Wordsworth’s Conservative Politics

Wordsworth could apparently see nothing between existing Georgian or Bourbonian society and a recrudescence of revolutionary chaos but the maintenance of such divine institutions as rotten boroughs and capital punishment. I do not ask which poet [i.e., Byron or Wordsworth] held the nobler and the more inspiriting views of the immediate future: I ask which of the two showed himself the be-fogged, befooled, self-deluded, unpractical dreamer among the clouds and sunsets of his chosen solitude and his chosen faith, and which approved himself the man of insight and foresight, the more practical and the more rational student of contemporary history, alike in its actual pageant of passing phenomena and in its moral substance of enduring principles and lessons? I know nothing more amusing and amazing than the placid imperturbable persistency with which the conservative or reactionary class is prone to claim and assume — of all things in the world — the credit of being at any rate the practical party, as opposed to the dreamy and visionary herd of hot-brained young poets and crack-brained old enthusiasts. [106]

It is of course to Wordsworth's credit that the prestigious influence which turned the heads and perverted the hearts of the Byrons and the Hazlitts of his day with factitious and flatulent admiration of their country's enemy should have taken no effect on his saner and manlier habit of mind: but it is equally of course to Wordsworth's discredit — if we must needs take these matters into account — that he should have wanted the good sense, the high principle, the far-sighted and impartial reason, which made the Holy Alliance appear to men like Landor more despicable than Bonaparte and no less hateful than Napoleon. [122]

Wordsworth’s Openness to One Liberal Cause — The Reunification of Italy

Wordsworth is generally — and, it must be said, plausibly — regarded as a type of insularity in sentiment and opinion: yet it was he, in the year of Mazzini's arrival in England, at a time when if ever the prospect of Italian unity and freedom must have seemed hopeless to all but men of exceptionally noble and faithful nature — it was he, conservative and reactionary as he was considered and as he believed himself to be, who unconsciously anticipated the message of Mazzini, the central article of his creed, the belief which was as the hinge or the corner-stone of his teaching, in the sonnet which foretold to Italy 'the third stage of her great destiny' — the breaking of her double yoke — the hope which in memory of her fortunes, twice exalted, might provoke from poets a glad note of prophecy to salute the coming hour of her resurrection. . . . Scott could make men breathe the breath of battle; Byron could only make men smell the reek of carnage; but Wordsworth alone could put into his verse the whole soul of a nation armed or arming for self-devoted self-defence; could fill his meditation with the spirit of a whole people, that in the act of giving it a voice and an expression he might inform and renovate that spirit with the purity and sublimity of his own. [148-49]

Wordsworth’s Patriotism

As the poet of high-minded loyalty to his native land, Wordsworth stands alone above all his compeers and successors: royalist and conservative as he appeared, he never really ceased, while his power of song was unimpaired, to be in the deepest and most literal sense a republican ; a citizen to whom the commonweal — the common good of all for which Shakespeare's ideal patriot shed Caesar's blood less willingly than his own — was the one thing worthy of any man's and all men's entire devotion. The depth and intensity, the fixity and the fervour of his interest in personal suffering and individual emotion did but help to build up, to fortify and consolidate, this profound and lofty patriotism. [130-31]

But if Wordsworth has been excelled in such fields of verse as his disciples and himself were wont to consider peculiarly his own, there is one in which he stood without a peer even among the great men of a generation as rich in heroes as in poets. He was the heroic poet of his age: so long as there lives one man of English blood who has any sense of noble poetry, that blood will thrill and tingle in his veins at the very thought of the trumpet-notes of Wordsworth. His was not such patriotism as begins and ends in shrewish and vulgar scolding at other nations, or in shrill Pharisaic thanksgiving that he and his were not made like other men: his haughty and high-minded confidence in England was but the natural outgrowth of his early sympathy with France, while France was as yet undebased into an empire. [147]

Related material


Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “Wordsworth and Byron.” Miscellanies. London: Chatto & Windus, 1886. 63-156. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library, Web. 7 April 2020.

Last modified 7 April 2020