1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

A. P., "A Literary Essay on Wordsworth and the Lake-School of Poetry" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 1:279-89.



WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, Esq. late of St. John's at Cambridge, and at present distributor-of stamps for the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland. "Wordsworth, says a critic [author's note: Mr. H. in the lit. Spec.] may want the intense power and energy of Byron; he may be equally deficient in the elegant sportiveness of imagination which distinguishes the poetry of Moore; in beauty of description, and force of illustration, Scott has far surpassed him; and there is an enthusiasm about the early productions of Southey's muse, which gives them an aireness and attraction, not to be found in his. Wordsworth, however, has excellencies peculiarly his own, and they are abundantly sufficient to give an immortal verdure to the laurels acquired by his genius. Slowly but surely he has gained a place in the very first rank of those great spirits, whose extraordinary talents render the age illustrious and though, in the cant of criticism, he may be now exalted to the third heaven of fame, and now debased below the veriest bardling that imps his puny wings in its grosser atmosphere equally unmoved by extravagant praise and ridiculous censure, he holds on his way, rejoicing in the strength of intellect."

Wordsworth, like all men of a naturally contemplative turn of mind, writes rather for himself than for the public, and is easily consoled for the injustice of his contemporaries. A genius like his feels a consciousness of its own power, and in obeying the impulses of that genius, the poet finds in his own heart, if not the only encouragement he desires, at least that which serves to defend him against the piercing shafts of raillery. A rival poet unfortunately joined the tribe of critics, who make the philosophy of Wordsworth a subject of ridicule. Lord Byron contemplated nature and society in so different a point of view, that he must often be in direct contradiction to the lake poet; but it was not generous to feign so much contempt for a writer, from whom he condescended to borrow some of his ideas. Wordsworth's "Evening Sketches" undoubtedly furnished the groundwork of the third canto of "Childe Harold."

Out of a thousand persons who read Lord Byron, there are ten who read Wordsworth; but out of these ten, there are, perhaps, six who assign to him the very highest rank among poets. In England, if you enquire who Wordsworth is, you will be answered by two or three stanzas of Don Juan, in which he is denounced as a fool; or you will, perhaps, be told that he is a man who is holding a situation in the stamp office; that about thirty years ago, he published some ballads for children; that he has since produced a dull poem, the hero of which is a common pedler. He does not indite verses to Chloris, but he writes forty sonnets on one streamlet; addresses lines to the linnet, the red-breast, the lark, the cuckoo, the daisy, and the hawthorn; describes, over and over again, the scenery of the English Switzerland, and is exceedingly fond of speculating on the instinct of children and idiots.

Yet this is the very man whom Walter Scott, Southey, and Coleridge, extol as the greatest genius of modern poetry. Wordsworth is the least popular of all the English poets; but, at the same time, he excites the highest degree of enthusiasm among his own admirers.

Wordsworth is at the head of the Lake School, which includes Southey, Coleridge, Wilson, etc. and is so called because all the poets belonging to it either reside, or have resided, near the lakes of Westmoreland and Cumberland. Though united together by the bonds of relationship and friendship, rather than by the doctrines of their particular poetic theory, yet they may, nevertheless, he regarded as the members of a sect.

Once the Edinburgh Review, attempted to establish a sort of literary catholicism, by setting up a claim to supremacy and infallibility. The principles of the lake school were the first "heresy" proscribed by the review, which, however has since shewn more indulgence for the principles, without abating its prejudice against the individuals who profess them. Southey who is one of the contributors to the Quarterly Renew, has occasionally rendered it a vehicle for the defence of his friends. But the lakists have been highly panegyrized in Blackwood's Magazine, which was at first hostile to them. Wilson and Coleridge are, however, now concerned in the management of that publication.

In politics, (for under representative governments, even poets are politicians) the lakists are tories. Republicanism was, however, the sin of their youth, and they still retain more liberal ideas than the whigs are willing to give them credit for. The year 1789 awakened their enthusiasm, but 1793 undeceived them, and in their despair, Southey, Coleridge, and Lovel, were on the point of setting out to found a free colony on the banks of the Susqueannah, in the United States. But since then, Coleridge has become a ministerial writer, and Southey has been made poet laureate.

The poets of the lake school reserve all their admiration for the authors of the Elizabethan age, and find nothing but a void in English literature from the time of Milton and Jeremy Taylor, up to Cowper. They are of opinion that the collection of the old ballads of Bishop Percy has had a tendency to restore the genuine taste for poetry in England. To this almost exclusive admiration for the literature of old times, they combine an absolute passion for metaphysics.

They affect also to view the beauties of nature with a degree of enthusiasm, of which the hearts of all are susceptible, except, as they pretend, those of the great mass of poets, who, blinded by false systems, discover only conventional charms in the finest natural scenery. Amidst silence and solitude, on the bosom of lakes, or in shady groves, their souls seem to mingle with the universal spirit of nature; they feel an invisible and ineffable influence, which exalts, delights, and purifies them. There is a mysticism in their feelings which bears some analogy to the Pantheism of Pythagoras. For this reason the lake poets are called the Quakers and Methodists of English poetry. Every object of nature to them presents the varied expression of an intellectual power, and they attribute not only a physical, but a moral existence to the most trivial as well as to the grandest object in the creation. They regard the ocean as endowed with feelings and passions; the moon has her caprices; comets, stars, and clouds, are governed by internal impulses. Coleridge, however, since he has become more exclusively philosophic, seems to have forsaken this fanciful theory. He even goes so far as to refute in his autobiography one of the poetic ideas of Wordsworth and Wilson, who suppose that the Deity delights in communing with the pure spirit of childhood.

The lake poets all agree in elevating the domestic virtues and amiable affections above brilliant and dangerous heroism. From them the mother, the daughter, the wife, and the sister, receive an homage as pure as the charm they diffuse over society. They would have the Muse of moral poetry invoked amidst the tumult of the world, like the voice of a sister or a friend calling us back to the innocent pleasures of infancy and home.

Of all the writers of the lake school, Wordsworth comes nearest the idea which the imagination loves to form of am inspired poet; he has carried poetry back to its origin, and to him it is a system of religion; he has, as it were, obtained new revelations concerning the destiny of man. His contemplative soul has continually been occupied with the necessity of ideal perfection. He is the inventor of a sort of Christian platonism, founded on the moral harmony of the universe. He shows us, the moral imprint of the finger of God on the humblest object of the creation, and endeavours to lead man to a sense of his dignity, by associating him with the idea of the Almighty. Though he does not always carry us along with him into the elevated sphere of his abstractions, there is nothing offensive in his superiority. He humbles himself with us before the majesty of God and the magnificence or mysteries of his works, and the feelings of the man are not annihilated by the high speculations of the philosopher. But the developement of his sublime theories must be looked for in his grand poem of "The Excursion." This work is distinguished by so calm a spirit of philosophy, and such a tone of solemn simplicity, that to be properly enjoyed, it must he perused in a particular disposition of mind. It requires that concentration of the soul, that pious inspiration which is indispensable to appreciate the sublimity of a gloomy forest, or the solitude of a vast Gothic cathedral, feebly lighted by the glimmering rays which penetrate its long painted windows.

The poem entitled "The Excursion," though forming in itself a whole, is only a detached portion of an extensive work on Man, Nature, and Society, on which Wordsworth had been long engaged, and to which his smaller publications are subordinate.

The poem commences by introducing the reader to an old Scotchman, whom the author has known from his earliest youth. The old man, though of humble birth, has received the elements of a solid education and has above all imbibed principles of the strictest piety, thanks to his father-in-law, who was the minister and school-master of his village. Born among the hills of Athol, where he had been accustomed to tend his flocks, he acquired early in life a meditative and poetic character. Religious books also exercised their influence on his youthful imagination. On attaining his eighteenth year, that secret voice which impels the inhabitant of Savoy and of Switzerland to desert his native mountains, whispered in the ear of the young Scotchman, and restless activity urged him to enter on a wandering life, and he followed the trade of a pedlar.

Far from the scenes of his youth, he applies himself to the study of the character of man, his manners, passions, pleasures, and in particular those feelings which, forming, as it were, the essential elements of the heart, are preserved under the simple forms of rural life, and are expressed in the language of ingenuousness. At the approach of old age, he relinquishes his trade; and his acquaintance with the character of social man, combined with that enthusiasm for the beauties of nature which his long and solitary journeys tended to cherish, has made of him a moralist, professing a system founded on his own experience, and employing the eloquent and simple language of nature and truth.

He leads the poet to the dwelling of a hermit, whom he is desirous of reconciling with providence, and who is introduced to the reader as a sceptic reading Voltaire oftener than his Bible. He had formerly been happy in the society of a beloved wife and two children; their death, however, left an irreparable void in his heart, and for a time he became a victim to despair. But he was once more allured to the scene of active life, by the dreams of liberty excited by the French revolution, the principles of which he enthusiastically embraced. Disappointed in his hopes for the cause of freedom, he despaired of man in general. His religious faith was shaken; he even renounced the memory of those whom he had followed weeping to their grave. Yet this is occasionally the source of his remorse.

The pedlar opposes the melancholy ideas of the hermit, and calls to his aid the experience of a village clergyman, who is the fourth actor in this philosophic drama.

The sublime conversations of these four characters produce a stronger impression, from the circumstance of their being held amidst the most picturesque scenery, to which the attention is frequently directed by descriptive allusions. According to the system to which we have already adverted, the lake, the torrent, and the mountain, have each their language, and nothing in nature is insensible; whatever is visible, whatever is endowed with motion or voice, presents not merely obscure symbols, or fantastic emblems, but real revelations. The humming of a shell announces the mysterious alliance of its inhabitant with the roaring ocean. An echo sometimes furnishes an image of the harmony of the two worlds, and sometimes a corresponding idea is produced by the sight of a shadow, and the body whose form it repeats.

The fourth book is particularly remarkable for exalted morality, profound views, and poetic applications. It developes an other principle of the lakists, namely, that the pride of human judgment should be humbled, in order to restore to the imagination and the affections that sway of which modern philosophy would deprive them.

The history of the spiritualism which was concealed under the idolatry of the Greeks, introduces a most poetic description of the remains of paganism; but an objection from the hermit leads the philosopher to a defence of his Christian orthodoxy. The village pastor makes his appearance in the fifth book, and, at the gate of the church-yard, justifies providence against despair. The remarks of the poet's venerable friend frequently remind the reader of the famous address of the old man of the Isle of France to Paul, to console him for the loss of Virginia. It is worthy of remark, that when Bernardin de St. Pierre consulted his friends on the subject of his masterpiece, posterity was near being deprived of it through the unfavourable impression it produced on those who first perused it. Wordsworth has not yet lived, like St. Pierre, to be revenged of his scornful judges.

The pastor is requested to bring forwards, in support of the moral system he has defended, some episodes from country life. He chooses for his text the modest virtues, and the faults of those whom he has himself laid beneath the turf.

It would injure the effect of these portraits to draw them singly from their frames; but I cannot pass over, unnoticed, the ingenious anecdote of the two men of opposite opinions, who are thrown together by accident, and to whom contradiction becomes an absolute necessity. This episode hears some resemblance to those of Cowper, and even to Crabbe's tales. One of the two friends is a whig, who having spent a handsome fortune in electioneering struggles, retires, under an assumed name, to a village in the Highlands, where a Scottish laird, who had taken part with the Stuarts, seeks an asylum after the battle of Culloden. These two men, though they make not the least concession on either side, yet by the very habit of seeing, meeting, and contradicting each other, become such inseparable friends, as to wish at their death to be laid in the same grave together.

Among the pathetic episodes, "Ellen," the "Cottage in ruins," and the "confessions of the hermit," are the most affecting.

The development of the author's principles, together with these episodes, give to the work rather a didactic than a dramatic character. It would, therefore, be surprising if some commonplaces did not slip in, feebly disguised under the pomp of verse. The reader may occasionally regret the absence of the impassioned energy of Byron, the spirit and the action of Sir Walter Scott; but it would he unjust to deny that this great poem forms, on the whole, an eloquent development of a system of philosophy worthy of a Christian Plato.

But, to return to the earlier productions of Wordsworth. If sublimity of expression and elevated views be the distinguishing features of "The Excursion," his lyrical ballads are sometimes written with a degree of simplicity almost bordering on affectation. Here Mr. Wordsworth's critics have found ample scope to accuse him of mawkish sentimentality. His admirers, however, maintain that, in spite of some inconsiderable defects, this series of little poems was the development of his principal object; the analysis of the real feelings of man, of man considered independently of the conventional forms of society, from the first dawn of childhood to the hopes and recollections of old age. Inequality of style, that is to say, a mixture of the solemn and the vulgar, long commentaries on trifling events, prolixity and idle repetitions, overcharged grandeur of imagery, and misplaced emphasis of expression, are the defects of Wordsworth's detached poems; but their redeeming beauties are numerous. The plain grace of a poetic diction, resembling that of primitive nations, the depth and originality of the thoughts and sentiments, the truth of the images borrowed from nature, a lively sensibility, and an imagination which often elevates the most common-place subject: — these are the qualities which make the reader forget all the defects which criticism has so eagerly discovered in the lake poet.

The great charm of Wordsworth's poems is that they in some degree regenerate the heart, restoring to it all the freshness of its primitive sensations, and the independence of that age, when the acquisition of each new idea was a conquest which made it beat with joy, and when we were yet free from the commonplace restraints imposed by the world, in morality as well as poetry.

The poet himself indicates, by the classification of his different poems, that his works are a poetic analysis of the feelings which external objects and an interchange of thoughts or affections awaken in the heart and the understanding of childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. He brings us back to our most trivial sensations; but he gives at the same time a meaning and a voice to those sublime, though sometimes obscure, aspirations which the wonders of the creations awaken in the least poetic mind.

Mr. Wordsworth informs us that in the composition of his ballads, his object was to select events and situations from common life, and to describe them with simplicity, at the same time heightening their colouring, whenever the subject presented itself to his mind under an unusual form. But what he particularly proposed was to give to those events and situations a totally novel interest, by developing in them the primordial laws of our nature, and by that inexhaustible resource of the imagination which rhetoricians call the association of ideas.

The simplicity of rustic life was preferred for several reasons — first, because in common life the natural passions of the heart are less frequently perverted, are less constrained, and are expressed with greater freedom and unreservedness; — secondly, the elementary sensations, on account of their great simplicity, may be more clearly perceived; — thirdly, the manners of common life spring from those elementary sensations, and are less easily modified or changed; — and finally, the passions are there associated with the permanent forms of nature. The language of rural life, purified of its grossness, was therefore adopted by the poet, because the men by whom it is spoken are continually communicating with the objects whence the most poetic imagery is derived, and because their rank in society, as well as the narrow and unvaried circle of their intercourse with mankind, removes them from the influence of social vanities, and they express their sentiments and ideas in a natural and unstudied manner. "Accordingly," says Mr. Wordsworth, "such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.

We have not space to enter into a detailed explanation of the philosophy of the new language which Wordsworth has undertaken to subject to the laws of rhythm. We shall not commence a philological discussion, which would not perhaps be altogether favourable to the lake poets, because, like all men of genius, who make themselves the slaves of a system, Wordsworth frequently excites the highest admiration when he departs from that system. But we must admire Wordsworth's talent for observing and delineating the various workings of the mind, when it is agitated, as he himself observes, by the noble and unsophisticated affections of our nature. In this manner he has analysed maternal affection in several of its most difficult shades; he has painted the last conflict of instinct with death, and has exhibited all the pure moral of fraternal love. But what above all distinguishes Wordsworth's poetry is, that the sentiment developed gives importance to the action and the situation, — while, as he himself very justly remarks, in the writings of ether poets, the actions and situations confer importance on the sentiment. The stanzas on the "Indian Woman" are an illustration of this theory.

During the emigration of the tribes of North American Indians, if one of the party should happen to fall ill, or be unable to endure the fatigue of the journey, he is left behind with some deer skins, for covering, some provisions, water, and a supply of wood for kindling a fire. He is informed of the track which the tribe intend to follow, and if he do not overtake them, or fall in with some other wandering tribe, he must perish in the desert. Women are frequently abandoned in this manner; and the complaints of the Indian woman are supposed to be the lamentations of one of these unhappy beings.

Wordsworth has also written another complaint of a poor emigrant Frenchwoman, who being separated from her child, endeavours to cheat her maternal sorrow by caressing the offspring of another.

The "Female Vagrant" is the short history of a family reduced to misery. How pathetic are the regrets expressed by the poor woman at the recollection of the scenes of her childhood! And in the little poem entitled "Resolution and Independence," how ably has the author pourtrayed the natural, but often inexplicable transition, from enthusiasm to gloomy reverie!

Many of Wordsworth's sonnets present grand images inspired by the events of the age, and are by turns prophetic visions of the future, and sublime commentaries on the past. We select the following from among the Sonnets on Liberty, and the Sonnets to Buonaparte.

ON THE EXTINCTION OF THE VENETIAN REPUBLIC.
Once did she hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest child of liberty;
She was a maiden city, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate:
And when she took unto herself a mate,
She must espouse the everlasting sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay,
Yet shall some tribute of regret he paid
When her long life hath reach'd its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade
Of that which once was great is psss'd away.

But if you would love Wordsworth, without ceasing to admire him, you are to read the pastoral of "Michael," the history of poor "Ruth," (which reminds one of Sterne's Maria), the ballad of "Hart leap well," "the Reveries on the banks of the Wye," "the Brothers," and the commencement of the history of a man who gains his livelihood by catching leeches. We dare say you will smile at these titles, which are certainly not of a very epic character; and we will not therefore recommend you to peruse the "Waggoner," or "Peter Bell," which latter is the hero of the poem only on the title-page, for the principal character is an ass, the animal which Homer did not despise, and which Buffon and Delille have celebrated in verse. Wordsworth, however, has been the first to create a philosophic ass.

Our author himself acknowledges that his associations have sometimes been particular rather than general; that he has consequently given to certain objects a false degree of importance, and treated subjects beneath the dignity of poetry. For our own part, we must confess that we have often found a whole world of new sensations in those subjects which are usually deemed beneath the dignity of poetry, as for example in the "Fraisier" of Bernardin de St. Pierre. The least phenomena of the creation present mysterious harmonies which are fertile an great results. The sublime revelation of God, or if you will, of Nature personified, is poetically manifested in a thousand subjects which have been hitherto neglected by poets, and which Wordsworth has analysed in a grand and original way. When the Lord appears to Elijah, in the First Book of Kings, it is not the strong wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but a gentle breath of air that fills the prophet with the consciousness of his presence.

"And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind came an earthquake.

"And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

"And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle."