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And miserable love, that is not pain
Nature for all conditions wants not power
All this doctrine was strange to his age; it has ceased to be so to
In various ways and with varying merit, Thackeray and Dickens and George Eliot, and a crowd of writers, poets and novelists, have searched out the motifs of the highest poetry in the humblest lives, and have taught the lesson that the real greatness and littleness of human life are not to be measured by the standards of fashion and pride. What made Wordsworth different from other popular poets, and made him great, was a puzzle and a paradox at first in his own time; it is but a commonplace in ours. 'It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought : the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying, the objects observed ; and, above all, the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world, around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops. To find no contradiction in the union of old and new; to contemplate the Ancient of Days and all His works with feelings as fresh as if all had then sprung forth at the first creative fiat ; characterises the mind that feels the riddle of the world, and may help to unravel it. To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years have made familiar :
“With sun and moon and stars throughout the year,
And man and woman this is the character and privilege of genius.' (Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, c. iv.). | Thus his range of materials was very large ; his extensive scale of interests gave him great variety : like his own skylark, he soars to the heavens, and drops into a lowly nest ; and as the wing sometimes flags, and the eye is wearied, he was unequal, and there was sometimes want of proportion in his subject and his treatment of it. But his principles of treatment, though he was not altogether happy in his exposition of them, were in accordance with his general idea of poetry. 'I have at all times,' he says, 'endeavoured to look steadily at my subject.' Where he succeeded-and no man can always in thought and imagination see what he wants to see—there was the fire and energy and life of truth, stamping all his words, governing his music and his movement, his flow or his rush. 'There is always the aim, the scrupulous, fastidious aim, at direct expression--at beautiful, suggestive, forcible, original expression : but first of all at direct expression. This he called, somewhat oddly, restricting himself to the language of common life, in opposition to so-styled 'poetic diction.' Happily he was inconsistent with his own theory. He showed with Burns how far deep down the pathetic and the tender go in common life, and how its language can be made by cunning artists to minister to their expression : but there are regions in poetry of glory and nobleness and splendour where Burns never came, and there Wordsworth showed that he was master of a richer and subtler wealth of words than common life supplies. But in his most fiery moments of inspiration and enthusiasm he never allowed himself to relax his hold on reality and truth : as he would scorn to express in poetry any word or feeling which was not genuine and natural, any sentiment or impulse short of or beyond the actual impression which caused them, so with the most jealous strictness he measured his words. He gave them their full swing if they answered to force and passion ; but he watched them all the same, with tender but manly severity. Hence with his power and richness of imagination, and his full command over all the resources of voice and ear, an austere purity and plainness and ·nobleness marked all that he wrote, and formed a combination as distinct as it was uncommon.
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
.) y it was wholesome and elevating; it was one of the best influences of our time. But it became undiscriminating: Il, 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
(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 yalue 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