Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Richard William Church
William Wordsworth (17701850)
[William Wordsworth was born April 7, 1770, at Cockermouth, a town on the edge of the Cumberland highlands. His father was agent to Lord Lowther, and came of an old north country stock. Both father and mother died in his boyhood; his mother first, his father when he was fourteen. He went to school in the neighbourhood, at Hawkshead, and his school days were days of much liberty, both in playing and reading. In October 1787 he went to St. Johns College, Cambridge. But he made no mark at the university, and in January 1791 he took his degree and left Cambridge. Like many of his generation he was filled with enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and after taking his degree he resided for more than a year in France. The Reign of Terror drove him home again; he came to London, unsealed in his plans; he was in Dorsetshire (1796), then at Alfoxden in the Somersetshire Quantocks, where he saw much of S. T. Coleridge. In 1793 he published a volume of poems, and in 1798 appeared, at Bristol, the first volume of the Lyrical Ballads, intended to be a joint work of Coleridge and Wordsworth, but to which Coleridge only contributed The Ancient Mariner, and two or three other pieces. The two friends went to Germany at the end of 1798, and Wordsworth, with his sister, spent the winter at Goslar. When be returned to England, he also returned for good to his own northern mountains and lakes. He settled, with his sister, near Grasmere, meaning to give himself to poetical composition as the business of his life, and in 1800 published the second volume of the Lyrical Ballads. In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson, and finally fixed his home in the lakes, though it was not till several years afterwards (1813) that he took up his abode in the place henceforth connected with his name, Rydal Mount. During all the early part of the century he was very busy. Besides shorter pieces, suggested by the incidents or feelings of the day, he was at work from 1799 to 1805 on a poem, The Prelude, describing the history and growth of his own mind, and intended to be an introduction to the greater philosophical poem which he was already meditating, The Reclusein part, and only in part, realised in The Excursion. The Excursion was published in 1814. Composition took many shapes in the various collections published by Wordsworth, from the Lyrical Ballads in 1800 down to his death. But especially his poetical efforts took the shape of the sonnet. Large collections of sonnets marked the working of his thoughts and feelings on certain groups of subjects, or were the memorials of scenes which had interested him. He once, and early in his career, attempted the drama (The Borderers, 17056) but with little success. From the first he took a keen interest in all political and social questions, and he was an impassioned and forcible prose writer. His life was a long one, of steady work and much happiness. He died April 23, 1850, at Rydal Mount.]
WORDSWORTH was, first and foremost, a philosophical thinker; a man whose intention and purpose of life it was to think out for himself, faithfully and seriously, the questions concerning Man and Nature and Human Life. He tried to animate and invest with imaginative light the convictions of religious, practical, homely but high-hearted England, as Goethe thought out in his poetry the speculations and sceptical moods of inquisitive and critical Germany. He was a poet, because the poetical gift and faculty had been so bestowed on him that he could not fail in one way or another to exercise it: but in deliberate purpose and plan he was a poet, because poetry offered him the richest, the most varied, and the completest method of reaching truth in the matters which interested him, and of expressing and recommending its lessons, of making them dwellers in the hearts of men. Every great poet, he said, is a teacher; I wish either to be considered as a teacher or as nothing. Not like poets writing simply to please; not like Lucretius or Pope, casting other mens thought into ingenious or highly-coloured or epigrammatic verse; not like Homer or Shakespeare or Milton, standing in impersonal distance from their wonderful creations; not like Shelley, full of philosophic ideas but incapable from his wild nature of philosophic steadiness of thought; not even like poets who write to give an outlet to their sense of the beauty, the strangeness, the pathetic mystery of the world, to unburden their misgivings, to invite sympathy with their sorrows or hopes,Wordsworth, with all his imagination, and in his moments of highest rapture, has a practical sense of a charge committed to him. He is as much in earnest as a prophet, and he holds himself as responsible for obedience to his call and for its fulfilment, as a prophet. To console the afflicted; to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous,this is his own account of the purpose of his poetry. (Letter to Lady Beaumont, May, 1807.) He has given the same account in the Preface to The Excursion.
Wordsworths poetry and his idea of the office of poetry must be traced, like many other remarkable things, to the French Revolution. He very early, even in his boyhood, became aware of that sympathy with external nature, and of that power of discriminating insight into the characteristic varieties of its beauty and awfulness, which afterwards so strongly marked his writings. I recollect distinctly, he says of a description in one of his early poems, the very spot where this struck me. The moment was important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances which have been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, and I made a resolution to supply in some measure the deficiency. We have abundant evidence how he kept his purpose.
While Wordsworth was at Cambridge, the French Revolution was beginning. The contagion of the great ideas which it proclaimed caught him as it also laid hold on so many among the nobler spirits of the young generation. To him at that time, as he tells us himself,
The whole earth
The beauty wore of promise; that which sets
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
The wonder, the sympathy, the enthusiasm which swept him and them away like a torrent, though in his case the torrents course was but a short one, left ineffaceable marks on his character and his writings. He was not at first so easily shocked as others were at the excesses of the revolution. His stern North-country nature could bear and approve much terrible retribution for the old wrongs of the poor and the weak at the hands of nobles and kings. In his Apology for the French Revolution, 1793, he sneered at Bishop Watson for the importance which the Bishop attached to the personal sufferings of the late royal martyr, and for joining in the idle cry of modish lamentation which has resounded from the court to the cottage: and he boldly accepted the doctrine that in a time of revolution, which cannot be a time of liberty, political virtues are developed at the expense of moral ones. But though the guillotine and the revolutionary tribunal had not daunted him, he recoiled from the military despotism and the fever of conquest in which they ended. The changes in his fundamental principles, in his thoughts of man and his duties, were not great: the change in his application of them and in his judgment of the men, the parties, the institutions, the measures, by which they were to be guarded and carried out, was great indeed. The hopes and affections which revolutionary France had so deeply disappointed were transferred to what was most ancient, most historic, most strongly rooted by custom and usage, in traditional and unreformed England. With characteristic courage he never cared to apologise for a political change which was as complete and striking as a change to a new religion. He scarcely attempted directly to explain it. He left it to tell its own story in his poetical creations, and in the elaborate pictures of character, his own and others, inserted into his longer works, The Prelude and The Excursion. But he was not a man to change with half a heart. He left behind him for ever all the beliefs and anticipations and illusions which, like spells, had bound him to Jacobin France. He turned away from it in permanent and strong disgust, and settled down into the sturdy English Tory patriot of the beginning of the century.
But this unreserved and absorbing interest in the wonderful ideas and events of the French Revolution, transient as it was, had the effect upon him which great interruptions of the common course of things and life have on powerful natures. They were a call and a strain on his intellect and will, first in taking them in, then in judging, sifting, accepting or refusing them, which drew forth to the full all that he had of strength and individual character. But for that, he might have been, and doubtless would have been, the poet of nature, a follower, but with richer gifts, of Thomson, Akenside, perhaps Cowper. But it was the trial and the struggle which he went through, amid the hopes and overthrows of the French Revolution, which annealed his mind to its highest temper, which gave largeness to his sympathies and reality and power to his ideas.
Every one knows that Wordsworths early poetry was received with a shout of derision, such as, except in the case of Keats, has never attended the first appearance of a great poet. Every one knows, too, that in a quarter of a century it was succeeded by a growth of profound and enthusiastic admiration, which, though it has been limited by the rise of new forms of deep and powerful poetry, is still far from being spent or even reduced, though it is expressed with more discrimination than of old, in all who have a right to judge of English poetry.
This was the inevitable result of the characteristic qualities of Wordsworths genius, though for a time the quarrel between the poet and his critics was aggravated by accidental and temporary circumstances. Wordsworth is destined, if any poet is, to be immortal; but immortality does not necessarily mean popularity. That in Wordsworth which made one class of readers find in him beauty, grandeur, and truth, which they had never found before, will certainly tell on the same class in future years:
What he has loved,
Others will love, and he will teach them how.
But mankind is deeply divided in its sympathies and tastes; and for a large portion of it, not merely of those who read, but of those who create and govern opinion, that which Wordsworth loved and aimed at and sought to represent will always be the object, not only of indifference but of genuine dislike. Add to this that Wordsworths genius, though great, and noble, and lofty, was in a marked way limited, and that in his own exposition and defence of his view of poetry he was curiously and unfortunately one-sided and inadequate, and provokingly stiff and dogmatic. This, of course, only affected an extinct controversy. But the controversy marked at once the power and the bold novelty of Wordsworths attempt to purify and exalt English poetry. Wordsworth was, and felt himself to be, a discoverer, and like other great discoverers, his victory was in seeing by faith things which were not yet seen, but which were obvious, or soon became so, when once shown. He opened a new world of thought and enjoyment to Englishmen; his work formed an epoch in the intellectual and moral history of the race. But for that very reason he had, as Coleridge said, like all great artists, to create the taste by which he was to be relished, to teach the art by which he was to be seen and judged. And people were so little prepared for the thorough and systematic way in which he searched out what is deepest or highest or subtlest in human feeling under the homeliest realities, that not being able to understand him they laughed at him. Nor was he altogether without fault in the misconceptions which occasioned so much ridicule and scorn.
That Wordsworth possessed poetical power of the very highest order could be doubted by no one who had read the poem which concluded the first volume of the fiercely attacked Lyrical Ballads, the Lines written above Tintern Abbey. That which places a man high among poets, force and originality of thought, vividness and richness of imagination, command over the instrument of language, in its purity, its beauty, and its majesty, could not be, and was never, denied. But this alone does not explain what is distinctive and characteristic in what called forth so much enthusiasm, and such an outcry of disapprobation.
What was special in Wordsworth was the penetrating power of his perceptions of poetical elements, and his fearless reliance on the simple forces of expression, in contrast to the more ornate ones. He had an eye to see these elements, whereI will not say no one had seen or felt them, but where no one appears to have recognised that they had seen or felt them. He saw that the familiar scene of human life,nature, as affecting human life and feeling, and man, as the fellow creature of nature, but also separate and beyond it in faculties and destinyhad not yet rendered up even to the mightiest of former poets all that they had in them to touch the human heart. And he accepted it as his mission to open the eyes and widen the thoughts of his countrymen, and to teach them to discern in the humblest and most unexpected forms the presence of what was kindred to what they had long recognised as the highest and greatest.
Wordsworths poetry was not only a powerful but a conscious and systematic appeal to that craving for deep truth and reality which had been gathering way ever since the French Revolution so terribly tore asunder the old veils of conventionality and custom. Truth is a necessary element in all good poetry, and there had been good poetry in the century before Wordsworth. But in Wordsworth the moral judgement and purpose of the man were joined to the poets instinct and art; and he did, as the most sacred and natural of duties, what he would anyhow have done from taste and for his pleasure. When that inflexible loyalty to truth which was the prime condition of all his writingsnot mere literal truth, but the truth which could only be reached by thought and imagination,when this had been taken in, it was soon seen what an amazing view it opened of the new riches and wonders of the world, a scene of discovery which Wordsworth was far from exhausting. It was a contrast, startling all and baffling many, to the way in which, since Shakespeare and Milton, poetry had been content to skim the surface of the vast awful tracts of life and nature, dealing with their certainties and riddles, with their beauty and their terror, under the guidance of sentiments put on for the most part like a stage dress, and in language which seemed not to belong to the world which we know. Thomson, Gray, and Burns, Wordsworths immediate predecessors, had discovered, but only partially, the extent and significance of the faith which Wordsworth accepted and proclaimed in its length and breadth and height and depth, that Truth, in its infinite but ever self-consistent forms, is the first law of poetry. From his time, the eyes of readers, and the eyes of writers, have been opened; and whatever judgement they may pass on his own poetry or his theories, they have followed both as critics and as composers, in the path which he opened.
Hence his selection of subjects. He began with nature, as in the Evening Walk, and the Descriptive Sketches. He had early and well learned his lesson of naturelearned to watch and note in her that to which other eyes were blind of expression and novelty in common sights. A habit was formed of indefatigable observation, like that which was the basis of Turners power. And to a mind thus trained the scenes through which he passed, and among which his life was spent, furnished never-cloying food. His continental journeys left deep impressions upon him; these impressions were answered by those of his home. The power of hills was on him; the music of waters was in his ears; light and darkness wove their spells for him. Looking to the same end as Turner, and working in the same spirit, he, with Turner, was a discoverer in the open face of nature: working apart from one another, these two mighty Lords of the eye, seized and grasped what had always been visible yet never seen, and gave their countrymen capacities of perception and delight hardly yet granted to others. But as his mind grew, Nature, great as was her power, fell back into a second place, and became important to him chiefly as the stage of mans action, and allied with his ideas, his passions and affections. And Man was interesting to him only in his essential nature, only as man. History had little value for him, except as it revealed character: and character had no interest unless, besides power or splendour, it had in it what appealed to human sympathies or human indulgence. For a Napoleon, with all his magnificence, he had nothing but loathing. Where he found truth, noble and affecting,not bare literal fact, but reality informed and aglow with the ideas and forms of the imagination, and so raised by it to the power of an object of our spiritual nature,he recognised no differences of high and low. In the same way as he saw greatness in the ideal histories of Venice and Switzerland, and in the legends of Rome, even if they were fictions, so he saw greatness, the greatness of human affections and of the primary elements of human character, in the fortunes and the sufferings of Michael and the Leech gatherer. He was very bold for his time, and took all consequences, which were severe enough, when he insisted that the whole range of the beautiful, the pathetic, the tragic, the heroic, were to be found in common lowly life, as truly as in the epic and the drama, or in the grand legends of national history; when he proclaimed that
Verse may build a princely throne
On humble truth.
He claimed for Lucy Gray, for the miserable mother by the Thorn, for the desolate maniac nursing her infant, the same pity which we give to Lear and Cordelia or to the dark sorrows of the line of Thebes. Not in play but in deepest earnest he dwelt on the awfulness, the wonder, the sacredness of childhood: it furnished in his hands the subject, not only of touching ballads, but of one of the most magnificent lyrical poemsthe ode on Immortality. He was convinced that if people would but think and be fair with themselves, they would not merely be moved by humble tragedies, like Michael and the Brothers, but would feel that there was as much worthy of a poets serious art in the agonies of the mother of the Idiot Boy, and the terrors of Peter Bell, as in the majestic pains of Laodamia and Dion. He has summed up his poetical doctrine with all his earnest solemnity in the thirteenth book of the Prelude:
All this doctrine was strange to his age; it has ceased to be so to ours. In various ways and with varying merit, Thackeray and Dickens and George Eliot, and a crowd of writers, poets and novelists, have searched out the motifs of the highest poetry in the humblest lives, and have taught the lesson that the real greatness and littleness of human life are not to be measured by the standards of fashion and pride. What made Wordsworth different from other popular poets, and made him great, was a puzzle and a paradox at first in his own time; it is but a commonplace in ours. It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought: the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying, the objects observed; and, above all, the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world, around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops. To find no contradiction in the union of old and new; to contemplate the Ancient of Days and all His works with feelings as fresh as if all had then sprung forth at the first creative fiat; characterises the mind that feels the riddle of the world, and may help to unravel it. To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the childs sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years have made familiar:
With sun and moon and stars throughout the year,
And man and woman
this is the character and privilege of genius. (Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, c. iv.).
Thus his range of materials was very large; his extensive scale of interests gave him great variety: like his own skylark, he soars to the heavens, and drops into a lowly nest; and as the wing sometimes flags, and the eye is wearied, he was unequal, and there was sometimes want of proportion in his subject and his treatment of it. But his principles of treatment, though he was not altogether happy in his exposition of them, were in accordance with his general idea of poetry. I have at all times, he says, endeavoured to look steadily at my subject. Where he succeededand no man can always in thought and imagination see what he wants to seethere was the fire and energy and life of truth, stamping all his words, governing his music and his movement, his flow or his rush. There is always the aim, the scrupulous, fastidious aim, at direct expressionat beautiful, suggestive, forcible, original expression: but first of all at direct expression. This he called, somewhat oddly, restricting himself to the language of common life, in opposition to so-styled poetic diction. Happily he was inconsistent with his own theory. He showed with Burns how far deep down the pathetic and the tender go in common life, and how its language can be made by cunning artists to minister to their expression: but there are regions in poetry of glory and nobleness and splendour where Burns never came, and there Wordsworth showed that he was master of a richer and subtler wealth of words than common life supplies. But in his most fiery moments of inspiration and enthusiasm he never allowed himself to relax his hold on reality and truth: as he would scorn to express in poetry any word or feeling which was not genuine and natural, any sentiment or impulse short of or beyond the actual impression which caused them, so with the most jealous strictness he measured his words. He gave them their full swing if they answered to force and passion; but he watched them all the same, with tender but manly severity. Hence with his power and richness of imagination, and his full command over all the resources of voice and ear, an austere purity and plainness and nobleness marked all that he wrote, and formed a combination as distinct as it was uncommon. To purity, purity of feeling, pure truthfulness of expression, he is never untrue. In the wild excitement, or the lawless exaggeration, as in the self-indulgence and foulness of passion, he will recognise no subject of true poetic art. Keenly alive to beauty, and deeply reverencing it, he puts purity and the severity of truth above beauty. With his eager instincts of joy, it is only the joy of the pure-hearted that he acknowledges.
Wordsworths great poetical design was carried out, first in collections of short pieces, such as those of his earlier volumes, the Lyrical Ballads, and the Poems of 1807; then in a great mass of Sonnets, varying from some of the grandest in the language to some very commonplace; but as a whole, considering their number,there are between four and five hundred of them,a collection of great nobleness and wonderful finish: and finally in the long poem of The Excursion, itself a fragment of a greater projected whole, The Recluse. The Excursion was published in 1814, and it gave the key to all his poetical work. From that time to 1845 he published repeatedly new things and old: sonnets on all kinds of subjects, such as those on the River Duddon, the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, and those on the Punishment of Death;Memorials of his Tours in Scotland and on the Continent; classical compositions like Laodamia and Dion; tales in the romantic fashion, like The White Doe of Rylstone, or in the manner of the Lyrical Ballads, like Peter Bell, written in his earliest time, but not published till 1819. The reception of Peter Bell marks the change that had come over public opinion. It was, says the biographer, more in request than any of the authors previous publications: it was published in April, and a new edition was wanted in May. Wordsworth had waited, and the world had begun to come round to him. Ridicule and dislike had not ceased. But in minds which loved nature, which loved nobleness, which loved reality, which loved purity and truth, he had awakened a response of deep and serious sympathy, which placed him, in the judgment of increasing numbers, far above the great poetical rivals round him. It was in vain that The Edinburgh Review received The Excursion with its insolent This will never do;it only showed that the Review had mistaken the set of the tide, and had failed to measure the thoughts and demands of the coming time. Wordsworths reception at Oxford in 1839 was an outwalk mark of the change, and of the way in which he had spoken to the hearts of men, and had been at length understood. The enthusiasm which gathered round him was most genuine, and it was wholesome and elevating; it was one of the best influences of our time. But it became undiscriminating. It, not unnaturally, blinded men to defects, and even made them proud of defying the criticism which defects produced.
And there were defects. In his earlier days, at the high tide of his genius and strength, amid works matchless for their power and simplicity and noble beauty, Wordsworths composition was sometimes fairly open to the criticism,whether meant for him I know not,conveyed in the following lines by one who fully measured his greatness:
As life went on, he wrote a great deal, and with unequal power and felicity. It may be doubted whether he had the singularly rare capacity for undertaking, what was the chief aim of his life, a long poemespecially a philosophical poem. Strong as he was, he wanted that astonishing strength which carried Milton without flagging through his tremendous task. Wordsworths power was in bursts; and he wanted to go against the grain of his real aptitudes, and prolong into a continuous strain inspiration which was meant for occasions. In The Excursion and The Prelude there are passages as magnificent as perhaps poet ever wrote; but they are not specimens of the context in which they are embedded, and which in spite of them, does not carry along with it the readers honest enjoyment. We read on because we must. In his more ambitious works, such as The Excursion, Wordsworth seldom wants strength, finish, depth, insight. He not seldom wants the spring, the vividness, of his earlier works. There is always dignity, and often majesty; but there is sometimes pompousness. His solid weight and massiveness of thought interest us when we are in the humour for serious work; but it is too easy to find them oppressive, and to complain of him as heavy and wearisome: nay, what is in him less excusable, obscure. And so with his various series of sonnets like thosefull of beauty as they areon the River Duddon: he took in too much in his scheme of the series, and there was not always material enough in comparison of the usually fine and careful workmanship. Further, Wordsworth, like other men, had his limitations. That large tracts of human experience and feeling were unvisited by him and were beyond his horizon, is not to be complained of: he deliberately and with high purpose chose to forego all that under the fascination of art might mislead or tempt. But of all poets who ever wrote, Wordsworth made himself most avowedly the subject of his own thinking. In one way this gives special interest and value to his work. But the habit of perpetual self-study, though it may conduce to wisdom, does not always conduce to life or freedom of movement. It spreads a tone of individuality and apparent egotism, which though very subtle and undefinable, is yet felt, even in some of his most beautiful compositions. We miss the spirit of aloofness and self-forgetfulness which, whether spontaneous or the result of the highest art, marks the highest types of poetry. Perhaps it is from this that he so rarely abandoned himself to that spirit of playfulness of which he has given us an example in the Kitten and falling leaves. The ideal man with Wordsworth is the hard-headed, frugal, unambitious dalesman of his own hills, with his strong affections, his simple tastes, and his quiet and beautiful home: and this dalesman, built up by communion with nature and by meditation into the poet-philosopher, with his serious faith and his never-failing spring of enjoyment, is himself. But nature has many sides, and lies under many lights; and its measure reaches beyond the measure even of the great seer, with his true and piercing eye, his mighty imagination, and his large and noble heart.
Wordsworth had not, though he thought he had, the power of interpreting his own principles of poetic composition. This had to be done for him by a more philosophical critic, his friend Coleridge. Wordsworth, in his onslaught on the falsehood and unreality of what passed for poetic diction, overstated and mistook. He overstated the poetic possibilities of the speech of common life and of the poor. He mistook the fripperies of poetic diction for poetic diction itself. Some effects of these exaggerations and mistakes are visible in his composition itself, though they offend less when the lines which tempt to severe criticism are read in their own place and context; but he would have done more wisely to have left them to find their own apology than to have given reasons which seemed paradoxes. In the hot controversy which followed, both disputants made false moves: the Edinburgh reviewers were false in their thrusts, Wordsworth was false in his parry. He was right in protesting against the doctrine that a thing is not poetical because it is not expressed in a certain conventional mintage: he was wrong in denying that there is a mintage of words fit for poetry and unsuitable for ordinary prose. They were utterly wrong in thinking that he was not a most careful and fastidious artist in language; but they had some reason for their objections, and some excuse for their ridicule, when it was laid down without distinguishing or qualifying that there was no difference between the language of prose and poetry, and that the language of poetry was false and bad unless it was what might be spoken in the intercourse of common life. Wordsworth, confident of his side of truth, and stung by the flippancy and ignorant narrowness of his censors, was not the person to clear up the dispute. Coleridge, understanding and sympathising with what he really meant, never undertook a worthier task than when he brought his singular powers of criticism to bear on it, and helped men to take a more serious and just measure of his friends greatness. He pointed out firmly and clearly what was untenable in Wordsworths positions, his ambiguities, his overstatements. He put into more reasonable and comprehensive terms what he knew to be Wordsworths meaning. He did not shrink from admitting defects, characteristic defects, in his poetry;inequality of style, over-care for minute painting of details; disproportion and incongruity between language and feeling, between matter and decoration; thoughts and images too great for the subject. But then he showed at what a height, in spite of all, he really stood:his austere purity and perfection of language, the wideness of his range, the freshness of his thought, the unfailing certainty of his eye; his unswerving truth, and, above all, his magnificent gift of imagination, nearest of all modern writers to Shakespeare and Milton, yet in a kind perfectly unborrowed and his own. No more discriminating and no more elevated judgment of Wordsworths genius is to be found than that which Coleridge inserted in the volume which he called his Biographia Literaria.