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ART. III.-WORDSWORTH'S POETRY.
The fashions of this world change; what our fathers bent before we hoot at, and him to whom we bow down, our sons will cast the clod upon and forget.
Fifteen years since, the world, following that poor school of critics of which Francis Jeffrey walked foremost, laughed at the baby-rhymes of William Wordsworth; now, that same world says that Milton trembles on his throne. In 1822 even, we find the later works of Wordsworth to be in the opinion of the Edinburgh reviewers, "a sort of prosy, solemn, obscure, feeble kind of mouthing, sadly garnished with words and phrases from Milton and the Bible,—but without nature, and without passion, and with a plentiful lack of meaning, compensated only by a large allowance of affectation and egotism.”_"The great characteristics of his sonnets is a sort of emphatic inanity; a singular barrenness and feebleness of thought, disguised under a sententious and assuming manner, and a style beyond example, verbose and obscure.” In 1835, the tones of this poor egotist swell from Ganges to Missouri, not in the tempest-tones that Byron breathed, but in the small, still voice which alike marks the God, and the servant of Truth. As Coleridge has said of Milton, he strode so far before the men of that day, as to dwarf himself by the distance; but his giant proportions are now seen.
We love and revere Wordsworth, however, not so much because a great poet, as because a great Christian Philosopher. His words to us compare with those of Milton and Southey, as the deep, human poetry of the
Gospels does, with the superhuman verse of Job and the Prophets;-we love them as poetry in the highest, divinest sense,—that which speaks of God in us. Seeking as we would to be filled with the beauty of the world without us, and seeing the marks of His hand everywhere; knowing as we do, that in man's passion and action God indeed is;-yet do we turn with joy to the Love, the Faith, the Humility of Christ, and find there a truer, a holier, and more poetic strain, than ever the muse of Greece, or the Prophets of Israel gave birth to. We know that He gave "the goodly wings unto the peacocks, and wings and feathers unto the ostrich:” that she hawk fieth by His wisdom, and stretcheth her wings toward the South: and that the eagle mounteth up at His command, and maketh her nest on high:” but we also know that He "tempereth the wind to the shorn lamb."
In like manner our heart leaps up as we glide with Thalaba over the desert, and now
“Oh joy! the signs of life appear,
The first and single fir
Strikes in the ice its roots.
Another and another now;
Light as a lady's plumes.-
The traveller's sledge, in hope of food;
The throstle of sweet song;
And here the lovely flowers!”
And oft, with swimming eyes, have we sat by the Destroyer while
“Through pleasant banks the quiet brook
Went winding pleasantly;
And now through alder-shores;
It silently ran by.--
The willow-tresses waved,
The water-lily's floating leaf;
Fell, sporting, down its course.
The murmur round the prow.”
But beautiful as these word-paintings are, perfectly as they
picture nature, and through nature, God, they do not touch the heart as do the despised lines of Wordsworth,
“Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
Enjoys the air it breathes.
To catch the breezy air;
That there was pleasure there.”
It is the spirit which whispered these simple, and, to many it may be unmeaning lines, that we bow to in the Poet of Rydal Mount; we see in that spirit a portion of the same greatness which marked Him who said that a sparrow “shall not fall on the ground without your Father.”
It is, in truth, the Christianity, the love, faith, and humility which fills all the better of Wordsworth's poems, that makes him great. His taste is often bad, and his work imperfect; but through the plaiņest and meanest robe shines the strong light of goodness, and we forget the garment.
Why have Wordsworth's poems been so unpopular? We believe mainly from two causes; one, their subdued, unworldly, and religious tone, which few can compass, and fewer look on as Poetry;— The other, their fulness of meaning, requiring them to be read with thought deep and continued. The poetry of Scott and Byron deals mainly with human passion in its unbridled, unchastened form; and needs but a little attention to be understood;—and those two men did more than all others to form the taste of the race of readers which till of late was the strong one. The tide is now turning; those that read poetry now, are becoming willing to think as they read; to read that they may learn; to dwell on other feelings than Human love, hatred, and revenge. It is no longer a mystery
Is in its infancy." There are those now that can lead forth their children in spring, and teach them that
“One moment now may give us more
Than fifty years of reason;
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.
Which they shall long obey;
Our temper from to-day.
And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
They shall be tuned to love."
There are even those that believe
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
And cometh from afar:
And not in utter nakedness,
From God who is our home.
Upon the growing boy,
He sees it in his joy;
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
The sonnets, so noted for “barrenness and feebleness of meaning,” are now read and re-read by thousands; some of whom think there is more than “an emphatic inanity" in them:
- they see sense, point and truth, for instance, in that on Alfred,
“Behold a pupil of the monkish gown,
Though small his kingdom as a spark or gem,
That on Papal dominion too, they think more striking for close thought, and strong language, than for “a style beyond example verbose and obscure."
“Unless to Peter's chair the viewless wind
But will Wordsworth's writings ever be popular? In the true sense of the term, never. The multitude will never read them from choice, and they never will be very fashionable. But they will be read and reaped by other writers, and their excellencies brought forward, and thrown into the arteries of literature. Many whose ideas do wonders with public taste, are themselves unknown to the public, magazines and newspaper writers serve as pipes to give their thoughts to the thirsty world, which feasts, on it knows not whose conceptions. Wordsworth will not be popular for the same reason that Milton, Spenser, and Shakspeare are not. The works of the two first few dwell upon, and of the latter the mass relish only the coarse and least poetic fibres; a thousand enjoy Bardolph and Falstaff to one that, in sober love, hangs over Hamlet and Lear.
But though to "the reading public," which Coleridge so derides in his Statesman's Manual, the calm oracles from Rydal Mount will be riddles, to the thinking public they will be full of sweetness and wisdom. Although without Dramatic power, unable to paint strong passion, or the quick and varied action of an epic, the quiet and truly Christian tone of Wordsworth's lyre, will bring to his feet many a devotee. It is useless to ridicule his language, his style, or his sentiments, for those that know him, look not at words, and lines, and phrases, but