The Independent 11 August 1998

Kenneth R. Johnston - Did Wordsworth take the King's shilling?

The name "Wordsworth" appears in two secret Home Office memoranda, one from 1797, the other 1799. The first is undoubtedly that of the great Romantic poet, at the time an unknown 27-year-old suspected of nefarious doings by his neighbours in Somerset. The Duke of Portland, then Home Secretary, sent an agent to investigate. He reported that the suspicious people were "a gang of disaffected Englishmen", and that the name of one was "Wordsworth, a name I think known to Mr Ford". Richard Ford was the key person linking the Home and Foreign offices, the liaison by which Portland created his new "secret service".

The second mention occurs in Portland's secret paybook, recording a payment of £92 12s to "Mr Wordsworth" on 13 June 1799 - six weeks after William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy returned from a seven-month sojourn in Germany. The name above Wordsworth's in this entry is Richard Ford. The name below it is Sir James Crawfurd, the British charge d'affaires in Hamburg. Strong circumstantial evidence connects these two mentions of the name Wordsworth in Home Office records, establishing that he was known by Portland and his agents from the time he lived near Coleridge in Somerset until he returned "home" to Grasmere in 1799. Further research and interpretation will establish - or disprove - that Portland's "Mr Wordsworth" is "our" Wordsworth, the poet of daffodils and imagination, who died as Poet Laureate in 1850.

What to make of these new facts, supposing them to be true and accurate? They have considerable implications for Wordsworth's reputation, estimates of his poetry and of his biographical character. Coming from the United States, which many Europeans seem to consider the Land of Political Correctness, I have been surprised at a different PC reaction from some British readers. They seem to think it impossible that Wordsworth could have been involved in such dealings. Or, if they must accept that he was, their faith in his poetic stature is badly shaken. One reviewer suggested that Wordsworth could not have written The Prelude if he was a spy in Germany. A man at the "Ways with Words" festival in Dartington told me that if Wordsworth had "taken the King's shilling", he would never be able to read his poetry in the same way again.

I would hope so. Wordsworth's development is more exciting and dramatic than we have been led to believe, principally by the poet himself, in The Prelude, his magnificently crafted autobiographical epic. But the point is not that he was therefore a liar, a faker, and a cheat. Revelations about his 1792 love affair and illegitimate child with Annette Vallon, first published in the 1920s, caused similar over-reactions. But most readers have by now accepted it, and they will have to do the same, willy-nilly, with his Home Office connections. Wordsworth's co-operation with Pitt's government simply confirms his abandoning of revolutionary principles and, by extension, the complicities of "genius" with established power up and down the length of British and American literary history.

Rather than political correctness of either sort, this new information requires interpretation. If Wordsworth was a "spy," is he guilty of "treachery and desertion in the place / The holiest that I knew of, my own soul" (The Prelude x, 379-80)? The answer for me has been that the actions, poetical, political, and otherwise, by which he created his marvellous image of the Poet as "a man speaking to me . . . bringing everywhere with him relationship and love" were more difficult and challenging than we have realised.

Kenneth R. Johnston is the author of The Hidden Wordsworth: poet, lover, rebel, spy (W.W. Norton)


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles