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with it he would probably have launched it on Alph, the sacred river, for a voyage of strange adventure. The tub, which was good enough for the blind boy, was good enough for Wordsworth. But he listened and yielded, and, at the expense of nine laborious stanzas, he got the shell into Scotland, and put it within reach of his hero. Meantime the movement of the poem is retarded, and the careless triumph of the child is less convincing from the forethought necessary for the carrying out of his scheme to navigate the shell. We may be thankful that a regard for the dictates of prudential morality did not cause the poet to omit this other stanza from his later editions
And let him, let him go his way,
This Child will take no harm.
If the aged poet's attention had been called to the possible influence of this verse as an exhortation to culpable negligence, there is far too much reason to think that he would have tinkered it or suppressed it.
All these much-discussed audacities of the work of his prime—these “tubs” and “goings-on' are not, therefore, to be treated as faults of diction. They are of a piece with the simple and fervid quality of his mind. His error, if error it be, lies
in the little care he takes to put the reader at his own point of view. He asks to be heard as if his were the first descriptions of a new-found world. An ordinary reader must have fair warning if he is to divest himself of all literary predispositions, put his books behind him, and begin again from the beginning. Nevertheless, for Wordsworth's purpose, and in relation to his chosen subjects, the diction that he used was the best diction; indeed, in many cases, the only diction possible.
Faults of diction he has, but they are not these. While passion holds him, while he is moved or exalted, his language keeps its naked intensity. But when his own feeling flags and there is ground to be covered he is a bad traveller on the flat. The plain words of common life no longer satisfy him, for the glow has gone out of them. Sometimes he makes what he can of them; and there are no more prosy passages in English verse than some of those where Wordsworth has an explanation to interpolate, a mechanical junction to effect, or a narrative to carry on to the next place where reflection may rest and brood. In these passages, while he is simple, he is often feeble and talkative. But sometimes, on the other hand, the lack of vitality consciously oppresses him, and he endeavours to make it good by forced decoration and fancy. At such times he produces samples of false poetic diction as vapid as any
invented by the rhymesters of the Eighteenth Century. Of mere flatness, as might be expected, there are many examples in the Prelude, and more in the Excursion. Lines like these are all too common
Nor less do I remember to have felt,
Of my own private being and no more. In some of the shorter poems, where there is a piece of commonplace information to be conveyed
- say a postal address, “The Pantheon, Oxford Street”—it is often conveyed after this fashion :
Near the stately Pantheon you'll meet with the same,
The false poetic diction that he condemned is easy to example from his own work. Here is the beginning of his poem on Water-fowl :
Mark how the feathered tenants of the flood,
Their curious pastime ! And here, from the Prelude, is a record of the fact that he first entered London on a stagecoach :
On the roof
Or a better instance, too long to quote, may be found in the First Book of the Prelude, where every device of fanciful elaboration is bestowed on the description of the soiled and imperfect packs of cards which helped to pass away the long winter evenings of his boyhood in the Lakes.
Wherever deep emotion fails him, these ornamental excrescences are liable to occur. And therefore they occur least frequently in the poems written during the years immediately following his return to poetry. During those years his most casual feelings, aroused by trivial events, had a strength and vivacity that made all adornment a profanation, and his resolve to be quit of all deceits and sentimentalities was then an instrumental part of his religion. Wordsworth's style at its best has many virtues; but one virtue, all his own, is greater than the rest. He can, and often does, write like other poets, in a manner that, without a trace of imitation, gives a familiar pleasure to a trained literary sense. The best passages so written have been perhaps more praised than any other parts of his work; but they are not Wordsworth's best. His description of skating in the Prelude is a wonderful piece of verbal melody:
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
The leafless trees and every icy crag
And his own genius, his own love for the far spaces, makes itself felt in that “alien sound of melancholy.” He can write magnificently, again, in a style which, from the time of Shakespeare onward, has been one of the great faculties of English literature, the style of the metaphysical imagination. So, in the Excursion, the Solitary describes his agony of thought :
Then my soul
And here, to quote one more passage that reconciles all tastes, are the sombre imaginings suggested to him by the four yew-trees of Borrow
Beneath whose sable roof