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     English Wordplay ~ Listen and Enjoy

These pages are dedicated to my beloved son, Seamus, because, like Wordsworth, we have enjoyed wandering together in wild and beautiful places.  I am sure Tate will share the same joy with his Mum and Dad.

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William Wordsworth

Based on the 1914 biography by F. W. H. MYERS


It will have been obvious from the preceding pages, as well as from the tone of other criticisms on Wordsworth, that his exponents are not content to treat his poems on Nature simply as graceful descriptive pieces, but speak of him in terms usually reserved for the originators of some great religious movement.

de Quincey
Thomas de Quincey

"The very image of Wordsworth," says De Quincey, for instance, "as I prefigured it to my own planet-struck eye, crushed my faculties as before Elijah or St. Paul."

How was it that poems so simple in outward form that the reviewers of the day classed them with the Song of Sixpence, or at best with the Babes in the Wood, could affect a critic like De Quincey, - with this exceptional sense of revelation and awe?

The explanation of this anomaly lies in something new and individual in the way in which Wordsworth regarded Nature.

There is so much in the external world which is terrible or unfriendly to man, that the first impression made on him by Nature as a whole, even in temperate climates, is usually that of awfulness; his admiration being reserved for the fragments of her which he has utilized for his own purposes, or adorned with his own handiwork. When Homer tells us of a place

   Where even a god might gaze, and stand apart,
   And feel a wondering rapture at the heart,

it is of no prospect of sea or mountain that he is speaking, but of a garden where everything is planted in rows, and there is a never-ending succession of pears and figs. These gentler aspects of Nature will have their minor deities to represent them; but the men, of whatever race they be, whose minds are most absorbed in the problems of man's position and destiny will tend for the most part to some sterner and more overwhelming conception of the sum of things.


"Lord, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?" is the cry of Hebrew piety as well as of modern science; and the "majestas cognita rerum, " - the recognized majesty of the universe - teaches Lucretius only the indifference of gods and the misery of men. But in a well-known passage, in which Lucretius is honoured as he deserves, we find nevertheless a different view hinted, with an impressiveness, which it had hardly acquired till then. We find Virgil implying that scientific knowledge of Nature may not be the only way of arriving at the truth about her; that her loveliness is also a revelation, and that the soul which is in unison with her is justified by its own peace.

This is the very substance of The Poet's Epitaph also; of the poem in which Wordsworth at the beginning of his career describes himself as he continued till its close, - the poet who "murmurs near the running brooks a music sweeter than their own," - who scorns the man of science "who would peep and botanize upon his mother's grave."

  The outward shows of sky and earth,
  Of hill and valley, he has viewed;
  And impulses of deeper birth
  Have come to him in solitude.
  In common things that round us lie
  Some random truths he can impart, -
  The harvest of a quiet eye
  That broods and sleeps on his own heart.
  But he is weak, both man and boy,
  Hath been an idler in the land;
  Contented if he might enjoy
  The things which others understand.

Like much else in the literature of imperial Rome, the passage in the second Georgic to which I have referred is in its essence more modern than the Middle Ages. Mediaeval Christianity involved a divorce from the nature around us, as well as from the nature within. With the rise of the modern spirit delight in the external world returns; and from Chaucer downwards through the whole course of English poetry are scattered indications of a mood which draws from visible things an intuition of things not seen.

George Wither
George Wither 1558 - 1667

When Wither, in words which Wordsworth has fondly quoted, says of his muse, -

By the murmur of a spring,
Or the least bough's rustelling;
By a daisy whose leaves spread,
Shut when Titan goes to bed;
Or a shady bush or tree, -
She could more infuse in me
Than all Nature's beauties can
In some other wiser man, -

he felt already, as Wordsworth after him, that Nature is no mere collection of phenomena, but infuses into her least approaches some sense of her mysterious whole.

Passages like this, however, must not he too closely pressed. The mystic element in English literature has run for the most part into other channels; and when, after Pope's reign of artificiality and convention, attention was redirected to the phenomena of Nature by Collins, Beattie, Thomson, Crabbe, Cowper, Burns, and Scott, it was in a spirit of admiring observation rather than of an intimate worship. Sometimes, as for the most part in Thomson, we have mere picturesqueness, - a reproduction of Nature for the mere pleasure of reproducing her, - a kind of stock-taking of her habitual effects.

William Cowper

Or sometimes, as in Burns, we have a glowing spirit which looks on Nature with a side glance, and uses her as an accessory to the expression of human love and woe. Cowper sometimes contemplated her as a whole, but only as affording a proof of the wisdom and goodness of a personal Creator.

To express what is characteristic in Wordsworth we must recur to a more generalized conception of the relations between the natural and the spiritual worlds. We must say with Plato - the lawgiver of all subsequent idealists - that the unknown realities around us, which the philosopher apprehends by the contemplation of abstract truth, become in various ways obscurely perceptible to men under the influence of a "divine madness," - of an enthusiasm which is in fact inspiration.

And further, giving, as he so often does, a half-fanciful expression to a substance of deep meaning, - Plato distinguishes four kinds of this enthusiasm. There is the prophet's glow of revelation; and the prevailing prayer which averts the wrath of heaven; and that philosophy which enters, so to say, unawares into the poet through his art, and into the lover through his love. Each of these stimuli may so exalt the inward faculties as to make a man, - "bereft of reason but filled with divinity," - percipient of an intelligence other and larger than his own.

Saint Dominic
St Dominic in prayer
by El Greco

To this list Wordsworth has made an important addition. He has shown by his example and writings that the contemplation of Nature may become a stimulus as inspiring as these; may enable us "to see into the life of things" - as far, perhaps, as beatific vision or prophetic rapture can attain.

Assertions so impalpable as these must justify themselves by subjective evidence. He who claims to give a message must satisfy us that he has himself received it; and, inasmuch as transcendent things are in themselves inexpressible, he must convey to us in hints and figures the conviction which we need. Prayer may bring the spiritual world near to us; but when the eyes of the kneeling Dominic seem to say "To son venuto a questo," their look must persuade us that the life of worship has indeed attained the reward of vision.

Art, too, may be inspired; but the artist, in whatever field he works, must have "such a mastery of his mystery" that the fabric of his imagination stands visible in its own light before our eyes, -

   Seeing it is built
   Of music; therefore never built at all,
   And, therefore, built for ever.

Love may open heaven; but when the lover would invite us "thither, where are the eyes of Beatrice," he must make us feel that his individual passion is indeed part and parcel of that love "which moves the sun and the other stars."

And so also with Wordsworth. Unless the words which describe the intense and sympathetic gaze with which he contemplates Nature convince us of the reality of "the light which never was on sea or land," - of the "Presence which disturbs him with the joy of elevated thoughts," - of the authentic vision of those hours

   When the light of sense
   Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
   The invisible world; -

unless his tone awakes a responsive conviction in ourselves, there is no argument by which he can prove to us that he is offering a new insight to mankind. Yet it need not be unreasonable to see in his message something more than a mere individual fancy. There are cases where some original element of our nature is capable of being regarded as an inlet of mystic truth.

For in each of these complex aspects of religion we see, perhaps, the modification of a primeval instinct. There is a point of view from which Revelation seems to be but transfigured Sorcery, and Love transfigured Appetite, and Philosophy man's ordered Wonder, and Prayer his softening Fear. And similarly in the natural religion of Wordsworth we may discern the modified outcome of other human impulses hardly less universal - of those instincts which led our forefathers to people earth and air with deities, or to vivify the whole universe with a single soul.

In this view the achievement of Wordsworth was of a kind which most of the moral leaders of the race have in some way or other performed. It was that he turned a theology back again into a religion: that he revived in a higher and purer form those primitive elements of reverence for Nature's powers which had diffused themselves into speculation, or crystallized into mythology; that for a system of beliefs about Nature, which paganism had allowed to become grotesque, - of rites which had become unmeaning, - he substituted an admiration for Nature so constant, an understanding of her so subtle, a sympathy so profound, that they became a veritable worship.

Sermon on the Mount
Sermon on the Mount
by Carl Heinrich Bloch

I think it may be fairly said, that the maxims of Wordsworth's form of natural religion were uttered before Wordsworth only in the sense in which the maxims of Christianity were uttered before Christ.

To compare small things with great - or rather, to compare great things with things vastly greater- the essential spirit of the Lines near Tintern Abbey was for practical purposes as new to mankind as the essential spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.

Not the isolated expression of moral ideas, but their fusion into a whole in one memorable personality, is that which connects them for ever with a single name. Therefore it is that Wordsworth is venerated; because to so many men - indifferent, it may be, to literary or poetical effects, as such - he has shown by the subtle intensity of his own emotion how the contemplation of Nature can be made a revealing agency, like Love or Prayer, - an opening, if indeed there be any opening, into the transcendent world.

The prophet with such a message as this will, of course, appeal for the most part to the experience of exceptional moments - those moments when "we see into the life of things;" when the face of Nature sends to us "gleams like the flashing of a shield;" - hours such as those of the Solitary, who, gazing on the lovely distant scene,

                                  Would gaze till it became?
   Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain?
   The beauty, still more beauteous.

But the idealist, of whatever school, is seldom content to base his appeal to us upon these scattered intuitions alone. There is a whole epoch of our existence whose memories, differing, indeed, immensely in vividness and importance in the minds of different men, are yet sufficiently common to all men to form a favourite basis for philosophical argument.

"The child is father of the man;" and through the recollection and observation of early childhood we may hope to trace our ancestry - in heaven above or on the earth beneath - in its most significant manifestation.

It is to the workings of the mind of the child that the philosopher appeals who wishes to prove that knowledge is recollection, and that our recognition of geometrical truths - so prompt as to appear instinctive - depends on our having been actually familiar with them in an earlier world.

Henry Vaughan, the Christian mystic, invokes with equal confidence his own memories of a state which seemed as yet to know no sin: -

Henry Vaughan
Henry Vaughan 1621 - 1695
   Happy those early days, when I
   Shined in my angel infancy!
   Before I understood this place
   Appointed for my second race,
   Or taught my soul to fancy aught
   But a white, celestial thought;
   When yet I had not walked above
   A mile or two from my first Love,
   And looking back at that short space
   Could see a glimpse of His bright face;
   When on some gilded cloud or flower
   My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
   And in those weaker glories spy
   Some shadows of eternity;
   Before I taught my tongue to wound
   My conscience with a sinful sound,
   Or had the black art to dispense
   A several sin to every sense,
   But felt through all this fleshly dress
   Bright shoots of everlastingness.

And Wordsworth has shown an unusual delicacy of analysis in eliciting the "firstborn affinities that fit our new existence to existing things;" - in tracing the first impact of impressions which are destined to give the mind its earliest play, or even, in unreflecting natures, to determine the permanent modes of thought. He also infers that the soul has enjoyed elsewhere an existence superior to that of earth, but an existence of which external nature retains for a time the power of reminding her.

The first of these lines of thought may be illustrated by a passage in the Prelude, in which the boy's mind is represented as passing through precisely the train of emotion which we may imagine to be at the root of the theology of many barbarous peoples. He is rowing at night alone on Esthwaite Lake, his eyes fixed upon a ridge of crags, above which nothing is visible: -

   I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
   And as I rose upon the stroke my boat
   Went heaving through the water like a swan;
   When, from behind that craggy steep till then
   The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
   As if with voluntary power instinct
   Upreared its head. I struck and struck again;
   And, growing still in stature, the grim shape
   Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
   For so it seemed, with purpose of its own,
   And measured motion like a living thing,
   Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
   And through the silent water stole my way
   Back to the covert of the willow-tree;
   There in her mooring-place I left my bark,
   And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
   And serious mood. But after I had seen
   That spectacle, for many days, my brain
   Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
   Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
   There hung a darkness—call it solitude,
   Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
   Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
   Of sea, or sky, no colours of green fields;
   But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
   Like living men, moved slowly thro' the mind
   By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

The child's soul, in Plato's and in Wordsworth's view, has existed before it entered the body - has existed in a world superior to ours, but connected, by the immanence of the same pervading Spirit, with the material universe before our eyes. The child begins by feeling this material world strange to him. He discerns in it its kinship with the spiritual world which he dimly remembers; it is to him "an unsubstantial fairy place" - a scene at once brighter and more unreal than it will appear in his eyes when he has become acclimatized to earth. And even when this freshness of insight has passed away, it occasionally happens that sights or sounds of unusual beauty or carrying deep associations - a rainbow, a cuckoo's cry, a sunset of extraordinary splendour - will renew for a while this sense of vision and nearness to the spiritual world - a sense which never loses its reality, though with advancing years its presence grows briefer and more rare.

There are others who might be unwilling to acknowledge any spiritual or transcendent source for the elevating joy which the contemplation of Nature can give, but who feel nevertheless that to that joy Wordsworth has been their most effective guide. A striking illustration of this fact may be drawn, from the passage in which John Stuart Mill, a philosopher of a very different school, has recorded the influence exercised over him by Wordsworth's poems; read in a season of dejection, when there seemed to be no real and substantive joy in life, nothing but the excitement of the struggle with the hardships and injustices of human fates.

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

"What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind," he says in his Autobiography, "was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings, which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence."

Words like these, proceeding from a mind so different from the poet's own, form perhaps as satisfactory a testimony to the value of his work as any writer can obtain. How rich Wordsworth is in poetic truths - how illumining is the gaze which he turns on the commonest phenomena - how subtly and variously he shows us the soul's innate perceptions or inherited memories as it were co-operating with Nature and "half creating" the voice with which she speaks - all this can be learnt by attentive study alone.

A medicinal

Only a few scattered samples can be given here; and I will begin with one on whose significance the poet has himself dwelt. This is the poem called The Leech-Gatherer, afterwards more formally named Resolution and Independence.

There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;
The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning's birth;
The grass is bright with rain-drops; - on the moors
The Hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist; that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

I was a traveller then upon the moor;
I saw the Hare that raced about with joy;
I heard the woods and distant waters roar;
Or heard them not, as happy as a boy:
The pleasant season did my heart employ:
My old remembrances went from me wholly;
And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy!

But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joy in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low,
To me that morning did it happen so;
And fears and fancies thick upon me came;
Dim sadness -and blind thoughts, I knew not, nor could name.

I heard the Skylark warbling in the sky;
And I bethought me of the playful Hare:
Even such a happy Child of earth am I;
Even as these blissful creatures do I fare;
Far from the world I walk, and from all care;
But there may come another day to me - 
Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty.

My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
As if life's business were a summer mood:
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good:
But how can He expect that others should
Build for him, sow for him, and at his call
Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all?

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified;
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.
The Death of Chatterton
by Henry Wallis
Now, whether it were by peculiar grace, A leading from above, a something given, Yet it befell that, in this lonely place, When I with these untoward thoughts had striven, Beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven I saw a Man before me unawares: The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs. As a huge Stone is sometimes seen to lie Couched on the bald top of an eminence; Wonder to all who do the same espy, By what means it could thither come, and whence; So that it seems a thing endued with sense: Like a Sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself; Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead, Nor all asleep -in his extreme old age: His body was bent double, feet and head Coming together in life's pilgrimage; As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage Of sickness felt by him in times long past, A more than human weight upon his frame had cast. Himself he propped, his body, limbs, and face, Upon a long grey Staff of shaven wood: And, still as I drew near with gentle pace, Upon the margin of that moorish flood Motionless as a Cloud the Old-man stood; That heareth not the loud winds when they call; And moveth all together, if it move at all. At length, himself unsettling, he the Pond Stirred with his Staff, and fixedly did look Upon the muddy water, which he conned, As if he had been reading in a book: And now a stranger's privilege I took; And, drawing to his side, to him did say, "This morning gives us promise of a glorious day." A gentle answer did the Old-man make, In courteous speech which forth he slowly drew: And him with further words I thus bespake, "What occupation do you there pursue? This is a lonesome place for one like you." He answered, while a flash of mild surprise Broke from the sable orbs of his yet vivid eyes. His words came feebly, from a feeble chest, But each in solemn order followed each, With something of a lofty utterance drest - Choice word and measured phrase, above the reach Of ordinary men; a stately speech; Such as grave livers do in Scotland use, Religious men, who give to God and Man their dues. He told, that to these waters he had come To gather Leeches, being old and poor: Employment hazardous and wearisome! And he had many hardships to endure; From pond to pond he roamed, form moor to moor; Housing, with God's good help, by choice or chance; And in this way he gained and honest maintenance. The Old-man still stood talking by my side; But now his voice to me was like a stream Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide; And the whole Body of the Man did seem Like one whom I had met with in a dream; Or like a man from some far region sent, To give me human strength, by apt admonishment. My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills; And hope that is unwilling to be fed; Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills; And mighty Poets in their misery dead. - Perplexed, and longing to be comforted, My question eagerly did I renew, "How is it that you live, and what is it you do?" He with a smile did then his words repeat; And said that, gathering Leeches, far and wide He travelled; stirring thus about his feet The waters of the Pools where they abide. "Once I could meet with them on every side; But they have dwindled long by slow decay; Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may." While he was talking thus, the lonely place, The Old-man's shape, and speech, all troubled me: In my mind's eye I seemed to see him pace About the weary moors continually, Wandering about alone and silently. While I these thoughts within myself pursued, He, having made a pause, the same discourse renewed. And soon with this he other matter blended, Cheerfully uttered, with demeanour kind, But stately in the main; and when he ended, I could have laughed myself to scorn to find In that decrepit Man so firm a mind. "God," said I, "be my help and stay secure; I'll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!"

"I will explain to you," says Wordsworth, "in prose, my feelings in writing that poem, I describe myself as having been exalted to the highest pitch of delight by the joyousness and beauty of Nature; and then as depressed, even in the midst of those beautiful objects, to the lowest dejection and despair. A young poet in the midst of the happiness of Nature is described as overwhelmed by the thoughts of the miserable reverses, which have befallen the happiest of all men, viz. poets. I think of this till I am so deeply impressed with it, that I consider the manner in which I am rescued from my dejection and despair almost as an interposition of Providence.

A person reading the poem with feelings like mine will have been awed and controlled, expecting something spiritual or supernatural. What is brought forward? A lonely place, 'a pond, by which an old man was, far from all house or home:' not stood, nor sat, but was - the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible. The feeling of spirituality or supernaturalness is again referred to as being strong in my mind in this passage. How came he here? thought I, or what can he be doing? I then describe him, whether ill or well is not for me to judge with perfect confidence; but this I can confidently affirm, that though I believe God has given me a strong imagination, I cannot conceive a figure more impressive than that of an old man like this, the survivor of a wife and ten children, travelling alone among the mountains and all lonely places, carrying with him his own fortitude, and the necessities which an unjust state of society has laid upon him."

Among the pictures which Wordsworth has left us of the influence of Nature on human character, Peter Bell may be taken as marking one end, and the poems on Lucy the other end of the scale.

            THERE'S something in a flying horse,
            There's something in a huge balloon;
            But through the clouds I'll never float
            Until I have a little Boat,
            Shaped like the crescent-moon.

            And now I 'have' a little Boat,
            In shape a very crescent-moon
            Fast through the clouds my boat can sail;
            But if perchance your faith should fail,
            Look up--and you shall see me soon!                       

            The woods, my Friends, are round you roaring,
            Rocking and roaring like a sea;
            The noise of danger's in your ears,
            And ye have all a thousand fears
            Both for my little Boat and me!

            Meanwhile untroubled I admire
            The pointed horns of my canoe;
            And, did not pity touch my breast,
            To see how ye are all distrest,
            Till my ribs ached, I'd laugh at you!  

Peter Bell lives in the face of Nature untouched alike by her terror and her charm; Lucy's whole being is moulded by Nature's self; she is responsive to sun and shadow, to silence and to sound, and melts almost into an impersonation of a Cumbrian valley's peace.

           THREE years she grew in sun and shower;
           Then Nature said, 'A lovelier flower
           On earth was never sown;
           This child I to myself will take;
           She shall be mine, and I will make
           A lady of my own.
           'Myself will to my darling be
           Both law and impulse; and with me
           The girl, in rock and plain,
           In earth and heaven, in glade and bower,
           Shall feel an overseeing power
           To kindle or restrain.
           'She shall be sportive as the fawn
           That wild with glee across the lawn
           Or up the mountain springs;
           And hers shall be the breathing balm,
           And hers the silence and the calm
           Of mute insensate things.
           'The floating clouds their state shall lend
           To her; for her the willow bend;
           Nor shall she fail to see
           Even in the motions of the storm
           Grace that shall mould the maiden's form
           By silent sympathy.
           'The stars of midnight shall be dear
           To her; and she shall lean her ear
           In many a secret place
           Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
           And beauty born of murmuring sound
           Shall pass into her face.
           'And vital feelings of delight
           Shall rear her form to stately height,
           Her virgin bosom swell;
           Such thoughts to Lucy I will give
           While she and I together live
           Here in this happy dell.'
           Thus Nature spake -- The work was done --
           How soon my Lucy's race was run!
           She died, and left to me
           This heath, this calm and quiet scene;
           The memory of what has been,
           And never more will be.

Between these two extremes how many are the possible shades of feeling! In Ruth, for instance, the point impressed upon us is that Nature's influence is only salutary so long as she is herself, so to say, in keeping with man; that when her operations reach that degree of habitual energy and splendour at which our love for her passes into fascination and our admiration into bewilderment, then the fierce and irregular stimulus consorts no longer with the growth of a temperate virtue.

   The wind, the tempest roaring high,
   The tumult of a tropic sky,
   Might well be dangerous food
   For him, a youth to whom was given
   So much of earth, so much of heaven,
   And such impetuous blood.

And a contrasting touch recalls the healing power of those gentle and familiar presences which came to Ruth in her stormy madness with visitations of momentary calm.

   Yet sometimes milder hours she knew,
   Nor wanted sun, nor rain, nor dew,
   Nor pastimes of the May;
   They all were with her in her cell;
   And a wild brook with cheerful knell
   Did o'er the pebbles play.

I will give one other instance of this subtle method of dealing with the contrasts in Nature. It is from the poem entitled "Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the Shore, commanding a beautiful Prospect." This seat was once the haunt of a lonely, a disappointed, an embittered man.

   Stranger! These gloomy boughs
   Had charms for him: and here he loved to sit,
   His only visitants a straggling sheep,
   The stone-chat, or the glancing sand-piper;
   And on these barren rocks, with fern and heath
   And juniper and thistle sprinkled o'er,
   Fixing his downcast eye, he many an hour
   A morbid pleasure nourished, tracing here
   An emblem of his own unfruitful life:
   And, lifting up his head, he then would gaze
   On the more distant scene, - how lovely 'tis
   Thou seest, - and he would gaze till it became
   Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain
   The beauty, still more beauteous! Nor, that time,
   When Nature had subdued him to herself,
   Would he forget those beings, to whose minds,
   Warm from the labours of benevolence,
   The world, and human life, appeared a scene
   Of kindred loveliness; then he would sigh
   With mournful joy, to think that others felt
   What he must never feel; and so, lost Man!
   On visionary views would fancy feed
   Till his eyes streamed with tears.

This is one of the passages which the lover of Wordsworth, quotes, perhaps, with some apprehension; not knowing how far it carries into the hearts of others its affecting power; how vividly it calls up before them that mood of desolate loneliness when the whole vision of human love and joy hangs like a mirage in the air, and only when it seems irrecoverably distant seems also intolerably dear.

There was indeed no aspect of Nature, however often depicted, in which his seeing eye could not discern some unnoted quality; there was no mood to which nature gave birth in the mind of man from which his meditation could not disengage some element which threw light on our inner being. How often has the approach of evening been described! And how mysterious is its solemnizing power! Yet it was reserved for Wordsworth in his sonnet "Hail, Twilight, sovereign of one peaceful hour," to draw out a characteristic of that grey waning light which half explains to us its sombre and pervading charm. "Day's mutable distinctions" pass away; all in the landscape that suggests our own age or our own handiwork is gone; we look on the sight seen by our remote ancestors, and the visible present is generalized into an immeasureable past.

Charles Lamb
Lake District Twilight
by J Vance
HAIL Twilight, sovereign of one peaceful hour!
Not dull art Thou as undiscerning Night;
But studious only to remove from sight
Day's mutable distinctions.--Ancient Power!
Thus did the waters gleam, the mountains lower,
To the rude Briton, when, in wolf-skin vest
Here roving wild, he laid him down to rest
On the bare rock, or through a leafy bower
Looked ere his eyes were closed. By him was seen
The self-same Vision which we now behold;                   
At thy meek bidding, shadowy Power! brought forth
These mighty barriers, and the gulf between;
The flood, the stars,--a spectacle as old
As the beginning of the heavens and earth!

The sonnet on the Duddon beginning "What aspect bore the Man who roved or fled First of his tribe to this dark dell," carries back the mind along the same track, with the added thought of Nature's permanent gentleness amid the "hideous usages" of primeval man, - through all which the stream's voice was innocent, and its flow benign.

          WHAT aspect bore the Man who roved or fled,
          First of his tribe, to this dark dell--who first
          In this pellucid Current slaked his thirst?
          What hopes came with him? what designs were spread
          Along his path? His unprotected bed
          What dreams encompassed? Was the intruder nursed
          In hideous usages, and rites accursed,
          That thinned the living and disturbed the dead?
          No voice replies;--both air and earth are mute;
          And Thou, blue Streamlet, murmuring yield'st no more        
          Than a soft record, that, whatever fruit
          Of ignorance thou might'st witness heretofore,
          Thy function was to heal and to restore,
          To soothe and cleanse, not madden and pollute!

"A weight of awe not easy to be borne" fell on the poet, also, as he looked on the earliest memorials which these remote ancestors have left us. The Sonnet on a Stone Circle which opens with these words is conceived in a strain of emotion never more needed than now, - when Avebury itself owes its preservation to the munificence of a private individual, -when stone-circle or round-tower, camp or dolmen, are destroyed to save a few shillings, and occupation-roads are mended with the immemorial altars of an unknown God. "Speak, Giant-mother! Tell it to the Morn!" - how strongly does the heart re-echo the solemn invocation which calls on those abiding witnesses to speak once of what they knew long ago!

          A WEIGHT of awe, not easy to be borne,
          Fell suddenly upon my Spirit--cast
          From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
          When first I saw that family forlorn.
          Speak Thou, whose massy strength and stature scorn
          The power of years--pre-eminent, and placed
          Apart, to overlook the circle vast--
          Speak, Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn
          While she dispels the cumbrous shades of Night;
          Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud;                   
          At whose behest uprose on British ground
          That Sisterhood, in hieroglyphic round
          Forth-shadowing, some have deemed, the infinite
          The inviolable God, that tames the proud! 

The mention of these ancient worships may lead us to ask in what manner Wordsworth was affected "by the Nature-deities of Greece and Rome" - impersonations which have preserved through so many ages so strange a charm. And space must be found here for the characteristic sonnet in which the baseness and materialism of modern life drives him back on whatsoever of illumination and reality lay in that young ideal.

   The world is too much with us; late and soon
   Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
   Little we see in Nature that is ours;
   We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
   The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
   The Winds that will be howling at all hours,
   And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
   For this, for everything we are out of tune;
   It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
   A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
   So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
   Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
   Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea:
   Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Wordsworth's own imagination idealized Nature in a different way. The sonnet "Brook! Whose society the poet seeks" places him among the men whose Nature-deities have not yet become anthropomorphic - men to whom "unknown modes of being" may seem more lovely as well as more awful than the life we know. He would not give to his idealized brook "human cheeks, channels for tears, - no Naiad shouldst thou be," -

  It seems the Eternal Soul is clothed in thee
  With purer robes than those of flesh and blood,
  And hath bestowed on thee a better good;
  Unwearied joy, and life without its cares.

And in the Sonnet on Calais Beach the sea is regarded in the same way, with a sympathy, which needs no help from an imaginary impersonation, but strikes back to a sense of kinship which seems antecedent to the origin of man.

  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 is on the Sea:
   Listen! The mighty Being is awake,
   And doth with his eternal motion make
   A sound like thunder - everlastingly.

A comparison, made by Wordsworth himself, of his own method of observing Nature with Scott's expresses in less mystical language something of what I am endeavouring to say.

Aubrey de Vere
Aubrey de Vere

"He expatiated much to me one day," says Mr. Aubrey de Vere, "as we walked among the hills above Grasmere, on the mode in which Nature had been described by one of the most justly popular of England's modern poets - one for whom he preserved a high and affectionate respect.

'He took pains,' Wordsworth said; 'he went out with his pencil and note-book, and jotted down whatever struck him most - a river rippling over the sands, a ruined tower on a rock above it, a promontory, and a mountain-ash waving its red berries. He went home and wove the whole together into a poetical description.'

After a pause, Wordsworth resumed, with a flashing eye and impassioned voice: 'But Nature does not permit an inventory to be made of her charms! He should have left his pencil and notebook at home, fixed his eye as he walked with a reverent attention on all that surrounded him, and taken all into a heart that could understand and enjoy. Then, after several days had passed by, he should have interrogated his memory as to the scene.

He would have discovered that while much of what he had admired was preserved to him, much was also most wisely obliterated; that which remained - the picture surviving in his mind - would have presented the ideal and essential truth of the scene, and done so in a large part by discarding much which, though in itself striking, was not characteristic.

In every scene many of the most brilliant details are but accidental; a true eye for Nature does not note them, or at least does not dwell on them.'" How many a phrase of Wordsworth's rises in the mind in illustration of this power! Phrases which embody in a single picture, or a single image, - it may be the vivid wildness of the flowery coppice, of -

   Flaunting summer, when he throws
   His soul into the briar-rose, -

or the melancholy stillness of the declining year, -

                                     Where floats
   O'er twilight fields the autumnal gossamer;
Charles Lamb
Charles Lamb

or - as in the words which to the sensitive Charles Lamb seemed too terrible for art - the irresponsive blankness of the universe - The broad open eye of the solitary sky - beneath which mortal hearts must make what merriment they may. Or take those typical stanzas in Peter Bell, which so long were accounted among Wordsworth's leading absurdities.

   In vain through, every changeful year
   Did Nature lead him as before;
   A primrose by the river's brim
   A yellow primrose was to him,
   And it was nothing more.
   In vain, through water, earth, and air,
   The soul of happy sound was spread,
   When Peter, on some April morn,
   Beneath the broom or budding thorn.
   Made the warm earth his lazy bed.
   At noon, when by the forest's edge
   He lay beneath the branches high,
   The soft blue sky did never melt
   Into his heart, - he never felt
   The witchery of the soft blue sky!
   On a fair prospect some have looked
   And felt, as I have heard them say,
   As if the moving time had been
   A thing as steadfast as the scene
   On which they gazed themselves away.

In all these passages, it will be observed, the emotion is educed from Nature rather than added to her; she is treated as a mystic text to be deciphered, rather than as a stimulus to roving imagination. This latter mood, indeed, Wordsworth feels occasionally, as in the sonnet where the woodland sights become to him "like a dream of the whole world;" but it is checked by the recurring sense that "it is our business to idealize the real, and not to realize the ideal." Absorbed in admiration of fantastic clouds of sunset, he feels for a moment ashamed to think that they are unrememberable -

   They are of the sky,
   And from our earthly memory fade away.

But soon he disclaims this regret, and reasserts the paramount interest of the things that we can grasp and love.

   Grove, isle, with every shape of sky-built dome,
   Though clad In colours beautiful and pure,
   Find in the heart of man no natural home;
   The immortal Mind craves objects that endure:
   These cleave to it; from these it cannot roam,
   Nor they from it: their fellowship is secure.

From this temper of Wordsworth's mind, it follows that there will be many moods in which we shall not retain him as our companion. Moods which are rebellious, which beat at the bars of fate; moods of passion reckless in its vehemence, and assuming the primacy of all other emotions through the intensity of its delight or pain; moods of mere imaginative phantasy, when we would fain shape from the well-worn materials of our thought some fabric at once beautiful and new; from all such phases of our inward being Wordsworth stands aloof. His poem on the nightingale and the stockdove illustrates with half-conscious allegory the contrast between himself and certain other poets.

   O Nightingale! Thou surely art
   A creature of a fiery heart: -
   These notes of thine - they pierce and pierce;
   Tumultuous harmony and fierce!
   Thou sing'st as if the God of wine
   Had helped thee to a Valentine;
   A song in mockery and despite
   Of shades, and dews, and silent Night;
   And steady bliss, and all the loves
   Now sleeping in their peaceful groves.
   I heard a Stock-dove sing or say
   His homely tale, this very day;
   His voice was buried among trees,
   Yet to be come at by the breeze:
   He did not cease; but cooed—and cooed,
   And somewhat pensively he wooed.
   He sang of love with quiet blending,
   Slow to begin, and never ending;
   Of serious faith and inward glee;
   That was the Song - the Song for me!

"His voice was buried among trees," says Wordsworth; "a metaphor expressing the love of seclusion by which this bird is marked; and characterizing its note as not partaking of the shrill and the piercing, and therefore more easily deadened by the intervening shade; yet a note so peculiar, and withal so pleasing, that the breeze, gifted with that love of the sound which the poet feels, penetrates the shade in which it is entombed, and conveys it to the ear of the listener."

Wordsworth's poetry on the emotional side (as distinguished from its mystical or its patriotic aspects) could hardly be more exactly described than in the above sentence. For while there are few poems of his which could be read to a mixed audience with the certainty of producing an immediate impression; yet on the other hand all the best ones gain in an unusual degree by repeated study; and this is especially the case with those in which, some touch of tenderness is enshrined in a scene of beauty, which it seems to interpret while it is itself exalted by it. Such a poem is Stepping Westward, where the sense of sudden fellowship, and the quaint greeting beneath the glowing sky, seem to link man's momentary wanderings with the cosmic spectacles of heaven. Such are the lines where all the wild romance of Highland scenery, the forlornness of the solitary vales, pours itself through the lips of the maiden singing at her work, "as if her song could have no ending," -

   Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
   And sings a melancholy strain;
   O listen! For the Vale profound
   Is overflowing with the sound.

Such - and with how subtle a difference! - is the Fragment in which a "Spirit of noonday" wears on his face the silent joy of Nature in her own recesses, undisturbed by beast, or bird, or man,

                       Nor ever was a cloudless sky?
   So steady or so fair.

And such are the poems We are Seven and The Pet Lamb.

The Pet Lamb is probably the only poem of Wordsworth's which can be charged with having done moral injury.

 THE dew was falling fast, the stars began to blink;
  I heard a voice; it said, "Drink, pretty creature, drink!"
  And, looking o'er the hedge, before me I espied
  A snow-white mountain-lamb with a Maiden at its side.

  Nor sheep nor kine were near; the lamb was all alone,
  And by a slender cord was tethered to a stone;
  With one knee on the grass did the little Maiden kneel,
  While to that mountain-lamb she gave its evening meal.

  The lamb, while from her hand he thus his supper took,
  Seemed to feast with head and ears; and his tail with pleasure 
  "Drink, pretty creature, drink," she said in such a tone
  That I almost received her heart into my own.

  'Twas little Barbara Lewthwaite, a child of beauty rare!
  I watched them with delight, they were a lovely pair.

"Barbara Lewthwaite," says Wordsworth, in 1843, "was not, in fact, the child whom I had seen and overheard as engaged in the poem. I chose the name for reasons implied in the above," (i.e. an account of her remarkable beauty), "and will here add a caution against the use of names of living persons. Within a few months after the publication of this poem I was much, surprised, and more hurt, to find it in a child's school-book, which, having been compiled by Lindley Murray, had come into use at Grasmere School, where Barbara was a pupil. And, alas, I had the mortification of hearing that she was very vain of being thus distinguished; and in after-life she used to say that she remembered the incident, and what I said to her upon the occasion."

The Two April Mornings is another poem, in which the beauty of a rustic child melts, as it were, into Nature herself, and the -

    Blooming girl whose hair was wet
    With points of morning dew

becomes the impersonation of the season's early joy. We may apply, indeed, to all these girls Wordsworth's description of leverets playing on a lawn, and call them -

   Separate creatures in their several gifts
   Abounding, but so fashioned that in all
   That Nature prompts them to display, their looks,
   Their starts of motion and their fits of rest,
   An undistinguishable style appears
   And character of gladness, as if Spring
   Lodged in their innocent bosoms, and the spirit
   Of the rejoicing Morning were their own.

The passages which I have been citing have been for the most part selected as illustrating the novelty and subtlety of Wordsworth's view of Nature. But it will now be sufficiently clear how continually a strain of human interest is interwoven with the delight derived from impersonal things.

   Long have I loved what I behold,
   The night that calms, the day that cheers:
   The common growth of mother earth
   Suffices me - her tears, her mirth,
   Her humblest mirth and tears.

The poet of the Waggoner - who, himself a habitual water-drinker, has so glowingly described the glorification which the prospect of nature receives in a half-intoxicated brain - may justly claim that he can enter into all genuine pleasures, even of an order which he declines for himself. With anything that is false or artificial he cannot sympathize, nor with such faults as baseness, cruelty, rancour; which seem contrary to human nature itself; but in dealing with faults of mere weakness he is far less strait-laced than many less virtuous men.

He had, in fact, a reverence for human beings as such which enabled him to face even their frailties without alienation; and there was something in his own happy exemption from such falls which touched him into regarding men less fortunate rather with pity than disdain.

   Because the unstained, the clear, the crystalline,
   Have ever in them something of benign.

His comment on Barns's Tam o' Shanter will perhaps surprise some readers who are accustomed to think of him only in his didactic attitude.

"It is the privilege of poetic genius, he says, to catch, under certain restrictions of which perhaps at the time of its being exerted it is but dimly conscious, a spirit of pleasure wherever it can be found, in the walks of nature, and in the business of men. The poet, trusting to primary instincts, luxuriates among the felicities of love and wine, and is enraptured while he describes the fairer aspects of war, nor does he shrink from the company of the passion of love though immoderate - from convivial pleasures though intemperate - nor from the presence of war, though savage, and recognized as the handmaid of desolation.

Robert Burns
Robert Burns
Tam O'Shanter

When chapmen billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet,
As market days are wearing late,
An' folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

Frequently and admirably has Burns given way to these impulses of nature, both with references to himself and in describing the condition of others. Who, but some impenetrable dunce or narrow-minded puritan in works of art, ever read without delight the picture, which he has drawn of the convivial exaltation of the rustic adventurer Tam o' Shanter? The poet fears not to tell the reader in the outset that his hero was a desperate and sottish drunkard, whose excesses were as frequent as his opportunities. This reprobate sits down to his cups while the storm is roaring, and heaven and earth are in confusion; the night is driven on by song and tumultuous noise, laughter and jest thicken as the beverage improves upon the palate - conjugal fidelity archly bends to the service of general benevolence - selfishness is not absent, but wearing the mask of social cordiality; and while these various elements of humanity are blended into one proud and happy composition of elated spirits, the anger of the tempest without doors only heightens and sets off the enjoyment within. I pity him who cannot perceive that in all this, though there was no moral purpose, there is a moral effect."

   Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,
   O'er a' the ills of life victorious.

"What a lesson do these words convey of charitable indulgence for the vicious habits of the principal actor in the scene, and of those who resemble him! Men who to the rigidly virtuous are objects almost of loathing, and whom therefore they cannot serve! The poet, penetrating the unsightly and disgusting surfaces of things, has unveiled with exquisite skill the finer ties of imagination and feeling, that often bind these beings to practices productive of so much unhappiness to themselves, and to those whom it is their duty to cherish; and, as far as he puts the reader into possession of this intelligent sympathy, he qualifies him for exercising a salutary influence over the minds of those who are thus deplorably enslaved."

The reverence for man as man, the sympathy for him in his primary relations and his essential being, of which these comments on Tam o' Shanter form so remarkable an example, is a habit of thought too ingrained in all Wordsworth's works to call for specific illustration. The figures of Michael, of Matthew, of the Brothers, of the hero of the Excursion, and even of the Idiot Boy, suggest themselves at once in this connexion. But it should be noted in each case how free is the poet's view from any idealization of the poorer classes as such, from the ascription of imaginary merits to an unknown populace which forms the staple of so much revolutionary eloquence.

These poems, while they form the most convincing rebuke to the exclusive pride of the rich and great, are also a stern and strenuous incentive to the obscure and lowly. They are pictures of the poor man's life as it is, - pictures as free as Crabbe's from the illusion of sentiment, - but in which the delight of mere observation (which in Crabbe predominates) is subordinated to an intense sympathy with all such capacities of nobleness and tenderness as are called out by the stress and pressure of penury or woe. They form for the folk of northern England (as the works of Burns and Scott for the Scottish folk) a gallery of figures that are modelled, as it were, both from without and from within; by one with experience so personal as to keep every sentence vividly accurate, and yet with an insight which could draw from that simple life lessons to itself unknown. We may almost venture to generalize our statement further, and to assert that no writer since Shakespeare has left us so true a picture of the British nation.

In Milton, indeed, we have the characteristic English spirit at a whiter glow; but it is the spirit of the scholar only, or of the ruler, not of the peasant, the woman, or the child, Wordsworth gives us that spirit as it is diffused among shepherds and husbandmen, - as it exists in obscurity and at peace. And they who know what makes the strength of nations need wish nothing better than that the temper which he saw and honoured among the Cumbrian dales should be the temper of all England, now and for ever. Our discussion of Wordsworth's form of Natural Religion has led us back by no forced transition to the simple life which he described and shared. I return to the story of his later years, - if that be called a story which derives no interest from incident or passion, and dwells only on the slow broodings of a meditative soul.


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