1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

George Milner, "On the Genius and Writings of Wordsworth" Imperial Magazine 3 (July 1821) 598-602.



SIR, — If the following remarks meet your approbation I shall be happy to see them inserted in the Imperial Magazine as early as possible.

There is not any living Poet upon whom so much has been said, to so little purpose, as upon Wordsworth. Innumerable essays and pamphlets have appeared, many of which were written from a party spirit, and others from a mistaken idea of his system of poetry. That system has been misrepresented with no common baseness, and those who have endeavoured to take up the subject the most impartially, have, in general, reasoned upon the theory, without once looking at the poetry; and thus have been lighting with shadows, and wrestling with sunbeams. As it regards that system, however, it is not our intention to make any observations; it has been long before the public, and whatever ridicule may have been thrown upon it, one thing is certain, that Mr. Wordsworth has been gradually rising into fame, and is now acknowledged by the master spirits of the age, as one of the divinest of intellects. We wish to shew our readers, that though some highly-gifted bards have pictured the anomalies of our nature, and told of the turbulent spirits and sad diseases of the heart, yet there is one who has opened a fountain of pure water, and made its streams to flow in a thousand channels — who has caused flowers to spring up in our path, and cast a hue over human nature at once bright and enduring — who has called forth the holiest of our sympathies, and told of the hopes of man and his immortal destiny — of one who has lived in this "bright and breathing world," and has not lived in vain. We wish them to look on those visions of glory and immortality, which this poet has prepared for them, and to follow us into those regions of love and of beauty, where we have "garnered up our hearts."

In the poetry of Wordsworth, there is not any thing to which the mind does not at any time recur with pleasure. His chief subjects are Life, Death, Childhood, and Old Age; and over these he casts a naked majesty of feeling, which we cannot but revere and love. He calls forth no lurking disease of the heart, and pictures no vitiated hero — he brings before us no object but what is bright and pure, and tells us of no passions but those which are, and ever should be, a Poet's fairest creations. He binds man and the universe by that "natural piety" which awakes all our dearest sympathies, and conducts the current of our affections into those fairy channels where they can have their "pleasant exercise of hope and joy." To him, the "bare earth and mountains bare" are a delight. He looks upon Nature in all her changes, with a mind abstracted from every thing worldly, and to him the meanest flower that blows upon the desolate heath, can raise up thoughts which "do often lie too deep for tears." He has written nothing that we could wish to see cancelled — he has not given us any terrific or startling subjects — subjects, which however they may astonish, and however forcibly depicted, never find any true sympathy in the human heart — but he has passed over the beaten paths of our existence, and guided us to many a sweet spring of joy and consolation, which flows by the way-side of humanity. He looks upon this world as from a higher sphere, and "lives along" the tender ties of love and affection that bind the great family of man together. He delights to call forth the holiest associations, and trace them to their final destiny — to picture the sweet and happy dreams of infancy and youth, and to tell of

That first mild touch of sympathy and thought
in which we feel our kindred with a world
Where want and sorrow are.

We have said some little upon Mr. Wordsworth; let him now speak for himself. One or two extracts will suffice to shew that he may deservedly claim a very high station amongst the living poets. How intensely does he picture the feelings of one of Nature's lovers, in the following lines.

Oh then what soul was his, when on the tops
Of the high mountains, be beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! — He looked—
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth
And ocean's liquid mass, beneath him lay
In gladness and deep joy. The clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces did he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle; sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being; in them did he live,
And by them did he live; they were his life.
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation from the living God,
Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired.
No thanks he breathed, he proffered no request:
Rapt into still communion that transcends
Th' imperfect offices of prayer and praise,
His mind was a thanksgiving to the Power
That made him; it was blessedness and love.
EXCURSION.

Nothing can be more artless and simple than the subjects which he chooses, yet nothing can be more noble and sublime than his manner of depicting them. Every one delights to look back upon the early days of his existence, and to reflect upon the careless sports of his infancy; but in what touching and beautiful strains does this poet speak of them! — he arrays them in all their "freshness and their glory," and pours a flood of the loveliest colouring over that happy time. The most trifling incident can bring to his recollection those scenes — the paths he once trod are reviewed with increased delight, and he listens to the "wandering voice" of the Cuckoo, till it "begets again the golden time" of his childhood.

How masterly does he pourtray the following thought—

—I have seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipp'd shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listen'd intensely; and his countenance soon
Brighten'd with joy; for murmurings from within
Were heard, — sonorous cadences! whereby,
To his belief, the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a Shell the universe itself
Is in the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever during power;
And central subsisting, at the heart
Of endless agitation. Here you stand,
Adore and worship, when you know it not;
Pious beyond the intention of your thought;
Devout above the meaning of your will.
EXCURSION.

Neither has he been wanting in loftier subjects. Mr. Wordsworth has passed over the field of Waterloo, and so has Lord Byron — but in what do they differ? The former has given to the world, in his Thanksgiving Odes, a train of thought the most sublime — the latter has looked upon that Golgotha of his fallen countrymen, and sneered at the conquest. It would be impossible to offer any adequate idea of Mr. Wordsworth's odes; we will however give one of his sonnets, written upon the same occasion.

The Bard, whose soul is meek as dawning day,
Yet train'd to judgments righteously severe;
Fervid, yet conversant with holy fear,
As recognizing one almighty sway:
He whose experienced eye can pierce th' array
Of past events, — to whom in vision clear,
The aspiring heads of future things appear,
Like mountain tops whence mists have rolled away:
Assoiled from all incumbrance of our time,
He only, if such breathe, in strains devout
Shall comprehend this victory sublime;
And worthily rehearse the hideous rout,
Which the blest angels, from their peaceful clime
Beholding, welcomed with a choral shout.

Surely them is no one but must perceive great power in this sonnet. It will be a lasting stain upon the name of Byron, that he should have trodden over the ground whereon his countrymen fought their greatest battle, and achieved their, noblest conquest, and address thorn as he has done. Did be breathe word in his country's cause? Did he, exert his genius in her behalf? Did he celebrate her triumphs? No: Rome was in flames, and Nero sat playing on his harp.

There is not any living poet who has rested so much upon the bare strength of his own powers, as Mr. Wordsworth; and that man is only to be pitied who can read many of his sonnets, the ode on the Intimations of Immortality, and above all, that noblest philosophical poem which this age has produced, the Excursion, and represent their author as an object fit for scorn to point its "slow unmoving finger at." If Mr. Wordsworth's volumes are not seen on every table, they are seen on the tables of those who are allowed to be the choicest spirits of the age, and the approbation of one man of genius is worth the applause of a whole multitude of inferiors. The proper estimate of a work, is not, how much is it read, but by whom is it read; and it is not a just criterion of the worth of any man's powers, that his name should be blown into every corner of the earth by the four winds of heaven. Had, however, Mr. Wordsworth been that ordinary versifier which some declare he is, he would not have maintained his name in public opinion so long, much less would he have been ever rising in it; and as to the egotism so loudly complained of, there is not half the quantity to be found in all he has ever written, as there is in the single production of Childe Harold. With regard to Childe Harold, altho' it is imbued with the intensest passion, and displays the noblest genius, yet there is that inherent in its nature which will be its destruction; and Lord Byron, with all his genius, and with all his power, is only like the fabled Phoenix bird of the east, kindling the flame that will consume him. Men do not love to dwell long on those cheerless pictures — those gloomy wanderings of feeling in which that poem abounds; and it is for this sole reason, that the name of Byron is losing ground, and must still continue to do so. When the fever of excitement is past, and the reign of misanthropy over, then will poetry like that of Wordsworth's become universally read; and instead of our beings satisfied with those writings which tell us that man is a villain, and this "bright and breathing world" a wilderness, we shall turn with delight to the imagination of him which "lives in the rainbow and plays among the plighted clouds."

G. M.

Bridge-street, Derby.