Изображения страниц

To purity, purity of feeling, pure truthfulness of expression, he is never untrue. In the wild excitement, or the lawless exaggeration, as in the self-indulgence and foulness of passion, he will recognise no subject of true poetic art. Keenly alive to beauty, and deeply reverencing it, he puts purity and the severity of truth above beauty. With his eager instincts of joy, it is only the joy of the pure-hearted that he acknowledges.

Wordsworth's great poetical design was carried out, first in collections of short pieces, such as those of his earlier volumes, the Lyrical Ballads, and the Poems of 1807 ; then in a great mass of Sonnets, varying from some of the grandest in the language to some very commonplace ; but as a whole, considering their number,—there are between four and five hundred of them,-a collection of great nobleness and wonderful finish: and finally in the long poem of The Excursion, itself a fragment of a greater projected whole, The Recluse. The Excursion was published in 1814, and it gave the key to all his poetical work. From that time to 1845 he published repeatedly new things and old : sonnets on all kinds of subjects, such as those on the River Duddon, the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, and those on the Punishment of Death ;-Memorials of his Tours in Scotland and on the Continent; classical compositions like Laodamia and Dion; tales in the romantic fashion, like The White Doe of Rylstone, or in the manner of the Lyrical Ballads, like Peter Bell, written in his earliest time, but not published till 1819 The reception of Peter Bell marks the change that had come over public opinion. “It was,' says the biographer, ‘more in request than any of the author's previous publications': it was published in April, and a new edition was wanted in May. Wordsworth had waited, and the world had begun to come round to him. Ridicule and dislike had not ceased. But in minds which loved nature, which loved nobleness, which loved reality, which loved purity and truth, he had awakened a response of deep and serious sympathy, which placed him, in the judgment of increasing numbers, far above the great poetical rivals round him. It was in vain that The Edinburgh Review received The Excursion with its insolent 'This will never do';it only showed that the Review had mistaken the set of the tide, and had failed to measure the thoughts and demands of the coming time. Wordsworth's reception at Oxford in 1839 was an outwark mark of the change, and of the way in which he had spoken to the hearts of men, and had been at length understood. The enthusiasm which gathered round him was most genuine, and it was wholesome and elevating; it was one of the best influences of our time. But it became undiscriminating. It, not unnaturally, blinded men to defects, and even made them proud of defying the criticism which defects produced.

And there were defects. In his earlier days, at the high tide of his genius and strength, amid works matchless for their power and simplicity and noble beauty, Wordsworth's composition was sometimes fairly open to the criticism,-whether meant for him I know not,-conveyed in the following lines by one who fully measured his greatness :

"'Tis a speech
That by a language of familiar lowness
Enhances what of more heroic vein
Is next to follow. But one fault it hath;
It fits too close to life's realities.
In truth to Nature missing truth to Art;
For Art commends not counterparts and copies,
But from our life a nobler life would shape,
Bodies celestial from terrestrial raise,
And teach us not jejunely. what we are,
But what we may be, when the Parian block
Yields to the hand of Phidias.'

(A Sicilian Summer, by Henry Taylor). As life went on, he wrote a great deal, and with unequal power and felicity. It may be doubted whether he had the singularly rare capacity for undertaking, what was the chief aim of his life, a long poemespecially a philosophical poem. Strong as he was, he wanted that astonishing strength which carried Milton without flagging through his tremendous task. Wordsworth's power was in bursts; and he wanted to go against the grain of his real aptitudes, and prolong into a continuous strain inspiration which was meant for occasions. 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. In his more ambitious works, such as The Excursion, Wordsworth seldom wants' strength, finish, depth, insight. He not seldom wants the spring, the vividness, of his earlier works. There is always dignity, and often majesty; but there is sometimes pompousness. His solid weight and massiveness of thought interest us when we are in the humour for serious work ; but it is too easy to find them oppressive, and to com


plain of him as heavy and wearisome : nay, what is in him less excusable, obscure. And so with his various series of sonnets like those – full of beauty as they are - on the River Duddon : he took in too much in his scheme of the series, and there was not always material enough in comparison of the usually fine and careful workmanship. Further, Wordsworth, like other men, had his limitations. That large tracts of human experience and feeling were unvisited by him and were beyond his horizon, is not to be complained of : he deliberately and with high purpose chose to forego all that under the fascination of art might mislead or tempt. But of all poets who ever wrote, Wordsworth made himself most avowedly the subject of his own thinking. In one way this gives special interest and value to his work. But the habit of perpetual self-study, though it may conduce to wisdom, does not always conduce to life or freedom of movement. It spreads a tone of individuality and apparent egotism, which though very subtle and undefinable, is yet felt, even in some of his most beautiful compositions. We miss the spirit of 'aloofness' and self-forgetfulness which, whether spontaneous or the result of the highest art, marks the highest types of poetry. Perhaps it is from this that he so rarely abandoned himself to that spirit of playfulness of which he has given us an example in the Kitten and falling leaves. The ideal man with Wordsworth is the hard-headed, frugal, unambitious dalesman of his own hills, with his strong affections, his simple tastes, and his quiet and beautiful home: and this dalesman, built up by communion with nature and by meditation into the poet-philosopher, with his serious faith and his neverfailing spring of enjoyment, is himself. But nature has many sides, and lies under many lights; and its measure reaches beyond the measure even of the great seer, with his true and piercing eye, his mighty imagination, and his large and noble heart.

Wordsworth had not, though he thought he had, the power of interpreting his own principles of poetic composition. This had to be done for him by a more philosophical critic, his friend Coleridge. Wordsworth, in his onslaught on the falsehood and unreality of what passed for poetic diction, overstated and mistook. He overstated the poetic possibilities of the speech of common life and of the poor. He mistook the fripperies of poetic diction for poetic diction itself. Some effects of these exaggerations and mistakes are visible in his composition itself, though they offend less when the lines which tempt to severe criticism are read in their own place and context ; but he would have done more wisely to have left them to find their own apology than to have given reasons which seemed paradoxes. In the hot controversy which followed, both disputants made false moves: the Edinburgh re ers were false in their thrusts, Wordsworth was false in his parry. He was right in protesting against the doctrine that a thing is not poetical because it is not expressed in a certain conventional mintage : he was wrong in denying that there is a mintage of words fit for poetry and unsuitable for ordinary prose. They were utterly wrong in thinking that he was not a most careful and fastidious artist in language ; but they had some reason for their objections, and some excuse for their ridicule, when it was laid down without distinguishing or qualifying that there was no difference between the language of prose and poetry, and that the language of poetry was false and bad unless it was what might be spoken in the intercourse of common life. Wordsworth, confident of his side of truth, and stung by the flippancy and ignorant narrowness of his censors, was not the person to clear up the dispute. Coleridge, understanding and sympathising with what he really meant, never undertook a worthier task than when he brought his singular powers of criticism to bear on it, and helped men to take a more serious and just measure of his friend's greatness. He pointed out firmly and clearly what was untenable in Wordsworth's positions, his ambiguities, his overstatements. He put into more reasonable and comprehensive terms what he knew to be Wordsworth's meaning. He did not shrink from admitting defects, ‘characteristic defects,' in his poetry ;-inequality of style, over-care for minute painting of details; disproportion and incongruity between language and feeling, between matter and decoration; 'thoughts and images too great for the subject.' But then he showed at what a height, in spite of all, he really stood :-his austere purity and perfection of language, the wideness of his range, the freshness of his thought, the unfailing certainty of his eye ; his unswerving truth, and, above all, his magnificent gift of imagination, 'nearest of all modern writers to Shakespeare and Milton, yet in a kind perfectly unborrowed and his own.' No more discriminating and no more elevated judgment of Wordsworth's genius is to be found than that which Coleridge inserted in the volume which he called his Biographia Literaria.



At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years :
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.
'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.
Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail ;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove's,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves. ·
She looks, and her heart is in heaven : but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade :
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes.

(1797 ?)



'Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?
Where are your books ?—that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind !
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.

You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you ;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you !'

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »