페이지 이미지
PDF
ePub

ed the house, for the greater part, had rather indulged their superstitious fears than exercised their judgment. The unseen stones, the outward-bent lead, the unrent sheet, the brick ends, and the hot burning coals, had succeeded each other in a way admirably calculated to impress unreflecting minds with surprise and consternation: but the end was now come.

The thought had occurred to one to adopt a more simple method of unraveling the mystery, for he felt certain in his own mind that some one belonging to the house was the unseen agent that had done all the mischief: who that agent was, of course he could not tell. The tailor himself was not at all likely to break his own windows, and his wife was evidently too fearfully affected by what had taken place to be for a moment suspected. The little servant girl was altogether out of the question, for she was not more than eleven or twelve years old, and had seemingly been more terrified than any other person. There were two or three children, but the eldest of them was from home during the day, and the others were quite young. As suspicion, therefore, had so little to rest on, he who had determined, if possible, to discover the truth, resolved to watch. While others were differently occupied, he kept his eyes on those belonging to the house, and soon saw the little girl go behind the company, and throw, while their backs were toward her, some coals over their heads against the ceiling. It seems strange that this thought of watching the inmates of the house had occurred to no one before.

There was now but one course to be taken; the girl was at once delivered over to the care of the constable, and taken to prison, where, terrified by the fear of punishment, she made a full confession. That so young a creature could have acted so bold and so sinful a part seemed, at first, almost impossible, but afterward it appeared but too plain that she, and she alone, was the guilty perpetrator of all that had taken place. Some trifling disagreement with her mistress having awakened in her heart a desire of revenge, she broke a pane of glass, not intending to do more mischief, but seeing the passion into which her mistress fell, she was too much gratified not to proceed. Another pane was broken, her enjoyment keeping pace with the vexation of her mistress.

On witnessing the surprise of the people who came flocking to see the demolished glass, and perceiving that she was not suspected, her desire of revenge subsided into a desire to call forth in a still greater degree the fear and wonder of all around. Thus led on by her morbid pleasure, and becoming bolder and bolder by her success, she for a time bid defiance to all the plans that were devised to discover the cause of the alarm she had occasioned. Taking the advantage of her tender age and her freedom from suspicion, she provided herself with stones, bits of tile and brick, and other things, and took care not to throw them till she could do so without being seen. In a little room beside the kitchen she hid her store of missiles in the best way she could. When the constable was there, she came limping along the yard, crying, as if injured by a stone. When the kitchen was thronged with people who looked toward the window, she fearlessly threw her stones from behind them. At night, when the house was quiet, she went down into the cellar, where finding some brick ends, she crept with them up through the cellar window into the yard, and threw them with all her might at the house door, hastily descending again through the window, and running up the cellar steps as if in great alarm. Hardly have we a similar instance of youthful audacity and depravity. On going up to bed, this young, artful delinquent seized hold of a quart bottle by the neck, and with it smashed to pieces six or eight window-panes, running downstairs after, and saying she was afraid to stop, for that the stones were coming as fast as ever. And when a gaping throng in the kitchen were looking up at the broken window, she boldly took a shovel of red coals from the fire, and threw them up against the ceiling over the heads of the astonished assembly, of which we ourselves formed a part. Truly she was a marvel of juvenile delinquency. Revenge, deceit, and depravity were her crimes, and imprisonment and a private whipping were her recompense.

It is difficult to conceive how from such simple causes such an amount of amazement and consternation could arise; but as, when looking through a colored glass, every object assumes the hue of the medium through which it is regarded, so when once the mind is impressed with the marvelous, common events become myste

rious. Very many, and we among them, were ashamed of the silly opinions they had entertained. The habit of thoroughly investigating cases of mystery is a good one, and he who by adopting it scatters a superstitious delusion to the winds, has rendered a service to mankind. We ought ever to be open to conviction when reasonable evidence is presented; but were a hundred popular ghost-stories to be rigidly examined, not one among them, perhaps, would stand the test of truth better than the relation we have given.

AN ESTIMATE OF WORDSWORTH'S POETRY.

WOR

WORDSWORTH'S poetry has passed through two phases of criticismin the first of which his defects were chiefly noted, and in the second his merits. Already we have arrived at the third era, when the majority of readers are just to both. It will not be questioned that he was a great and original writer; and perhaps there will not be many to dispute that no poet who soared so high ever sank so low, or interposed so large a proportion of the commonplace among his worthier verse. Of the double end at which he aimed, he sometimes thought he had succeeded best in one, and sometimes in the other. He told Mr. Justice Coleridge, in 1836, that if he was to have any name hereafter, he founded the hope upon his truthful representation of the workings of the heart among the lower orders; and in 1849 he wrote to Professor Reed that what he chiefly valued was the spirituality with which he had attempted to invest the material universe, and the moral relations under which he had exhibited its ordinary appearances.

|

He narrates, as we have seen, in "The Prelude," how he came to select his heroes from humble life. In the Preface to the "Lyrical Ballads" he assigned for his reason that the essential passions nowhere exist with such strength and purity as among peasants, and that in their case the emotion has the additional recommendation of being incorporated with the beautiful forms of nature. The entire position is open to contradiction; and, admitting it to be true, the inference that the passions of the poor must therefore be more interesting than those of their superiors would be refuted by the recollection that Hamlet,

Lear, and Macbeth are kings. But there was no harm in his limiting his range, if he had not imagined that everything within the select domain which had once enlisted his own feelings must have a perpetual value for the public at large. Alice Fell, weeping bitterly because she had made a few more rents in her cloak, would have excited the compassion of any kindly person who had witnessed the scene; but it was not worth while to put into a bottle the tears which were shed for sorrows so slight and transitory. His doctrine that the business of a poet is to educe an interest where none is apparent, engaged him in efforts to squeeze moisture out of dust. We are entirely persuaded, indeed, that if he had allowed his mind to work more freely, and had not been forever forcing it out of its bent in obedience to rules, he would have found in his personal emotions a surer index of what would interest the world. The main trivialities are attended almost invariably by paltry accessories which, far from being necessary to the development of his design, are in every way a clog upon it. A strong instance, and yet very little stronger than a hundred besides, occurs in all the early versions of "The Thorn:"

"And to the left, three yards beyond, You see a little muddy pond Of water never dry:

I've measured it from side to side, 'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide."

In the sequel no use whatever is made of these accurate measurements; they are introduced for their own intrinsic interest, and answer no other purpose.

It might be supposed that, descending to the humblest details of the lowest personages, his portraits would be transcripts of nature. This, however, is seldom the case. He describes feelings with accuracy and minuteness, but they are not the feelings of the poor. As he made his "Wanderer" the sentimental sort of peddler he fancied he should have been himself, so on all other occasions he attended less to what was likely to be thought by his character than to what he should have thought in the same circumstances. His very principles of composition were opposed to dramatic truth. His aim being to exalt and color everything from his own imagination, the individuality of traits and incidents is apt to be lost in the reconstruction. Hence, too, another of his

[ocr errors]

peculiarities-that he is seldom or never carried away by his sympathies. Instead of identifying himself with the sorrows of his agents, and receiving their hearts into his own, he appears to stand apart, and to consider them as subjects for poetic and philosophic display. It is a blot even upon the masterly history of Margaret, in “The Excursion," that her woes are set forth with a stoical calmness. In general, the want of fervor in our poet produces lukewarmness in his reader; but he has told his tale in this instance with such pathetic power, that his contemplative composure has a painful effect, from the mind missing the assuaging influence of genial pity. Most of his happiest poetry upon character is contained in "The Excursion." In "The Ballads" the human traits are usually insignificant, and the poetry is in the sweet reflections they elicit.

But we agree with Wordsworth in his latest opinion, and think that the portions in which he treats of man are inferior to those in which he deals with nature. The latter have a twofold claim to preeminence, as being best in themselves and by far the most original. Other poets have excelled him in the vividness of their descriptions and in the power of conveying the emotions which the actual scene creates in the beholder; but the glory of Wordsworth is to have brought the mind into a deeper, livelier, and more intelligent sympathy with the inanimate world.

"To every natural form, rock, fruit, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life; I saw them feel,
Or link'd them to some feeling."

Every lover of his works can learn from them to do the same, and the conferring an additional sense could hardly open a wider avenue for the purest pleasure. A vast amount of poetry, which is finer, as verse, than many of the effusions of Wordsworth, is on this account far beneath them in the permanent effects on the heart and understanding. There are myriads in the condition of "Peter Bell :"

"A primrose by a river's brim A yellow primrose was to him, And it was nothing more"

tion. It was with some such meaning that Sir James Mackintosh said to Madame de Stäel, "Wordsworth is not a great poet, but he is the greatest man among poets." In turning negligently over the leaves of his volumes, the eye is most impressed by his numerous abortive attempts; but no one ever fairly drank in the spirit of his musings upon nature without acknowledging that he had infused a soul into the body of the universe.

and the strains which succeed in making it something more-which teach the power of nature, and develop all its resources—have a merit and a use superior to the excellence of mere literary execu

The Sonnets are a distinct department of his works. Wordsworth, who borrowed little, takes more from Milton than from any one else. He has frequently imitated the turn of sentences, and adopted many phrases; but the best use he made of him was to frame his sonnets upon Milton's model. He has never attained to the austere grandeur of the sublime imprecation upon the persecuting Piedmontese. The instrument in his hands partakes more of the character of the lute than the trumpet, and in his most successful specimens he is not much behind his master in sweetness and simplicity. But as simplicity easily degenerates into poverty, Wordsworth has not avoided his besetting failing in his sonnets. No idea was too insignificant for the honor, and, notwithstanding the consummate beauty of many of these pieces, a large number of them are insipid to the last degree. It is not an unusual defect in the best, for the end to be inferior to the beginning and middle. The thought was exhausted before the space was filled.

The sonnets are among the smoothest of Wordsworth's compositions. In "Guilt and Sorrow," and a few of his minor productions, his rhymed verse is melodious; but his ear was not exacting, and his poems on the whole are deficient in harmony. Like Coleridge, from whom he had probably acquired the habit, he recited verse in a chanting fashion, which would have given tune to prose. Coleridge, with his perfect ear and his love of luxury of sound, employed it to render music more musical; but, by smoothing over asperities, and imparting increased volume to a slender strain, it led Wordsworth to rest satisfied with faulty metre. Worse than the want of sweetness was his fondness for the jingle of double rhymes. There are more of them, we believe, in his works than are to be found in all the poetry of his predecessors put together, and they

disturb some of his most graceful conceptions by a painful similitude to the cadence of singsong ditties.

There is nothing for which Wordsworth has been more frequently censured than his want of finish of style-and there was no charge that he was more eager to repel. He said he yielded to none in love for his art-that he worked at it with reverence, affection, and industry—and that he never left off laboring a line till he had brought it up to his notions of excellence. The great pains he took does not admit of a doubt; the sole question is, to what extent his efforts were successful. He has some of the most magical lines and stanzas which are to be met with in the whole body of literature; and ideas which seemed almost to defy expression are not unfrequently conveyed in the simplest, clearest, and happiest phrases. But these beauties only enhance regret for his inordinate quantity of feeble verse. The principal reason of the defect was his insufficient command of language. He confesses, as we have mentioned before, that he found it difficult to express himself in prose; and his letters are a conclusive proof how rarely nervous, idiomatic English dropped naturally from his pen. He has shown in entire poems, as well as in particular passages, that he could force chaste and polished diction into his service-but it did not come readily; and either his skill was often baffled or even his patience failed. His limited resources are especially conspicuous in his continual introduction of mean expletives for the sake of eking out the metre or providing a rhyme :

"On a fair prospect some have look'd, 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!"

The "I have heard them say," which enfeebles this charming stanza, is the more displeasing that the poet is speaking in his own person, and obviously from his own experience. The examples are set so thick that it would be as easy to adduce five hundred as one; and, indeed, the very form of speech we have quoted, varied to They will say," and "You'd have said," occurs again and again. The habit of reiterating the same phrase in two or three successive lines, which amounts in him to an offensive mannerism, was another re

66

[ocr errors]

source to supply the comparative scantiness of his vocabulary. A solitary specimen will illustrate the usage, but it is its constant recurrence which renders it repulsive:

"For joy he cannot hold the bridle, For joy his head and heels are idle, He's idle all for very joy."

Some of the minor pieces, as "The Thorn," are half made up of the changes rung upon a surplusage of colloquial common-places. Though he termed the frequent inversions in the works of brother poets a want of respect for the reader, his own are incessant, and of a most barbarous kind. It seems as if their wanting the sanction of custom had led him to fancy that they were not inversions at all. That none of these blemishes proceeded from haste, is the strongest evidence of his imperfect mastery over diction; and that they were not faults of impetuosity, is also the cause that they are seldom accompanied by the vigor and animation which atone for so many slips of fiery composers.

Wordsworth professed that his chief ambition had been to write in pure, intelligible English. His sonnets seldom depart from this standard, and, though the language of the ballads is often far enough from classic, it is abundantly clear. In his blank-verse, however, he often indulged in the oppressive magniloquence of his worst prose, and he is then among the least perspicuous of poets. His obscurity arises in part from the vagueness of his doctrines, but more from the darkness of the lantern in which he buries his light.

It is constantly asserted that he effected a reform in the language of poetry, that he found the public bigoted to a vicious and flowery diction which seemed to mean a great deal and really meant nothing, and that he led them back to sense and simplicity. The claim appears to us to be a fanciful assumption, refuted by the facts of literary history. Feebler poetasters were no doubt read when Wordsworth began to write than would now command an audience, however small; but they had no real hold upon the public, and Cowper was the only popular bard of the day. His masculine and unadorned English was relished in every cultivated circle in the land, and Wordsworth was the child, and not the father, of a reaction which, after all, has been greatly exaggerated. Gold

smith was the most celebrated of Cowper's
immediate predecessors, and it will not be
pretended that "The Deserted Village"
and "The Traveller" are among the
specimens of inane phraseology. Burns
had died before Wordsworth attracted
notice; the wonderful peasant's perform-
ances were admired by none more than by
Wordsworth himself. Were they not
already far more popular than the Lake-
poet's have ever been-or will ever be ? poets.
and were they, in any respect or degree,
tinged with the absurdities of the Hayley
school? When we come forward we find
that the men of the generation were Scott,
Byron, Moore, Campbell, Crabbe, and one
or two others. Wordsworth himself was
little read in comparison, and, if he had
anything to do with weaning the public
from their vitiated predilections, it must
have been through his influence on these
more popular poets, whose works repre-
sented the reigning taste of the time. But
nothing is more certain than that not a
single one of them had formed his style
upon that of the "Lyrical Ballads," or
"The Excursion." Lord Byron, during
his residence in Switzerland, was imbued
through Shelley with some of Words-
worth's characteristic feeling for nature,
which may be palpably traced in the third
canto of Childe Harold, composed at the
period.

cordance with strict dramatic propriety, the system would not be tolerated in serious poetry. The example of Shakspeare dispenses with argument. His characters are acknowledged to be nature itself, but their language in his tragedies is not that which is spoken by ordinary men. It is the richly metaphorical style of Shakspeare himself, which could never have been general unless in a world of transcendent

Yet the discrepancy pleases instead of offending, because all the characters display the passions which are proper to their situation, and with just so much greater power and effect, as Shakspeare's poetry was above common prose. Wordsworth's rule, however, did not stop at the wording of dialogues. He maintained that the colloquial language of rustics was the most philosophical and enduring which the dictionary affords, and the fittest for verse of every description. Any one who mixes with the common people can decide for himself whether their conversation is wont to exhibit more propriety of language than the sayings of a Johnson or the speeches of a Burke. If it were really the case, it would follow that literary cultivation is an evil, and that we ought to learn English of our plowboys, and not of our Shakspeares and Miltons. But there can be no risk in asserting that the vocabulary of rustics is rude and meagre, and their discourse negligent, diffuse, and weak.

Whatever influence Wordsworth may have exercised on poetic style, be it great or small, was by deviating in practice from the principles of composition for which he contended. Both his theory, and the poems which illustrate it, continue to this hour to be all but universally condemned. He resolved to write as the lower orders talked; and though where the poor are the speakers it would be in ac

|

The style of the noble poet, however, had been fixed long before, and displayed in more than one immortal production. Wordsworth, in fact, always spoke of Byron's language with unmeasured reprehension, and said that a critical review of it ought to be written to guard others from imitating it. He was equally emphatic in his censure of Scott-and between the diction of Moore and that of the Lakebard, there was no more resemblance than between water and perfume. Campbell, far from condescending to glean from the effusions of Grasmere and Rydal, was among their uncompromising opponents.

The vulgarisms, which are the most racy, vigorous, and characteristic part of their speech, Wordsworth admitted must be dropped, and either he must have substituted equivalent expressions, when the language ceases to be that of the poor, or he must have put up with a stock of words which, after all these deductions, would have been scarcely more copious than that of a South-Sea savage. When his finest verse is brought to the test of his principle, they agree no better than light and darkness. Here is his way of describing the effects of the pealing organ in King's College Chapel, with its "self-poised roof, scooped into ten thousand cells:"

"But from the arms of silence-list! O list!
The music bursteth into second life;
The notes luxuriate, every stone is kiss'd
With sound, or ghost of sound in mazy strife."
This is to write like a splendid poet, but it
is not to write as rustics talk.

A second canon laid down by Words

« 이전계속 »