1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Joseph Devey, "The Lake Poets. Wordsworth" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 87-103.



It may serve to bring out a salient point of distinction between Wordsworth and those of his predecessors in the natural school, to observe that, while their poles of thought are objective, his is mostly subjective. Cowper and Thomson mostly select for description those objects which strike the spectator with natural beauty or grandeur, and which enable them to produce corresponding impressions in the minds of their readers. Wordsworth, on the other hand, selects such as are mean and trivial, in order that the attractiveness of his pictures may be entirely owing to the ideal atmosphere with which he has invested them. His manner of transforming a withered thorn, a miry pool, or leafless oak into objects of profound interest, shows how little his creations owe to the external subject, and how much to the gorgeous colouring of his own mind. If his fancy sports with flowers, it is not the frail beauties of the garden, but the daisy and celandine that are the objects of his adoration. The meanest product of nature has links which connect it with the infinite. It is in revealing these links that his imagination imparts the charm of novelty to the most familiar scenes. To him,

The bare trees, the mountains bare,
The grass in the green fields,

impart a sense of joy, as if their principle of life beat in mysterious sympathy with that of his own nature. As the meanest objects are invested with wonder, so the most material become instinct with spirit and intelligence. A bald stone upon an eminence seems to him a huge sea-beast crawled forth to sun itself. A tall rock piercing the clouds wears on its crest the appearance of an imperial castle which ruin cannot touch. Wordsworth's mind expands with the greatness of his subject, until the loftiest derive fresh grandeur from its majesty or depth. Skiddaw, clothed with his thoughts, strikes us with greater force than when surveyed in its naked reality; and Helvellyn acquires a grandeur from his conceptions which it fails to derive even from the magnifying influences of cloud and tempest. Even the moral feelings of the poet become identified with the scenes he describes. The flower shrinks from the gaze with the shyness of his nature, the cliff lifts its head with the uprightness of his spirit, and the lake imbibes from his purity a crystalline clearness which is not its own.

Had Wordsworth displayed the same comprehensiveness in dealing with man as with nature, his genius would not have been so long ignored. But in the human sphere, he was hampered by theories which cut him off from genuine sympathy with the largest section of humanity. Mont Blanc and Lake-Leman he could appreciate as much as any man; but foreign manners or institutions he could never understand. Even in his own country, his sympathies were bound up with a trifling fragment of the population. Wordsworth, though a Tory, turned his back upon the great conservative classes of society, as unworthy of his attention. His heart only beat in unison with the rustic poor, with the poor who had no radical leanings, with the poor who regarded the village parson as a sort of tutelary divinity in this lower world. What are called respectable people, Wordsworth scrupulously avoids. He is only at home when he falls in with a vagrant pedlar, an idiot boy, or a ragged shepherd. With a perfumed haunter of clubs, or, indeed, with any gloved person, he will hold no converse whatever. The upper ten thousand were to Wordsworth poetically worthless; for he imagined that the feelings of the heart were never found in their maturity except in the huts of hinds and society of peasants. There was, however, some object in this exclusiveness. It would appear that Wordsworth designed, by the instrumentality of the lowest ranks of society, to erect a poetic temple, at the shrine of which the most selfish hearts should be humanized, and a feeling of love kept alive, reciprocating and reciprocated, between the rich and the poor, the politically great and the socially defenceless, for ever.

Life is the vital energy of love;

and as long as the two extremes of society stood looking at each other with feelings of repulsion, the end of existence could not be realised. His verse was to become the medium of identifying the loftiest purposes of his art with the purest aims of Christianity.

His theory of the poetic art seems to have fitted in to this view. No language could be poetical which was factitious or conventional. The muse must wear a russet robe, and speak in the plainest style. Her vocabulary must be that of which lettered halls and academies take no account. No other language but that used by vagrants and peasants could express the genuine sentiments of the heart. The lower, therefore, you descend in the social scale, the fitter subjects you find for poetry. His hatred to the Pope school, doubtless, contributed largely to this result. He appears to have taken the Queen Anne poets as embodying every feature which he ought most studiously to avoid. Their civic life he repudiates for the society of pedlars; their drawing-room conventionalities, for the manners of the farm and the cottage; their turgid epithets, for the language of simplicity; their phosphorescent display of sparkling wit, for the domination of the affections and the human charities; their lavish delineation of external objects, for the inner laws of the spiritual universe, and the deep soundings of the infinite mind. Hence he sweeps away with boundless contempt the decorative pomp of verse, all the jargon of mythological allusion, all the machinery of tropes and figures, as things which had defiled the sacred temple of poetry, in whose aisles nothing should be heard but the pure voice of the human heart, recording its own joys and sorrows, or communing with the mysteries of the universe. But man in the upper classes is the creature of conventions. It is only in the lower, that he moves under the spontaneous influence of his feelings, or obeys the voice of nature. He, therefore, felt himself restricted to select his heroes from the humblest types of humanity. But vagrants and pedlars belong to a low walk of art, and assuming that Wordsworth surrounds these subjects with all the atmosphere of poetic inspiration, this would not by any means lift him to the loftiest rank in poetry. The Eve of Milton, the Una of Spenser, or the Haidee of Byron, belongs to a far higher school of poetic creation than Ellen, Ruth, or Martha Ray, just as the Venus of Titian is a far higher creation of genius than any dairy-maid in the farmsteads of Moreland, or any Flemish weaver's mistress in the rustic revels of Teniers. The exclusiveness of Wordsworth's theory is founded on the limitations of his own powers. He was incompetent to reproduce human nature in the broad phase of sensuous joyousness, in any class. He, therefore, held it wrong to divorce poetry from the ethical principle. But the higher products of civilization, the refined and aesthetic, who have hearts beating beneath their bosoms even more sensitive than those of any drunken waggoner or distressed sempstress, — these, he declared, could afford us few instances of genuine feeling, because he was unable to describe the workings of the affections in combination with refined manners, or delicate breeding. The sensuous phases or the lofty turbulence of passion in any grade of society he could not describe at all, or, at least, if he could, he never attempted it.

Wordsworth's exclusion from the tempestuous regions of the soul confines him to the reflective element. He is a philosophical poet, or he is nothing. Even his smallest pieces are written to illustrate some mental phenomenon, or to unveil some striking analogy between the natural and the moral world. His great poem, "The Excursion," was designed to propound his views on man, nature, and society. But what those views were, he never condescends to tell us, in any of his numerous prefaces, but leaves us to pick them up as well as we can from his poems. He does, however, inform us that the "Prelude," which contains a history of the growth of his own powers, may be considered as an ante-chapel to his great Gothic cathedral, "The Excursion," and all his shorter pieces little shrines or recesses which fit into the same grand structure. But this merely suggests systematic unity of design, without throwing any light upon its purpose. Now this grand unity of design can be nowhere traced in its works. There are certain isolated principles scattered up and down his pages, but no attempt to concatenate these principles; so as to mark out their mutual relationship, or to form them into a grand system of philosophic truth. The absence of such a pervading unity, with the conflicting principles it embodies, is the great blemish of "The Excursion."

This poem purports to treat of man in his multiform relations to nature and society. As such, the subject-matter was not different from that which Pope had already handled a century before. The only two philosophical poems of first class merit which had come down to the nineteenth century were the great poem of "Lucretius," and Pope's celebrated essay. Both were characterised by admirable unity of sentiment, precision of reasoning, and accuracy of thought. The parts are skilfully dovetailed into each other, blending multiform variety of design with classical unity of purpose. But there is an entire absence of these features in "The Excursion." Instead of unity there is dissonance; for precision there is vagueness; for accuracy, confusion of thought. It cannot be stated that Wordsworth's theme was too general for minute philosophical discrimination. The subject-matter the poet proposes to treat of is the very same Pope laid out for himself in the "Essay on Man." Wordsworth embodies his views far more poetically than his predecessor, in a fictitious narrative; whereas Pope abandoned the concrete form, for abstract principles. But the opposite manner of treatment does not constitute the difference. The fact is, Pope thought out his subject before committing it to verse; while Wordsworth never manipulated his ideas with a view to secure coherency of design, but went on sounding his way, guided by two conflicting charts, which led him through all the mazes of inconsistency.

If there is one feature more predominant than another in Wordsworth's poetry, it is the feeling of a silent interchange of sympathy between man and the various forms of inanimate nature. For him,

The meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

It seems a fundamental belief with Wordsworth, that every phase of inorganic existence is endued with certain spiritual properties corresponding to its rank in creation, of which, as man is the highest organic being, the human soul is the highest expression. He does not shrink from informing us that—

It is his faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

And his opinion of a dull, carnal-minded man, who has no eye to the hidden mysteries of the material universe, is expressed in "Peter Bell"—

A primrose by the river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him—
And it was nothing more.

The poet cannot encounter in his walk a bed of daffodils fluctuating in the breeze, without describing them as

Outvying the waves in glee.

And in a nutting expedition he feels a sense of pain from having violated the quiet of the woods—

Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough with crash,
And merciless ravage; and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being: and unless I now
Confound my present feelings with the past,
Even then, when from the bower I turned away
Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings,
I felt a sense of pain when I beheld
The silent trees and the intruding sky;—
Then, dearest maiden, move along these shades
In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand
Touch — for there is a spirit in the woods.
[Nutting]

In his youth, the poet says—

The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion. The tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood—
Their colours and their forms — were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love
That had no need of a remoter chasm,
By thought supplied.

But, later on, this feeling assumed the shape of a moral principle:—

For I have learned
To look on nature-not as in the time
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not hoarse nor grating, though of awful power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore, am I still
A lover of the mountains and the woods,
... Well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart and soul—
Of all my moral being.

Early, says Wordsworth, the Wanderer had learnt to reverence the Bible—

But in the mountains did he feel his faith,
Responsive to the writing; 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....

What soul was his, when from the naked top
Of some bold headland, he beheld the son
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 be 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.
["Excursion," Book First.]

it was a theory of Malebranche, that we view nature in God. But the doctrine, which Wordsworth appears almost unconsciously to have espoused, views God in nature. But the most glorious manifestation of nature is the human mind. All the divine intelligences with which religion has peopled heaven, or the countless hosts of misshapen fiends which are represented as crowding the lowest pit of Erebus, these the poet views as mere phantoms, which he passes unterrified,—

All strength, all terror, single or in bands,
That ever was put forth in personal form,
Jehovah with his thunder, and the choir
Of ministering angels, and the empyreal thrones
I pass them unalarmed.

The poet reserves all his fear and awe for the mind of man,

To which the heaven of heavens is but a veil.

That Wordsworth's views, even as to the orthodox sense of the account of the fall in Genesis, were by no means fixed, is evident from a passage parenthetically thrown into the text of "The Excursion:"—

From these pure heights
(Whether of actual vision, sensible
To sight and feeling, or that in this sort
Have condescendingly been shadow'd forth
Communications spiritually maintained
And intuitions moral and divine)
Fell human kind.

This allusion to the worship of the Jews is followed by a description of the origin of the worship of the Egyptian, the Persian, and the Greek. Now the common principle running throughout all these details is, that these various worships owe their birth to the reverence which nature has inspired in the breasts of different races, who gave their spiritual intuitions various external embodiments, according to the constitution of their minds. The Jews see, or think they see, angels on their mountain tops. They hear, or think they hear, Jehovah's voice in the thunder or the wind. The Greeks beheld sporting oreads in the fleeting sunbeams, and naiads in the rills. The Egyptians beheld in the spangled dome of the sky the residence of Belus, and built towers, on the top of which they erected magnificent shrines for his repose. The Persians beheld in the sun earth's universal Lord, and on the peaks of mountains worshipped Him with sacrifices and with hymns. If the difference between these faiths is a matter of mere moral or spiritual intuition, the only distinction between the worship of the Jews and their the same invisible power, only under different external manifestations. Even the poet imagines there is a moral sympathy in nature akin to the moral feeling in man, which is outraged by the wanton violation of moral laws, as in the language of Milton, which he cites as an illustration of the principle:—

Earth trembled from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and nature gave a second groan:
Sky lowered, and muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completion of the mortal sin.

The external universe is a temple, of which our poet represents himself as the priest. The wicked at her shrine may have their hearts purified. No one can habitually contemplate natural scenery with a loving spirit, without feeling a shower of holy influences sanctifying his mind. Hence, with Wordsworth, this cultivation of nature assumes the appearance of a religion, it is a source of the purest joy-the fount of perpetual and ever-enduring pleasures. The worldly spirit of prudence which tends to neutralize this passion for nature within us, he reprobates to so great an extent, as to prefer the Greek mythology for his creed without the modern system of barter, than any other religion with it:—

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers
Little we see in nature that is ours.
We have thrown our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
But now are folded up like sleeping flowers,—
With each and all of these we're out of tune.
It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses which would make me less forlorn,
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

For, in truth, philosophically speaking, there is not much difference between the ancient and modern worshipper of nature. Both in substance believed in a pervading soul, throwing out external manifestations of beauty. They only differ about the name and the personification of the power. But this difference did not make one less than the other a devotee at the shrine of material spiritualism. The poet even tells us that he beat the Greek, in the keen appreciation of the spirit which haunted his visions, and which he most worshipped:—

Beauty, a living presence of the earth,
Surpassing the most fair ideal forms,
Which craft of delicate spirits had composed
From earth's materials, waits upon my steps,
Pitches her tents before me as I move,
An hourly neighbour — Paradise and groves
Elysian, fortunate fields-like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic main; why should they be
A history only of departed things?
Or a mere fiction of what never was?
For the discerning intellect of man,
When wedded to this goodly universe,
In love and holy passion, shall find these
A simple produce of the common day.

This deification of the powers of nature; this attempt to purify the grosser feelings by communing with lake and mountain; this belief that Paradise and the Elysian fields were abstract conceptions of the same keen insight into the spiritual harmonies of the universe, and were not only not dead but might exist for ever, enjoyable and enjoyed upon this earth of ours; this effort to break down the antithesis between mind and matter, and show that they are both only different conceptions of the same substance; I am at a loss to conceive how these things can be reconciled, I will not say with the Thirty-nine Articles, but with the essential constituents of the Christian faith. The belief in the perfectibility of human nature, or its paradisal felicity on this earth, is utterly at war with the doctrine of the fall. The Church, also, claims as its special prerogative the purification of the heart. It would exclude from its bosom as an idolater the man who should worship nature, or declare that the pageantry of the universe constituted the life, the very nutriment of his spiritual being. Yet this language is held of, and by, a character in whose mouth the poet places sentiments which show that—

Though a heathen in the spiritual part,
He was a right good Christian at the heart.

And the poet does not leave him alone as the exponent of the hybrid mixture of the pantheism of Pythagoras with the doctrines of Christ, but he represents him as calling in a village clergyman to assist him in the task. This gentleman is in his natural position, when he descants upon the fortunes of the more romantic of his parishioners, whose graves lie at his feet; but when he is made to endorse the poet's pantheism, and to wind up a poem, whose grand feature is the investiture of the love of nature with the functions of religion, by a conventicle harangue, wherein all the benefits which many people aver ecclesiastical institutions in this country have striven to prevent, are ascribed to' their influence, then the poet has succeeded in placing the kerb-stone to the contrarieties which pervade his work, and leaves his readers with very conflicting ideas as to the main scope and object of his poem. The fact is, Wordsworth was both a Chartist and a Tory, a Pantheist as well as a Churchman: it is, therefore, not surprising that the work into which he flung all his energies should reflect the contrarieties of his mind.

This system of viewing the domestic affections and emotional sympathies, to the exclusion of the intellect, as vehicles of inspiration, appears to have led Wordsworth to the notion that the Deity holds more intimate communication with childhood, when the reason is dead and the feelings paramount, than with any other phase of existence. This creed he has developed in an ode which will last as long as the English language. Here, he says, among other things—

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its' setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy:
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows.
He sees it in his joy,
The youth who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended.
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

And again, in "The Excursion:"—

Thou who didst wrap the cloud
Of infancy around us, that Thyself,
Therein, with our simplicity awhile
Might'st hold, on earth, communion undisturbed.
["Excursion," Book Fourth.]

This opinion of Wordsworth, so grandly expounded, would seem to derive some confirmation from Comte's theory that the stage of infancy, like that of the youth of the world, is dominated by the theological element. In childhood, everything presents the appearance of the marvellous. We imagine ourselves in direct intercourse with invisible spirits, that angels or demons lurk in every corner, that heaven lies about our housetops. But Comte regarded these impressions as naked delusions — mere infantine dreams, and nothing more; whereas the poet clings to them as substantial realities, though this belief stands out in glaring contradiction to those Pantheistic views he so earnestly embodies in other portions of his works. This theory is, also, as much in conflict with scientific views, on the one hand, as with theological notions on the other. If the soul of man be but a higher organization of the same element which pervades the inorganic world, how can it be said to flow directly out of heaven? We are informed by the theologians upon whom our poet relied, that the soul is cut off from all communication with the Deity, from birth upwards, until the baptismal rite has been performed; and if this be neglected, as it is in the great majority of the human race, childhood is passed in more or less subservience to the devil. But I am not aware that the affections and emotional sympathies are weaker in unbaptised infants than with others. This view, which alone derives support, in a religious sense, from the innocence and guilelessness of children, and from Christ's predilection for their society, hardly forms a consistent basis for a theory, which cuts up the doctrine of the Fall by the roots, and which makes every step in intellectual expansion a further remove from the influence of the Deity. Take the theory by itself, without any reference to the writer's doctrinal opinions, and it is specious enough; but fit it as a "little shrine" into a Gothic church or pantheistic temple, and it becomes as utterly incongruous as a baptismal font in a Mohammedan mosque. It is this miscellaneous blending of conflicting views, which so largely detracts from the merits of Wordsworth's great poem. Detached portions of the piece are splendidly elaborated, and, viewed singly, powerfully impress the imagination. It is only when we link the incongruous assemblage together that we are startled at the conflicting elements — at the jargon of systems presented to us, in the same piece of workmanship, as an instance of harmonious design and unity of purpose. This strange medley of contrary principles was not only at war with Wordsworth's religious opinions, but with the views of everybody else. And when a philosophical poet adopts theories which are contradictory in themselves, and, in their collective embodiment, at war with everybody else's notions on the same subject, he falls into a mistake similar to that of the representative poet who introduces into his work false manners and unnatural sentiments; for, reason is violated in the one case, quite as much as nature in the other. Yet, despite of these great drawbacks, so preeminent are the beauties of the piece in their individual aspects, and so obtuse the national mind to mere philosophic inconsistencies, that "The Excursion" seems destined to hold its place as one of the first didactic poems in the English language.

Wordsworth embodies so much discursive description in his great poem, illustrates so many chance topics, uninformed with any idea of unity, as to bring the "Task" nearer to it than any other poem in our literature. But the "Task," which most nearly approaches it in tone, lacks design, and therefore cannot be said to come within the range of didactic poetry at all; while the "Essay on Man," which resembles it in design, fails in imaginative embodiment and poetic execution. Pope uses verse as the vehicle of reason. In his "Essay," he seldom touches the emotional sensibilities. His appeals are always to the intellect. The imaginative faculty is only incidentally called in to illustrate argument, and never to awaken sympathy. The whole piece is a discussion upon abstract ethics. With Wordsworth, the heart is much more engaged than the head. He does not strive so much to convince the intellect as to enlist the sympathies. Purity of feeling, moral worth, lofty emotion, and delicate sensibility, if he can win these to his side, he readily abandons to others' dialectic skill, as something extraneous to the vocation of the poet. Cowper, though he addresses himself far more to the general elements of our nature than Pope, dilates upon every casual subject which falls in his way. He has no aim except to blend morality with his multifarious descriptions of external nature. His reflections, as those of Wordsworth, seem called forth by every random object, like the tones of a lyre whose strings are abandoned to the passing gale. Cowper, however, never touches the heart with pity, or ever attempts to spiritualize nature till it assumes the form of ideal existence. But Wordsworth, while thoroughly human, rises completely out of the common-place sphere. The mind, purified from its grosser feelings by keen sympathy with the lowest forms of suffering, is carried by him to ethereal heights, where nature, glowing with the sun-bursts of Claude, seems endued with a spirituality diviner than that of man. The essence of nature is viewed as the outward manifestation of the power of which the soul is the interior image. Between both there is mutual kinship, each drawing from the other that which it most wants, until by the blending of spiritual effulgence with material pomp of imagery, both are incorporated into one dream of ideal existence. The functions of the Greek drama with modern dramatic incidents are thus united to a philosophy which glasses the divine perfections in the universe as in a mirror, and infatuates the soul so much with their beauty ,as to incline it to mistake the shadow for the reality.

But the exclusion of the higher types of humanity from his pages, the absence of any attempt to depict the deeper phases of passion, or to vitalize the human energies in connection with the lofty themes of war or ambition, or to illumine the darker shades of existence by the soft emotions of love, must keep Wordsworth from occupying so high a position as those who have shown themselves competent to shine in these subjects, and whose muse has ranged at will through all the regions capable of interesting the heart of man. Hence, Wordsworth must be placed below Pope and even Byron, from the fact that though supreme in the didactic poem, he lacks the faculty, which they possessed in an uncommon degree, of storming the breast-works of the heart, by the embodiment of all the phases of passion. In the delineation of character, in the framing of incident, and in the constructive power of impregnating disjointed materials with one common life, he is likewise lamentably deficient. He is also too fond of forcing his individual feelings upon the reader, instead of entering fully into the feelings of others. These negative qualities must exclude Wordsworth from a foremost place in the second rank. But he is entitled to as high a position in it as supreme excellence in the reflective faculty, profound pathos, and ideal delineation of natural objects can place him. For he has bound man closer to nature by a thousand links of association and feeling, and intertwined the meanest objects of creation with the fibres of the human heart. In this respect he may be said to have placed in our hands a new fulcrum for the elevation of humanity. For the universe becomes in his verse a temple, through the portals of which man is ushered into the presence of the divinity. It is this interfusion of nature and the human soul in the substance of a higher spiritual being, that enables him to hallow the commonest events with a feeling of the infinite, to move, as it were, in an atmosphere of sublimity by illustrating the splendid analogues which bind man with the universe, and merge both in the existence of God himself.