1810
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Letter to Mathetes.

The Friend No. 20 (4 January 1810). [Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed.]

William Wordsworth


William Wordsworth invokes a teacher greater than Aquinas. He is responding to an anonymous letter sent to Coleridge's periodical by John Wilson ("Mathetes"). Wordsworth refers to the description of Redcross at the court of Gloriana given in Spenser's letter to Raleigh prefaced to the Faerie Queene: "A false Gloriana in these days imposes worthless services, which they who perform them, in their blindness, know not to be such; and which are recompenced by rewards as worthless, yet eagerly grasped at, as if they were the immortal guerdon of virtue."

William Hazlitt responded in the Spirit of the Age: "Is the Modern Philosophy (as it has been called) at one moment a youthful bride, and the next a withered beldame, like the false Duessa of Spenser?" (1825) 34.

Robert Southey to John Rickman: "Mathetes is not De Quincey, but a Mr. Wilson, — De Quincey is a singular man, but better informed than any person almost that I ever met at his age. The vice of the Friend is its roundaboutness. Sometimes it is of the highest merit both in matter and manner: more frequently its turnings, and windings, and twistings, and doublings provoke my greyhound propensity of pointing straightforward to the mark" 21 January 1810; Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 3:274.

Robert Southey to William Taylor of Norwich: "Coleridge has sent out a fourth number to-day. I have always expected every number to be the last: he may, however, possibly go on in this intermitting way till subscribers enough withdraw their names (partly in anger at its irregularity, more because they find it heathen Greek) to give him an ostensible reason for stopping short. Both he and Wordsworth, powerfully as they can write and profoundly as they usually think, have been betrayed into the same fault, — that of making things, easy of comprehension in themselves, difficult to be comprehended by their way of stating them: instead of going to the natural spring for water, they seem to like the labour of digging wells" 7 September 1809; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor (1843) 2:284-85.

John Dix: "Professor Wilson, the immortal Christopher North of Blackwood's Magazine, resided until 1820 at Grasmere, near Mr. Wordsworth's residence, where he wrote, among other poems, his Isle of Palms, and the City of the Plague, and was his bosom friend. When, in that year, Wilson obtained the chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, whither he went to reside, he never forgot the kindly family with which he had enjoyed so much happiness; and rarely, perhaps never, was published a number of Blackwood's Magazine, without Wordsworth's name absolutely embossing its double columns in some eulogistic shape or other, as every reader of Maga must remember. I have no doubt that the Poet Laureate owes his place among the poets of Great Britain entirely to his grateful friend John Wilson, of Elleray House, Esquire, notwithstanding that he was the 'great Captain of the Lake Poets,' as Jeffrey used to designate him, and Wilson, then, but his admiring poetical adopted son" Pen and Ink Sketches (1846) 126.

Christopher Wordsworth: "In the 17th Number of The Friend, published on Dec. 14, 1809, is an interesting Letter to the Editor, from a correspondent who subscribes himself Mathetes, and who is generally understood to be a person eminent in the various departments of Poetry, Philosophy, and Criticism — Professor Wilson. The writer begins with describing the danger to which a young man is exposed on emerging from a state of tutelage into the world. There are, he thinks, numerous causes conspiring to bring his mind into bondage to popular fallacies, which will impair its simplicity, its energy, and its love of truth.... His letter was followed by some observations from the pen of him whom he had invoked as his teacher, — W. Wordsworth" Memoirs of Wordsworth (1851) 1:421-22.

Oliver Elton: "Much of Coleridge's distinguishing eloquence and many of his seminal ideas can be found, in all their disorder, in the strange publication called The Friend, issued in 1809-10, and recast in 1818. As a book it is impossible, and as a periodical is was still more so; words would be wasted on its shapelessness and its profusion of digressive rigamarole" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:126.

The Wordsworth passage is mistakenly attributed to Coleridge in Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 172.




But my correspondent, who drew forth these thoughts, has said rightly, that the character of the age may not without injustice be thus branded. He will not deny that, without speaking of other countries, there is in these islands, in the departments of natural philosophy, of mechanic ingenuity, in the general activities of the country, and in the particular excellence of individual minds, in the high stations civil or military, enough admiration and love in the sober-minded, and more than enough to intoxicate the youthful and inexperienced. I will compare, then, an aspiring youth, leaving the schools in which he has been disciplined, and preparing to bear a part in the concerns of the world, I will compare him in this season of eager admiration, to a newly-invested knight appearing with his blank unsignalized shield, upon some day of solemn tournament, at the court of the Faery-queen, as that sovereignty was conceived to exist by the moral and imaginative genius of our divine Spenser. He does not himself immediately enter the lists as a combatant, but looks round him with a beating heart, dazzled by the gorgeous pageantry, the banners, the impresses, the ladies of overcoming beauty, the persons of the knights, now first seen by him, the fame of whose actions is carried by the traveller, like merchandize, through the world, and resounded upon the harp of the minstrel. But I am not at liberty to make such a comparison. If a youth were to begin his career in such an assemblage, with such examples to guide and to animate, it will be pleaded, there would be no cause for apprehension; he could not falter, he could not be misled. But ours, is notwithstanding its manifold excellences, a degenerate age; and recreant knights are among us, far outnumbering the true. A false Gloriana in these days imposes worthless services, which they who perform them, in their blindness, know not to be such; and which are recompenced by rewards as worthless, yet eagerly grasped at, as if they were the immortal guerdon of virtue.


[Prose, ed. A. B. Grosart (1876) 1:322]