The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Poet Wordsworth
by Rev. W. Tuckwell
[A Lecture delivered at the House of Education, Ambleside, on Thursday, June 20th, 1901.] ~ Most of the poems suggested in this article have been compiled on one page; you can view them here.
In various places and to very different audiences, I have lectured on your great Poet: I speak of him now for the first time within sight of the mountains and within hearing of the streams which inspired him living, and mourned him dead.
It is with some misgiving that I handle a theme, familiar possibly from childhood to some amongst those who hear me, and hardly to be approached, as they may think, without presumption by a stranger. Yet a prophet's own country is behindhand sometimes in acceptance of his greatness and interpretation of his message; nor can there be many here to-day whose youthful opening era of poetic enthusiasm synchronized, as did mine, with that decade of the past century, in which, Scott and Byron having passed away, Tennyson not yet risen, Wordsworth held the field in the universal estimate of contemporary intelligence: of cynics like Matthew Arnold, skeptics like Mark Pattison and Arthur Clough, cosmopolitans like Crabb Robinson, sentimentalists like Aubrey de Vere and Frederick Faber, austere agnostics like Stuart Mill, religious devotees like John Henry Newman.
Well, then, I shall take my chance—petitioning for indulgence from the practical Wordsworthians present, who may meet my every utterance, as Cromwell met Roger Wildrake, with "I know what thou wouldst say";—endeavouring to conduct, in a temper at once critical and reverent, an act of homage to an Immortal in the Temple consecrated by himself.
It is a commonplace of travellers that scenes of high natural beauty are inhabited by a lowly organised population: that nature exhausts herself in sublime production of mountain, valley, forest, lake, and finds her remnant of strength restricted to the formation of human simpletons and Philistines; that, where every prospect pleases, only man is vile. It is true of many spots within and beyond our shores; it is not true of the native Cumberland and Westmoreland lake-dwellers. Inhabiting the most beautiful English regions, they represent the noblest type of Englishmen: manly, upright, self-respecting, independent, possessed of substantial comfort through a system of small proprietorship which, universal once in England, has survived to some extent in this retired corner; their isolation sufficient to intensify home affection without stagnating into ignorance and rudeness; they are as much above the midland and southern labourer as the peasants of north and central France are above the wretched starvelings of its south-eastern vineyards. Even in their decay they are not ordinary mendicants; the Leech-gatherer and the old Cumberland Beggar, both drawn from life, are picturesque, firm of mind, useful, dignified, in harmony with surrounding Nature, awakening in other hearts affection and sympathy redeemed from contempt or even pity. Sprung from this exceptional stock, deriving their temperament and habitually contemplating their virtues, the great Poet of whom we are to speak owed to them a twofold heritage: the moral and the mental fortitude which sustained and shaped his genius, the reverence for his kind which saved him from mere impersonal enthusiasm, associated Mankind with Nature in his mind as in harmony with and essential to the full meaning of the external world, dowered his poetic aspiration with the noblest aim of Poetry, the glorification of "Man, of Nature, and of Human Life."
He was born in 1770, son of John Wordsworth, who, sprung from an ancient middle-class Yorkshire family, had settled in Cockermouth as an attorney and agent to the Earl of Lonsdale. Of this monster, resembling not so much an English nobleman as a mediaeval Robber baron; of his barbaric pomp, his unparalleled eccentricities, and of the terror attaching to his person, wild tales were still current when I first knew the Lakes: he lived a Herod's life, and he died the horrible death with which at least two of that strange race were smitten. Borrowing from Mr. Wordsworth £5000, he refused to pay interest or to refund it, retaining on his own side the entire Bar of the Northern Circuit when his agent took proceedings against him at the Assize. Not till after the Earl's death was principal and interest repaid to the family by his successor, the Good Lord Lonsdale, as he was called; and the youth and childhood of the Poet and his brothers were financially crippled by the injustice. The children were five in number; Richard, of whom we hear little, John the Sailor, William the Poet, Christopher afterwards Master of Trinity, and one sister Dorothy. The boys were sent to the Hawkshead Grammar School on the banks of Esthwaite; the poet's name carved on a desk is reverently preserved, and the cottage of his Dame Ann Tyson, recorded in the Prelude, may still be seen. Though saddened by his father's death, it was a happy time; he was free out of school hours to ramble, fish, row, skate; already, as he tells us, realizing ever and anon that Nature had spiritual secrets underneath her outward beauty, awed with a "dim and undetermined sense of modes of being." He went to Cambridge—was out of his element there—made few friends—came back rapturously to Hawkshead for his holidays, to write verses, to ponder in solitude, to feel by degrees that his life mission was settled for him by a Power not himself, that he was a dedicated Poet. He went on a walking tour through France, opening his heart to the first ecstacy of the Revolution, spent some time in London; publishing his earliest volume, The Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches; passed through three years of sadness and of conflict, uncertain as to his profession and his future, his faith in God and man shaken, even his delight in Nature dimmed. His native purity of soul, his constitutional religious instinct, his alliance with the virtues and happiness of Cumbrian homes, would have carried him through the fermentation of heart and mind which all young men of ability undergo, and led him back to serenity; but his restoration was hastened by the good fortune which brought a new influence into his life, the companionship of his sister Dorothy. Dorothy Wordsworth was one of those rare beings, at once highly gifted and self-abnegating, who are content to minister to another's genius and be lost in another's light. She possessed phenomenally what her brother lacked: sensitiveness to the minuter loveliness of Nature, the details of sun and cloud, of light and shade, of tree colouring and wild flower grouping, of snowflake and raindrop, butterfly and bird, of nodding daffodil and fading celandine. These things were not noted by her brother until she couched his eye to see them: once seen, they yielded up to him their treasures of immortal meaning; but many of his most delicate verses would never have been written but for her intellectual second sight, discerning and presenting to him the materials for poetic evolution:—
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
And she did more than this. Intervening at the critical moment of his life, she saved him from despondency, cleared his heart, and head,
Maintained for me a saving intercourse
More than one writer has described her. Her person is such, says Coleridge, that if you expected to see a pretty woman you would think her ordinary, if an ordinary woman you would think her pretty. Her manners are simple, ardent, impressive, her information various, her eye watchful in minutest observations of Nature, her taste a perfect electrometer. Her brother speaks of the shooting lights of her wild eyes, and the same feature impressed De Quincey; wild and startling, he calls them, and hurried in their motion, revealing a fire of impassioned intellect, which, now instinctively pushed forward and again diffidently checked, gave an air of self-conflict to her demeanour and sometimes even a slight stutter to her voice. Her figure, he adds, was slight and somewhat short, her complexion of a gipsy tan. She joined her brother towards the end of his three anxious years, and they started together on the first of those walking tours which were in the future to diversify their simple life. By coach occasionally, but mostly on foot, they traversed the north of England, fearless of rain, snow, cold, heat, tempest; lodging at cottage or farmhouse, living on bread, potatoes, milk; scheming a life together in some lonely spot, yet anxious as to their almost empty purse, and the necessity of odious unpoetic work to fill it. At this moment a young friend, Raisley Calvert, died, bequeathing to Wordsworth £900, in the belief that freed from pecuniary care, he might produce something that would benefit the world. So the money was judiciously invested, and, on an income of "at least £80 a year," Dorothy proudly says, they began together the union which was to continue in some sorrow and much joy for five and fifty years. They settled for a time at Racedown on the borders of Somersetshire and Dorsetshire, in view of the Lewesdon Hill which Crowe's fine poem has made classical, where Wordsworth wasted himself in translations of Juvenal ["For a time he was engaged upon imitations, never published, of the satires of Juvenal, but for satire he had no real vocation."], and in constructing an unreadable tragedy called The Borderers [a tragedy in five acts]. They visited Coleridge at Stowey, and, rambling as was their wont, lighted on a little combe, with tall trees, dashing brook, sequestered waterfall—a dell still known as the Poet's glen, where grows to-day, thick as moss in the deep moist shade, the rare and lovely Wilson's film-fern. The combe drained the grounds of a spacious park, with handsome house—its owner was a minor living out of England, and the agent was empowered to let it for a nominal sum. The pair gave up Racedown and settled themselves at Alfoxden. The house has been somewhat enlarged, but the rooms in which they lived remain. From the windows, you look, as they looked, on lake-like reaches of the Severn sea; on the great dome-shaped wood, beneath which rises still, as Wordsworth recalls in The Whirlblast, "An under-grove of tallest hollies, tall and green"; on the ascending slopes of the elm-besprinkled park, with deer lying amongst its ferns. Miss Wordsworth's diary recounts their daily walks, together or with Coleridge; "William's" moods of composition, the completion of each fresh poem. The Thorn was written on the hill top above the house; Simon Lee failed to chop his root in a little garden outside the park gates; in Holford village hard by Wordsworth met the weeping peasant with the Last of the Flock in his arms; We Are Seven was meditated in the holly grove, and repeated over the tea table, with the "dear brother Jim," which modern editions omit. We get a sketch of Wordsworth's person at this time from Hazlitt—quaintly dressed in a brown fustian coat and striped pantaloons, a rolling lounging gait, high forehead, slightly furrowed cheek, a severe worn presence of thought about his temples. He read to them in a chanting sing-song Peter Bell, Coleridge following with Betty Foy. In 1798 the Lyrical Ballads appeared, and in the same year, leaving Alfoxden, the brother and sister departed for Goslar in Germany. In this dull secluded town they spent the coldest winter of the century; they failed to learn the language, but their sojourn was poetically productive. Some of his best lyric pieces, Nutting, Ruth, Lucy, The Two April Mornings, were here composed, and The Prelude was planned; its joyous opening lines, which some of us have murmured over on many a breezy hill-top, reflecting the glee with which they set out on their journey home. The world was all before them where to choose; beauty of scenery and proximity to Coleridge their only limitations. They chose the vale of Grasmere; walked to their new home from Sockburn, near Darlington, over frozen roads and amid frequent snow-storms, driving before the wind, as he tells us in The Recluse, "like two birds, companions in mid-air, now parted, now united by the blast;" till the second stage in the Poet's life began as they reached Dove cottage, or Town End as it was then called, under the welcome of a bright and solemn sunset, on the afternoon of the Shortest Day, 1799.
Few tourists who have visited Grasmere will traverse the old beggar woman's assertion to Miss Wordsworth, that it is the bonniest vale in England. Besides the exquisite distribution of mountain, water, woodland, the one island breaking the still mirror of its lake, the perfect greenery of the hill-sides even to their summits, the graceful undulations of the margining shores, there is an undescribable atmospheric influence—softening, etherealising, blending all, which no other valley yields. A man's first view of it as he emerges from the Red Bank on to Loughrigg Terrace is an era in his life: one sees, rejoices, marvels—cannot analyse—even Wordsworth failed in that:
'Tis-but I cannot name it-'tis the sense
The home of the Wordsworths stood beside the road, a field beyond stretching onward to the lake, not then barbarized by a vast hotel. It was and is a humble cottage with two yew trees breaking the glare of its white walls. The rooms within are little changed—there is the downstairs room wainscoted with dark oak, Dorothy's bedroom adjoining; the room above with its "half kitchen and half parlour fire," some eight by sixteen feet in area, and little more than seven feet high. Close at hand is Wordsworth's bedroom, with two small guest chambers, one of which they built, papering it with old newspapers. The tiny garden rose almost straight up the hill, and they contrived a well, fed by a murmuring rivulet or syke; rough steps to a rocky seat; an arbour, with a small terrace commanding the lake view; the whole separated from an orchard by a rude wall which Wordsworth piled himself, cramming its interstices with ferns. The garden is kept neat to-day, not judiciously planted. It contains flowers which cannot have been there a hundred years ago; it omits flowers which we know the sister and brother have introduced. I should dearly love to handle it; to replace each year the scarlet runners with which they draped the naked walls; to add as far as possible all the plants commemorated in the poems, to establish a Wordsworthian flora.
Here, then, for two years the brother and sister lived alone. On every spot around they have left abiding marks. On the garden terrace he composed The Celandine, The Robin and the Butterfly, The Oak and the Broom, The Emigrant Mother, The Green Linnet building and flitting in the hazel tree, the two Cuckoo poems (1 2), puzzling all the morning over an epithet which finally took the form of "shouting" cuckoo! perhaps a recollection from a fine line in [William] Dunbar's Golden Terge—
The skyes rang with schouting of the larkis.
They met the The Leech-Gatherer on White Moss; The Recluse was written in the upstairs room, Dorothy copying it from his dictation. The Beggars were encountered by her at the cottage gate; The Two April Mornings flowed from him almost spontaneously in Easedale; Michael the shepherd lived in Greenhead Ghyll, just beyond the village; The Wishing Gate, or its descendant, still stands, names carved on each surface of its posts and bars. Every spot in the poems on the naming of places has been identified: the church in The Excursion with its crossed rafters, marble monuments, and footworn epitaphs, still shows the corner in which Wordsworth sat; the Pastor of The Excursion was the Vicar of the parish, and in The Churchyard Among the Mountains the remains of the whole Wordsworth family are laid. Its daily life is told for us in Dorothy's journal. No working man would have lived more plainly. Tea they found mostly too expensive, meat was rarely seen. He chopped wood and brought in coal; she cooked, baked, washed, with help from an Old Village Dame. Guests filled constantly the little chamber on the wall; Coleridge oftenest of all, coming in suddenly or late at night, sitting till dawn to talk, to hear Wordsworth's poems and to recite his own. John the sailor brother was a frequent inmate; "John's Walk" a quarter-deck promenade among the trees in a grove hard by. DeQuincey came, and has left an immortal record of the home which was one day to be his own; Southey too, and, later, Walter Scott. We walk, says Dorothy, at all hours of the day; we row upon the water—William and John go fishing, I read German. Again and again we hear how William wearies himself with company; he goes to bed too nervous to sleep, she brings the Faery Queen and reads to him. Some chance of speech of hers kindles inspiration, and he can neither eat nor sleep till the fit is past, leaving him weak as is a breaking wave. She is perpetually copying his verse, for his eyes made writing painful to him; they read together Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Ben Jonson, Chaucer—little else. At the end of 1800 appears at last the second volume of the Lyrical Ballads. As I handle the shabby little book, with its careless printing and its outrageous market value of to-day—as I read over Hart-Leap Well, The Brothers, Lucy Gray, The Fountain, Michael, and the rest, I understand how the veteran readers of the opening century, suckled on Pope and weaned on Johnson, must have loathed it all; how the race of younger men, panting for simplicity of life, for loftiness of thought, for truth of diction, for some key to the perplexities of life, turned to this Zaphnath-paaneah, this Revealer of Secrets, such as no former literature enshrined, hailing him as more than a Prophet.
In October, 1802, a third inmate came to the cottage. Mary Hutchinson, the Poet's cousin, had been from childhood intimate with his sister and himself, and their marriage had been some time in contemplation. William and Dorothy set out on a three months' tour before the wedding day. He writes his exquisite Farewell to the little spot of mountain ground—she takes leave of it in her diary—"Dear Mary, dear William, the hour is come, I must prepare to go. The swallows! I must leave them, the wall, the garden, the roses—all. Dear creatures! they sang last night after I was in bed: seemed to be singing to one another, just before they settled to rest for the night. Well, I must go—farewell!" They ramble in Yorkshire; they visit London; the sonnet to Westminster Bridge composed as they pass over it on the coach top in the early dawn; go on to Calais; return to Gallow Hill where Mary was staying, and the two are married ten days later in the little Brompton Church. Dorothy and Mary are agitated; William, like Marjorie Fleming's bereaved turkey, is "more than usual calm." The three set off together in a post chaise; study the gravestones in Kirby churchyard while the horses feed. They rest for the night at a place called Leeming Lane, William ending the day with a sonnet which was not thought worth preserving. Next morning on they go, William leaving them ever and anon to search for waterfalls, until they reach Grasmere late in the evening after a four days' drive; hasten with candles into the garden to note the growth of trees and plants, and settle down to a life in no way different to that which went before, except that the figures on its stage are three instead of two. In all biography there is nothing so curious as the prompt facile adaptation of these three to their united life. It was due, I think, mainly to Wordsworth's passionless absorption in his being's end and aim. He was vowed to a visionary life, inspired, dedicated, called; there was no room in his temperament for the delicious yet distracting raptures of a romantic life: his marriage was but an incident in his experience: his Mary, formerly a cousin and a guest, was now his wife—and that was all. Dorothy retained unimpaired the place which she had always held in his affections and his daily habits. The young wife, as sympathetic as she was tactful, fitted easily into the triune life, too noble-minded and too clear-sighted to begrudge a rival in the sister, content to win from the husband, if not vehement fondness, yet tranquil, life-long, continuous affection. For nearly six more years the Grasmere life flows on. We have the tour in Scotland. Walter Scott is visited at Lasswade. John Wordsworth dies at sea—a bereavement deeply felt and touchingly recorded, in the Poet's letters, in the lines on Peel Castle, in the last of the Daisy Poems [1, 2, 3, 4], in The Happy Warrior, which he himself looked upon as his finest piece. By degrees, the increasing family makes the little home straitened and impossible. They migrate to a farm house at Coleorton, lent them by Sir. G. Beaumont; to Allan Bank, still in Grasmere; to the Vicarage, saddened by the death of two young children; till, in 1813, all removed to Rydal, and the third period of both the personal and the literary biography began beside lovely Rotha, second only to the Avon in associations of acquired sacredness. The lovely Rotha! yes. The old Greeks flung locks of hair into their running rivers. In a famous passage Wordsworth tells us the meaning of the rite. The inhabitants of Rydal to-day—some of them, that is—charge the Naiad of their divine stream with garden refuse, broken pots and pans, tin carcases of devoured confections. The sentiment possibly is there, but it is latent, and I have not been able to interpret it.
It is more than forty-five years, since, travelling with a pupil in the Lakes, and armed with an introduction from the late Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, I visited Rydal Mount. My mind's eye still sees distinctly the drawing-room made familiar to me by Westall's lithograph; its painting of the Poet, its San Sisto Madonna, the portraits of the Duke of Wellington, and of Jemina Quillinan, the books, among which I picked out the copy of Daniel containing the fine quotation in The Excursion, the Luca di Giordano on the staircase, the paintings by Sir. G. Beaumont, the cuckoo clock; all shown to me by William, the Poet's grandson, whom I knew at Oxford, and whose strong likeness to the Haydon portrait hanging in my rooms was always remarked at the breakfast parties where he was present. Miss Edith Coleridge was set to make the tea, and I enjoyed an hour's talk, repeated on the following day, with Mrs. Wordsworth, not then blind, full of life and merriment. She spoke of Oxford, of my own College where her eldest son was educated, of my old master and friend Charles Wordsworth, whom she described as having been the most winning youth she ever saw. She was eloquent in her admiration of the Rydal Valley, pronouncing it to be the loveliest in winter when none came to see it. She spoke often of her husband—"William" she always called him—delighted to find I could pass an examination in his writings. She sat, I remember, by the window, leaning back and shading her eyes, but bending forward eagerly when interested. Finally, I was handed over to the gardener, James Dixon, with whom, and with a wiry Dandie Dinmont terrier, I visited all the "points"—Mount, terraces, summer house, Nab well, gold-fish pond—James talking of his master, relating how he would let the servants off work the whole day long in skating time, pointing to the ferns and mosses clothing every spot, which Wordsworth would never suffer to be clipped or weeded.
Rydal then was, henceforth, for thirty-seven years the Poet's home; the home with which, witnessing at once the ebb of his poetic genius, and the flow of his poet fame, Englishmen have learned especially to connect him. From the migration to the Mount, his life, still plain and frugal, relaxed something of its Grasmere austerity. Through Lord Lonsdale's influence he was made Stamp Distributor for the county; and while the labours of the office could be discharged by deputy, its emoluments set him at ease as to the education of his sons and the increased expenses of a larger house. The first-fruit of his new abode was the completion of The Excursion and its publication in quarto form, dedicated to the Earl of Lonsdale. It was followed after a year or two by Peter Bell, by The White Doe of Rylstone and The Waggoner, by the Duddon sonnets (1, 2). He frequently visited London, where faithful Crabb Robinson everywhere followed and Boswellised him; travelled on the Continent, in Scotland, and in Ireland. In 1830 a cruel blow fell upon him in his sister's illness, issuing, ultimately, in her mental aberration. In 1831 occurred his mournful farewell visit to Abbotsford, accompanied by his daughter Dora and his nephew Charles. Scott, though paralysis had set its mark upon him, was full of brightness; taking his guests, as Charles Wordsworth who was with them told me once, to Melrose and to Yarrow, inscribing in Dora's album the last lines he ever wrote, faulty in metre, in spelling, in signature; misquoted curiously in almost every report, even in [William] Knight's Wordsworth. The beautiful Abbotsford sonnet (here) is Wordsworth's own tribute to his friend, followed not long afterwards by the stanzas in his extempore poem on the death of [James] Hogg (here). In 1839 he received the degree of D.C.L. from the University of Oxford, being presented in the theatre, with an overpowering reception, by John Keble, the Professor of Poetry. An eye-witness has told me how pleased was the old man by the cries of William Wordsworth, with which the undergraduates saluted him, and records meeting him afterwards at a private house where a young lady sang to him the lines on Lucy, set to music by Professor Donkin. A visit was paid to the old Quantock haunts, in 1841—"a farewell visit for life" he calls it, "and, of course, not a little interesting"; but the sadness must have balanced the interest, for Coleridge and Tom Poole were dead, and the beloved sister was insane. His companions were his wife and his daughter Dora, with her newly-wedded husband, Mr. Quillinan; from the sorrow of her subsequent death, after five years of married life, he never raised his head. Of the closing Rydal days, Crabb Robinson is the best biographer. He tell us of the men and women who made its brilliant society in those days—Professor Wilson, Quillinan, De Quincey, Aubrey de Vere, Faber, Mrs. Fletcher, Miss Martineau, Lady Richardson, the Arnolds. On Southey's death he was made Poet Laureate, receiving about the same time, through Mr. Gladstone's good offices with Sir Robert Peel, a life pension of £300 a year. He chose the grave and attended the funeral of Hartley Coleridge, ordering a space to be marked out close beside it for his own interment and his wife's—"keep the ground for us," he said to the sexton, "we are old people, and it cannot be for long." Long it was not; he caught cold in watching a sunset on a chilly spring evening, and died a fortnight after the completion of his eightieth year—on the 23rd of April, 1850—a day already memorable as that of Shakespeare's birth and death. He lies close beside the rippling murmuring Rotha—"William Wordsworth," when I saw it first in 1855, the only inscription on the slab of slate which formed his headstone. "He loved us all, sir," said the girl who showed me the grave, "he would lay his hand on the heads of us young ones—and his own was grey and bowed. He was never happy away from these valleys, and always came back to them the earliest he could." She had heard tell, she went on, that The Excursion was his finest poem—there were others she liked better. Her father had known the real Peter Bell—he was sometimes in Grasmere with his donkey—why Mr. Wordsworth had written a poem to her sister Sarah Mackareth—did I know it? It was headed "To a Westmoreland Girl." "See how this yew tree is worn, sir, on this side; that is because so many people pluck it to bear away—English people often—visitors from America most of all." I did as "many people" do; a sprig of the yew, with a frond of spleen-wort form the Rydal Terrace, still consecrates my copy of the poems.
The acceptance of Wordsworth's poetry by a general audience must depend mainly upon judicious selections from his first-rate work. Turned loose amongst his six volumes, an untaught reader may easily light upon unpleasing poems, and with a false impression close the book, to his own great loss. We have in the chronology of their production a trustworthy guide to choice. All his best poetry was produced at Stowey, Goslar, Grasmere: it is with this that the student fresh to his writings should begin, as issuing from his finest inspiration, and illustrating most exactly both the principle of his teaching and the secret of his power. Let me advise you therefore, to omit the Descriptive Sketches and the Evening Walk, written before his wings were grown, and neither now nor at any time to read The Borderers. Of the Alfoxden poems first in time are We Are Seven, The Last of the Flock, Expostulation, Simon Lee, The Old Cumberland Beggar, with, what to my mind is the noblest piece he ever wrote, Tintern Abbey, finishing with The Pet Lamb and The Female Vagrant. The Cumberland Beggar may be taken as a specimen of his descriptive power—the palsied hand scattering involuntarily the crumbs of his scanty meal, the bow-bent weary movement, the kind feelings kindled by his helplessness in those whom he encountered cited as an apology for his infirm existence, the sympathetic elevation into dignity and beauty of what is naturally sordid and repulsive. In Expostulation you have Wordsworth's creed in little:—
One impulse from a vernal wood
Simon Lee ends with the classic lines—
I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
The great Ode reaches a level of lyrical excellence which our poetry had not attained since Lycidas. Slightly declamatory here and there, it contains some of Wordsworth's most majestic lines:—
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep—
In Tintern Abbey is concentrated all of him that is most animatingly characteristic. It was composed during a walk from the Wye to Bristol and written down unaltered—a burst of absolute inspiration. Fragments of it—such as
That best portion of a good man's life
cling to us for ever. It was written in 1798; he recalls having visited the same spot five years before, and compares then with now. Of all tributes to his sister, it contains the sweetest: no poem is so interpenetrated with his exquisite Pantheism.
To Goslar we owe Lucy Gray, just bordering here and there upon the infantine, yet a great poem, as fastidious Arnold admits. Nutting reproduces subtly the Grecian Hamadryad sympathy with the forms of Nature as individual personalities. Lucy was the favourite of Sara Coleridge—the girl shaped by nature into loveliness and ladyhood. In A Poet's Epitaph, as in Rob Roy, he discloses a power of sarcasm alien from his usual secure serenity. Walter Scott, in The Antiquary, makes Monkbarns linger over the delicious lines in the Fountain—"No check, no stay," etc. When next you walk that way, take [Matthew] Arnold's Wordsworth [contents here] in your pocket, and read the Grasmere poems in the nooks where they were composed; the poetry will exalt each spot as the spot will illuminate each poem. Read Michael in Green Head Ghyll—the stones in the unfinished sheepfold lie there still in a moss-grown heap—read The Green Linnet under the apple trees in the orchard; listen to the stockdove cooing in the Brother's Grove, and to the cuckoo's wandering voice coming to you as it came to him across the lake from Silver How. Read the Farewell as you lift the latch of the little gate to go; The Happy Warrior as you step the Sailor's walk; The Leech-Gatherer beside the White Moss pool. Follow the pictures in this: the sunny morn fresh from last night's rain—the hare running races in her mirth, and raising as she runs a mist from the plashy earth—the dejection weighing on the poet, as with Burns, Hogg, Chatterton, in his mind he reflects on the mutabilities which Fortune may have laid up for himself—the unexpected apparition of the grey-haired man—
Motionless as a cloud the old man stood,
stirring the pond for leeches with his staff; his grave, resigned, yet independent speech; the dissipation of the poet's anxieties by this spectacle of moral dignity.
I could have laughed myself to scorn, to find
Go further afield if you will. Walk in spring along Gowbarrow, where the Daffodils danced, and I am told still dance, beside Ullswater. Travel on to Ennerdale, with its lofty pillar and its bridge; sit in the churchyard of the little chapel and read in the Brothers how Leonard searched among the graves and went his way forlorn. All these are local; there remain one or two others belonging to that time. The lines on his Mary—
She was a phantom of delight,
—the song at Feast of Brougham Castle, with its change at the close from the rapid martial menacing and jubilant strain into the mirror key of quiet, thoughtful, Nature-teaching.
Love had he found in huts where poor men lie,
Read finally The Complaint, ascribed to his quarrel with Coleridge; The Reverie of Poor Susan, perfect from the first line to the last; the awful grandeur of thought and diction surrounding the Borrowdale Yew Trees.
Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine, and when men have well drunk then that which is worse. Reluctantly or not we must verify this saying in Wordsworth. His genius rose perhaps to its highest level in the Ode on Intimations of Immortality, written towards the end of the Grasmere stage. From that time it slowly faded, flashing up once with the old melody and inevitableness in the Ode on an Evening of extraordinary splendour, in 1818, where he recognises pathetically the exit from his stiffening brain of youthful glory and revelation, yet looks forward to the second spiritual birth, when he shall drink anew the wine which had lost its savour here. Of his remaining poems, therefore, I will speak more briefly. The White Doe of Rylstone I must count among his failures—not in historical ballad narrative lay his strength; no one who had read Marmion could follow the story of the Nortons. It fails in versification—scarcely one Wordsworthian bit is embedded in it; Francis is mawkish, Emily phantasmal; the Father martyrs himself and his seven gallant sons to a hopeless cause; it fails above all in supernaturalism; the Doe from first to last falls flat, as did Scott's White Lady:
Unbought his works—his milk-white Doe
was Hartley's mischievous epitaph on the unexciting animal. Peter Bell belongs to his early defiant period. The sight of a crescent moon, recollections of a wandering much married Potter, whom he had somewhere met, a desire to embody in verse his researches into the habits, tricks, and physiognomy of the domestic ass—issued in that queer production. The childish opening; the Balaam-like dialogue between Peter and the meagre beast; the "party in a parlour," struck out of later editions—seem like intentional outrages on already irritated critics. The description of Peter's insensibility is Wordsworthian, and one passage from it has become the most hackneyed in all literature; but the poem deserves to be forgotten, as does Shelley's satirical continuation; born Wordsworthian as I am, I were content that it had not been written. The Waggoner is a pleasant itinerary; you will find it an enlivening companion in a walk from Rydal to Keswick; and in spite of his vinous peccadilloes you will feel strong sympathy with poor Benjamin. The three Yarrow poems link together Scott and Wordsworth; in the dawn of their fame and at its close. The subject is finally handled by the late Professor [John] Veitch in his Border Essays. Laodamia sprang from his re-reading the Latin poets in order to prepare his son for college. So firmly did Virgil especially lay hold of him, that he gave up many months to what has been called the laziest of all occupations among the classics, to translating the Georgics into English; while from his study of VI. Aeneid sprang this, his one poem on heroic love. Something of the charm has gone from it, stately as it is, which haunted us in the Grasmere poems: something it has of sensuousness foreign to his usual temperament, yet something of conscious moral victory, which the days of his merely innate virtue lacked. The Prelude, not of the highest rank as a poem, will live as an autobiography in proportion to men's appreciation of its author. Self-dissections we have had before; of sentimentalists as Rousseau; of theologians as Blanco White and the brothers Newman; this is the unique instance from a great poet's pen of his own life history in mental education and development. Egoistic of course it is, and Wordsworth was the man to obtrude egoism rather than to veil it. Details there are of interest to the writer rather than to the reader; trifles common to all men, not peculiar to a poet; but I know no such revelation of a prophet's soul-birth, no such insight into the laboratory where a new spiritual mood was fashioning, a new organ of imagination building. You will mark as specially poetic the bathing in the Derwent, the skating on Esthwaite, the vision of the Arab on his dromedary which so deeply moved De Quincey, the Boy mimicking the Owls, the Ash tree in St. John's garden, the Simplon Pass.
Were I bent on making men devotees of Wordsworth I should not begin by directing them to The Excursion. It is not a great poem; it is not Wordsworth at his best. It is as a Seer that we value him; rapt in vision he pours out song limpid, clear, and deep, from which, as from a power of Nature, we take in the revelation which his notes transmit; most potent as a Teacher when he forgets his hearers in his subject. In The Excursion he becomes consciously didactic; he deserts the rhapsody for the sermon, and from the born preacher all healthy souls recoil—"Oh, the Parson!" cried Goethe, as Crabb Robinson took him through the pages of Despondency Corrected. It is an epic, without plot, without machinery, without action; its heroes, the Wanderer and the Pastor, tell the same tale in the same doleful accents; only its reprobate, the Solitary, saves it from continuous commonplace. It contains splendid fragments; for in the opening walk across the Common, in Margaret, in the Sunlight pageantry, in the lively Grecian; in the images of the mountain brook, the ample moon, the smooth-lipped shell, the rowan berries; in the Solitary's bride, the Lamb's bleat, the tales of the Hanoverian and Jacobite, and of Ellen and Joyful Tree; we have the Wordsworth of Lucy, of the Yews, of Tintern Abbey; but the teaching in which these gems are set is of average pulpit value, sinks both in thought and language to the respectable but pedestrian level of conventional synagogism.
It remains to notice the Sonnets, forming as they do a very large proportion of his writings. The Sonnet is the cameo of poetical literature, insignificant in dimensions, dependent for acceptance on minute workmanship and perfect finish. Shakespeare found in it a passionate outlet for personal emotion; Milton snatched at it as a relief to suppressed poetic feeling; Wordsworth conceived its expansion into sequent utterances on a single subject, each complete in itself, yet each a stanza in a larger poem. In no department of his writing is more ruthless excision necessary if we would rid ourselves of the alloy and retain the gold. Of his 260 Sonnets, Arnold reproduces 60—some even of these I could resign—the residuum is above rubies. They contain the essence of his highest gifts; melody of style, truth of subject, condensation of thought. He had acquired too the poetic knack which goes far to make the fortune even of an inferior sonnet, majesty in the closing line. Let me notice as those which seem to myself supreme—Personal Talk, Sleep, Million, The Two Voices, It is a beauteous evening, Mutability; and let me read to you three specimens. The first is local, and will appeal to most dwellers in and round Ambleside. [The Sonnet to Wansfell was read.] The second is descriptive. He crosses Westminster Bridge at daybreak on a July morning. Amid its densest squalor he could at all times see the country in the town—witness poor Susan, the Farmer of Tilbury Vale, the walk up Fleet Street in snow—but here the veil is stripped away by Nature's own hand—crowds, sordor, clamour, smoke, are gone—the sun and the river reign triumphant. [The Westminster Bridge Sonnet was read.] The third represents him, Mark Pattison was wont to say, in his highest, most benign, most efficacious ethical mood. [The world is too much with us, was read.]
Here then we make an end. The pieces I have read must needs be a delight to those who knew the Master; a guide, I hope, to those who have read him unadvisedly or not at all. In proportion as they have been wisely selected and justly rendered, they reveal the secret of his excellence. The aim of all mankind is happiness—to show the way to that is the highest function of the Poet. Wordsworth found it in Nature and Humanity; in the joy which is imparted to us by the beauty of the external world, by the heavenliness of simple human duties and affections, if we have eyes to see them. To open our eyes in vision like his own, to make clear the spiritual mysteries which lie ever behind the cloud of habit, of prejudice, of worldliness—as the eyes of the prophet's servant were opened to the angelic squadrons camping round about his master's lowly home—that was the mission, unconscious or declared, of every song he sang. He gazed on Nature till his face shone like the face of that other prophet in the mount—gazing on him we catch something of its light upon ourselves. Side by side with the Immortals in the power as in the body of his highest work, he stands apart from them in illuminative beneficence: in that he had no predecessor, no compeer,—he has found so far no successor. [Matthew Arnold's Memorial Verses, April, 1850, were read.]
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009
|Top||Copyright © 2002-2020 AmblesideOnline. All rights reserved. Use of these resources subject to the terms of our License Agreement.||Home|