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the simple forces of expression, in contrast to the more ornate
He had an eye to see these elements, where, I will not say no one had seen or felt them, but where no one appears to have recognised that they had seen or felt them. He saw that the familiar scene of human life,-nature, as affecting human life and feeling, and man, as the fellow creature of nature, but also separate and beyond it in faculties and destiny-had not yet rendered up even to the mightiest of former poets all that they had in them to touch the human heart. And he accepted it as his mission to open the eyes and widen the thoughts of his countrymen, and to teach them to discern in the humblest and most unexpected forms the presence of what was kindred to what they had long recognised as the highest and greatest.
Wordsworth's poetry was not only a powerful but a conscious and systematic appeal to that craving for deep truth and reality which had been gathering way ever since the French Revolution so terribly tore asunder the old veils of conventionality and custom. Truth is a necessary element in all good poetry, and there had been good poetry in the century before Wordsworth. But in Wordsworth the moral judgement and purpose of the man were joined to the poet's instinct and art ; and he did, as the most sacred and natural of duties, what he would anyhow have done from taste and for his pleasure. When that inflexible loyalty to truth which was the prime condition of all his writings-not mere literal truth, but the truth which could only be reached by thought and imagination,when this had been taken in, it was soon seen what an amazing view it opened of the new riches and wonders of the world, a scene of discovery which Wordsworth was far from exhausting. It was a contrast, startling all and baffling many, to the way in which, since Shakespeare and Milton, poetry had been content to skim the surface of the vast awful tracts of life and nature, dealing with their certainties and riddles, with their beauty and their terror, under the guidance of sentiments put on for the most part like a stage dress, and in language which seemed not to belong to the world which we know. Thomson, Gray, and Burns, Wordsworth's immediate predecessors, had discovered, but only partially, the extent and significance of the faith which Wordsworth accepted and proclaimed in its length and breadth and height and depth, that Truth, in its infinite but ever self-consistent forms, is the first law of poetry.
From his time, the eyes of readers, and the eyes of writers, have been opened ; and whatever judgement they may
pass on his own poetry or his theories, they have followed both as critics and as composers, in the path which he opened.
Hence his selection of subjects. He began with nature, as in the Evening Walk, and the Descriptive Sketches. He had early and well learned his lesson of nature-learned to watch and note in her that to which other eyes were blind of expression and novelty in common sights. A habit was formed of indefatigable observation, like that which was the basis of Turner's power. And to a mind thus trained the scenes through which he passed, and among which his life was spent, furnished never-cloying food. His continental journeys left deep impressions upon him ; these impressions were answered by those of his home. The power of hills was on him'; the music of waters was in his ears ; light and darkness wove their spells for him. Looking to the same end as Turner, and working in the same spirit, he, with Turner, was a discoverer in the open face of nature: working apart from one another, these two mighty ‘Lords of the eye, seized and grasped what had always been visible yet never seen, and gave their countrymen capacities of perception and delight hardly yet granted to others. But as his mind grew, Nature, great as was her power, 'fell back into a second place, and became important to him chiefly as the stage of man's action, and allied with his ideas, his passions and affections. And Man was interesting to him only in his essential nature, only as man. History had little value for him, except as it revealed character : and character had no interest unless, besides power or splendour, it had in it what appealed to human sympathies or human indulgence. For a Napoleon, with all his magnificence, he had nothing but loathing. Where he found truth, noble and affecting,—not bare literal fact, but reality informed and aglow with the ideas and forms of the imagination, and so raised by it to the power of an object of our spiritual nature,-he recognised no differences of high and low. In the same way as he saw greatness in the ideal histories of Venice and Switzerland, and in the legends of Rome, even if they were fictions, so he saw greatness, the greatness of human affections and of the primary elements of human character, in the fortunes and the sufferings of Michael and the Leech gatherer. He was very bold for his time, and took all consequences, which were severe enough, when he insisted that the whole range of the beautiful, the pathetic, the tragic, the heroic, were to be found in common lowly life, as truly as in the epic and the drama,
or in the grand legends of national history; when he proclaimed that
Verse may build a princely throne
On humble truth.' He claimed for Lucy Gray, for the 'miserable mother by the Thorn,' for the desolate maniac nursing her infant, the same pity which we give to Lear and Cordelia or to the dark sorrows of the line of Thebes. Not in play but in deepest earnest he dwelt on the awfulness, the wonder, the sacredness of childhood : it furnished in his hands the subject, not only of touching ballads, but of one of the most magnificent lyrical poems--the ode on Immortality. He was convinced that if people would but think and be fair with themselves, they would not merely be moved by humble tragedies, like Michael and the Brothers, but would feel that there was as much worthy of a poet's serious art in the agonies of the mother of the Idiot Boy, and the terrors of Peter Bell, as in the majestic pains' of Laodamia and Dion. He has summed up his poetical doctrine with all his earnest solemnity in the thirteenth book of the Prelude :
• Here might I pause, and bend in reverence
And miserable love, that is not pain
Nature for all conditions wants not power
All this doctrine was strange to his age; it has ceased to be so to
In various ways and with varying merit, Thackeray and Dickens and George Eliot, and a crowd of writers, poets and novelists, have searched out the motifs of the highest poetry in the humblest lives, and have taught the lesson that the real greatness and littleness of human life are not to be measured by the standards of fashion and pride. What made Wordsworth different from other popular poets, and made him great, was a puzzle and a paradox at first in his own time ; it is but a commonplace in ours. “It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought : the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying, the objects observed ; and, above all, the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world, around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops. To find no contradiction in the union of old and new; to contemplate the Ancient of Days and all His works with feelings as fresh as if all had then sprung forth at the first creative fiat ; characterises the mind that feels the riddle of the world, and may help to unravel it. To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years have made familiar :
“ With sun and moon and stars throughout the year,
And man and woman this is the character and privilege of genius.' (Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, c. iv.).
Thus his range of materials was very large ; his extensive scale of interests gave him great variety : like his own skylark, he soars to the heavens, and drops into a lowly nest ; and as the wing sometimes flags, and the eye is wearied, he was unequal, and there was sometimes want of proportion in his subject and his treatment of it. But his principles of treatment, though he was not altogether happy in his exposition of them, were in accordance with his general idea of poetry. 'I have at all times,' he says, 'endeavoured to look steadily at my subject.' Where he succeeded-and no man can always in thought and imagination see what he wants to see—there was the fire and energy and life of truth, stamping all his words, governing his music and his movement, his flow or his rush. There is always the aim, the scrupulous, fastidious aim, at direct expression-at beautiful, suggestive, forcible, original expression : but first of all at direct expression. This he called, somewhat oddly, restricting himself to the language of common life, in opposition to so-styled 'poetic diction.' Happily he was inconsistent with his own theory. He showed with Burns how far deep down the pathetic and the tender go in common life, and how its language can be made by cunning artists to minister to their expression : but there are regions in poetry of glory and nobleness and splendour where Burns never came, and there Wordsworth showed that he was master of a richer and subtler wealth of words than common life supplies. But in his most fiery moments of inspiration and enthusiasm he never allowed himself to relax his hold on reality and truth : as he would scorn to express in poetry any word or feeling which was not genuine and natural, any sentiment or impulse short of or beyond the actual impression which caused them, so with the most jealous strictness he measured his words. He gave them their full swing if they answered to force and passion ; but he watched them all the same, with tender but manly severity. Hence with his power and richness of imagination, and his full command over all the resources of voice and ear, an austere purity and plainness and nobleness marked all that he wrote, and formed a combination as distinct as it was uncommon.