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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Mr. Wordsworth.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 8  (19 February 1828)  113-15.
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Literary and Critical Journal.



No. V.—Mr. Wordsworth.

With what different feelings do we write this name, from those with which it will be seen by (we fear) a large proportion of our readers! A few have read the works of Wordsworth, and disapprove; many have not read them, and therefore condemn; the rest, among whom are we, think of him as of one greater, and purer from vulgar meannesses, than to belong exclusively to our generation, and yet connected with it by deep sympathies, by a thousand gentle and strong associations, and by the noblest moral influence. Wherefore this variety of conviction? Partly because the public taste has been in a large degree formed by very different models from that presented by this great poet; partly because it has been much misled by evil guidance; but chiefly because his poems require in their readers a far more majestic state of feeling, and more active exercise of reason, than are to be found among ordinary men. Of our own belief, we shall now offer some explanation.

At the period of the change of dynasty, in 1688, however necessary it may have been to take strong measures for the purpose of saving our bishops from martyrdom, and our venerable ancestors from a popish explosion; there was at least as much need of a revolution in poetry as in Government. Indeed, from the time of the death of Milton until our own generation, there was scarcely a mind in England, and not one of the highest order, whereof a trace remains, that dreamed of acting upon the feelings through the imagination, by the aid of any more powerful engines than the passions and modes of reasoning which display themselves on the surface of human intercourse, and, as they spring from nothing essential in man’s nature, are perpetually shifting and passing away. The muse was dressed like a lady on a birth-night, with a toupee and patches, a stomacher and a hoop-petticoat. Her offspring were mere vague shadows, with a certain conventional inanity of feature; and the heroes of poetry were only more interesting than the mutes who clear the stage between the acts of a play, by being more sillily irritable, more ludicrously fierce, and fonder of words of six syllables, than are real and living men. While the way to bring a description or event home to the feelings of every reader, and to impress it vividly on his imagination, was by comparing it to something in the scandalous chronicle of Greek or Roman mythology; by arraying it in a patched garment of classical allusion; by calling a breeze ‘a zephyr,’ and a rivulet ‘the Naiad of the crystal flood.’

The dynasty of this gentle dulness was destined, however, to be shaken and overthrown, in the midst of its most triumphant imbecility. Three-fourths of the eighteenth century passed away without producing in Europe a single really important political event, or one great predominating mind. But these things were all destined to be changed in the changes of the great moral cycle, acting apparently through the proximate causes of various political convulsions. The obstinate tyranny of England forced the colonies in North America into a most just and holy rebellion. A contest of principles arose; it was imitated in Ireland, in the conflict which triumphed in the year 1782; and reproduced under a more formidable and astounding shape in the French Revolution. Wars became struggles of the intellects and passions of nations,—not merely of musquets and bills of exchange. Politics were changed into the opposition of great moral principles, instead of the frivolous frenzies of pamphleteers and secretaries of state, for the possession of a village or the inviolability of a sinecure. Men learned, in short, to think and to feel for themselves, instead of being talking or acting mechanism. The breath of universal existence seemed to become a subtle and mighty power, an impulse, and an inspiration. The hearts of men were enlarged by the reception of a vast hope; and their faculties impregnated by the glorious influences of the time. The great visible changes were, the awakening of nations, the overthrow of the mighty, the destruction of armies and empires, the reform of France into a republic, and of Italy into a people. But there were also the stranger, more fruitful, and more permanent changes, the regeneration of the German mind, and the second miraculous descent upon English literature of the purifying and kindling fire from heaven.

Of this imbreathed spirit, Wordsworth has in our country received more largely than any one now living; or rather bringing with him into manhood rarer faculties than the rest of his generation, he has also laboured more unceasingly and earnestly to make them instruments of ideal art and moral truth, creators of the beautiful, and ministers to the good. For these objects he has ceased to draw from the shallow and muddy fountains of so much preceding and contemporary literature. He has sequestered himself from the customary interests and busy competitions of the society around him; and has endeavoured to see, in his own breast, and in the less artificial classes of mankind, the being of his species as it is, and as it might be, and in the outward world a treasury of symbols, in which we may find reflections of ourselves, and intimations of the purport of all existence. He has attempted to build up in this way his own nature; and to impress it upon his kind, by embodying his serene benevolence and universal sympathies in the forms supplied by a peculiarly faithful and fertile imagination. He has not aimed at all at momentary applause, nor even made renown, either present, or to be, the object of his exertions; but he has written from the love for man, the reverence for truth, and the devotion to art, which, though totally unconnected with the business of book-making, are the only foundations of literary excellence. Therefore it is, that, amid all the ridicule with which he who belongs not to the age has been attacked by its minions, his influence has been gradually but uniformly extending; and those who judge every thing by the commercial standard of the day, will be surprised to find that the booksellers have lately thought it for their advantage to publish a complete and beautiful edition of the works of this ‘drivelling ballad-monger.’

The main strength of the clamour against Wordsworth has been directed upon his fondness for the use of plain and ordinary phraseology. Now for this there are various reasons. In the first place, the constant employment by metrical writers of certain set forms of phrase, many of them never used by any one to express real feelings, and the rest by the very fact of becoming the cant language of poetry, disused among living men,—this custom had by repetition so deadened their effect, that they had ceased to be symbols recalling any thing whatsoever, but the precedents for their use in some other writer. Wordsworth attempted to remedy this by seeking for fresh reservoirs of expression in the real language of mankind, as springing from their genuine feelings: and he found his best materials among those classes whom the habits of society have not compelled to dilute into weakness the mode of communicating their sensations; though in drawing his language in a great degree from the less instructed ranks, he of course omitted every thing that by its rarity would have been unintelligible, or which was not in conformity either with human nature in general, or with the necessary principles of human discourse. But it is a mistake to suppose that he never employs a dialect which might not have been collected from the lips of ploughmen; on the contrary, using simple phrases for simple things, and giving unpedantic expressions to uninstructed men; he also wields, and far more powerfully than any one, between Milton and himself, a language sufficient to the heights and depths of all philosophy, and more subtle and powerful in expressing the most delicate and complex shades of feeling, than any English writer whatsoever, Shakspeare alone excepted. At the same time the habitual use of an uninflated phraseology gives extraordinary vigour to all that homely illustration, and fresh, natural imagery, which are so conspicuous in Wordsworth’s poems. But in general his sonnets, the larger number of his minor poems, the ‘White Doe of Rylstone,’ and the ‘Excursion,’ are by no means marked with the lowliness of diction which it is so common to dwell upon and to ridicule. We find still vigorous in these poems, and in none but them, and the works of Coleridge and of Shelley, the full harmony and profusion, the swell and force of our English tongue, the green old age of that majestic speech, in which Spenser wrote the ‘Fairie Queen,’ and Milton discoursed the ‘Areopagitica’ to angels, to men, and to eternity.

Connected with this charge is that of Mr. Wordsworth’s propensity to represent as his heroes, obscure, and therefore uninteresting, personages. But is there, or is there not, in the hearts of men, that true catholic faith in our nature, from which we learn that what interests and engages all our better, and therefore all our stronger feelings, is not the accidental peculiarity of circumstance, but the immoveable foundations of human being, and its incorporeal, indivisible essence? Place these where you will, so that they show themselves through the accidental accomplishments, and are not stifled by them, there is in them that which draws us to itself, and makes us feel the stirrings of kindred pulses. But how generally, among the instructed classes, is every free emotion checked or masked! Sympathy is called affectation; earnestness, enthusiasm; religion, fanaticism; and the whole of society beaten down and shrunk into flat barrenness. But among the ranks of men which are less subjected to fashion, there are still to be seen yearnings and ebullitions of natural feeling, and among them mankind my 1e studied with more accu-
racy, and examples of deeper and truer interest discovered, than in the portion to which we belong. Acting upon this belief, Wordsworth has done more than any one who has written in our language for two centuries, to realize and bring home to our minds the character of the larger portion of our species. At a time when the favourite personages of even our best poets were Celadons and Musidoras, when poetry confined itself either to Gentlemen and Ladies, or to the shadowy indiscriminate mockeries of humanity, the swains of pastoral absurdity—it was doing a mighty service to society to represent the artisan and the peasant even with the external minuteness of
Crabbe. We all feel, nevertheless, that he has looked upon the poor, the uninstructed, and the despised, with an eye rather to the peculiarities of the individual and the class; and that he has often neglected those things which belong not to classes or to individuals, but to mankind—the original and still undiminished inheritance of glorious hopes and divine faculties. But it is Wordsworth almost alone who has shown us how precious are the associations connected with the foot-print of the clouted shoe. He who paints to us the differences of manners and habits between ourselves and the mass of men, who brings into the strongest light the contrast between stars, lawn-sleeves, and epaulettes, on the one hand, and smock-frocks, and checked shirts on the other, does much towards making us conceive of weavers and ploughmen, as living and busy beings; instead of leaving us to think of stage figurants in pink-hats and lemon-coloured breeches, with gilded crooks and jingling tambourines. But how infinitely more is done to compel our best sympathies, when herdsmen and pedlars are presented to us not only breathing the breath of the same existence, and treading the same green earth as we, but, in their different degrees, thinking similar thoughts, agitated by like passions and misgivings, thrilled by kindred impulses of love, joying in the universal presence of one essential beauty, and feeling within them, and pouring abroad over the world for their own contemplation, the power and tenderness of that spirit who lives as strongly in the châlit of the mountaineer, and in the sod-built but, as among primates, and kaisers, and the conclaves of emblazoned aristocracies.

This has been done by Wordsworth; and the immortal writings which have been the instruments and fruits of his labour, afford an admirable illustration of the mode in which it is really useful and wise to combat the evil cause of privileged monopolies and unchristian sectarianism. It is the effect of almost all his works to make men look within for those things in which they agree, instead of looking without for those in which they differ, and to turn to that one source of universal harmony which consists, not in the adoption of the same dogmas or the establishment of the same forms, but in the powers and the tendencies that belong alike to all, that are in communion with the divine nature, and constitute the humanity that distinguishes us from meaner animals, it is this propensity to look at man as an object of affectionate interest independently of any lowliness of station, except in so far as the external circumstances may have influenced the general development of the character, which would commonly be referred to as the greatest and worst peculiarity of Wordsworth. But it is in truth so intimately connected with the general tendencies of his mind and spirit of his philosophy, that it is impossible to refer to it without advocating or opposing all those principles which guide his mode of treating other matters. His general intention obviously is to view all existence as actuated by a single purport, and parts of one great harmony. But in the present state of society, whatever men may say, the points to which almost everybody attaches a feeling of importance, are those which derive an interest from being mixed up with our own individual selfishness. We do not trouble ourselves about the poor, for thanks to the vagrant act and the standing army they are kept pretty much out of our way. We laugh at the law against cruelty to animals, because it would not be consistent in fox-hunters, and lovers of luxurious eating, to care for a little superfluous suffering among oxen and cart-horses. We make speeches in praise of steam-engines and commercial competition, for without these sources of happiness and virtue, where should we get our comforts and our splendors? But we shut our ears to the gasping of decrepit children in the stifling atmosphere of cotton-mills, and turn away with carelessness from the flood of debasement and misery which rolls along our streets, and overflows into our prisons. While we talk with veneration, the deeper as being indicated rather than expressed, of great capitalists and monied interests. Luther is a fanatic, and Milton a visionary, because the recollection of unselfish zeal is oppressive to the barren littleness, and troublesome to the fat indolence of the age and to sacrifice any worldly advantage from love either to God or our neighbour is extravagant folly; for it is not required either by the laws or by public opinion. Thus it is, that the vulgar uniformly condemn as absurd any attempt to act from higher motives, or with wider views than they do; and therefore are the hearts of most men as hard as the nether mill-stone to the perception of the vast and glorious unity of design and feeling, at once the object and the fruit of that divine presence in which the universe lives and moves and has its being.

Wordsworth has done immensely more than any English writer of modern times to correct this narrowness and meagreness of feeling. He has seen, that even though the men and women of instructed society, or the rude warriors of the middle ages, the heroes of ancient Greece, or the ruffians of modern Turkey, are in themselves, perhaps, as good materials for poetry as the peasant poor of Cumberland; yet we are prone enough to sympathise with the former classes, and when their thoughts and actions are covered by writers with a varnish of refinement, to deify misanthropy, and fall in love with pollution; but that our affections are cold and dead towards the lowly and the despised, the men who compose the mass of every nation, not arrayed in the renown of splendid crimes; not carried on through a long and uniform career by one absorbing passion; not beings of exaggerated impulses and gigantic efforts; but frail and erring, misguided by vulgar hopes, and grasping eagerly at momentary objects. We are ready enough to allow that wisdom is treasured up in books; that the thoughts and deeds of the wise and powerful are fit subjects of contemplation; to pour forth our souls in delight at the aspect of armed and towered cities; to give out the inmost heart of admiration, when we see the thronging armadas of an empire spring forward like the eagle of the deity, to sail before the tempest, and bear the thunder round the globe. We rejoice in the goodliness of our own imaginations, and boast ourselves in the might of our own hands. But it is Wordsworth, and such as Wordsworth, who withdraw us from these exultations, to feel the beauty of a pebble or a leaf; to listen to the still small voice which whispers along the twilight streamlet, and murmurs in the sea-side shell; and to lift among the stars a hymn of humble thanksgiving from the crags of lonely mountains. The exuberant sympathies of the poet gush out oil every grain of sand; they find a germ of love in every wild-flower of the solitude; they go forth conquering and to conquer, to meet with matter and support even in the dim corners and far wildernesses of creation; but they have their most congenial objects wherever there is a human heart, which the poet may speak to in the tone of a kinsman, and find in it a home for his affections,

These peculiarities of Mr. Wordsworth’s mind, as displayed in his writings, spring partly from the essential individuality of his nature, and partly from those tendencies of the time, which he has wisely thought himself called on to oppose. The succession of men of pure and lofty genius is, indeed, a kind of compensation-balance to society; counteracting alike the opposite extremes of its moral temperature. To the demands of this the appointed office of great men, we may in some degree refer one of the especial points of interest in Mr. Wordsworth’s disposition and powers. He seems to have scarcely any propensity to increase his knowledge or sharpen his apprehension of the every-day doings of worldly men. He loves to repose upon meditation, or only to send forth the mind for the purpose of contemplating the beauty of the material world, or of studying man in the individual; instead of mingling actively with the busy life of society. He pours into his personages the strong life and moving breath of genius, but they have little of the air of the mart or the farm-yard. They have, indeed, all that which is so completely wanting in the heroes of Lord Byron, the absolute truth of being, the nature which is so uniform under so many varieties; they are made up of the elements of universal, but want the accidents of social, humanity. Wordsworth appears to take no pleasure in watching the entangled threads of passion which bind together crowds with such many-coloured, yet scarcely distinguishable feelings. He retires from the conflict of mingled and heterogeneous interests. He loves to muse by winding rivers; but the tumultuous current of men’s ordinary motives has little for his contemplation. He delights to gaze upon cities; but it is when ‘all that mighty heart is lying still.’ He cares not to trace through all the eagerness of men’s selfish pursuits, a subtle vein of better feeling; or to look with keen and searching eve upon the follies and fluctuations of society. He has, therefore, no dramatic power whatsoever, and would probably fail completely in the simplest form of tragedy; while comedy is entirely out of the question. In all this he is directly the opposite of his greatest contemporary poet, Goëthe, who seems to take almost equal pleasure in the study of every class of human character, and to delight in tracing the involutions of cunning or the rush of crime; at least, as much as in observing and sympathizing with pure and lofty excellence. Goëthe, moreover, is peculiarly shrewd and philosophical in detecting the action and re-action of social circumstances on individual character, the intertwining of good and evil motive, and the most delicate and apparently causeless shades of capricious selfishness. The difference of the two minds is, perhaps, wisely ordained. For the practical and working Englishman will be benefited and improved by those aspirations to invisible good, and inward perfection, towards which the Germans are already far more generally inclined., Whether the German is or is not too abstracted a being, may admit of dispute; but there can be little doubt that the Englishman is vastly too much engrossed with the casual business of the hour. His thinking is far too completely guided by the multiplication-table and the foot-rule.

This fondness for the actual and the outward, this tendency to wrap ourselves up in the petty interest of the moment, is opposed by the whole strain of Wordsworth’s poetry. He diffuses his affections over every thing around him; and lets them be restricted by no arbitrary limits, and confined within no sectarian enclosures. He looks round upon the world and upon man with eyes of serene rejoicing; and traces all the workings of that spirit of good, of whose influence he is conscious in his own heart. But from his want of that mastery over forms which was never possessed so perfectly by any one as by Shakspeare, he cannot make so intelligible to all men, as he otherwise might, the depth and value of his own feelings. This has prevented his works from becoming more powerful instruments than they
can for ages be, in diffusing the free philosophy and catholic religion so conspicuous throughout his writings. For those, however, who really wish to understand the mind, and sympathise with the affections, of this glorious poet, there is nothing in his works of rugged or ungrateful. The language is the most translucent of atmospheres for the thought. The illustrations are furnished by a sensibility of perception which has made his memory a store-house of substantial riches. The images are moreover the types of none but the truest and most healthy feelings; and the ethics of this most philosophical Christian may all be summed up in the one principle of love to God and to his creatures. Like those angels who are made a flame of fire, he burns with a calm and holy light, and the radiance which shows so strange amid the contrasted glare and blackness of the present, will blend with the dawning of a better time as with its native substance.