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rious, fluctuating converse, with a friend, more earnest,
more enthusiastic, more impassioned than ourselves — and

A M1DSU3IMER-DAy's dreaji. 199

nature filled not our veins with frozen blood — along streets
and squares, all dimly seen or unseen, and the faces and
figures of the crowds that went thronging by, like the
faces and figures in some regardless dream ! Now walk-
ing in, on a sudden, and as if by some divine impulse,
into that cathedral — or that abbey — ask not their names —
and there, apart and silent, standing with fixed eyes before
statue or tomb ! Now glide gliding in light canoe with
wind and tide adown the great river, in indolent yet ima-
ginative reverie, while masts and sails, and trees and
towers, as they all went floating through the air, seemed
scarcely to belong to any world — or proud of the skuller's
skill, and emulous of the strength of the broad-breasted
watermen whom Father Thames sustains, striving, stripped,
against the waves a-ripple and a-foam with the rapid ebb,
impatient to return to the sea ! Now a-foot along pleasant
pathways, for a time leading through retired and sylvan
places, and then suddenly past a cluster of cottages, or
into a pretty village, almost a town, and purposely with-
holding our eyes from the prospect, till we had reached
one well remembered eminence — and then the glorious
vision seen from Richmond Hill ! Where, where, on the
face of all the earth, can the roaming eye i*est in more
delighted repose than on the " pleasant villages and farms"
that far and wide compose that surburban world, so rich
in trees alone, that were there no other beauty, the poet
could even find a paradise both for week-day and Sabbath
hours, in the bright neighbourhood of London ! Endless
profusion and prodigality of art, coping almost successfully
with nature ! Wealth is a glorious thing in such creations.
Riches are the wands of magicians. Poverty bleakens the
earth — in her region grandeur* is bare — and we sigh for
something that is not among the naked rocks. But here
from the buried gold, groves rise with such loads of ver-
dure, that but for their giant boughs and branches, their
heads would be bowed down to the lawns and gardens,
gorgeous all with their flushing flowers, naturalized in the
all-bearing soil of England, from all climes, from the Occi-
dent to the orient !

But where cease the suburban charms of the Queen of
Cities 1 Mansion after mansion — each more beautifully


embowered than another — or more beautifijlly seated on
some gently undulating height, above the far-sweeping
windings of the silver Thames, is still seen by the roamer's
eye, not without some touch of vain envy at his heart of
those fortunate ones, for whom life thus lavishes ail its
elegance and all its ease — Oh, vain envy indeed I for who
knows not that all happiness is seated alone in the heart!
— till, ere he remembers that fur-otT London has vanished
quite away, he looks up, and lo ! the towers of Windsor —
the palace of old England's kings.

Nor are those " sylvan scenes" unworthily inhabited.
Travel city-crowded continents, sail in some circumnavi-
gating ship to far and fair isles, that seem dropt from
heaven into the sea, yet shall your eyes behold no lovelier
living visions than the daughters of England. Lovelier
never visited poet's slumbers nightly — not even when
before him in youth

" Hope, enchanted, smiled, and waved her g-olden hair !"

And of England's '■'■ inter rita pubes, ''^ \ci speak the shore
of every sea —

" A race in faith unstain'd, invincible in arms."

Wafted away, we knew not, cared not whither, on the
wings of wonder and admiration, — when, during the long
summer silence, the towers of Oxford kept chiming to
deserted courts and cloisters, — all England, its downs, its
wolds, its meadows, its plains, its vales, its hills, its moun-
tains, minsters, abbeys, cathedrals, castles, palaces, vil-
lages, towns, and cities, all became tributary to our
imagination, gazing upon her glories with a thousand
eyes. Now we breathed the fragrance of Devonia's
myrtle bowers — now from St. Michael's Mount " looked
to Bayona and the Giant's Hold," now wept and wor-
shipped at the grave of Shakspeare, or down the yellow
Avon thought we saw sailing her own sweet stately swan !
Now gazed in dread astonishment on Portsmouth's naval
arsenal, and all that machinery — sublime, because of the
power that sets it a-going, and far more, because of the

A midsummer-day's dream. 201

power that it sends abroad, winged and surcharged with
thunder, all over the main — ships without masts, sheer-
hulks, majestic and magnificent even in that bare blaclv
magnitude, looming through the morning or evening
gloaming — and lo ! a first-rater, deck above deck, tier
above tier of guns, sending up, as she sails in sunshine,
her clouds into the sky ; and as the Ocean Queen bears
up in the blast, how grand her stern — and what a height
above the waves tumbling a-foam in her wake! Now
seated on the highest knoll of all the bright Malvern Hills
in breathless delight, slowly turning round our head in
obedience to the beauty and grandeur of that panorama —
matchless on earth — we surveyed at one moment county
upon county, of rich, merry, sylvan England, mansioned,
abbeyed, towered, spired, castled ; and at another, differ-
ent, and yet not discordant, say, rather, most harmonious
with that other level scene, the innumerous mountains of
Wales, cloud-crested, or clearly cutting with outlines free,
flowing or fantastic, here the deep blue, there the dark
purple, and yonder the bright crimson sky! Wales, glo-
rious, even were she without other glory, with Plinlimmon,
Cader-ldris, Snowdon,

" Vocal no more since Cambria's fatal day,
To high-born Hoel's harp, or soft Llewellyn's lay."

Now borne as on angel's wing, and in the " very waist
and middle of the night," we sat down a solitary on Der-
went W^ater's shore,

" While the cataract of Lodore
Peal'd to our orisons I"

Now while Luna and her nymphs delighted to behold their
own beauty on its breathless bosom, we hung in a little
skiff, like a water-lily moored in moonshine, in the fairest
of all fair scenes in nature, and the brightest of all the
bright — how sweet the music of her name, as it falls from
our lips with a blessing — Windermere — Windermere!

And thus we robbed all England of her beauty and her
sublimity, her grandeur and her magnificence, and bore it
all off and away treasured in our heart of hearts. Thus,

202 vilson's miscellakeous writings.

the towers and temples of Oxford were haunted with new
visions — thus in London we were assailed by sounds and
sights from the far-off solitude of rocks, and cliffs, and
woods, and mountains, on whose summits hung setting
suns, or rose up in spiritual beauty the young crescent
moon, or crowded unnumbered planets, or shone alone in
its lustre,

" The sta r of Jove, so beautiful and large,"

as if the other eyes of heaven were afraid to sustain the
serenity of that one orb divine !

But still as the few soul-brightening, soul-strengthening
suns of youth rolled on, — those untamed years, of which
every day, it might seem indeed every hour, brought the
consciousness of some new knowledge, some new feeling,
that made the present greater than the past, and was giving
perpetual promise of a still greater future, — promise that
was the divine manna of hope — while the world of nature
continued to our eyes, our hearts, and our imaginations,
dearer and more dear, saddened or sublimed by associa-
tions clothing with green gladness the growth of the young,
with hoary sadness, the decay of the old trees,

" Moulding- to beauty many a mouldering lower ;"

and in storm or sunshine, investing with a more awful or
a more peaceful character the aspect of the many-shipped
sea, — even then, wlien the world of the senses was in its
prime, and light and music did most prodigally abound in
the air and the water, in the heavens and on the earth, we
rejoiced with yet a far exceeding joy, we longed with yet
a far exceeding desire, we burned with yet a far exceeding
passion, for all that was growing momently brighter and
more bright, darker and more dark, vaster and more vast,
within the self-discovered region of mind and spirit!
There swept along each passion, like a great wind — there
the sudden thought

" Sliot from the zenith like a falling star !"

We wished not to " have lightened the burden of the mys-
tery of all that unintelligible world !" It was the mystery

A midsummer-day's dream. 203

which, trembling, we loved — awaking suddenly to the
quaking of our own hearts, at solitary midnight from the
divine communion of dreams, that like spirits for ever
haunted our sleep.

" 'Tis mind alone — bear witness heaven and earth I —
'Tis mind alone that in itself contains
The beauteous or sublime I"

Where are the blasts born that bring the clouds across the
stars'? Where are the thoughts born that bring clouds
across our souls ? The study of physics is sublime, for
the student feels as if mounting the lower steps of the lad-
der leading up to God in the skies. But the metaphysics
of our own moral, our own intellectual being, sublimer far!
when reason is her own object, and conscience, by her
own light, sees into her own essence !

And where shall such studies be best pursued? Not
alone in the sacred silence of the academic grove — although
there should be their glimmering beginnings, and there
their glorified but still obscurest end. But through the
dim, doubting, ani often sorely disturbed intermediate
time, when man is commanded by the being within him to
mingle with man, when smiles, and sighs, and tears, are
most irresistible, and when the lotjk of an eye can startle
the soul into a passion of love or hate, then it is that human
nature must be studied — or it will remain unknown and
hidden for ever — must be studied by every human being
for himself, in the poetry and philosophy of life ! As that
life lies spread before us like a sea ! At first, like delighted,
wondering, and fearful children, who keep gazing on the
waves that are racing like living creatures I'rom some far-
off region to these their own lovely and beloved shores, —
or still with unabated admiration, at morning, see the level
sands yellowing far away, with bands of beautiful birds
walking in the sun, or, having trimmed their snowy
plumage, wheeling in their pastime, with many wild-min-
gled cries, in the glittering air, — with here — there — yon-
der some vessel seemingly stranded, and fallen helpless on
her side, but waiting only for the tide to waken her from
her rest, and again to waft her, on her re-expanded wings,

204 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

away into the main ! Then, as the growing boy becomes
more familiar with the ebb and the flow — with all the
smiles and frowns on the aspect — all the low and sweet,
all the loud and sullen, tones of the voice of the sea — in
his doubled delight he loses half his dread, launches his
own skitr, paddles with his own oar, hoists his own little
sail — and, ere long, impatient of the passion that devours
him, the passion for the wonders and dangers that dwell
on the great deep, on some day disappears from his birth-
place and his p.irents' eyes, and, years afterwards, returns
a thoughtful man from bis voyaging round the globe!

Therefore, to know ourselves, we sought to penetrate
into the souls of other men — to be with them, in the very
interior of their conscience, when they thought no eye was
upon them but the eye of God. 'Twas no seclusion of the
spirit within itself to take cognizance of its own acts and
movements ; but we were led over the fortunes and works
of human beings wherever their minds have acted or their
steps liave trod. All sorrow and all joy, the calamities
which have shaken empires, the crimes which have hurried
single souls into perdition, the grounds of stability, just
order, and power, in the great societies of men — the peace
and happiness that have blossomed in the bosom of inno-
cent life, the loves that have interwoven joy with grief, the
hopes that no misery can overwhelm, the fears that no
pleasure can assuage, the gnawing of the worm that never
dies, the bliss of conscience, the bale of remorse, the virtue
of the moral, and the piety of the religious spirit, — all
these, and everything that human life, in its inexhaustible
variety, could disclose, became the subjects of inquiry,
emotion, thought, to our intellect seeking knowledge of
human nature, to us a student desirous, in restless and
aspiring youth, to understand something of his own soul —
of that common being in which he lives and breathes, and
of which, from no other source, and no other aid, can he
ever have any uninspired revelation.

Is it wonderful then that we, like other youths with a
soul within them, mingled ourselves and our very being
with the dark, bright, roaring, hushed, vast, beautiful,
magnificent, guilty and glorious London !

A midsummer-day's dream. 205

Coleridge, that rich-freighted argosie, tilting in sunshine
over imagination's seas, feared not — why should he have
feared? — in a poem of his youth — to declare to all men,

" To me hath Heaven, with bounteous hand, assign'd
Energic reason and a shaping mind."

That boast may not pass our lips ! Yet what forbids us
even now exultingly to say, that nature had not withheld
from us the power of genial delight in all the creations of
genius; and that she shrouded, as with a gorgeous canopy,
our youth, with the beauty and magnificence of a million
dreams? Lovely to our eyes was all the loveliness that
emanated from more gifted spirits, and in the love with
which we embraced it, it became our very own ! We
caught the shadows of high thoughts as they passed along
the wall, reflected from the great minds meditating in
the hallowed shade ! And thenceforth they peopled our
being! Nor haply did our own minds not originate some
intellectual forms and combinations, in their newness fair,
or august — recognised as the product of our own more
elevated moods, although unarrayed, it might be, in words,
or passing away with their symbols into oblivion, nor
leaving a trace behind — only a sense of their transitory
presence, consolatory and sublime ! Even then, in thy
loud streets, O London ! as the remembrance of Scotland's
silent valleys came suddenly and softly upon our hearts,
a wish, a hope, a belief arose that the day might come,
when even our voice might not be altogether unlistened
to by the happy dwellers there, — haply faint, low, and
irregular, like the song of some bird — one of the many
linnets — in its happiness half-afraid to tune its melodies,
amidst the minstrelsy of Merle and Mavis, with which the
whole forest rings !

Often do we vainly dream that time works changes
only by ages — by centuries ! But who can tell what even
an hour may bring forth ! Decay and destruction have
" ample room and verge enough," in such a city; and in
one year they can do the work of many generations.
This century is but young — scarcely hath it reached its
prime. But since its first year rolled round the sun, how
many towers and temples have in ever-changeful Lon-

VOL. I. 18

206 m'ilson's miscellaneous writings.

dou " gone to the earth !" How many risen up whose
" statures reach the sky !" Dead is the old king in
his darkness, whom all England loved and reverenced.
Princes have died, and some of them left not a name —
mighty men of war have sunk, with all their victories and
all their trophies, vainly deemed immortal, into oblivion !
— Mute is the eloquence of Pitt's and of Canning's voice !
In that Abbey, the thought of whose sacred silence did
often touch his high heart, when all his fleet was moored
in peace, or bearing down in line of battle, now Nelson
sleeps! — And thousands, unknown and unhonoured, as
wise, or brave, in themselves as good and as great as
those whose temples fame hath crowned with everlast-
ing halo, have dropt the body, and gone to God. How
many thousand fairest faces, brightest eyes, have been
extinguished and faded quite away ! Fairer and brighter
far to him whose youth they charmed and illumined, than
any eyes that shall ever more gaze on the flowers of earth,
or the stars of heaven !

Methinks the western sun shines cooler in the garden
— that the shades are somewhat deepened — that the birds
are not hopping round our head, as they did some hour
ago — that in their afternoon siesta they are mute. Another
set of insects are in the air. The flowers, that erewhile
were broad and bright awake, with slumbering eyne are
now hanging down their heads ; and those that erewhile
seemed to slumber, have awoke from their day-dreams,
and look almost as if they were going to speak. Have
you a language of your own — dear creatures — for we
know that ye have loves? But, hark, the gong — the
gong! in the hand of John, smiling it like the slave of
some Malay-chief. In our paradise there is " fear that
dinner cool," mortal man must eat — and thus endeth



(Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829.)

It appears to me that the poetry of Wordsworth, always
estimated too rapturously, or too virulently depreciated,
has never been placed on its proper level. " Then, of
course," cries the critic, " you imagine yourself competent
to fix it in its appropriate station." If I were to say no,
you would not believe me ; and if I say yes, I go beyond
the truth. A man, when he professes to treat of a subject,
is always supposed, by courtesy, to be master of that sub-
ject. He is obliged to place himself in the situation of a
teacher, and to regard those whom he addresses as his
pupils, although he may be conscious that his povvers are
below those of some who grant him their attention. This
compelled tone of superiority, this involuntary dictatorship,
must, more especially, be admitted as an excuse for laying
down the law in matters of taste. Subjects of science,
indeed, may be handled with precision; and any one, after
going through a certain course of study and experiment
may, without arrogance, assert, " These things are so."
Moral and sacred subjects again may appeal to a fixed
standard. But subjects that relate to taste and feeling,"
admit not of such exactness. In these every man is a law
unto himself, and he who sets himself up for a lecturer on
taste can, after all, only give his own opinion, and leave
others to adopt it or not, according to their several notions
of right and wrong, beauty and deformity. One qualifica-
tion, at least, I possess for the task I have undertaken. I
have read, as I believe, every line that Wordsworth ever
published. Critic, canst thou say as much?

208 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

My first endeavour will be to show that Wordsworth's
genius is overrated by his partisans ; my second, that it
is underrated by his detractors.

Although Wordsworth has never been a popular poet,
in the extended sense of the word, yet what he has lacked
in the number of his admirers, has been made up to him
by the intensity of adoration which his few worshippers
have displayed. A true disciple of his school said to me,
"I call the poetry of Wordsworth an actual revelation;"
and I have heard others assert that his writings were able
to work a moral change in any zealous peruser of them.
This may seem strange to those who only know Words-
worth's poetry through the medium of passages quoted
from the Lyrical Ballads, or perhaps by the imitation of
his style in the Rejected Addresses — an imitation which
does not possess one true characteristic of his manner. It
is the mixture of philosophy with low and humble subjects
which is the real peculiarity of Wordsworth's poetry — not,
as some persons imagine, a mere childishness both of
thought and meaning. It is on Wordsworth's faith, as
viewed in connexion with its poetical practice, that his
admirers found his claim to great and original excellence,
and they thence derive their prediction, that by the side of
Milton his station will be awarded him by posterity. Un-
like other poets who leave their principles of composition
to be deduced from their works, Wordsworth lays down
certain principles, of which he professes his poetry to be
an illustration. He is a theorist, as well as a poet, and
may be considered as much the founder of a sect as Plato
or Pythagoras. This connexion between his peculiar no-
tions and his verse obliges me to consider how far his
theory is original, how far it is just, and with what success
he has illustrated it in his compositions. I must, however,
premise, that the very idea of fabricating poetry according
to a set theory, is an unhappy one. That a thing, which
should both proceed from, and address itself to, the feelings
— which ought to be an inspiration and a divine madness
— should mete itself out by rule and measure, " regulate its
composition by principles," and carefully adapt its language
of [)assion to a code of s[)eech, involves an essential con-
tradiction. Where was Shakspeare's theory when he read


the open book of Nature, and transcribed her pages upon
his own? Where was Milton's theory when he was rapt
above the empyrean, and smote his mighty harp in answer
to the sounding spheres ? Where was the theory of Burns
when he lived, loved, suffered, and wrote? And where,
may I ask, is Wordsworth's theory when he writes well ?
That he has written well, even gloriously, I allow. That
he has written well in consequence of his theory, I deny.

But let us inquire what his theory is. Our author tells
us that his first volume of poems was published " as an
experiment, how far by fitting to metrical arrangement a
selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid
sensation, that sort of pleasure, and that quantity of plea-
sure, might be imparted, which a poet may rationally en-
deavour to impart." If these words be taken in their literal
sense, it appears to me that the experiment was scarcely
worth the making ; for the desired fact might have been
ascertained by merely considering, that those parts of
Shakspeare which convey the most general pleasure, are
the real language of men under the agency of some strong
passion. The touching expression of Macduff, " He has
no children ;" the thrilling exclamation of Othello over the
body of Desdemona, " My wife ! — What wife? — I have no
wife!" are sufficient to show that th(! simplest language of
men, when strongly moved, may give pleasure of the most
exquisite kind. I say pleasure, for though the words them-
selves produce a mournful impression, yet the predomina-
ting feeling is pleasure to see Nature's language so truly
imitated. Ballads also without end, in which the real lan-
guage of men is still more metrically arranged, would have
decided the same question, for compositions of this sort,
from Chevy Chase to Black-eyed Susan and Auld Robin
Gray, have ever been, like the simple and original melo-
dies which are ground about the streets on every hand-
organ, the darlings of mankind, in every class. But if,
by the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,
Wordsworth meant the complaints of a child in despair at
seeing her cloak caught in a chaise-wheel, or the agonies
and ecstasies of a foolish poor woman who sent her idiot
son for a doctor on a moonlight night, he might have con-
vinced himself that no pleasing result would ensue, by


210 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

merely inquiring whether the gustatory ejaculations of a
society of aldermen over a bowl of turtle, would give
pleasure if reduced to metre. For these are also unques-
tionably " the real language of men in a state of vivid

Wordsworth, however, seems to have considered that
this experiment succeeded rather beyond his expectations;
and having " pleased a greater number than he ventured
to hope he should please," he is encouraged to proceed in
the same path, and to explain the object which he proposed
to himself more particularly. Disentangling the chrysalis
from the golden threads which his genius has spun around
it, I will briefly give the principal points of his system.
He chooses " incidents and situations," always from " com-
mon," and generally from " low and rustic life." He de-
sires to elucidate the "primary laws," " ihe great and

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 18 of 34)