William Wordsworth to Benjamin Dockray, c.1840

Friday 2 October 2020

In the next part of our series highlighting the Marseille Middleton Holloway autograph albums, gifted to the University Library a few years ago, we take a look at the letter from William Wordsworth to Benjamin Dockray, c.1840.

Mezzotint of Wordsworth by Edward McInnes, published by Sir Francis Graham Moon, after a print by Margaret Gillies and published 6 August 1841, ms39022/2

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland. After education at Hawkshead in Furness in Lancashire he studied at St John’s College Cambridge as an undergraduate, although his time there was not marked with academic success. He and his sister Dorothy became friends of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and lived near him in Somerset before moving to Dove Cottage at Grasmere in the Lake District. Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798. This collection of poems is generally taken to mark the beginning of the Romantic movement in English poetry but were greeted with hostility by most critics. His poetry was inspired by an absorbing love of nature, written amongst the lakes and mountains where he spent most of his life. Wordsworth succeeded Robert Southey as Poet Laureate in 1843. His great autobiographical poem, ‘The Prelude’, which he had worked on since 1798, was published after his death.

Letter from William Wordsworth to Benjamin Dockray, c.1840.

In this letter Wordsworth writes to Benjamin Dockray, whose reflections on moral and topical subjects were collected under the title Egeria in the 1840s. Writing as the emancipation movement reached its climax, Wordsworth describes how

‘no Man can deplore more than I do a State of Slavery in itself- I do not only deplore but I abhor it’.

In common with many of his contemporaries, Wordsworth did not approve of slavery, yet resisted its abolition. His inclination to leave the matter “to the discretion of Government” suggests that he agreed with arguments for a middle road between immediate emancipation and the permanent existence of slavery.

The first scholarly edition of Wordsworth’s poetry and a biography was produced between 1882 and 1889 by William Knight, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews.

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