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William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 6: The Later Years: Part III: 1835–1839 (Second Revised Edition)

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  • Address: Mr Sergeant Talfourd M.P., Russell Square, London [In M. W.'s hand]
  • Postmark: (1) 17 June 1838 (2) 19 June 1838.
  • Stamp: Kendal.
  • MS. Lilly Library, Indiana University.3
  • Russell Noyes, 'Wordsworth and the Copyright Act of 1842: Addendum', PMLA lxxvi (1961), 380–3.

[c. 14 June 1838]

[First sheet missing]

  •         'A Book time-cherished and an honor[ed name]
  •         Are high rewards; but bound they Nature's cla[im]
  •         Or Reason's? No—hopes spun in timid line
  •         pg 597From out the bosom of a modest home,
  •         Extend through unambitious years to come,
  •         My careless Little one, for thee and thine!'1

Such is the conclusion of a Sonnet, which I was urged to write the other day on this subject, while I was playing with my little Grandchild upon the front of our Abode. This is the nature, and being the Nature, it is the wisdom, of this truly important question. But the sorrow of this and a thousand other matters of legislation is, that men of the World, and Legislators alas! are too exclusively so, can never screw up their minds to sufficient confidence in the principles of justice as touching any kinds of claim or rights whatsoever. Let justice but proceed in the case before us, and that expediency which, from the blind and narrow views of certain minds, obstruct the course of it, would then be sure to follow in its train. Not only would better Books be produced which is what we want, but they would be circulated in the shape which the last hand of their respective Authors gave them, which if the law be suffered [to s]tand as it now is, will not in a great [many] instances [?].

Tilt,2 and Tegg3 and scores of others, [upon the] decease of an eminent Author, are ready [to sei]ze upon the last Edition of his book or wor[k] which without violation of law may be at their Mercy, [? and] they impudently foist upon the world their publication [as] genuine. In consequence of its being open to them to [do] so, and to republish immediately upon the death of an author what he himself has rejected, Mr Southey, as he tells us in the preface to his Poems, now going through the Press, felt himself obliged to reprint many things which he would gladly have thrown overboard; for if he had not done so, these Harpies would have an advantage over his Heirs; by advertizing their publication as the only complete Edition of his Works. Again; the law, as it now stands, holds out a temptation for an author in the decline of life, to attach to his long-published works gossiping novelties, in the shape of notes or explanations, which only add to the bulk of the things, without any encrease of their pg 598Value, but as the law would protect these new portions he is disposed to turn to account the protection of those parts for the sake of the rest the protection of which has ceased. But the main consideration is, and it cannot be too [much] insisted upon; that by the principles of your bill, a great Author's conscience [? would] be likely to be set at rest when he was labouring [? upon a wo]rk of which the pecuniary return must [?]. [A mar]ried Man with children who is what a [?] to be, must feel it to be his first [duty to] provide for the Woman who has entrusted her fate to him, and for the children which they have brought into the world. How can he go on with hope and heart in his labour, if his means be not sufficient to leave them at ease upon this point. He can not, and he ought not; it is on the contrary his duty to turn to some meaner employment and persist in it till that point shall be secured. Again, as I have hinted before, how unworthy how injurious to a people is it to take an advantage of the enthusiasm and self devotion of such Men of Letters as cannot resist the impulses of their Genius, and toil and toil heedless of what becomes either of themselves, their wives or those whom Nature and Law require that they should take care of. But injustice and the setting at naught of the most sacred feelings of nature, of generosity, of gratitude, all stare one in the face when one thinks of the course pursued by the opponents of your Bill. Never heed—'Sed contra [audentior]ita.'1 You must prevail at last. If you are defeated this Session, we will have in the next an organization wh[ich no] feeble-minded Russels,2 and no [?] thick-headed Lawyers, or hard [? hearted] Economists will be able to resist [?].

Look but a moment at the stupidity of [? these] last, even in their own department. Grant [that] at present certain Productions of Scott and other popular authors which have passed into common right are to be had at very low prices, does it follow that the same cheapness will continue. No, assuredly, the rule will apply here as it does to all other commodities. Underselling will go on, till it answers no longer, and then it will be found pg 599that the best way of having comparatively new books at a low rate is for some one to have an exclusive right of Publishing them. That will secure him from being undersold, while the number of readers daily encreasing through the spread of education, and the improved condition of the people, will make it his interest, upon which he will be sure of acting, to furnish cheap editions for those who cannot afford to buy others; and so all ranks will be provided according to their means and tastes; and let us add, as far from insignificant, Readers according to their ages. Publishers, to meet the rage for low priced Books, are sending forth Voluminous Authors, in one Volume, double columns; but by necessity [in too] small a Type, that men past the middle [years] who are yet unwilling to be driven to [the] use of spectacles cannot read the[m] and others, still older throw them aside, because they must either read, with injured sight, or have recourse to glasses only required by still older people.

A Word or two more upon cheap Books and you shall be released. I have seen a large Volume printed in America for general circulation, within the compass, and in the shape of a newspaper and sold as such, for a penny or three half-pence. Should we gain any thing if our best works in divinity, history, or any other department of solid literature, could be, and were circulated in that shape or way. No, what was lightly procured would be as thoughtlessly destroyed. Accordingly it is a rare thing in most parts of America to discover among people of substance any thing like a library such as we have in almost every house belonging to persons in tolerably good circumstances. Now surely it is the very Books which we are attached to, in the very shape in which we have often read them, that do us the most good; that sink into our hearts, fix our opinions, direct our views, and rectify our [judgement.] Pray forgive this long scrawl, which ho [Ids] [? together] I scarcely know how. I have [purposely left] unattempted any thing like eloquence [even] if it had been within my reach, [though] writing to one of the most eloquent of [? men].

  • God speed you well, my dear M[r. Talfourd.]        
  • W W[ordsworth]  

[In M. W.'s hand]

Upon glancing over this letter I find I have not touched upon two or three points which were present to my mind when I began to write. The one is the hardships which the Children of pg 600Authors labour under as contrasted with those of most other Men—the Lawyer, the Clergyman even who gains the top of his profession—the eminent Physician—the Great Manufacturer or Merchant all either obtain large fortunes, or by patronage which they command, or establishments which they leave behind can provide independence for most of them—or put them in the way of gaining it. But Authors however meritorious—have no situations at their disposal, no patronage—and no means of realizing a fortune—unless possessed of talents like Sir W. Scott, or two or three more—and do not think it beneath them to apply those versatile talents as they did. It is true that many excellent Clergymen and admirable Officers in the Army and Navy, give their time, their abilities their health, their strength and their lives—to the public Service—without obtaining independence, for any portion perhaps of their families. This is a hard very hard case—but cannot be prevented—whereas in the case of deserving Authors extension of [? copyright provides] an opening for the prevention of the evil without any enforced tax [?] whatsoever—and in real truth—no tax at all in the end. [?] [con]clusion point to the fact, that the two most valuable works in these [fields] produced in Europe during the last Century, were Gibbon's Decline and Fall [? and Boswell's] Johnson—neither of which could have been written, had not both [? authors attained] to more than easy circumstances—yet it seems to be the [?] business of a large portion of the Ho: of C. to resist doing away with [?] [whi]ch as much perhaps as any other, hinders the production of [? works of] merit in the same, or other departments of Literature.

—W. W.  

Pray keep this letter—it may be useful to me as memoranda hereafter—if we do not succeed at present.1

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
3 MS. extensively damaged. This letter, of which the opening section is missing, seems to have been written several days before posting.
Editor’s Note
1 See A Poet to his Grandchild (PW iii. 410), dated 23 May 1838, and described as 'a sequel' to A Plea for Authors (PW iii. 58). Both were among the new sonnets included in W. W.'s new volume, but the sequel later dropped out of the collected poems.
Editor’s Note
2 A publisher of popular almanacks.
Editor’s Note
3 For Thomas Tegg see L. 1235 above.
Editor’s Note
1 See Virgil, Aen. vi. 95.
Editor’s Note
2 Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, had considerable influence over the conduct of business in the House, and therefore over the time that could be made available for private members' Bills. He had also developed misgivings about the Copyright Bill. When the Committee stage opened on 1 June he raised many fresh difficulties about it, which he thought should be properly ventilated, and very little progress was made in the discussion.
Editor’s Note
1 On 20 June Talfourd, with the agreement of Gladstone, Mahon and Inglis, agreed to withdraw his Bill until the next session rather than take the risk of having it voted out, and the following day he wrote W. W. a long explanation of their action, concluding, 'I had great pleasure in reading the admirable and triumphant remarks of your long letter. I am almost ashamed to think I have enjoyed the honour of such communications as this, and have done so little to deserve them. I shall preserve it carefully and reverently against the time when its reasonings will again be needed. Assuring you that I can never forsake a cause which has been graced and (to my mind at least) consecrated by the support of your genius …' (Noyes, op. cit., p. 382.)
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