1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Wordsworth

Rufus Dawes, "The Modern School of Poetry" The Emerald and Baltimore Literary Gazette 1 (29 March 1828) 1.



The modern school of English Poetry, called the LAKE SCHOOL, after the Lakes, whereabout its founders resided, has excited so great an influence over our literature, and elicited so much unfair remark, — for we cannot call it criticism, — that a temperate examination of its character may be acceptable to our readers.

The object of Poetry is contra-distinguished from that of Truth, having pleasure for its chief end. It is a creation of the mind, in which the poet departs from the usual path-way of the understanding to call up images of uncreated being; imparting life to inanimate objects, and personifying abstract ideas; giving unity to succession of thought, and harmony to variety; so that the mind, contemplating the performance, willingly suspends its fondness for truth, to enjoy the beautiful ideal. We have thought proper to advance these opinions as our poetic creed, that all who read our remarks may judge for themselves of our inclination, and attend in proportion as they believe.

Nearly all the poetry of our English and American contemporaries are of the Lake School, or so deeply imbued with its spirit, that no one can mistake the fountain. Wordsworth stands at its head in England, as Bryant does in America, rolling quietly along on the rail-road of his great prototype. According to the Biographia Literaria, the plan of the Lyrical Ballads — the early effort of the Lake poets — was suggested by frequent conversations which Mr. Coleridge and Mr. Wordsworth had, on the two cardinal points of poetry; the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader, by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty, by the modifying colours of the imagination. The sudden charm which accidents of light and shade, which moonlight or sunset diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the feasibility of combining both. From observing the poetry of Nature, no reason appeared to them why Imagination and Truth, blending as light and shade, to form one imposing picture, should not be practicable among poets. The Lyrical Ballads were to consist of poems of two sorts — in one of which, Mr. Coleridge's endeavours were to be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature, a human interest and a semblance of truth, sufficient to procure for them a willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness of the world before us.

In performing his part in the great literary reformation, Mr. Wordsworth was exceedingly industrious; — rejecting ordinary poetic diction, and common subjects of poetic meditation, and throwing away the ancient paraphernalia of the muses, he pursued his rambles through the wilds of Parnassus, scorning the beaten path, as it were to botanize for his strange originality — till his mind became so heated with enthusiasm, that his genius appeared to beautify deformity, and like the fairy queen in Shakspeare, beatified the vision of an ass. Had Mr. Wordsworth been content, by way of experiment, to feel the public pulse with his simpler lyrics, without submitting his opinions to be the orthodox guides to poetry, all had been well enough, and his weaker productions would have been merged in his higher efforts; but he had started a false theory, and possessed too much pride to withdraw it; so that, to this day, he is judged more by his written opinions than by his real worth. To the Lyrical Ballads, Mr. Wordsworth added a few of those higher order of poems in his own character, "in the impassioned, lofty and sustained diction, which is characteristic of his genius." From such poems, Mr. W. has attained that enviable elevation which he holds among the poets of the age, and not by the aid of criticism, which his great friend declared would have borne the poems up, by the violence with which it whirled them round and round. How far Mr. Wordsworth was successful in his design we shall see hereafter, when we come to examine his poetry. It is sufficient for the present to know, that the opinions advanced in his preface obliged even his coadjutor to withhold his entire assent.

The poems of Coleridge were altogether of as imaginative cast; the principal of which are the ANCIENT MARINER and the unfinished CHRISTABEL; the former, remarkable for the power of its supernatural imagery and its strength of colouring; the latter, for the wildness of its conception and the melody of its versification. Had Mr. Coleridge done justice to his own unrivalled abilities, and served the public as his genius required, the present age of poetry had been a new Elizabethan, but the time will come when it will be looked back upon, as we look on the age of Cowley. As Mr. Wordsworth's poetry is a sufficient guide to a right understanding of the Lake School, we shall, on a future occasion, investigate its claims on the public; at the same time contrasting his opinions with those of Coleridge.