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and those only, who never having suffered their youthlul
love of poetry to remit much of its force, have applied to
the consideration of the laws of this art, the best power of
their understandings." And does not Mr. Wordsworth
consider himself to possess these qualifications? Is he not
to be found amongst this elect band of critics ? Can he
not, therefore, criticise his own works better than any
exoteric ? This spirit of self-admiration has made Words-
worth overrate the cfiects which his poetry has produced
on the age. He mistakes the clamour of a party for the
voice of a multitude. He says, " A sketch of my own
notion of the constitution of fame has been given ; and, as
far as concerns myself, I have cause to be satisfied. The
love, the admiration, the indifference, the slight, the aver-
sion, and even the contempt, with which these poems have
been received, knowing, as I do, the source, within my
own mind, from which they have proceeded, and the
labour and pains which, when labour and pains appeared
needful, have been bestowed upon them, &c., &c., ....
are all proofs that for the present time I have not laboured
in vain ; and afford assurances, more or less authentic,
that the products of my industry will endure." Words-
worth forgets that this theory and his poems have been
made a party question, and that he has perhaps more ex-
trinsic causes of fame than any other ; that his startling
oddities, and paradoxical assertions, are perhaps as stimu-
lating as the outrageous stiinidatioii (as he calls ii) which
he re[)robates. • Wordsworth thinks that he introduced a
taste for simplicity. If so, he introduced a taste most
hostile to an admiration of his own writings, for he is any
thing but simple. He is grotesque, which is quite oppo-
site to being simple. His very attempt to clothe lofty sen-
timents in lowly language betrays the greatest eccentricity.
If a king wore a shepherd's frock, he would manifest more
ambitious singularity than were he dressed in purple. In-
consistency and strangeness have been the very steps by

282 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

which Wordsworth has mounted into notice. Even were
it granted that he had i/iJli(C7iccd the taste of the age, it by-
no means follows that his influence has been hevejicial.
He talks of the " strange abuses which poets have intro-
duced into their language, till they and their readers take
them as matters of course, if they do not single them out
expressly as objects of admiration." Even if he have
abolished these, what does he gain if he replaces one form
of abuses by another form of abuses, till his readers take
them as matters of course, and most certainly do often
single them out expressly as objects of admiration '/"

Wordsworth's love of singularity is such, that he will
ijot even publish his poems in the ordinary form — but
must classify them under the heads of " Poems founded on
the Affections" — " Poems of the Fancy" — " Poems of the
Imagination," &c. When they first made their appear-
ance, they were not divided according to any arrangement
of the kind ; therefore it seems that this ingenious classifi-
cation was an after-thought — still farther (it might be) to
separate them from the herd of common poems. One
word upon the term " Poems of the Imagination." It
appears to me greatly too vague for the use of such a
philosophical writer as Wordsworth, whom his partisans
laud as almost the founder of a pure philosophical lan-
guage. He says that " poems, apparently miscellaneous,
may with propriety be arranged either with reference to
the powers of mind ivcdominant in the production of them,
or to the mould in which they are cast; or, lastly, to the
subjects to which they relate." Does the word "of"
express all this? Does it comprehend all the three cases?
To which head is the poem of Goody Blake and Harry Gill
to be referred? I suii])osc to the last; for as the story
narrated is a fact, imagination was not requisite for the
production of it, and as it is related in a plain style, it is
not cast in an imaginative mould. The question then is,
Does it relate to the imagination ? If we entertain the
same lofty, and somewhat vague ideas, that Mr. Words-
worth does, of this power, we should say not ; for, if it was
imagination that made Harry Gill cold for life, it appears
to bo a faculty of the same order, only more intensely
exhibited, with that which suiigests the maladies of a ner-


vous lady ; and it is Imrd to conceive that this is the
same power which dictated the Paradise Lost, and which
breathes throughout Shakspcare's dramas. The main
object of Harry Gill seems to be, not so much to demon-
strate the power of the human imagination, as to teach
farmers to be merciful ; for with this moral the talc con-
cludes —

" Now think, ye farmers all, I prav,
Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill!"

This rather savours of a post-application to the theory.
Such expedients as these to appear original, and to excite
attention, may succeed for a time, but when the party
question has ceased, will Wordsworth's poems ever be
remembered or admired as illustrations of a theory, or as
coming under the class of some predominant power of the
mind? Let Wordsworth ask himself in what manner
poetry is recalled to the memory of any person — some
thought, some image dwells with us, which some associa-
tion recalls ; and so far from stopping to inquire. Does
this come under the head of Fancy or Imagination ? we
scarcely ask if the lines are to be found in Shakspeare,
Dryden, or Pope. Good writing has but one mistress —
Nature, who is the same in all, however variously she
may arrange the folds of her decorative mantle; and it is
the jewel of the casket, the thought, the idea, that inward
part of poetry which stirs the sources of reflection in the
mind it addresses, which alone is valuable. The rest is
leather and prunella. If we are moved with the matter of
a quotation, it signifies little whether the manner be in
accordance with any particular theory. We admire it as
good ^)er se. If a theory could make a poet, might not all
be poets 1 Away, then, with the theory, and with half the
poems founded on the theor}' — the sister Emmelines — the
small celandines, sparrows' eggs, and Mr. Wilkinson's
spade into the bargain.

I have thus endeavoured to show, that neither by his
tlieory, nor by his mode of illustrating it, can Wordsworth
claim the honours due to the first-rate and original genius
— that he has not done any thing better than it has been
done by others. If we were fully to admit his own test of

284 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

genius, — namely, " the art of doing well what is worthy to
be done, and what was never done before^'' — we should
deny that Wordsworth has any genius at all. It is true
that he has frequently " done well what is worthy to be
done ;" but he has noL accomplished what " was never
done before." Even timongst writers of our own day, he
does not stand alone. In the choice of humble themes, he
has a formidable competitor in Crabbe ; in narrative, he is
rivalled by Scott and Southey ; in impassioned grandeur,
by Byron ; and (if we look a little farther back) in philo-
sophy, by Akenside. Yet I am far from denying that
Wordsworth has genius. In my opinion, the art of doing
well what is worthy to be done, is of itself a sufficient
proof of genius. Virgil has followed Homer in the man-
agement and conduct of his great heroic poem ; yet who
will assert that Virgil has no genius? I am rather dis-
posed to adopt Madame de Stael's definit;ion of this subtle
essence, namely, " enthusiasm acting upon talent ;" and I
conceive, that if a thing be good of its kind, it may mani-
fest genius, even though its prototype should exist. An
author of the highest order indeed, such as Homer, Shak-
speare, Dante, is necessarily the founder of his class; but
a man may be a fine writer, who, to whatever class he
may be referred, can be esteemed for his fine writing alone.
Now, I do not think that Wordsworth is first of any class ;
but I do think that he excels sufiiiciently in what belongs
to two or three classes, to be entitled (if we look to his
best performances) even a great writer. •

One fatal bar to Wordsworth's elevation in the ranks of
poetry is, that (to speak properly) he has no style of his
own. This assertion may surprise both his admirers and
non-admirers, each of whom may have mistaken certain
peculiarities of diction for a style of composition. That
even these peculiarities are assumed, and do not result
from an inherent originality of constitution, is evident
from his two earliest poems, namely, the " Evening
Walk," and " Descriptive Sketches," which were pub-
lished by themselves before the appearance of the " Lyri-
cal Ballads;" and which are given entire in the later
edition of his works. In these poems, Wordsworth pur-
sues the beaten track, adapts the good old Popcan metre.


and most approved cadence, and raises the whole compo-
sition upon the stilts of poetic diction — his present horror.
He represents himself as wandering

" His wizard course where hoary Derwent takes
Through crags, and forest glooms, and opening lakes ;"

and depicts scenes,

" Where, all unshaded, blazing forests throw
Rich golden verdure on the waves below;"

and where, moreover,

" Soft bosoms breathe around contagious sighs,
And amorous music on the water dies."

These poems indeed show talent, and contain some
beautiful lines, — as, for example,

" In thoughtless gaiety I coursed the plain,
And hope itself was all I knew of fain.''''

And in a comparison of life to a sun-dial, he even finely

" We know but from its shade the present hour ;"

but the greater part of these productions is written in a
style of vicious ornament, and most commonplace diction.
We find " angelic moods," " ruthless ministers," and
" cegis orbs." I shall be told, perhaps, that Wordsworth
was a very young man when he wrote thus, and that his
present style is the adoption of his maturer judgment. It
is the very circumstance of his having adopted a style,
which makes me say that he has no style of his own.
The early productions of our greatest poets (as far as they
are preserved to us) differ only in degree, not in kind,
from their after works. II Penseroso has Milton's stamp
upon it, and in Comus (as Dr. Johnson observes) may
plainly be discerned the dawn of" Paradise Lost." Pope's
" Pastorals" have the same cadence and method of expres-
sion which his maturer works exhibit. Shakspeare's early
poems and sonnets are marked by his peculiar turn of

286 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

language, and possess a singularly dramatic character.
These great masters never sat down to adopt a fixed style
of composition. It was their minds which made their
language, afterwards indeed pruned by experience, and
ripened by the summer of their intellect ; but the fruit had
a sharp and native flavour long " before the mellowing
year." That which was said by Wordsworth relative to
the connexion between youth and age, may be truly
affirmed of their style — " the child is father of the
man." But between the Wordsworth of the " Descriptive
Sketches," and the Wordsworth of the " Lyrical Ballads,"
there exists no link of union. At one leap, he passed
from the extreme of melodious ornament to the extreme of
harsh simplicity ; and by the rapidity of the transition
proved that he possessed no native originality of expres-
sion. His early poems were imitations of Pope and
Darwin ; his succeeding compositions were imitations of
" Percy's Relics of Ancient English Poetry ;" in his son-
nets he has imitated Milton ; in his inscriptions, Akenside.
If we admit, for the sake of argument, that his song pos-
sesses any native note, where shall we discover it, if not
in. his earliest warblings? We must turn from the in-
structed cadences of the bulfinch to the first trill which
came fresh from the teaching of nature. If, then, Words-
worth's first style was his truest, his subsequent manner
could not possibly have been natural to him ; and, if not
natural, how could it fulfil the conditions of his own
theory, how could it make good his pretensions to convey
simple thoughts in natural language? What can be native
but that which flows from nature ? Our poet too visibly
displays the ropes, wheels, and pulleys, whereby he sets
his machinery in motion, when he says that he has taken
" as much ^:'(7i;;5 to avoid poetic diction, as others ordi-
narily take to produce it;" or when he talks of '■'■pro-
cesses of creation, or composition, governed by certain
fixed laivs.'''' Perhaps (and 1 can easily believe it) he

found it difficult to write so ill It is rather

singular that Wordsworth's later poems have sided round
to the opinion of the world, and that they approach nearer
in style to his early productions. They are less startling,
less incongruous, — more ornate, inore latinized than those


in his middle manner. He goes so far as to commence a
sonnet with,

" Chang-e me, ye gods, into some breathing rose,
The love-sick stripling fancifully cries ;"

and he has (as he once phrased it) stooioed to accommodate
himself to public opinion so much as to omit several stan-
zas, and even whole poems, which had excited more ani-
madversion than others. By this temporizing conduct, he
has even ofiended his worshippers, many of whom have
regretted, in my hearing, the absence of the Wordsworthian
peculiarities from his later strains, and the consequent
decline of his genius. If his genius consisted in these pe-
culiarities, what sort of a genius must it have been? The
truth is, that the spring of Wordsworth's poetical conduct
has ever been the love of popularity — ay, let his admirers
start, and the poet be ever so voluble, I repeat, of popularity.
And a very rational incentive it is : it only becomes ridicu-
lous when loudly disavowed. Wordsworth sought popu-
larity, in his first publication, by accommodating his style
to the then prevailing taste. This gained him nothing.
He was overlooked amongst the multitude of conformists.
He then bore boldly up against general opinion, raised up
a host of haters, and consequently another host of defen-
ders, and chafed himself into notice, even as an uprooted
tree, while it floats down the stream, raises no disturbance
in the water, but when it stops short against the bank,
throws up a dash of foam and sparkles. At present, since
the human mind must ever be uneasy, while even one
Mordecai sits in the gate, his object is to conciliate his
literary enemies, yet still to retain his literary friends — an
object, I fear, unattainable. Thus, I repeat, governed by
any impulse rather than that of his own mind, Wordsworth
has no settled style, no native peculiarity of expression.
A line quoted from Shakspearc hath the image and super-
scription on it. Milton's autograph is not more decided
than the poetry it conveys ; but read to any one, not
acquainted with Wordsworth's writings, his early poems —
his Betty Foy, his Laodamia, one of his sonnets, and a
passage from the Excursion — would the auditor conjecture

288 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

that they were written by one and the same person? You
may urge that this variety of style shows great versatility
of talent. Possibly so, but versatility itself is a proof of
lightness rather than of strength: an intellectual gladiator
will not be an intellectual athlete. Wordsworth has frit-
tered away his undoubtedly great powers by trying many
styles and " experiments" in literature.

The last reason which I shall assign for my denying
Wordsworth's supremacy is — the extreme inequality of his
writings. By inequality, I do not mean the defects inci-
dent to all human composition, or the judicious neglect by
which certain parts of a poem arc left less laboured than
others — I mean an inequality almost peculiar to Words-
worth, and greatly resulting from the tendency, which I
before noticed, of his mind, to view all things, great and
small, on a level of equal importance. From this dispro-
portionate mode of observing objects, arises an extreme
minuteness in depicting them:

" Nothing is left out, much less forgot;"

and on this account it is that we read Wordsworth's most
beautiful passages in fear and trembling, for we can never
be certain that the next stroke of his pen may not hurl us
at once from the eminence to which we had risen. From
the aflecting story of a mourner, we are snatched to

" Gooseberry trees that shot in long lank slips,
Or currants hanging from the leafless steins,
In scanty strings ;" — Excursion.

from the solemn contemplation of a funeral, to

" A work in the French tongue, a novel of Voltaire;"


Wc read such touching lines as tlic following:

" Beside yon spring I stood,
And eyed its waters till we seemed to feel
One sadness they and I. For thorn a bond
Of brotherhood is broken: time has been,
When, every day, the touch of human hand


Dislodged tlie natural sleep that binds them up
In mortal stillness, tind tiiey ininister'd
To human comfort;"

and immediately we are hurried away to

"The useless fragment of a wooden bowl,
Green with the moss of years — a pensive sight !"

Thus, by going one step too far, Wordsworth loses all Ihe
groimd which he had previously gained. He so nakedly
exhibits objects over which the decent veil should be
drawn ; he brings into such unhappy prominence the minor
parts of a picture, that he leaves nothing to the imagina-
tion, which, if allowed more play, would suggest to itself,
in its own beautiful light, those very adjuncts to the scene,
which, when put into words, only offend its delicate per-
ceptions. The lonely spring had no need of the wooden
bowl to make its loneliness be felt. The " fragment" was
in every way " useless." This is what Delille calls
'< peindre les ongles." I have always regretted that one
of Wordsword's most beautiful small poems should exhibit,
in two places^ this faulty mode of description.

" I met Louisa in the shade,
And, having seen that lovely maid,

Why should I fear to say
That she is rmldij, fleet, and strong.
And down the rocks can leap along
Like rivulets in May"!"

Here we see a beautiful image marred by unlucky associa-
tions. This is still more the case in the following stanza:

" She loves her fire, her cottage-home;
Yet o'er the moorland will she roam

In weather rough and bleak;
And when against the wind she strains,
Oh miglit I kiss the mountain rains,

That sparkle on iicr cheek !"

Here, one of the most fresh and animated pictures in
the whole compass of English poetry is blurred by one
VOL. I. 25

290 vilson's miscellaneous writings.

disagreeable expression. Applied to the movement of
horses, as in the triplet,

" Up against the hill thoy strain —
Tugging at tiic iron chain,
Tugging all with might and main,"

the word is appropriate ; but, as describing the activity of
a young and beautiful girl, it is out of place; for Louisa,
although " ruddy, fleet, and strong,"

" Hath smiles to earth unknown,

Smiles, that w'ilh motion of tlieir own

Do spread, and sink, and rise;
That come and go with endless play.
And ever, as they pass away,

Are hidden in her eyes."

The foregoing stanza, which is perfect both in thought
and in expression, makes us feel how much we lose by the
fatal perversity with which Wordsworth blends the coarse
and the elegant, the ridiculous and the sublime. Would
that he had ^^ feared to saf a good deal of what he has
said ! A fondness for repetition, not less than for ampli-
fication, characterises his Muse. For instance, in the
beginning of the Excursion, we are told,

" ]^rom his sixth year, tlie boy of whom I speak,
In summer, tended cattle on the hills;"

and, in the space of a page or two, this piece of informa-
tion is repeated, for the benefit of the forgetful reader ;

" From early cliildhood — even, as hath been said,
From his sixth year, he had been sent abroad
In summer to tend lierds."

Weakening what he thereby vainly endeavours to render
impressive, our author frequently uses the prosaic expres-
sion, " or rather."

" The old inventive poets, had they seen,
Or rather felt," &c.

" At early dawn, or rullvr wlien the air
Glinunera with fading light," «!tc.

Sonnets on the Duddon.


But I should weary my reader by numbering all the
heads of the hydra fault. What I have brought forward
may suffice, to prove that Wordsworth is unequal, to a
degree never yet observed in any of the primates of
poetry. It may be urged that we are too apt to judge a
living author by his worst productions, while we judge
him " centum qui perficit annos" by his best. There is
some truth in this; but the best works of any established
author are generally good throughout, however they may
have written unworthily in other pieces ; while Words-
worth's good and bad are often so blended, so identified
even, in the same piece, that he is not elevated by it to
the rank which he would have gained, had it been com-
plete iji itself. I would not act so unfairly as to judge
Wordsworth by his Elarry Gill ; I would impartially I'ate
him by his most important work — the Excursion. I do
not deny but that this latter poem demonstrates genius
sufficient to have built a proportionate and goodly edifice ;
but, as it is, the Excursion stands like a vast unwieldly
structure, combining the barbarous magnificence with the
unsightly rudeness of darker ages ; adorned with lofty
towers, disfigured by masses of shapeless architecture,
displaying some portions in apparent ruin, and others that
seem never to have been completed ; hallowed by shrines
of elaborate carving, desecrated by headless and grass-
grown images; irradiated with chambers of gorgeous de-
light, perplexed by obscure passages that lead to nothing.

1 have now laid before the reader my reasons for
refusing to pay W^ordsworth the same homage that I
think justly due to Shakspeare, Milton, Pope, Thomson,
Gray, Collins, and Burns. The nature of the criticisms,
and the intricate mazes in which Wordsworth has involved
his theory, have obliged me to treat the subject at some
length ; and the specious manner in which the author has
invested thoughts by no means new with an air of origi-
nality, has constrained me to enter into the details with
perhaps too great a degree of minuteness. Yet for this I
can scarcely apologize, as I consider the subject suffi-
ciently important to justify a particular investigation. In
this day, when the correct and classical models of poetical
composition arc not only deserted, but contemned, — when

292 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

Pope is looked upon as a mere heartless versifier, and
when a place beside Milton is gravely demanded for
Wordsworth, there is great need that such questions
should be calmly and impartially discussed. It may be
expected that I should here make some disparaging speech
concerning the feebicnos.s of my own voice ; but I forbear,
for such speeches are never believed. If it be asked from
what motives I have written, I answer, first, and more
especially from the conviction just mentioned above, that
correctives to literary taste arc needed in the present day,
and from a wish to protect the rising generation from the
sophistry of zealous proselytes. To this leading incentive
may, no doubt, be added the usual blending of motives,
which produce almost every human action. As far as I
know myself, they are these. The pleasure of consider-
ing any literary question — a large endowment (as the
phrenologists would say) of the organ of combativcness —
a love of what is genuine, impelling me to oppose that
which is vulgarly called cant, of all sorts, (and that there
is a cant of Wordsworthianism, few can deny) — and
finally, the natural tendency of the mind to revolt from
unfounded pretensions. These motives have influenced
me, without the admixture (I owe it to myself to afiirm)
of one grain of malice. Indeed, when I consider the plea-
sure which some of Wordsworth's best productions have
given me, when I think how often a striking line or image
from his works will rise upon my remembrance, to en-
hance the enjoyment of the fairest landscape, or of the
happiest incident, I seem to stand convicted almost of
ingratitude towards one who has ministered so largely
towards my gratification; and nothing but a strong belief
that,- in proportion as Wordsworth's powers are great,

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 25 of 34)