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simple affections of our nature." He intends that each of
his poems "should carry along with it Vi purpose,'''' anii
" that the feeling therein developed should give importance
to the action and situation, and not the action and situa-
tion to the feeling ;" and lastly, he professes to reject
" what is usually called poetic diction," and to " cut him-
self off from a large portion of phrases and figures of speech,
which, from father to son, have long been regarded as the
common inheritance of poets."

1 own that I can see nothing very original in these ob-
jects proposed — little that has not been done before, and
by others. The chief originality seems to consist in the
formal declaration of the poet's intentions, and in his
restricting himself to one department of his province. As
I remarked before, " incidents and situations in common
life" have generally pleased, as coming home to every man's
business and bosom. No tragedy is received with more
tears, or with more applause than the (iamester. To go
a step farther, — Burns, in carolling the joys, and sorrows,
and simple loves of rustic life, has found an echo in every
heart. The songs of Dibdin arc on every lip. Shentonc's
Schoolmistress is allowedly his best poem. Crabbe ex-
tracts humour and pathos from the most trite' and homely
adventures. As to Wordsworth's declaration, that each
of his poems has a worthy purpose, he himself asserts.


that this will be found to be the case in " all poems to
which any value can be attached; therefore, in this re-
spect, he only places himself in the rank of a good, not
an original writer. As to the circumstance, which he tells
us distinguishes his poems from the popular poetry of the
day, viz. that the feeling dignifies the subject, and not tlie
subject the feeling, I shall consider, by and by, whether it
be not calculated to produce originality of a vicious kind,
and whether there should not rather be a mutual propor-
tion between the subject and the passion connected with it.
Our author's renunciation of such phrases and figures of
speech as have long been the common poetical stock in
trade, seems again only to place him in a higher rank than
the mere schoolboy poet, who pilfers his English Gradus
for flowers of rhetoric. Every poet that rises above me-
diocrity, knows that he damns himself by the use of worn-
out tropes and metaphors. Pope, who introduced a peculiar
language into poetry, a set mode of expressing cerlain
things, was original as the first founder of a vicious school,
and in his case the severe good sense of his meaning
atoned for the tinkling of his rhyme. Darwin was origi-
nal from the very profusion with which he heaped these
commonplaces together; but their imitators have never
risen to eminence ; and originality of expression seems to
be expected from a writer of any pretensions. But Words-
worth has spoken too vaguely on this head. The term
poetic diction, seems to inier a diction common to poets;
but the language of metrical composition may be elevated
beyond that of prose by modes as various as the authors
who use it. The poetic diction of Milton is not, in a cer-
tain sense, that of Gray, nor is that of Collins in its exter-
nal forms similar to that of Cowper.

I am the more explicit on this point, because one of
Wordsworth's principal claims to originality seems to lie
in his having formed a diction of his own, and in having
run counter to the taste of the age in so doing. He mag-
nifies his own boldness by asserting that an author is sup-
posed, " by the act of writing in verse, to make a formal
engagement to gratify certain known habits of association,
and thus to apprise his reader not only that certain classes
of ideas and cx[)ressions will be found in his book, but that

212 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

others will be carefully excluded." I reply to this, that
the love of novelty is stronger in man than habit itself, and
that there would be nothing to gratify this inherent thirst,
if we met with nothing but the same classes of ideas and
expressions. Wordsworth grants that the tacit promise
which a poet is supi)osed to make his reader, has in difTerent
eras of literature excited very difierent expectations, as in
the various ages of Shakspeare, of Cowley, and of Pope.
I ask, what made the ages of Shakspeare, Cowley, and
Pope ? Their own genius. It is the era that conforms to
the poet, not the poet to the age. And even at one and
the same period there have been, and may be, as many
ditTerent styles of writing, as there are great and original
writers. Spenser was contemporary with Shakspeare, and
in our own day more especially we see almost as many
schools of poetry as there are poets. Byron, Scott,
Soulhey, Moore, Campbell, and Crabbe, have not only
each asserted his own freedom, but have easily induced the
world to affix its sign manual to their charter. 1 should
rather affirm, tiien, that a poet is supposed " to make a
formal engagement" to produce something new, — to be a
creator indeed, — or his title to the appellation will scarcely
be allowed. It follows, then, that Wordsworth's writings
may be original, in as far as they diHer from the produc-
tions of the present day, but not because they difTer from
such productions. His renouncing the common poetic
diction is not an original part of his theory, however it may
produce originality in his practice.

Having now attempted to show that what is good in
W^ordsworth's theory is not new, I will endeavour to prove
that what is new is not good.

Wordsworth tells us that, in his choice of situations and
incidents, "low and rustic life was generally chosen, be-
cause, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart
find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity,
are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more
emphatic language." I answer, that they do so or not
according to the powers of hin) who is their interpreter. I
urge, that a true poet finds the same passions in every
sphere of life, and makes them speak a ])lain and emphatic
language by his own art. Love and hatred, hope and


fear, joy and sorrow, lay bare the human heart, beneath
the ennined robe, not less than beneath the shepherd's
frock, and strong emotion breaks the fetters of restraint as
easily as one would snap asunder a silken thread. " One
touch of nature makes the whole world kin." Naked we
all came into the world, naked we must all go out of it,
and naked we all appear, in a mental sense, when nature's
strong hand is upon us. Accordingly, Shakspeare makes
his Cleopatra scold like any scullion wench, when the
messenger tells her of Antony's marriage with Octavia ;
nor does she confine her rage to words, but expounds it
more intelligibly still by striking the unlucky herald, and
*' haling him up and down." * The great interpreter of
nature contrives to " keep his reader in the company of
flesh and blood, while he leads him through every sphere
of existence." Wordsworth also chose rural life, "because
in that condition, the passions of men are incorporated
with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature." I fear
that more of the poet than the philosopher is apparent in
this sentiment : or, if Wordsworth will have it that poet
and philosopher are nearly synonymous terms, I fear that
he has given his own individual feelings as representatives
of those belonging to man as a species.

The philosophic poet should take care to support his
theory upon facts established by observation, or (as Words-
worth himself elsewhere says) should possess "the ability
to observe with accuracy, think as they are in themselves,
and with fidelity tu describe them, unmodified by any pas-
sion or feeling existing in the mind of the describer:" but
Wordsworth, though, doubtless, conversant with humble
life, has thrown the lines of his own mind over its whole
sphere ; otherwise he never could assert that the passions
of men in that condition are incorporated with the beautiful
and permanent forms of nature. " The necessary charac-

* Cleopatra herself says, on being addressed by her handmaid Iras,
as " Royal Egypt's Empress,"

" Peace, peace, Ii-as,
No more but a mere woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks.
And does the meanest chares."

214 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

ter of rural occupations" seems rather to have a tendency
to blunt the mind's sensibility to external nature, than to
sharpen its perceptions of grace and beauty. " Our ele-
mentary feelings," indeed, may be said to co-exist in a
state of greater simplicity in humble life — if by "elemen-
tary feelings" the poet means such feelings as are con-
nected with the care of our subsistence. To support life
is the great object of the poor, and this object absorbs their
powers, blunts their sensibilities, and confines their ideas
to one track of association. The rustic holding his plough
looks at the furrow which he traces, and not at the moun-
tain which soars above his head. The shepherd watches
his dog and his sheep, but not the clouds that shift their
hues and forms in the western sky — or if he regards them,
it is only as prognostics of such and such weather. I have
conversed much with those in rustic life, and amongst them
have scarcely ever met with one who manifested any sym-
pathy with external nature. There may be exceptions to
the general insensibility of the poor, but Wordsworth has
mistaken the exceptions for illustrations of the rule itself. If
any class of men, in a low station, betoken that the beau-
tiful objects of nature are incorporated with their passions,
we must look for them not amongst the tillers of the earth,
but amongst those who occupy their business in the great
waters. Sailors have leisure to admit the wonders of
nature through the eye into the mind. The stagnation of
a calm, or the steady movement of their vessel, often leaves
them unoccupied, and throws their attention outward. The
natural craving of the mind after employment makes them
seize whatever oflers itself to fill up vacuity of thought,
and nature becomes less their chosen pleasure than their
last resource. Accordingly, I have often remarked thai
more unconscious poetry drops from the lips of sailors,
than from men in any other low station of life. Again,
the affections of the heart become deadened in the poor, or
rather change their character altogether. Life, which is
so hardly sustained by them, is not in their eyes the pre-
cious thing which it is in ours ; death, which ihey only
view as a rest from toil or pain, is not looked upon by them
with the same emotion with which we regard it. Whether
" to be, or not to be," is a question which they decide by


balance of utility. A poor woman once said (o me, " If
he Lord pleases to take either me or my husband from
our dear children, I hope my husband will go first ; for I
think 1 could do better for them than he could ;" and I am
sure she gave the true reason for wishing to survive her
partner, and was not influenced in her wish by any selfish
love of life. Plere the essential passions of the heart (of
which love between the sexes may be considered the very
strongest) had given place to factitious feelings generated
by a peculiar condition of life, and, this being the case,
those feelings were no longer elementary, or such as are
common to all mankind. In fact there seems to be no
surer way of preventing oneself from seeing man as he is,
than to confine one's view to any, even the most apparently
natural condition of life. Man must be weighed in the
gross, before he can be estimated in the abstract.

Wordsworth, moreover, informs us, that he has adopted
the very language of men in low and rustic life, " because
such men hourly communicate with the best objects from
which the best part of language is originally derived;
and because from their rank in society, and the sameness
and narrow circle of their intercourse being less under the
influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and
notions in simple and unelaborated expressions." I have
before attempted to show that the " hourly communica-
tions" of these men are with their implements of husbandry,
and that, like oil and water, they and the beautiful forms
of nature may be in perpetual contact, without becoming
incorporated. That they are less under the influence of
social vanity I doubt, and for the very same reason that
Wordsworth believes it, viz. from the narrow circle of their
intercourse; for the fewer opportunities men have of com-
paring themselves with numbers, the less do they know
their own deficiencies, — and I doubt not but that the va-
nity of an alehouse politician is as great as, and infinitely
more besotted than, the vanity of a member of parliament.
I have also little doubt, but that the contempt with which a
ploughman would look down upon me for not knowing
oats from barley, would transcend that of an astronomer
at my not being able to distinguish between Cassiopea and
Ursa Major. However we human beings may differ in

216 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

other respects, — in station, in language, temper, and dispo-
sition — here at least we are all alike. Pour into separate
vessels the blood of various men, analyze it, distil it, till
all factitious differences evaporate and disappear, and I
will answer for it that there will be found a large residuum
of vanity at the bottom of each alembic.

Wordsworth cives as a reason for his deducing strong
feelings from low and unimportant subjects, that " the hu-
man mind is capable of being excited without the application
of gross and violent stimulants;" and that "one being is
elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this
capability." There appears to be a mixture of truth and
falsehood in this sentiment. The mind that demands the
violent excitement of " frantic novels" or the gross nutri-
ment of "sickly and stupid German tragedies," is, I grant,
indeed in a diseased state; but that the mind is in a sane state
i7i 'proportion as it recedes from this diseased torpor, 1 deny.
For it may recede until it shall have crossed the boundary
line which separates the height of what is good, from its
declension into evil of an opposite kind. A person who,
by improper abstinence, shall have brought himself into
such a state that he is intoxicated by milk and water, is
not less an invalid than he who, by perpetual intemperance,
has blunted his senses, until he calls for brandy in his
wine. In the same manner, the mind may be too excit-
able, as well as too dead to gentle and healthful excitement.
If one being be indeed elevated above another in 2y>'oportio7i
as his mind is capable of being excited without a violent
stimulus, then is the man who goes into ecstasies at the
sight of a sparrow's egg the first of his species. But per-
haps this was precisely what our auihor wished to prove.
After ail, may not a violent stimulus be of a salutary
nature, and in some cases necessary to bring back a health-
ful state of feeling? A strong medicine can alone master
a strong disease; and if (as Wordsworth imagines) the
minds of the present generation are " in a state of almost
savage torpor," can they be aroused by the mere prick of
a pin — if they thirst so wildly " after the outrageous stimu-
lation," will they pass at once from mulligatawney soup
to mutton broth 1 If it be true, as Covvper says, that


" A kick which scarce would move a horse,
May kill a sound divine,"

our kicks must be proportioned to the animal on which
they are inflicted. A gentle shove will never do.

In order to justify himself for adopting (as he thinks he
has) " the very language of men," Wordsworth asserts
a most untenable proposition, viz. " that there neither is
nor can be any essential difference between the language
of prose and metrical composition." He thinks " it would
be a most easy task to prove this, by innumerable pas-
sages from almost all the poetical writings, even of Milton
himself;" but he confines himself to quoting the following
sonnet of Gray, in order " to illustrate the subject in a gene-
ral manner ?

" In vain to me the smiling morning's shine,
And reddening Phcebus lifts his golden fire :
The birds in vain their amorous descant join,
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire.
These cars, alas ! lor other notes repine;
A different object do these eyes require;
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine,
And in my breast th'' imperfect joys expire.
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men ;
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear ;
To warn their little loves the birds complain,
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more because I weep in vain."

He observes upon this : " It will easily be perceived that
the only part of this sonnet which is of any value, is the
lines printed in italics ; it is equally obvious that, except in
the rhyme, and in the use of the single word " fruitless,"
for fruitlessly (which is so far a defect,) the language of
these lines does in no respect differ from that of prose." —
" It will easily be perceived." — By whom ? By Mr. Words-
worth. " It is equally obvious." To whom ? To Mr. Words-
worth. Thus apt we are unconciously to substitute our own
ipse dixits for the general consent of mankind. So far from
easily perceiving the five lines in italics the only ones of
any value in the sonnet, I seem to perceive that they are
worthless and unintelligible without the other nine. " A

VOL. I. 19

218 Wilson's miscellaneous avritings.

dilfcrcnt object do these eyes require." — DifTcrcnt from
what ? From the " smilinrj mornins-s," and the sun's
" golden lire !" " My lonely anguish melts no heart but
mine." — In contrast to what? To the birds who " join
tlieir amorous descant." " I fruitless mourn to him that
cannot hear, and weep the more because I weep in vain."
How unafTecting is this complaint disjoined from that
which aggravates the written sorrow — the general joy of
nature previously described !

Having shown how easily the truth of Wordsworth's
first assertion may be perceived, I grant that it is equally
obvious that the language of the lines in italics does in no
respect differ from that of prose. There can be no ques-
tion, but that if any one were about to express in prose
that he had no one to share his joy or sorrow, he would
talk of " lonely anguish," and " imperfect joys." But
the fact is, that no man would dream of expressing such
thoughts in prose at all; which leads me to assert that
poetry does differ from prose in two essential points, viz.
in the cast of the thoughts, and the nature of the language.
By the act of writing in metre, we place ourselves in
communion with the best part of our species, and we enjoy
a license to speak of the higher feelings of our nature
without the fear of ridicule. Poetry is a language accord-
ed to beings of greater sensibility than the rest of mankind,
as a vent to thoughts, the suppression of which would be
too painful to be endured. Our ideas, therefore, in poetry,
run in a purer, a more imaginative, a more impassioned
vein, than in prose ; and as to write poetry presupposes
the presence of some emotion, there is in poetry an abrupt-
ness of transition caused by excitement, which is not to be
found in prose. The language of poetry partakes of the
same character as its thoughts. Since the poet's eyes
" bodies forth the shape of things unknown, and gives to
airy nothing a local hai)itation and a name," the words of
poetry are images. She speaks in [)ictures. Take any
speech of Shakspeare, and observe how almost every
word touches upon a train of associated ideas. In poetry,
language is but the echo of something more than meets
the ear: it is a spell to suggest trains of thoughts as well
as to express them. If poetry and prose be so identica
that we cannot " find bonds of connexion sufficiently strict


to typify the aflinity between them," — if the language of
poetry differ not from that of good prose, it follows that
all good prose is poetry. But surely the prose in wliich
an historian narrates his facts may be good^ and yet
no one would allow it to be the language of poetry.
Unfortunately, too, such prose as most resembles poetry
is not good. Although Wordsworth says, that " lines
and passages of metre so naturally occur in writing prose,
that it would be scarcely possible to avoid them, even
were it desirable," yet the prose, which contains such
disjccti tnemhra poetce^ is generally considered vicious.
There is a swell and cadence in the periods of prose,
essentially different from the rhythm of poetry. Therefore,
when a poet writes in prose, his thoughts are too passion-
ate, his style generally too concise, too abrupt, and at the
same time in too measured a cadence ; and on the con-
trary, when a good prose writer, attem|)ts to compose
poetry, his thoughts are of too cold a complexion, his lan-
guage too stiff from unusual restraint, his words too un-
coloured by imagination, too exact and literal in their
signification. The full mantle of Cicero's eloquence flowed
but ungracefully when confined by the hand of poetry.
Why is it, if prose and poetry speak the same language,
that so many great prose writers have vainly tried to
snatch the poet's wreath? Let any one take a well-
expressed idea in prose. Would it be well expressed in
poetry 1 Try to turn it into poetry. You must recast it,
and change the whole method of expression. You must
even endeavour to forget the words in which it was
clothed, and having to melt it into a pure idea, to run it
into a new mould of expression.

But " 1 will go further" still, (as Wordsworth says.)
" I do not doubt that it may be safely affirmed," (as
Wordsworth also says,) that the mere language of poetry,
exclusive of the thoughts which it may convey, is a sufli-
cient distinction between poetry and prose (as Words-
worth does not say.)

Let me not be mistaken ; I speak not of such a distinc-
tion as is produced by rhyme, or even metre. I speak
not of " those ordinary devices to elevate the style,"
which W^ordsworth abjures, such as " the personification
of abstract ideas j" the invocation, whether to Goddess,

220 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

Nymph, or Muse — the use of glittering and prescriptive
epithets, " the family language" of (bad) poets — I speak
of the imaginative use of language as the distinguishing
mark betwixt poetry and prose. To exemplify my mean-
ing, I will bring forward two passages — the one from
Shakspeare, in which common thoughts become poetry,
by the mode of expressing them ; the other from Gibbon,
in which a poetical thought becomes prose by the mere
language wherein it is couched. Coriolanus speaks —

" I'll know no further :
Let them pronounce the steep Tarpcian death,
Vagabond exile, fleaing, pent to linger
But with a grain a-day, I would not buy
Their mercy at the price of one fair word,
Nor check my courage for what they can give.
To havc't with saying, Good-morrow."

The thoughts here are not such as can be called poetical
— nor is there any thing in the mere words (if each be
taken separately) which is at all different from prose.
It is in the mode of using the words that the language
becomes poetry. In prose, Coriolanus would have said,
— I'll know no more. Let them condemn me to die by
the Tarpcian rock, to banishment, to be flead alive, to a
lingering death by hunger, &c. ; but in poetry he says
" I'll know no ficrtlier. Let them pronounce the steep
Tarpeian death, vagabond exile," &c. Here even the
very use of the common word further is poetical, as
closing up the sense to the mind more perfectly than the
word more, and substituting an adverb for an accusative
noun, in the vehemence with which passion wrests lan-
guage to her own purposes. " Let them pronounce the
steep Tarpeian death," is an instance of the mode in
which passion, acting upon imagination, condenses many
ideas, and conveys them all to the hearer's mind at once.
To give every word in this line its proper meaning in
prose, we must say, " Let them condemn me to die, by
being cast down the steep Tarpcian rock ;" but in the
rapidity of passion, not ov\\y judgment is pronounced but
death — that death is not slowly produced by the fall from
the steep Tarpeian rock, but is itself stecjo ; and although
a steep) death is an unintelligible expression, yet by the


divine clearness with whicli iniaginalion, in her lofty

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 19 of 34)