John Morley.

Introduction to new edition of Wordsworth's complete poetical works online

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The poet whose works are contained in the present
vohime was born in the little town of Cockermouth,
in Cumberland, on April 7, 1770. He died at Rydal
Mount in the neighbouring county of Westmoreland,
on April 23, 1850. In this long span of mortal years,
events of vast and enduring moment shook the w^orld.
A handful of scattered and dependent colonies in the
northern continent of America made themselves into
one of the most powerful and beneficent of states.
The ancient monarchy of France, and all the old
ordering of which the monarchy had been the key-
stone, w^as overthrown, and it was not until after
many a violent shock of arms, after terrible slaughter
of men, after strange diplomatic combinations, after



many social coiwiilsions, after many portentous mu-
tations of Empire, that Europe once more settled down
for a season into established order and system. In
England almost alone, after the loss of her great
possessions across the Atlantic Ocean, the fabric of
the State stood fast and firm. Yet here, too, in these
eighty years, an old order slowly gave place to new.
The restoration of peace, after a war conducted with
extraordinary tenacity and fortitude, led to a still
more wonderful display of ingenuity, industry, and
enterprise, in the more fruitful field of commerce and
of manufactures. Wealth, in spite of occasional vicis-
situdes, increased with amazing rapidity. The popu-
lation of England and Wales irrew from beins; seven
and a half millions in 1770, to nearly eighteen millions
in 1850. Political power was partially transferred
from a territorial aristocracy to the middle and trading
classes. Laws were made at once more equal and
more humane. During; all the tumult of the o;reat
war which for so many years bathed Europe in fire,
through all the throes and agitations in which j^eace
brought forth the new time, Wordsworth for half a
centmy (1799-1850) dwelt sequestered in unbroken
composure and steadfastness in his chosen home amid
the mountains and lakes of his native region, working
out his own ideal of the poet's high office.


The interpretation of life in books and the develop-
ment of imagination underwent changes of its own.
Most of the great lights of the eighteenth century
were still burning, though burning low, when Words-
worth came into the world. Pope, indeed, had been
dead for six and twenty years, and all the rest of the
Queen Anne men had gone. But Gray only died in
1771, and Goldsmith in 1774. Ten years later
Johnson's pious and manly heart ceased to beat.
Voltaire and Rousseau, those two diverse oracles of
their age, both died in 1778. Hume had passed
away two years before. Cowper was forty years
older than Wordsworth, but Cowper s most delightful
work was not produced until 1783. Crabbe, who
anticipated Wordsworth's choice of themes from rural
life, while treating them with a sterner realism, was
virtually his contemporary, having been born in 1754,
and dying in 1832. The two great names of his own
date were Scott and Coleridge, the first born in
1771, and the second a year afterwards. Then a
generation later came another new and illustrious
group. Byron was born in 1788, Shelley in 1792,
and Keats in 1795. AA^ords worth was destined to see
one more orb of the first purity and brilliance rise to
its place in the poetic firmament. Tennyson's earliest
volume of poems was published in 1830, and In


Memoriam^ one of his two masterpieces, in 1850.
Any one who reahses for how much these famous
names will always stand in the history of human
genius, may measure the great transition that AVords-
worth's eighty years witnessed in some of men's
deepest feelings about art and life and ''the speaking
face of earth and heaven."

Here, too, Wordsworth stood isolated and apart.
"Scott and Southey were valued friends, but he
thought little of Scott's poetry, and less of Southey's.
Byron and Shelley he seems scarcely to have read ;
and there is nothing to show that he had ever heard
of Keats.'' {Myers.) Of Blake's Songs of Innocence
and Eoiperience he said, ''There is something in the
madness of this man which interests me more than
the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.'' Cole-
ridge was the only man of the shining company with
whom he ever had any real intimacy of mind, for
whom he ever nourished real deference and admir-
ation, as one "unrelentingly possessed by thirst of
greatness, love, and beauty," and in whose intellectual
power, as the noble lines in the Sixth Book of the
PreliLcle so gorgeously attest, he took the passionate
interest of a man at once master, disciple, and friend.
It is true to say, as Emerson says, that Wordsworth's
genius was the great exceptional fact of the literature


of his period ; but he had no teachers nor inspirers
save nature and soHtude.

Wordsworth was the son of a solicitor, and all his
early circumstances were homely, unpretentious, and
rather straitened. His mother died when he was
eight years old, and when his father followed her five
years later, two of his uncles provided means for
continuing at Cambridge the education which had
been begun in the rural grammar school of Hawks-
head. It was in 1787 that he Avent up to St. John's
College. He took his Bachelor's degree at the begin-
ning of 1791, and there his connection with the
university ended.

For some years after leaving Cambridge, AVords-
worth let himself drift. He did not feel good enough
for the Church ; he shrank from the law ; fancying
that he had talents for command, he thought of being
a soldier. Meanwhile, he passed a short time desul-
torily in London. Towards the end of 1791, through
Paris, he passed on to Orleans and Blois, where he
made some friends and spent most of a year. He
returned to Paris in October 1792. France was no
longer standing on the top of golden hours. The
September massacres filled the sky with a lurid flame.
Wordsworth still retained his ardent faith in the


Eevolution, and was even ready, though no better
than ^'a landsman on the deck of a ship struggling
with a hideous storm," to make common cause with
the Girondists. But the prudence of friends at home
forced him back to England before the beginning of
the terrible year of '93. With his return closed that
first survey of its inheritance, which most serious
souls are wont to make in the fervid prime of early

It would be idle to attempt any commentary on
the bare facts that we have just recapitulated ; for
Wordsworth himself has clothed them with their full
force and meaning in the Prelude, This record of the
growth of a poet's mind, told b}^ the poet himself
with all the sincerity of Avhich he was capable, is
never likely to be popular. Of that, as of so much
more of his poetry, we must say that, as a whole, it
has not the musical, harmonious, sympathetic quality
which seizes us in even the prose of such a book as
Rousseau's Confessions. Macaulay thought the Prelude
a poorer and more tiresome Excursion^ with the old
flimsy philosophy about the eff^ect of scenery on the
mind, the old crazy mystical metaphysics, and the
endless wildernesses of twaddle ; still he admits that
there are some fine descrij^tions and energetic declam-
ations. All Macaulay's tastes and habits of mind


made him a poor judge of such a poet as Wordsworth.
He vahied spirit, energy, pomp, stateliness of form
and diction^ and actually thought Dryden's fine lines
about to-morrow being falser than the former day, as
fine as any eight lines in Lucretius. But his words
truly express the effect of the Prelude on more vulgar
minds than his own. George Eliot, on the other hand,
who had the inward eye that was not among Macau-
lay's gifts, found the Preliule full of material for a
daily liturgy, and it is easy to imagine how she
lingered as she did, over such a thought as this —

' ' There is
One great society alone on earth :
The noble Living and the noble Dead."

There is, too, as may be found imbedded even in
Wordsworth's dullest work, many a line of the truest
poetical cjuality, such as that on Newton's statue in
the silent Chapel of Trinity College —

*' The marble index of a mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone."

Apart, however, from beautiful lines like this, and
from many noble passages of high reflection set to
sonorous verse, this remarkable poem is in its whole
effect unique in impressive power, as a picture of the
advance of an elect and serious spirit from childhood


and schooMime, through the ordeal of adolescence,
through close contact with stirring and enormous
events, to the stage when it has found the sources of
its strength, and is fully and finally prei3ared to put
its temper to the proof.

The three Books that describe the poet's residence
in France have a special and a striking value of their
own. Their presentation of the phases of good men's
minds as the successive scenes of the Revolution un-
folded themselves, has real historic interest. More
than this, it is an abiding lesson to brave men how to
bear themselves in hours of public stress. It portrays
exactly that mixture of persevering faith and hope
with firm and reasoned judgment, with which I like
to think that Turgot, if he had lived, would have
confronted the workings of the Revolutionary power.
Great masters in many kinds have been inspired by
the French Revolution. Human genius might seem
to have exhausted itself in the burning political passion
of Burke, in the glowing melodrama of fire and tears
of Carlyle, Michelet, Hugo ; but the ninth, tenth, and
eleventh Books of the Prelude^ by their strenuous sirii-
plicity, their deep truthfulness, their slowfooted and
inexorable transition from ardent hope to dark ima-
ginations, sense of woes to come, sorroAv for human
kind, and pain of heart, breathe the very spirit of


the great catastrophe. There is none of the ephemeral
glow of the political exhortation, none of the tiresome
falsity of the dithyramb in history. Wordsworth
might well wish that some dramatic tale, endued with
livelier shapes and flinging out less guarded words,
might set forth the lessons of his experience. The
material was fitting. The story of these three Books
has something of the severity, the self-control, the
inexorable necessity of classic traged}^, and like classic
tragedy it has a noble end. The dregs and sour
sediment that reaction from exaggerated hope is so
apt to stir in poor natures, had no place here. The
French Revolution made the one crisis in Words-
worth's mental history, the one heavy assault on his
continence of soul, and when he emerged from it all
his greatness remained to him. After a long spell of
depression, bewilderment, mortification, and sore dis-
appointment, the old faith in new shapes was given

'^ Nature's self,
By all varieties of human love
Assisted, led me back through opening day
To those sweet counsels between head and heart
Whence grew that genuine knowledge, fraught with peace,
Which, through the later sinkings of this cause,
Hath still upheld me and upholds me now."

It was six years after his return from France before


Wordsworth finally settled down in the scenes with
which his name and the power of his genius were to
be for ever associated. During this interval it was
that two great sources of personal influence were
opened to him. He entered upon that close and
beloved companionship with his sister, which remained
unbroken to the end of their days ; and he first made
the acc^uaintance of Coleridge. The character of
Dorothy Wordsworth has long taken its place in the
gallery of admirable and devoted women Avho have
inspired the work and the thoughts of great men.
'SShe is a woman, indeed," said Coleridge, "in mind
I mean, and heart ; for her person is such that if you
expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her
rather ordinary ; if you expected to see an ordinary
woman, you would think her pretty." To the solidity,
sense, and strong intelligence of the Wordsworth
stock, she added a grace, a warmth, and liveliness
peculiarly her own. Her nature shines transparent
in her letters, her truly admirable journal, and in
every report that we have of her. Wordsworth's own
feelings for her, and his sense of the debt that he
owed to her faithful aff'ection and eager mind, he has
placed on lasting record.

The intimacy with Coleridge was, as has been said,
Wordsworth's one strong friendship, and must be


counted among the highest examples of that generous
relation between great writers. Unlike in the quality
of their genius, and unlike in force of character and the
fortunes of life, they remained bound to one another
by sympathies that neither time nor harsh trial ever
extinguished. Coleridge had left Cambridge in 1794,
had married, had started various unsuccessful projects
for combining the improvement of mankind with the
earning of an income, and was now settled in a small
cottage at Nether Stowey in Somersetshire, with an
acre and a half of land, from which he hoped to raise
corn and vegetables enough to support himself and
his wife, as well as to feed a couple of pigs on the
refuse. Wordsworth and his sister were settled at
Racedown, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire. In 1797
they moved to Alfoxden in Somersetshire, their
principal inducement to the change being Coleridge's
society. The friendship bore fruit in the production
of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, mainly the work of Words-
worth, but containing no less notable a contribution
from Coleridge than the Ancient Mariner. The two
poets only received thirty guineas for their work, and
the publisher lost his money. The taste of the country
was not yet ripe for Wordsworth's poetic experiment.
Immediately after the publication of the Lyrical
Ballads^ the two Wordsworths and Coleridge started


from Yarmouth for Hamburg. Coleridge's account
in Satyrane's Letters, published in the Biographia
Literaria, of the voyage and of the conversation
between the two English poets and Klopstock, is
worth turning to. The pastor told them that Klop-
stock was the German Milton. '' A very German
Milton indeed/' they thought. The Wordsworths
remained for four wintry months at Goslar in Saxony,
while Coleridge went on to Eatzeburg, Gottingen,
and other places, mastering German, and '^ delving in
the unwholesome quicksilver mines of metaphysic
depths." AVords worth made little wa)^ with the
language, but Avorked diligently at his own verse.

When they came back to England, Wordsworth
and his sister found their hearts turning with irresist-
ible attraction to their own familiar countryside.
They at last made their way to Grasmere. The
opening l)ook of the liechise, which is published for
the first time in the present volume, describes in fine
verse the emotions and the scene. The face of this
delicious vale is not quite what it was when

^^ Cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their sliy retreats,
Or glancing at each other cheerful looks
Like separated stars with clouds between."


But it is foolish to let ourselves be fretted by the
villa, the hotel, and the tourist. We may well be
above all this in a scene that is haunted by a great
poetic shade. The substantial features and elements
of beauty still remain, the crags and woody steeps,
the lake, ^' its one green island and its winding shores ;
the multitude of little rocky hills." Wordsworth was
not the first poet to feel its fascination. Gray visited
the Lakes in the autumn of 1769, and coming into
the vale of Grasmere from the north-west, deckred it
to be one of the sweetest landscapes that art ever
attempted to imitate, an unsuspected paradise of
peace and rusticity. We cannot indeed compare the
little crystal mere, set like a gem in the verdant circle
of the hills, with the grandeur and glory of Lucerne,
or the radiant gladness and expanse of Como : yet it
has an inspiration of its own, to delight, to soothe, to
fortify, and to refresh.

^' What want we ? lia\^e we not perpetual streams,
Warm woods, and sunny hills, and fresh green fields,
And mountains not less green, and fiocks and herds.
And thickets full of songsters, and the voice
Of lordly birds, an unexpected sound
Heard now and then from morn to latest eve,
Admonishing the man who walks below
Of solitude and silence in the sky.
These have we, and a thousand nooks of earth


Have also these, but nowhere else is found.
Nowhere (or is it fancy ?) can be found
The one sensation that is here ; . . .

'tis the sense
Of majesty, and beauty, and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual spot.
This small abiding-place of many men,
A termination, and a last retreat,
A centre, come from wheresoe'er you will,
A whole without dependence or defect.
Made for itself, and happy in itself,
Perfect contentment. Unity entire/'

In the Grasmere vale Wordsworth lived for half a
century, first in a little cottage at the northern corner
of the lake, and then (1813) in a more commodious
house at Eydal Mount at the southern end, on the
road to Ambleside. In 1802 he married Mary
Hutchinson, of Penrith, and this completed the circle
of his felicity. Mary, he once said, Avas to his ear the
most musical and most truly English in sound of all
the names we have. The name was of harmonious
omen. The two beautiful sonnets that he wrote on
his wife's portrait long years after, when "morning
into noon had passed, noon into eve," show how
much her large heart and humble mind had done for
the blessedness of his home.

Their life was almost more simple than that of the


dalesmen their neighbours. ''It is my opinion/' ran
one of his oracular sayings to Sir George Beaumont,
''that a man of letters, and indeed all public men
of every pursuit, should be severely frugal." Means
were found for supporting the modest home out of
two or three small windfalls bequeathed by friends or
relatives, and by the time that children had begun to
come, Wordsworth was raised to affluence by obtain-
ing the post of distributor of stamps for Westmoreland
and part of Cumberland. His life was happily devoid
of striking external incident. Its essential part lay
in meditation and composition.

He was surrounded by friends. Southey had made
a home for himself and his beloved library a few miles
over the hills at Keswick. De Quincey, with his
clever brains and shallow character, took up his abode
in the cottaire which AVordsworth had first lived in at
Grasmere. Coleridge, born the most golden genius
of them all, came to and fro in those fruitless unhappy
wanderings which consumed a life that once promised
to be so rich in blessing and in glory. In later years
Dr. Arnold built a house at Fox How, attracted by
the Wordsworths and the scenery ; and other lesser
lights came into the neighbourhood. "Our inter-
course with the Wordsworths," Arnold wrote on the
occasion of his first visit in 1832, "was one of the


brightest spots of all ; nothing could exceed their
friendliness, and my almost daily walks with him
were things not to be forgotten. Once and once only
we had a good fight about the Reform Bill during a
walk up Greenhead G-hyll to see the unfinished sheep-
fold, recorded in Michael. But I am sure that our
political disagreement did not at all interfere with our
enjoyment of each other's society; for I think that in
the great principles of things we agreed very entirely/'
It ought to be possible, for that matter, for magnani-
mous men, even if they do not agree in the great
principles of things, to keep pleasant terms with one
another for more than one afternoon's walk. Many
pilgrims came, and the poet seems to have received
them with cheerful equanimity. Emerson called upon
him in 1833, and found him plain, elderly, white-
haired, not prepossessing. '^He led me out into his
garden, and showed me the gravel walk in which
thousands of his lines were composed. He had just
returned from Stafta, and within three days had made
three sonnets on Fingal's Cave, and was composing a
fourth when he was called in to see me. He said, ' If
you are interested in my verses, perhaps you will like
to hear these lines.' I gladly assented, and he recol-
lected himself for a few moments, and then stood forth
and repeated, one after another, the three entire


sonnets with great animation. This recitation was so
unlookecl for and surprising — he, the old Wordsworth,
standing apart, and reciting to me in a garden-walk
like a schoolboy declaiming — that I was at first near
to laugh ; but recollecting myself, that I had come
thus far to see a poet, and he was chanting poems to
me, I saw that he was right, and I was wrong, and
gladly gave myself up to him. He never was in haste
to publish ; partly because he corrected a good deal.
. . . He preferred such of his poems as touched the
affections to any others ; for whatever is didactic —
what theories of society and so on — might perish
cjuickly, but whatever combined a truth with an affec-
tion was good to-day and good for ever.'' {English
Traits^ ch. i.)

Wordsworth was far too wise to encourage the
pilgrims to turn into abiding sojourners in his chosen
land. Clough has described how, when he was a lad
of eighteen (1837), with a mild surprise he heard the
venerable poet correct the tendency to exaggerate the
importance of flowers and fields, lakes, waterfalls, and
scenery. '' People come to the Lakes," said Words-
worth, ''and are charmed with a particular spot, and
build a house, and find themselves discontented, for-
getting that these things are only the sauce and
garnish of life.''



In spite of a certain hardness and stiffness, Words-
worth must have been an admirable companion for
anybody capable of true elevation of mind. The
unfortunate Haydon says, with his usual accent of
enthusiasm, after a saunter at Hampstead, " Never did
any man so beguile the time as Wordsworth. His
purity of heart, his kindness, his soundness of prin-
ciple, his information, his knowledge, and the intense
and eager feelings with which he pours forth all he
knows, affect, interest, and enchant one.'' (Autohiog. i.
298, 384.) The diary of Crabb Eobinson, the corre-
spondence of Charles Lamb, the delightful auto-
biography of Mrs. Fletcher, and much less delightfully
the autobiography of Harriet Martineau, all help us
to realise by many a trait AVordsworth's daily walk and
conversation. Of all the glimpses that we get, from
these and many other sources, none are more pleasing
than those of the intercourse between Wordsworth
and Scott. They Avere the two manliest and most
wholesome men of genius of their time. They held
different theories of poetic art, but their affection and
esteem for one another never varied, from the early
days when Scott and his young wife visited Words-
worth in his cottage at Grasmere, down to that
sorrowful autumn evening (1831) when Wordsworth
and his daughter went to Abbotsford to bid farewell


to the wondrous potentate, then just about to start
on his vain search for new life, followed by ^' the
might of the whole earth's good wishes."

Of Wordsworth's demeanour and physical presence,
De Quincey's account, silly, coxcombical, and vulgar,
is the worst; Carlyle's, as might be expected from
his magical gift of portraiture, is the best. Carlyle
cared little for Wordsworth's poetry, had a real respect
for the antique greatness of his devotion to Poverty
and Peasanthoocl, recognised his strong intellectual

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Online LibraryJohn MorleyIntroduction to new edition of Wordsworth's complete poetical works → online text (page 1 of 3)