Lonely as a spy

June 5, 1998

Evidence that the poet Wordsworth spied on the French has been around for years but no one has, until now, pieced the facts together. Kenneth Johnston explains.

Was the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth a "spy"? The question is connected to another, semi-facetious question: was he ever young? The answer to both questions is Yes. Like his radical politics and his passionate sexual attachments, Wordsworth's spying is an aspect of his hidden youth. It is part of the price he paid to create himself as the great philosophic poet that we know today.

Wordsworth's spying activities are part of the "juvenile errors" he claimed as his theme in his epic poem The Prelude - although it is not clear that he would have considered his spy-work an error: it might have seemed to him merely the correction of his earlier revolutionary activities directed against the government of William Pitt the Younger. For, in his youth, Wordsworth, like other English "Romantic" poets, sympathised, at least initially, with the French Revolution and its war against England. He was associated with the group of radicals around William Godwin, author of the 1793 book Political Justice, which urged radical reform of all social institutions. He was associated too with the journal, The Philanthropist, which published articles critical of the King and the government and which was shut down by the Gagging Acts of late 1795.

Although it is known that Wordsworth later lost sympathy for the French Revolution, no one has previously suggested that he may have changed his views so much as to spy for the British establishment, which was at the time conducting an underground war on the Continent against revolutionary France. Yet evidence of his connections to elite figures in Britain's governing establishment has existed for years. Perhaps the failure to spot his spying is an example of the "bardolatry" that keeps scholars from uncomfortable truths about famous poets.

The evidence for Wordsworth-as-spy is not something I went looking for. It was handed to me on the scholarly equivalent of a silver platter by Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Library in Grasmere. The secret paybook of William Cavendish, third duke of Portland and Pitt's home secretary, was on offer to the library. It shows two payments in June of 1799 to "Mr Wordsworth". As Robert Woof said, there is no guarantee that Portland's "Mr Wordsworth" is our William Wordsworth.

But the context of the entries tilts the odds dramatically in favour of their referring to our man, especially their appearing with the names Sir James Craufurd and Richard Ford. Craufurd was the British charge d'affaires in Hamburg, where Wordsworth and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge went in September 1798, ostensibly to learn German, but now it seems, in Wordsworth's case at least, to spy for England. Craufurd was in charge of the extensive espionage network operating in Hamburg under the authority of foreign secretary William Wyndham.

Richard Ford is our one other documented connection between Wordsworth and the Home Office's new "Secret Service". The spy James Walsh reported to Whitehall in 1797 that he had learned the name of the suspicious new tenant of Alfoxden House in Nether Stowey, Somerset: "His name is Wordsworth (Walsh's underlining) a name I think known to Mr Ford." Ford was, along with John King, one of the under-secretaries whose liaison between the Home Office and the Foreign Office constituted the operational links by which Portland established his Secret Service on its new footing of financial regularity. Hence the importance of the precise context in which payments to Ford, Craufurd, and Wordsworth appear all together in Portland's paybook.

Walsh's report has been known for nearly 50 years. Scholars have generally tried to dismiss its connection to Wordsworth as merely part of a hilarious accident. They have swallowed an account by Coleridge of an incident which has become known as the "Spy Nozy" affair. According to Coleridge a spy planted in Somerset (James Walsh) overheard Coleridge and Wordsworth discussing the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza and thought they were referring to "Spy Nozy", a supposed agent preparing for a French invasion. It is a very funny story, but it is not true. In distorting it into comedy, Coleridge was trying to cover up the Jacobin youth of both Wordsworth and himself.

No one in the Home Office thought that a mistake had been made when Walsh reported that the suspicious strangers in Nether Stowey were not French agents but "a mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen". The Home Office closed the case not because it realised they were "only poets", but because they recognised all the principals and knew they were no longer very mischievous: John Thelwall, the leading radical orator of the time and Public Enemy No. 1, Coleridge, a "whirlbrain" who might say anything but posed no threat, and William Wordsworth, "a name ... known to Mr. Ford".

What are the implications of all this for Wordsworth and his poetry? Not, assuredly, that he was a great spy - even if what appears to be sub-contracted messenger work for the secret service in Hamburg can be called "spying". But rather that his poetry and his vision of The Poet (himself) "carrying everywhere with him relationship and love" were paid for, in part, at the cost of cooperating with Pitt's administration on some kind of terms: Pounds 92, 12s, to be precise.

How Wordsworth was recruited I can only speculate. I believe it was part of the fall-out from the attacks on "Coleridge & Co." of The Anti-Jacobin (a journal run by Pitt's administration to discredit government opponents) throughout 1797-1798.

One hardly expects to find an "I spy" poem in Wordsworth's works. But there are in fact two unpublished fragments with this motif, though they connect with sexual intrigue, not politics. But neither of these activities can be kept completely separate from each other.

In another fragment, beginning "There is a law severe of penury", Wordsworth drafts a "philosophical" defence of the need for the creative artist to be financially independent. He uses imagery derived from the "subversive" operations of something very like police-state agents, independent of "law and statute, penalty, and bond".

These fragments connect with hints and echoes in his life and works throughout the 1790s, including the strange lines in "Tintern Abbey" that he followed nature "more like a man /Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved". These lines can be correlated with the letters of his French mistress, Annette Vallon, which in turn lead to the complications of French revolutionary politics and Wordsworth's and Annette's complicity in that politics. All together, they reveal a portrait of Wordsworth that has been kept hidden for too long.

Kenneth Johnston is professor of English at Indiana University and author of The Hidden Wordsworth, Norton, price Pounds 30, published July 6. It will be reviewed in The THES on June 19.

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