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Gorsas’ Guillotine: A Nonfiction Narrative of Wordsworth and Carlyle

“While reading Nicholas Roe’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years, I was struck by a passage about one supposed interaction between William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle. In his book, Reminiscences, Carlyle maintains that Wordsworth told him, at a dinner party they both attended around 1840, that he’d witnessed the guillotining of Antoine-Joseph Gorsas in October 1793. Roe is not the only historian to write of that section in Carlyle’s late-in-life book. The consensus, however, is that there is a lack of evidence indicating Wordsworth ever made such a trip into France in the fall of 1793. Roe writes, in describing Carlyle’s reference to the story: “Perhaps Carlyle’s recollection should be taken as an imaginative truth, in which case Wordsworth’s shadowy presence at the scaffold was not only as appalled spectator but simultaneously as victim and as executioner, too.”1 This effort in narrative nonfiction, then, is a description of “imaginative truth,” regarding that probably-apocryphal detail about Wordsworth, and Gorsas’ sudden end. The piece is set in March 1841, in London, extrapolating a timeframe from Carlyle’s writing. It is my hope the research into pertinent details of Wordsworth and Carlyle in that period—modest as the effort proves in light of what could be done in such a narrative fleshing-out—is sufficient to summon a convincing picture of Roe’s “imaginative truth,” and that the reader will forgive a minimum of injected particulars in connection with what might have been served for supper or what the party imbibed that evening.2
James O’Brien

THOMAS CARLYLE was expounding his book, the one opposing certain economic theories held by certain English liberals, that much was clear; the man’s voice cut the din.3 William Wordsworth turned his fork and cut his pork, and answered Spedding’s thought on Francis Bacon. Spedding seemed obsessed with the man, tonight. Wordsworth thought of Spedding as a man displaced, out of gainful work for adhering to his principles. Which was a good enough reason to be out of work, in any case. Natural, perhaps, that Spedding would gravitate to philosophies of duty and ethics—Bacon, or anyone else for that matter.4 But it was Bacon.

While Spedding spoke, Wordsworth’s eyes wandered to the outside wall, where afternoon faded from the windows. It was a sharp air, out there, still a winter’s air despite the lateness of March. He thought of the coach ride from the north, from Ambleside.5 Down to the city, with lunches on the first day in Preston, on the second in Northampton. The overnight had been in Birmingham, where the bed at the inn looked more comfortable than it proved. That made for a long morning, and this afternoon there had been Faber, with whom he had to visit in London, and with whom he’d be asked to sit again, he imagined, before he could return to Ambleside. It was a whole business, this back and forth to talk of Oxford and laureates; it was Faber’s irritation, particularly. Wordsworth’s back hurt; the return ride threatened piles.6 Still, Faber, in all his agitation, was easier on the ears than a room full of writers and their rum. It wasn’t the rum he disliked, anyway. Someone laughed at Carlyle, and there followed much clapping of backs. Wordsworth finished the tail ends on his plate, moving around what he didn’t want. The peas weren’t very fresh at all.

Later, for whatever reason, he found himself once again gravitating to Carlyle. Or Carlyle to him, as the formula worked out. Wordsworth took the corner spot first, and so here the man came for more discourse.7 He imagined Carlyle liked to hear him talk, and despite his earlier audience, Carlyle did seem, at these times, inclined to listen, as well as speak. Before, at dinners like these, they’d talked of poets, and issues generally English. Tonight, with the soreness in him, and the general weariness, Wordsworth worried he’d wax darkly with his corner companion. Perhaps he should give him fair warning. Didn’t Carlyle deserve a warning? Carlyle, for all his good reminiscences of the past—the orange tincture of the fire on his cheeks—far enough from the crush, but not too far from the fat black bottles of rum?

It had been a morning party at some other tavern, maybe on St. James’s—their first real conversation.8 Wordsworth had been in good spirits, that day, and talk of literature and poems and people had turned around and around, and that was the first day he’d really taken notice of Carlyle. Over the months since, at dinner parties and suppers (more than one of them called by Faber, or involving Faber, persistent Faber), when Carlyle appeared, Wordsworth had felt some compulsion to draw him near, to ask the man his thoughts on this matter or that matter; he had liked the man’s French Revolution, in the first place.9 And here he came again, only Wordsworth wished he brought with him cups of the rum, but they’d both neglected such details, in breaking away.

“Not a slight cast, these characters,” said Carlyle. “Good men, these, do you think, William?”

“I think they are fine men, some of them, and most of them useful,” Wordsworth said. “Although, if we are to talk of good men, I say it is in struggle against great odds toward which I considerably weight my evaluation; it is not always this pleasant conversation over pork and peas.”

Carlyle let him go on, and not long into it, as Wordsworth suspected from the start, the Revolution rose between them: the Assembly, the Girondins, and the Mountain. He spoke of Godwin, and the island of thought for Wordsworth that Godwin’s writing made in the months of blood that followed those first hopeful celebrations in Calais.10

“Do I speak too freely?” Wordsworth asked. He really rather would have had some rum, then. “We all spoke freely, in those days, and some of us to our later regret.”11

Carlyle waved a white-shirted server toward them, and soon a cup of the rum was produced. Wordsworth knew what questions would follow, given that he’d broached certain subjects, and he let Carlyle take his course, as he took the cup proffered. The liquid stung his tongue and sizzled the back of his throat. He deflected Carlyle, in part, speaking instead of the Courier, and then of Gorsas.12

“Do you mean that you knew him?” Carlyle asked.

For a moment, Wordsworth let the inquiry linger. In the ruddy haze of the fireplace, Carlyle’s face was suffuse with contrast. It seemed to shift as he dipped his head slightly, sipping from his cup.

“I knew this man,” Wordsworth said, at last.13

“How did the news of the end, then, come to you?”

Wordsworth again lifted his cup; the twinge in his back seemed wrapped now in warm and layered gauze. “He was the first deputy sent to the scaffold. And this was a thunderhead, Carlyle. Or like a mist of some ominous quality, coursing the same bricks along which we had happily rushed. But where were the French flowered arches, now? Baskets of horror, instead, and a different bloom of rose. The word spread.”14

“Do you mean that you were there, William?” Carlyle asked. “For I have never heard of this, a public sentiment, such spread of news.”15

“Where will it end, when you have set an example in this kind?” Wordsworth said.16 “So it was, the end of Gorsas; not so very long ago, it seems to me, tonight.”

Carlyle pressed him for more, wanting the details of the days around it, wanting to be certain on the point: Had Wordsworth set foot again on French soil in 1793? Had he seen the lead-gray blade under the bruised bowl of that October afternoon?17 Wordsworth felt Carlyle’s urgency, but how to steer him to the main point? Not whether he had been there on any particular day; rather, they had all set ink to page in the days before the sails appeared on the Scheldt, before Louis’ end in that awful mid-sentence of the scaffold.18 They had set ink to page again afterward, too, but they had suffered little for it—he and Coleridge and others—while another man certainly wanted for the poet’s shield.19

“What do you think of Spedding?” Wordsworth asked, of a sudden.20 The two of them stopped, then, for a moment. A single log, round and thick as a man’s arm, shifted atop the stack in the hearth, halfway across the room from them. A white-shirted boy took their cups. Perhaps there would be other cups. Perhaps Faber would make his entrance, soon. It was the end of a long day for an old man of seventy.21

1See Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988): 41.
2All such details, however, are culled from foods Wordsworth seems to prefer in Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).
3This exercise in narrative nonfiction is set in London in early 1841, about one year after Thomas Carlyle published Chartism (December 1839), his treatise on poverty, the poor, justice, and the English economic system. His passion for the work ran high; though getting the words into print involved some struggle on his part. It sold briskly, however, rattling English liberals, who found Carlyle’s criticism of their economic theories unorthodox. Given the minor uproar he’d created, it is conceivable Carlyle would be asked about and would speak of the book at dinner parties during the year that followed. See James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834-1881 (St. Claire Shores, Mi.: Scholarly Press, 1970): 182-186.
4Wordsworth is speaking to James Spedding, recorded present at least once at a party also attended by Wordsworth. See Thomas Carlyle, Reminiscences (London and New York: J. M. Dent and E. P. Dutton, 1932): 300. Spedding, a scholar and writer, was, in early 1841, ending—or just about to end—his work with the colonial office. He would soon start a 30-year project of editing the work of Francis Bacon. See Leslie Stephen, “Spedding, James (1808–1881),” rev. W. A. Sessions, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, May 2006, http://oxforddnb.com/view/article/26090 (accessed October 20, 2009).
5In 1841, Wordsworth lived in Ambleside, near to Grasmere. There was some promotion in that year of Wordsworth as a candidate for poet laureate by theologian, Frederick William Faber. It is conceivable that Faber would arrange for gatherings of the authors and academic elite around Oxford and London to press his candidate into the minds of others. Wordsworth ultimately took the title in 1843, following the death of Robert Southey. See Stephen Gill, “Wordsworth, William (1770–1850),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://oxforddnb.com/view/article/29973 (accessed October 20, 2009).
6There is some precedent for such an affliction within the spectrum of Wordsworth’s various lifelong physical complaints. See Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991): 30.
7Carlyle remarks on Wordsworth’s tendency to stay clear of the noisy middle of a party: “He was willing to talk with me in a corner, in noisy extensive circles; having weak eyes, and little loving the general babble current in such place.” See Thomas Carlyle, Reminiscences: 302.
8As for the year of their first meeting, there is some discrepancy. Carlyle writes: “It was perhaps about 1840 that I first had any decisive meeting with Wordsworth, or made any really personal acquaintance with him,” and he goes on to describe the first substantive conversation between the two at an unnamed tavern on “St. James’s Street.” In a footnote to this assertion, however, C. E. Norton notes that Carlyle made an entry in his Journal, on June 1, 1836, that he’d “seen Wordsworth again.” See Carlyle, Reminiscences: 299, 299n.
9Carlyle had written a history of the war: The French Revolution (1837).
10Wordsworth visited Calais on July 13, 1790, witnessing the celebration of the first anniversary of the Revolution. It moved him, and he wrote about it in Book Six of The Prelude: “How bright a face is worn when joy of one/Is joy of tens of millions.” See Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988): 20.
11A bit of license taken here. It is clear, however, that Wordsworth’s initial support and enthusiasm for ideas of parliamentary reform (Godwin’s Political Justice, for example), and his support of the French Revolution at its outset, became an issue with which both he and his likeminded community, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, would have to grapple as the violence in France became acute, come 1793. Coleridge did so on the page, in letters of 1803, for example, in which he denied connections to “any party or club or society.” Wordsworth responded by somewhat sublimating his feelings about France’s transformation between 1789 and 1793, obscuring portions of his history of involvement with politics, reformists, and Revolutionary France in Book Ten of The Prelude. See Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years: 3-7.
12Antoine-Joseph Gorsas, French politician and dissident, who in 1792, published a newspaper, the Courier, in connection with the French Revolution. See Hugh Gough, The Newspaper Press in the French Revolution (Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1988): 91.
13In a volume from Wordsworth’s library, Adam Sisman writes, “There is a marginal note where Gorsas is mentioned: ‘I knew this man. W. W.’” See Adam Sisman, The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge (New York: Penguin Viking, 2007): 58.
14Carlyle wrote of this part of the conversation: “He had been in France in the earlier or secondary stage of the Revolution; had witnessed the struggle of Girondins and Mountain, in particular the execution of Gorsas, ‘the first Deputy sent to the Scaffold,’ and testified strongly to the ominous feeling which that event produced in everybody, and of which he himself still seemed to retain something: ‘Where will it end, when you have set an example in this kind?’” Emphases are Carlyle’s. See Carlyle, Reminiscences: 303.
15In Reminiscences, Carlyle notes his surprise at Wordsworth’s details about the “ominous feeling which that event produced in everybody.” The passage reads: “I knew well about Gorsas; but had found, in my readings, no trace of the public emotion his death excited.” See Carlyle, Reminiscences: 303.
16See Carlyle, Reminiscences: 303.
17Gorsas was executed on October 7, 1793. See Kenneth Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998): 279.
18Several historical details in a row, here: In December 1792, French ships sailed the River Scheldt, a waterway shared by northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In doing so, the Prussians deemed a British-Prussian treaty forbidding international trade in those waters violated, and the pressure on England to react to the French intensified. The French guillotined Louis XVI in January 1793. The French ambassador was dismissed, and the British government from then on considered itself at war with France. See Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years: 120.
19In another moment of license on my part, Wordsworth is thinking here about the harsh treatment by the British government of some reformist writers of the early 1790s, such as Thomas Paine, who was found guilty of seditious libel in 1792 for such monographs as The Rights of Man. He compares, in his mind, Paine’s lot to his own experience of dissidence, in the role of poet. See Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years: 118-119.
20Following his utterance about Gorsas, according to Carlyle, Wordsworth would say nothing more substantial about the story. They soon switched topics, Carlyle writes. See Carlyle, Reminiscences: 303.
21The story is set prior to Wordsworth’s birthday on April 7. He would turn 71 in the spring of 1841.

The 2015 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical

We are pleased to announce this story as a Notable Mention for The 2015 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on historical topics. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. Notable Mentions receive publication on The Current and publication in the print journal, Footnote: A Literary Journal of History. This piece is published in Footnote #1, available now.

JAMES O’BRIEN holds a PhD in Editorial Studies from the Editorial Institute at Boston University, where he researched and edited Bob Dylan’s other-than-song writings. He is engaged in a bibliography for Oxford University Press, covering writings about the filmmaker John Cassavetes. His journalism, short stories, and poetry are published in numerous journals and magazines. He lives in New York City, and you can find him at jamesobrien.cc.

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