1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Nathaniel Parker Willis, in "The Editor's Table" American Monthly Magazine [Boston] 1 (December 1829) 646-47.



A portrait of Wordsworth hangs before us — an ample, contemplative, intellectual head, with the serene and loving humanity of his writings stamped legibly upon every feature. The outline of the face is exceedingly strong — the forehead unusually high, the nose clearly and finely chiselled, and the mouth and jaw indicative of great firmness and power. His eye is the least attractive feature, being, with all its mildness and thoughtfulness, small, and, if the painter has drawn it truly, dull. Altogether it is a highly characteristic and gratifying picture, and, as a likeness of the noblest and most genial philanthropist, whose cordial love for his race has ever been breathed into language, we could not forbear making you, dear reader, though it were ever so imperfectly, a sharer in our pleasure. If Wordsworth had never written poetry, and we could, by any other means, have known the depth and tenderness of his great nature, we should, above all other men, have loved and revered him. His poetry has a charm, and a strong one, but it is because we see the man through it, that we keep it freshly on our lips, and use it as the voice of our own affections. The truth is, that we know no such thing as an abstract impression of the works of any living author. The moment a man comes before the public in these days of universal curiosity, a thousand circumstances of his personal character and habits transpire. He is known and criticized in connection with his books, or even separately, and the reader sits down to his perusal with prejudices which affect very essentially the aspect and tone of his productions. This is well sometimes — but far otherwise, in the great majority of instances. There are few men, who, like Wordsworth, have lived apart, in simple and unaffected fondness for retirement and study. His life has been, what few men can make theirs, one of pure contemplation. He has never come into collision with the interests of those who would reverse and discolor his virtues if provoked to it, and the only enmity he has had to contend with, has been that of mere malice and hypercriticism, preying upon him with no stronger motive than the necessity for food, and, of course very ineffectual against such inevitable merit. The beautiful tissue of his character has thus been kept white and unstained, which, if it had been near enough for the world to reach, might not have escaped the "unwashed hands of calumny." Wordsworth stands out from his contemporaries therefore, with a singular moral purity and distinctness. He is known only as the philosopher, the lover of his fellow creatures, the high-minded, secluded student — and there is a wonderful disposition in the world-weary and disappointed mind to admire and exaggerate a character and life so different from its own.