1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Oliver William Bourne Peabody in "The Decline of Poetry" North American Review [Boston] 28 (January 1829) 15-17.



We turn, almost with regret, to Wordsworth; a poet surpassed by none in elevation of feeling, strength of imagination, or tenderness of heart, who, by tenaciously adhering to a system, has had less influence on the public mind than any distinguished writer of the age. This is not wholly the fault of the public; and we are the more disposed to give our impression of his merits, because we know that there are among ourselves men of high religious feeling, who find a key-note struck in Wordsworth's writings, and in no other, to which their own hearts can fervently reply. On this account, they forgive or forget his obscurity and other defects; we fully agree with them in their admiration of Wordsworth, and regret the more that a mistaken system, which is nothing but his own taste exalted into a law, has limited his excellent influence in the world.

He maintains that the incidents of humble life are the best calculated for subjects of his art; and in this, we are inclined to agree with him. We are glad to find, that novels, as well as poems, are revealing sources of deep interest among the humble as well as the high. But he evidently treats them as the only subjects of interest, and in this we do not agree with him. We can see no reason for this exclusiveness; if association has made other scenes more poetical to others, he has no more reason for condemning their taste, than they for rejecting his. But to be a good subject of poetry and to be poetical one's self, are two different things; and thus we feel, that to represent the rustic, as feeling the poetry he inspires, as actually walking in glory and joy behind his plough, is ludicrously untrue. Many of those cottages that look out so beautifully from their caverns of foliage, are abodes of vulgar vice and pain. Those acquainted with the character of peasants, tell its that they have generally no regard for the beauties of nature; and it is because this taste is so rare among them, that it seems so poetical when it is found. There must be proportion between circumstances and character; and it is by observing this proportion, that Crabbe has become so eminent for his rough-hewn sculpture. Truth is the charm in his poetical descriptions. The want of this truth to nature, prevents Wordsworth from becoming a favorite with the class he describes. They know that there is a simplicity of the man as well as the child, and they think he has mistaken the one for the other. They know that philosophic pedlars are not to be found in all their acquaintance with that estimable race; and they can have no sympathy with beings that have no existence among men.

We think him mistaken, also, in his theory of the poetical language; a dialect generally supposed to exist, and yet sought for as much in vain, as the Lingua Franca on the shores of the Mediterranean. He is for the language of low life, "purified from its defects"; but it seems to us that its main defect is its rusticity, and when purified from its coarseness, as it is in his writings, it is no loner properly called low. We have half suspected, at times, that he believed with the Frenchman, that "speech was given us to conceal our thoughts"; but it seems to us, that the best language in poetry and everything else, is that which expresses our ideas, if we have any, with most force and directness. If it be true that people in low life express themselves more forcibly than others, the reason must be that they are more easily and deeply moved; but if others are subjected to the same emotions, the same language will spring to their lips; the accidental difference in circumstances making no change in human nature. That they are more easily moved, we are ready to admit; it is shown in the effect of eloquence upon them; but this only proves that they are better subjects of poetry; that they are more poetical in their sentiments and language, we are not ready to allow.

The general strain of Wordsworth's poetry is healthy and reviving; but there are some instances in which the feeling is excessive, and can find no sympathy in poets or others. We sympathize with him in the joys and sorrows of the cottage, because human nature is there; but we cannot consent to search for "thoughts too deep for tears" in "the meanest flower that blows," because this can only be done by a marvellously excited imagination. It must require a long discipline to learn to be thus strangely moved, and it is, after all, a sad waste of feeling. We can find matter of interest and admiration in the flower, as a work of nature suggesting fine moral resemblances; but we are not prepared to weep over it, till we can be assured that such feelings are consistent with s manly regard to the duties of life; and moreover, till we can be sure of exemption from those misfortunes of life, for which tears are generally shed.

Wordsworth evidently desires to make poetry inspire religious feelings; and the attempt is worthy of all praise. But there is no such thing as reforming men, by talking in a language which they do not understand. If he had consulted the example of that religion which inspires him, he would have chosen the language most familiar to his readers, and endeavored to adopt their feelings, so far as he could without compromising his own. In this way he might have elevated theirs, and rendered a noble service to the cause of human improvement as it is, he has contributed to the decline of his art, and done as little as a pillar-saint for the welfare of man.