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William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 5: The Later Years: Part II: 1829–1834 (Second Revised Edition)

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  • Address: The Revd Alex. Dyce, 9 Grey's Inn Sqre, London.
  • Postmark: 23 Apr. [? 1833].
  • Stamp: Kendal Penny Post.
  • MS. Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • Mem. Grosart. K.
  • LY ii. 651.

[c. 22 Apr. 1833]

My dear Sir,

The dedication1 which you propose I shall esteem as an honor; nor do I conceive upon what ground, but an over-scrupulous modesty, I could object to it.

Be assured that Mr Southey will not have the slightest unwillingness to your making any use you think proper of his Memoir of Bampfylde:2 I shall not fail to mention the subject to him upon the first opportunity.

You propose to give specimens of the best Sonnet-writers in our language. May I ask if by this be meant a Selection of the best Sonnets, best both as to kind and degree? A Sonnet may be excellent in its kind, but that kind of very inferior interest to one of a higher order, though not perhaps in every minute particular quite so well executed, and from the pen of a writer of inferior Genius. It should seem that the best rule to follow, would be, first to pitch upon the Sonnets which are best both in kind and perfectness of execution, and, next, those which, although of a humbler quality, are admirable for the finish and happiness of the execution, taking care to exclude all those which have not one or other of these recommendations, however striking they might be as characteristic of the age pg 604in which the author lived, or some peculiarity of his manner. The tenth sonnet of Donne, beginning 'Death, be not proud', is so eminently characteristic of his manner, and at the same time so weighty in thought, and vigorous in the expression, that I would entreat you to insert it,1 though to modem taste it may be repulsive, quaint, and laboured.

There are two sonnets of Russell,2 which, in all probability, you may have noticed, 'Could, then, the Babes', and the one upon Philoctetes, the last six lines of which are first-rate. Southey's Sonnet to Winter3 pleases me much; but, above all, among modem writers, that of Sir Egerton Brydges, upon Echo and Silence.4 Miss Williams's Sonnet upon Twilight is pleasing; that upon Hope of great merit.5

Do you mean to have a short preface upon the Construction of the Sonnet? Though I have written so many, I have scarcely made up my own mind upon the subject. It should seem that the Sonnet, like every other legitimate composition, ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end—in other words, to consist of three parts, like the three propositions of a syllogism, if such an illustration may be used. But the frame of metre adopted by the Italians does not accord with this view, and, as adhered to by them, it seems to be, if not arbitrary, best fitted to a division of the sense into two parts, of eight and six lines each. Milton, however, has not submitted to this. In the better half of his sonnets the sense does not close with the rhyme at the eighth line, but overflows into the second portion of the metre. Now it has struck me, that this is not done merely to gratify the ear by variety and freedom of sound, but also to aid in giving that pervading sense of intense Unity in which the excellence of the Sonnet has always seemed to me mainly to pg 605consist. Instead of looking at this composition as a piece of architecture, making a whole out of three parts, I have been much in the habit of preferring the image of an orbicular body,—a sphere—or a dew-drop. All this will appear to you a little fanciful; and I am well aware that a Sonnet will often be found excellent, where the beginning, the middle, and the end are distinctly marked, and also where it is distinctly separated into two parts, to which, as I before observed, the strict Italian model, as they write it, is favorable. Of this last construction of Sonnet, Russell's upon Philoctetes is a fine specimen; the first eight lines give the hardship of the case, the six last the consolation, or the per-contra.1 Ever faithfully,

  • Your much obliged Friend and Sernt,    
  • W. Wordsworth  

Do not pay the postage of your letter to me.

In the case of the Cumberland poet,2 I overlooked a most pathetic circumstance. While he was lying under the tree, and his friends were saving what they could from the flames, he desired them to bring out the box that contained his papers if possible. A person went back for it, but the bottom dropped out and the papers fell into the flames and were consumed. Immediately upon hearing this the poor old Man expired.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 Of Dyce's Specimens of English Sonnets, which appeared later this year (see also L. 792 below). He included fifteen of W. W.'s, speaking of them as 'in power and poetic feeling superior to all similar compositions in the language, save those of Shakespeare and Milton' (p. 222).
Editor’s Note
2 John Codrington Bampfylde (1754–96) quitted his native Devon for London, and failing to secure the patronage of Sir Joshua Reynolds, he fell into dissipation, was confined in a madhouse, and finally died of consumption. In 1778 he published a quarto volume of Sixteen Sonnets, which Southey called 'some of the most original in our language'. See Southey's Specimens of Later English Poets, 3 vols., 1807, iii. 434 for his Memoir of Bampfylde, and his letter to Sir Egerton Brydges (1809) quoted in The Autobiography of Sir Egerton Brydges, 2 vols., 1834, ii. 257–61. Dyce included eleven of Bampfylde's sonnets, Specimens, pp. 140–50.
Editor’s Note
1Dyce took W. W.'s advice and printed the sonnet. Specimens, p. 108.
Editor’s Note
2 Thomas Russell (see pt. i, L. 61), Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems, 1789, pp. 10, 13. Dyce included W. W.'s two suggestions and three other sonnets by Russell, Specimens, pp. 161–4.
Editor’s Note
8 'A wrinkled, crabbed man they picture thee, Old Winter'‚ Poetical Works, 10 vols., 1838, ii. 97. The sonnet was written in 1799. Dyce included it in his Specimens, p. 185.
Editor’s Note
4 Sir Egerton Brydges, Sonnets, and other poems, 1785, p. 5. The sonnet is dated 20 Oct. 1782. Dyce included it in his Specimens, p. 160. W. W. wrote the following note at Lee Priory on 16 May 1823: ''I cannot resist an impulse to record my admiration for this Sonnet. In creative imagination it is not surpassed by any composition, of the kind, in our Language. The feelings of melancholy and joyousness are most happily contrasted; and the intermediate line that describes the evanescence of Silence, is sublime.' (See Cornell Wordsworth Collection, no. 2222.)
Editor’s Note
5 Helen Maria Williams, Poems on Various Subjects, 1823, pp. 203–4. Dyce included To Hope (Specimens, p. 172), but not To Twilight.
Editor’s Note
1 Dyce replied on 5 July: 'The remarks on Sonnet-writing with which you favoured me are very interesting: the consciousness that I should be able to offer only commonplace observations on that subject deterred me from attempting the Essay with which 1 originally intended to usher in the volume.'(WL MSS.)
Editor’s Note
2 Thomas Sanderson. See L. 752 above.
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