1815 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Wordsworth, White Doe of Rylstone; Edinburgh Review 25 (October 1815) 355-63.



This, we think, has the merit of being the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume; and though it was scarcely to be expected, we confess, that Mr. Wordsworth, with all his ambition, should so soon have attained to that distinction, the wonder may perhaps be diminished, when we state, that it seems to its to consist of a happy union of all the faults, without any of the beauties, which belong to his school of poetry. It is just such a work, in short, as some wicked enemy of that school might be supposed to have devised, on purpose to make it ridiculous; and when we first took it up, we could not help fancying that some ill-natured critic had taken this harsh method of instructing Mr. Wordsworth, by example, in the nature of those errors, against which our precepts had been so often directed in vain. We had not gone far, however, till we felt intimately, that nothing in the nature of a joke could be so insupportably dull; — and that this must be the work of one who honestly believed it to be a pattern of pathetic simplicity, and gave it out as such to the admiration of all intelligent readers. In this point of view, the work may, be regarded as curious at least, if not in some degree interesting; and, at all events, it must be instructive to be made aware of the excesses into which superior understandings may be betrayed, by long self-indulgence, and the strange extravagances into which they may run, when under the influence of that intoxication which is produced by unrestrained admiration of themselves. This poetical intoxication, indeed, to pursue the figure a little farther, seems capable of assuming as many forms as the vulgar one which arises from wine; and it appears to require as delicate a management to make a man a good poet by the help of the one, as to make him a good companion by means of the other. In both cases, a little mistake as to the dose or the quality of the inspiring fluid may make him absolutely outrageous, or lull him over into the most profound stupidity, instead of brightening up the hidden stores of his genius: And truly we are concerned to say, that Mr. Wordsworth seems hitherto to have been unlucky in the choice of his liquor — or of his bottle holder. In some of his odes and ethic exhortations, he was exposed to the public in a state of incoherent rapture and glorious delirium, to which we think we have seen a parallel among the humbler lovers of jollity. In the Lyrical Ballads he was exhibited, on the whole, in a vein of very, pretty deliration; but in the poem, before us, he appears in a state of low and maudlin imbecility, which would not have misbecome Master Silence himself, in the close of a social day. Whether this unhappy result is to be ascribed to any adulteration of his Castalian cups, or to the unlucky choice of his company over them, we cannot presume to say. It may be, that he has dashed his Hippocrene with too large an infusion of lake water, or assisted its operation too exclusively by the study of the ancient historical ballads of "the north countrie." That there are palpable imitations of the style and manner of those venerable compositions in the work before us, is indeed undeniable; but it unfortunately happens, that while the hobbling versification, the mean diction, and flat stupidity of these models are very exactly copied, and even improved upon, in this imitation, their rude energy, manly simplicity, and occasional felicity of expression, have totally disappeared; and, instead of them, a large allowance of the author's own metaphysical sensibility, and mystical wordiness, is forced into an unnatural combination with the borrowed beauties which have just been mentioned.

The story of the poem, though not capable of furnishing out matter for a quarto volume, might yet have made an interesting ballad; and, in the hands of Mr. Scott, or Lord Byron, would probably have supplied many images to be loved, and descriptions to be remembered. The incidents arise out of the short-lived Catholic insurrection of the Northern counties, in the reign of Elizabeth, which was supposed to be connected with the project of marrying the Queen of Scots to the Duke of Norfolk, and terminated in the ruin of the Earls of Northumberland .and Westmoreland, by whom it was chiefly abetted. Among the victims of this rash enterprize was Richard Norton of Rylstone, who comes to the array with a splendid banner, at the head of eight tall sons, but against the will and advice of a ninth, who, though he refused to join the host, yet follows unarmed in its rear, out of anxiety far the fate of his family; and, when the father and his gallant progeny are made prisoners, and led to execution, at York, recovers the fatal banner, and is slain by a party of the Queen's horse near Bolton priory, in which place he had been ordered to deposit it by the dying voice of his father. The stately halls and pleasant bowers of Rylstone are wasted and fill into desolation; while the heroic daughter, and only survivor of the house, is sheltered among its faithful retainers, and wanders about for many years in its neighbourhood, accompanied by a beautiful white doe, which had formerly been a pet in the family; and continues, long after the death of this sad survivor, to repair every Sunday to the church-yard of Bolton priory, and there to feed and wander among their graves, to the wonder and delight of the rustic congregation that came there to worship.

This, we think, is a pretty subject for a ballad; and, in the author's better day, might have made a lyrical one of considerable interest. Let us see, however, how he deals with it since he has bethought him of publishing in quarto.

The First Canto merely contains the description of the doe coming into the church-yard on Sunday, and of the congregation wondering at her. She is described as being as white as a lily, — or the moon, — or a ship in the sunshine; — and this is the style in which Mr. Wordsworth marvels and moralizes about her through ten quarto pages.

What harmonious pensive changes
Wait upon her as she ranges
Round and through this Pile of state,
Overthrown and desolate! p. 7, 8.
The presence of this wandering Doe
Fills many a damp obscure recess
With lustre of a saintly show;
And, re-appearing, she no less
To the open day gives blessedness. p. 9.

The mothers point out this pretty creature to their children; and tell them in sweet nursery phrases—

Now you have seen the famous Doe;
From Rylstone she hath found her way
Over the hills this sabbath-day;
Her work, whate'er it be, is done,
And she will depart when we are gone. p. 13.

The poet knows why she comes there, and thinks the people may know it too: But some of them think she is a new incarnation of some of the illustrious dead that lie buried around them , and one, who it seems is an Oxford scholar, conjectures that she may be the fairy who instructed Lord Clifford in astrology; an ingenious fancy which the poet thus gently reproveth—

Ah, pensive scholar! think not so!
But look again at the radiant doe!

And then closes the Canto with this natural and luminous apostrophe to his harp.

But, harp! thy murmurs may not cease,—
Thou hast breeze-like visitings;
For a Spirit with angel wings
Hath touched thee, and a Spirit's hand:
A voice is with us — a command
To chaunt, in strains of heavenly glory,
A tale of tears, a mortal story! p. 21.

The Second Canto is more full of business, and affords us more insight into the author's manner of conducting a story. The opening, however, which goes back to the bright and original conception of the harp, is not quite so intelligible as might have been desired.

The Harp in lowliness obeyed:
And first we sang of the green-wood shade,
And a solitary Maid;
Beginning, where the song must end,
With her, and with her sylvan Friend;
The friend who stood before her sight,
Her only unextinguished light,—
Her last companion in a dearth
Of love, upon a hopeless earth. p. 25.

This solitary maid, we are then told, had wrought, at the request of her father, "an unblessed work."

A Banner — one that did fulfil
Too perfectly his headstrong will:
For on this Banner had her hand
Embroidered (such was the command)
The Sacred Cross; and figured there
The five dear wounds our Lord did bear. p. 26.

The song then proceeds to describe the rising of Northumberland and Westmoreland, in the following lofty and spirited strains.

Two earls fast leagued in discontent,
Who gave their wishes open vent;
And boldly urged a general plea,
The rites of ancient piety
To be by force of arms renewed;
Glad prospect for the multitude!
And that same Banner, on whose breast
The blameless Lady had exprest,
Memorials chosen to give life,
And sunshine to a dangerous strife;
This Banner, &c. p. 27.

The poet, however, puts out all his strength in the dehortation which he makes Francis Norton address to his father, when the preparations are completed, and the household is ready to rake the field.

"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." p. 27. 28.

The warlike father makes no answer to this exquisite address, but turns in silent scorn to the banner,

And his wet eyes are glorified,

and marches out at the head of his sons and retainers.

Francis is very sad when left thus alone in the mansion — and still worse when be sees his sister sitting under a tree near the door. However, though "he cannot chuse but shrink and sigh," he goes up to her and says,

—"Gone are they, — they have their desire;
And I with thee one hour will stay,
To give thee comfort if I may."

He paused, her silence to partake,
And long it was before he spake:
Then, all at once, his thoughts turned round,
And fervent words a passage found.

"Gone are they, bravely, though misled,
With a dear Father at their head!
The Sons obey a natural lord;
The Father had given solemn word
To noble Percy, — and a force
Still stronger bends him to his course.
This said, our tears to-day may fall
As at an innocent funeral.
In deep and awful channel runs
This sympathy of Sire and Sons;
Untried our Brothers were beloved,
And now their faithfulness is proved;
For faithful we must call them, bearing
That soul of conscientious daring." p. 32, 33.

After a great deal more as touching and sensible, he applies himself more directly to the unhappy case of his hearer, — whom he thus judiciously comforts and flatters.

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. p. 36.

It is impossible, however, to go regularly on with this goodly matter. — The Third Canto brings the Nortons and their banner to the head quarters of the insurgent Earls; and describes the first exploits of those conscientious warriors, who took possession of the Cathedral of Durham,

Sang Mass, — and tore the book of Prayer,—
And trod the Bible beneath their feet.

Elated by this triumph, they turn to the south.

To London were the Chieftains bent;
But what avails the bold intent?
A Royal army is gone forth
To quell the Rising of the North;
They march with Dudley at their head,
And in seven days' space, will to York be led!—
Can such a mighty Host be raised
Thus suddenly, and brought so near?
The Earls upon each other gazed;
And Neville was opprest with fear;
For, though he bore a valiant name,
His heart was of a timid frame. p. 53, 54.

So they agree to march back again; at which old Norton is sorely afflicted — and Francis takes the opportunity to renew his dehortations — but is again repulsed with scorn, and falls back to his station in the rear.

The Fourth Canto shows Emily walking by the fish ponds and arbours of Rylstone, in a fine moonshiny night, with her favourite white Doe not far off:

Yet the meek Creature was not free,
Erewhile, from some perplexity:
For thrice hath she approached, this day,
The thought-bewildered Emily. p. 69.

However, they are tolerably reconciled that evening; and by and by, just a few minutes after time, an old retainer of the house comes to comfort her, and is sent to follow the host and bring back tidings of their success. — The worthy, yeoman sets out with great alacrity; but not having much hope, it would appear, of the cause, says to himself as he goes,

Grant that the moon which shines this night
May guide them in a prudent flight. p. 75.

Things however had already come to a still worse issue — as the poet very briefly and ingeniously intimates in the following fine lines.

Their flight the fair moon may not see;
For, from mid-heaven, already she
Hath witnessed their captivity. p. 75

They had wade a rash assault, it seems, on Barnard Castle, and had been all made prisoners, and forwarded to York for trial.

The Fifth canto shows us Emily watching on a commanding height for the return of her faithful messenger; who accordingly arrives forthwith, and tells, "as gently, as could be," the unhappy catastrophe which he had come soon enough to witness. The only comfort he can offer is, that Francis is still alive.

To take his life they have not dared.
On him and on his high endeavour
The light of praise shall shine for ever!
Nor did he (such Heaven's will) in vain
His solitary course maintain
Not vainly struggled in the might
Of duty seeing with clear sight. p. 85.

He then tells how the father and his eight sons were led out to execution; and how Francis, at his father's request, took their banner, and promised to bring it back to Bolton priory.

The Sixth canto opens with the homeward pilgrimage of this unhappy youth; and there is something so truly forlorn and tragical in his situation, that we should really have thought it difficult to have given an account of it without exciting some degree of interest or emotion. Mr. Wordsworth, however, reserves all his pathos for describing the whiteness of the pet doe, and disserting about her perplexities, and her high communion, and participation of heaven's grace; and deals in this sort with the orphan son turning from the bloody scaffold of all his line with their luckless banner in his hand.

He looked about like one betrayed:
What hath he done? what promise made?
Oh weak, weak moment! to what end
Can such a vain oblation tend,
And he the Bearer? — Can he go
Carrying this Instrument of woe,
And find, find any where, a right
To excuse him in his Country's sight?
No, will not all Men deem the change
A downward course, perverse and strange?
Here is it, — but how, when? must she,
The unoffending Emily,
Again this piteous object see?

Such conflict long did he maintain
Within himself, and found no rest;
Calm liberty he could not gain;
And yet the service was unblest.
His own life into danger brought
By this sad burden — even that thought
Raised self-suspicion which was strong,
Swaying the brave Man to his wrong:
And how, unless it were the sense
Of all-disposing Providence,
Its will intelligibly shewn,
Finds he the Banner in his hand,
Without a thought to such intent? p. 99, 100.

His death is not much less pathetic. A troop of the Queen's horse surround him, and reproach him, we must confess with some plausibility, with having kept his hands unarmed, only from dread of death and forfeiture, while he was all the while a traitor in his heart. The sage Francis answers the insolent troopers as follows.

"I am no traitor," Francis said,
"Though this unhappy freight I bear;
It weakens me, my heart hath bled
Till it is weak — but you beware,
Nor do a suffering Spirit wrong,
Whose self-reproaches are too strong!" p. 103.

This virtuous and reasonable person, however, has ill luck in all his dissuasions; for one of the horsemen puts a pike into him without more ado — and

There did he lie of breath forsaken!

And after some time the neighbouring peasants take him up, and bury him in the churchyard of Bolton priory.

The Seventh and last canto contains the history of the desolated Emily and her faithful doe; but so very discreetly and cautiously written, that the most tender-hearted reader may peruse it without the least risk of any excessive emotion. The poor lady runs about indeed for some years in a very disconsolate way in a worsted gown and flannel nightcap; but at last the old white doe finds her out, and takes again to following her — whereupon Mr. Wordsworth breaks out into this fine and natural rapture.

Oh, moment ever blest! O Pair!
Beloved of heaven, heaven's choicest care!
This was for you a precious greeting,—
For both a bounteous, fruitful meeting.
Joined are they, and the sylvan Doe
Can she depart? can she forego
The Lady, once her playful Peer?

That day, the first of a re-union
Which was to teem with high communion
That day of balmy April weather,
They tarried in the wood together. p. 117, 118.

What follows is not quite so intelligible.

When Emily by morning light
Went forth, the Doe was there in sight.
She shrunk: — with one frail shock of pain,
Received and followed by a prayer,
Did she behold — saw once again;
Shun will she not, she feels, will bear
But wheresoever she looked round
All now was trouble-haunted ground. p. 119.

But we make out that the lady's loneliness was cheered by this mute associate; and that the doe, in return, found a certain comfort in the lady's company—

Communication, like the ray
Of a new morning, to the nature
And prospects of the inferior Creature! p. 126.

In due time the poor lady dies, and is buried beside her mother; and the doe continues to haunt the places which they had frequented together, and especially to come and pasture every Sunday upon the fine grass in Bolton churchyard, the gate of which is never opened but on occasion of the weekly service. — In consequence of all which, we are assured by Mr. Wordsworth, that she "is approved by Earth and Sky, in their benignity;" and moreover, that the old Priory itself takes her for a daughter of the Eternal Prime — which we have no doubt is a very great compliment, though we have not the good luck to understand what it means.

And aye, methinks, this hoary Pile,
Subdued by outrage and decay,
Looks down upon her with a smile,
A gracious smile, that seems to say,
"Thou, thou art not a Child of Time,
But Daughter of the Eternal Prime!"