Butt of Canary

By Philip Pearce

HOWARD BURNHAM opens A Butt of Canary, his play about William Wordsworth, with the announcement that the poet was born in the same year Monterey was founded just over 250 years ago.

A Butt of Canary however begins 73 years after those two events when Robert Peel, First Lord of the Treasury visits the aged Wordsworth at Rydal Mount and Gardens to officially declare Wordsworth Poet Laureate of England. The Butt of Canary wine was a traditional part of the honorarium of laureateship, along with a stipend of three hundred pounds a year.

Burnham’s narrative notes that the honor and the prizes did not require that Wordsworth publish a single further line of verse—and he didn’t.

Well-researched and illustrated, the play covers Wordsworth’s close lifelong relationship with his sister Dorothy, his partnership with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads, and his live-in pairing-up and ultimate marriage to Mary Hutchinson.

Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality declares that “The child is father to the man.” If so, his childhood should have taught him in later life that childhood is not always a happy experience. His parents send him and his sister off to spend their early years with grandparents who soon shunt young William off to a boarding school and Dorothy to a job in a Yorkshire woolen mill. Odd that so much of Wordsworth’s body of work exalts childhood as a state of innocent glory which the cares and evils of maturity gradually dim and darken. But he preferred, of course, to regard himself as a philosopher not a psychologist.

Proving he was no early Victorian prude, Wordsworth, newly graduated from St. John’s, Cambridge, takes a European tour during which he fathers a daughter by a French girl named Annette. Proving he is no hypocrite, he openly acknowledges his continental liaison and supports his daughter Caroline financially with the full approval of both sister Dorothy and wife Mary.

Burnham’s character sketch moves on to the relationship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and to the publication of their joint poetry collection Lyrical Ballads, which established them as pioneers of the Romantic Movement.

As always, he creates a convincing main character. But it’s a character whose story and relationships don’t provide much material for the variety of mood and action that are a hallmark of Howard Burnham’s acting gifts. Devoted Dorothy and companionable Mary are admittedly such predictable background figures that they probably didn’t supply quotable bits of dialogue. But I wonder whether script and actor might have gotten more dramatic mileage out of Wordsworth’s break with Coleridge over his friend’s addiction to opium.

The play deals with a seminal piece of English literary history and does it with style and clarity.

It’s half of Howard Burnham’s declaration of February as his Poets’ Month, the second part being a commentary on John Keats by his colleague Leigh Hunt beginning at 5:30 pm on February 20th.