In arguing for the dialogic relationship that inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge, Paul Magnuson says that "reading only Coleridge's poetry or only Wordsworth's is somewhat like listening to half of a telephone conversation" (Coleridge and Wordsworth: A Lyrical Dialogue, 18). One could argue that reading the letters of only one correspondent in an extended exchange is likewise an experience of half-knowledge, half-understanding. Complementing The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years, Part One and Part Two, Jessica Fay's edition of the letters of the Beaumonts to the Wordsworths now makes possible a two-way understanding of their personal relationship as well as a new perspective on the creative relationship Wordsworth and Beaumont experienced.
More than a hundred letters sent by Sir George and Lady Beaumont to the Wordsworths have survived. Besides expertly editing them, Fay glosses their details with eighty-five pages of notes. Also, to explain the unique "creative exchange" between Wordsworth and Sir George Beaumont, she provides a substantial introductory essay on a selection of their letters. Furthermore, as an important enhancement to our understanding of their creative exchange, Fay offers twelve color illustrations, including Beaumont's frontispieces for Wordsworth editions and the paintings of Beaumont, Constable, and Rubens discussed in the letters.
Organized chronologically, the letters are divided into five parts; Part I, 1803-1806, includes nineteen letters that culminate in Wordsworth's response to Beaumont's painting, Peele Castle in a Storm, in "Elegiac Stanzas." The twenty-four letters of Part II, 1807-1813, treat intellectual and family matters, but also tend to introduce Wordsworth to a wider public in London as well as increasing his intimacy with the Beaumont circle and the estate at Coleorton; here too we find Beaumont acting as an intermediary with Lord Lonsdale in Wordsworth's pursuit of an appointment as Distributor of Stamps in 1813. The nineteen letters of Part III, 1814-1818, bridge a lacuna in the Wordsworth correspondence of the Middle Years, Part II, which includes only one letter from Wordsworth to Beaumont between 1812-1820. That letter of Feb 1, 1815, is of signal importance, however, for becoming the dedication of Poems, 1815 to Beaumont. The letters of Part III also establish the Beaumonts as Wordsworth's ideal readers, especially of The Excursion. The twenty-one letters of Part IV, 1819-1827, represent the last phase of Beaumont's life as he meditatively compares Wordsworth's poetry of visionary landscapes with paintings of natural scenes representing "Glory in the abstract." In many letters, he obsesses over a sunset scene that he and Lady Beaumont witnessed with Wordsworth, who then described it with "miraculous power" in The Excursion, Book II (ll. 864-916). Recalling the trance Wordsworth experienced in situ, Beaumont writes that the "complete blending of earth and heaven" in The Excursion brings the vision back to him again (Letter 68, 1821). Part IV, which concludes with Lady Beaumont's letter announcing the death of Sir George on February 7, 1827, also includes her letters of concern over the children of the Coleridge and Wordsworth families. Besides financially supporting their academic endeavors, the Beaumonts meant to introduce Coleridge's daughter Sara to the London cultural scene. In the seventeen letters of Part V, 1827-1829, Lady Beaumont writes to William, Dorothy, and Mary about gardening, religious meditation, national politics, and the consolation she finds in Wordsworth's poetry during her bereavement.
Fay's long essay on the "creative exchange" between Beaumont and Wordsworth describes a "rapprochement" between neoclassical and romantic aesthetics, with Beaumont's aspiration to capture the "Ideal Form" in painting complementing the poet's celebration of the "notoriously particular," as if painter and poet were "tunnelling towards one another from opposite shores" (p. 27). As a disciple of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Beaumont extolled to the poet Reynolds's neoclassical Discourses on Art even as he delighted in Wordsworth's radical experimentation in Lyrical Ballads. In the first notable instance of Beaumont's influence on the poet, his Peele Castle in A Storm inspired Wordsworth's "Elegiac Stanzas. . . ." , Typically, commentators link this poem to Wordsworth's unpublished elegiac poems on his brother John's death at sea, such as "To the Daisy," "I only looked for pain and grief," "Elegiac Verses," and "Distressful gift! This book receives" (P2V, 608-18), or to the poems published with "Elegiac Stanzas" in Poems, in Two Volumes (1807), "The Character of the Happy Warrior" and "Ode to Duty." But prompted by the letters, Fay links "Elegiac Stanzas" to other texts as well as the painting itself: to Lecture 15 of Reynolds's Discourses, to the sonnets of Michelangelo that Wordsworth was translating, and to a poem by Beaumont's ancestor Sir John Beaumont entitled "An Act of Hope." All of these, she writes, help us to read the concluding line-- "Not without hope we suffer and we mourn,"--as a hard-won way of connecting "suffering, humility, Christian hope, and 'Ideal Form'" (p. 22).
As his creative relationship with Wordsworth evolved---reflected in the next two sections of thirty or more letters---Beaumont painted responses illustrative, not imitative, of the poems he especially admired, "The Thorn," "Peter Bell," "Lucy Gray," and "The White Doe of Rylstone." Apropos of "The Thorn," painter and poet amusingly disagreed over the size of the hawthorn tree and the age of Martha Ray. After displaying his painting of "The Thorn" at the Royal Academy in 1806, Beaumont gave it to the Wordsworths.
William, Dorothy, Mary, and their servant Molly examined the painting for ten days--after which they conveyed their objections along with their thanks. While they admired the painting, they found several faults: Martha Ray appeared too old and the hawthorn tree too tall, not just because the poem describes it as "Not higher than a two-years' child" (l. 5), but also because, as Molly observed, "upon a high place the boughs never grew so high as the middle bough." They all agreed, Wordsworth explains, that the height of the hawthorn in Beaumont's painting was a horticultural mistake. Mary and Dorothy also found Beaumont's Martha looking too old. Although Wordsworth himself "did not feel this much," he felt it enough to repeat their critique (MY, I, 78).
Beaumont's gracious reply exemplifies his neoclassical bent as well as his belief that painting should function as embellishment rather than imitation in its engagement with poetry as a sister art. He wasn't trying to illustrate the poem, he says, which would be a futile competitive endeavor, but rather to paint what the poem inspired. The size and place of the tree may well be an error in fact, he adds, but it is an ideal tree for the painting, and Martha's aged appearance was his attempt to make her a more interesting, less atypical, character: "in fact I thought that there was more dignity & character in an old woman than in a middle aged one, & that her being supposed to have persevered in this practice for a long course of years, rather added to the interest of the story . . ." (Letter 17, 83-84). By this means, Fay argues, the painting serves as a "visual epilogue" that "extends the narrative time of the poem . . . and sends the viewer back to the text with retrospective sympathy" from a "new temporal vantage point" (pp. 28-29).
Years later, another of Beaumont's "non-illustrative" embellishments of Wordsworth's poems found its place as a frontispiece to Volume I of Poems (1815):
Engraved by J. C. Bromley, Beaumont's Cottage in a Wintry Landscape directs the reader to "Lucy Gray" on page 14. While it isn't obvious, as Fay observes, why "Lucy Gray" deserves the attention of a frontispiece, this one further exemplifies Beaumont's non-illustrative embellishments. Called the "snowy cottage" because it features a thatched cottage with its snowy roof glistening in the moonlight, the painting/engraving shows a woman at right shining her lantern as she walks away from the cottage, and in the doorway on the left, a smaller, dark--even obscure--figure with a man's hat turned towards the woman. In the poem, the father sends Lucy to town with a lantern to light her mother home through an imminent snowstorm. But is the woman in the painting Lucy's mother, now engaged in a role reversal? She is shining a lantern, but not alongside her husband, and not necessarily on the night they discovered Lucy's footprints on the bridge. Make of it what you will, the painting/frontispiece invites speculation, which serves the aesthetic purpose of Beaumont's embellishments. One must assume that Wordsworth was pleased with them as well.
If the frontispieces were proof of Wordsworth's respect for Sir George as a fellow artist, Wordsworth also dedicated Poems (1815) to him "as a lasting memorial of a friendship, which I reckon among the blessings of my life." Wordsworth's dedication comes verbatim from a letter he wrote to Beaumont in February 1815 in the twelfth year of their relationship. In 1806, Wordsworth responded to Beaumont's comment that "I never see you, or read you but I am the better for it" (Letter 19, 86) with a statement that remains to be fully appreciated from a poet who reserved his friendship for a chosen few:
I will say this, and this only, that I esteem your friendship
one of the best gifts of my life; I and my family owe much
to you and Lady Beaumont, I need not say that I do not
mean any addition to our comforts or happiness, which . . .
you have been enabled to make; but I speak of soul indebted
to soul . . . (MY, I, 94).
The letters throughout this volume show that the relationship between Wordsworth and Beaumont sprang not from patronage between an aristocrat and a near-indigent genius, but from respect, trust, and love: "soul indebted to soul" in Wordsworth's remarkable assessment. Strictly speaking, Wordsworth's patron was Lord Lowther, the descendent of his father's employer, who finally paid the Wordsworth family their father's due in 1803, and later procured Wordsworth employment as Distributor of Stamps and then justice of the peace. When Wordsworth felt awkward in accepting Lowther's acts of generosity, Sir George advised him.
A few final thoughts are prompted by this fine edition. While some biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth make no mention of Lady Beaumont, her sixteen letters to Dorothy and Dorothy's responses now shed fresh light on an important relationship in Dorothy's life. Sir George Beaumont's relationship with Wordsworth may also deepen our understanding of Wordsworth's psychobiography, specifically his search for a father. Like Michel de Beaupuy and William Godwin, Beaumont was approximately fifteen years older than the poet when he came to know him during a challenging period of his life.. Of these three mentors, it is now clear that Wordsworth developed the strongest and the longest of relationships with Beaumont, as if he were the father figure who was finally found. Also, unlike Beaupuy and Godwin, Beaumont has left us an abundance of epistolary evidence to assess his impact on Wordsworth. In the words of Magnuson, these letters let us hear both sides of their conversation.
Richard Matlak is Professor of English Emeritus at Holy Cross College.