1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 2.



WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, who is descended from a family of high respectability in Cumberland, was born at Cockermouth, on the 7th of April, 1770. He was educated with his almost equally distinguished brother, — Dr. Christopher Wordsworth, — at Hawkesworth School, in Lancashire; and was entered at St. John's, Cambridge, in 1787, where he took his degree. Since the beginning of the year 1800, he has "had his home," either at his present residence, Rydal Mount, Westmoreland, or within two miles of it, — though, as appears from his writings, he has made excursions both on the Continent and on our own island. We can afford but small space to a Memoir of the Poet; — small as it is, however, it will suffice. His life has been retired and uniform: he has been subjected to few trials; — possessed of "health, peace, and competence," his course has been as smooth, even, and tranquil, as that of a "silent river."

Mr. Wordsworth is above the middle size. His features are strongly marked; but their expression is, like his poetry, contemplative rather than energetic. He has a calm look, and a gentle manner; his action is persuasive, and the tones of his voice peculiarly so. We have known him only amid the uncongenial scenes of a great city; but have been told that, among the hills and valleys of his native Westmoreland, his society is as a mildly healthful breeze, and his conversation as a delicious melody. He has ever been "a Poet for Poets:" from the beginning of his career, he "FIT audience found though few;" but his reception as a Poet for universal man, is of very recent date. His lack of popularity was owing, partly to that taste for the French school of poetry — which was still lingering among us from the times of Dryden and Pope — and partly to the excess to which Mr. Wordsworth pushed his simplicity, as if in scorn of that school, which naturally enough irritated the wits and others who had been bred up in its conventional elegancies. He has since given indications of a consciousness of having gone a little too far; and they, on the other hand, have grown complimentary: meanwhile, he waited patiently for the turn of the tide that was to bear him into a crowd of devoted admirers. He knew it would come at last; and went on writing, in spite of the sneers of those who either could not, or would not, understand him. He has lived to enjoy a large portion of his anticipated triumph; and — for he is not an aged man — will probably continue with us until he finds himself the most popular Poet of the existing age, and second only to him who is "for all time."

The style of Wordsworth is essentially vernacular, — at once vigorous and simple. He is ever true to nature; and, therefore, if we except Shakspeare, no writer is so often quoted: passages from his poems have become familiar as household words, and are perpetually called into use to give strong and apt expression to the thoughts and feelings of others. This is, perhaps, the highest compliment a Poet can receive; it has been liberally paid to him even by those who know little of the rich mine of which they are but specimens. With him the commonest objects,—

Rare trees, and mountains bare,
The grass, and the green fields,

are things sacred: he has all alchymy of his own, by which he draws from them "a kind of quintessence;" and, rejecting the "gross matter," presents to us the purest ore. "He sees nothing loftier than human hopes, — nothing deeper than the human heart;" and while he worships nature, he so paints her aspect to others, that he may succeed in "linking to her fair works the human soul." His poems are full of beauties peculiarly their own, — of original thoughts, of fine sympathies, and of grave yet cheerful wisdom.

No man has received finer compliments from his contemporaries: the most recent, and not the least worthy, was paid to him by the author of "Ion," in the course of a speech off the subject of copyright, delivered in the House of Commons, on the 18th of May, 1837. "He has supplied the noblest antidote to the freezing effects of the scientific spirit of the age; and, while he has done justice to the poetry of greatness, has cast a glory around the lowest conditions of humanity, and traced out the subtle links by which they are connected with the highest." The following passage is from a poem addressed to him, by Mrs. Hemans.

True bard and holy! Thou art even as one
Who, by some secret gift of soul, or eye,
In every spot beneath the smiling sun
Sees where the springs of living waters lie.