Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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remarks on this " White Doe."


than any of Mr. Wordsworth's other productions ; with
less boldness of originality, and less even of that
extreme simplicity and lowliness of tone which wavered
so prettily, in the Lyrical Ballads, between silliness and
pathos. We have imitations of Cowper, and even of 5
Milton here ; engrafted on the natural drawl of the
Lakers — and all diluted into harmony by that profuse
and irrepressible wordiness which deluges all the blank
verse of this school of poetry, and lubricates and weakens
the whole structure of their style. 10

Though it fairly fills four hundred and twenty good
quarto pages, without note, vignette, or any sort of
extraneous assistance, it is stated in the title — with
something of an imprudent candour — to be but "a
portion " of a larger work ; and in the preface, where an 15
attempt is rather unsuccessfully made to explain the
whole design, it is still more rashly disclosed, that it is
but "^ part of the second part ^ of a long and laborious
work" — which is to consist of three parts !

What Mr. Wordsworth's ideas of length are, we have 20
no means of accurately judging : But we cannot help
suspecting that they are liberal, to a degree that will
alarm the weakness of most modern readers. As far as
we can gather from the preface, the entire poem — or one
of them (for we really are not sure whether there is to ^5
be one or two) is of a biographical nature ; and is to
contain the history of the author's mind, and of the
origin and progress of his poetical powers, up to the
period when they were sufficiently matured to qualify
him for the great work on which he has been so long y^
employed. Now, the quarto before us contains an
account of one of his youthful rambles in the vales of
Cumberland, and occupies precisely the period of three
days ! So that, by the use of a very powerful calculus.,


some estimate may be formed of the probable extent
of the entire biography.

This small specimen, however, and the statements with
which it is prefaced, have been sufficient to set our minds
5 at rest in one particular. The case of Mr. Wordsworth,
we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless ; and we give
him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of
criticism. We cannot indeed altogether omit taking
precautions now and then against the spreading of the

lo malady; — but for himself, though we shall watch the
progress of his symptoms as a matter of professional
curiosity and instruction, we really think it right not to
harass him any longer with nauseous remedies, — but
ratlVer to throw in cordials and lenitives, and wait in

15 patience for the natural termination of the disorder. In
order to justify this desertion of our patient, however, it
is proper to state why we despair of the success of a
more active practice.

A man who has been for twenty years at work on such

20 matter as is now before us, and who comes complacently
forward with a whole quarto of it, after all the admonitions
he has received, cannot reasonably be expected to " change
his hand, or check his pride," upon the suggestion of far
weightier monitors than we can pretend to be. Inveterate

25 habits must now have given a kind of sanctity to the
errors of early taste ; and the very powers of which we
lament the perversion, have probably become incapable
of any other application. The very quantity, too, that
he has written, and is at this moment working up for

30 publication upon the old pattern, makes it almost hopeless
to look for any change of it. All this is so much
capital already sunk in the concern ; which must be
sacrificed if that be abandoned ; and no man likes to give
up for lost the time and talent and labour which he has


embodied in any permanent production. We. were not
previously aware of these obstacles to Mr. Wordsworth's
conversion ; and', considering the peculiarities of his
former writings merely as the result of certain wanton
and capricious experiments on public taste and indul- 5
gence, conceived it to be our duty to discourage their
repetition by all the means in our power. We now see
clearly, however, how the case stands ; — and, making
up our minds, though with the most sincere pain and
reluctance, to consider him as finally lost to the good 10
cause of poetry, shall endeavour to be thankful for the
occasional gleams of tenderness and beauty which the
natural force of his imagination and affections must still
shed over all his productions, — and to which we shall
ever turn with delight, in spite of the affectation and 15
mysticism and prolixity, with which they are so abundantly

Long habits of seclusion, and an excessive ambition of
originality, can alone account for the disproportion which
seems to exist between this author's taste and his genius ; 20
or for the devotion with which he has sacrificed so many
precious gifts at the shrine of those paltry idols which he
has set up for himself among his lakes and his mountains.
Solitary musings, amidst suCh scenes, might no doubt be
expected to nurse up the mind to the majesty of poetical 25
conception, — ( though it is remarkable, that all the
greater poets lived, or had lived, in the full current of
society) : — But the collision of equal minds, — the
admonition of prevailing impressions — seems necessary
to reduce its redundancies, and repress that tendency to 3°
extravagance or puerility, into which the self-indulgence
and self-admiration of genius is so apt to be betrayed,
when it is allowed to wanton, without awe or restraint, in
the triumph and delight of its own intoxication. That


its flights should be graceful and glorious in the eyes of
men, it seems almost to be necessary that they should be
made in the consciousness that men's eyes are to behold
them, — and that the inward transport and vigour by
5 which they are inspired, should be tempered by an
occasional reference to what will be thought of them by
those ultimate dispensers of glory. An habitual and
general knowledge of the few settled and permanent
maxims, which form the canon of general taste in all

lo large and polished societies — a certain tact, which
informs us at once that many things, which we still love,
and are moved by in secret, must necessarily be despised
as childish, or derided as absurd, in all such societies —
though it will not stand in the place of genius, seems

15 necessary to the success of its exertions ; and though it
will never enable any one to produce the higher beauties
of art, can alone secure the talent which does produce
them from errors that must render it useless. Those who
have most of the talent, however, commonly acquire this

20 knowledge with the greatest facility ; — and if Mr.
Wordsworth, instead of confining himself almost entirely
to the society of the dalesmen and cottagers, and little
children, who form the subjects of his book, had conde-
scended to mingle a little more with the people that were

25 to read and judge of it, we cannot help thinking that its
texture might have been considerably improved : At
least it appears to us to be absolutely impossible, that
any one who had lived or mixed familiarly with men of
literature and ordinary judgment in poetry (of course

30 we exclude the coadjutors and disciples of his own
school) could ever have fallen into such gross faults, or
so long mistaken them for beauties. His first essays we
looked upon in a good degree as poetical paradoxes, —
maintained experimentally, in order to display talent, and


court notoriety ; — and so maintained, with no more
serious belief in their truth, than is usually generated by
an ingenious and animated defence of other paradoxes.
But when we find that he has been for twenty years
exclusively employed upon articles of this very fabric, 5
and that he has still enough of raw material on hand to
keep him so employed for twenty years to come, we cannot
refuse him the justice of believing that he is a sincere
convert to his own system, and must ascribe the peculi-
arities of his composition, not to any transient affectation, 10
or accidental caprice of imagination, but to a settled
perversity of taste or understanding, which has been
fostered, if not altogether created by the circumstances
to which we have alluded.

The volume before us, if we were to describe it very 15
shortly, we should characterise as a tissue of moral and
devotional ravings, in which innumerable changes are
rung upon a very few simple and familiar ideas : — But
with such an accompaniment of long words, long sen-
tences, and unwieldy phrases — and such a hubbub of 20
strained raptures and fantastical sublimities, that it is
often difficult for the most skilful and attentive student
to obtain a glimpse of the author's meaning — and alto-
gether impossible for an ordinary reader to conjecture
what he is about. Moral and religious enthusiasm, 25
though undoubtedly poetical emotions, are at the same
time but dangerous inspirers of poetry ; nothing being so
apt to run into interminable dulness or mellifluous ex-
travagance, without giving the unfortunate author the
slightest intimation of his danger. His laudable zeal for 30
the efficacy of his preachments, he very naturally mistakes
for the ardour of poetical inspiration ; — and, while deal-
ing out the high words and glowing phrases which are
so readily supplied by themes of this description, can


scarcely avoid believing that he is eminently original and
impressive : — All sorts of commonplace notions and ex-
pressions are sanctified in his eyes, by the sublime ends
for which they are employed ; and the mystical verbiage
5 of the Methodist pulpit is repeated, till the speaker
entertains no doubt that he is the chosen organ of divine
truth and persuasion. But if such be the common hazards
of seeking inspiration from those potent fountains, it may
easily be conceived what chance Mr. Wordsworth had of

lo escaping their enchantment, — with his natural propen-
sities to wordiness, and his unlucky habit of debasing
pathos with vulgarity. The fact accordingly is, that in
this production he is more obscure than a Pindaric poet
of the seventeenth century ; and more verbose " than

15 even himself of yore" ; while the wilfulness with which
he persists in choosing his examples of intellectual dignity
and tenderness exclusively from the lowest ranks of
society, will be sufficiently apparent, from the circum-
stance of his having thought fit to make his chief pro-

20 locutor in this poetical dialogue, and chief advocate of
Providence and Virtue, afi old Scotch Pedlar — retired
indeed from business — but still rambling about in his
former haunts, and gossiping among his old customers,
without his pack on his shoulders. The other persons of

25 the drama are, a retired military chaplain, who has grown
half an atheist and half a misanthrope — the wife of an
unprosperous weaver — a servant girl with her natural
child — a parish pauper, and one or two other personages
of equal rank and dignity.

30 The character of the work is decidedly didactic ; and
more than nine tenths of it are occupied with a species of
dialogue, or rather a series of long sermons or harangues
which pass between the pedlar, the author, the old chap-
lain, and a worthy vicar, who entertains the whole party


at dinner on the last day of their excursion. The inci-
dents which occur in the course of it are as few and trifling
as can well be imagined ; — and those which the different
speakers narrate in the course of their discourses, are
introduced rather to illustrate their arguments or opinions, 5
than for any interest they are supposed to possess of
their own. — The doctrine which the work is intended to
enforce, we are by no means certain that we have dis-
covered. In so far as we can collect, however, it seems
to be neither more nor less than the old familiar one, 10
that a firm belief in the providence of a wise and benefi-
cent Being must be our great stay and support under all
afflictions and perplexities upon earth — and that there
are indications of his power and goodness in all the
aspects of the visible universe, whether living or inan- 15
imate — every part of which should therefore be regarded
with love and reverence, as exponents of those great
attributes. We can testify, at least, that these salutary
and important truths are inculcated at far greater length,
and with more repetitions, than in any ten volumes of 20
sermons that we ever perused. It is also maintained,
with equal conciseness and originality, that there is fre-
quently much good sense, as well as much enjoyment, in
the humbler conditions of life ; and that, in spite of great
vices and abuses, there is a reasonable allowance both of 25
happiness and goodness in society at large. If there be
any deeper or more recondite doctrines in Mr. Words-
worth's book, we must confess that they have escaped
us ; — and, convinced as we are of the truth and sound-
ness of those to which we have alluded, we cannot help 3°
thinking that they might have been better enforced with
less parade and prolixity. His effusions on what may be
called the physiognomy of external nature, or its moral
and theological expression, are eminently fantastic,


obscure, and affected. — It is quite time, however, that
we should' give the reader a more particular account of
this singular performance.

5 Our abstract of the story has been so extremely concise
that it is more than usually necessary for us to lay some
specimens of the work itself before our readers. Its
grand staple, as we have already said, consists of a kind
of mystical morality: and the chief characteristics of the

lo style are, that it is prolix, and very frequently unintelli-
gible : and though we are sensible that no great gratifi-
cation is to be expected from the exhibition of those
qualities, yet it is necessary to give our readers a taste
of them, both to justify the sentence we have passed,

15 and to satisfy them that it was really beyond our power
to present them with any abstract or intelligible account
of those long conversations which we have had so much
occasion to notice in our brief sketch of its contents.
We need give ourselves no trouble, however, to select

20 passages for this purpose. Here is the first that presents
itself to us on opening the volume ; and if our readers
can form the slightest guess at its meaning, we must
give them credit for a sagacity to which we have no

25 "But by the storms of circumstance unshaken,

And subject neither to eclipse or wane,
Duty exists ; — immutably survive,
For our support, the measures and the forms,
Which an abstract Intelligence supplies ;
30 Whose kingdom is, where Time and Space are not :

Of other converse, which mind, soul, and heart,
Do, with united urgency, require.
What more, that may not perish ? "

" 'T is, by comparison, an easy task
35 Earth to despise ; but to converse with Heav'n,


This is not easy : — to relinquish all

We have, or hope, of happiness and joy, —

And stand in freedom loosen'd from this world ;

I deem not arduous ! — but must needs confess

That 'tis a thing impossible to frame c

Conceptions equal to the Soul's desires." — pp. 144-147.

This is a fair sample of that rapturous mysticism which
eludes all comprehension, and fills the despairing reader
with painful giddiness and terror. The following, which
we meet with on the very next page, is in the same 10
general strain : — though the first part of it affords a
good specimen of the author's talent for enveloping a
plain and trite observation in all the mock majesty of
solemn verbosity. A reader of plain understanding, we
suspect, could hardly recognize the familiar remark, that 15
excessive grief for our departed friends is not very con-
sistent with a firm belief in their immortal felicity, in
the first twenty lines of the following passage : — In the
succeeding lines we do not ourselves pretend to recognize
anything. 20

* *

These examples, we perceive, are not very well chosen
— but we have not leisure to improve the selection; and,
such as they are, they may serve to give the reader a
notion of the sort of merit which we meant to illustrate 25
by their citation. When we look back to them, indeed,
and to the other passages which we have now extracted,
we feel half inclined to rescind the severe sentence w^hich
we passed on the w^ork at the beginning : — But when we
look into the work itself, we perceive that it cannot 'be 3°
rescinded. Nobody can be more disposed to do justice
to the great powers of Mr, Wordsworth than we are ;
and, from the first time that he came before us, down
to the present moment, we have uniformly testified in


their favour, and assigned indeed our high sense of their
value as the chief ground of the bitterness with which
we resented their perversion. That perversion, however,
is now far more visible than their original dignity ; and
5 while we collect the fragments, it is impossible not to
mourn over the ruins from which we are condemned to
pick them. If any one should doubt of the existence of
such a perversion, or be disposed to dispute about the
instances we have hastily brought forward, we would just

lo beg leave to refer him to the general plan and character
of the poem now before us. Why should Mr. Wordsworth
have made his hero a superannuated pedlar } W^hat but
the most wretched affectation, or provoking perversity of
taste, could induce any one to place his chosen advocate

15 of wisdom and virtue in so absurd and fantastic a con-
dition ? Did Mr. Wordsworth really imagine that his
favorite doctrines were likely to gain anything in point
of effect or authority by being put into the mouth of a
person accustomed to higgle about tape or brass sleeve-

20 buttons ? Or is it not plain that, independent of the
ridicule and disgust which such a personification must
excite in many of his readers, its adoption exposes his
work throughout to the charge of revolting incongruity
and utter disregard of probability or nature ? For, after

25 he has thus wilfully debased his moral teacher by a low
occupation, is there one word that he puts into his mouth,
or one sentiment of which he makes him the organ, that
has the most remote reference to that occupation t Is
there anything in his learned, abstract and logical

30 harangues that savours of the calling that is ascribed to
him .? Are any of their materials such as a pedlar could
possibly have dealt in .'' Are the manners, the diction,
the sentiments in any, the very smallest degree, accom-
modated to a person in that condition ? or are they not


eminently and conspicuously such as could not by possi-
bility belong to it ? A man who went about selling
flannel and pocket-handkerchiefs in this lofty diction
would soon frighten away all his customers ; and would
infallibly pass either for a madman or for some learned 5
and affected gentleman, who, in a frolic, had taken up
a character which he was peculiarly ill qualified for

The absurdity in this case, we think, is palpable and
glaring : but it is exactly of the same nature with that 10
which infects the whole substance of the work — a puerile
ambition of singularity engrafted on an unlucky predilec-
tion for truisms ; and an affected passion for simplicity
and humble life, most awkwardly combined with a taste
for mystical refinements, and all the gorgeousness of 15
obscure phraseology. His taste for simplicity is evinced
by sprinkling up and down his interminable declamations
a few descriptions of baby-houses, and of old hats with
wet brims ; and his amiable partiality for humble life,
by assuring us that a wordy rhetorician, who talks about 20
Thebes, and allegorizes all the heathen mythology, was
once a pedlar — and making him break in upon his
magnificent orations with two or three awkward notices
of something that he had seen when selling winter raiment
about the country — or of the changes in the state of 25
society, which had almost annihilated his former calling.



A Poem. By William Wordsworth. 4to, pp. 162. London, 18 ij.

This, we think, has the merit of being the very worst
poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume ; and
though it was scarcely to be expected, we confess, that
Mr, Wordsworth, with all his ambition, should so soon
5 have attained to that distinction, the wonder may perhaps
be diminished when we state that it seems to us to con-
sist of a happy union of all the faults, without any of
the beauties, which belong to his school of poetry. It
is just such a work, in short, as some wicked enemy of

10 that school might be supposed to have devised, on purpose
to make it ridiculous ; and when we first took it up we
could not help suspecting that some ill-natured critic had
actually taken this harsh method of instructing Mr. Words-
worth, by example, in the nature of those errors, against

15 which our precepts had been so often directed in vain.
We had not gone far, however, till we felt intimately that
nothing in the nature of a joke could be so insupportably
dull ; — and that this must be the work of one who earn-
estly believed it to be a pattern of pathetic simplicity,

20 and gave it out as such to the admiration of all intelligent
readers. In this point of view the work may be regarded
as curious at least, if not in some degree interesting ;
and, at all events, it must be instructive to be made
aware of the excesses into which superior- understand-

25 ings may be betrayed, by long self-indulgence, and the


strange extravagances into which they may run, when
under the influence of that intoxication which is produced
by unrestrained admiration of themselves. This poetical
intoxication, indeed, to pursue the figure a little farther,
seems capable of assuming as many forms as the vulgar 5
one which arises from wine ; and it appears to require as
delicate a management to make a man a good poet by
the help of the one as to make him a good companion
by means of the other. In both cases, a little mistake
as to the dose or the quality of the inspiring fluid may 10
make him absolutely outrageous, or lull him over into
the most profound stupidity, instead of brightening up
the hidden stores of his genius : and truly we are con-
cerned to say that Mr. Wordsworth seems hitherto to
have been unlucky in the choice of his liquor — or of 15
his bottle-holder. In some of his odes and ethic exhor-
tations he was exposed to the public in a state of inco-
herent rapture and glorious delirium, to which we think
we have seen a parallel among the humbler lovers of
jollity. In the Lyrical Ballads he was exhibited, on the 20
whole, in a vein of very pretty deliration ; but in the
poem before us he appears in a state of low and maudlin
imbecility, which would not have misbecome Master
Silence himself, in the close of a social day. Whether
this unhappy result is to be ascribed to any adulteration 25
of his Castalian cups, or to the unlucky choice of his
company over them, we cannot presume to say. It may
be that he has dashed his Hippocrene with too large
an infusion of lake water, or assisted its operation too
exclusively by the study of the ancient historical ballads 3°
of " the north countrie." That there are palpable imita-
tions of the style and manner of those venerable compo-
sitions in the work before us is indeed undeniable ;
but it unfortunately happens that while the hobbling


versification, the mean diction and flat stupidity of these
models are very exactly copied, and even improved upon,
in this imitation, their rude energy, manly simplicity, and
occasional felicity of expression have totally disappeared;
and, instead of them, a large allowance of the author's 5
own metaphysical sensibility, and mystical wordiness is
forced into an unnatural combination with the borrowed
beauties which have just been mentioned.


By Miss Edgeworthy Author of '■'■Practical Education''' '■'■Belinda'''
" Castle Rackrent,''' etc. i2mo. j vols. London, i8og.

If it were possible for reviewers to Envy the authors
who are brought before them for judgment, we rather

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 12 of 21)