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Richard E. Matlak, Deep Distresses: William Wordsworth, John Wordsworth, Sir George Beaumont, 1800–1808

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - 08:10
Richard E. Matlak, Deep Distresses: William Wordsworth, John Wordsworth, Sir George Beaumont, 1800-1808.  Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2003.  201pp. $43.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-87413-815-9).

Reviewed by
John L. Mahoney
Boston College

Richard Matlak's Deep Distresses: William Wordsworth, John Wordsworth, Sir George Beaumont, 1800-1808 is a notable study of a key episode in Wordsworthiana, the death of the poet's mariner brother John in the wreck of his ship, the Earl of Abergavenny. It is also a fascinating series of persuasive speculations that connect the accident with Sir George Beaumont's painting of Peel Castle in a Storm and Wordsworth's great poem Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm. Matlak, with "long part-time experience with both military and commercial operations" (11) and an impressive command of the required maritime history, offers a psychological or psychobiographical approach to a range of key questions: What drew John Wordsworth to assume command of the Abergavenny and engage William and Dorothy enough to offer financial support? Why did Beaumont paint two oils of the wreck? Why was Wordsworth so engaged by the painting that he felt the need to write his poem and to correspond with Beaumont? And what conclusion can be drawn about John's much discussed behavior at the time of the wreck that took his life?

Matlak is, of course, familiar with the important views of scholars like Karl Kroeber, Geoffrey Hartman, Leon Waldoff, Kenneth Johnston, Thomas McFarland, and Marjorie Levinson, but he has his own agenda. With the scholarly acumen of a Wordsworthian master--one remembers his earlier book The Poetry of Relationship: The Wordsworths and Coleridges, 1797-1800--and the artistry of an exciting storyteller, he proceeds to deal with his key questions. Drawing on primary sources in maritime history of the period, he describes the life and challenges of the mariner of the time, and proceeds to introduce John Wordsworth as he returns to Grasmere from one of his many voyages. His return this time is marked by his need for money and his forceful request that his family support his final command. And it promises to be a lucrative trip with a cargo valued at some £270,000, "one of the richest vessels ever to sail to India under the Company flag" (85-86). As Matlak puts it, "John's point is clear: you who are to gain from my success owe me your support" (67). Matlak sees in the poet's Michael interesting parallels between the wastrel son Luke and the devoted father Michael and John the mariner and William the poet, and he sees something in the Leonard of William's The Brothers in the frequently absent John.

The facts of the case are clear enough. The Earl of Abergavenny, an East Indiaman, went down in a turbulent sea two miles off the coast of the Bill of Portland on February 5, 1805, and 246 perished. Rumors and gossip of all kinds followed, especially stories of the courage or irresponsibility of the Master, and there were suggestions of incompetence or alcoholism. Digging into the Naval Chronicle for 1805, Matlak provides the account of one Cornet Burgoyne as he tells of how in the midst of great distress, "the Boats were never attempted to be hoisted out. About two minutes before the Ship went down, Mr. Baggot, the Chief Mate, went to Captain Wordsworth, and said, 'We have done all we can, Sir, she will sink in a moment.' The Captain replied, 'It cannot be helped--God's will be done'" (93). The East India Company, jealous of its commercial reputation, pointed to pilot error. "William," says Matlak, "in writing to friends, emphasized a familiar impression that John was indifferent to his survival"; he stressed favorable reports "as evidence of increasing certainty not just that John had acted appropriately, but that he had acted heroically" (103).

With the facts established, Matlak opens his own interpretation. He sees John, with his work, and Beaumont, with his reputation and influence, as patrons of William, both feeling that his genius and poetry could make a difference in the world. Beaumont, obviously attuned to stories of the wreck, and sensitive about the gossip about John's behavior, painted two oils. They were paintings of Piel Castle, a fourteenth-century castle built as a warehouse for cargo against pirates and invaders, and of a ship in distress. Wordsworth shortly after the tragedy had shared with Beaumont his oft-quoted thoughts of questioning whether it would be "blasphemy to say that upon the supposition of the thinking principle being destroyed by death, however inferior we may be to the great Cause and ruler of things, we have more of love in our Nature than he has?" Beaumont's response is instructive if not exactly comforting to a distressed William, a blend, as Matlak reminds readers, of sentiments in Tintern Abbey and Pope's Essay on Man. He finds that "it is pleasing and awful to observe the great vessel of the universe steadily measuring its course with undeviating serenity--because guided by the perfect hand which governs all and 'rolls through all things,'" and "I am still confident good will ultimately arise, for I have full faith in the aphorism that 'partial ill will in the end produce universal good'" (130).

Although Beaumont's painting doesn't seem referential or political, it clearly struck a distraught Wordsworth. Indeed Matlak suggests that the poet, now savoring the memory of a 1794 visit to his cousins in Rampside, near Piel Island and its castle where he had visited the grave of his beloved Hawkshead teacher William Taylor and learned of the death of Robespierre and the tempering of violent revolution, would have found in the painting a context of "spiritual revelation" to support him in dealing with popular responses to John's tragedy (134). But it is not only John's tragedy but the fate of William's own poetic career, especially in the light of the savage reviews of his 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes. Once upon a time, his Elegiac Stanzas recalls, at Rampside--on the coast, near the Castle, in summer--he would have done a different painting. There would have been no storm, no ship in danger, no Castle battered by wind and rain: "A Picture had it been of lasting ease," "So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!"

But now there is a new picture and a new world. Both John's death and the crisis in William's poetic career are incorporated into Beaumont's painting.  All three players in the drama--mariner, painter, poet--come together in the great lines of Elegiac Stanzas: "Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend, / If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore."  He will always know "[t]he feeling of my loss," but now "with mind serene."  He will always see the painting as "a passionate work," with the battered Castle and "[t]hat Hulk which labours in the deadly swell," but praise it as "wise and well."  He is a changed poet, a changed man, like Peele Castle "standing here sublime," welcoming "fortitude, and patient cheer," bidding "farewell" to "the heart that lives alone" and now preaching a new gospel: "Not without hope we suffer and we mourn."

Richard Matlak has set himself the formidable task of coming to terms with "the principal problem of 'Elegiac Stanzas'" (11), and he has combined full and impeccable research with superb close reading skills to meet the challenge. For him John's death followed by Beaumont's painting lead to the great poem that celebrates what he regards as "the poet's renunciation of his gladsome belief in Nature's benignity" (17). Deep Distresses is an important addition to contemporary Wordsworth scholarship.