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Outlines of English and American Literature
William Wordsworth
by Long, William J.

There is but one way to know Wordsworth, and that way leads to his nature poems. Though he lived in a revolutionary age, his life was singularly uneventful. His letters are terribly prosaic; and his Excursion, in which he attempted an autobiography, has so many dull lines that few have patience to read it. Though he asserted, finely, that there is but one great society on earth, "the noble living and the noble dead," he held no communion with the great minds of the past or of the present. He lived in his own solitary world, and his only real companion was nature. To know nature at first hand, and to reflect human thought or feeling in nature's pure presence,--this was his chief object. His field, therefore, is a small one, but in that field he is the greatest master that England has thus far produced.


Wordsworth is as inseparably connected with the English Lake District as Burns with the Lowlands or Scott with the Border. A large part of the formative period of his life was spent out of doors amid beautiful scenery, where he felt the abounding life of nature streaming upon him in the sunshine, or booming in his ears with the steady roar of the March winds. He felt also (what sensitive spirits still feel) a living presence that met him in the loneliest wood, or spoke to him in the flowers, or preceded him over the wind-swept hills. He was one of those favored mortals who are surest of the Unseen. From school he would hurry away to his skating or bird-nesting or aimless roaming, and every new day afield was to him "One of those heavenly days that cannot die."

Wordsworth and the Revolution

From the Lake Region he went to Cambridge, but found little in college life to attract or hold him. Then, stirred by the promise of the Revolution, he went to France, where his help was eagerly sought by rival parties; for in that day every traveler from America or England, whether an astute Jefferson or a lamblike Wordsworth, was supposed to be, by virtue of his country, a master politician Wordsworth threw himself rather blindly into the Revolution, joined the Girondists (the ruling faction in 1792) and might have gone to the guillotine with the leaders of that party had not his friends brought him home by the simple expedient of cutting off his supply of money. Thus ended ingloriously the only adventure that ever quickened his placid life.

For a time Wordsworth mourned over the failure of his plans, but his grief turned to bitterness when the Revolution passed over into the Reign of Terror and ended in the despotism of Napoleon. His country was now at war with France, and he followed his country, giving mild support to Burke and the Tory party. After a few uncertain years, during which he debated his calling in life, he resolved on two things: to be a poet, and to bring back to English poetry the romantic spirit and the naturalness of expression which had been displaced by the formal elegance of the age of Pope and Johnson.

For that resolution we are indebted partly to Coleridge, who had been attracted by some of Wordsworth's early poems, and who encouraged him to write more. From the association of these two men came the famous Lyrical Ballads (1798), a book which marks the beginning of a new era in English poetry.

To Wordsworth's sister Dorothy we are even more indebted. It was she who soothed Wordsworth's disappointment, reminded him of the world of nature in which alone he was at home, and quietly showed him where his power lay. As he says, in The Prelude

      She whispered still that brightness would return,
      She, in the midst of all preserved me still
      A poet, made me seek beneath that name,
      And that alone, my office upon earth

Personal Traits

The latter half of Wordsworth's life was passed in the Lake Region, at Grasmere and Rydal Mount for the most part, the continuity being broken by walking trips in Britain or on the Continent. A very quiet, uneventful life it was, but it revealed two qualities which are of interest to Wordsworth's readers. The first was his devotion to his art; the second was his granite steadfastness. His work was at first neglected, while the poems of Scott, Byron and Tennyson in succession attained immense popularity. The critics were nearly all against him; misunderstanding his best work and ridiculing the rest. The ground of their opposition was, that his theory of the utmost simplicity in poetry was wrong; their ridicule was made easier by the fact that Wordsworth produced as much bad work as good. Moreover, he took himself very seriously, had no humor, and, as visitors like Emerson found to their disappointment, was interested chiefly in himself and his own work. For was he not engaged in the greatest of all projects, an immense poem (The Recluse) which should reflect the universe in the life of one man, and that man William Wordsworth? Such self-satisfaction invited attack; even Lamb, the gentlest of critics, could hardly refrain from poking fun at it:

        "Wordsworth, the great poet, is coming to town; he is to
        have apartments in the Mansion House. He says he does not
        see much difficulty in writing like Shakespeare, if he had
        a mind to try it. It is clear that nothing is wanting but
        the mind."

His Triumph

Slowly but surely Wordsworth won recognition, not simply in being made Laureate, but in having his ideal of poetry vindicated. Poets in England and America began to follow him; the critics were silenced, if not convinced. While the popularity of Scott and Byron waned, the readers of Wordsworth increased steadily, finding him a poet not of the hour but of all time. "If a single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide," says Emerson, "the huge world will come around to him." If the reading world has not yet come around to Wordsworth, that is perhaps not the poet's fault.

Wordsworth: His Theme and Theory

The theory which Wordsworth and Coleridge formulated was simply this: that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful human feeling. Its only subjects are nature and human nature; its only object is to reflect the emotions awakened by our contemplation of the world or of humanity; its language must be as direct and simple as possible, such language as rises unbidden to the lips whenever the heart is touched. Though some of the world's best poets have taken a different view, Wordsworth maintained steadily that poetry must deal with common subjects in the plainest language; that it must not attempt to describe, in elegant phrases, what a poet is supposed to feel about art or some other subject selected for its poetic possibilities.

Natural vs. Formal Poetry

In the last contention Wordsworth was aiming at the formal school of poetry, and we may better understand him by a comparison. Read, for example, his exquisite "Early Spring" ("I heard a thousand blended notes"). Here in twenty-four lines are more naturalness, more real feeling finely expressed, than you can find in the poems of Dryden, Johnson and Addison combined. Or take the best part of "The Campaign," which made Addison's fortune, and which was acclaimed the finest thing ever written:

  So when an angel by divine command
  With rising tempests shakes a guilty land,
  (Such as of late o'er pale Britannia past)
  Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
  And, pleased th' Almighty's orders to perform,
  Rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm.

To know how artificial that famous simile is, read a few lines from Wordsworth's "On the Sea-Shore," which lingers in our mind like a strain of Handel's music:

  It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
    The holy time is quiet as a Nun
    Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
  Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
  The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:
    Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
    And doth with his eternal motion make
  A sound like thunder--everlastingly.

If such comparisons interest the student, let him read Addison's "Letter to Lord Halifax," with its Apostrophe to Liberty, which was considered sublime in its day:

  O Liberty, thou goddess heavenly bright,
  Profuse of bliss, and pregnant with delight!
  Eternal pleasures in thy presence reign,
  And smiling Plenty leads thy wanton train;
  Eased of her load, Subjection grows more light,
  And Poverty looks cheerful in thy sight;
  Thou mak'st the gloomy face of nature gay,
  Giv'st beauty to the sun, and pleasure to the day.

Place beside that the first four lines of Wordsworth's sonnet "To Switzerland" (quoted at the head of this chapter), or a stanza from his "Ode to Duty":

  Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
    The Godhead's most benignant grace;
  Nor know we anything so fair
    As is the smile upon thy face:
  Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
  And fragrance in thy footing treads;
    Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong,
    And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.

To follow such a comparison is to understand Wordsworth by sympathy; it is to understand also the difference between poetry and formal verse.

The Poems of Wordsworth

As the reading of literature is the main thing, the only word of criticism which remains is to direct the beginner; and direction is especially necessary in dealing with Wordsworth, who wrote voluminously, and who lacked both the critical judgment and the sense of humor to tell him what parts of his work were inferior or ridiculous:

  There's something in a flying horse,
  There's something in a huge balloon!

To be sure; springs in the one, gas in the other; but if there were anything more poetic in horse or balloon, Wordsworth did not discover it. There is something also in a cuckoo clock, or even in

  A household tub, one such as those
  Which women use to wash their clothes.

Such banalities are to be found in the work of a poet who could produce the exquisite sonnet "On Westminster Bridge," the finely simple "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," the stirring "Ode to Duty," the tenderly reflective "Tintern Abbey," and the magnificent "Intimations of Immortality," which Emerson (who was not a very safe judge) called "the high water mark of poetry in the nineteenth century." These five poems may serve as the first measure of Wordsworth's genius.

Poems of Nature

A few of Wordsworth's best nature poems are: "Early Spring," "Three Years She Grew," "The Fountain," "My Heart Leaps Up," "The Tables Turned," "To a Cuckoo," "To a Skylark" (the second poem, beginning, "Ethereal minstrel") and "Yarrow Revisited." The spirit of all his nature poems is reflected in "Tintern Abbey," which gives us two complementary views of nature, corresponding to Wordsworth's earlier and later experience. The first is that of the boy, roaming foot-loose over the face of nature, finding, as Coleridge said, "Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere." The second is that of the man who returns to the scenes of his boyhood, finds them as beautiful as ever, but pervaded now by a spiritual quality,--"something which defies analysis, undefined and ineffable, which must be felt and perceived by the soul."

It was this spiritual view of nature, as a reflection of the Divine, which profoundly influenced Bryant, Emerson and other American writers. The essence of Wordsworth's teaching, in his nature poems, appears in the last two lines of his "Skylark," a bird that soars the more gladly to heaven because he must soon return with joy to his own nest:

  Type of the wise, who soar but never roam:
  True to the kindred points of heaven and home.

Poems of Humble Life

Of the poems more closely associated with human life, a few the best are: "Michael," "The Highland Reaper," "The Leech Gatherers," "Margaret" (in The Excursion), "Brougham Castle," "The Happy Warrior," "Peel Castle in a Storm," "Three Years She Grew," "She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways" and "She was a Phantom of Delight." In such poems we note two significant characteristics: that Wordsworth does not seek extraordinary characters, but is content to show the hidden beauty in the lives of plain men and women; and that his heroes and heroines dwell, as he said, where "labor still preserves his rosy face." They are natural men and women, and are therefore simple and strong; the quiet light in their faces is reflected from the face of the fields. In his emphasis on natural simplicity, virtue, beauty, Wordsworth has again been, as he desired, a teacher of multitudes. His moral teaching may be summed up in three lines from The Excursion:

  The primal duties shine aloft like stars;
  The charities that soothe and heal and bless
  Are scattered at the feet of man like flowers.

The Sonnets

In the number and fine quality of his sonnets Wordsworth has no superior in English poetry. Simplicity, strength, deep thought, fine feeling, careful workmanship,--these qualities are present in measure more abundant than can be found elsewhere in the poet's work:

Bees that soar for bloom, High as the highest peak of Furness-fells, Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells.

In these three lines from "On the Sonnet" (which should be read entire) is the explanation why Wordsworth, who was often diffuse, found joy in compressing his whole poem into fourteen lines. A few other sonnets which can be heartily recommended are: "Westminster Bridge," "The Seashore," "The World," "Venetian Republic," "To Sleep," "Toussaint L'Ouverture," "Afterthoughts," "To Milton" (sometimes called "London, 1802") and the farewell to Scott when he sailed in search of health, beginning, "A trouble not of clouds or weeping rain."

Not until one has learned to appreciate Wordsworth at his best will it be safe to attempt The Prelude, or the Growth of a Poet's Mind. Most people grow weary of this poem, which is too long; but a few read it with pleasure for its portrayal of Wordsworth's education at the hand of Nature, or for occasional good lines which lure us on like miners in search of gold. The Prelude, though written at thirty-five, was not published till after Wordsworth's death, and for this reason: he had planned an immense poem, dealing with Nature, Man and Society, which he called The Recluse, and which he likened to a Gothic cathedral. His Prelude was the "ante-chapel" of this work; his miscellaneous odes, sonnets and narrative poems were to be as so many "cells and oratories"; other parts of the structure were The Home at Grasmere and The Excursion, which he may have intended as transepts, or as chapels.

This great work was left unfinished, and one may say of it, as of Spenser's Faery Queen, that it is better so. Like other poets of venerable years Wordsworth wrote many verses that were better left in the inkpot; and it is a pity, in dealing with so beautiful and necessary a thing as poetry, that one should ever reach the point of saying, sadly but truthfully, "Enough is too much."


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