1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "William Wordsworth" The Authors of England (1838) 87-93.



The history of party spirit, as pervading the world of literature, could not be better illustrated than by a retrospect of the fate which the poetry of Mr. Wordsworth has proved. The days were — when, among the million, his name was a word of reproach and derision; when the few who ventured to admire his works, to point to their spirit, as that true and heaven-descended light, which should survive and finally overcome the coarser fires by which it was for the moment out-glared, were silenced as dreamers by a sneer, and triumphantly put to confusion by strange words quoted from the lips of their own oracle. But "the whirlgig of Time brings about his revenges." It is now the fashion to decry the popular poets of the last twenty years, as if it were just or possible that all the darker and sterner passions of humanity should be denied a voice and an echo — and not merely to extol, beyond all his predecessors, the apostle of contemplation, "who has worshipped nature in the stillness of the woods" — but to speak of him as the one only true prophet, whose rod has swallowed up all the rods of the false magicians. And hence our younger poets, fixing their reverential eyes upon him, as the regenerator of our literature, are something too apt to endeavour to strain their thoughts into his mould — to walk exclusively in the paths he has chosen: — to substitute, in short, in the place of a faith, earnest but reasonable, and permitting reservations and differences, an idol-worship, extreme and trenching upon superstition Why should this be? "What" to quote one of the most eloquent and catholic of modern critics [author's note: Professor Wilson], "should hinder the same mind from being elevated by delight in the study of one and all of the great masters? Nor is admiration of all inconsistent with preference of one, according to the mysterious constitution of each individual soul, which, though the senses are nearly the same in all men, gives a different shape and seeming to all objects, so that the same rose, is a different rose to every pair of eyes in the world, and so also is the rainbow. At the bottom of many such prejudices and bigotries lies pride. By exclusive worship, men imagine they elevate the character of its object, and likewise their own, or rather their own reputation. There is an idol! — you think it mean; but we tell you it is magnificent! and that what you think clay and iron, is gold and ivory. Were you as wise as we, you, too, would fall down and worship it as we do, in spirit and in truth. Converts are made, and the sect, as it is enlarged, becomes more and more intolerant of any other faith and any other good works."

After these few words of preface, not wholly uncalled for, let us speak with all love and reverence, of one of the most remarkable men of modern Europe. So retired has been his life, and so sedulously withdrawn from the observation and the gossip of the anecdote-mongers, that the notices of Mr. Wordsworth permitted to us may be comprised in a very brief space; they consist merely of a few widely-scattered dates. He was born at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, on the 7th of April, 1770. When he was eight years of age he was sent to the grammar school of Hawkshead, in Lancashire, with his brother, afterwards Dr. Christopher Wordsworth. Here, under the care of Mr. Taylor, then head master, he became a good classical scholar; but he prophetically distinguished himself for his English composition, and a copy of verses on a vacation procured him high praise. How early the prevailing bent of his mind began to show itself, may be gathered from the anecdote, that "before the morning hour of repairing to school, he has been overheard repeating beautiful passages from Thomson's Seasons, as he walked alone." "Having laid in a good store of grammar-learning," continues the notice to which we are indebted, "Mr. Wordsworth was removed in October, 1787, to the University of Cambridge, and entered at St. John's. During the long vacations, he indulged himself with travelling: one of his pedestrian excursions upon the Continent, in which he was accompanied by a college associate, was commemorated in a series of 'Descriptive Sketches, in Verse,' which were given to the public in 1793; in the same year also he published 'An Evening Walk,' a metrical epistle from the lakes, addressed to a young lady."

"The child is father of the man," and the man of contemplation rather than the man of action or passion, had been predicated by the boy who loved, when "creeping like snail, unwillingly to school," to murmur to himself some favorite passage from the "Seasons." In strict consistency with these early indications, we find Mr. Wordsworth, after leaving college — not applying himself, with a young man's ambition, to the needful drudgery of professional life, but wandering over England, making, in his wanderings, that minute and intimate acquaintance with nature, which, on a future day, was to furnish him with such a treasury of description, and allusion, and simile. Ere long, however, we find the poet bringing himself to an anchor in the hamlet of Alfoxden, Somersetshire: here, enjoying the society of Coleridge, and sharing his political opinions; for Mr. Wordsworth, like his other brethren of the Lakes, entered into life a zealous and immoderate upholder of the French revolutionists. The same enthusiasm for the cause of reform — for the substitution of nature and freedom in place of artifice and tyranny, as made him partaker in certain fierce poems of the hour, long since forgotten or disavowed, made him also, in the fulness of youthful confidence, meditate an experiment, the result of which was to he a new poetical system, and build up a theory which he was prepared to advocate with a martyr-like endurance. Thus it was that the "Lyrical Ballads" were planned. How the poet fell away from his political opinions, professing at the same time to abide with unshaken pertinacity by his poetical creed, his subsequent life and writings sufficiently demonstrate. The "Lyrical Ballads" made their appearance in the year 1798, including, it will be remembered, a few compositions by Mr. Coleridge. Of their reception, in which discriminating admiration bore no reasonable proportion with virulent mockery and abuse, it is needless to dwell. In the same year Mr. Wordsworth visited Germany; in 1800 settled in Westmoreland: and finally established himself at Rydal Mount; a sweeter or more peaceful hermitage was never dreamed of or attained to by poet. In the year 1803, he married Miss Mary Hutchinson, of Penrith. Of the five children resulting from this union, two sons and a daughter (the joy of his fireside) are still living. His being nominated, about this time, to the office of distributor of stamps for the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland by his friend Lord Lonsdale, placed him in easy circumstances, thereby rendering him happily independent in his poetical career of the praise and profit of the hour. Without indiscreet personality, it may be added, that "the daily beauty of his life," as a father, a friend, and a neighbour, has not been flattered in his poems. We know that the constant allusion to domestic companionship and affection, such as we find in his memorials of different tours at home and abroad, or in the "Poems on the Naming of Places," — or such as are linked with innumerable references to the natural beauty by which he has lived surrounded, — or such as make his picture of the three graces in the "Triad" one of the most fascinating portraits of woman ever executed — we know that these are the habitual and involuntary reflections of habits and sympathies which have been too sparingly allowed to shed their gracious influence upon the lives of the sons of song.

The list of Mr. Wordsworth's works must now be completed. First come his "Miscellaneous Poems." It must be noted that the first edition of these, published in 1807, was reviewed by Lord Byron in the "Monthly Literary Recreations," in the flat critical commonplace of the day — that the second edition, which appeared in 1815, was accompanied by that prefatory essay, containing his poetical confession of faith, so judiciously and kindly dissected and illustrated by Mr. Coleridge in his "Biographia." In 1809 he published an earnest political pamphlet, "concerning the relations of Great Britain, Spain, and Portuigal." By this time he, too, had undergone that change from Jacobinism to Toryism, which was shared by his brother-poets and neighbours of the Lake country. This change of opinion, in addition to the peculiarities of style and subject enforced upon him by his theory, in the prosecution of his literary career, and the quiet self-consciousness with which these were advanced, furnished a favourite handle of attack to wits, and critics, and rival poets for many a long year. It is curious, now that the heat of the controversy has subsided, to observe the subtlety and acrimony with which this attack was carried on: to read, for instance, with what an ingenuity of paradox and sincerity of partizanship Hazlitt, in his "Political Essays," contrives to reconcile the unpopularity of the poet with the worldliness of the politician; and then to remark, that it has been reserved for these days, in which, as some say, we are inevitably verging towards anarchy and unbelief, to place the Bard of Rydal even higher than most of his predecessors!

It appears that Mr. Wordsworth had been for some years meditating, and diligently employed in preparing a philosophical and descriptive poem, to be entitled "The Recluse;" "having for its principal object," says the writer, "the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement." Of this work it will be remembered that "The Excursion" (first published in 1814,) forms but a third, and is to be considered as an episodical or intermediate part; and the author adds in his preface, that "his minor pieces, which have been long before the public, when they shall be properly arranged, will be found by the attentive reader to have such connexion with the main work as may give them claim to be likened to the little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses ordinarily included in those edifices." To this fancy he has adhered throughout his life, as may be seen by the thoughtful and systematic arrangement of his poems, in the complete edition recently published.

"The White Doe of Rylstone" bears the date of 1815. A fairer opportunity for comparison could hardly be afforded, than by placing its dedication at the side of Shelley's introductory lines to the "Revolt of Islam," — each being addressed to the poet's "Mary," each containing a confession of faith, as well as of personal affection. Nor can we, in reading this poem, forbear to remark, how characteristically, as, indeed, in every line he has written, its author has thrown the serene light of his own spirit, over a story of broil, and conflict, and adventure. Scott would have plunged heart and soul into "The Rising of the North," and told the tale with the zeal and breathlessness of an eyewitness and an actor. Mr. Wordsworth reviews the scene from above and at a distance; and the solitary and faithful animal that haunts the graves of the Nortons, comes, we cannot but think, closer to his sympathies, than either the rash father and his eight staunch sons, or the one, who from conscience, keeps himself aloof from the fray, and, from duty, shares the fate of his family. At least the loveliest part of the legend of Rylstone lies in its prologue, and in the moonlight scene at the opening of the Fourth Canto. In such descriptive passages as these Mr. Wordsworth is unrivalled.

"The Thanksgiving Ode," with other poems, appeared in the following year. In 1819, their author gave the world a new proof that "the ancient spirit was not dead" in him: that he still clung to his theory of deeming the lowliest themes worthy subjects for verse, by the publication of "Peter Bell and the "Waggoner," which were dedicated to Southey and Lamb, as works by which their author set some store; he expressly tells us, indeed, that they had been laid by many years for such reconsideration and polish m might fit them to hold a permanent place among the poems of England.

The announcement of the first of these led to one of the most successful and whimsical literary pleasantries ever executed. A lively young London genius, ripe for mischief, and aware that the title of the promised ballad, was, at best, unpromising, anticipated the poem, by publishing a false "Peter Bell," in which the peculiarities which he felt to be an excrescence upon, rather than a part of Mr. Wordsworth's genius, were caricatured most unmercifully. The appearance of this counterfeit gave occasion to some earnest and characteristic letters from Mr. Coleridge to its publishers, in which the former accounts for the egotism to be implied from the choice of such unpalateable subjects, by pointing to the obstinacy engendered by the persecution and satire to which the poet had been so long exposed, and which he (Coleridge) had been among the first to denounce. There is reason in the explanation; — but still, — when we see the richest powers of description (see the opening of the "Waggoner," a Claude-like companion to the night-piece recently mentioned) and imagination the most affluent, and thought "that sometimes lies too deep for tears," lavished upon stories, as incapable in the excess of their native homeliness of bearing such rich clothing, as a peasant would be to become a suit of cloth of gold, — the dispassionate reader cannot but feel that the excuse was eminently required. "The Waggoner" was shown off as a foil against some of those Sonnets, in which the poet, more worthily employed, alternately treats the most majestic and delicate themes with such a calm and consummate mastery of his art, as has never been reached since Milton strung "the small lute" to "his dear espoused saint," or to denounce the massacre of the faithful in Piedmont.

The space to which this entire notice must be confined could be well devoted to an examination of the excellence displayed by Mr. Wordsworth in this exquisite and gemlike class of composition. Conciseness without formality, thought never tending towards conceit, art concealing itself in the perfection of language and versification — these are only a few of the distinguishing features of his sonnets, whether we turn to the series on "Duddon River" (published in 1820), in which was executed a plan not dissimilar to that merely sketched by Mr. Coleridge in his meditated poem of the "Brook," — or to the "Sonnets of Liberty," — or to the "Ecclesiastical Sketches," — or to the "Memorials of a Tour on the Continent" (published in 1822), or to the specimens included in the poet's last volume given to the world in 1835. But it must be borne in mind, that though preeminent in these cabinet compositions, in which he is strictly fettered, his success in other, freer modes of verse, will neither be found to have been cramped or tamed thereby; witness his noble lyrics, among which the "Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle," and his "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality," and his "Ode on the Power of Sound," must be mentioned. Whether in pastoral or in elegy, whether he take up the common and seducing ballad metre, or, throwing himself loose of rhyme, pour forth his thoughts in the most resonant and variously-cadenced of modern blank verse, he is always fluent, rarely feeble, in his versification.

Besides his poems, we must mention Mr. Wordsworth's prose description of the "Lakes," published in 1820. If the choice of his residence gave occasion to an epithet applied with an unmeaning and indiscriminate contempt to all such as did not pamper the taste of the hour in which they wrote, it has also given one of their greatest charms to the poems of Mr. Wordsworth. How completely his whole soul is imbued with the spirit of mountain scenery, this little prose volume testifies yet more abundantly than his verses; — a mere guidebook in form and pretension, but filled with such a series of written pictures as bring the crags, and the holms, and the waters of the north before the eye in the fulness of their beauty — a book acting like a spell upon the fevered inhabitant of a town, who, as he reads, sees (like the Susan of the poet's own ballad)

A mountain ascending, a vision of trees,
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

It is rumoured, that besides what has been published, Mr. Wordsworth has yet large manuscript stores in his possession; among them a tragedy, of which tantalizing glimpses, and no more, have been permitted to appear. Severally to anatomize his works, to descant upon his theory and the manner in which his genius has risen superior to its self-imposed trammels is here impossible: but we must point out his distinctive excellences, and to do this we shall quote the summary drawn up with as much acuteness as verbal felicity by Mr. Coleridge in his essay in the "Biographia," already referred to. First. "An austere purity of language both grammatically and logically: in short, a perfect appropriateness of the words to the meaning. Secondly, A correspondent weight and sanity of the thoughts and sentiments won, not from books, — but from the, poet's own meditations. They are fresh, and have the dew upon them. * * * Even throughout his smaller Poems, there is not one which is not rendered valuable by some just and original reflection. Thirdly, The sinewy strength and originality of single lines and paragraphs; the frequent curiosa felicitas of his diction. Fourthly, The perfect truth of nature in his images and descriptions, as taken immediately from nature, and proving a long and genial intimacy with the very spirit which gives a physiognomic expression to all the works of nature. Fifthly, A meditative pathos, an union of deep and subtle thought with sensibility: a sympathy with man as man; the sympathy, indeed, of a contemplator, rather than a fellow-sufferer and co-mate ('spectator, haud particeps'), but of a contemplator, from whose view no difference of rank conceals the sameness of the nature; no injuries of wind or weather, or toil, or even of ignorance, wholly disguise the human face divine." "Last and preeminently," concludes Mr. Coleridge, "I challenge for this poet the gift of imagination, in the highest and strictest sense of the word. In the play of fancy, Wordsworth, to my feelings, is always graceful, and sometimes recondite. The likeness is occasionally too strange, or demands too peculiar a point of view, or is such as appears the creature of predetermined research, rather than spontaneous presentation. Indeed, his fancy seldom displays itself, as mere and unmodified fancy. But in imaginative power he stands nearest of all modern writers to Shakspeare and Milton; and yet in a mind perfectly unborrowed, and his own. To employ his own words, which are at once an instance and an illustration, he does indeed, to all thoughts and to all objects,—

—add the gleam,
The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration, and the poet's dream!

With a name worthier than his who has so largely influenced the literature of his country, and with a purifying, rather than a corrupting influence, we could not close this first series of the "AUTHORS OF ENGLAND."