William Wordsworth

Ernest De Selincourt and Alan G. Hill (eds), The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 4: The Later Years: Part I: 1821–1828 (Second Revised Edition)

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pg 9649. W. W. to JAMES LOSH1

  • MS. WL.
  • Mem. (—). Grosart (—). K (—). LY i. 56.
  • [In M. W.'s hand]

Rydal Mount, Decr 4th 1821.

My dear Losh,

Your letter enclosing the Prescription ought to have been much earlier acknowledged, and would have been so, had I not been sure you would ascribe my silence to its true cause, viz procrastination, and not to indifference to your kind attention. There was another feeling which both urged and indisposed me to write to you,—I mean the allusion which in so friendly a manner you make to a supposed change in my Political opinions. To the Scribblers in Pamphlets and Periodical publications who have heaped so much obloquy upon myself and my friends Coleridge and Southey, I have not condescended to reply, nor ever shall; but to you, my candid and enlightened Friend, I will say a few words on pg 97this Subject, which, if we have the good fortune to meet again, as I hope we may, will probably be further dwelt upon.

I should think that I had lived to little purpose if my notions on the subject of Government had undergone no modification—my youth must, in that case, have been without enthusiasm, and my manhood endued with small capability of profiting by reflexion. If I were addressing those who have dealt so liberally with the words Renegado, Apostate etc, I should retort the charge upon them, and say, you have been deluded by Places and Persons, while I have stuck to Principles—I abandoned France, and her Rulers, when they abandoned the struggle for Liberty, gave themselves up to Tyranny, and endeavoured to enslave the world. I disapproved of the war against France at its commencement, thinking, which was perhaps an error, that it might have been avoided—but after Buonaparte had violated the Independence of Switzerland, my heart turned against him, and the Nation that could submit to be the Instrument of such an outrage. Here it was that I parted, in feeling, from the Whigs, and to a certain degree united with their Adversaries, who were free from the delusion (such I must ever regard it) of Mr Fox and his Party, that a safe and honourable Peace was practicable with the French Nation, and that an ambitious Conqueror like B[uonaparte] could be softened down into a commercial Rival. In a determination, therefore, to aim at the overthrow of that inordinate Ambition by War, I sided with the Ministry, not from general approbation of their Conduct, but as men who thought right on this essential point. How deeply this question interested me will be plain to any one who will take the trouble of reading my political Sonnets, and the Tract occasioned by the Convention of Cintra, in which are sufficient evidences of my dissatisfaction with the mode of conducting the war, and a prophetic display of the course which it would take if carried on upon the principles of Justice, and with due respect for the feelings of the oppressed nations. This is enough for foreign politics, as influencing my attachments. There are three great domestic questions, viz. the liberty of the press, Parliamentary reform, and Roman Catholic concession, which, if I briefly advert to, no more need be said at present.

A free discussion of public measures thro' the Press I deem the only safeguard of liberty; without it I have neither confidence in Kings, Parliaments, Judges, or Divines—they have all in their turn betrayed their country. But the Press, so potent for good, is scarcely less so for evil; and unfortunately they who are misled and abused pg 98by its means are the Persons whom it can least benefit—it is the fatal characteristic of their disease to reject all remedies coming from the quarter that has caused or aggravated the malady. I am therefore for vigorous restrictions—but there is scarcely any abuse that I would not endure, rather than sacrifice, or even endanger this freedom.

When I was young, giving myself credit for qualities which I did not possess, and measuring mankind by that standard, I thought it derogatory to human nature to set up Property in preference to Person, as a title for legislative power. That notion has vanished. I now perceive many advantages in our present complex system of Representation, which formerly eluded my observation; this has tempered my ardour for Reform; but if any plan could be contrived for throwing the Representation fairly into the hands of the Property of the Country, and not leaving it so much in the hands of the large Proprietors as it now is, it should have my best support—tho', even in that event, there would be a sacrifice of Personal rights, independent of property, that are now frequently exercised for the benefit of the community.

Be not startled when I say that I am averse to further concessions to the Catholics. My reasons are, that such concessions will not produce harmony among the Catholics themselves—that they, among them who are most clamorous for the measure, care little about it but as a step, first, to the overthrow of the Protestant Estnt in Ireland, as introductory to a Separation of the two Countries—their ultimate aim. That I cannot consent to take the character of a Religion from the declaration of powerful Professors of it disclaiming Doctrines imputed to that religion; that, taking its character from what it actually teaches to the great mass, I believe the Catholic religion to be unchanged in its doctrines and unsoftened in its spirit,—how can it be otherwise unless the doctrine of infallibility be given up? That such concessions would set all other Dissenters in motion—an issue which has never fairly been met by the Friends to concession; and deeming the Church Establishment not only a fundamental part of our Constitution, but one of the greatest Upholders and Propagators of civilization in our own Country, and, lastly, the most effectual and main Support of religious toleration, I cannot but look with jealousy upon Measures which must reduce her relative Influence, unless they be accompanied with arrangements more adequate than any yet adopted for the preservation and increase of that influence, to keep pace with the other Powers in the Community.

pg 99I do not apologize for this long letter, the substance of which you may report to any one worthy of a reply who, in your hearing, may animadvert upon my Political conduct. I ought to have added, perhaps, a word on local politics, but I have not space; but what I should have said may in a great measure be deduced from the above.

[unsigned]

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Notes

Editor’s Note
1 For W. W.'s early association with James Losh, see EY, pp. 185, 213, 219, 222–3, 225–7. Since the turn of the century Losh had been settled in Jesmond, a prominent figure in the political and cultural life of Newcastle, intimate with Grey and Brougham, and a staunch supporter of Parliamentary and educational reform—but debarred by his Unitarian beliefs from public office until the close of his life (he became Recorder of Newcastle in 1833). Though diverging in politics, W. W. and Losh had maintained their friendship, and his MS. Diaries (at Tullie House, Carlisle: published in part, ed. Edward Hughes, for the Surtees Society as The Diary and Correspondence of James Losh 1811–1833, 2 vols., 1962–3) record several meetings between the two in their later years; and they dined together at Woodside shortly before Losh's death. The genesis of the present letter lies in Losh's visit of 12 Sept.: 'I called upon my old friend W. Wordsworth, the poet. He looks thin and old but is, I believe, in good health and seems to be contented with his situation. We both (from the wish I have no doubt to avoid unpleasant discussion) avoided the subjects either of general or local politics.' (Diary, i. 138.) But in an otherwise conciliatory letter on 7 Oct. Losh did refer specifically to a 'change' that had come over W. W.'s views: 'They tell me you have changed your opinions upon many subjects respecting which we used to think alike; but I am persuaded we shall neither of us change those great principles which ought to guide us in our conduct, and lead us to do all the good we can to others. And I am much mistaken if we should not find many things to talk about without disturbing ourselves with political or party disputes.' (Mem. ii. 22–3.) W. W.'s reply is a full and careful defence of his political philosophy, which he regarded as important enough to keep by him; for the only surviving MS. is a draft, or more likely a copy, of the letter actually sent. But his argument did not convince Losh who recorded on 7 Dec.: 'I received a long letter from my old friend William Wordsworth (the Poet) containing a laboured but (in my opinion) very unsuccessful apology for his political apostacy. Towards me, however, he expresses himself in the most friendly terms and I mean to reply to him in a mild but decided manner.' (Diary, i. 144.) Losh's reply, if sent, has not survived.
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