1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

B. M., "On the Habits of Thought, inculcated by Wordsworth" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 1:289-97.



As in this country the investigations of metaphysicians have been directed chiefly towards the laws of intellect and association, and as we have nothing which deserves the name of philosophy founded upon an examination of what human nature internally says of itself, or upon enquiries into the dependance of one feeling upon another; we must turn to the poets, if we wish to hear what our literature says upon these subjects; for, by our speculative men, they have been left in utter silence, darkness, and uncertainty. If the practical turn of mind, which has always been characteristic of our nation, has led to these neglects, there is nothing more to be said; for the works of intellectual men should be moulded according to the character of those who are to read them: and nothing can obtain much influence over life, if it finds not a broad foundation in the popular mind.

Two things may be chiefly observed in Mr. Wordsworth's poetry, namely, first, an attempt to awaken in the minds of his countrymen, certain "lumieres" which they do not generally possess, and certain convictions of moral laws existing silently in the universe, and actually modifying events, in opposition to more palpable causes, in a manner similar to what is said to be taught by the philosophy of the Hindoos; and, secondly, a thorough knowledge of all the beauties of the human affections, and of their mutual harmonies and dependencies. In both of these things, he has scarcely had any precursors, either among the poets or philosophers of his country. Some traces of the convictions above alluded to, may be found in Spenser, and some fainter traces in Milton, whose turn of genius was decisively ascertained by the circumstance of his greater success in handling a subject taken from the historical parts of the Old Testament, than one from the Christian Gospel. As for those who came after Milton, scarcely any thing above the level of actual existence appears in their writings; and, upon the whole, it would seem that the kind of sublimity with which the English have always been chiefly delighted, consists merely in an exhibition of the strength of the human energies, which, in our most esteemed poems and plays, are frequently not even elevated by self-devotion; witness Coriolanus, Richard the Third, Satan in Paradise Lost, the Giaours and Corsairs, etc. of modern days. In these pieces, elements of human nature, which are by no means of the highest kind, are represented boiling and foaming with great noise, and their turbidity is falsely taken for the highest kind of nobleness and magnificence.

Mr. Wordsworth has not followed out the national spirit in this, but has turned off into a totally different sphere of reflection, from whence no kind of strength appears great, because all strength is limited, and cannot appear sublime, if contrasted with strength a single degree above it. His contemplative Platonism searches for some image of perfection to admire, and perceives that the beauty of no limited being can consist in strength, but in its conformity to the moral harmony of the universe. Hence he can see no greatness in the movements of the mind, if they tend to no higher object than self-aggrandisement, which has ever its bounds that make it appear little; and, therefore, those objects, which appear to him endowed with poetical beauty, are often such as appear homely to the eyes of others who measure them by a different standard. The small admiration he entertains for the undisciplined energies of human nature leads him to a somewhat contemptuous estimation of active life, even when conduct is submitted to the restraints of morality. He thinks little has been done for the mind, unless those internal movements, also, which are without result in action, have been tuned into beauty and regularity, and a complete balance and subordination established among the feelings by dint of long continued meditation. On this subject his ideas' cannot fail to recal to remembrance those Indian doctrines, which taught that the first step towards the perception of high moral truth, was the establishment of a certain stillness and equability within the mind. But Mr. Wordsworth should have proposed these Braminical notions elsewhere; for they are totally at variance with the stirring and tumultuous spirit of England. No philosophy or religion, purely contemplative, has ever taken a strong hold of the English mind; and no set of English devotees, however much they professed to be dead to the world, have been able to keep their hands out of temporal affairs. They have always found something that called for their interference, and have exchanged the pleasures of abstract contemplation, for the zeal of partizanship. Mr. Wordsworth seems averse to active life, chiefly because he is afraid of losing sight of impressions which are only to be arrived at in the stillness of contemplation; and because he sees a risk, that the lower and coarser feelings being stirred into activity, amidst the hustle, may lose their subordination, and rise up so as to obscure the bright ideal image of human nature, which he would wish to retain always before him. Notions like these, however, must always appear ridiculous to the majority in England, where life is estimated as it produces external good or mischief. But, although Mr. Wordsworth's ideas have not met with a very flattering reception, he seems no way blind to the manly integrity and substantial excellences of character that adorn his country, and which have so deep a root there, that, as Madame de Stael observes, they have never ceased to flourish, even under the influence of speculative opinions, which would have withered them up elsewhere. Indeed, the moral speculations of England have been very much a separate pastime of the understanding, which began and ended there, without ever drawing a single reflection from the depths of human nature. A remarkable trait in the history of our philosophy is, that Christianity has been, as it were, transposed by Paley into a more familiar key, and adapted throughout to the theory of utility; so that David Hume himself might almost play an accompaniment to it. And Paley has obtained a great deal of credit, for the performance of this good office to his countrymen.

One of the causes which have prevented Mr. Wordsworth's writings from becoming popular, is, that he does not confine himself, like most other poets, to the task of representing poetical objects, or of moving our sympathies, but, also, proposes and maintains a system of philosophical opinions. In most of his poems, and in the Excursion especially, he scarcely makes poetry for its own sake, but chiefly as a vehicle for his doctrines, and the spirit of these doctrines is, unfortunately for his success, at variance with the philosophy at present most fashionable in this country. Although possessed of the requisite genius, he does not seem to care for composing poems adapted to the exclusive purpose of taking hold of the feelings of the people; and, among the philosophers, he is rejected, because he holds a different language from them. Besides, the habits of thought, in which he chiefly delights, are not calculated to produce that strength and vividness of diction, which must ever constitute one of the chief attractions of poetry. Imagination seems insufficient of itself to produce diction always nervous and poetical, without the aid of human passion and worldly observation. It is from these that the greatest poignancy of words must spring. As for the saltness of sagacity and wit, Mr. Wordsworth looks down upon it as a profane thing, and is well entitled to do so. If he were to descend into so low a region as that of jesting, he would probably succeed no better than old David Deans did, when he attempted a joke at his daughter's marriage dinner. But, as Mr. Wordsworth never jests, so his writings, perhaps, have some claim to be exempted from the pleasantries of others; which, indeed, can scarcely be directed with much success or effect against a person who faces ridicule so systematically, and who has always counted upon it beforehand.

Mr. Wordsworth has been thought to have more affinity to Milton than any other poet. If this is the case, the affinity is rather in manner than in substance. Milton has no idealism, not even in the Paradise Regained, where there was most scope for it. His poetry is, for the most part, quite literal; and the objects he describes have all a certain definiteness and individuality, which separates them from the infinite. He has often endeavoured to present images, where every thing should have been lost in sentiment. it is generally agreed, that among the most successful parts of Paradise Lost, are those which represent the character of the fallen angel; and yet these sublime and tragical soliloquies are founded chiefly on personal feeling; which, although it may be made a source of consummate pathos and dramatic beauty, is certainly not the region of the human mind, from whence the highest possible impressions are to be drawn. Terrible acts of divine power, and, on the other hand, force of will, and obdurate pride in the rebel spirits, are the highest moral elements exhibited; but, if we look to what composes some of the finest passages in Wordsworth, we shall he inclined (theoretically at least) to prefer them to the best of Milton, as conveying more exalted meaning, whether the poetical merit of the vehicle be equal or not. The sublimity drawn from terror, collision, tumult, or discord, of any kind, has always the disadvantage of being transient; and, therefore, cannot he considered as equal to those openings into immutable brightness and harmony, which are sometimes to he met with in Wordsworth. One beauty cannot fail to strike the reader of his poetry; and that is the perfect homogeneousness of its spirit. A systematic correspondence pervades the whole, so that the perusal of one piece frequently leads the reader's own mind into a tract of thought, which is afterwards found to he developed by the poet himself, in some other performance. The defects of his poetry originate in the same system of thought which produces its beauties. They are not the result of casual whims, or imperfections of taste. Certain great convictions of sentiment have so completely pervaded his mind, as to produce a degree of consistency in all its emanations, that we vainly look for in works founded upon observation. It is remarkable that even the external characteristics of his poetry are similar to what we are told an analogous turn of internal thought anciently produced among the Hindoos. "From the descriptive poems of the Indians," says Schlegel, in his lectures on the history of literature, "we must seek to gather what influence those opinions had on human life and all its relations and feelings; what sort of poetry, and what sort of feeling of the sublime and beautiful, were produced among the Indians by the adoption of ideas to us so foreign and unaccountable. The first things which strike us in the Indian poetry are, that tender feeling of solitude, and the all-animated world of plants, which is so engagingly represented in the dramatic poetry of the Sokuntola; and those charming pictures of female truth and constancy, as well as of the beauty and loveliness of infantine nature, which are still more conspicuous in the older epic version of the same Indian legend. Neither can we observe, without wonder and admiration, that depth of moral feeling with which the poet styles conscience 'the solitary seer in the heart, from whose eye nothing is hid,' and which leads him to represent sin as something so incapable of concealment, that every transgression is not only known to conscience, and all the gods, but felt with a sympathetic shudder by those elements themselves which we call inanimate, by the sun, the moon, the fire, the air, the heaven, the earth, the flood, and the deep, as a crying outrage against nature, and a derangement of the universe."

Whoever wishes to understand Mr. Wordsworth's philosophical opinions, will find them developed in their most perfect form, in the Excursion; but those who wish to judge merely how far he possesses the powers commonly called poetical, will do best to read his Lyrical Ballads, and smaller Poems, where pathos, imagination, and knowledge of human nature, are often presented by themselves, without any obtrusive or argumentative reference to a system. At the same time, the reverential awe, and the far extended sympathy with which he looks upon the whole system of existing things, and the silent moral connexions which he supposes to exist among them, are visible throughout all his writings. He tunes his mind to nature almost with a feeling of religious obligation; and where others behold only beautiful colours, making their appearance according to optical laws, or feel pleasant physical sensations resulting from a pure atmosphere, or from the odoriferous exhalations of herbage, or enjoy the pleasure of measuring an extended prospect, as an amusement for the eye, this poet (whether justly or not) thinks he traces something more in the spectacle than the mere reflection of his own feelings, painted upon external objects, by means of the association of ideas; or, at least, seems to consider what we then behold as the instantaneous creation of the mind.

Oh 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.—

All things there
Breathed immortality; revolving life
And greatness still revolving; infinite;
There littleness was not; the least of things
Seemed infinite; and there his spirit shaped
Her prospects, nor did he believe; he saw.

The relation which the consideration of moral pain or deformity bears to this far-extended sympathy with the universe, is alluded to in another passage of the Excursion.

My friend, enough to sorrow you have given,
The purposes of wisdom ask no more;
Be wise and cheerful; and no longer read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye.
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is there.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silver'd o'er,
As once I passed, did to my heart convey
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful,
Amid the uneasy thoughts that filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair,
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
The passing shews of being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream, that could not live
Where meditation was.

Notions like those of Mr. Wordsworth are evidently suited only to a life purely contemplative; but that universality of spirit, which becomes true philosophy, should forbid, in persons of different habits, any blind or sudden condemnation of them. No individual can say what are all the internal suggestions of the human faculties, unless he has varied his mode of existence sufficiently to afford fit opportunities for their developement. — The facts of consciousness are admitted to be as much facts as those of the senses; but, at the same time, we cannot get individuals to agree what they are, and, while things remain in this state of uncertainty, the first duty is certainly that of liberality of mind.

Wordsworth's habit of dwelling as much upon the rest of the universe as upon man, has given his poetry an air of greater joyfulness and sunshine, than it could have possessed if human life had been his more constant theme. He turns with ever new delight to objects which exhibit none of the harshness and discrepancy of the human world.

The blackbird on the summer trees,
The lark upon the hill,
Let loose their carols when they please,
Are quiet when they will.

With nature do they never wage
A foolish strife; they see
A happy youth, and their old age
Is beautiful and free.

Down to the vale this water steers,
How merrily it goes,
'Twill murmur on a thousand years,
And flow as now it flows.

When he does turn his attention upon life, we find always the most beautiful echoes of Christian tenderness and sorrow. In an elegy, suggested by a picture representing a storm, he alludes to the bitter recollection of a domestic loss which had befallen him, and is pleased to see the image of pain reflected in external nature.

Oh 'tis a passionate work! — Yet wise and well;
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That bulk that labours in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, the pageantry of fear.
And this huge castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves,
Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,
The lightning, the fierce wind, and trampling waves.
Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone
Housed in a dream, at distance from the kind;
Such happiness, wherever it is known,
Is to he pitied: for 'tis surely blind.
But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be born,
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.—
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

Surely nothing can be finer than this. It is impressed with the true character of that kind of social sentiment, which is drawn from a source not liable to fail. In his sonnets, we see what form citizenship is made to assume, when growing up in contiguity with the other habits of mind cultivated by Wordsworth. How these compositions, so pregnant with feeling and reflection, upon the most interesting topics, should not have been more generally known, is a problem difficult to he solved. The following is one of them, containing reflections on the moral effects of slavery.

There is a bondage which is worse to bear
Than his who breathes, by roof, and floor, and wall,
Pent in, a Tyrant's solitary Thrall:
'Tis his who walks about in the open air,
One of a Nation who, henceforth, must wear
Their fetters in their Souls. For who could he,
Who, even the best, in such condition, free
From self-reproach, reproach which he most share
With Human Nature? Never be it ours
To see the Son how brightly it will shine,
And know that noble Feelings, manly Powers,
Instead of gathering strength most droop and pine,
And Earth with all her pleasant fruits and flowers
Fade, and participate in Man's decline.

In some respects Mr. Wordsworth may he considered as the Rousseau of the present tunes. Both of them were educated among the mountains, at a distance from the fermentations of social life, and acquired, from their way of existence, certain peculiar sentimental habits of meditation, which were pitched in a different key from the callous, sarcastic, and practical way of thinking, prevalent among their contemporaries of the cities. Rousseau mingled in the throng; but found himself there like a man dropped out of the clouds. The peculiarity of his habits made him wretched; and his irritation perverted the employment of his genius. Mr. Wordsworth has acted more wisely in keeping aloof, and continuing to cultivate his mind according to its pristine bias, and forbearing to grapple too closely with the differently educated men of cities. Rousseau makes a fine encomium upon the mountains, which, as it is connected with the present subject, we shall quote: — "A general impression (which every body experiences, though all do not observe it) is, that, on high mountains, where the air is pure and subtle, we feel greater lightness and agility of body, and more serenity in the mind. The pleasures are there less violent; the passions are more moderate; meditations receive there a certain great and sublime character proportioned to the objects that strike its, a certain tranquil pleasure which has nothing sensual. We are there grave without melancholy; quiet without indolence; contented with existing and thinking; all too lively pleasures are blunted, and lose the sharp points which render them painful; they leave in the heart only a slight and agreeable emotion; and thus an happy climate makes the passions of mankind subservient to his felicity, which elsewhere are his torment. I question whether any violent agitation or vapourish disorder could hold out against such an abode, if continued for some time; and I am surprised that baths of the salutary and beneficial air of the mountains are not one of the principal remedies of medicine and morality."