« AnteriorContinuar »
Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the silly, the childish things which they were for a long time described as being; had they been really distinguished from the compositions of other poets merely by meanness of language and inanity of thought; had they
obtain for their compositions. To make the lesson perfect, it has pleased Heaven to let Wordsworth himself live to see that revolution legitimated which he and his compeers, Coleridge and Southey, in different ways and degrees, together wrought; and to read his own defence and praise in the pages of the same work by which some of his most exquisite productions were once pronounced below criticism. Ed.
Agreeing as I do with these remarks in the main, I venture to observe that in my mind they ascribe too much influence upon the early fate of Mr. W.'s poems to the E. Review. That those poems were not generally admired from the first, was, in my opinion, their own fault, that is to say, arose principally from their being works of great genius, and consequently, though old as the world itself, in one way, yet in another, a new thing under the sun. Novelty is delightful when it is understood at once, when it is but the old familiar matters newly set forth; but here was a new world presented to the reader which was also a strange world, and most of those who had grown to middle age acquainted with the old world only, and chiefly with that part of it which was least like Wordsworth's-the hither part, out of sight of Chaucer and Spenser and the old English Poets in general, could never learn their way, or find themselves at home there.
Periodical literature can hardly be said to create public taste and opinion: I believe it does no more than strongly reflect and thereby concentre and strengthen it. The fashionable journal is expected to be a mirror of public opinion in its own party, a brilliant magnifying mirror, in which the mind of the public may see itself look large and handsome. Woe be to the mirror if it presumes to give pictures and images of its own!--it will fall to the ground, even if not shivered at once by popular indignation. Such publications depend for their maintenance on the public which they are to teach, and must therefore, like the pastor of a voluntary flock, pipe only such tunes as suit their auditors' sense of harmony. They cannot afford to make ventures, like warm-hearted, disinterested individuals It is far from ry intention to deny, that the boldest things are often said, the most extravagant novelties broached in publications of this kind: that the strongest and most sweeping assertions, fit, as might be supposed, to startle and shock even the cold and careless,-ascriptions of saintly excellence to men whose unchristian acts of duplicity or cruelty are undenied and undeniable--of worse than human folly and wickedness to men, whom millions have regarded with reverential gratitude, and this in the way of mere assertion, with no attempt at proof, or only the merest shadow of a shade of one-references to the authority of accusers, who are themselves resting their vague and violent charges on the authority of previous accusers and bitter enemies―
indeed contained nothing more than what is found in the parodies and pretended imitations of them; they must have sunk at once, a dead weight, into the slough of oblivion, and have dragged the preface along with them. But year after year increased the num
will never be ventured upon in the public journal. We have had evidence enough in our day to the contrary.* Still I aver that such things are not done till nothing but truth and charity is risked in the doing of them; till the mass of readers are known to be in such a state of mind, that these bold utterances will move them not at all, or only with a pleasurable excitement. Again, the chief contributors to the leading periodicals are for the most part a class of persons opposed to essential novelty; able men more or less advanced beyond the period of impressible youth, whose intellectual frame is set,-who are potent in exposing new follies and false pretensions; but slow to understand the fresh products of genius unwilling even to believe in them. It is by the young, or at least by the youthful, that accessions to the old stores of thought and imagination are welcomed ▲ and placed in the treasury. Still it is a remarkable fact, that the journal, which especially professed faith in the intellectual progress of the human race, and to be open-eyed to modern excellence, should have shown itself blind to the merits of a body of poetry, in which the spirit of the age, in its noblest and most refined characteristics, is more amply and energetically manifested than in any other. When the luminary first appeared above the horizon, those admirers of new light declared it to be nothing better than green cheese, yet assailed it with as violent outcries as if they thought it able to set the world on fire. If these criticisms excited "a great laugh," this shows with how little expenditure of wit a great laugh may be excited; for whatever talents in that way the writers may have possessed and on other occasions shown, I think they displayed none of them at the expense of Mr. Wordsworth. The same kind of attack has been repeated of late years with a far more cunning malice and amusing injustice, without exciting any general laughter at all, simply because the time for laughing at a great poet is over and gone. If any laughter is heard now it is but an echo of the past:-if there be any minds that have been dwelling in caves under the earth during the last quarter of a century, they may suppose that Wordsworth's fame has never risen above the horizon. Not that every man of sense must needs bow down before it; there are clever persons who deny the greatness of Milton; some ingenious critics have pronounced Homer a barbarian, others have decried Shak
* For some considerable evidence on these points I refer the reader to Note 10, in Vol II. (pp. 656-878), of Archdeacon Hare's new work, The Mission of the Comforter, &c., which contains a thorough investigation of the charges brought against Martin Luther of late years, including those of Bossuet, and a most animated and luminous exposure of the perversions and transmutations, rather than misrepresentations, of his teaching imputable to certain reviewers.
ber of Mr. Wordsworth's admirers. They were found too not in the lower classes of the reading public, but chiefly among young men of strong sensibility and meditative minds; and their admiration (inflamed perhaps in some degree by opposition) was distinguished by its intensity, I might almost say by its religious fervor. These facts, and the intellectual energy of the author, which was more or less consciously felt, where it was outwardly and even boisterously denied, meeting with sentiments of aversion to his opinions, and of alarm at their consequences, produced an eddy of criticism, which would of itself have borne up the poems by the violence with which it whirled them round and round. With many parts of this preface, in the sense attributed to them and which the words undoubtedly seem to authorize, I never concurred; but on the contrary objected to them as erroneous in principle, and as contradictory (in appearance at least) both to other parts of the same preface, and to the author's own practice in the greater part of the poems themselves. Mr. Wordsworth in his recent collection has, I find, degraded this prefatory disquisition to the end of his second volume, to be read or not at the reader's choice." But he has not, as far as I can discover, an
speare, many have looked upon Pindar as a "crazy fellow," and Spenser is thought even by some of the poetical a very great bore. In like manner there may be a man of sense who has no sense of the merits of Mr. Wordsworth's writings; but to be ignorant of their power and influence is to be ignorant of the mind of the age in relation to poetry. The laughter of thirty years ago must have been chiefly produced by a sense of the contrast between the great conception of the Poet entertained by a few, and the small conception which the many were then alone able to form of it. "He strides on so far before us," said Mr. Coleridge of his friend, "that he dwarfs himself in the distance." People saw him as a dwarf, yet had a suspicion that he might in reality be a giant. One advantage of the present time to Mr. Wordsworth is this, that poetry is not now the fashion. We bestow our "ignorance, incapability, and presumption," or at least our superficiality, incompetence, and hastiness, on the religious tract or controversial pamphlet, and poetry is resigned to those who have a true taste for it and study it in earnest. S. C.]
"["The observations prefixed to that portion of these Volumes which was published many years ago, under the title of Lyrical Ballads, have so little of a special application to the great part of the present enlarged and diversified collection, that they could not with propriety stand as an Introduction to it. Not deeming it, however, expedient to suppress that
nounced any change in his poetic creed. At all events, con sidering it as the source of a controversy, in which I have beer honored more than I deserve by the frequent conjunction of my name with his, I think it expedient to declare once for all, in what points I coincide with the opinions supported in that preface, and in what points I altogether differ. But in order to render mysel} intelligible I must previously, in as few words as possible, explain my views, first, of a Poem ; and secondly, of Poetry itself, in kind, and in essence.
The office of philosophical disquisition consists in just dis tinction; while it is the privilege of the philosopher to preserve himself constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conceptions to the unity in which they actually coexist; and this is the result of philosophy. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference, therefore, must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object being proposed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from prose by metre, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well known enumeration of the days in the several months;
"Thirty days hath September,
and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular
exposition, slight and imperfect as it is, of the feelings which had determined the choice of the subjects, and the principles which had regulated the composition of these Pieces, I have transferred it to the end of the second volume, to be attended to, or not, at the pleasure of the Reader " Pref. to edition of 1815.
This preface is now to be found in Vol II., p. 303, of the edition of 1840. Ed.]
pleasure is found in anticipating the recurence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm super-added, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems.
So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; eithe truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may result from the attainment of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose; and though truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class to which the work belongs. Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the BATHYLLUS even of an Anacreon, or the ALEXIS of Virgil, from disgust and aversion!
But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate ob ject of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of metre, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If metre be superadded, all other parts must be made consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite. The final definition then, so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species
(having this object in common with it)—it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.
Controversy is not seldom excited in consequence of the disputants attaching each a different meaning to the same word;