Page images
PDF
EPUB

body of criticism on his own work.

He was

a critic almost as soon as he was a poet, and his theory of poetry is inextricably entangled with his practice of it. We know that he professed a method peculiar to himself, and that his judgments passed on his own writings are at many points in violent conflict with the judgments of his contemporaries and of later critics. Of Tennyson

he said, "He is not much in sympathy with what I should myself most value in my attempts, viz. the spirituality with which I have endeavoured to invest the material universe, and the moral relations under which I have wished to exhibit its most ordinary appearances." When advised to add a stanza to the Idiot Boy-that great rock of offence in the canon of his works-he excused himself because "the narration of the poem is so rapid and impassioned that I could not find a place in which to insert the stanza without checking the progress of it, and so leaving a deadness upon the feeling." And to many utterances like this must be added the convincing testimony that Wordsworth was habitually unconscious of inequalities in his work, and took a keen delight in crooning over to himself his least admired compositions

Like a river murmuring

And talking to itself when all things else
Were still.

Finally, we know that this poet, who held himself to be not as other poets are, who obstinately followed a way of his own, and, so far from guarding his secret, explained it, at great length and with much iteration, to the world at large, does actually at times awaken in the breasts of the most judicial of his readers a new sensation, a passing suspicion, at least, of untried possibilities in the scope and power of the poetic art. he constantly professes he does sometimes achieve. Are not his professions and his method worthy of the closest examination even where he seems to have failed?

What

Impatient critics, hungry for an end of the cause, have suggested a solution of the problem. They feel a certain difficulty in explaining the amazing inequality of Wordsworth's poetry. If they were quite consistent they would not attempt to explain it, but would frankly assert that it is no part of the business of a selective and judicial criticism to show how bad poems come to be written. Yet in case the question should be pressed they are ready with an answer. There were two Wordsworths. They were born on the same day, lived the same life, and wrote with the same pen. Some of the poems belong wholly to the one, some wholly to the other. More usually the partners collaborated, taking turns with the pen until the poem was complete. And the

difference between them was simply this, that the less loquacious of the two was inspired, and there is an end of the matter. So the selective and judicial method of criticism receives the stamp of divinity. The poet is no longer a man speaking to men, but a reed through which a god fitfully blows.

Any effort to understand Wordsworth, to sympathise with his aims and achievements, to look the way that he is pointing, and to accompany him on his journey, must take account of the man as a single-minded and single-hearted person, expressing himself in all his works. A criticism of a poet that omits all reference to his failures is as futile a thing as a biography of a great soldier that passes in silence over his defeats. Indeed it is from the defeats that most may commonly be learned, for there the same genius and boldness that lead to victory are seen over-reaching themselves, planning too ambitiously, trusting too superbly, until at the crisis and height they are broken by their own excess. Of Wordsworth in particular it is hardly true to say that his strength and his weakness are closely knit up together; rather they are the same; his strength at its best is weakness made perfect, his weakness is the wasteful ebullition of his strength. It may be just and necessary to pronounce some of his poems childish, and others dull or silly; it cannot

be right to neglect them on that account, if we remember that the teachers whom he most reverenced, and from whom he learned the best part of his lore, were children, rustics, men of simple habits and slow wits. For the right understanding of his poems, he insisted, a reader must put off the pride that dwells by preference upon "those points wherein men differ from each other, to the exclusion of those in which all men are alike or the same."Yet, more than the poems of others, his poems have been made the exercising ground for gymnastic displays of vanity and cleverness.

Among profitless critics of Wordsworth, Francis Jeffrey deserves his established pre-eminence. It is not that he was either foolish or stupid. He was a shrewd lawyer, a forcible writer, a man of wide taste and sound judgment, so that he is a more than respectable type and embodiment of the bad critic that lies hidden in the breasts of all men. There is nothing wrong with his criticism except the point of view. Like all bad critics, he loved to consider his seat as a tribunal, and himself as a judge. His business, as he understood it, was to know the law and to administer it without fear or favour. To Wordsworth's plea that his work was tentative, novel, exploratory of untried recesses of the human mind, he turned a deaf ear. Every sensible man, he says in effect, knows quite well what a poet is about when he attempts a poem on

a particular subject. "A village schoolmaster, for instance, is a pretty common poetical character. Goldsmith has drawn him inimitably; so has Shenstone, with the slight change of sex; and Mr. Crabbe, in two passages, has followed their footsteps. But by what traits is this worthy old gentleman delineated by the new poet? No pedantry -no innocent vanity of learning—no mixture of indulgence with the pride of power, and of and of poverty with the consciousness of rare acquirements. Every feature which belongs to the situation, or marks the character in common apprehension, is scornfully discarded by Mr. Wordsworth." The only question that remains to consider is whether the accused, in these his "wide and wilful aberrations from "that eternal and universal standard of truth and nature, which every one is knowing enough to recognise," was acting in good faith, and really attempting to write a poem. He receives the benefit of the doubt, and, in mitigation of the sentence, the plea of temporary insanity, and that alone, is favourably entertained. From first to last there is no recognition of poetry as thought, as fulfilling in some sense the definition that Davenant gave to wit-" a new and remoter way of thinking."

[ocr errors]

Jeffrey must very early have given up the attempt to enter into those peculiarities in the mind of the author which cannot, as he admitted,

« PreviousContinue »