1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

F. W. P. Greenwood, in "Wordsworth's Poems" North American Review [Boston] 18 (April 1824) 356-57, 370-71.



If we have unworthily neglected this original and admirable poet, we have but followed the example of our countrymen, and done our part toward the general wrong, which his merits have suffered. With the exception of the Lyrical Ballads, which were printed many years ago, if we remember rightly, at Philadelphia, and which are not now to be bought, not a single work of Wordsworth has been republished in this country. We have republished Moore and Campbell to their last song, and Byron to his last scrap. Hogg, Rogers, Brown, Milman, Montgomery, Bernard Barton, Barry Cornwall, Leigh Hunt, and a host more or minors, have covered our booksellers' counters, and have been spread abroad throughout our land; but he, who has done more than any living writer to restore to poetry the language of feeling, nature, and truth, remains unread, unsought for, and almost unknown.

The principal causes of this neglect we apprehend to be, the incapacity of the common mass of readers to appreciate many of the most refined beauties of the poet; the defects into which he has betrayed himself; and the influence of the severe and unjust criticisms on his poems, which have appeared in that popular work, the Edinburgh Review.

We readily allow, that if a poet wishes to be read, he must write so as to be understood; and if he persists in being unintelligible, he must inevitably pass away into oblivion. But the remark is applicable only to intrinsic obscurity and nonsense, and not to that depth of feeling, which common hearts cannot fathom, and that "heaven of invention" to which common minds cannot ascend. These are characteristics, which must necessarily mark all great poets, who must yet possess other excellences or attractions, before they can become popular. Now it so happens, that Wordsworth's high and peculiar beauties stand alone and separate, receiving but small support from those auxiliaries, which secure a ready fame. They are accompanied by no winning tale, full of interest and incident, no romantic legend, no wild and fitful story of passion, revenge, and death; they follow the pathway of no restless and gloomy wanderer, they are linked with the fortunes of no border chieftain or desperate outlaw; but are breathed out in lonely musings by the side of mountain streams, or in the bosom of solemn groves, or over some humble flower; they are spoken in the passing night-wind, the voice of the desert ocean, or the simple answer of a peasant's child. These are sounds, which, though listened to by many with enthusiastic delight, are heard but carelessly, if heard at all, by the generality of readers. They are rich things, which the world cannot value; and being our poet's only treasures, the world deems him poor. It has no sympathy with his grand abstractions, his poetical dreams, his

—reverend watching of each still report,
That Nature utters from her rural shrine;

and as he has little else to offer to its sympathy, it is no wonder, perhaps, that the fellowship between them has been small. This circumstance alone sufficiently accounts for his unpopularity; and will probably prevent him, at least for a long time to come, from being received into general favor....

We have made our extracts thus copious, not more from inclination than a sense of duty. We believe we can venture on one more, considering that so many volumes of poetry are before us, which have never been opened to our readers. It is one of the Miscellaneous Sonnets describing a morning view of London from Westminster Bridge. It will be perceived, that the same internal spirit is communicated to this picture, as to the preceding sketches of rural scenery.

Earth has not anything to shew more fair;
Dull would be he of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty.
This city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples, lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will;
—the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

It is the author of poetry like this, whom we have been accustomed to hear treated with derision or indifference. We trust than many have done so from having been kept in ignorance of the merit which they depreciated. Still, perhaps, there will be others, who in their gravity and wisdom will condemn our taste, and look down on the whole matter as puerile conceit, and a babble of green fields. Let them enjoy the sense of their superior sagacity. He who has studied Wordsworth, and imbibed the spirit of his poetry, can never be made to resign, or be ashamed of his partiality; for he feels that the principles, on which that poetry is founded, are strong and immutable, that its spirit entwines its roots with the fibres of the heart, and is as enduring and true as devotion and love. He knows, too, that however this poet may have been disregarded, he has borne a most important part in giving its character to the poetry of the age; he knows that many of the poets, with whose writings this country is so familiar, have borrowed some of their sweetest minstrelsy from strains, which have reached us but rarely and faintly from the mountains of Westmoreland; and he is continually detecting plagiarisms, both in spirit and in letter, made from the volumes of Wordsworth, by those who have joined to depress him. He regards him, in short, as he would regard an intimate and intelligent friend, who could draw forth capacities, and excite reflections, which received but little exercise, and met with little sympathy, in the ordinary intercourse of life; who could address feelings, which had never been spoken to before, but had sat silently in his heart, musing, and solitary, and ignorant of companionship.