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any such word in our language to which we had attached passion, as lack-wit, half-wit, witless, etc., I should have certainly employed it in preference ; but there is no such word.” The poet, it is to be noted, attached passion to the very name“ Idiot"; he found the pure elements of the poetic temper in that trance of pleasure which kept the boy a whole night long wandering in the moonlight and listening to the hootings of the owls.
« When we see the idiot in his glory,” said Byron, “we think the Bard the hero of the story.” He was right; Wordsworth is completely at one with the hero of the story, whereas Susan Gale and the doctor are the merest lay-figures. One of the verses of A Poet's Epitaph might serve to describe either the idiot or the poet who celebrated his adventures-
But he is weak; both Man and Boy
The things which others understand. Nevertheless, the word “Idiot” does its old accustomed work; the very mention of it, like the raising of a latch, lets loose all the small, watchful, competitive instincts of the human breast ; against the will of the poet the race is run; the Idiot is defeated, and the sudden glory of superiority that flushes through the victorious reader explodes in pleasant laughter.
The poor ass of Peter Bell is in almost as bad
Wordsworth found something weird and solemn in the patience and immobility of the asseven to the slow movements of its long left ear. The steadfast suffering of a creature which when cruelly beaten will neither yield, nor retaliate, nor complain impressed him with something of tragic dignity, and he exhibits its moving power in the panic of hatred and superstitious terror that it inspires in Peter. He might have spared his pains, for the ass is a dull beast, duller than most men; the opportunity is not to be lost, and the intellectual rivalry begins again, with another victory for the clever reader.
This is a question not so much of poetic diction as of poetic imagination. A mind may so confirm itself, by natural predilection and long habit, in all tricky and fortuitous associations of ideas as to cut itself off from fresh sources of imaginative suggestion. The arbitrary links between ideas are multiplied and strengthened by conversation in society, which exacts ready-made judgments and encourages brisk conceits. For the solitary poet in contemplation they have no value, or rather, they are hindrances and misdirections. They are as plentiful as weeds; they make the stock-in-trade of a pert, barren man; and even good wits are troubled by them. A recent critic of Matthew Arnold finds the title “ Mixed Essays " an unhappy
title, because, he says, it suggests biscuits. These bad habits of the mind are not easily conquered, and they are the despair of poets. Wordsworth, who, more than other poets, was careful for the chastity of the imagination, asks his readers to try to conquer them, to endeavour to look steadily at the subject, as he has looked at it. Being himself little versed in the small traffic of social intercourse and the paltry entanglements of commonplace association, he was surprised and puzzled to find that by merely naming the subject of his contemplation he had raised a horde of false issues. Both his friends and the critics, who were not his friends, were against him. His confidence in himself wavered, and he did what originally he had refused to do—he made alterations in his text on the advice of others, though his understanding was not convinced. Some of these alterations have happily disappeared from the definitive edition ; others remain.
Thus the poem on Gipsies originally ended with these two lines
The silent Heavens have goings-on ;
To some mind or other the word “goings-on suggested flippant associations, and the lines were altered thus
Life which the very stars reprove
Not only is the most telling word suppressed ; there is a more fundamental change, typical of many changes made by Wordsworth when he had lost touch with his original impressions. The bare contrast of the earlier poem is moralised. The strangeness of the simple impression is lost for the sake of a most impotent didactic application. The poet, after a day of crowded and changeful experience under the open sky, returns to find the group of gypsies sitting as before round their campfire. The winds are blowing and the clouds moving, so that the little knot of human beings seems the only stationary thing in nature. The restless joy of the poet, his fellow-feeling with the mighty activities of Nature, breaks out in a single remonstrance
Oh better wrong and strife,
Even this he changed when his sensibilities had been crusted over and his appetite for explicit moral teaching increased by the passage of years. . In the edition of 1820 these lines read
Oh better wrong and strife (By nature transient) than such torpid life! The change introduces an argument-and a bad argument. Evil-doing is preferred to torpor because it is less permanent in its nature and effects--a statement which might very readily be
challenged. The whole passage illustrates, as well as another, the difficulties that confronted Wordsworth in the attempt to mend his own work. He lost sympathy in his later life with his earlier mystical intuitions. He desired, in his decline, to give the age the moral lessons that it asked. And the maxims of practical morality, if they are to be warranted, not by the moral sense of the community, but by the sudden impulses of imagination that come to a poet as he gazes on the open sky, are driven to seek help from fantastic argu
The famous case of the Blind Highland Boy shows Wordsworth once more troubled and puzzled by the advice of his friends, and attempting to remedy a misunderstanding of the workings of his imagination by a change in his machinery and diction. The blind boy, it is well known, put forth on Loch Leven in the first craft he could find
A Household Tub, like one of those
This carried the blind Boy.