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Annette Vallon and the Poetry of William Wordsworth

 

             In 1800 William Wordsworth defines poetry as “powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads).  But in expressing that emotion he is as adept at using masks and metaphors as any poet.  It is in his manner of disguises that we can understand and identify references to Annette Vallon.
            The clearest expression of Wordsworth’s passion for Annette Vallon is in his story of Vaudracour and Julia, originally placed at the end of the ninth book of the Prelude, where the poet recalls his experience in France.  That’s where it belongs.  But the poet “may have been afraid lest marks of his personality should be discovered in the poem if it found a place so near his own adventures,” says Émile Legouis (William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, 15), and Wordsworth published the story separately in 1804.  Legouis asserts that  “It is the only place in his works where he [describes] the intoxication of passion” (I quote from the poem in my chapters “Different,” “Nature’s Child,” and “Overbless’d”): 

                                                       --he beheld
             A vision, and he loved the thing he saw.
             Arabian fiction never filled the world
             With half the wonders that were wrought for him:
             Earth lived in one great presence of the spring,
             Life turned the meanest of her implements
             Before his eyes to price above gold,
             The house she dwelt in was a sainted shrine,
             Her chamber-window did surpass in glory
             All the portals of the east, all paradise
             Could by the simple opening of a door
             Let itself in upon him…
                                                                                    (IX. 582-93)

Much like William and Annette, events force Vaudracour and Julia to separate; they meet again briefly and are again forced apart.  Vaudracour hides out and in despair eventually retreats to a hermitage, where he stays for the rest of his life.  Through a convoluted story about ill-fated lovers, Wordsworth shares with us the elated passion and terrible desolation of a man alone with his sorrow, unable to share but through disguise.
             We can certainly see the powerful feelings Wordsworth encounters in France recollected in the Prelude.  His descriptions of the Reign of Terror sound like someone who is not just recording history but expressing a personal grief and anger:

             Domestic carnage now filled all the year
             With feast-days…the maiden from the bosom of her love…
                                                            --all perished, all—
             Friends, enemies, of all parties, ranks,
             Head after head, and never heads enough
             For those who bade them fall.
                                                                                                 (IX. 329-36)

These lines can remind us of Wordsworth’s friends the Girondins who were executed, as well as of Annette, torn from “the bosom of her love.”
             But even more striking than his images of this time are his dreams:

             Most melancholy at that time, O friend,
             Were my day-thoughts, my dreams were miserable;
             Through months, through years, long after the last beat
             Of those atrocities (I speak bare truth,
             As if to thee alone in private talk)
             I scarcely had one night of quiet sleep,
             Such ghastly visions had I of despair,
             And tyranny, and implements of death,
             And long orations which in dreams I pleaded
             Before unjust tribunals, with a voice
             Labouring, a brain confounded, and a sense
             Of treachery and desertion in the place
             The holiest I knew of—my own soul.
                                                                                    (IX. 368-80)

Wordsworth says he is speaking “bare truth” (without his customary disguises?), and to his friend, Coleridge, “alone in private talk.”  But what is so personal here?  His nightmares themselves?   Or that they betray his secret trip to France, in the middle of the Terror?  (as in my chapter “Tonight, My Friend”).  Yet there is a further need for privacy.  Kenneth Johnston, in referring to the last two lines, comments, “If there has been treachery and desertion in his own soul, does this not mean he feels that he has betrayed someone else, who could only be Annette?” (The Hidden Wordsworth, 286)  More private even than his trip to France is his sense of guilt.
             When we have the story of Annette and Caroline in mind we don’t have to look far for evidence in Wordsworth’s early poems.  The connection is not subtle, but it has been missed, between Annette, Caroline and many poems with subject matters of abandoned women, orphaned children, and guilt.  Just a quick look at some of the titles should tell us something: “Guilt and Sorrow,” “The Forsaken,” “A Complaint,” “The Emigrant Mother,” “The Sailor’s Mother,” “Maternal Grief,” “The Affliction of Margaret,” “The Childless Father.”
             “The Emigrant Mother” for instance (who is from France), laments “Across the waters I am come, / And I have left a babe at home…’” Why would William Wordsworth, whose formula for poetry is based on the recollection of powerful feelings, choose these topics unless he were giving us his own experience through the poet’s mask of personae, or voices?  Wordsworth’s own daughter left behind in France, not the emigrant mother’s, is the source of pain behind the poem.  
             Many of these poems also have as their subject the loss or death of a child. In “The Affliction of Margaret” the mother cries, “Seven years, alas!  To have received / No tidings of an only child…” The Oxford edition of Wordsworth’s Poetical Works puts the probable date of composition for this poem at 1801.  Because of the war between their countries, Wordsworth would have “received / No tidings of [his] only child” for at least “seven years.”
             “The Complaint” deals with a mother who has her child taken away from her, as Annette had Caroline taken from her for fear of scandal and “put out to nurse.”  It’s possible Wordsworth had heard of this event from Annette: “My Child!  They gave thee to another, / A woman who was not thy mother.”  Besides speaking figuratively of his feelings, these poems themselves are empathetic acts: through female personae the poet imagines and identifies with the plight of his beloved. 
             Wordsworth’s most well known poem that refers to Annette is still indirect, for it is addressed to Caroline.  This is the beautiful sonnet, “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,” that takes place on the beach at Calais, and I quote it in full in the novel.  Thee at the end of the poem, however: “God being with thee when we know it not” could certainly be plural, referring both to Caroline and to Annette.  It’s also interesting to note that, on the way to that month-long visit, Wordsworth writes a poem of reverie without any sense of loss: “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”; his mood seems to be one of unusual happiness as he passes through London on the top of a carriage in the early morning.  (Intriguingly, he publishes this poem with the date September 3, 1802 in the title, when he actually composed it July 31, 1802: on his way to not from France.  More disguise?)

             Through the intense emotions that characterize his involvement with Annette Vallon Wordsworth finds his poetic voice that expresses in everyday speech powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.  If it weren’t for Annette, would he have found the powerful feelings in order to come up with that formula in the first place?   If he married Mary, without any Annette in between, I would say no.  He needed the intensity, not the sweet docility, to become a poet, or at least the unique poet that he was.  He needed the passion, and the passion tinged with loss:  the language he uses toward nature in “Tintern Abbey.”
             In Wordsworth we often find behind the glad refrain of nature “the still sad music of humanity.”  Civil war in France and a seeming unending war between his country and that of his beloved have betrayed his heart before.  Now the language of passion is towards the healing and reassurance that nature gives, “Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her.”   “Tintern Abbey” is a poem of gratitude to nature and to Dorothy, his partner in nature, for bringing him back from the brink of despair.  Before he met Annette his passion was “more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved.”  In “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth returns to himself, but it is a self he never would have known without Annette.
             The most transcendent expression of Wordsworth’s theme of loss is “Intimations of Immortality.”  The essence of Paradise Lost is here in eleven short sections, not even three pages in the Oxford Wordsworth Poetical Works.  But every line is full with the utter poignancy “That there hath past away a glory from the earth.”  He speaks of “The years that bring the philosophic mind,” but he is himself still a young man of thirty-two and in fine health.  He tells us that “The things which I have seen I now can see no more…nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.”  This is not a mere poem about childhood innocence lost.  The sense of loss here is so profound it asks us to look for a deeper cause.  What has a man in his early thirties to do with writing a poem about adjusting to the loss of childhood?  He’s made that adjustment long ago.  Far more likely that’s it’s a man in love saying goodbye to that love.  Yet it is a transcendent poem because the poet finds the ability to move on:

             Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
             Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears.
             To me the meanest flower that blows can give
             Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

             Reconciliation of loss is perhaps an odd theme for a poet in the first year of his marriage, as is probably the case here with Wordsworth.  And that is another way to look at “Intimations.”  He finds “strength in what remains behind”: the poem is his acceptance that he will never marry Annette.
             Here Wordsworth’s gratitude is to the heart, to powerful feeling.  His experience with Annette has taught him the fundamental impermanence of all things: the beauty of the world and the poignancy in the passing of that beauty.  He shares it intimately with the reader in the simple, direct, clear language of powerful feeling honestly expressed.  It is the style of verse he has now perfected: the recollection of youth’s passions and losses distilled into a language that would transform modern poetry. 

 

 

                                                 Addendum

             With reference to my chapter “The Window,” any discussion of William Wordsworth’s poetry and Annette Vallon ought to include his great ice-skating passage from the Prelude.  In my story, he gets Annette, Captain Beaupay and Annette’s servant and friend, Claudette, to ride out to a frozen pond, where he gives them ice-skating lessons.  They soon all give up, and he is left alone to enjoy himself.  Apparently he really was an accomplished ice skater.  It seems a perfect sport for William, especially at night when he retires “into a silent bay”:  alone on a lake with the mountains and the stars for company.  Here is part of his recollection:

                                    --All shod with steel,
             We hissed along the polish’d ice…
             So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
             And not a voice was idle; with the din,
             Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud,
             The leafless trees, and every icy crag
             Tinkled like iron…
                        Not seldom from the uproar I retired
             Into a silent bay, or sportively
             Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
             To cut across the image of a star
             That gleam’d upon the ice: and oftentimes
             When we had given our bodies to the wind,
             And all the shadowy banks, on either side,
             Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
             The rapid line of motion; then at once
             Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
             Stopp’d short, yet still the solitary Cliffs
             Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll’d
             With visible motion her diurnal round;
             Behind me did they stretch in solemn train
             Feeble and feebler, and I stood and watch’d
             Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.
                                                                                               (I. 460-489)
             

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