THE complete edition of Wordsworth’s Poems1 of seven volumes compacted into three, and brought out by the Riverside Press in a most attractive form, with a portrait of the poet in his advanced years, and an introduction compiled from Mr. Lowell’s fine critical essay, will meet a solid demand of many American readers. It may also serve as a fit occasion for some comments upon the works of one who with the progress of this century has steadily risen to the high position he occupies in literature.
The works of William Wordsworth have long been undergoing that winnowing process which has been and ever must be the fate of all literature claiming to be poetry. His name has become as familiar to English and American ears as those of any of the great poets of the world. And though it can hardly be said that his rank among these is definitely settled, yet it seems as if the verdict of the public speaking the language in which he wrote were more and more becoming final. This verdict, however, may in some respects vary from that of those enthusiastic contemporaries of his, who, almost banded together by a party spirit on his side, accepted all his verses as equally excellent; but it can never, of course, coincide with the narrow-souled censure and ridicule of the critics in the early part of the present century. The age grows more and more wisely critical, and is continually under the necessity of reviewing and enlarging its former judgments, now that so many poets with so many styles of thought and expression have sprung up since this commanding genius undertook to lay down the law of the muses, and to illustrate it in his own writings.
Wordsworth, though then unknown to fame, did not hesitate to come before the public in the double role of poet and expounder of the canons on which he thought poetry should be written. He published in 1798 the first volume of the Lyrical Ballads. It contained twenty-three of his poems, and one of Coleridge’s, The Ancient Mariner. This was followed in 1800 by a second volume, containing thirty-seven poems. The author here informs the public that these poems “ were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” In the preface to the second edition he has modified this language, and says of the former volume, “ It was published as an experiment, which I hoped might be of some use to ascertain how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of man in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted which a poet may rationally endeavor to impart.” And in his larger volume of 1815 he says, " The observations prefixed to that portion of these volumes which was published many years ago under the title of Lyrical Ballads have so little of special application to the greater part of the present enlarged and diversified collection that they could not with propriety stand as an introduction to it. Not deeming it, however, expedient to suppress that exposition, slight and imperfect as it is, of the feelings which had determined the choice of the subjects, and the principles which had regulated the composition of those pieces, I have transferred it to an appendix, to be attended to, or not, at the pleasure of the reader.”
In these essays, the appendix and its supplement, he goes into a long and argumentative defense of his theory of poetry, which is, in the main, that there is no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. Poetry is only a more animated, spontaneous, passionate prose ; and “ if metre be superadded thereto a dissimilitude will be produced, altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind.”
Here it is seen that Wordsworth, in the course of fifteen years, changed his tone somewhat as expounder of the laws which he conceived should underlie poetry. But the critics and those of his readers who took the trouble to read and ponder his arguments, notwithstanding his noble definition of poetry and the function of the poet, still considered him a dangerous innovator. But the head and front of his heresy in their eyes was his selection of so many humble themes, and the extreme simplicity and sometimes baldness of diction with which he made his entrance into the literary world.
It is not very difficult to understand either the enthusiasm of his friends in the younger days of his revolt from the artificial and conventional poetry that satisfied most readers, or the narrow principles and spirit which prompted his conservative reviewers. He had entered the lists and thrown down the gauntlet, and stood before his countrymen without the time-honored costume of the popular minstrel, and the critics shouted that it was almost like coming in a ridiculous garb bordering on the puris naturalibus. He had shown an intellectual independence and an unyielding self-reliance in maintaining his opinions and in defending his verses that were almost unexampled in the biography of literary men. Jeffrey and his clique had great fun in picking him to pieces in the Edinburgh Review. But the Quarterly, the Monthly, and the Critical reviews praised him.
Charles Lamb, in 1814, wrote a review of The Excursion for the Quarterly, which, however, Gifford so mutilated that poor Lamb could hardly recognize it as his own. Lord Byron, who at the age of twenty-one felt it his mission to chastise all the poets of his time, had his crack at him with his satirical popgun. To his few admirers, however, — and he might have counted them on his fingers, — many even of those homeliest poems of his were indicative of a newer and higher poetic gospel, a return to true reverence of man and a true insight into nature, as those of a loftier strain. Time and culture gradually brought about more discrimination among the critics. His earnest friend, Coleridge, was from the first on his side, almost alone in a scholarly appreciation of his genius, and doubtless did much to influence the public in his favor. In his Biographia Literaria, he criticises some of his poems with a great deal of metaphysical subtlety. Still, while defending some of them which had been roughly handled by the reviewers, he differs widely as to his theory of poetry, and even goes so far as to say that he thinks the Anecdote for Fathers, Simon Lee, Alice Fell, The Beggars, and the Sailor’s Mother, notwithstanding the beauties which are to be found in each of them, where the poet interposes the music of his own thoughts, “ would have been much more delightful in prose, told and managed, as by Mr. Wordsworth they would have been, in a moral essay or pedestrian tour.” Coleridge devotes many pages of this interesting work to the purpose of showing by extracts from Wordsworth’s poems that his theory contradicted his practice, — or rather that the poet, while aiming at a natural and simple diction, and disgusted with the conventionalisms and affectations of much of the current poetry, “ suffered himself to express at once in terms too large and too exclusive his predilection to a style the most remote possible from the false and showy splendor which he wished to explode.”
He appeals from the Wordsworth theoretic and controversial to the Wordsworth in his best inspiration ; and maintains that “ were there excluded from his poetic composition all that a literal adherence to the theory of his preface would exclude, two thirds at least of the marked beauties of his poetry must be erased.” To such counsel as this his friend must have listened, as well as to his own wiser instincts, for subsequently his works bear evidence that his theories were not so strict that he could not often show a noble inconsistency in departing from them.
As somewhat indicative of the changes of public opinion with regard to Wordsworth, it is curious to note the gradual softening of the tone of the Edinburgh Review towards him between the year 1814, when Jeffrey penned the famous critique on The Excursion, beginning “ This will never do ! ” and some thirty or less years later. The writer calls this poem “ a tissue of moral and devotional ravings ; a hubbub of strained raptures and fantastical sublimities.” He talks of its “ mawkish sentiment ” and its “ inflated description of sunsets ; ” asserts that “it is impossible for an ordinary reader to conjecture what he is about; ” that “ his effusions on external nature are eminently fantastic, obscure, and affected.” He expresses “ the repugnance excited by the triteness of its incidents [the tale of Margaret] and the lowness of its objects.” The critic, however is not so prejudiced that he cannot mingle some praise with his censure. “ Mr. Wordsworth, with all his perversities, is a person of great powers, and has frequently a force in his moral declamations and a tenderness in his pathetic narratives which neither his prolixity nor his affectation altogether deprive of their effect.” He notes many beautiful passages, which he is fair enough to quote.
In 1815 there appeared a review of the White Doe of Rylstone, which represents the poet to be “ in a state of low and maudlin imbecility.” But some truths are said about the poem, which can never, I think, rank with his best. In 1822 Wordsworth’s sonnets are characterized for “ a solemn unmeaningness,” — “a sort, of prosy, solemn, obscure, feeble kind of mouthing, sadly garnished with shreds and phrases from Milton and the Bible, but without nature and without passion, and with a plentiful lack of meaning, compensated only by a large allowance of affectation and egotism.” But in 1825 there seems to be the beginning of a change. The Review quotes what is said of Wordsworth by the author of the Spirit of the Age, and which is extremely eulogistic, but merely observes that it is overpraise, and tends to defeat its object. Ten years later the Review ranks Wordsworth’s sonnets as next to Milton’s ; and in 1842 the poet is quoted, though with dissent from certain metaphysical distinctions, as “ a high authority.”
The new poet found appreciative readers in America sooner than in England, his first edition of the Lyrical Ballads, which had fallen almost dead in his own country in 1798, being reprinted in Philadelphia, along with the second volume, in 1802. His unfailing faith in himself, his indomitable perseverance in what he believed to be his high mission to mankind, sustained him always in the face of adverse criticism and neglect, from the very first. This was perhaps one cause of his final success, and made him a remarkable instance of a poet whose literary life had begun in extreme unpopularity, but was prolonged to his eightieth year, and crowned with laureate honors and the applause of two great nations.
I shall endeavor in this essay to note what appear to me to be the chief excellences, as well as the defects, of Wordsworth’s poetry. We should first, however, I think, look a little at the poet himself, — his mind, character, and the circumstances of his career ; for it is impossible to consider his works quite apart from a personality so strongly marked as his was.
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, April 7, 1770, and was the second in a family of five. His father, John Wordsworth, was a lawyer. He was descended from a very old family who had long been settled in Yorkshire. His parents, who were most excellent persons, died when he was a boy. He inherited a disposition easily guided to moral and religious thought. His affections seem to have been strong. His intellectual tastes, his moral training, his love of nature, aided a temperament which easily avoided any vicious deviations. He was fortunate in his early schooling and companions, and in having passed his youth among people of simple habits, and surrounded by picturesque mountain and lake scenery. He was early accustomed to active life in the open air, and while a school-boy took great pleasure in hunting, fishing, rowing, skating, riding, and long country walks. The people among whom he lived were plain folks, unrestrained by conventional fashions, with slight differences of social standing ; and he early imbibed among them that love of liberty and equality, and that ready sympathy with human nature, even in its humblest aspects, which shone so conspicuously in his poetry. His life amidst the beauties, grandeurs, and solitudes of nature was conducive to thought, imagination, and mental independence. He seems never to have ceased to feel and to rejoice in this early ministry of nature to his mind and character. He was a lover of books too, but studied them less than he did nature and his own mind. While at Cambridge, he was apparently quite as much indebted to his long tours among the lakes and the mountains of England, during his vacations, or amid the Alps, as to his prescribed university studies. But his chief study was evidently— himself. From youth to age this introspective habit of mind predominated in him. Hence that spirit which set him apart as a moral and religious teacher, as one who saw into the soul of things. Hence, too, that self-reverence, self-reliance, and it must be said selfconsciousness which characterized him through life.
All the circumstances of that life may be said to have been fortunate for his poetical career. There was a time when, after leaving college, he was uncertain what profession he should choose for his maintenance; but a timely legacy of £900 from Raisley Calvert, a young man who had known his poetical aspirations, and whom he had attended in his last illness, enabled Wordsworth to pursue that career which was his choice. No less fortunate were his residence in Germany, ins experience in France during the Revolution, his intimacy with Coleridge, the constant companionship of his beloved sister Dorothy, and above all his happy marriage with his early schoolmate, Mary Hutchinson. Happy, too, was he in living in a picturesque region, and, later, in obtaining a government office whose duties he could transact by deputy, and so be free to follow his literary work ; and last, and not least, in the welldeserved wreath of poet-laureate in his declining years, an office which, on the death of his friend Southey, he at first modestly declined as unsuited to his old age, but which, being urged upon him with the understanding that it should involve no onerous duties, he felt proud to accept.
Wordsworth at an early age considered that as a poet he had a great mission to fulfill. As he tells us in his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude, the resolution came to him one early morning among the hills, when returning home after a night of “ dancing, gayety, and mirth : ” —
The morning rose, in memorable pomp,
Glorious as e’er I had beheld: in front
The sea lay laughing at a distance; near
The solid mountains shone, bright as the clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn, —
Dews, vapors, and the melody of birds,
And laborers going forth to till the fields.
Ah, need I say, dear Friend, that to the brim
My heart was full ? I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated spirit.”
And as a dedicated spirit he gave himself to his life-long work.
What this work was let us consider. Making all allowance for his defects and short-comings, there can be no question that we must accept the almost unanimous vote of our time, that he was a great and an original poet. This greatness and originality are chiefly noticeable in the wise and deeply reflective character of his poems, in their high moral and religious tone, in his faith in the ministry of nature to the soul, and in his expression of the religion of humanity. Nature and man form the substance of the themes he seeks to illustrate. Other poets, before him, have touched these chords, and their immortal music he listens to and loves. But from them he hears it come in fitful strains, often in a careless or expressionless rendering. Like a great musician he would use all the stops of his organ. He would commune at firsthand with the soul of man and nature. He would see creation to be a living, many-languaged symbol of the Creator. In the heart of the humblest peasant or beggar he can detect the heraldry of heaven, and find in the lowliest daisy thoughts too deep for tears. His finest passages, those that have become domesticated in the hearts of his readers, ring with this interior music. In his inspired moments he utters lines of wisdom and beauty memorable for all time, — second only to Shakespeare and Milton.
But Wordsworth has his prosaic side; and the truth must be spoken in making up a fair estimate of him. Perhaps there never lived a more unequal poet. We follow him, as we would in one of his long country walks, through loose, monotonous sands, over rough rocks and furze and wide, barren moors, and up steep mountain heights into regions of clouds and sunrises and sunsets, — an uneven path, and often requiring patience. With all his genius, the judgment of the posterity to which he appealed has by this time pretty clearly settled it as a fact that as a poet he is truly great only at wide intervals. His verses have good health and strong limbs, but they too often lack wings. His muse ranges from the highest flights of thought and emotion down to common and prosaic themes, treated in a dry and didactic way; and he often disappoints us in his treatment of even his noblest subjects. We are not lifted, not fascinated, as we hoped. Why he should not have felt this deficiency in his cooler self-criticism, and shown at least a more decided preference of his best to his worst, might seem strange, but that such instances of lack of true judgment of their own works have been no uncommon cases, even with men of genius. Perhaps it is their very genius that blinds them.
In Wordsworth’s estimation everything that came from his pen had a peculiar value. It was as if he were listening to a divine voice, not when he was most unconscious, but the reverse. Probably there are few examples in the history of literary men more marked than his complete intellectual independence and self-justification, from his very first appearance before the public till his latest. Such is the tenor of his preface and its supplementary essays; and such is the impression left on us by a perusal of his Memoirs by his nephew. Hardly ever does he speak of his own poems without expressing this unshaken confidence that they are destined to live.2 Not that he did not carefully revise and correct sometimes, and take counsel of others; for the influence of Coleridge upon him must have been very powerful in suggesting alterations, in modifying some of his youthful tenets, and in enlarging his ideals. It was unavoidable that he should have profited by his intimacy with this remarkable man, and by his frank criticisms ; and in The Prelude he himself confesses it. But both he and his friend Coleridge agree that great poets must “ create the taste by which they must be relished,” “ must teach the art by which they are to be seen.” In a letter to Sir George Beaumont he says, “ Let the poet consult his own heart, as I have done, and leave the rest to posterity. The fact is, the English public are at this moment in the same state of mind with respect to my poems as the French with respect to Shakespeare ; and not the French alone, but almost the whole continent. . . . Every great poet is a teacher ; I wish to be considered as a teacher, or as nothing.” This was in 1807. Unfortunately Wordsworth adopts the lofty but dangerous motto, “All, or nothing.” He will admit of hardly any inequalities in his work. He stands up stoutly and proudly for the intrinsic poetic worth of every line he has written. All came sincerely from the fountains of his heart and soul, — why should not all be good ? He is the great poet autocrat. He believes in and reverences himself so highly that it is impossible his Homeric head should ever be caught nodding.
Yet there is something about this lofty self-consciousness which would be almost Napoleonic in its tone, were it not that he is willing to argue about his works, and makes the mistake of going into reasons why such and such lines are highly poetic, and why the public is in error about much that he has written. This is aside, of course, to his intimate friends, who he knows agree with him. He is too proud and too indifferent to public opinion to seek to change that. This consummate belief in himself has such a proudly calm, persistent character that it is almost contagious ; and at times you begin to think you must have been wrong in any underestimate you may have arrived at, and must suspend your judgment, for a time at least.
I cannot help regarding this self-conscionsness of Wordsworth as a grave defect of his nature, and as a cause of his having written so much heavy-paced, if not prosaic verse. It is significant that he chose for the theme of his longest poem the growth of his own mind. And this trait was doubtless intensified by the solitude in which he lived. Often random thoughts and trivial incidents seem to have been chosen for themes, and because they impressed him for the time were magnified into undue importance in his imagination. In those lonely walks among the lakes and hills, where he was wont to compose his poems, afterwards dictating them to his wife or sister, whatever pleased him stood a chance of being turned into verse. And he could always remember, and loved to recall, just where he had composed such and such a poem. He was fond, too, of quoting from himself, even in print, as he would from some other poet. It is curious to see what value he set on such simple effusions as Harry Gill and The Idiot Boy. Of the latter he says, “ It was composed in the grove of Alfoxden, almost extempore ; ” and adds, “ I mention this in gratitude to those happy moments ; for in truth I never wrote anything with so much glee.” He afterwards alludes to it in the same strain in one of his letters, where he defends it at great length. He also refers to it in The Prelude. The Idiot Boy comes about as near the humorous as anything Wordsworth’s grave muse ever flung off. Even Coleridge calls it " a fine poem ; ” on what principle any one who knows his poetic creed, stated at such length in the Biographia Literaria, would be at a loss to discover. If Wordsworth had had a spark of the sense of the ludicrous, or the least notion of the obvious popular reception it could not fail to meet with, he would never have printed it except for a public of children.
To a poet thus habitually conscious of his high vocation, it must have been a moral duty, as well as a pleasure, to record mentally everything he could turn into verse. In his contemplative country walks he became omnivorous, like a hunter intent on bagging all sorts of game. On theoretic principle, as well as by choice, he drew into his net a variety of subjects such as few of the poets would have chosen, and treated them in a matter-of-fact and moralistic rather than an artistic way. Hence we have such poems as An Anecdote for Fathers, We are Seven, Rural Architecture, The Idle Shepherd Boys, The Sailor’s Mother, The Red-Breast and Butterfly, Lines Written in March, Simon Lee, The Wagoner, and many more that might be named. Had he been constitutionally and habitually an artist, what great things he might have done! But he seemed to lack the artistic faculty both in selection and execution. How many leaves in his bulky volumes we must turn before we light upon anything on which we care to linger with deep delight! And how few are the poems, or the passages in poems, to which we return with zest, — few, I mean, in comparison with the whole mass of his poetry! For this is the true test of a poem : when, having read it, it haunts us with a vague aroma of its beauty, and draws us again and again, as we are drawn by some masterpiece of art in a gallery of paintings, or by the finest symphonies of Beethoven or Schumann. I can remember how the Tintern Abbey poem so haunted me and drew me, and I was unsatisfied till it could be repeated from memory. To this day it has not lost its spell. So, too, the lines, " She was a phantom of delight,” A Complaint, Laodomia, the poems on Yarrow, the Ode to Duty, the Ode on Immortality, some of the sonnets, and many golden passages bedded in the longer poems, — how they glow and shine contrasted with the great bulk of his work ! Wordsworth preaches a little too much. Even his letters to his friends are didactic essays. We should rather hear him talk or sing. “ It is always good to be with Wordsworth,” says a critic I read lately. Well, it is good to go to church; but there are preachers and preachers, as the French would say.
The truth is, Wordsworth wrote too much to write always with poetic inspiration. For about sixty years his pen was seldom idle. Moreover, he did not believe that inspiration was necessary except on rare occasions. If true to his creed, this was not one of the obligations laid upon him. He is so undisguisedly prosaic in the greater part of his verse that I sometimes wonder he did not throw off altogether the shackles of metre and rhyme, and anticipate Mr. Walt Whitman. But it seems that though he did believe in prose-poetry he did not believe it was his mission to write poetic prose. The long-sanctioned demand for measure and rhyme had great importance for him. He was not unlike a broad-church divine, who preaches radicalism, but clings to his surplice and ritual. He must have his singing-robes about him even when he talks
And Harry Gill and Peter Bell,”
and old Simon Lee, with his thin, dry legs and swollen ankles, and the blind Highland boy floating off in his washtub (afterwards exchanged for a turtleshell). He could prove himself so insensible to the incongruous as to pen that stanza in Peter Bell: —
That overwhelmed and prostrate lies,
And in a moment to the verge
Is lifted of a foaming surge,
Full suddenly the ASS doth rise! ”
and that other, which still stood in 1819 :
It gave three miserable groans.
‘ ’T is come, then, to a pretty pass,’
Said Peter to the groaning ass,
' But I will bang your bones.’ ”
In The Idiot Boy this stanza held its ground until 1827 : —
Till she is tired, let Betty Foy
With girt and stirrup fiddle-faddle;
But wherefore set upon the saddle
Him whom she loves, her idiot boy ? ”
But the most unfortunate eclipse that ever a bright, poetic star experienced — we can call it no less than a lamentable blunder — was his modern version of the find old ballad of Helen of Kirconnel. This is so strongly marked an illustration of that side of Wordsworth’s nature which was not only matter of fact, but incapable of feeling the incongruous and ludicrous, that I must ask the reader to compare the two poems at length. Note the intensity of passion and movement in the original ballad. The version reads almost as if some one were trying his hand at a travesty of Wordsworth’s most inferior work.
Of Wordsworth’s sonnets, I have counted nearly five hundred, which is the best proof how fond he was of this form of expression. But of all these, let the reader ask himself how many retain for him in memory a charm that lures him back to them, as to the best of Wordsworth’s other shorter poems. It is a little singular that, loving the sonnet as he did, he should not have concentrated his powers with more artistic effect upon what he has done in this way. Judgments differ, of course, but it seems to me there are not more than thirty or forty really fine sonnets among Ids works. I fear we must exclude from a high rank some hundreds he has written. We are all familiar with a few that are well known. Next to these we may rank the stirring sonnets dedicated to liberty, several of which have the true Miltonic ring. But when we come to those on the River Duddon, those on his tours in Scotland and on the Continent, the long, dry series of ecclesiastical sonnets, and, lastly, those dullest of all, on capital punishment, we are troubled with the same old difficulty, only more so, of effort in getting through them.
I should like, however, to quote here, especially as I have never seen it quoted, one of the most beautiful of all his sonnets, as it seems to me, and quite unlike any other he has done: —
Of such weak fibre that the treacherous air
Of absence withers what was once so fair ?
Is there no debt to pay, no boon to grant ?
Yet have my thoughts for thee been vigilant,
Bound to thy service with unceasing care,
The mind’s least generous wish a medicant
For naught but what, thy happiness could spare
Speak, though this soft, warm heart, once free to hold
A thousand tender pleasures, thine and mine,
Be left more desolate, more dreary cold,
Than a forsaken bird’s-nest filled with snow,
Mid its own bush of leafless eglantine, —
Speak, that my torturing doubts their end may know! ”
It is not often we meet with anything he has written so full of his life-blood as this.
In his narrative poems there is want of action and flow. It is the pictures we see by the way, and the truly poetic touches of feeling or glowing soliloquies, that redeem them from tameness. As Lowell says, “We are forced to do our own rowing, and only when the current is hemmed in by some narrow gorge of the poet’s personal consciousness do we feel ourselves snatched along on the smooth but impetuous rush of unmistakable inspiration.”
Of sluggish or unmusical rhythm there are abundant specimens, especially in his earlier works. In reading Wordsworth, I often feel about his rhythm as if I were wading against a stream instead of floating along with it. This would never be so were the feeling of form in the poet’s soul as sensitive as his thought. We could dispense with much profundity of thought, were we only borne along by a musical motion which wedded itself spontaneously to the idea. A perfect poem demands a fine accord between the body and the soul of thought. We are often moved by the soul of Wordsworth’s thought; not often, I think, by the soul in intimate conjunction of form with his thought.
In one other respect, too, he fails to show himself a consummate artist. A painter would say he wants effect. This is felt in most of his sonnets. Even his stories lack point. He trusts to the value of a thought, but is too indifferent about artistic presentation. But the more precious the diamond, the more we demand for it an adequate setting.
That sensuous element3 which is indispensable to a complete poetic organization, and is tremulously sensitive to form and rhythm, seems to have been small in Wordsworth’s nature. I do not remember that a decided love of music is mentioned among his traits. He has little variety of metrical form, and is content with a limited range. And when he wanders into an unaccustomed metre, he is capable of such rhymes as
The snow hath retreated,
And now doth fare ill
On the top of the bare hill.”
He had, however, enough rhythmic feeling to write — as to form—very good blank verse, which is evidence that he must have considerably cultivated this sense. No doubt he was influenced in this respect by Coleridge, and by an intimate study of Milton,4 the grand master of this measure. Perhaps it was in this dress that he felt most at ease, for it suited his grave, contemplative moods, and admitted the widest range of style, from the metrical prose that makes up the great bulk of his blank verse to the noble passages of genuine inspiration scattered through it.
There is one little poem of Wordsworth’s, seldom quoted, I think, called A Complaint, which in completeness of artistic form stands conspicuously among his early and shorter poems, — as Laodomia and a few others do among those of more length and elaboration.
Your love hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond heart’s door,
Whose only business was to flow;
And flow it did, not taking heed
Of its own bounty, or my need.
Blest was I then all bliss above!
Now, for that consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,
What have I ? Shall I dare to tell ?
A comfortless and hidden well.
I trust it is, — and never dry.
What matter ? If the waters sleep
In silence and obscurity.
Such change, and at the very door
Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.
The only defect, here is in the fourth line. What a pity some other word was not substituted for that “business ” ! 5
If he is not, strictly speaking, a poet of the poets, Wordsworth has the great merit, which he shares with Burns (who must have deeply influenced him in his youth) and with Cowper and others, of appealing to the common sense, the affections, the love of nature, the moral and religious sentiment, of a widely increasing number of readers who look more at the substance of ideas than their form. But he has more than this. He is deeply spiritual. He has the “ vision,” if not always “the faculty divine.” It is a great boon to the thoughtful readers of to-day, to those who have become surfeited upon the highly seasoned but unsubstantial food which some of the popular poets have given us, to be able to turn to pages where they may find a genuine intellectual nutriment. And there are so many hours of life when this must outvalue all purely æsthetic enjoyment we may derive from poetry. Let us not ask too often for “ winged words,” for there are calmer moods that are content with more moderately moving vehicles of thought. Is there not nowadays too much tendency in poetry, as in other modes of art expression, to neglect a profound or a simple utterance of thought and feeling, and to overvalue some novel trick of manner and execution? How many wonderful dilutions are praised, let them only be sufficiently perfumed and spiced and seltzer-watered ! Body and soul in verse are both, as I said, desirable ; but if we cannot have both, let us for Heaven’s sake have the soul. With Wordsworth this is the paramount necessity. Here is no light-brained, light-fingered minstrel, no flashy singer with a repertoire of trivial and vapid themes clothed in studiously captivating numbers, but a deep-thoughted seer and teacher. If he rarely thrills you with electric shocks of surprise and profound emotion, he at least leads you out into the bracing air and the cloudless sunshine, where you may feel the immanent soul of things, the life that lives in and above nature and man. If he does not fascinate, he strengthens and consoles. That Wordsworth was no coldly moral philosopher, but had deep and tender affections, hs biography and letters, no less than his poetry, must convince us. How he mourned for his noble brother John, the brave commander of the Abergavenny East-Indianman, who lost his life by shipwreck ; how he loved his sister and bis wife; how constant are his friendships with Coleridge, Lamb, Southey, Sir George and Lady Beaumont, and others; how he was touched by the distress of the poor and unfortunate, is well known.
He wrote poems that were welcomed by childhood as others were by youth and old age. Can we not remember the time when his simple rhyme of Barbara Lewthwaite and her lamb touched us to tears? Yet the blasé critics who hung enraptured on the scene-painting of Moore and the fire-works of Byron laughed at this genuine bit of pathos. And if there be any youth or maiden who is insensible to the strains of the Tintern Abbey poem or the Ode on Immortality, I can feel for such a one only regret and pity.
In his sympathetic portrayal of the hard, homely peasant life of shepherds or plowmen, surrounded by bare, rugged rocks and exposed to bleak winds and burning suns, and in the earnestness and sincerity with which he tells their humble stories, we are reminded of the noble pictures of François Millet and Jules Breton.
His sympathy with France in the Revolution, before that rising star which excited the hopes of all the friends of liberty was eclipsed by the bloody disk of anarchy, was a marked era in his life. Though the course of events on the Continent helped to change his political view, he had always a strong republican bias; and some of his finest sonnets and odes were inspired by the stirring incidents and commanding characters of that momentous time.
One of his deepest beliefs was in the beneficent ministry of nature to the soul of man. He is never weary of proclaiming this article of his faith ; and the passages in which he dwells upon it are among his finest. It is a pervading and coloring element in his poetry. This makes the charm of the Tintern Abbey poem, of some memorable stanzas in Peter Bell, of Three Years she Grew, of many of the sonnets, and of many noble monologues in The Prelude and The Excursion.
No poet has given us more graphic, more glowing, descriptions of natural scenery. But nature is for him never dully and densely material, but radiant and glowing with spiritual meanings. He hears a language in her thousand voices to which most men are deaf and uninstructed, but which to him brings unceasing consolation and strength, endless revelation of truth. No poet has better expressed the mysterious correspondences of the material and spiritual worlds. What priceless passages, full of insight, wisdom, tender humanity, devout and rapturous aspiration; what lines and sentences that we never forget, that comfort and lift us, and plant our feet on foundations that have nothing to do with accident or change; what openings through the clouds of mortality; what assurances that all is somehow and somewhere for the best! We hail him as the great poet of optimism. What an antidote was his sanative poetry to the morbid Byronism and Werterism that enervated the youths and maidens of the early years of this nineteenth century! Honor to the seer whose intuitions were so wise, whose sight was so clear, whose laborious hands gave such help in draining off the stagnant scum of the malarial waters which infected those days !
We cannot but admit there are times when poetry is like a refreshing bath in the ocean surf, stimulating to the higher life by virtue of its essential freshness, independently of its artistic form, and reminding us that
Which you say adds to nature is an art
That nature makes.”
I am not insensible to the hygiene of poetry, — the oxygenic quality that lies in an apt expression of a commanding idea, though it be in prose form. And I think that here lies much of the debt we owe to Wordsworth. We open his book and look for poetry, and we find wisdom, we find humane sympathies, we find religion, as we go out to take a walk and enjoy the beauties of nature, and find health, and come home with a good appetite. It is this quality that makes our own Emerson so dear to us as the first of American poets, in spite of his innumerable faults of inartistic construction and unmetrical finish.
We must therefore, I think, rank Wordsworth among the foremost English poets. Precisely what that rank is to be, who can say ? And why weigh any poet by arithmetical scale, any more than you would the great painters, or tone-masters, or indeed than you would the rare flowers of a garden ?
We remember other poets of this century who in some qualities surpass him. We remember the passion and the flow of Byron, the rapt improvisations and cloud tints of Shelley, the imaginative thought of Coleridge, the warm color and sometimes Miltonic splendor of Keats ; and, later, the fresh vigor and dramatic force of Browning, and the exquisite blending of poetic idea and musical rhythm in Tennyson. But for simple, heart-felt, graphic painting from nature, for tender touches of human sympathy, for wise and prophetic utterance of the highest thoughts and aspirations of the soul, what poet has surpassed Wordsworth, when at his best?
The force of his poetry is more cumulative than dynamic. It is a steady, earnest, self-confident movement in one true direction; and you may take up his volumes anywhere, sure of finding him faithful to a high standard that is in his thought, if not always in the glowing and highly poetic expression of it. Great is the debt of this century to the genius which so wooes us from the low and external and accidental shows of things into purer regions of contemplation and imagination. We may feel his limitations as an artist and inspired singer, — and how few are the poets who have written so much where these are not felt! — but we must give him high praise for what he has uttered in his hours of highest thought and emotion. We still sit at his feet and listen to his sincere and earnest voice, his words of thoughtful contemplation, of delight in the glories of nature, of revererence for humanity, and are still lifted into a serener air by his confessions of that noble Pantheism which our Emerson has so devoutly and wisely taught us, and which, misunderstood as it may be by small and narrow minds, is the spontaneous faith of all true poets. Onward and upward, like Æolian music marching before us, his strains will ever lead us, through nature, in her manifold symbols of beauty and truth, towards nature’s God.
Christopher P. Cranch.
- The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. With a Memoir. Seven volumes in three. Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co. The Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1878.↩
- An exception to this, however, is found in a letter to Professor Reed, of Philadelphia, in 1839. See Memoirs, vol. ii. p. 354.↩
- His biographer tells us that he was without the sense of smell, and regretted it exceedingly. And must not this defect have dulled his sense of taste f↩
- His sister writes in her journal at Grasmere, May 21, 1802, “ W. wrote two sonnets on Buonaparte, after I had read Milton’s sonnets to him.” These were among the first sonnets he had written.↩
- Mr. Matthew Arnold has published a selection of Wordsworth’s poems, with a preface, in which he ranks him next to Shakespeare and Milton, and in a tone of confident assertion, yet very vaguely, as it seems to me, lays down the law of poetry.↩
- “Poetry,” says Mr. Arnold, “is perfect speech.” “The noble and profound application of ideas to life is the most essential part of poetic greatness . . . under the conditions immutably fixed by the laws of poetic beauty and truth.” Mr. Arnold’s love of formula, of theory, warps him into eccentric statements on this theme, which strike me as plausible half-truths. Poetry does not certainly consist in noble and profound application of ideas to life without noble and beautiful expression of them. Nor would Mr. Arnold assert this, I suppose, for he takes care to add, “under the conditions,” etc. But he does not say what these conditions are. He dwells on the soul of poetry altogether, and not at all on its body. He eccentrically classes Molière among the great poets, therein seeming to sink the poetic form in the thought. He leaves us somewhat mystified as to the principles on which he makes his selection of the poems of Wordsworth. He says, “ I can read with pleasure and edification Peter Bell, and the whole series of ecclesiastical sonnets, and the address to Mr. Wilkinson’s spade, and even the Thanksgiving Ode, — everything of Wordsworth, I think, except Vaudracour and Julia.” By what strange caprice of judgment does he except these two poems, one of which, The Ode, certainly seems to me to be nearly among his best (though it lacks swiftness of movement), and the other to be as good as most of his blank verse narratives ? Or why does he select sixty of Wordsworth’s sonnets, and omit Why Art Thou Silent ? and why does he omit A Complaint, quoted above ?↩