Page images
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

ز

WORDSWORTH was the great master of the Lake School,* in which Coleridge and Southey were also prominent members. Choosing the simplest speech of educated Englishmen as a vehicle for tho expression of their thoughts, and passing by with quiet scorn the used-up subjects of the Romancists—the military hero waving his red sword amid battle smoke; the assassin watching from the dark shadow of a vaulted doorway his unconscious victim, who strolls, singing in the white moonlight, down the empty street; the lover, “ sighing like furnace with a woeful ballad made to his mistress's eyebrow," and kindred themes—the poets of the Lake School took their subjects often from among the commonest things, and wrote their poems in the simplest style. Bending a reverent ear to the mysterious harmonies of nature, to the ceaseless song of praise that rises from every blade of grass and every

dewdrop, warbles in the fluting of every lark, and sweeps to heaven in every wave of air, they found in their own deep hearts a musical echo of that song, and shaping into words the swelling of their inward faith, they spoke to the world in a way to which the world was little used, about things in which the world saw no poetic beauty. The history of a hard-hearted hawker of earthenware and his ass, the adventures of Betty Foy's idiot son, and

* The Lake School derived its name from the fact that its three most conspicuous members, Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge, lived chiefly by the English lakes. Originally a contemptuous naine, it has gradually come to be the recognised title of Wordsworth and La disciples.

454

THE LANGUAGE OF WORDSWORTH.

the wanderings of an old pedler, are among the themes chosen by Wordsworth for the utterance of his poetic soul. As of old the Puritans had done in political and domestic life, the Lakists went too far in their disdain for the conventional ornaments and subjects of poetry. But their theory, a healthful one, based on sound principles, made an impression on the British mind deeper and more lasting than many think. Like that ozone or electrified oxygen in the natural air, upon which, say chemists, our health and spirits depend, its subtle influence is ever stealing through the atmosphere of our national thought, quickening the scattered germs of a truer and purer poetic philosophy than has yet prevailed. As all advocates of a new theory are apt to do, Wordsworth ran at first into an almost ridiculous extreme of simplicity, both in the selection of his subjects and his treatment of them. His ballads, on their first publication, raised a perfect storm of disdainful laughter among the critics of the day,-laughter which he heard serenely, consci that he was right in the main, and that time alone was needed to insure the triumph of his views. But here it must be remembered, that the language in which his highest thoughts found their fitting expression is not by any means a common-place language. When telling the tale of Johnny Foy, the idiot who stayed out all night, he may properly enough descend to humble strains like

these :

And now she's at the doctor's door,

She lifts the knocker, rap, rap, rap
The doctor at the casement shows
His glimmering eyes that peep and doze !
And one hand rubs his old night-cap."

But when higher themes attract his pen, as, for example, in that noble simile, among the finest our poetry contains,—

[merged small][ocr errors]

WORDSWORTH'S EARLY LIFE.

455

1

Brightened with joy; for, murmuring from within,
Were heard sonorous cadences, whereby,
To his belief, the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea :
Even such a shell the universe itself

Is to the ear of Faith,”
his style is elevated far above the level of our common speech, as
a poetic style must always be, that takes its tone and colour from
the lofty thoughts which it embodies.

Wordsworth, an attorney's son, was born on the 7th of April 1770, at Cockermouth in Cumberland. Both father and mother died while he was yet a boy; and when his school education was considered, by the uncle under whose guardianship he passed, to be sufficiently advanced, he was sent in 1787 to St. John's College, Cambridge. There, during the four years of his undergraduate course, he read a good deal, studied Italian, wrote poetry, and, when the welcomed vacations released him from what he considered to be an irksome and narrow course of study, went upon various tours—that in the autumn of 1790 being directed to France and Switzerland, although the tempest of Revolution was then raging with great fury. In the following year, having graduated, he went again to France, with a soul on fire in her cause. There he stayed for fifteen months, and there he might have perished by the guillotine in the growing ardour of his sympathy for the Girondists, had not his return to England in 1792 changed the current of his life.

His friends wished him to enter the Church; but he was born to be a poet and nothing else. The love of poetry was the grand passion of his heart, gaining strength as the flame of republicanism wasted and died with the coming of maturer years. In 1793 appeared a modest book of descriptive verse, 1793 containing two poems in the heroic couplet, entitled An A.D. Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches of walks among the Alps.

This maiden appearance of the poet Wordsworth revealed to thinking minds the rise of a new star, destined to shed a brilliant lustre on the land. Coleridge, a kindred spirit, was especially struck with the merit of the work.

[graphic]

456

WORDSWORTH SETTLES BY THE LAKES.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

The need of earning a livelihood had turned the young poet's thoughts to the law and the career of a journalist, when, happily for the literature of the nineteenth century, the kindness of Calvert, a dying friend, who left him £900 and a pressing request that he would devote himself to poetry, marked out another future for the man of twenty-five.

Settling down in Somersetshire with his sister, he wrote Salisbury Plain and a tragedy called The Borderers, and soon afterwards made the acquaintance of Coleridge. When the latter took up house at Nether Stowey, his new friend, in order to be near him, removed to Alfoxden, three miles off ; and they lived thus in constant association with each other. A volume called Lyrical Ballads appeared in 1798, containing twenty-three pieces, the first being the “Ancient Mariner," and the rest poems by Wordsworth. It fell all but dead from the press.

After a tour in Germany, Wordsworth settled with his sister in a cottage at Grasmere, among those hills whose blue peaks had bounded the world of his childhood. There he resided for nine years, during which his marriage and the commencement of his great philosophical poem, of which we have but two instalments, were the chief occurrences. The payment of £8500 by the Earl of Lonsdale, in settlement of a debt due to his father, enabled him at the time of his marriage to look forward with composure to a life undisturbed by the cares of money-getting,—a circumstance of no small importance to the successful cultivation of that calm and thoughtful poetry towards which līs native genius was inclined. In 1808 he removed to Allan Bank, and in 1813 to

Rydal Mount, both places lying in sight of those sweet 1813 lakes, and under the shadow of those old hills, which have

become inseparably associated with his name and memory.

At Rydal Mount, "a cottage-like building, almost hidden by a profusion of roses and ivy,” from whose grassy lawn a silver gleam of Windermere could be caught to the south, the poet spent the greater half of his life. About the time of his removal to this charming residence, the office of Distributor of Stamps for the county of Westmoreland, the salary of which was £500 a year,

[ocr errors]

a

A.D.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

A.D.

with no very heavy duties attached to it, made a considerable addition to his private means.

He owed his appointment to the influence of Lord Lonsdale.

In the following year he published his noblest poem, The Excursion, which brought him little or no money, and drew down upon him the wrath of the critics, Jeffrey of the “Edinburgh” leading the hostile van. “This will never do," wrote the great Athenian lawyer; but alas for his prophecy! this (i.e., “The Excursion") has been doing ever since, making its way steadily 1814 upwards, like å star that climbs into the clear sky above masses of cloud hung upon the horizon, and sheds its mild yet penetrating light with growing power as it climbs. When we examine the structure of this great work-only a fragment, let it be remembered, of a vast moral epic, to be called The Recluse, in which the poet intended to discuss the human soul in all its deepest workings and its loftiest relations we find no dramatic life, and little human interest; and to this feature of the poem, as well as to the novelty of finding subtle metaphysical reasoning embodied in blank-verse, its original unpopularity must be ascribed. Even still, though yearly widening, the circle of those who read the “ Excursion” is small; for it is a poem written only for the thinking few. Those who read poetry as some do, only for the story, will be hipped and desperately bored by the grave musical philosophy of the old Scotch pedler and his friends. Yet it is not all a web of subtle reasoning, for there are rich studies from nature and life scattered plentifully over its more thoughtful ground-work. Coleridge, who was his friend's truest and finest critic, describes the higher efforts of Wordsworth's pen as being characterized by "an austere purity of language, both grammatically and logically.” No English poet, who has dealt with lofty themes, is more thoroughly English in both his single words and his turns of expression.

The chief remaining works of this great writer are The White Doe of Rylstone (1815), a tragic tale founded on the ruin of a northern family in the Civil War; Peter Bell (1819), a remarkable specimen of the Lakist writings, which he dedicated to

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »