1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

John Dix, in "Reminiscences of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 122-29.



It was on the occasion of my returning to my home from Edinburgh, some years since, that I first met the present poet laureate — WILLIAM WORDSWORTH. Coming to his little paradise of a mountain domicile, and its amiable inmates, including Miss Wordsworth, a sister of the poet, from the Northern Athens, the literary atmosphere of which is, or was then, much above blood-heat, it seemed quite delightful by its serene contrast. The "moderate mansion" stands quite embosomed in trees on the road to Keswick, near Ambleside, a village at the head of Windermere, surrounded with green and romantic mountains. It was pleasing to observe the fond veneration for her brother of the affable and unaffected sister, an ornament of old-maiden life. She fairly hung on every word which issued from his lips.

Yet as care is an "universal apparition," so Wordsworth started up at the delightful tea-table round which we were seated, shortly after my introduction to the family circle, conjured up by my rash mention, in the course of conversation, of Lord Jeffrey, (not a lord then, of course, except as lord of the ascendant in criticism, and a Lord Chief Justice, as I presume to think.) I must premise here, that at that time there was much jealousy existing between cliques in Edinburgh society, so that none except insignificant lookers on, engaged in no literary enterprise, could well be neutral or friendly to all. Belonging to this idle class myself, I enjoyed this privilege, and had just left Edinburgh to enjoy an autumn at the Lakes; having been delighted with the frank heartiness and entire unbending of himself in the "Prince of Editors."

We were already deep in the topic of the "Old Thorn" of the lyrical ballads, ("so old that you could hardly believe that it had ever been young,") Mr. Wordsworth favouring me by relating the precise occasion of its composition; his being in reality caught in a storm on a Somersetshire hill; there being an actual lichened thorn, and also some likeness of a child's grave, (which must be a small green hillock, and therefore might very well be thought a grave, without allowing for a poet's or traveller's licence,) Mrs. Wordsworth patiently waiting, with hand extended, for the poet's tea-cup, which in the ardour of the "pleasure of memory" he also held, but still retained empty, when, at my mention of that luckless name, suggested by some remark of his own on the unfairness of the laughers at his theory, up started the tall figure of the lyrist, his hitherto complacent countenance, which was very expressive in spite of dim eyes and a hard outline, ruffled like his own little pond, that he had "measured from side to side," by the sudden storm, and with one hand thrust into his breast, and the other clenched, began a rapid walk about the room, all the time, in good set terms, not rapid like his motions, talking a review of the "Review," sometimes of the work "in toto"; sometimes of its single onslaught on himself and of his "Excursion," then of Mr. Jeffrey, who "might think it like a great man, and worthy of his public character, to publicly insult another; but he also must abide the judgment of the public, — slow, indeed, occasionally, to do justice, — slow," and he repeated the words, as if pondering, and becalmed himself with some inward reflection, and then obeyed Mrs. Wordsworth's anxious invitation to take his tea before it was quite cold.

"We shall all be judged," he again said energetically, with such solemnity, too, that it might be thought to allude to doomsday, by any one just entering. To scatter the storm, I told him how I first oddly met with the "lyrical ballads," in a book without title-page, which had been picked up in the road near Epping Forest, and had been dropped probably from some vehicle; that, although at first supposing it to have been a book for children, I could not help being impressed by parts of it, though then grown out of childhood:—

When the blue day-light's in the skies
And frosty air is keen and still;
And to herself she cries
Oh! misery! — oh misery!
Oh! woe is me — oh! misery!

This, which is part of the Child-murder, or Thorn ballad, struck me, and I told him so, at which he was much pleased, and directly showed the ladies how my not knowing what to make of this mutilated book, which just presented me the poems without even a title-page, afforded strong evidence in support of his theory, of the latent elements of poetic pleasure even in the lowest walks of life. I did not quite clearly see how it bore on the point, but he did; and they, almost before he could end the sentence, were convinced; and I, too, was pleased to please a whole family — so all was well.

Cordial affection seemed to unite the poet and his admiring listeners, for not much other duty was imposed, but to listen; indeed, when he got warmed about poetry, especially Miltonic harmony, rather than thought, it was a real luxury to listen.

My greatest treat of this kind, was one drizzling moonlight walk, which Mr. Wordsworth did me the real favour to take with me, on my way home to Esthwaite-water, near the town of Hawkshead, the scene of his schooldays. I think it was eleven o'clock when he stepped back for his hat and umbrella; to my surprise bade his family not sit up, and quietly began an eloquent discourse on Milton, Dante, himself — his habits — (his literary wrongs, too, again) — his frequent suspensions of the very pleasure in composition, as if he should never write again, &c. On another occasion, I was struck with the sensitiveness to praise, which is, says the elder D'Israeli, indigenous in the minds of poets. Professor Wilson, the immortal Christopher North of "Blackwood's Magazine," resided until 1820 at Grasmere, near Mr. Wordsworth's residence, where he wrote, among other poems, his "Isle of Palms," and "the City of the Plague," and was his bosom friend. When, in that year, Wilson obtained the chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, whither he went to reside, he never forgot the kindly family with which he had enjoyed so much happiness; and rarely, perhaps never, was published a number of "Blackwood's Magazine," without Wordsworth's name absolutely embossing its double columns in some eulogistic shape or other, as every reader of Maga must remember. I have no doubt that the Poet Laureate owes his place among the poets of Great Britain entirely to his grateful friend John Wilson, of Elleray House, Esquire, notwithstanding that he was the "great Captain of the Lake Poets," as Jeffrey used to designate him, and Wilson, then, but his admiring poetical adopted son.

The utter indifference of the reading public, which Scott first, and next Byron, and then Scott the second, (another, yet the same,) as the "Great Unknown," had entered into and held by a sort of magical possession, — Wordsworth's own secluded position, — the want of all spirit-stirring element in his poems, — these, reinforced by the tremendous battery of worse than blame — of scorn, opened upon every new work that put forth its quiet feelers, (as when of the "Excursion," the reviewer's first words were, "this will never do") — I say, all these causes could not have failed of proving mortal to the fame of so defenceless a poet and unworldly a man, but for the aegis of Blackwood stretched over him; the protection of a magazine then and long in possession of a popularity as a periodical, only second to that of the "Edinburgh" and "Quarterly," and scarcely inferior. The reading public did read Wilson — charming, gouty old Christopher — though they did not ponder Wordsworth's pages; but when it was told some hundred and twenty times in a year, there being about ten indirect mentions in each number, that the greatest poet who ever lived was then living, the ceaseless appeal at last had its effect on its prepossessed imagination, Byron-ridden, Scott-ridden, Waverley-ridden as it had been; and a murmur began to creep — curiosity was excited; even idiot boys and Peter Bells no longer scared away popular attention. But I was going to observe on Mr. Wordsworth's sensitiveness to the praises in Blackwood. With a smile of playful ridicule of its ultra-laudation, he asked, had I seen the last month's, then just out? "I am told," said he, indifferently, "for I've not seen it, that my last publication is reviewed or alluded to; and the extravagant critic goes on to say, that the extracts they give are worth, of themselves, the price of the Magazine." This was spoken as a joke, of course, but it seemed that it was not so to be taken, for, on Mrs. Wordsworth's laughing, the first cloud I had ever seen overcast the visage of the Mountain Patriarch, at least which I had noticed lowering on any one present, (at absent Jeffrey the thunder-cloud was pretty terrible,) then swept across it, and his own smile flying before it, he said, rather sternly, and looking so too, "that was a serious review, Mrs. Wordsworth."

The follies of the wise afford a fair moral topic. Let me not be supposed wishful to excite one contemptuous smile at a good man, and a wise one, (perhaps love of fame out of the question,) a true poet, though not an inspired genius of the highest order, an exemplary parent, husband, and brother. I only aim at presenting such little true traits as may depict the worthy Laureate to strangers, more truly trifling as they are, than public laudatory generalities.

Mr. Wordsworth has two sinecure appointments in the Stamp Office of large emolument, besides a private patrimony. I ought, perhaps, to add to this gossiping record of the present Poet-Laureate's home-life, some mention of his more dignified chitchat. Lord Byron he does not speak of with acrimony, notwithstanding the noble poet's public poetical attacks — the worst, because the most enduring of all. He reprehended, and surely with justice, his personal allusions to Southey's and Coleridge's wives in Don Juan. "Some of the Reviewers will have it that I was Byron's poetical guide to Parnassus;" he remarked, with his usual quiet show of indifference to he praise he was reporting, "that it was Wordsworth who first taught Byron to look at a mountain." I remembered reading the words (incredulously enough) but forget where, and I think he referred them to Professor Wilson. To teach a "poet's eye to roll in a fine frenzy," must be a far harder task than to teach the young idea "how to shoot;" but Mr. Wordsworth did not seem to think so, and it was not for me to say it, else I might have had "That was a serious review, Mr. —," in my teeth.