And, indeed, so tranquil and uniform was the life which we are now retracing, and at the same time so receptive of any noble influence which opportunity might bring, that a real epoch is marked in Wordsworth's poetical career by the mere re-reading of some Latin authors in 1814-16 with a view to preparing his eldest son for the University. Among the poets whom he thus studied was one in whom he might seem to discern his own spirit endowed with grander proportions, and meditating on sadder fates. Among the poets of the battlefield, of the study, of the boudoir, he encountered the first Priest of Nature, the first poet in Europe who had deliberately shunned the life of courts and cities for the mere joy in Nature's presence, for "sweet Parthenope and the fields beside Vesevus' hill."
There are, indeed, passages in the Georgics so Wordsworthian, as we now call it, in tone, that it is hard to realize what centuries separated them from the Sonnet to Lady Beaumont or from Ruth. Such, for instance, is the picture of the Corycian old man, who had made himself independent of the seasons by his gardening skill, so that "when gloomy winter was still rending the stones with frost, still curbing with ice the rivers' onward flow, he even then was plucking the soft hyacinth's bloom, and chid the tardy summer and delaying airs of spring." Such, again, is the passage where the poet breaks from the glories of successful industry into the delight of watching the great processes which nature accomplishes untutored and alone, "the joy of gazing on Cytorus waving with boxwood, and on forests of Narycian pine, on tracts that never felt the harrow, nor knew the care of man."
Such thoughts as these the Roman and the English poet had in common;— the heritage of untarnished souls.
I asked; 'twas whispered; The device To each and all might well belong: It is the Spirit of Paradise That prompts such work, a Spirit strong, That gives to all the self-same bent Where life is wise and innocent.
It is not only in tenderness but in dignity that the "wise and innocent" are wont to be at one. Strong in tranquillity, they can intervene amid great emotions with a master's voice, and project on the storm of passion the clear light of their unchanging calm. And thus it was that the study of Virgil, and especially of Virgil's solemn picture of the Underworld, prompted in Wordsworth's mind the most majestic of his poems, his one great utterance on heroic love.
He had as yet written little on any such topic as this. At Goslar he had composed the poems on Lucy to which allusion has already been made. And after his happy marriage he had painted in one of the best known of his poems the sweet transitions of wedded love, as it moves on from the first shock and agitation of the encounter of predestined souls through all tendernesses of intimate affection into a pervading permanency and calm.
Scattered, moreover, throughout his poems are several passages in which the passion is treated with similar force and truth. The poem which begins "'Tis said that some have died for love" depicts the enduring poignancy of bereavement with an "iron pathos" that is almost too strong for art. And something of the same power of clinging attachment is shown in the sonnet where the poet is stung with the thought that "even for the least division of an hour" he has taken pleasure in the life around him, without the accustomed tacit reference to one who has passed away. There is a brighter touch of constancy in that other sonnet where, after letting his fancy play over a glad imaginary past, he turns to his wife, ashamed that even in so vague a vision he could have shaped for himself a solitary joy.
Let her be comprehended in the frame Of these Illusions, or they please no more.
In later years the two sonnets on his wife's picture set on that love the consecration of faithful age; and there are those who can recall his look as he gazed on the picture and tried to recognize in that aged face the Beloved who to him was ever young and fair,—a look as of one dwelling in life-long affections with the unquestioning single-heartedness of a child.
And here it might have been thought that as his experience ended his power of description would have ended too. But it was not so. Under the powerful stimulus of the sixth AEneid—allusions to which pervade Laodamia  throughout—with unusual labour, and by a strenuous effort of the imagination, Wordsworth was enabled to depict his own love in excelsis, to imagine what aspect it might have worn, if it had been its destiny to deny itself at some heroic call, and to confront with nobleness an extreme emergency, and to be victor (as Plato has it) in an Olympian contest of the soul. For, indeed, the "fervent, not ungovernable, love," which is the ideal that Protesilaus is sent to teach, is on a great scale the same affection which we have been considering in domesticity and peace; it is love considered not as a revolution but as a consummation; as a self-abandonment not to a laxer but to a sterner law; no longer as an invasive passion, but as the deliberate habit of the soul. It is that conception of love which springs into being in the last canto of Dante's Purgatory,—which finds in English chivalry a noble voice,—
I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honour more.
[Footnote 5: Laodamia should be read (as it is given in Mr. Matthew Arnold's admirable volume of selections) with the earlier conclusion: the second form is less satisfactory, and the third, with its sermonizing tone, "thus all in vain exhorted and reproved," is worst of all.]
For, indeed, (even as Plato says that Beauty is the splendour of Truth,) so such a Love as this is the splendour of Virtue; it is the unexpected spark that flashes from self-forgetful soul to soul, it is man's standing evidence that he "must lose himself to find himself," and that only when the veil of his personality has lifted from around him can he recognize that he is already in heaven.
In a second poem inspired by this revived study of classical antiquity Wordsworth has traced the career of Dion,—the worthy pupil of Plato, the philosophic ruler of Syracuse, who allowed himself to shed blood unjustly, though for the public good, and was haunted by a spectre symbolical of this fatal error. At last Dion was assassinated, and the words in which the poet tells his fate seem to me to breathe the very triumph of philosophy, to paint with a touch the greatness of a spirit which makes of Death himself a deliverer, and has its strength in the unseen.
So were the hopeless troubles, that involved The soul of Dion, instantly dissolved.
I can only compare these lines to that famous passage of Sophocles where the lamentations of the dying Oedipus are interrupted by the impatient summons of an unseen accompanying god. In both places the effect is the same; to present to us with striking brevity the contrast between the visible and the invisible presences that may stand about a man's last hour; for he may feel with the desolate Oedipus that "all I am has perished"—he may sink like Dion through inextricable sadness to a disastrous death, and then in a moment the transitory shall disappear and the essential shall be made plain, and from Dioa's upright spirit the perplexities shall vanish away, and Oedipus, in the welcome of that unknown companionship, shall find his expiations over and his reward begun.
It is true, no doubt, that when Wordsworth wrote these poems he had lost something of the young inimitable charm which fills such pieces as the Fountain or the Solitary Reaper. His language is majestic, but it is no longer magical. And yet we cannot but feel that he has put into these poems something which he could not have put into the poems which preceded them; that they bear the impress of a soul which has added moral effort to poetic inspiration, and is mistress now of the acquired as well as of the innate virtue. For it is words like these that are the strength and stay of men; nor can their accent of lofty earnestness be simulated by the writer's art. Literary skill may deceive the reader who seeks a literary pleasure alone; and he to whom these strong consolations are a mere imaginative luxury may be uncertain or indifferent out of what heart they come. But those who need them know; spirits that hunger after righteousness discern their proper food; there is no fear lest they confound the sentimental and superficial with those weighty utterances of moral truth which are the most precious legacy that a man can leave to mankind.
Thus far, then, I must hold that although much of grace had already vanished there was on the whole a progress and elevation in the mind of him of whom we treat. But the culminating point is here. After this—whatever ripening process may have been at work unseen—what is chiefly visible is the slow stiffening of the imaginative power, the slow withdrawal of the insight into the soul of things, and a descent—[Greek: ablaechros mala tsios]—"soft as soft can be," to the euthanasy of a death that was like sleep.
The impression produced by Wordsworth's reperusal of Virgil in 1814-16 was a deep and lasting one. In 1829-30 he devoted much time and labour to a translation of the first three books of the AEneid, and it is interesting to note the gradual modification of his views as to the true method of rendering poetry.
"I have long been persuaded," he writes to Lord Lonsdale in 1829, "that Milton formed his blank verse upon the model of the Georgics and the AEneid, and I am so much struck with this resemblance, that I should, have attempted Virgil in blank verse, had I not been persuaded that no ancient author can with advantage be so rendered. Their religion, their warfare, their course of action and feeling, are too remote from modern interest to allow it. We require every possible help and attraction of sound in our language to smooth the way for the admission of things so remote from our present concerns. My own notion of translation is, that it cannot be too literal, provided these faults be avoided: baldness, in which I include all that takes from dignity; and strangeness, or uncouthness, including harshness; and lastly, attempts to convey meanings which, as they cannot be given but by languid circumlocutions, cannot in fact be said to be given at all.... I feel it, however, to be too probable that my translation is deficient in ornament, because I must unavoidably have lost many of Virgil's, and have never without reluctance attempted a compensation of my own."
The truth of this last self-criticism is very apparent from the fragments of the translation which were published in the Philological Museum; and Coleridge, to whom the whole manuscript was submitted, justly complains of finding "page after page without a single brilliant note;" and adds, "Finally, my conviction is that you undertake an impossibility, and that there is no medium between a pure version and one on the avowed principle of compensation in the widest sense, i.e. manner, genius, total effect; I confine myself to Virgil when I say this." And it appears that Wordsworth himself came round to this view, for in reluctantly sending a specimen of his work to the Philological Museum in 1832, he says,—
"Having been displeased in modern translations with the additions of incongruous matter, I began to translate with a resolve to keep clear of that fault by adding nothing; but I became convinced that a spirited translation can scarcely be accomplished in the English language without admitting a principle of compensation."
There is a curious analogy between the experiences of Cowper and Wordsworth in the way of translation. Wordsworth's translation of Virgil was prompted by the same kind of reaction against the reckless laxity of Dryden as that which inspired Cowper against the distorting artificiality of Pope. In each case the new translator cared more for his author and took a much higher view of a translator's duty than his predecessor had done. But in each case the plain and accurate translation was a failure, while the loose and ornate one continued to be admired. We need not conclude from this that the wilful inaccuracy of Pope or Dryden would be any longer excusable in such a work. But on the other hand we may certainly feel that nothing is gained by rendering an ancient poet into verse at all unless that verse be of a quality to give a pleasure independent of the faithfulness of the translation which it conveys.
The translations and Laodamia are not the only indications of the influence which Virgil exercised over Wordsworth. Whether from mere similarity of feeling, or from more or less conscious recollection, there are frequent passages in the English which recall the Roman poet. Who can hear Wordsworth describe how a poet on the island in Grasmere
Spreads out his limbs, while, yet unshorn, the sheep, Panting beneath the burthen of their wool Lie round him, even as if they were a part Of his own household:—
and not think of the stately tenderness of Virgil's
Stant et oves circum; nostri nee poenitet illas—
and the flocks of Arcady that gather round in sympathy with the lovelorn Gallus' woe?
So again the well-known lines—
Not seldom, clad in radiant vest, Deceitfully goes forth the Morn; Not seldom Evening in the west Sinks smilingly forsworn,—
are almost a translation of Palinurus' remonstrance with "the treachery of tranquil heaven." And when the poet wishes for any link which could bind him closer to the Highland maiden who has flitted across his path as a being of a different world from his own:—
Thine elder Brother would I be, Thy Father, anything to thee!—
we hear the echo of the sadder plaint—
Atque utinam e vobis unus—
when the Roman statesman longs to be made one with the simple life of shepherd or husbandman, and to know their undistracted joy.
Still more impressive is the shock of surprise with which we read in Wordsworth's poem on Ossian the following lines:—
Musaeus, stationed with his lyre Supreme among the Elysian quire, Is, for the dwellers upon earth, Mute as a lark ere morning's birth,
and perceive that he who wrote them has entered—where no commentator could conduct him—into the solemn pathos of Virgil's Musaeum ante omnis—; where the singer whose very existence upon earth has become a legend and a mythic name is seen keeping in the underworld his old pre-eminence, and towering above the blessed dead.
This is a stage in Wordsworth's career on which his biographer is tempted unduly to linger. For we have reached the Indian summer of his genius; it can still shine at moments bright as ever, and with even a new majesty and calm; but we feel, nevertheless, that the melody is dying from his song; that he is hardening into self-repetition, into rhetoric, into sermonizing common-place, and is rigid where he was once profound. The Thanksgiving Ode (1816) strikes death to the heart. The accustomed patriotic sentiments—the accustomed virtuous aspirations—these are still there; but the accent is like that of a ghost who calls to us in hollow mimicry of a voice that once we loved.
And yet Wordsworth's poetic life was not to close without a great symbolical spectacle, a solemn farewell. Sunset among the Cumbrian hills, often of remarkable beauty, once or twice, perhaps, in a score of years, reaches a pitch of illusion and magnificence which indeed seems nothing less than the commingling of earth and heaven. Such a sight—seen from Rydal Mount in 1818—afforded once more the needed stimulus, and evoked that "Evening Ode, composed on an evening of extraordinary splendour and beauty," which is the last considerable production of Wordsworth's genius. In this ode we recognize the peculiar gift of reproducing with magical simplicity as it were the inmost virtue of natural phenomena.
No sound is uttered, but a deep And solemn harmony pervades The hollow vale from steep to steep, And penetrates the glades. Far distant images draw nigh, Called forth by wondrous potency Of beamy radiance, that imbues Whate'er it strikes, with gem-like hues! In vision exquisitely clear Herds range along the mountain side; And glistening antlers are descried, And gilded flocks appear.
Once more the poet brings home to us that sense of belonging at once to two worlds, which gives to human life so much of mysterious solemnity.
Wings at my shoulder seem to play; But, rooted here, I stand and gaze On those bright steps that heavenward raise Their practicable way.
And the poem ends—with a deep personal pathos—in an allusion, repeated from the Ode on Immortality, to the light which "lay about him in his infancy,"—the light
Full early lost, and fruitlessly deplored; Which at this moment, on my waking sight Appears to shine, by miracle restored! My soul, though yet confined to earth, Rejoices in a second birth; —'Tis past, the visionary splendour fades; And night approaches with her shades.
For those to whom the mission of Wordsworth appears before all things as a religious one there is something solemn in the spectacle of the seer standing at the close of his own apocalypse, with the consciousness that the stiffening brain would never permit him to drink again that overflowing sense of glory and revelation; never, till he should drink it new in the kingdom of God. He lived, in fact, through another generation of men, but the vision came to him no more.
Or if some vestige of those gleams Survived, 'twas only in his dreams.
We look on a man's life for the most part as forming in itself a completed drama. We love to see the interest maintained to the close, the pathos deepened at the departing hour. To die on the same day is the prayer of lovers, to vanish at Trafalgar is the ideal of heroic souls. And yet—so wide and various are the issues of life—there is a solemnity as profound in a quite different lot. For if we are moving among eternal emotions we should have time to bear witness that they are eternal. Even Love left desolate may feel with a proud triumph that it could never have rooted itself so immutably amid the joys of a visible return as it can do through the constancies of bereavement, and the lifelong memory which is a lifelong hope. And Vision, Revelation, Ecstasy,—it is not only while these are kindling our way that we should speak of them to men, but rather when they have passed from us and left us only their record in our souls, whose permanence confirms the fiery finger which wrote it long ago. For as the Greeks would end the first drama of a trilogy with a hush of concentration, and with declining notes of calm, so to us the narrowing receptivity and persistent steadfastness of age suggest not only decay but expectancy, and not death so much as sleep; or seem, as it were, the beginning of operations which are not measured by our hurrying time, nor tested by any achievement to be accomplished here.
It will have been obvious from the preceding pages, as well as from the tone of other criticisms on Wordsworth, that his exponents are not content to treat his poems on Nature simply as graceful descriptive pieces, but speak of him in terms usually reserved for the originators of some great religious movement. "The very image of Wordsworth," says De Quincey, for instance, "as I prefigured it to my own planet-struck eye, crushed my faculties as before Elijah or St. Paul." How was it that poems so simple in outward form that the reviewers of the day classed them with the Song of Sixpence, or at best with the Babes in the Wood, could affect a critic like De Quincey,—I do not say with admiration, but with this exceptional sense of revelation and awe?
The explanation of this anomaly lies, as is well known, in something new and individual in the way in which Wordsworth regarded Nature; something more or less discernible in most of his works, and redeeming even some of the slightest of them from insignificance, while conferring on the more serious and sustained pieces an importance of a different order from that which attaches to even the most brilliant productions of his contemporaries. To define with exactness, however, what was this new element imported by our poet into man's view of Nature is far from easy, and requires some brief consideration of the attitude in this respect of his predecessors.
There is so much in the external world which is terrible or unfriendly to man, that the first impression made on him by Nature as a whole, even in temperate climates, is usually that of awfulness; his admiration being reserved for the fragments of her which he has utilized for his own purposes, or adorned with his own handiwork. When Homer tells us of a place
Where even a god might gaze, and stand apart, And feel a wondering rapture at the heart,
it is of no prospect of sea or mountain that he is speaking, but of a garden where everything is planted in rows, and there is a never-ending succession of pears and figs. These gentler aspects of Nature will have their minor deities to represent them; but the men, of whatever race they be, whose minds are most absorbed in the problems of man's position and destiny will tend for the most part to some sterner and more overwhelming conception of the sum of things. "Lord, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?" is the cry of Hebrew piety as well as of modern science; and the "majestas cognita rerum,"—the recognized majesty of the universe—teaches Lucretius only the indifference of gods and the misery of men.
But in a well-known passage, in which Lucretius is honoured as he deserves, we find nevertheless a different view hinted, with an impressiveness which it had hardly acquired till then. We find Virgil implying that scientific knowledge of Nature may not be the only way of arriving at the truth about her; that her loveliness is also a revelation, and that the soul which is in unison with her is justified by its own peace. This is the very substance of The Poet's Epitaph also; of the poem in which Wordsworth at the beginning of his career describes himself as he continued till its close,—the poet who "murmurs near the running brooks a music sweeter than their own,"—who scorns the man of science "who would peep and botanize upon his mother's grave."
The outward shows of sky and earth, Of hill and valley, he has viewed; And impulses of deeper birth Have come to him in solitude.
In common things that round us lie Some random truths he can impart,— The harvest of a quiet eye That broods and sleeps on his own heart.
But he is weak, both man and boy, Hath been an idler in the land; Contented if he might enjoy The things which others understand.
Like much else in the literature of imperial Rome, the passage in the second Georgic to which I have referred is in its essence more modern than the Middle Ages. Mediaeval Christianity involved a divorce from the nature around us, as well as from the nature within. With the rise of the modern spirit delight in the external world returns; and from Chaucer downwards through the whole course of English poetry are scattered indications of a mood which draws from visible things an intuition of things not seen. When Wither, in words which Wordsworth has fondly quoted, says of his muse,—
By the murmur of a spring, Or the least bough's rustelling; By a daisy whose leaves spread, Shut when Titan goes to bed; Or a shady bush or tree,— She could more infuse in me Than all Nature's beauties can In some other wiser man,—
he felt already, as Wordsworth after him, that Nature is no mere collection of phenomena, but infuses into her least approaches some sense of her mysterious whole.
Passages like this, however, must not he too closely pressed. The mystic element in English literature has run for the most part into other channels; and when, after Pope's reign of artificiality and convention, attention was redirected to the phenomena of Nature by Collins, Beattie, Thomson, Crabbe, Cowper, Burns, and Scott, it was in a spirit of admiring observation rather than of an intimate worship. Sometimes, as for the most part in Thomson, we have mere picturesqueness,—a reproduction of Nature for the mere pleasure of reproducing her,—a kind of stock-taking of her habitual effects. Or sometimes, as in Burns, we have a glowing spirit which looks on Nature with a side glance, and uses her as an accessory to the expression of human love and woe. Cowper sometimes contemplated her as a whole, but only as affording a proof of the wisdom and goodness of a personal Creator.
To express what is characteristic in Wordsworth we must recur to a more generalized conception of the relations between the natural and the spiritual worlds. We must say with Plato—the lawgiver of all subsequent idealists—that the unknown realities around us, which the philosopher apprehends by the contemplation of abstract truth, become in various ways obscurely perceptible to men under the influence of a "divine madness,"—of an enthusiasm which is in fact inspiration. And further, giving, as he so often does, a half-fanciful expression to a substance of deep meaning,—Plato distinguishes four kinds of this enthusiasm. There is the prophet's glow of revelation; and the prevailing prayer which averts the wrath of heaven; and that philosophy which enters, so to say, unawares into the poet through his art, and into the lover through his love. Each of these stimuli may so exalt the inward faculties as to make a man [Greek: entheos kyi ekphron],—"bereft of reason but filled with divinity,"—percipient of an intelligence other and larger than his own. To this list Wordsworth has made an important addition. He has shown by his example and writings that the contemplation of Nature may become a stimulus as inspiring as these; may enable us "to see into the life of things"—as far, perhaps, as beatific vision or prophetic rapture can attain. Assertions so impalpable as these must justify themselves by subjective evidence. He who claims to give a message must satisfy us that he has himself received it; and, inasmuch as transcendent things are in themselves inexpressible, he must convey to us in hints and figures the conviction which we need. Prayer may bring the spiritual world near to us; but when the eyes of the kneeling Dominic seem to say "To son venuto a questo," their look must persuade us that the life of worship has indeed attained the reward of vision. Art, too, may be inspired; but the artist, in whatever field he works, must have "such a mastery of his mystery" that the fabric of his imagination stands visible in its own light before our eyes,—
Seeing it is built Of music; therefore never built at all, And, therefore, built for ever.
Love may open heaven; but when the lover would invite us "thither, where are the eyes of Beatrice," he must make us feel that his individual passion is indeed part and parcel of that love "which moves the sun and the other stars."
And so also with Wordsworth. Unless the words which describe the intense and sympathetic gaze with which he contemplates Nature convince us of the reality of "the light which never was on sea or land,"—of the "Presence which disturbs him with the joy of elevated thoughts,"—of the authentic vision of those hours
When the light of sense Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed The invisible world;—
unless his tone awakes a responsive conviction in ourselves, there is no argument by which he can prove to us that he is offering a new insight to mankind. Yet, on the other hand, it need not be unreasonable to see in his message something more than a mere individual fancy. It seems, at least, to be closely correlated with those other messages of which we have spoken,—those other cases where some original element of our nature is capable of being regarded as an inlet of mystic truth. For in each of these complex aspects of religion we see, perhaps, the modification of a primeval instinct. There is a point of view from which Revelation seems to be but transfigured Sorcery, and Love transfigured Appetite, and Philosophy man's ordered Wonder, and Prayer his softening Fear. And similarly in the natural religion of Wordsworth we may discern the modified outcome of other human impulses hardly less universal—of those instincts which led our forefathers to people earth and air with deities, or to vivify the whole universe with a single soul. In this view the achievement of Wordsworth was of a kind which most of the moral leaders of the race have in some way or other performed. It was that he turned a theology back again into a religion: that he revived in a higher and purer form those primitive elements of reverence for Nature's powers which had diffused themselves into speculation, or crystallized into mythology; that for a system of beliefs about Nature, which paganism had allowed to become grotesque,— of rites which had become unmeaning,—he substituted an admiration for Nature so constant, an understanding of her so subtle, a sympathy so profound, that they became a veritable worship. Such worship, I repeat, is not what we commonly imply either by paganism or by pantheism. For in pagan countries, though the gods may have originally represented natural forces, yet the conception of them soon becomes anthropomorphic, and they are reverenced as transcendent men; and, on the other hand, pantheism is generally characterized by an indifference to things in the concrete, to Nature in detail; so that the Whole, or Universe, with which the Stoics (for instance) sought to be in harmony, was approached not by contemplating external objects, but rather by ignoring them.
Yet here I would be understood to speak only in the most general manner. So congruous in all ages are the aspirations and the hopes of men that it would be rash indeed to attempt to assign the moment when any spiritual truth rises for the first time on human consciousness. But thus much, I think, may be fairly said, that the maxims of Wordsworth's form of natural religion were uttered before Wordsworth only in the sense in which the maxims of Christianity were uttered before Christ. To compare small things with great—or rather, to compare great things with things vastly greater—the essential spirit of the Lines near Tintern Abbey was for practical purposes as new to mankind as the essential spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Not the isolated expression of moral ideas, but their fusion into a whole in one memorable personality, is that which connects them for ever with a single name. Therefore it is that Wordsworth is venerated; because to so many men—indifferent, it may be, to literary or poetical effects, as such—he has shown by the subtle intensity of his own emotion how the contemplation of Nature can be made a revealing agency, like Love or Prayer,—an opening, if indeed there be any opening, into the transcendent world.
The prophet with such a message as this will, of course, appeal for the most part to the experience of exceptional moments—those moments when "we see into the life of things;" when the face of Nature sends to us "gleams like the flashing of a shield;"—hours such as those of the Solitary, who, gazing on the lovely distant scene,
Would gaze till it became Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain The beauty, still more beauteous.
But the idealist, of whatever school, is seldom content to base his appeal to us upon these scattered intuitions alone. There is a whole epoch of our existence whose memories, differing, indeed, immensely in vividness and importance in the minds of different men, are yet sufficiently common to all men to form a favourite basis for philosophical argument. "The child is father of the man;" and through the recollection and observation of early childhood we may hope to trace our ancestry—in heaven above or on the earth beneath— in its most significant manifestation.
It is to the workings of the mind of the child that the philosopher appeals who wishes to prove that knowledge is recollection, and that our recognition of geometrical truths—so prompt as to appear instinctive—depends on our having been actually familiar with them in an earlier world. The Christian mystic invokes with equal confidence his own memories of a state which seemed as yet to know no sin:—
Happy those early days, when I Shined in my angel infancy! Before I understood this place Appointed for my second race, Or taught my soul to fancy aught But a white, celestial thought; When yet I had not walked above A mile or two from my first Love, And looking back at that short space Could see a glimpse of His bright face; When on some gilded cloud or flower My gazing soul would dwell an hour, And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity; Before I taught my tongue to wound My conscience with a sinful sound, Or had the black art to dispense A several sin to every sense, But felt through all this fleshly dress Bright shoots of everlastingness.
And Wordsworth, whose recollections were exceptionally vivid, and whose introspection was exceptionally penetrating, has drawn from his own childish memories philosophical lessons which are hard to disentangle in a logical statement, but which will roughly admit of being classed under two heads. For firstly, he has shown an unusual delicacy of analysis in eliciting the "firstborn affinities that fit our new existence to existing things;"—in tracing the first impact of impressions which are destined to give the mind its earliest ply, or even, in unreflecting natures, to determine the permanent modes of thought. And, secondly, from the halo of pure and vivid emotions with which our childish years are surrounded, and the close connexion of this emotion with external nature, which it glorifies and transforms, he infers that the soul has enjoyed elsewhere an existence superior to that of earth, but an existence of which external nature retains for a time the power of reminding her.
The first of these lines of thought may be illustrated by a passage in the Prelude, in which the boy's mind is represented as passing through precisely the train of emotion which we may imagine to be at the root of the theology of many barbarous peoples. He is rowing at night alone on Esthwaite Lake, his eyes fixed upon a ridge of crags, above which nothing is visible:—
I dipped my oars into the silent lake, And as I rose upon the stroke my boat Went heaving through the water like a swan;— When, from behind that craggy steep till then The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge, As if with voluntary power instinct Upreared its head. I struck and struck again; And, growing still in stature, the grim shape Towered up between me and the stars, and still, For so it seemed, with purpose of its own, And measured motion like a living thing, Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned, And through the silent water stole my way Back to the covert of the willow-tree; There in her mooring-place I left my bark, And through the meadows homeward went, in grave And serious mood. But after I had seen That spectacle, for many days, my brain Worked with a dim and undetermined sense Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts There hung a darkness—call it solitude, Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes Remained, no pleasant images of trees, Of sea, or sky, no colours of green fields; But huge and mighty forms, that do not live Like living men, moved slowly thro' the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
In the controversy as to the origin of the worship of inanimate objects, or of the powers of Nature, this passage might fairly be cited as an example of the manner in which those objects, or those powers, can impress the mind with that awe which is the foundation of savage creeds, while yet they are not identified with any human intelligence, such as the spirits of ancestors or the like, nor even supposed to operate according to any human, analogy.
Up to this point Wordsworth's reminiscences may seem simply to illustrate the conclusions which science reaches by other roads. But he is not content with merely recording and analyzing his childish impressions; he implies, or even asserts, that these "fancies from afar are brought"—that the child's view of the world reveals to him truths which the man with difficulty retains or recovers. This is not the usual teaching of science, yet it would be hard to assert that it is absolutely impossible. The child's instincts may well be supposed to partake in larger measure of the general instincts of the race, in smaller measure of the special instincts of his own country and century, than is the case with the man. Now the feelings and beliefs of each successive century will probably be, on the whole, superior to those of any previous century. But this is not universally true; the teaching of each generation does not thus sum up the results of the whole past. And thus the child, to whom in a certain sense the past of humanity is present,—who is living through the whole life of the race in little, before he lives the life of his century in large,—may possibly dimly apprehend something more of truth in certain directions than is visible to the adults around him.
But, thus qualified, the intuitions of infancy might seem scarcely worth insisting on. And Wordsworth, as is well known, has followed Plato in advancing for the child a much bolder claim. The child's soul, in this view, has existed before it entered the body—has existed in a world superior to ours, but connected, by the immanence of the same pervading Spirit, with the material universe before our eyes. The child begins by feeling this material world strange to him. But he sees in it, as it were, what he has been accustomed to see; he discerns in it its kinship with the spiritual world which he dimly remembers; it is to him "an unsubstantial fairy place"—a scene at once brighter and more unreal than it will appear in his eyes when he has become acclimatized to earth. And even when this freshness of insight has passed away, it occasionally happens that sights or sounds of unusual beauty or carrying deep associations—a rainbow, a cuckoo's cry, a sunset of extraordinary splendour—will renew for a while this sense of vision and nearness to the spiritual world—a sense which never loses its reality, though with advancing years its presence grows briefer and more rare.
Such, then, in prosaic statement is the most characteristic message of Wordsworth. And it is to be noted that though Wordsworth at times presents it as a coherent theory, yet it is not necessarily of the nature of a theory, nor need be accepted or rejected as a whole; but is rather an inlet of illumining emotion in which different minds can share in the measure of their capacities or their need. There are some to whom childhood brought no strange vision of brightness, but who can feel their communion with the Divinity in Nature growing with the growth of their souls. There are others who might be unwilling to acknowledge any spiritual or transcendent source for the elevating joy which the contemplation of Nature can give, but who feel nevertheless that to that joy Wordsworth has been their most effective guide. A striking illustration of this fact may be drawn, from the passage in which John Stuart Mill, a philosopher of a very different school, has recorded the influence exercised over him by Wordsworth's poems; read in a season of dejection, when there seemed to be no real and substantive joy in life, nothing but the excitement of the struggle with the hardships and injustices of human fates.
"What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind," he says in his Autobiography, "was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings, which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence."
Words like these, proceeding from a mind so different from the poet's own, form perhaps as satisfactory a testimony to the value of his work as any writer can obtain. For they imply that Wordsworth has succeeded in giving his own impress to emotions which may become common to all; that he has produced a body of thought which is felt to be both distinctive and coherent, while yet it enlarges the reader's capacities instead of making demands upon his credence. Whether there be theories, they shall pass; whether there be systems, they shall fail; the true epoch-maker in the history of the human soul is the man who educes from this bewildering universe a new and elevating joy.
I have alluded above to some of the passages, most of them familiar enough, in which Wordsworth's sense of the mystic relation between the world without us and the world within—the correspondence between the seen and the unseen—is expressed in its most general terms. But it is evident that such a conviction as this, if it contain any truth, cannot be barren of consequences on any level of thought. The communion with Nature which is capable of being at times sublimed to an incommunicable ecstasy must be capable also of explaining Nature to us so far as she can be explained; there must be axiomata media of natural religion; there must be something in the nature of poetic truths, standing midway between mystic intuition and delicate observation.
How rich Wordsworth is in these poetic truths—how illumining is the gaze which he turns on the commonest phenomena—how subtly and variously he shows us the soul's innate perceptions or inherited memories as it were co-operating with Nature and "half creating" the voice with which she speaks—all this can be learnt by attentive study alone. Only a few scattered samples can be given here; and I will begin with one on whose significance the poet has himself dwelt. This is the poem called The Leech-Gatherer, afterwards more formally named Resolution and Independence.
"I will explain to you," says Wordsworth, "in prose, my feelings in writing that poem, I describe myself as having been exalted to the highest pitch of delight by the joyousness and beauty of Nature; and then as depressed, even in the midst of those beautiful objects, to the lowest dejection and despair. A young poet in the midst of the happiness of Nature is described as overwhelmed by the thoughts of the miserable reverses which have befallen the happiest of all men, viz. poets. I think of this till I am so deeply impressed with it, that I consider the manner in which I am rescued from my dejection and despair almost as an interposition of Providence. A person reading the poem with feelings like mine will have been awed and controlled, expecting something spiritual or supernatural. What is brought forward? A lonely place, 'a pond, by which an old man was, far from all house or home:' not stood, nor sat, but was—the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible. The feeling of spirituality or supernaturalness is again referred to as being strong in my mind in this passage. How came he here? thought I, or what can he be doing? I then describe him, whether ill or well is not for me to judge with perfect confidence; but this I can confidently affirm, that though I believe God has given me a strong imagination, I cannot conceive a figure more impressive than that of an old man like this, the survivor of a wife and ten children, travelling alone among the mountains and all lonely places, carrying with him his own fortitude, and the necessities which an unjust state of society has laid upon him. You speak of his speech as tedious. Everything is tedious when one does not read with the feelings of the author. The Thorn is tedious to hundreds; and so is The Idiot Boy to hundreds. It is in the character of the old man to tell his story, which an impatient reader must feel tedious. But, good heavens! Such a figure, in such a place; a pious, self-respecting, miserably infirm and pleased old man, telling such a tale!"
The naive earnestness of this passage suggests to us how constantly recurrent in Wordsworth's mind were the two trains of ideas which form the substance of the poem; the interaction, namely, (if so it may be termed,) of the moods of Nature with the moods of the human mind; and the dignity and interest of man as man, depicted with no complex background of social or political life, but set amid the primary affections and sorrows, and the wild aspects of the external world.
Among the pictures which Wordsworth has left us of the influence of Nature on human character, Peter Bell may be taken as marking one end, and the poems on Lucy the other end of the scale. Peter Bell lives in the face of Nature untouched alike by her terror and her charm; Lucy's whole being is moulded by Nature's self; she is responsive to sun and shadow, to silence and to sound, and melts almost into an impersonation of a Cumbrian valley's peace. Between these two extremes how many are the possible shades of feeling! In Ruth, for instance, the point impressed upon us is that Nature's influence is only salutary so long as she is herself, so to say, in keeping with man; that when her operations reach that degree of habitual energy and splendour at which our love for her passes into fascination and our admiration into bewilderment, then the fierce and irregular stimulus consorts no longer with the growth of a temperate virtue.
The wind, the tempest roaring high, The tumult of a tropic sky, Might well be dangerous food For him, a youth to whom was given So much of earth, so much of heaven, And such impetuous blood.
And a contrasting touch recalls the healing power of those gentle and familiar presences which came to Ruth in her stormy madness with visitations of momentary calm.
Yet sometimes milder hours she knew, Nor wanted sun, nor rain, nor dew, Nor pastimes of the May; They all were with her in her cell; And a wild brook with cheerful knell Did o'er the pebbles play.
I will give one other instance of this subtle method of dealing with the contrasts in Nature. It is from the poem entitled "Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the Shore, commanding a beautiful Prospect." This seat was once the haunt of a lonely, a disappointed, an embittered man.
Stranger! These gloomy boughs Had charms for him: and here he loved to sit, His only visitants a straggling sheep, The stone-chat, or the glancing sand-piper; And on these barren rocks, with fern and heath And juniper and thistle sprinkled o'er, Fixing his downcast eye, he many an hour A morbid pleasure nourished, tracing here An emblem of his own unfruitful life: And, lifting up his head, he then would gaze On the more distant scene,—how lovely 'tis Thou seest,—and he would gaze till it became Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain The beauty, still more beauteous! Nor, that time, When Nature had subdued him to herself, Would he forget those beings, to whose minds, Warm from the labours of benevolence, The world, and human life, appeared a scene Of kindred loveliness; then he would sigh With mournful joy, to think that others felt What he must never feel; and so, lost Man! On visionary views would fancy feed Till his eyes streamed with tears.
This is one of the passages which the lover of Wordsworth, quotes, perhaps, with some apprehension; not knowing how far it carries into the hearts of others its affecting power; how vividly it calls up before them that mood of desolate loneliness when the whole vision of human love and joy hangs like a mirage in the air, and only when it seems irrecoverably distant seems also intolerably dear. But, however this particular passage may impress the reader, it is not hard to illustrate by abundant references the potent originality of Wordsworth's outlook on the external world.
There was indeed no aspect of Nature, however often depicted, in which his seeing eye could not discern some unnoted quality; there was no mood to which nature gave birth in the mind of man from which his meditation could not disengage some element which threw light on our inner being. How often has the approach of evening been described! And how mysterious is its solemnizing power! Yet it was reserved for Wordsworth in his sonnet "Hail, Twilight, sovereign of one peaceful hour," to draw out a characteristic of that grey waning light which half explains to us its sombre and pervading charm. "Day's mutable distinctions" pass away; all in the landscape that suggests our own age or our own handiwork is gone; we look on the sight seen by our remote ancestors, and the visible present is generalized into an immeasureable past.
The sonnet on the Duddon beginning "What aspect bore the Man who roved or fled First of his tribe to this dark dell," carries back the mind along the same track, with the added thought of Nature's permanent gentleness amid the "hideous usages" of primeval man,— through all which the stream's voice was innocent, and its flow benign. "A weight of awe not easy to be borne" fell on the poet, also, as he looked on the earliest memorials which these remote ancestors have left us. The Sonnet on a Stone Circle which opens with these words is conceived in a strain of emotion never more needed than now,— when Abury itself owes its preservation to the munificence of a private individual,—when stone-circle or round-tower, camp or dolmen, are destroyed to save a few shillings, and occupation-roads are mended with the immemorial altars of an unknown God. "Speak, Giant-mother! Tell it to the Morn!"—how strongly does the heart re-echo the solemn invocation which calls on those abiding witnesses to speak once of what they knew long ago!
The mention of these ancient worships may lead us to ask in what manner Wordsworth was affected "by the Nature-deities of Greece and Rome"—impersonations which have preserved through so many ages so strange a charm. And space must be found here for the characteristic sonnet in which the baseness and materialism of modern life drives him back on whatsoever of illumination and reality lay in that young ideal.
The world is too much with us; late and soon Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The Winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything we are out of tune; It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be A pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea: Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Wordsworth's own imagination idealized Nature in a different way. The sonnet "Brook! Whose society the poet seeks" places him among the men whose Nature-deities have not yet become anthropomorphic— men to whom "unknown modes of being" may seem more lovely as well as more awful than the life we know. He would not give to his idealized brook "human cheeks, channels for tears,—no Naiad shouldst thou be,"—
It seems the Eternal Soul is clothed in thee With purer robes than those of flesh and blood, And hath bestowed on thee a better good; Unwearied joy, and life without its cares.
And in the Sonnet on Calais Beach the sea is regarded in the same way, with a sympathy (if I may so say) which needs no help from an imaginary impersonation, but strikes back to a sense of kinship which seems antecedent to the origin of man.
It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free; The holy time is quiet as a Nun Breathless with adoration; the broad sun Is sinking down in its tranquillity; The gentleness of heaven is on the Sea: Listen! The mighty Being is awake, And doth with his eternal motion make A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
A comparison, made by Wordsworth himself, of his own method of observing Nature with Scott's expresses in less mystical language something of what I am endeavouring to say.
"He expatiated much to me one day," says Mr. Aubrey de Vere, "as we walked among the hills above Grasmere, on the mode in which Nature had been described by one of the most justly popular of England's modern poets—one for whom he preserved a high and affectionate respect. 'He took pains,' Wordsworth said; 'he went out with his pencil and note-book, and jotted down whatever struck him most—a river rippling over the sands, a ruined tower on a rock above it, a promontory, and a mountain-ash waving its red berries. He went home and wove the whole together into a poetical description.' After a pause, Wordsworth resumed, with a flashing eye and impassioned voice: 'But Nature does not permit an inventory to be made of her charms! He should have left his pencil and notebook at home, fixed his eye as he walked with a reverent attention on all that surrounded him, and taken all into a heart that could understand and enjoy. Then, after several days had passed by, he should have interrogated his memory as to the scene. He would have discovered that while much of what he had admired was preserved to him, much was also most wisely obliterated; that which remained—the picture surviving in his mind—would have presented the ideal and essential truth of the scene, and done so in a large part by discarding much which, though in itself striking, was not characteristic. In every scene many of the most brilliant details are but accidental; a true eye for Nature does not note them, or at least does not dwell on them.'"
How many a phrase of Wordsworth's rises in the mind in illustration of this power! Phrases which embody in a single picture, or a single image,—it may be the vivid wildness of the flowery coppice, of—
Flaunting summer, when he throws His soul into the briar-rose,—
or the melancholy stillness of the declining year,—
Where floats O'er twilight fields the autumnal gossamer;
or—as in the words which to the sensitive Charles Lamb seemed too terrible for art—the irresponsive blankness of the universe—
The broad open eye of the solitary sky—
beneath which mortal hearts must make what merriment they may.
Or take those typical stanzas in Peter Bell, which so long were accounted among Wordsworth's leading absurdities.
In vain through, every changeful year Did Nature lead him as before; A primrose by the river's brim A yellow primrose was to him, And it was nothing more.
In vain, through water, earth, and air, The soul of happy sound was spread, When Peter, on some April morn, Beneath the broom or budding thorn. Made the warm earth his lazy bed.
At noon, when by the forest's edge He lay beneath the branches high, The soft blue sky did never melt Into his heart,—he never felt The witchery of the soft blue sky!
On a fair prospect some have looked And felt, as I have heard them say, As if the moving time had been A thing as steadfast as the scene On which they gazed themselves away.
In all these passages, it will be observed, the emotion is educed from Nature rather than added to her; she is treated as a mystic text to be deciphered, rather than as a stimulus to roving imagination. This latter mood, indeed, Wordsworth feels occasionally, as in the sonnet where the woodland sights become to him "like a dream of the whole world;" but it is checked by the recurring sense that "it is our business to idealize the real, and not to realize the ideal." Absorbed in admiration of fantastic clouds of sunset, he feels for a moment ashamed to think that they are unrememberable—
They are of the sky, And from our earthly memory fade away.
But soon he disclaims this regret, and reasserts the paramount interest of the things that we can grasp and love.
Grove, isle, with every shape of sky-built dome, Though clad In colours beautiful and pure, Find in the heart of man no natural home; The immortal Mind craves objects that endure: These cleave to it; from these it cannot roam, Nor they from it: their fellowship is secure.
From this temper of Wordsworth's mind, it follows that there will be many moods in which we shall not retain him as our companion. Moods which are rebellious, which beat at the bars of fate; moods of passion reckless in its vehemence, and assuming the primacy of all other emotions through the intensity of its delight or pain; moods of mere imaginative phantasy, when we would fain shape from the well-worn materials of our thought some fabric at once beautiful and new; from all such phases of our inward being Wordsworth stands aloof. His poem on the nightingale and the stockdove illustrates with half-conscious allegory the contrast between himself and certain other poets.
O Nightingale! Thou surely art A creature of a fiery heart:— These notes of thine—they pierce and pierce; Tumultuous harmony and fierce! Thou sing'st as if the God of wine Had helped thee to a Valentine; A song in mockery and despite Of shades, and dews, and silent Night; And steady bliss, and all the loves Now sleeping in their peaceful groves.
I heard a Stock-dove sing or say His homely tale, this very day; His voice was buried among trees, Yet to be come at by the breeze: He did not cease; but cooed—and cooed, And somewhat pensively he wooed. He sang of love with quiet blending, Slow to begin, and never ending; Of serious faith and inward glee; That was the Song—the Song for me!
"His voice was buried among trees," says Wordsworth; "a metaphor expressing the love of seclusion by which this bird is marked; and characterizing its note as not partaking of the shrill and the piercing, and therefore more easily deadened by the intervening shade; yet a note so peculiar, and withal so pleasing, that the breeze, gifted with that love of the sound which the poet feels, penetrates the shade in which it is entombed, and conveys it to the ear of the listener."
Wordsworth's poetry on the emotional side (as distinguished from its mystical or its patriotic aspects) could hardly be more exactly described than in the above sentence. For while there are few poems of his which could be read to a mixed audience with the certainty of producing an immediate impression; yet on the other hand all the best ones gain in an unusual degree by repeated study; and this Is especially the case with those in which, some touch of tenderness is enshrined in a scene of beauty, which it seems to interpret while it is itself exalted by it. Such a poem is Stepping Westward, where the sense of sudden fellowship, and the quaint greeting beneath the glowing sky, seem to link man's momentary wanderings with the cosmic spectacles of heaven. Such are the lines where all the wild romance of Highland scenery, the forlornness of the solitary vales, pours itself through the lips of the maiden singing at her work, "as if her song could have no ending,"—
Alone she cuts and binds the grain, And sings a melancholy strain; O listen! For the Vale profound Is overflowing with the sound.
Such—and with how subtle a difference!—is the Fragment in which a "Spirit of noonday" wears on his face the silent joy of Nature in her own recesses, undisturbed by beast, or bird, or man,—
Nor ever was a cloudless sky So steady or so fair.
And such are the poems—We are Seven, The Pet Lamb, 
[Footnote 6: The Pet Lamb is probably the only poem of Wordsworth's which can be charged with having done moral injury, and that to a single individual alone. "Barbara Lewthwaite," says Wordsworth, in 1843, "was not, in fact, the child whom I had seen and overheard as engaged in the poem. I chose the name for reasons implied in the above," (i.e. an account of her remarkable beauty), "and will here add a caution against the use of names of living persons. Within a few months after the publication of this poem I was much, surprised, and more hurt, to find it in a child's school-book, which, having been compiled by Lindley Murray, had come into use at Grasmere School, where Barbara was a pupil. And, alas, I had the mortification of hearing that she was very vain of being thus distinguished; and in after-life she used to say that she remembered the incident, and what I said to her upon the occasion."]
Louisa, The Two April Mornings—in which the beauty of rustic children melts, as it were, into Nature herself, and the—
Blooming girl whose hair was wet With points of morning dew
becomes the impersonation of the season's early joy. We may apply, indeed, to all these girls Wordsworth's description of leverets playing on a lawn, and call them—
Separate creatures in their several gifts Abounding, but so fashioned that in all That Nature prompts them to display, their looks, Their starts of motion and their fits of rest, An undistinguishable style appears And character of gladness, as if Spring Lodged in their innocent bosoms, and the spirit Of the rejoicing Morning were their own.
My limits forbid me to dwell longer on these points. The passages which I have been citing have been for the most part selected as illustrating the novelty and subtlety of Wordsworth's view of Nature. But it will now be sufficiently clear how continually a strain of human interest is interwoven with the delight derived from impersonal things.
Long have I loved what I behold, The night that calms, the day that cheers: The common growth of mother earth Suffices me—her tears, her mirth, Her humblest mirth and tears.
The poet of the Waggoner—who, himself a habitual water-drinker, has so glowingly described the glorification which the prospect of nature receives in a half-intoxicated brain—may justly claim that he can enter into all genuine pleasures, even of an order which he declines for himself. With anything that is false or artificial he cannot sympathize, nor with such faults as baseness, cruelty, rancour; which seem contrary to human nature itself; but in dealing with faults of mere weakness he is far less strait-laced than many less virtuous men.
He had, in fact, a reverence for human beings as such which enabled him to face even their frailties without alienation; and there was something in his own happy exemption from such falls which touched him into regarding men less fortunate rather with pity than disdain.
Because the unstained, the clear, the crystalline, Have ever in them something of benign.
His comment on Barns's Tam o' Shanter will perhaps surprise some readers who are accustomed to think of him only in his didactic attitude.
"It is the privilege of poetic genius, he says, to catch, under certain restrictions of which perhaps at the time of its being exerted it is but dimly conscious, a spirit of pleasure wherever it can be found, in the walks of nature, and in the business of men. The poet, trusting to primary instincts, luxuriates among the felicities of love and wine, and is enraptured while he describes the fairer aspects of war, nor does he shrink from the company of the passion of love though immoderate—from convivial pleasures though intemperate—nor from the presence of war, though savage, and recognized as the handmaid of desolation. Frequently and admirably has Burns given way to these impulses of nature, both with references to himself and in describing the condition of others. Who, but some impenetrable dunce or narrow-minded puritan in works of art, ever read without delight the picture which he has drawn of the convivial exaltation of the rustic adventurer Tam o' Shanter? The poet fears not to tell the reader in the outset that his hero was a desperate and sottish drunkard, whose excesses were as frequent as his opportunities. This reprobate sits down to his cups while the storm is roaring, and heaven and earth are in confusion; the night is driven on by song and tumultuous noise, laughter and jest thicken as the beverage improves upon the palate—conjugal fidelity archly bends to the service of general benevolence—selfishness is not absent, but wearing the mask of social cordiality; and while these various elements of humanity are blended into one proud and happy composition of elated spirits, the anger of the tempest without doors only heightens and sets off the enjoyment within. I pity him who cannot perceive that in all this, though there was no moral purpose, there is a moral effect."
Kings may be blest, but Tarn was glorious, O'er a' the ills of life victorious.
"What a lesson do these words convey of charitable indulgence for the vicious habits of the principal actor in the scene, and of those who resemble him! Men who to the rigidly virtuous are objects almost of loathing, and whom therefore they cannot serve! The poet, penetrating the unsightly and disgusting surfaces of things, has unveiled with exquisite skill the finer ties of imagination and feeling, that often bind these beings to practices productive of so much unhappiness to themselves, and to those whom it is their duty to cherish; and, as far as he puts the reader into possession of this intelligent sympathy, he qualifies him for exercising a salutary influence over the minds of those who are thus deplorably enslaved."
The reverence for man as man, the sympathy for him in his primary relations and his essential being, of which these comments on Tam o' Shanter form so remarkable an example, is a habit of thought too ingrained in all Wordsworth's works to call for specific illustration. The figures of Michael, of Matthew, of the Brothers, of the hero of the Excursion, and even of the Idiot Boy, suggest themselves at once in this connexion. But it should be noted in each case how free is the poet's view from any idealization of the poorer classes as such, from the ascription of imaginary merits to an unknown populace which forms the staple of so much revolutionary eloquence. These poems, while they form the most convincing rebuke to the exclusive pride of the rich and great, are also a stern and strenuous incentive to the obscure and lowly. They are pictures of the poor man's life as it is,—pictures as free as Crabbe's from the illusion of sentiment,—but in which the delight of mere observation (which in Crabbe predominates) is subordinated to an intense sympathy with all such capacities of nobleness and tenderness as are called out by the stress and pressure of penury or woe. They form for the folk of northern England (as the works of Burns and Scott for the Scottish folk) a gallery of figures that are modelled, as it were, both from without and from within; by one with experience so personal as to keep every sentence vividly accurate, and yet with an insight which could draw from that simple life lessons to itself unknown. We may almost venture to generalize our statement further, and to assert that no writer since Shakespeare has left us so true a picture of the British nation. In Milton, indeed, we have the characteristic English spirit at a whiter glow; but it is the spirit of the scholar only, or of the ruler, not of the peasant, the woman, or the child, Wordsworth gives us that spirit as it is diffused among shepherds and husbandmen,—as it exists in obscurity and at peace. And they who know what makes the strength of nations need wish nothing better than that the temper which he saw and honoured among the Cumbrian dales should be the temper of all England, now and for ever.
Our discussion of Wordsworth's form of Natural Religion has led us back by no forced transition to the simple life which he described and shared. I return to the story of his later years,—if that be called a story which derives no interest from incident or passion, and dwells only on the slow broodings of a meditative soul.
ITALIAN TOUR—ECCLESIASTICAL SONNETS—POLITICAL VIEWS—LAUREATESHIP.
Wordsworth was fond of travelling, and indulged this taste whenever he could afford it. Comparing himself and Southey, he says in 1843: "My lamented friend Southey used to say that had he been a Papist, the course of life which in all probability would have been his was that of a Benedictine monk, in a convent furnished with an inexhaustible library. Books were, in fact, his passion; and wandering, I can with truth affirm, was mine; but this propensity in me was happily counteracted by inability from want of fortune to fulfil my wishes." We find him, however, frequently able to contrive a change of scene. His Swiss tour in 1790, his residence in France in 1791-2, his residence in Germany, 1798-9, have been already touched on. Then came a short visit to France in August 1802, which produced the sonnets on Westminster Bridge and Calais Beach. The tour in Scotland which was so fertile in poetry took place in 1803. A second tour in Scotland, in 1814, produced the Brownie's Cell and a few other pieces. And in July, 1820, he set out with his wife and sister and two or three other friends for a tour through Switzerland and Italy.
This tour produced a good deal of poetry; and here and there are touches which recall the old inspiration. Such is the comparison of the clouds about the Engelberg to hovering angels; and such the description of the eclipse falling upon the population of statues which throng the pinnacles of Milan Cathedral. But for the most part the poems relating to this tour have an artificial look; the sentiments in the vale of Chamouni seem to have been laboriously summoned for the occasion; and the poet's admiration for the Italian maid and the Helvetian girl is a mere shadow of the old feeling for the Highland girl, to whom, in fact, he seems obliged to recur in order to give reality to his new emotion.
To conclude the subject of Wordsworth's travels, I will mention here that in 1823 he made a tour in Holland, and in 1824 in North Wales, where his sonnet to the torrent at the Devil's Bridge recalls the Swiss scenery seen in his youth with vigour and dignity. In 1828 he made another excursion in Belgium with Coleridge, and in 1829 he visited Ireland with his friend Mr. Marshall. Neither of these tours was productive. In 1831 he paid a visit with his daughter to Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, before his departure to seek health in Italy. Scott received them cordially, and had strength to take them to the Yarrow. "Of that excursion," says Wordsworth, "the verses Yarrow Revisited are a memorial. On our return in the afternoon we had to cross the Tweed, directly opposite Abbotsford. A rich, but sad light, of rather a purple than a golden hue, was spread over the Eildon hills at that moment; and, thinking it probable that it might be the last time Sir Walter would cross the stream (the Tweed), I was not a little moved, and expressed some of my feelings in the sonnet beginning, A trouble not of clouds nor weeping rain. At noon on Thursday we left Abbotsford, and on the morning of that day Sir Walter and I had a serious conversation, tete-a-tete, when he spoke with gratitude of the happy life which, upon the whole, he had led. He had written in my daughter's album, before he came into the breakfast-room that morning, a few stanzas addressed to her; and, while putting the book into her hand, in his own study, standing by his desk, he said to her, in my presence, 'I should not have done anything of this kind but for your father's sake; they are probably the last verses I shall ever write.' They show how much his mind was impaired: not by the strain of thought, but by the execution, some of the lines being imperfect, and one stanza wanting corresponding rhymes. One letter, the initial S., had been omitted in the spelling of his own name."
There was another tour in Scotland in 1833, which produced Memorials of little poetic value. And in 1837 he made a long tour in Italy with Mr. Crabb Robinson. But the poems which record this tour indicate a mind scarcely any longer susceptible to any vivid stimulus except from accustomed objects and ideas. The Musings near Aquapendente are musings on Scott and Helvellyn; the Pine Tree of Monte Mario is interesting because—Sir George Beaumont has saved it from destruction; the Cuckoo at Laverna brings all childhood back into his heart. "I remember perfectly well," says Crabb Robinson, "that I heard the cuckoo at Laverna twice before he heard it; and that it absolutely fretted him that my ear was first favoured; and that he exclaimed with delight, 'I hear it! I hear it!'" This was his last foreign tour; nor, indeed, are these tours very noticeable except as showing that he was not blindly wedded to his own lake scenery; that his admiration could face comparisons, and keep the same vividness when he was fresh from other orders of beauty.
The productions of these later years took for the most part a didactic rather than a descriptive form. In the volume entitled Poems chiefly of Early and Later Years, published in 1842, were many hortatory or ecclesiastical pieces of inferior merit, and among them various additions to the Ecclesiastical Sketches, a series of sonnets begun in 1821, but which he continued to enlarge, spending on them much of the energies of his later years. And although it is only in a few instances—as in the description of King's College, Cambridge—that these sonnets possess force or charm enough to rank them high as poetry, yet they assume a certain value when we consider not so much their own adequacy as the greater inadequacy of all rival attempts in the same direction.
The Episcopalian Churchman, in this country or in the United States, will certainly nowhere find presented to him in poetical form so dignified and comprehensive a record of the struggles and the glories, of the vicissitudes and the edification, of the great body to which he belongs. Next to the Anglican liturgy—though next at an immense interval—these sonnets may take rank as the authentic exposition of her historic being—an exposition delivered with something of her own unadorned dignity, and in her moderate and tranquil tone.
I would not, however, seem to claim too much. The religion which these later poems of Wordsworth's embody is rather the stately tradition of a great Church than the pangs and aspirations of a holy soul. There is little in them—whether for good or evil—of the stuff of which a Paul, a Francis, a Dominic are made. That fervent emotion—akin to the passion of love rather than to intellectual or moral conviction—finds voice through singers of a very different tone. It is fed by an inward anguish, and felicity which, to those who have not felt them, seem as causeless as a lover's moods; by wrestlings not with flesh and blood; by nights of despairing self-abasement; by ecstasies of an incommunicable peace. How great the gulf between Wordsworth and George Herbert!—Herbert "offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither,"—and Wordsworth, for whom the gentle regret of the lines,—
Me this unchartered freedom tires, I feel the weight of chance desires,—
forms his most characteristic expression of the self-judgment of the solitary soul.
Wordsworth accomplished one reconciliation of great importance to mankind. He showed, as plainly in his way as Socrates had shown it long ago, with what readiness a profoundly original conception of the scheme of things will shape itself into the mould of an established and venerable faith. He united the religion of the philosopher with the religion of the churchman; one rarer thing he could not do; he could not unite the religion of the philosopher with the religion of the saint. It is, indeed, evident that the most inspiring feeling which breathes through Wordsworth's ecclesiastical pieces is not of a doctrinal, not even of a spiritual kind. The ecclesiastical as well as the political sentiments of his later years are prompted mainly by the admiring love with which he regarded the structure of English society—seen as that society was by him in its simplest and most poetic aspect. This concrete attachment to the scenes about him had always formed an important element in his character. Ideal politics, whether in Church or State, had never occupied his mind, which sought rather to find its informing principles embodied in the England of his own day. The sonnet On a Parsonage in Oxfordshire well illustrates the loving minuteness with which he draws out the beauty and fitness of the established scheme of things,—the power of English country life to satisfy so many moods of feeling.
The country-seat of the English squire or nobleman has become—may we not say?—one of the world's chosen types of a happy and a stately home. And Wordsworth, especially in his poems which deal with Coleorton, has shown how deeply he felt the sway of such a home's hereditary majesty, its secure and tranquillizing charm. Yet there are moods when the heart which deeply feels the inequality of human lots turns towards a humbler ideal. There are moments when the broad park, the halls and towers, seem no longer the fitting frame of human greatness, but rather an isolating solitude, an unfeeling triumph over the poor.
In such a mood of mind it will not always satisfy us to dwell, as Wordsworth has so often done, on the virtue and happiness that gather round a cottage hearth,—which we must, after all, judge by a somewhat less exacting standard. We turn rather to the "refined rusticity" of an English Parsonage home.
Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends, Is marked by no distinguishable line; The turf unites, the pathways intertwine,—
and the clergyman's abode has but so much of dignity as befits the minister of the Church which is the hamlet's centre; enough to suggest the old Athenian boast of beauty without extravagance, and study without effeminacy; enough to show that dwellings where not this life but another is the prevailing thought and care, yet need not lack the graces of culture, nor the loves of home.
The sonnet on Seathwaite Chapel, and the life of Robert Walker, the incumbent of Seathwaite, which is given at length in the notes to the sonnets on the Duddon, afford a still more characteristic instance of the clerical ideal towards which Wordsworth naturally turned. In Robert Walker he had a Cumbrian statesman turned into a practical saint; and he describes him with a gusto in which his laboured sonnets on Laud or on Dissensions are wholly deficient.
It was in social and political matters that the consequences of this idealizing view of the facts around him in Cumberland were most apparent. Take education, for example. Wordsworth, as has been already stated, was one of the earliest and most impressive assertors of the national duty of teaching every English child to read. He insists on this with a prosaic earnestness which places several pages of the Excursion among what may be called the standing bugbears which his poems offer to the inexperienced reader. And yet as soon as, through the exertions of Bell and Lancaster, there seems to be some chance of really educating the poor, Dr. Bell, whom Coleridge fondly imagines as surrounded in heaven by multitudes of grateful angels, is to Wordsworth a name of horror. The mistresses trained on his system are called "Dr. Bell's sour-looking teachers in petticoats." And the instruction received in these new-fangled schools is compared to "the training that fits a boxer for victory in the ring." The reason of this apparent inconsistency is not far to seek. Wordsworth's eyes were fixed on the village life around him. Observation of that life impressed on him the imperative necessity of instruction in reading. But it was from a moral, rather than an intellectual point of view that he regarded it as needful, and, this opening into the world of ideas once secured, he held that the cultivation of the home affections and home duties was all that was needed beyond. And thus the Westmoreland dame, "in her summer seat in the garden, and in winter by the fireside," was elevated into the unexpected position of the ideal instructress of youth.
Conservatism of this kind could provoke nothing but a sympathetic smile. The case was different when the same conservative—even retrograde—tendency showed itself on subjects on which party-feeling ran high. A great part of the meditative energy of Wordsworth's later years was absorbed by questions towards whose solution he contributed no new element, and which filled him with disproportionate fears. And some injustice has been done to his memory by those who have not fully realized the predisposing causes which were at work,—the timidity of age, and the deep-rooted attachment to the England which he knew.
I speak of age, perhaps, somewhat prematurely, as the poet's gradually growing conservatism culminated in his opposition to the Catholic Relief Bill, before he was sixty years old. But there is nothing to wonder at in the fact that the mind of a man of brooding and solitary habits should show traces of advancing age earlier than is the case with statesmen or men of the world, who are obliged to keep themselves constantly alive to the ideas of the generation that is rising around them. A deadness to new impressions, an unwillingness to make intellectual efforts in fresh directions, a tendency to travel the same mental pathways over and over again, and to wear the ruts of prejudice deeper at every step; such traces of age as these undoubtedly manifested themselves in the way in which the poet confronted the great series of changes—Catholic Emancipation, Reform Bill, New Poor Law, on which England entered about the year 1829. "My sixty-second year," Wordsworth writes, in 1832, "will soon be completed; and though I have been favoured thus far in health and strength beyond most men of my age, yet I feel its effects upon my spirits; they sink under a pressure of apprehension to which, at an earlier period of my life, they would probably have been superior." To this it must be added, that the increasing weakness of the poet's eyes seriously limited his means of information. He had never read much contemporary literature, and he read less than ever now. He had no fresh or comprehensive knowledge of the general condition of the country, and he really believed in the prognostication which was uttered by many also who did not believe in it, that with the Reform Bill the England which he knew and loved would practically disappear. But there was nothing in him of the angry polemic, nothing of the calumnious partisan. One of the houses where Mr. Wordsworth was most intimate and most welcome was that of a reforming member of parliament, who was also a manufacturer, thus belonging to the two classes for which the poet had the greatest abhorrence. But the intimacy was never for a moment shaken, and indeed in that house Mr. Wordsworth expounded the ruinous tendency of Reform and manufactures with even unusual copiousness, on account of the admiring affection with which he felt himself surrounded. The tone in which he spoke was never such as could give pain or excite antagonism; and—if I may be pardoned for descending to a detail which well illustrates my position—the only rejoinder which these diatribes provoked was that the poet on his arrival was sometimes decoyed into uttering them to the younger members of the family, whose time was of less value, so as to set his mind free to return to those topics of more permanent interest where his conversation kept to the last all that tenderness, nobility, wisdom, which in that family, as in many others familiar with the celebrated persons of that day, won for him a regard and a reverence such as was accorded to no other man.
To those, indeed, who realized how deeply he felt these changes,— how profoundly his notion of national happiness was bound up with a lovely and vanishing ideal,—the prominent reflection was that the hopes and principles which maintained through all an underlying hope and trust in the future must have been potent indeed. It was no easy optimism which prompted the lines written in 1837—one of his latest utterances—in which he speaks to himself with strong self-judgment and resolute hope. On reading them one shrinks from dwelling longer upon an old man's weakness and a brave man's fears.
If this great world of joy and pain Revolve in one sure track; If Freedom, set, revive again, And Virtue, flown, come back,—
Woe to the purblind crew who fill The heart with each day's care, Nor learn, from past and future, skill To bear and to forbear.
The poet had also during these years more of private sorrow than his tranquil life had for a long time experienced. In 1832 his sister had a most serious illness, which kept her for many months in a state of great prostration, and left her, when the physical symptoms abated, with her intellect painfully impaired, and her bright nature permanently overclouded. Coleridge, too, was nearing his end. "He and my beloved sister," writes Wordsworth, in 1832, "are the two beings to whom my intellect is most indebted, and they are now proceeding, as it were, pari passu, along the path of sickness, I will not say towards the grave, but I trust towards a blessed immortality."
In July, 1834, "every mortal power of Coleridge was frozen at its marvellous source," And although the early intimacy had scarcely been maintained,—though the "comfortless and hidden well" had, for a time at least, replaced the "living murmuring fount of love" which used to spring beside Wordsworth's door,—yet the loss was one which the surviving poet deeply felt. Coleridge was the only contemporary man of letters with whom Wordsworth's connexion had been really close; and when Wordsworth is spoken of as one of a group of poets exemplifying in various ways the influence of the Revolution, it is not always remembered how very little he had to do with the other famous men of his time. Scott and Southey were valued friends, but he thought little of Scott's poetry, and less of Southey's. Byron and Shelley he seems scarcely to have read; and he failed altogether to appreciate Keats. But to Coleridge his mind constantly reverted; he called him "the most wonderful man he had ever known," and he kept him as the ideal auditor of his own poems, long after Coleridge had listened to the Prelude,—
A song divine of high and passionate thoughts To their own music chanted.
In 1836, moreover, died one for whom Coleridge, as well as Wordsworth, had felt a very high respect and regard—Sarah Hutchinson, Mrs. Wordsworth's sister, and long the inmate of Wordsworth's household. This most valued friend had been another instance of the singular good fortune which attended Wordsworth in his domestic connexions; and when she was laid in Grasmere churchyard, the stone above her tomb expressed the wish of the poet and his wife that, even as her remains were laid beside their dead children's, so their own bodies also might be laid by hers.
And now, while the inner circle of friends and relations began, to pass away, the outer circle of admirers was rapidly spreading. Between the years 1830 and 1840 Wordsworth passed from the apostle of a clique into the most illustrious man of letters in England. The rapidity of this change was not due to any remarkable accident, nor to the appearance of any new work of genius. It was merely an extreme instance of what must always occur where an author, running counter to the fashion of his age, has to create his own public in defiance of the established critical powers. The disciples whom he draws round him are for the most part young; the established authorities are for the most part old; so that by the time that the original poet is about sixty years old, most of his admirers will be about forty, and most of his critics will be dead. His admirers now become his accredited critics; his works are widely introduced to the public; and if they are really good his reputation is secure. In Wordsworth's case the detractors had been unusually persistent, and the reaction, when it came, was therefore unusually violent; it was even somewhat factitious in its extent; and the poems were forced by enthusiasts upon a public which was only half ripe for them. After the poet's death a temporary counter-reaction succeeded, and his fame is only now finding its permanent level.
Among the indications of growing popularity was the publication of an American edition of Wordsworth's poems in 1837, by Professor Reed of Philadelphia, with whom the poet interchanged many letters of interest. "The acknowledgments," he says in one of these, "which I receive from the vast continent of America are among the most grateful that reach me. What a vast field is there open to the English mind, acting through our noble language! Let us hope that our authors of true genius will not be unconscious of that thought, or inattentive to the duty which it imposes upon them, of doing their utmost to instruct, to purify, and to elevate their readers."
But of all the manifestations of the growing honour in which Wordsworth was held, none was more marked or welcome than the honorary degree of D.C.L. conferred on him by the University of Oxford in the summer of 1839. Keble, as Professor of Poetry, introduced him in words of admiring reverence, and the enthusiasm of the audience was such as had never been evoked in that place before, "except upon the occasions of the visits of the Duke of Wellington." The collocation was an interesting one. The special claim advanced for Wordsworth by Keble in his Latin oration was "that he had shed a celestial light upon the affections, the occupations, the piety of the poor." And to many men besides the author of the Christian Year it seemed that this striking scene was, as it were, another visible triumph of the temper of mind which is of the essence of Christianity; a recognition that one spirit more had become as a little child, and had entered into the kingdom of heaven.
In October, 1842, another token of public respect was bestowed on him in the shape of an annuity of 300L a year from the Civil List for distinguished literary merit. "I need scarcely add," says Sir Robert Peel, in making the offer, "that the acceptance by you of this mark of favour from the Crown, considering the grounds on which it is proposed, will impose no restraint upon your perfect independence, and involve no obligation of a personal nature." In March, 1843, came the death of Southey, and in a few days Wordsworth received a letter from Earl De la Warr, the Lord Chamberlain, offering him, in the most courteous terms, the office of Poet Laureate, which, however, he respectfully declined as imposing duties, "which, far advanced in life as I am, I cannot venture to undertake."
This letter brought a reply from the Lord Chamberlain, pressing the office on him again, and a letter from Sir Robert Peel which gave dignified expression to the national feeling in the matter. "The offer," he says, "was made to you by the Lord Chamberlain, with my entire concurrence, not for the purpose of imposing on you any onerous or disagreeable duties, but in order to pay you that tribute of respect which is justly due to the first of living poets. The Queen entirely approved of the nomination, and there is one unanimous feeling on the part of all who have heard of the proposal (and it is pretty generally known) that there could not be a question about the selection. Do not be deterred by the fear of any obligations which the appointment may be supposed to imply. I will undertake that you shall have nothing required from you. But as the Queen can select for this honourable appointment no one whose claims for respect and honour, on account of eminence as a poet, can be placed in competition with, yours, I trust you will not longer hesitate to accept it."
This letter overcame the aged poet's scruples; and he filled with silent dignity the post of Laureate till after seven years' space a worthy successor received
This laurel greener from the brows Of him that uttered nothing base.
LETTERS ON THE KENDAL AND WINDERMERE RAILWAY—CONCLUSION.
Wordsworth's appointment to the Laureateship was significant in more ways than one. He was so much besides a poet, that his appointment implied something of a national recognition, not only of his past poetical achievements, but of the substantial truth of that body of principles which through many years of neglect and ridicule he had consistently supported. There was therefore nothing incongruous in the fact that the only composition of any importance which Wordsworth produced after he became Laureate was in prose—his two letters on the projected Kendal and Windermere railway, 1844. No topic, in fact, could have arisen on which the veteran poet could more fitly speak with whatever authority his official spokesmanship of the nation's higher life could give, for it was a topic with every aspect of which he was familiar; and so far as the extension of railways through the Lake country was defended on grounds of popular benefit, (and not merely of commercial advantage), no one, certainly, had shown himself more capable of estimating at their full value such benefits as were here proposed.