( Originally Published 1919 )
1. His Personality and Genius
DOROTHY WORDSWORTH—whom Professor Harper has praised not beyond reason as " the most delightful, the most fascinating woman who has enriched literary history "—once confessed in a letter about her brother William that " his person is not in his favour," and that he was " certainly rather plain." He is the most difficult of all the great poets whom one reverences to portray as an attractive person. " ` Horse-face,' I have heard satirists say," Carlyle wrote of him, recalling a comparison of Hazlitt's ; and the horse-face seems to be symbolic of something that we 'find not only in his personal appearance, but in his personality and his work.
His faults do not soften us, as the faults of so many favourite writers do. They were the faults, not of passion, but of a superior person, who was something of a Sir Willoughby Patteme in his pompous self-satisfaction. " He says," records Lamb in one of his letters, he does not see much difficulty in writing like Shakespeare, if he had a mind to try it." Lamb adds : " It is clear that nothing is wanting but the mind."
Leigh Hunt, after receiving a visit from Wordsworth in 1815, remarked that " he was as sceptical on the merit of all kinds of poetry but one as Richardson was on those of the novels of Fielding." Keats, who had earlier spoken of the reverence in which he held Wordsworth, wrote to his brother in 1818 : " I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism', vanity, and bigotry." There was something frigidly unsympathetic in his judgment of others, which was as unattractive as his complacency in regard to his own work. When Trelawny, seeing him at Lausanne and, learning who he was, went up to him as he was about to step into his carriage and asked him what he thought of Shelley as a poet, he replied : " Nothing." Again, Wordsworth spoke with solemn reprobation of certain of Lamb's friendships, after Lamb was dead, as " the indulgences of social humours and fancies which were often 'injurious to himself and causes of severe regrets to his friends, without really benefiting the object of his misapplied kindness."
Nor was this ' attitude of Johnny Head-in-Air the mark only of his later years. It appeared in the days when he and 'Coleridge collaborated in bringing out Lyrical Ballads. There is something sublimely egotistical in the way in which he shook his head over The Ancient Mariner as a drag upon that miraculous volume. In the course of a letter to his publisher, he wrote From 'what I can gather it seems that The Ancyent Marinere has, on the whole, been an injury to the volume ; I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second edition, I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.
It is when one reads sentences Iike these that one begins to take a mischievous delight in the later onslaught of a Scottish reviewer who, indignant that Wordsworth should dare to pretend to be able to appreciate Bums, denounced him as " a retired, pensive, egotistical, collector of stamps," and as a melancholy, sighing, half-parson sort of gentleman, who lives in a small circle of old maids and sonneteers, and drinks tea now and then with the solemn Laureate.
One feels at times that no ridicule or abuse of this stiff-necked old fraud could be excessive ; for, if he were not Wordsworth, as what but a fraud could we picture him in his later years, as he protests against Catholic Emancipation, the extension of the franchise, the freedom of the Press, and popular education? Can it, in a general view," he asks, " be good that an infant should learn much which its parents do not know? Will not a child arrogate a superiority unfavourable to love and obedience? " He shuddered again at the likelihood that Mechanics' Institutes would " make dis-contented spirits and insubordinate and presumptuous workmen." He opposed the admission of Dissenters to Cambridge University, and he " desired that a medical education should be kept beyond the reach of a poor student," on the ground that " the better able the parents are to incur expense, the stronger pledge have we of their children being above meanness and unfeeling and sordid habits." One might go on quoting instance after instance of this piety of success, as it might be called. Time and again the words seem to come from the mouth, not of one of the inspired men of the modern world, but of some puffed-up elderly gentleman in a novel by Jane Austen. His letter to a young relation who wished to marry his daughter Dora is a letter that Jane Austen might have invented
If you have thoughts of marrying, do look out for some lady with a sufficient fortune for both of you. What I say to you now I would recommend to every naval officer and clergyman who is without prospect of professional advancement. Ladies of some fortune are as easily won as those without, and for the most part as deserving. Check the first liking to those who have nothing.
One is tempted to say that Wordsworth, like so many other poets, died young, and that a pensioner who inherited his name survived him.
When one has told the worst about Wordsworth, however, one is as far as ever from having painted a portrait of him in which anybody could believe while reading the Ode on Intimations of Immortality—Ode as it was simply called when it was first published—or I wandered lonely as a cloud, or the sonnet composed on Westminster Bridge. Nor does the portrait of a stern, unbending egotist satisfy us when we remember the life-long devotion that existed between him and Dorothy, and the fact that Coleridge loved him, and that Lamb and Scott were his friends. He may have been a niggard of warm-heartedness to the outside world, but it is clear from his biography that he possessed the genius of a good heart as well as of a great mind.
And he was as conspicuous for the public as for the private virtues. His latest biographer has done well to withdraw our eyes from the portrait of the old man with the stiffened joints and to paint in more glowing colours than any of his predecessors the early Wordsworth who rejoiced in the French Revolution, and, apparently as a consequence, initiated a revolution in English poetry. The later period of the life is not glossed over ; it is given, indeed, in cruel detail, and Professor Harper's account of it is the most lively and fascinating part of his admirable book. But it is to the heart of the young revolutionary, who dreamed of becoming a Girondist leader and of seeing England a republic, that he traces all the genius and understanding that we find in the poems.
Wordsworth's connection," he writes, " with the English ` Jacobins,' with the most extreme element opposed to the war or actively agitating in favour of making England a republic, was much closer than has been generally admitted." He points out that Wordsworth's first books of verse, An Evening Walk, and Descriptive Sketches, were published by Joseph Johnson, who also published Dr. Priestley, Horne Tooke, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and whose shop was frequented by Godwin and Paine. Professor Harper attempts to strengthen his case by giving brief sketches of famous Jacobins," whom Wordsworth may or may not have met, but his case is strong enough without their help. Wordsworth's reply—not published at the time, or, indeed, till after his death—to the Bishop of Llandaff's; anti-French-Revolution sermon on The Wisdom and Goodness of God in having made both Rich and Poor, was signed without qualification, " By a Republican." He refused to join in " the idle cry of modish lamentation over the execution of the French King, and defended the other executions in France as necessary. He condemned the hereditary, principle, whether in the Monarchy or the House of Lords. The existence of a nobility, he held, "has a necessary tendency to dishonour labour." Had he published, this pamphlet when it was written, in 1793, he might easily have found himself in prison, like many, other sympathizers with the French.
Wordsworth gives us an idea in The Prelude—how one wishes one had the original and unamended version of the poem as it was finished in 1805 l—of the extreme Iengths to which his Republican idealism carried him. When war was declared against France, he tells us, he prayed for French victories, and ---
Exulted in the triumph of my soul,
Two years later we, find him at Racedown planning satires against the King, the Prince of Wales, and various public men, one of the couplets on the King and the Duke of Norfolk running :
Heavens! who sees majesty in George's face ?
But these lines, he declared, were given to him by Southey.
By 1797 a Government spy seems to have been looking after him and his friends he was living at the time at Alfoxden, near Coleridge, who, in the previous year, had brought out The Watchman to proclaim, as the prospectus said, " the state of the political atmosphere, and preserve; Freedom and her. Friends from the attacks of Robbers and Assassins." Wordsworth at a later period did not like the story of the spy, but it is certain that about the time of the visit he got notice to quit Alfoxden, obviously, for political reasons, from the lady, who owned the estate.
Professor Harper's originality as a biographer, however, does not lie in his narration of facts like these, but in the patience with which he traces the continuance of French sympathies in Wordsworth on into the opening years of the nineteenth century. He has altered the proportions in the Wordsworth legend, and made the youth of the, poet as long in the telling as his age. This was all the more necessary because various biographers have followed too closely the example of the official Life, the materials for which Wordsworth entrusted to his nephew, the Bishop, who naturally regarded Wordsworth, the pillar of Church and State, as a more eminent and laudable figure than Wordsworth, the young Revolutionary., Whether the Bishop deliberately hushed up the fact that, during his early travels in France, Wordsworth fell in love with an aristocratic French lady who bore him an illegitimate child, I do not know. Professor Harper, taking a more ruthless view of the duties of a biographer, now relates the story, though in a rather vague and mysterious way. One wishes that, having told us so much, he had told us a little more. Even with all we know' about the early life of Wordsworth, we are still left guessing at his portrait rather than with a clear idea of it. He was a figure in his youth, a character in his old age. The character we know down to the roots of his hair. But the figure remains something, of a secret.
As a poet, Wordsworth may almost be called the first of the democrats. He brought into literature a fresh vision—a vision bathing the world and its inhabitants in a strange and revolutionary light. He was the first, great poet of equality and fraternity in the sense that he portrayed the lives of common country people in their daily surroundings as faithfully as though they had been kings. It would be absurd to suggest that there are no anticipations of this democratic spirit in English literature from Chaucer down to Burns, but Wordsworth, more than any other English writer, deserves the credit of having emancipated the poor man into being a fit subject for noble poetry. How revolutionary a change this was it is difficult to realize at the present day, but Jeffrey's protest against it in the Edinburgh Review in 18o2 enables one to realize to what a degree the poor man was regarded as an outcast from literature when Wordsworth was young. In the course of an attack on Lyrical Ballads Jeffrey rote:--
The love, or grief, or indignation, of an enlightened and refined character is not only expressed in a different language, but is in itself a different emotion from the love, or grief, or anger, of a clown, a tradesman, or a market-wench. The things themselves are radically and obviously distinct. . The poor and vulgar may interest us, in poetry, by their situation but never, we apprehend, by any sentiments that are peculiar to their condition, and still less by any language that is peculiar to it.
When one takes sides with Wordsworth against Jeffrey on this matter it is not because one regards Wordsworth as a portrait-painter without faults. His portraits are marred in several cases by the intrusion of his own personality with its My good man " and My, little man " air. His human beings have a way, of becoming either- lifeless or absurd when they talk. The Leech-Gatherer and The Idiot Boy are not the only poems of Wordsworth that are injured by the insertion of banal dialogue. It is as though there were, despite his passion for liberty, equality, and fraternity, a certain gaucherie in his relations with other human beings, and he were at his happiest as a solitary. His nature, we may grant, was of mixed aspects, but, even as early as the 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes had he not expressed his impatience of human society in a sonnet?
I am not one who much or oft delight
Better than such discourse doth silence long,
With Wordsworth, indeed, the light of revelation did not fall upon human beings so unbrokenly as upon the face of the earth. He knew the birds of the countryside better than the old men, and the flowers far better than the children. He noticed how light plays like a spirit upon all living things. He heard every field and valley echoing with new songs. He saw the daffodils dancing by the lake, the green linnet dancing among the hazel leaves, and the young lambs bounding, as he says in an unexpected line, " as to the tabor's sound," and his heart danced to the same music, like the heart of a mystic caught up in, holy rapture. Here rather than in men did he discover the divine speech. His vision of men was always troubled by his consciousness of duties. Nature came to him as a liberator into spiritual existence. Not that he ceased to be a philosopher in his reveries., He was never the half-sensual kind of mystic. He was never a sensualist in anything, indeed. It is significant that he had little sense of smell—the most sensual of the senses. It is, perhaps, because of this that he is comparatively so roseless a poet.
But what an ear he had, what a harvesting eye; ! One cannot read The Prelude or The Ode or Tintern Abbey without feeling that seldom can there have been a poet with a more, exquisite capacity for the enjoyment of joyous things. In his profounder moments he reaches the very sources of joy, as few poets have done. He attracts many readers like, a prospect of cleansing. and healing streams.
And he succeeds in being a great poet in two manners. He is a great poet in the grand tradition of English literature, and he is a great poet his revolutionary simplicity. The Idiot Boy, for all its banalities, is as immortal as The Ode, and The Solitary Reaper will live side by, side with the great sonnets while the love of literature endures. While we read these poems we tell ourselves that it is almost irrelevant to mourn the fact that the man who wrote them gave up his faith in humanity, for faith in Church and State. His genius survives in literature : it was only his courage as a politician that perished. At the same time, he wished to impress himself upon the world as a politician even more perhaps than as a poet. And, indeed, if he, had died at the age at which Byron died, his record in politics would have been as noble as his record in poetry. Happily or unhappily, however, he lived on, a worse politician and a worse poet. His record as both has never before been set forth with the same comprehensiveness as in Professor Harper's important and, after one has ploughed through some heavy pages, fascinating volumes.
2. His Politics
" Just for a handful of silver he left us." Browning was asked if he really meant the figure ,in The Lost Leader for Wordsworth, and he admitted that, though it was not a portrait, he had Wordsworth vaguely in his mind. We do not nowadays believe that Wordsworth changed his political opinions in order to be made distributor of stamps for the county of Westmoreland, or even (as he afterwards became in addition) for the county of Cumberland. Nor did Browning believe this. He did believe, however, that Wordsworth was a turn-coat, a renegade—a poet who began as the champion of liberty and ended as its enemy. This is the general view, and it seems to me to be unassailable.
Mr. A. V. Dicey, in a recent book, The Statesmanship of Wordsworth, attempts to portray Wordsworth as a sort of early Mazzini—one who " by many years anticipated, thought out, and announced the doctrine of Nationalism, which during at least fifty years of the nineteenth century (1820-70) governed or told upon the foreign policy of every European country." I think he exaggerates, but it cannot be denied that Words-worth said many wise things about nationality, and that he showed a true liberal instinct in the French wars, siding with the French in the early days while they were fighting for liberty, and afterwards siding against them when they were fighting for Napoleonic Imperialism. Wordsworth had not yet abandoned his ardour for liberty when, in 1809, he published his Triad on the Convention of Cintra. Those who accuse 'him of apostasy have in mind not his " Tract " and his sonnets of war-time, but the later lapse of faith which resulted in his opposing Catholic Emancipation and the Reform "Bill, and in his sitting down seriously, to write sonnets in favour in capital punishment.
He began with an imagination which emphasized the natural goodness of man : he ended with an imagination which emphasized the natural evil of man. He began with faith in liberty ; he ended with faith in restraint. Mr. Dicey admits much of the case against the later Wordsworth, but his very defence of the poet is in itself an accusation. He contends, for instance, that it was natural that a man, who had in his youth seen face to face the violence of the revolutionary struggle in France, should have felt the danger of the Reform Act becoming the commencement of anarchy and revolution in England. Natural it may have been, but none the less it was a right-about-turn of the spirit. Words-worth had ceased to believe in liberty.
There is very little evidence, indeed, that in his later years Wordsworth remained interested in liberty at all. The most important evidence of the kind is that of Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, author of The Purgatory of Suicides, who visited him in i 846 after serving a term in prison on a charge of sedition. Wordsworth received him and said to him : " You, Chartists are right : you have a right to votes, only you take the wrong way to obtain them. You must avoid physical violence." Referring to the conversation, Mr. Dicey comments At the age of seventy-six the spirit of the old revolutionist and of the friend of the Girondins was still alive. He might not think much of the Whigs, but within four years of his death Wordsworth was certainly no Tory.
There is no reason, however, why we should trouble our heads over the question whether at the age of seventy-six Wordsworth was a Tory or not. It is only by the grace of God that any man escapes being a Tory long before that. What is of interest to us is his attitude in the days of his vitality, not of his senility. In regard to this, I agree that it would be grossly unfair to accuse him of apostasy, simply because he at first hailed the French Revolution as the return of the Golden Age—
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
—and ten or fifteen years later was to. be found gloomily prophesying against a premature peace with Napoleon. One cannot be sure that, if one had been living in those days oneself, one's faith in the Revolution would have survived the September massacres and Napoleon undiminished. Those who had at first believed that the reign of righteousness had suddenly come down from Heaven must have been shocked to find that human nature was still red in tooth and claw in the new era. Not that the massacres immediately alienated Words-worth. In the year following them he wrote in defence of the French Revolution, and incidentally apologized for the execution of King Louis. " If you had attended," he wrote in his unpublished Apology for the French Revolution in 1793, " to the history of the French Revolution as minutely as its importance demands, so far from stopping to bewail his death, you would rather have regretted that the blind fondness of his people had placed a human being in that monstrous situation which rendered him unaccountable before a human tribunal." In The Prelude, too (which, it will be remembered, though it was written early, Wordsworth left to be published after his death), we are given a perfect answer to those who would condemn the French Revolution, or any similar uprising, on account of its incidental horrors
When a taunt
Mr. Dicey insists that Wordsworth's attitude in regard to the horrors of September proves " the statesman-like calmness and firmness of his judgment." Words-worth was hardly calm, but he remained on the side of France with sufficiently firm enthusiasm to pray for the defeat of his own countrymen in the war of 1793. He describes, in The Prelude, how he felt at the time in an English country church: ---
When, in the congregation bending all
The faith that survived the massacres, however, could not survive Napoleon. Henceforth Wordsworth began to write against France in the name of Nationalism and Liberty.
He now becomes a political thinker—a great political thinker, in the judgment of Mr. Dicey. He sets forth a political philosophy—the philosophy of Nationalism. He grasped the first principle of Nationalism firmly, which' is, that nations should be self-governed, even if they are governed badly. He saw that the nation which is oppressed from within is in a far more hopeful condition than the nation which is oppressed from without. In his Tract he wrote : ---
The difference between inbred oppression and that which is from without [i.e. imposed by foreigners] is essential ; inasmuch as the former does not exclude, from the minds of the people, the feeling of being self-governed ; does not imply (as the latter does, when patiently submitted to) an abandonment of the first duty imposed by the faculty of reason.
And he went on:---
If a country have put on chains of its own forging ; in the name of virtue, let it be conscious that to itself it is accountable ; let it not have cause to look beyond its own limits for reproof : and —in the name of humanity—if it be self-depressed, let it have its pride and some hope within itself. The poorest peasant, in an unsubdued land, feels this pride. I do not appeal to the example of Britain or of Switzerland, for the one is free, and the other lately was free (and, I trust, will ere long be so again) : but talk with the Swede ; and you will see the joy he finds in these sensations. With him animal courage (the substitute for many and the friend of all the manly virtues) has space to move in : and is at once elevated by his imagination, and softened by his affections : it is invigorated also ; for the whole courage of his country is in his breast.
That is an admirable statement of the Liberal faith. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was putting the same truth in a sentence when he said that good government was no substitute for self-government. Wordsworth, however, was not an out-and-out Nationalist. He did not regard the principles of Nationalism' as applicable to all nations alike, small and great. He believed in the " balance of power," in which " the smaller states must disappear, and merge in the large nations of widespread language." He desired national unity for Germany and for Italy (which was in accordance with the principles of Nationalism), but he also blessed the union of Ireland with Great Britain (which was a violation of the principles of Nationalism). He introduced " certain limitations," indeed, into the Nationalist creed, which enable even an Imperialist like Mr. Dicey to look like a kind of Nationalist.
At the same time, though he acquiesced in the dis honour of the Irish Union, his patriotism never became perverted into Jingoism. He regarded the war between England and France, not as a war between angel and devil, but as a war between one sinner doing his best and another sinner doing his worst. He was gloomy as a Hebrew prophet in his summoning of England to a change of heart in a sonnet written in 1803 :
England ! the time is come when thou shouldst wean
All this means merely that the older Wordsworth grew, the more he became concerned with the duties rather than the rights of man. The revolutionary creed seems at times to involve the belief that, if you give men their rights, they will perform their duties as a necessary consequence. The Conservative creed, on the other hand, appears to be based on the theory that men, as a whole, are scarcely fit for rights but must be kept to their duties with a strong hand. Neither belief is entirely true. As Mazzini saw, the French Revolution failed because it emphasized the rights so disproportionately in comparison with the duties of man. Conservatism fails, on the other hand, because its conception of duty inevitably ceases before long to be an ethical conception : duty in the mouth of reactionaries usually means simply obedience to one's " betters." The melancholy sort of moralist frequently hardens into a reactionary of this sort. Burke and Carlyle and Ruskin—all of them blasphemed the spirit of liberty in the name of duty. Mr. Dicey contends that Burke's and Wordsworth's political principles remained essentially consistent throughout. They assuredly did nothing of the sort. Burke's principles during the American War and his principles at the time of the French Revolution were divided from each other like crabbed age and youth. Burke lost his beliefs as he did his youth. And so did Wordsworth. It seems to me rather a waste of time to insist at all costs on the consistency of great men. The great question is, not whether they were consistent, but when they were right. Wordsworth was in the main right in his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and he was in the main right in his hatred of Napoleonism. But, when once the Napoleonic Wars were over, he had no creed left for mankind. He lived on till 185o, but he ceased to be able to say anything that had the ancient inspiration. He was at his greatest an inspired child of the Revolution. He learned from France that love of liberty which afterwards led him to oppose France. Speaking of those who, like himself, had changed in their feelings towards France, he wrote : --
Though there was a shifting in temper of hostility in their minds as far as regarded persons, they only combated the same enemy opposed to them under a different shape ; and that enemy was the spirit of selfish tyranny and lawless ambition.
That is a just defence. But the undeniable fact is that, after that time, Wordsworth ceased to combat the spirit of selfish tyranny and lawless ambition as he once had done. There is no need to blame hire : also there is no need to defend him. He was human ; he was tired ; he was growing old. The chief danger of a book like Mr. Dicey's is that, in accepting its defence of Wordsworth's maturity, we may come to disparage his splendid youth. Mr. Dicey's book, however, is exceedingly interesting in calling attention to the great part politics may play in the life of a poet. Wordsworth said, in 1833, that " although he was known to the world only as a poet, he had given twelve hours' thought to the condition and prospects of society, for one to poetry." He did not retire into a " wise passiveness " as regards the world's affairs until he had written some of the greatest political literature—and, in saying this, I am thinking of his sonnets rather than of his political prose—that has appeared in England since the death of Milton.
Old And New Masters:
Dostoevsky The Sensationalist
Jane Austen - Natural Historian
Mr. G. K. Chesterton And Mr. Hilaire Belloc
Browning - The Poet Of Love
The Fame Of J. M. Synge
Villon - The Genius Of The Tavern
Read More Articles About: Old And New Masters