Home and homelessness in William Wordsworth’s ‘The Ruined Cottage’
When we think of home or ‘being at home’ what are we talking about? Where and how is home located: in a place, in memory, in a person? And if we lose that sense of home, the safe place that protects us, what have we lost, what do we become?
In 1798 William Wordsworth wrote the first version of a poem entitled ‘The Ruined Cottage’ which told the story of Margaret and her slow decline and death after the abandonment of herself and her children by her husband, Robert. The poem is about a home in the most literal sense, a physical dwelling place for a family but it also explores all of these questions as it charts Margaret’s slow decline and loss of interest or pleasure in the world around her.
The pace of the poem, and the odd sense of stepped change that it communicates, is created by the role and way of life of the narrator: a Pedlar. Wordsworth was strongly attacked by the critics for focussing on such low ordinary people in his poetry, but his choice of character and occupation is central to the poem’s structure and meaning. The Pedlar does not have a home as such – the life he has chosen means that he is always on the road – but he is still ‘at home’ because he defines himself and his identity in terms of that movement and travel, in terms of an enjoyment of the outdoors and of nature. He wanders the country, following a regular route as he sells his wares with stopping points that he returns to over time – one of these being Margaret’s welcoming cottage: ‘no-one came / But he was welcome, no one went away / But that it seemed she loved him’ (ll. 101–03). By means of his temporal perspective, which is one of regular spaced visits, we trace the stages through which the loving home becomes an empty ruin.
Social and political contexts
The poem also touches upon major social and political issues of the day. Throughout the 1790s Britain had undergone a series of poor harvests, resulting in bans on the export of grain and rapidly rising prices. In 1794–95 the harvest failed with the result that the price of wheat, which had been around 43 shillings a quarter (a common measure at the time corresponding to eight bushels or 291 litres) in 1793, rose to 108 shillings by August 1795 – more than double. Correspondingly, the price of such an everyday item as bread became unaffordable, causing widespread unrest and riots (in October 1795 the King was attacked in his carriage on the way to Parliament). James Gillray satirised the situation in his cartoon of 24 December 1795: ‘Substitutes for Bread or, the Right Honourables Saving the Loaves and Dividing the Fishes’. Here cabinet ministers led by William Pitt (pictured on the right) share the hardship of the nation by finding ‘substitutes’ such as venison and turtle soup (luxury items). Outside through the window the mob threatens wearing the red hats (‘bonnets-rouge’) of French revolutionaries. In France, the increasing price of wheat and bread was a major contributing factor to the French Revolution.
Image © The Trustees of the British Museum.
In ‘The Ruined Cottage’ the Pedlar directly alludes to this period of hardship for the nation:
You may remember, now some ten years gone,
Two blighting seasons when the fields were left
With half a harvest. It pleased heaven to add
A worse affliction in the plague of war.
Things start to go wrong for Margaret and her family when Robert falls ill and can no longer find work in this ‘time of trouble’ (l. 154). When Robert decides to leave home, he does so in order to join the militia, hoping that the payment he receives for signing up will help his family. The shortage of troops had led the Government to offer ten guineas (one guinea = 21 shillings – a substantial amount) to anyone who would enlist. This is what Robert leaves on the windowsill, the first evidence Margaret has of his actions and his leaving of her:
He left his house; two wretched days had passed,
And on the third by the first break of light,
Within her casement full in view she saw
A purse of gold. ‘I trembled at the sight,’
Said Margaret, ‘For I knew it was his hand
That placed it there, and on that very day
By one, a stranger, from my husband sent,
The tidings came that he had joined a troop
Of soldiers, going to a distant land.’ (ll. 261–69)
Robert becomes homeless, self-exiled, never to return. In trying to save his family he dooms them, because he fails to realise the extent to which ‘home’ for Margaret is located in him, not in the place she lives or even in her children. The price he pays is symbolised by the ‘purse of gold’ – no amount of money can compensate for his loss.
A poem of snapshots
The power of the poem lies in the snapshots of place, changing across intervals of time, that the Pedlar narrates to us after Robert has gone. On his first visit he hears the story of Margaret’s abandonment, told painfully by her, but still at the end of this encounter she has hope and calls a blessing after him so that he sets off happily enough. When he comes again, however, ‘I found that she was absent’ (l. 302). Margaret has always been tied to her home before, but now she too is becoming a wanderer both literally and psychologically. When she finally appears late that evening she tells the Pedlar:
I have been travelling far, and many days
About the fields I wander, knowing this
Only, that what I seek I cannot find. (ll. 349–51)
Margaret now neglects both herself, the house and her children – the young infant is left crying alone and her older son is sent elsewhere. On the next occasion that the Pedlar returns her house ‘Bespoke a sleepy hand of negligence’ (l. 401) and nature creeps ever closer, re-wilding the apple tree: ‘The bark was nibbled round by truant sheep’ (l. 422). The cottage begins to turn inside out, lets the outside in: ‘Till this reft house by frost, and thaw and rain / Was sapped’ (ll. 482–83). So, the ruined cottage itself becomes what T S Eliot terms an ‘objective correlative’ for Margaret’s psychological condition – telling us all we need to know about her internal state as it slowly, incrementally falls apart. And no wonder. Poor Margaret is held in limbo. She dare not leave in case Robert should ever return, but she has no hope left that he will.
As with much of Wordsworth’s poetry, ordinary everyday objects that might otherwise be overlooked are brought into focus through the poem and seen differently as a result of the shared human story that is told. This is true of the spring of fresh water from which the Poet character drinks unknowingly at the start, and the ‘useless fragment of the water bowl’ (l. 91) that now lies beside it; of the elm trees that shade the cottage; of Robert’s loom and coins; of the ruin itself. Indeed, the Pedlar tells the Poet at the outset that ‘I see around me here/ Things which you cannot see’ (ll. 67–68) and this lies right to the heart of what the poem is about. The poet simply stopped in this place because it offered the promise of good shade on a hot day: ‘I rose and turned towards a group of trees / Which midway in that level stood alone’ (ll. 27–28). But gradually as he absorbs Margaret’s story he starts to realise that what now is just a shell ‘four naked walls’ (l. 31) was once a place full of human feeling and his experience of place is radically re-determined once he understands the story that it holds.
Of course, the Poet is also a proxy for the reader and when, at the end, he has ‘turned aside in weakness, nor had power / To thank him for the tale which he had told’ (ll. 495–96) Wordsworth’s aim surely is that these feelings will ripple outward over time and space and affect those who have never known these people or way of life. Ultimately what the poem wants to convey is the power of poetry to move, shape and alter our responses to the world around us through the empathetic communication of meaning about human dwelling places, however insignificant they might have seemed at first.