Nor was this attitude of Johnny Head-in-Air the mark only of his later years. It appeared in the days when he and Coleridge collaborated in bringing out Lyrical Ballads. There is something sublimely egotistical in the way in which he shook his head over The Ancient Mariner as a drag upon that miraculous volume. In the course of a letter to his publisher, he wrote:—
From what I can gather it seems that The Ancyent Marinere has, on the whole, been an injury to the volume; I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second edition, I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.
It is when one reads sentences like these that one begins to take a mischievous delight in the later onslaught of a Scottish reviewer who, indignant that Wordsworth should dare to pretend to be able to appreciate Burns, denounced him as “a retired, pensive, egotistical, collector of stamps,” and as—
a melancholy, sighing,
half-parson sort of gentleman, who lives in
a small circle of old maids and sonneteers, and drinks tea now and
then with the solemn Laureate.
One feels at times that no ridicule or abuse of this stiff-necked old fraud could be excessive; for, if he were not Wordsworth, as what but a fraud could we picture him in his later years, as he protests against Catholic Emancipation, the extension of the franchise, the freedom of the Press, and popular education? “Can it, in a general view,” he asks, “be good that an infant should learn much which its parents do not know? Will not a child arrogate a superiority unfavourable to love and obedience?” He shuddered again at the likelihood that Mechanics’ Institutes would “make discontented spirits and insubordinate and presumptuous workmen.” He opposed the admission of Dissenters to Cambridge University, and he “desired that a medical education should be kept beyond the reach of a poor student,” on the ground that “the better able the parents are to incur expense, the stronger pledge have we of their children being above meanness and unfeeling and sordid habits.” One might go on quoting instance after instance of this piety of success, as it might be called. Time and again the words seem to come from the mouth, not of one of the inspired men of the modern world, but of some puffed-up elderly gentleman in a novel by Jane Austen. His letter to a young relation who wished to marry his daughter Dora is a letter that Jane Austen might have invented:—