1799 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Adventures on Salisbury Plain.

The Salisbury Plain Poems. [Stephen Gill, ed.]

William Wordsworth


92 Spenserians, first published in 1975: the "Adventures" is a substantial manuscript developing the narrative components of the earlier version of 1793-94, and dropping the Spenserian burlesque.

In 1798 Coleridge offered the poem to Joseph Cottle: "Wordsworth's 'Salisbury Plain' and 'Tale of a Woman;' which two poems, with a few others which he will add, and the notes, will make a volume. This is to be delivered to you within three weeks of the date of your answer, and the money to be paid as before, at the end of four months from the present date" in Cottle, Reminiscences (1847) 126.

Wordsworth later wrote to Cottle, alluding to a change of plans: "We look for you with great impatience. We will never forgive you if you do not come. I say nothing of the 'Salisbury Plain' till I see you. I am determined to finish it, and equally so that you shall publish. I have lately been busy about another plan, which I do not wish to mention till I see you; let this be very, very soon, and stay a week if possible; as much longer as you can" 9 May 1798; in Cottle, Reminiscences (1847) 132-33.

William Cottle describes the upshot: "At this interview it was determined, that the volume should be published under the title of 'Lyrical Ballads,' on the terms stipulated in a former letter: that this volume should not contain the poem of 'Salisbury Plain,' but only an extract from it; that it should not contain the poem of 'Peter Bell,' but consist rather of sundry shorter poems, and, for the most part, of pieces more recently written" Reminiscences (1847) 135.

William Wordsworth described the occasion of the poem in a preface to Guilt and Sorrow (1842): The whole was written before the close of the year 1794, and I will detail, rather as matter of literary biography than for any other reason, the circumstances under which it was produced. During the latter part of the summer of 1793, having past a month in the Isle of Wight, in view of the fleet which was then preparing for sea off Portsmouth at the commencement of the war, I left the place with melancholy forebodings. The American war was still fresh in memory. The struggle which was beginning, and which many thought would be brought to a speedy close by the irresistible arms of Great Britain being added to those of the allies, I was assured in my own mind would be of long continuance, and productive of distress and misery beyond all possible calculation. This conviction was pressed upon me by having been a witness, during a long residence in revolutionary France, of the spirit which prevailed in that country. After leaving the Isle of Wight, I spent two days in wandering on foot over Salisbury Plain, which, though cultivation was then widely spread through parts of it, had upon the whole a still more impressive appearance than it now retains. The monuments and traces of antiquity, scattered in abundance over that region, led me unavoidably to compare what we know or guess of those remote times with certain aspects of modern society, and with calamities, principally those consequent upon war, to which, more than other classes of men, the poor are subject. In those reflections, joined with particular facts that had come under my knowledge, the following stanzas originated" Christopher Wordsworth, Memoirs of Wordsworth (1851) 1:81-82.



A Traveller on the skirt of Sarum's Plain
O'ertook an aged Man with feet half bare;
Propp'd on a trembling staff he crept with pain,
His legs from slow disease distended were;
His temples just betrayed their silver hair
Beneath a kerchief's edge, that wrapp'd his head
To fence from off his face the breathing air.
Stuck miserably o'er with patch and shred
His ragged coat scarce showed the Soldier's faded red.

"And dost thou hope across the Plain to trail
That frame o'ercome with years and malady,
Those feet that scarcely can outcrawl the snail,
These withered arms of thine, that faltering knee?
Come, I am strong and stout, come lean on me."
The old man's eyes a wintry lustre dart,
And so sustained he faced the open lea.
But short the joy that touched his melting heart,
For ere a mile be gone his friend and he must part.

Nor of long absence failed he soon to tell
And how he with the Soldier's life had striven
And Soldier's wrongs; but one who knew him well
A house to his old age had lately given.
Thence he had limp'd to meet a daughter driven
By circumstance which did all faith exceed
From every stay but him: his heart was riven
At the bare thought: the creature that had need
Of any aid from him most wretched was indeed.

[Stanzas 1-3; p. 123]