English Literature Of The 19th Century:
First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Two chief branches of the Romantic school of poetry which characterized the opening of this century, have been treated in brief outline the first, comprising Scott, Byron, and Moore; the second, containing Shelley, Keats, and Leigh Hunt. It may be noted that the last of each group has gradually fallen in public estimation from the high rank once accorded to him, and might even be omitted without serious loss to literature, though the truth of history justifies his retention. The same is the case with the third class which remains to be mentioned comprising Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey often classed as the Lake School of Poetry, from their residence among the English lakes, and from some agreement in treating the aspects of nature. These writers really began to publish at an earlier date than some of those who have already been described, but they were slower in obtaining adequate recognition, and as regards fame they followed the others, though eventually they overtook and distanced them.
William Wordsworth was the chief leader in the movement which changed the direction of English poetry. In the Eighteenth Century a new love of nature had sprung up, which is exemplified in the works of Thomson and Cowper, but it hardly dared assert antagonism to the artificial poetry, inculcated by the precept and example of Pope. Then suddenly the peasant Burns stirred the hearts of the Scottish people with songs of love and patriotism and human equality. These lyrics, though in a rude, difficult dialect, reached the English stirred by the revolutionary spirit. Poets, who had been imitating old ballads, now began to discard rigid rules as worth-less and stiff diction as cumbersome. Wordsworth deliberately attacked the artificial correctness of Pope, and demanded the expression of primal truth in natural manner. In his early utterances he was carried too far by his theory, but he finally brought his poetic phrase into harmony with his elevated sentiment.
William Wordsworth was born in 177o in the County of Cumberland, where his ancestors had held land for centuries; to this perhaps was due his strong susceptibility for the beauty of nature. He was educated at Cambridge and traveled in France in 1791, when young men were filled with hope that the world was being made anew. Of this time he wrote long afterward :
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But lack of money compelled him to return, and for three years his prospects were uncertain. Then a legacy from a friend enabled him to pursue his natural bent. With his sister Dorothy he took a simple cottage and resolved to dedicate himself to poetry. Ile had already published two ventures, when he came in contact with the persuasive and stimulating Coleridge. The two poets published "The Lyrical Ballads" in 1798, to exemplify their theory of poetry. In the preface to the second edition (1800) Wordsworth declared that true poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Its language is therefore the simple, direct utterance of the heart. Its proper subjects are not strong passions, revenge, ambition, unbridled love, but the tranquil virtues, the development of the affections, and the effort of the soul to unite itself with God. In his "Lyrical Ballads," Wordsworth gave weight and dignity to themes, which the "Edinburgh Review" condemned as trivial and vulgar. But the self-centred poet was not to be swerved by the judgments of critics; he moved calmly on, composing his meditative and reflective poems on simple incidents of life, yet rising at times to lofty and impassioned utterances on the Divinity which he beheld in nature. He regarded external nature as a conscious expression of the Divine nature. His tendency was to a mysterious, sublime pantheism, but it was held in check by his pro-found belief in the Christian revelation.
Wordsworth lived from 1813 at Rydal Mount, sustained in steadfast devotion to his lofty purpose by the cheerful companionship of his sister Dorothy and his wife. His poems were received with ridicule and pro-test by nearly all the critics, yet gradually the tide turned; Oxford bestowed on him the degree of D.C.L. in 1839, and Sir Robert Peel made him poet laureate in 1843. He died in 1850 at the age of fourscore. English public opinion had come to recognize him as a poet of the second rank, above Pope and Dryden, Thomson and Cowper, and almost on a level with Milton. The drawback to his fame is that much of what he wrote is dull and unworthy, and that his theory of poetic diction spoiled his utterance, owing to his lack of humor. In his later work he discarded the extreme simplicity and puerility which offended the early critics.
His great merit lies in his power of delineating nature, and the poetic force which his tendency to pantheism adds to this gift. He is also successful in noble lines, which record his feeling at special times and places. In his "Tintern Abbey" and "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Childhood," he rose to sublime heights, even above the limit reached in other valuable work. His longest poem, "The Excursion," is but a fragment of a projected epic, in which a Scotch pedlar, a clergyman, and a disappointed visionary discuss fundamental questions concerning God and man, the problems of human life and duties. "The Prelude," which was intended as an introduction to this, was published after the author's death. Wordsworth took up the sonnet, which had been long neglected by English poets, and gave it new vogue. Some of his examples, as "Westminster Bridge" and "The World Is Too Much with Us," rank among the best specimens in English literature.