"WORDSWORTH . . . had not the feelings within him which makes total devotion to a woman possible. . . . (He) never could in any emphatic sense, have been a lover." With these words Thomas De Quincey, ignorant of the youthful affair with Annette Vallon, dismissed his mentor's amorous side. In our own time a great deal of scholarly energy has gone into establishing that Wordsworth's only total devotion was to his sister Dorothy, and that his marriage in 1802 with Mary Hutchinson was a desperate attempt to suppress the incestuous undercurrent of his life's previous five years.

The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth soundly contradicts De Quincey and deflates the incest theory. Discovered in 1977 in a heap of scrap paper bought by a Carlisle stamp dealer for a s5 note, the letters between the poet and his wife were exchanged during two extended separations. The first was the late summer of 1810 when William felt obliged to visit his patron Sir George Beaumont in Leicestershire; the other fell in the late spring of 1812 when William went to London to try and patch things up with Coleridge. On the first occasion Mary stayed at Grasmere, on the second she and their younger son Tom visited her brother's farm in Wales.

The letters, conscientiously edited by Beth Darlington and handsomely printed by Cornell, are full of the domestic trivia of daily rural life--gossip, worries over toothaches and bouts of indigestion, complaints about the unreliable post, and various accountings of expenses. But they also reveal an intensely close family--there were five children by 1810--and a household continually filled with relatives and visitors of all ages, the Coleridge children being among the most frequent. Perhaps most important, the letters display an intense affection between William and Mary, which was not only spiritual but physically passionate as well.

"Oh my beloved," writes Wordsworth from London, "speak for me to thyself, find the evidence of what is passing within me in thy heart, in thy mind, in thy steps as they touch the green grass, in thy limbs as they are stretched upon the soft earth. . . . Oh what an age seems it till we shall be again together."

Mary poured out her feelings on paper with almost as much abandon. "Dearest William how I do love thee! I hope I shall be no more anxious--in any other way than by those yearnings that I would not wish should be suppressed."

While the letters do much to improve the amatory reputations of both husband and wife, they offer other benefits as well. Wordsworth has had rather a bad press. Probably because he lived far longer than any romantic poet should (he died at age 80 in 1850), he has gained a reputation as a fusty and priggish poet who outlived his talent, turned his back on the democratic principles of his youth, and spent his later years fawning over the Tory power elite.

The letters show us a serious, but far more appealing man--hungry for news of his children, courting his wife's affection, and seeking to entertain her with tidbits about the life and landscape around him.

If William's reputation suffered with his advancing age, Mary's never grew much beyond that of the faithful amanuensis and hausfrau, forever eclipsed by her sister-in-law. It is Dorothy, not Mary, who is remembered as Wordsworth's inspiration. Dorothy who left her wonderful journal filled with descriptions almost as vivid as some of her brother's verse. Mary, on the other hand, was given credit for her kindliness, her sensibilities, her "delicate feeling for propriety," as the vicar of Ambleside put it. One of her visitors complained later that the only words she seemed capable of were "God bless you."

Quite a dianfferent Mary emerges in the letters. Devoted to her spouse and delighted with her children, she also appears to have been a woman of considerable fortitude. When William was absent during August, 1810, the hay came ripe. Here she is, her 40th birthday days away, her fifth child, a two-month-old, at her breast, and off she sets "over the vale with the baby in my arms in search of a man & horse to tend a part of the hay which is now ready." The next night she exulted in her letter, "& we are finished! . . . they are I believe carrying the last cart."

Together these love letters form a kind of domestic valentine, but, alas, one with a black border. In June, 1812, while Mary was enjoying her visit with Tom on his Welsh farm and William was making a splash in London literary society, 4-year-old Catharine, left with her Aunt Dorothy in Grasmere, suddenly suffered convulsions and died after a day playing innocently in the churchyard. Dorothy wrote immediately to William. The letter was delayed, and Mary learned of her daughter's death before William could get to her. But the grim reaper wasn't yet finished with the Wordsworths. The following December, 6-year-old Tom died from pneumonia after a siege of measles.

The reader of these letters feels the loss of the Wordsworth children all the more keenly because Mary has given us such a clear window on their lives. She answers William's constant questions about them with details of their antics: their rescue of four baby chicks who've been hatched during a damp spell, little Tom's constant quest for his favorite collectible--string, Catharine tossing her "pretties" about her mother's bedroom.

It is said that Mary and William never fully recovered from their grief. One wonders if Wordsworth found any comfort for his loss in the Nature whose extraordinary power he had so carefully defined in The Prelude. As for Mary, at some point she reread those love letters she had saved and added poignant notes about her children's deaths to the last of those written from Wales. She seems incredulous that while she had been enjoying herself so thoroughly and pouring out her nuptial passion to William, she could have suffered such a catastrophe and not have known it.