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THE LIVING POETS OF ENGLAND.No. I.
It is now so generally admitted that the poetry of the present period is under the deepest obligation to the poet who has been most seduously libelled and neglected, that, not only as a matter of right, but as a matter of course, we prefix the name of WORDSWORTH to the first paper of our intended series.
In the general sense of the term, Wordsworth's poetry has not been popular,—nay, notwithstanding the high and increasing estimation in which he is held by poetical minds, he is not popular even now. Like the master productions of painting and sculpture, his poems must be studied before they can be appreciated;it might almost be added :
And you must love them, ere to you
They will seem worthy of your love. The trifler throws them aside because they do not afford any of the usual stimulants for vulgar curiosity, and because they require an exertion of the thinking faculties, which, even if able, he is unwilling to put forth. The pedant is disgusted, because the poet has exalted “the lore which Nature brings,' and preferred her world of ready wealth to the barren leaves of art and science. The man of the world despises Wordsworth's poetry, in the same manner, and for the same reasons, that diseased lungs cannot respire a northern atmosphere;- it is too severe, too ethereal, as Lord Byron happily says, too difficult an air. Lastly, the man whose talent is of that peculiar order which enables him to shine in the world, cannot cordially sympathize in compositions which invariably leave the sparkling surface for the silent depths of things; which lack the tumultuous excitement of exaggerated thought and feeling-ornament and expression; and which afford neither shrewd and caustic, nor witty and playful exposures of the vices and follies of the day. Not possessed themselves of that power of imagination which dares descend to the lowliest subjects, because, conscious that it can, at will, return to the loftiest-conscious also, that it can connect those lowly subjects with immortal truths, and invest them with imperishable grace, they shrink from the poet who says to them, without preface or apology:
• The common growth of mother earth
May find or there create ?' Minor, and certainly influential reasons, may be assigned for the public neglect of Wordsworth; but the chief cause must be sought in the peculiarity of his genius. Even clever people may have unworthy ideas of the character and office of a poet, whilst the majority of readers, regarding poetry merely as the amusement of an idle hour, of course, prefer that which suits
the calibre of their own minds. This will not be poetry of the highest order, because the object of such poetry never is to amuse; other, than the highest order of readers, it will not even interest. Milton's Lycidas, and Wordsworth's Laodamia, (twin immortals) will, undoubtedly, have the same class of admirers, but it will not be that class who exceedingly admire Lalla Rookh, or the Corsair, allowing those poems all the merit they deserve. Again, those points in which Wordsworth has surpassed his compeers are not palpable to general observation; the marks of his superiority do not lie on the surface of his poetry. Those who take up his writings carelessly, perceive his child-like, or as they term it, childish simplicity, but they see nothing of the power underneath it. His poetry frequently resembles the lakes of his own country--the clearness deceives us as to the depth. There never was an instance of a poet having encountered, and in a great measure overcome, so many, and such dire opposing influences. counter to the canons of criticism ; he disallowed the claims of the writers, who at his first appearance governed Parnassus; and he was hailed by the critics with—behold this dreamer cometh,'-and by the poets with
we will not have this man to reign over us.' But the head and front of his offending seems to have been, that he took no pains to conceal either his own consciousness of his own genius, or his contempt for the abuse which poured in upon him from all quarters. The buzzing of the flies did not hinder him from proceeding in his appointed path; he did not even stay to crush, he went on and left them behind. A man of less genius, and, consequently, of less moral nerve and sinew, would have been borne down, by the storm which beat round Wordsworth. He has triumphed;—for in true greatness there is a self-sufficing power which enables it at once to trample on opposition, and support itself without assistance. Inferior minds require praise, and sympathy, and encouragement, and if they have it not, they die;- but the mind of higher stamp stoops not to despair :the butterfly and the flower perish in the storm that strengthens the eagle and the oak. Already has the illustrious poet begun to reap his reward already has he gathered the first fruits of his future harvest of fame. Opprobrium and ridicule are now only heard as dying echoes; every year thins the ranks of his despisers, and adds to the number of his admirers--enthusiasts, we might say, for it is the proud peculiarity of his poetry to haunt the soul like a passion.' If less generally read, he is more quoted and stolen from than any other writer of the day, and of those who decry his genius, numbers tacitly admit his superiority, by feeding their own lamps with oil from his vessel. All who look even cursorily upon the state of literature previous to the appearance of his works, and contrast it with the spirit of literature at the present period, must admit, that he has exercised a strong, if a silent influence, over the minds of his fellows. There is a habit of thought-a style of expression —a choice of epithet and even subject—a something that can only be termed Wordsworthian, running like an under current through our prose and poetry. He has ' troubled the waters,' but he has troubled them like the angel visitant of old
Whose function was to heal and to restore,
To soothe and cleanse, not madden and pollute.
Wordsworth's grand peculiarity, that which sets him apart from, and seats him above all our other writers, is, that his genius is so intimately blended with, and modified by, an unswerving regard to the dignity and happiness of
man. All his minor peculiarities are the result of this primary one. Love, love of his kind is the philosophy of his poetry. Hence, his sympathy with the lowliest of God's creatures ; his joy in all those objects which are fitted to minister to human happiness; his watchful anxiety to draw
Even from things by sorrow wrought,
Matter for a jocund thought; and hence his delight in exhibiting the fair and sunny side of whatsoever he touches or beholds. Upon Nature he looks with a lover's eye, and he paints her with a lover's fancy; whilst he regards man, and the course of human life, with a beneficence akin to what we might conceive of some superior and guardian intelligence. He delights not in unmitigated descriptions of guilt and misery; and while he puts forth sufficient power to kindle our sympathies, he exerts another to restrain them. There is scarcely one of his poems, whatsoever of sorrow, remorse, bitter remembrance of wrong, doubt, or apprehension, it may embody, that does not, at the close, exhibit some brighter shade, or redeeming touch, which alleviates our previous impression of pain, and leaves us to the milder grief of pity. The poet's mind is esentially healthy, and to apply his own words to his own poetry, there is shed over it a
Mild dawn of promise that excludes
All profitless dejection. It is not because he is blind to the darkness which obscures the worth and beauty of all below, but that he sees through that darkness traces of our divine origin; and prefers looking towards the period of final renovation, to brooding over present and irremediable ills. Occasionally he bursts forth into burning indignation against the baser part of our nature; but the harsh strain quickly dies away; his imagination flies back to its native heights, there to expatiate, in ampler ether and diviner air.' Thus he himself speaks :
Noise is there not enough in doleful war,
I sing. In this same spirit he pourtrays natural and inaminate objects; they too must exult in the open sunshine of God's love ; meadow, grove, and stream be apparelled in celestial light. The meanest thing that lives is made to receive, and to reflect back human sympathy; Nature becomes the
gentlest of mothers, the most efficient of teachers; and all her works prompt us to love and gentle charity. To adduce a few instances of what we mean : he thus speaks of a river:
And yet how fair the rural scene !
Thy shelving rocks among. Again, in the fable of the Oak and the Broom, the latter thus replies to the taunts of its mighty companion :
The Butterfly, all green and gold,
It is a joy to me.
Beside yon Spring I stood,
To human comfort. The marvellous and supernatural do not come under Wordsworth's class of subjects ; nevertheless, in the two solitary instances wherein he has approached them, we have the same transfer and infusion of the mild spirit of Humanity. Witness
The strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate, attributed to the White Doe; the meek and beauteous partner of her mistress's solitude and sorrow. In the Fragment of the Danish Boy, only the closing passage bears upon the point in question, but the foregoing description of the shadowy visitant is so exquisitely fancied, that we cannot resist the temptation of giving, at least, a portion of it :
A spirit of noon-day is he,
A harp is from his shoulder slung ;
Of flocks upon the neighbouring hills
There sits he : in his face you spy
Like a dead boy he is serene. Another of Wordsworth's peculiar excellencies, and one that has been rarely, if ever noticed, is his high standard of the female character ; he has indeed shewn us
How divine a thing
A Woman may be made. He has paid the sex fewer compliments than any other poet, yet has he done them more justice. He has not portrayed heroines of romance, but real women ; such women as men might be proud to own as wives and daughters, such as are to be found in the daily course of life. Wordsworth never plays auctioneer to female beauty, as though an enumeration of features were an equivalent to a sketch of character ; his females are creatures of the heart, not the eye.
He treats the sex more like a father than a lover; he neither exaggerates their weakness nor their worth, nor does he ever outrage feminine feeling, by disgusting alternations of levity and adoration. In a word, he invariably speaks of women in print, like a man who respects them in real life; like one whose heart has long anchored in the still depths of female tenderness. Yet his heroines, though
Creatures not too bright or good
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles, are by no means homely and uninteresting ; however lowly their lot, there is about them all. a seemliness complete.' They, like his other pictures, are combinations of health, truth, and chearfulness. He seldom asks our sympathies for ‘ young pale girls,'--still less frequently for broken hearts and untimely graves; yet the following passage will prove that he can make even this worn-out string discourse excellent music :
If mild discourse and manners that conferred