Pater on Wordsworth


The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. With an introduction by John Morley. Macmillans.

The Recluse. By William Wordsworth. Macmillans.

Selections from Wordsworth. By William Knight and other Members of the Wordsworth Society. With Preface and Notes. Kegan Paul.

The appearance, so close to each other, of Professor Knight’s careful and elaborately annotated Selections from Wordsworth, of Messrs. Macmillan’s collected edition of the poet’s works, with the first book of The Recluse, now published for the first time, and of an excellent introductory essay by Mr. John Morley, forms a welcome proof that the study of the most philosophic of English poets is increasing among us. Surely nothing could be better, hardly anything more directly fitted than a careful reading of Wordsworth, to counteract the faults and offences of our busy generation, in regard both to thought and taste, and to remind people, amid the enormous expansion, at the present time, of all that is material and mechanical in life, of the essential value, the permanent ends, of life itself. In the collected edition the poems are printed with the dates, so far as can be ascertained, in the order of their composition –an arrangement which has indisputable recommendations for th student of Wordsworth’s genius; though the former method of distributing his work into large groups of subject had its value, as throwing light upon his poetic motives, and more especially as coming from himself.

In his introductory essay Mr. Morley has dwelt strongly on the circumstance of Wordsworth’s remarkable personal happiness, as having had much to do with the physiognomy of his poetic creation –a calm, irresistible, well-being– almost mystic in character, and yet doubtless connected with physical conditions. Long ago De Quincey noted it as a strong determinant fact in Wordsworth’s literary carrer, pointing, at the same time, to his remarkable good luck also, on the material side of life. The poet’s own flawless temperament, his fine mountain atmosphere of mind (so to express it), had no doubt a good deal to do with that. What a store of good fortune, what a goodly contribution to happiness, in the very best sense of that term, is really involved in a cheerful, grateful, physical temperament; especially, in the case of a poet –a great poet– who will, of course, have to face the appropriate trials of a great poet.

Coleridge and other English critics at the beginning of the present century has a great deal to say concerning a psychological distinction of much importance (as it appeared to them) between the fancy and the imagination. Stripped of a great deal of somewhat obscure metaphysical theory, this distinction reduced itself to the certainly vital one, with which all true criticism more or less directly has to do, between the lower and higher degrees of intensity in the poet’s conception of his subject, and his concentration of himself upon is work. It was Wordsworth who made most of this distinction, assuming it as the basis for the final classification (abandoned, as we said, in the new edition) of his poetical writings. And nowhere is the distinction more realizable than in Wordsworth’s own work. For though what may be called professed Wordsworthians, including Matthew Arnold, found a value in all that remains of him –could read anything he wrote. “even the ‘Thanksgiving Ode,’ -everything, I think except ‘Vaudracour and Julia,'”– yet still the decisiveness of such selections as those made by Arnold himself, and now by Professor Knight, hint at a certain very obvious difference of level in his poetic work.

This perpetual suggestion of an absolute duality between his lower and higher moods, and the poetic work produced in them, stimulating the reader to look below the immediate surface of his poetry, makes the study of Wordsworth an excellent exercise for the training of those mental powers in us, which partake both of thought and imagination. It begets in those who fall in with him at the right moment of their spiritual development, a habit of reading between the lines, a faith in the effect of concentration and collectedness of mind on the right appreciation of poetry, the expectation that what is really worth having in the poetic order will involve, on their part, a certain discipline of temper not less than of the intellect. Wordsworth meets them with the assurance that he has much to give them, and of a very peculiar kind, if they follow a certain difficult way, and seems to possess the secret of some special mental illumination. To follow that way is an initiation, by which they will become able to distinguish, in art, speech, feeling, manners,in men and life generally, what is genuine, animated, and expressive from what is only conventional and derivative, and therefore inexpressive.

A very intimate sense of the expressiveness of outward things, which ponders, listens, penetrates, where the earlier, less developed consciousness passed lightly by, is an important element in the general temper of our modern poetry. Critics of literary history have again and again remarked upon it; it is a characteristic which reveals itself in many different forms, but is strongest and most sympathetic in what is strongest and most serious in modern literature; it is exemplified by writers as unlike Wordsworth as the French romanticist poets. As a curious chapter in the history of the human mind, its growth might be traced from Rousseau and St. Pierrer to Chateaubriand, from Chateaubriand to Victor Hugo; it has no doubt some obscure relationship to those pantheistic theories which have greatly occupied people’s minds in many modern reading of philosophy; it makes as much difference between the modern and the earlier landscape art as there is between the roughly outlined masks of a Byzantine mosaic and a portrait by Reynolds or Romney. Of this new landscape sense the poetry of Wordsworth is the elementary and central exposition; he is more exclusively occupied with its development than any other poet. Wordsworth’s own character, as we have already observed, was dominated by a certain contentment, a sort of naturally religious placidity, not often found in union with a poetic sensibility so active as his; and this gentle sense of well-being was favourable to the quiet, habitual observation of the inanimate, or imperfectly animate, world. His life of eighty placid years was almost without what, with most human beings, count for incidents. His flight from the active world, so genially celebrated in this newly published poem of The Recluse; his flight to the Vale of Grasmere, like that of some pious youth to the Chartreuse, is the most marked event of his existence. His life’s changes are almost entirely inward ones; it falls into broad, untroubled, perhaps somewhat monotonous, spaces; his biographers have very little to tell. What it really most resembles, different as its superficies may look, is the career of those early mediæval religious artists, who, precisely because their souls swarmed with heavenly visions, passed their fifty or sixty years in tranquil, systematic industry, seemingly with no thoughts beyond it. This placid life developed in Wordsworth, to an extraordinary degree, an innate sensibility to natural sights and sounds –the flower and its shadow on the stone, the cuckoo and its echo. The poem of “Resolution and Independence” is a storehouse of such records; for its fulness of lovely imagery it may be compared to Keat’s “Saint Agnes’ Eve.” To read one of his greater pastoral poems for the first time is like a day spent in a new country; the memory is crowded for a while with its precise and vivid incidents:–

The pliant harebell swinging in the breeze,
On some grey rock:
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music from that old stone wall:-
In the meadows and the lower ground,
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn:-
And that green corn all day is rustling in thine ears!

Clear and delicate at once as he is in the outlining of visible imagery, he is more finely scrupulous still in the noting of sounds; he conceives of noble sound as even moulding the human countenance to nobler types, and as something actually “profaned” by visible form or colour. He has a power likewise of realizing and conveying to the consciousness of his reader abstract and elementary impressions, silence, darkness, absolute motionlessness, or, again, the whole complex sentiment of a particular place, the abstract expression of desolation in the long white road, of peacefulness in a particular folding of the hills.

That sense of a life in natural objects, which in most poetry is but a rhetorical artifice, was, then, in Wordsworth the assertion of what was for him almost literal fact. To him every natural object seemed to possess something of moral or spiritual life, to be really capable of a companionship with man, full of fine intimacies. An emanation, a particular spirit, belonged not to the moving leaves or water only, but to the distant peak arising suddenly, by some change of perspective, above the nearer horizon of the hills, to the passing space of light across the plain, to the lichened Druidic stone even, for a certain weird fellowship in it with the moods of men. That he awakened “a sort of thought in sense” is Shelley’s just estimate of this element in Wordsworth’s Poetry.

It was through nature ennobled in this way by the semblance of passion and thought, that the poet approached the spectacle of human life. For him, indeed, human life is, in the first instance, only an additional, and as it were incidental grace, upon this expressive landscape. When he thought of men and women, it was of men and women as in the presence and under the influence of those effective natural objects, and linked to them by many associations. Such influences have sometimes seemed to belittle those who are the subject of them, at the least to be likely to narrow the range of their sympathies. To Wordsworth, on the contrary, they seemed directly to dignify human nature, as tending to tranquillize it. He raises physical nature to the level of human thought, giving it thereby a mystic power and expression; he subdues man to the level of nature, but gives him therewith a certain breadth and vastness and solemnity.

Religious sentiment, consecrating the natural affections and rights of the human heart, above all that pitiful care and awe for the perishing human clay of which relic-worship is but the corruption, has always had much to do with localities, with the thought which attach themselves to definite scenes and places. And what is true of it everywhere is truest in secluded valleys, where one generation after another maintains the same abiding-place; and it was on this side that Wordsworth apprehended religion most strongly. Having so much to do with the recognition of local sanctities, the habit of connecting the very trees and stones of a particular spot of earth with the great events of life, till the low walls, the green mounds, the half-obliterated epitaphs, seemed full of oracular voices, even the religion of those people of the dales appeared but as another link between them and the solemn imageries of the natural world. And, again, this too tranquillized them, by bringing them under the rule of traditional, narrowly localized observances. “Grave livers,” they seemed to him under this aspect, of stately speech, and something of that natural dignity of manners which underlies the highest courtesy.

And, seeing man thus as a part of nature, elevated and solemnized in proportion as his daily life and occupations brought him into companionship with permanent natural objects, he was able to appreciate passion in the lowly. He chooses to depict people from humble life, because, being nearer to nature than others they are on the whole more impassioned, certainly direct in their expression of passion, than other men; it is for this direct expression of passion that he values their humble words. In much that he said in exaltation of rural life he was but pleading indirectly for that sincerity, that perfect fidelity to one’s own inward presentations, to the precise features of the picture within, without which and profound poetry is impossible. It was not for their tameness, but for their impassioned sincerity, that he chose incidents and situations from common life, “related in a selection of language really used by men.” He constantly endeavours to bring his language nearer to the real language of men, not on the dead level of their ordinary intercourse, but in certain select moments of vivid sensation, when this language is winnowed and ennobled by sentiment. There are poets who have chosen rural life for their subject for the sake of its passionless repose; and there are times when Wordsworth himself extols the mere calm and dispassionate survey of things as the highest aim of poetical culture. But is was not for such passionless calm that he preferred the scenes of pastoral life; and the meditative poet, sheltering himself from the agitations of the outward world, is in reality only clearing the scene for the exhibition of great emotions, and what he values most is the almost elementary expression of elementary feelings.

In Wordsworth’s prefatory advertisement to the first edition of The Prelude, published in 1850, it is stated that that work was intended to be introductory to The Recluse: and that The Recluse, if completed, would have consisted of three parts. The second part is The Excursion. The third part was left in manuscript, it is said, in no great condition of forwardness for the printers. This book, now for the first time printed in extenso (a very noble passage from it found place in that prose advertisement to The Excursion), is the great novelty of this latest edition of Wordsworth’s poetic works. It was well worth adding to the poet’s great bequest to English Literature. The true student of his work,, who has formulated for himself what he supposes to be the leading characteristics of Wordsworth’s genius, will feel, we think, a lively interest in putting them to test by the many and various striking passages in what is here presented for the first time.

Originally published anonymously in ‘The Guardian’, 27th February 1889