1829 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Catherine Grace Godwin

William Wordsworth to Catherine Grace Godwin, 1829 ca.; Letters, ed. Knight (1907) 2:402-04.



Dear Madam,

I have been long in your debt, so long that I regret not having written my acknowledgment on the day I received your book. This would have been done, but I felt there would be little value in such a return for the mark of respect you have paid me; and I relied on your candid interpretation of any delay that might take place. I wished to read your volume carefully through before you heard from me. I have done so, and with much pleasure. Wherever it is read, such poetry cannot but do you honour. It is neither wanting in feeling, nor in that much rarer gift which is the soul of poetry, — imagination. There is great command of language also, and occasionally fine versification; but here, and in some other points of workmanship, you are most defective, especially in the blank verse. Am I right in supposing that several of these pieces have been written at different periods of life? The Wanderer, for example, though full of varied interest, appears to me, in point of versification, and in some respects of style, much inferior to Destiny, a very striking poem. This, and The Monk of Camaldoli, are, in my judgment, the best executed pieces in the volume. Both evince extraordinary powers.

The fault of your blank verse is, that it is not sufficiently broken. You are aware that it is infinitely the most difficult metre to manage, as is clear from so few having succeeded in it. The Spenserian stanza is a fine structure of verse; but it is also almost insurmountably difficult. You have succeeded in the broken and more impassioned movement, — of which Lord Byron has given good instances, — but it is a form of verse ill adapted to conflicting passion; and it is not injustice to say that the stanza is spoiled in Lord Byron's hands; his own strong and ungovernable passions blinded him as to its character. It is equally unfit for narrative. Circumstances are difficult to manage in any kind of verse, except the dramatic, where the warmth of the action makes the reader indifferent to those delicacies of phrase and sound upon which so much of the charm of other poetry depends. If you write more in this stanza, leave Lord Byron for Spenser. In him the stanza is seen to its perfection. It is exquisitely harmonious also in Thomson's hands, and fine in Beattie's Minstrel; but these two latter poems are merely descriptive and sentimental; and you will observe that Spenser never gives way to violent and conflicting passion, and that his narrative is bare of circumstances, slow in movement, and (for modern relish) too much clogged with description. Excuse my dwelling so much on this dry subject; but as you have succeeded so well in the arrangement of this metre, perhaps you will not be sorry to hear my opinion of its character. One great objection to it (an insurmountable one, I think, for circumstantial narrative) is the poverty of our language in rhymes.

But to recur to your volume. I was everywhere more or less interested in it. Upon the whole, I think I like best Destiny, and the Monk, but mainly for the reasons above given. The Wanderer's Legacy, being upon a large scale and so true to your own feelings, has left a lively impression upon my mind; and a moral purpose is answered, by exhibiting youthful love under such illusion with regard to the real value of its object. The Seal Hunters is an affecting poem, but I think that you linger too long on the prelusive description. I could speak with pleasure of many other pieces, so that you have no grounds for the apprehensions you express, as far, at least, as I am concerned.

As most likely the beauties of this country will tempt you and Mr. Godwin to return to it, I need not say that I should be happy to renew my acquaintance with you both; and I should with pleasure avail myself of that opportunity to point out certain minutiae of phrase in your volume, where you have been misled by bad example, especially of the Scotch. The popularity of some of their writings has done no little harm to the English language, for the present at least.

Believe me, etc.,

W. Wordsworth.