1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Edgar, "Poetry. Wordsworth" Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 3 (5 June 1824) 375-77.



I am fond of poetry — "it is like the air I breathe, if I have it not" — why, I am obliged to go without it — for in good and sober truth, it is not, even in this poetical age, always a commodity easily to be procured. There is such an unspeakable charm in fairly escaping from this matter-of-fact world, and the common place bodies continually buzzing about one therein, that if it were practicable, I would evermore live in the "land of faery," except that I should feel disposed some times to descend from my eminence to spend an odd evening or so with some kind hearts and congenial souls whom I could name, and will never cease to re member. There are some sensible people in this sublunary scene, who think differently. "There is in every deed" (say they) "nothing poetical — it is all a fantasy — all raving — the idea is mischievous; — death to common sense, — to sober thinking." Now I do from the very kernel of my soul pity such worthy jogtrot individuals. They may be said only half to live. In the name of the common sense which they so continually invoke, is not the world, and "all that is therein," poetical. The glorious sun — the mild, effulgent moon — the everlasting hills — the smiling vale — the magnificent, the beautiful ocean — are not these never-ceasing and legitimate sources for the workings of lofty thought? And what is the thought that soars beyond the ground we trample upon and burns as it flies upwards, but poetry? We need not go a star-gazing — the flowers of poesy are always springing up about and around us: the themes to which man's immortal mind should most frequently recur, and upon which, it should most uninterruptedly dwell, are essentially poetic. We have many names in this, our day and generation, which stand high among the class of writers called poets. It is not my intention at present to run over them, nor dotch down my own very unimportant sentiments as to their respective merits; but there can be no harm in asserting that we have also a tremendous boat of verse-makers. Because it is a solemn fact, every gentleman who fancies himself in love, and can count his fingers, speedily discovers, for want of something better to do, that he was born a poet — he scribbles accordingly, — makes a palpable hit — gets, by some mischance, into print, and then it's all over with the public. I can well remember in my academy days, astounding the worthy Dr. I. and our redoubtable Knights of the Round Table, by actually writing a volume of "original poems," (the name I modestly affixed to them) in the space of one week! They were caught up and read, pro bono publico, and after the first stanza—

O, sweet Europa, thou no more art blest
With peace more lovely than the smiling morn;
Thy lands which fertile were, are now laid waste,
And by a mighty tyrant thou art torn!

Convulsions of laughter resounded on all sides — the table was literally in a roar: — but, as the reader proceeded, the shouts were not to be endured, and indeed there was no alternative, I put the best of all possible faces on the affair, and joined in the humour of the joke as well as could be expected, under all the circumstances of the case, and quietly resolved thenceforth to confine myself to humble prose. The example was not, however, totally lost upon some of our confraternity, who, (as became afterwards abundantly apparent,) regarded me as an actual phoenix. One especially came and whispered into my ear privately, the results of his inspiration, of which the first verse is altogether too rich to descend into oblivion, and can never be erased from my memory—

Oh, ye dark orbs, how bright ye shine,
And know this world to be
A world inhabited by men,
And none can set them free!

Resplendent genius! — I have never been yet able to ascertain, whether the talent was cultivated as it should have been, but certainly, nothing equal to it has since fallen under my observation — no, not that burst of rapturous feeling, an excellent friend of mine, once upon a time, gave utterance to—

O! 'tis sweet while life doth last,
A radical to be!—

Enough of rhymesters — let us have a little genuine poetry. Wordsworth is the man that can furnish us with it. — Yes, Wordsworth — the man whose works have been grinned at, and written down at my allowance, — who, although he has sent "Peter Bell" and "Benjamin the Waggoner" into the world, is nevertheless always and exclusively a poet; or to use his own words—

Thanks to the human heart by which we live;
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears;
To me the meanest flower that blows, can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Every one must admire the imagination and harmony of the following lines:—

Withered leaves — one — two — and three—
From the lofty elder-tree!
Through the calm and frosty air
Of this morning bright and fair,
Eddying round and round they sink
Softly, slowly; one might think,
From the motions that are made,
Every little leaf conveyed
Sylph or Faery hither tending,—
To this lower world descending,
Each invisible and mute
In his wavering parachute.

Nor do the following yield to them:—

Our birth is but asleep and a forgetting,
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness;
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy,
But he beholds the light and whence it flows.
He sees it in his joy;
The youth who daily further from the east
Must travel, still is nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the common light of day.

Now this, although it may not be theologically orthodox, is most exquisite poetry; and then comes the sequel,—

Hence in a season of calm weather,
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us thither;
Can in a moment travel hither,—
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

I am as poor as any rat, and cannot indulge the hope of ever possessing Wordsworth's poems by actual purchase, or any other lawful means. — Now, I have no doubt that many good people are in the same predicament: if so, I shall receive thanks (which are no more than my deserts, and all I aspire to) for the foregoing excerpts, and the following, which must be the last:—

If thou be one whose heart the holy forms
Of young imagination have kept pure,
Stranger! henceforth be warned; and, know, that pride
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he hath never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy. The man whose eye
Is ever on himself, doth look on one,
The least of nature's works; one who might move
The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
Unlawful ever. O, be wiser, thou!
Instructed that true knowledge leads to love.
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself,
In lowliness of heart.