James Russell Lowell.

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imagine Ezekiel or Isaiah to have had such eyes."
Southey tells us that he had no sense of smell, and
Haydon that he had none of form. The best like
ness of him, in De Quincey's judgment, is the por
trait of Milton prefixed to Richardson's notes on
Paradise Lost. He was active in his habits, com
posing in the open air, and generally dictating his
poems. His daily life was regular, simple, and
frugal ; his manners were dignified and kindly ;
and in his letters and recorded conversations it is


remarkable how little that was personal entered
into his judgment of contemporaries.

The true rank of Wordsworth among poets is,
perhaps, not even yet to be fairly estimated, so
hard is it to escape into the quiet hall of judgment
uninflamed by the tumult of partisanship which
besets the doors.

Coming to manhood, predetermined to be a great
poet, at a time when the artificial school of poetry
was enthroned with all the authority of long suc
cession and undisputed legitimacy, it was almost
inevitable that Wordsworth, who, both by nature
and judgment was a rebel against the existing
order, should become a partisan. Unfortunately,
he became not only the partisan of a system, but of
William Wordsworth as its representative. Right
in general principle, he thus necessarily became
wrong in particulars. Justly convinced that great
ness only achieves its ends by implicitly obeying
its own instincts, he perhaps reduced the following
his instincts too much to a system, mistook his own
resentments for the promptings of his natural
genius, and, compelling principle to the measure of
his own temperament or even of the controversial
exigency of the moment, fell sometimes into the
error of making naturalness itself artificial. If a
poet resolve to be original, it will end commonly in
his being merely peculiar.

Wordsworth himself departed more and more in
practice, as he grew older, from the theories which
he had laid down in his prefaces ; l but those theo-

1 How far he swung backward toward the school under whose


ries undoubtedly had a great effect in retarding the
growth of his fame. He had carefully constructed
a pair of spectacles through which his earlier poems
were to be studied, and the public insisted on look
ing through them at his mature works, and were
consequently unable to see fairly what required a
different focus. He forced his readers to come to
his poetry with a certain amount of conscious pre
paration, and thus gave them beforehand the im
pression of something like mechanical artifice, and
deprived them of the contented repose of implicit
faith. To the child a watch seems to be a living
creature ; but Wordsworth would not let his readers
be children, and did injustice to himself by giving
them an uneasy doubt whether creations which

influence he grew up, and toward the style against which he had
protested so vigorously, a few examples will show. The advocate
of the language of common life has a verse in his Thanksgiving
Ode which, if one met with it by itself, he would think the achieve
ment of some later copyist of Pope :

" While the tubed engine [the organ] feels the inspiring blast."

And in The Italian Itinerant and the Swiss Goatherd we find a
thermometer or barometer called

' ' The well- wrought scale
Whose sentient tube instructs to time
A purpose to a fickle clime."

Still worse in the Eclipse of the Sun, 1821 :
' ' High on her speculative tower
Stood Science, waiting for the hour
When Sol was destined to endure

That darkening."
Bo in The Excursion,

" The cold March wind raised in her tender throat
Viewless obstructions."


really throbbed with the very heart's-blood of ge
nius, and were alive with nature's life of life, were
not contrivances of wheels and springs. A natural
ness which we are told to expect has lost the crown
ing grace of nature. The men who walked in Cor
nelius Agrippa's visionary gardens had probably
no more pleasurable emotion than that of a shallow
wonder, or an equally shallow self-satisfaction in
thinking they had hit upon the secret of the thauma-
turgy ; but to a tree that has grown as God willed
we come without a theory and with no botanical
predilections, enjoying it simply and thankfully ;
or the Imagination recreates for us its past sum
mers and winters, the birds that have nested and
sung in it, the sheep that have clustered in its
shade, the winds that have visited it, the cloud-
bergs that have drifted over it, and the snows that
have ermined it in winter. The Imagination is a
faculty that flouts at foreordination, and "Words
worth seemed to do all he could to cheat his read
ers of her company by laying out paths with a
peremptory Do not step off the gravel! at the
opening of each, and preparing pitfalls for every
conceivable emotion, with guide-boards to tell each
when and where it must be caught.

But if these things stood in the way of immedi
ate appreciation, he had another theory which inter
feres more seriously with the total and permanent
effect of his poems. He was theoretically de
termined not only to be a philosophic poet, but to
be a great philosophic poet, and to this end he
must produce an epic. Leaving aside the question


whether the epic be obsolete or not, it may be
doubted whether the history of a single man's mind
is universal enough in its interest to furnish all the
requirements of the epic machinery, and it may be
more than doubted whether a poet's philosophy be
ordinary metaphysics, divisible into chapter and
section. It is rather something which is more ener
getic in a word than in a whole treatise, and our
hearts unclose themselves instinctively at its simple
Open sesame ! while they would stand firm against
the reading of the whole body of philosophy. In
point of fact, the one element of greatness which
*' The Excursion " possesses indisputably is heavi
ness. It is only the episodes that are universally
read, and the effect of these is diluted by the con
necting and accompanying lectures on metaphy
sics. Wordsworth had his epic mould to fill, and,
like Benvenuto Cellini in casting his Perseus, was
forced to throw in everything, debasing the metal
lest it should run short. Separated from the rest,
the episodes are perfect poems in their kind, and
without example in the language.

Wordsworth, like most solitary men of strong
minds, was a good critic of the substance of poetry,
but somewhat niggardly in the allowance he made
for those subsidiary qualities which make it the
charmer of leisure and the employment of minds
without definite object. It may be doubted, in
deed, whether he set much store by any contempo
rary writing but his own, and whether he did not
look upon poetry too exclusively as an exercise
rather of the intellect than as a nepenthe of the


imagination. 1 He says of himself, speaking of his
youth :

"In fine,

I was a better judge of thoughts than words,
Misled in estimating words, not only
By common inexperience of youth,
But by the trade in classic niceties,
The dangerous craft of culling term and phrase
From languages that want the living voice
To carry meaning to the natural heart ;
To tell us what is passion, what is truth,
What reason, what simplicity and sense." a

Though he here speaks in the preterite tense, this
was always true of him, and his thought seems
often to lean upon a word too weak to bear its
weight. No reader of adequate insight can help
regretting that he did not earlier give himself to
" the trade of classic niceties." It was precisely
this which gives to the blank-verse of Landor the
severe dignity and reserved force which alone
among later poets recall the tune of Milton, and
to which Wordsworth never attained. Indeed,
Wordsworth's blank-verse (though the passion be
profounder) is always essentially that of Cowper.
They were alike also in their love of outward na
ture and of simple things. The main difference
between them is one of scenery rather than of sen
timent, between the life-long familiar of the moun
tains and the dweller on the plain.

It cannot be denied that in Wordsworth the
very highest powers of the poetic mind were asso-

1 According to Landor, he pronounced all Scott's poetry to be
" not worth five shillings."

2 Prelude, Book VI.


ciated with a certain tendency to the diffuse and
commonplace. It is in the understanding (always
prosaic) that the great golden veins of his imagi
nation are imbedded. 1 He wrote too much to
write always well; for it is not a great Xerxes-
army of words, but a compact Greek ten thousand,
that march safely down to posterity. He set tasks
to his divine faculty, which is much the same as
trying to make Jove's eagle do the service of a
clucking hen. Throughout " The Prelude " and
"The Excursion" he seems striving to bind the
wizard Imagination with the sand-ropes of dry dis
quisition, and to have forgotten the potent spell-
word which would make the particles cohere. There
is an arenaceous quality in the style which makes
progress wearisome. Yet with what splendors as
of mountain-sunsets are we rewarded ! what golden
rounds of verse do we not see stretching heaven
ward with angels ascending and descending ! what
haunting harmonies hover around us deep and
eternal like the undying barytone of the sea! and
if we are compelled to fare through sands and
desert wildernesses, how often do we not hear airy
shapes that syllable our names with a startling

1 This was instinctively felt, even by his admirers. Miss Mar-
tineau said to Crabb Robinson in 1839, speaking of Wordsworth's
conversation : " Sometimes he is annoying from the pertinacity
with which he dwells on trifles ; at other times he flows on in the
utmost grandeur, leaving a strong impression of inspiration."
Robinson tells us that he read Resolution and Independence to a
lady who was affected by it even to tears, and then said, " I have
not heard anything for years that so much delighted me ; but,
after all, it is not poetry."


personal appeal to our highest consciousness and
our noblest aspiration, such as we wait for in vain
in any other poet ! Landor, in a letter to Miss
Holford, says admirably of him, " Common minds
alone can be ignorant what breadth of philos
ophy, what energy and intensity of thought, what
insight into the heart, and what observation of
nature are requisite for the production of such

Take from "Wordsworth all which an honest crit
icism cannot but allow, and what is left will show
how truly great he was. He had no humor, no
dramatic power, and his temperament was of that
dry and juiceless quality, that in all his published
correspondence you shall not find a letter, but only
essays. If we consider carefully where he was
most successful, we shall find that it was not so
much in description of natural scenery, or deline
ation of character, as in vivid expression of the
effect produced by external objects and events
upon his own mind, and of the shape and hue (per
haps momentary) which they in turn took from his
mood or temperament. His finest passages are
always monologues. He had a fondness for par
ticulars, and there are parts of his poems which
remind us of local histories in the undue relative
importance given to trivial matters. He was the
historian of Wordsworthshire. This power of par-
ticularization (for it is as truly a power as general
ization) is what gives such vigor and greatness to
single lines and sentiments of Wordsworth, and to
poems developing a single thought or sentiment^


It was this that made him so fond of the sonnet.
That sequestered nook forced upon him the limits
which his fecundity (if I may not say his garrulity)
was never self-denying enough to impose on itself.
It suits his solitary and meditative temper, and it
was there that Lamb (an admirable judge of what
was permanent in literature) liked him best. Its
narrow bounds, but fourteen paces from end to
end, turn into a virtue his too common fault of giv
ing undue prominence to every passing emotion.
He excels in monologue, and the law of the sonnet
tempers monologue with mercy. In " The Excur
sion " we are driven to the subterfuge of a French
verdict of extenuating circumstances. His mind
had not that reach and elemental movement of
Milton's, which, like the trade-wind, gathered to
itself thoughts and images like stately fleets from
every quarter ; some deep with silks and spicery,
some brooding over the silent thunders of their bat
tailous armaments, but all swept forward in their
destined track, over the long billows of his verse,
every inch of canvas strained by the unifying breath
of their common epic impulse. It was an organ
that Milton mastered, mighty in compass, capable
equally of the trumpet's ardors or the slim deli
cacy of the flute, and sometimes it bursts forth in
great crashes through his prose, as if he touched it
for solace in the intervals of his toil. If Words
worth sometimes put the trumpet to his lips, yet
he lays it aside soon and willingly for his appro
priate instrument, the pastoral reed. And it is
not one that grew by any vulgar stream, but that


which Apollo breathed through, tending the flocks
of Admetus, that which Pan endowed with every
melody of the visible universe, the same in which
the soul of the despairing nymph took refuge and
gifted with her dual nature, so that ever and
anon, amid the notes of human joy or sorrow, there
comes suddenly a deeper and almost awful tone,
thrilling us into dim consciousness of a forgotten

Wordsworth's absolute want of humor, while it
no doubt confirmed his self-confidence by making
him insensible both to the comical incongruity into
which he was often led by his earlier theory con
cerning the language of poetry and to the not un
natural ridicule called forth by it, seems to have
been indicative of a certain dulness of perception
in other directions. 1 We cannot help feeling that

1 Nowhere is this displayed with more comic self-complacency
than when he thought it needful to rewrite the ballad of Helen of
Kirconnel, a poem hardly to be matched in any language for
swiftness of movement and savage sincerity of feeling. Its shud*-
dering compression is masterly.

" Curst be the heart that thought the thought,
And curst the hand that fired the shot,
When in my arms burd Helen dropt,
That died to succor me !

O, think ye not my heart was sair

When my love dropt down and spake na mair ? "

Compare this with,

" Proud Gordon cannot bear the thoughts
That through his brain are travelling^
And, starting up, to Bruce's heart
He launched a deadly javelin :


the material of his nature was essentially prose,
which, in his inspired moments, he had the power
of transmuting, but which, whenever the inspira
tion failed or was factitious, remained obstinately
leaden. The normal condition of many poets would
seem to approach that temperature to which Words-
Fair Ellen saw it when it came,
And, stepping forth to meet the same,
Did with her body cover
The Youth, her chosen lover.

And Bruce (as soon as he had slain
The Gordon) sailed away to Spain,
And fought with rage incessant
Against the Moorish Crescent."

These are surely the verses of an attorney's clerk "penning a
stanza when he should engross. " It will be noticed that Words
worth here also departs from his earlier theory of the language of
poetry by substituting a javelin for a bullet as less modern and
familiar. Had he written,

" And Gordon never gave a hint,
But, having somewhat picked his flint,
Let fly the fatal bullet
That killed that lovely pullet,"

it would hardly have seemed more like a parody than the rest.
He shows the same insensibility in a note upon the Ancient Mari
ner in the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads : " The poem of
my friend has indeed great defects ; first, that the principal per
son has no distinct character, either in his profession of mariner,
or as a human being who, having been long under the control of
supernatural impressions, might be supposed himself to partake
of something supernatural ; secondly, that he does not act, but is
continually acted upon ; thirdly, that the events, having no neces
sary connection, do not produce each other ; and lastly, that the
imagery is somewhat laboriously accumulated. " Here is an in
dictment, to be sure, and drawn, plainly enough, by the attorney's
clerk aforenamed. One would think that the strange charm of
Coleridge's most truly original poems lay in this very emancipa
tion from the laws of cause and effect.


worth's mind could be raised only by the white
heat of profoundly inward passion. And in pro
portion to the intensity needful to make his nature
thoroughly aglow is the very high quality of his
best verses. They seem rather the productions of
nature than of man, and have the lastingness of
such, delighting our age with the same startle of
newness and beauty that pleased our youth. Is it
his thought ? It has the shifting inward lustre of
diamond. Is it his feeling ? It is as delicate as the
impressions of fossil ferns. He seems to have
caught and fixed forever in immutable grace the
most evanescent and intangible of our intuitions,
the very ripple-marks on the remotest shores of
being. But this intensity of mood which insures
high quality is by its very nature incapable of pro
longation, and "Wordsworth, in endeavoring it,
falls more below himself, and is, more even than
many poets his inferiors in imaginative quality, a
poet of passages. Indeed, one cannot help having
the feeling sometimes that the poem is there for
the sake of these passages, rather than that these
are the natural jets and elations of a mind ener
gized by the rapidity of its own motion. In other
words, the happy couplet or gracious image seems
not to spring from the inspiration of the poem con
ceived as a whole, but rather to have dropped of
itself into the mind of the poet in one of his ram
bles, who then, in a less rapt mood, has patiently
built up around it a setting of verse too often un
graceful in form and of a material whose cheapness
may cast a doubt on the priceless quality of the


gem it encumbers. 1 During the most happily pro
ductive period of his life, Wordsworth was impa
tient of what may be called the mechanical portion
of his art. His wife and sister seem from the first
to have been his scribes. In later years, he had
learned and often insisted on the truth that poetry
was an art no less than a gift, and corrected his
poems in cold blood, sometimes to their detriment.
But he certainly had more of the vision than of the
faculty divine, and was always a little numb on the
side of form and proportion. Perhaps his best
poem in these respects is the " Laodamia," and it
is not uninstructive to learn from his own lips that
" it cost him more trouble than almost anything of
equal length he had ever written." His longer
poems (miscalled epical) have no more intimate
bond of union than their more or less immediate
relation to his own personality. Of character
other than his own he had but a faint conception,
and all the personages of " The Excursion " that
are not Wordsworth are the merest shadows of
himself upon mist, for his self-concentrated nature
was incapable of projecting itself into the conscious
ness of other men and seeing the springs of action
at their source in the recesses of individual charac
ter. The best parts of these longer poems are
bursts of impassioned soliloquy, and his fingers were

1 " A hundred times when, roving high and low,
I have been harassed with the toil of verse,
Much pains and little progress, and at once
Some lovely Image in the song rose up, .
Fall-formed, like Venus rising from the sea."

Prelude, Book IV.


always clumsy at the callida junctura. The stream
of narration is sluggish, if varied by times with
pleasing reflections (viridesque placido cequore
sylvas) ; we are forced to do our own rowing, and
only when the current is hemmed in by some nar
row gorge of the poet's personal consciousness do
we feel ourselves snatched along on the smooth but
impetuous rush of unmistakable inspiration. The
fact that what is precious in Wordsworth's poetry
was (more truly even than with some greater poets
than he) a gift rather than an achievement should
always be borne in mind in taking the measure of
his power. I know not whether to call it height or
depth, this peculiarity of his, but it certainly en
dows those parts of his work which we should dis
tinguish as Wordsworthian with an unexpectedness
and impressiveness of originality such as we feel
in the presence of Nature herself. He seems to
have been half conscious of this, and recited his
own poems to all comers with an enthusiasm of
wondering admiration that would have been pro
foundly comic 1 but for its simple sincerity and
for the fact that William Wordsworth, Esquire,
of Rydal Mount, was one person, and the William
Wordsworth whom he so heartily reverenced quite
another. We recognize two voices in him, as
Stephano did in Caliban. There are Jeremiah and

1 Mr. Emerson tells us that he was at first tempted to smile,
and Mr. Ellis Yarnall (who saw him in his eightieth year) says,
" These quotations [from his own works] he read in a way that
much impressed me ; it seemed almost as if he were awed by the
greatness of his own power, the gifts with which he had been endowed.""
(The italics are mine.)


his scribe Baruch. If the prophet cease from dic
tating, the amanuensis, rather than be idle, employs
his pen in jotting down some anecdotes of his mas
ter, how he one day went out and saw an old woman,
and the next day did not, and so came home and
dictated some verses on this ominous phenomenon,
and how another day he saw a cow. These mar
ginal annotations have been carelessly taken up
into the text, have been religiously held by the
pious to be orthodox scripture, and by dexterous
exegesis have been made to yield deeply oracular
meanings. Presently the real prophet takes up the
word again and speaks as one divinely inspired, the
Voice of a higher and invisible power. Words
worth's better utterances have the bare sincerity,
the absolute abstraction from time and place, the
immunity from decay, that belong to the grand
simplicities of the Bible. They seem not more his
own than ours and every man's, the word of the
inalterable Mind. This gift of his was naturally
very much a matter of temperament, and accord
ingly by far the greater part of his finer product
belongs to the period of his prime, ere Time had
set his lumpish foot on the pedal that deadens the
nerves of animal sensibility. 1 He did not grow as
those poets do in whom the artistic sense is predom-

1 His best poetry was written when he was under the immedi
ate influence of Coleridge. Coleridge seems to have felt this, for
it is evidently to Wordsworth that he alludes when he speaks of
" those who have been so well pleased that I should, year after
year, flow with a hundred nameless rills into their main stream."
(Letters, Conversations, and Recollections of S. T. C., vol. i. pp.
5-6.) " Wordsworth found fault with the repetition of the con-


inant. One of the most delightful fancies of the
Genevese humorist, Toepffer, is the poet Albert,
who, having had his portrait drawn by a highly
idealizing hand, does his best afterwards to look
like it. Many of Wordsworth's later poems seem
like rather unsuccessful efforts to resemble his for
mer self. They would never, as Sir John Harring
ton says of poetry, " keep a child from play and an
old man from the chimney-corner." l

Chief Justice Marshall once blandly interrupted
a junior counsel who was arguing certain obvi
ous points of law at needless length, by saying,
" Brother Jones, there are some things which a
Supreme Court of the United States sitting in
equity may be presumed to know." Wordsworth
has this fault of enforcing and restating obvious
points till the reader feels as if his own intelligence
were somewhat underrated. He is over-conscien
tious in giving us full measure, and once profoundly
absorbed in the sound of his own voice, he knows
not when to stop. If he feel himself flagging, he
has a droll way of keeping the floor, as it were, by
asking himself a series of questions sometimes not

eluding sound of the participles in Shakespeare's line about bees :
1 The singing masons building roofs of gold.'

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Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 27 of 28)