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WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE, AND
Hic error tamen et levis haec insania quantas
IF Horace had had the gift of prophecy he could not have written a
Yet, sir, reflect; the mischief is not great;
Considering that in that age Horace was the favourite study of politicians and the chosen ornament of their speeches, it is surprising that they failed to recognise the poet as described by Horace when they came across him, or at any rate refused to accept Horace's assurance of his entire harmlessness. For Wordsworth and Coleridge fell under suspicion as French spies or English revolutionaries or both, and a detective was sent down from London on purpose to watch them.
It has always been a matter of surprise that so much suspicion should have attached to them. For even if Coleridge did hold Radical views, nothing more harmless than their life in Somersetshire can be imagined. Coleridge with his wife and baby took a little cottage at Stowey in January 1797. In July, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy paid them a visit there, and during that time heard of a house to let at Alfoxton, and took it at once. It was a large house-Dorothy Wordsworth calls it a mansion and the Wordsworths were allowed to have it at the nominal rent of 231. Evidently, the object was simply to keep it inhabited and habitable while the owner was a minor.
The two Wordsworths and Coleridge lived in the closest association. “We are three people but only one soul,” said Coleridge himself. The two poets were each writing or putting the finishing touches to a tragedy; they were also writing the lyrics which were published in Lyrical Poems and Ballads ; and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journalprinted in Professor Knight's Life of Wordsworth-shows them constantly roaming about the country at all seasons and in all weathers and making studies of Nature in every aspect and mood. The journal shows at once how extraordinarily subtle and precise was their observation of Nature, and how directly it was used as matter for their poetry. Here is a typical entry : ‘18th (March 1797). — The Coleridges left us. A cold, windy morning. Walked with them halfway. On our return, sheltered under the hollies during a hail shower, The withered leaves danced with the hail stones. William wrote a description of the storm.'
Compare Coleridge's own account: ‘My walks were almost daily on the top of Quantock and among its sloping coombes. With my pencil and memorandum book in my hand, I was making studies, as the artists call them, and often moulding my thoughts into verse with the objects and imagery immediately before my senses.' ?
They had a fair number of friends and visitors. Stowey was the home of Thomas Poole, an active politician and philanthropist, and a warm friend and kind helper of Coleridge. Cottle the publisher and Southey could easily come over to see them from Bristol. Lloyd lived with Coleridge for part of the time ; Sir James Mackintosh and Charles Lamb were occasional visitors, and Hazlitt has left a very striking description of a visit to Stowey and Alfoxton. A visitor
? Biographia Literaria, 1847, vol. i. p. 200.
VOL. LXIV -- No. 378
better known at the time than either of these was Thelwall, the notorious democrat, who had lately been tried for high treason. He was visiting at Alfoxton on the 18th of July 1797. In fact he wanted to settle in the neighbourhood, but this his friends strongly discouraged, foreseeing that his constant presence would cause trouble for all of them; and Coleridge had to write and tell him that it would not do.
The greater part of our information about the spy incident comes from Coleridge, who told the story as he knew it in his Biographia Literaria.3
The dark guesses of some zealous Quidnunc met with so congenial a soil in the grave alarm of a titled Dogberry of our neighbourhood, that a spy was actually sent down from the Government pour surveillance of myself and friend. There must have been not only abundance but variety of these “honourable men' at the disposal of Ministers, for this proved a very honest fellow. After three weeks truly Indian perseverance in tracking us (for we were commonly together), during all which time seldom were we out of doors, but he contrived to be within hearing and all the while utterly unsuspected ; how indeed could such a suspicion enter our fancies ?), he not only rejected Sir Dogberry's request that he would try yet a little longer, but declared to him his belief that both my friend and myself were as good subjects, for aught he could discover to the contrary, as any in his Majesty's dominions. He had repeatedly hid himself, he said, for honrs together behind a bank at the sea-side (our favorite resort), and overheard our conversation. At first he fancied that we were aware of our danger; for he often heard me talk of one Spy Nozy, which he was inclined to interpret of himself and of a remarkable feature belonging to him; but he was speedily convinced that it was the name of a man who had made a book and lived long ago. Our talk ran most upon books, and we were perpetually desiring each other to look at this, and listen to that; but he could not catch a word about politics. Once he had joined me on the road (that occurred as I was returning home alone from my friend's house, which was about three miles from my own cottage), and passing himself off as a traveller, he had entered into conversation with mo, and talked of purpose in a democrat way in order to draw me out. The result, it appears, not only con. vinced him that I was no friend of Jacobinism, but (he added), I had plainly made it out to be such a silly as well as a wicked thing that he felt ashamed though he had only put it on. I distinctly remembered the occurrence, and had mentioned it immediately on my return, repeating what the traveller with the Bardolph nose had said, with my own answer; and so little did I suspect the true object of my tempter ere accuser' that I expressed with no small pleasure my hope and belief that the conversation had been of some service to the poor misled malcontent. This incident therefore prevented all doubt as to the truth of the report, which through a friendly medium came to me from the master of the village inn, who had been ordered to entertain the Government gentleman in his best manner, but above all to be silent concerning such a person being in his house,
It was not clear from this what were the precise points about the poets' behaviour that had aroused suspicion; but Coleridge refers a little later to his friend the landlord having been questioned as to their habit of roaming about the hills—'Has he not been seen wandering on the hills towards the Channel and along the shore, with books and papers in his hand, taking charts and maps of the country? This clearly points to their being suspected as spies rather than as democrats, and the stories which Coleridge's friend and publisher Cottle tells in his Reminiscences of Coleridge and Southey (1847, p. 181) also suggest that it was the habits and behaviour of the poets rather than any political views which they were known to hold that had alarmed their neighbours.
3 1847, Vol. i. p. 196.
The wiseacres of the village had, it seemed, made Mr. Wordsworth the subject of their serious conversation. One said that · He had seen him wander about by night and look strangely at the moon! and then he roamed over the hills like a partridge. Another said, 'He had heard him mutter as he walked in some outlandish brogue that nobody could understand !' Another said, 'It's useless to talk, Thomas, I think he is what people call a
66 wise man
(a conjuror). Another said, “ You are everyone of you wrong. I know what he is. We have all met him tramping away towards the sea. Would any man in his senses take all that trouble to look at a parcel of water ? I think he carries on & snug business in the smuggling line, and in these journeys is on the look out for some wet cargo!' Another very significantly said, “I know that he has a private still in his cellar, for I once passed his house at a little better than a hundred yards distance, and I could smell the spirits, as plain as an ashen faggot at Christmas!' Another said, 'However that was, he is surely a desperate French Jacobin, for he is so silent and dark that no one ever heard him say one word about politics.'
The gentleman who gave information to the Government is said to have been Sir Philip Hale, of Cannington ; 4 but according to a letter of Southey's, General Peachey claimed a few years afterwards to have had a hand in the affair,
August 28th, 1805. General Peachey spoke of the relationship with us: he said of me and Wordsworth that however we might have got into good company, he might depend upon it we were still Jacobins at heart, and that he believed he had been instrumental in having us looked after in Somersetshire. This refers to a spy who was sent down to Stowey to look after Coleridge and Wordsworth. This fellow, after trying to tempt the country people to tell lies, could collect nothing more than that the gentlemen used to walk a good deal upon the coast, and that they were what they call. poets.' He got drunk at the inn and told his whole errand and history, but we did not till now know who was the main
It is not surprising that the accounts given of this affair have been looked upon with much suspicion by biographers. The idea that Wordsworth and Coleridge should ever have been taken for dangerous characters--still more for French spies—seems too ridiculous to be seriously entertained. And the authority is by no means firstrate. The story was not published till 1847, fifty years after the incident happened, and apart from Southey's letter it rests entirely on Coleridge's authority; for Cottle says in so many words that he
• See A Group of Englishmen, by E. Meteyard, p. 78.
got his information from Coleridge. Coleridge's own account of his knowledge is that it came to him through a friendly medium from the master of the village inn, who had been ordered to entertain the Government gentleman,' or, in other words, he only knew what someone else told him that the innkeeper had said. It is clear that he would himself have been suspicious of the story if it had not been confirmed by the incident of his conversation on Jacobinism with the spy. Add to this that Wordsworth himself had never heard of the affair until the Biographia Literaria was published, fifty years after; and that Coleridge has a bad reputation as an historical authority. His sons say of him (in the biographical sketch prefixed to Biographia Literaria): “It is true that on a certain class of subjects it (his memory) was extraordinarily confused and inaccurate; matter of fact, as such, laid no hold on his mind. . . . A certain infidelity there was doubtless in the mirror of his mind, so strong was his tendency to overlook the barrier between imagination and actual fact.' No wonder, then, that, as Professor Knight says, “the story of the spy has been deemed apocryphal by many persons, and that sober biographers handle it very delicately. It is only the independent confirmation afforded by Southey's letter that prevents them from rejecting it entirely.
But though the bare fact that a spy was sent is thus established, most people are agreed in rejecting Coleridge's account of what passed. * Most of Cottle's stories of the suspicions excited in the neighbourhood by the poets' goings on, and much of Coleridge's own account of the spy's proceedings wear a dubious complexion,' says Mr. Campbell in his admirable Life of Coleridge. The biographers find an explanation of the surprising fact in the presence of Thelwall in the neighbourhood and his visits to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth himself was of this opinion ; 6 and it has been generally accepted. Very reasonably, upon the information then existing ; for it seems too ridiculous to imagine that Government would trouble to send a spy into Somersetshire because the country-people suspected some dark design concealed under the eccentricities, the country rambles, and the commonplace books of two poets; but it is not unnatural that the visits of a man who had just been tried for high treason should bring suspicion on his hosts.
But happily for the humours of literature, further information is now available which goes directly counter to the rationalising tendencies of this scientific age, and restores to authentic literary history -in substance, at any rate—the old version which is so attractive to every reader of Biographia Literaria. Some of the original correspondence as to the surveillance of Wordsworth and Coleridge is preserved in the Home Office records for the year 1797. It is
his no to the Anecdote for Fathers. ; Vol. 137-Domestic, Geo. III., 1797.