Reading Across the Manuscripts: Wilfred Armathwaite

When analysing process it is often possible to predict in advance areas which might be the focus of re-drafting activity or which may have caused the poet difficulty in the writing of the text. The Grasmere tale of the seducer (later named as Wilfred Armathwaite in The Excursion) is an obvious example of this because of the subject matter, which requires delicate handling. There is no mention of this individual in The Fenwick Notes and no evidence that such a man lived in Grasmere. The naming, therefore, might serve to ensure that other known inhabitants are not mistaken for him.

The tale of Wilfred Armathwaite is that of a dalesman, admired by others and married to a good, if rather house-proud, wife with a family who is nonetheless tempted to become the "lawless Suitor" of their young housemaid. Immediately after achieving his objective he becomes overwhelmed with guilt which leads him to place himself at isolation from others and to plunge him into a state of radical self-alienation from the natural world. He dies of grief and shame.

The tale seems misplaced wherever it is put. In Home at Grasmere it is introduced as the first of three local tales of lives in the valley. It is preceded by a passage which speaks of the vale itself as offering "A Power and a protection for the mind" (MS B, 458) and is immediately preceded by an apostrophe to the "Happy Man". The tales are therefore meant to exemplify a certain way of life, and illustrate the morality and truth of those who are native to the vale:

In this enclosure many of the old

Substantial virtues have a firmer tone

Than in the base and ordinary world.

(MS B Reading Text, 466-468)

To begin with the tale of a seducer and adulterer, then, seems rather odd. The point presumably is that the man is overcome with shame at what he has done: "A rational and suffering Man, himself / Was his own world" (515-516). In this sense both the valley and those within it seem to stand for a Godwinian model of self-regulated punishment and personal responsibility. As elsewhere in Home at Grasmere then, the point to be made is not that the shepherd's life is an idyllic pastoral but that, even with all its faults, it has a certain kind of sincerity and honesty at its heart. However, the message is not all that clearly communicated.

When the poem is moved into The Excursion, the problem of what, exactly, the tale stands for moves with it. In MS B where integration is first attempted on the facing versos we can clearly see the Pastor struggling to give the tale a clear moral before he begins:

Beneath this Hawthorn planted by myself

{[?For] and

{[?In] memory and in warning and in sign

Of [?swe] Of sweetness where much anguish

had been known

Further down the page is the line:


And reconcilement after deep offence

(MS B 21v)

Again, at the end of the tale in MS B, in the integrated reworkings the Pastor stresses that the sinner is "Though pity'd among men absolvd by God" (23v). Finally, on 26v, at the end of the ensuing tale, the Pastor sums up:

Now have ye not receiv'd good recompense

last I told

For that distressful tale which went before

(MS B 26v)

These sections, as well as a slightly forced comparison between the adulterer's tale and that of "conjugal fidelity" (MS B, 26v) which follows, are all cut after the text is entered in Excursion MS 74 (72v; 73r).

Elsewhere, MS B redrafting (in the voice of the Pastor) also emphasises the man's humanitarian side describing him as a "a friend / to whom the needy and distressd might turn" (22v). This material is entered into Excursion MS 74 but then clearly bracketed and marked for removal on 70r.

When finally integrated into The Excursion text of 1814, it is a story requested by the Wanderer who explicitly compares it to that of Ellen which has come before:

Ellen's fate,

Her tender spirit, and her contrite heart,

Call to my mind dark hints which I have heard

Of One who died within this Vale, by doom

Heavier, as his offence was heavier far.

(Excursion 1814, p. 298)

All of these changes show a degree of anxiety over the purpose and subject of the tale. The Pastor does not choose to tell it, it is drawn from him. When he does tell it, he creates a context of Christian forgiveness and re-assimilation in order to make the tale acceptable.

When we look back at the earliest Home at Grasmere manuscript, MS R, therefore, it is not surprising to find redrafting around the core event of this tale (the act of adultery) and the moral representation of the shepherd (unnamed in Home at Grasmere). On the interleaved page 136/137iv there is reworking which affects the attribution of blame:

Poor now in tranquil pleasure he gave way

he became

To thoughts of troubled pleasure & the Maid


A lawless suitor to the Maid [?effect] was dire

un }

Yielded unworthily [?unhap] } happy Man

This did he without knowledg of himself

Dire was the effect

(MS R 136/137iv)

In the first version there is a direct move from his "thoughts of troubled pleasure" to the yielding of the Maid, whilst the crossed out lines also encourage a sympathetic response to his actions. In this account the man acts unthinkingly and against his better self and then suffers as a consequence. The revision introduces an element of time and morality in the description of him as "lawless suitor". Also interesting here is the slip on the page as Wordsworth first enters "happy Man" and then has to change it to "unhappy". This reads like an ironic enactment of the events of the narrative, as the satisfaction and pleasure of gratification is immediately converted into its lasting opposite. Again, when the tale is re-copied for the Excursion in MS 74 (70v), Wordsworth returns to this description for further re-drafting, describing Armathwaite as "Disquieted in mind" and giving a fuller account of the attractions of the girl at the end of the block of work in 71r.

SUM: The purpose of telling the tale subtly shifts as the context around it changes from Home at Grasmere to The Excursion but it remains in both texts a rather problematic narrative.