« PreviousContinue »
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, 1795-6) 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 men's 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.
'Not Chaos, not
Wordsworth's 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 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 torrent's 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 Northcountry 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 Wordsworth's 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 Wordsworth's 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,
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 Wordsworth's 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 Wordsworth's 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.
How did he win this deep and lasting admiration ? What was it in him which exposed him not merely to the mocks of the scorner but to the dislike of the really able men who condemned him?
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