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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Frederic William Henry Myers (1843–1901)
 
IT is no easy matter for a disciple of Wordsworth’s to write a brief estimate of his work which shall fall into its due place in a collection of the great writers of the world: 1 the claim which must needs be made for him is so high, the drawbacks are so obvious. Between prosiness and puerility, the ordinary reader may feel as though he had been invited to a banquet, and regaled with bread and water.  1
  Much indeed which might be thought prosy or puerile can be put aside at once without loss. Wordsworth wrote poetry for nearly half a century. For about ten years (1798–1808) he was at his best, and for ten years more (1808–1818) he was still from time to time inspired; after that date the poems worthy of him were short and few. 2  2
  A great mass of valuable work remains; mainly in poems individually brief, and difficult to classify except in chronological order. For the sake of clear treatment in a brief essay, I may divide these into three stages, roughly chronological. First will come the simple poems, in the style of ‘Lyrical Ballads’; then the poems in intermediate style, of mixed simplicity and grandeur; and lastly the poems in the grand style, such as ‘Laodamia’ and many of the sonnets,—a style in which he continued at times to be able to write when his early gift of exquisite simplicity had left him. The simple poems are largely concerned with the Lake Country, and with rustic emotion. As the style merges into grandeur, it deals rather with themes of legendary or national dignity. And through all styles alike runs an undercurrent of prophetic conviction as to the relation of the visible world to a world unseen. 3  3
  I pass at once to a brief consideration of each group in turn. Wordsworth, as is well known, began by preaching both by precept and example the duty of throwing aside the so-called dignity and the so-called language of poetry, and of appealing in the speech of real life to the primary emotions of unsophisticated men. But his instructions sometimes resembled the conjurer’s mystifying explanations of artifices, which, however attentively we may listen, we can none the better understand. Plainly one must not bring one’s objects on the stage in an obvious basket of “poetical diction”; but how produce a canary from one’s pocket-handkerchief at the moment desired? As a matter of actual history the gift of poetical melody,—“the charm of words, a charm no words can say,”—has been of all artistic gifts the rarest and the most unteachable; simplicity of aim makes it no easier, and few men—and they but rarely—have breathed into phrases of absolute naïveté that touch of haunting joy.
  Sweet Emma Moreland of yonder town
  Met me walking on yonder way,”—
lines such as these may sound easy enough; yet I doubt whether even Tennyson ever caught quite that note again. And to me Wordsworth’s poems on ‘Matthew,’ on ‘Lucy,’ the ‘Cuckoo,’ the ‘Solitary Reaper,’ and the like, seem more marvelous, more exceptional as poetical tours de force, than even his sonnets; although I agree with those who maintain that he has left us the finest collection of sonnets which any English poet has to show.
  4
  I quote in illustration three stanzas of the type which in Wordsworth’s early days was a mark for general derision:—

  “And turning from her grave, I met
  Beside the church-yard yew,
A blooming girl, whose hair was wet
  With points of morning dew.
  
“A basket on her head she bare;
  Her brow was smooth and white:
To see a child so very fair,
  It was a pure delight!
  
“No fountain from its rocky cave
  E’er tripped with foot so free;”
“She seemed as happy as a wave
  That dances on the sea.”

Something here is imitable; something, I think, beyond imitation. In ‘The Two April Mornings,’ from which these stanzas are taken, there is of course a pathetic attitude of mind to which the lines lead up: that of the bereaved father, who would not, if he could, renew the past joy at the risk of renewing the past sorrow. Others might have chosen that theme; might have adorned into simplicity and elaborated into naïveté a similar recital. But in what mind save Wordsworth’s would the couplets which close each of the three stanzas have arisen: the exquisite truth of the look of the child’s hair in the dew; the innocent intensity of Matthew’s gaze; the springing buoyancy of that last simile,—fresh and vivid as of old was “ocean’s many-twinkling smile,”—and the magical melody, which, with its few rustic notes, translates the scene and transfigures it into poetry’s ideal world?
  5
  I have said that Wordsworth’s simpler poems were largely concerned with the English Lake Country; with the race and the environment which it was his mission both to represent and to consecrate. For a Cumbrian born within a few miles of Wordsworth’s home, and a few years before his death, the inward picture of that country’s past, present, future, cannot rise without a touch of pain. “Yea, all that now enchants thee,”—said Wordsworth once of how much smaller an invasion than has actually occurred!—
    “Yea, all that now enchants thee, from the day
On which it should be touched, would melt, and melt away.”
  6
  The best remaining hope is still in Wordsworth; it is the hope that his abiding spirit may exert an ever deeper influence upon those who look upon the land which he loved. The visitors to the Lake Country, indeed, are not now mainly such intruders as he most feared. In growing proportion they are men and women who have a right to be there; the right involved in real power of appreciation, in real effort of voyage and journey made to reach the reverenced shrine. And even now to Wordsworth it might perhaps have seemed that his lakes and hills might yet subserve a new virtue wider than the old. Here is what we in England have of fairest, of most sacred, to offer. Let us offer it to all our kin. Let our great race, whose tribes are mighty nations, find here an unchallenged sanctuary, and a central memory of peace.  7
  There can be nothing incongruous in any passage from simplicity to greatness; and we find in Wordsworth’s poems that transition often occurring without conscious change of tone. This is especially noticeable in the ‘Prelude,’—a kind of epic on the poet’s own education; where the sense of tedium and egotism which such a subject inspires is constantly yielding to our sense of the narrator’s candor and dignity, and to the psychological interest of the exposition of a character than which I know none of better augury for the future of mankind.  8
  The ‘Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle,’ again, stands midway between Wordsworth’s simple style and his grand style. It rises from rustic naïveté into chivalric ardor, and from chivalric ardor into the benign tranquillity of the environing eternal world.  9
  How charged with the spirit of the mountains is the harper’s story of the childhood of the Shepherd Lord!
  “And both the undying fish that swim
Through Bowscale Tarn did wait on him;
The pair were servants of his eye
In their immortality;
And glancing, gleaming, dark or bright,
Moved to and fro for his delight.”
  10
  How swiftly that minstrel passes, as on one high note, to his heroic cry!
  “Armor rusting in his halls
On the blood of Clifford calls:
‘Quell the Scot,’ exclaims the Lance;
‘Bear me to the heart of France,’
Is the longing of the Shield—”
  11
  At last the poet himself resumes the strain; and how sublime in its simplicity is that return and uprising from the wild tale of war and tumult to the true victory and the imperishable peace!

  “Alas, the impassioned minstrel did not know
  That for a tranquil soul the lay was framed,
Who, long compelled in humble walks to go,
  Was softened into feeling, soothed, and tamed.
  
“Love had he found in huts where poor men lie.
  His daily teachers had been woods and rills,
The silence that is in the starry sky,
  The sleep that is among the lonely hills.”
  12
 
  But there was matter enough near home to call forth all Wordsworth’s martial impulses, and to raise his style to its last elevation, a pure clear tone of heroic grandeur. During the prime of the poet’s powers, England was engaged in her most desperate struggle, with her worst and mightiest foe. It is a strange fact that Wordsworth’s ‘Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty’—the lofty appeals of a grave recluse—should form the most permanent record in our literature of the Napoleonic war. Except Campbell’s two songs, and Tennyson’s great ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington, half a century later, they stand practically alone. The contest, indeed, was one well fitted for treatment by this bard of “a few strong instincts and a few plain rules.” It was typified in mighty figures on either hand. Napoleon’s career afforded a poetic example—impressive as that of Xerxes to the Greeks—of lawless and intoxicated power. And on the other side—on the other side it happens by a singular destiny that England, with a thousand years of noble history behind her, has chosen for her best loved, for her national hero, not an Arminius from the age of legend, not a Henri Quatre from the age of chivalry, but a man whom the fathers of men still living have seen and known. Close at hand for Wordsworth lay the crowning example of impassioned self-devotedness, of heroic honor.  13
  And indeed between these two men, so different in outward fates,—between the “adored, the incomparable Nelson,” and the homely poet, “retired as noontide dew,”—there was a moral likeness so profound that the ideal of the recluse was realized in the public life of the hero, while on the other hand the hero himself is only seen as completely heroic when his impetuous life stands out for us from the solemn background of the poet’s calm. Surely these two natures taken together make the perfect Englishman. Nor is there any portrait fitter than that of ‘The Happy Warrior’ to go forth to all lands as representing the British character at its height—a figure not ill-matching with “Plutarch’s men.” 4  14
  We have briefly traced Wordsworth’s mode of response to his local and to his national environment. His poetry has reflected first the charm of Cumberland, and then the patriotism and moral energy of the whole English folk. And in each case that poetry has been for us no mere spectacle,—no brilliant effort of mastery over language, on which we gaze admiring but unchanged,—but rather an impulse and an intuition; stirring us to a new emotion by the convincing avowal of emotion intenser than our own. Even more penetrating, more enlightening, was Wordsworth’s response to the widest, the cosmic environment. It was “a sense sublime,” in those oft-quoted words with which his solemn message began, “of something far more deeply interfused”;—of the interaction, the interpenetration, as we may now express it, of a spiritual with this material world. His intuition had unified for him the sum of things; he had learnt, that is to say, to see earth’s confused phenomena no longer “in disconnection dull and spiritless,” but—like Plato before him—as the lovely transitory veil or image of a pre-existent and imperishable world. The prenatal recollection, or the meditative ecstasy, had stablished him in an inward peace; had poured for him a magic gladness through the cuckoo’s song; had lent to his great odes their lofty accent, as of a spirit who has looked on the universe with insight beyond our own, and has seen that it was good.  15
  To these upsoarings of Wordsworth’s spirit many a soul in need has clung. Insensibly implied, obscurely apprehended, they have given to his poetry a sustaining, a vitalizing power; nay, that poetry has seemed to many to sound the introit into an age of new revelation.  16
  Yet to such heights this mortal frame can bear man seldom, or on them permit him to linger long. In the ‘Evening Ode’ of 1818 we find the seer standing at the close of his own apocalypse; lamenting that celestial light, “full early lost and fruitlessly deplored”; sinking back with constancy into an earthly life, prolonged through another generation of men, but in which the vision came to him no more.
  “Or if some vestige of those gleams
Survived, ’twas only in his dreams.”
  17
  It was during the calm declining years which followed that the power of Wordsworth went out upon that new generation. His poems indeed were never popular with the popularity of Byron or of Scott. It was rather the leaders of thought who reverenced him, and who imposed their reverence on that larger public which even yet, perhaps, has scarcely recognized his inmost charm.  18
  Meanwhile the aging man pursued his quiet way. He still went “booing about,”—as his peasant neighbors called it,—murmuring his verses on the green hill terraces near Rydal Mount. He still made on foot his grave ‘Excursions,’ to meet the friends who had gathered near him from love at once of the country and of its poet. Some of those friends he had aided—it was a task which delighted him—to choose the site and shape the surroundings of a home among the hills. More than one seat in the Lake Country—among them one home of pre-eminent beauty—have owed to Wordsworth no small part of their ordered charm. In this way too the poet is with us still: his presence has a strange reality as we look on some majestic prospect of interwinding lake and mountain, which his design has made more beautifully visible for the children’s children of those he loved; as we stand, perhaps, in some shadowed garden ground where his will has had its way,—has framed Helvellyn’s far-off summit in an arch of tossing green, and embayed in towering forest trees the long lawns of a silent valley, fit haunt for lofty aspiration and for brooding calm.  19
  The group which thus surrounded him was not unconscious of his worth. To two adult generations he was already dear; and one young child at least, whom hereditary friendships introduced to his notice, felt in that hallowed presence as a child might have felt in Arcadia, encountering tutelary Pan.  20
  For the poet himself these lingering years were full of grave retrospection, of humble self-judgment, of hopeful looking to the end. “Worldly-minded I am not,” he wrote to an intimate friend near his life’s close; “on the contrary, my wish to benefit those within my humble sphere strengthens seemingly in exact proportion to my inability to realize those wishes. What I lament most is that the spirituality of my nature does not expand and rise the nearer I approach the grave, as yours does, and as it fares with my beloved partner.”  21
  The aged poet might feel the loss of some vividness of emotion; but his thoughts dwelt more and more constantly on the beloved ones who had gone before him, and on the true and unseen world. One of the images which recurs oftenest to his friends is that of the old man as he would stand against the window of the dining-room at Rydal Mount, and read the Psalms and Lessons for the day; of the tall bowed figure and the silvery hair; of the deep voice which always faltered when among the prayers he came to the words which give thanks for those “who have departed this life in Thy faith and fear.”

  Retirement then might hourly look
  Upon a soothing scene;
Age steal to his allotted nook
  Contented and serene:
  
With heart as calm as lakes that sleep,
  In frosty moonlight glistening,
Or mountain torrents where they creep
Along a channel smooth and deep,
  To their own far-off murmurs listening.”
  22
 
  Among all Virgil’s categories of the Blessed, it is the pii vates who are the truest friends of man. We need not be ashamed to linger on them fondly; to imagine analogies between the impression which one or another poet makes on us with the sights or sounds, the scents or savors, of the great open world. Shakespeare (one may say) is like breezy daylight; and Dante like the furnace glow. Lucretius is like the storm, and Æschylus like the thunder, and Homer like the moving sea. Pindar is like wine; and Wordsworth like water,—which Pindar said was best. Often that drink seems flat enough: but let the wounded soldier crawl to the well-spring, and he knows that water is best indeed; it is the very life of men.  23
 
  [NOTE.—William Wordsworth was born of old North Country stock, on the 7th of April, 1770, at Cockermouth in the Cumberland highlands. Neither at school nor at college was he distinguished as a scholar. Filled with enthusiasm for the French Revolution, he spent a year in Paris, whence he was driven by the Reign of Terror. From 1796 until his death he lived almost continuously in the Lake Country; the record of his secluded, uneventful, and happy life being found in his poems. He died at Rydal Mount, on the 23d of April, 1850.]  24
 
Note 1. In 1881 I published a ‘Life of Wordsworth’ (now attainable in a cheap shilling edition), in Mr. John Morley’s series of ‘English Men of Letters’ (Macmillan & Co., London and New York). I was there able to give a fuller introduction to the study of Wordsworth than space here allows; and the reader who may turn to that book will find some of its ideas and expressions repeated in the course of this essay, among other thoughts which the years since elapsed have suggested, on a theme on which, in spite of all that has been written, there is so much yet left to feel and to say. [back]
Note 2. The reader may, I think, omit the following poems: ‘Juvenile Pieces,’ ‘Thorn,’ ‘Idiot Boy,’ ‘Borderers,’ ‘Vaudracour and Julia,’ ‘Artegal and Elidure,’ ‘White Doe of Rylstone,’ ‘Lament of Mary Queen of Scots,’ ‘Sons of Burns,’ ‘Vernal Ode,’ ‘Thanksgiving Ode,’ ‘Invocation to Earth,’ ‘Memorials of Tour on Continent’ (1820), and most of the ‘Ecclesiastical Sketches,’ ‘Sonnets on Duddon,’ and ‘Excursion.’ [back]
Note 3. I may mention the following poems as examples of the different styles alluded to above,—styles which of course run into each other:—Simple style: ‘We are Seven’; ‘Lucy Gray’; ‘Poet’s Epitaph’; ‘Pet Lamb’; ‘Poor Susan’; Poems on Matthew; ‘Expostulation’ and ‘Tables Turned’; ‘Fragment’; ‘Stray Pleasures’; Poems on Lucy; ‘My Heart Leaps Up’; ‘Louisa’; ‘Sparrow’s Nest’; ‘Daffodils’; ‘Highland Girl’; ‘Phantom of Delight’; ‘Solitary Reaper’; ‘Nightingale’; ‘Cuckoo.’ Transition to grand style: ‘Tintern Abbey’; ‘Brougham Castle’; ‘Leech-Gatherer’; ‘Affliction of Margaret’; ‘There was a Boy’; ‘Peele Castle’; ‘Death of Fox’; ‘Nutting’; ‘Prelude.’ Grand style: ‘Happy Warrior’; ‘Yew-Trees’; ‘Laodamia’; ‘Dion’; ‘Ode on Immortality’; ‘Ode to Duty’; ‘Wisdom and Spirit’; ‘Patriotic and Other Sonnets’; ‘Evening Ode.’ [back]
Note 4. I have transcribed these last sentences from my previous work. I may now (1897) add the mention of yet another felicity. The fame and the name of Nelson have been felt to be matters for no one nation’s pride alone; and the career of the great Admiral has been narrated, in a spirit concordant with Nelson’s and Wordsworth’s own, by the first of naval historians, a citizen of the United States. [back]
 
 
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