One of the most influential social critics of the Victorian age, Thomas Carlyle wrote with a distinctive, energetic voice. The style that fuelled his political and historical writings was perhaps best exemplified in his portraits of his contemporaries. On this day in 1840, he met the elderly poet laureate, William Wordsworth. The account of the meeting, written sometime afterward by Carlyle, provided readers with a substantial insight into both men.
Carlyle wrote, “On that summer morning I was apprised by Taylor that Wordsworth had come to town, and would meet a small party of us at a certain tavern in St. James’s Street, at breakfast, to which I was invited for the given day and hour. We had a pretty little room, quiet though looking streetward (the tavern’s name is quite lost to me); the morning sun was pleasantly tinting the opposite houses, a balmy, calm and sunlight morning. Wordsworth, I think arrived just along with me; we had still five minutes of sauntering and miscellaneous talking before the whole were assembled. I do not positively remember any of them, except that James Spedding was there, and that the others, not above five or six in whole, were polite intelligent quiet persons, and, except Taylor and Wordsworth, not of any special distinction in the world. Breakfast was pleasant, fairly beyond the common of such things. Wordsworth seemed in good tone, and, much to Taylor’s satisfaction, talked a great deal; about poetic correspondents of his own; then about ruralties and miscellanies. Finally, he spoke of literature, literary laws, practices, observances, at considerable length, and turning wholly on the mechanical part, including even a good deal of shallow enough etymology, which was well received. On all this Wordsworth enlarged with evident satisfaction, and was joyfully reverent of the wells of English undefiled; though stone dumb as to the deeper rules and wells of Eternal Truth and Harmony, which you were to try and set forth by said undefiled wells of English or what other speech you had. For the rest, he talked well in his way; with veracity, easy brevity and force, as a wise tradesman would of his tools and workshop--and as no unwise one could.”
Carlyle concluded with a remarkably vivid description of the literary lion, “His voice was good, frank and sonorous, though practically clear distinct and forcible rather than melodious; the tone of him businesslike, sedately confident; no discourtesy, yet no anxiety about being courteous. A fine wholesome rusticity, fresh as his mountain breezes, sat well on the stalwart veteran, and on all he said and did. You would have said he was a usually taciturn man; glad to unlock himself to audience sympathetic and intelligent, when such offered itself. His face bore marks of much, not always peaceful, meditation; the look of it not bland or benevolent so much as close impregnable and hard: a man multa tacere loquive paratus, in a world where he had experienced no lack of contradictions as he strode along. He had a vivacious strength looking through him which might have suited one of those old steel-grey markgrafs whom Henry the Fowler set up to ward the marches and do battle with the intrusive heathen in a stalwart and judicious manner.”
Quite remarkable: the men, the meeting, and the description.