1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Anonymous, "Wordsworth and the Lake School" The Monthly Magazine 50 (November 1820) 307-10.



These are men of original, but misdirected minds, whose reputation for novelty and eccentricity of character is now upon the wane, and

Their May of life
Fallen into the sear and yellow leaf,

so that we feel ourselves under an obligation of freshening and furbishing up their names, and reminding the literary public, that these advocates for "legitimate power," and things as they are, were once young and idle enthusiasts like ourselves, and as little dreaming of becoming poet laureats, lecturers, and tax-gatherers to men in power. But we are in perfect good humour with them about this. So far from charging them with any deliberate act of apostacy, we merely impute it (as they themselves admit, in declining the honour, but not the emoluments, of being sold) to a lamentable want of judgment, and some deficiency in the intellectual vision, which deceived them, either in the formation, or abandonment of principles which they have repeatedly advocated and deserted. In this see we have made use of the expression of "men of misdirected minds," whose errors we are inclined to deplore, rather than to tax them with any turpitude and fawning servility at the foot of power — sins of a deeper dye. We are further confirmed in this belief, by an individual knowledge of their moral and domestic feelings. As husbands, as fathers, and as friends — in the various duties and charities of private life, we believe them to be characters without a stain: but this will never, of itself, protect men from undergoing a public ordeal. We take an equal right, and we have equal pleasure, in eulogising their individual virtues, as authors, in a reciprocal admiration of one another's genius and talents. We are as happy to do this, as Mr. Coleridge himself, when he sums up the character of his friend Southey, in the following words: "I know few men who so well deserve the character which an ancient attributes to Marcus Cato, namely, that he was likest virtue, in as much as he seemed to act right, not in obedience to any law or outward motive, but by the necessity of a happy nature, which could not act otherwise."

Without insisting on this comparison of our gifted laureat with the incorruptible virtue of Marcus Cato, we must observe, that the preceding remarks are intended to remove a load of public infamy from the heads of the authors under discussion, and we think we are in no slight degree intitled to their approbation and to their gratitude, in thus holding them forth to their country, as well-meaning and honest creatures, though deficient in soundness of mind, and correct judgment. An upright, and good-hearted man, will always feel desirous to have his truth and honesty approved, though at the expence of his understanding; and it is only the wretch in soul, who dares to present an intellectual front of brass, and laughs behind the shield of tyranny and power, at his own apostate and malignant heart. No: faulty as we are taught to believe these men to be, we cannot lay our hand upon our bosom, and attribute such consummate baseness to the human mind — we cannot. suppose that the high-souled and well-principled characters whom, yesterday, we admitted, and conversed with in the fulness of heart and friendship, are, tomorrow, like the apostate angels, cast into their own proper hell of infamy and despair, for a dereliction of principle and duty, and for the sake of a little more independence, and selfish power. We know that

Aspiring to be Gods if Angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel;

which, of course, means aspiring to become angels, or men of power, rather than of angelic goodness. Though we are well acquainted with the alluring nature of this many-headed monster, Power, we repeat, in favour of our authors, and of human decency and consistency, that we do not suppose them to have been wilfully capable of sacrificing their good name, to the shadow of a little brief authority, dirty love of lucre, and smiles of the great. It must be their understandings, and not their hearts, that are implicated in all this; though we are aware of the arguments of some, who are not so charitably inclined as ourselves, to put the best construction upon similar points. On supporting our exculpatory theory with a friend, who betrayed some doubts, but professed himself desirous of seeing them brought off with a verdict of innocent, "I grant you," he replied, "that the change of principles affords no proof of apostacy in itself, though it be an imputation upon their good sense, and the exercise of a sound discretion; but, when I reflect again, that this change goes hand-in-hand with power and riches, and that here, are the former opinions, with the right and freedom of advancing them, laid down for ever — and that there is the price of the purchase made — the money exhibited in one hand, and the slave's new directions (I profane not the name of principle) in the other — then, I say, can this man stand free; or, has he not, in the lawyer's phrase, been receiving a quid pro quo?" To this we replied, "that supposing a conscientious change of sentiments to have first taken place, would it not be probable, in the natural course of events, that the first-rate abilities and qualifications of such men, would occupy eminent stations in political, as well as literary, institutions — and that some of these might be offices of considerable emolument, though not for this reason preferred." Our friend only answered us with an incredulous smile, as much as to say that we knew better — while we concluded, as we set out, that (here were not sufficient grounds to convict them of apostacy; and that the fairest way was to refer them to Heaven, and to their own consciences. Suspicions, he contended, were strong; and he proceeded to mention, as an instance, that he was on intimate terms with a friend and fellow-student of our author's, who exactly agreed with them in their former political and literary tenets, but who, having been born independent, and always placed above want, had adhered to his opinions, and could afford to keep a conscience. We merely returned, as suspicions were no proofs, we were bound to put the best construction on the case; and, with his leave, begged to refer this portion of our subject to some future biographer, casuist, more skilful in the solution of motives than ourselves.

Having thus offered some observations to justify the characters under consideration, without which we should have considered them too foul and despicable to handle; and having proved our willingness to treat them with candour and impartiality, we shall enter upon a more particular examination and analysis of their respective genius and atchievements in the field of literature and poetic fame. We, of course, commence with the patriarch of his race, the father and founder of the New School — the singular, simple-minded, and philosophic Wordsworth. He is a revolutionist and innovator, in the true sense of the word — he is, in fact, the prophet who caught the mantle of the expiring spirit of jacobinism, of which he is now the deadly foe; and transfused a portion of its influence into the breasts of his scholars, who, at first, industriously promoted its growth, and then began to root it out of the hearts in which they had sown it, though at the expence of life itself. They became the advocates of war, and of bloody acts in the time of peace. But we check ourselves, and stand corrected! We were about to describe a revolution in song, rather than in the destiny of nations: but these gentlemen have so far identified themselves with the cause of politics and public events, that we really feel some difficulty in separating the heterogeneous materials of which they are composed. In point of literary acquirements, then, Mr. W. is a man of power, but possesses not the soul of harmony and greatness which constitute a true poet. His power is unwieldy withal — and when he rhymes, it is like that of an elephant, whom his keeper has taught to dance, in spite of nature and the reason of things. Why does he not entitle his excursions disquisitions, and his irregular poems philosophic treatises, and occasional thoughts or essays, upon a variety of subjects? If we only subtract the recurring rhymes, we shall find his poetry to consist of excellent prose — with many fine thoughts, good reflections, judicious reasoning, and pathetic descriptions of nature, and of man. But where is the enthusiasm and fire of a poetic spirit — the audacity of genius, and the beauty and glow of soul which await the command of the sons of song? There is an eternal monotony in his style and versification. — His poetic scale is confined to a few jarring notes. He has none of the variety of powers in Byron, nor the lyric strength and beauty of Campbell, nor the picturesque life of Scott, nor the elegance and sweetness of Moore — but he is a dull and prosing philosopher, who tags together precepts and reflections, like the Golden Rules of Pythagoras, in verse; and we read them because they are strange and new, and like nothing else in nature or in books. He composes, in this simple and prosaic method, for the best reason in the world — in truth, he cannot write in any other. Whenever he incroaches upon the real language of poetry, he produces sad stuff. His wings are no sooner spread than, like a tame goose, he comes bump to the ground. Yet, like all other young authors, he began to write in the language of nature and common sense, though in this he did not succeed. "It may be exemplified," as his friend Coleridge observes, "together with the harsh and obscure construction, in which he more often offended," in the following lines, taken from his earliest productions, "The Evening Walk, and the Descriptive Sketches," in which pathos and simplicity strongly vie with each other for the victory — to wit,

Mid stormy vapours ever driving by,
Where ospreys, cormorants, and herons cry,
Where hardly given the hopeless waste to cheer,
Denied the bread of life, the foodful ear,
Dwindles the pear on Autumn's latest spray,
And apple sickens pale in Summer's ray;
Ev'n here Content has fix'd her smiling reign
With Independence, child of high disdain.

We should be at a loss to recognize this for the poetry of Mr. W. in his maturer days — there is nothing of the character nor the manner. It bears the common stamp of poetic expression, and it is not of the best; but it is curious, inasmuch as it is the natural style of Mr. W. before he discovered that he should not stand high among his contemporaries, if he measured himself by the same standard and rules of writing as they. What must he, therefore, do, to render himself notorious and disrespected; as a gentleman, in pursuit of fame once declared it his intention to become as soon as possible? He simply contended, that as real poetry, and a poetic language were not consonant to his genius, they must be radically wrong; and he immediately cried out for a reformation in our poetic diction declaring, that though truth of passion; and dramatic propriety, might excuse the use of figures and metaphors in our either poets, when stript of their justifying reasons, and converted into mere artifices of connection or ornament, they constituted the characteristic falsity in the style of the moderns. Full of this ingenious theory, he applied himself, like Swift, to the study of polite conversation, in the vulgar; and soon informed us, in his preface to the "Lyrical Ballads," that rustic life (particularly low and rustic life) was especially favourable to the formation of a more natural and human diction. On the strength of this, and on this foundation only, he forthwith proceeded "to build the lofty rhyme" — and, for a period of twenty years, has systematically persevered, in spite of admonition and criticism, to employ clowns, waggoners, and shepherds, in the erection of his rustic monument: "Exegi monumentum aere perennius" — and we wish that he would now sit down and enjoy his fame, without running any further risk of destroying its foundation, by adding to the weight of the superstructure. As a specimen of Mr. Coleridge's criticism upon his friend, and of his own elaborate style, we shall quote a passage from his "Biographia."

"During the last year of my residence at Cambridge, I became acquainted with Mr. Wordsworth's first publication, entitled, Descriptive Sketches, and seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius, above the literary horizon, more evidently announced. In the forth, style, and manner of the whole poem, and in the structure of the particular lines and periods, there is an harshness and acerbity, connected and combined with words and images all a-glow, which might recall those products of the vegetable world, where gorgeous blossoms rise out of the hard and thorny rind and shell, within which the rich fruit was elaborating. The language was not only peculiar and strong, but, at times, knotty and contorted, as by its own impatient strength; while the novelty and struggling crowd of images, acting in conjunction with the difficulties of the style, demanded always a greater closeness of attention than poetry, (at all events descriptive poetry) has a right to claim. It not seldom, therefore, justified the complaint of obscurity." These harsh and knotty opinions of Mr. C. on his friend, are pretty conclusive of the justness of our preceding observations.

If such are the sentiments of his admirers, he must not be surprised, that those who cannot enter into the meaning and spirit of his new poetic faith, are still harder of belief. If any thing further were required to set the matter at rest, as to the absurdity and childishness of the scheme, we have only to apply once more to Mr. C., who expressly states — "A friend, whose talents I hold in the highest respect, but whose judgment and, strong sound sense I have had almost continued occasion to revere, making the usual complaints to me concerning both the style and subjects of Mr. Wordsworth's minor poems, I admitted, that there were some few of the tales and incidents, in which I could not myself find a sufficient cause for their having been recorded in metre." Now, if any thing more bitter and insulting to the character and genius of a poet, could possibly be advanced, we should be glad to know what it is? To inform a man that he writes such sad stuff, that it is not fit to be put even into rhyme, is, to say the least of it, a little hard and unfeeling — and what the partiality of friendship might well conceal. Though we certainly do not entertain so high an opinion of Mr. W.'s poetry as some, we cannot go so far as Mr. C. in his last accusation of him. His poetry is, undoubtedly, prosaic, but it is not quite prose, as Mr. C. would have its to believe. In this sweeping severity of criticism, and its effects upon his poor friend, we might apply to Mr. C. his translation of the epithet of Mendelsohn upon Kant, viz. "the all-be-crushing, or, rather, the all-to-nothing-becrushing Coleridge" — for we should have thought Mr. W. could hardly have survived such a knock-down argument on his reputation, from the friend who had taken up the critical cudgels in his defence. We have never denied that Mr. W. is a man of superior powers of mind, and something of a poet, and that many of his pieces are worthy of being recorded in metre, whatever his friends may think to the contrary — and we shall quote in support of this opinion, a portion of the poem, called the "Thorn," on which Mr. C. makes an elaborate critique. It will be found to run thus:

Why, rack your brain — tis all in vain,
I'll tell you every thing I know;
But to the thorn and to the pond,
Which is a little way beyond,
I wish that you would go:
Perhaps when you are at the place,
You something of her tale may trace.

I'll give you the best help I can,
Before you up the mountain go;
Up to the dreary mountain top,
I'll tell you all I know.

'Tis now some two and twenty years,
Since she (her name is Martha Ray)
Gave, with a maiden's true good-will,
Her company to Stephen Hill;
And she was blithe and gay,
And she was happy, happy still,
Whene'er she thought of Stephen Hill.

And they had fixed the wedding day,
The morning that must wed them both;
But Stephen, to another maid,
Had sworn another oath;
And with this other maid to church,
Unthinking Stephen went—
Poor Martha, on that woeful day
A pang of pitiless dismay
Into her soul was sent:
A fire was kindled in her breast,
Which might not burn itself to rest.

But we think this will be sufficient to disprove Mr. C.'s assertion, that he cannot see why Mr. W. should put some of his poems into metre. — And in a future paper we will consider the causes which gave birth to the "New School," and the share which our author's took in its establishment.