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easy to praise Shakespeare in one short sentence more felicitously. And when a foreigner and a Frenchman writes thus of Shakespeare, and when Goethe says of Milton, in whom there was so much to repel Goethe rather than to attract him, that "nothing has been ever done so entirely in the sense of the Greeks as 'Samson Agonistes,'" and that "Milton is in very truth a poet whom we must treat with all respect," then we understand what constitutes a European recognition of poets and poetry as contradistinguished from a merely national recognition, and that in favor both of Milton and of Shakespeare the judgment of the high court of appeal has finally gone.
Or, again, judgment may go the other way. Byron has had an immense reputation, not in England only, but on the Continent. M. Taine, in his history of English literature, takes Byron as seriously as he takes Shakespeare. Byron is the supreme and incomparable expression of the English genius after eight centuries of preparation; he is the one single contemporary author who has atteint à la cime, “reached the summit"; "Manfred" is the twin brother of "Faust." But then M. Scherer strikes in with his words of truth and soberness. Remarking that "Byron is one of our French superstitions," he points out how Byron's talent is oratorical rather than poetical; he points out how to high and serious art, art impersonal and disinterested, Byron never could rise; and how the man in Byron, finally, is even less sincere than the poet. And by this we may perceive that we have not in Byron what we have in Milton and Shakespeare-a poetical reputation which time and the authentic judgment of mankind will certainly accept and consecrate.
So excellent a writer and critic as M. Rénan sees in M. Victor Hugo a "beloved and illustrious master, whose voice has throughout our century struck the hour for us." Of these "strikings of the hour" by the voice of M. Victor Hugo, none certainly was more resonant, none was hailed with more passionate applause by his friends than "Hernani." It is called for again, made to strike over again; we have the privilege of hearing it strike in London. And still there is no lack of applause to this work of a talent “combining," says Théophile Gautier, "the qualities of Corneille and of Shakespeare." But I open by chance a little volume, the conversations of Goethe with the Chancellor von Müller. There I come upon this short sentence: "Goethe said, 'Hernani' was an absurd composition." Hernani sez eine absurde Composition. So speaks this great foreign witness; a German, certainly, but a German favorable to French literature, and to France, "to which," said he, "I owe so much of my culture"! So speaks Goethe, the critic who, above all others, may count as European, and whose
judgment on the value of a work of modern poetry is the judgment which will, we may be almost sure, at last prevail generally.
I come back to M. Rénan's praise of glory from which I started. Yes, real glory is a most serious thing, glory authenticated by the Amphictyonic Court of final appeal, definitive glory. And even for poets and poetry, long and difficult as may be the process of arriving at the right award, the right award comes at last, the definitive glory rests where it is deserved. Every establishment of such a real glory is good and wholesome for mankind at large, good and wholesome for the nation which produced the poet crowned with it. To the poet himself it can seldom do harm; for he, poor man, is in his grave, probably, long before his glory crowns him.
Wordsworth has been in his grave for some thirty years, and certainly his lovers and admirers can not flatter themselves that this great and steady light of glory as yet shines over him. He is not fully recognized at home; he is not recognized at all abroad. Yet I firmly believe that the poetical performance of Wordsworth is, after that of Shakespeare and Milton, of which all the world now recognizes the worth, undoubtedly the most considerable in our language from the Elizabethan age to the present time. Chaucer is anterior; and on other grounds, too, he can not well be brought into the comparison. But taking the roll of our chief poetical names, besides Shakespeare and Milton, from the age of Elizabeth downward, and going through itSpenser, Dryden, Pope, Gray, Goldsmith, Cowper, Burns, Coleridge, Campbell, Moore, Byron, Shelley, Keats (I mention those only who are dead) I think it certain that Wordsworth's name deserves to stand, and will finally stand above them all. Several of the poets named have gifts and excellences which Wordsworth has not. But, taking the performance of each as a whole, I say that Wordsworth seems to me to have left a body of poetical work superior in power, in interest, in the qualities which give enduring freshness, to that which any one of the others has left.
But this is not enough to say. I think it certain, further, that if we take the chief poetical names of the Continent since the death of Molière, and, omitting Goethe, confront the remaining names with that of Wordsworth, the result is the same. Let us take Klopstock, Lessing, Schiller, Uhland, Rückert, and Heine for Germany; Filicaia, Alfieri, Manzoni, and Leopardi for Italy; Voltaire, André Chenier, Béranger, Lamartine, Musset, M. Victor Hugo (he has been so long celebrated that although he still lives I may be permitted to name him) for France. Several of these, again, have evidently gifts and
excellences to which Wordsworth can make no pretension. But in real poetical achievement it seems to me indubitable that to Wordsworth, here again, belongs the palm. It seems to me that Wordsworth has left behind him a body of poetical work which wears, and will wear, better on the whole than the performance of any one of these personages, so far more brilliant and celebrated, most of them, than the homely poet of Rydal. Wordsworth's performance in poetry is on the whole, in power, in interest, in the qualities which give enduring freshness, superior to theirs.
This is a high claim to make for Wordsworth; but if it is a just claim, if Wordsworth's place, among the poets who have appeared in the last two or three centuries, is after Shakespeare, Molière, Milton, Goethe, indeed, but before all the rest, then in time Wordsworth will have his due. We shall recognize him in his place, as we recognize Shakespeare and Milton; and not only we ourselves shall recognize him, but he will be recognized by Europe also. Meanwhile, those who recognize him already may do well, perhaps, to ask themselves whether there are not in the case of Wordsworth certain special obstacles which hinder or delay his due recognition by others, and whether these obstacles are not in some measure removable.
"The Excursion" and "The Prelude," his poems of greatest bulk, are by no means Wordsworth's best work. His best work is in his shorter pieces, and many indeed are there of these which are of first-rate excellence. But in his seven volumes the pieces of high merit are mingled with a mass of pieces very inferior to them-so inferior to them that it seems wonderful how the same poet should have produced both. Shakespeare frequently has lines and passages in a strain quite false, and which are entirely unworthy of him. But one can imagine his smiling if one could meet him in the Elysian Fields and tell him so-smiling and replying that he knew it perfectly well himself, and what did it matter? But with Wordsworth the case is different. Work altogether inferior, work quite uninspired, flat and dull, is produced by him with evident unconsciousness of its defects, and he presents it to us with the same faith and seriousness as his best work. Now, a drama or an epic fills the mind, and one does not look beyond it; but, in a collection of short pieces, the impression made by one piece requires to be continued and sustained by the piece following. In reading Wordsworth, the impression made by one of his fine pieces is constantly dulled and spoiled by a very inferior piece coming after it.
Wordsworth composed verses during a space of some sixty years; and it is not much of an
exaggeration to say that, within one single decade of those years, between 1798 and 1808, almost all his really first-rate work was produced. A mass of inferior work remains-work done before and after this golden prime, imbedding the first-rate work and clogging it, obstructing our approach to it, chilling the high-wrought mood with which we leave it. To be recognized far and wide as a great poet, to be possible and receivable as a classic, Wordsworth needs to be relieved of a great deal of the poetical baggage which now encumbers him. To administer this relief is indispensable, unless he is to continue to be a poet for the few only-a poet valued far below his real worth by the world.
There is another thing. Wordsworth classified his poems not according to any commonly received plan of arrangement, but according to a scheme of mental physiology. He has poems of the fancy, poems of the imagination, poems of sentiment and reflection, and so on. His categories are ingenious but far-fetched, and the result of his employment of them is unsatisfactory. Poems are separated one from another which possess a kinship of subject or of treatment far more vital and deep than the supposed unity of mental origin which was Wordsworth's reason for joining them with others.
The tact of the Greeks in matters of this kind was infallible. We may rely upon it that we shall not improve upon the classification adopted by the Greeks for kinds of poetry; that their categories of epic, dramatic, lyric, and so forth, have a natural propriety, and should be adhered to. It may sometimes seem doubtful to which of two categories a poem belongs-whether this or that poem is to be called, for instance, narrative or lyric, lyric or elegiac. But there is to be found in every good poem a strain, a predominant note, which determines the poem as belonging to one of these kinds rather than the other; and here is the best proof of the value of the classification and of the advantage of adhering to it. Wordsworth's poems will never produce their due effect until they are freed from their present artificial arrangement and grouped more naturally.
Naturally grouped and disengaged, moreover, from the quantity of inferior work which now obscures them, the best poems of Wordsworth, I hear many people say, would indeed stand out in great beauty, but they would prove to be very few in number, scarcely more than half a dozen. I maintain, on the other hand, that what strikes me with admiration, what establishes, in my opinion, Wordsworth's superiority, is the great and ample body of powerful work which remains of him after all his inferior work has been cleared away. He gives us so much to rest upon, so
much which communicates his spirit and engages remarked that "no nation has treated in poetry ours!
moral ideas with more energy and depth than This is of very great importance. If it were the English nation." And he adds, "There, it a comparison of single pieces, or of three or four seems to me, is the great merit of the English pieces, by each poet, I do not say that Words- poets." Voltaire does not mean, by “treating in worth would stand decisively above Gray, or poetry moral ideas," the composing moral and Burns, or Keats, or Manzoni, or Heine. It is in didactic poems-that brings us but a very little his ampler body of powerful work that I find his way in poetry. He means just the same thing as superiority. His good work, his work which was meant when I spoke above of "the noble counts, is not all of it, of course, of equal value. and profound application of ideas to life"; and Some kinds of poetry are in themselves lower he means the application of these ideas under kinds than others. The ballad kind is a lower the conditions fixed for us by the laws of poetic kind; the didactic kind, still more, is a lower beauty and poetic truth. If it is said that to call kind. Poetry of this latter sort counts, too, some- these ideas moral ideas is to introduce a strong times by its biographical interest partly, not by and injurious limitation, I answer that it is to do its poetical interest, pure and simple; but then nothing of the kind, because moral ideas are this can only be when the poet producing it has really so main a part of human life. The questhe power and importance of Wordsworth-a tion, how to live, is itself a moral idea; and it is power and importance which he assuredly did the question which most interests every man, and not establish by such didactic poetry alone. Al- with which, in some way or other, he is perpetutogether it is, I say, by the great body of power- ally occupied. A large sense is of course to be ful and significant work which remains to him, given to the term moral. Whatever bears upon after every reduction and deduction has been the question, “how to live," comes under it. made, that Wordsworth's superiority is proved.
To exhibit this body of Wordsworth's best work, to clear away obstructions from around it, and to let it speak for itself, is what every lover of Wordsworth should desire. Until this has been done, Wordsworth, whom we, to whom he is dear, all of us know and feel to be so great a poet, has not had a fair chance before the world. When once it has been done, he will make his way best not by our advocacy of him, but by his own worth and power. We may safely leave him to make his way thus, we who believe that superior worth and power in poetry find in mankind a sense responsive to it and disposed at last to recognize it. Yet at the outset, before he has been duly known and recognized, we may do Wordsworth a service, perhaps, by indicating in what his superior power and worth will be found to consist, and in what they will not.
Long ago, in speaking of Homer, I said that the noble and profound application of ideas to life is the most essential part of poetic greatness. I said that a great poet receives his distinctive character of superiority from his application, under the conditions immutably fixed by the laws of poetic beauty and poetic truth, from his application, I say, to his subject, whatever it may be, of the ideas
“On man, on nature, and on human life," which he has acquired for himself. The line quoted is Wordsworth's own; and his superiority arises from his powerful use, in his best pieces, his powerful application to his subject, of ideas on man, on nature, and on human life."
"Nor love thy life, nor hate; but, what thou liv'st,
Live well; how long or short, permit to Heaven." In those fine lines, Milton utters, as every one at once perceives, a moral idea. Yes, but so too, when Keats consoles the forward-bending lover on the Grecian Urn, the lover arrested and presented in immortal relief by the sculptor's hand before he can kiss, with the line
"For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair "
he utters a moral idea. When Shakspeare says that "we are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep," he utters a moral idea.
Voltaire was right in thinking that the energetic and profound treatment of moral ideas, in this large sense, is what distinguishes the English poetry. He sincerely meant praise, not dispraise or hint of limitation; and they err who suppose that poetic limitation is a necessary consequence of the fact, the fact being granted as Voltaire states it. If what distinguishes the greatest poets is their powerful and profound application of ideas to life, which surely no good critic will deny, then to prefix to the word ideas here the term moral makes hardly any difference, because human life itself is in so preponderating a degree moral.
It is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life-to the question, How to live. Morals are often treated in a
Voltaire, with his signal acuteness, most truly narrow and false fashion, they are bound up with
systems of thought and belief which have had their day, they are fallen into the hands of pedants and professional dealers, they grow tiresome to some of us. We find attraction, at times, even in a poetry of revolt against them; in a poetry which might take for its motto Omar Kheyam's
words, "Let us make up in the tavern for the
time which we have wasted in the mosque." Or we find attractions in a poetry indifferent to them, in a poetry where the contents may be what they will, but where the form is studied and exquisite. We delude ourselves in either case; and the best cure for our delusion is to let our minds rest upon that great and inexhaustible word life, until we learn to enter into its meaning. A poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a poetry of revolt against life; a poetry of indifference toward moral ideas is a poetry of indifference toward life.
Epictetus had a happy figure for things like Epictetus had a happy figure for things like the play of the senses, or literary form and finish, or argumentative ingenuity, in comparison with “the best and master thing" for us, as he called it, the concern how to live. Some people were afraid of them, he said, or they disliked and undervalued them. Such people were wrong; they were unthankful or cowardly. But the things might also be over-prized, and treated as final when they are not. They bear to life the relation which inns bear to home. "As if a man, journeying home, and finding a nice inn on the road, and liking it, were to stay for ever at the inn! Man, thou hast forgotten thine object; thy journey was not to this, but through this. But this inn is taking.' And how many other inns, too, are taking, and how many fields and meadows! but as places of passage merely. You have an object, which is this: to get home, to do your duty to your family, friends, and fellow countrymen, to attain inward freedom, serenity, happiness, contentment. Style takes your fancy, arguing takes your fancy, and you forget your home and want to make your abode with them and to stay with them, on the plea that they are taking. Who denies that they are taking? but as places of passage, as inns. And when I say this, you suppose me to be attacking the care for style, the care for argument. I am not; I attack the resting in them, the not looking to the end which is beyond them."
Now, when we come across a poet like Théophile Gautier, we have a poet who has taken up his abode at an inn, and never got further. There may be inducements to this or that one of us, at this or that moment, to find delight in him, to cleave to him; but, after all, we do not change the truth about him-we only stay ourselves in his inn along with him. And when we come across a poet like Wordsworth, who sings—
"Of truth, of grandeur, beauty, love, and hope, And melancholy fear subdued by faith, Of blessed consolations in distress, Of moral strength and intellectual power, Of joy in widest commonalty spread," then we have a poet intent on "the best and master thing," and who prosecutes his journey home. We say, for brevity's sake, that he deals with
This is what Voltaire means to
life, because he deals with that in which life
Wordsworth deals with it, and his greatness
lies in his dealing with it so powerfully. I have named a number of celebrated poets above all of whom he, in my opinion, deserves to be placed. He is to be placed above poets like Voltaire, Dryden, Pope, Lessing, Schiller, because these famous personages, with a thousand gifts and merits, never, or scarcely ever, attain the distinctive accent and utterance of the high and genuine poets
"Quique pii vates et Phœbo digna locuti,"
at all. Burns, Keats, Heine, not to speak of others in our list, have this accent-who can doubt it? And at the same time they have treasures of humor, felicity, passion, for which in Wordsworth we shall look in vain. Where, then, is Wordsworth's superiority? It is here: he deals with more of life than they do; he deals with life, as a whole, more powerfully.
No Wordsworthian will doubt this. Nay, the fervent Wordsworthian will add, as Mr. Leslie Stephen does, that Wordsworth's poetry is precious because his philosophy is sound; that his "ethical system is as distinctive and capable of exposition as Bishop Butler's"; that his poetry is informed by ideas which "fall spontaneously into a scientific system of thought." But we must be on our guard against the Wordsworthians, if we want to secure for Wordsworth his due rank as a poet. The Wordsworthians are apt to praise him for the wrong things, and to lay far too much stress upon what they call his philosophy. His poetry is the reality, his philosophy the illusion. Perhaps we shall one day learn to make this proposition more general, and to say, Poetry is the reality, philosophy the illusion. But in Wordsworth's case, at any rate, we can not do him justice until we dismiss his philosophy.
"The Excursion" abounds with philosophy,
and therefore "The Excursion" is to the Wordsworthian what it never can be to the disinterested lover of poetry-a satisfactory work. "Duty exists," says Wordsworth, in "The Excursion"; and then he proceeds thus:
. . . . immutably survive, For our support, the measures and the forms, Which an abstract Intelligence supplies, Whose kingdom is, where time and space are not."
And the Wordsworthian is delighted, and thinks that here is a sweet union of philosophy and poetry. But the disinterested lover of poetry will feel that the lines carry us really not a step further than the proposition which they would interpret; that they are a tissue of elevated but abstract verbiage, alien to the very nature of poetry.
Or let us come direct to the center of the
philosophy, as "an ethical system as distinctive and capable of systematical exposition as Bishop
"... One adequate support
For the calamities of mortal life Exists, one only; an assured belief That the procession of our fate, howe'er Sad or disturbed, is ordered by a Being Of infinite benevolence and power; Whose everlasting purposes embrace All accidents, converting them to good." That is doctrine such as we hear in church, too, religious and philosophic doctrine; and the Wordsworthian loves passages of such doctrine, and brings them forward in proof of his poet's excellence. But, however true the doctrine may be, it has, as here presented, none of the characters of poetic truth, the kind of truth which we require from a poet, and in which Wordsworth is really strong.
Even the "intimations" of the famous Ode, those corner-stones of the supposed philosophic system of Wordsworth-the idea of the high instincts and affections coming out in childhood, testifying of a divine home recently left, and fading away as our life proceeds-this idea, of undeniable beauty as a play of fancy, has itself not the character of poetic truth of the best kind; it has no real solidity. The instinct of delight in Nature and her beauty had no doubt extraordinary strength in Wordsworth himself as a child. But to say that universally this instinct is mighty in childhood, and tends to die away afterward, is to say what is extremely doubtful. In many people, perhaps with the majority of educated persons, the love of nature is nearly imperceptible at ten years old, but strong and operative at thirty. In general we may say of these high instincts of early childhood, the base of the al
leged systematic philosophy of Wordsworth, what Thucydides says of the early achievements of the Greek race: "It is impossible to speak with certainty of what is so remote; but, from all that we can really investigate, I should say that they were no very great things."
Finally, the "scientific system of thought" in Wordsworth gives us at last such poetry as this, which the devout Wordsworthian accepts: "O for the coming of that glorious time When, prizing knowledge as her noblest wealth And best protection, this imperial realm, While she exacts allegiance, shall admit An obligation, on her part, to teach Them who are born to serve her and obey; Binding herself by statute to secure For all the children whom her soil maintains The rudiments of letters, and inform The mind with moral and religious truth!" Wordsworth calls Voltaire dull, and surely the production of these un-Voltairean lines must have been imposed on him as a judgment! One can hear them being quoted at a Social Science Congress; one can call up the whole scene. A great room in one of our dismal provincial towns; dusty air and jaded afternoon daylight; benches full of men with bald heads and women in spectacles; an orator lifting up his face from a manuscript written within and without, to declaim these lines of Wordsworth; and, in the soul of any poor child of nature who may have wandered in thither, an unutterable sense of lamentation, and mourning, and woe!
these bold, bad men," the haunters of Social Science Congresses. And let us be on our guard, too, against the exhibitors and extollers of a "scientific system of thought" in Wordsworth's poetry. The poetry will never be seen aright while they thus exhibit it. The cause of its greatness is simple and may be told quite simply. It is great because of the extraordinary power with which Wordsworth feels the joy offered to us in nature, the joy offered to us in the simple elementary affections and duties; and because of the extraordinary power with which, in case after case, he shows us this joy, and renders it so as to make us share it.
"But turn we," as Wordsworth says, "from
The source of joy from which he thus draws is the truest and most unfailing source of joy accessible to man. It is also accessible universally. Wordsworth brings us word, therefore, according to his own strong and characteristic line, he brings us word
"Of joy in widest commonalty spread."
Here is an immense advantage for a poet. Wordsworth tells of what all seek, and tells of