The little island of Ischia is one of those fragments of a land of volcanoes which have been flung into the sea, and now freckle the light face of the bay of Naples. The three days we spent there last year, in the house of a priest, with little of his company, and none of any one's else, will for over remain hoarded in the museum of our memory, as one of the rarest and fairest specimens of existence; a thing "to dream of, not to tell."
We were seated in the shade, on the priest's balcony, one beautiful Sunday morning. A woman, with the high and fanciful white head-dress of the island, was moving below amongst the green leaves of the vines, and loudly singing a religious ballad of her native place. The sun was shining, bright and hot, on the main land, where were the Elysian fields, their tombs, and the promontory of Misena full in front; the lake of Acheron and the Stygian river, grey and steaming, a little on the left; the ruins of Cumea, and the Sybil's cave, were just visible in the distance; and a path of silver lay across from these objects, undulating over the small swellings of the summer water, up to the deep blue of the basin of Lacco, close at our feet. At this moment a stirring breeze suddenly sprung up, and caused all the features of this beautiful sight to quiver like arrows: — it also brought a brigantine in full sail round the headland of the island, and placed the stately vessel n the very midst of the picture, with its canvas hanging like clouds round its lofty masts, and its topmost streamer spreading quietly over them, like the sceptre of an unquestioned monarch. Very common poetry, we think, would not be apt to intrude itself on so regal a scene; yet we confess that we felt it as but a glorious visible realization of Wordsworth's lines.—
Or, like a ship, some gentle day,
In sunshine sailing far away.
A glittering ship, that hath the plain
Of ocean for her vast domain.
[White Doe of Rylestone]
Perhaps this may not be exactly the fit introduction to an article of a critical nature; but the circumstance suggested itself so forcibly to our minds in writing the name of Wordsworth at the head of the page, that we could not resist the temptation of going into the description. It leads us, however, naturally enough, to notice one of the distinguishing qualities of this author's writing — distinguishing him, that is to say, amongst most of his contemporaries, and resembling him to the other greatest masters of English song: we mean that perfect harmony with the elements of moral and physical beauty, which causes his poems to form a delightful text-book to nature herself in the most striking of her works. There hangs about the finest passages of some of the most able poets of our day, an air of force and artifice, which, however high our admiration of them in the closet may go, excludes them from our recollection when we are in the immediate presence of the sacred power from whence proceeds poetical inspiration: their lustre seems then to go out, like that of the most magnificent chandelier that ever was suspended from the roof of a palace, when exposed to the face of a starry sky. — Wordsworth, however, never quits us on these solemn occasions: he is with us, as one who has a right to be wherever there is a display of natural sublimity, grandeur, or beauty. He does not disturb the august silence and secret influence of the spot or moment, by officious interference or overstrained invitations and excitements; but, like Moses and Elias in the Transfiguration, he is at once a fellow worshipper and a superior being, whose more intimate communion with the glories before which are prostrate, only adds to the simplicity of his zeal, and the humility of his devotion.
In all the sterling poets — the immortal masters of the art — a soul of truth and sincerity appears to be the animating spirit of their productions, far above all ambition of composition, yet producing its greatest success. It is this which enables them to penetrate while they please; which causes them to flash on the mind, with the force of lightning, the characteristic and essential qualities of objects, — that which we most feel about them, and are often the least able to express. Wordsworth certainly has more of this power than any other living poet: his lines connect them — more permanently and easily with the scenery of nature, and the workings of thought and passion, than those of his contemporaries and rivals. They strike on our minds, at the moment of observation, like the light of day, to illustrate and embellish. The passage we have just quoted from him furnishes an instance: — how perfectly, how musically, how gracefully, does it accord with the actual image of the thing represented! and, at the same time, how true and suitable the sentiment which it adapts to the image, to give it a moral life, and an influence, over the feelings. The sails of the brigantine in the sun, the stateliness of her port, her gentle yet commanding motion, as it master of herself and all about her, — her superiority over the expanse in which she moves, her singleness in it, her fitness for it, — all conspire to give to her the air and character of sovereignty. This privilege of great poets to touch nature, as it were, with Ithuriel's spear, causing her to start up under it in her true shape and genuine character, is suggested, though not expressly named, by the remark of a living critical writer on Milton's description of the moon, as appearing
Like one that had been led astray,
Through the heaven's wide pathless way.
"In this couplet," says the writer in question, "there is more intense observation, and intense feeling of nature (as if he had gazed himself blind in looking at her), than in twenty volumes of descriptive poetry." — Pindar, when he makes the sun travel in "the vast desarts of the air," affords another instance of the power of imagination stamping the impression of truth; and, there is a striking analogy of thought between the English and the Greek bard in the two passages. Lord Byron's description of the morning, — "smiling as if earth contained no tomb," though more exclusively sentimental than the two we have just alluded to, is equally real in its spirit, and, like the others, seems to call up in the mind reminiscences of former feelings, to bring back lost ideas and images, "first affections," and "shadowy recollections," — the long passed hour "Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower."
We have heard that, immediately before the first publication of the Lyrical Ballads, Mr. Coleridge waited on an eminent bookselling house, to ask whether, in the opinion of the partners, a series of Poems in the manner of Tenier's paintings, was likely to attract popular notice and favour. We do not think it improbable that Mr. Coleridge took such a step, but we cannot compliment it in any way. The Booksellers only know what has succeeded, not what will: — indeed who does? And, while the gentlemen in question were unduly flattered in one respect, they were, we think, almost insulted in another; for Mr. Coleridge is well aware that there is no real resemblance between the character of Wordsworth's works and that of Teniers; but he made use of a bungling illustration, as, in his opinion, most suitable to the parties to whom he was speaking. He was, however, mistaken in this; for to be right is almost always to be intelligible, and vice versa. Although the Poems of Wordsworth often relate to familiar characters and incidents, and the Paintings of Teniers always do, no two set of productions can be imagined more dissimilar the one to the other. The works of the Dutch artist are valuable, beyond measure, for their literal truth; the feature which, where it is the most prominent in Mr. Wordsworth's, is very often the least pleasing, or rather the most repulsive. Teniers never leads his spectators further than the mere objects he represents; but he gives these so richly endowed with their proper qualities, and so fully charged with the force of their own peculiar natures, that we are well contented to rest with them. Wordsworth, on the contrary, renders his familiar scenes and characters interesting, only by causing them to suggest and illustrate a certain system of thought and feeling which belongs rather to him than to them; it is rather their latent capabilities, than their apparent properties, which form the value of these in his poetry; and when he is minutely descriptive of their common daily habits, for the sake of elucidating the philosophy of their relative natures, he is evidently too far removed from real companionship with what he represents, for the representation to be pleasant. The familiarity strikes us as assumed for the moment; and the loquacious imbecility, childish trifling, and vulgar bluntness, which he often introduces; contrast disagreeably with the solemnity of the purpose of their introduction, and the betrayed gravity and apostolic fervour of the author. The boors, and boors wives, and children, of Teniers, appear in his pictures for the purpose of enjoying themselves in good earnest in their own way: there they are, — to act and speak for themselves in and about that which concerns them. If you tickle them, will they not laugh? and if you give them a jug of ale, will they not drink? They will, heartily; and without being conscious that they are furnishing experiments in the philosophy of human nature: but Mr. Wordsworth's peasants are brought in, pretty much as Surgeon Carlisle, the lecturer, brings in Sam, the academy model, to shew the students how a man moves his legs when he walks forwards, and how when he walks backwards! In the lecturer this proceeds from quackery; in the poet it is system.
The Waggoner we think one of the finest, if not the very finest, of Mr. Wordsworth's professed sketches from common life; but a waggoner by Teniers would be altogether different, we suspect, — and so would a Highland carrier, depicted by the author of the Scotch Novels. One and the other would give us individuals of their class, of whom we might afterwards think, without any conscious reference to the painter or writer: — but it is Wordsworth's Waggoner, Wordsworth's Beggar, Wordsworth's Sailor, or Wordsworth's Schoolmaster, we name in our minds, when recalling the subjects of some of the most celebrated of his compositions. His poetical characters are all marked with the impress of his own personal one; and therefore we think it, on the whole, a pity that he should attempt any thing but pieces where this impress would be the best of recommendations. In spite of his familiarity of phrase, and long drawn-out minuteness of description, his hedge-menders and ditch-cutters would be shyly looked at by the set at the Swan or the Red Lion, we fear. They would be set down for Methodists, or fellows that could not take their own part. Even his old women, though they gossip tediously, do not gossip heartily, and would be slightly estimated at the village conclave of a summer evening. The reason of this is, that they are one and all of the Wordsworth fashion, and that is not by any means the true style of pot-houses and gossipping-matches. Mr. Wordsworth's intimacy with these classes is of a speculative not a practical nature: when he imitates their language, it is as the nurse imitates the broken words and ill-put-together phrases of a child — in doing which she generally utters greater nonsense than the child would have done.
This criticism applies to Mr. Wordsworth's compositions only as they may be called, or are intended to be considered, representations of familiar or common life; and it has been particularly suggested by the allusion to Tenier's paintings, so ill-judged and unfounded, as it appears to us to be at least. Mr. Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, gives a better account of the object and character of his friend's poems, when he describes the circumstances that attended the original conception of the plan of the Lyrical Ballads:—
"Mr. Wordsworth was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us: an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand."
Vol. II. p. 2.
In his endeavours to effect this noble object, Mr. Wordsworth particularizes only to generalize.
From their gross matter he abstracts their forms,
And thaws a kind of quintessence from things.
It is not to the denomination of an object in the common catalogue of that he trusts to excite sympathy. "What's in a name," he asks? He considers every thing alike as a link the vast chain that comprehends the universe; and, as great names interfere too much with the moods of his own mind, are not so tractable as little ones, with which he can do as he pleases, he very often gives a preference to the latter. His ambition as a poet he thus describes for himself:
Which speak of nothing more than what we are,
Would I arouse the sensual from their sleep
Of Death, and win the vacant and the vain
To noble raptures.
Preface to the Excursion, p. xii.
In pursuing this great purpose; Mr. Wordsworth connects the simplest and commonest images with the rarest and often the most complicated thoughts and feelings: — by which we may see what a mistake it is to speak of him as a writer, aiming at simplicity, and failing in the attempt. Mere simplicity does not enter into his plan we believe, and certainly has nothing to do with his system. He is fearless in the familiarity of his expressions, because he is conscious of the depth, grandeur, and importance of his sentiments. A flower gives him thoughts "too deep for tears:" — in the bright blue eggs of a sparrows nest he sees "a vision of delight," and the Colonnade of the Louvre would not probably touch him so sensibly. Let those only sneer at him for this, who are prepared to sneer at the power of seeing "with equal eye," "A hero perish, or a sparrow fall."
That people in general do not thus see, we admit; but they do not now laugh at Newton for gazing on soap-bubbles in their flight. The very simplicity and apparent triviality of an object, when it falls in the way of a mind full of the order of nature, and of the associated recollections of life, will often cause it to excite the sensibility more quickly and powerfully than qualities of a high and rare cast. When nature hath "linked to her fair works the human soul;" it will not fail to derive from even the "daisy," or the "small celandine,"
Some steady love; some brief delight;
Some memory that had taken flight;
Some chime of fancy, wrong or right;
Or stray invention.
But let the poet explain this for himself: he does it eloquently, and touchingly, as it seems to us, in some lines addressed to the former of these flowers, of which the Edinburgh Reviewers pronounce, that they are "flat, feeble, and afflcted." — No. 21, p. 218.
If stately passions in me burn,
And one chance look to Thee should turn,
I drink, out of an humbler urn,
A lowlier pleasure;
The homely sympathy that heeds
"The common life our nature breeds;
A wisdom fitted to the needs
Of hearts at leisure."
When, smitten by the morning ray,
I see thee rise alert and gay,
Then, cheerful Flower! my spirits play
With kindred gladness;
And when at dusk, by dews opprest
Thou sink'st, the image of thy rest
Hath often eased my pensive breast
Of careful sadness.
All this seems very laughable to the Edinburgh Reviewers. So much about a daisy! The poet could not have said more about a crowned head, or one that has been uncrowned! We do not imagine, however, that their tone of feeling in this respect can be fairly considered as indicating the standard of public sensibility. The poet may sometimes push his levelling principles too far, and where he does so he becomes amenable to criticism; but what is to be said of the heart or head of a man who picks out the following exquisite stanza to support a charge of childishness and affectation, brought against our author in the most caustic language of worldly scorn?
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
"The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety."
The Edinburgh Reviewers actually seize on this passage, deep as it is in sentiment, musical in expression, and inspired in feeling, as ridiculous, — probably because of the three admirable lines with which it closes! The doctrine of him who said that "of little children is the kingdom of heaven," was foolishness to the Greeks. Mr. Wordsworth, in statelier language than that which we have quoted a little way back, gives at once a winning picture of his own heart, and an eloquent justification of his feelings, and the poetical system founded on them, in the following verses taken from another of his works:
"Long have I lov'd what I behold,
The night that calms, the day that cheers:
The common growth of mother earth
Suffices me — her tears, her mirth,
Her humblest mirth and tears."
The dragon's wing, the magic ring,
I shall not covet for my dower,
If I along that lowly way
With sympathetic heart may stray,
And with a soul of power.
These given, what more need I desire,
To stir — to sooth — or elevate?
What nobler marvels than the mind
May in life's daily prospect find,
May find, or there create?
A potent wand doth Sorrow wield;
What spell so strong as guilty Fear!
Repentance is a tender sprite;
If aught on earth, have heavenly might,
'Tis lodg'd within her silent tear.
It is only with the very thoughtful, perhaps we should say the very contemplative, that this cast of poetry, stripped of external "pomp and circumstance," is likely to be in his favour: — but the coarse, the vain, and the malignant would alone have sneered at it, if the better feelings of the public had not been perverted, on a subject of which it was imperfectly master, by the influence of flippancy and ignorance, accidentally possessing an opportunity of doing much mischief in this way. We do not think that Mr. Wordsworth, considering the general character of his compositions, had a right to calculate on that extensive and immediate popularity which has fallen to the lot of some of his contemporaries, who are certainly inferior to him in poetical power; — but that he should be insulted in his capacity of poet — he being the author of the Excursion and the Lyrical Ballads, in which works there is more of magnificent and touching poetry than in all the other volumes of English verse, which have appeared from the time of Milton up to the present day — is an infamy attaching disgrace to the period. As for those principally concerned in it, they already feel that they have committed an irremediable fault, connecting them in reputation for ever with the very dregs of the taste and judgment of their time.
What are we to say of the critic who gives the following passage, not less distinguished for purity and distinctness of language and description, than for sublimity of sentiment, as the continuation of "a raving fit?" Edinburgh Review, No. 53, p. 12.
—The clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces did he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none
Nor any voice of joy; his spirit drank
The spectacle. — * * *
In such access of mind, in such high hour
Of visitation from the living God,
Thought was not; in enjoyment it expired.
No thanks he breathed, he proffered no request;
Rapt into still communion that transcends
The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,
His mind was a thanksgiving to the power
That made him; — it was blessedness and love.
Excursion, p. 13, 14.
This is not poetry, we repeat, that ought to be so presently popular as the Lady of the Lake, or the Pleasures of Hope; — nor ought the Samson Agonistes of Milton to be so, were it now to appear: — but that a critic of celebrity, holding a distinguished place in intelligent society, should quote it as a specimen of raving, is a circumstance not well calculated to make us exult in the effects of high civilization, and the diffusion of public information, as it is called. Without such misleaders of sentiment, Mr. Wordsworth's poetry would have had fair play, and would have found the estimation to which it is entitled. No one would have been able to talk of his pieces that had not read them, and this alone would be a great point gained for him, for, generally speaking, those who read him admire him. When people are good enough to tell us that they cannot understand Wordsworth, we willingly take their words for the fact, and think of Doctor Johnson, who hoped he had not said anything that could be understood by a chatty individual, then in his company. Lycidas and the Samson Agonistes, are compositions of the highest order of poetry, but if they were lying on one table in a fashionable drawing-room, and the Bride of Abydos on another hard by, we venture to say, that few male, or female hands, would approach to open their covers. Nor does this fact condemn either Milton or the public: — the former has received his due portion of fame from the public voice, — but he has received it only in the fulness of time, which, in his case, has not been retarded by Edinburgh Reviews. Had they existed in his days, how much would their Editor have made of the "Tetrachordon" sonnet, and how little of the Hymn to the Nativity! He would have picked out the following, probably, a specimen of "exquisite raving."
The stars with deep amaze,
Stand fix'd in stedfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warn'd them thence;
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bade them go.
And, though the shady gloom given day her room,
The sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater sun appear,
Than his bright throne, or burning axletree could bear.
The shepherds on the lawn,
Or e'er the point of dawn,
Sat simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they then,
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below;
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.
This is not at all in the style of the most popular modern poetry; and yet we are far from intimating that what is popular at present does not deserve to be so. It possesses many distinguished qualities of its own, and we shall have the pleasure of dwelling on them in the future course of these articles: — but we must protest against considering the present taste as the standard of excellence, or the criticisms on poetry in the Edinburgh Review as the voice even of the present taste. The latter might possibly be better than it is; but, when left to itself, we are sure it is much better than these criticisms. The finest line in Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming, was cited, in the journal in question, among the objectionable passages; and, while very overstrained praise was bestowed by it on Southey's Don Roderick, the Reviewer took occasion to protest against one of the most poetical ideas in the book. How, he asks, can we commit our sympathies, without distrust, to the hands of a writer who introduces the shocking tameness of the sea-birds, which flew round about the fallen monarch in his retreat, as intolerable to his feelings? If he be right, Cowper, as well as Southey, must be pronounced ignorant of the human heart, and the nature of human sympathies, for in the verses "supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk," we find the following lines:—
The beasts that roam over the plain,
My form with indifference see;
They are so unacquainted with man,
"Their tameness is shocking to me."
It would not be worth while to follow Mr. Wordsworth's traducers further into particulars: — it is of more consequence to inquire if he have faults that have given to these a very considerable advantage over him, which he might have withheld from them if he had so pleased. If such faults exist, it is important that they should be stated and estimated, in justice even to his genius, for mischief is always done to reputation by concealing any part of a case which is on the whole an excellent one. Some of our remarks in an earlier part of this article will have already convinced the reader that we are no sticklers for the poetic infallibility of Mr. Wordsworth; but we will go further than this and now state broadly, that he has, in our conception at least, misconceived, in some very important respects, the true nature and end of poetry, and that, still more often, he perverts in practice the principles of his theory where they are sound and valuable.
When Mr. Wordsworth thus addresses the flower of the small celandine,
Thou art not beyond the moon,
But a thing "beneath our shoon:"
Let, as old Magellan did,
Others roam about the sea;
Build who will a pyramid
Praise it is enough for me
If there be but three or four
Who will love my little flower:—
when he thus addresses it, we say, he lets us into the source of the characteristic and besetting faults of his system; for in this passage we see, not only the intensity of his feeling for the quieter and less ostentatious beauties of nature, — which is one the most distinguishing of the properties of a true poet, — but also a spirit of scorn and dislike towards the more heroic and brilliant manifestations of passion and enterprise. From these he seems to turn with distaste, and rather in an ill-temper than otherwise: but angry contempt is very apt to throw a man off his guard, and we think it has done so to Mr. Wordsworth. He seems sometimes determined, not only to make its admire what is humble, but also what is in itself little: — not only is he disdainful of the accidents and accessaries of grandeur, but he often seems enamoured of the mere circumstances of silliness, vulgarity, and weakness, independently of any thing else. Now, we apprehend, that, if the two be put in the balance, the former will be found the more valuable for the poet's purpose; and that if it be Mr. Wordsworth's intention to discard what is accidental or extraneous, the last ought to be rejected by him as well as the first. To "trace maternal passion through many of its more subtle windings," he states to have been his object in the composition of the "Idiot Boy;" and it is an object worthy of the skill and feeling of the greatest of poets, and to be most happily effected perhaps by placing the scene of the story in humble life: — but how does it assist this object to lengthen out the composition, beyond its natural interest, by the eternal repetition of such names as "Betty Foy," and "Susan Gale," and by such expletive verses as the following:—
Beneath the moon that shines so bright,
Till she is tired, let Betty Foy
With girt and stirrup fiddle-faddle;
But wherefore set upon a saddle
Him whom she loves, her Idiot Boy?
Such a verse is absolutely disagreeable, first, because, having no perceptible connection with the author's object, there is nothing to raise it above the degradation of the common vulgar associations which its language suggests: secondly, because the author's business being with a passion, and very serious one, this trifling is out of place: and thirdly, because, though it might pass, and even be admired, in a picture where the artist succeeded in giving the exact lineaments of nature in its most homely situations and characters, — where pathos, rudeness, interest, and insignificance should be all mingled up together, exactly as we would be likely to find them in the corresponding conditions of real life, — it is only felt as an incongruity in by an author who does not give, and who cannot give, the real, genuine, hearty, every-day look to his rustic or vulgar characters. We repeat that he goes in amongst these as a philosopher and moralist, not as a companion; and his sketches shew them stiff, awkward, and unnatural, as if they were sensible of his presence, and felt embarrassed by it. The poet, therefore, never being able to conceal himself, or to prevent his own disposition from giving their general hue to all his pieces, ought to preserve consistency in them, by causing his incidents, and characters to attend, as satellites, the course of his own mind, following its natural movements, and strictly dependent on its influence. Parodies of "the unmeaning repetitions, habitual phrases, and other blank counters which an unfurnished or confused understanding interposes, at short intervals, in order to keep hold of his subject, which is still slipping from him," must appear as mere awkward incongruities in such compositions, and unpleasantly ruffle and disturb the sympathies of their readers.
Let us take as an example the poem of the "Sailor's Mother." — How poetically does it open!
One morning — (it was cold and wet,—
A foggy day in winter time)
A woman on the road I met,
Not old, though something past her prime:
Majestic in her person, tall and straight;
And like a Roman matron's was her mein and gait.
The ancient spirit is not dead;
Old times, thought I, are breathing there;
Proud was I that my country bred
Such strength, a dignity so fair;
She begg'd an alms, like one in poor estate
I look'd at her again, nor did my pride abate.
Here is most evident the grand imagination to one, of the poet, "drawing all things to one, making things animate and inanimate, beings with their attributes, subjects with their accessaries, take one colour and serve to one effect." We see in these lines the vision of a dignified female form, approaching through the gloom, with the trappings of poverty hanging about her like darker folds of the wintry mist; and in this way the subject should have been pursued, and all such subjects, by Mr. Wordsworth. — In "the old Cumberland Beggar," he has done so consistently this piece is altogether in harmony with the following lines, forming its noble conclusion:
Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
And while in that vast solitude to which
The tide of things has led him, he appears
To breathe and live but for himself alone,
Unblamed, uninjured, let him bear about
The good which the benignant law of Heaven
Has hung around him; and, while life is his,
Still let him prompt the unlettered Villagers
To tender offices and pensive thoughts.
—Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
The freshness of the valleys; let his blood
Struggle with frosty air and winter snows;
And let the chartered wind that sweeps the heath
Beat his gray locks against his withered face.
Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness
Gives the last human interest to his heart.
May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY,
Make him a captive! for that pent-up din,
Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,
Be his the natural silence of old age!
Let him be free of mountain solitudes;
And have around him, whether heard or not,
The pleasant melody of woodland birds.
Few are his pleasures: if his eyes have now
Been doomed so long to settle on the earth
That not without some effort they behold
The countenance of the horizontal sun,
Rising or setting, let the light at least
Find a free entrance to their languid orbs.
And let him, where and when he will, sit down
Beneath the trees, or by the grassy bank
Of high-way side, and with the little birds
Share his chance-gathered meal; and, finally,
As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
So in the eye of Nature let him die.
What the Edinburgh Reviewers might say to these lines it is scarcely worth while to inquire: the public will feel them properly, and honour the genius and sensibility from whence they proceed: — but, when, from the grand imaginative opening of "the Sailor's Mother," which we have quoted above, the poet drops us abruptly into the commonest colloquial language of the poor, clumsily given, and without the vivacity of reality, — we are startled and disappointed at first, and on consideration offended. We ask ourselves, why is this put into the shape of poetry at all, and furnished with rhymes and metre? Poetry includes ornamental qualities in its very essence: common scolding is not fit for poetry, however energetic; yet the natural language of anger is well adapted for the poet's use. Something, however, is to be done by him, beyond giving the mere passion, or feeling, or incident: he is to celebrate, and celebration supposes array, selection, and adornment. It is not of gold-ore that the monarch's crown is made, but of gold drawn forth from surrounding impurities, foreign to its nature and accidental to its condition. The naturalist may find it most interesting in s former state: but Mr. Wordsworth does not represent himself as a mere naturalist; — it has been his endeavour, he says, to give the natural language, of his characters "purified from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting or rational causes of dislike or disgust." This being his principle, we think him often wrong in his practice. "Dislike and disgust" are, to be sure, strong words; but, Coleridge has told him, with sufficient reason, that "it is impossible to imitate truly a dull and garrulous discourse, without repeating the effects of dullness and garrulity."
One of three things seems necessary to be done, in order that bare representations of common life may be made pleasant in works of a poetical cast. 1st. The author must be entirely lost in the composition, and the reader's attention be solely attracted to the accuracy of the description, creating a sense of delight by that quality alone, if for no other reason: or, 2dly, the reader must be made to lose himself, in regard to all his usual associations of ideas and feelings with circumstances, by being thrown into another period or place, where such associations would be inapplicable: or, 3dly, the sense of humour or pleasantry must be excited in his mind, and contrast be thus rendered a source of amusement and satisfaction.
Mr. Wordsworth, in his familiar dramatic pieces, does not observe, or aim to observe, either of the two first conditions: and in regard to the third, whenever he attempts humour or pleasantry, he is positively bad. Nothing can be more uncouth than his attempts at levity of manner. A disagreeable sense of contrast and contradiction, is in every respect, then, excited by his compositions, of this stamp, — and to this may be traced that portion of the public distaste which has been fairly experienced towards the author. But these objectionable compositions do not form one-fourth of his published works; and the large mass of these is composed of high and pure poetry, majestic in expression, exquisite in sensibility, philosophic in thought, lofty in imagination, and splendid in imagery. That no poetical power, equal to his, exists in the present day, would admit of no debate, if the question were only to be debated by those who are masters of the evidence.
Who of our present poets has produced such a passage as the following, which we quote as a specimen of his steady strain, vying in strength, dignity, and simplicity, with the greatest productions of the greatest spirits?
Say what meant the woes
By Tantalus entailed upon his race,
And the dark sorrows of the line of Thebes?
Fictions in form, but in their substance truths,
Tremendous truths! familiar to the men
Of long-past times; nor obsolete in ours.
—Exchange the Shepherd's frock of native grey
For robes with regal purple-tinged; convert
The crook into sceptre; — give the pomp
Of circumstance, and here the tragic Muse
Shall find apt subjects for her highest art.
—Amid the groves, beneath the shadowy hills,
The generations are prepared; the pangs,
The internal pangs are ready; the dread strife
Of pure humanity's afflicted will
Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny.
Of his sonnets we say nothing, because their excellence seems to be universally acknowledged. If tender melody, running in unison with pathos of story and sentiment, be demanded, here shall we find any thing to excel these lines:—
As, on a sunny bank, a tender Lamb,
Lurks in safe shelter from the winds of March,
Screened by its Parent, so that little mound
Lies guarded by its neighbour; the small heap
Speaks for itself; — an Infant there doth rest,
The sheltering Hillock is the Mother's grave.
If mild discourse, and manners that conferred
A natural dignity on humblest rank;
If gladsome spirits, and benignant looks,
That for a face not beautiful did more
Than beauty for the fairest face can do;
And if religious tenderness of heart,
Grieving for sin, and penitential tears
Shed when the clouds had gathered and distained
The spotless ether of a maiden life;
If these may make a hallowed spot of earth
More holy in the sight of God or Man;
Then, on that mold a sanctity shall brood,
Till the stars sicken at the day of doom.
Or poor Ellen's complaint of the faithlessness of her lover:—
"Ah why," said Ellen, sighing to herself,
"Why do not words, and kiss, and solemn pledge;
And nature that is kind in Woman's breast,
And reason that in Man is wise and good,
And tear of him who is a righteous Judge,
Why do not these prevail for human life,
To keep two Hearts together, that began
Their spring-time with one love, and that have need
Of mutual pity and forgiveness, sweet
To grant, or be received — while that poor Bird,
—O come and hear him! Thou who hast to me
Been faithless, hear him, though a lowly Creature,
One of God's simple children that yet know not
The universal Parent, how he sings
As if he wished the firmament of heaven
Should listen, and give back to him the voice
Of his triumphant constancy and love."
But the object of this article is not so much to quote or to review, as to offer some observations on Mr. Wordsworth's poetry, considered generally. This we have imperfectly done, with reference both to its merits and its defects. It is more easy to see and describe the latter than to do justice to the former. His errors are, in a great measure, to be traced to his system; and in reading his works we find, in every page almost, reason to join with Coleridge in saying of the author — "I reflect with delight how little a mere theory, though of his own workmanship, interferes with the processes of genuine imagination in a man of true poetic genius, who possesses, as Mr. Wordsworth, if ever man did, most assuredly does possess, "THE VISION AND THE FACULTY DIVINE."