1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

James Montgomery, "Mr. Wordsworth's Theory of Poetic Diction" Lectures on General Literature, Poetry, &c. (1833; 1836) 118-23.



Among living authors, not one has shown greater command of diction than Mr. Wordsworth; suiting his style to his subjects with consummate address, though sometimes with unhappy effect, from the difficulty, not to say the impossibility, of making general readers partakers, by direct sympathy, with his peculiar experiences and imaginings, — that is, see with his eyes, hear with his ears, feel with his heart, and think with his mind, — possess them wholly with his own spirit, or for the time being absorb each of them into himself.

In an age of poetical innovations, Mr. Wordsworth has undoubtedly been one of the boldest and most successful adventurers. In the preface to his "Lyrical Ballads," — casting away at once, and entirely, all the splendid artifices of style, invented in the earliest ages of the fathers of poetry, and perpetuated among all classes of their successors, he avowed that "his principal object was, to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate and describe them throughout, as far as possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and at the same time to throw upon them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should he presented to the mind in an unusual way; and further, and above all, to make those incidents and situations interesting, by tracing in them truly, though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature, chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement."

Now, however the poet's ingenuity in the advancement and vindication of his theory of phraseolegy may deserve commendation, and however just the theory may be, so far as his system would restrict the multitude of epithets and expletives which often render verse too heavy for endurance, — we may reasonably protest against the unqualified rejection of those graces of diction (suitable to the elevation of enthusiastic thoughts equally above ordinary discourse and ordinary capacities), which essentially distinguish poetry from prose, and have been sanctioned by the successful usage of bards in every age and nation, civilized or barbarous, on which the light of song hath risen with its quickening, ennobling, and ameliorating influences. In dramatic, works, assuredly, the writer, through all his characters, should speak the truth of living nature; the language of the strong passions should be stern, abrupt, sententious, and sublime; that of the gentler affections, ardent, flowing, figurative, and beautifully redundant; while, in both instances, every colour of expression, every form of thought which appeals to the imagination only, and touches not the heart, nor adds to the positive interest of the piece, should be rigorously proscribed. But in narrative, descriptive, and ethic poetry, I know no law of nature, and I will acknowledge none of art, that forbids Genius to speak his mother tongue, — a language (a dialect rather, of every distinct language) which, in sound and structure, as well as in character and sentiment, exalts itself far above any models of common speech; and yet, in simplicity, freedom, and intelligibility, according to the subject, equals the poorest and least ornamented prose.

Mr. Wordsworth allows a poet to be a person "of more than usual organic sensibility;" and declares, that "he must have thought long, to produce poems to which any value can be attached." With these admissions, we may fearlessly assert, that a poet — one who is really such — is no ordinary man; nor are his compositions the prompt and spontaneous expressions of his own every-day feelings. No; they are the most hidden ideas of his soul, discovered in his happiest moments, and apparelled in his selectest language. Will such a being, then, array the most pure, sublime, and perfect conceptions of his superior mind, in its highest fervour, only with "the real language of men in a state of vivid excitement?" Compare the lofty narratives of Milton, the luxuriant descriptions of Thomson, the solemn musings of Young; nay, even the soliloquies, and not unfrequently the dialogues, of Shakspeare, in which character and passions are portrayed with unparalleled force and feeling — compare these with "the real language of men in a state of vivid excitement," on the very same subjects, or in precisely the same situations, however animated, interested, or stimulated they may be. The fact is, that poetical sensibility will, on all occasions — except in the bald, brief, instinctive expression of the highest degree of agony or rapture — suggest language more lively, Affecting, and fervent, yet not a whit less natural, than passion itself can inspire in minds less tremblingly alive to every touch of pain or pleasure. Hence the delight communicated by poetry is, in general, more intensely transporting than any that could be derived from the unassisted contemplation of the objects themselves, which are presented to us by the magic of the author's art. Of that art his language is the master-secret; and by this charm he transfuses into frigid imaginations his warmer feelings, and into dull minds his brighter views, on subjects and of things which might otherwise only indifferently affect them in nature and reality.

Mr. Wordsworth himself, though not a popular writer — nor one who ever can be, in the popular sense of the phrase, till the boasted march of intellect has made much more way than it is likely to do for half a century to come; — Mr. Wordsworth himself has established a reputation of the proudest rank upon the surest basis — the admiration of the most intellectual class of readers, who can distinguish what is exquisite from what is puerile, what is grand from what is obscure, and what is imaginative from what is merely fanciful, in his own multifarious productions. But how has he accomplished this? Certainly not by limiting his practice within his theory. He possesses as much as any man living the power awakening unknown and ineffable emotions in the bosoms of his fellow-creatures; and he has exercised this power much oftener than that smaller craft of fashioning "Lyrical Ballads" and Tales, of which mean men are the actors, and their peculiarities the themes of verse, in phraseology such as they might be supposed to employ, if, instead of being taught to speak in rude prose from their infancy, they had "lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came." His "Cumberland Beggar," "Tintern Abbey," and "Lines on the Naming of Places," unpromising as the subjects might appear at first sight, with many other of his profound and curious speculations, have taught us new sympathies, the existence of which in human nature had scarcely been intimated by any poet before him. In those his most successful efforts he has attired, in diction of the most transcendent beauty, thoughts the most recondite, and imaginations the most subtle. Thus:—

—I have learn'd
To look on Nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing, oftentimes,
The still, sad music of humanity;
Not harsh and grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; — a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused.
Whose dwelling is — the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, — and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Again,—

Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee, in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain winds be free
To blow against thee; and in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure — when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh then,
If solitude, or pain, or fear, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me!

This is no more the language than these are the thoughts of men in general "in a state of excitement;" language more exquisitely elaborate, and thoughts more patiently worked out of the very marble of the mind, are rarely, indeed, to be met with either in prose or rhyme. For such tales as "Andrew Jones," "The Last of the Flock," "Goody Blake and Harry Gill," &c., the real language of men may be employed with pleasing effect; but when our poet would "present ordinary things in an unusual way," he is compelled to resort to gorgeous, figurative, and amplifying terms, and avail himself of the most daring licenses of poetic diction. Thus

The winds, that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gather'd now, "like sleeping flowers."

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as "a nun,
Breathless with adoration!"

"Flowers laugh" before thee in their beds,
And "fragrance" in thy footing "treads."

"The cataracts blow their trumpets" from the steep,
The "winds" come o'er us from "the fields of sleep."

I need not insist more on the necessity of using, in poetry, a language different from, and superior to, "the real language of men," even under the strongest excitement, since our author himself is so often compelled, nay, rather chooses voluntarily, to employ it for the expression of ideas which without it would be incommunicable. One instance of the happy use of the simplest language by Mr. Wordsworth must be given, in justice to him. The poem of the "Old Cumberland Beggar" is, perhaps, the masterpiece of his early volumes. In this we have the description of an ancient parish pensioner, not receiving pay, but collecting doles from the friendly cottagers as well as the wealthier inhabitants in his daily rounds; welcomed everywhere, and everywhere relieved, — a harmless, helpless, quiet-paced, and quiet-tongued old man, whose presence is a blessing to the neighbourhood, by making the humblest, as well as the highest, feel how good it is to do good. For

Man is dear to man; the poorest poor
Long for some moments, in a weary life,
When they can know and feel that they have been
Themselves the fathers and the dealers out
Of some small blessings — have been kind to such
As needed kindness; — for this single cause,
That we have all of us a human heart.

Such pleasure is to one kind being known,
My neighbour, when, with punctual care, each week,
Duly as Friday comes, though press'd herself
By her own wants, she, from her store of meal,
Takes one unsparing handful for the scrip
Of this old mendicant; and, from her door,
Returning with exhilarated heart,
Sits by her fire, and builds her hopes in heaven.