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This article is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Vestiges 11: William Wordsworth Adam Crothers
To the Author’s Portrait and life mask
Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge

Life mask photograph by Paul Everest

‘Go, faithful Portrait!’

Wordsworth’s ‘To the Author’s Portrait’, written in 1832 and referencing a painting by Henry William Pickersgill, praises two aspects of fidelity. One is the portrait’s accuracy, sufficient to reduce members of his household to tears; the other is steadfastness, and the longevity such faith might allow. Nations will fall, ‘kingdoms melt’, before the portrait ceases its preservative mimicry, ‘if Time spare the colours’.

There are other unacknowledged ifs, and Wordsworth’s professed confidence in the painting’s capacity for survival may be deliberate, comic hubris. Yet the portrait was being dispatched to Wordsworth’s Cambridge college, St John’s, to hang in the same Hall as the portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort, ‘the Saintly Foundress’; both still hang there. A portrait might melt more easily than a whole kingdom, true, but Wordsworth knew nonetheless that Sonnet 18 has as much to say as ‘Ozymandias’ about the implications of an artwork’s outlasting its subject.

Yet the hint of doubt is a necessary contrast to the poem’s dominant, excitable sentimentality. Pictured here alongside the sonnet in manuscript (as ‘To My Portrait’) is Wordsworth’s life mask, produced by Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1815. The intimations of mortality in lying still, ‘posing’ for an artwork that is hardening itself from inorganic material around one’s face, cannot have been lost on the poet. ...

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