Publication note: EBB's review of this collection by Wordsworth was first published in 1842 in The Athenaeum (pp. 757-59). It was not republished in her lifetime. The review appeared in the same month as the concluding section of EBB's long review of The Book of the Poets. In 1863, Robert Browning published the review of The Book of the Poets along with another 1842 essay in literary history, "Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets," together with this review of Wordsworth's poems. He titled the collection The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets (1863). See The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2010), vol. 4, pp. 507-19.
WHEN Mr. Wordsworth gave his first poems to the public, it was not well with poetry in England. The "system" rivetted upon the motions of poetry by Dryden and his dynasty had gradually added to the restraint of slavery, its weakness and emasculation. The change from poetry to rhetoric had issued in another change, to the commonplaces of rhetoric. We had no longer to complain of Pope's antithetic glories – there was "a vile antithesis" for those also. The followers were not as the master; and the very facility with which the trick of acoustical mechanics was caught up by the former – admitting of "singing for the million," with ten fingers each for natural endowment, and the ability to count them for acquirement, – made wider and more apparent the difference of dignity between the Popes and the Pope Joans. Little by little, by slow and desolate degrees, Thought had perished out of the way of the appointed and most beaten rhythm; and we had the beaten rhythm, without the living footstep – we had the monotony of the military movement, without the heroic impulse – the cross of the Legion of Honour, hung, as it once was, in a paroxysm of converted Bourbonism, at a horse's tail; and the "fork", which expelled nature, dropped feebly downward, blunted of its point. And oh! to see who sat then in England, in the seats of the elders! The Elizabethan men would have gnashed their teeth at such a sight; the Queen Anne's men would have multiplied Dunciads. Of the third George's men ('Αχαιίδες ουκ ετ' 'Αχαιοι Hayley, too good a scholar to bear to be so bad a poet, was a chief hope, – and Darwin, mistaker of the optic nerve for the poetical sense, an inventive genius.
But Cowper had a great name, and Burns a greater; and the reveillie of Dr. Percy's ‘Reliques of English Poetry' was echoed presently by the ‘Scottish Minstrelsy.' There was a change – a revival – an awakening – a turning, at least upon the pillow, of some who slept on in mediocrity, as if they felt the daylight on their shut eyelids – there was even a group of noble hearts (Coleridge, the idealist, poet among poets, in their midst), foreseeing the sun. Nature, the long banished, re-dawned like the morning – Nature, the true mother, cried afar off to her children – "Children, I am here! – come to me." It was a hard act to come, and involved the learning and the leaving of much. Conventionalities of phrase and rhythm, conventional dialects set apart for poets, conventional words, attitudes, and manners, consecrated by "wits," – all such Nessian trappings were to be wrenched off, even to the cuticle into which they had urged their poison. But it was an act not too hard for the doing. There was a visible movement towards nature; the majority moving of course with reservation, but individuals with decision; some rending downward their garments of pestilent embroidery, and casting themselves at her feet. As the chief of the movement, the Xenophon of the return, we are bound to acknowledge this great Wordsworth, and to admire how, in a bravery bravest of all because born of love, in a passionate unreservedness sprung of genius, and to the actual scandal of the world which stared at the filial familiarity, he threw himself not at the feet of Nature, but straightway and right tenderly upon her bosom! And so, trustfully as child before mother, selfrenouncingly as child after sin, absorbed away from the consideration of publics and critics as child at play-hours, with a simplicity startling to the blase critical ear as inventiveness, with an innocent utterance felt by the competent thinker to be wisdom, and with a faithfulness to natural impressions acknowledged since by all to be the highest art, – this William Wordsworth did sing his ‘Lyrical Ballads' where the ‘Art of criticism' had been sung before, and "the world would not let them die."
The voice of nature has a sweetness which few of us, when sufficiently tried, can gainsay; it penetrates our artificial "tastes," and overcomes us; and our ignorance seldom proves strong, in proportion to our instincts. We recognize, like Ulysses' dog, with feeble joyous gesture the master's voice – and the sound is nearly always pleasant to us, however we may want strength to follow after it. But, while at the period we refer to, the recognition and gratulation were true and deep, the old conventionalities and prejudices hung heavily in bondage and repression. The great body of readers would recoil to the Drydenic rhythm, to the Queen Anne's poetical cant, to anti-Saxonisms, whether in Latin or French; or exacted as a condition of a poet's faithfulness to nature, such an effervescence of his emotions, as had rendered Pope natural in the Eloisa. "Let us all forsooth be Eloisa and so natural," – the want was an excuse for loving nature; and the opinion went, that the daily heart-beat was more obnoxious in poetry than the incidental palpitation. Poor Byron (true miserable genius, soul-blind great poet!) ministered to this singular need, identifying poetry and passion. Poetry ought to be the revelation of the complete man – and Byron's manhood having no completion nor entirety, consisting on the contrary of a one-sided passionateness, his poems discovered not a heart, but the wound of a heart; not humanity, but disease; not life, but a crisis. It was not so – it was not in the projection of a passionate emotion, that William Wordsworth committed himself to nature, but in full resolution and determinate purpose. He is scarcely, perhaps, of a passionate temperament, although still less is he cold; rather quiet in his love, as the stock-dove, and brooding over it as constantly, and with as soft an inward song lapsing outwardly – serene through deepness – saying himself of his thoughts, that they "do often lie too deep for tears;" which does not mean that their painfulness will not suffer them to be wept for, but that their closeness to the supreme Truth hallows them, like the cheek of an archangel, from tears. Call him the very opposite of Byron, who, with narrower sympathies for the crowd, yet stood nearer to the crowd, because everybody understands passion. Byron was a poet through pain. Wordsworth is a feeling man, because he is a thoughtful man; he knows grief itself by a reflex emotion; by sympathy, rather than by suffering. He is eminently and humanly expansive; and, spreading his infinite egotism over all the objects of his contemplation, reiterates the love, life, and poetry of his peculiar being in transcribing and chanting the material universe, and so sinks a broad gulf between his descriptive poetry and that of the Darwinian painter-poet school. Darwin was, as we have intimated, all optic nerve. Wordsworth's eye is his soul. He does not see that which he does not intellectually discern, and he beholds his own cloud-capped Helvellyn under the same conditions with which he would contemplate a grand spiritual sbstraction. In his view of the exterior world – as in a human Spinosism, – mountains and men's hearts share in a sublime unity of humanity; yet his Spinosism does in nowise affront God, for he is eminently a religious poet, if not, indeed, altogether as generous and capacious in his Christianity as in his poetry; and, being a true Christian poet, he is scarcely least so when he is not writing directly upon the subject of religion, – just as we learn sometimes without looking up, and, by the mere colour of the grass, that the sky is cloudless. But what is most remarkable in this great writer is, his poetical consistency. There is a wonderful unity in these multiform poems of one man; they are "bound each to each in natural piety," even as his days are – and why? – because they are his days – all his days, work days and Sabbath days – his life, in fact, and not the unconnected works of his life, as vulgar men do opine of poetry and do rightly opine of vulgar poems, but the sign, seal, and representation of his life – nay, the actual audible breathing of his inward spirit's life. When Milton said that a poet's life should be a poem, he spoke a high moral truth; if he had added a reversion of the saying, that a poet's poetry should be his life, – he would have spoken a critical truth, not low.
"Foole, saide my muse to mee, looke in thine hearte and write." – and not only, we must repeat, at feast times, fast times, or curfew times – not only at times of crisis and emotion, but at all hours of the clock; for that which God thought good enough to write, or permit the writing of on His book, the heart, is not too common, let us be sure, to write again in the best of our poems. William Wordsworth wrote these common things of nature, and by no means in a phraseology nor in a style. He was daring in his commonness as any of your Tamerlanes may be daring when far fetching an alien image from an outermost world; and, notwithstanding the ribald cry of that "vox populi" which has, in the criticism of poems, so little the character of divinity, and which loudly and mockingly, at his first utterance, denied the sanctity of his simplicities, – the Nature he was faithful to "betrayed not the heart which loved her," but, finally, justifying herself and him, "ᴅɪᴅ" – without the Edinburgh Review.
"Hero-worshippers," as we are, and sitting for all the critical pretence – in right or wrong of which we speak at all – at the feet of Mr. Wordsworth, – recognizing him, as we do, as poet-hero of a movement essential to the better being of poetry, as poet-prophet of utterances greater than those who first listened could comprehend, and of influences most vital and expansive – we are yet honest to confess that certain things in the ‘Lyrical Ballads' which most provoked the ignorant innocent hootings of the mob, do not seem to us all heroic. Love, like ambition, may overvault itself; and Betty Foys of the Lake school (so called), may be as subject to conventionalities as Pope's Lady Bettys. And, perhaps, our great poet might, through the very vehemence and nobleness of his hero and prophet-work for nature, confound, for some blind moment, and, by an association easily traced and excused, nature with rusticity, the simple with the bald; and even fall into a vulgar conventionality in the act of spurning a graceful one. If a trace of such confounding may occasionally be perceived in Mr. Wordsworth's earlier poetry, few critics are mad enough to-day, to catch at the loose straws of the full golden sheaf and deck out withal their own arrogant fronts, in the course of mouthing mocks at the poet. The veriest critic of straw knoweth well, at this hour of the day, that if Mr. Wordsworth was ever over-rustic, it was not through incapacity to be over-rustic, it was not through incapacity to be right royal; that of all poets, indeed, who have been kings in England, not one has swept the purple with more majesty than this poet, when it ath pleased him to be majestic. Vivat rex, – and here is a new volume of his reign. Let us rejoice, for the sake of literature and the age, in the popularity which is ready for it, and in the singular happiness of a great poet living long enough to rebound from the "fell swoop" of his poetical destiny, survive the ignorance of his public, and convict the prejudices of his reviewers. It is a literal "poetical justice," and one rarest of all, that a great poet should stand in a permitted sovereignty, without doing so, like poor Inez de Castro, by right of death. It is almost wonderful that his country should clap her hands in praise of him, before he has ceased to hear: the applause resembles an anachronism. Is Mr. Wordsworth startled at receiving from his contemporaries what he expected only from posterity? – is he asking himself – "Have I done anything wrong?" – Probably not – it is at least with his usual air of calm and advised dignity that he addresses his new volume in its Envoy: –
Go single, – yet aspiring to be joined
With thy forerunners, that through many a year
Have faithfully prepared each other's way –
Go forth upon a mission best fulfilled
When and wherever, in this changeful world,
Power hath been given to please for higher ends
Than pleasure only; gladdening to prepare
For wholesome sadness, troubling to refine,
Calming to raise.
– words of the poet, which form a nobler description of the character and uses of his poetry, than could be given in any words of a critic.
We do not say that the finest of Mr. Wordsworth's productions are to be found or should be looked for in the present volume; but the volume is worthy of its forerunners, consistent in noble earnestness and serene philosophy, true poet's work, – the hand trembling not a jot for years or weariness, – the full face of the soul turned hopefully and stilly as ever towards the True, and catching across its ridge the idealized sunlight of the Beautiful. And yet if we were recording angel, instead of only recording reviewer, we should drop a tear . . . another . . . and end by weeping out that series of sonnets in favour of capital punishments, – moved that a hand which has traced life-warrants so long for the literature of England, should thus sign a misplaced ‘Benedicite' over the hangman and his victim. We turn away from them to other sonnets – to forget aught in Mr. Wordsworth's poetry we must turn to his poetry! – and however the greatest poets of our country, – the Shakspeares, Spensers, Miltons, – worked upon high sonnet ground; not one opened over it such broad and pouring sluices of various thought, imagery, and emphatic eloquence as he has done. This is a worthy counsel from one worthy to counsel: –
A poet! he hath put his heart to school,
Nor dares to move unpropped upon the staff
Which art hath lodged within his hand – must laugh
By precept only, and shed tears by rule.
Thy Art be Nature, the live current quaff,
And let the groveller sip his stagnant pool,
In fear that else, when critics grave and cool
Have killed him, scorn should write his epitaph.
How does the meadow-flower its bloom unfold?
Because the lovely little flower is free
Down to its root, and, in that freedom, bold;
And so the grandeur of the forest-tree
Comes not by casting in a formal mould,
But from its own divine vitality.
Here is a sonnet of softer sense, and not less true, referring, we have heard, to a portrait of that lovely "Lady of her own" which Nature made long ago for herself – and for the poet, we suppose – his sonnet being addressed to the painter: –
All praise the likeness by thy skill portrayed
But 'tis a fruitless task to paint for me,
Who, yielding not to changes Time has made,
By the habitual light of memory see
Eyes unbedimmed, see bloom that cannot fade,
And smiles that from their birth-place ne'er shall flee
Into the land where ghosts and phantoms be;
And seeing this, own nothing in its stead.
Could'st thou go back into far-distant years,
Or share with me, fond thought! that inward eye,
Then, and then only, Painter! could thy Art
The visual powers of Nature satisfy,
Which hold, whate'er to common sight appears,
Their sovereign empire in a faithful heart.
The tender Palinodia is beyond Petrarch: –
Though I beheld at first with blank surprise
This work, I now have gazed on it so long,
I see its truth with, unreluctant eyes;
O, my beloved! I have done thee wrong,
Conscious of blessedness, but, whence it springs
Ever too heedless, as I now perceive:
Morn into noon did pass, noon into eve,
And the old day was welcome as the young,
As welcome and as beautiful – in sooth
More beautiful, as being a thing more holy;
Thanks to thy virtues, to the eternal youth
Of all thy goodness, never melancholy;
To thy large heart and humble mind, that cast
Into one vision, future, present, past!
That "more beautiful" is most beautiful! all human love's cunning is in it; besides the full glorifying smile of Christian love!
Last in the volume is the tragedy of ‘The Borderers,' which having lain for some fifty years "unregarded" among its author's papers, – a singular destiny for these printing days when our very morning talk seems to fall naturally into pica type, – caused in its announcement from afar, the most faithful disciples to tremble for the possible failure of their master. Perhaps they trembled with cause. The master indeed, was a prophet of humanity; but he was wiser in love than terror, in admiration than pity, and rather intensely than actively human; capacious to embrace within himself the whole nature of things and beings, but not going out of himself to embrace anything; a poet of one large sufficient soul, but not polypsychical like a dramatist. Therefore his disciples trembled: and we will not say that the tragedy, taken as a whole, does not justify the fear. There is something grand and Greek in the intention which hinges it, showing how crime makes crime in cursed generation, and how black hearts, like whiter ones, (Topaze or Ebéne) do cry out and struggle for sympathy and brotherhood; granting that black heart (Oswald) may stand something too much on the extreme of evil to represent humanity broadly enough for a drama to turn upon. The action, too, although it does not, as might have been apprehended, lose itself in contemplation, has no unhesitating firm dramatic march – perhaps it "potters" a little, to take a word from Mrs. Butler; – and when all is done we look vainly within us for an impression, the response to the unity of the whole. But again, when all is done, the work is Mr. Wordsworth's, and the conceptions and utterances living and voiceful in it, bear no rare witness to the master. The old blind man, left to the ordeal of the desert – the daughter in agony hanging upon the murderer for consolation – knock against the heart, and take back answers; and ever and anon there are sweet gushings of such words as this poet only knows, showing how, in a "late remorse of love," he relapses into pastoral dreams, notwithstanding his new vocation, and within the very sight of the theatric thymele: –
A grove of darker and more lofty shade
I never saw. The music of the birds
Drops deadened from a roof so thick with leaves.
Who can overpass the image of the old innocent man praying? –
The name of daughter on his lips, he prays!
With nerves so steady, that the very flies
Sit unmolested on his staff.
And now to give a fragment from a scene in which Oswald, the black genius of the drama, brings his blackness to bear on Marmaduke who is no genius at all. A passage well known and rightly honoured, will be recognized in the extract: –
Oswald.It may be
That some there are, squeamish, half-thinking cowards,
Who will turn pale upon you, call you murderer,
And you will walk in solitude among them.
A mighty evil for a strong-built mind! –
Join twenty tapers of unequal height,
And light them joined, and you will see the less
How 'twill burn down the tallest. Solitude! –
The eagle lives in solitude.
The sparrow on the house-top, and I,
The weakest of God's creatures, stand resolved
To abide the issue of my act, alone.
Osw. Now would you? – and for ever? – My young friend,
As time advances, either we become
The prey or masters of our own past deeds.
Fellowship we must have, willing or no;
And if good Angels fail, slack in their duty,
Substitutes, turn our faces where we may,
Are still forthcoming; some which, though they bear
Ill names, can render no ill services,
In recompense of what themselves required.
So meet extremes in this mysterious world,
And opposites thus melt into each other.
Mar. Time, since man first drew breath, hath never moved
With such a weight upon his wings as now:
But they will soon be lightened.
Osw.Ay, look up –
Cast round you your mind's eye, and you will learn
Fortitude is the child of enterprise.
Great actions move our admiration, chiefly
Because they carry in themselves an earnest
That we can suffer greatly.
Osw. Action is transitory – a step, a blow,
The motion of a muscle – this way or that –
'Tis done, and in the after vacancy
We wonder at ourselves, like men betrayed:
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And shares the nature of infinity.
Mar. Truth – and I feel it.
Osw. What! if you had bid
Eternal farewell to unmingled joy
And the light dancing of the thoughtless heart;
It is the toy of fools, and little fit
For such a world as this. The wise abjure
All thoughts whose idle composition lives
In the entire forgetfulness of pain.
– I see I have disturbed you.
Mar. By no means.
Osw. Compassion! – pity! – pride can do without them;
And what if you should never know them more! –
He is a puny soul who, feeling pain,
Finds ease because another feels it too,
If e'er I open out this heart of mine,
It shall be for a nobler end – to teach,
And not to purchase puling sympathy.
– Nay, you are pale.
Mar.It may be so.
It cannot live with thought; think on, think on,
And it will die. What! in this universe,
Where the least things control the greatest, where
The faintest breath that breathes can move a world,
What! feel remorse, where, if a cat had sneezed,
A leaf had fallen, the thing had never been
Whose very shadow gnaws us to the vitals.
Anxious to conclude our extracts by something truer to Mr. Wordsworth's personal opinions than this strong black writing, we have hesitated, as we turned the leaves, before many touching and beautiful poems, wise in their beauty, – before the ‘Grave of Burns,' for instance, and the ‘Widow of Windermere,' and the ‘Address to the Clouds,' and others beyond naming – a certain sonnet which discovers our poet sitting on the chair of Dante at Florence, tempting us for many reasons. But the sun and air (by courtesy) are heavy on us while we write, and subdued besides by the charm of the loveliest, freshest landscape-making (oh, never say painting) in the world, and by the prospect presently of a "little breeze," we forget our difficulty of breathing and selecting, and fall from the elevation of Fahrenheit down in a swoon in ‘Airy-Force Valley:' –
– not a breath of air
Ruffles the bosom of this leafy glen.
From the brook's margin, wide around, the trees
Are stedfast as the rooks; the brook itself,
Old as the hills that feed it from afar,
Doth rather deepen than disturb the calm
Where all things else are still and motionless.
And yet, even now, a little breeze, perchance
Escaped from boisterous winds that rage without,
Has entered, by the sturdy oaks unfelt;
But to its gentle touch how sensitive
Is the light ash! that, pendent from the brow
Of yon dim cave, in seeming silence makes
A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs,
Powerful almost as vocal harmony,
To stay the wanderer's steps and soothe his thoughts.
But we start from the languor, and the dream floated upon our eyelids by such charmed writing, and come hastily to the moral of our story, – seeing that Mr. Wordsworth's life does present a high moral to his generation, to forget which in his poetry would be an unworthy compliment to the latter. It is advantageous for us all, whether poets or poetasters, or talkers about either, to know what a true poet is, what his work is, and what his patience and successes must be, so as to raise the popular idea of these things, and either strengthen or put down the individual aspiration. "Art," it was said long ago, "requires the whole man," and "Nobody," it was said later, "can be a poet who is anything else;" but the present idea of Art requires the segment of a man, and everybody who is anything at all, is a poet in a parenthesis. And our shelves groan with little books over which their readers groan less metaphorically – there is a plague of poems in the land apart from poetry – and many poets who live and are true, do not live by their truth, but hold back their full strength from Art because they do not reverence it fully – and all booksellers cry aloud and do not spare, that poetry will not sell – and certain critics utter melancholy frenzies, that poetry is worn out for ever – as if the morning-star was worn out from heaven – or "the yellow primrose" from the grass! and Mr. D'Israeli the younger, like Bildad comforting Job, suggests that we may content ourselves for the future with a rhythmetic prose, printed like prose for decency, and supplied for comfort, with a parish allowance of two or three rhymes to a paragraph. Should there be any whom such a ‘New Poor Law' would content, we are far from wishing to disturb the virtue of their serenity – let them continue, like the hypochondriac, to be very sure that they have lost their souls – inclusive of their poetic instincts. In the meantime the hopeful and believing will hope, – trust on; and, better still, the Tennysons and the Brownings, and other high-gifted spirits, will work, wait on, until, as Mr. Horne has said –
Strong deeds awake,
And clamouring, throng the portals of the hour.
It is well for them and all to count the cost of this life of a master in poetry, and learn from it what a true poet's crown is worth – to recall both the long life's work for its sake – the work of observation, of meditation, of reaching past models into nature, of reaching past nature unto God! and the early life's loss for its sake – the loss of the popular cheer, of the critical assent, and of the "money in the purse." It is well and full of exultation to remember now what a silent, blameless, heroic life of poetic duty, this man has lived; – how he never cried rudely against the world because he was excluded for a time from the parsley garlands of its popularity; nor sinned morally because he was sinned against intellectually; nor being tempted and threatened by paymaster and reviewer, swerved from the righteousness and high aims of his inexorable genius. And it cannot be ill to conclude by enforcing a high example by some noble precepts which, taken from the MUSOPHILUS of old Daniel, do contain, to our mind, the very code of chivalry for poets: –
Be it that my unseasonable song
Come out of Time, that fault is in the Time,
And I must not do virtue so much wrong,
As love her aught the worse for other's crime.
* * * * *
And for my part, if only one allow
The care my labouring spirits take in this;
He is to me a theatre large enow,
And his applause only sufficient is –
All my respect is bent but to his brow;
That is my all, and all I am is his.
And if some worthy spirits be pleased too,
It shall more comfort breed, but not more will,
BUT WHAT IF NONE? It cannot yet undo
The love I bear unto this holy skill.
This is the thing that I was born to do:
This is my scene; this part must I fulfil.