1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:422-23.



WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, the founder of what is called the Lake school of poetry, was horn in 1770, of a respectable family, at Cockermouth, in Cumberland. He received his early education at the grammar-school of Hawkshead, where he greatly excelled in his classical studies, and was remarkable for his thoughtful disposition, and taste for poetry, in which he made his first attempt, when at the age of thirteen. In 1787, he was removed to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. and M.A.; and, in 1793, he published a poetical account of a pedestrian tour on the continent, entitled Descriptive Sketches in Verse, &c., followed by The Evening Walk, an epistle, in verse, addressed to a young lady. In alluding to the Descriptive Sketches, says Coleridge, "seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon more evidently announced." After wandering about in various parts of England, our author took a cottage at Alforton, in Somersetshire, near the then residence of Coleridge, his association with whom, and the ludicrous surmises of the neighbourhood respecting their conduct, has been detailed in our memoir of the latter. Our benevolent author, however, appears to have been considered the more dangerous character of the two. "As to Coleridge," one of the parish authorities is said to have remarked, "there is not so much harm in him, for he is a wild brain that talks whatever comes uppermost; but that — (Wordsworth) he is the dark traitor. You never hear him say a syllable on the subject." In 1798, he published a volume of his Lyrical Ballads, which met with much abuse and few admirers, but those who applauded, applauded enthusiastically.

In 1803, he married a Miss Mary Hutchinson, of Penrith, and settled at Grassmere, in Westmorland, for which county, as well as that of Cumberland, he was subsequently appointed distributor of stamps. In 1807, he gave to the public a second volume of his Ballads; and, in 1809, with an intention to recommend a vigorous prosecution of the war with Spain, he published his only prose production, concerning the relations of Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal to each other. In 1814, appeared, in quarto, his Excursion, a poem, which has been highly extolled, and is undoubtedly one of his most original and best compositions. It was followed, in 1815, by The White Doe of Rylstone; and, in 1819, by his Peter Bell, to the merits of which we must confess ourselves strangers. During the same year, he published his Wagonner, a tale; followed, in 1820, by The River Duddon, a series of sonnets; and Vaudracour and Julia, with other pieces; and Ecclesiastical Sketches. In 1822, he printed Memorials of a Tour on the Continent; also A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England, with illustrative remarks on the scenery of the Alps.

The genius of Mr. Wordsworth has been a matter of critical dispute ever since he first made pretension to any, and it is yet a question with some, whether his productions are not those of "an inspired idiot." It would be, however, useless to deny him the reputation of a poet, though between the equally extravagant adoration and censure, of which he has been the object, it is difficult to define the exact position which will be ultimately assigned him in the rank of literature. Coleridge, who, as might be expected, is one of his most enthusiastic admirers, says that, "in imaginative powers, Wordsworth stands nearest of all modern writers to Shakspeare and Milton, and yet in a kind perfectly unborrowed, and his own." The author of an essay on his theory and writings, printed in Blackwood's Magazine for 1830, gives a very fair estimate of his poetical genius. "The variety of subjects," he observes, "which Wordsworth has touched; the varied powers which he has displayed; the passages of redeeming beauty. interspersed even amongst the worst and dullest of his productions; the originality of detached thoughts, scattered throughout works, to which, on the whole, we must deny the praise of originality; the deep pathos, and occasional grandeur of his style; the real poetical feeling which generally runs through its many modulations; his accurate observation of external nature; and the success with which he blends the purest and most devotional thoughts with the glories of the visible universe — all these are merits, which so far 'make up in number what they want in weight,' that, although insufficient to raise him to the shrine, they fairly admit him within the sacred temple of poesy." For our own parts, though we are not among those who call, as some of his admirers do, the poetry of Wordsworth "an actual revelation," we admit to have found in his works beauties which no other poet, perhaps, could have struck out of the peculiar sphere to which he has confined his imagination. His Recollections of Early Childhood, and a few others, are sublime compositions; whilst, on the other hand, his Lines to a Glow-worm, "et id omne genus," are despicable and ridiculous.

The private character of Mr. Wordsworth has never been impeached by his most virulent enemies, if he has any; and no man is more esteemed and respected for his amiable qualities.