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possible. In fine, the severe rejection of all commonplace
ornament from the above passage — of all but that which
suits the season and the scene — the appropriate solemnity
of the versification, and the sustained loftiness of the dic-
tion, render the whole description consistent and majestic.
Although 1 consider Wordsworth mistaken in so con-
stantly endeavouring to educe lofty feelings from lowly
subjects, yet it must be allowed that he is occasionally suc-
cessful in the working up of apparently unpromising ma-
terials. A little piece, called Nutting, is a pleasing instance
of this ; and he has not only contrived to render skating
poetical, but has made it the basis of some very striking
description, combined with ennobling sensations, fie re-
presents himself in the sportive vigour of youth, together
with his companions, engaged in this sport : —

"All shod witli Pteel,
We hiss'd along the polisli'd ice, in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase.
And woodland pleasures."


What follows is extremely beautiful ; —

" With the din
Meanwhile the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees, and every icy crag,
Tinkled like iron; while the distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy, not unnoticed ; while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away."

The lines distinguished by italics possess a grace sinnilar
to that which I pointed out in a previous quotation. As
there the memory of " storms gone by" endeared still
more the present tranquillity of nature, so here the " alien
sound of melancholy" enhances joy by a thought of sor-
row. We are strange beings : we love to be reminded of
our mortal state even in the midst of our desires to forget
it : we pursue pleasure, but we are ever looking back upon
pain: we would fain prolong the banquet of life, yet we
place a skull in the midst of its festal flowers. And why?
Because ours is a twofold life — the union of mortal with
immortal. We covet happiness by the very constitution
of our nature: we find earthly happiness insufficient — we
turn back to the more majestic form of sorrow. We court
the transitory, but seek the permanent. On this account
it is, that whatever addresses us as man, and at the same
time makes us feel that we are more than man, has the
greatest power over our passions. Shakspeare well knew
that mirth is a more affecting thing than grief, or rather,
that mirth is the very avenue to grief. Again, the affec-
tions are more readily called into play by a mixture of
mirth and melancholy, because such a mixture does
actually more resemble human life, with which our affec-
tions are entwined, than a mere transcript of one to the ex-
clusion of the other. One brief note coming from the
depths of sorrow upon the light strains of pleasure, unlocks
our tears more quickly than the most solemn invocation to
wo. Although Wordsworth docs not precisely, like Shak-
speare, make us weep with a witticism, yet no author is
more happy than himself in heightening his subject by a
hint, a suggestion, by the shadow of a cloud, which causes
26 «


US to look up to the cloud itself. He gives the picture life
without marring its repose. He does not present us with
a description of external nature alone, because he knows
that external nature chiefly addresses the imagination, that
calm yet radiant power from which " the dangerous pas-
sions keep aloof." There was once a long controversy
between the respective effects of art and nature. The two
should never have been disjoined. Art is not felt as art,
but as leading us back to man and nature. The world is
the habitation of man. Viewed merely as a stupendous
effort of creative power, it is elevating : viewed as our own
home, it is touching — for its meaning and its purpose are
before us. Look over a vast expanse of country : is it the
mere sight which fills the eyes with tears? Unconsciously
the thought occurs, upon how many human hopes and
fears, joys and sorrows, we gaze in ignorance ! Every
little column of smoke, pointing out the habitation of man,
may be the index to a scene of suffering, or of delight, may
guide the eye to the arena of a struggle, which demons and
angels watch in emulous anxiety. Yonder old tower, how
eloquently it speaks of mortal grandeur and decay ! Yon-
der ship, how it brings even the mighty ocean within the
sphere of humanity ! Should the prospect be over a deso-
late region, "empty of all shape of life," the source of its
effect upon our feelings is, under a different modification,
still the same — man — for ever man. We are affected by
the thought that man is not there — there, where he ought
to be. In the first case, we looked upon him in connexion
with his birthright — now, we gaze upon the inheritance
without the heir. The veriest anchorite that ever raved
about solitude, owes the force of his appeal to the existence
of the world which he deprecates. But I have detained
my reader too long from the conclusion of Wordsworth's
lines upon skating. As its own beauty will speak for
itself, I will give the rest of the poem without further re-
mark ; merely premising — for the benefit of Southrons —
that the ice of lakes, which are fed by pure mountain
streams, is a very diflcrent thing from the ice of the ser-
pentine river. It is, without a strong metaphor, a crystal
pavement, capable of reflecting the stars as truly as did
the unlVozen waters. So transpicuous is ice of this nature,


that it is somewhat awful to move over its untried surface,
beneath which the eye can descend into strange depths
and oozy hollows.

" Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideways, leavini^ the tumultuous throng-,
To cross the bright reflection of a star,
Imago that, dying still before me, gleam'd
Upon tiie glasi^y plain : and oftentimes
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks on either side
Came sweeping through the darkness, spiiniing still
The rapid line of motion, then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopp'd short; yet still tiie sohtary clills
VVheel'd by me, even as if the earth had roll'd,
With visible motion, her diurnal round !
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train.
Feebler and feebler; and I stood and watch'd
Till all was tranquil as a summer sea."

I now proceed to show that Wordsworth displays power
in his portraits of human beings. Here also he is not a
mere describer. The lineaments which he draws, are
indications of the mind within. Not unfrequently he gives
some masterly touches, which are to the character de-
scribed, what the hands of a watch are to the dial-plate.
They tell the " whereabout" of the whole man. Indeed,
Wordsworth is altogether so graphic in his delineations
both of nature and of human beings, that if I did not
remember the remark of Horace, " Ut pictura, poesis
erit," I should conclude that he had deeply studied the
art of painting. But the truth is, that herein consists the
difference between the poet and the poetaster. While the
latter only describes either from recollection, or from a
survey of some object, the Ibrmer paints from an image
before his mental eye — an image in this respect transcend-
ing Nature herself, inasmuch as it combines the selectest
parts of Nature. " Be desperately individiml in your
studies from nature," said a celebrated artist to a friend
of mine, who wished to excel in painting ; " in your per-
fect compositions, bo as general as you please." The

308 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

advice, if addressed to a poet, would be equally good.
He must not aim at depicting the forms of Nature so much
as the " spirit of her forms." Wordsworth, in his repre-
sentation of Peter Bell, has admirably exemplified this
imaginative kind of painting. I cannot give a better spe-
cimen of his successful efforts in this vein.

" Though Nature could not toucli his heart
By lovely forms and placid weather,

And tender sounds, yet you might see

At once that Peter 13ell and she
Had often been togelher.

" A savage wildness round him hung

As of a dweller out of doors;
In his whole figure and his mien,
A savage character was seen

Of mountains and of dreary moors.

" He had a dark and sidelong walk,

And long and slouching was his gait;
Beneath his looks so bare and bold.
You might perceive his spirit cold
Was playing with some inward bait.

% :f: :(: % % :fj

" There was a hardness in his cheek,
There was a hardness in his eye,
As if the man had fix'd his face.
In many a solitary place,
Against the wind and open sky."

I would ask those, who are possessed with an opinion that
Wordsworth is a childish writer, if this poi'trait be not
sketched with a vigorous hand 1 Do we not seem actually
to look upon the lawless wanderer, who,

" To all th' unshaped half-human thoughts
Which solitary Nature feeds,
Mid summer storms, or winter's ice,

Has join'd whatever vice,

The cruel city breeds ?"

Is not the man's whole history written in his counte-
nance'? Does it not tell talcs of nightly plunder and daily


debauchery? Does it not hint dark secrets of alliances
with smugglers on the coast, with gipsies on the wold,
with poachers in the forest? Is it not hard and cruel
enough to be the tablet of an altar, whereon the hope and
peace of many a rustic beauty has been sacrificed? Upon
that brow has gathered the sweat of no honest toil, the
swarthy tint of no rural labour — there may be even a
spot of blood. He has been with Nature, yet Nature has
touched him not. Her storms have furrowed his face,
but have only annealed his heart. Can any thought be
more striking? What can represent more forcibly the
desperate condition of the man than the idea that Nature
herself has contributed to harden him, as the pure soft
element of water, dropping through some gloomy chasm,
sometimes converts to stone the substances on which it
falls ? Let me now place before the reader a portrait in
quite a different style — a Morland after a Salvator — the
representation of a true English ploughboy.

" His joints are stiff;
Beneath a cumbrous frock, that to the knees
Invests tlie thriving' churl, his legs appear,
Fellows to those which lustily upheld
The wooden stools, for everlasting use,
On which our fathers sate. And mark his brow !
Under whose shaggy canopy are set
Two eyes, not dim, but of a healthy stare;
Wide, shiggisli, blank, and ignorant, and strange ;
Proclaiming boldly that they never drew
A look or motion of intelligence
From infant conning of the Christ-cross row.
Or puzzling through a primer, line by line,
Till perfect mastery crown the pains at last."


There is, in the above lines, a kind of forcible humour,
which may remind the reader of Cowper's manner in the
Task. The versification is good, and gives so much point
to the thoughts, that it should seem as if custom, rather
than necessity, had caused all satires, from Donne to
Churchill, to be written in rhyme.

In describing the external indications of human pas-
sions, the silent eloquence of look and gesture, Words-

310 Wilson's miscellaneous avritings.

worth is sometimes eminently successful. The whole
story of Margaret, in the Excursion, is a series of affect-
ing pictures. Her husband had joined a troop of soldiers,
and she had heard no tidings of him for more than a year.
The gradual doubt respecting his fate, slowly sickening
into despair, is touched, through all its gradations, with a
most skilful pencil. By degrees her garden and cottage,
which used to display all the pride of neatness, " bespeak
a sleepy hand of negligence," and at length fall into decay
and ruin. The mourner's spirit sinks into a kindred state
of desolation, and yet she cannot rest. Her despair is
even without the comfort of its usual apathy. The irrita-
tion always kept up by the remains of suspense — by the
absence of all tidings, and the consequent impossibility of
utter certainty — gives a restlessness to her mind, and to
the movements of her body. If she sees a soldier pass,
her cheek still flushes, and her step involuntarily bears
her from the cottage door. Even her child

" Had from its mother caught the trick of grief,
And sigh'd amidst its playthings."

A state more miserable can scarcely be conceived. As a
contemporary poet has observed,

" What can match the sickness of suspense!

To act, to suffer, may be nobly great, —
But nature's mightiest eftbrt is to wait!"

In such a condition, the mind expends its force upon
itself. Its energies fall back upon the heart like arrows
sent towards heaven. Nothing is known, therefore no-
thing can be combated. Nothing is to be done, but every
thing is to be feared. Here, the human imagination is
unveiled in its most terrible aspect — here its endless,
boundless, indestructible powers find their full scope.
Conjecture cannot exhaust it. Wordsworth has given to
the world perhaps the finest picture extant of a being,
whose thoughts thus beat themselves against the bars of
their prison. The following passage can scarcely be read
with an unmoved heart :


" Yes, it would have grieved
Your very soul to see her ; evermore
Her eyelids droop'd, her eyes were downward cast;
And, when she at her table gave me food,
She did not look at me. Her voice was low,
Her body was subdued. In every act,
Pertaining to her house affairs, appear'd
The careless stillness of a thinking mind,
Self-occupied, to which all outward things
Are like an idle matter. Still she sigh'd.
But yet no motion of the breast was seen,
No heaving of the heart. While by the fire
We sate together, sighs came on my ear,
I knew not how, and hardly whence they came."


The power which Wordsworth has shown in the fore-
going description, to move the softer affections, leads me
to the next branch of my subject. I would prove that
simple pathos is an attribute of Wordsworth's Muse.
It has been remarked that authors never esteem their
productions according to their real degrees of merit.
Wordsworth is a singular instance of the truth of this
observation. He has pointed out the Idiot Boy and Goody
Blake to the reader's notice, but has omitted altogether
the mention of some. pieces, which more nearly than any
thing he ever wrote exemplify the best parts of his own
theory. Occasionally he has quaffed from the very Hip-
pocrene of Nature, and has displayed the pure and simple
effects of real inspiration. I would adduce, as an example
of this, " The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman."
I must premise, that, when the wandering tribes of North
America, in the migrations consequent upon their wild
and precarious mode of existence, pass from one region to
another, a cruel necessity obliges them to leave behind
any of their comrades, who, from sickness or a failure of
strength, shall fall by the way. In those desolate tracts,
to delay their own progress on the sufferer's account,
would endanger the lives of the whole community; and
often the poor creature, who endures all the tortures of a
forced march, will voluntarily request to be left to the
milder hand of death. The last offices which the tribe
render to their deserted companions, are to kindle a fire,

312 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

and to leave a supply of wafer and food behind tliem, with
the hngering hope that they may yet be able to resume
their journey. The subject is in itself affecting, and
Wordsworth has treated it in a very touching manner.
The dying woman, whose lament falls upon the silence of
the frozen desert, breaks out into speech with that sort of
impatient horror which the utter loneliness and awful
appearances of that dreadful region might be supposed to
excite :

" Before I see another day,
Oh let my body die away !
In sleep, I hear the northern gleams,
The stars were mingled with my dreams."

The haunting effect of strange wild objects upon the en-
feebled mind of sickness is in the last couplet finely con-
ceived. So also is the idea that she could have travelled
on yet a litttle farther with her companions :

"Alas! ye might have dragg'd me on
Another day, a single one !
Too soon I yielded to despair —
Why did ye listen to my prayer]
When ye were gone my limhs were stronger."

This is beautifully true to nature. It is not for her own
sake that she clings so tenaciously to life and to human
fellowship — not on her own account does she pray so
earnestly for " another day — a single one." She is a
mother ; and as every fraction of time spent with her
infant is a heap of gold, so every least division of an hour
passed a[)art from it is a weight of lead. Who can read
the continuation of her complaint without being moved?

" My child ! they gave thee to another,
A iDoman who was not thy another.
When from my arms my babe they took,
Oil me, how strangely did he look !
Through his whole body pomelhing ran,
A most strnngc working did I see; —
As if he strove to be a man,
That he might pull the sledge for me."


The first couplet is worth whole rcahTis of amplification.
The single line — " A woman who was not thy mother," is
a world of feeling in itself. Thus does a great master
find the shortest passage to the heart, while a mere de-
scriber, wandering in a labyrinth, never reaches the heart
at all. The poem concludes with a burst of delirious
agony — a state of mind in which intense desire dares
possibility :

" I'll follow you across the snow ;
Ye travel lieavily and slow !
In spite of all my weary pain,
I'll look upon your tents again !"

Always, with the exception of Betty Foy, Wordsworth
has been peculiarly happy in his delineation of the mater-
nal passion. Were I not afraid to multiply quotations, I
should dwell more particularly on a small poem entitled
" The Affliction of INInrgaret." I cannot, however, omit
the following stanza, since the feeling which it conveys is
capable of general application :

" Ah little doth the younir one dream,
When full of play and childish cares,
^Vhat power hath even his wildest scream
Heard by its mother unawares.
He knows it not, he cannot guess:
Years to a niotiier bring distress.
But do not make her love the less."

" But, dear me," methinks I hear a soft voice timidly in-
quire, " has Mr. Wordsworth never written any thing
about an — another — sort of love ?" He has, madam ; and
so well as to deserve the gratitude of the whole female
community. While your favourite. Lord Byron, has re-
presented you as the mere objects of a frantic passion,
which I will not name, and has luxuriated accordingly in
descriptions of gazelle eyes and hyacinthine locks, Words-
worth has painted you w'ith equal purity and warmth.
Exquisite as are Lord Byron's stanzas to the memory of
Thyrza, I fear that the lady was no better than she should

VOL. r. 27

314 avilson's miscellaneous writings.

be ; but we can have no doubt of the virtue of the loved,
lost object, who is commemorated in the following lines :

" She dwelt among th' untrodden ways,
Beside the springs of Dove;
A maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love.

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye ;
Fair as a star when only one

Is sliining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be ;
But she is in her grave, — and oh

The ditFerence to ?ne .'"

" Well now, are those lines really by Mr. Wordsworth ?
I declare they are very pretty. But do you not think,
that, ' oh, the difTerence to me J^ is a little bit too simple ?"
Not in the least. Would you have liked the verse better
had it been, (if the rhyme permitted,) " What pangs my
bosom rend V The simplicity of the expression matters
little if it fulfils the purpose of the author ; and it is of no
consequence how common the words may be, if they are
only the surface to a mine of thought. The great object
of poetry is, to suggest more than she expresses, and espe-
cially at the close of a strain, she is fortunate if she can
leave food for reflection. The contrast between the care-
less indifference of the world in general, and the intense
feeling of the poet who has lost all that was his world, is
perfectly indicated in the concluding stanza; and what
more could we wish? The last line is the motto to a
golden casket of once-treasured hopes and tender memo-
ries ; — what more could we wish 1 To pursue a little
farther the train of thoughts which it excites. Words-
worth says, in another poem,

" You must love him, ere to you
He will seem worthy of your love."

This is perfectly true to nature. Love not only invests its
objects with imaginary attributes, but actually does per-


ceive those which exist, but which arc not visible to an
indifferent eye. Friendship possesses some of this intui-
tive discernment. But how much is her spiritual percep-
tion heightened by love ! When the reciprocal action of
the sensual and intellectual powers produce what may be
called (almost with propriety) an additional sense, the
mental glance becomes like the sun in heaven, not only
penetrating all mysteries by its light, but calling forth
dormant faculties from their slumber by its warmth. It
was the torch of Love which animated the statue of Pyg-
malion ; — to others, perhaps, the statue was but marble
still. How singular is the feeling we experience, when
we think that the being whom we love is nothing toothers,
every thing to ourselves — that others see daily with indif-
ference the form, whose shadow even to behold for a few
moments is to us happiness unspeakable ! To the world,
the object of our love is merely a human being — to us,
somewhat above mortality. This may be an image to
you, but it is a saint to me, says the Catholic. No author
has expressed this union of earthly with divine with greater
depth than Wordsworth. His women are, to use his own
beautiful language,

" Creatures not too bright or good

For human nature's daily food ;
And yet are spirits too, and bright,
With something of an angel light."

Only hear how forcibly he depicts the waking from the
security into which this feeling lulls us, when our dream
of unearthly charms is tremendously broken by the shock
of death :

" A slumber did my spirit seal,
I had no human fears :
She seem'd a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force.

She neither hears, nor sees,
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course

With rocks, and stones, and trees."

316 Wilson's 3iiscellaneous writings.

Here, how much is said in little — how many themes for
reflection are suggested ! That fo'rm, which the imagina-
tive colouring of real passion had invested with immortality,
is now no more than the inanimate productions of nature.
Once the living vehicle of the soul, and almost identified
with it, in the wondrous motions of eye and lip, it is now
immoveable and impassive as the solid rocks ! It is a sub-
ject too painful to dwell upon. Let us revive ourselves by
the following fresh picture of life and loveliness :

" She was a phantom of delight,
When first she gleam'd upon my sight;
A lovely apparition sent
To be a moment's ornament ;
Her eyes as slurs of twilight fair.
Like tioilighCs too her dusky hair ;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful dawn.''^

Who does not see the beautiful girl moving in the light of
poetry and youth ; and bringing gladness with her as surely
as the morning-star leads on the day ? " Well, I must say,"
the soft voice replies, " I had no idea that Wordsworth had
written such sweet things. I shall tell all my friends what
a poet he is, and shall buy his works directly."

I should exceed the limits which I have prescribed to
myself, were I to give extracts from any more of Words-
worth's poems, which display a pathetic simplicity. The
reader will do well to peruse, at his own leisure, " The
Childless Father," " Lucy Gray," " We are Seven," and
the story of " Ruth." \ think that he will not only be
struck with the lovely thoughts in these poems, but with
the easy melody of their versification. Every word seems
to fall naturally into its right place, and the rhyme ap-
pears to be less a preparation of art, than a necessary
consequence of the diction.

Another characteristic of Wordsworth's muse is a cer-
tain classical dignity. Persons, who are acquainted with
his works by quotation only, or by report, can scarcely be

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 27 of 34)