Richard E. Matlak, Deep
Distresses: William Wordsworth, John Wordsworth, Sir George Beaumont, 18001808.
Newark, NJ: University of Delaware
Press, 2003. 201pp. $43.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-87413-815-9).
Table of Contents
Part I: Captain John Wordsworth and the Prophecy of "Michael"
Part II: Sinking Vocations
Part III: Beaumont and the Promotion of Wordsworth
Appendix: "Narrative of the Loss of the Earl of Abergavenny East Indiaman"
Bibliographic Citation: Mahoney, John
L. "On Richard E. Matlak, Deep Distresses: William Wordsworth, John
Wordsworth, Sir George Beaumont, 18001808." [date of access]. Romantic
Circles Reviews 8.1 (2005): 7 pars. 28 Feb. 2005.
John L. Mahoney
- Richard Matlak's Deep Distresses: William Wordsworth, John Wordsworth, Sir George
Beaumont, 18001808 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 masterone
remembers his earlier book The Poetry of Relationship: The Wordsworths and Coleridges,
17971800and 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 helpedGod'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 serenitybecause 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
Rampsideon the coast, near the Castle, in summerhe 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 dramamariner, painter, poetcome 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.
Jeffrey N. Cox & Charles
Editor, Jeffrey Ritchie
published: March 2005.