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IN striking contrast with the restless, passionate life of Byron stands the peaceful, uneventful life of Wordsworth. Instead of furious, tormenting passions, there is a self-poised, peaceful life of contemplation. Byron imparted to the beautiful or sublime scenes of nature the colorings of his turbulent thoughts and violent emotions; Wordsworth brought to mountain, stream, and flower the docility of a reverent and loving spirit. His soul was open to the lesson of the outward world, which to him was pervaded by an invisible presence. In his pride and misanthropy, Byron felt no sympathy with the sufferings and struggles of humanity. His censorious eye perceived only the foibles and frailties that lie on the surface. With a far nobler spirit and a keener insight, Wordsworth discerned beauty and grandeur in human life, and aspired to be helpful to his fellow-men. “It is indeed a deep satisfaction,” he wrote near the close of his life, “to hope and believe that my poetry will be, while it lasts, a help to the cause of virtue and truth, especially among the young." While Byron trampled on the laws of morality, ruined his home, and turned the joys of life to ashes, Wordsworth lived in the midst of quiet domestic happiness-humble indeed, but glorified by fidelity, friendship, and love. Byron died in early manhood enslaved by evil habits and oppressed with the emptiness of life; Wordsworth reached an honored old age, and passed away upheld with precious hopes. The one may be admired for his power and meteoric splendor; the other will be honored and loved for his upright character, his human sympathy, and his helpful teachings.
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumber
land County, April 7, 1770, of an ancient family. His violent and moody temper as a child filled his mother with anxiety about his future. He in no way distinguished himself at school, though some of the verses he then composed were well spoken of.
At the age of seventeen he entered Cambridge, where he gave no promise of his future greatness. His genius developed slowly. It was not from books, but from nature, that he derived the greatest inspiration and help. The celebrated Lake District, in which he was born and in which his school days and the greater part of his maturity were spent, is a region of varied and beautiful scenery. With its mountains, forests, and lakes, it is grander than the typical English landscape, yet without the overpowering sublimity of Switzerland. It was a region specially suited to awaken and develop the peculiar powers of Wordsworth. He moved among the natural beauties of the country with an ill-defined but exquisite pleasure. In his own words, –
“The ever-living universe
In 1791 Wordsworth took the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and left the university without having decided upon a vocation. “ He did not feel himself good enough for the church,” he said years afterwards; "he felt that his mind was not properly disciplined for that holy office, and that the struggle between his conscience and his impulses would have made life a torture." He was disinclined to the law; and though he fancied that he had talents for the profession of arms, he feared that he might fall a prey to disease in foreign lands. He passed some time in London without a definite aim and also without much profit. He felt out of place amidst the rush and din of the city. Like the “ Farmer of Tilsbury Vale," whom he afterwards described :
“In the throng of the town like a stranger is he,
Like one whose own country's far over the sea;
After few months he went to France for the purpose of learning the language. His sympathies, which had been with the revolutionists, were intensified by an acquaintance at Orleans with the republican general Beaupuis. Returning to Paris, Wordsworth contemplated placing himself at the head of the Girondist party—a step that would inevitably have brought him to the guillotine. From this danger he was saved by his friends, who, not in sympathy with his republicanism, stopped his allowance, and thus compelled him to return to England. The excesses into which the Revolution ran were a rude shock to him. He was driven to the verge of scepticism:
But his thoughtful nature could not rest in unbelief. A sympathetic study of nature, the beautiful devotion of his sister Dorothy, and a deeper insight into the lives of men, restored his healthfulness and peace of mind. As he advanced in years, he gave up the ardent republican hopes of his youth, and settled down into a staid conservatism.
There are few lives that might better serve to illustrate the doctrine of a special providence. All through his career, the needed help came to him at the right moment. Wordsworth had nursed with tender care a young man attacked by consumption. Upon his death it was found that he had left the poet a legacy of nine hundred pounds. Nothing could have come more opportunely. With this small sum Wordsworth settled with his sister in a little cottage at Racedown in Dorsetshire. Here he began to devote himself to poetry in earnest. In his sister he found a congenial and helpful companion. She filled his home with sunshine. Her poetic sensibilities were keenly alive to the beauties of nature. In grateful recognition of her helpfulness, the poet says:
“ She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
With a beautiful devotion she found her life-work in aiding her gifted brother to fulfil his mission.
The first volume of Wordsworth is entitled “Lyrical Ballads.” It was published in 1798, and contained, besides Coleridge's “ Ancient Mariner,” and several pieces that were ridiculed for triviality, “We are Seven," “ Expostulation and Reply,” “The Tables Turned,” and above all “ Tintern Abbey," all of which contain the essential principles of Wordsworth's poetry. Indeed, the “ Tintern Abbey" more than any other single poem contains the revelation that the poet had to make to the world.
Unfortunately the trivial pieces attracted most attention, and the work was received with coldness and ridicule. “ The Idiot Boy”
a delightful poem to those who can feel the pathos of childish imbecility and the beauty of maternal love and solicitude was the subject of one of the cruelest passages in the “ English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.” Speaking of Wordsworth, whom he denominates “a mild apostate from poetic rule," Byron continues :
" Thus when he tells the tale of Betty Foy,
The idiot mother of an idiot boy,
Immediately after the publication of the “ Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth and his sister went to Germany in order to improve their imperfect acquaintance with the German language. They passed the winter at Goslar; but as they seem to have made no acquaintances, their means of advancement was confined to reading German books privately.
The winter was severe, and their comforts were few. Wordsworth says: “I slept in a room over a passage that was not ceiled. The people of the house used to say, rather unfeelingly, that they expected that I should be frozen to death some night." Notwithstanding these discomforts, his muse was active, and he produced some of his most charming and characteristic pieces, among which are “Lucy Gray," "Ruth,” “Nutting," and the “Poet's Epitaph.” It was here, too, that the “ Prelude," the poetical autobiography of the author's mental growth, was begun. “The Prelude,” says a biographer, “ is a book of good augury for human nature. We feel in reading it as if the stock of mankind were sound. The soul seems going on from strength to strength by the mere development of her inborn power."
Wordsworth returned to England in 1799, and settled at Grasmere in the Lake District, in which he spent the rest of his life. The following year he published a new edition of the
. " Lyrical Ballads,"containing many new pieces and the famous preface in which he laid down his poetical canons. These canons may be briefly stated as follows: 1. Subjects are to be taken from rustic or common life, “ because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil, in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak plainer and more emphatic language.” 2. The language of common life, purified from its defects, is to be adopted, because men of that station “hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived ; and because, .. being less under the action of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.” 3.
66 There neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition."