1. Poems by William Wordsworth; including Lyrical Ballads, and the Miscellaneous Pieces of the Author, with additional Poems, a Nete Preface, and a Supplementary Essay. In two vols. London. 1815.
2. The White Doe of Rylstone; or, the Fate of the Nortons. A Poem. By William Wordsworth. London. 1815.
Of the two publications selected for this article, the latter only can be said to come regularly under our cognizance; the contents of the former having been, for the most part, many years before the public: our attention, therefore, must be principally devoted to the prefatory and post-prefatory essays. The topics which these embrace are in themselves of some importance, and such as our author, from the nature of his pursuits, would seem to be professionally qualified to illustrate. We must, therefore, bespeak the patience of our readers for a few remarks upon some of his opinions; premising that we offer them, not so much in the hope of being able to throw any new light upon the subject, as from a wish to obviate an idea which we suspect has gone abroad, that because we admire the poetical talents of Mr. Wordsworth, we are therefore to be numbered as implicitly entertaining all the tenets of his poetical system.
Among those who are really qualified to judge for themselves in matters of taste, we think that one opinion only is entertained respecting the productions of Mr. Wordsworth, — that they exhibit a mind richly stored with all the materials from which poetry is formed; — elevation of sentiment — tenderness of heart — the truest sensibility for the beauties of nature — combined with extraordinary fervour of imagination, and a most praiseworthy love of simplicity both in thought arid language. It would appear, however, upon a first view of the fact, that he has by no means turned these valuable endowments to their greatest advantage. If the business of the poet be to please, Mr. Wordsworth's endeavours have hitherto not met with the most flattering success. He professes, indeed, to be well content; — "neque te at miretur turba, labores," is his motto; but even among those with whose applause he declares himself so satisfied, we doubt whether he can number the whole of that class whom Horace was so proud to reckon among his admirers.
It is indeed true, that the productions of our author furnish no very striking proofs of that large and vigorous understanding with which all the writings of the poet just mentioned, as of every other great poet, are so strongly impregnated: but neither are the productions of his competitors particularly imposing in this respect: and since they have managed to gain, notwithstanding, such a high place in the public estimation, compared with his own, it seems natural enough that he should be desirous of explaining the reasons for what would appear to be, at first sight, a very mortifying distinction.
Accordingly, in the essay subjoined to the volumes before us, Mr. Wordsworth professes to shew, that a fate similar to his, has in all ages been that of poets greatly endowed with originality of genius; and that the want of contemporary popularity affords a just criterion of a poet's demerits, only in the case of writers whose compositions have evidently been designed to meet the popular taste prevailing at the time. This essay may be considered as forming a supplement to the preface (now re-published) with which a former edition of his poems was accompanied, and in which the general principles upon which he professes to compose, are explained and enforced at considerable length.
With regard to the style in which Mr. Wordsworth writes, we doubt whether it can be greatly praised. There is indeed a raciness about his language, and an occasional eloquence in his manner, which serve to keep the reader's attention alive. But these advantages are more than counteracted by that same ineffectual straining after something beyond plain good sense, which is so unpleasant in much of his poetry. In other respects the comparison is in favour of the latter. Instead of that graceful softness of manner which forms so principal a charm in his poetic effusions, his prose is distinguished by a tone which, in any other person, we should feel ourselves called upon to treat with some little severity. For a writer to protest that he prides himself upon the disapprobation of his contemporaries, and considers it as an evidence of the originality of his genius, and an earnest of the esteem in which he will be held by succeeding generations, is whimsical enough, to say the least of it; but Mr. Wordsworth ought, at all events, to be consistent with himself; and since he derives so many auspicious assurances from the opposition which his opinions have met with, he should speak with a little more moderation of those by whom they happen to be opposed. He should remember, moreover, that the public, and those who profess to be the organs of the public voice in these matters, have at least as much right to dislike his poetical taste, as he has to dislike theirs. If he voluntarily steps forward to make an attack upon the latter, the burthen of proof rests clearly upon him: to be in an ill temper merely because his opponents will not at once surrender at discretion, is surely most unreasonable.
It appears to us, that whatever difference of opinion may be entertained respecting the peculiarities of Mr. Wordsworth's poetical compositions, we might admit, in nearly all their extent, the poetical doctrines which he wishes to introduce, without materially touching upon the questions about which the public are really at issue with him. For example, it is a prominent tenet with him that the language and incidents of low and rustic life are better fitted for the purposes of his art, than the language and incidents which we have hitherto been accustomed to meet with in poetry; his reasons are:—
"Because in that condition of life the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language: because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated: because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and form the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable: and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." — vol. ii. p. 366.
Now all this may be true, for aught that we know to the contrary; it may be very wrong, in a metaphysical point of view, for a person to have a predilection for other subjects; but the fact obviously is, that people do not resort to poetry for metaphysical instruction; and the question about which Mr. Wordsworth's readers are interested is, whether other subjects do not afford equal or superior pleasure, not whether they throw greater or less light upon the "elementary feelings," and "essential passions," and "primary laws of our nature." Let us suppose a person were to express a distaste for the subject of the poem, at vol. i. p. 328, upon a bed of daffodils; it would probably not at all alter his opinion to say that "the subject is an elementary feeling and simple impression (approaching to the nature of an ocular spectrum) upon the imaginative faculty;" nor will the pleasure which most readers will probably receive from the lines at vol. i. p. 297, with which the "Poems of the Imagination" are introduced, be at all augmented, by being told — what few would otherwise have guessed — that the poet was describing "a commutation, or transfer of internal feelings, cooperating with internal accidents, to plant for immortality images of sound and sight in the celestial soil of the imagination." How far poetry, upon the principles of Mr. Wordsworth, is capable of being made subservient to a metaphysical analysis of the human mind, is an inquiry which we apprehend to be quite foreign to our present purpose; the question about which the public are at issue with him is, whether the doctrines which he wishes to establish are likely to open purer or more copious sources of poetical delight than those at which his readers hitherto have drunk.
With respect, then, to the "primary laws of our nature," "elementary feelings," "essential passions," and so forth: — if we are to understand by these words the passions of anger and jealousy, and love and ambition, and all the modifications of moral pleasure and pain which it is the appropriate business of poetry to delineate, we are not aware of any good reason which would lead us to suppose that these feelings are not just as frequently and as powerfully excited in such scenes as Homer, Virgil and Milton have chosen, as in those to which Mr. Wordsworth professes to devote his muse. But we are told that in the scenes of "low and rustic life," they coexist in a state of more simplicity, may be more easily comprehended, more accurately contemplated, and so on. No doubt, in proportion as we advance in years, or in station, or in knowledge, our feelings and passions embrace a greater variety of objects, and become more and more complicated and mixed. But although this may be a very sufficient reason why Mr. Wordsworth should prefer subjects taken from low life, it is plainly no reason whatever why his readers should. As in every other production of human intellect, so in poetry; the superior pleasure which one subject affords rather than another, is mainly ascribable to the comparative degree of mental power which they may require; and this, it is plain, must be proportioned to the difficulties that are to be overcome, and not, as in the case of our author's favourite subjects, to the facilities which they afford.
These last, unquestionably, are susceptible, in a high degree, of poetical embellishment; and though Mr. Wordsworth is, we think, occasionally somewhat unlucky in the topics which he selects, yet we know not any writer who, upon the whole, has painted them with more pathos and fidelity. In themselves, however, they would not appear to be of the most difficult nature; it requires no extraordinary degree of judgment and penetration to discriminate the broad rough lines by which the characters of people in low life are commonly chalked out; nor can it require, considering the few and simple objects about which their thoughts must necessarily be conversant, any extraordinary force of imagination to enter into their feelings; natural sensibility, acquaintance with their manners, and a love of the scenes in which they pass their lives, are of course indispensable; other auxiliary qualities may be called in to advantage; but for those higher and rarer qualifications, which have their foundations in the understanding, and not in the mere liveliness of a susceptible imagination, we imagine the poet would seldom find occasion.
But Mr. Wordsworth is an advocate, not only for the "incidents" of "low and rustic life," as better suited than any other for poetry, but also for its "language," which, on several accounts, he considers as being "a far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by poets." Now, to talk of one language as being more philosophical than another, is, perhaps, not a very philosophical way of speaking; but be it as he supposes; still, we think, he will not deny, that the most convenient language, either for a poet or any other man to make use of, is that by which he can with most precision make himself understood by those to whom he addresses himself. Does our author then write for people in low and rustic life, or for people in high and educated life? If for the former, good; but if for the latter, surely to select a language in which, as he himself partly confesses, vol. ii. p. 390, he necessarily exposes himself to the danger of raising opposite ideas to those which he intended to convey, is paying to mere sounds (be they ever so philosophical) an homage which we can never be brought to believe that they deserve.
It is possible, no doubt, while describing such subjects as Mr. Wordsworth chiefly delights in, to pitch the language in too high a key; and this, perhaps, is a fault which pastoral writers have been too much in the habit of committing. But although we admit that there are some phases and a sort of diction which a poet cannot, without in some sense violating costume, put into the mouths of characters belonging to a low and rustic condition of life, yet to avoid this fault is very different from putting into then mouths, phrases which persons of education have actually banished from their vocabulary. We are told indeed, that the language of "low and rustic life" should be adopted "purified from its real defects," and "from all lasting and rational causes of dislike and disgust." But the truth is, if the language of low life be purified from what we should call its real defects, it will differ only in copiousness from the language of high life; as to rational and lasting causes of dislike and disgust, it is plain that on the subject of language no such causes can, in any instance, be assigned. We suspect that in criticism Mr. Wordsworth feels no great reverence for constituted authorities, or he would, perhaps, have called to mind the lines, beginning
Multa renascentur quae jam cecidere, cadentque
Quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet Usus;
Quem penes arbitrium est, et jus, et norma loquendi.
Language, as every body knows, consists merely of arbitrary signs which stand for whatever it may have pleased custom to enact; and whatever changes may happen among them, are occasioned not by "rational causes" but by accidental associations of one sort and another, of which, in general, we defy the most profound metaphysician to give any philosophical account. If a poet has the humour of despising them, he has clearly a right to consult his own pleasure upon the subject; but the chances are that he will draw down such a flight of small critics upon his head — and perhaps deservedly — as will, in all probability, soon teach him the greatness of his mistake.
But although we cannot bring ourselves to approve of Mr. Wordsworth's project for substituting the language of "low and rustic life" in place of that which we are accustomed to meet with in poetry; yet, in many respects, we feel pretty much disposed to coincide with him in disapproving of the latter. We think, with him, that the language of poetry ought to be language really used by men, and constructed upon the same principles as the language of prose. That this cannot be affirmed of that peculiar sort of diction technically called poetical, a slight inspection of the poetry which has prevailed in this country since the Restoration will, we think, sufficiently prove. How far Mr. Wordsworth's account of the origin and distinctive character of this artificial phraseology is just and satisfactory, we are, perhaps, not competent to decide; as far, however, as we were able to enter into his meaning, his observations upon the subject seemed in general well-grounded. To us it appears, that this diction does not essentially consist in any particular choice or arrangement of the words; for, to take the instance quoted by our author, Gray's sonnet to West, with the exception of the 6th, 7th, 8th, 13th and 14th lines, consists, as he justly observes, "almost entirely of this diction, though not of the worst kind." If, however, Mr. Wordsworth will refer to the remaining lines, he will immediately perceive that they do not consist "of the language of passion wrested from its proper use;" perhaps the contrary is the fault which may be found with them; neither are the words inverted from their natural order, or such as, taken separately, would seem to belong to any particular condition of life; but the sun is "the golden fire of reddening Phoebus;" the song of the birds is their "amorous descant;" the grass of the fields is their "green attire;" the produce of the earth is its "wonted tribute;" and so forth. — Now, as addressed to our reason, all these expressions are perfectly intelligible; and supposing poetry to be nothing more than the art of paraphrasing our ideas, this sort of diction may furnish room for the display of much fancy and ingenuity. It is, however, manifest, that this indirect way of signifying things, is not the language of present feeling; and that the effect of it is to fix the imagination rather upon the real or fanciful analogies which objects may seem to possess among one another than upon the particular relations in which they actually stand to us. In those subjects in which Pope and Dryden chiefly excelled, where the poet addresses himself to the fancy and understanding rather than to the heart, we know not but that the method of versification to which we are alluding, may produce a good effect; indeed, in one point of view, it would seem to be that which nature points out. But when the business of the poet is to present us with an image of the scenes and objects among which we are placed, not in abstract description, but as they relate immediately to our feelings, his expressions cannot, as we conceive, be too free from rhetorical ornament. That the exclusion, or at least a more moderate use of this, need not interfere with the utmost degree of strength, nor the most refined harmony and elegance of language, is fully proved by many passages in the writings of our old and excellent dramatists; and indeed it is doing Mr. Wordsworth himself nothing more than justice to say, that in his happier hours of inspiration, when his theories and eccentricities happen to be laid aside, no writer of the day seems to understand better the exact key in which the language of this last kind of poetry should be pitched. Unfortunately these hours are not so frequent with Mr. Wordsworth, as the lovers of poetry could wish; and upon the causes of this we shall now trouble our readers with a few remarks, which will, perhaps, assist us to explain the reasons why his popularity is less — we will not say than he deserves, for this would be to prejudge the question — but less than such talents as he possesses have commonly conferred.
It is impossible to take up the works of Mr. Wordsworth without remarking that, instead of employing his pen upon subjects of durable and general interest, he devotes himself almost exclusively to the delineation of himself and his own peculiar feelings, as called forth by objects incidental to the particular kind of life he leads. Now, although this be a plan apparently contrived to gratify the pleasure which poets, as our author tells us, take in their "own passions and volitions," rather than any curiosity which the reader, generally speaking, can be supposed to feel upon the subject, yet, in common cases, it is productive of no very positive inconvenience. Poets, as well as other people, feel, for the most part, pretty much alike; so that what is true with respect to any individual, will commonly be true with respect to mankind at large, under the same circumstances. As long as the feelings of the poet are founded on such occasions as ordinarily give rise to them, although the subjects of his effusions may be particular, yet the interest and the application of them will be, to a great degree, general. But the fact is, that the habits of Mr. Wordsworth's life are not more different from those of people in general, than are the habits of his mind; so that not only the incidents which form the subjects of his poetry, are such as the greater part of his readers take much less interest in, than he imagines, but the feelings, moreover, with which he usually contemplates them are often such as hardly any person whatever can participate.
For example: a sensibility for the beauties of nature is, no doubt, a highly commendable quality, and to illustrate it is, we admit, the great business of descriptive poetry; nevertheless, however warmly we may sympathize with Mr. Wordsworth in his rapturous admiration of the great and striking features of nature; — though we cannot but think that even on this subject, his feelings are tuned much too high for the sobriety of truth; — yet when we are called upon to feel "emotions which lie too deep for tears even with respect to the meanest flower that blows, to cry for nothing, like Diana in the fountain," over every ordinary object and every common-place occurrence that may happen to cross our way, all communion of feeling between the poet and those who know no more of poetry than their own experience and an acquaintance with the best models will bestow, is necessarily broken off. But it would be difficult to convey a just idea of the extent to which the peculiar habits of Mr. Wordsworth's mind have affected the character of his writings by citing particular examples. Our readers, however, will probably be able to judge for themselves, when they learn that, instead of looking upon this sort of exuberant sensibility to which we allude as a disadvantage, he regards it as a qualification of singular value; and formally places it, under the technical name of poetic, which he always distinguishes from merely human sensibility, among what he considers as being the characteristical attributes of the poetical character.
Our author justly observes, that "poets do not write for poets alone, but for men. Unless, therefore, we are advocates for that admiration which depends upon ignorance, and that pleasure which arises from hearing what we do not understand, the poet must descend from his supposed height, and in order to excite rational sympathy, he must express himself as other men express themselves." vol. i. p. 84. Nothing can be more true; but surely Mr. Wordsworth cannot but perceive, that if a poet, in order to excite rational sympathy, must express himself as other men express themselves; by a still stronger reason it would seem to follow that he must descend from his supposed height, and feel as other men feel.
Nothing is more easy to conceive than a sense of vision infinitely more acute than that with which it has been thought necessary to endow the human race. Nevertheless, however advantageous the gift of such a superiority might be considered, in a general point of view, yet it would really be inconvenient to a person desirous of turning painter; because, admitting that his pictures might be ever so admirable upon a supposition that other people's organs of sight were constructed upon the same principles as his own, yet they would clearly be of no value whatever except to himself, if we suppose the contrary to be the fact. It is precisely the same in the case of poetry; the merit of a poet does not essentially consist, as is sometimes supposed, in the possession of sensibilities different from or more intense than those of other people, but in the talent of awakening in their minds the particular feelings and emotions with which the various objects of his art are naturally associated. For this purpose he must, of course, consult his own feelings; it is, however, only so far as he knows them to be in unison with those of mankind at large, that he can safely trust himself to their direction; because, if they preserve not the same relative subordination and the same proportions among each other that they possess in the minds of people in general, it is plain that his compositions must appear to the greater part of his readers like pictures constructed upon false principles of perspective, and whatever resemblance they may bear to objects as they appeared to his own mind, may bear no more resemblance to objects as they appear in nature than the fantastical devices of an Indian screen.
We are far from meaning to assert, by way of a general proposition, that the merit of a poem is to be measured by the number of it admirers; different classes of composition, no doubt, are adapted to different classes of readers: whatever it requires extraordinary powers of mind to produce, it must require some corresponding superiority of mind to understand; and we think Mr. Wordsworth intimates somewhere that this is partly the predicament in which his poetry stands. We shall not dispute upon this point; nevertheless we may remark that, although the above consideration will afford a satisfactory explanation of Quintilian's observation, that the Iliad is projected upon so vast a scale, as to require considerable greatness of mind even to comprehend its merits; yet this way of evading the dilemma to which Mr. Wordsworth's indifferent success has reduced him, will hardly apply to his case, upon a supposition at least, that his poetry really is what it professes to be: because, when a poet's' avowed object is merely to trace in the plain and intelligible language of every-day life, those "great and simple affections," those "elementary feelings" and "essential passions" which are assumed, by definition, to be common to all men alike, — it would seem but reasonable to expect that it would find readers in every class of society, But then the poet must be supposed truly to perform what he promises; his poetry must not contain a mere portraiture of his own mind in those points in which he differs from other people, and with respect to which none but his particular friends can be supposed to feel an interest; but an image of human nature in general.
Our familiar matter-of-fact way of talking about an art which Mr. Wordsworth seems to think belongs rather to the divine than to human nature, will not, we fear, tend to impress him with a very favourable opinion of our profoundness; — "mais la verite est comme il peut;" truth is as it happens, and not always exactly as men of fine imaginations wish it to be. — Accordingly, although we would not choose to be classed among those to whom our author alludes, "who converse as gravely about a taste for poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing," yet we candidly confess, that we see nothing at all wonderful or mysterious about the art nor, if we may judge from experience, any reason to suppose that it requires greater or more uncommon talents than any other among the higher productions of human intellect. In reply to this, Mr. Wordsworth will probably place us in that unhappy sub-division of critics, in which, he says, "are found those who are too petulant to be passive to a genuine poet, and too feeble to grapple with him: men, who take upon them to report of the course he holds, whom they are utterly unable to accompany — confounded if he turn quickly upon the wing, dismayed if he soar steadily into 'the region;' men of palsied imaginations and indurated hearts." — vol. i. p. 348. All we can say is, that whenever Mr. Wordsworth's own flights are through "the region" of truth and nature, and sober sense, we accompany him with pleasure; but when he penetrates into the "terra Australis" beyond, then, indeed, our inclination to continue of the party, as well as our ability, leaves us.
Having thus stated our opinions at length, upon the critical dissertations, we shall proceed to give our readers some idea of the poem.
The "White Doe of Rylstone" is so out-of-the-way a production, in many respects, that we are not sure but it would be wiser in us gravely to "shake the head" at such a ballad sort of poem, than to risk our authority with the public by recommending it to them as a beautiful performance. It is not, indeed, free from the singularities which arise from the particular point of view in which Mr. Wordsworth likes to look at things; but in the present instance, they fall in not unhappily with the whimsical nature of the subject, and give a tone of colouring to the poem, which, however peculiar, is far from being unpleasing. As a mere narrative, it does not possess much interest; the story is told, as it were, in scraps; a few prominent scenes are selected, and the circumstances which connect them left pretty much to the reader's imagination; and after all, instead of a denouement, we have merely the explanation of a certain strange phenomenon which had puzzled rather than interested our curiosity.
That the poem contains many beauties — exquisite tenderness of feeling, and often great happiness combined with the utmost simplicity of expression, will abundantly appear from the extracts which we shall make; but then, in other parts, it is just as much distinguished for obscurity and flatness; and throughout there is a something, not only about the rhythm and the language, but also about the turn of the thoughts and sentiments, which often left us at a loss to determine whether the hesitation which we felt, even as to being pleased, proceeded from mere fastidiousness on our part, or from a mistaken taste in Mr. Wordsworth. The poem, we admit, is written with simplicity; and so far as this is the indigenous growth of his own mind, it has our warmest praises. But Mr. Wordsworth's love of this first quality of all good poetry has made him resort to artificial means for producing it; so that instead of the polished simplicity which belongs to an age of so much refinement as the present, he affects that rude kind which the writings of our forefathers exhibit, and which expressed the genuine character of the times. Now, be the merits of this last what it may when met with in our old ballads, it is plain, that in the present advanced stage of society, it can never be natural to a man like Mr. Wordsworth; in his writings, the manner which he studies is necessarily an affectation; and be the imitation ever so successful, a discriminating taste still perceives a something which is different from the native flavour of original simplicity. "Sic enim est faciendum," says Cicero, in a section of his book De Officiis, which we recommend to Mr. Wordsworth's perusal, "ut contra universam naturam nihil contendamus; ed tamen conservata, propriam naturam sequamur; ut etiam si sint alia graviora atque meliora, tamen nos studia nostrae naturae regula metiamur. — Nec tam enitendum est, ut bona quae nobis non data sunt sequamur, quam at vitia fugiamus."
At Bolton Priory, in Yorkshire, it seems, there is a tradition about a White Doe, who on every Sabbath-day, during the time of divine service, used to pay a visit to the church-yard; the problem which the poem proposes to solve, is, why the White Doe should do this? Mr. Wordsworth satisfactorily explains it, by means of an old ballad, in Percy's Reliques, called the "Rising of the North;" and containing a succinct account of the total destruction which fell upon the Nortons, an ancient family of Yorkshire, in consequence of their share in that fatal act of rebellion.
The first Canto opens with the introduction of the "White Doe;" and she is ushered in with some very pleasing lines.
From Bolton's old monastic tower
The bells ring loud with gladsome power;
The sun is bright; the fields are gay
With people in their best array
Of stole and doublet, hood and scarf,
Along the banks of the crystal Wharf,
Through the vale retired and lowly,
Trooping to that summons holy.
And, up among the moorlands, see
What sprinklings of blithe company!
Of lasses and of shepherd grooms,
That down the steep hills force their way,
Like cattle through the budded brooms;
Path, or no path, what care they?
And thus in joyous mood they hie
To Bolton's mouldering Priory.
What would they there? — Full fifty years
That sumptuous pile, with all its peers,
Too harshly hath been doomed to taste
The bitterness of wrong and waste:
Its courts are ravaged; but the tower
Is standing with a voice of power,
That ancient voice which wont to call
To mass or some high festival;
And in the shattered fabric's heart
Remaineth one protected part;
A rural chapel, neatly drest,
In covert like a little nest;
And thither young and old repair,
This Sabbath-day, for praise and prayer.
While the poet is listening to the service within, his attention suddenly called off: for—
—soft! — the dusky trees between,
And down the path through the open green,
Where is no living thing to be seen;
And through yon gateway, where is found,
Beneath the arch with ivy bound,
Free entrance to the church-yard ground;
And right across the verdant sod
Towards the very house of God;
—Comes gliding in with lovely gleam,
Comes gliding in serene and slow,
Soft and silent as a dream,
A solitary doe!
White she is as lily of June,
And beauteous as the silver moon
When out of sight the clouds are driven,
And she is left alone in heaven.
Instead, therefore, of entering the church, he resolves to watch this mysterious Doe: it is, says he—
A work for Sabbath hours,
If I with this bright creature go.
He then proceeds to speculate upon the object for which she comes — whether as a votaress to perform some rite, or merely out of sorrow and reverence for the desolation and holiness of the place? Meanwhile, the Doe moves on, without solving his doubts.
She sees a warrior carved in stone
Among the thick weeds stretched alone;
A warrior, with his shield of pride
Cleaving humbly to his side,
And hands in resignation prest,
Palm to palm, on his tranquil breast:
Methinks she passeth by the sight,
As a common creature might:
If she be doomed to inward care,
Or service, it must lie elsewhere.
Hers are eyes serenely bright,
And on she moves, with pace how light!
Nor spares to stoop her head, and taste
The dewy turf with flowers bestrown;
And in this way she fares, till at last
Beside the ridge of a grassy grave
In quietness she lays her down;
Gently as a weary wave
Sinks, when the summer breeze hath died,
Against an anchored vessel's side;
Even so, without distress, doth she
Lie down in peace, and lovingly.
Our readers may remember, that in the twelfth year of Queen Elizabeth, a sort of plot was set on foot, at the bead of which were the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, for the purpose of inducing Queen Elizabeth to consent to the marriage or the Duke of Norfolk with Mary Queen of Scots. The Earl or Leicester had undertaken to break the matter to the Queen, with the view of gaining her acquiescence; but, in the mean time, the affair reached her ears from some other quarter, and the anger which she evinced so terrified the parties in the business, that those in the north deemed their safest chance would he found in open rebellion. Among them was Richard Norton, a gentleman or large property and warmly attached to the Roman Catholic persuasion, with eight of his sons. His eldest son, Francis, stood aloof, refusing to desert his father, and yet resolved not to raise his arm in a cause, and for a religion, which he, as well as his sister, Emily, strongly disapproved.
The second Canto opens with some account of the banner which Emily, at her father's command, had embroidered for his followers. When the day for raising it was arrived, Francis once more resolved to risk his father's displeasure, by endeavouring to dissuade him from the dangerous enterprize in which he was embarking.
"O Father! rise not in this fray—
The hairs are white upon your head;
Dear Father, hear me when I say
It is for you too late a day!
Bethink you of your own good name;
A just and gracious queen have we,
A pure religion, and the claim
Of peace on our humanity.
'Tis meet that I endure your scorn,—
I am your son, your eldest born;
But not for lordship or for land,
My Father, do I clasp your knees—
The banner touch not, stay your hand,—
This multitude of men disband,
And live at home in blissful ease;
For these my brethren's sake, for me;
And, most of all, for Emily!"
The remonstrance was in vain. His father indignantly turned to his son Richard, and, committing the banner to his charge, departed with the rest of his sons and all his tenantry, to join the rebel standard under the Earl of Northumberland. With thoughts of the most bitter despondency, Francis walked forth into the park, where he found his sister Emily, to whom he relates the departure of their father, and explains his own resolution of attending him "unarmed and naked," in order to seize whatever occasions may offer of interposing to prevent the ruin about to fall upon him and his house.
O, Sister, I could prophesy!
The time is come that rings the knell
Of all we loved, and loved so well;—
Hope nothing, if I thus may speak
To thee a woman, and thence weak;
Hope nothing, I repeat; for we
Are doomed to perish utterly:
'Tis meet that thou with me divide
The thought while I am by thy side,
Acknowledging a grace in this,
A comfort in the dark abyss:
But look not for me when I am gone,
And be no farther wrought upon.
Farewell all wishes, all debate,
All prayers for this cause, or for that!
Weep, if that aid thee; but depend
Upon no help of outward friend;
Espouse thy doom at once, and cleave
To fortitude without reprieve.
For we must fall, both we and ours,—
This mansion and these pleasant bowers;
Walks, pools, and arbours, homestead, hall,
Our fate is theirs, will reach them all;
The young horse must forsake his manger,
And learn to glory in a stranger;
The hawk forget his perch, — the hound
Be parted from his ancient ground:
The blast will sweep us all away,
One desolation, one decay!
And even this creature!" which words saying
He pointed to a lovely doe,
A few steps distant, feeding, straying;
Fair creature, and more white than snow!
"Even she will to her peaceful woods
Return, and to her murmuring floods,
And be in heart and soul the same
She was before she hither came,—
Ere she had learned to love us all,
Herself beloved in Rylstone Hall.
—But thou, my Sister, doomed to be
The last leaf which by heaven's decree
Must hang upon a blasted tree;
If not in vain we have breathed the breath
Together of a purer faith—
If hand in hand we have been led
And thou, (O happy thought this day!)
Not seldom foremost in the way—
If on one thought our minds have fed,
And we have in one meaning read—
If, when at home our private weal
Hath suffered from the shock of zeal,
Together we have learned to prize
Forbearance, and self-sacrifice—
If we like combatants have fared,
And for this issue been prepared—
If thou art beautiful, and youth
And thought endue thee with all truth—
Be strong; — be worthy of the grace
Of God, and fill thy destined place:
A soul, by force of sorrows high,
Uplifted to the purest sky
Of undisturbed humanity!"
He ended, — or she heard no more:
He led her from the yew-tree shade,
And at the mansion's silent door,
He kissed the consecrated maid;
And down the valley he pursued,
Alone, the armed multitude.
These lines (with which the second Canto closes) in spite of some expressions which made our critical nerves wince a little, afford no unfavourable specimen of that peculiar tenderness of manner for which we think the poem is chiefly remarkable. The third Canto opens with spirit.
"Now joy for you and sudden cheer,
Ye watchmen upon Brancepeth Towers;
Looking forth in doubt and fear,
Telling melancholy hours!
Proclaim it, let your masters hear
That Norton with his band is near!
The watchmen from their station high
Pronounced the word, — and the earls descry
Forthwith the armed company
Marching down the banks of Were.
Said fearless Norton to the pair
Gone forth to hail him on the plain—
"This meeting, noble Lords! looks fair,
I bring with me a goodly train;
Their hearts are with you: — hill and dale
Have helped us: — Ure we crossed, and Swale,
And horse and harness followed — see
The best part of their yeomanry!
—Stand forth, my sons! — these eight are mine,
Whom to this service I commend;
Which way soe'er our fate incline
These will be faithful to the end;
They are my all" — voice failed him here,
"My all save one, a daughter dear!
Whom I have left, the mildest birth,
The meekest child on this blessed earth.
I had — but these are by my side
These eight, and this is a day of pride!"
Norton then addressed himself to the Earl of Northumberland; and having stated the justness of the cause for which they were assembled, he took the banner, which his daughter had embroidered, out of his son's hand, and, having explained its device, which was the cross and five wounds of our Saviour, it was accepted with acclamation by the surrounding multitude, as their common standard. The leaders of the insurrection, and their followers, march to Durham, and thence to Wetherby. The description of Norton and his eight sons has much merit.
Thence marching southward smooth and free,
"They mustered their Host at Wetherby,
Full sixteen thousand fair to see;"
The choicest warriors of the North!
But none for undisputed worth
Like those eight sons; who in a ring,
Each with a lance — erect and tall,
A falchion, and a buckler small,
Stood by their sire, on Clifford-moor,
In youthful beauty flourishing,
To guard the standard which he bore.
—With feet that firmly pressed the ground
They stood, and girt their father round;
Such was his choice, — no steed will he
Henceforth bestride; — triumphantly
He stood upon the verdant sod,
Trusting himself to the earth, and God.
Rare sight to embolden and inspire!
Proud was the field of sons and sire,
Of him the most; and, sooth to say,
No shape of man in all the array
So graced the sunshine of that day:
The monumental pomp of age
Was with this goodly personage;
A stature undepressed in size,
Unbent, which rather seemed to rise,
In open victory o'er the weight
Of seventy years, to higher height;
Magnific limbs of withered state,—
A face to fear and venerate,—
Eyes dark and strong, and on his head
Rich locks of silver hair, thick-spread,
Which a brown morion half-concealed,
Light as a hunter's of the field;
And thus, with girdle round his waist,
Whereon the banner-staff might rest
At need, he stood, advancing high
The glittering, floating pageantry.
In the mean time, Francis is described, in some pleasing lines, standing afar off, with "breast unmailed, unweaponed hand," watching his father, and keeping the banner ever in sight. Suddenly news is brought that the royal army, in great force, is rapidly marching upon York. Upon this, the leaders of the insurrection resolve upon a retreat to Naworth. Norton strongly remonstrates against what he deems an impolitic and pusillanimous measure; but the trumpet is sounded, and the retreat immediately commences. While old Norton, in deep despondency, is lingering in the rear, and musing upon his daughter Emily, Francis suddenly appears before him; and having shewn how vain it is to expect any thing but failure under a chief of so little wisdom and courage, proposes that his father should immediately provide for his own safety, offering to share his fate, whatever it may be. His father, however, rejects both his advice and his services with scorn, and Francis retires, to wait for some happier opportunity of interposing.
The fourth Canto brings the reader back to Rylstone Hall. The description, with which it opens, of the old mansion by moonlight, is among the most successful passages of the poem. The sober tone of the language is well suited to the repose which belongs to the subject.
From cloudless ether looking down,
The moon, this tranquil evening, sees
A camp, and a beleaguered town,
And castle like a stately crown,
On the steep rocks of winding Tees;—
And, southward far, with moors between,
Hill-tops, and floods, and forests green,
The bright moon sees that valley small
Where Rylstone's old sequestered hall
A venerable image yields
Of quiet to the neighbouring fields;
While from one pillared chimney breathes
The silver smoke, and mounts in wreaths.
—The courts are hushed; — for timely sleep
The grey-hounds to their kennel creep;
The peacock in the broad ash-tree
Aloft is roosted for the night,
He who in proud prosperity
Of colours manifold and bright
Walked round, affronting the day light;—
—Ah! who could think that sadness here
Had any sway? or pain, or fear?
A soft and lulling sound is heard
Of streams inaudible by day;
The garden pool's dark surface — stirred
By the night insects in their play—
Breaks into dimples small and bright;
A thousand, thousand rings of light
That shape themselves and disappear
Almost as soon as seen: — and, lo!
Not distant far, the milk-white doe:
The same fair creature which was nigh
Feeding in tranquillity,
When Francis uttered to the maid
His last words in the yew-tree shade;—
The same fair creature, who hath found
Her way into forbidden ground;
Where now, within this spacious plot
For pleasure made, a goodly spot,
With lawns, and beds of flowers, and shades
Of trellis-work in long arcades,
And cirque and crescent framed by wall
Of close-clipt foliage green and tall,
Converging walks, and fountains gay,
And terraces in trim array,—
Beneath yon cypress spiring high,
With pine and cedar spreading wide
Their darksome boughs on either side,
In open moonlight doth she lie;
Happy as others of her kind,
That, far from human neighbourhood,
Range — unrestricted as the wind—
Through park, or chase, or savage wood.
But where at this still hour is she,
The consecrated Emily?
Even while I speak, behold the maid
Emerging from the cedar shade
To open moonshine, where the doe
Beneath the cypress-spire is laid;
Like a patch of April snow,
Upon a bed of herbage green,
Lingering in a woody glade,
Or behind a rocky screen;
Lonely relic! which, if seen
By the shepherd, is passed by
With an inattentive eye.
—Nor more regard doth she bestow
Upon the uncomplaining doe;
Yet the meek creature was not free,
Erewhile, from some perplexity:
For thrice hath she approached, this day,
The thought-bewildered Emily;
Endeavouring, in her gentle way,
Some smile or look of love to gain,—
Encouragement to sport or play;
Attempts which by the unhappy maid
Have all been slighted or gainsaid.
While Emily is still musing upon the recollections which the scenes around bring to her mind, and offering up a prayer for the success of her brother Francis, all which is told with considerable pathos, she sees an old man, who had grown grey in friendship with her father, and whose offer of service she accepts by requesting him to repair to the army, and procure a report of whatever had happened since the departure of her father and brothers: — unconscious that their fate was already decided; that the rebels had been dispersed; and her father and all her brothers, except Francis, taken prisoners, in an assault upon Barnard Castle.
In the fifth Canto, Emily appears, watching the arrival of news, upon the top of Norton tower, when the old man returns, and relates, as gently as he could, the sad tidings which he had to impart. He had found her father in prison, and Francis (though not as a prisoner) with him. He then mentions a conversation which he had witnessed between these two; in which old Norton had charged his son to regain, if possible, the banner, and to lay it upon St. Mary's shrine at Bolton Abbey, as a memorial of the purity and disinterestedness of the motives for which, he had risked all that was dear to him—
"Yea offered up this beauteous brood,
This fair unrivalled brotherhood,
And turned away from thee, my son!
And left — but be the rest unsaid,
The name untouched, the tear unshed,—
My wish is known and I have done:
Now promise, grant this one request,
This dying prayer, and be thou blest!"
Then Francis answered fervently,
"If God so will, the same shall be."
The promise was scarcely given, when the officers appeared, and old Norton and his eight sons were led forth to execution. The scene is described with considerable effect. Before them went a soldier bearing the banner in question; as soon as Francis perceived it, he went up, and, with a look of calm command, took it from him, and immediately departed, making his way through the crowd with the banner in his hand.
In the sixth Canto we return to Francis; who, having quitted the "doleful city" at the moment when his father and brothers were about to breathe their last, travelled on for many miles, unconscious of every thing except the sad scene which he had quitted; suddenly he was recalled to himself by the sight of the banner, and by the recollection of the imprudent promise which he had made to his father. After a strong internal conflict, he resolves, "come weal or woe," to fulfil it, and however much he disapproved of the cause in which the banner had been raised, to place it nevertheless upon the shrine as a sad relic of those who were now no more. With this determination he journeyed on, and was already within sight of the "Town of Bolton," when he was overtaken by a party of horse under the command of Sir George Bowes no other proof of his treason seemed necessary than that which he bore in his hand; accordingly, orders are given to secure his person: Francis resists; he is slain, the banner taken from his grasp, "and the body left on the ground where it lay."
Two days, as many nights, he slept
Alone, unnoticed, and unwept;
For at that time distress and fear
Possessed the country far and near;
The third day, one, who chanced to pass,
Beheld him stretched upon the grass.
A gentle Forester was he,
And of the Norton tenantry;
And he had heard that by a Train
Of horsemen Francis had been slain.
Much was he troubled — for the man
Hath recognized his pallid face;
And to the nearest hut he ran,
And called the people to the place.
—How desolate is Rylstone-hall!
Such was the instant thought of all;
And if the lonely lady there
Should be, this sight she cannot bear!
Such thought the Forester express'd,
And all were swayed, and deemed it best
That, if the priest should yield assent
And join himself to their intent,
Then, they, for Christian pity's sake,
In holy ground a grave would make;
That straightway buried he should be
In the church-yard of the priory.
The above description is not without poetry. We have, however, quoted it, chiefly because it relates an important circumstance in the story; in other respects, we fear, the language is too quaint to be generally pleasing.
Previously to the commencement of the seventh and last Canto, the story makes a pause. In the interval, "despoil and desolation visit Rylstone's fair domain," and Emily, having "wander'd long and far," at length, resuming fortitude, returns once more to "her native wilds of Craven."
And so — beneath a mouldered tree,
A self-surviving leafless oak,
By unregarded age from stroke
Of ravage saved — sate Emily.
There did she rest, with head reclined,
Herself most like a stately flower,
(Such have I seen) whom chance of birth
Hath separated from its kind,
To live and die in a shady bower,
Single on the gladsome earth.
When, with a noise like distant thunder,
A troop of deer came sweeping by;
And, suddenly, behold a wonder!
For, of that band of rushing deer,
A single one in mid career
Hath stopped, and fixed its large full eye
Upon the Lady Emily,
A doe most beautiful, clear-white,
A radiant creature, silver-bright.
Thus checked, a little while it stayed;
A little thoughtful pause it made;
And then advanced with stealth-like pace,
Drew softly near her— and more near,
Stopped once again; — but, as no trace
Was found of any thing to fear,
Even to her feet the creature came,
And laid its head upon her knee,
And looked into the lady's face,
A look of pure benignity,
And fond unclouded memory.
It is, thought Emily, the same,
The very doe of other years!
The pleading look the Lady viewed,
And, by her gushing thoughts subdued,
She melted into tears—
A flood of tears, that flowed apace
Upon the happy creature's face.
From this moment, on whatever side Emily looked, "all was trouble-haunted ground;" so strongly did the sight of her former favourite recal to her memory the scenes and circumstances in which they had formerly met. She therefore once more quitted the neighbourhood, and secluded herself "on the deep forth of Annerdale," attended by her faithful friend the White Doe and a very pleasing description follows of the mutual attachment which grew up between them, and of the consolation which Emily in particular derived from it.
What now is left for pain or fear?
That Presence, dearer and more dear,
Did now a very gladness yield
At morning to the dewy field,
While they side by side were straying,
And the shepherd's pipe was playing;
And with a deeper peace endued
The hour of moonlight solitude.
In this frame of mind she returned again to Rylstone, and with softened feelings was now able to visit the spots which had formerly overwhelmed her fortitude.
But most to Bolton's sacred pile,
On favouring nights, she loved to go:
There ranged through cloister, court, and aisle,
Attended by the soft-paced doe;
Nor did she fear in the still moonshine
To look upon Saint Mary's shrine;
Nor on the lonely turf that showed
Where Francis slept in his last abode.
For that she came; there oft and long
She sate in meditation strong:
And, when she from the abyss returned
Of thought, she neither shrunk nor mourned;
Was happy that she lived to greet
Her mute companion as it lay
In love and pity at her feet.—
At length the feeble bands which tied Emily to this world were broken asunder by death-she was buried by the side of her mother in Rylstone church, and the White Doe, faithful to the memory as she had been to the person of her mistress, continued
Haunting the spots with lonely chear
Which her dear Mistress once held dear:
Loves most what Emily loved most—
The enclosure of this church-yard ground;
Here wanders like a gliding ghost,
And every Sabbath here is found;
Comes with the people when the bells
Are heard among the moorland dells,
Finds entrance through yon arch, where way
Lies open on the Sabbath-day;
Here walks amid the mournful waste
Of prostrate altars, shrines defaced,
And floors encumbered with rich show
Of fret-work imagery laid low;
Paces softly, or makes halt,
By fractured cell, or tomb, or vault,
By plate of monumental brass
Dim-gleaming among weeds and grass,
And sculptured forms of warriors brave;
But chiefly by that single grave,
That one sequestered hillock green,
The pensive visitant is seen.
Our readers now know why the "White Doe" came from Rylstone to Bolton Priory every Sabbath day during the time of divine service. Whether the explanation will not, upon the whole, disappoint the curiosity which its mysterious appearance excited, we shall not attempt to determine: more particularly as the decision of the question will not very greatly affect the merits of the work, considered as a poem, however it may affect its popularity, considered merely as a story. In the former point of view, we think that our extracts will fully justify the praises which we have bestowed upon it; but we have also said, that it possesses great blemishes, and it now becomes the unpleasant part of our duty to instance a few particular examples.
Mr. Wordsworth, as our readers must have perceived, aims at great simplicity of language; but even supposing no objections to exist against the particular sort of which he is ambitious, still we must be permitted to observe, that mere simplicity of language is no merit at all, if it be purchased at the expense of perspicuity; and this is a price which our author is continually paying for it. We dislike minute criticism, not only for Horace's reason, of "non ego paucis," &c. but because we know that in the hands of unfair critics it is an engine by which a writer may be made to appear any thing they please; nevertheless as an example of what we mean, take the following passage Mr. Wordsworth means to say, that Emily sate upon a primrose bank, neglecting outward ornaments, and having in her countenance a melancholy which seemed not to belong to the sweetness and gentleness of its natural expression; which is thus laboriously signified:—
Upon a primrose bank—
Behold her, like a Virgin Queen,
Neglecting in imperial state
These outward images of fate,
And carrying inward a serene
And perfect sway, through many a thought
Of chance and change, that hath been brought
To the subjection of a holy,
Though stern and rigorous, melancholy!
The like authority, with grace
Of awfulness, is in her face,—
There hath she fixed it; yet it seems
To o'ershadow by no native right
That face, which cannot lose the gleams,
Lose utterly the tender gleams
Of gentleness and meek delight
And loving-kindness ever bright.
Surely Mr. Wordsworth cannot need to he told, that such an unaccountable way of expressing himself as this, notwithstanding the humbleness of the style, is directly the reverse of simple. This, perhaps, is an extreme instance; but the fault is of perpetual recurrence. Again, with respect to his words themselves; we will not say that they are often too familiar, because we suspect Mr. Wordsworth does not regard that as a fault: but the truth is, that in the senses to which he applies them, they are often absolutely devoid of meaning — The following lines really would seem to have been written by a "Lady of Quality."
The day is placid in its going
To a lingering motion bound
Like a river in its flowing;
Can there be a softer sound? — p. 11.
Speaking of the Doe, wandering through sun and shade,
What "harmonious pensive changes"
Wait upon her as she ranges
Round and through the hail of state!
In this last quotation, we perceive the kind of impression which Mr. Wordsworth meant to convey; but in the following, we are equally at a loss to understand either the sense in which he uses his words, or the propriety of the sentiment which he intends them to express.
For "deepest sorrows" that "aspire"
Go "high," no "transport" ever higher.
But it is unnecessary to accumulate instances of the extraordinary want of precision with which Mr. Wordsworth is in the habit of expressing himself; he seems to think that if words only have a good character, and mean something pleasant when by themselves, whether they have any relation to one another in a sentence is a matter of no great importance. Hence it is, for we can no otherwise account for it, that Emily is always called the "consecrated Emily," and that every pleasant thought is a "dream" a "vision," or a "phantom," just as it happens. But it is irksome to expatiate upon particular faults; a task which we the more willingly abridge, because they are more than redeemed by that true feeling of poetry with which the poem is pervaded. In this, as in any other line of poetry to which he may dedicate himself, Mr. Wordsworth has something to learn and a good deal to unlearn; whether he will endeavour to do either at our suggestion, is, perhaps, more than doubtful; he seems to be "monitoribus asper," in a degree which is really unreasonable; however, this is his business; all we can say is, that if he is not now or should not be hereafter, a favourite with the public, he can have nobody to blame but himself.