic, grows ever more reliable. He is beaten unfairly at school but never mentioned it or complained. When little Sara Coleridge quarrelled with her father on a visit to Allan Bank and slunk off into the woods, it was John (aged five) who went to find her. Years later when Sara married at Grasmere because anything closer to home had problems, it was John who officiated. When one of his parishioners had typhus it was John who visited and caught the disease himself. When the family regretted in later years that none of the children had been christened “Hutchinson” it was John and his wife Isabella who gave their son William that second name. And it was John who—despite being “never much of a scribe”—wrote the letters to family friends at his father’s death. But all that is to anticipate.

Meanwhile the Immortality Ode, or at least some of its echoes, recurs to their minds from time to time . In the




famous letter of June 1805 to Sir George Beaumont about finishing The Prelude, mourning his lost brother, saying the poem isn’t what he had hoped, “the reality so far short of the expectation”, Wordsworth has begun with something else. “A Linnet is singing in the tree above, and the Children of some of our neighbours who have been today little John’s Visitors are playing below, equally noisy and happy; the green fields in the level area of the Vale and part of the lake, lie before me in quietness”  [12]. It is the time of the year—like the “May morning”—about which the Ode had been written, with its similar picture of the sunny fields in Grasmere and the shepherd boys noisily playing. But the reference to John his eldest son as central character is not elaborated.

But when the third child, Thomas, is born in June 1806, the Ode-scene appears again. Dorothy notes that it is the same time of year as John’s birth, and remembers it: “the birds singing in the orchard... the young swallows chirping in the self-same nest at the chamber window, the rose-trees rich with roses in the garden, the sun shining on the mountains, the air still and balmy,—on such a morning was Johnny born, and all our first feelings were revived at the birth of his brother two hours later in the day, and three days earlier in the month...”  [13]. It seems the Ode is indeed in Dorothy’s mind, for in the same month she talks of John as much improved in knowledge of “common things that round us lie”. She had also recently sent the poem to Lady Beaumont, later referring to “the last time I read it”, which implies that this may have been frequent  [14]. And with also this connection of the Ode morning to John, and then to Thomas, at their births, it seems the Ode was there while the children’s infancy lasted, even though some setbacks had already started.

And so to Thomas. Thomas is simple, beautiful and lovable: his term is not “noble” but “innocent”. “Thomas continues to




be the most innocent of babies, ...—in simplicity, in helplessness, in his fond love of those persons whom he has about him, and in the guileless expression of his pretty face”. He is “innocent and simple as a new-borne babe”. When he is four, Sara puts it interestingly: “(he is) just as innocent as ever... we call him the everlasting Child, for he never seems a day older”  [15]  . That too will later become ironical.

Thomas is also “remarkably affectionate” and “all love and sweetness”. He has a mania for hoarding string, and earns the nickname “Potiphar” for his love of playing with the pots and pans in the kitchen. He loves other children. Mary Moorman records that the other Wordsworth children “quarrelled with each other but they never quarrelled with Thomas”. And finally, after a typically Wordsworth-child shaky start, he becomes sharp and keen on reading; and Mary Moorman states that he was “the only one of Wordsworth’s children of whom this could be said”. Since Wordsworth looked to him as “the future companion of his studies”, again a contrast with the eldest son is silently suggested  [16]  .

Again too though, there is a downside. Says his mother: “Tot stole all their hearts by his quietness - they little know what a whiner he is”. The ever-watchful Sara sees the signs. “Much improved by his illness... but we expect that when his strength returns he will be the same little Bully that he was awhile ago”  [17]  . One wonders about those who are innocent and attractive on the surface and become both demanding and a touch cunning with it. Thomas was beyond question a dear and affectionate child, but this complexity gives pause later, as we shall see.

Fourth is Catharine, born in September 1808. Again the special personality: Catharine was the comedian. She is “the only funny child in the family; the rest of the Children are lively , but Catharine is comical in every look and




Motion … There is something so irresistibly comic in her face and her motions features that it is quite a feast to watch her”. With Catharine this also seems to entail intelligence. “Your God-daughter is pronounced to be the ‘wittiest Bairn’ of the Set”... We fancy that she understands more than any of the other Children did at her age”  [18] .

Yet sadly, these striking qualities are part of a deformity of appearance. Catharine has “not the least atom of beauty”; she has “something peculiar in the cast of her face”; she cannot walk, her speech is impeded, and she has no hair. This, one recalls, is the daughter of the writer of the Lucy poems and “We Are Seven”.

It is all the effect of the aneurysm with which she was handicapped. It clearly hinders her development; she is loving but “wayward”, “very troublesome” and enters a room looking round to see the greatest mischief she can do in it  [19]. This was necessarily a great burden.

Finally there is William (always known as “Willy”), born 12 May 1810. And in this large family of different temperaments and difficulties, love and affection yet the problems of both learning and health, one asks about the earlier poetic sense of childhood of the father; how it affected them all, and how it was affected.


* * *


The decade lengthens. The Wordsworths begin to realise that Catharine is one sick child.

In April 1810, Catharine suffers a major convulsion. It lasts seven hours; her right side, hand and leg are paralysed for several days, and Dorothy fears as much for Mary (long pregnant with Willy ) as for the child. There is some




improvement in May, and sea bathing is prescribed in June; but in July Catharine is “lame” more or less officially. By October “I never saw so deplorable an object as this poor sweet child—worn to a skeleton... in the course of 4 days all her flesh had fallen away”. Catharine had a machine for electrotherapy for the lameness, but it was never used  [20].


Wordsworth’s concern is great. (In the summer of 1812 he and Mary were both away from Grasmere, and the result was the love-letters which, astonishingly, only came to light in 1977.) Wordsworth writes to Mary: “Above all little Catharine I think of most for her infirmity’s sake … I fear for her Take care”. Briefly, and with sad irony, Catharine seems to be improving. “Catharine seems to be so well that change does not appear to be necessary” —for the Wordsworths had wondered whether to move house again. In June Mary writes to William from Herefordshire. “Art thou not my Darling delighted with the accounts of dear little Catharine how I do long to see her...” [21]. When she writes that, Catharine, aged only four, is already dead. The child is buried before either of the parents return.


And it is John, aged nine, who is credited with giving his aunts the comfort and support they needed in his parents’ absence. It seems, if with hindsight, that Catharine’s death was inevitable, for the first convulsion of April 1810 ruptured a congenital aneurysm in one of the cerebral arteries. Another haemorrhage was therefore always likely, as the doctor did warn them [22].

Six months later, Thomas dies too.

This time the irony is devastating. At Catharine’s death William wrote to Catherine Clarkson that “Thomas is very well and looks charmingly”, having just said in the very same letter that “ I write with a full heart; with some sorrow,




but most oppressed by an awful sense of the uncertainty and instability of all human things” [23]. Thomas died in December 1812 of pneumonia following measles. It was totally unexpected. Though he was ill from time to time, all of them bar Sara were always more worried about Catharine. Apart from one brief moment Thomas was very brave, which with his “simplicity” recalls “We Are Seven”, a poem Wordsworth always associated with the Immortality Ode: “A simple child... what should it know of death?”  [24].

Wordsworth wrote shortly to various friends with the news, but his one outpouring was to Robert Southey. “For myself I dare not say in what state of mind I am; I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me—yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it. God comfort and save you and all our friends and us all from a repetition of such trials - O Southey feel for me!” [25]

This is very unusual, especially from Wordsworth. In the main one feels the family’s silence from this double blow. Catharine’s death was the first, and she had been ill for some time. Thomas’s, so utterly unexpected, was also the second. It stunned them completely. Catharine’s death brought the sonnet “Surprised By Joy”, but Wordsworth took up to ten years to write the six-line epitaph which is on Thomas’s gravestone in Grasmere churchyard. As to Mary Wordsworth, it was months before she attained even a partial recovery. Future letters almost never mention either Catharine or Thomas ever again.

The family’s intellectual hopes also rocked, for it seems they feared they had lost their two brightest children, again a psychological burden for the eldest son. But there is something else. For a brief while, the description




“heavenly” now comes in for Thomas. To Daniel Stuart, editor of the Morning Post , Wordsworth says Tom was “a heavenly-tempered Boy”, and to her friend Jane Marshall Dorothy calls him “... a lovely Baby with a heavenly sweetness in his countenance which he preserved to the last, an innocence as pure as at the day of his Birth” [My emphasis]. To Catherine Clarkson she told of: “the hopes which his … most innocent and heavenly countenance raised in our hearts … when we silently looked upon him”  [26]. None of this is hindsight, for we remember how they had always viewed him. But something is added.

One cannot help recalling, again, the “Immortality Ode”s vision. In life Thomas was innocent, at death he reverts to the pre-natal, to “heavenly”. And Dorothy’s comparison to him “as at the day of his birth” recalls her earlier description of him, “as innocent as a new-borne babe”. Equally, when she tries to make sense of such an appalling tragedy, the Ode leaves traces. In the depth of her incomprehension she writes, “The ways of Providence are inscrutable. That child was taken from us who never disturbed our minds with one wayward inclination”. But she answers herself: “he was destined for a better world … if we could but have seen it we might have known that he was not intended for us” [27]. I don’t believe that the downside of Thomas’s nature was forgotten. He was truly affectionate, and in idealising him like that Dorothy is not blinding herself. But the point is that in Thomas, Wordsworth witnessed at close hand for years an ideal (Ode-type) child modified however in the way that earthly existence necessarily entails. With Thomas’s death and life we see in Wordsworth a change from an earlier vision to a deeper love; but it was a change which had long been in progress and was now surfacing.


* * *




Of the survivors—and they were indeed that, in important ways—John, Dora and Willy, two outlived their parents, and all three lived at least another thirty years. However we must deal with these later years only briefly here.

John always remained intellectually backward. He even earned the exasperated description of “the biggest Dunce in all the world”. In 1819 after a disastrous attempt to get into Charterhouse Wordsworth coached him at home, with unfortunate results. Sara Hutchinson wrote that “I cannot approve of this home-tuition in any respect—either for tutor or Scholar”. Earlier, with her usual perception, she had noted, “I am sure that he is not of ‘slow faculties’—He is only slow at his Book”  [28]. That last distinction is telling. Again we see the poet who had written “Up up and quit your books”—in various places and ways—then failing to get his son to reverse that dictum. John went to Sedbergh instead. After Oxford he entered the church and became rector of Brigham near Cockermouth, his father’s own birthplace, more or less for life. He never got preferment, and perhaps never wanted it.

John married well, but later his in-laws’ business collapsed. In a painful episode later still he translates some of his father’s sonnets into Latin to help get him private pupils to raise money. Even Dorothy found it hard to recommend him. He is extremely ill with typhus; his wife Isabella equally so, and she dies in Rome in her forties. John has three more wives, two of whom also die before he does. In 1848 Wordsworth visits his son at Brigham for the last time. John’s parsonage was on the banks of the River Derwent, just as his own father’s childhood home had been. The poet surely remembered his own lines of half a century earlier in The Prelude (1805 I 272-285), when he wondered why that river had even bothered to “blend its murmurs with my nurse’s song... Make ceaseless music through the night and




day...”, when his own efforts in poetry and life seemed at the time so abortive. “Was it for this, O Derwent—?” John’s life often seemed equally futile. Yet his father always stood up for him, always praised him to himself and others, and in fact the record suggests he came to be proud of him for what he was, always reliable and dependable. It is the deeper level of silence that betrays an absence of inspiration poetically.

Dora, Wordsworth’s favourite, really was intelligent. But nearly all her life she stayed at home with her parents permanently at Rydal Mount. The correspondence of herself and others attests that she was profoundly loved and valued by all the family, and she certainly adored her father without being blind to his faults and vanities.

In 1822 Dora met Edward Quillinan, a literary man and catholic, already widowed and with two daughters, and distinctly older than herself. Their long rather bantering courtship led finally to marriage in 1841, after great objection from Wordsworth. William liked Quillinan, but couldn’t bear to lose Dora. If in somewhat indirect ways, the marriage provided evidence of the stature Dora might have achieved as a writer in a different era. All her writing is witty, descriptive and human at once. Her letters (most of them are at Dove Cottage) evince a writer of diverse talents. In one she gives an amazing description of a grey and yellow sky over Rydal Water. In another she hilariously praises Quillinan for getting a wig, which like a garden mulch will help to keep his brain in good order. Dora too, needless to say, was ill. In 1845 she went to Portugal for health reasons. But the journal she kept there was published, well reviewed, and I think would more than stand reissuing today by one of the leading women’s presses  [29]. The journal has wonderful descriptions of fishing smacks, of the mountains, of Seville cathedral; human evocations (“ a vision of visions was the lovely child who danced to us last night”), and terse highly




amusing anecdotes. Dora’s writing is as human and detailed as her aunt’s but more informed and more polished—an outcome of course much to her aunt’s credit. But the health cure failed. She died in 1847, and both parents outlived her.

Young William, “Willy”, was only two years old when the older infants died. In terror for his own survival his parents spoiled him out of his mind. He became easy-going and self-indulgent. But he never valued himself, and was always charming and well-liked. Willy was withdrawn from both Charterhouse and Sedbergh (prematurely but with no dishonour) and never went to university. In 1830 he was sent by his father to Germany. His letters home are entertaining and amusing. He gives a fine description of a military parade in memory of the Battle of Leipzig. He explains at length that billiards is a game not of chance but of skill, his mother having feared (with reason) that he was overspending on betting. But there is a sadder, long heartrending plea to his father to fix him up with a position when he returns home. Wordsworth writes despairingly to a friend :”Alas! What are we going to do with Willy?” In fact he became sub-Distributor of stamps for Cumbria, i.e. his father’s assistant, and in 1842 took over the job entirely. None of the Wordsworth children made any great mark, though Dora perhaps could have done in different circumstances, as we have said.


* * *


What inferences do we draw from all of this? I would suggest three.


First, and this has to be tentative, Wordsworth’s Romantic Child is female. He was strongly heterosexual. He writes many poems to Dora, only three or four to all his sons.




There are only two, late poems to John Wordsworth, yet the very day John’s daughter is born in 1833 (Jane Stanley Wordsworth, the Wordsworths’ first grandchild) Wordsworth composes her a poem of eighty lines. Its opening and close echo the “Immortality Ode” direct, with poignant sadness. In “The White Doe of Rylestone”, a very long narrative poem composed 1807 to 1808, the romantic child-heroine Emily has eight brothers; but she is the centre, who identifies with the ethereal white doe. Wordsworth loved his son Thomas unsurpassably, but for a curious combination of beauty and intellect. Thomas’s final word was “heavenly”, as we saw, but at the close of the sonnet “Surprised By Joy” it is transferred to Catharine:


Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.


Wordsworth also wrote about Catharine the poem “Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old”, which has echoes from “Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower”, one of the Lucy poems.

This view, that the Wordsworthian romantic child is female, may seem to ignore the role of Hartley Coleridge in the “Immortality Ode”, the “six year darling of a pigmy size”, not to mention the famous (male-gendered) “infant babe” of the long passage in The Prelude (1805 II 237-280). But that raises my second inference. The “infant babe” has a new tone of realism in which Wordsworth ceases pure vision and begins to account for it; the true Romantic Child of that period was Lucy. All Wordsworth’s poetic children are Romantic insofar as they are removed and mysterious, and Hartley was at least not the poet’s own child. The contrast with Coleridge’s poetic treatment of his own eldest child - in “Frost at Midnight” and “The Nightingale” - is marked. And since the




“Immortality Ode” ends Wordsworth’s period of poetic writing about childhood, we have a second inference. If you write about childhood you can’t write about it again, and if it is your chosen subject you may never be able to write about much else. Childhood is early, unique and non-reversible, and actual children—that is to say, your own—have actual characteristics. They cannot be generalised, or only partly so, into the romantic vision. In a utilitarian world their education matters, and time away from books with nature, unless nature itself is a scientific text, may be put at risk. Wordsworth could not write about his own children, except when they died, and the result was elegiac. I have gone through every poem from 1804 to 1814 and find, not a gradual decline in writing about children, but a series of abortive attempts, or else absences. The theme is already dead.

Of about 130 poems of the period, only nine give any great attention to childhood  [30]. A few more refer to it in passing. The two early poems to Dora are prosy. “Elegiac Stanzas (about) Peele Castle” (1806) concerns young adults. As does “Home at Grasmere”—Home at Grasmere - seven hundred lines without a word about children, and rather more about pairs of parenting birds [31]. The elegy for George and Sarah Green (1808), who died in a blizzard leaving six children in a cottage, is entirely about the parents, despite the heroic eldest girl who looks after the siblings in their plight. One feels that the earlier Wordsworth would have done that differently. There is also a sonnet “In Due Observance of an Ancient Rite”, about the practice of the Biscayans in Spain of leaving children who die in infancy uncovered when they are taken to their burials. It is a quiet, gentle poem, but recalls for me Wordsworth’s comment on the discharged soldier described in The Prelude; one “Remembering the importance of his theme/ But feeling it no longer”. When the Wordsworths’ two infants die, his childhood muse is briefly stirred again, with “Surprised By




Joy”, “Maternal Grief” with its return to the evocative details of “The Ruined Cottage”, “Characteristics of a Child Three years Old”, and a crucial though little-known poem “Come ye that are disturbed”. The dying child, waif-like, is after all a romantic theme itself. But for Wordsworth the pre-natal vision has become the sadness of elegy that is personal.

Finally there is something more elusive, but, increasingly I suspect, the real secret, the most important thing of all. Much as he cherished all his children, Wordsworth seems in some obscure way the poet of non-parentage. As is often pointed out, a main poetic ancestor of Wordsworth is the Satan of Paradise Lost, “self-begotten, self-raised”. A frequently-cited passage in “Home at Grasmere” shows how this jealously-guarded self-sufficiency centres his existence:


Possessions have I that are solely mine,

Something within which yet is shared by none,

Not even the nearest to me and most dear.

Something which power and effort may impart,

I would impart it, I would spread it wide,

Immortal in the world which is to come.


Many see this passage as Wordsworth distancing himself from Coleridge, but the third line surely suggests Mary and Dorothy.

This aspect of Wordsworth ties not only to his early orphanage and dislike of his father, but also as I see it, to his precursorship of Darwin. The analytical mode of the “infant babe” passage informs the later Darwinian urge to trace the processes by which the evolutionary passing-down of our natures takes place. In the six or seven childhood “spots of time” in The Prelude, one refers to Wordsworth’s father (and that to his death ), none to his mother, and none to any




other parent. Wordsworth’s poetic children come not from parents but from nature, from which all Wordsworth’s main poetry comes. The emphasis in the Ode-child’s pre-natal existence is that it pre-exists its parents.

In other words: if you write a poem like the “Immortality Ode”, let alone all the other great poems of childhood, you may pressurise your children, perhaps adversely. Indeed the whole moral dilemma arises, of the alternative demands of responsibility to one’s art and responsibility to one’s family and to others. Family love can and did modify the difficulty, but this seems to be the key inference. The poet’s own children, least of any, will be able to be what the poet has seen or evoked, and the poet is bound to discover it. The deaths of the infants did not kill off Wordsworth’s poetry of childhood. They revealed what that killing-off, which had already happened, had already meant.

One sympathises with the eldest son, John Wordsworth. Sara Hutchinson said of him, “(John) will at least be sufficiently beloved if he should excite no other feeling” (p.87)  [32]. He may have been uncharismatic and backward, But it seems as likely that John disappeared into a kind of Bermuda triangle of three other children who, for reasons of gender, birth or family were more distant and so that touch more mysterious to the poet; Caroline Vallon, Dora Wordsworth, and Hartley Coleridge. As the poet’s eldest son, John can never have known how to cope with what was expected of him, or even just what was expected of him. It was John who had to learn the complexities in the truth that “the child is the father of the man”, most of all in being the eldest child of that man.



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[1] The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years 1787-1805 ed. E. de Selincourt (rev. by Chester L. Shaver) Oxford: Clarendon press 1967, p.450.

[2] Mary Moorman W. Wordsworth: A Biography: The Later Years 1803-1850, Oxford University Press 1965, pp.19-20.

[3] A letter from Coleridge only three weeks earlier is of further interest. “We talk by the long Hour about you & Hartley, Derwent Sara, and Johnnie... I wish you could write out a Sheet of Verses for them...”. John Wordsworth was commonly called “Johnnie”. Wordsworth had discussed childhood with Coleridge in autumn/winter 1797, i.e. when Hartley was the age John Wordsworth was now. Wordsworth later always harked back to “Frost at Midnight”: it is fleetingly echoed in several poems including the “Immortality Ode” Itself. Lucy Newlyn believes that Coleridge’s letter may have set Wordsworth thinking back to “To H.C., Six Years Old”, written perhaps eighteen months before, and this led him to extend the “Immortality Ode”. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by E.L.Griggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1956-1871), Volume Two p.1060. Lucy Newlyn, Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Language of Allusion, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1986, pp.147-8.

[4] This article has to leave out Caroline Vallon, Wordsworth’s French daughter. She almost certainly hovered behind both his life and probably some poems (including “It is a beauteous evening”, already mentioned); but she was not one of the Grasmere family and for space’s sake has to be omitted.

[5] Letters [Early Years] pp.415, 486 & 436.

[6] Letters ‘Early Years] pp.405, 441, 488, 503, 488 again, & 496. The Letters of Sara Hutchinson 1800-1835, edited by Kathleen Coburn, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1954, p.22.

[7] The Letters of Mary Wordsworth 1800-1855, selected & edited by Mary E. Burton, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1958, p.3 Letters (Early Years) p.648.

[8] The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: II The Middle Years Part I: 1806-1811, edited by E. de Sellncourt (rev. M. Moorman), Oxford: Clarendon Press 1969, pp.293, 450 & 193. Letters (Early Years) p.660. Letters of Sara Hutchinson p.27.

[9] Letters (Middle Years I) pp .39, 31, 56. Letters (Early Years) p.632.

[10] Letters (Early Years) pp. 503. Letters (Middle Years I) p.51.

[11] The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth, ed. by Beth Darlington, Chatto & Windus 1982, p.74.

[12] Letters (Early Years) pp. 593-594.

[13] Letters (Middle Years I) p.43.

[14] Letters (Middle Years I) pp. 31, 24.

[15] Letters (Middle Years 1) pp. 389, 444. Letters Sara Hutchinson p.22.

[16] Letters (Middle Years I) pp. 283, 262. Love Letters p.45. Moorman W.W. Later Years p.214.

[17] Love Letters p.80 Letters Sara Hutchinson p.15.

[18] Letters (Middle Years I) pp.389, 377.

[19] An aneurysm is a dilation of the arteries. Letter (Middle Years I) pp. 389, 449.

[20] Letters (Middle Years I) pp. 418, 440. According to Beth Darlington this was never used because the key to operate it could not be located”. Love Letters p.114.

[21] Love Letters pp.90,64,173,250.

[22] Moorman Later Years pp.212-3.

[23] Letters of W. & D. Wordsworth:III Middle Years Part II: 1812 -1820. ed. E. de Selincourt (rev. by M.Moorman & Alan G.Hill) Oxford: Clarendon Press 1970, pp.26-7,24-5.

[24] Letters (Middle Years II) p.50n.

[25] Letters (Middle Years II) p.51.

[26] Letters (Middle Years II) pp.55,70,88.

[27] Letters (Middle Years II) pp.77-8.

[28] Letters Sara Hutchinson pp.151,149.

[29] Dorothy Wordsworth (Mrs Quillinan) Journal of a Few Months Residence in Portugal . London: Longmans, Green & Co 1895 (first published 1847).

[30] The nine are The Blind Highland Boy”(1804-1806) “Address to my Infant Daughter Dora”(1804), “Vaudracour and Julia” (1804), “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” (1805), To The Sons of Burns” (1805-6, some 1820), “Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle” (1806-1807), “The White Doe of Rylestone” (1807-9), “ln Due Observance of an Ancient Rite” (1810), “Feelings of a Noble Biscayan at one of those Funerals” (1810). These are then followed by the group written after, and usually if sometimes indirectly about, the deaths of the two infants. I believe myself that “The White Doe of Rylestone” can be seen as a Bloomian encounter with the precursor, though In this case the precursor is the poet’s own earlier poem, the Immortality Ode itself.

[31] In fact a major part of “Home at Grasmere” was already written in 1800; some scholars even date it almost entirely to that year, and see the 1806 MS as a transcription. But either way, Wordsworth did give the poem much renewed attention in 1806 when trying to continue The Recluse. Whether the failure of The Recluse and the lapse of poetic attention to childhood are psychically connected, is beyond our scope here.

[32] Letter Sara Hutchinson p.87.