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and the beauties of his Muse numerous, in that proportion
are his faults influential and dangerous, could have over-
come the reluctance with which I sat down, with an appa-
rent intent to lower the fame of the bard. I say apparent,
for the fact is, that I propose to do him more real justice
than his vehement admirers, inasmuch as I shall bring
forward his best compositions, while they only defend his
worst. Moreover, from the false supremacy in which his
disciples have enthroned him, the fall must, one day, be


SO great as to shake his reputation altogether ; while, on
the other hand, his claims to admiration being once placed
on the basis of truth, become immutable, and not to be
assailed. I have fully complied with Wordsworth's one
request, which he makes to his reader, namely, " that in
judging of the poems in question, he would decide by his
own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what
will probably be the judgment of others." " I do abide,"
as Wordsworth desires, " independently by my own feel-
ings." I may be " inca[)able," but I am not biassed.
Let my reader bear in mind, that I have, all along, only
judged Wordsworth by tliC public standard of his works —
as an author, and not as a man. The literary vanity on
which 1 have freely animadverted, does not exist in his
private life ; in that sphere he is unimpeachable ; and with
regard to his political conduct, no one would be readier
than myself to defend him from charges, which, when
brought against a man of his stamp of mind, are plainly
I'idiculous. I have now concluded the indictment, and all
that remains to me, is the pleasanter task of calling wit-
nesses on the other side. Having endeavoured to prove
that Wordsworth cannot be classed amongst our highest
authors, who are great by consistency, I shall proceed to
show, in the next and last part of this essay, that he may,
nevertheless, fairly claim to be associated with the band
of true poets in general.


Let me now proceed to the second part of my subject,
and endeavour to show, that in proportion as Wordsworth
has been over estimated by his too ardent admirers, he has
been underrated by those, who have had neither opportu-
nity nor desire to investigate his claims to public notice.
This will be a pleasant task, for I shall have to recall pas-
sages from which 1 have derived no ordinary degree of
gratification, and which, I hope, will impart somewhat of
the same feeling to my reader. At the same time, I fear
lest my method of defence should seem, when, contrasted

294 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

with my manner of conducting the impeaclimcnt, languid
tand inartificial. My previous plan forbids me to show
forth the beauties of Wordsworth in an argumentative and
methodical way ; for all the former part of my essay tends
to prove that Wordsworth is systematically wrong — how
then, without legal ambidexterity, can I undertake to prove
that he is systematically right? As I have maintained
that Wordsworth has never produced a great and consis-
tent whole, and that his fine thoughts lie scattered through-
out his writings, I must necessarily display his merits
rather by quotation than by argument: thus, I lay myself
open to the charge of expending my powers in censure,
and of rendering the work of praise a mere affair of the
scissors. However, I am encouraged by the reflection
that, with a large mass of readers, the course which I am
about to pursue, will be the most certain of attaining its
end. Wordsworth is not generally admired, only because
he is not generally known. To adduce a case in point —
I had frequently endeavoured to persuade some friends
that Wordsworth was an author of great merit. Like
many other persons, the}; entrenched themselves behind a
settled conviction of his inanity and childishness. Read
him they would not : admire him they were very certain
they could not. Reader, do not smile ! De te fabula nar-
ratur. Did you never condemn a cause (perhaps Words-
worth's cause) unheard 1 At length, after the controversy
had died away, I betook myself to quoting from his works,
without bringing forward the author's name. " What an
exquisite piece of poetry !" exclaimed one of my candid
friends, after I had finished reciting Wordsworth's sonnet
composed on Westminster Bridge ; " Is it not by some
great writer ? I scarcely know any one living whom I
consider worthy to have composed it." I repeated Lucy
Gray — "What pathos!" Laodamia — " What grandeur !"
" These poems are by Wordsworth," at length I said ;
"and, now that you know this, I will not allow you to
recede from one syllable of your praise." Since that day,
1 have heard no more of Wordsworth's childishness from
my worthy friends. Now, although in my present defence
of Wordsworth I cannot secure the advantage of conceal-
ing his name, which alone excites repugnance in so many


with whom a name is every thing ; yet I may possibly
startle some objectors into acquiescence, by flashing before
their eyes those passages of dazzling merit, for which they
never would have searched in the parent volume. Some
persons may remark, that 1 have filled three numbers with
censures of Wordsworth's writings, and that I have only
devoted one to his vindication. 1 answer, that blame de-
mands more particularity than praise. A friend, we will
suppose, reads me a favourite poem. Struck with some
fine passage, I exclaim, " How beautiful 1" Fie does not
inquire, '■'■ Wlnj do you think that passage beautifull"
Shortly after, I perhaps exclaim, — " That is bad, or faulty."
Immediately follows the question, " Wkjj do you think
that faulty? Give me your reasons." Thus, having
censured certain parts of the writings and theory of Words-
worth, I considered mysc>lf bound to assign, as if in reply
to an inquirer, the particular causes of my dislike; on the
other hand, in substantiating Wordsworth's claim to admi-
ration, I would rather appeal to the feelings of men, than
endeavour (a hopeless task !) to argue my reader into
approbation. To explain my meaning more briefly —
faults may be detected by analysis ; beauties are only
injured by analysis — faults may be argued upon ; beau-
ties must be felt. On these accounts, I consider that the
best refutation of all poetical calumnies against Words-
worth's writings, is to be found in the writings them-
selves. I would simply address a non-admirer of the
])oct with the well-known entreaty — " Strike, but hear !"
Abuse Wordsworth as much as you think fit, but in fair-
ness, listen to so much of his compositions as after ages
will purify from the dross that surrounds them, and will
collect into one body of worth and splendour. Then
give your verdict — and continue to abuse him, if you can.
Let me hope, then, that in laying before my readers some
of Wordsworth's best things, without many comments of
my own, I am doing him all possible justice. Haply the
large number of persons who have hitherto decided upon
our author from hearsay, may find that they have all this
time been fighting with a shadowy Wordsworth of their
own creation. Haply the passages, which I shall bring

296 Wilson's jiiscellaxeous ■writings.

before them, will strike their minds with all the charms of
novelty, as well as of poetical beauty.

It will be my endeavour to prove by appropriate ex-
tracts from ^\'ordsworth's poems, that he has displayed
great powers of description, in the first place, of external
nature ; secondly, of nature as connected with some inter-
nal passion, or moral thought, in the heart and mind of
man; thirdly, of human appearance, as indicative of
human character, or varieties of feeling. I shall also
attempt to show, that he has manifested an ability to
move the affections by means of simple pathos — that he
has occasionally attained a chaste and classical dignity —
that he has successfully illustrated religious and moral
truths,- and, finally, that he has brought the sonnet — that
difficult vehicle of poetic inspiration — to its highest possi-
ble pitch of excellence.

In description of natural scenery, Wordsworth is almost
always good. Like Anta?us, he is strong whenever he
touches his native earth. If, in his best poems, we too
often find something to condemn, let us remember, that
even in his worst, we frequently stumble upon passages
of unexpected beauty — passages of pure and masterly
description. In spite of the self-riveted chains of his
theory, the poet %cill break forth throughout Wordsworth's
writings, and falsify his own dogmas as triumphantly, as
one who wishes to refute them could desire. Even from
the dulness of a Thanksgiving Ode, sparkles of living
poetry shine out. Whenever Wordsworth breaks into
description, he leaves prose far behind. For instance —

"The stillness of tlioso frosty i)luins,
Tlicir utter stillness, and the silent s^race
Of yon ctiicreal summits white will) e^now,
(Whose tranquil pomp and spotless purity
Report of storms gone by
To us who tread below,)
Do with the service of this day accord."

The above lines are calculated, I may safely affirm, to
imbue the mind with the very feeling of a calm and ten-
derly bright winter's day. To use a strong metaphor,


Silcaco speaks in tliem. The allusion to bygone tem-
])csts is a touch from a master's hand. It heightens
witliout disturbing the universal repose, and connects the
troublous soul of man witli the serene aspect of nature —
the memory of the past, with the enjoyment of the present
— earth with heaven, in a very happy and beautiful manner.
A priori, it might be supposed that a rnan who, like
Wordsworth, possessing a poet's keen perceptions, has
passed ail his life amidst the grandeur of a mountainous
country, should pour u[)on his page all the changeful hues
of clouds and vapours ; and should inform his verse with
the " undescribed sounds" of earth, air, and water. Nor,
if we ojien Wordsworth's volumes, will the expectation be
disajjpointed. I do not know any author who has made
a happier use of the grand phenomena of nature. His
little work on the scenery of the English Lakes, although
written in prose, may be mentioned as being the true pro-
duction of a poet. It ought to become the manual of the
])oel, and, I may add, of the painter, who is studying
Nature in her own domain. This work is remarkable, if
it were only as a monument of the superiority of imagina-
tion over science. Here is a man, who has never in-
scribed himself amongst the members of the Royal Aca-
demy, yet who, by mere force of genius, by that intuitive
penetration, which " looks all Nature through," writes
like a painter, composes pictures, and throws out sug-
gestions, to originate which our would-be Claudes and
Poussins are totally incapable.

It is a remarkable circumstance that our great descriptive
poets have seldom ventured upon a particular delineation
of mountain scenery, and its accompanying phenomena.
Milton's description of Paradise is like a picture skilfully
composed from the choicest parts of individual sketches.
It is truth arranged by fiction. Thomson (although born
in a land of mist and mountains) seems to alternate, in his
Seasons, between gorgeous but vague representations of
foreign climes, and faithful transcripts of England's milder
scenery. He appears more pleased

"To taste the smell of dairy, and ascend
Some eminence, Augusta, in thy plains,"

298 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

than to climb tlic painful steeps of a Scottish mountain.
He exclaims, indeed, " To mc be Nature's volume wide
displayed!" — but for what purpose? — "Some easy pas-
sage raptured to translate." His finest poem, — the en-
chanting " Casllc of Indolence," — in the composition of
which the mantle of Spenser seems to have descended
upon the bard — is a land of dreams, shadowed by un-
earthly groves, iiluininated by unearthly light. After
Thomson, came Cowpcr, who, even more than Thomson,
may be pronounced to have adhered to real l^nglish land-
scape-painting. 1 do not mention this predilection for
Nature's common form as a defect in either of the above-
named poets. On the contrary, I conceive that, by their
choice of well-known objects, they secured for themselves
a more extensive sympathy than they could have com-
manded, had they delineated those features of Nature,
which are not (to use a beautiful expression of Sir Thomas
Brown) "expansed unto the eyes of all." But the reader
will perceive the wide dominion, which their timidity or
their policy has left unconqucred — unappropriated, and,
as it were, ready to the grasp of such a man as Words-
worth, who not only was born, but has resided amongst
rocks, lakes, and mountains, (thus uniting the force of
liabit to that of early association,) and who possesses the
heart, the eye, and the hand of a poet. On this ground
Wordsworth may take a lofty and commanding station.
When I reflect that to him both the present and the future
lime are and will be indebted for the most accurate and
noble embodying of Nature's grandest forms, I am dis-
posed to retract my former assertion, that Wordsworth
has done nothing more than has been done by others.
He is not the first descriptive poet, but, it must be con-
fessed, that he is the first descriptive poet of his order.
He has given " a local habitation and a name" to the
subtle essences of the elements ; he has given a voice to
storms and torrents. The Excursion is full of such wild
determined forms as Salvator Rosa loved to fling together,
— of such calm or such tciiipestuous skies as Gaspar
Poussin dared to transfer to canvass. As an example, I
select a passage which aj)pears to mc a trium[)hant proof


of the powers of language, when wielded by a powerful

-" A step,

A single step, that freed me from tlic skirts
Of the blind vapour, open'd to my view
Glory beyond all glory ever seen
By waking sense, or by the dreaming soul !

The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city — boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendour, without end.
Fabric it seem'd of diamond and of gold.
With alabaster domes and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace high
Uplifled ; here, serene pavilions bright
In avenues disposed ; there, towers hegirt
With battlements, that on their restless fronts
Bore stars — illumination of all gems!
By earthly nature had the effect been wrought
Upon the dark materials of the storm
Now pacified ; on them and on the coves,
And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto
The vapours had receded, taking there
Their station under a cerulean sky."


We might perhaps search in vain throughout the whole
compass of English poetry, for another example of" words
tinged with so many colours." Yet Wordsworth exclaims,
immediately after bringing this striking spectacle so suc-
cessfully before the imagination of the reader,

" Oh 'twas an unimaginable sight !"

So far will a true poet's feeling transcend his own most
burning language. I have before hinted, that Wordsworth
has not only presented the hues of nature to the eye, but
has also limited her harmonies to the car. Of this, also, I
will adduce an instance.

" Astounded in the moimtain gap
By peals of thunder, clap on clap,


And many a terror-striking flash,

And somewhere, as it seems, a crash

Among the rocks ; with weight of rain.

And sullen motions, long and sloio.

That to a dreanj distance go —

Till breaking in upon liic dying strain,

A rending o'er his head begins the fray again."


Surely the four lines mrkod by the italic character
would alone be sufficient to decide the question, whether
such a grace as imitative harmony really exists. I own
that it is difficult to determine how much of the effect u[)on
the mind depends upon the meaning associated with the
words ; but let it be remembered, that words dcsignative
of sound, have naturally derived their birth from an at-
tempt — in the infancy of language — actually to imitate the
sounds of which they are symbolical. After God's own
language — the Hebrew — and the affluent Greek, there is
probably no tongue so rich in imitative harmonies as our
own. Wherever its native texture breaks boldly forth
through the foreign fripperies with which it is overlaid, it
possesses all the strength of elemental nature. Our cli-
mate, our insular situation, the character of our earliest
conquerors, may, in some degree, account for this. We
should naturally expect, that the land of ocean and of storm
would engender a more sinewy language than the sunny
plains of France. Let any person, with a true ear, ob-
serve the difference between the two words s) /on- and rain.
The hushing sound of the sibilant, in the first, followed by
the soft liquid, and by the round full vowel, is not less in-
dicative of the still descent of snow, than the harsher liquid
and vowel, in the second, are of the falling shower. 1 fear
that I shall be considered fanciful, yet I cannot help re-
marking that the letter R, the sound of which, when
lengthened out, is so expressive of the murmur of streams
and brooks, is generally to be found in words relating to
the element of water, and in such combinations as, either
single or reduplicated, suit precisely its different modifica-
tions. The words " long''' and '■'■dmv''' arc, if pronounced
in a natural manner, actually of a longer time than the
words short and quick. There is a drag upon the nasal


iVand G ; there is a protracted cfTect in the vowel followed
by a double vowel, in the two first words, not to be found
in the two last. To speak musically, the former might be
noted down in semibreves, the latter in crotchets. 1 for-
bear to say more on the intimate connexion between lan-
guage and the sounds or ideas of which it is symbolical,
since the subject is extensive and important enough to de-
mand a separate dissertation. Thus much, however, in
illustration of Wordsworth's beautiful lines, wherein the
sound is so true an echo to the sense, I trust, will not be
thought irrelevant. So replete are Wordsworth's works
with passages of fine or of pleasing description, that it is
difBcult to particularize a few, and impossible to name them
all. I must, therefore, confine myself to pointing out those
which appear to me more especially to display an intimate
acquaintance with nature, and a graphic fidelity in repre-
senting her varieties. In the Wagonner, a description of
early morning, beginning —

"See Skiddaw's top with rosy light
Is touch'd,"

would, I believe, have been as often quoted with enthu-
siasm as Walter Scott's moonlight picture of Melrose Ab-
bey, had it been found amongst the minstrelsy of the great
Northern Magician. How fresh and vigorous is the fol-
lowmg couplet —

" Thence look thou forth o'er wood and lawn,
Hoar with the frost-like dews of dawn,"

How admirably the poet has placed in the landscape, by
a single touch,

"The ruin'd towers of Threlkeld Hall,
Lurking in a double shade.
By trees and lingering twilight made .'"

A fragment, entitled a Night-Piece, amongst the minor
poems, deserves notice. It is a fragment, as carefully
finished as one of Raphael's heads from the life, intended
to be introduced into a larger picture, and perhaps more

VOL. I. 26

302 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

beautiful by itself, than when forming a portion of other
beauties. In reading it, we seem actually to behold

"The continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whiteii'd by the moon;"

and, like the traveller on his lonesome journey, we are
startled by the sudden gleam of light, by which the clouds
are split asunder. We look up and behold

" The clear moon and the glory of the heavens."

In what follows, there is a fine poetical touch — a sort of
mysterious beauty —

"There in a black, blue vault she sails along,
Follow'd by multitudes of stars, that, small,
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives; — how fast they loheel away,
Yet vanish not! The wind is iii the tree.
But they are silent."

Hitherto I have confined myself to passages of almost
pure description. But Wordsworth occasionally combines
very beautiful feelings v/ith beautiful imagery, and inter-
prets nature's meanings with the initiated knowledge of
one who, to use his own expression, is endowed with " the
vision and the faculty divine." In other words, he has
(as I undertook, in the second place, to prove) success-
fully exhibited " nature in connexion with some internal
passion, or moral thought, in the heart and mind of man."
The passage, which I am about to adduce, in testimony of
this, is, an extract, long; but if any one should feci that
it is long, I may say, with Bcattie, " He need not woo the
muse — he is her scorn." 1 should be most unjust to the
poet wei'e I not to give the passage entire : —

" Has not the soul, the being of your life.
Received a shock of awful consciousness.
In some calm season, when these lofty rocks,
At night's approach, bring down th' unclouded sky
To rest upon their circumambient walls;
A temple framing of dimensions vast.
And yet not too enormoi's for the sound


Of liuman anthems — choral song, or burst
Sublime of instrumental harmony,
To glorify th' Eternal ! What if these
Did never break the stillness that prevails
Here, if the solemn nightingale be mute,
And the soft woodlark here did never chant
Her vespers, Nature fails not to provide
Impulse and utterance. The whispering air
Sends inspiration from the shadowy heights,
And blind recesses of the cavern'd rocks;
Tiie little rills and waters numberless,
Inaudible by daylight, blend their notes
With the loud streams : and often, at the hour
Wlien issue forth the first pale stars, is heard,
Within the circuit of this fabric huge,
One voice — one solitary raven, flying
Athwart the concave of the dark-blue dome,
Unseen, perchance above the power of sight —
An iron knell ! With echoes from afar,
Faint, and still fainter." — {Excursion.)

To those who are acquainted with the phenomena of
mountainous countries, I need not point out the exquisite
fitness of every component part of the above description.
But to those who have never dwelt amongst rocks and
waters, I may observe, that, in all its accompaniments,
there is a peculiar truth and beauty, which can scarcely
be appreciated by the inhabitants of lowlier regions, how-
ever they may enter into the feelings with which the de-
scription is connected. The soul of any reflective being
may, indeed, receive " a shock of awful consciousness"
from the contemplation of the unclouded heavens; but the
walls of the temple are wanting — those walls which, as if
endued with silent life, are so finely said by the poet to
bring doion the sky to rest, as if with love, upon their glo-
rious summits. The weaving in of the evening shades
has completely this effect. The outlines of the mountains
do not so much appear to soar into the clear-obscure, as to
attract the clear-obscure towards themselves. Again, there
is a peculiar propriety in the accompanying melodies with
which the poet has enriched his scenery. Amongst moun-
tains, the hush of evening draws forth the sound of the

304 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

smaller waterfalls in a wonderful and almost unaccoimt-
able manner. By night I have seemed to hear fifty-
streams, the voices of which 1 never could distinguish
during the stillest day, even in places remote from that
confused murmur of human existence, which might be
supposed to have its share in deadening tones so delicate.
Perhaps the dewy freshness of the night air may be a fitter
medium for sound; but certain it is, that I have been able
to divide from each other the notes of the various streams,
amidst the general concert, (united yet distinct,) as one
would distinguish between voice and voice in a chorus of
birds. The " iron knell" is more finely characteristic of
the raven's note than can be conceived by any person
who has not heard it come suddenly upon the ear, in a
solitary vale, clanging from rock to rock with monotonous
grandeur. Under such circumstances, the efl'ect which it
produces is positively startling. No ordinary idea of a
raven's croak will assist us in forming a notion of it. The
" iron knell" of the poet, with all its dim associations, will
raise the imagination as near to the reality as is perhaps

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 26 of 34)