1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Walter Scott, in "Living Poets" in Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 2:429-30.



A better heart, a purer and more manly source of honourable and virtuous sentiment beats not, we will say it boldly, within Britain. But the observation of a single subject will not make a skilful anatomist, nor will the copying one model, however beautiful, render a painter acquainted with his art. To attain that knowledge of the human bosom necessary to moral poetry, the poet must compare his own feelings with those of others; he must reduce his hypothesis to theory by actual experiment, stoop to sober and regulated truth from the poetic height of his own imagination, and observe what impulse the mass of humanity receive from those motives and subjects to which he is himself acutely alive. It is the want of this observation and knowledge of the world which leads Wordsworth into the perpetual and leading error of supposing, that trivial and petty incidents can supply to mankind in general that train of reflection which, in his speculative solitude, he himself naturally attaches to them. A reflecting mind and a quick fancy find food for meditation in the most trifling occurrences, and can found a connected and delightful train of deductions upon an original cause as flimsy as the web of a gossamer. The cleaving of a block of wood, the dancing of a bush of wild flowers, the question or answer of a child, naturally suggest matter of reflection to an amiable and reflecting mind, retired from the influence of incidents of a nature more generally interesting. And such are Wordsworth's studies, or, as he himself expresses it,

The outward shews of sky and earth,
Of hill and valley he has viewed;
And impulses of deeper birth
Have come to him in solitude.

In this situation, the poet's feelings somewhat resemble those of a person accustomed to navigate a small boat upon a narrow lake, to whom, if he possesses an active imagination, the indentures of the shore, which hardly strike the passing stranger, acquire the importance of creeks, bays, and promontories. Even so the impressions made upon the susceptible mind of the solitary poet by common and unimportant incidents; and the train of "sweet and bitter fancies" to which they give rise are, in the eye of the public, altogether extravagant and disproportioned to their cause.