1902 Encyclopedia > William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth
English romantic poet

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (1770-1850), the poet, was born at Cockermouth, on the Derwent, in Cumberland, on the 7th of April 1770. His parentage offers a curious parallel to Scott’s; he was the son of an attorney, law-agent to the earl of Lonsdale, a prosperous man in his profession, descended from an old Yorkshire family of landed gentry. On the mother’s side also Wordsworth was connected with the middle territorial class; his mother, Anne Cookson, was the daughter of a well-to-do mercer in Penrith, but her mother was a Crackanthorpe, whose ancestors had been lords of the manor of Newbiggin, near Penrith, from the time of Edward III. He was thus, as Scott put it in his own case, come of "gentle" kin, and like Scott he was proud of it, and dictated the fact in his short fragment of prose autobiography. The country squires and farmers whose blood flowed in Wordsworth’s veins were not far enough above local life to be out of sympathy with it, and the poet’s interest in the common scenes and common folk of the North country hills and dales had a traceable hereditary bias.

William Wordsworth portrait

William Wordsworth
English romantic poet

Though his parents were of study stock, both died prematurely, his mother when he was five years old, his father when he was thirteen, the ultimate cause of death in his mother’s case being exposure to cold in "a best bedroom" in London, in his father’s exposure on a Cumberland hill, where he had been befogged and lost his way. At the age of eight Wordsworth was sent to school at Hawkshead, in the Esthwaite valley in Lancashire. His father died while he was there, and at the age of seventeen he was sent by his uncle to St John’s College, Cambridge. He did not distinguish himself in the studies of the university, and for some time after taking his degree of B.A., which he did in January 1791, he showed what seemed to his relatives a most perverse reluctance to adopt any regular profession. His mother had noted his "stiff, moody, and violent temper" in childhood, and it seemed as if this family judgment was to be confirmed in his manhood. After taking his degree, he was pressed to take holy orders, but would not; he had no taste for the law; he idled a few months aimlessly in London, a few months more with a Welsh college friend, with who, he had made a pedestrian tour in France and Switzerland during his last Cambridge vacation; then in the November of 1791 he crossed to France, ostensibly to learn the language, made the acquaintance of revolutionaries, sympathized with them vehemently, and was within an ace of throwing in his lot with the Brissotins to give them the steady direction that they needed. When it came to this, his relatives cut off his supplies, and he was obliged to return to London towards the close of 1792. But still he resisted all pressure to enter any of the regular professions, published An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches in 1793, and in 1794, still moving about to all appearance in stubborn aimlessness among his friends and relatives, had no more rational purpose of livelihood than drawing up the prospectus of a periodical of strictly republican principles to be called "The Philanthropist." At this stage, at the age of twenty-four, Wordsworth seemed to his friends a very hopeless and impracticable young man.

But all the time from his boyhood upwards a great purpose had been growing and maturing in his mind. The Prelude expounds in lofty impassioned strain, treating of simple facts in diction that would be "poetic" beyond the worst extravagances of the panegyrical school but for the genuine emotion that inspires its amplitude of phrase. How his sensibility for nature was "augmented and sustained," and how it never, except for a brief interval, ceased to be "creative" in the special sense of his subsequently theory. But it is with his feelings towards nature that The Prelude mainly deals; it says little regarding the history of his ambition to express those feelings in verse. It is the autobiography, not of the poet of nature, but of the worshipper and priest. The salient incidents in the history of the poet he communicated in prose notes and in familiar discourses. And it appears that, while he was still a schoolboy of fourteen, the delight that he took in contemplating and moralizing from nature was mingled with the enthusiasm of a poet’s ambition and joy in the discovery of a fresh imperfectly worked field. Commenting on the couplet in the Evening Walk --

"And, fronting the bright west, you oak entwines
Its darkening boughs and leaves in stronger lines --"

he said:

"This is feebly and imperfectly exprest; but I recollect distinctly the very spot where this first struck me. It was on the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them; and I made a resolution to supply in some degree the deficiency. I could not at that time have been above fourteen years of age."

About the same time he wrote, as a school task at Hawkshead, verses that show considerable acquaintance with the poets of his own country at least, as well as some previous practice in the art of verse-making. (Footnote 668-1) The fragment that stands at the beginning of his collected works, recording a resolution to end his life among his n
ative hills, was the conclusion of a long poem written while he was still at school. And, undistinguished as he was at Cambridge in the contests for academic honours, the Evening Walk, his first publication, was written during his vacations. (Footnote 669-1) He published it in 1793, to show, as he said, that he could do something, although he had not distinguished himself in university work. It is significant of his persistency of purpose that in this poem, as well as in the Descriptive Sketches founded on his tour abroad during his last vacation, he is seen to be steadily fulfilling his resolution to supply defects in the minute description of nature. There are touches here and there of the bent of imagination that became dominant in him soon afterwards, notably in the moral aspiration that accompanies his Remembrance of Collins on the Thames:--

"O glide, fair stream! for ever so
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
Till all our minds for ever flow
As thy deep waters now are flowing."

But in the main this first publication represents the poet in the stage described in the twelfth book of The Prelude:--

"Bent overmuch on superficial things,
Pampering myself with meager novelties
Of colour and proportion; to then moods
Of time and season, to the moral power,
The affections, and the spirit of the place

Nature was little more than a picture-gallery to him; the pleasure of the eye had all but absolute dominion; and he

"Roamed from hill to hill, from rock to rock,
Still craving combinations of new forms,
New pleasures, wider empire for the sight,
Proud of her own endowments, and rejected
To lay the inner faculties asleep."

But, though he had not yet found his distinctive aim as a poet, he was inwardly bent, all the time that his relatives saw in him only a wayward and unpromising aversion to work in any regular line, upon poetry as "his office upon earth."

In this determination he was strengthened by his sister Dorothy, who with rare devotion consecrated her life henceforward to his service. A timely legacy enabled them to carry their purpose into effect. A friend of his, whom he had nursed in a last illness, Raisley Calvert, son of the steward of the duke of Norfolk, who had large estates in Cumberland, died early in 1795, leaving him a legacy of £900. And here it may be well to notice how opportunely, as De Quincey half-ruefully remarked, money always fell in to Wordsworth, enabling him to pursue his poetic career without distraction. Calvert’s bequest came to him when he was on the point of concluding an engagement as a journalist in London. On it and other small resources he and his sister, thanks to her frugal management, contrived to live for nearly eight years. By the end of that time Lord Lonsdale, who owed Wordsworth’s father a large sum for professional services, and had steadily refused to pay it, died, and his successor paid the debt with interest. His wife, Mary Hutchinson, whom he married in 1802, brought him some fortune; and in 1813, when in spite of his plain living his family began to press upon his income, he was appointed stamp-distributor for Westmorland, with an income of £500, afterwards nearly doubled by the increase of his district. By this succession of timely godsends, Wordsworth, though he did not escape some periods of sharp anxiety, was saved from the necessity of turning aside from his vocation.

To return, however, to the course of his life from the time when he resolved to labour with all his powers in the office of poet. The first two years, during which he lived with his self-sacrificing sister at Racedown, in Dorset, were spent in half-hearted and very imperfectly successful experiments, satires in imitation of Juvenal, the tragedy of The Borderers, (Footnote 669-2) and a poem in the Spenserian stanza, the poem now entitled Guilt and Sorrow. How much longer this time of doubtful self-distrustful endeavour might have continued is a subject for curious speculations; and end was put to it by a fortunate incident, a visit from Coleridge, who had read his first publication, and seen in it, what none of the public critics had discerned, the advent of "an original poetic genius." It would impossible to exaggerate the importance for Wordsworth of the arrival of this enthusiastic Columbus. Under his sister’s genial influence (Footnote 669-3) he was groping his way doubtfully out of the labyrinth of poetic conventions, beginning to see a new pathos and sublimity of human life, but not yet convinced except by fits and starts of the rightness of his own vision. Stubborn and independent as Wordsworth was, he needed some friendly voice from the outer world to give him confidence in himself. Coleridge rendered him this indispensable service. He had begun to seek his themes in

"Sorrow, that is not sorrow, but delight;
And miserable love, that is nor pain
To hear of, for the glory that redounds
Therefrom to human kind, and what we are."

He read to his visitor one of these experiments, the story of the ruined cottage, afterwards introduced into the first book of The Excursion. (Footnote 669-4) Coleridge, who had already seen original poetic genius in the poems published before, was enthusiastic in his praise of them as having "a character, by books not hitherto reflected,’ and his praise gave new heart and hope to the poet hitherto hesitating and uncertain.

June 1797 was the date of this memorable visit. So pleasant was the companionship on both sides that, when Coleridge returned to Nether Stowey in Somerset, Wordsworth at his instance changed his quarters to Alfoxden, within a mile and a half of Coleridge’s temporary residence, and the two poets lived in almost daily intercourse for the next twelve months. During that period Wordsworth’s powers rapidly expanded and matured; ideas that had been gathering in his mind for years, and lying there in dim confusion, felt the stir of a new life, and ranged themselves in clearer shapes under the fresh quickening breath of Coleridge’s swift and discursive d
ialectic. The radiant restless vitality of the more variously gifted man stirred the stiffer and more sluggish nature of the recluse to its depths, and Coleridge’s quick and generous appreciation of his power gave him precisely the encouragement that he needed.

The Lyrical Ballads were the poetic fruits of their companionship. Out of their frequent discussions of the relative value of common life and supernatural incidents as themes for imaginative treatment grew the idea of writing a volume together, composed of poems of the two kinds. Coleridge was to take the supernatural; and, as his industry was not equal to his friend’s, this kind was represented by the Ancient Mariner alone. Among Wordsworth’s contributions were The Female Vagrant, We are Seven, Complaint for a Forsaken Indian Woman, The Last of the Flock, The Idiot Boy, The Mad Mother ("Her eyes are wild"), The Thorn, Goody Blake and Harry Gill, The Reverie of Poor Susan, Simon Lee, Expostulation and Reply, The Tables Turned, Lines left upon a Yew-tree Seat, An Old Man Travelling ("Animal Tranquility and Decay"), Lines above Tintern Abbey. The volume was published by Cottle of Bristol in September, 1798.

It is necessary to enumerate the contents of this volume in fairness to the contemporaries of Wordsworth, whom it is the fashion to reproach for their cold or scoffing reception of his first distinctive work. Those Wordsworthians who give up The Idiot Boy, Goody Blake, and The Thorn as mistaken experiments have no right to triumph over the first derisive critics of the Lyrical Ballads, or to wonder at the dullness that failed to see at once in this humble issue from an obscure provincial press the advent of a great master in literature. The poems that have not yet won general acceptance even among the most devoted Wordsworthians formed a large part of the whole revelation, and attention was specially drawn to them by the title. While the taste for The Idiot Boy is still uncreated, still far from general, while critics of authority can still so completely miss the poet’s intention as to suggest that the poem might have been enjoyable if Betty Foy’s imbecile son had been described as beautiful and the word "idiot" had not been left to convey uncorrected its repulsive associations, while intimate disciples acknowledge themselves unable to understand the "glee" with which Wordsworth told the simple story, and wonder whether e intended it as a "comic poem,"(Footnote 670-1) it be doubted whether now, after nearly a century of discipleship and exposition, the Lyrical Ballads would receive a much more cordial or much wider welcome than they did in 1798. It is true that Tintern Abbey was in the volume, and that all the highest qualities of Wordsworth’s imagination and of his verse could be illustrated now from the lyrical ballads proper in this first publication; but before we accuse our predecessors of purblindness, corrupt taste, and critical malignity, as is the sweet and reasonable custom of too many professing Wordsworthians,(Footnote 670-2) we should remember that clear vision is easier for us than it was for them when the revelation was fragmentary and incomplete.

Although Wordsworth was not received at first with the respect to which we now see that he was entitled, his power was not entirely without recognition. There is a curious commercial evidence of this, which ought to be noted, because a perversion of the fact is sometimes used to exaggerate the supposed neglect of Wordsworth at the outset of his career. When the Longmans took over Cottle’s publishing business in 1799, the value of the copyright of the Lyrical Ballads, for which Cottle had paid thirty guineas, was assessed at nil. Cottle therefore begged that it might be excluded altogether from the bargain, and presented it to the authors. But in 1800 when the first edition was exhausted, the Longmans offered Wordsworth £100 for two issues of new edition with an additional volume and an explanatory preface. The sum was small compared with what Scott and Byron soon afterwards received, but it shows that the public neglect was not quite so complete as is sometimes represented. Another edition was called for in 1802, and a fourth in 1805. The new volume in the 1800 edition was made up of poems composed during his residence at Goslar in the winter of 1798-99, and after his settlement at Grasmere in December 1799. It contained a large portion of poems now universally accepted:-- Ruth, Nutting, Three Years She Grew, A Poet’s Epitaph, Hartleap Well, Lucy Gray, The Brothers, Michael, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Poems on The Naming of Places. But it contained also the famous Preface, in which he infuriated critics by presuming to defend his eccentricities in an elaborate theory of poetry and poetic diction.

Comparatively few in the present day have actually read and studied this famous document, although it is constantly referred to as a sort of revolutionary proclamation against the established taste of the eighteenth century. For one that had read Wordsworth’s original, hundreds have read Coleridge’s brilliant criticism, and the fixed conception of the doctrines actually put forth by Wordsworth is taken from this. Now, although the Preface and the extensive and bitter discussion provoked by it had not a tithe of the influence on poetry ascribed to it by a natural liking for sudden changes and simple personal agencies, although the result on literary practice was little more than the banishment of a few overdriven phrases and figures of speech from poetic diction, (Footnote 670-3) it is desirable, considering the celebrity of the affair, that Wordsworth’s exact position should be made clear. To do this is to contradict several "vulgar errors" on the subject, probably too vulgar and deeply rooted to be affected by any exposure. Coleridge’s criticism of his friend’s theory proceeded avowedly "on the assumption that his words had been rightly interpreted, as purporting that the proper diction for poetry in general consists altogether in a language taken, with due exceptions, from the mouths of men in real life, a language which actually constitutes the natural conversation of men under the influence of natural feelings." Coleridge assumed further that, when Wordsworth spoke of there being "no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition," he meant by language not the mere words but the style, the structure, and the order of the sentences; on this assumption he argued as if Wordsworth had held that the material order should always be the same as the prose order. Given these assumptions, which formed the popular interpretation of the theory b
y its opponents, it was easy to demonstrate its absurdity and Coleridge is very generally supposed to have given Wordsworth’s theory in its bare and naked extravagance the coup de grâce. But the truth is that neither of the two assumptions is warranted; not only so, but both were expressly disclaimed by Wordsworth in the Preface itself. There is not a single qualification introduced by Coleridge in correction of the theory that was not made by Wordsworth himself in the original statement.(Footnote 671-1) In the first place, it was not put forward as a theory of poetry in general, though from the vigour with which he carried the war into the enemy’s country it was naturally enough for polemic purposes taken as such; it was a statement and defence of the principles on which his own poems of humbler life were composed, undertaken at the instance of friends interested in "a class of poetry well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not important in the quality and in the multiplicity of its moral relations." He assailed the public taste as "depraved," first and mainly in so far as it was adverse to simple incidents simply treated, being accustomed to "gross and violent stimulants," "craving after extraordinary incident," possessed with a "degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation," "frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse." This, and not adherence to the classical rule of Pope, which had really suffered deposition a good half century before, was the first count in Wordsworth’s defensive indictment of the taste of his age. To make it perfectly clear that he was pleading only for his own maligned and misunderstood poems, he repeated at the close of the Preface that, "if his purpose were fulfilled, a species of poetry would be produced which is genuine poetry , in its nature well adapted to interest mankind, &c." It is true that he said also that, "in order entirely to enjoy the poetry which I am recommending, it would be necessary to give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed’; but the context makes it plain that in so saying he referred to startling incident and gaudy ornament, his own purpose being to make "the feeling give importance to the action and situation, not the action and situation to the feeling," and to use language as near as possible to the language of real life. In the second place, as regards this language of real life, and the "poetic diction," the liking for which was the second count in his indictment of the public taste, it is most explicitly clear that, when he said that there was no essential difference between the language of poetry and the language of prose, he meant words, plain and figurative and not structure and order, or, as Coleridge otherwise puts it, the "ordonnance" of composition. Coleridge says that if he meant this he was only uttering a truism, which nobody that knew Wordsworth would suspect him of doing; but, strange to say, it is as a truism, nominally acknowledged by everybody, that Wordsworth does advance his doctrine on this point. Only he adds—"if in what I am about to say it shall appear to some that my labour is unnecessary, and that I am like a man fighting a battle without enemies, such persons may be reminded that, whatever be the language outwardly holden by men, a practical faith in the opinions which I am wishing to establish is almost unknown"; and what he wished to establish as may be seen by any person of average intelligence who grapples honestly with his stiff and condensed exposition, and interprets it with reference to the controversy in which it was an incident, was the simple truth that what is false unreal, affected, bombastic, or nonsensical in prose is not less so in verse. There was no greater heresy than this in Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction. The form in which he expresses the theory was conditioned by the circumstances of the polemic, and readers were put on a false scent by his purely incidental; and collateral and very much overstrained defence of the language of rustics, as being less conventional and more permanent, and therefore better fitted to afford materials for the poet’s selection. But this was a side issue, a paradoxical retort on his critics, seized upon by them in turn and made prominent as a matter for easy ridicule; all that he says on this head might be cut out of the Preface without affecting in the least his main theses. The drift of this is fairly apparent all through, but stands out in unmistakable clearness in his criticism of the passages from Johnson and Cowper.

"But the sound of the church-going bell
These valleys and rocks never heard,
Ne’er sighed at the sound of a knell
Or smiled when a Sabbath appeared."

The epithet "church-going" offends him as a puritan in grammar; whether his objection is well founded or ill founded, it applies equally to prose and verse. Poetic licence does not justify bad grammar. Whether this is strictly defensible or not, all the same it illustrates his contention. To represent the valleys and rocks as sighing and smiling in the circumstances would appear feeble and absurd in prose composition, and is not less so in maetrical composition; "the occasion does not justify such violent expressions." These are examples of all that Wordsworth meant by saying that "there is no essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition;" and it is mere pedantry to detach this phrase from the context, and hold him bound by the precise scholastic sense of the word essential to a meaning that he expressly repudiates. So far is Wordsworth from contending that the metrical order should always be the same with the prose order, that part of the preface is devoted to a subtle analysis of the peculiar effect of material arrangement, assigning the pleasure proper to this as his reason for writing in verse rather than in prose, and repeating again and again such phrases as ‘"fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation," and "language closely resembling that of real life, and yet in the circumstance of metre differing from it so widely."(Footnote 671-2) What he objects to is not departure from the structure of prose, but the assumption, which seemed to him to underlie the criticisms of his ballads, that a writer of verse is not a poet unless he uses artificially ornamental language, not justified by the strength of the emotion expressed. The farthest that he went in defence of prose structure in poetry was to maintain that, if the words in a verse happened to be in the order of prose, it did not follow that they were prosaic in the sense of being unpoetic,—a side-stroke at critics who complained of his prosaisms for no better reason than that the words stood in the order of prose composition.
Wordsworth was far from repudiating elevation of style in poetry. "If," he said, "the poet’s subject be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit occasion, lead him ton passions the language of which, if selected truly and judiciously, must necessarily he dignified and variegated, and alive with metaphors and figures." But no "foreign splendours’ should be interwoven with what "the passion naturally suggests,’ and "where the passions are of a milder character the style also should be subdued and temperate."

Such was Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction. Nothing could be more grossly mistaken than the current notion, which had been repeated by so many critics of authority that it has become an established belief, that the greater part of Wordsworth’s poetry was composed in defiance of his own theory, and that he succeeded when he set his own theory most at defiance. All commentators on Wordsworth who fell tempted to repeat this pretty paradox should pause and read his own statement of his theory before giving further currency to a misconception which they will see is absurdly unwarrantable. It is traceable to the authority of Coleridge. His just, sympathetic, and penetrating criticism on Wordsworth’s work as a poet did immerse service in securing for him a wider recognition; but his proved friendship and brilliant style have done sad injustice to the poet as a theorist. It was natural to assume that Coleridge, if anybody, must have known what his friend’s theory was; and it was natural also that readers under the charm of his lucid and melodious prose should gladly grant themselves a dispensation from the trouble of verifying his facts in the harsh and cumbrous exposition of the theorist himself.(Footnote 672-1) After all, the theory is a minor affair. It is the work that counts; only it is hardly fair to Wordsworth that he should go down as a stupid genius who did right against his own reasoned principles, or an arrogant person who knew himself to be wrong but refused to admit it.

The question of diction made most noise, but it was far from being the most important point of poetic doctrine set forth in the Preface. If in this he merely enunciated a truism, generally admitted in words but too generally ignored in practice, there was real novelty in his plea for humble subjects, and in his theory of poetic composition. We might, indeed, easily exaggerate to ourselves the amount of innovation in mere abstract theory; this might have been insignificant enough but for the turn that was given to it by the poet’s individuality. But in view of
all that most distinctive and influential in Wordsworth’s own work, his remarks on poetry in general, on the supreme function of the imagination in dignifying humble and commonplace incidents, and on the need of active exercise of imagination in the reader as well as in the poet -- passiveness in this particular not being recommended as wise -- his remarks on these points are immeasurably more important than his theory of poetic diction. It is much to be regretted that Coleridge’s genius for luminous and brilliant exposition was not applied to the development of the few stiff phrases in which Wordsworth sought to generalize his own practice. Such savings as that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility," or that it is the business of a poet to trace "how men associate ideas in a state of excitement," are, like the detached parts of a Chinese puzzle, meaningless till they are pieced together with views of the poet’s art expressed and illustrated elsewhere. They are significant of Wordsworth’s endeavour to lay the foundations of his art in an independent study of the feelings and faculties of man in real life unbiased as far as possible by poetic custom and convention. If this had meant, as many might suppose from the bare statement of the idea, that the new poet was to turn his back on his predecessors and never look behind him to what they had done, was to reject absolutely as valueless for him the accumulating tradition of though and expression, was to wrote in short as if nobody before him had ever written a line foolish and unfruitful, silly and presumptuous, ambition could not be conceived. But Wordsworth was guilty of no such extravagance. He was from boyhood upwards a diligent student of poetry, and was not insensible of his obligations to the past. His purpose was only to use real life as a touchstone of poetic substance. Imagination operates in all men for the increase or the abatement of emotion. Incidents that have lodged in the memory are not allowed to lie there unchanged; joy is sustained by the instinctive activity of the imagination in assembling kindred ideas round the original incident, and under the instructive operation of the same faculty pain in relieved by the suggestion of ideas that console and tranquillize. Now the poet, in Wordsworth’s conception, is distinctively a man in whom this beneficent energy of imagination, operative as a blind instinct more or less in all men, is stronger than in others, and is voluntarily and rationally exercised for the benefit of all in its proper work of increase and consolation. If the poet is to discharge this mission profitably, he must study how the imagination works in real life, that is to say, "how men associate ideas in a state of excitement." Not even image that the excited mind conjures up in real life is necessarily poetical. Joy may be chilled and pain exaggerated by morbid imaginative activity. It is the business of the poet to select and modify for his special purpose of producing immediate pleasure. "Nor," says the ardent theorist, ‘let this necessity of producing immediate pleasure be considered as a degradation of the poet’s art. It is far otherwise. It is an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgement the more sincere because it is not formal but indirect; it is a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love; further, it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows and feels and moves."

All this is elementary enough as Hartleian psychology. The formal recognition of it will not make a man a poet. But there were several respects in which the formal recognition of these elementary principles of poetic evolution powerfully affected Wordsworth’s practice. One of these may be indicated, though not fully expressed, by saying that he endeavoured always to work out an emotional motive from within. Instead of choosing a striking theme and working at it like a decorative painter, embellishing enriching, dressing to advantage, standing back from it and studying effects, his plan was to take incidents that had set his own imagination spontaneously to work, and to study and reproduce with artistic judgment the modification of the initial feeling, the emotional motive, within himself. There is room for an endless amount of subtle discussion, which would be out of place here, as to the exact difference between the methods thus broadly stated. It is obvious that they tend to approximate, inasmuch as all poets must work to some extent from with and all to some extent from without. The mere fact of using words, the medium of communication between man and man, implies a reference, unconscious or deliberate, to the effect produced on others. But undoubtedly in Wordsworth’s case the reference to others was of deliberate purpose as much as possible suppressed. Probably from natural stiffness of temper, he could not make it easily, and found the effort, as it must always be when it is an effort and not a happy instinct, embossing and chilling. At any rate, if an association, to use his own terminology, gave pleasure to himself, he did not pause long to consider the probable effect on others, If he did reflect upon it when the act of composition was over, he was of the able to satisfy himself that, if an association which seemed to him just, reasonable, and humane, was not acceptable to general sentiment, the general sentiment was corrupt. To this, as he himself with his habits of self-criticism was fully aware, was owing much of his strength and much of his unpopularity. By keeping his eye on the object, as spontaneously modified by his own imaginative energy, he was able to give full and undistracted scope to all his powers in poetic coinage of the wealth that his imagination brought. On the other hand, readers whose nature or education was different from his own, were repelled or left cold and indifferent, or obliged to make the sympathetic effort to see with his eyes, which he refused to make in order that he might see with theirs.

"He is retired as noontide dew
Or fountain in a noon-day grove,
And you must love him ere to you
He will seem worthy of your love."

From this habit of taking the processes of his own mind as the standard of the way in which "men associate ideas in a state of excitement," and language familiar to himself as the standard of the language of "real men," arises a superficial anomaly in Wordsworth’s poetry, an apparent contradiction between his practice and his theory. His own imagination, judged by ordinary standards, was easily excited, excited by emotional motives that have little force with ordinary men. Most of his poems start from humbler, slighter, less generally striking themes than those of any other poet of high rank. But his poetry is not corresponding simple. On the contrary, much of it, much of the best of it -- for example, the Ode to Duty, and that on the Intimations of Immortality -- is as intricate elaborate, and abstruse, as remote from the ordinary paths of thought, as is to be found in literature. The emotional motive is simple; the passion has almost always a simple origin, and often is of no great intensity; but the imaginative structure is generally elaborate, and, when the poet is at his best, supremely splendid and gorgeous. No poet has built such magnificent palaces of rare material for the ordinary everyday homely human affections. It is because he has invested our ordinary everyday principles of conduct, which are so apt to become threadbare, with such imperishable robes of finest texture and richest design that Wordsworth holds so high a place among the great moralists, the greatest of moralists in verse. And yet he attained this end in his most effectively moral poems, though not by any means in all his poems, without in the least confusing the boundaries between poetry and preaching, his conception of the end of poetry as immediate pleasure serving him as a load-star.

His practice was influenced also, and not always for good, by his theory that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." This was a somewhat doubtful corollary from his general theory of poetic evolution. A poem is complete in itself; there must be no sting in it to disturb the reader’s content with the whole; through whatever agitations it progresses, to whatever elevations it soars, to this end it must come, otherwise it is imperfect as a poem. Now the imagination is ordinary men, though the process is not expressed in verse, and the poet’s special art has thus no share in producing the effect, reaches the poetic end when it has so transfigured a disturbing experience, whether of joy or grief, that this rests tranquilly in the memory, can be recalled without disquietude, and dwelt upon with some mode and degree of pleasure, more or less keen, more or less pure or mixed with pain. True to his idea of imitating real life, Wordsworth made it a rule for himself not to wrote on any theme till his imagination had operated upon it for some time involuntarily; it was not in his view ripe for poetic treatment till this transforming agency had subdued the original emotion to a state of tranquility.(Footnote 673-1) Out of this tranquility arises the favourable moment for poetic composition, some day, when, as he contemplates the subject, the tranquility disappears, an emotion kindred to the original emotion is reinstated, and the poet retraces and supplements with all his art the previous involuntary and perhaps unconscious imaginative chemistry.

When we study the moments that Wordsworth found favourable for successful composition, a very curious law reveals itself, somewhat at variance with the common conception of him as a poet who derived all his strength from solitary communion with nature. We find that the recluse’s best poems were written under the excitement of some break on the monotony of his quiet life—change of scene, change of companionship, change of occupation. The law holds from the beginning to the end of his poetic career. We have already noticed the immense stimulus given to his powers by his first contact with Coleridge after two years of solitary and abortive effort. Above Tintern Abbey was composed during a four day’s ramble with his sister; he began it on leaving Tintern, and concluded it as he was entering Bristol. His residence amidst strange scenes and "unknown men" at Goslar was particularly fruitful; She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways, Ruth, Nutting, There was a Boy, Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe, all belong to those few months of unfamiliar environment. The breeze that met him as he issued from the city gates on his homeward journey brought him the first thought of The Prelude. The second year of his residence at Grasmere was unproductive; he was "hard at work’ then on The Excursion; but the excitement of his tour on the Continent in the autumn of 1802, combined perhaps with a happy change in his pecuniary circumstances and the near prospect of marriage, roused him to one of his happiest fits of activity. His first great sonnet,
the Lines on Westminster Bridge, was composed on the roof of the Dover coach; the first of the splendid series "dedicated to national independence and liberty," the most generally impressive and universally intelligible of his poems, Fair Star of Evening, Once did she Hold the Gorgeous East in Fee, Toussaint, Milton, thou shouldst be Living at this Hour, It is not to be Thought of that the Flood, When I have Borne in Memory what has Tamed, were all written in the course of the tour, or in London in the month after his return. A tour in Scotland in the following year, 1803, yielded the Highland Girl and The Solitary Reaper. Soon after his return he resumed The Prelude; and The Affliction of Margaret and the Ode to Duty, his greatest poems in two different veins, were coincident with the exaltation of spirit due to the triumphant and successful prosecution of the long-delayed work. The Character of the Happy Warrior, which he described to Miss Martineau as "a chain of extremely valooable thoughts," though it did not fulfill "poetic conditions," (Footnote 674-1) was the product of a calmer period. The excitement of preparing for publication always had a rousing effect upon him; the preparations for the edition of 1807 resulted in the completion of the ode on the Intimations of Immortality, the sonnets The World is too much with us, Methought I saw the Footsteps of a Throne, Two Voices are there, and Lady, the Songs of Spring were in the Grove, and the Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle. After 1807 there is a marked falling off in the quality, of Wordsworth’s poetic work. It is significant of the comparatively sober and laborious spirit in which he wrote The Excursion that its progress was accompanied by none of those casual sallies of exulting and exuberant power that mark the period of the happier Prelude. The completion of The Excursion was signalized by the production of Laodamia. The chorus of adverse criticism with which it was received inspired him in the noble sonnet to Haydon -- High is our Calling, Friend. He rarely or never again touched the same lofty height.

It is interesting to compare with what he actually accomplished the plan of life-work with which Wordsworth settled at Grasmere in the last month of the eighteenth century.(Footnote 674-2) The plan was definitely conceived as he left the German town of Goslar in the spring of 1799. Tired of the wandering unsettled life that he had led hitherto, dissatisfied also with the fragmentary occasional and disconnected character of his lyrical poems, he longed for a permanent home among his native hills, where he might as one called and consecrated to the task, devote his powers continuously to the composition of a great philosophical poem on "Man, Nature, and Society.’ The poem was to be called The Recluse, "as having for its principal subject the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement." He communicated the design to Coleridge, who gave him enthusiastic encouragement to proceed. In the first transport of the conception he felt as if he needed only solitude and leisure for the continuous execution of it. But, though he had still before him fifty years of peaceful life amidst his beloved scenery, the work in the projected form at least was destined to remain incomplete. Doubts and misgivings soon arose, and favourable moments of felt inspiration delayed their coming. To sustain him in his resolution he thought of writing as an introduction, or, as he put it, an antechapel to the church which he proposed to build, a h
istory of his own mind up to the time when he recognized the great mission of his life. One of the many laughs at his expense by unsympathetic critics has been directed against his saying that he wrote his Prelude of fourteen books about himself out of diffidence. But in truth the original motive was none other than distrust of his own powers. He began this view of his early life to reassure himself from misgivings whether nature and education had fitted him for his proposed task, partly by elevating his mind to a confidence in nature’s special destination, and partly by making practical trial of his powers in a simpler work. He turned aside from The Prelude to prepare the second volume of the Lyrical Ballads and write the explanatory Preface, which as a statement of his aims in poetry had partly the same purpose of strengthening his self-confidence. From his sister’s Journal we learn that in the winter of 1801-2 he was "hard at work on The Pedlar" -- the original title of The Excurson. But this experiment on the larger work was also soon abandoned. It appears from a letter to his friend Sir George Beaumont that his health was far from robust, and in particular that he could not write without intolerable physical uneasiness. We should probably not be wrong in connecting his physical weakness with his rule of waiting for favourable moments. His next start with The Prelude, in the spring of 1804, was more prosperous; he dropped it for several months, but, resuming again in the spring of 1805, he completed it in the summer of that year. But still the composition of the great work to which it was intended to be a portico proceeded by fits and starts. It was not till 1814 that the second of the three divisions of The Recluse, ultimately named The Excursion, was ready for publication; and he went no further in the execution of his great design. It is possible that he had his own unfinished project in mind when he wrote the sonnet on Malham Cove.--

"Mid the wreck of Is and Was,
things incomplete and purposes betrayed
Make sadder transits o’er thought’s optic glass
Than noblest objects utterly decayed."

We shall speak presently of the reception of The Excursion. Meantime we must look elsewhere for the virtual accomplishment of the great design of The Recluse. The purpose was not after all betrayed; it was really fulfilled, though not in the form intended, in his various occasional poems. In relation to the edifice that he aspired to construct, he likened these poems to little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses; they are really the completed work, much more firmly united by their common purpose than by any formal and visible nexus of words. Formally disconnected, they really, as we read and feel them, range themselves to spiritual music as the component parts of a great poetic temple, finding a rendezvous amidst the scenery of the district where the poet had his local habitation. The Lake District, as transfigured by Wordsworth’s imagination, is the fulfillment of his ambition after an enduring memorial. The Poems collected and published in 1807 compose in effect "a philosophical poem on man, nature, and society," the title of which might fitly have been The Recluse, "as having for its principal subject the sensations and opinions of a poet living in retirement." As a realization of the idea of The Recluse, these poems are from every poetical point of view infinitely superior to the kind of thing that he projected and failed to complete.

The derisive fury with which The Excursion was assailed upon its first appearance has long been a stock example of critical blindness, conceit, and malignity. And yet, if we look at the position claimed for the Excursion now by competent authorities, the error of the first critics is seen to lie in their indictment of faults, but in the prominence they gave to the faults and their generally disrespectful tone towards a poet of Wordsworth’s greatness. Jeffrey’s petulant "This will never do," uttered, professedly at least, more in sorrow than in anger, because the poet would persist in spite of all friendly counsel in misapplying his powers,(Footnote 675-1) has become a byword of ridiculous critical cocksureness. But the curious thing is that The Excursion had not "done,’ and that the Wordsworthians who laugh at Jeffrey are in the habit of repeating the substance of his criticism, though in more temperate and becoming language. Thus Dean Church, is a criticism at once sympathetic and judicious, after the usual fling at Jeffrey’s "insolence," goes on to say --

"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 reader’s honest enjoyment. We read on because we must." (Footnote 675-2)

This is the very substance of Jeffrey’s criticism, which was far from being unreservedly damnatory, as the following will show:--

"Besides those more extended passages of interest or beauty which we have quoted and omitted to quote, there are scattered up and down the book, and in the midst of its most repulsive portions, a very great number of single lines and images that sparkle like gems in the desert and startle us by an intimation of the great poetic powers that lie buried in the rubbish that has been heaped around them."

Jeffrey, it will be seen, was not blind to the occasional felicities and unforgettable lines celebrated by Coleridge, and his general judgment on The Excursion has been abundantly ratified.(Footnote 675-3) It is not upon The Excursion that Wordsworth’s reputation as a poet can ever rest, whatever defence may be made for it as "a chain of extremely valuable thoughts," varied by passage of lofty or quietly beautiful description, invigorating exhortation, and gentle pathos. The two ‘books" entitled The Churchyard among the Mountains are the only parts of the poem that derive much force from the scenic setting; if they had been published separately, they would probably have obtained at once a reception very different from that given to The Excursion on a whole. The dramatic setting is merely dead weight not because the chief speaker is a pedlar -- Wordsworth fairly justifies this selection -- but because the pedlar, as a personality to be known, and loved, and respected, and listened to with interest, is not completely created. We know Uncle Toby better than Sterne, but we do not know the Wanderer so well as Wordsworth, and consequently we are more easily bored by him than by the poet speaking in his own person as he does in The Prelude. His cheerfulness after reciting the tale of Margaret at the ruined cottage is almost offensive; the assigned motive for it in the beauty of nature that remains though the poor broken-hearted woman is gone is hardly higher than the dropsical scullion’s philosophy in Tristram Shandy. "He is dead. He is certainly dead,’ said Obadiah. ‘So am not I,’ said the foolish scullion."(Footnote 675-4)

There can be little doubt that adverse criticism had a depressing influence of Wordsworth’s poetical powers, notwithstanding his nobly expressly defiance of it and his determination to hold on in his own path undisturbed. Its effect in retarding the sale of his poems and thus depriving him of the legitimate fruits of his industry was a favourite topic with him in his later years;5 but the absence of general appreciation, and the ridicule of what he considered his best and most distinctive work, contributed in all probability to a still more unfortunate result—the premature depression and deadening of his powers. He schooled himself to stoical endurance, but he was not superhuman, and in the absence of sympathy not only was any possibility of development checked but he ceased to write with the spontaneity and rapture of his earlier verse. The common theory that the marked stiffening of his powers after 1807 was the effect of age only may be true; but the coincidence of the falling off with the failure of the strenuous effort made in that year to conquer the hostility of critics and the indifference of the public makes the theory extremely doubtful as a whole truth. Wordsworth’s true nature is often misjudged under the fallacy that the preacher of high and serene fortitude in the face of failure and misfortune must himself be imperturbable. On the contrary the most eloquent advocate of this heroic virtue is the mane who most fells the need of it in the frailty of his own temper. It is on record that Wordsworth with all his philosophy of consolation, did not easily recover serenity after domestic bereavements, and we go very far wrong when we confound his proud and self-reliant defiance of criticism with insensibility to it or power to rise at will above its disheartening and benumbing influence.

For five years after the condemnation of The Excursion Wordsworth published almost nothing that hat not been composed before. The chief exception is the Thanksgiving Ode of 1816. He as occupied mainly in the task of putting his work and his aims more fully before the world, maintaining his position with dignity and unflinching courage, so far unmoved by criticism that he would not alter his course one jot for the sake of public favour. In 1815 he published a new edition of his poems, in the arrangement according to faculties and feelings in which they have since stood; and he sought to explain his p
urposes more completely than before in an essay on "Poetry as a Study." In the same year he was persuaded to publish the The White Doe of Rylstone, written mainly eight years before. In purely poetic charm the White Doe ought to be ranked among the most perfect of Wordsworth’s poem, the most completely successful exhibition of his finest qualities; nowhere is the peculiar music of his verse more happily sustained or more perfectly in harmony with the noble and tender feeling which here springs as if from infinite depths, to flow round and subdue the tragic agony of the incidents. But Jeffrey, who was much too busy a man to enter into a vein of poetry so remote from common romantic sentiment, would have none of the White Doe: he pronounced it "the very worst poem ever written," and t he public too readily endorsed his judgment. Two other poems, with which Wordsworth made another appeal, were not more successful. Peter Bell, written in 1798, was published in 1819; and at the instigation of Charles Lamb it was followed by The Waggoner, written in 1805. Both were mercilessly ridicules and parodied. These tales from humble life are written in Wordsworth’s most unconventional style, and with them emphatically "not to sympathize is not to understand," but when they are read sympathetically they are felt to be written with the spontaneity and freedom of the poet’s most inspired moments, although they are not in his high serious vein.

Meantime, the great design of The Recluse languished. The neglect of what Wordsworth himself conceived to be his best and most characteristic work was not encouraging; and there was another reason why the philosophical poem on man, nature, and society did not make progress. Again and again in his poetry Wordsworth celebrates the value of constraint, and the disadvantage of "too much liberty," of "unchartered freedom."(Footnote 676-1) This thought was impressed upon him by his own experience. There was "too much liberty" in his vague scheme of a philosophical poem. He needed more of the constraint of a definite form to stimulate his working powers to prosperous vigour. The formlessness of the scheme prevented his working at it continuously. Hence his "philosophy" was expressed in casual disconnected sonnets, or in sonnets and other short poems connected by the simplest of all links, sequence in time or place. He stumbled upon three or four such serial ideas in the latter part of his life, and thus found beginning and end for chains of considerable length, which may be regarded as fragments of the projects which he had not sufficient energy of constructive power to execute. The Sonnets on the River Duddon, written in 1820, follow the river from its source to the sea, and form a partial embodiment of his philosophy of nature. The Ecclesiastical Sonnets, written in 1820-21, trace the history of the church from the Druids onwards, following one of the great streams of human affairs, and exhibit part of his philosophy of society. A tour on the Continent in 1820, a tour in Scotland in 1831, a tour on the west coast in 1833, a tour in Italy in 1837, furnished him with other serial forms, serving to connect miscellaneous reflections on man, nature, and society; and his views on the punishment of death were strung together in still another series in 1840, he sought relief from "the weight of too much liberty" in this voluntary subjection to serial form, taking upon himself that

Whence oft invigorating transports flow
That choice lacked courage to bestow."

His resolute industry was productive of many wise, impressive, and charitable reflexions, and many casual
felicities of diction, but the poet very seldom reached the highest level of his earlier inspirations.

Wordsworth was appointed poet-laureate on the death of Southey in 1843. His only official composition was an ode on the installation of the Prince Consort as chancellor of Cambridge university in 1847. This was his last writing in verse. He died at Rydal Mount after a short illness, on the 23rd of April 1850, and was buried in Grasmere churchyard.

It was Wordsworth’s own desire that there should be no elaborate criticism of his poetry. This desire has not been respected. We have already referred to Lamb’s severely edited review of The Excursion (1814), and to Coleridge’s criticism in the Biographia Literaria (1817). This last, together with the enthusiastic and unreserved championship of Wilson in Blackwood’s Magazine in a series of articles between 1819 and 1822 (see Recreations of Christopher North) formed the turning point in Wordsworth’s reputation. From 1820 to 1830 De Quincey says it was militant, from 1830 to 1840 triumphant. By 1850 there were signs of reaction, but, though the languages of criticism has become more judicial, there has been no falling off in veneration for Wordsworth’s character or appreciation of his best work. Among critics that are specially interesting for various reasons we may mention De Quincey (Works, vol., ii. and v.), Sir Henry Taylor (Works, vol. v.), George Brimley (Essays), Matthew Arnold (preface to Selection), Mr Swinburne (Miscellanies), Mr F.W.H. Myers ("Men of Letters" series), and Mr Leslie Stephen (Hours in a Library, 3rd series, "Wordsworth’s Ethics").

Wordsworth’s writings in prose have been collected by Mr Grosart (London, 1876). This collection contains the previously unpublished Apology for a French Revolution, written in 1793, besides the scarce tract on the Convention of Cintra (1809) and the political addresses To the Freeholders of Westmoreland (1818). The bulk of three volumes is made up by including letters, notes, prefaces, &c. Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes originally appeared in 1810 as an introduction to Wilkinson’s Select Views, and was first published separately in 1822.

The standard editions of Wordsworth are Moxon’s six-volume edition originally settled by the poet himself in 1836-7, and Moxom’s single-volume double-column edition sanctioned by the poet in 1845. A carefully annotated edition in nine large volumes, by Prof. Knight, is in course of publication. It contains a useful chronological table of the poems; and the hitherto unpublished part of The Recluse is promised for the ninth volume. Prof. Knight’s book on The English Lake District is also useful to minute students of Wordsworth. (W. M.)


668-1 Memoirs of William Wordsworth, by Canon Wordsworth, vol. i. pp. 10-11. According to his own statement in the memoranda dictated to his biographer, it was the success of this exercise that "put it into his head to compose verses from the impulse of his own mind." The resolution to supply the deficiencies of poetry in the exact description of natural appearances was probably formed while he was in this state of boyish ecstasy at the accidental revelation of his own powers. The date of his beginnings as a poet is confirmed by the lines in The Idiot Boy, written in 1798 --

"I to the muses have been bound
These fourteen years by strong indentures."

669-1 In The Prelude, book iv., he speaks of himself during his first vacation as "harassed with the toil of verse, much pains and little progress." To the same time belongs an incidents recorded later in the same book, when he was returning in early morning from a dance --

"My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated spirit."

669-2 Not published till 1842. for the history of this tragedy see Memoirs, vol. i. p. 113; for a sound, if severe, criticism of it, Mr Swinburne’s Miscellanies, p. 118. And yet it was of the blank verse of The Borderers that Coleridge spoke when he wrote to Cottle that "he felt a little man by the side of his friend."

669-3 The character of Dorothy Wordsworth is shown in the extracts from her Journal printed in the Memoirs, and in her Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, edited by the late Principal Shairp, 1874. The poet’s acknowledgements of obligation to her were not mere grateful words thrown out at random:--

"She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears,
And love, and faith, and joy."

The fourteenth book of The Prelude especially enables us to understand the full meaning of this eulogium, every word of which has been carefully weighed. This book contains a complete picture of the state of mind in which Coleridge found the poet, when he "seemed to gain clear sight of a new world -- a world, too, that was fit to be transmitted and made visible to other eyes."

669-4 The version read to Coleridge, however, must have been in Spenserian stanzas, if Coleridge was right in his recollection that it was in the same metre with The Female Vagrant, the original title of Guilt and Sorrow.

670-1 The defect of The Idiot Boy is really rhetorical, rather than poetic Wordsworth himself said that "he never wrote anything with so much glee," and, once the source of his glee is felt in the nobly affectionate relations between the two half-witted irrational old women and the glorious imbecile, the work is seen to be executed with a harmony that should satisfy the most exacting criticism. The poet not only felt but gave complete expression to the most exquisitely tender humour in telling the story of the simple incident. Poetically, therefore, the poem is a success; not a note is out of tune, with the exception perhaps of the boisterous ridicule of the romantic ballad in his speculations as to the employment of the lost horseman; otherwise, as a work of art in a rare vein of humorous tenderness elevated by the moral dignity of the subject, The Idiot Boy is as perfect as anything that Wordsworth wrote. But rhetorically this particular attempt to "breathe grandeur upon the very humblest face of human life" must be pronounced a failure, inasmuch as the writer did not use sufficiently forcible means to disabuse his readers of vulgar prepossessions.

670-2 Herein curiously, if not ridiculously, inconsistent, as their master was not, with his tranquillizing creed.

670-3 Sir Henry Taylor, one of the most acute and judicious of Wordsworth’s champion, came to this conclusion in 1834.

671-1 Although Coleridge makes the qualifications more prominent than they were in the original statement, the two theories are at bottom so closely the same that one is sometimes inclined to suspect that parts, at least, of the original emanated from the fertile mind of Coleridge himself. The two poets certainly discussed the subject together in Somerset when the first ballads were written, and Coleridge was at Grasmere when the Preface was prepared in 1800. The diction of the Preface is curiously Hartleian, and, when they first met, Coleridge was a devoted disciple of Hartley, naming his first son after the philosopher, while Wordsworth detested analytic psychology. If Coleridge did contribute to the original theory in 1798 or 1800, he was likely enough to have forgotten the fact by 1814. At any rate he evidently wrote his criticism without making a close study of the Preface, and what he did in effect was to restate the original theory against popular misconceptions of it.

671-2 He expressly admitted also that, in the expression of passion, owing to "the tendency of metre to divest language to a certain degree of its reality," a strength of language might be used in verse that good taste would not tolerate in prose.

672-1 So deeply rooted is the misconception that even Mr Myers, after quoting the Preface itself, and the famous stanza "Perhaps some dungeon hears three groan," &c., from The Affliction of Margaret, comments as follows:—"These lines, supposed to be spoken by ‘a poor widow at Penrith,’ afford a fair illustration of what Wordsworth calls ‘the language really spoken by men,’ with ‘metre superadded.’ ‘What other distinction from prose,’ he asks, ‘would we have?’ We may answer that we would have what he has actually given us, viz., an appropriate and attractive music, lying both in the rhythm and the actual sound of the words used." But in the theory this is covered by the phrases metrical arrangement and selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, dignified and variegated and alive with metaphors and figures. Wordsworth was not an adroit expositor in prose, and he did not make his qualifications sufficiently prominent, but the theory of diction taken with those qualifications left him free without inconsistency to use any language that was not contrary to "true taste and feeling." He acknowledged that he might occasionally have substituted "particular for general associations," and that thus language charged with poetic feeling to himself might appear trivial and ridiculous to others, as in The Idiot Boy and Goody Blake; he even wnet so far as to withdraw Alice Fell, first published in 1807, from several subsequent editions; but he argued that it was dangerous for a poet to make alternations on the simple authority of a few individuals or even classes of men, because if he did not follow his own judgment and feelings his mind would infallibly be debilitated.

673-1 The Prelude contains a record of his practice, after the opening lines of the first book--
"Thus far, O friend! did I, not used to make
A present joy the matter of a song
Four forth, &c."

674-1 This casual estimate of his own work is not merely amusing but also instructive, as showing -- what is sometimes denied -- that Wordsworth himself knew well enough the difference between "poetry" and such "valuable thoughts" as he propounded in The Excursion.

674-2 Wordsworth’s residences in the Lake District were Townend, Grasmere, from Decemeber 1799 till the spring of 1808; Allan Bank, from 1808 to 1811; the parsonage at Grasmere, from 1811 to 1813; Rydal Mount, for the rest of his life.

675-1 The lively lawyer, to whom reviewing was a recreation, obviously enjoyed the process of "slating" more than is quite consistent with his strong protestations of sorrow over the poet’s waywardness; but it should not be overlooked that he did make ample acknowledgment when he had sated himself with denunciations of the Wanderer’s verbosity, of the power and beauty of isolated passages. In the second part of his article, indeed, he quoted so much that was admirable that he confessed himself disposed to rescind his severe judgment, but reperusal of the Wanderer’s arguments convinced him that it could not be rescinded. Jeffrey’s criticisms in their entirely are dead and buried, except for the professional student, but even critics have their humble rights, and it is time that four opening words should receive the privilege of interment also, if they are not to be fairly interpreted. His criticism of The White Doe is valueless enough, because the sentiment of that poem is more abstruse, less palpable to the running reader; but what he said of The Excursion has simply been repeated in duller language by the Wordsworthians who have denounced his arrogance in daring to say it.

675-2 Ward’s English Poets, vol. iv. p. 13. Mr Myers and Mrs Oliphant might be quoted to the same effect.

675-3 In joining The Prelude with The Excursion in the same condemnation, Dean Church goes farther than Jeffrey. As a poem The Prelude is infinitely superior; its autobiographical character gives it a certain unity, and it contains a greater number of lofty passages in Wordsworth’s best vein.

675-4 Charles Lamb’s review of The Excursion in the Quarterly (Oct. 1814), in spite of the editor Gifford’s modifications, remains the most sympathetic of competent criticisms of the poem. In one point there is an oversight, significant of the indefiniteness of Wordsworth’s exposition; Lamb supposed the conversion of the Solitary to be accomplished within The Excursion. It was really reserved for the third part of The Recluse. It was the poet’s intention, as expressed in his conversations with Miss Fenwick, to effect his conversion not by argument, but be carrying the sceptic back to his native Scotland, making him witness of a sacrament service, and making early associations thereupon reassert themselves. This would have been in accordance with his theory of the value of early associations. What makes the position of the Solitary a little difficult to grasp at first is that Wordsworth, on principle, does not present this character in marled contrast to the other character in the poem, but rather lays stress on what he has in common with them, tender-heartedness towards suffering and intense enthusiasm for nature; hence it arises that the reader cannot see without some study it is that the other interlocutors find lacking in him, and aim at supplying to him.

675-5 Mr Matthew Arnold heard him say that "for he knew not how many years his poetry had never brought him in enough to buy his shoe-strings" (preface to Selection, p. v.) The literal facts are that he received
£100 from the Longmans in 1800, and nothing more till he was sixty-five, when Moxon bought the copyright of his writings for £1000 (Prose Works, iii. 437).

676-1 See the Sonnet, Nuns fret not, &c., The Pass of Kirkstone, and the Ode to Duty.

The above article was written by William Minto, M.A.; edited the Examiner, 1874; formerly on the staff of the Daily News and the Pall Mall Gazette; Professor of Logic and English in the University of Aberdeen, 1880; author of Manual of English Prose Literature, Defoe in English Man of Letters Series, and Literature in the Georgian Era.

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