Page images
PDF
EPUB

he was, and past bcaring further fruit of song, the laureate wrcath of England surely never invested worthier brows.

In July, 1847, the poet's only daughter, Dora, then Mrs. Quillinan, dicd. The event was no surprise either to herself or to others : knowing her end was near for some time before it came, she looked at it calmly, and met it as became a soul that had lived in the presence of so much moral beauty. Still the atiliction bore hard upon her aged parents, and would probably have been too much for them, but that they had the full strength of Christian faith to console and sustain them. On the 23d day of April, 1850, the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, and also of his death, Wordsworth himself died, his age being eighty years and sixteen days. He was buried, according to his declared wish, beside his children in Grasmere churchyard. Mrs. Wordsworth survived her husband some three years, and was then gathered to his side.

For a long series of years Wordsworth's poetry had decidedly up-hill work, and made its way very slowly. He can hardly be said even to have found the "fit audience, though few : he had to educate his own audience, and that, too, from the bottom upwards; had to develop the faculties for understanding him, and create the taste to enjoy him. The critical law-givers of the time, or those who passed for sach, were nearly all down upon him from the first: the Edinburgh Review, whose verdict was then well-nigh omnipotent with the reading public, could see neither truth nor beauty in his works, and had nothing but obloquy and ridicule to bestow upon them ; in fact all the dogs of criticism, big and little,“ Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart,” joined in barking against him, and kept up their miserable chorus of vituperation, till they were fairly shamed out of it by a new generation of thinkers and writers.

Through this long pelting of detraction the poet stood unmoved ; it seems indeed not to have hurt so much as his patience. Writing, in May, 1807, to a very dear friend, who had expressed great uneasiness on his account, he has the following: It is impossible that any expectations can be lower than mine concerning the immediate effect of this little work upon what is called the public. I do not here take into consideration the envy and malevolence, and all the bad passions which always stand in the way of a work of any merit from a living poct, but merely think of the pure, absolute, honest ignorance in which all worldlings, of every rank and situation, must be enveloped, with respect to the thoughts, feelings, and images on which the life of my poems depends. It is an awful truth, that there neither is, nor can be, any genuine cnjoyment of poetry among nineteen out of twenty of those persons who live, or wish to live, in the broad light of the world, - among those who either are, or are striving to make themselves, people of consideration in society. This is a truth, and an awful one, because to be incapable of a feeling of poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without love of human nature and reverence for God.”

Again, wishing to make his friend as easy-hearted as himself on the subject, he continues thus: “ Trouble not yourself upon their present reception ; of what moment is that compared with what I trust is their destiny? To console the afflicted ; to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier; to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, 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 in 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. I am not, however, afraid of such censure, insignificant as probably the majority of those poems would appear to very respectable persons. I do not mean London wits and witlinys, for these have too many foul passions about them to be respectable, even if they had more intellect than the benign laws of Providence will allow to such a heartless existence as theirs; but grave, kindly-natured, worthy persons, who would be pleased if they could. I hope that these vol

umes are not without some recommendations, even for readers of this class; but their imagination has slept; and the voice which is the voice of my poetry, without imagination, cannot be heard.”

I must quote one passage more, where the poet is referring to that portion of his contemporaries who were called the reading public: " Bo assured that the decision of these persons has nothing to do with the question ; they are altogether incompetent judges. These people, in the senseless hurry of their idic lives, do not read books; they merely snatch a glance at them, that they may talk about them. And even if this were not so, never forget what, I believe, was observed to you by Coleridge, that every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished; he must teach the art by which he is to be seen; this, in a certain degree, even to all persons, however wise and pure may be their lives, and however unvitiated their taste. But for those who dip into books in order to give an opinion of them, or talk about them to take up an opinion, — for this multitude of unhappy, and misguided, and misguiding beings, an entire regeneration must be produced ; and if this be possible, it must be a work of time. To conclude, my ears are stone-dead to this idle buzz, and my flesh as insensible as iron to these petty stings; and, after what I have said, I am sure yours will be the same. I doubt not you will share with me an invincible confidence that my writings will co-operate with the benign tendencies in human nature and society wherever found; and that they will, in their degree, be eflicacious in making men wiser, better, and happier."

A great deal has been written upon Wordsworth; for, in truth, no one who has once been fairly touched by his power, or caught the spirit of his poetry, can ever shake off its influence, or keep from thinking about it. Probably the most searching and most deeply-considered criticism that his works have called forth is found in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, written while the tempest of detraction against Wordsworth was in full blast. At the close of that masterly review,- the best piece of poetical criticism, I suspect, in the language, Coleridge sums up the merits of his friend's poetry as follows:

"First: An austere purity of language, both grammatically and logically; in short, a perfect appropriateness of the words to the meaning. In poctry, in which every line, every phrase, may pass the ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice, it is possible, and barely possible, to attain that ultimatum which I have ventured to propose as the infallible test of a blameless style; namely, its untranslatableness in words of the same language, without injury to the meaning. Be it observed, however, that I include in the meaning of a word, not only its correspondent object, but likewise all the associations which it recalls. In poetry it is practicable to preserve the diction uncorrupted by the affectations and misappropriations which promiscuous authorship, and reading, not promiscuous only because it is disproportionally conversanit with the comipositions of the day, have rendered general. Yet, even to the poct, composing in his own province, it is an arduous work; and, as the result and pledge of a watchful good sense, of fine and luminous distinction, and of complete self-possession, may justly claim all the honour which belongs to an attainment equally dilicult and valuable, and the more valuable for being rare.

“ The second characteristic excellence of Mr. Wordsworth's works is a correspondent weight and sanity of the thoughts and sentiments, won, not from books, but from the poet's own meditative observation. They are fresh, and have the dew upon them. His Muse, at least when in her strengtli of wing, and when she lovers aloft in her proper element,

Makes audible a linked lay of truth,
Of truth profound a sweet continuous lay,

Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes. “Both in respect of this and of the former excellence, Mr. Wordsworth strikingly resembles Samuel Daniel, one of the golden writers of our golden

tre.

Elizabethan age, now most causelessly neglected ; Samuel Daniel, whose diction bears no mark of time, no distinction of age; which has been, and, as long as our language shall last, will be, so far the language of to-day and for ever, as that it is more intelligible to us than the transitory fashions of our own particular age. A similar praise is due to his sentiments. No frequency of perusal can deprive them of their freshness. For though they are brought into the full day-light of cvery reader's comprehension, yet are they drawn up from depths which few in any age are privileged to visit, into which few in any agro have courage or inclination to descend. If Mr. Wordsworth is not, equally with Daniel, alike intelligible to all readers of average understanding in ail passages of his works, the comparative difficulty does not arise from the greater impurity of the ore, but from the nature and uses of the metal. A poem is not necessarily obscure, because it does not aim to be popular. It is enough, it al work be perspicuous to those for whom it is written, and fit audience find, though few.'

“Third, - and wherein he soars far above Daniel :- The sinewy strength and originality of single lines and paragraphs; the frequent curiosa felicitas of his diction. This beauty, and as eminently characteristic of Wordsworth's poetry, his rudest assailants have felt themselves compelled to acknowledge and admire.

Fourth: The perfect truth of nature in his images and descriptions, as taken immediately from nature, and proving a long and genial intimacy with the very spirit which gives the physiognomic expression to all the works of nature. Like a green field reflected in a calm and perfectly transparent lake, the image is distinguished from the reality only by its greater softness and lus

Like the moisture or the polish on a pebble, genius neither distorts nor false-colours its objects; but, on the contrary, brings out many a vein and many a tint which escape the eye of common observation, thus raising to the rank of gems what had been often kicked away by the hurrying foot of the traveller on the high road of custom.

“Fifth : A meditative pathos, a union of deep and subtile thought with sensibility; a sympathy with man as man; the sympathy indeed of a contemplator, rather than a fellow-sufferer or co-mate, (spectator haud particeps,) but of a contemplator from whose view no difference of rank conceals the sameness of the nature; no injuries of wind or weather, of toil, or even of ignorance, wholly disguise the human face divine. The superscription and the image of the Creator remain legible to him under the dark lines with which guilt or calamity had cancelled or cross-barred it. Here the man and the poet lose and find themselves in each other, the one as glorified, the latter as substantiated. In this mild and philosophic pathos, Wordsworth appears to me without a compeer. Such he is: so he writes.

“Last, and pre-eminently, I challenge for this poet the gift of IMAGINATION in the highest and strictest sense of the word. In the play of Fancy. Wordsworth, to my feelings, is not always graceful, and is sometimes recondite. The likeness is occasionally too strange, or demands too peculiar a point of view, or is such as appears the creature of predetermined research, rather than spontaneous presentation. Indeed his fancy seldom displays itself as mere and unmodified fancy. But in imaginative power he stands nearest of all modern writers to Shakespeare and Milton; and yet in a kind perfectly unborrowed and his own. To employ his own words, which are at once an instance and an illustration, he does indeed to all thoughts and to all objects

add the gleam,
The light that never was on sea or land,

The consecration and the poet's dream.'" I must add, that Wordsworth was far from being an overweening truster in his own genius. On the contrary, he was a most earnest, careful, painstaking 12

WORDSWORTH: SKETCH OF HIS LIFE.

workman; was never weary of retouching his poems, and spared no labour, that he might lift and chasten them into fair accordance with his own ideas. And, with all his sturdy self-reliance, - a self-reliance that belongs to all genius of a high order, - he had a spirit of willing deference to thoughtful and genial criticism on his poems. All this was because in his view the office of poct was invested with religious consecration: he regarded his calling as divine, his art as a sacred thing; and to treat it as a mere plaything, or to use it for

any

selfends, was to him nothing less than downright, profanation. On this point he has left the following markworthy passage : “I can say without vanity, that I have bestowed great pains on ny style, full as much as any of my contemporaries have dono on theirs. I yield to none in love for my art. I therefore labour at it with reverence, affection, and industry. My main endeavour, as to style, has been that my poems should be written in purc intelligible English.”

Again, he speaks of the poet's office in the following high strain : “The Sun was personified by the ancients as a chariotcer driving four fiery steeds over the vault of heaven; and this solar charioteer was called Phoebus, or Apollo, and was regarded as the god of poetry, of prophecy, and of medicine. Phæbus combined all these characters. And every poet has a similar mission on Earth: he must also be a Phæbus in his own way; he must diffuse hcalth and light; he must prophesy to his generation; he must teach the present age by counselling with the future; he must plead for posterity; and he must imitate Phoebus in guiding and governing all his faculties, fiery steeds though they be, with the most exact precision, lest, instead of being a Phæbus, he prove a Phaeton, and set the world on fire, and be hurled from his car: he must rein-in his fancy, and temper his imagination, with the control and direction of sound reason, and drive on in the right track with a steady hand.”

In conclusion: Wordsworth is now generally admitted to take rank as one of the five great chiefs of English song; the

others being, of course, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. As for Shakespeare, he stands altogether apart, in the solitude of his own unchallenged superiority, unapproached, and unapproachable; so that no one should think of trying any other poet by his measure. As to the others, it is not yet time to settle Wordsworth's comparative merits. To pronounce him as great a poet as Milton, would probably be rash: but I make bold to affirm that he is more original than Milton ; in fact, the most original of all English pocts, with the single exception of Shakespeare. And a long experience has fully satisfied me that, next after Shakespeare, he is the best of them all for use as a text-book in school : and this, because, with fair handling, he kindles a purer, deeper, stronger enthusiasm, and penctrates the mind with a more potent and more enduring charm. He makes the world appear a more beautiful and happier place, human life a nobler and diviner thing; and wherever the taste has once been set to him, wherever his power has once made any thing of a lodgment, the person never outgrows the love of him, nor thinks of parting company with him. His poems have now been my inseparable companion for some thirty-five years; and every year has made them dearer to my heart; every year has added to my reverence for their author, and to my gratitude for the unspeakable benediction they have been to

If I can do even a little towards diffusing a knowledge and love of this precious inheritance, I shall think I have not lived altogether in vain.

me.

[blocks in formation]

And she had made a pipe of straw,

He was a lovely youth! I guess

The panther in the wilderness
And music from that pipe could draw

Was not so fair as he;
Like sounds of winds and floods;
Had built a bower upon the green,

And, when he chose to sport and play,

No dolphin ever was so gay As if she from her birth had been

Upon the tropic sea, An infant of the woods.

Among the Indians he had fought, Beneath her father's roof, alone

And with him many tales he brought She seem'd to live; her thoughts her own; Of pleasure and of fear; Herself her own delight;

Such tales as told to any maid Pleased with herself, nor sad, nor gay; By such a youth, in the green shade, And, passing thus the live-long day, Were perilous to hear. She grew to woman's height.

He told of girls,- a happy rout! There came a youth from Georgia's shore;

Who quit their fold with dance and shout,

Their pleasant Indian town, 1 military casque he wore,

To gather strawberries all day long; With splendid feathers drest;

Returning with a choral song
He brought them from the Cherokees:

When daylight is gone down.
The feathers nodded in the breeze,
And made a gallant crest.

He spake of plants that hourly change

Their blossoms, thro' a boundless range From Indian blood you deem him sprung: Of intermingling hues : But no! he spake the English tongue, With budding, fading, faded flowers, And bore a soldier's name;

They stand the wonder of the bowers And, when America was free

From morn to evening dews.1

1 Referring, perhaps, to the cotton- fect white, and then gradually passing plant; which keeps putting forth new through every variety of shade to a dark Howers through a period of several weeks; brown. the blossom being at first a pure and per-|

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »