1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 71-77.



Wordsworth planned on a magnificent scale. He would not have a Grecian temple like the Parthenon, or even a St. Peter's, like that of Rome — his ideas expanded to a Pyramid of Cheops, a Stonehenge, or a Cave of Elephanta. "The wonderful, the wild" he despised; he clung alone to the vast. His foundations were gigantic in extent; and, by a mere man's labour, a corresponding superstructure could only be partially reared. He wrote by at least a half too much; and yet his poetical edifice must remain for ever a fragment. Of Cowper's Task, or of Thomson's Seasons, no reader would willingly part with a single entire paragraph; it would be like taking a stone out of a completed building. Not so with The Excursion, or The Prelude; for large portions of either might be expunged with advantage, as mere abnormal excrescences on these otherwise grand productions. No really great poet resembles Wordsworth in tedious prolixity, save Spenser. In their happier moods, they each flash upon us with the crimson light of setting suns, or with "the innocent brightness of the new-born day;" but withal — and with reverence for their manifold excellencies be it spoken — they are not unfrequently garrulous, spin long yarns, and consequently must submit to be often read only in extract by the less enthusiastic.

Yet with all his exaggeration of tone, cumbrous machinery, over-minuteness of detail, occasional trite baldness, and disregard of proportion in the relations of objects — his perverse blending of the little with the great, and his not seldom mistaking the simply silly for the severely simple — Wordsworth is "a prevailing poet," and must ever be regarded as a great one, for his high and manifold merits. Next to Scott, who stands alone and above all, and equal at least to Byron, Wilson, and Coleridge, he was the most original-minded man of his age. He had no prototype, unless be seems to have been foreshadowed by Milton; but rich as each might be in elementary principles and requisites, the materials from which they chose to work were quite different. The mind of him who likened himself in his darkness to

blind Thamyris, and blind Meonides,
And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old—

was a treasury overflowing with the gems and gold of the past, riches garnered from east and west, and from either pole from the lands and languages of the Hebrew, the Assyrian, the Greek, the Roman, and the Italian; from the regions sparkling with barbaric pearl and gold, to where "Chineses drive their cany waggons light;" from Tartarian wilds, where the fabled Arimaspian keeps watch over buried treasures, to Norwegian hills, where bourgeon the giant pines, "Fit for the mast of some great Ammiral." Not so with Wordsworth; he was scholastic only in his style; and to many he may well seem to have founded poetry itself, and to have no predecessor, so faint and few are his allusions to those who have flourished and gone before him. His similes seldom refer to the beings or things of the chronicled past he draws them from nature, animate or inanimate, and they are generally the results of personal observation;

From the blue trees, the mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.

A horse, outworn by the chase, is said to be "weak as a lamb the moment it is yeaned;" and an old man, bent over his staff, is likened to "a stone couched on the top of some bald eminence." The region amid which the summer, the autumn, and the winter of Wordsworth's life was passed, seemed to have impressed his mind with an almost superstitious dread of the collective power of matter; it weighed upon him, "an importunate and heavy load;" and he looked with a reverential fear on the forms of nature — the rugged precipice, the gloomy cavern, the green pastoral hill, the riply lake, the still, dark tarn, nay, even on the moss-covered boulder-stones, which are older in their associations than the dawn of art, and which, mayhap, have lain on the same spot, untouched and unremarked, since the commencement of time. "The moving accident was not his trade," as he himself tells us; it was "To pipe a simple song to thinking hearts." Everything was seen through the medium of an imagination, which, retaining the outline, imparted its own peculiar colouring to the filling up; and in reference to this point, Mr Hazlitt has strikingly remarked, that "his poems bear a distant resemblance to some of Rembrandt's landscapes, who, more than any other painter, created the medium through which he saw nature — and out of the stump of an old tree, a break in the sky, and a bit of water, could produce an effect almost miraculous."

If such Wordsworth's landscapes, so his characters. Whatever relation they may bear to his communings with other minds, they are ever, in part at least, drawn from himself. He groups these from their first elements; and, in giving the product, shows the growth of the virtues and the vices from their original seeds. Popular adventures, picturesque situations, and startling catastrophes, he holds far from him — sympathising alone with feeling in its simplest forms, as it bubbles out from the great fountain-head of humanity. Hence it is that he seems as much pleased with the small as with the great; with the daisy as with the star; with the sleeping tarn as with the heaving ocean; with "the fairy flower as with the giant tree;" and hence it is, also, that his drawings have a Chinese character about them — the remote and the near being equally brought forward, in defiance of perspective — as to the man lying horizontally on the grass each blade seems a spear, and the circling wild-bee is confounded with the swallow in the remoter sky. Wordsworth attempted tragedy, but it was only in his youth, ere he had rightly measured his powers; and, notwithstanding the recommendations of Coleridge, Lamb, and other friends, whose early recollections of the MS. Borderers seem to have blinded their critical sagacity, he ought not to have published it. It contains a few fine imaginative touches and passages, but is utterly destitute of dramatic interest, and melts from the memory like a snow-wreath from the vernal hill-side. Dramatically regarded, the same maybe said of the colloquies between the Recluse, the Pastor, and the Pedlar in The Excursion. Each talks according to a given cue; but William Wordsworth is the mouthpiece through which they all speak. His genius was essentially didactic, and, although he might vary his mode, he found it impossible to go out of himself. His whole works are the history of his own individual mind; his poems are made up of analyses of his own thoughts, and a pervading love of nature. In him we have more of the internal power of poetry, with less of the external show, than in any other writer, save perhaps Dante. He does not deal in picturesque panorama, like Scott; nor in the dark and daring of sentiment, like Byron; nor in minutely circumstantial etching, like Crabbe; nor in gorgeous emblazonry, like Moore. He never groups for effect: his subjects are the simple, the single, and often the apparently barren — till they are clothed with the drapery of his reflective imagination. All things are thus as potter's clay in his hands: be despotically exalts the humble, and gives an importance to the insignificant, till the tattered wandering beggar beams forth in his immortal attributes a lord of creation — till the cuckoo is no longer bird, but "a wandering voice" — till the inky tarn imbibes and is coloured by the hues of heaven — and till from the meanest flower that blows are extracted "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

The first great and most characteristic section of Wordsworth's poems, those written in strict conformity with his original system, may be said to contain the philosophy of pastoral life — of man as an aboriginal creature, dissociated, in a large measure, from the great framework of society; and taken all in all, these are his best works, and have been alike the most abused and the most admired. Wayward alike in selection of subjects, and in mode of handling many of these, still these lyrics are remembered — whether for good or evil — the only sure test of power; and on them, along with select passages from his longer, more ambitious poems, his name will rest — and, I doubt not, most securely. His middle-life writings are more composite in character, and have either a dash of the romantic, as in The White Doe of Rylstone; or of the classical, as in Laodamia, and Dion. His last compositions are less striking. They exhibit the same artistic skill, the same mastery of the "English undefiled," the same majestic repose and high love of sentiment; but the sharp angles of originality have been worn off, or rubbed down; they are more diluted and dilated — are the milk without the cream; read harmoniously, but leave only a vague indefinite impression on the reader's mind. I allude more especially to the Yarrow Revisited; the Ecclesiastical Sonnets; the Sonnets on the Punishment of Death, and the miscellanies published along with them.

Whatever may be thought of The Excursion as a whole — and many regard it as heavy, "wallowing, unwieldy, enormous," and unfinished — it abounds with sentimental, reflective, imaginative, and descriptive passages of the very highest order of excellence. The Prelude stands much on the same level; but it is as spring to summer — as youth to manhood; and its faults — those of diffuseness, inequality, and incompleteness — are identical. I doubt much whether The Prelude has added at all to the already high reputation of Wordsworth. It is an autobiographical record of the remembered feelings and incidents of his infancy, boyhood, and adolescence; his experiences at Cambridge, at London, and at Paris and of his convictions regarding the causes and consequences of the first, and, par excellence, the French Revolution — whose ultimate failure he mourns with unfeigned and undisguised regret. The Prelude will be remembered, however, less from its philosophical disquisitions — which for the most part are, as I have said, vague and hazy — than from the beauty and exquisite diction of some of the descriptive passages. These are comparable to anything within the compass of English blank-verse composition; and are fresh interpretations of Nature, passing directly from the intellect and imagination of the poet into the reader's memory, where they remain imprinted and imperishable. I refer especially to the description of the Black Mount rising from the water, as seen by the solitary rower in his boat; and which, by the power of phantasy, seemed to stride through the twilight after him, "with mountainous overwhelming" — to the poet's vision, by the cave on the sea-shore, of the Arab and his camel, and his book, and the ever-rising, ever-pursuing flood of waters; — to his allusion to the shepherd-life of antique classical times on the banks "of delicate Galesus," and of "rich Clitumnus;" — and, above all, to the immortal skating scene, long ago given to the world by Coleridge in his Friend; and which, along with the Lines on revisiting Tintern Abbey, every true disciple of Wordsworth must have had long ago delightedly by heart.