1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Robert Story, in Love and Literature; being the Reminiscences, Literary Opinions, and Fugitive Pieces of a Poet in Humble Life (1842) 183-86.



When I had seconded his toast, I asked him his opinion of Wordsworth.

"My opinion of Wordsworth," said he, "is formed chiefly from a deep and intimate acquaintance with the 'Excursion,' a poem which does equal honour to his genius and his heart. This is not the indiscriminate praise of a eulogist; it is the inference which his poetry compels me to draw. There are in the poem I have mentioned, a hundred passages that for eloquence and sublimity will bear comparison with any passage of any poet, ancient or modern; and hundreds of others made up of feelings that equally indicate a heart of the greatest possible goodness. His love of nature and mankind is too intense for affectation; it is real, and warm, and holy, and forms the very stamina of his song. Thompson looked on nature with the eye of a philosopher; Cowper tinged it with the gloom of his own constitutional melancholy; Wordsworth contemplates it with the rapture of poetry, heightened and hallowed by the rapture of religion! Do you recollect these lines?

O then what soul was his, when on the tops
Of the high mountains, he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked—
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean's liquid mass, beneath him lay
In gladness and deep joy. The clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces did he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle; sensation, soul, and form
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being; in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life.
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation from the living God
Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired.

"This is one of the many passages that emboss the 'Excursion.' That it does not all consist of such passages was to be expected, and perhaps desired, in so long a poem; but its tamest and most tedious paragraphs (for such it has) are besprinkled with thoughts and phrases of the purest beauty. Thus, a voice is said to be 'the very sound of happy thoughts.' The butterfly 'soars from earth's bright flowers into the dewy clouds.' A taper twinkling at midnight in a valley, is like 'a sullen star dimly reflected in a lonely pool.' The swan amid the lake 'anchors her placid beauty.' On the approach of night, 'the flowers are lost in the dark hedges.' — It would be an endless task to specify all such minute ornaments. I shall only add the touching description of a child, whose mother is fast dying of a broken heart in consequence of being deserted by its father and her husband:

Her infant babe
Had from its mother caught the trick of grief,
And sighed among its playthings.

A circumstance so deeply pathetic was perhaps never employed to heighten a picture of utter misery.

"This poem, which is mostly dramatic, has been admirably characterised by Coleridge as exhibiting a species of mental ventriloquism. We have the Wanderer, the Solitary, and the Pastor introduced to us, each uttering sentiments on the subject discussed; but notwithstanding this, we never lose sight of the poet himself. It is always Wordsworth — it can be no other than Wordsworth — who describes, narrates, or declaims; the others are mere automata, speaking, or rather seeming to speak, as the inspired ventriloquist pulls the wire. Nothing ludicrous is meant by this illustration, nor anything condemnatory of this want of variety in his characters. Individualization holds not, in didactic compositions, the same rank that it sustains in tragic or heroic poetry; though, after all, the dramatis personae of the 'Excursion' are kept sufficiently distinct by their history and opinions, if not by their language and sentiments. Their colloquies are always interesting, often sublime; and no thinking person can listen to them without feeling that he is in communion with minds of the very loftiest order.