1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:322-26.



WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, the greatest of metaphysical poets, is a native of Cockermouth, in the county of Cumberland, where he was born on the 7th of April 1770. His parents were enabled to bestow upon their children the advantages of a complete education (his father was law-agent to Lord Lonsdale), and the poet and his brother (now Dr Christopher Wordsworth, long master of Trinity college), after being some years at Hawkesworth school, in Lancashire, were sent to the university of Cambridge. William was entered of St John's in 1787. Poetry has been with him the early and almost the sole business of his life. Having finished his academical course, and taken his degree, he travelled for a short time; and marrying an amiable lady, his cousin, settled down among the lakes and mountains of Westmoreland. A gentleman dying in his neighbourhood left him a handsome legacy; other bequests followed; and about 1814, the patronage of the noble family of Lowther procured for the poet the easy and lucrative situation of Distributor of Stamps, which left the greater part of his time at his own disposal. In 1842 he resigned this situation in favour of his son, and government rewarded the venerable poet with a pension of £300 per annum. In April 1843 he was appointed poet-laureate, in the room of his deceased and illustrious friend Southey. His residence at Rydal Mount has been truly a poetical retirement.

Long have I loved what I behold,
The night that calms, the day that cheers;
The common growth of mother earth
Suffices me — her tears, her mirth,
Her humblest mirth and tears.

The dragon's wing, the magic ring,
I shall not covet for my dower,
If I along that lowly way
With sympathetic heart may stray,
And with a soul of power.

Wordsworth appeared as a poet in his twenty-third year, 1793. The title of his first work was The Evening Walk, and Descriptive Sketches. The walk is among the mountains of Westmoreland; the sketches refer to a tour made in Switzerland by the poet and his friend, the Rev. H. Jones, fellow of St. John's college. The poetry is of the style of Goldsmith; but description predominates over reflection. The enthusiastic dreams of liberty which then buoyed up the young poet, and his associates Coleridge and Southey, appear in such lines as the following:—

Oh give, great God, to freedom's waves to ride
Sublime o'er conquest, avarice, and pride;
To sweep where pleasure decks her guilty bowers,
And dark oppression builds her thick-ribbed towers;
Give them, beneath their breast, while gladness spring;
To brood the nations o'er with Nile-like wings;
And grant that every sceptred child of clay
Who cries, presumptuous, "Here their tides shall stay,"
Swept in their anger from the affrighted shore,
With all his creatures sink to rise no more!

In 1798 was published a collection of Lyrical Ballads, some by Coleridge, but the greater part by Wordsworth, and designed by him as an experiment how far a simpler kind of poetry than that in use would afford permanent interest to readers. The humblest subjects, he contended, were fit for poetry, and the language should be that "really used by men." The fine fabric of poetic diction which generations of the tuneful tribe had been laboriously rearing, he proposed to destroy altogether. The language of humble and rustic life, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, he considered to be a more permanent and far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by poets. The attempt of Wordsworth was either totally neglected or assailed with ridicule. The transition from the refined and sentimental school of verse, with select and polished diction, to such themes as "The Idiot Boy," and a style of composition disfigured by colloquial plainness, and by the mixture of ludicrous images and associations with passages of tenderness and pathos, was too violent to escape ridicule or insure general success. It was often impossible to tell whether the poet meant to be comic or tender, serious or ludicrous; while the choice of his subjects and illustrations, instead of being regarded as genuine simplicity, had on appearance of silliness or affectation. The faults of his worst ballads were so glaring, that they overpowered, at least for a time, the simple natural beauties, the spirit of gentleness and humanity, with which they were accompanied. It was a first experiment, and it was made without any regard for existing prejudices or feelings, or any wish to conciliate. The poems, however, were read by some. Two more volumes were added in 1807; and it was seen that, whatever might be the theory of the poet, he possessed a vein of pure and exalted description and meditation which it was impossible not to feel and admire. The influence of nature upon mars was his favourite theme; and though sometimes unintelligible from his idealism, he was also, on other occasions, just and profound. His worship of nature was ennobling and impressive. In real simplicity, however, Wordsworth is inferior to Cowper, Goldsmith, and many others. He has triumphed as a poet, in spite of his own theory. As the circle of his admirers was gradually extending, he continued to supply it with fresh materials of a higher order. In 1814 appeared The Excursion, a philosophical poem in blank verse, by far the noblest production of the author, and containing passages of sentiment, description, and pure eloquence, not excelled by any living poet, while its spirit of enlightened humanity and Christian benevolence — extending over all ranks of sentient and animated being — imparts to the poem a peculiarly sacred and elevated character. The influence of Wordsworth on the poetry of his age has thus been as beneficial as extensive. He has turned the public taste from pompous inanity to the study of man and nature; he has banished the false and exaggerated style of character and emotion which even the genius of Byron stooped to imitate; and he has enlisted the sensibilities and sympathies of his intellectual brethren in favour if the most expansive and kindly philanthropy. The pleasures and graces of his muse are all simple, pure, and lasting. In working out the plan of his Excursion, the poet has not, however, escaped from the errors of his early poems. The incongruity or want of keeping in most of Wordsworth's productions is observable in this work. The principal character is a pour Scotch pedlar, who traverses the mountains in company with the poet, and is made to discourse, with clerk-like fluency, "Of truth, of grandeur, beauty, love, and hope." It is thus that the poet violates the conventional rules of poetry and the realities of life; for surely it is inconsistent with truth and probability, that a profound moralist and dialectician should be found in such a situation. In his travels with the "Wanderer," the poet is introduced to a "Solitary," who lives secluded from the world, after a life of busy adventures and high hope, ending in disappointment and disgust. They all proceed to the house of the pastor, who (in the style of Crabbe's Parish Register) recounts some of the deaths and mutations that had taken place in his sequestered valley; and with a description of a visit made by the three to a neighbouring lake, the poem concludes. The Excursion is an unfinished work, part of a larger poem, The Recluse, "having for its principal object the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement." Whether the remainder of the work will ever be given to the world, or completed by the poet, is uncertain. The want of incident would, we fear, be fatal to its success. The narrative part of the Excursion is a mere framework, rude and unskilful, for a series of pictures of mountain scenery and philosophical dissertations, tending to show how the external world is adapted to the mind of man, and good educed out of evil and suffering—

Within the soul a faculty abides,
That with interpositions, which would hide
And darken, so can deal, that they become
Contingencies of pomp, and serve to exalt
Her native brightness. As the ample moon
In the deep stillness of a summer even
Rising behind a thick and lofty grove,
Burns like an unconsuming fire of light
In the green trees; and, kindling on all is,
Their leafy umbrage turns the dusky veil
Into a substance glorious as her own,
Yea, with her own incorporated, by power
Capacious and serene; like power abides
In man's celestial spirit; virtue thus
Sets forth and magnifies herself — thus feeds
A calm, a beautiful, and silent fire,
From the encumbrances of mortal life;
From error, disappointment-flay, from guilt;
And sometimes, so relenting justice wills,
From palpable oppressions of despair.
BOOK IV.

In a still loftier style of moral observation on the changes of life, the "gray-haired wanderer" exclaims—

So fails, so languishes, grows dim, and dies,
All that this world is proud of. From their spheres
The stars of human glory are cast down;
Perish the roses and the flowers of kings,
Princes, and emperors, and the crowns and palms
Of all the mighty, withered and consumed!
Nor is power given to lowliest innocence
Long to protect her own. The man himself
Departs; and soon is spent the line of those
Who, in the bodily image, in the mind,
In heart or soul, in station or pursuit,
Did most resemble him. Degrees and ranks,
Fraternities and orders — heaping high
New wealth upon the burthen of the old,
And placing trust in privilege confirmed
And re-confirmed — are scoffed at with a smile
Of greedy foretaste, from the secret stand
Of desolation aimed; to slow decline
These yield, and these to sudden overthrow;
Their virtue, service, happiness, and state
Expire; and Nature's pleasant robe of green,
Humanity's appointed shroud, enwraps
Their monuments and their memory.
BOOK VII.

The picturesque parts of the Excursion are full of a quiet and tender beauty characteristic of the author. We subjoin two passages, the first descriptive of a peasant youth, the hero of his native vale:—

The mountain ash
No eye can overlook, when 'mid a grove
Of yet unfaded trees she lifts her head
Decked with autumnal berries, that outshine
Spring's richest blossoms; and ye may have marked
By a brook side or solitary tarn,
How she her station doth adorn. The pool
Glows at her feet, and all the gloomy rocks
Are brightened round her. In his native vale,
Such and so glorious did this youth appear;
A sight that kindled pleasure in all hearts
By his ingenuous beauty, by the gleans
Of his fair eyes, by his capacious brow,
By all the graces with which nature's hand
Had lavishly arrayed him. As old bards
Tell in their idle songs of wandering gods,
Pan or Apollo, veiled in human form;
Yet, like the sweet-breathed violet of the shade,
Discovered in their own despite to sense
Of mortals (if such fables without blame
May find chance mention on this sacred ground),
So, through a simple rustic garb's disguise,
And through the impediment of rural cares,
In him revealed a scholar's genius shone;
And so, not wholly hidden from men's sight,
In him the spirit of a hero walked
Our unpretending valley. How the quoit
Whizzed from the stripling's arm! If touched by him,
The inglorious football mounted to the pitch
Of the lark's flight, or shaped a rainbow curve
Aloft in prospect of the shouting field!
The indefatigable fox had learned
To dread his perseverance in the chase.
With admiration would he lift his eyes
To the wide-ruling eagle, and his hand
Was loath to assault the majesty he loved,
Else had the strongest fastnesses proved weak
To guard the royal brood. The sailing glede,
The wheeling swallow, and the darting snipe,
The sporting sea-gull dancing with the waves,
And cautions waterfowl from distant clinics,
Fixed at their seat, the centre of the mere,
Were subject to young Oswald's steady aim.
BOOK VII.

The peasant youth, with others in the vale, roused by the cry to arms, studios the rudiments of war but dies suddenly:—

To him, thus snatched away, his comrade paid
A soldier's honours. At his funeral hour
Bright was the sun, the sky a cloudless blue—
A golden lustre slept upon the hills;
And if by chance a stranger, wandering there,
From some commanding eminence had looked
Down on this spot, well pleased would he have seen
A glittering spectacle; but every face
Was pallid — seldom hath that eye been moist
With tears that wept not then; nor were the few
Who from their dwellings came not forth to join
In this sad service, less disturbed than we.
They started at the tributary peal
Of instantaneous thunder which announced
Through the still air the closing of the grave
And distant mountains echoed with a sound
Of lamentation never heard before.

A description of deafness in a peasant would seem to be a subject hardly susceptible of poetical ornament; yet, by contrasting it with the surrounding objects — the pleasant sounds and stir of natureand by his vein of pensive and graceful reflection, Wordsworth has made this one of his finest pictures:—

Almost at the root
Of that tall pine, the shadow of whose bare
And slender stem, while here I sit at eve,
Oft stretches towards me, like a strong straight path
Traced faintly in the greensward, there, beneath
A plain blue stone, a gentle dalesman lies,
From whom in early childhood was withdrawn
The precious gift of hearing. He grew up
From year to year in loneliness of soul;
And this deep mountain valley was to him
Soundless, with all its streams. The bird of dawn
Did never rouse this cottager from sleep
With startling summons; not for his delight
The vernal cuckoo shouted; not for him
Murmured the labouring bee. When stormy winds
Were working the broad bosom of the lake
Into a thousand thousand sparkling waves,
Rocking the trees, or driving cloud on cloud
Along the sharp edge of yon lofty crags,
The agitated scene before his eye
Was silent as a picture: evermore
Were all things silent, wheresoe'er he moved.
Yet, by the solace of his own pure thoughts
Upheld, he duteously pursued the round
Of rural labours; the steep mountain side
Ascended with his staff and faithful dog;
The plough he guided, and the scythe he swayed;
And the ripe corn before his sickle fell
Among the jocund reapers.
BOOK VII.

By viewing man in connection with external nature, the poet blends his metaphysics with pictures of life and scenery. To build up and strengthen the powers of the mind, in contrast to the operations of sense, is ever his object. Like Bacon, Wordsworth would rather believe all the fables in the Talmud and Alcoran than that this universal frame is without a mind — or that that mind does not, by its external symbols, speak to the human heart. He lives under the "habitual sway" of nature.

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

The subsequent works of the poet are numerous — The White Doe of Rylstone, a romantic narrative poem, yet coloured with his peculiar genius; Sonnets on the River Duddon; The Waggoner; Peter Bell — Ecclesiastical Sketches; Yarrow Revisited, &c. Having made repeated tours in Scotland and on the continent, the poet diversified his subjects with descriptions of particular scones, local manners, legends, and associations. The whole of his works have been arranged by their author according to their respective subjects; as Poems referring to the Period of Childhood; Poems founded on the Affections; Poems of the Fancy; Poems of the Imagination, &c. This classification is often arbitrary and capricious; but it is one of the conceits of Wordsworth, that his poems should be read in a certain continuous order, to give full effect to his system. Thus classified and published, the poet's works form six volumes. A seventh has lately (1842) been added, consisting of poems written very early and very late in life (as is stated), and a tragedy which had long lain past the author. The latter is not happy, for Wordsworth has less dramatic power than any other living poet. In the drama, however, both Scott and Byron failed; and Coleridge, with his fine imagination and pictorial expression, was only a shade more successful. The fame of Wordsworth is daily extending. The few ridiculous or puerile pieces which excited en much sarcasm, parody, and derision, have been quietly forgotten, or are considered as more idiosyncrasies of the poet that provoke a smile, while his higher attributes command admiration, and have secured a now generation of readers. A tribe of worshippers, in the young poets of the day, have arisen to do him homage, and in some instances have carried the fooling to a sectarian and bigotted excess. Many of his former depreciators have also joined the ranks of his admirers — partly because in his late works he has done himself more justice both in his style and subjects. He is too intellectual, and too little sensuous, to use the phrase of Milton, ever to become generally popular, unless in some of his smaller pieces. His peculiar sensibilities cannot be relished by all. His poetry, however, is of various kinds. Forgetting his own theory as to the proper subjects of poetry, he has ventured on the loftiest themes, and in calm sustained elevation of thought, appropriate imagery, and intense feeling, lie often reminds the reader of the sublime strains of Milton. His "Laodamia," the "Vernal Ode," the "Ode to Lycoris and Dion," are pure and richly classic poems in conception and diction. Many of his sonnets have also a chaste and noble simplicity. In these short compositions, his elevation and power as a poet are perhaps more remarkably displayed than in any of his other productions. They possess a winning sweetness or simple grandeur, without the most distant approach to antithesis or straining for effect; while that tendency to prolixity and diffuseness which characterise his longer poems, is repressed by the necessity for brief and rapid thought and concise expression, imposed by the nature of the sonnet. It is no exaggeration to say that Milton alone has surpassed — if even he has surpassed — some of the noble sonnets of Wordsworth dedicated to liberty and inspired by patriotism.

SONNETS.
LONDON, 1802.
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour;
England hath need of thee; she is a fen
Of stagnant waters; altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hail and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens — majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way
To cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself didst lay.

THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
Or bear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPTEMBER 3, 1803.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep,
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

ON KING'S COLLEGE CHAPEL, CAMBRIDGE.
Tax not the royal saint with vain expense,
With ill-matched aims the architect who planned,
Albeit labouring for a scanty band
Of white-robed scholars only, this immense
And glorious work of fine intelligence!
Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely calculated less or more;
So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense
These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells,
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering — and wandering on, as loath to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.

His "Intimations of Immortality," and "Lines on Tintern Abbey," are the finest examples of his rapt imaginative style, blending metaphysical truth with diffuse gorgeous description and metaphor. His simpler effusions are pathetic and tender. He has little strong passion; but in one piece, "Vaudracour and Julia," he has painted the passion of love with more warmth than might be anticipated from his abstract idealism—

His present mind
Was under fascination; he beheld
A vision, and adored the thing he saw.
Arabian fiction never filled the world
With half the wonders that were wrought for him.
Earth breathed in one great presence of the spring;
Life turned the meanest of her implements
Before his eyes, to price above all gold;
The house she dwelt in was a sainted shrine;
Her chamber window did surpass in glory
The portals of the dawn; all paradise
Could, by the simple opening of a deer,
Let itself in upon him; pathways, walks,
Swarmed with enchantment, till his spirit sank,
Surcharged within him — overblest to move
Beneath a sun that wakes a weary world
To its dull round of ordinary cares;
A mass too happy for mortality!

The lovers parted under circumstances of danger, but had a stolen interview at night—

Through all her courts
The vacant city slept; the busy winds,
That keep no certain intervals of rest,
Moved not; meanwhile the galaxy displayed
Her fires, that like mysterious pulses beat
Aloft — momentous but uneasy bliss!
To their full hearts the universe seemed hung
On that brief meeting's slender filament!

This is of the style of Ford or Massinger. Living mostly apart from the world, and nursing with solitary complacency his poetical system, and all that could bear upon his works and pursuits as a poet Wordsworth fell into these errors of taste and that want of discrimination to which we have already alluded. His most puerile ballads and attempts at humour are apparently as much prized by him and classed with the same nicety and care, as the most majestic of his conceptions, or the most natural and beautiful of his descriptions. The art of condensation is also rarely practised by him. But if the poet's retirement or peculiar disposition has been a cause of his weakness, it has also been one of the sources of his strength. It left him untouched by the artificial or mechanical tastes of his age; it gave an originality to his conceptions and to the whole colour of his thoughts; and it completely imbued him with that purer antique life and knowledge of the phenomena of nature — the sky, lakes, and mountains of his native district, in all their tints and forms — which he has depicted with such power and enthusiasm. A less complacent poet would have been chilled by the long neglect and ridicule he experienced. His spirit was self-supported, and his genius, at once observant and meditative, was left to shape out its own creations, and extend its sympathies to that world which lay beyond his happy mountain solitude.