John Wilson.

Critical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) online

. (page 22 of 34)
Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 22 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Thus answer'd Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel's story."

But it may be objected that I have only given the story,
which is the mere vehicle of the feeling. I will, therefore,
more accurately trace the " fluxes and refluxes" of Betty's
maternal passion. First we find her anxiety that Johnny
should comport himself like a man of sense;

" And Betty's most especial charge

Was, Johnny ! Johnny ! mind that you

Come home again, nor stop at all, —

Come home again, whate'er befall.
My Johnny do, I pray you do."

Then comes a flux o^ joy at seeing Johnny make such a
good figure on horseback —

" His heart it was so full of glee

That, till full fifty yards were gone.
He quite forgot his holly whip,
And all his skill in horsemansliip —
Oh happy, happy, happy, John /"

" And Betty's standing at the door,

And Betty's face with joy o'erflows,
Proud of herself and proud ofliim.
She sees him in his travelling trim;
How quietly her Johnny goes!"

Then comes a sad reflux of apprehension, from .Johnny's
protracted absence, which shows itself, first in " a subtle

woRDSWORxn. 245

winding," which induces her to cast vile reflections on
Johnny, and to call him " a little idle sauntering thing" —
then in a tender regard for his safety — and, finally, in
quitting " poor old Susan Gale," to look for her idiot boy.
This time the tide of her feelings is quite at a spring-ebb,
and she has serious thoughts of becoming a second
Ophelia :

" A green-grown pond she just has past,
And from the brink she hurries fast,
Lest she should drown herself therein."

For nothing can she see or hear; and the night is so still,

" The grass you almost hear it growing —
You hear it noto if e'er you cany

Then, with a sort of eddy in the reflux of her passions, she
indulges in conjectures as to Johnny's fate, to which con-
jectures the bard adds a few of his own, as thus —

" Perhaps with head and heels on fire,

And like the very soul of evil,
He's galloping away, away !
And so he'll gallop on for aye,

The bane of all that dread the devil !"


" Your pony's worth his weight in gold;
Then calm your terrors, Betty Foy !
She's coming from among the trees.
And now all full in view she sees
Him whom she loves, her idiot boy."

Then does the tide flow in again up to high-water mark,
and Betty manifests her raptures, (as before mentioned,)
by nearly upsetting the pony. No wonder that Words-
worth should write in metre, (and such metre !) lest the
excitement produced by his pathetic histories should be
carried beyond its proper bounds !

Wordsworth says, in speaking of his Lyrical Ballads,
" They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and
inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist

246 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, fre-
quently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and
awkwardness. They will look round for poetry, and will
bo induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these
attempts can be permitted to 'assume that title." Oh, Mr.
Wordsworth ! will they alone, who have been accustomed
to gaudy and inane phraseology, struggle with feelings of
strangeness in reading your Idiot Boy, and look round for
poetry 1 May not the spirit, deeply imbued with Homer,
Virgil, Shakspeare, Milton, feel somewhat strange at meet-
ing with such lines as these —

" Burr, burr! Now Johnny's lips they burr!
As loud as any mill, or near it;
Meek as a lamb the pony moves,
And Johnny makes the noise he loves,
And Betty listens, glad to hear it !"

And may it not look round, with somewhat of a blank
amazement, for poetry 1

Really, such compositions as these seem to be published
as experiments to ascertain rather the quantum of man-
kind's credulity, than any important fact. It is said, that
Wordsworth carefully corrects his poems; and he himself
begs to be exempted from " the most dishonourable accu-
sation which can be brought against an author, namely,
that of an indolence, which prevents him from endeavour-
ing to ascertain what is his duty, or, when his duty is
ascertained, prevents him from performing it." Yet I
could almost fancy that such poems as the Idiot Boy were
composed while the author was drawing on his boots in
the morning, and then that, over his wine in the evening,
he had exercised his ingenuity in fitting a theory to his
verses. He very wrongly omits to point out the most im-
portant moral of the Idiot Boy, which decidedly is to be
drawn from the pseudo-malady of Susan Gale, and its rapid
departure, and which seems to be, that real misfortunes
cure fanciful patients. But, to be serious, can any one
assert that the maternal passion is not rather held up to
ridicule than to admiration, by being found in company
with such associates'? So far from the feeling developed


in this poem being able to give importance to the action
and situation, the poor feeling, like a baby overlaid by a
fat mother, is smothered beneath the overpowering comi-
caHty of the action and situation. I would ask, what has
Wordsworth gained by working in coarse materials, in
order to illustrate the " primary laws and great affections
of our nature?" He may have traced '■'■ truly ^'' but cer-
tainly not " unostentatiously," (for the very attempt is
ostentatious,) the workings of a silly woman's mind in
losing her idiot boy ; but what has this to do with the more
noble, the more dignified, manifestations of the maternal
passion ? He ought to show that there is some great ad-
vantage in the introduction of vulgar characters, and in
the use of trivial incidents, to counterbalance the defects
naturally produced by such a descent from poetic dignity.
Shakspeare's Lear is a king, and his daughters are prin-
cesses, and his history is founded on no less an event than
the loss of a kingdom ; yet the paternal feelings, with all
their fluctuations, are, I should imagine, displayed as finely
in his sufferings, as they could be, if he were a Johnny,
and his daughters Betty Foys. To be odd is not to be
original, in a good sense. Nature may be, when unadorned,
adorned the most ; but a cousin-Betty dress will spoil her
form more than a velvet robe and sweeping train. A rose
with all its leaves, has the beauty of proportion as well as
of colour. Strip off the leaves, and the flower does but
encumber the slim and naked stalk. Wordsworth, in his
prologue to Peter Bell, represents the muse as tempting
him to loftier themes, in the following really excellent
lines :

" I know the secrets of a land

Where human foot did never stray;
Fair is the land as evening t^kies,
And cool — though in the depth it lies
Of burning Africa.

" Or we'll unto the realm of Faery,

Among the lovely shades of things ;
Tlie shadowy forms of mountains bare,
And streams, and bowers, and ladies fair,
Tiie shades of palaces and kings !"

248 Wilson's miscella^neous writings.

And the poet replies to these seductions,

" Long have I loved what I behold,

The night that calms, the day that cheers;
The common growth of mother earth
Suffices me — her tears, her mirth.
Her humblest mirth and tears.

" The dragon's wing, the mystic ring,

I shall not covet for my dower.
If I along that lowly way
With sympathetic heart may stray.

And with a soul of power.

" These given, what more need I desire,
To stir, to soothe, to elevate?
What nobler marvels than the mind
May in life's daily prospect find.
May find, or these create ]

" A potent wand doth sorrow wield;
What spell so strong as guilty fearl
Repentance is a tender sprite.
If aught on earth have heavenly might,
'Tis lodged within her silent tear."

Now this is beautiful, and had Wordsworth always, or
often, written thus, and in strict accordance with the prin-
ciples conveyed in the above exquisite lines, it would (as
Johnson said of Gray) " have been vain to blame, and
useless to praise him." But, when we drop from such
chaste and classical poetry, at once, " a thousand fathoms
down" to such a stanza as this,

" Here sit the vicar and his dame,

And there, my good friend Stephen Otter ;

And, ere the light of evening fail.

To them I must relate the tale
Of Peter Bell the Potter."

When we read the talc itself, of Peter Bell, " who had a
dozen wedded wives," and who is converted to a holy life,
partly by a dead body which he sees in a river, and partly
by a '■^fervent methodist," but chiefly, and in truth, by the
ministry of a desolate donkey, wliich.


— " with motion dull,
Upon the pivot of his skull
Turn'd round his long left ear ;"

and, moreover,

— "did lengthen out
More ruefully an endless shout,
The long dry see-saw of liis horrible bray ;"

when we are told,

— " that through prevailing grace
He, not unmoved, did notice now
The cross upon thy shoulders scored,
Meek beast ! in memory of the Lord,
To whom all human-kind shall bow ;"

and when we learn, that, in consequence of all this, the
said Peter Bell

"Forsook his crimes, repressed his folly.
And after ten months' melancholy,

[Why te7b ?]
Became a good and honest man I"

how can we shake with any passion, but that of laughter?
Repentance is, indeed, a tender sprite, and if she " do her
spiriting gently," may melt into the heart ; but she is, in
truth, too tender for contact with such

"Alum styptics, whose contracting power
Shrinks her thin essence like a shrivell'd flower."

And this is the poem, of which Wordsworth says it could
not be published in company with the " Wagonner," " with-
out disadvantage," " from the higher tone of imagination,
and the deeper touches of passion, aimed at" in it ! !

But Wordsworth has not only contrived to place mater-
nal affection and repentance in an equivocal light ; he has
even been very merry with his own darling power, imagi-
nation, of which he says, " the soul may fall away from

250 avilson's miscellaneous writings.

it, not being able to sustain its grandeur !" That he has
fallen, overdazzled in the attempt to illustrate her divine
energies, most persons will acknowledge, who read the
tale of" Goody Blake and Harry Gill." He says that, in
this poem, he " wished to draw attention to the truth, that
the power of the human imagination is sufficient to pro-
duce such changes, even in our physical nature, as might
almost appear miraculous." The story, in plain prose, of
the criminal who was bled to death by imagination merely,
who, by hearing his sinking state described, (a bandage
having been placed over his eyes,) actually dropped life-
less at the words, " he dies," seems to me more forcibly
to display the power of the human imagination, than the
fact which Wordsworth has chosen to versify for that pur-
pose. The fact, which Wordsworth calls " a valuable
illustration," is as follows : — Goody Blake a very poor
old woman, was detected by Harry Gill, a lusty drover,
in pulling sticks out of his hedge. Now this is an offence
which no farmer can pardon ; so Harry Gill treated poor
Goody Blake rather roughly, on which the vindictive wo-
man prayed " to God, who is the judge of all, that he
might never more be warm." And he never more teas
warm, in spite of three greatcoats and innumerable blan-
kets. Surely this was rather more than poetical justice ;
for it is a sore trial to a farmer's temper to have his hedges
spoiled, especially to a drover, whose cattle may be ten
miles off before the morning, if his fences are broken over
night. Now, I also know of a striking fact, exemplifying
the power of the human imagination. It is as follows : —
There is an echo in the garden of a nobleman in a southern
county, which, if both the speaker and hearer be placed in
proper situations, appears as a voice proceeding from among
the tombs of a churchyard close by. A gentleman, igno-
rant of this circumstance, was walking in the garden, when
a mischievous person, throwing his voice into the church-
yard, said, " Thou shalt die before twelve this night ;" and
the gentleman (who was in a delicate state of health) ac-
tually did die that night, from the shock he received, even
although the trick was afterwards explained to him. Now,
although I consider this an important fact, as showing how
prophecies work their own accomplishment, and how the


'■'■greatest change^'' of all may be produced in our physical
nature by the power of the imagination, I do not consider
it a fit subject for poetry, any more than Prince Hohcn-
lohe's curative miracles, or the magnetic wonders of Main-
aduc ; nor would I put it into verse, even though I should
" have the satisfaction" (as Wordsworth tells us, with re-
spect to Harry Gill) " of knowing that it had been com-
municated to many hundreds of people, who would never
have heard of it, had it not been narrated as a ballad, and
in a more impressive metre than is usual in ballads." What
this more impressive metre is, we may learn by a refer-
ence to the poem itself: —

" Oh, what's the matter, what's the matter.
What is't that ails young flarry Gill,
That evermore his teelli tliey chatter,
Chatter, cliatter, chatter still.

"Of waistcoats Harry has no lack,
Good duffle gray and flannel fine;
He has a blanket on liis back,

And coats enough to smother nine!"

And this tale, Wordsworth tells us, ho related in metre,
amongst other reasons, because " we see that Pope, by the
power of verse alone, has contrived to render \\\q, jilainest
common sense interesting !" It is a pity that Wordsworth
will not allow us to take his ballads as mere levities, or
pieces of humour. As such they might possess consider-
able merit ; but as it is, we begin to laugh, and then the
theory comes over us with a spasmodic chill. We prirn
up our mouths, with the reflection, that this apparently
good fun is "a valuable illustration of an important fact."
We should shake hands with Peter Bell, if he did not pre-
tend to " a high lone of imagination." Were we to read
even John Gilpin with such an awllil impression, we should
be as grave over it as over a sermon. But

" ritlenti dicere verum
Quid vetat!"

The most important and melancholy convictions come to

252 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

us in a laugh — only they must come spontaneously, un-
suggested, uninfluenced by a theory. The story must tell
itself; the moral must shine through it like the sun ; the
motive must be transparent as the day. It is a clumsy
mode of instruction that itself requires explanation; it is a
dull joke that asks for analysis. Wisdom must be drop-
ped like seed, not hammered in like a nail. The human
mind (of which Wordsworth professes to know so much)
sets itself against a formal attempt to instruct or improve it.
Many persons may be the better for reading John Gilpin,
if it were only for the cordial spirit of drollery, without a
grain of malice, that runs through it; but if Cowper had
prefixed a philosophical disquisition to the ballad, we could
only have thought of the author's coxcombry. But some
of Wordsworth's defenders may say the poet meant you
to laugh sometimes. I ask, would he be well pleased if
we laughed at Peter Bell's catastrophe ?

I now proceed to point out the second error into which
the principle under consideration has led our author. He
has given a false importance to certain actions and situa-
tions, and has thereby been betrayed into language unsuit-
able to the occasion. As, in the first instance, he stripped
the feeling naked, he has, in this, trimmed it up in furbe-
lows and flounces. There seems to be the greater neces-
sity for noticing this defect at large, inasmuch as the
peculiarity mentioned is vaunted by Wordsworth's ad-
mirers as not only the distinguishing characteristic of his
poetry, but the great source of its excellence. They say
that, while other writers debase what is noble in itself by
their method of conveying it to the mind, Wordsworth
glorifies the meanest subject, and turns all he touches
(even pots and kettles) into gold. As ancient fables are
full of instruction, let us remember that King Midas, who
had this enriching faculty, was as much approximated to
the lower orders of creation by one other sad peculiarity,
as he was to the angelic race by being a sort of living phi-
losopher's stone. Is there not as much danger of the
mean subject dragging the splendid illustration of it into
the depths of bathos, as there is likelihood of the splendid
illustration raising the mean subject to the skies ? May
not incongruity as much be shown in dignifying what is


base, as in debasing what is dignified ? and may not truth
be equally profaned by such process? Nay, is it not a
greater hazard " to raise a mortal to the skies," than to
" draw an ang

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 22 of 34)