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simplicity and truthfulness, were necessary in all compositions pretending to the name of poetry. Something which was described as the canon of general taste in all large and polished societies' was not to be offended by any simpler and more rustic expression of thought. Even they who refused their full assent to the Johnsonian views of poetic diction, resented the simplicity of Mr. Wordsworth as “coarse, inelegant, or infantine.” *
Conscious of the powers he possessed, it is no wonder that the poet received such criticism with indignation, and felt little disposed, at the time, to amend such real faults as were pointed out. Reflection however, and the maturity of his taste, led him in the later editions of his works to alter almost all the passages to which such epithets as those above cited could, with any show of reason, have been applied. The alterations shown in the notes to the present edition from the edition of 1815, will be found to be almost all in the direction of greater dignity and refinement; and such instances would have been largely multi
* The following passage is from the criticism of the Edinburgh Review, on the Edition of Wordsworth's poems published in 1807:
“The melody of words and verses is indifferent to no reader of poetry ; but the chief recommendation of poetical language is certainly derived from those general associations which give it a character of dignity or elegance, sublimity or tenderness. Every one knows that there are low and mean expressions, as well as lofty and grave ones, and that some words bear the impression of coarseness and vulgarity as clearly as others do of refinement and affection. We do not mean of course to say anything in defence of the hackneyed common-places of ordinary versemen. Whatever might have been the original character of these unlucky phrases, they are now associated with nothing but ideas of school-boy imbecility and vulgar affectation. But what we do maintain is, that much of the most popular poetry in the world owes its celebrity chiefly to the beauty of its diction, and that no poetry can be long or generally acceptable, the language of which is coarse, inelegant, or infantine."
plied, had it been deemed expedient to crowd the notes with instances of the alterations from earlier editions.*
Notwithstanding all the fault which was found with the poems of Mr. Wordsworth, and all the ridicule that was poured out upon particular passages, it was evident enough that they had taken a strong hold upon the thoughtful and imaginative portion of the reading world. They had in them something to meditate upon-something that all who could reason upon works of imagination thought it worth while to discuss. It therefore became as absurd as it was unjust to treat such writings with contempt, and to try to make the world believe, on the strength of a few isolated passages, which from their extreme character were open to ridicule, that the poems taken as a whole were marked by "childishness, affectation, and conceit.” | Indeed there can be little doubt that at the time when Mr. Wordsworth's poems were far from popular, and when the smart criticism of the day was so constantly directed against them, he was, even then, one of the most influential writers of the age. He had found out, as it were, a new source of profound and delightful thought. He had discovered a meaning in the forms of Nature which had not been discovered before, and had given an expression to that meaning which, if not universally understood, was quite intelligible to all who combined deep thought with deep feeling.
* Dr. Christopher Wordsworth, in his biography of the Poet, (vol. i. ch. xiii.)notices these faulty passages as "affronts to the judgment of the world,” and adds that such passages, “which appear in the first three impressions of the Lyrical Ballads, are not found in succeeding Editions, and, upon the whole, it may now be affirmed that among all the poets of England none has surpassed him, in elaborate workmanship both in the form and expression of his thoughts.”
† Mr. Coleridge thus remarks upon the strange contrast of the heat and long continuance of the opposition to Mr. Wordsworth's Poems, with the nature of the faults stated as justifying it :-“ The seductive faults, the dulcia vitia of Cowley, Marini, or Darwin, might reasonably be thought capable of corrupting the public judgment for half a century, avd require a twenty years' war, campaign after campaign, in order to dethrone the usurper, and re-establish the legitimate taste. But that a downright simpleness under the affectation of simplicity, prosaic words in feeble metre, silly thoughts in childish phrases, and a preference of mean, degrading, or at best trivial associations and characters, should succeed in forming a school of imitators, a company of almost religious admirers, and this too among young men of ardent minds, liberal education, and not
-with academic laurels unbestowed; and that this base and bold counterfeit of poetry, which is characterised as below criticism, should for nearly twenty years have well nigh engrossed criticism, as the main, if not the only, butt of review, magazine, pamphlet, poem, and paragraph; this is indeed matter of wonder.”Biog. Lit. vol. i. 73.
Even those who were least willing to do justice to his genius were probably in no slight degree under its influence, and it would not be difficult, from the writings of at least some who never alluded to him in terms of respect, to show that they had at all events paid him the homage of borrowing his thoughts, or imitating his manner. His writings, if one may so express one's meaning, have had the nature of leaven, and worked in many minds for good—in the minds of many who did, and of some who did not, acknowledge whence their new sense of the influence of nature was derived
Nor will this be thought surprising when we consider the great natural abilities of the man, and the excellence of the purpose which he held steadily in view.* That
• “The feelings and aims with which these poems were written and published were not obvious to the world, and probably are not even now rightly understood by many readers. By some persons the 'Lyrical Ballads' are regarded merely as pictures of beautiful nature, and a simple state of society; but the design of the poet in the selection of his subjects, and the ends for which he laboured in treating them, deserve more attention than they appear generally to have received."- Memoirs of W. Wordsworth, by Dr. C. Wordsworth, vol. i. ch. xvii.
purpose was a very different one from the acquisition either of fortune or of fame as an author. Not that I suppose he was indifferent to these things, or less sensible than others were of their value, when they came, but he did not lay himself out for them. He aimed at something higher and better. In the preface to the “ Lyrical Ballads” he says, after alluding to the triviality of thought and language which some of his contemporaries had introduced into their metrical compositions, that from such verses the poems in his volumes would be distinguished by at least one mark of difference, that each of them had "a worthy purpose." Not that I mean to say, he continues, " that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived ; but I believe that my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If in this opinion I am mistaken, I can have little right to the name of a poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings : and though this be true, poems to which
any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.”
It may be useful to the attentive reader of these earlier poems
to know not only that they had a purpose, but what was the general purpose of the whole, and the particular purpose of some of them.*
The general purpose then, was to display the strength of moral attachment when early associated with the great and beautiful objects of nature ; to place the reader in the way of receiving from ordinary moral sensations another and more salutary impression than is generally derived from them ; to sketch characters under the influence of less impassioned feelings—characters of which the elements are simple, belonging rather to nature than to manners, such as will probably always exist, and which from their constitution may be distinctly and profitably contemplated.+ The author of these poems was of opinion that the human mind was capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants, and that one being is elevated above another in proportion as he possesses this capability. He thought that to produce or enlarge this capability would be to do excellent service to society, and that also was his purpose. He desired to oppose himself to what he called the degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation which existed at the time he wrote, and which was manifested in the reading of frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. His deliberate pur
* of his poems the author himself says :
“To console the afflicted; to add sunshine to daylight, by making the happy bappier; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, and to feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous, this is their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform, long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves. I am well aware how far, it would seem to many, I overrate my own exertions when I speak in this way in direct connection with the volume I have just made public.”—Letter to Lady Beaumont, May, 1807. + See the Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads."