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moods, sees every thing at a glance, she succeeds in
stamping her whole moaning upon the mind of another,
by the general structure of the sentence. — We will now
proceed to the passage from Gibbon's Decline ol" the
Roman I'^mpirc : " The apparent magnitude of an object
is enlarged by an unequal corni)arison, as the ruins of
Palmyra derive a casual s|)lcndour Irom the nakedness of
the surrounding desert." Here the thought is poetical,
and the words in which it is dressed are far longer, and
more sounding, than the words of the passage just quoted
from Shakspcare, (which indeed almost consists of mono-
syllables,) yet, from not being used in an imaginative
manner, they produce but a cold effect upon the mind :
the reason is gratified, but the heart remains untouched
by them. We feel that this is not poetry ; we see that
every word is chosen with scientific precision, that each
has its natural and downright signification, that nothing
more is suggested than what is actually expressed ; we
know that the writer very calmly elaborated both the idea
and the language in his own warm study, and at his own
comfortable desk — and we feel that this is not poetry.
Yet who can doubt but that the same thought, under
Shakspeare's touch, would have started into Promethean
life and energy? Thus it appears that Poetry has a lan-
guage of her own. To identify her with Prose, is a
degradation of her lofty lineage. Hers is a higher mode
of speech, and for higher purposes. Poetry can speak
what Prose hath no voice to utter. She is (as Words-
worth himself elsewhere most beautifully says) " the
breath and finer spirit of all knowledge — the impassioned
expression, which is in the countenance of all science."
Is it not a contradiction thus to describe her, yet deny
that she speaks a language accordant with her more
subtle essence, and more impassioned energy ? By strip-
ping her of all essential characteristics, Wordsworth would
leave her nothing but the jingling of her bells, whereby
she might be distinguished frum Prose.

And this, so far from being the least distinction, is no
distinction at all. If neither the cast of the thoughts nor
the structure of the language be jjoctical, in a composition,


222 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

it is not metrical arrangement which will constitute poetry.
Are the following lines, written by Wordsworth, (for in-
stance) to be called poetry because they are printea in ten

" 'Tis nothing more
Tlian the rude embryo of a little dome,
Or pleasure-liousc, once destined to be built
Among' the bircli-trces of this rocky isle.
But, as it chanced, Sir Willi;im having learn'd
That from the shore a full-giown man might wade,
And make himself a freeman of this spot
At any hour he chose ; the knight forthwith
Desisted, and the quarry and the mound
Are monuments of his unfinish'd task."

Of this we may indeed say, with rather more truth than
of Gray's sonnet, that "it will easily be perceived" " the
language of these lines does in no respect differ from that
of prose," whether of good prose I leave it to the reader's
judgment to decide. The only poetical mode of expres-
sion to be found in them is, " made himself a freeman of
the spot," which again exemplifies what I said above
respecting the imaginative use of language. 1 would con-
clude this part of my subject, by asking Mr. Words-
worth how it is (if the language of prose and poetry be
the same) that the language of his own prose and of his
own poetry are so very different ? how it happens that,
professing to speak the real language of men in the latter,
he speaks the language (it may be) of gods in the former?
For example, " Religion — whose element is infinitude, and
whose ultimate trust is the supreme of things, submitting
lierself to circumscription, and reconciled to substitutions;
and Poetry, ethereal and transcendent, yet incapable to
sustain her existence without sensuous incarnation !" To
sum up all ; it appears to me that Wordsworth has con-
founded poetic diction as it is called, with poetic diction
as it really is. He has attacked a poetic diction founded
on a mechanical abuse of language. I wish to uphold a
poetic diction founded on the imaginative use of language
— a poetic diction that depends not on the shifting taste
of different eras, or on trifling varieties of costume, but
which is immovably fixed on the one grand and unaltera-


blo basis — a poetic diction, which is the country's lan-
guage of all true poets, (including Wordsworth himself,
when he forgets his theory,) however their difTercnt pro-
vinces may produce varieties of dialect. Thus, in spite of
Wordsworth's declaration to the contrary, I assert (and
are not my assertions as good as those of any other
man?) that poetry is a good and sound antithesis to

By maintaining that poetry should speak the same lan-
guage with prose, Wordsworth is driven to assert another
paradox, very lowering to the divine powers of the former.
He says : " Whatever portion of the faculty (namely, of
embodying the passions of man, and of expressing what
he thinks and feels) we may suppose even the greatest
poet to possess, there cannot be a doubt but that the lan-
guage which it will suggest to him, must, in liveliness and
truth, fall far short of that which is uttered by men in real
life, under the actual pressure of those passions, certain
shadows of which the poet thus produces, or feels to be
produced, in himself." To this I answer, that, if poetry
be " the finer spirit of all knowledge," it is, more emphati-
cally, the finer spirit of all passion ; for, while knowledge
is only the light of poetry, passion is her life and vital air.
A true poet can, by his verses, convey to the mind the
general effect of a battle with greater force and fidelity
than an actual agent in the combat by a prose narration.
The latter can only place certain facts before us : the
former can hurry us into the midst of the smoke and car-
nage — make us see tha bayonets gleaming through the
dust of trampling thousands — and make us hear the dying
groan — the shout of victory ! The one convinces us that
he himself was present at the scene; the other persuades
us into a conviction that we ourselves are present there.
The poet's description is actually more true than that of
the soldier, because it is more graphical, and produces on
the mind a greater sense of reality ; besides that the eye-
witness mixes up too much of his own personal feeling —
too much of the confusion of a mind in action — to convey
truth in the abstract to the mind of another. But poetry
is the very abstract of truth. I\Iany travellers have de-
scribed, as eye-witnesses, the burning of Hindoo widows ;

224 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

yet, in some book of Eastern travels, I have seen Southey's
poetical account of that revolting ceremony extracted from
the Curse of Kehama, as conveyini,'- the best idea of its
horrors. In the same manner the language which a true
poet gives to any human passion, is actually a more faith-
ful transcript of that passion than the language of him who
is under its actual pressure. In the first place the great

" are likcn'd best to floods and streams :

The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb."

They have no language but looks and tears. There-
fore the poet's language is not a transcription of what men
say when they are strongly moved, but an interpretation
of what i\\ey feci. And the poet has this advantage over
nature herself; namely, that he can at once depict her
internal i)romptings, and her external indications of pas-
sion. He can bring looks and tears before the eye. In
his verses, men both weep and speak. In the next place,
if great passions speak at all, they usually belie them-
selves by an inadequacy of utterance. The language of
the poet is actually more genuine nature than that of the
sufferer himself, because the former is the language of the
heart, which the latter is not. How frequently, when a man
has lost his wife or daughter, his condoling friends hear
him repeat, " She was a good creature ! No one knows
what a loss I have had ! No one can tell what I suffer !"
And this is all he can say, for the anarchy of his thoughts
is like a guard upon his lips. But the poet does know,
and can tell what he suffers, and not only produces " cer-
tain shadows" of his feelings, but the reality itself. And
why? ]?ccause the poet is himself a man, and because,
like other men, the poet has relations and friends who arc
subject to death, and he also has his causes of joy and
sorrow ; and if (as Wordsworth grants) a poet " is a man
endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm
and tenderness," than others ; if he also possess " a greater
knowledge of human nature," why (even painting from
himself) may he not give a more tender and enthusiastic
langnnge to joy or sorrow, a deeper insight into the core


of the human heart, than other men who are mere suf-
ferers? The poet is a man in real life, and a poet beside;
and therefore he can feel not only as a man, but can, as a
poet, give a more faithful utterance to what he feels. Who
knows but that Shakspearc, in painting the jealousy of
Othello, or the paternal anguish of Lear, was but giving
a keener and more imaginative colouring to some passages
of his own life? Who can tell but that Eve was only a
sublimated Mrs. Milton 1 For herein, also the poet's more
lively sensibility aids his delineation of strong passion, in
that he feels small things more acutely than men of dull
and sluggish imagination feel great ones, and that the very
shadows of his mind are stronger than the realities of
others. It is granted, that men, as they grow older, are
less and less moved by any event or accident, and even
the loss of a favourite grandson may less move the blunted
sensibilities of a nonagenarian, than the loss of a pointer
would have excited them when he was fifteen. Shall we
say, then, that the language of such a man, under the
pressure of any passion, is equal in energy to that which
is uttered by a man in the prime of life, and under a
similar pressure ? But there is not a greater distance
between the passions of the nonagenarian and those of the
youth of fifteen, than there is between the poet's capacity
of feeling and expression, and that of men, on whose hearts
a natural want of susceptibility has anticipated the slow
work of time. I would recommend to my readers the
perusal of a poem but little known, written by John Scott
on the death of his son, as an illustration of what I have
advanced. He will see in it an instance of the poetical tem-
perament acted upon by suffering, and speaking with more
Ibrce and truth than the language of suffering alone could
exhibit. Again, if the language of the poet fall short of
that which is uttered by men in real life under the pressure
of passion, the short-hand writer, who takes down trials,
and gives us verbatim the prison dialogues and last dying
speeches of convicts, must bid fair to be a greater dra-
matist than Shakspeare or Ford. Away, then, with such
timid restrictions of the poet's power ! What boundary
shall we place to it? It may;be answered — Nature ! But
Nature is boundless; and though, indeed, the poet feels

226 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

that " there is no necessity to trick out or elevate" her
infinite wonders; yet, with a soul as boundless as herself,
ho does not despair to depict thcni faithfully — ay, or even
to transcend what he beholds — by the divine faculty with
which he piercps things invisible. His muse, indeed, sheds
" natural and human tears ;" but what forbids that she
should not also drop tears " such as angels weep ?"

Holding such opinions as these, which I have endea-
voured to controvert, Wordsworth seems to surmise, that
persons may think it a little strange that he should take
the trouble to write in verse ; and he proceeds to give a
most extraordinary reason for so doing. His meaning
when extracted from a heap of words is, that metre, being
" something to which the mind has been accustomed in
various moods," has " great efficacy" in mitigating any
excitement of too strong a kind, which an affecting subject
might produce. One should have thought, that with all
the precautions which Wordsworth has taken to keep his
writings clear of all " gross and violent stimulus," with
his choice of " low and rustic" subjects, and adherence to
"the real laneua™ of men," there could be no " danjjer
that the excitement should be carried beyond its proper
bounds." However, he is determined to make all sure,
and to lull his reader's mind by sweet metrical sounds as
well as by the gentle flow of his ideas.

If Wordsworth bounded himself to the assertion, that a
tinkling ballad rhyme deducts from the horror of a tragical
tale, and that a murder sung about the streets — as how a
young woman poisoned her father and mother all for love
of a young man — is a very different thing to a real sub-
stantial newspaper detail of the same, he might be pro-
nounced in the right ; but when he asserts that " Shak-
speare's writings never act upon us, as pathetic, beyond
the bounds of pleasure," and attributes this mainly to
"impulses of pleasurable surprise from the metrical
arrangement," he appears to go rather beyond the mark.
Is it true, that Shakspearc's writings never act u])on us,
as pathetic, beyond the bounds of pleasure? The hysteri-
cal shrieks of women, and the wry faces of men trying to
swallow their tears at a theatrical representation of one of
Shakspearc's tragedies, will prove the contrary. Does the


circLimsffinco of the porformance being spoken in Idank
verse at all mitigate its exciting elTect upon the mind? Is
any auditor conscious that it is in bhink verse at all ? But
perhai)s VVordsworlh will say that he is only s[)eaking of
a perusal of Shakspeare. ITso, I allow that Shakspeare's
writings when read seldom act upon us, as pathetic,
beyond the bounds of pleasure ; but this overbalance of
pleasure, I conceive, is common to all good works of fic-
tion, whether in prose or verse — simply because they are
works of fiction, and because the mind delights in seeing
nature skilfully imitated or ennobled, whether by the
poetic art of Shakspeare, or the imaginative pencil of
Raphael. To see a kettle (except on the hob ready for
tea) imparts no pleasure; to sec a ghost would give us any
thing but delight ; yet when we behold a kettle so well
painted as to mock reality, or when we look at one of Fu-
seli's spectres, we are pleased, in the one case, to see the
perfection of imitative art, in the other, the triumph of
imagination. Wordsworth a[)pcals to his " reader's own
experience" as to whether " the distressful parts of Clarissa
Harlowe" do not give more pain than the most pathetic
scenes of Shakspeare. The reader's experience may not
always tally with Mr. Wordsworth's. I for one confess,
that the self-murder of Othello, uncheered by one ray of
comfort here, or hope hereafter, (notwithstanding the
metre,) is more painful to my feelings than the deathbed
of the injured Clarissa, sinned against but not sinning, and
half in heaven before she has quitted earth ; and to the
" rcperusal" of this, I can safely say, that I never came
"with reluctance." But so far from metre having a gene-
ral tendency to "temper and restrain" our feelings — so
far from the mind having been accustomed to it " in a less
excited state," I conceive that the very sound of verse is
connected in most minds with the idea of something
moving or elevating. I remember once, when I had taken
shelter in a poor woman's cottage from a pelting and per-
severing storm, I began to read aloud to a companion who
was with me, from a pocket volume of Hudibras. To my
surprise, I was shortly interrupted by the sobs of the old
lady, who had buried her face in her apron. I asked her
what was the matter. "Oh, sir," she replied, "them

228 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

verses do sound so affecting !" Moreover, are not poets
allowed to possess a greater necromancy in raising human
passions than authors in any other kind; and do not poets
usually^write in metre of some sort?

Having now considered how far Wordsworth's theory
is new, and how far it is correct, I propose to inquire with
what success he has illustrated it.

And first, we may not unfairly surmise that there is
something faulty in his manner of executing his purposes
— something " rotten in the state of Wordsworth" — from
the consideration of this plain fact, that writing of men,
and to men, he has never become a popular author. It is
all very well that he should exclaim, " Away with the
senseless iteration of the word popular !" and appeal from
popularity as a test of excellence, because it is his interest
that popularity should 7iot be a literary touchstone. But
we, who have no personal feeling in the question, may
observe that, however it may be admitted that poems on
abstract or abstruse subjects may be admirable without
being popular, still, poems professedly founded on the
grand basis of human nature, and depicting her " great
and simple affections," must grow popular before they can
be pronounced successful. For the people they are written ;
by the people must they be judged. If they speak the " real
language of men," they must be appreciated wherever that
language is known. So far from coming before his readers
at a disadvantage, Wordsworth (I maintain) approaches
them under peculiarly favourable circumstances. He
prejudices us in his favour at the very outset, by profess-
ing to " keep us in the company of flesh and blood." He
appeals to all our strongest prepossessions ; he awakens
all our most interesting associations, by affirming that he
will choose his incidents and situations from ordinary life.
At the time when he first published his Lyrical Ballads,
more especially, such a doclaration was calculated to
excite the warmest expectations. The poetry-reading


multitude began to sicken from an overdose of rich and
stimulating nutriment, and not a few were already asking
— " Pray, who would get twice drunk upon Noyau '?" VV hen
a man steps forward with this spirit-stirring motto —
" Homo sum. Nihil liumanum a me alienum puto."
Surely that man must have taken some pains to undo the
prepossessions naturally excited in his favour; surely ho
must have " kept the word of promise to the ear" only,
"and broken it to the hope," if he failed to secure general
sympathy and approbation ! In Ids case, if in the case of
no other poet whatsoever, men ought to have " run after
his productions as if urged by an appetite, or constrained
by a spell." It is in vain for Wordsworth to reply, that
" every author, as far as he is great, and at the same time
original, has had the task of creating the taste by which
he is to be enjoyed." Granting for a time that Words-
worth, according to his own intimation, is great and ori-
ginal, I, in the first place, cannot allow that a taste for any
great and original style of writing can possibly be created ;
it can only be called forth, where it exists. Scarce one
person in a thousand has a real feeling for real poetry, as
disjoined from extrinsic stimulants of interest, such as arise
from an agitating story, the display of private feelings and
circumstances, or from the caprice of fashion. The single
person feels, and decides, and sets a value upon any pro-
duction of a high stamp, and the accumulating testimony
of these individuals at length (perhaps not until many
generations have past away) influences the many, and
they conspire to read and to praise what they neither
understand nor value, simply because the poet's worth has
been acknowledged by a body of enlightened men, and
they dare not dissent from the verdict, lest they should be
supposed to want taste and feeling. The author has taken
his station amongst those of an established rank, and the
crowd throw incense on the altar of his fame, without
snatching a spark of its fire. Wordsworth grounds
much of his argument upon the facts, that in Dryden's
time "two of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher were
acted for one of Shakspeare," and that Milton's Paradise
Lost was coldly received, and rose slowly into fame. I
believe that Shakspeare, Milton, or any other esteemed
VOL. I. 20

230 AVILso^'s miscellaneous avritings.

writer, is not more enjoyed now than he was when his
works first appeared, but that the greater publicity of his
name places him within the reach of a greater number of
readers capable of appreciating him. Those who never
would have appreciated him, are not raised by his works
to a keener faculty of discernment. Those who can ap-
preciate him have only to open his book, at once to leap
into his meaning, and to partake his passion. He is but
conventionally admired by the many, while he is truly
relished by the few.

But, in the second place, Wordsworth's pretensions to
greatness and originality are founded upon the natural and
human character of his subjects and language. Now, if
the taste by which we relish any production is not (as 1
endeavoured to prove) created, but called forth, the taste
by which Wordsworth's writings are to be enjoyed should
be called forth in almost every human breast; because,
how far soever the taste may have strayed from the pri-
mary afTections of humanity, still the return to nature is
always comparatively easy — and it is back to nature that
Wordsworth purposes to lead us. That which relates to
men may surely be understood and enjoyed by men, at all
times and in all seasons. A relish for every-day food
demands not that education of the palate, which we must
undergo before we can eat olives with any enjoyment;
and where there is so much nausea to overcome, it may
be doubted whether the subsequent pleasure is worth the
previous pain. I was told, that if I could but once swallow
one of that unnatural fruit, I should like the whole tribe
ever after. I swallowed three, and hate them still. But
how can Wordsworth reconcile his assertion, that every
great and original author creates the taste by which he is
enjoyed, with another explicit declaration of his, which
runs thus? — "The poet writes under one restriction only,
namely, that of the necessity of giving imviediate pleasure
to a human being, possessed of that information which may
be expected of him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mari-
ner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as a
man ;" and he goes on to say, " Nor lot this necessity of
producing immediate pleasure be considered as a degra-
dation of the poet's art. It is far otherwise. It is an


aGknowledgmcnt of the beauty of Iho universe — an ac-
knowledgment the more sincere, because it is not formal,
but indirect." This being the case, surely the poet of
nature more especially must be under the necessity of
giving immediate pleasure to those who share the feelings
of men ? And facts will bear me out in the assertion,
that he actually does impart that immediate pleasure to a
far wider circle of readers than the poet who has chosen
lofty and abstracted themes of argument. As I once be-
fore observed, the simplest ballads, detailing the commonest
incidents, have been most inwoven with the hearts of men,
and have been laid up in the memories of all, while Milton
has been quietly laid on the shelf. And why? Because
neither science nor learning, nor even high poetical feel-
ing, is required for the comprehension of them. To be a
human being is the sole qualification. The very lowest of
the vulgar are not bad judges of what is true to nature. I
have observed, that the galleries in a theatre know how
to mark, by discriminating applause, the finest natural
touches of Shakspeare's genius. Moliere constituted an
old woman his judge, and her laughter or tears his criti-
cism. Why did Cowper, by means of his " Task," and
Burns, through his ballads, find an immediate echo in
every human bosom? They wrote of things pertaining to
humanity in a human manner. If Wordsworth has failed
in producing a similar efiect, it may lead us to surmise
that, although purporting to write of human things, he
has not generally written in a human or natural manner.
The popularity of some of his smaller and simpler poems,
such as " We are Seven," "Susan Gray," and the " Pet
Lamb," strengthens the conjecture, and forms an additional
proof, that to write naturally on common subjects rather

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 20 of 34)