The Secret of Wordsworth

PROFESSOR RALEIGH’S book1 is an earnest attempt to read the works of a poet by the light of the poet’s intention. It is not a criticism, nor a commentary, nor in the usual sense of the word an appreciation, though criticism, comment, and high appreciation are all to be found in it. Least of all is it an experiment in comparative appraisal, or assignment of rank, whether of Wordsworth among poets, or of his poems among themselves. What is undertaken is a thing much more difficult than any of these, — an interpretation of the poet’s work and an explanation of his method. Professor Raleigh’s aim is to ascertain and publish Wordsworth’s secret; a secret which the poet himself long ago published, to be sure, as well as he was able, both in prose and in “ numerous verse,” but which still remains, as Professor Raleigh thinks, for the most part unrecognized.

The work, we say, is in its nature difficult. Whether it has even yet been accomplished, whether even yet Professor Raleigh or the sharpest-sighted of his readers do actually

“ see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine,”

a simple Wordsworthian, neither poet nor critic, may modestly hold for uncertain, the more so as the interpreter himself seems to be more or less distinctly of the same modest opinion.

All things are explicable, of course. Nothing is mysterious in itself. If it is true, as Professor Raleigh says, that “ a poet is to be had for the making,”— and it would take a bold man to dispute it, a new heaven and a new earth being obtainable any day on the same reasonable terms, — it may be admitted also that a poet’s secret is always to be had for the finding. But that is not to be convinced that any one has yet found it. Of one thing, at all events, the honest and capable reader of Professor Raleigh’s book is quickly made aware, — the seriousness and disinterestedness of the author’s spirit. He really is attempting not so much to display his own acumen as to penetrate the hiding of another man’s power.

Naturally the attempt becomes in the main what Monsieur Legouis calls his noteworthy work, La Jeunesse de William Wordsworth, — “a study of the Prelude.” The fact could hardly be otherwise, Wordsworth having devoted the fourteen books of that poem to much the same end as that toward which his interpreter is aiming, — the elucidation of the history of a poet’s mind.

Professor Raleigh’s book is the more interesting (whether it is nearer the truth is another matter) because of what may fairly be styled its author’s heroic method. He will have no verbal makeshifts, no shirking of the main issue, no resort to the facile explanatory phrases of conventional criticism. If Wordsworth wrote some of the sublimest of poetry and some of the baldest of measured prose, as by universal agreement he did, — and himself could never distinguish one from the other, — the fact is not to be accounted for upon any impatient, easy-going theory of inspiration and noninspiration. The poet is “ a man speaking to men,” not “ a reed through which a god fitfully blows.” And no more are we to consign the problem to the limbo of insolubles by saying that the poet was born, and there’s an end of it. The poet was not born. Wordsworth the child, his oftenest quoted line to the contrary notwithstanding, was not in the least Wordsworthian, but a rather boisterous, play-loving country lad, like any other. His was “ the ordinary vague stuff of human nature ; ” “ good clay, full of kindly qualities, very tenacious of the forms impressed on it,” but clay the like of which is “ plentiful enough in any healthy human society.”

Here, then, to use a homely phrase, the interpreter of Wordsworth has his work cut out for him. Given a common country boy, how was he made into a poet ?

The wary reader will hardly expect to find the question answered in so many words. That would be demanding more than is meet. Wordsworth himself, we are told, when he comes to the precise point, hesitates and falters, working only by hints and indirections ; and it is no slander upon his interpreter to intimate that in this respect he follows pretty closely his illustrious subject’s example. This, however, is not to charge either poet or critic with absolute failure. For the right reader the Prelude is one of the most interesting of long poems, and Professor Raleigh’s study, we repeat, is a profoundly interesting book. Success is a thing of degrees. There may be an excellent morning’s sport, with capital feats of horsemanship and much wholesome stirring of the blood, and the hare still safe in his burrow.

The country boy took his degree at Cambridge, and then —not for the first time — traveled in France. This was in 1791, when he was in his twenty-first year. Eager, passionate, a believer in human equality, he entered heart and soul into the turbulent spirit of the hour, and was on the point of allying himself actively with one of the Revolutionary parties when his guardian peremptorily ordered him back to England. There he watched the downward course of events across the Channel, the massacres and horrors of the time, till in his discouragement he was driven to seek refuge in the “ arid rationalism ” of William Godwin and — for a poet — the scarcely less arid study of mathematics. Out of this state of despondency, “the soul’s last and lowest ebb,” he calls it, he was drawn by the gentle ministrations of his sister Dorothy and the memory of his own boyish delight in Nature. He began once more to look at the world about him, to seek “ for present good in life’s familiar face ; ” and now, as we understand Professor Raleigh, he was made a poet. The secret of the making of a poet, “ if ever it should be divined,” we are told, “ would be found, according to Wordsworth’s conception of it, exactly at that point where the free and vigorous life of sense and thought in any young creature is, by some predestined accident or series of accidents, arrested, surprised, checked, challenged, and turned in and back upon itself. Then for the first time the soul makes an inventory of its wealth, and discovers that it has great possessions, that it has been a traveler in fairyland, and holds the clue to that mystery.”

It is finely said, after its manner; with an accent of mysticism not unlike Wordsworth’s own. One feels as if the face of truth were shining dimly through the semi-transparent words. We think of the great Ode ; of

“ those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing.”

We remember also the “ famous definition,” “ Poetry takes its origin in emotion recollected in tranquillity.” We recognize the pertinence and felicity of Professor Raleigh’s remark, that “ it was the belief, almost the discovery, of Wordsworth, that the memory, if it be habitually consulted, will not only supply a poet with his most valuable materials, but will also do for him the best part of his work.” For Wordsworth, past all doubt, pleasure remembered was more easily turned into the stuff of poetry than pleasure freshly experienced; for which reason he was little used, as he said,

“to make
A present joy the matter of a song.”

But accepting all this, admitting to the full the momentous character of the intellectual crisis through which Wordsworth passed when, after the insanities and disappointments of the French Revolution, he “ cast back among the calm and deep memories of his childhood;” when, as our critic eloquently puts it,“ the noises of laughter and cursing were swallowed up in the quiet of the fields and the great spaces of the sky ; ” admitting even that from this hard-won victory “ the best powers of his poetry were derived ; ” that “ the depth of consolation, the austere tenderness, and the strength as of iron that are felt in his greatest works came to him from the same source ; ” admitting all this and more, we may yet wonder whether, after all, we have discovered, or are even so much as in a way to discover, the secret of “ the making of a poet.” We seem to have been hearing about the genesis of a poet’s works, rather than about the genesis of the poet himself. Wordsworth’s memory gave him some of the best of his themes, and threw the light of enchantment over his treatment of them; the horrors of the French Revolution sent him back to Nature and the homely intercourse of every-day humanity, with new depths of vision and a new austerity of tenderness. But these are accessories, helps, aids to a poet’s development ; the primal thing is the poet himself ; and he — why may we not still believe it ?— was not “ any young creature,” found here, there, or elsewhere, waiting to be made a poet, but an elect soul, a poet already, a poet by birth, one of the “ poets sown by Nature,” gifted by Nature, not by the shock of the French Revolution, with “ the vision and the faculty divine.”

Inclining to this belief, we shall naturally hesitate to go with our interpreter when he speaks of the boy Wordsworth as if he were no different from the common run of children, made only of “ the ordinary vague stuff of human nature,” with “nothing Wordsworthian” about him. True, “ he took birds’ nests — for the eggs; ” “ hired and rode horses ; ” and “read books [strange thing !] —for the story.” “ Something willful and passionate ” he may have been also. But what then ? The boy Keats, too, was more than a little passionate, “highly pugnacious ” indeed, always ready for a fight, capable even of squaring off at an usher, “ not attached to books,” showing “ no signs of an intellectual bent; ” but it would be hard to convince lovers of poetry that the man who wrote the Ode on a Grecian Urn at twenty-four was no different from the rest of us, only that his “ life of sense ” happened by some concatenation of circumstances to have been “ arrested, surprised, checked, challenged, and turned in and back upon itself.” All that may have been true, of course, for aught we can prove to the contrary ; but for ourselves, rather than believe it, we are ready to say poëta nascitur, and be done with it, although by so saying we forfeit forever all claim to originality.

What is more to the purpose, Wordsworth’s own account of the matter seems hardly to bear out this impression of a boy destitute of all Wordsworthian characteristics. “ I was often unable,” he says, “to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality.”

The child was father of the man, we seem to perceive ; already a pretty sound Wordsworthian, even though he may have taken now and then a bird’s nest — for the eggs, or read a book — for the story. It is partly this reminiscence, we may conjecture, which leads Monsieur Legouis to say (so do critics disagree) that Wordsworth was never more essentially a poet than in his early schooldays.

But, indeed, there is other and perhaps more convincing testimony to the same effect, testimony such as it would seem impossible for any one to read the first book of the Prelude without finding. Professor Raleigh, to be sure, says that Wordsworth, in writing that book, “ knows that the light in which he sees his early days is a light half reflected on them ; ” but the point, we must think, is unduly pressed. Even among his boyish sports, the poet says, he was haunted by the “ Presences of Nature ” till they

“ did make
The surface of the universal earth,
With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,
Work like a sea.”

“ Even then,” he says,

“ I felt
Gleams like the flashing of a shield ; — the earth
And common face of Nature spake to me
Rememberable things.”

And once more, —

“Yes, I remember when the changeful earth,
And twice five summers on my mind had stamped
The faces of the moving year, even then
I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure from the silver wreaths
Of curling mist, or from the level plain
Of waters colored by impending clouds.”

The word “unconscious ” in this last quotation speaks, no doubt, of a difference between that childish, unreasoned delight in Nature and the all-absorbing, carefully nurtured passion which a few years later rendered him for the time being a creature almost beside himself ; but when he says, “ I felt such things,” it is not for any interpreter to say that he did not feel them ; and if he felt them, he was not quite the commonplace, everyday boy that we are asked to have in mind.

If Wordsworth was not born a poet, then, we must think, no man ever was. No great poet, certainly, ever had less command of his own power; none was ever more dependent upon his genius, whatever that word may be taken to mean. For a few years he was possessed by it. So long as that possession lasted his strength was as the strength of ten. Then it deserted him, and he was weakness itself, “ weak as is a breaking wave.” If he had reinforced himself, if year after year he had studied his art as an art, after the manner of Tennyson, let us say, if he had cared for other poetry besides his own, if he had so much as continued to read books for the story, if he had been somebody else, in short, instead of William Wordsworth, his aftermath of verse might have been, not more “ numerous,” let us hope, but of a quality worthier of his fame. Even a transient resort to the classics, as we know, — his schoolboy son needing assistance, — yielded Laodamia, of which Hazlitt said that it was “ a poem that might be read aloud in Elysium, and the spirits of departed heroes and sages would gather round to listen to it.” But the rapt seer is little apt to be also a craftsman. More likely, to quote Hazlitt again, “he can give only the fine tones of thought, drawn from his mind by accident or nature, like the sounds drawn from the Æolian harp by the wandering gale.”

The substantial truth of this no one sees with more clearness than Professor Raleigh. “ By strange and hard ways,” he says, “ Wordsworth had been led up to the mount of vision, he had seen through a golden haze all the riches and the beauty of the land that was promised to Poetry, and then the vision faded, . . . and he was left gazing on the wood s and hills and pastures under the light of common day.”

And Words worth’s secret ? Any poet’s secret? Well, for aught we can see, it remains a secret; a something as far beyond human subtlety to explain as it is beyond human ingenuity to produce. “ The wind bloweth where it listeth.” “ Genius,” “ inspiration,” — it is hard to get on without the old words, vague though they be. Nay, it is precisely because they are vague that they serve so useful a purpose. Even Professor Raleigh, after speaking almost contemptuously of “impatient critics ” who seek to account for Wordsworth’s “ amazing inequality ” by assuming that sometimes he was inspired, at other times not, is heard a little afterward lamenting that in Wordsworth’s case, as in Coleridge’s, “ the high tide of inspiration was followed by a long and wandering ebb.”

One feels like quoting Lowell, whose arrow in such competitions is as apt as any one’s to hit the white. Wordsworth, he says, “ was not an artist in the strictest sense of the word ; neither was Isaiah; but he had a rarer gift, the capability of being greatly inspired.”

Nevertheless it does not lie in any word or formula to make an end of discussion in matters of this kind. Neither genius nor inspiration is a thing too sacred for study. And as an effort at such a study Professor Raleigh’s book is in all ways stimulating and praiseworthy; written throughout in a style of rare excellence, never commonplace and never smart, — not distinguished for lightness, some might say, — serious always, yet with no suggestion of the prosy, and rising on occasion to heights of a really noble eloquence. For the service of scholars and the honor of English literature the more of such books the better.

Bradford Torrey.

  1. Wordsworth. By WALTER RALEIGH. London : Edwin Arnold. 1903.