1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Richard Henry Dana, in Review of Hazlitt's English Poets; North American Review [Boston] 8 (March 1819) 318-20.



What with the variety of faces we have seen, and such mixed and continued talking, we feel too much exhausted to say more than a passing word to Mr. Wordsworth. Besides, it is getting quite late, and our readers must be growing as weary as we are. We must take another time, when we can begin fresh, and have the day before us. We hope it will not be long before Mr. Wordsworth will give us such an opportunity, when we shall be glad to visit him and his country friends, to take a seat by him in his retired dwelling "green, to the very door," and "in the plain presence of his dignity," learn to feel a kindred self-respect, and becoming pure through his teaching, have our minds opened to the beauties that make happy thoughts for him.

Mr. Wordsworth, with a mind perfectly original, with an imagination full of forms of beauty and grandeur, and with powers of description unsurpassed by any poet of this age, has such an air of plain truth in telling his stories and giving the characters of those he is speaking of, — puts into the mouths of his personages sentiments so very simple, though elevated, and makes his scenery so like that which we see every where, that we lose the impression while reading him, that we are taken out of the world and reality into the regions of imagination and poetry, — we are wholly absorbed in what we are about in this new state of things, and deluded into all the earnestness with which the concerns of life affect us. When we read other men, we look at the scenery they are describing, with the sense upon us that it is seen by us through the imagination; but in Wordsworth this is lost, and every thing he shows us appears to the eye with the same distinctness and immediate reality, as if the object itself was directly before us.

It may at first seem strange that the poetical interest should be so deep, where there is so slight a departure from plain experience. It is the change wrought in ourselves that gives it. It is we and the pleasures, the business and desires of life that have been a delusion; we are made to feel a serious concern in what we find in him, and reality itself becomes idle and unimportant. He brings right thoughts and pure wishes into our minds and hearts, clears our dim imaginations, and the poetry of our being becomes its truth. He has formed another creation, but it is one within ourselves — the mountains and valleys, the rivers and plains are the same, and so are the trees and the smaller plants, they are no greener, nor are the clouds passing over them any brighter than before. To our eyes they are the same as when we saw them yesterday; but a new sense is in our hearts, new and delightful relations have grown out from them, running over the earth and twisting themselves about every little thing upon it that has life, and connecting its being with our own. A moral sense is given to all things; and the materials of the earth which seemed made only for homely uses, become the teachers of our minds and ministers of good to our hearts. Here the love of beauty is made religions and what we had falsely esteemed the indulgence of idle imaginations, is found to have higher and more serious purposes, than the staid affairs of life. The world of nature is full of magnificence and beauty; every thing in it is made to more than a single end. The fruit that nourishes us is fair to the eye, that we may find in it a second and better delight. Lasting and purifying pleasures are awakened within us and happy thoughts and images brought into being. In the luxury of this higher existence, we find a moral strength, and from the riot of imagination comes our holiest calm. It is true that other poets have given this double existence to creation, bestowing a moral and intellectual being upon the material world, but they have done it by hasty suggestions and rapid and short hints, with other purposes in view. Mr. Wordsworth carries us through all its windings, — he touches the strings of our hearts, and the vibration makes us feel that they rest upon and connect themselves with every thing in nature.

If poetry of this kind has peculiar beauties, Mr. Wordsworth must remember that it is but a small class of society that can see or feel them. He must not be impatient if the larger portion give the name of mysticism to what they were not born to understand. In truth, what one poet sees to be the choicest parts in another, are not what the world at large ever think of turning to. That which is more obvious, and no doubt very good, is what pleases them, and they are gratified with the thought that they have a sense of the whole. Shakspeare is more read than any work except the bible, yet how many understand a tithe of Shakspeare?

No poet since Milton seems so thoroughly imbued with old English and the truly poetical language, as Mr. Wordsworth. There is no affectation in the use of these, or ill sorting of old and modern phrases, but every word comes from him naturally. His versification, though sometimes tame, is for the most part filled with varied harmony. His main fault in his "Excursion" is too much rambling and lengthening out, places, of the sentiments and conversation. A little more compactness in such parts would give them life and energy. This appears to be an accidental; and by no means a frequent fault. Mr. Coleridge's criticism, in his "Life and Opinions," upon Mr. Wordsworth, has more good taste and philosophy in it, than any that has been written upon Mr. Wordsworth, or any other man in modern times. We must except from this, however, his objections to the Pedler. We think that characters enough like him for the purposes of poetry, must have been common in Scotland, — he is in agreement with the scenery, and certainly has an imaginative interest, which it would have been difficult to have given to an accomplished gentleman — a trio of them would have been rather too much.