Poems and Prose Remains, Vol. I


on the

Poetry of Wordsworth.

Arthur Hugh Clough

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH was born in April 1770, at Cockermouth, in Cumberland; his father, of a family which came originally from Yorkshire, was a solicitor in the town. Left an orphan early in life, his recollections attach themselves less to his home than to the neighbourhood in which he was placed at school. Hawkshead, an antique village, the centre of one of the large straggling parishes of the North country, possessing an ancient and once famous grammar foundation, stands a little way from the west side of Windermere, beside a small lake of its own. Here, lodged in a country cottage, he spent most of his time from 1778 to 1787—nine years.

His reminiscences of this period and this locality form the most beautiful part of his biographical poem, ‘The Prelude;’ and a considerable number of his most pleasing minor poems refer to the same years and place. It was then and there, beyond a doubt, that the substantive Wordsworth was formed; it was then and there that the tall rock and sounding cataract became his passion and his appetite, and his genius and whole being united and identified itself with external nature.

From this provincial, primitive seclusion, he passed, in October 1787, to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where his three years of academical residence, not much improved by attention to the studies of the place, were happily broken for him by visits to his own country, to Hawkshead, amongst his mother’s relations, and more remarkably by a bold pedestrian tour (almost wholly and literally pedestrian) through France, Switzerland, and the districts of the Italian lakes—regions which the revolutionary wars almost immediately afterwards closed to all English, and which were before comparatively unknown. The account of the journey is again one of the fine points of the ‘Prelude,’ and in particular the description of the passage of the Simplon, and of night on the shores of Lago Maggiore.

Taking his degree at Cambridge in January 1791, he again went over to France, led, it would seem, by enthusiasm for the political changes then at work there. He remained there, at Orleans and at Paris, about fifteen months, during which he was a witness of the culmination of the revolutionary tumult, and beheld the commencement of its period of bloodshed and terror. It gives a feeling of strange contrast to the after tranquillity of his life, to hear him speaking of the desire he then felt to enter himself as an actor into that terrible arena, and seriously seeming to consider it a thing, at the time, likely enough to happen, and from which chance, rather than his own wish, directed him.

Chance, however, carried him back to England. Sympathising strongly with the original revolutionary movement, and continuing long, in spite of its crimes and horrors, to cling to republican feelings, he showed, to the mortification of his friends, no disposition to carry out their views by taking orders in the Church. He loitered, living in a desultory manner, partly alone in London, partly among his friends in the country, and was, at one time, on the point of engaging in the drudgery of writing for the newspapers. At last, in 1795, his twenty-sixth year, he found himself made what he considered to be independent, by a bequest of 900l., left him by a young friend in the faith of his vocation to literary achievement. He now settled down into domesticity with his sister in a country place in Somersetshire. This sister was one of the two persons whose minds, he said, had been most operative upon his. The other was Coleridge, whom he met for the first time in June 1797.

Coleridge, youngest son of a clergyman and schoolmaster at Ottery St. Mary, Devon, born two years after Wordsworth, bred up at Christ’s Hospital and at Cambridge, which Wordsworth, when he came up, was just quitting, had for the last three years been engaged with Southey, a young Oxford student, in wild schemes for a Pantisocratic settlement on the banks of the Susquehanna (a situation selected for the sweetness of the sound); had been publishing poems, lecturing and neglecting to lecture, preaching in a blue coat and yellow waistcoat, here and there and everywhere, especially at Bristol. Finally he had run into the most imprudent of marriages, and had settled himself at the village of Nether Stowey. Here, during more than a year, Wordsworth had continual intercourse with him, residing at a beautiful spot not far from it—Allfoxden.

Some years before 1793 he had published verses, not particularly promising, written in the established metre and manner—that of Pope and Dryden. But if Hawkshead had made the inner Wordsworth, Allfoxden, Coleridge, and his own sister gave us the expressed Wordsworth. The effect of this time on Coleridge was remarkable: his high poetic period is just this of his intercourse with Wordsworth; but to Wordsworth it was more distinctly an epoch.

His first characteristic poems were published, together with Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner,’ under the title of ‘Lyrical Ballads,’ in 1798. They obtained considerable notice, and made his name well known; but that notice was not favourable, and his name was known rather for ridicule and censure than praise.

The following winter he spent in Germany, where Coleridge was proceeding to lose himself in metaphysics; Wordsworth returned, and, after some little wandering in Yorkshire, he and his sister finally settled, with their petty income, in a cottage at Grasmere, in December 1799.

In 1800, a new volume of Lyrical Ballads, containing some of his best poems, was published. Quite undaunted by their want of popularity and the adverse judgment of the highest critics, relying on his own feelings and perceptions, he worked in his mountain retirement steadily on, devoting himself chiefly at this time to the biographical poem which, with the name of the ‘Prelude,’ was published, for the first time, after his death in July 1850.

So ends his story before he was thirty years old. After his settlement at Grasmere we do not imagine that his mind or genius developed or grew at all. It grew perhaps in bulk, we may say, but never altered its form or character, attaining merely more and more, what he himself calls ‘the monumental pomp of age.’ In 1803 he made a tour in Scotland, of which a very pleasing record remains, not only in the occasional poems suggested by its incidents, but in the journal of his companion—his sister. Returning southward, they paid a visit, on September 17, to Mr. and Mrs. Scott, at their cottage at Lasswade, near Edinburgh. They received a promise that their host would join them again at Melrose, and, stopping on their way thither at the inn of Clovenford, were assured by the landlady that Mr. Scott was a very clever man. At Melrose they met and spent the evening together. The landlady here, says Miss Wordsworth, made some difficulty about beds, and refused to settle anything till she ascertained from the sheriff himself, i.e. Scott, that he had no objection to sleeping in the same room with William, i.e. Wordsworth.

Mr. Scott was already known in the literary world as a translator of German and an editor of Scottish ballad poetry. But he had published nothing original; and it was not till two years after this, that (as it stands recorded) nothing in the history of British poetry ever equalled the demand for the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ the first four cantos of which Wordsworth and his sister had heard their author read during their visit at the cottage of Lasswade. In the same year, 1803, Wordsworth married, without, however, any great internal or domestic revolution. In 1832, Scott died. This is also the date of the collected edition, in four volumes, of ‘Wordsworth’s Poems,’ including ‘The Excursion,’ which, under general unpopularity, he had steadily gone on writing and publishing.

In 1839, in the theatre at Oxford, he received an honorary degree with unusual acclamation.

In 1840, on the death of Southey, he was, with a general feeling that it was his due, made Poet Laureate: 1850 conveyed his body to the quiet churchyard of Grasmere.

We have presented this bare biographical outline as preliminary to all remark and criticism. But this meagre chronological table is not to be dismissed without some attention. The array of mere names and figures, dry as they may look, are really full of curious significance, and pregnant with many thoughts and conjectures.

Let us consider, for example, upon what sort of reading the youthful period of Wordsworth’s life was cast. The English literature of the then closing eighteenth century, as deficient, perhaps, in force and fertility as it is remarkable for justness and propriety and elegance of diction, was attaining its completion in Cowper, who, born in 1731, and dying in 1800, published his one great poem, ‘The Task,’ in 1785.

As we now read Scott’s novels and poems, Byron, and Southey, and Wordsworth, so they in Wordsworth’s boyhood read the series from Pope to Johnson, read Fielding, and Richardson, and Sterne, and Gray, and Collins, and Goldsmith.

What effect upon the minds of young men of this time had Burns—or, to turn to foreign literature, the works of Rousseau?

To proceed lower down. The curious meeting of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey deserves special notice. In proximity to Wordsworth, Coleridge blazed forth in a stream of poetic brilliancy, which his after years never, in any sort or kind, repeated; in no after moments did he ever create an ‘Ancient Mariner’ or a ‘Christabel.’ Wordsworth, also, was elevated and enkindled by the more vivid and radiating genius of Coleridge. Notice again how completely anterior and antecedent to Scott, and Moore, and Byron, are those Lake Poets, whose nascent influence and popularity they so completely overpowered. But without ‘Christabel’ the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ would never have been written. Without Scott’s stories we should scarcely have had Byron’s; without Wordsworth’s, and the reminiscences of Hawkshead village-school, we should never have had the third and fourth cantos of ‘Childe Harold;’ we should have lost, very probably, half the beauty of Byron alike and Scott.

Like the runners in the torch-race, they hand along the flame. Who shall say, in these spiritual and subtle exchanges and interchanges, This is mine, and that is thine. We cannot indeed, I think, assert that Wordsworth derived anything directly from Byron, or even from Scott (the ‘White Doe of Rylstone,’ so far as it follows Scott at all, so far is a failure); but without that antagonism; and without the severe lessons their popularity taught him, he probably would not either have escaped his natural faults, nor exerted his natural strength.

Out of Wordsworth and Byron came forth Shelley; nor is Keats (there is no such thing) an independent genius. We may remark also, how, as the brief career of Byron encloses within itself the yet briefer life of Shelley, and Keats’s briefest of all, so is Byron himself included in the larger arc of Scott, and the yet larger arc of Wordsworth. Wordsworth gradually working his way to reputation, was displaced by the sudden glory of Scott. Scott, as a poet, presently has to resign the field to Byron, and to compete against his Corsairs and Beppos with the new phenomenon of the ‘Waverley’ novels. When Byron had died in early manhood, and Scott in premature age; when the furor for the poet had passed away, and the charm of the novelist had begun to decline, Wordsworth first tasted the sweets of popular acceptance, and received in his turn, at the end of his laborious and honourable life, the reward which his rivals had almost outlived.

It is a curious and yet an undeniable fact that Wordsworth, who began his poetical course with what was, at any rate, understood by most readers to be a disclaimer and entire repudiation of the ornament of style and poetic diction, really derives from his style and his diction his chief and special charm. I shall not venture categorically to assert that his practice is in positive opposition to the doctrine he maintains in the prefaces, and supplementary remarks, which accompanied his Lyrical Ballads, and which, calling down upon him and them the hostility of reviews and the ridicule of satirists, made him notorious as one

Who both by precept and example shows
That prose is verse, and verse is merely prose.

Certain it is, however, that he did bestow infinite toil and labour upon his poetic style; that in the nice and exquisite felicities of poetic diction he specially surpassed his contemporaries; that his scrupulous and painstaking spirit, in this particular, constitutes one of his special virtues as a poet. The moving accident, as he says, was not his trade; of event and of action his compositions are perfectly destitute; a lyrical and didactic almost exclusively, scarcely ever in any sense a dramatic writer, it is upon beauty of expression that by the very necessity of his position he has to depend. Scott and Byron are mere negligent schoolboys compared with him. The anecdote has often been told that Wordsworth said to Mr. Landor, or Mr. Landor to Wordsworth, that there was but one good line in all Scott. To which assertion of the one the other at once assented, and said that there was no doubt which it was:

As the wind waved his garment, how oft did he start.

Wordsworth’s practice, in all probability, was far more just than his theory. His theory, indeed, as directed not against style in general, but against the then prevalent vices of style, was a very tolerably justifiable and useful theory, but his practice was extremely meritorious; his patience and conscientious labour deserve all praise. He has not, indeed (Nature had not bestowed on him), the vigour and heartiness of Scott, or the force and the sweep and the fervour of Byron; but his poems do more perfectly and exquisitely and unintermittedly express his real meaning and significance and character than do the poems of either Scott or Byron. Lyrical verse is by its nature more fugitive than drama and story; yet I incline to believe that there are passages of Wordsworth which, from the mere perfection of their language, will survive when the Marmions and the Laras are deep in dust. As writers for their age, as orators, so to say, as addressing themselves personally to their contemporaries, Byron and Scott, one cannot hesitate to say, were far more influential men, are far greater names. They had more, it may be, to say to their fellows; they entered deeper, perhaps, into the feelings and life of their time; they received a larger and livelier recognition, and a more immediate and tangible reward of popular enthusiasm and praise. It may be, too, that they had something not for their own generation only, but for all ages, which quite as well deserved a permanent record as anything in the mind of Wordsworth.

But that permanent beauty of expression, that harmony between thought and word, which is the condition of ‘immortal verse,’ they did not, I think—and Wordsworth did—take pains to attain. There is hardly anything in Byron and Scott which in another generation people will not think they can say over again quite as well, and more agreeably and familiarly for themselves; there is nothing which, it will be plain, has, in Scott or Byron’s way of putting it, attained the one form which of all others truly belongs to it; which any new attempt will, at the very utmost, merely successfully repeat. For poetry, like science, has its final precision; and there are expressions of poetic knowledge which can no more be rewritten than could the elements of geometry. There are pieces of poetic language which, try as men will, they will simply have to recur to, and confess that it has been done before them. I do not say that there is in Wordsworth anything like the same quantity of this supreme result which you find in Shakespeare or in Virgil; there is far less of the highest poetry than in Shakespeare, there is far more admixture of the unpoetic than in Virgil. But there is in him a good deal more truly complete and finished poetic attainment than in his other English contemporaries.

And this is no light thing. People talk about style as if it were a mere accessory, the unneeded but pleasing ornament, the mere put-on dress of the substantial being, who without it is much the same as with it. Yet is it not intelligible that by a change of intonation, accent, or it may be mere accompanying gesture, the same words may be made to bear most different meanings? What is the difference between good and bad acting but style? and yet how different good acting is from bad. On the contrary, it may really be affirmed that some of the highest truths are only expressible to us by style, only appreciable as indicated by manner.

That Raphael paints a Virgin and Child is not a very significant fact: half-a-thousand other painters have painted the same; but painted as Raphael—not one. It is as though you should suppose that to each poetic thought some particular geometric figure, or curve, it might be, specially appertained just as to a particular definition the circle appertains, and no figure but the circle.

Those who write ill draw the figures half-right, half-wrong, imperfectly and incorrectly; their circle is not a true circle, not a circle all round; its radii would, many of them, be equal, but not all; no one will dare therefore to keep it as the model and pattern. To draw the figure which may truly stand as the model and the pattern, the unmisleading, safe representative—this is the gift and the excellence of style.

In Milton, the gems of pure poetry lie embedded in the rock of scholastic pomp. And in Wordsworth, you must traverse waste acres of dull verse, that had better far have been, if anything, plain prose, to seek out the rich felicitous spots of fragrance and pure beauty. There is no doubt, I think, that he wrote over much. Posterity, we must hope, will have an instinct to cast away the dross and keep the good metal, and judiciously to reduce his seven volumes to one. Setting himself laboriously and painstakingly to work, and being by nature, moreover, a little cumbrous and heavy, he sometimes measured his result, we cannot doubt it, by quantity, and fell into the not unnatural mistake of counting a great deal of silver to be worth a great deal more than one quarter the quantity of gold. Where a man has himself at once to produce and to judge of his production, it is certainly natural, it may be even desirable, that the judgment should not be exact; it cannot, perhaps, well be so without the accompanying evil of an excessive and vitiating introspection and self-consideration.

Had Wordsworth been more capable of discerning his bad from his good, there would, it is likely enough, have been far less of the bad; but the good, perhaps, would have been very far less good. The consequence is, however, that to prove him a true poet, you have to hunt down a bit here and a bit there, a few lines in a book of the ‘Prelude on the Excursion,’ one sonnet perhaps amongst eighty and ninety, one stanza in a series of Memorials of Tours in Scotland, or on the Continent; only very occasionally finding the reward of a complete poem, good throughout, and good as a whole.

What is meant when people complain of him as mawkish, is a different matter. It is, I believe, that instead of looking directly at an object, and considering it as a thing in itself, and allowing it to operate upon him as a fact in itself, he takes the sentiment produced by it in his own mind, as the thing, as the important and really real fact. The real things cease to be real; the world no longer exists; all that exists is the feeling, somehow generated in the poet’s sensibility. This sentimentalising over sentiment; this sensibility about sensibility, has been carried, I grant, by the Wordsworthians to a far more than Wordsworthian excess. But he has something of it surely. He is apt to wind up his short pieces with reflections upon the way in which, hereafter, he expects to reflect upon his present reflections. Nevertheless, this is not by any means attributable to all his writings.

Here then, even in this defect, is indicated one great praise attaching to Wordsworth, alike as a poet and as a man. He set himself manfully and courageously to his work, and through good report and evil, especially the latter, patiently and perseveringly kept to it, reminding one with his hardy, unflinching, north-country spirit, of the story told of the Lancashire workman, who, when the easy looker-on took occasion to observe that he had a hard day’s work, simply rejoined that he was paid for a hard day’s work. Paid, I daresay, however, not very largely, any more than, till late in life, was Wordsworth.

Wordsworth, we have said, succeeded beyond the other poets of the time in giving a perfect expression to his meaning, in making his verse permanently true to his genius and his moral frame. Let us now proceed to inquire the worth of that genius and moral frame, the sum of the real significance of his character and view of life.

            Unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how poor a thing is Man,

are words which he himself adopts from the Elizabethan poet Daniel, translated by him from Seneca, and introduces into that part of the ‘Excursion’ which gives us what I might call his creed, the statement of those substantive enduring convictions upon which after a certain amount of fluctuation and tossing about in the world he found himself or got himself anchored.

A certain elevation and fixity characterise Wordsworth everywhere. You will not find, as in Byron, an ebullient overflowing life, refusing all existing restrictions, and seeking in vain to create any for itself, to own in itself any permanent law or rule. To have attained a law, to exercise a lordship by right divine over passions and desires—this is Wordsworth’s pre-eminence.

Nor do we find, as in Scott, a free vigorous animal nature ready to accept whatever things earth has to offer, eating and drinking and enjoying heartily; like charity, hoping all things, believing all things, and never failing; a certain withdrawal and separation, a moral and almost religious selectiveness, a rigid refusal and a nice picking and choosing, are essential to Wordsworth’s being. It has been not inaptly said by a French critic that you may trace in him, as in Addison, Richardson, Cowper, a spiritual descent from the Puritans.

Into what Byron might have remade himself in that new and more hopeful era of his life upon which, when death cut him down at Missolonghi, he appeared to be entering, it would be overbold to conjecture. But assuredly (without passing judgnent on a human soul simply according to the errors of those shirty-six years which may claim perhaps the name and palliation of an unusually protracted youth)—assuredly, to be whirled away by the force of mere arbitrary will, whose only law was its own wilfulness, to follow passion for passion’s sake, and be capricious for the love of one’s own caprice—this is not the honour or the excellence of a being breathing thoughtful breath, looking before and after.

The profounder tones of Walter Scott’s soul were never truly sounded until adversity and grief fell upon his latter days, and those old enjoyments in which he seemed to live, and move, and have his being, his natural and as it were predestined vocation, fell from him and were no more. The constancy, courage, and clear manly sense which, amid broken fortunes, severed ties, and failing health, spirits, and intellect, the extracts from his journals given in Mr. Lockhart’s life evince, constitute a picture I think far more affecting than any to be found in Kenilworth or the Bride of Lammermoor. But the sports and amusements of Abbotsford, the riding and coursing and fishing, and feasting, and entertaining of guests, &c. &c., these it appears to me a little disappoint, dissatisfy, displease us; and make us really thankful, while we read, for the foreknowledge that so strong and capable a soul was ere the end to have some nobler work allotted it, if not in the way of action, at any rate in that of endurance.

More rational certainly, either than Byron’s hot career of wilfulness, or Scott’s active but easy existence, amidst animal spirits and out-of-door enjoyments, more dignified, elevated, serious, significant, and truly human, was Wordsworth’s homely and frugal life in the cottage at Grasmere. While wandering with his dear waggoners round his dearer lakes, talking with shepherds, watching hills and stars, studying the poets, and fashioning verses, amidst all this there was really something higher than either wildly crying out to have things as one chose, or cheerfully taking the world’s good things as one found them, working to gain the means and the relish for amusement. He did not, it is true, sweep away with him the exulting hearts of youth, ‘o’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea;’ he did not win the eager and attentive ear of high and low, at home and abroad, with the entertainment of immortal Waverley novels; but to strive not unsuccessfully to build the lofty rhyme, to lay slowly the ponderous foundations of pillars to sustain man’s moral fabric, to fix a centre around which the chaotic elements of human impulse and desire might take solid form and move in their ordered ellipses, to originate a spiritual vitality, this was perhaps greater than sweeping over glad blue waters or inditing immortal novels.

            Unless above himself he can
Erect himself, how poor a thing is Man.

Unless above himself, how poor a thing; yet, if beyond and outside of his world, how useless and purposeless a thing. This also must be remembered. And I cannot help thinking that there is in Wordsworth’s poems something of a spirit of withdrawal and seclusion from, and even evasion of, the actual world. In his own quiet rural sphere it is true he did fairly enough look at things as they were; he did not belie his own senses, nor pretend to recognise in outward things what really was not in them. But his sphere was a small one; the objects he lived among unimportant and petty. Retiring early from all conflict and even contact with the busy world, he shut himself from the elements which it was his business to encounter and to master. This gives to his writings, compared with those of Scott and of Byron, an appearance of sterility and unreality. He cannot, indeed, be said, like Cowper, to be an indoors poet; but he is a poet rather of a country-house or a picturesque tour, not of life and business, action and fact.

This also sadly lessens the value which we must put on that high moral tone which we have been hitherto extolling. To live in a quiet village, out of the road of all trouble and temptation, in a pure, elevated, high-moral sort of manner, is after all no such very great a feat. It is something, indeed, anywhere. But I fear it cannot quite truly be said of him, as he has himself finely said of Burns—

In busiest street and loneliest glen
Are felt the flashes of his pen;
He lives ’mid winter snows, and when
        Bees fill their hives;
Deep in the general heart of men
        His power survives.

People in busy streets are inclined, I fear, a little to contemn the mild precepts of the rural moralist. They will tell you that he rather reminds them of the achievements of that celebrated French sea-captain,

        Who fled full soon
        On the first of June,
But bade the rest keep fighting.

Perhaps it is only those that are themselves engaged in the thick of the struggle and conflict, that rightly can cheer on, or fitly can admonish their fellows, or to any good purpose assume the high moral tone. Yet it must be confessed that even in a country village it still is something.

Nor was Wordsworth in the earlier years of his life by any means of a timid or valetudinarian virtue. A man who was in Paris in the heat of the first Revolution was not without experiences. And the poems, it may be observed, which follow closest upon this youthful period of living experience, are of far higher value than the later ones, which ensued upon his prolonged and unbroken retirement.

There may be, moreover, a further fault in Wordsworth’s high morality, consequent on this same evil of premature seclusion, which I shall characterise by the name of false or arbitrary positiveness. There is such a thing in morals, as well as in science, as drawing your conclusion before you have properly got your premises. It is desirable to attain a fixed point; but it is essential that the fixed point be a right one. We ought to hold fast by what is true; but because we hold wilfully fast, it does not follow what we hold fast to is true. If you have got the truth, be as positive as you please; but because you choose to be positive, do not therefore be sure you have the truth.

Another evil consequence is the triviality in many places of his imagery, and the mawkishness, as people say, of his sentiment. I cannot myself heartily sympathise with the ‘Ode to the Smaller Celandine,’ or repeated poems to the daisy. I find myself a little recoil from the statement that—

To me the meanest flower that blows doth give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

These phenomena of external nature, which in the old and great poets come forward simply as analogies and similitudes of what is truly great, namely, human nature, and as expressions of curious and wonderful relations, are in Wordsworth themselves the truly great, all-important, and pre-eminently wonderful things of the universe. Blue sky and white clouds, larks and linnets, daisies and celandines—these it appears are ‘the proper subject of mankind;’ not, as we used to think, the wrath of Achilles, the guilt and remorse of Macbeth, the love and despair of Othello.

This tendency to exaggerate the importance of flowers and fields, lakes, waterfalls, and scenery, I remember myself, when a boy of eighteen, to have heard, not without a shock of mild surprise, the venerable poet correct. People come to the lakes, he said, and are charmed with a particular spot, and build a house, and find themselves discontented, forgetting that these things are only the sauce and garnish of life. Nevertheless, we fear that the exclusive student of Wordsworth may go away with the strange persuasion that it is his business to walk about this world of life and action, and, avoiding life and action, have his gentle thoughts excited by flowers and running waters and shadows on mountain-sides.

This we conceive is a grievous inherent error in Wordsworth. The poet of Nature he may perhaps be; but this sort of writing does justice to the proper worth and dignity neither of man nor of Nature.

Poems and Prose Remains vol. I - Contents

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