1794 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Night on Salisbury Plain.

The Salisbury Plain Poems of William Wordsworth. [Stephen Gill, ed.]

William Wordsworth


61 Spenserians first published in 1975. This 1793-94 fragment of a poem was excerpted as "The Female Vagrant" in Lyrical Ballads, and, much revised, published as "Guilt and Sorrow" in 1841. A second manuscript of 1795-99 is also printed in the Cornell Wordsworth. The changes made in the several versions are fascinating to observe: they follow much the same trajectory as the changes made in Shenstone's School-Mistress and Beattie's The Minstrel, away from Spenserian burlesque and towards serious reflections on education and politics.

Salisbury Plain is the location of Stonehenge, which in the eighteenth-century was thought to be a Druid temple. Druids alternately fascinated and repelled the poets, being at once poetical lawgivers of the sort romantics aspired to be, and the epitome, with their human sacrifices, of the evils of superstition. In Wordsworth's obscure meditations it is not altogether clear whether Druidical oppression is to be identified with the Anglican church or with the French Revolutionaries — certainly "terror" was on everyone's mind at the time the poem was being composed.

Christopher Wordsworth: "Wordsworth spent two days in wandering on foot over the dreary waste of Salisbury Plain, and thence proceeded by Bristol and Tintern up the Wye, and so to North Wales. On Salisbury Plain he commenced the poem which once bore the name of the plain where the scene is laid, but was afterwards published in part under the title of the 'Female Vagrant,' and finally under that of 'Guilt and Sorrow'" Memoirs of Wordsworth (1851) 1:81.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "I was in my twenty-fourth year, when I had the happiness of knowing Mr. Wordsworth personally, and while memory lasts, I shall hardly forget the sudden effect produced on my mind, by his recitation of a manuscript poem, which still remains unpublished, but of which the stanza, and tone of style, were the same as those of the 'Female Vagrant' as originally printed in the first volume of the Lyrical Ballads. There was here, no mark of strained thought, or forced diction, no crowd or turbulence of imagery, and, as the poet hath himself well described in his lines 'on re-visiting the Wye,' manly reflection, and human associations had given both variety, and an additional interest to natural objects, which in the passion and appetite of the first love they had seemed to, him neither to need or permit. The occasional obscurities, which had risen from an imperfect controul over the resources of his native language, had almost wholly disappeared, together with that worse defect of arbitrary and illogical phrases, at once hackneyed, and fantastic, which hold so distinguished a place in the technique of ordinary poetry, and will, more or less, alloy the earlier poems of the truest genius, unless the attention has been specifically directed to their worthlessness and incongruity. I did not perceive any thing particular in the mere style of the poem alluded to during its recitation, except indeed such difference as was not separable from the thought and manner; and the Spencerian stanza, which always, more or less, recalls to the reader's mind Spencer's own style, would doubtless have authorized in my then opinion a more frequent descent to the phrases of ordinary life, than could without an ill effect have been hazarded in the heroic couplet. It was not however the freedom from false taste, whether as to common defects, or to those more properly his own, which made so unusual an impression on my feelings immediately, and subsequently on my judgement. It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops" Biographia Literaria (1817) 1:82-85.

W. J. B. Owen: "The most successful of these as a Spenserian imitation, in verse form, language, and imagery, is probably Salisbury Plain. Here the atmosphere of the gloomier parts of The Faerie Queene is better caught than in the somewhat prosier later versions, and the language is more obviously based on Spenser; Gill notes most of the verbal borrowings in Wordsworth ed 1975. Some of these are transferred to the sequence on Salisbury Plain in The Prelude 12.312-53" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 736.

One of Hannah More's best-known political tracts, The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, was published about 1795; a sort of prose rendition of Burns's "Cottar's Saturday Night," it celebrates the pious innocence of the rural poor, thus addressing Wordsworth's subject from the other side of the political spectrum.



Hard is the life when naked and unhouzed
And wasted by the long day's fruitless pains,
The hungry savage, 'mid deep forests, rouzed
By storms, lies down at night on unknown plains
And lifts his head in fear, while famished trains
Of boars along the crashing forests prowl,
And heard in darkness, as the rushing rains
Put out his watch-fire, bears contending growl
And round his fenceless bed gaunt wolves in armies howl.

Yet is he strong to suffer, and his mind
Encounters all his evils unsubdued;
For happier days since at the breast he pined
He never knew, and when by foes pursued
With life he scarce has reached the fortress rude,
While with the war-song's peal the valleys shake,
What in those wild assemblies has he viewed
But men who all of his hard lot partake,
Repose in the same fear, to the same toil awake?

The thoughts which bow the kindly spirits down
And break the springs of joy, their deadly weight
Drive from memory of pleasures flown
Which haunts us in some sad reverie of fate,
Or from reflection on the state
Of those who on the couch of Affluence rest
By laughing Fortune's sparkling cup elate,
While we of comfort rest, by pain depressed,
No other pillow know than Penury's iron breast.

Hence where Refinement's genial influence calls
The soft affections from their wintry sleep
And the sweet tear of Love and Friendship falls
The willing heart in tender joy to steep,
When men in various vessels roam the deep
Of social life, and turns of chance prevail
Various and sad, how many thousands weep
Beset with foes more fierce than e'er assail
The savage without home in winter's keenest gale.

The troubled west was red with stormy fire,
O'er Sarum's plain the traveller with a sigh
Measured each painful step, the distant spire
That fixed at every turn his backward eye
Was lost, tho' still he turned, in the blank sky.
By thirst and hunger pressed he gazed around
And scarce could any trace of man descry,
Save wastes of corn that stretched without a bound,
But where the sower dwelt was nowhere to be found. . . .

[Stanzas 1-5; pp. 21-22]