Saying ‘no’ to Europe: Wordsworth and the construction of an English identity

Andrew Wordsworth on his ancestor, the subject of his book, Well-Kept Secrets: The Story of William Wordsworth

William and Mary Wordsworth (1839) © Dove Cottage, The Wordsworth Trust

William and Mary Wordsworth (1839) © Dove Cottage, The Wordsworth Trust


‘He reads Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, and Latin’ wrote William’s sister Dorothy in a letter of 1791, when Wordsworth was 21.

As a young man Wordsworth enjoyed exploring European culture, and in the autumn of 1791 he proposed to improve his French by living in France – (which was in the middle of its Revolution) – for a year or so.

This decision turned out to have momentous consequences: for after settling in Orléans, south of Paris, he fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and fathered a child with her. Wordsworth stayed with Annette during her pregnancy, but in the autumn of 1792 the Revolution became increasingly violent, and Wordsworth retreated to England just before the baby was born. Two months later France declared war on England, and the two countries remained at war (with only one interruption) for the next 22 years.

Wordsworth’s French adventure had a profound effect on the way his life and his writing developed, creating tensions which were very hard to resolve. The war meant that it was almost impossible to maintain contact with Annette and Caroline (his daughter) – indeed he only saw Caroline three times during his life.

However, he had formally acknowledged paternity of the girl, and never forgot her – even though he was unable to develop a relationship with her. During the 1790s Wordsworth resigned himself to this emotional stalemate; but then in 1802 he became engaged to an English woman, Mary Hutchinson, whom he had known from childhood, and needed to make a fresh start in his life. Taking advantage of a temporary truce between France and England, he crossed the Channel, met Annette and Caroline at Calais, and formally ended their relationship. He then returned to England and married Mary.

Wordsworth’s assertion of his Englishness dates from this period, and is clearly related to his need to close his personal account with Annette, prior to marrying Mary. His trip to Calais, coming in the middle of the war between England and France, inspired a barrage of patriotic sonnets, such as the one written on the day of landing back in Dover, which exulted that,

“Thou art free

My country! And ‘tis joy enough and pride

For one hour’s perfect bliss, to tread the grass

Of England once again”

However sentiments such as these, which reflected the current political situation, were predated by a love poem of the previous year in which Wordsworth paid tribute to his fiancée Mary:

“I travelled among unknown men,

In lands beyond the sea;

Nor England! Did I know till then

What love I bore to thee.

Among thy mountains did I feel

The joy of my desire;

And she I cherished turned her wheel

Beside an English fire.” (lines 1-4, 9-12)

The overlapping of political convictions and personal feeling gives a particular quality to Wordsworth’s eulogy of Englishness: it is more touching, and less chauvinistic, than may appear at first sight. And it should be said that the poet never subscribed to the expansionist policies which, during the nineteenth century, took Britain from being one colonial power among others to having an empire on which the sun never set.

Wordsworth mistrusted the capitalist economics that underwrote the imperialist adventure – and was also instinctively anti-imperialist in that he believed that people everywhere had a right to independence and self-determination. His attitude was essentially insular and defensive: he wanted to preserve the British way of life that he cherished, and saw foreign influence of any kind as a threat. But such nuances of thinking were easily lost in a century which adopted nationalism as an article of faith.

In 1861, 11 years after Wordsworth’s death, the Kingdom of Italy was constituted out of a multi-coloured patchwork of states; and ten years later the nation-state of Germany was created. In the space of two decades the map of western Europe was radically redrawn, with regional variety and difference being made subservient to the principle of national unity.

Nationalism was, one might say, the dominant rallying-cry of the 19th century – as it would also be a major protagonist in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century. What is striking in Wordsworth is not only how quick he was to feel this impulse and to articulate it, but also how unnecessary it was for him to do so. Unlike, say, the Irish, English writers had no doubts as to their identity, and had no need to negociate with other cultures and traditions in order to be heard and appreciated.

For Irish writers from Swift onwards the problem was a real one. In general they reluctantly accepted the dominance of Britain, and adapted to working within the context of English culture (Yeats spoke of ‘a certain Anglo-Irish unity’); but Joyce, and then Beckett, preferred to live in Europe and to place their work within a European context.

In this respect one might see them as setting down markers for the future, for today Ireland is a committed member of the European Union, while Britain has reverted to the insular, self-sufficient model proposed by Wordsworth two centuries ago. Apart from a very one-sided flirtation with the United States carried on since the 1950s, Britain’s vision of itself, and of its position in the world, has really not evolved much since the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

Once the threat of a French invasion had passed, Wordsworth’s patriotic sonnets became less strident, and after 1815 the tone and subject-matter shifted once again. The fate of the nation was no longer a preoccupation, and he turned his attention to celebrating the landscape – whether literal or metaphorical – of England.

For example, in 1818 he composed 34 sonnets on the theme of the River Duddon (a much-loved reference-point from his childhood); and in 1821 he followed this up with 132 Ecclesiastical Sonnets, which together constituted his poetic history of the Church of England. Wordsworth was proud to be English; but more significantly, it was his country – just as he knew the Lake District from birth, and could relate to both country and region effortlessly, and write about them with a love and knowledge that were intimate.

Wordsworth’s love of all that was domestic and familiar had been a constant in his poetry since his youth, and perhaps reflected the fact that he found himself an orphan at the age of 13, deprived of the pleasures and security of family life. This homeloving attitude was artfully articulated by his poetic style, which had a homespun quality, using language that was straightforward and unsophisticated. Indeed one might say that his poetic voice, with its emphasis on unadorned plainness and honesty, was itself typically English.

Of course the English language is rich and beautiful precisely because it is formed out of an extremely complex mixture of foreign elements (Latin, Ancient Greek, French, German, Danish, and so on), and is in itself eloquent proof of all that binds England to continental Europe – but that unhelpful fact would not have counted for much in Wordsworth’s mind.
Andrew Wordsworth, a great-great-great-great nephew of the poet, was educated at Winchester College and Cambridge, where he read English which sparked his life-long interest in Wordsworth. Like him, he left England to go to France but unlike his ancestor, he never returned. He currently lives in Tuscany where he works as a sculptor. His new book, Well-Kept Secrets: The Story of William Wordsworth is published by Pallas Athene Books on April 7th. More information at: WordsworthBiography

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