John Campbell Shairp.

Studies in poetry and philosophy online

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more of these defects. You saw him as his friend after-
wards described him

" The rapt one of the godlike forehead,
The heaven-eyed creature."

Or, as he elsewhere more fully portrayed him

" A noticeable man with large grey eyes,
And a pale face that seemed undoubtedly
As if a blooming face it ought to be ;
Heavy his low-hung lip did oft appear
Depressed by weight of brooding phantasy;
Profound his forehead was, though not severe."

During this visit Wordsworth read aloud to Cole-
ridge nearly twelve hundred lines of blank verse,
;< superior," says Coleridge, "to anything in our Ian-



32 WORDSWORTH:

guage." This probably included the story of Margaret,
or "The Ruined Cottage," which now stands at the
opening of " The Excursion," and certainly, in blank
verse, Wordsworth never surpassed that. When they
parted Coleridge says, " I felt myself a small man beside
Wordsworth ; " while of Coleridge, Wordsworth, cer-
tainly no over-estimater of other men, said, " I have
known many men who have done wonderful things, but
the only wonderful man I ever knew was Coleridge."
Their first intercourse had ripened into friendship, and
they longed to see more of each other. As Coleridge
was at this time living at the village of Nether Stowey
in Somersetshire, the Wordsworths removed in the
autumn of 1797 to the country-house of Alfoxden, in
the immediate neighborhood. The time he spent at
Alfoxden was one of the most delightful seasons of
Wordsworth's life. The two young men were of one
mind in their poetic tastes and principles, one too in
political and social views, and each admired the other
more than he did any other living man. In outward
circumstances, too, they were alike ; both poor in
money, but rich in thought and imagination, both in the
prime of youth, and boundless in hopeful energy.
That summer as they wandered aloft on the airy ridge
of Quantock, or dived down its silvan combs, what high
talk they must have held ! Theirs was the age for
boundless, endless, unwearied talk on all things human
and divine. Hazlitt has said of Coleridge in his youth,
that he seemed as if he would talk on forever, and you
wished him to talk on forever. With him, as his youth,
so was his age. But most men, as life wears on, having
found that all their many and vehement talkings have
served no lasting end of the soul, grow more brief and
taciturn. Long after, Wordsworth speaks of this as a
very pleasant and productive time. The poetic well-



THE MAN AND THE POET. 83

head, now fairly unsealed, was flowing freely. Many
of the shorter poems were then composed from the
scenery that was before his eyes, and from incidents
there seen or heard. Among the most characteristic
of these were, " We are Seven," " The Mad Mother,"
The Last of the Flock," " Simon Lee," " Expostula-
tion and Reply," " The Tables Turned," " Lines to his
Sister," beginning " It is the first mild day of March,"
" Lines in early Spring," beginning " I heard a thou-
sand blended notes," the last containing these words,
which give the key-note to "Wordsworth's feeling about
nature at this time

" And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes."

If any one will read over the short poems above
named, they will let him see further into Wordsworth's
mood during this, the fresh germinating spring-time of
his genius, than any words about them can.

The occasion of their making a joint literary ven-
ture was curious. Coleridge, Wordsworth, and his sis-
ter wished to make a short walking tour, for which
five pounds were needed, . but were not forthcoming.
To supply this want they agreed to make a joint
poem, and send it to some magazine which would give
the required sum. Accordingly, one evening as they
trudged along the Quantock Hills, they planned " The
Ancient Mariner," founded on a dream which a friend
of Coleridge had dreamed. Coleridge supplied most
of the incidents, and almost all the lines. Words-
worth contributed the incident of the shooting of the
albatross, with a line here and there. "The Ancient
Mariner " soon grew, till it was beyond the desired
five pounds' worth, so they thought of a joint volume.

Coleridge was to take supernatural subjects, or roman-
3



34 WORDS WOR TH :

tic, and invest them with a human interest and resem-
blance of truth. Wordsworth was to take common
every-day incidents, and by faithful adherence to na-
ture, and by true but modifying colors of imagination,
was to shed over common aspects of earth and facts
of life such a charm as light and shade, sunset and
moonlight, shed over a familiar landscape. Words-
worth was so much the more industrious of the two,
that he had completed enough for a volume when
Coleridge had only finished " The Ancient Mariner,"
and begun " Christabel " and " The Dark Ladie." Cot-
tie, a Bristol bookseller, was summoned from Bristol to
arrange for publication, and he has left a gossiping
but amusing account of his intercourse with the two
poets at this time, and his visit to Alfoxden. He
agreed to give Wordsworth 30 for the twenty-two
pieces of his which made up the first volume of the
" Lyrical Ballads," while for " The Rime of the Ancient
Marinere," which was to head the volume, he made a
separate bargain with Coleridge. This volume, which
appeared in the autumn of 1798, was the first which
made Wordsworth known to the world as a poet, for
the " Descriptive Sketches " had attracted little or no
notice. Of the ballads or shorter poems, which, as we
have seen, were mostly composed at Alfoxden, and
which reflect the feelings and incidents of his life there,
I shall reserve what I have to say for a more general
survey. The volume closes with one poem in another
style, in which the poet speaks out his inmost feel-
ings, and in his own " grand style." This is the poem
on Tin tern Abbey, composed during a walking tour on
the Wye with his sister, just before leaving Alfoxden
for the Continent. Read these lines over once again,
however well you may know them. Bear in mind
what has been told of the way his childhood and boy-



THE MAN AND THE POET. 35

hood had passed, living in the eye of nature, the sepa-
ration that followed from his favorite haunts and ways,
the wild fermentation of thought, the moral tempest
he had gone through, the return to nature's lonely
places, and to common life and peaceful thoughts, with
intellect and heart deepened, expanded, humanized, by
having long brooded over the ever-recurring questions
of man's nature and destiny ; bear these things in
mind, and as you read, every line of that master-
piece will come out with deeper meaning and in ex-
acter outline. And then the concluding lines, in, which
the poet turns to his sister, his fellow-traveller, with
" the shooting lights in those wild eyes," in which
he caught " gleams of past existence "

" If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion "

what prophetic pathos do these words assume when we
remember how long and mournfully ere life ended
those wild eyes were darkened !

Before the volume appeared, Wordsworth and his
sister had left Alfoxden, and sailed with Coleridge for
Germany. It has been said that the reason for their
leaving Somersetshire was their falling under suspicion
as hatchers of sedition. A government spy, with a
peculiarly long nose, was sent down to watch them.
Coleridge tells an absurd story, how, as they lay on
the Quantock Hills, .conversing about Spinoza, the spy,
as he skulked behind a bank, overheard their talk, and
thought they were speaking about himself under the
nickname of " Spy -nosey." Coleridge was believed to
have little harm in him, for he was a crack-brained,
talking fellow; but "that Wordsworth is either a
smuggler or a traitor, and means mischief. He never
speaks to any one, haunts lonely places, walks by



36 WORDSWORTH:

moonlight, and is always ' booing about ' by himself."
Such was the country talk ; and the result of it was,
the agent for the owner of Alfoxden refused to re-let
the house to so suspicious a character. So the three
determined to pack up, and winter on the Continent.
At Hamburg, however, they parted company. Their
ostensible purpose was to learn German, but Words-
worth and his sister did little at this. He spent the
winter of 1798-99, the coldest of the century, in
Goslar, and there, by the German charcoal-burners, the
poet's mind reverted to Esthwake and Westmoreland
hills, and struck out a number of poems in his finest
vein. " She dwelt among the untrodden ways," '' Lucy,"
or " Three years she grew in sun and shower," " Ruth,"
" The Poet's Epitaph," Nutting," " The Two April
Mornings," " The Fountain," " Matthew," are all
products of this winter. So Wordsworth missed Ger-
man, and gave the world instead immortal poems.
Coleridge went alone to Gottingen, learned German,
dived for the rest of his life deep into transcendental
metaphysics, and the world got no more Ancient
Mariners.

In the spring of 1799, Wordsworth and his sister set
forth from Goslar on their return to England. As
they left that city behind, and felt the spring breeze
fan their cheeks, Wordsworth poured forth that joyful
strain with which '' The Prelude " opens. Arrived in
their native land, they passed most of the remainder of
the year with their kindred, the Hutchinsons, at Sock-
burn-on-Tees, occasionally travelling into the neighbor-
ing dales and fells of Yorkshire. In September,
Wordsworth took Coleridge, who also had returned
from abroad, and had seen but few mountains in his
life, on a walking tour to show him the hills and lakes
of native Westmoreland. " Haweswater," Coleridge



THE MAN AND THE POET. 87

writes, " kept my eyes dim with tears, but I received
the deepest delight from the divine sisters, Rydal and
Grasmere." It was then that Wordsworth saw the
small house at the Town- End of Grasmere, which he
and his sister soon after fixed on as their home.

From Sockburn-on-Tees William and Dorothy
Wordsworth set forth a little before the shortest day,
and walked on foot over the bleak fells that form the
watershed of Yorkshire and Westmoreland. As side
by side they paced the long dales, and set their faces
to the Hambleton hills, the ground was frozen hard
under their feet, and the snow-showers were driving
against them. Yet they enjoyed the snow-showers,
turned aside to see the frozen waterfalls, and stopped
to watch the changing drapery of cloud, sunshine, and
snow-drift as it coursed the hills. At night they
lodged in cottages or small wayside inns, and there, by
the kitchen fire, Wordsworth gave words to the
thoughts that had occurred to him during the day.
A great part of " Hart-leap Well " was composed
during one of these evenings, from a tradition he had
heard that day from a native. And of a sunset seen
during the same journey, some of the glory still lives
in the sonnet ending

" They are of the sky,
And from our earthly memory fade away."

The poet and his sister reached Grasmere on the
shortest day of the year 1799, and settled in the small
two-storied cottage at that part of the village called
Town-End. The house had formerly been a public
house, with the sign of the Dove and the Olive Bough,
but was henceforth to be identified with Wordsworth's
poetic prime. The mode of life on which they were
entering was one which their friends, no doubt, and



38 WORDSWORTH:

most sensible people, called a mad project. With
barely a hundred pounds a year between them, they
were turning their back on the world, cutting them-
selves off from professions, chances of getting on, so-
ciety, and settling themselves down in an out-of-the-
way corner, with no employment but verse-making,
no neighbors but the homely dalesmen. When a man
makes such a choice, he has need to look well what he
does, and to be sure that he can go through with it.
In the world's eyes nothing but success will justify
such a renunciant, and the world will not be too ready
to grant that success has been attained. But Words-
worth, besides a prophet-like devotion to the truths he
saw, had a prudence, self-denial, and perseverance, rare
among the sons of song. To himself may be applied
the words he uses in a letter to Sir George Beaumont,
when speaking of another subject than poetry: "It
is such an animating sight to see a man of genius, re-
gardless of temporary gains, whether of money or
praise, fixing his attention solely upon what is interest-
ing and permanent, and finding his happiness in an
entire devotion of himself to such pursuits as shall
most ennoble human nature. We have not yet seen
enough of this in modern times." He himself showed

O

this sight, if any man of his age did. Plain living and
high thinking were not only praised in verse, but acted
out by him and his sister in that cottage home.

The year 1800 was ushered in by a long storm,
which blocked up the roads for months, and kept them
much indoors. This put their tempers to the proof,
but they stood the test. Spring weather set them free,
and brought to their home a much loved sailor brother,
John, who was captain of an Indiaman. In their
frugal housekeeping the sister, it may be believed, had
much to do indoors, but she was always ready, both



THE MAN AND THE POET. 39

then and years after, to accompany her brother in his
mountain walks. Those who may wish to know more
of their abode and way of life, will find an interesting
sketch of these given by De Quincey, as he saw them
seven years later. There was one small room con-
taining their few books, which was called, by courtesy,
the library. But Wordsworth was no reader ; the
English poets and ancient history were the only two
subjects he was really well read in. He tells a friend
that he had not spent five shillings on new books in
as many years, and of the few old ones which made
up his collection he had not read one fifth. As for
his study, that was in the open air. " By the side of
the brook that runs through Easdale," he says, " I
have composed thousands of verses : "

" He murmurs near the running brooks
A music sweeter than their own."

Another favorite resort for composition at this time
was the tall fir-wood on the hillside above the old road
leading from Grasmere to Rydal. Society they found
in the families of the " statesmen " all about. For
Grasmere was then, like most of the neighboring dales,
portioned out among small but independent peasant
lairds, whose forefathers had for ages lived and died on
the same farms. With these men Wordsworth and his
sister lived on terms of kindliness and equal hospitality.
He would receive them to tea in his home, or would
go to sup in theirs. If the invitation was to some
homestead in a distant vale, the ladies would travel in
a cart, the poet walking by its side. Among these
men, in their pastoral republic, the life was one of not
too laborious industry ; the manners were simple,
manly, and severe. The statesmen looked after the
sheep, grew hay on their own land in the valley, and



40 WORDSWORTH:

each could turn out as many sheep to feed on the fell
or common (as they call it) during the summer months,
as they could provide hay for in the winter. Their
chief source of income was the wool from the flock,
and this not sold in the fleece, hut spun into thread by
the wives and daughters. These, with their spinning-
wheels, were in high esteem, for they did more to
maintain the house than the spade or plough of the
husbands. Wordsworth loved this manner of life, not
only because he had been familiar with it from child-
hood, but also because he knew what sterling worth
and pure domestic virtues sheltered under these roofs.
He lived to see it rudely broken up. Machinery put
out the spinning-wheel, and the statesmen's lands
passed for the most part into other hands.

The few statesmen's families who survived down to
a recent time in and around Grasmere, retained an
affectionate and reverent remembrance of the " pawet,"
as they in their Westmoreland dialect called him, long
after he had left them for Rydal Mount. Many stories
I have heard them tell of his ways, while living at the
Town-End; how, alone, or oftener with his sister, at
night-fall, when other people were going to bed, he
would be seen setting out to walk to Dunmail Raise,
or climbing that outlying ridge of Fairfield which over-
hangs the forest side of Grasmere, there to be all night
long till near the breaking of the day. At such a tune
it may well have been, when on those heights he was
alone with the stars, and the voices of the mountain
streams were coming up from far below, that the " Ode
on Mortality " first came to him. When in their
houses strangers have read aloud, or told in their own
words some of his shorter poems descriptive of incident
and character, or the two books of " The Excursion "
which describe the tenants of the churchyard among



THE MAN AND TEE POET. 41

the mountains, I have heard old residenters name many
of the persons there alluded to, and go on to give more
details of their lives.

The first months at Grasmere were so industriously
employed, that some time in the year 1800, when a
second edition of the first volume of " Lyrical Ballads "
was being reprinted, he added to it a new volume con-
taining thirty-seven new pieces. Among these were
the poems already mentioned as having been composed
during the German winter, as well as some new ones
which had been suggested since he settled at Grasmere.
Such were the " Idle Shepherd Boys," " Poems on the
Naming of Places," "The Brothers," "Michael," all
redolent of the Westmoreland fells. These two vol-
umes cannot be said to have failed, for they were re-
printed in 1802, and again in 1805; and in 1806,
Jeffrey, even when inveighing against a new and better
volume of poems, speaks of the " Lyrical Ballads " as
" unquestionably popular." I shall not, however, stay to
comment on their contents till I have done with narra-
tive. Only a few facts stand out prominently from the
happy and industrious tenor of the life at Grasmere.
In 1802, that Earl of Lonsdale, who to the last refused
to pay to the Wordsworths their due, died, and was
succeeded by a better-minded kinsman, who paid to
them the original debt of 5,000 due to their father,
with 3,500 of interest. This was divided into five
shares, of which two went to the poet and his sister.
This addition to his income enabled the poet to take
to himself a wife, his cousin, and the intimate friend
of his sister, Mary Hutchinson, whom he had long
known and loved. It is she whom he describes in his
exquisite lines

" A creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food;



42 WORDSWORTH:

A perfect woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command ;
And yet a spirit still, and bright
With something of an angel light."

They lived together in as great happiness as is allowed
to human beings, till the poet had fulfilled his fourscore
years, when she survived him a few years longer.

In the August of 1803, Mrs. Wordsworth having
been kept at home by domestic duties, Wordsworth
and his sister set out from Keswick with Coleridge on
their memorable tour in Scotland. They travelled
great part of the way on foot, up Nithsdale, and so on
towards the Highlands. Coleridge turned back soon
after they had reached Loch Lomond, being either lazy
or out of spirits. Everywhere as they trudged along,
they saw the old familiar Highland sights, as if none
had ever seen them before ; and wherever they moved
among the mountains, they left footprints of immortal
beauty. He expressed what he saw in verse, she hi
prose, and it is hard to say which is the more poetic.
Of all that has been, or yet may be, said or sung about
the Highlands, what words can ever equal those entries
in her journal ? what poems can ever catch the soul
of things like the " Address to Kilchurn Castle,"
Glen-Almain," "Stepping Westward," and "The
Solitary Reaper ? " The last of these, perhaps the
most perfect of Wordsworth's poems, must have been
suggested as they walked somewhere in the region
about Loch Voil, between the braes of Balquhidder
and Strathire. What was the name of her who sug-
gested it, and where is she now ? Who can tell ? But
whether she be still alive in extremest old age, or, as
is far more likely, long since laid in Balquhidder kirk-
yard or in some other, in that poem she will sing on for-
ever in eternal youth, to delight generations yet to be.



THE MAN AND THE POET. 43

In the beginning of 1805, the first great sorrow fell
on Wordsworth's home, in the loss of his brother, Cap-
tain Wordsworth. He was leaving England, intend-
ing to make one more voyage, and then to return and
live with his sister and brother, when, by the careless-
ness of a pilot, his ship was run on the shambles of the
Bill of Portland, and he with the larger part of his
crew went down. For long Wordsworth was almost
inconsolable, he so loved and honored his brother. His
letters at this time, and his poems long after, are
darkened with this grief. In one of these letters this
striking thought occurs : " Why have we sympathies
that make the best of us so afraid of inflicting pain and
sorrow, which yet we see dealt about so lavishly by the
Supreme Governor ? Why should our notions of right
towards each other, and to all sentient beings within
our influence, differ so widely from what appears to be
his notion and rule, if everything were to end here ? "
Captain Wordsworth had greatly admired his brother's
poetry, but saw that it would take time to become pop-
ular, and would probably never be lucrative. So he
would work for the family at Town-End, he said, and
William would do something for the world. " This is
the end of his part of the agreement," says the poet ;
" God grant me life and strength to fulfill mine ! "

In 1807, Wordsworth came out with two more vol-
umes of poetry, for the most part produced at Gras-
mere. He was now in his thirty-seventh year, so that
these volumes may be said to close the spring-time of
his genius, and to be its consummate flower. Some of
his after works may have equaled these, and may even
show an increased moral depth and religious tender-
ness. But there is about the best t)f the Grasmere
poems an ethereal touch of ideality which he perhaps
never afterwards reached. Besides the Scottish poems



44 WORDSWORTH:

already noticed, there were the earliest installment of
sonnets, some of them the best he ever wrote, as that
" London seen from Westminster Bridge ; " " It is a
beauteous evening, calm and free ; " " The World is too
much with us ; " " Toussaint L'Ouverture ; " " Milton,
thou shouldst be living at this hour ! "

These volumes contain also " The Song of Brougham
Castle ; " " Resolution and Independence ; " the poem
to the Cuckoo, beginning, " blithe new-comer ; "
" Elegiac Stanzas suggested by the picture of Peele
Castle ; " and last, and chief of all, the " Ode on Inti-
mations of Immortality." The three last named espe-
cially have that indescribable, unapproachable ideality,
which I have spoken of as the characteristic of his
best poems at this time. Indeed, the " Ode on Immor-
tality " marks the highest limit which the tide of po-
etic inspiration has reached in England within this cen-
tury, or indeed since the days of Milton. 1

As Wordsworth's outward as well as his inward his-
tory has been traced thus far, it may be well not to
take leave of it without here noting the few facts that
yet remain. The cottage at the Town-End of Gras-
mere was his home from the close of 1799 till the
spring of 1808. This was the time when his inspira-
tion was at flood-tide. At Town-End, as we have
seen, " Michael," " Resolution and Independence," " The
Cuckoo," " The Solitary Reaper," and the other memo-
rials of Scotland, "The Song of Brougham Castle,"
" Stanzas on Peele Castle," and, above all, the immor-
tal " Ode," first saw the light. There, too most of

l It has lately been suggested that Wordsworth owed the first hint of
this great ode to Henry Vaughan's poem called the Retreat. But those
who have observed how deep down in Wordsworth's nature lay that sense
of the mystery and ideality of childhood, and how often it crops out in
his works, will be slow to believe that he had to go to any extrinsic source
to find it



THE MAN AND THE POET. 45

" The Prelude " was written, besides many smaller
poems. In 1808, as the Town-End cottage had grown
too small for his increasing family, he was obliged to
move to Allan Bank, a new house which was hardly
finished, on the top of a knoll to the west of Grasmere,



Online LibraryJohn Campbell ShairpStudies in poetry and philosophy → online text (page 4 of 27)