< William Wordsworth >
Composed in the Valley Near Dover, on the Day of Landing
The Country House
(1757 - 1827)
HERE, on our native soil, we breathe once more.
The cock that crows, the smoke that curls, that sound
Of bells; those boys who in yon meadow-ground
In white-sleeved shirts are playing; and the roar
Of the waves breaking on the chalky shore;--
All, all are English. Oft have I looked round
With joy in Kent's green vales; but never found
Myself so satisfied in heart before.
Europe is yet in bonds; but let that pass,
Thought for another moment. Thou art free,
My Country! and 'tis joy enough and pride
For one hour's perfect bliss, to tread the grass
Of England once again, and hear and see,
With such a dear Companion at my side.
Wordsworth had just returned to England with his sister, Dorothy, after a visit
to see his former lover, Annette Vallon, and, for the first time, Caroline, his
ten year old daughter by her. The sense of relief is almost palpable: the
contrast between the two countries, England and France, parallels the contrast
between his personal situation and Annette's, though he cannot, of course,
mention this personal aspect. An old lover! An illegitimate child! England's
aspiring poet! Sex and abandonment!
Whatever had been agreed in France between the parties, Wordsworth now felt himself free to marry Mary Hutchinson. How he satisfied his obligations to Annette Vallon, we do not know, but once again, we have a poem intended to allow him to move on from his past, or at least that past which relates to France, the French Revolution, and Annette Vallon. The cock is English, the smoke is English, the sound of bells is English, the boys are English, even the roar of the waves is English. All these things are recruited to Wordsworth's aid to complete his emotional, psychological and physical rupture with the French adventure. Again, we have poetry functioning in part as psychotherapy.
Whether it was actually true that England was free is, of course, another matter. The Gagging Acts of 1795 had severely limited the freedom of assembly, and a series of increasingly restrictive legislation was enacted to curb the freedom of the press in the early part of the nineteenth century.
In form, the sonnet has once again a beguiling perfection about it. The vigour and variety of the description, cock, smoke, bells, boys and waves, is supported by the irregularity of the phrasing in and over the line, and contained within the well controlled structure of the octet and sestet. There is a subtle change of subject at the beginning of the sestet, though the second subject, continental Europe, is quickly passed over, the focus returning to further patriotic thoughts, and finally ending with dear Dorothy, who has just helped him negotiate his separation from Annette and his French adventure.
All this was no doubt very good for his peace of mind, and there was also, no doubt, a large audience of self satisfied Englishmen to whom the sentiments expressed would be most pleasing. But did it make him a better poet?