Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

Wordsworth's Poetry*


 

If it be true, as Arnold said, that "almost every one who has praised Wordsworth’s poetry has praised it well," the explanation is perhaps not far to seek. It lies partly in the poetry itself, whose charm stands so small a chance of being discovered by the undiscriminating or vulgarized by the familiarities of incompetent enthusiasm; and partly in the fact that the lovers of Wordsworth have felt the task of justifying their passion to the world to be one that required the exercise of their utmost powers. At the present day, when Wordsworth criticism, having freed itself from the personal element, has ceased to be controversial, it is easy to understand the vehement differences of opinion between critics on the subject of Wordsworth’s genius. We can comprehend, and perhaps make allowance for, the attitude of Jeffrey when, on reading the "Lyrical Ballads," he exclaimed "This will never do!" We can appreciate, on the other hand, the veiled enthusiasm of Arnold, which led him to set Wordsworth immediately after Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, in the pantheon of modern poets, and to claim for him a definite superiority over his equals— Hugo, Byron, Shelley, Heine, Burns, and others. There could hardly be a more persuasive and seemingly disinterested statement of an extravagant claim than is afforded by Arnold’s famous essay. For all the pains he took to divest himself of prejudice, Arnold was biased by that very Wordsworthianism which, in some of its more obtrusive phases, he impales so delicately on the point of his urbane derision. Arnold was brought up in the camp of militant Wordsworthianism; and there was that in Wordsworth’s poetry which responded irresistibly to Arnolds personal needs, as also to the personal needs of many others of the best minds of England, fretted as they were by the modern unrest. Hence it was as inevitable that Arnold should tend to an overestimate of Wordsworth, as that he should fall into a depreciation of Shelley;—so hard is it to be absolutely judicial in regard to a concern so personal and so intimate as poetry. Had Arnold belonged a generation later, or had he looked with the eyes of continual criticism we can hardly doubt that he would have placed Wordsworth amid, rather that above, the little band of great singers who made the youth of this century magnificent.

With a fairness all too rare among critics, Arnold himself warns us that he is under the sway of an enthusiasm; for at the close of his plea he confesses that which proclaims him incapable of estimating Wordsworth by those rigid standards of criticism which to others he applied with a precision so unerring. He says:—"I can read with pleasure and edification Peter Bell, and the whole series of Ecclesiastical Sonnets, and the address to Mr. Wilkinson’s spade, and even the Thanksgiving Ode;—everything of Wordsworth, I think, except Vaudracour and Julia. It is not for nothing that one has been brought up in the veneration of a man so truly worthy of homage; that one has seen and heard him, lived in his neighborhood, and been familiar with his country."

We may be reasonably sure that only a profound personal veneration could enable Arnold to read with pleasure and edification such lines as:

"But when the pony moved his legs,
   Oh! then for the poor idiot boy!
For joy he cannot hold the bridle,
For joy his head and heels are idle,
    He’s idle all for very joy."

This is not an unfair specimen of the puerility which goes to make up a large part of what Arnold confesses to reading with pleasure and edification. A vastly larger portion is distinguished mainly by a colossal dullness, a platitude which can only be realized in the mass, and of which no quotation could convey an adequate idea. There is little room to hope that the intelligent reader, who begins his acquaintance with Wordsworth by The Idiot Boy, or Peter Bell, or even by the lines on Simon Lee (which Mr. Palgrave has unhappily included in his admirable anthology), can easily be brought to share in Arnold’s veneration, or to believe that Wordsworth was a man "so truly worthy of homage." It is very unprofitable to ignore the fact that the larger portion of Wordsworth’s verse is worthless; and only by a frank avowal of the fact can we expect to secure a fair judgment. By such a frank avowal we rule out all that mass of commonplace, or worse, which has hopelessly alienated so many lovers of poetry; and we bring under consideration nothing but that select body of verse by which alone Wordsworth ought to be judged,— verse meagre indeed in quantity, but of a quality hardly to be matched. It is pretty safe to assume that criticism will continue to agree with Arnold as to the supreme excellence of that portion of Wordsworth’s verse which was truly inspired. Where the elimination of the personal element is likely to tell most markedly against Arnold’s conclusions, will be seen in the shrinkage which must, I think, take place in the number of Wordsworth’s poems accepted as ranking among the truly inspired.

In the foregoing paragraphs I have endeavored to show that severe selection was called for in order that full justice might be done to the genius of Wordsworth,—a selection more severe and discriminating than would be necessary in the case of any other poet equally great. For the present volume there is yet more sufficient justification. Justice to the student whose mind is in a state to receive and to accept first impressions, makes it imperative that he should be brought first in contact with Wordsworth’s genius through the medium of a volume of selections, and thus saved from the false impression he would be sure to receive if he plunged at once into the stupefying wilderness of Wordsworth’s Complete Works. The distinctive excellence of Wordsworth’s poetry is something so high, so ennobling, so renovating to the spirit, that it can be regarded as nothing short of a calamity for one to acquire a preconception which will seal him against its influence. One so sealed is deaf to the voice which, more than any other in modern song, conveys the secret of repose. To be shut out from hearing Wordsworth’s message is to lose the surest guide we have to those regions of luminous calm which this breathless age so needs for its soul’s health. Wordworth’s peculiar province is that border-land wherein Nature and the heart of Man act and react upon each other. His vision is occupied not so much with Nature as with the relations between Nature and his inmost self. No other poet, of our race at least, has made so definite and intelligible the terms of our communion with external Nature. But it must be always born in mind that of great poets there are those, like Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, whose greatness is orbic and universal, and those again, of a lower station, whose greatness may be set forth as lying within certain more or less determinable limits. Among these latter, and high among them, we may be sure that Wordsworth will hold unassailable place.

 


"Wordsworth's Poetry," introduction to Poems of Wordsworth (From Arnold's Selections), ed. J.E. Wetherell (Toronto: Gage, 1892), 28-32 [back]