1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (November-December 1833) 718.



Other poets than Burns perceived a plan and a law in nature — one great line of sympathy and harmony connecting the dead with the living world, and both with the holy and omnipotent source of light and love. Of these, the most eminent is William Wordsworth. He was born at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, 7th April, 1770; received a classical education, and was destined, I have been told, for the church. His love of poetry, however, appears to have mastered his love for the ministry: in his youth he preferred Parnassus, with all the perils of its thorny ascent, to the quiet garden of the Established Church; and soon proved by his works that the light which led him was light from heaven. His Lyrical Ballads — of themselves sufficiently plain evidence of his notions in poetry — were accompanied by a preface, in which the poet describes the sources of inspiration, and the leading principles on which he builds the structure of verse. The powers requisite for the production of true poetry are, he says, six-fold: 1. The ability to describe; an indispensable power, though never employed too long as its exercise supposes all the higher qualities of the mind to be passive, and subjected to external objects. 2. Sensibility, which, the more exquisite it is, the wider will be the range of the poet's perceptions. 3. Reflection, which makes the poet acquainted with the value of actions, images, thoughts, and feelings. 4. Imagination and Fancy, to modify, create, and associate. 5. Invention, by which characters are composed out of materials supplied by observation. 6. Judgment, to decide how and where, and in what degree, each of these faculties ought to be exerted, and determine the laws and appropriate graces of every mode of composition. From these sources, as from so many fountains, issue the healing waters of verse. "It is deducible," says Wordsworth, "that poems apparently miscellaneous, may with propriety be arranged either with reference to the powers of mind predominant in the production of them, or to the mould in which they are cast, or to the subjects to which they relate. From each of these considerations the poems have been divided into classes, which, that the work may more obviously correspond with the course of human life, and for the sake of exhibiting in it the three requisites of a legitimate whole — a beginning, a middle, and an end — have also been arranged according to an order of time commencing with Childhood, and terminating with Old Age, Death, and Immortality." As a crowning glory to the whole, and a consummation of his principles, he published his poem of The Excursion in the year 1814.

The views of man, nature, and society, which this truly philosophical poem contains, are the offspring of deep thought and extensive observation. It exhibits everywhere the finest sensibilities, and an imagination ruled by reason and belief; it shows a heart alive to all the sympathies of social and domestic life, and appeals to all unsophisticated feelings in a way at once simple and sublime. The poet intimates, in an introduction, the aim and tendency of the whole poem, of which — for the insolence of criticism interposed — one half only is published. The second part gives the sensations of a poet living in retirement; — the author speaks of both:

Of Truth, of Grandeur, Beauty, Love, and Hope—
And melancholy Fear subdued by Faith;
Of blessed consolations in distress;
Of moral strength and intellectual power;
Of joy in widest commonality spread;
Of the individual mind that keeps her own
Inviolate retirement, subject there
To conscience only, and the law supreme
Of that Intelligence which governs all—
I sing. Fit audience let me find, though few.

The poet was not, however, permitted to establish nature, and upset, with impunity, "The truth o' the elephant and the monkey's tooth."

The Edinburgh Review was then as a young lion in full majesty of tusk and claw: those who only know it now, when it exhibits the skin stuffed, can have no idea of its early influence with the world. The critics of that dread journal agreed to regard Wordsworth as the chief apostle of a new heresy in verse: it was their opinion, that old opinions were right, new notions erroneous, and that compared to critics, poets and historians were as nothing. They had admonished Scott, regarding his forsaking the broad way of epic song, and presuming, in spite of their admonitions, to incline to the untrodden uplands of romance; and they now assailed Wordsworth for founding his poetry in his own sensations, and in nature around him. The poets of former ages made the critics: but now the critics desired to be quits, and make the poets: I can come to no other conclusion, from their persisting in the doctrine, that the earlier rules of verse should be adhered to, as if such rules should continue when poetry had received an impress of new and original minds. They might as well have insisted on the old principles of warfare being continued, after the whole combination and tactics of battle had been changed by the invention of gunpowder. The triumphant exclamation of "This will never do," with which the northern journal began its critique on "The Excursion," is sufficient example of the tone of insolence which those writers assumed. It had, however, its effect at the time, and stopped, as I have related, the publication of the second portion of the poem, nor is there any hopes of seeing it, we fear, till the poet has joined the Miltons and Spensers of the brightest days of British song.

Wordsworth is the poet of nature and man — not of humble life, as some have said — but of noble emotions, lofty feelings, and whatever tends to exalt man and elevate him on the table land of honour, morality, and religion. His style is worthy of his topics — simple, unaffected, and vigorous: he occasionally becomes to minute in his delineations, and some of the subjects which he treats of, are too homely for inspiration. His poetry is making its way, as true feeling and impassioned thought ever will. He dwells at Rydal, in Westmorland: holds a situation in the Stamp Office: is conscious of the value of his musings; eloquent in conversation, and one whom, having met once, we would wish to meet again.