Изображения страниц

be right to neglect them on that account, if we remember that the teachers whom he most reverenced, and from whom he learned the best

part of his lore, were children, rustics, men of simple habits and slow wits. For the right understanding of his poems, he insisted, a reader must put off the pride that dwells by preference upon “those points wherein men differ from each other, to the exclusion of those in which all men are alike or the same.' Yet, more than the poems of others, his poems have been made the exercising ground for gymnastic displays of vanity and cleverness.

Among profitless critics of Wordsworth, Francis Jeffrey deserves his established pre-eminence. It is not that he was either foolish or stupid. He was a shrewd lawyer, a forcible writer, a man of wide taste and sound judgment, so that he is a more than respectable type and embodiment of the bad critic that lies hidden in the breasts of all men. There is nothing wrong with his criticism except the point of view. Like all bad critics, he loved to consider his seat as a tribunal, and himself as a judge. His business, as he understood it, was to know the law and to administer it without fear or favour. To Wordsworth's plea that his work was tentative, novel, exploratory of untried recesses of the human mind, he turned a deaf ear. Every sensible man, he says in effect, knows quite well what a poet is about when he attempts a poem on

a particular subject. “A village schoolmaster, for instance, is a pretty common poetical character. Goldsmith has drawn him inimitably ; so has Shenstone, with the slight change of sex; and Mr. Crabbe, in two passages, has followed their footsteps. But by what traits is this worthy old gentleman delineated by the new poet? No pedantry

-no innocent vanity of learning—no mixture of indulgence with the pride of power, and of poverty with the consciousness of rare acquirements. Every feature which belongs to the situation, or marks the character in common apprehension, is scornfully discarded by Mr. Wordsworth.” The only question that remains to consider is whether the accused, in these his “wide and wilful aberrations” from " that eternal and universal standard of truth and nature, which every one is knowing enough to recognise," was acting in good faith, and really attempting to write a poem. He receives the benefit of the doubt, and, in mitigation of the sentence, the plea of temporary insanity, and that alone, is favourably entertained. From first to last there is no recognition of poetry as thought, as fulfilling in some sense the definition that Davenant gave to wit—"a new and remoter way of thinking.”

Jeffrey must very early have given up the attempt to enter into those peculiarities in the mind of the author which cannot, as he admitted,

be comprehended without much effort and explanation. A little, hard, sharp, legal mind will not readily forego the choice of weapons, or learn to enter into a new mood. And when once he had formed his judgment on Wordsworth's poetry Jeffrey did not despise the most vulgar and captious devices of the pleader or the reviewer to make the enemy ridiculous. One of the easiest and most popular of these is the method of comic summary, so much used by the average latter-day reviewer of novels. The Excursion does not depend for any part of its beauty or power on the story it tells. Let it therefore be implied that in this unessential feature the whole meaning of the work lies; that for this, and this alone, the poet challenges our attention and admiration. Here is all the account that Jeffrey gives of the Sixth Book of the Excursion:

“ The Sixth contains a choice obituary, or characteristic account, of several of the persons who lie buried before this group of moralisers ;an unsuccessful lover, who had found consolation in natural history—a miner, who worked on for twenty years in despite of universal ridicule, and at last found the vein he had expected—two political enemies, reconciled in old age to each other-an old female miser—a seduced damsel and two widowers, one who had devoted himself to the education of his daughters, and one who

had preferred marrying a prudent middle-aged woman to take care of them.'

His criticism of the White Doe of Rylstone, to which he devoted an article in October 1815, is rich in lessons for readers and critics of poetry. There are excuses to be made for Jeffrey; he was early in the field ; to him Wordsworth was merely the most pretentious member of a new and paradoxical school of poetry; and, having read some previous poems by the same writer, he did not read, this time, with a mind susceptible to any favourable impression. His choicest sarcasm is to the effect that he does not understand what the poet means, which is true enough. And here, again, there are excuses to be made. The White Doe is not, in any obvious sense, a well-written poem. It would furnish some instances of obscure writing, some incidental weaknesses, and but few models of narration, to a handbook of rhetoric. The music of it is, for the most part, a music of thought ; and the reader who refuses to think will find in it only a rambling and tedious story, where the commonest dramatic opportunities are missed. Yet to any one who has felt, even remotely, the strange elevation of thought and the lonely strength of emotion that uphold the poet throughout his dealings with this human agony, the comments of Jeffrey come like the noises of a street brawl breaking in

upon the performance of a grave and moving symphony.

So far as Wordsworth is concerned, nothing like this can happen again. The least sympathetic of readers, the flattest and vainest of critics, approaches a writer of acknowledged eminence in a spirit of caution ; he modifies and temporises, and keeps open a line of retreat after his cleverest onslaughts. But a criticism that is valid only for settled causes is a worthless and vulgar criticism ; it has nothing to say to a poet until he is accepted by the cultured mob. And Jeffrey's standard, “that eternal and universal standard of truth and nature which every one is knowing enough to recognise,” has only to be adopted to ensure for the next new poet, as great and as novel in method as Wordsworth, the same reception, and for the first generation of his readers the same loss.

Is there any remedy or safeguard ? The monkey and the parrot die hard in man; can they be taught to feel or to simulate modesty? It is they who foster the widespread belief that criticism is a kind of shorthand system, whereby right judgments, based on admitted principles, can be attained at the cost of infinitely less labour than was involved in the production of the work to be judged. Given that the principles are sound and sufficient, then, they argue, if there be no error of detail in the application, the result must be

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »