1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Isaac Clark Pray, "English Bards: William Wordsworth" Prose and Verse, from the Port Folio of an Editor (1836) 56-59.



The machinery of a watch, without a dial-plate, is of little value; and so also, is an article on Wordsworth's writings, which is destitute of an explanation or definition of the term Lake Poetry. What poetry is, all know or pretend to know; but to be ignorant of the true meaning of Lake Poetry, exhibits to most men no great deficiency of discrimination. They who have often made use of the word, show their ignorance of its meaning. Our definition of the term is, that it is the style of poetry, which necessarily followed a new versification; for all its characteristics seem to arise from this fact, and not from any affected love either of solitude or of nature, in the authors. The versification of the Lakers is not very regular, and permits one line to run into another, thus giving thought an untrammeled freedom. The frequent use of blank verse and banishment of rhyme, assist much the power of expression. They take not two lines to express what might be expressed in one. Their verses are not mechanical. This new style of poetry has not only threatened to put out of existence the polished lines of Pope, but has partly put the threat into execution. Such men as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey — who, by the way, were the founders of the school, and delighted to dwell near the lakes of Cumberland, whence the epithet Lake — foresaw the evils which was about to result, and observing the fetters which had often bound the wings of genius, with a laudable energy broke the bands of custom, and rose against all barriers with an irresistible power.

Wordsworth has been accused of an affected love of nature. This we believe to be an unfounded accusation. His writings teach us otherwise; and the assertion came from those who with one breath declare they have no relish for his poetry, and in the next pour forth an analysis of his writings! Any person who may read his works, will readily discover the falsity of the assertion. His love of nature is an intense and burning passion — it carries him along with it, and he is so far from being affected himself, that he never describes any thing affected by others. "Passages come to view on every page in his volumes, of which the spirit goes down into the stillest depths of the soul; and touches of exquisite tenderness are scattered abundantly with such simplicity and freedom, that they seem as if they had dropped unconsciously from the author in the pursuit of his silent musings."

From Wordsworth we expect not the same style, the same subject or the same usage of a subject, that we should from a practical man. If he were a banker, like Rogers, an enterprising editor like Campbell, or a man of the world, a street-walker in London, we might reasonably expect that he should write differently; but never while in retirement, while his mind is looking alternately upon itself and the objects of nature.

The influence of his writings is of the purest and most touching kind. It is not the poetry of sounds, of mellow verse merely, but that of sentiment. It does not rouse us like the energetic war strains of Campbell, nor does it throw a veil of melancholy over us; but it steals with an imperceptible movement to the heart, not only charming us, but improving our natures, raising us by its descriptions of truth to the contemplation of ourselves as moral and intellectual beings — beings but little lower than the angels. With the feelings of his own heart, and the emotions of his own mind, he clothes the object of his perception. To ordinary observers he appears a lover of mysticisms; but to one who studies him, a spirit of grace, and beauty and purity. A congenial reader is to his poetry what fire is to the taper — it lights it up and shows its power and worth. To a man of no thought, he is a stumbling block; but to one who is pleased to analyze the mind, and looks below the surface of things, he is the charming and divine poet of the age. His writings, judged by a comparison with Pope's, are nonsense and mysticism; but judged by one whose mind is somewhat constituted like his own, they not only appear, but in reality are, the divine essence of poetry. By great study a man of ordinary capacity could make himself equal to Pope; but a man must be of superior intellect and untiring exertion who would write like Wordsworth. The description of surfaces — of manners and fashions, is not the true creating spirit of poetry; and although we may admire the smooth verses of the French school, at the same time the mind is not satisfied; we receive pleasure, it is true, but it is a pleasure without any real enjoyment. Wordsworth understands how to excite the sympathies of man; he knows that every breast is affected by certain objects; he knows how to paint those objects, and how to give them motion, and life and power.

His longest and one of his most exquisite poems is The Excursion, which has met with much unmerited censure. It has faults we are aware, as well as many other of his pieces; but as a whole it is one of the finest poems which the age has produced. Concerning the faults of Wordsworth's poetry, we have said nothing. He has had much to contend against, and critics in general are more prone to look to his faults than to his beauties and perfections. For this simple reason we shall be silent on the subject. And in this place we hesitate not to say to him who has no relish for poetry in general, that if he will peruse a few of the smaller poems of this author, even carelessly, he will find that they will afford a freshness of desire for reading poetry, which no other author's writings create. There is in his poetry so much affectionate simplicity, he is so unaffected, so true to nature and his own feelings, that we are compelled, though we would not, to love and even to wonder and adore.

Wordsworth has given a new power to poetry, and has struck into a region untraversed and hitherto disregarded. He has opened to the view new scenes, given a new power to association, and bound us by a charm to his bosom. Much he has had to contend with, but he has defended himself, although he once came near being a martyr to his cause. But he lives, and will live in the hearts not only of his countrymen, but in those of the world. His name blazes now, however, with but little of that brilliancy which is hereafter to make him conspicuous, which will shine in the zenith of the literary world with that other constellation which every one knows to bear the name of Shakspeare.