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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF WORDSWORTH,
BY H. T. TUCKERMAN.*
In an intellectual history of our age, the bard of Rydal Mount must occupy a prominent place. His name is so intimately associated with the poetical criticisms of the period, that, even if his productions are hereafter neglected, he cannot wholly escape consideration. The mere facts of his life will preserve his memory. It will not be forgotten that one among the men of acknowledged genius in England, during a period of great political excitement, and when society accorded to literary success the highest honors, should voluntarily remain secluded amid the mountains, the uncompromising advocate of a theory, from time to time sending forth his effusions, as uncolored by the poetic taste of the time, as statues from an isolated quarry. It has been the fortune of Wordsworth, like many original characters, to be almost wholly regarded from the two extremes of prejudice and admiration. The eclectic spirit, which is so appropriate to the criticism of Art, has seldom swayed his commentators. It has scarcely been adınitted, that his works may please to a certain extent, ind in particular traits, and in other respects prove wholly uncongenial. Whoever recognises his beauties is held responsible for his system; and those who have stated his defects, have been unfairly ranked with the insensible and unreasonable reviewers who so fiercely assailed him at the outset of his career. There is a medium ground, from which we can survey the subject to more advantage. From this point of observation, it is easy to perceive that there is reason on both sides of the question. It was natural and just that the lovers of poetry, reared in the school of Shakspere, should be repelled at the outset by a new minstrel, whose preludo was an argument. It was like being detained at the door of a cathedral by a dull cicerone, who, before granting admittance, must needs deliver a long homily on the grandeur of the interior, and explain away its deficiencies. “Let us enter,” we impatiently exclaim; “ if the building is truly grand, its sublimity needs no expositor; if it is otherwise, no reasoning will render it impressive." The idea of adopting for poetical objects “the real language of men, when in a vivid state of sensation," was indeed, us Coleridge observes, never strictly attempted ; but there was something so deliberate, and even cold, in Wordsworth's first appeal, that we cannot wonder it was uuttractive. Byron and Burns needed no introduction. The earnestness of their manner secured instant attention. Their principles and purposes were matters of after-thought. Whoever is even superficially acquainted with human nature, must have prophecied a doubtful reception to a bard, who begins by calmly stating his reasons for considering prose and verse identical, his wish to inculcate certain truths which he deemed neglected, and the several considerations which induced him to adopt rhyme for the purpose. Nor is this feeling wholly unworthy of respect, even admitting, with Wordsworth, that mere popularity is no evidence of the genuineness of poetry. Minds of poetical sensibility are accustomed to regard the true poet as so far inspired by his experience, as to write from a spontaneous enthusiasm. They regard verse as his natural e!oment—the most congenial form of expression. They imagine he can scarcely account wholly to himself, far less to others, for his diction and imagery,--any farther than they are the result of emotion too intense and absorbing to admit of any conscious or reflective process. Even if poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity,” it must be of that earnest and tender kind, which is only occasionally experienced. Trust, therefore, was not readily accorded a writer who scarcely seemed enumored of his art, and presented a theory in prose to win the judgment, instead of first taking captive the heart by the music of his lyre. Nor is this the only just cause of Wordswortlı’s early want of appreciation. He has not only written too much from pure reflection, but the quantity of his verse is wholly out of proportion to its quality. He has too often written for the mere sake of writing. The mine he opened may be inexhaustible, but to him it is not given to bring to light all its treasures. His characteristics are not universal. His power is not unlimited. On the contrary, his points of peculiar excellence, though rare, are comparatively few. He has endeavored to extend his range beyond its natural bounds. In a word, he has written too much and too indiscriminately. It is to be feared that habit has made the work of versifying necessary, and he has too often resorted to it merely as an occupation. Poetry is too sacred to be thus mechanically pursued. The true bard seizes only genial periods, and inciting themes. He consecrates only his better moments to “ the divinest of arts." He feels that there is a correspondence between certain subjects and his individual genius, and to these he conscientiously devotes his powers. Wordsworth seems to have acted on a different principle. It is obvious to a discerning reader that his muse is frequently whipped into service. He is too often content to indite a series of common-place thoughts, and memorialize topics which have apparently awakened in his mind only a formal interest. It sometimes seems as if he had taken up the business of a bard, and felt bound to fulfil its functions. His political opinions, his historical reading, almost every event of personal experience, must be! chronicled in the form of a sonnet or blank verse. The language may be chaste, the sentiment unexceptionable, the inoral excellent, and yet there may be no poetry, and perhaps the idea has often been better expressed in prose. Even the admirers of Wordsworth are compelled, therefore, to acknowledge, that with all his unrivalled excellences, he has written too many
* Taken, by permission of the Anthor, from " Thonghts on the Poets."
“ Such lays as neither ebb nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly slow."
Occasional felicities of style do not atone for such frequent desecration of the muse. We could forgive them in a less-gifted minstrel; but with one of Wordsworth's genius it is more difficult to compromise. The number of his indifferent attempts shades the splendor of his real merit. The poems protected by his fame, which are uninspired by his genius, have done much to blind a large class of readers to his intrinsic worth. Another circumstance has contributed to the same result. His redeeming graces often, from excess, become blemishes. In avoiding the tinsel of a meretricious style, he sometimes degenerates into positive homeliness. In rejecting profuse ornament, he often presents his conceptions in so bald a manner as to prove utterly unattractive. His simplicity is not unfrequently childish, his calmness stagnation, his pathos puerility. And these impressions, in some instances, have been allowed to outweigh those which his more genuine qualities inspire. For when we reverse the picture, Wordsworth presents claims to grateful admiration, second to no poet of the age ; and no susceptible and observing mind can study his writings without yielding him at least this cordial acknowledgment.
It is not easy to estimate the happy influence Wordsworth has exerted upon poetical taste and practice, by the example he has given of a more simple and artless style. Like the sculptors who lead their pupils to the anatomy of the human frame, and the painters who introduced the practice of drawing from the human figure, Wordsworth opposed to the artificial and declamatory, the clear and natural in diction. He exhibited, as it were, a new source of the elements of expression. Ho endeavored, and with singular success, to revive a taste for less exciting poetry. He boldly tried the experiment of introducing plain viands, at a banquet garnished with all the art of gastronomy. He offered to substitute crystal water for ruddy wine, and invited those accustomed only to “ a sound of revelry by night,” to go forth and breathe the air of mountains, and gaze into the mirror of peaceful lakes. He aimed to persuade men that they could be moved by gentler excitements" than those of luxury and violence. He essayed to calın their beating hearts, to cool their fevered blood, to lead them gently back to the fountains that “go softly.” He bade them repose their throbbing brows upon the lap of Nature. He quietly advocated the peace of rural solitude, the pleasure of evening walks among the hills, as more salutary than more ostentatious amusements. The lesson was suited to the period. It came forth from the retirement of Nature as quietly as a zephyr; but it was not lost in the hum of the world. Insensibly it mingled with the noisy strife, and subdued it to a sweeter murmur. It fell upon the heart of youth, and its passions grew calmer. It imparted a more harmonious tone to the meditations of the poet. It tempered the aspect of life to many an enger spirit, and gradually weaned the thoughtful from the encroachments of false taste and conventional habits. To a commercial people it portrayed the attractiveness of tranquillity. Before an unhealthy and flashy literature, it set up a standard of truthfulness and simplicity.