James Russell Lowell.

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This, he said, was a line that Milton never would have written.
Keats thought, on the other hand, that the repetition was in har
mony with the continued note of the singers." (Leigh Hunt's
Autobiography.) Wordsworth writes to Crabb Robinson in 1837,
" My ear is susceptible to the clashing of sounds almost to dis
ease." One cannot help thinking that his training in these nice
ties was begun by Coleridge.

1 In the Preface to his translation of the Orlando Furioso,


needing, and often incapable of answer. There are
three stanzas of such near the close of the First
Part of " Peter Bell," where Peter first catches a
glimpse of the dead body in the water, all happily
incongruous, and ending with one which reaches
the height of comicality :

" Is it a fiend that to a stake
Of fire his desperate self is tethering ?
Or stubborn spirit doomed to yell,
In solitary ward or cell,
Ten thousand miles from all his brethren ? ''

The same want of humor which made him insensi
ble to incongruity may perhaps account also for the
singular unconsciousness of disproportion which so
often strikes us in his poetry. For example, a little
farther on in " Peter Bell " we find :

" Now like a tempest-shattered bark
That overwhelmed and prostrate lies,
And in a moment to the verge
Is lifted of a foaming surge
Full suddenly the Ass doth rise ! "

And one cannot help thinking that the similes of
the huge stone, the sea-beast, and the cloud, noble
as they are in themselves, are somewhat too lofty
for the service to which they are put. 1

The movement of Wordsworth's mind was too
slow and his mood too meditative for narrative
poetry. He values his own thoughts and reflections
too much to sacrifice the least of them to the inter
ests of his story. Moreover, it is never action that
interests him, but the subtle motives that lead to or
hinder it. " The Wagoner " involuntarily suggests
1 In Resolution and Independence,


a comparison with " Tarn O'Shanter " infinitely to
its own disadvantage. " Peter Bell," full though
it be of profound touches and subtle analysis, is
lumbering and disjointed. Even Lamb was forced
to confess that he did not like it. "The White
Doe," the most Wordsworthian of them all in the
best meaning of the epithet, is also only the more
truly so for being diffuse and reluctant. What
charms in Wordsworth and will charm forever is

" Happy tone

Of meditation slipping in between
The beauty coming and the beauty gone."

A few poets, in the exquisite adaptation of their
words to the tune of our own feelings and fancies,
in the charm of their manner, indefinable as the
sympathetic grace of woman, are everything to us
without our being able to say that they are much
in themselves. They rather narcotize than fortify.
Wordsworth must subject our mood to his own be
fore he admits us to his intimacy ; but, once admit
ted, it is for life, and we find ourselves in his debt,
not for what he has been to us in our hours of
relaxation, but for what he has done for us as a
reinforcement of faltering purpose and personal
independence of character. His system of a Na
ture-cure, first professed by Dr. Jean Jacques and
continued by Cowper, certainly breaks down as a
whole. The Solitary of " The Excursion," who has
not been cured of his scepticism by living among
the medicinal mountains, is, so far as we can see,
equally proof against the lectures of Pedler and


Parson. Wordsworth apparently felt that this
would be so, and accordingly never saw his way.
clear to finishing the poem. But the treatment,
whether a panacea or not, is certainly wholesome,
inasmuch as it inculcates abstinence, exercise, and
uncontaminate air. I am not sure, indeed, that the
Nature-cure theory does not tend to foster in con
stitutions less vigorous than Wordsworth's what
Milton would call a fugitive and cloistered virtue
at a dear expense of manlier qualities. The an
cients and our own Elizabethans, ere spiritual me
grims had become fashionable, perhaps made more
out of life by taking a frank delight in its action
and passion and by grappling with the facts of this
world, rather than muddling themselves over the
insoluble problems of another. If they had not
discovered the picturesque, as we understand it,
they found surprisingly fine scenery in man and his
destiny, and would have seen something ludicrous,
it may be suspected, in the spectacle of a grown
man running to hide his head in the apron of the
Mighty Mother whenever he had an ache in his
finger or got a bruise in the tussle for existence.

But when, as I have said, our impartiality has
made all those qualifications and deductions against
which even the greatest poet may not plead his
privilege, what is left to Wordsworth is enough
to justify his fame. Even where his genius is
wrapped in clouds, the unconquerable lightning of
imagination struggles through, flashing out unex
pected vistas, and illuminating the humdrum path
way of our daily thought with a radiance of mo-


mentary consciousness that seems like a revelation.
If it be the most delightful function of the poet to
set our lives to music, yet perhaps he will be even
more sure of our maturer gratitude if he do his
part also as moralist and philosopher to purify and
enlighten ; if he define and encourage our vacilla
ting perceptions of duty ; if he piece together our
fragmentary apprehensions of our own life and that
larger life whose unconscious instruments we are,
making of the jumbled bits of our dissected map of
experience a coherent chart. In the great poets
there is an exquisite sensibility both of soul and
sense that sympathizes like gossamer sea-moss with
every movement of the element in which it floats,
but which is rooted on the solid rock of our com
mon sympathies. Wordsworth shows less of this
finer feminine fibre of organization than one or two
of his contemporaries, notably than Coleridge or
Shelley; but he was a masculine thinker, and in
his more characteristic poems there is always a
kernel of firm conclusion from far-reaching princi
ples that stimulates thought and challenges medi
tation. Groping in the dark passages of life, we
come upon some axiom of his, as it were a wall
that gives us our bearings and enables us to find
an outlet. Compared with Goethe we feel that he
lacks that serene impartiality of mind which results
from breadth of culture ; nay, he seems narrow, in
sular, almost provincial. He reminds us of those
saints of Dante who gather brightness by revolving
on their own axis. But through this very limitation
of range he gains perhaps in intensity and the im


pressiveness which results from eagerness of per
sonal conviction. If we read Wordsworth through,
as I have just done, we find ourselves changing
our mind about him at every other page, so uneven
is he. If we read our favorite poems or passages
only, he will seem uniformly great. And even
as regards " The Excursion " we should remember
how few long poems will bear consecutive reading.
For my part I know of but one, the Odyssey.

None of our great poets can be called popular in
any exact sense of the word, for the highest poetry
deals with thoughts and emotions which inhabit,
like rarest sea-mosses, the doubtful limits of that
shore between our abiding divine and our fluctua
ting human nature, rooted in the one, but living in
the other, seldom laid bare, and otherwise visible
only at exceptional moments of entire calm and
clearness. Of no other poet except Shakespeare
have so many phrases become household words as
of Wordsworth. If Pope has made current more
epigrams of worldly wisdom, to Wordsworth be
longs the nobler praise of having defined for us,
and given us for a daily possession, those faint and
vague suggestions of other-worldliness of whose
gentle ministry with our baser nature the hurry
and bustle of life scarcely ever allowed us to be
conscious. He has won for himself a secure im
mortality by a depth of intuition which makes only
the best minds at their best hours worthy, or indeed
capable, of his companionship, and by a homely
sincerity of human sympathy which reaches the
humblest heart. Our language owes him gratitude


for the habitual purity and abstinence of his style,
and we who speak it, for having emboldened us to
take delight in simple things, and to trust ourselves
to our own instincts. And he hath his reward. It
needs not to bid

" Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh
To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumond lie
A little nearer Spenser " ;

for there is no fear of crowding in that little soci
ety with whom he is now enrolled as fifth in the
succession of the great English Poets.


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