1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Mr. Wordsworth" The Champion (28 May 1814) 174-75.



Hic tamen, et supera quos diximus, infinores
Partibus egregie multis, multoque minores,
Quanquam multa bene, ac divinitus invenientis
Ex adyto tanquam cordis responsu dedere
Sanctius, et multo certa ratione magis, quam
Pythia, quo tripode ex Phoebi, lauroque profatur;—
Principiis tamen in rerum fecere minas.
LUCRET. Lib. 1.

Such is the glowing language with which the most eloquent of the Roman poets describes some of his predecessors in natural philosophy. He is devoting his whole faculties to display the absurdities of their system, yet at the same time is eager to lavish upon them all those honours which their high qualities demanded. His eloquence it would not be easy to imitate: but it would be at once possible and decorous for those who attempt to point out the errors of an eminently-gifted man to adopt this tone of candid respect. The lines above quoted, with all their praise and all their censure, could scarcely be applied to Empedocles, and his followers, with more accurate propriety, than to Mr. Wordsworth, and his school. Like the Sicilian philosopher, he has uttered, from his "heart's oracular seat," sounds more true and holy than all the priestesses of Apollo: like him he has shewn a disposition for destruction, by an endeavour to subvert and exterminate some of the old established principles of poetical taste. In naming the school of Mr. Wordsworth, I comply rather with an usual term than express my own opinion: for I am at a loss where I should look for his disciples. 'Tis true that some persons have copied one or two of his worst defects; that babyism of language and thought, which for some inscrutable purpose, he now and then condescends to adopt: but is it thus a man becomes a scholar of Wordsworth? Where is he who has exhibited a kindred elevation of mind, the same intensity of feeling, the same profoundness of view, the same sublimity of moral sense? Surely it is not Mr. Coleridge: there is not a more striking difference between the strut of a grenadier-corporal, and the soul-breathing dignity of the Belvedere Apollo, than exists between the turgid efforts of the pretended scholar, and the easy grandeur of the supposed master. Still less can it be Mr. Southey: he, poor fellow, is forced to ransack every quarter of the globe, nay, to tear open the mysteries of every element, for some tale of wonder to rouse his intellect to exertion: whereas, Mr. Wordsworth need but look at the first stick or stone in his way, and he can open to himself visions, rich with all the treasures of poetry and philosophy. He has, indeed, permitted the productions of these gentlemen to appear amidst his own collections: but they are weeds "which have no business there." I do not wish to undervalue either of these two poets, but they must not take rank, nor stand side by side, with the first man of the age. Mr. Wordsworth belongs to the same class as our Shakspeare, our Spenser, and our Milton: his mind is of the same high unvulgar cast: purged from the common dimness which obstructs man's vision: his eye, like theirs, looks abroad upon nature, seizing her most retiring beauties, and comprehending her abstrusest harmonies: like theirs, his intellect, with a proud commanding sagacity, can reach at once the remotest conclusions without the slow process of reasoning, and unravel the most mysteriously-combined motives without those technical auxiliaries which have been invented for the use of ordinary mankind. It would indeed be ridiculous to place him on a footing of perfect equality with the great triumvirate: he has hitherto written nothing of sufficient pretensions to be put in competition with their master-pieces: but his ambition and his qualities are of the same exalted kind, and give us hope that his genius will yet produce fruits corresponding to the magnificence of its promise. Nobody, I think, will deny, that where he is great, none could be greater: that majesty of thought seems natural to him: that whenever he soars into the higher and purer air of intellectual contemplation, he moves about with a facility and conscious dignity which shews that he belongs to that unearthly element. His language too, (for in his finest passages he forgets the peculiarities of his own system,) has all that abounding vigour and splendour which befit his thoughts, and his blank versification, has, to my ear, all the variety, art, and grandeur of the finest music. Milton, though he is said to have been an accomplished musician, has not managed his pauses with half the effect of Mr. Wordsworth, who is reported to be ignorant of the science. In reading the best poems of the latter, you are impressed in the same manner as if you were accompanied by an organ, so that it would be no slight sensual enjoyment to repeat the verses with reference to the cadences alone, without any regard to the meaning.

In glancing at my motto, I find that I have nearly forgot to mention, what most persons have been led to think are the chief parts in this poet's character, his defects. As far as regards Mr. Wordsworth himself, I should not think it worth while to descant upon his faults, because he has redeemed them by inimitable beauties: but as there are some simple souls who have confounded his eccentricities with his excellencies, have mistaken that for sublime which is in fact only odd, a few words may not be thrown away on an attempt to point out where this poet has erred. He seems to think that the commonest thoughts and feelings are as fit subjects for poetry as the most dignified, and that the most obvious diction is the most poetical. It is needless to say that all his best pieces are in direct variance with this proposition, abounding as they do with sentiments and phraseology which are exalted utterly beyond the reach of common apprehensions: yet he has condescended to write a few poems in conformity with those principles, and a less seductive illustration of their truth could not well be imagined. The failure would have been still greater if he had perfectly accorded to his own rule: but such is not the case: he details indeed some common incidents, but they by no means suggest to him common sentiments or common language. For instance, he takes a morning-walk and sees a leech-gatherer, and on this occasion pours out some of the noblest thoughts clothed in the finest and most elaborate diction. But does he mean to say, that, to ten thousand other persons who might have seen the same leech-gatherer, any thought would have occurred except that he was a sturdy person with a stupid employment: and could such a thought embodied in such common language excite the slightest interest in any bosom. Mr. Wordsworth has ventured to go further: he has published what he calls the moods of his own mind, and has disclosed the silliest as well as the wisest of his feelings. This experiment is rather to be considered as a hazardous vanity than real magnanimity. It is true that nothing can be more interesting than to view a great mind under all circumstances, in its undress as well as in "all its bravery:" it is true that simplicity and greatness are so akin, that the most exalted intellects have occasionally been delighted to relapse into the feelings of childhood. — The disclosure however of this tendency should never be made but to the most intimate hearts: the world at large will misunderstand it, and it is not for the interest of virtue that the dignity of the wise and good should be lowered even in the estimation of the most contemptible. Socrates would knuckle down at taw with his own children, nor was he ashamed to be caught, for he knew how to abash and overwhelm impertinent folly, but had Socrates carried his bag of marbles to the market-place, and played with the ragged boys of Athens, the profoundest sentence that he could have uttered would not have saved him from scorn and contempt.

Another fault, ascribed to Mr. Wordsworth, belongs rather to his habits of life than to his system of opinions: he has a morbid sensibility which extracts melancholy out of every object, and impresses itself so deeply on the minds of his careful readers, as might unhinge them for the common business of life. Such, at least, is the opinion even of some who admire him. I think the matter is over-rated. There are not ten minds in an age so nicely organized, so acutely sensitive, as to be in any danger of disorder from the influence of the saddest strains of poetry: and, on account of a possible evil, one cannot consent that Mr. Wordsworth should alter that frame and disposition of mind which is one of his great charms. He has been brought up in the school of nature's beauties and sublimities, and by deep meditation on himself, compared with those wonders of creation, he has acquired an elevation and purity of thinking which has less of earth in it than any poetry of the world, except, perhaps, some of the mournful odes of Petrarch. If he came out more into the world, he might, perhaps, be a merrier personage; but who would not rather have him write sublimely than ludicrously, unless, indeed, (which would be too much to expect,) he could amuse mankind and himself with such humourous delineations of life as Shakspeare could draw. At any rate, who could endure, what must be one inevitable consequence of such intermixture with society, — that he should waste his time in penning sonnets on Lady Jane's fan, or Lady Bab's slipper?

Mr. Wordsworth is not, indeed, adapted to be a popular poet: he is of too high an order: he writes for men who reflect as deeply as himself. Our greatest poets have not been popular: Shakspeare, notwithstanding his infinite variety, is rather liked, as affording scope to favourite actors, than read in the closet: those who read him do it through the medium of Cibber or Tate, or some other blundering fellow who presumes to alter and fit him for representation. As to Milton and Spenser, they are wholly unknown except to a few poetical readers: every library, indeed, holds their works, and most gentlemen are acquainted with their names; but you might travel from Cornwall to Berwick, and not find twenty persons who have fairly perused Spenser's Fairy Queen, or even the Paradise Lost. Mr. Wordsworth, therefore, must be content to be less read than the writer of amorous odes and wondrous romances: he may, however, be assured of an eternal memory in the minds of the wise; and that future ages will be eager to point out his name, as one of the proudest specimens of the best English character, distinguished, as it will be, for purity of feeling, for comprehensiveness of intellect, and for a strain of poetry which at once enchants the senses, exalts the understanding, and improves the heart.