James Russell Lowell.

The writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) online

. (page 24 of 28)
Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 24 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

a magic glass in which we see few shadows cast
back from actual life, but visionary shapes conjured
up by the wizard's art from some confusedly re
membered past or some impossible future ; it is
like one of those still pools of mediaeval legend
which covers some sunken city of the antique
world ; a reservoir in which all our dreams seem to
have been gathered. As we float upon it, we see
that it pictures faithfully enough the summer-clouds
that drift over it, the trees that grow about its
margin, but in the midst of these shadowy echoes
of actuality we catch faint tones of bells that seem
blown to us from beyond the horizon of time, and
looking down into the clear depths, catch glimpses
of towers and far-shining knights and peerless
dames that waver and are gone. Is it a world that


ever was, or shall be, or can be, or but a delusion ?
Spenser's world, real to him, is real enough for us
to take a holiday in, and we may well be content
with it when the earth we dwell on is so often too
real to allow of such vacations. It is the same kind
of world that Petrarca's Laura has walked in for
five centuries with all ears listening for the music
of her footfall.

The land of Spenser is the land of Dream, but
it is also the land of Rest. To read him is like
dreaming awake, without even the trouble of doing
it yourself, but letting it be done for you by the
finest dreamer that ever lived, who knows how to
color his dreams like life and make them move be
fore you in music. They seem singing to you as
the sirens to Guyon, and we linger like him :

" O, thou fair son of gentle Faery
That art in mighty arms most magnified
Above all knights that ever battle tried,
O, turn thy rudder hitherward awhile,
Here may thy storm-beat vessel safely ride,
This is the port of rest from troublous toil,
The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil. 1

" With that the rolling sea, resounding swift
In his big bass, them fitly answered,

1 This song recalls that in Dante's Purgatorio (XIX. 19-24), in
which the Italian tongue puts forth all its siren allurements.
Browne's beautiful verses (" Turn, hither turn your winged
pines") were suggested by these of Spenser. It might almost
seem as if Spenser had here, in his usual way, expanded the sweet
old verses :

" Merry sungen the monks binnen Ely
When Knut king rew thereby ;
' Roweth knightes near the lond,
That I may hear these monkes song.' "


And on the rock the waves, breaking aloft,
A solemn mean unto them measured,
The whiles sweet Zephyros loud whisteled
His treble, a strange kind of harmony
Which Guyon's senses softly tickeled
That he the boatman bade row easily
And let him hear some part of their rare melody."

Despite Spenser's instinctive tendency to idealize,
and his habit of distilling out of the actual an
ethereal essence in which very little of the possible
seems left, yet his mind, as is generally true of
great poets, was founded on a solid basis of good-
sense. I do not know where to look for a more co
gent and at the same time picturesque confutation
of Socialism than in the Second Canto of the Fifth
Book. If I apprehend rightly his words and
images, there is not only subtle but profound think
ing here. The French Revolution is prefigured in
the well-meaning but too theoretic giant, and Rous
seau's fallacies exposed two centuries in advance.
Spenser was a conscious Englishman to his inmost
fibre, and did not lack the sound judgment in poli
tics which belongs to his race. He was the more
English for living in Ireland, and there is some
thing that moves us deeply in the exile's passionate

" Dear Country ! O how dearly dear
Ought thy remembrance and perpetual band
Be to thy foster-child that from thy hand
Did common breath and nouriture receive !
How brutish is it not to understand
How much to her we owe that all us gave,
That gave unto us all whatever good we have ! "

His race shows itself also where he tells us that


" chiefly skill to ride seems a science
Proper to gentle blood,"

which reminds one of Lord Herbert of Cherbury's
saying that the finest sight God looked down on
was a fine man on a fine horse.

Wordsworth, in the supplement to his preface,
tells us that the " Faery Queen " " faded before "
Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas. But Words
worth held a brief for himself in this case, and is
no exception to the proverb about men who are
their own attorneys. His statement is wholly un
founded. Both poems, no doubt, so far as popular
ity is concerned, yielded to the graver interests of
the Civil War. But there is an appreciation much
weightier than any that is implied in mere popu
larity, and the vitality of a poem is to be measured
by the kind as well as the amount of influence it
exerts. Spenser has coached more poets and more
eminent ones than any other writer of English
verse. I need say nothing of Milton, nor of pro
fessed disciples like Browne, the two Fletchers,
and More. Cowley tells us that he became " irre
coverably a poet " by reading the " Faery Queen "
when a boy. Dryden, whose case is particularly
in point because he confesses having been seduced
by Du Bartas, tells us that Spenser had been his
master in English. He regrets, indeed, comically
enough, that Spenser could not have read the rules
of Bossu, but adds that " no man was ever born
with a greater genius or more knowledge to support
it." Pope says, " There is something in Spenser
that pleases one as strongly in one's old age as it


did in one's youth. I read the Faery Queen when
I was about twelve with a vast deal of delight ; and
I think it gave me as much when I read it over
about a year or two ago." Thomson wrote the
most delightful of his poems in the measure of
Spenser ; Collins, Gray, and Akenside show traces
of him ; and in our own day his influence reappears
in Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Lan-
dor is, I believe, the only poet who ever found him
tedious. Spenser's mere manner has not had so
many imitators as Milton's, but no other of our
poets has given an impulse, and in the right direc
tion also, to so many and so diverse minds ; above
all, no other has given to so many young souls a
consciousness of their wings and a delight in the
use of them. He is a standing protest against the
tyranny of Commonplace, and sows the seeds of a
noble discontent with prosaic views of life and the
dull uses to which it may be put.

Three of Spenser's own verses best characterize
the feeling his poetry gives us :

"Among wide waves set like a little nest,"
" Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemies,"
" The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil."

We are wont to apologize for the grossness of our
favorite authors sometimes by saying that their age
was to blame and not they ; and the excuse is a
good one, for often it is the frank word that shocks
us while we tolerate the thing. Spenser needs no
such extenuations. No man can read the " Faery


Queen " and be anything but the better for it.
Through that rude age, when Maids of Honor
drank beer for breakfast and Hamlet could say a
gross thing to Ophelia, he passes serenely ab
stracted and high, the Don Quixote of poets.
Whoever can endure unmixed delight, whoever
can tolerate music and painting and poetry all in
one, whoever wishes to be rid of thought and to
let the busy anvils of the brain be silent for a time,
let him read in the " Faery Queen." There is the
land of pure heart's ease, where no ache or sorrow
of spirit can enter.



A GENERATION has now passed away since
Wordsworth was laid with the family in the church
yard at Grasmere. 1 Perhaps it is hardly yet time
to take a perfectly impartial measure of his value
as a poet. To do this is especially hard for those
who are old enough to remember the last shot
which the foe was sullenly firing in that long war
of critics which began when he published his man
ifesto as Pretender, and which came to a pause
rather than to an end when they flung up their
caps with the rest at his final coronation. Some
thing of the intensity of the odium theologicum (if
indeed the cestheticum be not in these days the
more bitter of the two) entered into the conflict.
The Wordsworthians were a sect, who, if they had
the enthusiasm, had also not a little of the exclu-
siveness and partiality to which sects are liable.
The verses of the master had for them the virtue of
religious canticles stimulant of zeal and not amen-

1 "I pay many little visits to the family in the churchyard at
Grasmere," writes James Dixon (an old servant of Wordsworth)
to Crabb Robinson, with a simple, one might almost say canine
pathos, thirteen years after his master's death. Wordsworth
was always considerate and kind with his servants, Robinson tells


able to the ordinary tests of cold-blooded criticism.
Like the hymns of the Huguenots and Covenant
ers, they were songs of battle no less than of wor
ship, and the combined ardors of conviction and
conflict lent them a fire that was not naturally their
own. As we read them now, that virtue of the
moment is gone out of them, and whatever of Dr.
Wattsiness there is gives us a slight shock of dis
enchantment. It is something like the difference
between the Marseillaise sung by armed propa
gandists on the edge of battle, or by Brissotins in
the tumbrel, and the words of it read coolly in
the closet, or recited with the factitious frenzy of
Therese. It was natural in the early days of
Wordsworth's career to dwell most fondly on those
profounder qualities to appreciate which settled in
some sort the measure of a man's right to judge of
poetry at all. But now we must admit the short
comings, the failures, the defects, as no less essen
tial elements in forming a sound judgment as to
whether the seer and artist were so united in him
as to justify the claim first put in by himself and
afterwards maintained by his sect to a place beside
the few great poets who exalt men's minds, and
give a right direction and safe outlet to their pas
sions through the imagination, while insensibly
helping them toward balance of character and se
renity of judgment by stimulating their sense of
proportion, form, and the nice adjustment of means
to ends. In none of our poets has the constant
propulsion of an unbending will, and the concen
tration of exclusive, if I must not say somewhat


narrow, sympathies done so much to make the ori
ginal endowment of nature effective, and in none
accordingly does the biography throw so much light
on the works, or enter so largely into their composi
tion as an element whether of power or of weakness.
Wordsworth never saw, and I think never wished
to see, beyond the limits of his own consciousness
and experience. He early conceived himself to be,
and through life was confirmed by circumstances
in the faith that he was, a " dedicated spirit," * a
state of mind likely to further an intense but at
the same time one-sided development of the intel
lectual powers. The solitude in which the greater
part of his mature life was passed, while it doubt
less ministered to the passionate intensity of his
musings upon man and nature, was, it may be sus
pected, harmful to him as an artist, by depriving
him of any standard of proportion outside himself
by which to test the comparative value of his
thoughts, and by rendering him more and more
incapable of that urbanity of mind which could be
gained only by commerce with men more nearly
on his own level, and which gives tone without
lessening individuality. Wordsworth never quite
saw the distinction between the eccentric and the
original. For what we call originality seems not

1 In the Prelude he attributes this consecration to a sunrise
seen (during a college vacation) as he walked homeward from
some village festival where he had danced all night :
" My heart was full ; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me ; bond unknown to me
Was given that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit." (B. IV.)


so much anything peculiar, much less anything
odd, but that quality in a man which touches hu
man nature at most points of its circumference,
which reinvigorates the consciousness of our own
powers by recalling and confirming our own un
valued sensations and perceptions, gives classic
shape to our own amorphous imaginings, and ade
quate utterance to our own stammering conceptions
or emotions. The poet's office is to be a Voice,
not of one crying in the wilderness to a knot of
already magnetized acolytes, but singing amid the
throng of men, and lifting their common aspira
tions and sympathies (so first clearly revealed to
themselves) on the wings of his song to a purer
ether and a wider reach of view. We cannot, if
we would, read the poetry of Wordsworth as mere
poetry ; . at every other page we find ourselves en
tangled in a problem of aesthetics. The world-old
question of matter and form, of whether nectar is
of precisely the same flavor when served to us from
a Grecian chalice or from any jug of ruder pot
tery, comes up for decision anew. The Teutonic
nature has always shown a sturdy preference of
the solid bone with a marrow of nutritious moral
to any shadow of the same on the flowing mirror
of sense. Wordsworth never lets us long forget
the deeply rooted stock from which he sprang,
vien ben da lui.

William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth
in Cumberland, on the 7th of April, 1770, the
second of five children. His father was John


Wordsworth, an attorney-at-law, and agent of Sir
James Lowther, afterwards first Earl of Lonsdale.
His mother was Anne Cookson, the daughter of a
mercer in Penrith. His paternal ancestors had
been settled iminemorially at Penistone in York
shire, whence his grandfather had emigrated to
Westmoreland. His mother, a woman of piety and
wisdom, died in March, 1778, being then in her
thirty-second year. His father, who never entirely
cast off the depression occasioned by her death,
survived her but five years, dying in December,
1783, when William was not quite fourteen years

The poet's early childhood was passed partly at
Cockermouth, and partly with his maternal grand
father at Penrith. His first teacher appears to
have been Mrs. Anne Birkett, a kind of Shenstoue's
Schoolmistress, who practised the memory of her
pupils, teaching them chiefly by rote, and not en
deavoring to cultivate their reasoning faculties, a
process by which children are apt to be converted
from natural logicians into impertinent sophists.
Among his schoolmates here was Mary Hutchinson,
who afterwards became his wife.

In 1778 he was sent to a school founded by Ed
win Sandys, Archbishop of York, 1 in the year 1585,
at Hawkshead in Lancashire. Hawkshead is a small
market-town in the vale of Esthwaite, about a third
of a mile northwest of the lake. Here Wordsworth

1 Father of George Sandys, Treasurer of the Virginia Com
pany, translator, while in Virginia, of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and
author of a book of travels in the East dear to Dr. Johnson.


passed nine years, among a people of simple habits
and scenery of a sweet and pastoral dignity. His
earliest intimacies were with the mountains, lakes,
and streams of his native district, and the associa
tions with which his mind was stored during its most
impressible period were noble and pure. The boys
were boarded among the dames of the village, thus
enjoying a freedom from scholastic restraints, which
could be nothing but beneficial in a place where the
temptations were only to sports that hardened the
body while they fostered a love of nature in the
spirit and habits of observation in the mind. Words
worth's ordinary amusements here were hunting
and fishing, rowing, skating, and long walks around
the lake and among the hills, with an occasional
scamper on horseback. 1 His life as a school-boy
was favorable also to his poetic development, in
being identified with that of the people among
whom he lived. Among men of simple habits, and
where there are small diversities of condition, the
feelings and passions are displayed with less re
straint, and the young poet grew acquainted with
that primal human basis of character where the
Muse finds firm foothold, and to which he ever
afterward cleared his way through all the overlying
drift of conventionalism. The dalesmen were a
primitive and hardy race who kept alive the tradi
tions and often the habits of a more picturesque
time. A common level of interests and of social
standing fostered unconventional ways of thought
and speech, and friendly human sympathies. Soli-
1 Prelude, Book II.


tude induced reflection, a reliance of the mind on
its own resources, and individuality of character.
Where everybody knew everybody, and everybody's
father had known everybody's father, the interest
of man in man was not likely to become a matter
of cold hearsay and distant report. When death
knocked at any door in the hamlet, there was an
echo from every fireside, and a wedding dropt its
white flowers at every threshold. There was not a
grave in the churchyard but had its story ; not a
crag or glen or aged tree untouched with some ideal
hue of legend. It was here that Wordsworth
learned that homely humanity which gives such
depth and sincerity to his poems. Travel, society,
culture, nothing could obliterate the deep trace of
that early training which enables him to speak di
rectly to the primitive instincts of man. He was
apprenticed early to the difficult art of being him

At school he wrote some task-verses on subjects
imposed by the master, and also some voluntaries
of his own, equally undistinguished by any peculiar
merit. But he seems to have made up his mind as
early as in his fourteenth year to become a poet. 1
"It is recorded," says his biographer vaguely,
" that the poet's father set him very early to learn
portions of the best English poets by heart, so that
at an early age he could repeat large portions of
Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser." 2

1 " I to the muses have been bound,

These fourteen years, by strong indentures."

Idiot Boy (1798).
8 I think this more than doubtful, for I find no traces of the


The great event of Wordsworth's school-days
was the death of his father, who left what may be
called a hypothetical estate, consisting chiefly of
claims upon the first Earl of Lonsdale, the pay
ment of which, though their justice was acknow
ledged, that nobleman contrived in some unex
plained way to elude so long as he lived. In
October, 1787, he left school for St. John's Col
lege, Cambridge. He was already, we are told, a
fair Latin scholar, and had made some progress in
mathematics. The earliest books we hear of his
reading were Don Quixote, Gil Bias, Gulliver's
Travels, and the Tale of a Tub ; but at school he
had also become familiar with the works of some
English poets, particularly Goldsmith and Gray, of
whose poems he had learned many by heart. What
is more to the purpose, he had become, without
knowing it, a lover of Nature in all her moods, and
the same mental necessities of a solitary life which
compel men to an interest in the transitory phe
nomena of scenery had made him also studious of
the movements of his own mind, and the mutual
interaction and dependence of the external and in
ternal universe.

Doubtless his early orphanage was not without
its effect in confirming a character naturally impa
tient of control, and his mind, left to itself, clothed
itself with an indigenous growth, which grew fairly
and freely, unstinted by the shadow of exotic plan-
influence of any of these poets in his earlier writings. Goldsmith
was evidently his model in the Descriptive Sketches and the Even
ing Walk. I speak of them as originally printed.


tations. It has become a truism, that remarkable
persons have remarkable mothers ; but perhaps
this is chiefly true of such as have made them
selves distinguished by their industry, and by the
assiduous cultivation of faculties in themselves of
only an average quality. It is rather to be noted
how little is known of the parentage of men of the
first magnitude, how often they seem in some sort
foundlings, and how early an apparently adverse
destiny begins the culture of those who are to en
counter and master great intellectual or spiritual

Of his disposition as a child little is known, but
that little is characteristic. He himself tells us
that he was " stiff, moody, and of violent temper."
His mother said of him that he was the only one
of her children about whom she felt any anxiety,
for she was sure that he would be remarkable for
good or evil. Once, in resentment at some fancied
injury, he resolved to kill himself, but his heart
failed him. I suspect that few boys of passionate
temperament have escaped these momentary sug
gestions of despairing helplessness. " On another
occasion," he says, "while I was at my grand
father's house at Penrith, along with my eldest
brother Richard, we were whipping tops together
in the long drawing-room, on which the carpet was
only laid down on particular occasions. The walls
were hung round with family pictures, and I said
to my brother, ' Dare you strike your whip through
that old lady's petticoat?' He replied, 'No, I
won't.' ' Then,' said I, ' here goes,' and I struck


my lash through her hooped petticoat, for which,
no doubt, though I have forgotten it, I was prop
erly punished. But, possibly from some want of
judgment in punishments inflicted, I had become
perverse and obstinate in defying chastisement,
and rather proud of it than otherwise." This last
anecdote is as happily typical as a bit of Greek
mythology which always prefigured the lives of
heroes in the stories of their childhood. Just so
do we find him afterward striking his defiant lash
through the hooped petticoat of the artificial style
of poetry, and proudly unsubdued by the punish
ment of the Reviewers.

Of his college life the chief record is to be found
in "The Prelude." He did not distinguish himself
as a scholar, and if his life had any irjcidents, they
were of that interior kind which rarely appear in
biography, though they may be of controlling influ
ence upon the life. He speaks of reading Chaucer,
Spenser, and Milton while at Cambridge, 1 but no
reflection from them is visible in his earliest pub
lished poems. The greater part of his vacations
was spent in his native Lake-country, where his only
sister, Dorothy, was the companion of his rambles.
She was a woman of large natural endowments,

1 Prelude, Book III. He studied Italian also at Cambridge ;
his teacher, whose name was Isola, had formerly taught the poet
Gray. It may be pretty certainly inferred, however, that his first
systematic study of English poetry, was due to the copy of Ander
son's British Poets, left with him by his sailor brother John on
setting out for his last voyage in 1805. It was the daughter of
this Isola, Emma, who was afterwards adopted by Charles and
Mary Lamb.


chiefly of the receptive kind, and had much to do
with the formation and tendency of the poet's
mind. It was she who called forth the shyer sen
sibilities of his nature, and taught an originally
harsh and austere imagination to surround itself
with fancy and feeling, as the rock fringes itself
with a sun-spray of ferns. She was his first Pub
lic, and belonged to that class of prophetically
appreciative temperaments whose apparent office
it is to cheer the early solitude of original minds
with messages from the future. Through the
greater part of his life she continued to be a kind
of poetical conscience to him.

Wordsworth's last college vacation was spent
in a foot journey upon the Continent (1790). In
January, 1791, he took his degree of B. A., and
left Cambridge. During the summer of this year
he visited Wales, and, after declining to enter
upon holy orders under the plea that he was not of
age for ordination, went over to France in Novem
ber, and remained during the winter at Orleans.
Here he became intimate with the republican Gen
eral Beaupuis, with whose hopes and aspirations he
ardently sympathized. In the spring of 1792 he
was at Blois, and returned thence to Orleans, which
he finally quitted in October for Paris. He re
mained here as long as he could with safety, and at
the close of the year went back to England, thus,
perhaps, escaping the fate which soon after over

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 24 26 27 28

Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 24 of 28)