1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

C. H. Townshend, in "An Essay on the Theory and the Writings of Wordsworth" Blackwood's Magazine 26 (November 1829) 781-83.



But it may still be urged, by those who consider Wordsworth n poet of first-rate merit and originality, that the force of his genius has been demonstrated by its effects upon the taste and literature of the age. They may boast that lie brought back the public mind from a love of false glare and glitter to the simplicity and truth of nature.

He himself says, after a retrospective view of different eras of literature, "It may be asked, where lies the particular relation of what has been said to these volumes? The question will be easily answered by the discerning reader, who is old enough to remember the taste that prevailed when some of these poems were first published, seventeen years ago, who has also observed to what degree the poetry of this island has since that period been coloured by them."

That the taste of the age, about the period when Wordsworth published his first poems, was far gone from nature, I allow. I grant that (to use Wordsworth's own words) "the invaluable works of our elder writers were driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse," and I honour the attempt to restore a healthier tone of feeling. Still, I cannot attribute the inevitable reaction, which took place at one period, to aught but the natural tendency of all extremes to produce reaction, and unfortunately again to verge into extremes. Wordsworth himself I consider less a moulding spirit of the age, than a perverted production of it. He began to write at the era when men were wearied with perpetual stimulants, and disgusted with copies of copies ad infinitum. Thomson, in his Seasons, had already dared to use nothing but a pencil and a pallet, and his own eyes, in delineating nature; Burns had presented her to the world in her sweetest, her freshest, her simplest attire: and Wordsworth went a step farther, — he stripped her naked. Yet his followers have been few. The master-spirits of an age have always had their imitators, and have given somewhat of an abiding character to the literature of a whole century. But who has imitated Wordsworth? Where is the stamp and impress of his mind to be found in this generation? Simplicity has again lost her charms for the public taste. Nature, indeed, is still worshipped, but it is nature in frenzy and distortion. Alas! that evil should be so much more enduring and energetic than good! If Wordsworth cannot justly be ranked (as his worshippers rank him) the first Genius of the age, still, his lower station on the fair hill of Virtue is more enviable than that of others on the lightning-shattered pinnacle of Vice. And, if Wordsworth would be contented to occupy that more lovely station gracefully and meekly, there would be no dissentient voice to dispute his honours. But he has yet to learn the important lesson of remaining silent under evil report and good report. Why, if Wordsworth so implicitly believes in the justice of "Time the corrector, where our judgments err;" why, if he is so steadfastly assured that the "great spirit of human knowledge," moving on the wings of the past and the future, will assign him his proper station in the ranks of literature; why, if he is persuaded that his volumes, "both in words and things, will operate in their degree to extend the domain of sensibility, for the delight, the honour, and the benefit of human nature," — why does he write so many pages to prove the truth of his convictions? Can he talk himself into immortality? Self-praise is, of all modes of self-aggrandisement, the least graceful, and the most impolitic. Why should we give a man that which he has already bestowed on himself? And, if we think that the self-eulogist claims too great a share of merit, human nature is up in arms to dispute with him every inch of his overgrown territory. What shall we say to a poet who thus writes of his own works? He first notices, that "after the transgression of Adam, Milton, with other appearances of sympathising nature, thus marks the immediate consequence:

Sky lower'd, and, muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completion of the mortal sin.

And then, a little while after, he goes on to say, "Awe-stricken as I am by contemplating the operations of the mind of this truly divine poet, I scarcely dare venture to add, that 'An Address to an Infant!!!' which the reader will find under the class of Fancy in the present volumes, exhibits something of this communion and interchange," &c. Yet awestricken as Wordsworth says he is in the contemplation of Milton's mind, he does not scruple to parody Milton's sonnet, beginning "A book was writ of late call'd Tetrachordon," by one beginning "A book was writ of late call'd Peter Bell." He should have remembered that Milton never wrote one line in defence of his poems, as indeed a person's own poetry is no fit subject for polemics: and while assimilating himself (in kind, if not in degree) to Shakspeare, he should have taken a lesson from the silent grandeur with which the latter gave his works to posterity, not even keeping a copy of those writings, which he knew "the world would not willingly let die." He should have reflected that true power is calm. Indeed, were I not disposed to estimate Wordsworth's powers very highly; I should almost draw an argument against them from the tone of self-exaltation which pervades his prose writings. To be dissatisfied with its own productions, is the most usual temper of a mighty mind that sees before it "the unreached paradise of its despair." Virgil condemned his Aeneid, the delight of after ages, to the flames; and Collins, with his own hands, burnt the unsold edition of his poems. Wordsworth, however, need not fear. The uneasy doubts, respecting his real title to immortal fame, which his very restlessness and irritability betray, are groundless. He must survive. But, in the mean time, he must allow the present generation to be a little amused, when they meet in his works with such a passage as the following: — "Whither, then, shall we turn for that union of qualifications which must necessarily exist before the decisions of a critic can be of absolute value? for a mind at once poetical and philosophical; for a critic whose affections are as free and kindly as the spirit of society, and whose understanding is severe as that of dispassionate government? Where are we to look for that initiatory composure of mind which no selfishness can disturb? for a natural sensibility that has been tutored into correctness, without losing any thing of its quietness, &c. associated with a judgment that cannot he duped into admiration by aught that is unworthy of it?" And he then answers his own interrogatories: — "Among those, and those only, who, never having suffered their youthful love of poetry to remit much of its force, have applied to the consideration of the laws of this art, the best power of their understandings." And does not Mr. Wordsworth consider himself to possess these qualifications? Is he not to be found amongst this elect band of critics? Can he not, therefore, criticise his own works better than any exoteric? This spirit of self-admiration has made Wordsworth overrate the effects which his poetry has produced on the age. He mistakes the clamour of a party for the voice of a multitude. He says, "A sketch of my own notion of the constitution of fame has been given; and, as far as concerns myself, I have cause to be satisfied. The love, the admiration, the indifference, the slight, the aversion, and even the contempt, with which these poems have been received, knowing, as I do, the source, within my own mind, from which they have proceeded and the labour and pains which, when labour and pains appeared needful, have been bestowed upon them, &c. &c. are all proofs that for the present time I have not laboured in vain; and afford assurances, more or less authentic, that the products of my industry will endure." Wordsworth forgets that this theory and his poems have been made a party question, and that he has perhaps more extrinsic causes of fame than any other; that his startling oddities, and paradoxical assertions, are perhaps as stimulating as the outrageous stimulation (as he calls it) which he reprobates. Wordsworth thinks that he introduced a taste for simplicity. If so, he introduced a taste most hostile to an admiration of his own writings, for he is any thing but simple. He is grotesque, which is quite opposite to being simple. His very attempt to clothe lofty sentiments in lowly language betrays the greatest eccentricity. If a king wore a shepherd's frock, he would manifest more ambitious singularity than were he dressed in purple. Inconsistency and strangeness have been the very steps by which Wordsworth has mounted into notice. Even were it granted that he had influenced the taste of the age, it by no means follows that his influence has been beneficial. He talks of the "strange abuses which poets have introduced into their language, till they and their readers take them as matters of course, if they do not single theism out expressly as objects of admiration." Even if he have abolished these, what does he gain if he replaces one form of abuses by another form of abuses, till his readers take them as matters of course, and most certainly do often single them out expressly as objects of admiration?