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Wordsworth Impartially Weighed.
The reputation of Wordsworth as a poet has already passed through two preparatory stages. During the first he was the subject alternately of neglect and of ridicule; during the second he has stood for the theme of extravagant laudation and undiscriminating worship. We have reason to think that the time has come when real critical justice may be done to his honoured name, and something like an exact value affixed to his truly admirable but too often unequal works. Collected in the most thrifty form, they fill a ponderous and appalling tomo. Stripped of all the poems and passages which, save as proceeding from the hand which penned the rest, would be all but worthless, they could easily be compressed into a small and elegant volume. But the lover of literature would rank that golden residuum with his most revered and precious possessions.
A shallow and mischievous style of criticism—indeed nearly all English criticism, unfortunately, is shallow and mischievous—has accustoined us, on approaching any great writer, and more especially any great poet, in a judicial attitude, to commence with the inquiry to what school he belongs, and whom he may be said to have imitated. This melancholy misdirection of intelligence arises from the blunder of confounding an unvarying phenomenon with the ever-varying substance to which it belongs. The first efforts of genius are necessarily imitative, just as much as the first pranks of childhood; and whom its blessed possessor shall begin by imitating will depend upon whose work it is which, not altogether out of harmony with his natural bent, falls under his observation at the critical period. Men of very decided genius will shake themselves more or less free from this early thraldom, but it is certain that a something of it will linger entire with them to the very last, and crop up occasionally when least expected. Even, however, where the genius is less decided, and the traces of kinship with some former singer are more frequently and more visibly discernible, the writer, if he really be a man of genius, will have brought so much of his own to the task that the ordinary reader, unless misled by the perverse guidance we bave alluded to, will be as unconscious of the inherited influence as the poet himself, and the judicious critic will never care to hunt it out save for the purpose of some special and curious inquiry-never with the malign object of airing his penetration or prompting his readers. Ordinarily it will be some contemporaneous or recent writer whose influence is first felt by the new comer; and that not only, and indeed not so much, because writings of the day are more likely to find their way to him than those of remoter authors, as for the reason that the tone, drift, and style of the former are aided and abetted by all the other synchronous influences, social, artistic, religious, and conversational, which surround him, whilst the former are left to affect him merely by their own antiquated and somewhat perfunctory force, and without any assistance, probably in the teeth of opposition, from concurrent events and impetus. How few, if any, either consciously or unconsciously, ever attempt to imitate Shakespeare ; and this can certainly not be attributed either to want of appreciation or to want of courage. Genius is proverbially bold; and that unfortunate quality which is not genius, but fancies it is, is still bolder. But the particular mighty forces and influences which went to make Shakespeare are exhausted, or, to speak more strictly, transmuted, and have been so for a long time. They are to be seen abundantly at work in his contemporaries, and are not invisible in one or two of his forerunners, and in more than one or two of his successors. Occasionally, however, there will be strange cases of reversion in literature; and a writer, passing over the apparent influences nearest at hand, will be inoculated with influences anterior and more distant. But it will be to his bane, unless the age in which he lives has likewise reverted to a remote ancestor, and he can borrow from his time the co-operation every man of high genius requires, and which the help of no dead epoch can by any possibility supply.
Such, and so narrow, are the limits within which poets who are really poets can be said to imitate at all and to be indebted to anybody, and all the current prattle about schools of poetry is just so much nonsense, arising from precisely that same sort of ignorance which governed the classification of the animal world prior to the time of Cuvier, or the classification of the Races of Man previously to the rise of the science of language. Our schools or classifications of poetry, as we see them trotted out on occasions by our erudite critics, are the most superficial and empirical inductions ever made. For not only is the classification a mistaken one, but no classification, in any sound sense of the word, is in this case possible. How could we have such a thing as a genuine zoological classification if no two individual animals could be found in the world having similar fundamental features ; and how could ethnology become a science at all if every person in every race differed from his neighbour in body, brain, and speech, far more than he resembled him? Yet this is precisely what happens with poets of the smallest consequence.
The most unlike show some points of resemblance; but if we were to select the two who displayed the most marked signs of relationship, we should infallibly find that what was most striking in them was by no means their similarity but their difference, and even their contrast. Quick perception of obscure analogies is one of the marks of a superior intelligence; but then the analogies must be obscure, not conspicuous. And in dealing with poets true penetration and appreciation consist in noting not what is common to two, to half a dozen, or to all, but what is peculiar and idiosyncratic in each.
It will be plain to any one who gives himself the pains to reflect upon the matter ever so little, that what, over and above a vulgar mania for easy classifications and for convenient pigeon-holes, has misled our sapient instructors, is what is called "style.” Upon a hasty comparison of poetic styles has been constructed all the written folly about schools of poetry. Now about nothing need we so little concern ourselves in dealing with poets of eminence as about their style. A set style is the sure mark of a second-rate writer. Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron, Shelley, have as many styles as themes, the style being in each case the ready, cheerful, and unconscious bondservant of the theme. Steady, unbroken, jog-trot, is all very well for the nag that takes Hodge's tax-cart to market, but coursers of the sun vary their divine paces according to their divine moods. Canalized rivers move with an even current, but the mountain stream has fits of fast fury, of gliding calm, of perfect rest. The chimneyhaunting sparrow flies from perch to perch with a monotonous fluency; the real birds of the air now sink, now soar, fly down the wind, fly up it, anon flap lazy wings, poise themselves in etherial stillness, and then rush off with a clamour of pinions to salute the clouds. We are quite aware that many will be surprised to find Pope figuring in the above category, and to see him denied a oneness of style. His works it is which have lent themselves most readily to the encouragement of the profound mistake upon which we are insisting. Pope has written invariably in one metre; hence our wiseacres have conceded to him one style. Where are their ears and their eyes, to say nothing of their souls? Can anything well be more different than the styles of Windsor Forest,' the ‘Prologue to the Satires,' the ‘Rape of the Lock,” • Heloisa to Abelard,' the Essay on Man,' and the 'Dunciad'? Yet because they are all written in rhymed heroics, they are all muddled together, and made a school of. Hence-just as though Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dryden, had never employed them before—any one writing afterwards in that metre has had to run the chance, indeed to face the certainty, of being classed as belonging to the school of Pope, and being a follower of that great author; and if he happened to write a satire he has invariably been set down as an absolute imitator. Yet what more similarity is there between Churchill's 'Prophecy of Famine,' and Pope's 'Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot,' than between Andreas del Sarto’s ‘Disputation on the Trinity' in the Pitti Palace and Raphael's ‘Disputa' on the Doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Vatican; which it never yet entered the head of the stupidest person to put in one team? Again, what resemblance of style is there between either of the two satires we have just named, and Byron's · English Bards and Scotch Reviewers'? Even the dullest of ears had to grant, on the appearance of the ‘Corsair,' that rhymed heroics were capable of producing a novel effect; and we may rest satisfied that their infinite variety is not yet exhausted. Byron practically introduced the ottava rima into English literature; and accordingly any one who now ventures to use it is certain to be taxed with imitating Byron. Yet if we were to ask which Byron he was imitating—the Byron of Beppo,' the Byron of Morgante Maggiore,' or the Byron of Don Juan,' we should probably be met with a stare of blank amazement, intended to convey the belief that the styles of 'Beppo,' of 'Morgante Maggiore,' and of Don Juan,' are surely all the same. We defy the most ingenious dissipator of radical differences to say or to indicate in any way what is Byron's style. He has fifty styles, all equally good. Is the style of 'Hamlet' like that of the Midsummer Night's Dream;' the style of Macbeth' like that of the “Merry Wives of Windsor;' the style of 'King Lear' like the style of the • Tempest;' or that of any one of them the same as that of the 'Sonnets,' or of the 'Rape of Lucrece'? From the style of Comus 'could we guess the style of 'Paradise Lost;' or would the knowledge of either instruct us what to expect in ‘L'Allegro'? Shelley is not so various as he would undoubtedly have become had he not been cut off so young; as the remarkable contrast between the Prometheus Unbound' and the * Cenci' testifies. Nevertheless he must have a very small acquaintance with Shelley's works, or very meagre powers of observation, who seriously talks of Shelley's “style.” A fixed style is, we repeat, the mark and opprobrium of inferior writers. We see it in a Blackmore, a Blair, a Falconer. In the present day even Mr. Tennyson, though by no means altogether wanting in variety, is too much infected with it; whilst everything but style—and that a most detestable one—is completely lost sight of in the monotonous mountebankism of Mr. Robert Browning
The foregoing remarks have a special pertinence to Wordsworth, and become imperatively necessary if, in estimating his position and value in the world of letters, we would clear the ground of misconceptions which have obtained only too wide a currency. Partly to Cowper, but still more to Wordsworth, has been attributed what would indeed have been a feat meriting eternal gratitude, had it really been performed, of purging the Hall of the Muses, which had shortly before their time become a mere Augean stable, of gross conceits, affectations, and artificialities, and of restoring to that noblest of all dwellings its native tenants—truth, simplicity, and naturalness. It so happens that nothing of the kind was necessary, though we have
to thank Cowper for unconsciously abetting the idle supposition. When he said in the Table-Talk,'
“ Then Pope, as harmony itself exact,
he little knew that he was providing a text for the most shallow, ignorant sermonising that criticism has ever yet preached. What he said about every warbler having his tune by heart was perfectly true; but it is more or less so of every age, and is afflictingly so in this one, when Mr. Tennyson has such a host of blank-verse imitators. As for Pope being the parent of artificialities and cold conceits, there never was a more absurd charge. It was Pope who for ever put an end to what is well designated by Johnson “the metaphysical race who pursue their thoughts to their last ramifications, by which we lose the grandeur of generality.” It was Pope who rid us of those abominable quaintnesses which—be it reverently spoken--not altogether absent in some of Shakespeare's writings, and only too frequent in those of Dryden, flourished with intolerable rankness, in the interval, in the compositions of Donne, Denham, Cleveland, and Cowley. It was Pope, and none other, who may be said, in the words of Cowper, to have
• Whipped out of sight, with satire pert and keen,
The puppy pack that had defiled the scene." From the time of Pope till the present day, when indeed we are threatened with a resuscitation of the grotesque and affected tricks of the seventeenth century, artificiality-a very different thing from art, or even from artifice-has remained all but unknown in English poetical literature. The reign of Nature was restored, and restored by Pope. For it would indeed be a narrow and sorry use of language and of our understandings alike, to restrict the term Nature to the external world. Byron, no mean judge, has shown how, despite certain passages in which Pope writes of external Nature too conventionally, his works abound with new, lively, and just delineations of her moods and beauties. But Nature covers a larger world even than the glorious one of field and flood, of mountain and sky, of storm and sunset. There is such a thing as human nature, which Donne, Cleveland, and Cowley, and even Dryden, had, to use plain language, played the fool with in a solemn fashion worse than any frivolous one; and Pope