PETER BELL: A Tale in Verse, by William Wordsworth. London: Printed by Strahan and Spottiswoode, Printers-Street: for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, Paternoster Row. 1819.
None of Wordsworth's productions are better known by name than Peter Bell, and yet few, probably, are less familiar, even to convinced Wordsworthians. The poet's biographers and critics have commonly shirked the responsibility of discussing this poem, and when the Primrose stanza has been quoted, and the Parlour stanza smiled at, there is usually no more said about Peter Bell. A puzzling obscurity hangs around its history. We have no positive knowledge why its publication was so long delayed; nor, having been delayed, why it was at length determined upon. Yet a knowledge of this poem is not merely an important, but, to a thoughtful critic, an essential element in the comprehension of Wordsworth's poetry. No one who examines that body of literature with sympathetic attention should be content to overlook the piece in which Wordsworth's theories are pushed to their furthest extremity.
When Peter Bell was published in April 1819, the author remarked that it had "nearly survived its minority; for it saw the light in the summer of 1798." It was therefore composed at Alfoxden, that plain stone house in West Somersetshire, which Dorothy and William Wordsworth rented for the sum of £23 for one year, the rent covering the use of "a large park, with seventy head of deer."
Thanks partly to its remoteness from a railway, and partly also to the peculiarities of its family history, Alfoxden remains singularly unaltered. The lover of Wordsworth who follows its deep umbrageous drive to the point where the house, the park around it, and the Quantocks above them suddenly break upon the view, sees to-day very much what Wordsworth's visitors saw when they trudged up from Stowey to commune with him in 1797. The barrier of ancient beech-trees running up into the moor, Kilve twinkling below, the stretch of fields and woods descending northward to the expanse of the yellow Severn Channel, the plain white façade of Alfoxden itself, with its easy right of way across the fantastic garden, the tumultuous pathway down to the glen, the poet's favourite parlour at the end of the house–all this presents an impression which is probably less transformed, remains more absolutely intact, than any other which can be identified with the early or even the middle life of the poet. That William and Dorothy, in their poverty, should have rented so noble a country property seems at first sight inexplicable, and the contrast between Alfoxden and Coleridge's squalid pot-house in Nether Stowey can never cease to be astonishing. But the sole object of the trustees in admitting Wordsworth to Alfoxden was, as Mrs. Sandford has discovered, "to keep the house inhabited during the minority of the owner;" it was let to the poet on the 14th of July 1797.
It was in this delicious place, under the shadow of "smooth Quantock's airy ridge," that Wordsworth's genius came of age. It was during the twelve months spent here that Wordsworth lost the final traces of the old traditional accent of poetry. It was here that the best of the Lyrical Ballads were written, and from this house the first volume of that epoch-making collection was forwarded to the press. Among the poems written at Alfoxden Peter Bell was prominent, but we hear little of it except from Hazlitt, who, taken over to the Wordsworths by Coleridge from Nether Stowey, was on a first visit permitted to read "the sibylline leaves," and on a second had the rare pleasure of hearing Wordsworth himself chant Peter Bell, in his "equable, sustained, and internal" manner of recitation, under the ash-trees of Alfoxden Park. I do not know whether it has been noted that the landscape of Peter Bell, although localised in Yorkshire by the banks of the River Swale, is yet pure Somerset in character. The poem was composed, without a doubt, as the poet tramped the grassy heights of the Quantock Hills, or descended at headlong pace, mouthing and murmuring as he went, into one sylvan combe after another. To give it its proper place among the writings of the school, we must remember that it belongs to the same group as Tintern Abbey and The Ancient Mariner.
Why, then, was it not issued to the world with these? Why was it locked up in the poet's desk for twenty-one years, and shown during that time, as we gather from its author's language to Southey, to few, even of his close friends? To these questions we find no reply vouchsafed, but perhaps it is not difficult to discover one. Every revolutionist in literature or art produces some composition in which he goes further than in any other in his defiance of recognised rules and conventions. It was Wordsworth's central theory that no subject can be too simple and no treatment too naked for poetic purposes. His poems written at Alfoxden are precisely those in which he is most audacious in carrying out his principle, and nothing, even of his, is quite so simple or quite so naked as Peter Bell.
Hazlitt, a very young man, strongly prejudiced in favour of the new ideas, has given us a notion of the amazement with which he listened to these pieces of Wordsworth, although he was "not critically nor sceptically inclined." Others, we know, were deeply scandalised. I have little doubt that Wordsworth himself considered that, in 1798, his own admirers were scarcely ripe for the publication of Peter Bell, while, even so late as June 1812, when Crabb Robinson borrowed the MS. and lent it to Charles Lamb, the latter "found nothing good in it." Robinson seems to have been the one admirer of Peter Bell at that time, and he was irritated at Lamb's indifference. Yet his own opinion became modified when the poem was published, and (May 3, 1819) he calls it "this unfortunate book." In another place (June 12, 1820) Crabb Robinson says that he implored Wordsworth, before the book was printed, to omit "the party in a parlour," and also the banging of the ass's bones, but, of course, in vain.
[Footnote 1: The word unfortunate is omitted by the editor, Thomas Sadler, perhaps in deference to the feelings of Wordsworth's descendants.]
In 1819 much was changed. The poet was now in his fiftieth year. The epoch of his true productiveness was closed; all his best works, except The Prelude, were before the public, and although Wordsworth was by no means widely or generally recognised yet as a great poet, there was a considerable audience ready to receive with respect whatever so interesting a person should put forward. Moreover, a new generation had come to the front; Scott's series of verse-romances was closed; Byron was in mid-career; there were young men of extraordinary and somewhat disquieting talent–Shelley, Keats, and Leigh Hunt–all of whom were supposed to be, although characters of a very reprehensible and even alarming class, yet distinctly respectful in their attitude towards Mr. Wordsworth. It seemed safe to publish Peter Bell.
Accordingly, the thin octavo described at the head of this chapter duly appeared in April 1819. It was so tiny that it had to be eked out with the Sonnets written to W. Westall's Views, and it was adorned by an engraving of Bromley's, after a drawing specially made by Sir George Beaumont to illustrate the poem. A letter to Beaumont, unfortunately without a date, in which this frontispiece is discussed, seems to suggest that the engraving was a gift from the artist to the poet; Wordsworth, "in sorrow for the sickly taste of the public in verse," opining that he cannot afford the expense of such a frontispiece as Sir George Beaumont suggests. In accordance with these fears, no doubt, an edition of only 500 was published; but it achieved a success which Wordsworth had neither anticipated nor desired. There was a general guffaw of laughter, and all the copies were immediately sold; within a month a ribald public received a third edition, only to discover, with disappointment, that the funniest lines were omitted.
No one admired Peter Bell. The inner circle was silent. Baron Field wrote on the title-page of his copy, which now belongs to Mr. J. Dykes Campbell, "And his carcass was cast in the way, and the Ass stood by it." Sir Walter Scott openly lamented that Wordsworth should exhibit himself "crawling on all fours, when God has given him so noble a countenance to lift to heaven." Byron mocked aloud, and, worse than all, the young men from whom so much had been expected, les jeunes feroces, leaped on the poor uncomplaining Ass like so many hunting-leopards. The air was darkened by hurtling parodies, the arrangement of which is still a standing crux to the bibliographers.
It was Keats's friend, John Hamilton Reynolds, who opened the attack. His parody (Peter Bell: a Lyrical Ballad. London, Taylor and Hessey, 1819) was positively in the field before the original. It was said, at the time, that Wordsworth, feverishly awaiting a specimen copy of his own Peter Bell from town, seized a packet which the mail brought him, only to find that it was the spurious poem which had anticipated Simon Pure. The Times protested that the two poems must be from the same pen. Reynolds had probably glanced at proofs of the genuine poem; his preface is a close imitation of Wordsworth's introduction, and the stanzaic form in which the two pieces are written is identical. On the other hand, the main parody is made up of allusions to previous poems by Wordsworth, and shows no acquaintance with the story of Peter Bell. Reynolds's whole pamphlet–preface, text, and notes–is excessively clever, and touches up the bard at a score of tender points. It catches the sententious tone of Wordsworth deliciously, and it closes with this charming stanza:
He quits that moonlight yard of skulls,
And still he feels right glad, and smiles
With moral joy at that old tomb;
Peter's cheek recalls its bloom,
And as he creepeth by the tiles,
He mutters ever–"W.W.
Never more will trouble you, trouble you."
Peter Bell the Second, as it is convenient, though not strictly accurate, to call Reynold's "antenatal Peter," was more popular than the original. By May a third edition had been called for, and this contained fresh stanzas and additional notes.
Another parody, which ridiculed the affection for donkeys displayed both by Wordsworth and Coleridge, was called The Dead Asses: A Lyrical Ballad; and an elaborate production, the author of which I have not been able to discover, was published later on in the year, Benjamin the Waggoner (Baldwin, Craddock and Joy, 1819), which, although the title suggests The Waggoner of Wordsworth, is entirely taken up with making fun of Peter Bell. This parody–and it is certainly neither pointless nor unskilful–chiefly deals with the poet's fantastic prologue. Then, no less a person than Shelley, writing to Leigh Hunt from Florence in November of the same year, enclosed a Peter Bell the Third which he desired should be printed, yet in such a form as to conceal the name of the author. Perhaps Hunt thought it indiscreet to publish this not very amusing skit, and it did not see the light till long after Shelley's death. Finally, as though the very spirit of parody danced in the company of this strange poem, Wordsworth himself chronicled its ill-fate in a sonnet imitated from Milton's defence of "Tetrachordon," singing how, on the appearance of Peter Bell,
a harpy brood
On Bard and Hero clamourously fell.
Of the poem which enjoyed so singular a fate, Lord Houghton has quietly remarked that it could not have been written by a man with a strong sense of humour. This is true of every part of it, of the stiff and self-sufficient preface, and of the grotesque prologue, both of which in all probability belong to 1819, no less than of the story itself, in its three cantos or parts, which bear the stamp of Alfoxden and 1798. The tale is not less improbable than uninteresting. In the first part, a very wicked potter or itinerant seller of pots, Peter Bell, being lost in the woodland, comes to the borders of a river, and thinks to steal an ass which he finds pensively hanging its head over the water; Peter Bell presently discovers that the dead body of the master of the ass is floating in the river just below. (The poet, as he has naively recorded, read this incident in a newspaper.) In the second part Peter drags the dead man to land, and starts on the ass's back to find the survivors. In the third part a vague spiritual chastisement falls on Peter Bell for his previous wickedness. Plot there is no more than this, and if proof were wanted of the inherent innocence of Wordsworth's mind, it is afforded by the artless struggles which he makes to paint a very wicked man. Peter Bell has had twelve wives, he is indifferent to primroses upon a river's brim, and he beats asses when they refuse to stir. This is really all the evidence brought against one who is described, vaguely, as combining all vices that "the cruel city breeds."
That which close students of the genius of Wordsworth will always turn to seek in Peter Bell is the sincere sentiment of nature and the studied simplicity of language which inspire its best stanzas. The narrative is clumsy in the extreme, and the attempts at wit and sarcasm ludicrous. Yet Peter Bell contains exquisite things. The Primrose stanza is known to every one; this is not so familiar:
The dragon's wing, the magic ring
, I shall not covet for my dower.
If I along that lowly way
With sympathetic heart may stray
And with a soul of power.
Nor this, with its excruciating simplicity, its descriptive accent of 1798:
I see a blooming Wood-boy there,
And, if I had the power to say
How sorrowful the wanderer is,
Your heart would be as sad as his
Till you had kiss'd his tears away!
Holding a hawthorn branch in hand,
All bright with berries ripe and red;
Into the cavern's mouth he peeps–
Thence back into the moonlight creeps;
What seeks the boy?–the silent dead!
It is when he wishes to describe how Peter Bell became aware of the dead body floating under the nose of the patient ass that Wordsworth loses himself in uncouth similes. Peter thinks it is the moon, then the reflection of a cloud, then a gallows, a coffin, a shroud, a stone idol, a ring of fairies, a fiend. Last of all the poet makes the Potter, who is gazing at the corpse, exclaim:
Is it a party in a parlour?
Cramm'd just as they on earth were cramm'd–
Some sipping punch, some sipping tea,
But, as you by their faces see,
All silent and all damned!
So deplorable is the waggishness of a person, however gifted, who has no sense of humour! This simile was too much for the gravity even of intimate friends like Southey and Lamb, and after the second edition it disappeared.