1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Wordsworth, Memorials of a Tour; Edinburgh Review 37 (November 1822) 449-56.



The Lake School of Poetry, we think, is now pretty nearly extinct. Coleridge, who had by far the most original genius among its founders, has long ceased to labour for the fraternity, and gave their reputation a most unkind cut at parting, by the publication of his "Christabell," — which they had all been lauding, while it remained unprinted, as the crowning glory of their sect. The laurel seems to have proved mortal to the vivacious Muse of Southey — and the flame of his inspiration, after waxing wofully dim in various songs of triumph and loyalty, at last fairly went out in his hexameter Vision of Judgment. The contact of the Stamp-office appears to have had nearly as bad an effect on Mr. Wordsworth. His Peter Bell and his Waggoner put his admirers, we believe, a little to their shifts; but since he has openly taken to the office of a publican, and exchanged the company of leech-gatherers for that of tax-gatherers, he has fallen into a way of writing which is equally distasteful to his old friends and his old monitors — a sort of prosy, solemn, obscure, feeble kind of mouthing, — sadly garnished with shreds of phrases from Milton and the Bible — but without nature and without passion, — and with a plentiful lack of meaning, compensated only by a large allowance of affectation and egotism. This is the taste in which a volume of Sonnets to the river Duddon is composed — and another which he calls "Ecclesiastical Sketches," and these precious "Memorials of his Tour."

The great characteristic of these works is a sort of emphatic inanity — a singular barrenness and feebleness of thought, disguised under a sententious and assuming manner and a style beyond example verbose and obscure. Most of the little pieces of which they are composed begin with the promise of some striking image or deep reflection; but end, almost invariably, in disappointment — having, most commonly, no perceptible meaning at all — or one incredibly puerile and poor — and exemplifying nothing but the very worthless art of saying ordinary things in an unintelligible way — and hiding no meaning in a kind of stern and pompous wordiness.

In one sense of the word, indeed, the book before us is highly poetical; it professes to give Memorials of a Tour; and it is all in verse — excepting about eight pages of notes, which could not well have been put in that shape. The Title-page, also, is in prose, and the Table of Contents: But the Dedication is a Sonnet, signed W. Wordsworth — dated January 1822 — and beginning, "Dear Fellow-Travellers;" — it presents nothing further that is worthy of notice. The work opens with a Sonnet, entitled, "Fish- Women!" and seems intended to be of a gay, lively cast — the poet first supposing that the Nereids may possibly be like the Calais fish-women — "withered, grotesque, unmeasurably old, and shrill and fierce in accent" — and judiciously remarking, how terrible it would be to dive and meet such tenants of the submarine caves. But his alarm is of very short duration; for he instantly says, though without assigning any reason—

Fear it not!
For they (the Nereids) Earth's fairest daughters do excell—

and therewithal cloathes them in every quality of form and voice.

Two Sonnets, each entitled Bruges, come next. It is very hard to get at the subject of either; we mean the prevailing idea which the author is desirous of embodying and showing forth to the reader in his fourteen lines. As near as we can reach it, there seems to be something floating in his mind about the antiquity of the place, and its quiet; a dull old town, with ruins and nuns. But that the reader may try his hand at the riddle, we transcribe the first sentence of the second Sonnet; frankly owning that the construction of it puzzles us almost, and the sense altogether.

The Spirit of Antiquity, enshrined
In sumptuous Buildings, vocal in sweet Song
And Tales transmitted through the popular tongue,
And with devout solemnities entwined,
Strikes at the seat of grace within the mind:
Hence forms that slide with swan-like ease along.

But Mr. Wordsworth seems to think this Address to Bruges very significant and valuable; for he takes care to remind us, in a note, that "it is not the first poetical tribute which in our times has been paid to this beautiful city" — and forthwith quotes, with the praise which the Lake Poets generally give each other, whatever may be their sentiments of mutual esteem, some verses of Mr. Southey commemorating the evils of the Revolution in language as violent as he once used in its praise. When we add, that this noted changeling speaks of "Mutability letting loose her fierce and many-headed beast," our readers will be at no loss to fix the date of the composition.

Our author's plan has been, to write a small poem, generally a Sonnet, upon the scenes that struck him on his Tour as best adapted for poetical purposes. His track seems to have lain through the Netherlands, to the Rhine, along that river to Switzerland, and thence into the north of Italy. It required a person of confirmed habits of singularity to pass over this ground, and hardly seize one of the most striking objects or scenes recalling the grandest recollections. Whatever all mankind would with one voice pronounce grand or interesting, he is compelled, by the deep-rivetted affectation of his sect, to pass by, in order that he may fix his keen and profound eye upon something ordinary or trifling! Upon this principle he would, of course, very fain have passed Waterloo in silence. In former times, indeed, he would have stopped to curse it; but now his ultra-loyalty, and his situation in the Stamp-office, require a few lines; though what their precise meaning may be, we really have not discovered. Where he does condescend to take for his subject something which all agree in deeming one of "the world's great wonders," he is sure to seize on the most trivial topic connected with it, or perhaps to avail himself of the occasion, to speak of something with which it has no visible connexion. Thus, in his stanzas upon the Simplon (which he is pleased to write Semplon), he cunningly avoids saying one word upon the subject of that wonderful pass; silent upon its natural beauties, because these are objects of universal admiration; equally silent on the works of art, because, beside being the wonder of mankind, they are one of the monuments of Buonaparte's genius. But upon a column lying in that pass he has a Sonnet, because it enables him to lecture on the great man's fall. The stanzas are of very little merit, save that their sense, such as it is, may be easily got at. Not that it at all resembles the notions of other men; for example,

My thoughts become bright, like yon edging of pine
Black fringe to a precipice lofty and bare,
Which, as from behind the sun strikes it, doth shine
With threads that seem part of his own silver hair —

From whence we may learn how bright a thing a black fringe is — and how blind all men without exception have been, in all ages, when they vainly likened the sun's rays to gold. It now appears that the silver sun and the golden moon ought to occupy the true poet. The Sonnet differs from the stanzas in this, that, like the colt in the fable, its meaning is hard to catch; but then it also resembles that colt in being worth little when you have caught it. As for the column, it is soundly belaboured with names, and all in order to get at Napoleon: it is "a memento of pride overthrown " — it is "vanity's hieroglyphic" — and then it is (whatever that may turn out to be) "a choice trope in fortune's rhetoric." In the same happy vein he abuses Napoleon at Boulogne, where it seems the itinerant poet was stranded. He begins in a passion; and, like most people in that frame of mind, he charges the other party with being angry.

Why cast ye back upon the Gallic shore,
Ye furious waves! a patriotic son
Of England?

To call the great man a tyrant, and an ambitious conqueror only, or a Corsican, would be too like the common run of his revilers; our poet calls him all this; but he must needs have him also a dreamer, and a fool; nay, after comparing him to Caligula, he actually speaks of him as of a merry-andrew, or hired buffoon, and makes him "shake his cap and bells!"

If his political sentiments partake of the spirit of the Morning Post, and other classical works of that refined description, we may wonder the less to find him recur to the same sources as the "perennial fountains" of historic truth. Coming to the heights of Hockheim, near the Rhine, his lyre is awakened by a most notable anecdote, which he candidly admits to rest upon the following newspaper paragraph. "When the Austrians took Hockheim, in one part of the engagement, they got to the brow of the hill, whence they had their first view of the Rhine. They instantly halted — not a gun was fired — not a voice heard: but they stood gazing on time River with those feelings which the events of the last fifteen years at once called up. Prince Schwartzenberg rode up to know the cause of this sudden stop; they then gave three cheers, rushed after the enemy, and drove them into the water." We presume the Austrian soldiers never were in such a fit of sentiment at any other period of the monarchy: Our poet, however, takes it all as equally natural and true; and produces forthwith a Sonnet, called a "Local Recollection," in which, after describing them as pausing 'with breath suspended, like a listening scout," he exclaims—

O Silence! thou wert Mother of a Shout
That thro' the texture of yon azure dome
Clove its glad way — a cry of harvest-home
Uttered to Heaven in ecstasy devout!

—which indeed is about as natural in thought and expression, as the historical passage that serves for its groundwork.

A poet, to be sure, is not in ordinary cases obliged to be a very nice and curious inquirer into the accuracy of the facts on which he descants. But where the design of his work is to commemorate events, or to dwell upon the scenes connected with them, — where he unites, as Mr. Wordsworth does in the work before us, the traveller with the poet, and professes to give is the memorials of what he saw and felt upon certain spots and occasions, he is necessarily held to matters of fact, as the very foundation of his "cogitata et visa:" They are part, and the most important part, of his plan; and if he is to fancy them, he might just as well stay at home, and just as well, or a good deal better, indite sonnets to Delia; or register, as our author used to do, the "Moods of his own Mind." The Morning and Evening Papers we have seen, furnish him with some facts in military annals; and the "lacquay de place," it should seem, is his oracle in the fine arts. So, at least, must any one suppose, who finds him pouring forth his soul in devotion before the supper of Leonardo da Vinci at Milan. Not that we profess to comprehend the meaning of the greater part of this very mystical sonnet; but it is plain, that he deems the picture of Leonardo to be still visible, and only "marred by searching damps and many an envious flaw;" whereas the far more searching pencils of envious restorers are well known to have painted every part of it over once and again. However, all is one to our enchanted "beholder," whose heart it "melted and thawed" — so far we follow him. But who shall unriddle what comes after? It seems the features of the Saviour.

Erase
(At least for one rapt moment) every trace
Of disobedience to the primal law.
The annunciation of the dreadful truth
Made to the Twelve, survives; the brow, the cheek,
And hand reposing on the board in ruth
Of what it utters, while the unguilty seek
Unquestionable meanings, still bespeak
A labour worthy of eternal youth!

Even Mr. Wordsworth seems to have thought this required the sanction of an authority, and he cites Milton.

The hand
Sang with the voice, and this the argument.

—But nothing can be more natural than Milton's figure, and the sense is most obvious. Our author's imitation really defies all our efforts to decipher it. We do not cavil at "un-guilty," though it is, we believe, a new coinage from the Lake Mint; but why should the innocent be seeking for unquestionable meanings? And how is the hand "in ruth of what itself utters?" Of a truth, it is a dangerous experiment in Mr. Wordsworth to recall his reader's notice to Milton when he writes sonnets.

The following is the concluding stanza of an article entitled "Processions;" and we quote it as a good specimen of that solemn unmeaningness which we have ventured to impute to the author.

Trembling, I look upon the secret springs
Of that licentious craving in the mind
To act the God among external things,
To bind, on apt suggestion, and unbind;
And marvel not that antique Faith inclined
To crowd the world with metamorphosis,
Vouchsafed in pity or in wrath assigned
Such insolent temptations wouldst thou miss,
Avoid these sights; nor brood o'er Fable's dark abyss!

This other, entitled "Echo on the Gemmi," is a fair sample of the "lame and impotent conclusions" which he loves to wrap up in words of great pretension.

What beast of chase hath broken from the cover?
Stern GEMMI listens to as full a cry,
As multitudinous a harmony,
As e'er did ring the heights of Latmos over, &c.

This, it will be admitted, is a lofty prelude, and should usher in some dread magnificence: here is the humble solution.

A solitary Wolf-dog, ranging on
Thro' the bleak concave, wakes this wondrous chime
Of aery voices lock'd in unison,—
Faint-far off — near — deep — solemn and sublime!
So, from the body of a single deed,
A thousand ghostly fears, and haunting thoughts, proceed!

Akin to this, is the following curious consummation of the poet's anxiety for the welfare of his family at home, during his long absence on his travels. After invoking them in a very tender manner, he can find nothing more touching to say to them, than to wonder what sort of weather they are enjoying at Grasmere!

Oh ye, who guard and grace my Home
While in far-distant lands we roam,
Enquiring thoughts are turned to you!
Does a clear ether meet your eyes?
Or have black vapours hid the skies
And mountains from your view?

All, however, is not so bad as what we have now cited — and, in justice to Mr. W. we shall give the reader a specimen of what he can do when he is pleased to be plain and rational. The following sonnet is upon the scenery between Namur and Liege; and is about the best in the volume.

What lovelier home could gentle Fancy chuse?
Is this the Stream, whose cities, heights, and plains,
War's favourite play-ground, are with crimson stains
Familiar, as the Morn with pearly dews?
The Morn, that now along the silver Meuse
Spreading her peaceful ensigns, calls the Swains
To tend their silent boats and ringing wains,
Or strip the bough whose mellow fruit bestrews
The ripening corn beneath it. As mine eyes
Turn from the fortified and threatening hill,
How sweet the prospect of you watery glade,
With its grey rocks, clustering in pensive shade,
That, shaped like old monastic turrets, rise
From the smooth meadow-ground, serene and still!

The reader of Mr. Wordsworth derives much the same kind of pleasure, mingled with surprise, from this beautiful description, as he would (were such a thing possible) from looking at a fine landscape "chastely" painted by Fuseli: Yet we believe that both artists would be little disposed to forgive this preference of their more sober efforts in delineating real life, over their mysterious, and extravagant attempts to pourtray the passions. It is not, however, every scene of simple nature that can make our poet simple and intelligible. A Sonnet "in a carriage on the banks of the Rhine," is written in a way calculated to give one the idea of the author's senses having been affected by the beverage of the country.

Amid this dance of objects sadness steals
O'er the defrauded heart — while sweeping by,
As in a fit of Thespian jollity,
Beneath her vine-leaf crown the green Earth reels:
Backward, in rapid evanescence, wheels
The venerable pageantry of Time,
Each beetling rampart — &c. &c.

It seems he landed at Dover in November 1820; and the Sonnet to which this event gives rise, bears an obvious and most perverted allusion to the great event which then occupied the whole country and indeed every part of the world to which the news had penetrated, — the triumph over unparalleled oppression obtained by the late Queen, through the generous assistance of the people of England. What man, not blinded by the possession of a sinecure place in the Revenue department, could have seen, upon his arrival in any corner of this country, the slightest indication of popular feeling having then flagged, or of the accounts of it in the newspapers, during the preceding summer, having been exaggerated? And, above all, who that was not an agent of the foul conspiracy, just then so signally defeated, (which we presume the poet was not), or at least a mere creature of the Ministry, could venture to assert that the people had reason to feel shame for their recent conduct? Yet such are Mr. Wordsworth's sentiments, as darkly shadowed forth in these lines.

Where be the noisy followers of the game
Which Faction breeds? the turmoil where? that past
Thro' Europe, echoing from the Newsman's blast,
And filled our hearts with grief for England's shame?

The reader possibly thinks the poetry and the politicks of this nearly on a level. We agree with him, and desist from further citation.