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His life had not been a stirring one.
It had been passed, for the most part, amid natural scenes of quiet beauty; and what Horace has said of the poet Lucilius was very applicable to him. He confided his secrets to his lyre ?; to it he communicated his feelings and his thoughts on every occasion of interest, public and private; and hence his LIFE is written in his WORKS.
Nor is this all. One Poem, especially — that which has been given to the world subsequently to his death —the PRELUDE, — is designed to exhibit the growth of his mind from his infancy to the year 1799, when, if we may so speak, he entered upon his mission and ministry, and deliberately resolved to devote his time and faculties to the art and office of a POET.
His Works, therefore, are his Life. And it would be a superfluous and presumptuous enterprise to encroach upon this their province, and to invade the biographical eminence on which his Poems stand. Let them retain their supremacy in this respect; and let no other Life of WORDSWORTH be composed beside what has thus been written with his own hand.
This being borne in mind, it ensues as a matter of course, that the present Work does not claim for itself the title of a Life of Wordsworth. Nor, again, does it profess to offer a critical review of his Poems; or to supply an elaborate exposition of the principles on
“Ille velut fidis arcana sodalibus olim
HORAT. Salir. II. i. 30.
which those Poems were composed. Mr. Wordsworth had no desire that any such disquisition should be written. He wished that his Poems should stand by themselves, and plead their own cause before the tribunal of Posterity.
The character of the present work is a humbler one. Regarding the Poems as his Life, the author of these volumes considers it to be his duty to endeavour to supply materials, subordinate and ministerial to the Poems, and illustrative of them ; in a word, to write a biographical commentary on the Poet's works.
This, the writer believes, is no unimportant task, for the following reasons :
First, Mr. Wordsworth's Poems are no visionary dreams, but practical realities. He wrote as he lived, and he lived as he wrote. His poetry had its heart in his life, and his life found a voice in his poetry.
It is very necessary that Posterity should be assured of this, in order that it may have a firmer faith in his principles. And no such guarantee can be given of his sincerity in enunciating those principles, and no such evidence can be afforded of their results, as is supplied by the records of his life.
| The following is the testimony of one who had the best opportunities and qualifications for judging on this subject. Mr. Southey, writing to his friend Bernard Barton from Keswick, Dec. 19. 1814, thus speaks : “ Wordsworth's residence and mine are fifteen miles asunder; a sufficient distance to preclude any frequent interchange of visits. I bave known him nearly twenty years, and, for about half that time, intimately. The strength and the character of his mind you see in the ExcursiON ; and his Life does not belie his Writings ; for, in every relation of life, and every point of view, he is a truly exemplary and admirable man. In conversation he is powerful beyond any of his contemporaries ; and, as a poet - I speak not from the partiality of friendship, nor because we have been so absurdly held up as both writing upon one concerted system of poetry, but with the most deliberate exercise of impartial judgment whereof I am capable, when I declare my full conviction that Posterity will rank him with Milton.” — SOUTHEY's Life and Correspondence, iv. 91.
Besides; it is obvious to the most cursory reader of his works, that they are in a great measure derived from materials personal to himself. His writings have in a remarkable degree a subjective character. The scenes in which he lived, the incidents of his own life and of his friends, supplied topics for his genius to elaborate. Hence it is evident that many of his poems will be very obscure to those persons who are not acquainted with the circumstances of his life, and they will be perused with greater pleasure and profit by all who are conversant with his history.
Next it may be affirmed, that his poems to be studied profitably should be read chronologically. Dr. Bentley has well observed of Horace, that no one can form a right estimate of his moral character, who does not pay careful attention to the periods in which that poet's works were respectively composed. “Lenior et melior fis accedente senectâ ? "2
66 Dost thou become more sage, Milder and mellower, with declining age ?” was a question which Horace habitually asked himself, as his works show. And so it was with Wordsworth. It is true, "the child was father of the man,
13 and there is a continuous stream of identity flowing from his earliest to his latest poems. But the progress of the stream brought with it a certain change. A greater fulness and depth, a stronger and steadier current, was the result. Or, to use another illustration, — time, experience, foreign travel, domestic affliction, even the severity and harsh treatment which he received from some of his critics, all these imparted a soft and mellow tone to his mind, as the winds and rains of autumn do to his own woods and rocks. Hence there was a gradual development, a more definite delineation, a brighter and more heavenly colouring in certain parts of his system, as he advanced in years, and drew nearer to the close of his career.
1 Præfat. in Horatii Opera, ed. Amst., 1728.
- The childhood shows the man
Par. Reg. iv. 220.
Hence also it is clear, that it is very unjust and erroneous to cite any one poem, or a few lines, composed in his earlier years, as a deliberate expression of his maturer judgment. His Works must be taken as a whole. They must be read with habitual reference to the time in which they were composed. And in order that this may be done with ease, a biographi. cal manual, designed to illustrate the poems, ought to exist; and this is what the present publication proposes to supply.
For himself, let the writer of these Memoirs be now permitted to avow, that he would not, of his own accord, have ventured on this task. Different duties, of a professional nature, were pressing upon him, which left him little leisure for other occupations. But a choice did not seem to be open to him. His revered Uncle, on the occasion to which allusion has already been made, was pleased to express a desire, and to commit that expression of his desire to writing, that he would prepare for publication any personal notices that might be thought requisite for the illustration of his Poems; and he afterwards dictated another document, intimating his hope that his surviving relatives and intimate friends would supply any materials in their possession that might be regarded as serviceable for this design.
He could not, therefore, decline it; and having undertaken it, he can now only express a hope, that the subject may not have suffered by being committed to his hands. Having engaged to perform the labour assigned to him, he requested Mr. Wordsworth to favour him with a brief sketch of the most prominent circumstances in his life. Accordingly he did so. On the occasion of the same visit he dictated the autobiographical notes, which will be inserted in the next chapter. They may serve to present an outline or general view of this work, like the first map in an atlas, to be followed in order by special charts, with minuter details, and on a larger scale.