1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Cunningham

William Wordsworth to Allan Cunningham, 23 November 1823; Letters, ed. Knight (1907) 2:207-11.



RYDAL MOUNT, November 23d, [1823.]

My dear Sir,

On returning from Leicestershire a few days ago, I had the pleasure of finding in its destined place the bust of Sir Walter Scott. It is, as you say, a very fine one; and I doubt not you have been equally select in the one which you have sent of me to Sir Walter. I will take care that my debt to you on this score shall be speedily discharged. And here I am reminded of an obligation of the same kind, which I am afraid has not been met as it ought to be. Pray, has Mr. Edward Coleridge paid for the cast of my bust which, at his request, was forwarded to him at Eton? Bear in mind that I am ultimately responsible for it. I am already in possession of a cast of Mr. Southey, a striking likeness as to feature; but so ill executed, in point of character and expression, that I must defer placing a likeness of that honored friend in company with this fine one of Sir Walter, till I can procure one from the hand of Mr. Chantrey; who, I hope, will one day undertake a work which would redound to the credit of both parties. I am not without hope also that Mr. Chantrey may be induced to transmit to posterity the magnificent forehead of one of the first intellects that Great Britain has produced, I mean that of Mr. Coleridge, and proud should I be to place this triumvirate of my friends in the most distinguished station of my little mansion.

Many thanks for your letter. The interest which yourself and family take in my writings, and person, is grateful to my feelings; testimonies of this kind are among the very pleasantest results of a literary life. The ground upon which I am disposed to meet your anticipation of the spread of my poetry is, that I have endeavoured to dwell with truth upon those points of human nature in which all men resemble each other, rather than on those accidents of manners and character produced by times and circumstances; which are the favourite seasoning (and substance too often) of imaginative writings. If, therefore, I have been successful in the execution of my attempt, it seems not improbable that as education is extended, writings that are independent of an over (not to say vicious) refinement will find a proportionate increase of readers, provided there be found in them a genuine inspiration.

The selection you again advert to will no doubt be executed at some future time. Something of the kind is already in progress at Paris, in respect to my poems in common with others. The value of such selections will depend entirely upon the judgment of the editor.... Meanwhile I am going to press (at last) with a re-publication of the whole of my poetry, including The Excursion, which will give me an opportunity of performing my promise to you, by sending you the whole, as soon as it is ready for delivery.

The collection of songs which you announce I had not heard of. Your own poetry shows how fit you are for the office of editing native strains; and may not one hope that the taste of the public in these matters is much improved since the time when Macpherson's frauds met with such dangerous success, and Percy's ballads produced those hosts of legendary tales that bear no more resemblance to their supposed models than Pope's Homer does to the work of the blind bard. Do not say I ought to have been a Scotchman. Tear me not from the country of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton; yet I own that since the days of childhood, when I became familiar with the phrase, "They are killing geese in Scotland, and sending the feathers to England" (which every one had ready when the snow began to fall), and when I used to hear, in the time of a high wind, that

Arthur's bower has broken his band,
And he comes roaring up the land;
King o' Scot's wi' a' his power
Cannot turn Arthur's bower,

I have been indebted to the North for more than I shall ever be able to acknowledge. Thomson, Mickle, Armstrong, Leyden, yourself, Irving (a poet in spirit), and I may add Sir Walter Scott were all Borderers. If they did not drink the water, they breathed at least the air of the two countries. The list of English Border poets is not so distinguished, but Langhorne was a native of Westmoreland, and Brown the author of the Estimate of Manners and Principles, etc., — a poet as his letter on the vale of Keswick, with the accompanying verses, shows was born in Cumberland. So also was Skelton, a demon in point of genius; and Tickell in later times, whose style is superior in chastity to Pope's, his contemporary. Addison and Hogarth were both within a step of Cumberland and Westmoreland, their several fathers having been natives of those counties, which are still crowded with their names and relatives. It is enough for me to be ranked in this catalogue, and to know that I have touched the hearts of many by subjects suggested to me on Scottish ground; these pieces you will find classed together in the new edition. Present my thanks to Mrs. C. for her kind invitation. I need not add that if you, or any of yours, come this way we shall be most happy to see you.

Pray give my congratulations to Mr. Chantrey on the improvement in Mrs. C.'s health; they have both our best wishes; and believe me, my dear sir,

Very faithfully yours,

WM. WORDSWORTH.