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THE NATIONAL REVIEW.
ART. I.-WILLIAM WORDSWORTH.
William Wordsworth. A Biography.
By Edwin Paxton Hood. London: W. and F. G. Cash. 1856.
MR. HOOD's life of Wordsworth is written with a violent desire to be transcendental. It indicates some real love for Wordsworth's poetry, and some confused insight into its character; but it is rendered extremely unpleasant and unreadable by agonising eloquence, and the strained mannerisms of an attitudinising philosophy. The style is grandiose, and the thought is hopelessly tangled, with now and then a gleam of true criticism; but for the rest, consisting of a bewildered mass of vague and half-seen analogies Thus we are told of the "identity between the mind of Wordsworth and the mind of the ancient Pelasgian;" a supposed identity which is illustrated by a most trying burst of eloquence concerning the Pleiades and fair-haired blossoms, and love blotted out by gloom, and, in short, all the abysses. Again, we have a very long dissertation indeed on the essence of Grecian drama, only, as it appears, because Wordsworth is held to be Grecian, and is not held to be dramatic. The volume is fatally incoherent, and tainted throughout with that most painful of all literary plagues, the vanity of fine writing. We regret this the more, because there are not wanting in the book glimpses of really earnest personal conviction and genuine admiration for the theme; but these are all but smothered in the artificial excitements of the volcanic school of literature. We lay down the book with something not unlike, perhaps, what its author meant (if he had meaning) by that magnificent expression which he has discovered for us, "an awful hieroglyphic sigh."
It is strange that so gaudy an essay should have been written on such a theme. Coleridge, indeed, speaks of the "strange No. VII. JANuary 1857.
mistake, so slightly grounded, yet so widely and industriously propagated, of Mr. Wordsworth's simplicity;" yet assuredly, though not, perhaps, in the sense in which Coleridge ridicules the assertion, the most striking characteristic of Wordsworth's mind and poetry is its essential simplicity. Simplicity of character, simplicity of purpose, simplicity of style, all mark Wordsworth in an extraordinary degree. His was a very strong plain character, and, considering its intellectual depth, remarkably circumscribed in its limits of emotion, taste, and sympathy; but within those limits balanced and harmonious, and distinguished from common characters of like simplicity by two remarkable gifts-a musing eye turned inwards on the depths of that simple life which, in other like-minded men, expresses itself only through outward interests,—and a passionate visionary love for all those living beings and objects and scenes which fed his contemplative humour and filled his imagination without imposing the galling restraint of foreign influence. These two gifts were, indeed, powerful enough to give a cast to his poetry which has made much of it uninteresting or unintelligible to ordinary men. Few men are of a musing cast of mind, and therefore, however otherwise similar in structure their character may be to Wordsworth's own, they take no delight in watching the fresh bubbles of thought rise to the surface from the depths of that clear and crystal well, nor do they recognise them again as the imprisoned breath of joy which gives freshness and elasticity to their own lives, even if they be persuaded for a moment to stand and watch. But though the appearance of simplicity in Wordsworth may be obscured by the tendency to gaze back into the sources of life, instead of looking forward into action, yet this one imaginative peculiarity only brings out the essential simplicity of his character with greater distinctness,-rendering more marked that settled preference for the common, daily, quiet, natural interests on which all human minds can rest, over those special and accidental excitements which only an unusual combination of circumstances can produce, yet on which most poets rely for their inspiration.
There are two different ideas which we commonly mean to express when we speak of simplicity of character. A simple character properly means one of which the essence shines out most completely and brightly at every point, which most keeps and displays its fundamental identity in every action and thought, so that it does not need to be slowly interpreted and pieced together from a wide surface of experience, but is seen at once to be really the same in the most different attitudes. In this sense, for instance (in which simplicity means transparency), we say that Shelley had one of the simplest of characters, Byron one of
the most turbid and opaque. Yet in another sense Shelley's was one of the least simple; for we also mean by simplicity that which is most deeply rooted in common human nature, which is fullest of the natural average material of every-day men. But in both senses, that of transparence and that of common universality, we say that Goldsmith has all the national simplicity of the Irish character; in both senses we can also say that Wordsworth has all the national simplicity of the English character. Give a homely English peasant that brooding and meditative spirit, that deep musing joy in watching his own life and the life of nature around, and you might almost have another Wordsworth. The only reason why this is ever denied is, that he had meditative gifts which altogether altered the form of his thoughts, causing, as it were, an infinitude to stream in upon them, which very much disconcerts "plain men ;" but not the less is it eminently true, that Wordsworth's mind was in substance that of a "plain" Englishman, though steeped in the dim lights of constant meditation, and gifted with a piercing, though narrow, imaginative force. In this kind of simplicity, or community of mind with every-day man, Wordsworth has a real affinity with three of the greatest poets of any age-Homer, Chaucer, and Shakespeare; for though he has no gleam of dramatic power, he has the same delight in common people, common things, common situations. But in the other kind of simplicity-transparency, he is, from his narrowness of practical sympathy and active power, necessarily far beyond them; for Wordsworth's is a mind almost of one attitude, that of contemplation; and, of course, to limited understandings at least, this conduces very much to transparency. It is no doubt true that, to an infinite intelligence, the whole of Shakespeare would be as distinctly pictured in any one of his myriad attitudes of spirit as the whole of Wordsworth in his single mood; indeed all men have a dim feeling that this must be so, that every free and genial nature, if really single-minded in the moral sense, must be completely expressed in all the acts into which its spirit is poured,-nay, that of all beings, the highest is the most transparent, if we had but eyes to see; but as transparency depends on our seeing power, as well as on the fullness of expression in what we see, it is very clear that the least various-minded will soonest and most completely leave upon our vision that impression of singleness of nature which we call simplicity. In this respect Shelley and Wordsworth are curiously like each other, and curiously unlike. Shelley's poetic mind was of one attitude; but that attitude was active,-one of suffering emotion, unsatisfied aspiration, yearning love, and hence springs the clear simplicity of passion in his style. This mood wholly occupied him; he could feel, think,
understand nothing else; and consequently, in the range of its life and interests, his poetry is the least generally popular of all English poetry that can claim to be on any level with it in fire and beauty. Wordsworth too is a poet of one attitude; but that attitude, being one of contemplation, did not shut out, but naturally included, at least as objects of poetic thought, all that came within the scope of his own simple experience; and therefore, though quite as narrow as Shelley in the manner of his poetry, there is in his poems a far wider and more substantial human ground.
Mr. Emerson has recorded a remark of Wordsworth's, made after criticising some writer's style: "To be sure it was the manner; but then, you know, the matter always comes out of the manner." The remark was evidently a hasty generalisation from his own experience, and in that light is very characteristic. To suppose that Wordsworth merely meant that the poet chooses only such themes as his own nature enables him to enter into and to illuminate, is to rob the remark of all weight and value. He no doubt meant a great deal more than this, and no doubt he was thinking mainly of his own works. He meant not merely that the choice of the (nominal) matter depends on the manner of the poet, but that, in his own case at least, the real matter always came more from the manner of the poet than from the object itself to which at the time his mind was turned. There are poets who steep and lose themselves in their theme, whose poetic power lies in their capacity for perfect absorption in their subject. Their manner does not create their matter; but, on the contrary, the matter has the power of bringing their manner into harmony with itself, as was the case with Shakespeare. There are other poets who have no manner, no mode of treatment apart from their matter; their own personal feelings are at once manner and matter; they describe their own emotions in various ways, and that is all they can do: of this school, in great measure at least, is Byron. Wordsworth belongs to neither of these schools; he almost always has a distinct object of thought, and a characteristic manner of treating that object. The manner is not lost in the apparent matter, nor the apparent matter in the manner : but the significance of the latter so much overbalances that of the former, that he is quite right in saying the characteristic element -the poetry-in short, the true matter of his poems-springs a great deal less from the apparent matter than it does from his mode of treatment. For example, it is to some extent, no doubt, the daffodils of Ulleswater, but far more the dancing flowers and waves that instantly took possession of the valley of his own mind, which remain pictured for ever in the most popular of his minor poems. The real centre of poetic interest always lies some
where between the poet and his nominal theme; but in Wordsworth's case very much nearer to the poet than to the object he contemplates. To understand Wordsworth's matter, it is absolutely necessary to understand fully his manner first.
There is no poet who gives to his theme so perfectlynew a birth as Wordsworth. Not, indeed, that he discerns and revivifies the natural life which is in it; but he creates a new thing altogether, namely the life of thought which it has the power to generate in his own brooding imagination. Thus he uses human sorrow, for example, as an influence to stir up his own meditative spirit, till it loses its own nature and becomes
"Sorrow that is not sorrow, but delight;
And miserable love, that is not pain
To hear of, for the glory that redounds
Therefrom to human kind and what we are.” *
It is this strange transmuting power, which his meditative. spirit exercises over all earthly and human themes, that gives to Wordsworth's poems the intense air of solitude which every where pervades them. He is the most solitary of poets. Of him, with far more point than of Milton, may it be said, in his own words, that "his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart." Of all English poems, his works are the most completely removed even from the range of Shakespeare's universal genius. In solitude only could they have originated, and in solitude only can they be perfectly enjoyed. Nor does this arise merely from the distinct intellectual new-birth which every scene, every thought, and every passion undergoes, when it comes within the spell of Wordsworth's musing mind. It is mainly that he makes you feel his isolation of spirit, by never surrendering himself to the natural and obvious currents of thought or feeling in the theme he takes; but changes their direction by cool side-winds from his own spiritual nature. Natural rays of feeling are refracted the moment they enter Wordsworth's imagination. It is not the theme acting on the man that you see, but the man acting on the theme. He himself consciously brings to it the spiritual forces which determine the lines of meditation; he evades, or even resists, the inherent tendencies of emotion belonging to his subject; catches it up into that dim spiritual imagination, and makes it yield a totally different fruit of contemplation to any which it seemed naturally likely to bear. It is in this that he differs so completely in manner from other self-conscious poets-Goethe, for instance, who in like manner always left the shadow of himself on the field of his vision. But with Goethe it is a shadow of self in quite a different sense. Goethe watches him
* Prelude, book xiii. p. 345.