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took his friends the Brissotins.

As hitherto the life of Wordsworth may be
called a fortunate one, not less so in the training


and expansion of his faculties was this period of
his stay in France. Born and reared in a country
where the homely and familiar nestles confidingly
amid the most savage and sublime forms of na
ture, he had experienced whatever impulses the
creative faculty can receive from mountain and
cloud and the voices of winds and waters, but he
had known man only as an actor in fireside his
tories and tragedies, for which the hamlet supplied
an ample stage. In France he first felt the au
thentic beat of a nation's heart ; he was a spectator
at one of those dramas where the terrible footfall
of the Eumenides is heard nearer and nearer in
the pauses of the action ; and he saw man such as
he can only be when he is vibrated by the orgasm
of a national emotion. He sympathized with the
hopes of France and of mankind deeply, as was
fitting in a young man and a poet ; and if his faith
in the gregarious advancement of men was after
ward shaken, he only held the more firmly by his
belief in the individual, and his reverence for the
human as something quite apart from the popular
and above it. Wordsworth has been unwisely
blamed, as if he had been recreant to the liberal
instincts of his youth. But it was inevitable that
a genius so regulated and metrical as his, a mind
which always compensated itself for its artistic
radicalism by an involuntary leaning toward exter
nal respectability, should recoil from whatever was
convulsionary and destructive in politics, and above
all in religion. He reads the poems of Words
worth without understanding, who does not find in


them the noblest incentives to faith in man and
the grandeur of his destiny, founded always upon
that personal dignity and virtue, the capacity for
whose attainment alone makes universal liberty
possible and assures its permanence. He was to
make men better by opening to them the sources
of an inalterable well-being; to make them free,
in a sense higher than political, by showing them
that these sources are within them, and that no
contrivance of man can permanently emancipate
narrow natures and depraved minds. His politics
were always those of a poet, circling in the larger
orbit of causes and principles, careless of the tran
sitory oscillation of events.

The change in his point of view (if change there
was) certainly was complete soon after his return
from France, and was perhaps due in part to the
influence of Burke.

" While he [Burke] forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems built on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule ; the majesty proclaims
Of institutes and laws hallowed by time ;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by custom ; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born.
. . . Could a youth, and one

In ancient story versed, whose breast hath heaved
Under the weight of classic eloquence,
Sit, see, and hear, unthankful, uninspired ? " 1

1 Prelude, Book VII. Written before 1805, and referring to a
still earlier date. " Wordsworth went in powder, and with cocked
hat under his arm, to the Marchioness of Stafford's rout."
(Southey to Miss Barker, May, 1806.)


He had seen the French for a dozen years
eagerly busy in tearing up whatever had roots in
the past, replacing the venerable trunks of tra
dition and orderly growth with liberty-poles, then
striving vainly to piece together the fibres they had
broken, and to reproduce artificially that sense of
permanence and continuity which is the main safe
guard of vigorous self-consciousness in a nation.
He became a Tory through intellectual conviction,
retaining, I suspect, to the last, a certain radicalism
of temperament and instinct. As in Carlyle, so in
him something of the peasant survived to the last.
Hay don tells us that in 1809 Sir George Beaumont
said to him and Wilkie, " Wordsworth may per
haps walk in ; if he do, I caution you both against
his terrific democratic notions " ; and it must have
been many years later that Wordsworth himself
told Crabb Robinson, " I have no respect whatever
for Whigs, but I have a great deal of the Chartist
in me." In 1802, during his tour in Scotland, he
travelled on Sundays as on the other days of the
week. 1 He afterwards became a theoretical church
goer. " Wordsworth defended earnestly the Church
establishment. He even said he would shed his
blood for it. Nor was he disconcerted by a laugh
raised against him on account of his having con
fessed that he knew not when he had been in a
church in his own country. * All our ministers are
so vile,' said he. The mischief of allowing the

1 This was probably one reason for the long suppression of Miss
Wordsworth's journal, which she had evidently prepared for pub
lication as early as 1805.


clergy to depend on the caprice of the multitude
he thought more than outweighed all the evils of
an establishment." l

In December, 1792, Wordsworth had returned
to England, and in the following year published
" Descriptive Sketches " and the " Evening Walk."
He did this, as he says in one of his letters, to show
that, although he had gained no honors at the Uni
versity, he could do something. They met with no
great success, and he afterward corrected them so
much as to destroy all their interest as juvenile pro
ductions, without communicating to them any of
the merits of maturity. In commenting, sixty years
afterward, on a couplet in one of these poems,

" And, fronting the bright west, the oak entwines
Its darkening boughs and leaves in stronger lines,"

he says : " This is feebly and imperfectly expressed,
but I recollect distinctly the very spot where this
first struck me. . . . The moment was important
in my poetical history ; for I date from it my con
sciousness of the infinite variety of natural appear
ances which had been unnoticed by the poets of
any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with
them, and I made a resolution to supply in some
degree the deficiency."

It is plain that Wordsworth's memory was play
ing him a trick here, misled by that instinct (it
may almost be called) of consistency which leads
men first to desire that their lives should have been
without break or seam, and then to believe that
they have been such. The more distant ranges of
1 Crabb Robinson, i. 250, Am. ed.


perspective are apt to run together in retrospection.
How far could Wordsworth at fourteen have been
acquainted with the poets of all ages and coun
tries, he who to his dying day could not endure
to read Goethe and knew nothing of Calderon ? It
seems to me rather that the earliest influence trace
able in him is that of Goldsmith, and later of Cow-
per, and it is, perhaps, some slight indication of its
having already begun that his first volume of " De
scriptive Sketches " (1793) was put forth by John
son, who was Cowper's publisher. By and by the
powerful impress of Burns is seen both in the
topics of his verse and the form of his expression.
But whatever the ultimate effect of these poets
upon his style, certain it is that his juvenile poems
were clothed in the conventional habit of the eigh
teenth century. " The first verses from which he
remembered to have received great pleasure were
Miss Carter's ' Poem on Spring,' a poem in the six-
line stanza which he was particularly fond of and
had composed much in, for example, ' Ruth.' r
This is noteworthy, for Wordsworth's lyric range,
especially so far as tune is concerned, was always
narrow. His sense of melody was painfully dull,
and some of his lighter effusions, as he would have
called them, are almost ludicrously wanting in grace
of movement. We cannot expect in a modern poet
the thrush-like improvisation, the bewitchingly im
pulsive cadences, that charm us in our Elizabethan
drama and whose last warble died with Herrick ;
but Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning have shown
that the simple pathos of their music was not irre*


coverable, even if the artless poignancy of their
phrase be gone beyond recall. We feel this lack
in Wordsworth all the more keenly if we compare
such verses as

" Like an army defeated
The snow hath retreated
And now doth fare ill
On the top of the bare hill,"

with Goethe's exquisite Ueber alien Gipfeln ist
Huh, in which the lines (as if shaken down by a
momentary breeze of emotion) drop lingeringly
one after another like blossoms upon turf.

The " Evening Walk " and " Descriptive
Sketches " show plainly the prevailing influence
of Goldsmith, both in the turn of thought and the
mechanism of the verse. They lack altogether the
temperance of tone and judgment in selection which
have made the " Traveller " and the " Deserted
Village," perhaps, the most truly classical poems in
the language. They bear here and there, however,
the unmistakable stamp of the maturer Words
worth, not only in a certain blunt realism, but in the
intensity and truth of picturesque epithet. Of
this realism, from which Wordsworth never wholly
freed himself, the following verses may suffice as a
specimen. After describing the fate of a chamois-
hunter killed by falling from a crag, his fancy goes
back to the bereaved wife and son :

" Haply that child in fearful doubt may gaze,
Passing his father's bones in future days,
Start at the reliques of that very thigh
On which so oft he prattled when a boy."


In these poems there is plenty of that " poetic dic
tion " against which Wordsworth was to lead the
revolt nine years later.

" To wet the peak's impracticable sides
He opens of his feet the sanguine tides,
Weak and more weak the issuing current eyes
Lapped by the panting tongue of thirsty skies."

Both of these passages have disappeared from the
revised edition, as well as some curious outbursts
of that motiveless despair which Byron made fash
ionable not long after. Nor are there wanting
touches of fleshliness which strike us oddly as com
ing from Wordsworth. 1

" Farewell ! those forms that in thy noontide shade
Rest near their little plots of oaten glade,
Those steadfast eyes that beating breasts inspire
To throw the ' sultry ray ' of young Desire ;
Those lips whose tides of fragrance come and go
Accordant to the cheek's unquiet glow ;
Those shadowy breasts in love's soft light arrayed,
And rising by the moon of passion swayed."

The political tone is also mildened in the revision,
as where he changes " despot courts " into " tyr
anny." One of the alterations is interesting. In
the " Evening Walk " he had originally written

' ' And bids her soldier come her wars to share
Asleep on Minden's charnel hill afar."

An erratum at the end directs us to correct the
second verse, thus :

1 Wordsworth's purity afterwards grew sensitive almost to pru
dery. The late Mr. Clough told me that he heard him at Dr.
Arnold's table denounce the first line in Keats's Ode to a Grecian
Urn as indecent, and Haydon records that when he saw the group
of Cupid and Psyche he exclaimed, "The'dev-ils ! "


"Asleep on Bunker's charnel hill afar." 1

Wordsworth somewhere rebukes the poets for mak
ing the owl a bodeful bird. He had himself done
so in the "Evening Walk," and corrects his epi
thets to suit his later judgment, putting " gladsome "
for " boding," and replacing

" The tremulous sob of the complaining owl"


" The sportive outcry of the mocking owl."

Indeed, the character of the two poems is so much
changed in the revision as to make the dates ap
pended to them a misleading anachronism. But
there is one truly Wordsworthian passage which
already gives us a glimpse of that passion with
which he was the first to irradiate descriptive po
etry, and which sets him on a level with Turner.

" 'T is storm ; and hid in mist from hour to hour
All day the floods a deepening murmur pour ;
The sky is veiled and every cheerful sight ;
Dark is the region as with coming night ;
But what a sudden burst of overpowering light !
Triumphant on the bosom of the storm,
Glances the fire-clad eagle's wheeling form ;
Eastward, in long prospective glittering shine
The wood-crowned cliffs that o'er the lake recline ;
Those eastern cliffs a hundred streams unfold,
At once to pillars turned that flame with gold ;
Behind his sail the peasant tries to shun
The West that burns like one dilated sun,
Where in a mighty crucible expire
The mountains, glowing hot like coals of fire."

1 The whole passage is omitted in the revised edition. The
original, a quarto pamphlet, is now very rare, but fortunately
Charles Lamb's copy of it is now owned by my friend Professor
C. E. Norton.


Wordsworth has made only one change in these
verses, and that for the worse, by substitut
ing "glorious" (which was already implied in
" glances " and " fireclad ") for " wheeling." In
later life he would have found it hard to forgive
the man who should have made cliffs recline over
a lake. On the whole, what strikes us as most
prophetic in these poems is their want of continuity,
and the purple patches of true poetry on a texture
of unmistakable prose ; perhaps we might add the
incongruous clothing of prose thoughts in the cere
monial robes of poesy.

During the same year (1793) he wrote, but did
not publish, a political tract, in which he avowed
himself opposed to monarchy and to the hereditary
principle, and desirous of a republic, if it could be
had without a revolution. He probably continued
to be all his life in favor of that ideal republic
"which never was on land or sea," but fortunately
he gave up politics that he might devote himself to
his own nobler calling, to which politics are subor
dinate, and for which he found freedom enough in
England as it was. 1 Dr. Wordsworth admits that

1 Wordsworth showed his habitual good sense in never sharing,
BO far as is known, the communistic dreams of his friends Cole
ridge and Southey. The latter of the two had, to be sure, renounced
them shortly after his marriage, and before his acquaintance
with Wordsworth began. But Coleridge seems to have clung to
them longer. There is a passage in one of his letters to Cottle
(without date, but apparently written in the spring of 1798) which
would imply that Wordsworth had been accused of some kind of
social heresy. " Wordsworth has been caballed against so long
and so loudly that he has found it impossible to prevail on the
tenant of the Allf oxden estate to let him the house after their first


his uncle's opinions were democratical so late as
1802. I suspect that they remained so in an eso
teric way to the end of his days. He had himself
suffered by the arbitrary selfishness of a great land
holder, and he was born and bred in a part of Eng
land where there is a greater social equality than
elsewhere. The look and manner of the Cumber
land people especially are such as recall very viv
idly to a New Englander the associations of fifty
years ago, ere the change from New England to
New Ireland had begun. But meanwhile, Want,
which makes no distinctions of Monarchist or Re
publican, was pressing upon him. The debt due to
his father's estate had not been paid, and Words
worth was one of those rare idealists who esteem it
the first duty of a friend of humanity to live for,
and not on, his neighbor. He at first proposed es
tablishing a periodical journal to be called " The
Philanthropist," but luckily went no further with
it, for the receipts from an organ of opinion which
professed republicanism, and at the same time dis
countenanced the plans of all existing or defunct
republicans, would have been necessarily scanty.
There being no appearance of any demand, present
or prospective, for philanthropists, he tried to get

agreement is expired.' ' Perhaps, after all, it was Wordsworth's
insulation of character and habitual want of sympathy with any
thing but the moods of his own mind that rendered him incapable
of this copartnery of enthusiasm. He appears to have regarded
even his sister Dorothy (whom he certainly loved as much as it
was possible for him to love anything but his own poems) as a
kind of tributary dependency of his genius, much as a mountain
might look down on one of its ancillary spurs.


employment as correspondent of a newspaper.
Here also it was impossible that lie should succeed ;
he was too great to be merged in the editorial We,
and had too well defined a private opinion on all
subjects to be able to express that average of public
opinion which constitutes able editorials. But so it
is that to the prophet in the wilderness the birds
of ill omen are already on the wing with food from
heaven ; and while Wordsworth's relatives were
getting impatient at what they considered his waste
of time, while one thought he had gifts enough to
make a good parson, and another lamented the rare
attorney that was lost in him, 1 the prescient muse
guided the hand of Eaisley Calvert while he wrote

1 Speaking to one of his neighbors in 1845 he said, " that, after
he had finished his college course, he was in great doubt as to
what his future employment should be. He did not feel himself
good enough for the Church ; he felt that his mind was not prop
erly disciplined for that holy office, and that the struggle between
his conscience and his impulses would have made life a torture.
He also shrank from the Law, although Southey often told him
that he was well fitted for the higher parts of the profession. He
had studied military history with great interest, and the strategy
of war ; and he always fancied that he had talents for command ;
and he at one time thought of a military life, but then he was
without connections, and he felt, if he were ordered to the West
Indies, his talents would not save him from the yellow-fever, and
he gave that up." (Memoirs, ii. 466.) It is curious to fancy
Wordsworth a soldier. Certain points of likeness between him
and Wellington have often struck me. They resemble each
other in practical good sense, fidelity to duty, courage, and also in
a kind of precise uprightness which made their personal character
somewhat uninteresting. But what was decorum in Wellington
was piety in Wordsworth, and the entire absence of imagination
(the great point of dissimilarity) perhaps helped as much as
anything to make Wellington a great commander.


the poet's name in his will for a legacy of 900.
By the death of Calvert, in 1795, this timely help
came to Wordsworth at the turning-point of his
life, and made it honest for him to write poems
that will never die, instead of theatrical critiques
as ephemeral as play-bills, or leaders that led only
to oblivion.

In the autumn of 1795 Wordsworth and his sis
ter took up their abode at Racedown Lodge, near
Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire. Here nearly two years
were passed, chiefly in the study of poetry, and
Wordsworth to some extent recovered from the
fierce disappointment of his political dreams, and
regained that equable tenor of mind which alone
is consistent with a healthy productiveness. Here
Coleridge, who had contrived to see something
more in the " Descriptive Sketches " than the pub
lic had discovered there, first made his acquaint
ance. The sympathy and appreciation of an in
tellect like Coleridge's supplied him with that
external motive to activity which is the chief use
of popularity, and justified to him his opinion of
his own powers. It was now that the tragedy of
" The Borderers " was for the most part written,
and that plan of the " Lyrical Ballads " suggested
which gave Wordsworth a clue to lead him out of
the metaphysical labyrinth in which he was entan
gled. It was agreed between the two young friends,
that Wordsworth was to be a philosophic poet,
and, by a good fortune uncommon to such con
spiracies, Nature had already consented to the ar
rangement. In July, 1797, the two Wordsworths


removed to Allfoxden in Somersetshire, that they
might be near Coleridge, who in the mean while
had married and settled himself at Nether-Stowey.
In November " The Borderers " was finished, and
Wordsworth went up to London with his sister to
offer it for the. stage. The good Genius of the
poet again interposing, the play was decisively re
jected, and Wordsworth went back to Allfoxden,
himself the hero of that first tragi-comedy so com
mon to young authors.

The play has fine passages, but is as unreal
as " Jane Eyre." It shares with many of Words
worth's narrative poems the defect of being written
to illustrate an abstract moral theory, so that the
overbearing thesis is continually thrusting the poe
try to the wall. Applied to the drama, such pre
destination makes all the personages puppets and
disenables them for being characters. Wordsworth
seems to have felt this when he published " The
Borderers " in 1842, and says in a note that it was
" at first written . . . without any view to its ex
hibition upon the stage." But he was mistaken.
The contemporaneous letters of Coleridge to Cottle
show that he was long in giving up the hope of
getting it accepted by some theatrical manager.

He now applied himself to the preparation of
the first volume of the " Lyrical Ballads " for the
press, and it was published toward the close of
1798. The book, which contained also " The An
cient Mariner " of Coleridge, attracted little notice,
and that in great part contemptuous. When Mr.
Cottle, the publisher, shortly after sold his copy-


rights to Mr. Longman, that of the " Lyrical Bal
lads " was reckoned at zero, and it was at last
given up to the authors. A few persons were not
wanting, however, who discovered the dawn-streaks
of a new day in that light which the critical fire-
brigade thought to extinguish with a few contemp
tuous spurts of cold water. 1

Lord Byron describes himself as waking one
morning and finding himself famous, and it is quite
an ordinary fact that a blaze may be made with a
little saltpetre that will be stared at by thousands
who would have thought the sunrise tedious. If we
may believe his biographer, Wordsworth might have
said that he awoke and found himself in-famous,
for the publication of the " Lyrical Ballads " un
doubtedly raised him to the distinction of being
the least popular poet in England. Parnassus has
two peaks ; the one where improvising poets clus
ter ; the other where the singer of deep secrets sits
alone, a peak veiled sometimes from the whole
morning of a generation by earth-born mists and

1 Cottle says, " The sale was so slow and the severity of most of
the reviews so great that its progress to oblivion seemed to be
certain." But the notices in the Monthly and Critical reviews
(then the most influential) were fair, and indeed favorable, espe
cially to Wordsworth's share in the volume. The Monthly says,
" So much genius and originality are discovered in this publication
that we wish to see another from the same hand." The Critical,
after saying that "in the whole range of English poetry we
scarcely recollect anything superior to a passage in Lines written
near Tintern Abbey" sums up thus : " Yet every piece discovers
genius ; and ill as the author has frequently employed his talents,
they certainly rank him with the best of living poets." Such
treatment surely cannot be called discouraging.


smoke of kitchen fires, only to glow the more con
sciously at sunset, and after nightfall to crown it
self with imperishable stars. Wordsworth had
that self-trust which in the man of genius is sub
lime, and in the man of talent insufferable. It
mattered not to him though all the reviewers had
been in a chorus of laughter or a conspiracy of
silence behind him. He went quietly over to Ger
many to write more Lyrical Ballads, and to begin
a poem on the growth of his own mind, at a time
when there were only two men in the world (him
self and Coleridge) who were aware that he had
one in anywise differing from those, mechanically
uniform, which are stuck drearily, side by side, in
the great pin-paper of society.

In Germany Wordsworth dined in company with
Klopstock, and after dinner they had a conver
sation, of which Wordsworth took notes. The re
spectable old poet, who was passing the evening
of his days by the chimney-corner, Darby and Joan
like, with his respectable Muse, seems to have been
rather bewildered by the apparition of a living
genius. The record is of value now chiefly for the
insight it gives us into Wordsworth's mind. Among

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Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 25 of 28)