The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/William Wordsworth
Who is this musing Pilgrim of Poesy, wandering amid the lakes and mountains of Cumberland? For fifty years his name has been a centre-point of controversy and criticism in English literature. He has been in turns satirized and eulogized, scorned and worshipped, feebly imitated, and flippantly assailed. How little that can excite us in the story of that calm career! How much in it to interest and instruct! For this man stepped aside from the stir and strife of the outer world to those romantic solitudes with which his name will be for ever associated. Here he worked out his self-adopted mission, and toiled at his labour of love. To that long seclusion, and that laborious self-teaching, we owe all that he has left to us. To that steady self-reliance and cherished unity of purpose are due every beauty and every fault of that genius which has so much influenced the thought and changed the taste of our generation.
William Wordsworth was the second son of John Wordsworth, attorney. He was born at Cockermouth, in Cumberland. His lineage, both on his father and mother's side, is good. The ancestry of the former settled in Yorkshire before the Norman Conquest, and the latter was descended from the Crackenthorpes, who, from the time of Edward III. had been the proprietors of Newbiggen Hall, in Westmoreland. William's childhood was spent partly at Cockermouth, and partly with his mother's family at Penrith. Of his early days he has left some brief account, and made especial mention of his mother, who died of a decline when he was at the age of fourteen, and had just returned from school, at Hawkeshead. He tells us: "I remember my mother only in some few situations, one of which was her pinning a nosegay to my breast, when I was going to say the Catechism in the church, as was customary before Easter. I remember also telling her on one week-day that I had been at church, for our school stood in the churchyard, and we had frequent opportunities of seeing what was going on there. The occasion was a woman doing penance in the church in a white sheet. My mother commended my having been present, expressing a hope that I should remember the circumstance for the rest of my life. 'But,' said I, 'mamma, they did not give me a penny, as I had been told they would.' 'Oh!' said she, recanting her praises, 'if that was your motive, you were very properly disappointed.'"
It is strange that she once said to a friend that William was the only one of her five children about whom she felt any anxiety; and that she had a strong presentiment that he would be remarkable either for good or evil. Her fears were occasioned by the child's strange and impetuous temper. He tells us that while staying at the house of his grandfather, at Penrith, he retired to the attic to commit suicide, because he fancied that he had suffered some indignity. "I took the foil in hand," he says, "but my heart failed."
The days of his boyhood he always looked back upon as very happy. He was allowed at school and in vacations to read what books he liked, and revelled in the works of Fielding and Swift; while "Don Quixote" and "Gil Blas" were choice favourites. Much as he enjoyed these writings, their influence on his mind is not easily to be traced; and he doubtless gained far more inspiration from the extracts from Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, which, at a tender age, his father made him commit to memory.
"Perlegendi sunt Poetæ," is one of the directions laid down by Cicero, for the education of the Orator. For that of the Poet, it seems even more important. An accurate knowledge of some plays of Shakespeare, and a few books of "Paradise Lost," would be as useful in English education, as the daily repetition of Horace and Virgil, and our schools seem at last awakening to this truth.
William Wordsworth was sent to Hawkeshead, in Lancashire, a school founded by Sandys, Archbishop of York, in 1585. There were four head masters in succession while he was there. To one of these, the Rev. William Taylor, he was especially attached. In the "Prelude" he records his feelings on visiting the grave of his honoured teacher, and also his remembrance of the death-bed scene, to which he and some of the other pupils were invited to receive the last words of the dying man.
It was while at this school that the future Laureate first wooed the Muse whose invoked inspiration was hereafter to be to him its own exceeding great reward. "The Summer Vacation," a subject imposed by his master, was his first poem; and at the age of fifteen he, among other boys, was invited to write lines in celebration of the second centenary from the foundation of the school. It is said that the verses he produced were much admired. Their merit is far above the average of school prize poems; and their marked dissimilarity to the poetical productions of his maturer years is very striking.
In October, 1787, at the age of eighteen, he was sent to Cambridge, and commenced residence at St. John's College. By the University system he seems to have profited little, and he speaks of it with little respect. The daily routine of chapels and lectures, with their regular machinery, and sometimes heartless formality, seems to have affected him with disgust. His ardent soul, warm with youth, enamoured of solitude, and breathing poetry, found little comfort and satisfaction in grammatical niceties or mathematical demonstrations; and as he had learned at school enough of "Euclid" and algebra to give him a twelvemonth's start of the freshmen of his year, he betook himself to more congenial studies, and commenced Italian under a master of the name of Isola, who had known the Poet Gray. An opportunity for distinguishing himself in panegyrical verse he neglected at his first entrance. Dr. Chevalier, master of the college, died soon after; and he tells us that, "according to the custom of the time, his body, after being placed in the coffin was removed to the hall of the college, and the pall spread over the coffin was stuck over by copies of verses, English or Latin, from the pens of the students of St. John's." Wordsworth wrote none. "I did not," said he, "regret that I had been silent on this occasion, as I felt no interest in the deceased person, with whom I had had no intercourse, and whom I had never seen but during his walks in the college grounds."
His chief consolation after the wearying round of studies that did not interest, and discipline that tended only to harass him, was the thought that he was walking where great poets before had walked and mused. What Cicero felt at Athens young Wordsworth did at Cambridge, and rejoiced in the scene familiar in earlier days to his Laureate predecessors, Jonson and Dryden. He took his degree in January, 1791; and as a proof that he had no desire to excel in his examination, he spent his last vacation among the Alps, and his last week in reading "Clarissa Harlowe."
His vacations, to which he alludes in the "Prelude," he generally spent in wandering among the scenes of his earlier days. His first vacation he returned to Esthwaite. In his last he took a pedestrian tour in France, accompanied by a friend and brother collegian. They left on the 13th of July, 1790, one day before the King swore that he would observe the new constitution. They crossed the Alps, wandered through Switzerland, purchased a boat at Basle, and floated down the Rhine to Cologne, and then returned by Calais, landing in England, in October. How his mind was affected by what he saw on his tour, may be judged from one or two brief extracts from a letter to his sister. "My spirits," he writes, "have been kept in a perpetual hurry of delight, by the almost uninterrupted succession of sublime and beautiful objects which have passed before my eyes during the course of the last month." As a specimen of scene painting, the following description must be quoted. Speaking of the Lake Como, he says: " It is narrow, and the shadows of the mountains were early thrown across it. It was beautiful to watch them travelling up the side of the hills—for several hours to remark one half of a village covered with shade, and the other bright with the strongest sunshine. It was with regret that we passed every turn of this charming path, where every new picture was purchased by the loss of another which we should never have been tired of gazing upon. The shores of the lake consist of steeps covered with large sweeping woods of chestnut, spotted with villages; some clinging from the summits of the advancing rocks, and others hiding themselves within their recesses. Nor was the surface of the lake less interesting than its shores; half of it glowing with the richest green and gold, the the reflection of the illuminated wood and path, shaded with a soft blue tint. The picture was still farther diversified by the number of sails which stole lazily by us as we paused in the wood above them. And after all this we had the moon. It was impossible not to contrast that repose, that complacency of spirit produced by those lovely scenes, with the sensations I had experienced two or three days before in passing the Alps. At the Lake of Como, my mind ran through a thousand dreams of happiness which might be enjoyed upon its banks, if heightened by conversation and the exercise of social affections. Among the more awful scenes of the Alps, I had not a thought of man or a single created being; my whole soul was turned to Him who produced the terrible majesty before me."
After this tour, he published "Descriptive Sketches." These are very unlike his later poems, and more resemble the sounding heroics of his school prize-poem. They had, however, sufficient originality in them to attract the attention of Coleridge, at that time unknown to Wordsworth. He speaks of them thus: "During the last year of my residence at Cambridge, I became acquainted with Mr. Wordsworth's 'Descriptive Sketches' and seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon, more evidently announced."
After taking his degree, he spent the next four months in London, and then made a pedestrian tour of North Wales with a friend of the name of Jones. They visited all the most sublime and beautiful scenes. In the last Book of "The Prelude," Wordsworth gives an account of the ascent of Snowdon. It is not very suitable to the plan of this biography to make long extracts from his writings. Those who wish to see how they illustrate his life, must refer to the two long volumes of Dr. Wordsworth. We must, for the most part, content ourselves with recording in our own language, the story of his life.
After mentioning, in his account of the ascent, such an incident as a dog unearthing a hedgehog, with "barkings turbulent," he gives the following sketch of the scene before them, as they reached the summit.
"The moon hung naked in a firmament
Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still ocean; and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched
In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic, that appeared
To dwindle and give up his Majesty,
Usurped upon far as the sight could reach.
Not so the ethereal vault; encroachment none
Was there, nor loss; only the inferior stars
Had disappeared, or shed a fainter light
In the clear presence of the full-orbed moon,
Who, from her sovereign elevation, gazed
Upon the billowy ocean, as it lay
All meek and silent, save that through a rift—
Not distant from the shore whereon we stood,
A fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing place
Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams
Innumerable roaring with one voice!
Heard over earth and sea, and in that hour,
For so it seemed, felt by the starry heavens."
A few passages, almost equal to this magnificent description, might be extracted from "The Prelude," and standing in strange contrast to the remainder of the poem, would go far to establish what we have always held of Wordsworth—that he has written some of the very best, and some of the very worst poetry in the language.
After his tour in Wales, he started for the Continent, intending to spend some time at Orleans, and remained a few days at Paris on his way. He has given us, in "The Prelude," an account of his residence in France, as well as that in London. It appears that, until this sojourn of four months, he had before been only "a transient visitant" to our metropolis. He seems to have looked on London with an eye of romance, and to have revelled in the liberty of a latch-key, without falling into vulgar vices, or idle dissipation. He was an industrious sightseer. St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, the Tower, and the picture-galleries, all came in for their share of his attention. He pored curiously over book-stalls, and loitered to listen to barrel-organs. But the theatre was his chief delight. Night after night, he gazed with rapture on Siddons, and proudly records a visit to "half-rural Sadler's Wells," to see clowns, harlequins, conjurors, and more than all, "the champion Jack the giant-killer." He availed himself of opportunities of hearing all the best speakers of the pulpit, bar, and senate, and has given a masterly account of the impression produced on him by the eloquence of Burke.
After hearing this mighty master of oratory "exploding upstart theory" in the British senate, Wordsworth was quite carried away by the very different sentiments propounded by the speakers in the National Assembly, and at the Club of the Jacobins. At Orleans, he at first moved in the higher and more polished circles, from which political discussion was carefully excluded; but growing weary of this coldness and punctilio, he mingled with the people, adopted their cause, and "became a patriot." In his autobiography, he apologises for having with such ardour embraced republican opinions. His education, he thinks, had predisposed him to these views. He had lived in a sequestered nook of the country, had enjoyed mountain liberty, had there seen nothing of regal power or patrician pomp, and had looked upon the University itself as an intellectual republic, in which individual worth, talent, and industry were of more avail than wealth or title.
He fell into the society of some military men at Orleans, one of whom, General Beaupuis, he has celebrated under the name of Dion, in "The Prelude." It was from him that Wordsworth learned the love story of " Vaudracour and Julia," with which our readers are doubtless acquainted. The General afterwards fell in battle, and Wordsworth has raised a monument to his memory in "The Prelude." He visited Paris in the autumn, on his way home, and arrived there soon after the massacres of September, 1792.
So much was his mind affected by the scenes of horror which he witnessed, that years afterwards they haunted his dreams. Though very anxious to stay and mix himself up with political parties in the French capital, he was, fortunately for himself, compelled by circumstances to leave for England, and he arrived in London in the winter. Soon after his return, he wrote, but did not publish, a pamphlet, entitled, "A letter to the Bishop of Llandaff on the Political Principles contained in an Appendix to one of his Lordship's recent Sermons."
"The sentiments avowed in it," says Dr. Wordsworth, "are republican. He declares himself an enemy to an hereditary monarchy, and an hereditary peerage, and to all social privileges and distinctions, except such as are conferred by the elective voice of the people." In writing to a friend at the same time, he says: "Hereditary distinctions, and privileged orders of every species, I think, must necessarily counteract the progress of human improvement. Hence it follows that I am not among the admirers of the British constitution." He adds, however, that the destruction of the institutions which he dislikes seems to be going on too rapidly. "I recoil from the very idea of a revolution. I am a determined enemy to every species of violence."
During the summer of 1793, Wordsworth paid a visit to a friend, Mr. W. Calvert, in the Isle of Wight, and after this walked over Salisbury Plain, where he commenced his poem of "The Female Vagrant," and he then proceeded to Bristol, and thence to Tintern on the Wye, and so on to North Wales.
He was now twenty-three years of age. It was time that he should wake up from the dreams of his youth, and abandon the pleasant vagrant life he had hitherto led. His friends were disappointed that he had not distinguished himself at the University. They now called on him to adopt the profession for which he had been intended, and to take orders in the English Church. This Wordsworth resolutely refused to do; and inasmuch as his objections to that course were conscientious, we must honour them, and believe that he was ultimately enabled to do more good than if he had entered the holy calling to which he had previously looked forward. He appears to have entertained a very strong dislike to any profession. He tells his friend Matthews, in a letter: "I have been doing nothing, and still continue to do nothing. What is to become of me, I know not. * * As for the law, I have neither strength of mind, purse, or constitution to engage in that pursuit."
In this state of perplexity, he turned his thoughts to literature; and, as all clever young men do, thought he could start a new periodical. It was to be called "The Philanthropist," a political and literary monthly miscellany. Wordsworth drew up a prospectus. "He would," he writes to his friend Matthews from his uncle's at Whitehaven, "communicate critical remarks on poetry, the arts of painting, gardening, &c., besides essays on morals and politics." "The Philanthropist" was to have been "REPUBLICAN, but not REVOLUTIONARY." Though, like all new journals, it was, as a matter of course, to have ameliorated everybody's condition, and conferred incalculable advantages on society at large, yet Wordsworth could excite no enthusiasm in coadjutors, nor inspire a publisher or a capitalist with confidence. The scheme fell to the ground, and the promising young paper never saw the light. He was therefore anxious to gain his livelihood as a writer for established journals. He writes again to his young friend, Matthews: "You say a newspaper would be glad of me. Do you think you could insure me employment in that way on terms similar to your own? I mean, also, in an opposition paper, for I cannot abet, in the smallest degree, the measures pursued by the present Ministry. They are already so deeply advanced in iniquity that, like Macbeth, they cannot retreat."
Fortunately for Wordsworth at this most critical period of his life, a kind and generous friend, Raisley Calvert, whom he had nursed on his death-bed, left him the sum of £900. This act, as Dr. Wordsworth very truly remarks, may be regarded in "a public light, as affecting the interests of literature and the welfare, not only of England and the present century, but of future ages and distant lands. If it had not been for Raisley Calvert, or rather for the spirit of love moving in his heart, Wordsworth's best days might have been spent in writing leading articles for 'The Courier,' and the world would never have seen 'The Excursion.'"
The poet has poured forth his gratitude to his benefactor in a sonnet, and also thus alluded to him in "The Prelude:"
"A youth (he bore
The name of Calvert—it shall live, if words
Of mine can give it life) in firm belief
That by endowments not from me withheld
Good might be furthered in his last decay,
By a bequest sufficient for my needs,
Enabled me to pause for choice, and walk
At large and unrestrained, nor damped too soon
By mortal cares. Himself no Poet, yet
Far less a common follower of the world,
He deemed that my pursuits and labours lay
Apart from all that leads to wealth, or even
A necessary maintenance insures,
Without some hazard to the finer sense;
He cleared a passage for me, and the stream
Flowed in the bent of Nature,"
What a help this seemingly small sum was to a man of Wordsworth's simple and frugal habits we may form some idea, when we find him, in a letter to Sir George Beaumont, speaking thus of the account to which he had turned it. "Upon the interest of the £900, £400 being laid out in annuity, with £200 deducted from the principal, and £100 a legacy to my sister, and a £100 more which the 'Lyrical Ballads' have brought me, my sister and I contrived to live seven years, nearly eight."
Giving up now all idea of becoming journalist, and declining to join his friend Wrangham in some imitations of Juvenal, because he had, he said, "come to a fixed resolution to steer clear of personal satire," he dedicated himself entirely to literature, and commenced "The Borderers," a tragedy. It was not completed until November, 1797. During its composition he was visited by Coleridge, who was at the time employed on a similar labour. After tea, one evening, Coleridge repeated two acts and a half of "Osorio," and next morning Wordsworth returned the compliment by reading aloud "The Borderers." Coleridge writes to Cottle, the faithful publisher of whom we have before spoken, "I am sojourning for a few days at Racedown, Dorset, the mansion of our friend Wordsworth. He admires my tragedy, which gives me great hopes. He has written a tragedy himself. I speak with heartfelt sincerity, and I think unblinded judgment, when I tell you I feel a little man by his side."
"Osorio," Coleridge's play, was refused, though some time after played under the title of "Remorse;" and "The Borderers," also then rejected, was never played, and did not see the light at all until nearly fifty years after its composition. Notwithstanding their failures, it is not extraordinary to find these men admiring and encouraging each other. Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge have all recorded their full appreciation of each other's abilities. They were a great Triumvirate, and Coleridge pre-eminently the greatest of the three. Lacking Southey's unwearying industry, and Wordsworth's unity of purpose, he yet excelled them both. He possessed most of the mental endowments which made them famous, and many others which were denied to them. The poetry of Southey is much of it without inspiration. "Christabel," "The Ancient Mariner," "The Ode on Mont Blanc," and that "On the Departed Year," are among the finest pieces in our language. Wordsworth wanted wit, humour, sarcasm, and dramatic power. Coleridge had all. As conversationalist, poet, critic, and metaphysician, he is almost equally great. The simple poet of nature, and the industrious student and historian, have both done much to teach and to amuse their contemporaries; but neither the one nor the other has so stamped the impress of his genius on the age which he adorned, as did the mighty monologist of Highgate.
After their dramatic failures, Wordsworth, his sister and Coleridge took a short tour on the banks of the Wye, and afterwards left England for Germany, in September, 1798. At Hamburg they visited Klopstock, and he and Wordsworth had much conversation on literary subjects. They argued on the merits of Wieland's "Oberon." Wordsworth expressed his belief in the superiority of Dryden to Pope, and Klopstock condemned Kant as utterly incomprehensible. They differed as to the difficulty of exciting tears by the pathetic in tragedy. Wordsworth very confidently records, "I said nothing was more easy than to deluge an audience, that it was done every day by the meanest writers." "The Borderers," however, never set pit or gallery weeping, and will not in the perusal excite any violent emotion. At Hamburg the poets separated; and Coleridge went on to Ratzeburg, while Wordsworth and his sister proceeded to Goslar. They severally employed themselves very diligently in acquiring the German language, and after a sojourn of some months at Goslar they reached England early in the spring of 1799. Wordsworth had, while abroad, written a few of his shorter poems. He now settled in the beautiful neighbourhood of Grasmere, visited and described twenty years before by the poet Gray. Here he commenced his autobiographical poem, "The Prelude," and published his second volume of the "Lyrical Ballads." A copy of the latter he sent to Mr. Fox, who after some months delay replied to him, and expressed his admiration of several of them. During his residence at Grasmere he made a short tour in France, and soon after his return took a step which ensured to him much of the happiness of his unusually happy life. On October the 4th, 1802, he married Mary Hutchinson, his old playmate at the school at Penrith. His increased means had rendered this step one no longer improvident, for at the death of Lord Lonsdale, who had so long doggedly refused to pay the debt due to Wordsworth's father, his successor immediately disbursed not only the original sum, £5000, but also £3,500 as interest upon it. The wife of Wordsworth must be known and loved by all who admire the genius, and are acquainted with the writings of her husband. He has proclaimed her household virtues, and praised her gentle nature in lines of simple beauty which are familiar to all, and present a charming contrast to such extravagant erotics as the few poets who have not quarrelled with their wives, have sung to their honour.
Wordsworth was keenly alive to the charms of woman's society, and no one ever learned more from it. His sister had been for years before his marriage his constant companion. He has rejoiced to record, and his biographers to repeat, that upon his moral and intellectual nature she exercised an influence the most benign. Indeed, so keen was her perception of the beautiful in external nature, as the extracts from her journals abundantly testify, that we cannot doubt but that she was one of the many "who have never penned their inspiration," and that, had not William frequently clothed her thoughts in poetry, she would have herself indulged the fine frenzy. Fondly as he loved his wife, and beautifully as he has described the graces of her character, it is his sister who will be more closely associated with his poetic fame. She was often his amanuensis, sometimes his critic, and always his admirer. If they did not in partnership "compose at once a slipper and a song," they at any rate sometimes simultaneously produced a sonnet and a stocking.
A year after his marriage, we find that Wordsworth left his wife and youthful first-born at Grasmere, and picking up Coleridge on the way, commenced a tour in Scotland. Wordsworth was a determined excursionist. His vagabond propensities were so strong, that Sir G. Beaumont, at his death, left him an annuity of £100 for the express purpose of expending it in an annual tour. He loved his own neighbourhood. Its scenes were as dear as they were familiar to him. But his love of the glories of Nature tempted him to extend his wanderings. In this tour in Scotland in 1803, he made the acquaintance, or we should more truly say the friendship, of Sir W. Scott; and at Keswick, on his return, he met for the first time Southey. Coleridge had parted from Wordsworth and his sister at Tarbet, after only fourteen days tour; but she and Wordsworth journeyed on through the most sublime and picturesque scenery of the north, and the numerous poems suggested by what met his gaze, were the outpourings of his happy heart, the merry music of joyous spirits, and a kind and genial nature. They reached Grasmere on the 25th of September, and Wordsworth, writing to Scott, says: "We had a delightful journey home, delightful weather, and a sweet country to travel through. We reached our little cottage in high spirits, and thankful to God for all His bounties. My wife and child were both well, and, as I need not say, we had all of us a happy meeting."
A dark cloud of gloom soon broke with terrible suddenness on this happy circle. Captain John Wordsworth, the affectionate and well-loved brother of the poet, was drowned in the wreck of the 'Abergavenny,' East Indiaman. The vessel, to which he had just been appointed, through the incompetency of a pilot, ran on the shambles off the Bill of Portland, and, when they got her off, sank while they were endeavouring to run her on to Weymouth sands. This sad intelligence filled their house with mourning. Captain Wordsworth had always entertained the profoundest admiration for his brother. He fully appreciated, and, even at the time that the critics were most cynical and severe, predicted the success of the poems. More than this, the object of this very voyage, in which he was lost, was to increase the worldly means of his brother and sister. They were not unmindful of his noble conduct, and their grief occasioned by his melancholy fate was as vehement as it was sincere.
"Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus,
Tam cari capitis?"
is the spirit of every line in verse or prose that Wordsworth wrote on the man and his memory.
A few months after this sad catastrophe, our poet brought to a termination his long-life history, "The Prelude." It will be our duty hereafter to express an opinion on its merits. Wordsworth himself, in a letter to Sir G. Beaumont, writes: "It will not be much less than nine thousand lines—not hundred, but thousand lines long—an alarming length! and a thing unprecedented in literary history, that a man should talk so much about himself. It is not self-conceit, as you know well, that has induced me to do this, but real humility. I began the work because I was unprepared to treat any more arduous subject, and diffident of my own powers." In writing again to his kind and generous friend, the baronet, he speaks thus of it: "I have the pleasure to say that I finished my poem about a fortnight ago. I had looked forward to the day as a most happy one; and I was indeed grateful to God for giving me life to complete the work, such as it is. But it was not a happy day for me; I was dejected on many accounts: when I looked back upon the performance, it seemed to have a dead weight about it—the reality so far short of the expectation. It was the first long labour that I had finished; and the doubt whether I should ever live to write 'The Recluse,' and the sense which I had of this poem being so far below what I seemed capable of executing, depressed me so much; above all, many heavy thoughts of my poor departed brother hung upon me, the joy which I should have had in showing him the manuscript, and a thousand other vain fancies and dreams."
During the next few years, Wordsworth published "The Waggoner," and very many other shorter poems. They sold better than the "Lyrical Ballads;" but he was not one of those whom literature ever directly paid. His was an unmarketable genius, meant to reap its reward from a near if not a late posterity. When about the age of fifty, he says somewhere incidentally: "I have never been much of a salesman in matters of literature, the whole of my returns—I do not say net profits, but returns—from the writing trade not amounting to seven score pounds."
Notwithstanding the unremunerative nature of his writings, the claims upon his purse grew more numerous, for his family rapidly increased; and the cottage at Grasmere being too small for them all to winter in, they took up their quarters at Coleorton, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in Leicestershire, in a house, the property of Sir G. Beaumont. On their return to Grasmere, they moved into a new house at Allan Bank, where they appear to have lived in great discomfort for upwards of three years. In 1811, they took up their abode in Grasmere Parsonage; and quitting in two years a place where every association was painful, because of the death of two of the children, they finally settled down at Rydal Mount. It was in the smoke-infested house at Allan Bank that Wordsworth wrote his pamphlet on the Convention at Cintra, and Coleridge commenced his now celebrated work "The Friend." The pamphlet on the Convention is an earnest and eloquent production. It contains long paragraphs of fine writing, and reminds us, at almost every page, of some of the prose works of Milton, having most of their faults, and a few of their beauties. As a political treatise on a great crisis, it must be regarded as a failure; and we know, that despite of the interest of the subject, it met with but a cold reception.It was at this time also that he was toiling at "The Excursion," which was not, however, published until the year 1814. We will not here discuss its merits. Most of our readers are acquainted with the celebrated opening comment of the Northern Reviewer. "This will never do!" Undismayed by the severity of the censure of the critic, Wordsworth the following year gave to the world "The White Doe of Rylstone;" and Jeffrey commenced his notice of the poem with a longer but more censorious dictum. "This, we think, has the merit of being the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume; and though it was scarcely to be expected, we confess, that Mr. Wordsworth, with all his ambition, should so soon have attained to that distinction, the wonder may perhaps be diminished when we state, that it seems to us to consist of a happy union of all the faults, without any of the beauties, which belong to his school of poetry."
In 1819 "Peter Bell" appeared, and soon after it "The Waggoner," which had been for many years kept in manuscript. In these he exaggerated every eccentricity and puerility which had provoked those flippant attacks of the critics which had stimulated his sensitive but self-confident temperament to a foolish obstinacy.
In 1820 he made a tour on the Continent, in commemoration of which he two years after published a volume of sonnets and other poems. He was nearly lost in crossing over from Boulogne on his return. In '23 he made a tour in Belgium and Holland, and in '29 he travelled over a great part of Ireland, in company with J. Marshall, Esq., M.P. for Leeds.
The current of Wordsworth's life now flowed on so calmly and evenly, that it presents scarcely any incident which it is necessary to record in so concise a sketch as this.
His worldly affairs were more prosperous, owing to the annuity left him by his generous friend Sir G. Beaumont, and his appointment in 1813 as Distributor of Stamps. His poems, so long at first a drug in the market, were much in demand, and, what was to him far more important than their mere sale, exercised a manifest influence on the first intellects of the day. In 1839, he was received at Oxford with an enthusiastic welcome. He was presented for the honorary degree of D.C.L. by the Rev. John Keble, Professor of Poetry, and author of "The Christian Year," who, in introducing him, said, among other things: "Ad ejus itaque viri carmina remittendos esse hoc tempore putabam, si qui ex intimo animo sentire vellent arcanam illam necessitudinem honestæ Paupertatis cum Musis severioribus, cum excelsâ Philosophiâ, immo cum sacrosanctâ Religione."
The theatre rang with tumultuous applause, and Wordsworth was deeply gratified, regarding it as an important verdict in his favour, and a compensation for the severity of criticism which he had at first experienced. If Oxford delighted to honour him, Edinburgh might continue to sneer. But we must not forget that here he had a devoted admirer in the gifted and eloquent Professor Wilson, who in "Blackwood's Magazine," did all that in him lay to attract public attention to the beauties of Wordsworth's poetry.
In the year after our Poet's ovation at Oxford, Southey died. Her Majesty at once signified her cordial approval of the proposal of the Lord Chamberlain, Earl de la Warr, that the laurel should be offered to the Bard of Rydal. Wordsworth expressed his gratitude for the Royal favour, but respectfully declined the honour. He writes to the Lord Chamberlain: "The appointment, I feel, however, imposes duties which, far advanced in life as I am, I cannot venture to undertake, and therefore must beg to decline the acceptance of an offer which I shall always remember with no unbecoming pride. Her Majesty will not, I trust, disapprove of a determination forced upon me by reflections which it is impossible for me to set aside."
The office was again pressed on him, with the assurance that it might be considered in his case as a sinecure. He also received from the late Sir Robert Peel a very kind letter, urging him to accept it. "Do not," writes Sir Robert from his place in the House of Commons, "be deterred by the fear of any obligations which the appointment may be supposed to imply. I will undertake that you shall have nothing required from you. But as the Queen can select for this honourable appointment no one whose claims for respect and honour, on account of eminence as a poet, can be placed in competition with yours, I trust you will not longer hesitate to accept it." Wordsworth replied gratefully to Sir Robert and the Lord Chamberlain, and upon these conditions, became the successor of Southey.
Two years after his appointment, in writing to his friend, Professor Reed, he gives him a short account of a visit to London to pay his respects to the Queen. "The reception given me by the Queen, at her ball, was most gracious. Mrs. Everett, the wife of your minister, among many others, was a witness to it, without knowing who I was. It moved her to the shedding of tears. This effect was in part produced, I suppose, by American habits of feeling, as pertaining to a republican government. To see a grey-haired man of seventy-five years of age, kneeling down, in a large assembly, to kiss the hand of a young woman, is a sight for which institutions essentially democratic do not prepare a spectator of either sex, and must naturally place the opinions upon which a republic is founded, and the sentiments which support it, in strong contrast with a government based and upheld as ours is."
He says, in the same letter, of his Laureate successor: "I saw Tennyson in London several times. He is decidedly the first of our living poets, and I hope will give the world still better things. You will be pleased to hear that he expressed, in the strongest terms, his gratitude to my writings. To this I was far from indifferent, though persuaded that he is not much in sympathy with what I should myself most value in my attempts, viz., the spirituality with which I have endeavoured to invest the material universe, and the moral relations under which I have wished to exhibit its most ordinary appearances." After Wordsworth's muse became official, she grew stubbornly silent. An occasional poem, he wrote and sent in manuscript to a friend, but such effusions were "short and far between."
He had established a great reputation, he enjoyed, if not wealth, a competence very comfortable: he had always hated his writing-desk, and his kind amanuensis lay on a sick bed. We must remember, too, his extreme age. His time was not idly spent in the calm and regular life he led. His early love for out-door rambling, seems to have again revived. He writes in almost the last letter that he penned: "The pleasure which I derive from God's works in His visible creation is not with me, I think, impaired; but reading does not interest me as it used to do, and I feel that I am becoming daily a less instructive companion to others." He might have consoled himself with the reflection how much he had taught, and was at that moment teaching through his books.
There was much, too, which, had he not borne all with cheerful resignation, might have made him sad and weary as he neared the goal in life's pilgrimage. He had cause for sorrow, though not for repining, in the health of his sister, the loss of his accomplished daughter, Mrs. Quilliman, and the absence of so many, removed by death, who had been the steadfast friends and dear companions of his youth.
Not long after his last and saddest bereavement—the death of his daughter—the poet and father was himself called away to
"God who is our home."
On the 7th of April, 1850, he had reached his eightieth year. He had for some days suffered from an attack of inflammation in the chest, but was growing convalescent, and was employed in reading the third volume of Southey's "Life and Correspondence." He, however, suffered a relapse, and, on the 20th, was thought incapable of recovery. On that day he received the Sacrament. "William, you are going to Dora," whispered to him his sorrowing and affectionate wife; and, not long after, when he heard one of his nieces moving near his bed, he asked, "Is that Dora?" The next morning he fell gently, without pang or struggle, into the sleep of death. Three days after, he was laid in Grasmere Church-yard, near the graves of his own darling little ones, whom so long before it had pleased Heaven to take from him.
Though Wordsworth has doubtless been seen by many who may read these pages, there are some who may perhaps ask for a description of his personal appearance. He stood about five feet ten, and there was nothing striking or majestic in his carriage. His eyes were weak and not lustrous, but he had a nose "worthy a Trajan or an Antonine," and his broad and lofty forehead gave an intensely intellectual expression to a face which was
"The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone."
In Wordsworth's habits there was nothing very marked or eccentric. He was simple in his tastes, regular and temperate in his style of living, and frugal in his expenditure. His natural spirits were good at every period of his life. If not in his mirth boisterously hilarious, he had an even flow of tranquil good-humour, and in after life a calmness of demeanour which contrasted with the impetuosity of his youth. He was never so thoroughly happy as when wandering in the open air, drinking in the mountain breezes, and basking in the genial sunshine. A peripatetic poet, he composed as he walked abroad, or loitered in his garden. He would trust to his memory to reproduce what he had composed, and his sister would commit to paper under his dictation the result of his morning's walk. His aversion to any employment at his writing-desk was inconquerable. This is his own confession: "My writing-desk is to me a place of punishment; and as my penmanship sufficiently testifies, I always bend over it with some degree of impatience."
He was not much more diligent with books than with his pen; and not only was averse to poring long over their contents, but treated their exteriors very unceremoniously. Southey, whose whole soul was in his library, compared Wordsworth among books to a bear in a tulip-garden; and was horrified one morning by his cutting the pages of a volume of a costly edition of Burke with a knife greasy with butter. Wordsworth seems to have indulged a proud feeling of superiority at not being supposed to owe much to the aid of book lore. To Archdeacon Wrangham he writes almost exultingly: "My reading powers were never very good, and now they are much diminished, especially by candle-light; and as to buying books, I can affirm that in new books I have not spent five shillings for the last five years, i.e. in reviews, magazines, pamphlets, &c., &c., so that there would be an end of Mr. Longman and Mr. Cadell, &c., if nobody had more power or inclination to buy than myself. And as to old books, my dealings in that way, for want of means, have been very trifling. Nevertheless, small and paltry as my collection is, I have not read a fifth part of it."
Wordsworth was fond of gardening, and of paintings he was not a bad judge.
Of his moral character, it would be impossible to speak in terms too eulogistic. We have the testimony of Southey, who speaks of him as follows:
"Wordsworth's residence and mine are fifteen miles asunder, a sufficient distance to preclude any frequent interchange of visits. I have known him nearly twenty years, and for about half that time, intimately. The strength and the character of his mind you see in 'The Excursion;' and his life does not belie his writings, for in every relation of life he is a truly exemplary and admirable man."
We have sought to narrate the events of the poet's career in that spirit of respect and veneration which a life so full of virtue, love, and gentleness must ever command. It now remains that we should speak, with no timid reticence, our opinions on his mental characteristics, the merits of his writings, his position in literature, and his influence on the age. Such a criticism, to be in any way ample or satisfactory, would fill the volume of which this memoir constitutes but a few pages. Much indeed as has been even of late written on Wordsworth's genius, it yet remains for some one, with special qualifications for the task, to calmly and candidly investigate the soundness of his poetical system, and to pronounce upon the success with which he carried it out. We can only state concisely the results of the reasoning process which has led us to our conclusions.
His moral character we have unreservedly praised; and by this we mean, first, that he was unexceptionable in all matters of what has been flippantly called "tea-table morality;" and, secondly, that he was generous and compassionate to the poor and suffering, a good husband, a kind father, and, notwithstanding a complaint of Mr. De Quincey's, a faithful friend. But he had weaknesses of a mixed character, in those parts of our nature where the intellectual and moral elements interpenetrate each other. His warmest admirers would find it difficult to defend him against the charges of vanity, egotism, and obstinacy. Even his relative and biographer is forced into the confession, expressed with considerable alliterative power, that Wordsworth, in persisting to exaggerate some of the peculiarities which the critics had condemned, was guilty of "wayward wilfulness, petulant pride, and random recklessness." Any mention of the wilful impetuosity which led him in childhood to attempt suicide, will perhaps redound to his praise, when we remember by what a creditable self-discipline he afterwards subdued his temper. But there is something less pardonable in his University career. In this he manifested a want of heart and geniality. Whatever the faults of the system and the authorities, Wordsworth cannot escape his share of blame. If not culpably idle, he was doggedly indifferent to the numberless advantages to be gained in such a seat of learning. Though coming up to the University possessed of great talents, and those well cultivated, he refused to write for prizes and compete for honours. Had he been the hero of a debating club, or the leader of "a fast set," we might have regretted energies misdirected to the incompetent discussion of contemporaneous topics, or time wasted by the wayward play of the passions. But Wordsworth avoided such mistakes; and although he admits that he dressed with something of splendour and with elaborate precision, mentions the fact of his getting tipsy in rooms once occupied by Milton, in that tone of maudling childishness with which one gentle "freshman" boasts to another, over tea and marmalade of the daring impiety with which he has that morning absented himself from chapel.
His mental deficiencies are, however, far more glaring than his positive faults. It was a fond and vapid enthusiasm that led him on a sudden to throw himself into the popular side in France; but this impulse, at first only foolish, degenerated into a morbid and guilty feeling when he exulted in the destruction of the troops of his own country, who were, even on the hypothesis that the war was unjustifiable, at least fighting in obedience to orders. There is nothing, too, which is admirable in the suddenness with which he abandoned his early opinions, and having been the eloquent eulogist of Milton, afterwards panegyrized Laud. It may be, however, but fair to remember in the case of Wordsworth, as in that of the youthful pantisocratists Coleridge and Southey, that, after fifty years of political progress, the youthful radical may appear, without blameable inconsistency—a steady conservative. In such a lapse of time, others have arisen to carry on the work of reform still further, and its earliest and most ardent supporters seem now to be laggards in the rear.
Wordsworth underrated the critical faculty, and certainly possessed it in but a niggard measure himself. His views on great political and social questions, on which Dr. Wordsworth appears to lay so much stress, are very far removed from being either sagacious or profound. Indeed, if we judge his intellectual powers by these, we shall be induced to suppose that a premature senility clouded his capacities, and that, after his wayward boyhood was over, he had passed from youth to age without the intervening period of manhood, that he was an old man at the time of life when others are young, and an old woman when he should have been an old man. He had all the faults of one who lived in a little world of his own, and reigned in that petty kingdom supreme. While his unfamiliarity with what was to other men familiar caused him to find food for poetic musing in what they passed by unheeded, it caused him to magnify trifles, to aim at dignifying the meanest objects, and to struggle, not merely to seek good, but to find poetry in everything. He himself tells us:
"To every natural rock, or fruit, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life. I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling"
This would be harmless enthusiasm enough, were it not that an undue exultation of what is small has a tendency to weaken our appreciation of what is great. A man who is all wonder at stocks and stones will find his capacities for admiration somewhat taxed by a mountain or a cathedral. Nimium admirari may be less dangerous than its stoical converse, but did it not engender, at any rate, in some of the writings of Wordsworth, garrulous egotism and silly simplicity? He seems to have been totally deficient in a sense of the ridiculous, or, at any rate, to have been blinded to it in his own lucubrations by an overweening self-confidence, and a full realisation of what Swift called "the importance of a man to himself." But for something akin to this feeling, in spite of his disclaimer, what could have induced him to spend years of his life in the composition of such a long, unimpassioned narrative as "The Prelude," which, with the exception of a few gems glittering in the arid waste, is a tedious prosaic account, in blank verse, of a very ordinary existence, in which the author wanders on, registering the minutest and least important incidents with heavy solemnity, and philosophizing in a method the most tiresome, on events the most trivial?
It is to this cause that we must, perhaps, attribute the fact that, although written by a man of Wordsworth's colossal powers, this poem is, perhaps, the most uninteresting book of confessions ever penned. It certainly will bear no comparison with the painful interest, or the calm self-knowledge which attracts us to the Autobiographies of Rousseau or Goethe, and will be read at a disadvantage by the side of Lamartine's rhapsodies, the fascinating pages of Contarini Fleming, or even the garrulous narratives of Mr. Leigh Hunt and Mr. Jerdan. Is it not this, or some kindred intellectual defect which has prevented this poet from sustaining a long and lofty flight? Why does there occur page after page in "The Excursion" and "Prelude," which is merely prose metrically arranged? How is it that he seldom rises to any elevation without marring the sublimity or beauty of the passage by some mean or vulgar thought? It is not owing to what Mr. Carlyle has called "unconsciousness," because Wordsworth wrote on a system, and criticised and classified his own productions. It proceeded rather from a want of critical acumen, which was probably the result of his having relied too much on his moody meditations in his garden, and having neglected his library. That he was but an indifferent judge of the merits of other writers, we may conclude, among other reasons, from the fact of his considering Goethe an overrated man, and by his unfair depreciation of the poetical powers of Dryden, Pope, Gray, Sir W. Scott, and Lord Byron.
This depreciation of others, caused him to overestimate himself. Indeed, if we did not believe that he was blinded by self-love to the defects of his own composition, we should be quite at a loss to comprehend why he should ever have stooped to such a simile as that in which he compares his mind at the theatre, flashing through the many-headed mass, to a kitten at play among straws, and rustling leaves. We believe that this sublime comparison was suggested by his earliest theatre-going during his first sojourn in London. As it occurs in "The Prelude," we are glad to think that it was not elaborated on the night when he, among so many other celebrities, greeted by their presence the first representation of "Ion." In his diary, kept during a tour in North Wales, he speaks with the utmost apparent complacency of some lines on the waterfall at the Devil's Bridge. "It rained heavily in the night, and we saw the waterfall in perfection. While Dora was attempting to make a sketch from the chasm in the rain, I composed by her the following address to the torrent:
" 'How art thou named? In search of what strange land?
From what huge height descending? Can such force
Of water issue from a British source? '"
Longinus places interrogation among theof the sublime. Here it is more remarkable as an instance of Wordsworth's knowledge of the "art of sinking in Poetry." The shower may perhaps have damped the fire of inspiration.
We may appear to lay too great a stress on the defects of his intellect, and if we do so it is not that we shut our eyes to his sublimities and beauties, but rather because there is a disposition now-a-days, in some people, to look upon all that he wrote as faultless. Wordsworth's works have gone through two phases of the fickle fashions of literary taste. He was at first ridiculed—he was afterwards worshipped. If misanthropy was lisped when Byronism was the rage, surely Wordsworthism has been the "bore" of the last few years. Because the meanest flower that blows is said to give thoughts that lie too deep for tears, daisies and dandelions now suggest a semi-religious, sickly sentimentalism to the minds of romantic young ladies. One of his biographers—not a lady, but a gentleman—who writes under the pseudonym of January Searle, in speaking of "The Prelude," fancies, by an astounding feat of imagination, that in the perusal of that poem he "is walking up the dim avenues of eternity with the young soul of the poet." We are neither among the idolaters or the infidels. We can only repeat our assertion, that he has written the best and worst poetry in the language, and sincerely regret that the author of particular passages in "The Excursion," of the "Lines to Lucy," and the Platonic Ode, and other perfect poems, should offend by puerilities, puzzle by obscurities, annoy by the frequent recurrence of what we must call vulgarities of thought and language; and never permit us to be out of hearing of the twang of the monotonous chord of egotism.
To say that his mind was essentially and profoundly original, and that he has written perfectly what is grand and sublime, as well as what is simple and pathetic, is to place him, as he deserves to be placed, in the highest rank of poets; but he is not, therefore, without faults; but the secret of his success, and therefore the moral of his life, is, that he discovered the gift within him which it was at once his duty and his victory to stir up. Had he sought to lash the vices of his age as a satirist, he might have sunk into a mediocre imitator of Dryden or Pope. For dramatic composition he was even more unfit—and still less can we picture Wordsworth, a self-exile from his native land, living in Venetian palaces, caressed by Venetian beauties; gallopping over plains and swimming rivers; reeling, soul-tortured, on the heights of the Jungfrau; endowed with the strong love and stronger hate of a Corsair or Giaour; battling for the liberties of Greece, and dying young, great, and glorious. We must rather regard his tranquil existence as an interesting psychological study; but admit that it was free alike from those good and bad impulses and actions, which make the lives of Byron and Shelley more fascinating than the most eloquent romance.
Wordsworth, in quietness and confidence, devoted himself to the task of becoming an original contemplative didactic poet; and, to achieve this, he walked alone with Nature. In the unruffled lake, he saw his own calm soul mirrored, and there read its inmost workings. If he ascended the mountain tops—it was to make those heights scenes for contemplation. Here, with the Latin poet, he may have sometimes felt a sweet satisfaction in watching the pain and perturbations of the errant crowds below; but though he was moved by these lofty sentiments, and reasoned, in stately verse, of the vain labours and empty pleasures of the world—he rejoiced in the joys, and sympathized with the sorrows of all, and loved from his heart every creature of God. This was at once the strength and depth of his character, that his writings are both sublime and simple. To address him in language spoken by him of another, but perhaps more applicable to himself—
"Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart,
Thou hadst a voice, whose sound was like the sea,
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free;
So didst thou travel on life's common way
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay."
- We make these brief extracts merely to show what were the Poet's opinions at this period. Those who wish to see this matter very fully discussed, must consult Dr. Wordsworth's Memoirs, a book of which we would fain speak respectfully, because we owe so much to it, but which is unfortunately far too much devoted to proving that Wordsworth was at last ashamed of his juvenile politics, and that if he was ever a Pantheist, he lived to be an orthodox High Churchman.
- In an able and interesting article, which appeared in "The Quarterly Review" in December last, the writer gives a severe, but correct criticism on the Wordsworthian drama. "The plot has neither probability nor ingenuity. We can discover nothing individual in the personages, and no traits or manners in the least distinctive of their age or nation. As to the diction of the piece, a mawkish monotony pervades it, and a beggar woman is the single character who utters a line or two of worthy verse."
- We certainly cannot agree with the Reverend Biographer that "if Mr. Wordsworth had never written a single verse, this Essay alone would be sufficient to place him in the highest rank of English Poets;" and still less would it give him a high rank among English Prose writers. In an article in "Fraser's Magazine," Aug. 1850, the pamphlet is lauded to the skies, and compared to Demosthenes, Milton, and Burke. The writer in the "Quarterly" takes a different view. His opinion is, that "the phraseology of his sentences is heavy and frigid; the construction involved; and though he grudges not space, the loose, and circumlocutory diction constantly leaves his meaning dark. But what was least to be expected, there is a poverty of thought even upon subjects which he thoroughly understood."
- April 23rd, which, by a strange and interesting coincidence, happens to have been the day on which Shakespeare died, and upon which it is also very probable he was born.
- Quarterly Review.
- This was written before the Authors had seen the able article in the "Quarterly" before alluded to. They find almost the same view there stated. "The notion he (Wordsworth) had imbibed of the latent capabilities of insignificant objects, led him in the true spirit of system, to select them in preference. Hence sprung some of the merits, and many of the defects of his verse. He brought into prominence numerous neglected sources of delight; convinced that he possessed that poetic stone, the touch of which would turn lead to gold, he not unfrequently adopted trivialities which it was beyond his alchemy to transmute." And elsewhere the Reviewer more tersely expresses the same idea. "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."
- Mr. Leigh Hunt, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Wordsworth, condemns this attempt to exalt trifles in his "Seer." "The consequence of this," he writes, "carried into a system, would be that we could make anything or nothing important, just as diseased or healthy impulses told us; a straw might awake in us as many profound, but certainly not as useful reflections, as the fellow-creature that lay upon it."