Much of this book deals with political science, and it shows the change which is beginning to take place in Wordsworth's political philosophy. In particular, it features the poet's account of his struggle to find a middle road between the sanguine radicalism of the revolutionary movement in France and the timidity, hesitancy, and slowness of liberal reform in England.
The Terror is over in France. There is very little in the scene to encourage the idealist; nevertheless, the poet is optimistic. The government and senate seem ineffectual, but Wordsworth's hope is in the people. He scoffs at what he considers the futile attempts of British conservatives to stem the tide of progress and reform. He calls them deluded who prophesy disaster wherever the republican cause is not turned back. But he cautions that as a liberal, he bent over backward and endorsed unsound notions simply because the conservatives denounced them. He takes to task the statesmen of Britain for using the law to suit their own ends and thereby wiping out that precious liberty it had taken centuries to acquire.
He returns to his own development. His feelings had always carried the conviction of man's nobility; now he must study man's attempts at polity to find out how law and government foster the nobility in humanity. In particular, he is going to devote himself to the writings of William Godwin. He says of the prospect, in the most-quoted words from the whole poem:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!
This sentiment can be taken as heralding the decline of classicism and the birth of the period of romanticism. Reason is going to permeate the affairs of people. Society is to be molded to the desires of people, all people
in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, — the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!
The poet sees the world as virginal and capable of being shaped to his own image of what things should be. When people made mistakes, he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because he believed the end would soon justify the means. But his attitude changed when Britain went to war with France. His hopes sank even further when France turned from self-defense to aggression and oppression. All that remained were his bare hopes and his old beliefs.
For some time Wordsworth had been studying the doctrines of Godwin and trying to put the rationalism preached by him into practice. This course has not, however, satisfied the deep need for feeling that the poet has. But he reaffirms his anticipation of the working of the passions once more through reason and the building by humanity of "social upon personal Liberty." His expectation is that man will rise to great heights and yet not sacrifice his basic nature.
Established institutions and their aristocratic defenders, law and custom, had fallen into disgrace. Ordinary people were having their eyes opened. Old opinions were crumbling. Wordsworth says his mind was both let loose and goaded. He dedicated himself to working for the new society and to that end tried to search out from existing society and government what would be best for all people. He subjected "all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds" to severe scrutiny. But truth eluded him. In very bitter terms, he denounces Godwin's utilitarian rationalism as a tool for social justice. He says he was
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of obligation, what the rule and whence
The sanction; till, demanding formal proof,
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.
Before he was to resolve this dilemma, even his very religion was threatened. But the end of his malaise was in sight; he will emerge from it an adult with a purpose in life. It is only by passing through this moral crisis that he will come to ethical maturity and be able to teach others about right and wrong through feeling and poetry:
This was the crisis of that strong disease,
This the soul's last and lowest ebb; I drooped,
Deeming our blessed reason of least use
Where wanted most: "The lordly attributes
Of will and choice," I bitterly exclaimed,
"What are they but a mockery of a Being
Who hath in no concerns of his a test
Of good and evil."
Instead of trying to divert himself through simple pleasures, he turned to even more complicated study. He says it was his sister Dorothy who kept alive his faith in himself by the constant reminder that his basic feelings had not changed, but merely broadened. It was she who finally convinced him he was by nature a poet. He and Dorothy began long walking trips at this time, and it was the getting back amid natural surroundings that restored in him "those sweet counsels between head and heart" that make for a balanced outlook.
This new composure stood him in good stead and does even as he writes (1805), when Napoleon not long since has betrayed the aims of the Revolution by being crowned emperor at the hands of the pope. Coleridge is in the Mediterranean, and Wordsworth thinks of him as being among the "fallen" nations. He is reminded of Sicily, which has lately felt Napoleon's wrath, and is saddened because its glorious past — like that of France herself — cannot stir the people to present patriotism. He tells Coleridge:
One great society alone on earth:
The noble Living and the noble Dead.
He refers sorrowfully to Coleridge's illness, which has driven him away from England to warmer climates. He speaks of his missing Coleridge and prays for his recovery.
He tells us that as a child he dreamed of Sicily, without ever having seen it. Thinking of Sicilian seas and vales, his spirit brightens; the thought of her great poets and thinkers of antiquity gladdens him. In an imaginary setting which evokes the rich symbols of the classical landscape, the poet sees Coleridge disguised as one of the poets of antiquity. He sees him drinking inspiration at the fountain of Arethuse (or some other) — a devoted disciple of the Muses, not a prisoner in exile.