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dim recollections, which he supposes us to retain in child-
hood, of our former state, and calls them 'obstinate ques-
tionings,' that ever recur to the mind with the inquiry,
Whence came we? — transitory gleams of our glorious
pre-existence, that ' fall away' and ' vanish' from before
us almost as soon as they appear — ' misgivings' that we



arc not as we have been — a feeling that we have scarcely
as yet realised our present state of being to ourselves."
The neophyte thanked the expositor, but still sighed ;
" for," said he, " when I think of my childhood, 1 have
only visions of traps, and balls, and wliippings. I never
remember being ' haunted for ever by the Eternal Mind.'
To be sure, 1 did ask a great many questions, and was
tolerably obstinate, but I fear these are not the ' obstinate
questionings,' of which Mr. Wordsworth speaks." The
reader proceeded : —

"Hence, in a s»ason of calm weather,

Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea,

Wliich brought us hither;
Can in a moment travel thitlior,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore."

" Well !" exclaimed a sort of neutral personage, a very
good, but somewhat heavy man — " these lines are, I must
say, very grand, and — (he paused) — very sublime 1 I like
them better than all the rest." — " Are you quite certain
that you understand them ?" asked the laughing sceptic.
" To be sure !" answered the previous speaker. " Have I
not often put a conch shell to my ear, and heard the roar-
ing of the sea as plainly as if I were at Brighton, though I
really was in London '.'" A burst of laughter from the
querist followed the reply, and became infectious to many
of the party. When order was restored, the other sceptic,
who had maintained his gravity tliroughout, remarked that
lie thought the neutral's explanation of the idea raised in
his mind by the poet's words was interesting, inasmuch as
it proved that, very frequently, the pleasure we derive
from poetry consists in the colouring which our own minds
impart to an author's meaning; and that words, taken in
the aggregate, often stamp on the fancy an image, which,
when they are analysed, is found to be scarcely analogous
to their real signification. Thus, also, one line in a poem
may excite a series of delightful thoughts, which the next
line may destroy by giving too definite a form to the un-
liuished sketch whereon imagination had delighted to excr-


CISC her scope and power. " To give an instance of this,"
he continued, '< I remember opening, for the first time,
Lord Byron's third canto of Childe Harold, at the notes,
and reading this line placed at the end of one of them,

' The sky is changed ; and such a change ! — oh night !'

This simple ejaculation ' Oh night !' touched upon a thou-
sand vague and delightful associations, and involuntarily
I anticipated to myself, in a dim kind of way, the grandeur
that was to follow. But, when I turned to the page whence
the line was taken, and read, —

' Oh night,
And storm, and darkness, ye are wondrous strong.
Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light
Of a dark eye in woman,'

the whole tone of my feelings seemed lowered, and the
same sort of jarring sensation was produced in my spiritual
man, as that which our bodily organs experience, when,
walking in the dark, we put out one foot with the notion
that a deep step is below it, and find ourselves still on plain
gi'ound. This power of association — this imperfection of
language as a vehicle of thought — this omnipotence of
mind over matter, should make us less surprised that ideas,
which appear original and splendid to one person, should
to another seem trite and poor. That which Shakspearc
affirms of a jest, is equally true with regard to serious

" Their propriety lies in the ear of him that hears them.
AV'ordsworth, if I mistake not, himself acknowledges, that,
in some instances, ' feelings even of the ludicrous may bo
given to his readers by expressions which appeared to liim
tender and pathetic;' but he does not, as in fairness he
should have done, observe, on the other hand, that ideas
and expressions which he scarcely meant to be other than
laughable, or at least subordinate, may excite in his ad-
mirers very tender or noble feelings. He tells us, (for I
have accurately read his own defence of his system,) ' the
reader ought never to forget that he is himself exposed to
the same errors as the poet, and perhaps in a much greater

272 Wilson's miscellaneous wkitings.

degree ;' but, I confess, 1 am of opinion, that in proportion
as the author's feeling of his subject is more intense and
more tinged with his own [)eculiar consciousness, in that
jM'oportion is he more liable to be mistaken in appreciating
the originality and excellence of his compositions. That
which we feel vividly, we are apt to think we fee! newly ;
and all that appears new to ourselves, we deem must be
new to all the world. Every poet is, no doubt, original to
himself, just as every retailer of Joe Miller is a wit in his
own eyes, for no one knowingly relates a twice-told tale.
Let a really original thought strike a reader ever so much,
it can never have upon his mind the same full and fresh
effect that it had on the writer's, when it first struck him;
— and for this reason — a true poet can never express his
whole meaning: there still remains behind that which
passes utterance. Wordsworth, fond as he is of paradox,
never vented a stranger than when he affirmed that the
author is a more competent judge of his own works than
the reader, because the latter ' is so much less interested in
the subject.' The voice of ages, — the embodied spirit
of human wisdom — to which Wordsworth declares ' his
devout respect, his reverence, is due,' has decreed that
no man is a competent witness in his own cause ; and for
this manifest reason, that, as long as we are fallible human
creatures, our self-partiality must, to a certain degree
throw dust in the eyes of the best of us. It is the
looker-on who sees most of the game : it is the coo\,u?iin-
tcrcstcd reader who can best detect an author's errors.
Even though the former, as Wordsworth fears, ' may de-
cide lightly and carelessly,' yet his very lightness and
carelessness may hit off' a truer judgment than any to which
the passionate earnestness of the poet can, in its over zeal,
attain. The fresh eye of a casual spectator can better
decide upon a portrait's resemblance than the eye of the
painter, who has so long pored over the canvass, as to
have his very errors wrought into his visual perceptions
with all the force of truth, and who has bestowed so much
attention upon each separate part, that the result escapes
him. It is this which renders it dangerous for an author
to paint too exclusively, as Wordsworth has, from his own
mind. Although it is not to be expected that a poet's ideas
are to be recognised by all the world, (since he places


himself in colloquy with the better part of his species,) yet
it is a poet's wisdom, as well as his duty, to bring Ibrward
such thoughts and feelings as shall be held in common by
a large body of mankind, otherwise he runs a risk of sub-
stituting the idiosyncrasies of an individual, for the grand
features of human nature in general. The greater part of
the Platonic ode, to which we have been listening, lies
under this objection, namely, that it gives a private inter-
pretation to a feeling almost universal — I mean the linger-
ing regret with which we look back upon the period of
childhood. Wordsworth calls the ode, 'Intimations of
Immortality from Recollections of early Childhood.' It
should rather be entitled, ' Intimations of Pre-Existence ;'
unless our author means to say that, having existed from
all eternity, we are of an eternal and indestructible essence;
or, in other words, that being incarnate portions of the
Deity (as Plato supposes), we are as immortal as himself.
But if the poet intends to affirm this, do you not perceive
that he frustrates his own aim '.' For if we are of God's
indivisible essence, and receive our separate consciousness
from the wall of flesh which, at our birth, was raised be-
tween us and the Fount of Being, we must, on the dissolu-
tion of the body, on the casting down of the partition, be
again merged in the simple and uncompounded Godhead,
lose our individual consciousness, and, although in one
sense immortal, yet, in another sense, become as though
we had never been. If 1 were to speak as a critic, of the
whole poem, I should say that Wordsworth does not dis-
play in it any great clearness of thought, or felicity of
language. I grant that ideas, however well expressed,
may possibly be so abstruse as to present difficulties to the
ordinary reader ; but the ode in question is not so much
abstruse in idea as crabbed in expression. There appears
to be a laborious toiling after originality, ending in a dismal
want of harmony. With a dithyrambic irregularity of
construction, which ought to have afTurdcd the poet full
scope for varied music, there exists a break-toolh rugged-
ncss of versification — the general characteristic of Words-
worth's attempts at mysterious loftiness. Melodious as he
is in his simpler movements, the jerks and jumbles of his
more ambitious style are truly astonishing. Mis sublimity

274 -Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

seems, like the burden of Sisyphus, pushed hard up hill,
only to rumble back to the plain. In one instance we find
a line of four syllables succeeded by a super-Alexandrine
of fourteen. ■»

' Thou child of joy,
Shout round me — let me hear thy shouts, thou happy shepherd
boy 1"

The rhymes are inartificial, and indeed incorrect, to a de-
gree which would appear to indicate cither a want of ear,
or a deficiency of skill in the poet ; and which would for
ever forbid the ode from ranking with the great lyrical
models in our language. Witness —

' Oh evil day, if I were sullen
While the earth herself is adorning
This sweet May morning',
And the children are 'pulling,'' &c.

And again,

' Not in cr\\J\YC forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory, do we come
From God, who is our home.''

In a composition of high pretensions, such careless and
brief numbers as these,

' A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral ;'

' As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation ;'

together with the perpetual introduction of the expletives
'did,' and 'do,' produce the same unhapp}^ efiect as a
dancer in a minuet tumbling head over heels. But I have
too long suspended the conclusion of the ode, which is
beautiful, and sufiiciently attests the superiority of Words-
worth's natural, over his artificial style. What can be
more noble than the following lines? They must find
an echo in every human breast.


' What though the radiance, which was once so bright,
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Tliouijh notiiing can bring back the liour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather fmd

Strength in what remains behind.

In the primal sympathy,

Which having been must ever be,

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering.

In the faith, that looks through death,
In years that bring the pliilosophic mind.' "

" Well," exclaimed the Wordsworthian " who would
have thought that you^ of all persons in the world, knew
Wordsworth by heart?" — "I have derived as great plea-
sure," replied the sceptic, " from the best part of his
works, as I have received pain from the worst." The
ode was then finished without farther interruption, and the
party dispersed ; but not before the good dull neutral had
petitioned for the loan of the book, that he might study at
leisure that sublime passage about " the mighty waters
rolling evermore."

It may be expected that I should not pass by in silence
the poem which some persons consider Wordsworth's best
— the Excursion. It is certainly the most ambitious of his
productions, and by its length seems to claim an import-
ance, not possessed by his shorter pieces. But while I
acknowledge that there are exquisitely beautiful passages
in the Excursion (and perhaps none more so than that
which the Edinburgh Review extracted for reprobation,
beginning —

" Oh then what soul was his, when, on the tops
Of the high mountains, he beheld the sun
Rise up and bathe tiie world in light!")

. P. 13, 8vo. ed.

— while I reverence the [)urity of intention, and devotional
love of nature, which it displays, I cannot but consider
that the ground-work is a mistake, and the execution, on
the whole, a failure. As this poem is the most bulky
which Wordsworth has published, so it displays on a

276 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

larger scale, the errors produced by his erroneous theory.
By tying himself down to humble life, the author has in-
volved himself in a net of contradictions ; for his system
bound him to choose a hero of lowly birth and breeding,
yet his purpose demanded that he should make that hero
the mouth-piece of the profoundest philosophical reflections.
He was also, by the plan of his poem, constrained to give
a vagabond existence to the principal personage, whose
unity of presence was to connect the scattered thoughts,
scenes, and histories, into one ; therefore he does not hesi-
tate boldly to shock our poetical associations, by choosing
a pedlar for the hero of the Excursion. Whether he has
been more especially mistaken in selecting a man of this
judaical trade — the very mention of which brings a black
beard, a mahogany box, garters, tapes, and tin trays be-
fore the eye — I will not pause to inquire; but, "taking
up the question on general grounds," 1 may observe, that
to make any man in low life the repository of such senti-
ments, as a high-gifted individual alone could be supposed
to entertain, is extremely injudicious ; because probability
is violated, and probability is the soul of that pleasure
which we receive from fictitious incident or dialogue. If
a Burns, or a Chatterton, be a miracle, a production of
nature out of the ordinary course of her creation ; if by
'posaibility , once in a century, a low-born man reaches to
high attainments by native vigour of intellect — why choose
the solitary instance on which to found a poem of human
interest — why make a pedlar utter reflections which are
only to be found in the mind of a Wordsworth? For
instance; (I quote ad ajjcrturam libri;)

" Powers depart,
The gray-lmWd wanderer steaxJfaslly replied,
Possef:sions vanisli, and opinions chane,
And ])assions hold a fluctuating seat;
But by llie .storms of circumstance unshaken,
And subject neither to eclipse or wane,
Duty exists; — immutably survive.
For our support, tiic measures and tlie forms,
Which an abstract intelligence supplies,
Whose kingdom is where time and spiice are not."


Is it likely, that the samo voice, which asks a farmer's
wife to buy a piece of bobbin, should pronounce a speech
like the foregoing ?

The language also of the Excursion, as being more
strictly in accordance with that part of Wordsworth's
theory which identifies verse with prose, is generally harsh
and dragging, full of long unimaginative, and, (if I may
use the expression,) tnaihcmaiical words. For instance-r-

" Of rustic parents bred, he had been train'd
(So prompted their aspiring wish) to skill
In numbers, and the sedentary art
Of penmanship, — with pride profess'd, and taught
By his endeavours in tjie mountain dales.
Now, those sad tidings weighing on liis heart,
To books, and papers, and the studious desk
Ho stoutly readdress'd himself."

What art, I would ask, can render such words as " se-
dentary," and " penmanship" poetical ? The mind has
been too much accustomed to them, in its prosaic moods,
to feel them so. This is blank verse indeed ! " The con-
tinual and regular impulses of pleasurable surprise from
the metrical arrangement" of which Wordsworth speaks,
are as though they were not in such metre as this. I
would undertake to read many a page of this poem with-
out being convicted of poetry — that is, if I read it in the
usual mode of recitation ; but give it to a Wordsworthian,
and he perhaps, by the alchemy of his voice, would con-
vert it into numbers. If Wordsworth recites poetry in
the same style as his admirers, I can easily imagine how
it is that the prosaic seems to him the poetical, — the lu-
dicrous, the sublime ; for they repeat the tale of Goody
Blake with the same good emphasis and discretion where-
with they say or sing a passage from the Excursion. Their
monotone levels all distinctions, and would make the most
laughable comedy in the world a very tragic performance.
But an ordinary reader must regret that Mr. Wordsworth
should have given himself the trouble to arrange a great
part of the Excursion in lines of ten syllables ; lor, as far
as regards effect, the pleasure of the ear is lost. The
most fatal fault of the Excursion is that it is too long. I

VOL. I. 24

278 Wilson's miscellaneous avritings.

do not mean in respect to quantity, (for I have heard a
longer sermon of fifteen minutes than one of fifty,) but
long in respect to the quantity of idea spread over a sur-
face of words. Every thing is long in it, the similes, the
stories, the speeches, the words, the sentences (which are
indeed of a breathless length), — and yet, awful to relate,
it is only the third part " of a long and laborious work !"

But it may still be urged, by those who consider Words-
worth a \ioci o'i first-rate merit and originality, that the
force of his genius has been demonstrated by its etlects
upon the taste and literature of the age. They may boast
that he brought back the public mind from a love of false
glare and glitter, to the simplicity and truth of nature.

He himself says, after a retrospective view of diflerent
eras of literature, "It may be asked, where lies the par-
ticular relation of what has been said to these volumes?
The question will be easily answered by the discerning
reader, who is old enough to remember the taste that pre-
vailed when some of these poems were first published,
seventeen years ago, who has also observed to what de-
gree the poetry of this island has since that jyeriod heen co-
loured by them.''''

That the taste of the age, about the period when Words-
worth published his first poems, was far gone from nature,
I allows I grant that (to use Wordsworth's own words)
"the invaluable works of our elder writers were driven
into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German
tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in
verse," and I honour the attempt to restore a healthier
tone of feeling. Stilt, I cannot attribute the inevitable re-
ac-tion, which took place at one period, to aught but the
natural tendency of all extremes to produce reaction, and
unfortunately again to verge into extremes. Wordsworth
himself I consider less a moulding spirit of the age, than a
perverted production of it. He began to write at the era
when men were wearied with perpetual stimulants, and
disgusted with copies of copies ad infinitum. Thomson,
in his Seasons, had already dared to use nothing but a
pencil and a pallet, and his own eyes, in delineating nature ;
Burns had presented her to the world in her sweetest, her
freshest, her simplest attire : and Wordsworth went a step


farther, — ho stripped her naked. Yet his roUowcrs have
been fow. The master-spirits of an age have always had
their imitators, and have given somewhat of an abiding
character to the literature of a whole century. But who
has imitated Wordsworth'.' Where is the stamp and im-
press of his mind to be found in this generation 1 Sim-
plicity has again lost ber charms for the public taste.
Nature, indeed, is still worshipped, but it is nature in
frenzy and distortion. Alas ! that evil should be so much
more enduring and energetic than good ! If Wordsworth
cannot justly be ranked (as his worshippers rank him) the
first genius of the age, still, his lower station on the fair
hill of virtue is more enviable than that of others on the
lightning-shattered pinnacle of vice. And, if Wordsworth
would be contented to occupy that more lovely station grace-
fully and meekly, there would be no dissentient voice to dis-
pute his honours. But he has yet to learn the important
lesson of remaining silent under evil report and good report.
Why, if W^ordsworth so implicitly believes in the justice
of" Time the corrector, where our judgments err;" why,
if he is so steadfastly assured that the " great spirit of
human knowledge," moving on the wings of the past and
the future, will assign him his proper station in the ranks
of literature; why, if he is persuaded that his volumes,
" both in words and things, will operate in their degree to
extend the domain of sensibility, for the delight, the
honour, and the benefit of human nature," — why does he
write so many pages io jJ^'ove the truth of his convictions?
Can he talk himself into immortality ? Self-praise is, of
all modes of self-aggrandisement, the least graceful, and
the most impolitic. Why should we give a man that
which he has already bestowed on himself? And, if we
think that the self-eulogist claims too great a share of
merit, human nature is up in arms to dispute with him
every inch of his overgrown territory. W^hat shall we
say to a poet who thus writes of his own works ] He first
notices, that " after the transgression of Adam, Milton,
with other appearances of sympathising nature, thus marks
the immediate consequence :

' Sky lovver'd, and, muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completion of the mortal sin.' "

280 Wilson's miscellaneous wkitings.

And then, a little while after, he goes on to say, " Awe-
stricken as I am by contem[)Iating the operations of the
mind of this truly divine poet, I scarcely dare venture to
add, that ' An Address to an Infant ! ! !' which the reader
will find under the class of Fancy in the present volumes,
exhibits something of this communion and interchange,"
&c. Yet awe-stricken as Wordsworth says he is in the
contemplation of Milton's mind, he docs not scruple to
parody Milton's sonnet, beginning " A book was writ of
late call'd Tetrachordon," by one beginning " A book was
writ of late call'd Peter Bell." He should have remem-
bered that Milton never wrote a line in defence of his
2)0cms, as indeed a person's own poetry is no fit subject for
polemics : and while assimilating himself (in kind, if not
in degree) to Shakspeare, he should have taken a lesson
from the silent grandeur with which the latter gave his
works to posterity, not even keeping a copy of those writ-
ings, which he knew " the world would not willingly let
die." He should have reflected that true power is calm.
Indeed, were I not disposed to estimate Wordsworth's
powers very highly, I should almost draw an argument
against them from the tone of self-exaltation which pervades
his prose writings. To be dissatisfied with its own produc-
tions, is the most usual temper of a mighty mind that sees
before it " the unreached paradise of its despair." Virgil
condemned his yEneid, the delight of after ages, to the
flames ; and Collins, with his own hands, burnt the unsold
edition of his poems. Wordsworth, however, need not
fear. The uneasy doubts, respecting his real title to im-
mortal fame, which his very restlessness and irritability
betray, are groundless. Ho must survive. But, in the
mean time, he must allow the present generation to be a
little amused, when they meet in his works with such a
passage as the following: — " Whither, then, shall we turn
for that union of qualifications which must necessarily
exist l)efore the decisions of a critic can be of absolute
value 1 for a mind at once poetical and philosophical ; for
a critic whose aflections are as free and kindly as the
spirit of society, and whose understanding is severe as
that of dispassionate government l Where are we to look
for that initiatory composure of mind which no selfishness


can disturb? lor a natural sensibility that has been tutored
into correctness, without losing any thing of its quietness,

&c associated with a judgment that cannot be duped

into admiration by aught that is unworthy of it ?" And
he then answers his own interrogatories : — " Among those,

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 24 of 34)