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I cannot believe that such a man can have nothing to say which it can be desirable should be heard by his fellow men.
There is another class, however, to whom such a subject will seem superfluous; for the general opinion about Wordsworth is exceedingly superficial. To the mass of the public all that is known of Wordsworth is a conception something like this: They have heard of an old man who lived somewhere in the Lake districts, who raved considerably of Lake scenery, who wrote a large number of small poems, all of them innocent, many of them puerile and much laughed at, at the time they appeared, by clever men; that they were lashed in the reviews, and annihilated by Lord Byron, as, for instance, in those well-known lines
“A drowsy, frowsy poem, called the Excursion,
Writ in a manner which is my aversion;"
and that he was guilty of a vast mass of other verses, all exceedingly innocent, and at the same time exceedingly dull and heavy. It is this class of persons whom I ask on the present occasion to listen quietly to the first subject I have to bring before them-the qualifications necessary for appreciating poetry in general and Wordsworth's poetry in particular.
Now, the first qualification I shall speak of as
necessary for appreciating poetry is unworldliness. Let us understand the term employed. By worldliness, I mean entanglement in the temporal and visible. It is the spirit of worldliness which makes a man love show, splendour, rank, title, and sensual enjoyments; and occupies his attention, chiefly or entirely, with conversations respecting merely passing events, and passing acquaintances. I know not that I could give a more distinct idea of what I mean by unworldliness, than by relating an anecdote of a boy of rare genius, inheriting genius from both parents, who, when he began the study of mathematics, was impressed with so strange and solemn a sense of awe, that never before, he said, had he been able to comprehend the existence of the Eternal. It is not difficult to understand what the boy meant. Mathematics contain truths entirely independent of Time and Space; they tell of relations which have no connection, necessarily, with weight or quality; they deal with the eternal principles and laws of the mind; and it is certain, that these laws are more real and eternal than any thing which can be seen or felt. This is what I mean by unworldliness: I am not speaking of it as a theologian, or as a religionist, but I am speaking of unworldliness in that sense, of which it is true of all science and high art, as well as of Nature.
For all high art is essentially unworldliness, and the highest artists have been unworldly in aim, and unworldly in life.
Let us compare the life of Benvenuto Cellini. I name him, because there has been given recently to the public a life of him in a popular form. Let us compare his life with the life of Raphael, or Michael Angelo, or Beethoven, or Canova. You will be struck with this difference, that in Benvenuto Cellini there was an entire absence of any thing like aspiration beyond the Visible and the Seen; but in the life of the others there was the strong and perpetual conviction that the things seen were the things unreal, and that the things unseen were the things real; there was the perpetual desire to realize in a visible form, that beauty which the eye had not seen nor the ear heard, nor which it had ever entered into the heart of man to conceive. I will here quote one single passage in illustration of this; it is a translation by Wordsworth himself, from one of the sonnets of Michael Angelo: it is simply an illustration of what I have said:
"Heaven-born, the soul a heavenward course must hold; Beyond the visible world she soars to seek
(For what delights the sense is false and weak)
Ideal form, the universal mould.
The wise man, I affirm, can find no rest
In that which perishes; nor will he lend
His heart to aught which doth on time depend.”
This is a view of high art: and in this respect poetry, like high art, and like religion, introduces its votaries into a world of which the senses take no cognizance; therefore I now maintain that until a man's eyes have been clarified by that power which enables him to look beyond the visible; until
“He from thick films shall purge the visual ray,
poetry-high poetry, like Wordsworth's--is simply and merely unintelligible.
I will give two or three illustrations of the way in which Wordsworth himself looked on this subject. The first is in reference to the power which there is in splendour and in riches to unfit the mind for the contemplation of invisible and spiritual truths. The sonnet I am about to read was written in September, 1802, the period during which the chief part of the poems I shall read this evening were written. I believe it was written to Coleridge.
“Oh! friend, I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, opprest
To think that now our life is only drest
For show; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom!—We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
The connection of these two things is what I wish to fasten your attention upon
"The wealthiest man among us is the best,"
that being the spirit of society, then
"No grandeur now in nature or in book
The second illustration is in reference to what is called scandal or gossip. According to Wordsworth, this is the highest manifestation of a worldly spirit. What is it but conversations respecting passing events or passing acquaintances, unappreciated and unelevated by high principle? Wordsworth has written four sonnets, worthy of deep study, on this subject. After stating the matter in the first of these, in the second he supposes a possible defence against this habit of general conversation respecting others, derisively.
"Yet life,' you say, 'is life; we have seen and see And with a lively pleasure we describe;
And fits of sprightly malice do but bribe
The languid mind into activity.
Sound sense, and love itself, and mirth and glee,
Are fostered by the comment and the gibe.' ”