Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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but it is precisely because it is simple that suffi-
cient attention has not been paid to it. But, how-
ever this may be, my readers will easily guess the
application I wish to make of these principles to
literature. A great poet cannot escape imitators.
He has opened a way into which everybody is sure
to rush ; some to profit by the public taste, others
because their talent naturally and spontaneously
takes the shape which genius has just consecrated.
And so come secondary, even tertiary, forma-
tions. After Homer comes Virgil; after Virgil,
the modern epics from Tasso to the " Henriade."
After Sophocles comes Racine ; after Eacine, Vol-
taire and the whole classical tragedy up to 1830.
But the imitators are so busy, that at last readers
are sick of them, cry ^' Hold ! " and insist on some-
thing new. It is impossible that something new
should not come — something grandly and really
new if the national genius is strong enough ; some
affected and puerile imitation in wording, costume,
local color, if genius refuses to revive an exhausted

There is no country of our time where the suc-
cession of poetical masters, and with them of poeti-
cal influences, tastes, schools, and methods, has
been so rapid as it has in England. The reason is
that (contrary to the notions of our Continental
ignorance) the English are the most poetical nation
in Europe, and, what is more, that Englishmen,
reading much more than we do, are much more sub-


ject to the needs of change of which I spoke just
now. In France we have not got beyond Byron.
For us modern poetry is still embodied in the
works — brilliant enough and easily understood —
of a man whose disorderly life, whose ostentation
of misanthropy, whose pretentious dandyism — in
a word, whose littleness and affectation, have never
succeeded in diminishing his ancient vogue with
our countrymen. But the English are long past
Byronism. As Byron succeeded Scott, so in his
turn he was himself succeeded by other inspira-
tions. The author of ''The Lady of the Lake"
and ''Marmion," after enchanting one generation,
ended by seeming insufficient to a society which
was still excited and moved by the Eevolution and
the wars of the Empire. However superficial
Byron's passion may seem to us now, its tone of
intimate apjDcal answered the prevalent demand
better than the exterior and objective poetry of the
Scotch chansons de geste. Men were drawn back,
with a power which could not be denied, to the
inner world, to the hidden drama, to restless aspi-
rations. Only, this too wore itself out, and that
quickly. The factitiousness of this ostentation of
boredom and despair was felt before long ; Byron-
ism was too violent, and for that reason not true
enough, to answer the lasting needs of the soul.
The abuse, as always, invited the reaction. After
such a debauch of exaggerated sentiment, men were
seized with a thirst for sincerity and simplicity.


Besides, they had. not the inconvenience of waiting
for the epiphany of a preacher of the new gospel.
He was there at hand; he had been writing for
thirty years ; he had already a share of influence
and renown ; a party had actually formed round
him. And it was from this moment, about 1825,
that the second epoch of Wordsworth's influence
dates — the epoch which was at once that of his
uncontested popularity and of his acknowledged
supremacy in literature.

Then, as always happens in these cases, men
thought they had discovered the last word of art
in him. Philosophy of the most exalted kind had
met its final form in the most perfect poetry ; and
the result was full of simplicity, sincerity, benefi-
cence. For some fifteen years Wordsworth, in his
remote retreat of Rydal Mount, enjoyed glory
which, though it has certainly grown less bright
since then, was after all deserved, and admirably
free from alloy.

Yet he was not the less bound to be in his turn
the victim of a new evolution of taste and thought.
As Byron had succeeded Scott by working with
more energetic stimulants on men's minds ; as
Wordsworth later had attracted, by his contrast of
healthy simplicity, imaginations jaded by Byron-
ism ; so Wordsworth himself in the long run began
to seem unsatisfying. His defects were more
clearly seen. The need of a wider thought, of a
more brilliant fancy, was felt, This was the mo-


ment for the rehabilitation of two poets who had
both died in the flower of their age, unknown or
disdained, some twenty years earlier. Shelley and
Keats in their turn became prophets and leaders of
schools. The first and greater of the two had been
drowned in 1822, at the age of thirty, in the Gulf
of Spezzia ; but his genius had been of a rare pre-
cocity, and he left a great number of poems in very
different styles. The dominant — unluckily by far
the dominant — note in them was that of a social
Utopia. Shelley's naive and generous soul was
possessed with the idea of a world governed by jus-
tice and by reason. He had conceived an immense
pity for all suffering, and in consequence an implac-
able wrath against the creeds and the institutions
which he took to be the causes of such suffering.
He was still an undergraduate when he bade defi-
ance to the orthodoxies of his country : the results
were a quarrel with his family, an ill-starred mar-
riage, exile, poverty, persecution — altogether a
state of affairs in which it was difficult for the
public to separate the poetical genius from the
revolutionary Utopist. Moreover his earlier works,
and even some of his later, were penetrated to the
core of their substance with the fault of didactic
intention, and hardly permitted their readers to
enjoy their exquisite poetical beauty, smothered as
it was under the apparatus of visions, personifica-
tions, and allegories. At least half of Shelley's work
is spoilt by intolerable humanitarian " purpose."


It was only at intervals, when the sentiment of
nature overpowered him, or when, here and there,
some earthly love mingled with Platonic dreams in
his heart, that pure poetry got the upper hand in
this writer's mind. Yet, on the whole, after saying
all this, after making all these allowances, Shelley
is a poet of the first order, and it is no wonder that
his star when it once rose in the heaven of English
poetry dimmed that of Wordsworth. It was, we
must allow, the stronger of the two. It was not
more various, for Shelley, like Wordsworth, is not
free from monotony. There was not much more
vibration of the string of human passion; for, if
Shelley is sometimes what Wordsworth never is,
in love, his loves are of a very ethereal kind. But
Shelley had more freedom, his thought was more
daring, he touched higher questions, he expressed
deeper anxieties, more actual needs of contempo-
rary humanity. And he did all this in a poetical
tongue of wider range, of deeper resonance, of
greater imaginativeness, of a melody simply mar-
vellous — a thrilling and subtle melody, now like
the slow and solemn murmur of the wind in the
pine forest, now like the liquid and pearly notes of
the lark soaring in the sunbeams.

A resemblance in fate rather than in talent is the
reason of the fact that one involuntarily thinks of
Keats and Shelley together. Keats, a little younger
than Shelley, died before him, when not yet six
and twenty, and leaving but two substantive poems


(one of them unfinislied) and a small number of
exquisite lyrics. His faults are numerous and
glaring. The mythology which supplied him with
his mise en sc^ne is elementary and almost puerile.
His stories are lacking in human interest. In fact,
he does hardly anything but describe, and he
describes with an exuberance which is unluckily
not incompatible with the most painful monotony.
The enthusiasm for nature which is the soul of his
verse is certainly sincere, and yet Keats writes with
effort. His naivete is not feigned, but there is
something in it of deliberation, and therefore of
exaggeration. In short, there is affectation in him,
and I cannot regard as wholly unjust the reproach
of cockneyism which critics used to throw at this
poet and his friends. Yet, with all these faults,
Keats is very far from being an ordinary person ; his
posthumous popularity is very far from being inex-
plicable, and the influence which he still exercises is
very far from being a mere matter of coterie and
engouement. He has a special feeling, a feeling of
extraordinary intensity, for nature and for beauty.
It seems as though he saw woods, streams, fields
for the first time, so full of novelty and of the mar-
vellous is the spectacle to him. There is at once
sensuousness and religion in his communion with
the life of all things. There would seem to be a
perfume which gets in his head, an intoxication to
which he gives himself up, a ritual into whose mys-
teries he is trying to break, a baptism, a whelming


in tlie eternal natura naturans. Wordswortli him-
self, as we shall see, can lay claim to a deeper
understanding of nature : but it is easy to under-
stand that his idyllic piety, his patriarchal philos-
ophizing, must have at last seemed terribly grovel-
ling to a generation which had drunk the heady
philtres of Keats's descriptive poetry.

Do I mean that modern poetry in England has
stopped at Keats and Shelley ? jSTot at all ; for,
once again, there is no finality in art, and no man
has ever been able to boast of having said the last
word on anything. Great writers, as they enlarge
the fields of the human soul, only create new needs
and excite to new experiments. Keats and Shelley
have certainly not been thrown into the shade by
Tennyson ; but it is equally certain that Tennyson
has climbed on their shoulders, and has, in some
respects, reached a higher level. If he is not supe-
rior in strength or grandeur to Shelley, the metal
of his poetry is purer, its workmanship is more
ingenious and more exquisite, the work taken as a
whole is of a more surprising variety. Tennyson
possesses a consummate science of rhythm, the
rarest resources of phrase, taste, grace, distinction,
every sort of cleverness, of research, of refinement.
He is the author of lyric pieces unequalled in any
language, some of infinite delicacy, some of engross-
ing pathos, some quivering like the blast of a
knightly horn. He lacks only one thing, one su-
preme gift, the pinion-stroke which sweeps Gany-


mede into the empyrean, and casts him panting at
Jupiter's feet. He sins by his very elegance ; he
is too civilized, too polished. He has tried every
style — grave, gay, and passionate — the idyl, the
ode, and the elegy, mock-heroics, epics, drama.
There is no style in which he has not had brilliant
success, and yet it may be said that he has explored
nothing thoroughly. There are ardors in passion,
troubles in thought, bankruptcies of the ideal in
life, which Tennyson's note is not equal to express-
ing. His poetry (whether as matter of inspiration
or of determination I do not know) keeps too
strictly to the region of decencies and conventions.
And so we must not be surprised if an adoring pub-
lic came at last to doubt its idol ; in some cases,
indeed, to carry its devotions elsewhere. For these
persons, when they were once in the mood to be
faithless, the thickets and obscurities of Browning
were sure to be only an additional attraction. Are
not the most fashionable cults those which can
only be reached after a process of initiation ? But
it is not our business to follow the development
of modern poetry in England further. What we
have said is intended solely to mark out Words-
worth's place in this great and splendid movement.
He was one of its chiefs, one of its illustrations ;
and, even putting this aside, he abides in the litera-
ture of his country as one of its chosen authors,
relished and read for the sake of his own peculiar


It may seem at first sight that life is necessarily
modelled on each man's inborn tendencies ; but as
a fact it is made up of two things. It is, as I think
I have remarked elsewhere, as it were the con-
fluence of two currents, the point of intersection
between the trajectories of two forces, those of
nature and of destiny. No matter what we are ;
what we shall be depends on the accidents of edu-
cation, the chance meetings of life. There are
even moments when this thought is a troublesome
one, "What will the future bring ? " " How shall I
come out of the trial I cannot avoid ? " For, in
fact, destiny is the stronger, and in the case of
most men she seldom allows nature to exercise her
rights fully. How rare, for instance, is a poetical
life, even with the sincerest poets ! In this respect
Wordsworth is altogether an exception. It is im-
possible to imagine either a life better suited than
his to his genius or a soiil better adapted to relish
the charm of this life, to gather up its inspirations,
to tell its inner joys. He was born and he spent
the greater part of his days in the Lake District of
the north of England, where nature is graceful and
charming, not violent enough to crush the imagina-
tion, but bold enough and varied enough to give it
gates of escape to the infinite. He had travelled,
and seen other skies besides those of England ; but
without going far enough to bring back with him


the regrets which sometimes pursue the traveller
who has walked under the palms. He was born in
a middle condition, and some friends procured him
independence and leisure. To conclude, he was
early notorious and later famous, and if his star
paled a little before his death, we may believe that
he had confidence enough in himself not to perceive
it, or, at least, not to trouble himself about it.

His works — very numerous and sufi&ciently dis-
similar — present a certain difficulty to those who
try to class them according to the kinds to which
they belong. I think, however, that I am neglect-
ing nothing, and at the same time observing a
natural order, in making three classes : narrative
poems, lyrics, and sonnets. Wordsworth's predilec-
tion for the sonnet, and the success wherewith he
has cultivated a kind which might seem somewhat
artificial for a poet of nature and of the fields, are
things to be observed, and important to take ac-
count of in the final estimate. He has really
excelled in it, and many of his sonnets approach
perfection. Although English literature is singu-
larly rich in poetical jewels of this kind, Words-
worth, to my taste, has in this respect rivals, but
no superiors. The piece on the sonnet itself, that
composed on Westminster Bridge, that addressed
to Milton, and half a hundred others (he wrote
four hundred), show that combination of ingenious
turn and victorious final touch which is the triumph
of the kind.


Sainte-Beuve, who loved the sonnet in his char-
acter of " reflective " poet, and who loved Words-
worth for that vein of poetry at once familiar and
full of feeling, which he would have liked himself
to acclimatize in France, translated or imitated
several of our author's sonnets. He returned to
the practice at all times of his life, inserting one or
two in each of his collections. Such a windfall is
lucky for me, and I make the most of it by citing
one of these free translations : — ^

Je ne suis pas de ceux pour qui les causeries,
Au coin du feu, I'hiver, ont de grandes douceurs ;
Car j'ai pour tous voisins d'intrepides chasseurs,
Kevant de chiens dresses, de meutes aguerries,

Et des fermiers causant jacheres et prairies,
Et le juge de paix avec ses vieilles soeurs.
Deux reveclies beautes parlant de ravisseurs,
Portraits comme on en volt sur les tapisseries.

Oh ! combien je prefere a ce caquet si vain,
Tout le soir, du silence, un silence sans fin ;
Etre assis sans penser, sans desir, sans memoire,

Et, seul, sur mes chenets, m'eclairant aux tisons,
Ecouter le vent battre, et gemir les cloisons,
Et le fagot flamber, et chanter la bouilloire.

J [To re-translate this translation would, of course, defeat the
object of citing it. It represents, it need hardly be said, the
famous " Personal Talk," and the translation is " free " in more
senses than one. Neither the gratuitous introduction of and
aspersion on the " deux reveclies beaute's," nor the omission of
the beautiful image of the "forms with chalk," is the best pos-
sible instance of Sainte-Beuve's taste as a translator.— Trans.]


We might also take from the " Consolations " the
piece beginning

Les passions, la guerre, une ame en fr§n6sie.

But we must allow that the sonnets translated
by Sainte-Beuve are chosen in a rather narrow
circle of subjects, and that the comparison brings
out the difference set between two poets, who in
sincerity, and even in depth of thought, approach
each other, by the want of that commanding plastic
spirit with which Sainte-Beuve, to his bitter regret,
knew himself to be insufficiently endowed.

Wordsworth's narrative poems include large com-
positions such as " Peter Bell," " The Waggoner,"
" The Prelude," and, chief of all, " The Excursion,"
a long story in several books, which is itself a frag-
ment of a still vaster whole, a kind of philosophi-
cal epic. To the same class belong a great number
of shorter tales, idyls, eclogues, ballads, or mere
anecdotes in verse, among which are many of the
author's most characteristic and best known poems.

We must also draw a subdistinction among his
lyrics, Wordsworth's chief title to admiration. Our
poet wrote some odes of a character more classical
and (if I may venture to say so) more ambitious
than seems consistent with his usual manner.
They are, however, much and justly admired ; as,
for instance, "Laodamia," the religious sym-
phony on a Platonic theme, and the ode to " Duty."
The other lyrics, much more numerous, are in kind


purely subjective, and disengage themselves in all
sorts of forms — elegies, inspirations, invocations,
memories, landscapes. There is not an aspect of
the country, not an object in the fields or in the
woods, which does not evoke enthusiasm in this
melodious soul. Wordsworth is as much ravished
at the sight of a buttercup or daisy beneath his
feet as at the rainbow on the horizon : and all his
work is shot through with a deep note of medita-
tion, the comment of the sage on the teachings of

This work, as I have said, is considerable. There
are seven volumes of his poems, many of which
are mediocre. But there are few poets who have
left so many precious pieces. And he has, besides,
his own incontestable originality. He created the
class of the childish ballad, the rustic pastoral, the
idyl of the poor : and he drew from the contempla-
tion of nature tones of sweet and grave fervor, the
secret of which he kept. ISTo poet puts the reader
so thoroughly in communion with nature, because
none has felt a more religious love for her.


I shall point out at once what is wanting and
what is faulty in Wordsworth, the qualities which
he lacks, and the imperfections which disfigure his
poetry. Let us begin with the qualities lacking.
No one acknowledges more fully than I do the in-
justice, not to say the absurdity, of asking a man


for something else than he has chosen to give, or,
worse still, reproaching him with not being some-
body else, and not what nature has made him.
Therefore, it is not as a reproach, nor even as a
regret, that I examine what is wanting in Words-
worth ; it is merely to characterize his genius better,
to set his poetical physiognomy in stronger relief.

To great troubles of mind he was a stranger, and
his nearest approaches to tender sentiment are the
pieces to the memory of that Lucy whom he has
himself described. As for political emotions, he
had, like many others, hailed in the French Revo-
lution the dawn of a new era for humanity. His
sonnets bear witness to his wrath against the con-
queror who dispelled his dreams, who put an end
to the Venetian Republic and the independence of
Switzerland, and who menaced England with inva-
sion. There is nothing in all this which goes be-
yond respectable Liberalism and patriotism.

Let us then make up our minds not to expect
from Wordsworth either that knowledge of the
human heart which is given- by life in the world,
or that inner and dramatic working of passion
which no man describes well unless he has been its
victim, or those general views on history and soci-
ety which are formed partly by study, partly by
experience in public affairs. Our poet was as much
a stranger to the harassings of thought as to those
of ambition, to the pangs of love and of hatred as
to the resignation at which men arrive when they


have seen how small are the great things of this
world. He has nothing of the sublime melancholy,
the ardent inquiry, the audacious revolt in which
the poetry of half a century ago delighted. Still
less has he the mocking scepticism, the raillery
now gay now bitter, which followed the '' songs of
despair." He will never rank with those who like
Byron, disturb the soul ; who like Heine, arm it
with irony ; or who like Goethe, calm it with the
virtues of knowledge. Wordsworth is simply a
hermit who has studied nature much, and has con-
stantly analyzed his own feelings. We could hardly
call him a philosopher ; his mind is too devoid of
the element of reasoning and speculation. Even
the name of thinker but half suits him : he is the
contemplative man.

I have thus made a list of the qualities which
Wordsworth has not, with all the less intention of
casting them up against him that the qualities which
a writer lacks are usually the conditions of those
which distinguish him. It is otherwise with the
positive defects which disfigure work, and in regard
to which it is equally impossible not to suppose
that they could have been avoided and not to wish
that they had been,

Mr. Arnold cites a remarkable expression of
Wordsworth's. He remembers having heard him
say that Goethe's poetry does not possess the su-
preme character of being "inevitable." By this
Wordsworth meant that poetry ought to have in it


something spontaneous, that one ought to feel in it
sentiment rather than reflection, the spurt from
the inner fount rather than will and design. The
saying was admirably just in relation to Goethe,
whose " Lieder," perfect as they are, and perhaps
by reason of this very perfection, give us the effect
of something crystallized. It is learned, correct,
brilliant ; the things, I grant, are diamonds, but I
see not in them the shapes of life.' Besides, the
distinction which Wordsworth's mot suggests is of
very wide application. It does not merely divide
poets into two classes ; it serves to mark off, even
in the works of the same poet, many things which
must be scored to the account of deliberate purpose,
not to say of business. Our three great contempo-
rary French poets have all, though in different
degrees, the note of inevitableness ; yet all is far
from being equally true in them. As for Words-
worth, he has by no means escaped the effect of his
own remark.

In this there is something strange enough. If
ever a writer had a claim to be held sincere, it was
this man of genius, whose heart was at once austere
and simple. Yet, beyond all doubt, not everything
in his writings is genuine. Wordsworth gives him-
self certain airs ; he has manufactured a manner-
ism ; he exaggerates what he feels ; he is too liberal
of his own fashions of thought and of speech ; he

1 [And the Konig in Thule? and Freudvoll und leidvoll? and
a dozen others ? — Trans.']


appears in a guise which is certainly his own, but
of which he has, nevertheless, made up the outlines
and studied the expression. He is naif; but his
naivete often looks calculated. His enthusiasm
for nature, however deep and real it be, becomes
now and then declamatory. For instance, take the
ode which I have mentioned, and in which the
author assumes with Plato that the child brings
into the world the memory of an anterior existence.

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 14 of 21)