Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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This piece, noble, magnificent as it is, has always
seemed to me to ring a little false. We can hardly
help seeing in it a thesis adopted with a conscious-
ness of the poetic developments of which it is capa-
ble, rather than a serious belief of the author's. I
may say as much of his ecstasies over a fawn, of
his tenderness ct propos of a girl he has met in the
mountains ; —

Thee neither know I, nor thy peers,
And yet my eyes are filled with tears.

All Wordsworth's faults have the same source,
and are of the same kind. He has an ideal of life,
and involuntarily adjusts his moral attitude to it ;
he has an ideal of art, and exaggerates the style he
admires. His habit of seeking and finding lessons
in the smallest incidents of his walks passes into
didactic mania. He draws morals from everything,
delivers sermons on every text he meets. Nor is
this preaching vein by any means always a poetical
one. We seem sometimes to hear the psalmody of
the conventicle : —



204 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEEATUEB

Oh ! there is never sorrow of heart

That shall lack a timely end,
If but to God we turn and ask -

Of Him to be our friend.

That is like one of Watts's hymns.^

The titles of Wordsworth's poems often bear a
trace of his moralizing tendency. There is one
called ''Anecdote for Fathers, Showing how the
Practice of Lying may be taught " ; another — an
admirable piece, by the way — bears the stupid
title, "Influence of Natural Objects in Calling
forth and Strengthening the Imagination in Boy-
hood and early Youth." Wordsworth is not
exactly lacking in wit ; he has sometimes touches
of gaiety and of acuteness, but he has no sense of
the ridiculous.

The contradiction which lies at the bottom of his
work is, that while he shows in it the truth and
spontaneity which befit a poet of nature, he is at
the same time conscious of his part. He has a sys-
tem, and deliberately takes up the position of an
apostle ; his prefaces are filled with an ostentatious
purpose of bringing men's minds back to simplicity
in subject and language. He is the professor of a

1 [And not very unlike these verses :

Sur cette terre ou tu veux que j'habite,
O mon Sauveur, mon Dieu, je suis a toi;
Et dans le Ciel ou ta grace m'invite

Encore a toi, toujours k toi.
The author of which, M. Greard tells us, was Edmond
Scherer. — Ti-ans.]



WORDSWORTH AND MODERN POETRY 205

Poetic which consists in discovering beauties in
the commonest objects of nature, lessons in the
humblest beings, and in clothing these subjects
with a new interest, in restoring them to the
domain of art by dint of intense observation and
forcible expression. And it is certain that Words-
worth, as far as he is concerned, has actually real-
ized this programme. But, unluckily, he has not
only reached his end, he has gone beyond it. The
simplicity of his subjects and of his manner too
often passes into triviality, the simplicity of his
style into poverty. He showers puerile anecdotes
on us ; he tells us stories of dogs, he narrates what
a little girl said to her sheep. He affects not
merely an enthusiasm for flowers and birds, but a
predilection for beggars, idiots, and cripples. The
lower a being is in the scale, the more he labors to
awake our sympathy in its favor. There is no detail
so minute, so insignificant, that he does not delight
in taking note of it. If he tells of a summer walk,
he must needs speak of the cloud of insects which
surround his face and follow him as he advances.

It is easy to understand that, with all his efforts,
he does not always succeed in making such themes
poetical. Prose breaks in against his will. He has
passages where matter and form vie in common-
place, as this on the career of a mauvais sujet : —

His genius and his moral fame
Were thus impaired, and he became
The slave of low desires ;



206 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

A man who, without self-control,
Would seek what the degraded soul
Unworthily admires.

What a pity to find verses like these (and they are
not rare in Wordsworth) in a great poet ! The
exaggeration and the affectation with which I re-
proach him have, moreover, done him infinite harm.
We are able now to distinguish the lasting beauties
of his work from the parts of it where his system
of view has hurt the sincerity of his inspiration ;
but for a great many years he was chiefly famous
by the absurder sides of his pastorals, and by the
parodies to which they lent themselves. It hap-
pened to Wordsworth in England as with us to
the poet who had already long since written the
"Nuits," while men still obstinately refused to see
in him aught but the author of the " Ballade a la
Lune."

VII

Let us leave these imperfections and faults alone,
and seek nothing in Wordsworth but what, in sum,
he is — one of the poets who have best loved, felt,
and rendered nature. Now there are many ways
of loving her. There is that of youth. The young
man loves nature as a field open to the exercise of
his energies. To grasp the world, the great world,
to succeed to the inheritance of oneself in the con-
sciousness of one's own strength, is the highest
delight at this time of life. And so country pleas-



WORDSWORTH AND MODERN POETRY 207

ures stand, then, in the ratio of the play they offer
to activity, of the excitement into which they
throw the animal spirits. Exercise on foot, gallop-
ing a horse, hunting, swimming, are so many joys
into which sun, greenery, the tints of wood and
field, no doubt enter to some extent, and contribute
to the intoxication of days of delicious fatigue ; but
nevertheless they remain as but the background of
the picture. It is the opportunity of asserting
himself that the young man seeks in nature.
When he comes to the serious part of life, when he
is absorbed in his task, and in the struggle for
existence which is now carried on at such close
quarters, man does not yet necessarily lose his
taste for nature, but what he now asks of her is
repose. He loves her for the contrast which she
makes with the noisy town, with absorption in
material interests, with the meanness of rivalries,
the disturbance of passion. If only the soul is not
world-worn in the great game of hazard which each
man plays against society, there is no wandering in
the alleys of a great park, no sitting on the brink
of a quiet pond, or in sight of a vast champaign,
without the sudden feeling of a kind of refresh-
ment. The calm of things communicates itself to
the spirit ; we fall insensibly into unison with the
universe which cares so little for what agitates us
so much. Universal order brings us back to a
juster sentiment of reality. Over our obstinate
preoccupations, our harassing regrets, our stubborn



208 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEEATUEE

anxieties, our disgusts, our jealousies, our hatreds,
over all the workings of a brain on fire, the contem-
plation of nature drops an appeasement which be-
longs to nothing else. As happened of old with
the Master's touch, there comes forth from it a
virtue which heals.

For the old man himself, or for him in similar
plight, the sick man whose days are numbered,
nature still has her charm, a sadness of special
savor, a sweetness dashed with bitter : —

Aux regards d'un mourant le soleil est si beau !

There is a strange pathos in the contrast between
the unchangeableness of things and the feebleness
of the thinking being who contemplates them.
There is perceived at such times, in the aspects of
the country, as it were a bitter pleasure mingled
with resignation and disdain. A melancholy
triumph is felt in the inequality of the fight in
which we are succumbing, in the paradox of the
defeat, in the simultaneous superiority over what is
lasting which is given us by the consciousness of
our own caducity. We taste the strange and hor-
rid joy of having gauged the worth of life, and
of feeling ourselves and the world of thought and
passion we carry in our breasts as vain as the rip-
ple which forms on the surface of the lake, and
vanishes with the same puff of air that caused it.

Young men see in nature an empire to be over-
run ; men of mature years seek in her a truce to



WORDSWORTH AND MODERN POETRY 209

inner troubles ; old men find in her a funereal con-
solation. But the artist? Is it not for herself
that lie loves her ? Is it not on her alone that he
lives ? Is he not solely enamoured of her beauty ?
Does he not set his whole ambition in comprehend-
ing and expressing her, in feeling and translating
her, in entering into all her moods, seizing all her
aspects, penetrating all her secrets ? Who, if it be
not the artist, can flatter himself with being initi-
ated in the mysteries of the great Goddess ?

And yet it is not so. What the artist pursues is
not so much nature as the effects to which she
lends herself, as the picturesque, as art. If he
throws himself at her feet, it is but to hasten else-
where and boast of the favors he has received. The
artist is a man who has the rare and fatal gift of
doubling himself, of feeling with half his soul and
employing the other half in telling what he feels ;
a man who has experienced emotion, but who has
afterwards slain it in his bosom in order the better
to take it as a model, and sketch it at his leisure in
strokes which are a transfiguration.

Is there not something of a similar kind in many
a religious conception of nature ? Does not, for
instance, the theist also look at her from the out-
side, as at an object which is exterior and foreign
to himself? He thinks to exalt her dignity by
making her come from the hands of the Supreme
Artificer, and he does but strip her of her proper
life. The watchmaker is skilful, a wonder-worker,



210 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATUEE

omnipotent; but the watch is, after all, only a
masterpiece of mechanism. Religious anthropo-
morphism carries within it a contradiction which
secretly gnaws it, a soulless Universe and an un-
substantial God, a dead Universe and a God of
abstraction.

The sentiment of nature in Wordsworth does not
exactly resemble any of the kinds which I have de-
scribed. "Wordsworth's poetry," says Matthew
Arnold, "is great because of the extraordinary
power with which Wordsworth feels the joy offered
us in nature, the joy offered to us in the simple
elementary affections and duties, and because of
the extraordinary power with which, in case after
case, he shows us this joy and renders it so as to
make us share it." This definition suits the Words-
worth of the pastorals ; it is not enough to char-
acterize the poet's highest inspirations, those of
the verses composed on the banks of the Wye, of
the Platonic ode, or of the admirable piece begin-
ning

"Wisdom and spirit of the Universe.

I should myself rather say that Wordsworth is the
poet who has most profoundly felt and most power-
fully expressed the commerce of the soul with na-
ture, the dialogue of the human mind with the
spirit of things, the " obstinate questionings " of
which he himself speaks, the vague disquietudes of
a creature moving in " worlds not realized," the high



WORDSWORTH AND MODERN POETRY 211

instincts which surprise ourselves. If the view of
the humblest flower at his feet softens his mood, it
is because it suggests to him

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Wordsworth's love for nature, then, is not that
of the man of culture who admires a landscape ;
nor is it that of the man of speculation who lets
himself float on the universal current. He brings
to it something more intimate than the one, some-
thing more personal than the other. True, nature is
for him the great mystery, but she is a living mys-
tery ; not an abstraction or a concept, but a being,
a soul.

The being that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves.

He never generalizes her, never allows her to be
attenuated into a mere idea; on the contrary, he
individualizes her in every one of her manifesta-
tions, the wood, the rock, the torrent. And he
recognizes her sovereignty ; he interrogates her as
an oracle ; he gathers up her inspirations like the
accents of a higher wisdom. Science for him con-
sists in endeavoring to decipher her enigmas,
virtue and happiness in placing oneself under her
influence and setting oneself at unison with her. I
know no one but Eousseau andLamartine to compare
with him in point of this submissive and passion-
ate adoration. Only, Eousseau introduces into it
something morbid, and Lamartine fully intends to



212 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

get some fine melodious verses out of it. Words-
worth, for his part, has a healthy soul, and never
listens to himself as he sings. It is true that as a
compensation Lamartine has more tragedy of sen-
timent, and a greater sublimity of expression. He
has an element of interior drama which is wanting
to Wordsworth. Lamartine is the greater when,
with finger raised to heaven, he bids us attend to
the voices from on high : —

Adore ici le Dieu qu'adorait Pythagore,
Prete avec lui I'oreille aux celestes concerts.

He is more pathetic when he retraces the vain
revolts of the Childe : —

Triomphe, disait-il, immortelle nature I

VIII

The whole of Wordsworth's life was spent in the
worship of nature, and his works are nothing else
than the celebration of the mysteries of this relig-
ion. He must not, therefore, be confused with
the descriptive poets, even though his works
abound in descriptions, and though these descrip-
tions are fine and often picturesque. He had an
observing eye ; he seizes the aspect of objects, the
distinctive character of things, and he marks them
off with precise and personal strokes. In especial
he has admirable sketches of his own country —
Westmoreland. All the same, we are, with him,
a hundred leagues away from the descriptive



WORDSWORTH AND MODERN POETRY 213

school, whether of the older or the newer variety.
Description in Wordsworth is not there for its own
sake, intended to show the artist's craftsmanship,
but is bound up with the impression which objects
make tipon him as a man, with the emotions that
they arouse, the sentiments they inspire, the influ-
ence they exercise. For Wordsworth, once more,
does not love nature as a painter occupied with
line and color, but as a devotee. He approaches her
with a pious intention ; his love for her is a charm
with which he saturates himself, a power to which
he gives himself up, a life which he aspires to live.
Wordsworth is a hermit who listens to the
heavenly voices. Instead of seeking an intellec-
tual solution of the great problem of the Universe,
he tnists to the intuitions opened by nature, or,
better still, to the moral disposition she produces,
the serenity she communicates, the harmony she
sheds in the heart. The intensity of the senti-
ments she arouses is an all-sufficing revelation.
Intimate emotion, secret ravishment, silent enthu-
siasm, have need neither of proofs nor of reason-
ing. We must also note that Wordsworth makes
man fall back into nature as one of the elements of
which she is composed. The peasant, the moun-
taineer, the poor and their ways of life, form part
of the total effect of the scenes he draws and the
feelings he evokes. They are, so to say, the figures
of his landscape, and are only there to play their
part in the general impression. Such is the mean-



214 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEEATTJEE

ing of Wordsworth's narrative poetry. His rustic
idyls set before themselves not so much the inter-
esting of the reader in a scene as the acquainting
him with the hidden aspects of universal existence,
with the manifestations of wisdom and goodness,
which make, in the poet's eyes, the true meaning
of the world. The unity of his work lies in the
tender interest which he takes in everything that
lives, from the shrub in the hedges to the blind
and the lame on the highways. As for towns, he
would fain ignore them. He holds them as a
jarring note which it is specially necessary to
merge and disperse in the general harmony of
creation.

Wordsworth adored nature from his youth up,
and he loves to recall the intoxication of his first
impressions, the joy which the rainbow made him
feel, the solemn beauty of the country in the
midst of which he and his companions disported
themselves, the contrast between the noisy games
and shouts of youth re-echoed by the rocks, and
the approaching silence of the night ; —

"While the distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound, etc.

He described these emotions of childhood with still
more fondness in the admirable verses, composed
in 1798, on the banks of the Wye. All the poet is
in this piece, where depth of sentiment has found
perfect expression, and which is almost sufficient



WORDSWORTH AND MODERN POETRY 215

when translated to give a knowledge of Words-
worth and of his genius.' Later, his love for
nature took a different, but not a stronger, form ;
and he delights in connecting his present joys with
those of his infancy, in linking, as he says, his
days each to each by natural piety. If things had
once a freshness and a splendor which he feels no
more, the glory of a dream which vanished at the
waking, they have in compensation an attraction
which was not known to youth. The experience
of life opens the heart to a kind of affection for all
created things, even to "the meanest flower that
blows." ^ Thus nature acts by secret but benefi-
cent sensations, by a physical calm which is
always ready to translate itself into universal
benevolence. Wordsworth owes to his rural remi-
niscences

In hours of weariness sensations sweet

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart, etc.

That is fine, but I half think that I prefer the
hymn to the Spring which the poet addresses to
his sister, to bid her join him in a country excur-
sion : —

It is the first mild day of March, etc.

Such ideas are fundamental ones with Words-
worth. Kature is holy and she sanctifies. She

1 [The famous passage telling how "the sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion." — Trans.]

2 [That from "The Old Cumberland Beggar" about the
" spirit and pulse of good." — Trans.]



216 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITERATURE

attunes the soul to herself, and thus she heals, she
consoles, she elevates. She breathes indulgence
and tenderness. We have but to give ourselves
up, ''in a wise passiveness," to her influence, to
approach her with a humble and receptive heart,
to regard her "with a superstitious eye of love."
There is in the first book of the " Excursion " a
fine passage on the property, possessed by the
beauties of creation, of humanizing man, by trans-
porting him into a calmer and loftier region,
whither comes neither dislike nor disdain, and
where the only form of blame is compassion. But
I will rather cite another as less didactic : —

Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her, etc.

Yet the religion of nature has still profounder
secrets. If she is wisdom and goodness, nature is
also understanding and revelation. She brings,
besides soul-health, knowledge ; a higher knowl-
edge, a gnosis which mere reasoning cannot reach.
She helps us to penetrate the laws of the Uni-
verse's being. It was not often that Wordsworth
permitted himself to hint at these utmost heights
of his thought, at

that blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery, etc.

A little farther, after recalling the emotions of
childhood in the verses I have quoted above, he
says : —



WORDSWORTH AND MODERN POETRY 217

I have learned
To look on nature not as in the hour, etc.^

Here we have what is highest in Wordsworth's
thought, as well as sublimest in his poetry.

IX

I have still to speak of Wordsworth's poetical
expression. Not that, to my thinking, the diction
of a poet is separable from his thought ; it would
be more exact to say, on the other hand, that the
one is the soul of the other, and constitutes its
personality. Here, more than anywhere else, the
boundary between matter and form is a mere
abstraction. Let rhyme be the proof of this.
English poetry admits blank or unrhymed verse ;
but the difference between the poetry which is
rhymed and the poetry which is not is as far as
possible from being a secondary one. I would
almost affirm that it is a difference of kind, and I
do not want any other example of this than Words-
worth's own.

Rhyme — and the same may be said of the stanza
or the strophe — is the natural expression of lyrical
inspiration. As often as there is in the poet's soul
a livelier movement or a more profound emotion he
has involuntary recourse to musical language, to
assonance and to cadence. "There is so much
analogy," says Madame de Stael, "between physi-

1 [All these latter quotations are from The Wye. — TransP^



218 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEEATURB

cal and moral nature, tliat all the affections of the
soul have an inflection of voice which is proper to
them — a melody in words which is in accord with
the meaning of the words themselves." Take away
these melodic elements on the pretext that they
are not essential to the thought, and you will see
that the thought itself will have lost its character-
istic quality. All Wordsworth's readers know his
fine verses in honor of Lord Clifford, the shepherd
to whom a royal decree in 1485 restored the titles
and the rank of his ancestors : —

His daily teachers had been woods and rills,
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

Why does the literal translation ^ which T give
of these verses in no degree render their striking
beauty ? No doubt because a translation always
alters the physiognomy of the original by making
use of words which cannot possibly be the equiva-
lents of those which they replace; but it is also
because the translation at the same time tampers
with the musical value and relation of the words,
because it preserves neither rhythm nor rhyme,

1 [In this case a literal retranslation of M. Scherer's " literal
translation" seems suitable and indeed necessary. It runs
thus : — " His only masters had been the woods and the streams,
the silence which reigns in the starry skies, the sleep which
reigns among the lonely hills." Of course, however, even this
has not the full inequality to which M. Scherer refers, because
some of the " musical values " reappear in the English.]



WORDSWORTH AJSB MODERN POETRY 219

because the sonorous quality is no longer there.
This is so true that Wordsworth himself could not
have Avritten the passage which I just cited in
blank verse. The effect would have been com-
pletely different. A very curious thing is rhyme,
and very complex is the pleasure which it procures
us. Men do not like to acknowledge how great a
part is played in the arts by the mere fact of a
conquered difficulty. Yet it is the conquered diffi-
culty which produces the impression of surprise,
and it is surprise which produces interest. It is
the unexpected which gives the feeling of the
writer's power. The expectation of the reader of
poetry is perpetually kept on the alert by the risks
of the enterprise which he is contemplating. He
asks himself (unconsciously, of course) at each
verse how the author will manage to give a good
account of the phrase within the conditions of the
versification, to keep the natural line of the dis-
course and the beauty of the thought, while at the
same time observing certain despotic rules ; how he
will keep up the supply of rhyme, full of beauty,
richness, and sonority, without sacrificing reason in
the slightest degree. If the poet wins this kind of
wager, if his verse still flows freely, if his turn of
words is happy and his imagery striking, if the
assonance ends the verse as though of its own ac-
cord, without an effort, adding to the idea instead
of subtracting aught from it, why then the reader's
pleasure continually increases. His expectation,



220 ESSAYS ON ENGLISH LITEEATUKE

each moment fulfilled and exceeded, becomes en-
thusiasm — an enthusiam, we must boldly acknowl-
edge, which is not free from analogy with that
excited by a tour cle force. The difference is, that
here an intellectual tour de force is in question, and
that the joy experienced is, when all is said, an
intellectual emotion. The poet is not merely an
acrobat. Still the paradox is none the less there ;
and the sublimest art, the profoundest emotions,
rest on conditions which, when analyzed, seem a
little puerile.

All this leads me to draw a distinction between
the rhymed and the unrhymed poems of Words-
worth, a distinction, moreover, coinciding with that


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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 15 of 21)