Among My Books
James Russell Lowell
Part 4 out of 6
the poets' poet. We may fairly leave the allegory on one side, for
perhaps, after all, he adopted it only for the reason that it was in
fashion, and put it on as he did his ruff, not because it was becoming,
but because it was the only wear. The true use of him is as a gallery of
pictures which we visit as the mood takes us, and where we spend an hour
or two at a time, long enough to sweeten our perceptions, not so long as
to cloy them. He makes one think always of Venice; for not only is his
style Venetian, but as the gallery there is housed in the shell of
an abandoned convent, so his in that of a deserted allegory. And again,
as at Venice you swim in a gondola from Gian Bellini to Titian, and from
Titian to Tintoret, so in him, where other cheer is wanting, the gentle
sway of his measure, like the rhythmical impulse of the oar, floats you
lullingly along from picture to picture.
"If all the pens that ever poet held
Had fed the feeling of their master's thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspired their hearts
Their minds and muses on admired themes,
If all the heavenly quintessence they still
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
If these had made one poem's period,
And all combined in beauty's worthiness;
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder at the best,
Which into words no virtue can digest."
Spenser, at his best, has come as near to expressing this unattainable
something as any other poet. He is so purely poet that with him the
meaning does not so often modulate the music of the verse as the music
makes great part of the meaning and leads the thought along its pleasant
paths. No poet is so splendidly superfluous as he; none knows so well
that in poetry enough is not only not so good as a feast, but is a
beggarly parsimony. He spends himself in a careless abundance only to be
justified by incomes of immortal youth.
"Pensier canuto ne molto ne poco
Si puo quivi albergare in alcun cuore;
Non entra quivi disagio ne inopia,
Ma vi sta ogn'or col corno pien la Copia."
This delicious abundance and overrunning luxury of Spenser appear in the
very structure of his verse. He found the _ottava rima_ too monotonously
iterative; so, by changing the order of his rhymes, he shifted the let
from the end of the stave, where it always seems to put on the brakes
with a jar, to the middle, where it may serve at will as a brace or a
bridge; he found it not roomy enough, so first ran it over into another
line, and then ran that added line over into an alexandrine, in which the
melody of one stanza seems forever longing and feeling forward after that
which is to follow. There is no ebb and flow in his metre more than on
the shores of the Adriatic, but wave follows wave with equable gainings
and recessions, the one sliding back in fluent music to be mingled with
and carried forward by the next. In all this there is soothingness
indeed, but no slumberous monotony; for Spenser was no mere metrist, but
a great composer. By the variety of his pauses--now at the close of the
first or second foot, now of the third, and again of the fourth--he gives
spirit and energy to a measure whose tendency it certainly is to become
languorous. He knew how to make it rapid and passionate at need, as in
such verses as,
"But he, my lion, and my noble lord,
How does he find in cruel heart to hate
Her that him loved and ever most adored
As the God of my life? Why hath he me abhorred?"
"Come hither, come hither, O, come hastily!"
Joseph Warton objects to Spenser's stanza, that its "constraint led him
into many absurdities." Of these he instances three, of which I shall
notice only one, since the two others (which suppose him at a loss for
words and rhymes) will hardly seem valid to any one who knows the poet.
It is that it "obliged him to dilate the thing to be expressed, however
unimportant with trifling and tedious circumlocutions, namely, Faery
Queen, II. ii. 44:--
"'Now hath fair Phoebe with her silver face
Thrice seen the shadows of this nether world,
Sith last I left that honorable place,
In which her royal presence is enrolled.'
"That is, it is three months since I left her palace." But Dr. Warton
should have remembered (what he too often forgets in his own verses)
that, in spite of Dr. Johnson's dictum, poetry is not prose, and that
verse only loses its advantage over the latter by invading its
province. Verse itself is an absurdity except as an expression of
some higher movement of the mind, or as an expedient to lift other minds
to the same ideal level. It is the cothurnus which gives language an
heroic stature. I have said that one leading characteristic of Spenser's
style was its spaciousness, that he habitually dilates rather than
compresses. But his way of measuring time was perfectly natural in an age
when everybody did not carry a dial in his poke as now. He is the last of
the poets, who went (without affectation) by the great clock of the
firmament. Dante, the miser of words, who goes by the same timepiece, is
full of these roundabout ways of telling us the hour. It had nothing to
do with Spenser's stanza, and I for one should be sorry to lose these
stately revolutions of the _superne ruote_. Time itself becomes more
noble when so measured; we never knew before of how precious a commodity
we had the wasting. Who would prefer the plain time of day to this?
"Now when Aldebaran was mounted high
Above the starry Cassiopeia's chair";
"By this the northern wagoner had set
His seven-fold team behind the steadfast star
That was in ocean's waves yet never wet,
But firm is fixt and sendeth light from far
To all that in the wide deep wandering are";
"At last the golden oriental gate
Of greatest heaven gan to open fair,
And Phoebus, fresh as bridegroom to his mate,
Came dancing forth, shaking his dewy hair
And hurls his glistening beams through dewy air."
The generous indefiniteness, which treats an hour more or less as of no
account, is in keeping with that sense of endless leisures which it is
one chief merit of the poem to suggest. But Spenser's dilatation extends
to thoughts as well as to phrases and images. He does not love the
concise. Yet his dilatation is not mere distension, but the expansion of
natural growth in the rich soil of his own mind, wherein the merest stick
of a verse puts forth leaves and blossoms. Here is one of his, suggested
"Upon the top of all his lofty crest
A bunch of hairs discolored diversly,
With sprinkled pearl and gold full richly drest,
Did shake, and seemed to dance for jollity;
Like to an almond-tree mounted high
On top of green Selinus all alone
With blossoms brave bedecked daintily,
Whose tender locks do tremble every one
At every little breath that under heaven is blown."
And this is the way he reproduces five pregnant verses of Dante:--
"Seggendo in piume
In fama non si vien, ne sotto coltre,
Senza la qual chi sua vita consuma,
Cotal vestigio in terra di se lascia
Qual fumo in aere ed in acqua la schiuma."
"Whoso in pomp of proud estate, quoth she,
Does swim, and bathes himself in courtly bliss,
Does waste his days in dark obscurity
And in oblivion ever buried is;
Where ease abounds it's eath to do amiss:
But who his limbs with labors and his mind
Behaves with cares, cannot so easy miss.
Abroad in arms, at home in studious kind,
Who seeks with painful toil shall Honor soonest find.
"In woods, in waves, in wars, she wonts to dwell,
And will be found with peril and with pain,
Ne can the man that moulds in idle cell
Unto her happy mansioen attain;
Before her gate high God did Sweat ordain,
And wakeful watches ever to abide;
But easy is the way and passage plain
To pleasure's palace; it may soon be spied,
And day and night her doors to all stand open wide."
Spenser's mind always demands this large elbow-room. His thoughts are
never pithily expressed, but with a stately and sonorous proclamation, as
if under the open sky, that seems to me very noble. For example,--
"The noble heart that harbors virtuous thought
And is with child of glorious-great intent
Can never rest until it forth have brought
The eternal brood of glory excellent."
One's very soul seems to dilate with that last verse. And here is a
passage which Milton had read and remembered:--
"And is there care in Heaven? and is there love
In heavenly spirits to these creatures base,
That may compassion of their evils move?
There is: else much more wretched were the case
Of men than beasts: but O, the exceeding grace
Of highest God, that loves his creatures so,
And all his works with mercy doth embrace,
That blessed angels he sends to and fro,
To serve to wicked man, to serve his wicked foe!
"How oft do they their silver bowers leave,
To come to succor us that succor want!
How oft do they with golden pinions cleave
The fleeting skies like flying pursuivant,
Against foul fiends to aid us militant!
They for us fight, they watch and duly ward,
And their bright squadrons round about us plant;
And all for love and nothing for reward;
O, why should heavenly God to men have such regard?"
His natural tendency is to shun whatever is sharp and abrupt. He loves to
prolong emotion, and lingers in his honeyed sensations like a bee in the
translucent cup of a lily. So entirely are beauty and delight in it the
native element of Spenser, that, whenever in the "Faery Queen" you come
suddenly on the moral, it gives you a shock of unpleasant surprise, a
kind of grit, as when one's teeth close on a bit of gravel in a dish of
strawberries and cream. He is the most fluent of our poets. Sensation
passing through emotion into revery is a prime quality of his manner. And
to read him puts one in the condition of revery, a state of mind in which
our thoughts and feelings float motionless, as one sees fish do in a
gentle stream, with just enough vibration of their fins to keep
themselves from going down with the current, while their bodies yield
indolently to all its soothing curves. He chooses his language for its
rich canorousness rather than for intensity of meaning. To characterize
his style in a single word, I should call it _costly_. None but the
daintiest and nicest phrases will serve him, and he allures us from one
to the other with such cunning baits of alliteration, and such sweet
lapses of verse, that never any word seems more eminent than the rest,
nor detains the feeling to eddy around it, but you must go on to the end
before you have time to stop and muse over the wealth that has been
lavished on you. But he has characterized and exemplified his own style
better than any description could do:--
"For round about the walls yclothed were
With goodly arras of great majesty,
Woven with gold and silk so close and near
That the rich metal lurked privily
As faining to be hid from envious eye;
Yet here and there and everywhere, unwares
It showed itself and shone unwillingly
Like to a discolored snake whose hidden snares
Through the green grass his long bright-burnished back declares."
And of the lulling quality of his verse take this as a sample:--
"And, more to lull him in his slumber soft,
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down
And ever drizzling rain upon the loft,
Mixt with the murmuring wind much like the soun
Of swarming bees did cast him in a swoon.
No other noise, nor peoples' troublous cries,
As still are wont to annoy the walled town,
Might there be heard: but careless quiet lies
Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemies."
In the world into which Spenser carries us there is neither time nor
space, or rather it is outside of and independent of them both, and so is
purely ideal, or, more truly, imaginary; yet it is full of form, color,
and all earthly luxury, and so far, if not real, yet apprehensible by the
senses. There are no men and women in it, yet it throngs with airy and
immortal shapes that have the likeness of men and women, and hint at some
kind of foregone reality. Now this place, somewhere between mind and
matter, between soul and sense, between the actual and the possible, is
precisely the region which Spenser assigns (if I have rightly divined
him) to the poetic susceptibility of impression,--
"To reign in the air from the earth to highest sky."
Underneath every one of the senses lies the soul and spirit of it,
dormant till they are magnetized by some powerful emotion. Then whatever
is imperishable in us recognizes for an instant and claims kindred with
something outside and distinct from it, yet in some inconceivable way a
part of it, that flashes back on it an ideal beauty which impoverishes
all other companionship. This exaltation with which love sometimes
subtilizes the nerves of coarsest men so that they feel and see, not the
thing as it seems to others, but the beauty of it, the joy of it, the
soul of eternal youth that is in it, would appear to have been the normal
condition of Spenser. While the senses of most men live in the cellar,
his "were laid in a large upper chamber which opened toward the
"His birth was of the womb of morning dew,
And his conception of the joyous prime."
The very greatest poets (and is there, after all, more than one of them?)
have a way, I admit, of getting within our inmost consciousness and in a
manner betraying us to ourselves. There is in Spenser a remoteness very
different from this, but it is also a seclusion, and quite as agreeable,
perhaps quite as wholesome in certain moods when we are glad to get away
from ourselves and those importunate trifles which we gravely call the
realities of life. In the warm Mediterranean of his mind everything
"Suffers a sea change
Into something rich and strange."
He lifts everything, not beyond recognition, but to an ideal distance
where no mortal, I had almost said human, fleck is visible. Instead of
the ordinary bridal gifts, he hallows his wife with an Epithalamion fit
for a conscious goddess, and the "savage soil" of Ireland becomes a
turf of Arcady under her feet, where the merchants' daughters of the town
are no more at home than the angels and the fair shapes of pagan
mythology whom they meet there. He seems to have had a common-sense side
to him, and could look at things (if we may judge by his tract on Irish
affairs) in a practical and even hard way; but the moment he turned
toward poetry he fulfilled the condition which his teacher Plato imposes
on poets, and had not a particle of prosaic understanding left. His
fancy, habitually moving about in worlds not realized, unrealizes
everything at a touch. The critics blame him because in his Prothalamion
the subjects of it enter on the Thames as swans and leave it at Temple
Gardens as noble damsels; but to those who are grown familiar with his
imaginary world such a transformation seems as natural as in the old
legend of the Knight of the Swan.
"Come now ye damsels, daughters of Delight,
Help quickly her to dight:
But first come ye, fair Hours, which were begot
In Jove's sweet paradise of Day and Night, ...
And ye three handmaids of the Cyprian Queen,
The which do still adorn her beauty's pride,
Help to adorn my beautifulest bride.
* * * * *
"Crown ye god Bacchus with a coronal,
And Hymen also crown with wreaths of vine,
And let the Graces dance unto the rest,--
For they can do it best.
The whiles the maidens do their carols sing,
To which the woods shall answer and their echo ring."
The whole Epithalamion is very noble, with an organ-like roll and majesty
of numbers, while it is instinct with the same joyousness which must have
been the familiar mood of Spenser. It is no superficial and tiresome
merriment, but a profound delight in the beauty of the universe and in
that delicately surfaced nature of his which was its mirror and
counterpart. Sadness was alien to him, and at funerals he was, to be
sure, a decorous mourner, as could not fail with so sympathetic a
temperament; but his condolences are graduated to the unimpassioned scale
of social requirement. Even for Sir Philip Sidney his sighs are regulated
by the official standard. It was in an unreal world that his affections
found their true object and vent, and it is in an elegy of a lady whom he
had never known that he puts into the mouth of a husband whom he has
evaporated into a shepherd, the two most naturally pathetic verses he
"I hate the day because it lendeth light
To see all things, but not my love to see."
In the Epithalamion there is an epithet which has been much admired for
its felicitous tenderness:--
"Behold, whiles she before the altar stands,
Hearing the holy priest that to her speakes
And blesseth her with his two _happy_ hands."
But the purely impersonal passion of the artist had already guided him to
this lucky phrase. It is addressed by Holiness--a dame surely as far
abstracted from the enthusiasms of love as we can readily conceive of--to
Una, who, like the visionary Helen of Dr. Faustus, has every charm of
womanhood, except that of being alive as Juliet and Beatrice are.
"O happy earth,
Whereon thy innocent feet do ever tread!"
Can we conceive of Una, the fall of whose foot would be as soft as that
of a rose-leaf upon its mates already fallen,--can we conceive of her
treading anything so sordid? No; it is only on some unsubstantial floor
of dream that she walks securely, herself a dream. And it is only when
Spenser has escaped thither, only when this glamour of fancy has rarefied
his wife till she is grown almost as purely a creature of the imagination
as the other ideal images with which he converses, that his feeling
becomes as nearly passionate--as nearly human, I was on the point of
saying--as with him is possible. I am so far from blaming this idealizing
property of his mind, that I find it admirable in him. It is his quality,
not his defect. Without some touch of it life would be unendurable prose.
If I have called the world to which he transports us a world of
unreality, I have wronged him. It is only a world of unrealism. It is
from pots and pans and stocks and futile gossip and inch-long politics
that he emancipates us, and makes us free of that to-morrow, always
coming and never come, where ideas shall reign supreme. But I am
keeping my readers from the sweetest idealization that love ever
"Unto this place whenas the elfin knight
Approached, him seemed that the merry sound
Of a shrill pipe, he playing heard on height,
And many feet fast thumping the hollow ground,
That through the woods their echo did rebound;
He nigher drew to wit what it mote be.
There he a troop of ladies dancing found
Full merrily and making gladful glee;
And in the midst a shepherd piping he did see.
"He durst not enter into the open green
For dread of them unwares to be descried,
For breaking of their dance, if he were seen;
But in the covert of the wood did bide
Beholding all, yet of them unespied;
There he did see that pleased so much his sight
That even he himself his eyes envied,
A hundred naked maidens lily-white,
All ranged in a ring and dancing in delight.
"All they without were ranged in a ring,
And danced round; but in the midst of them
Three other ladies did both dance and sing,
The while the rest them round about did hem,
And like a garland did in compass stem.
And in the midst of these same three was placed
Another damsel, as a precious gem
Amidst a ring most richly well enchased,
That with her goodly presence all the rest much graced.
"Look how the crown which Ariadne wove
Upon her ivory forehead that same day,
That Theseus her unto his bridal bore,
(When the bold Centaurs made that bloody fray,
With the fierce Lapithes, that did them dismay)
Being now placed in the firmament,
Through the bright heaven doth her beams display,
And is unto the stars an ornament,
Which round about her move in order excellent;
"Such was the beauty of this goodly band,
Whose sundry parts were here too long to tell,
But she that in the midst of them did stand,
Seemed all the rest in beauty to excel,
Crowned with a rosy garland that right well
Did her beseem. And, ever as the crew
About her danced, sweet flowers that far did smell,
And fragrant odors they upon her threw;
But most of all those three did her with gifts endue.
"Those were the graces, Daughters of Delight,
Handmaids of Venus, which are wont to haunt
Upon this hill and dance there, day and night;
Those three to men all gifts of grace do grant
And all that Venus in herself doth vaunt
Is borrowed of them; but that fair one
That in the midst was placed paravant,
Was she to whom that shepherd piped alone,
That made him pipe so merrily, as never none.
"She was, to weet, that jolly shepherd's lass
Which piped there unto that merry rout;
That jolly shepherd that there piped was
Poor Colin Clout; (who knows not Colin Clout?)
He piped apace while they him danced about;
Pipe, jolly shepherd, pipe thou now apace,
Unto thy love that made thee low to lout;
Thy love is present there with thee in place,
Thy love is there advanced to be another Grace."
Is there any passage in any poet that so ripples and sparkles with simple
delight as this? It is a sky of Italian April full of sunshine and the
hidden ecstasy of larks. And we like it all the more that it reminds us
of that passage in his friend Sidney's _Arcadia_, where the shepherd-boy
pipes "as if he would never be old." If we compare it with the mystical
scene in Dante, of which it is a reminiscence, it will seem almost
like a bit of real life; but taken by itself it floats as unconcerned in
our cares and sorrows and vulgarities as a sunset cloud. The sound of
that pastoral pipe seems to come from as far away as Thessaly when Apollo
was keeping sheep there. Sorrow, the great idealizer, had had the
portrait of Beatrice on her easel for years, and every touch of her
pencil transfigured the woman more and more into the glorified saint. But
Elizabeth Nagle was a solid thing of flesh and blood, who would sit down
at meat with the poet on the very day when he had thus beatified her. As
Dante was drawn upward from heaven to heaven by the eyes of Beatrice, so
was Spenser lifted away from the actual by those of that ideal Beauty
whereof his mind had conceived the lineaments in its solitary musings
over Plato, but of whose haunting presence the delicacy of his senses had
already premonished him. The intrusion of the real world upon this
supersensual mood of his wrought an instant disenchantment:--
"Much wondered Calidore at this strange sight
Whose like before his eye had never seen,
And, standing long astonished in sprite
And rapt with pleasance, wist not what to ween,
Whether it were the train of Beauty's Queen,
Or Nymphs, or Fairies, or enchanted show
With which his eyes might have deluded been,
Therefore resolving what it was to know,
Out of the woods he rose and toward them did go.
"But soon as he appeared to their view
They vanished all away out of his sight
And clean were gone, which way he never knew,
All save the shepherd, who, for fell despite
Of that displeasure, broke his bagpipe quite."
Ben Jonson said that "he had consumed a whole night looking to his great
toe, about which he had seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians,
fight in his imagination"; and Coleridge has told us how his "eyes made
pictures when they were shut" This is not uncommon, but I fancy that
Spenser was more habitually possessed by his imagination than is usual
even with poets. His visions must have accompanied him "in glory and in
joy" along the common thoroughfares of life and seemed to him, it may be
suspected, more real than the men and women he met there. His "most fine
spirit of sense" would have tended to keep him in this exalted mood. I
must give an example of the sensuousness of which I have spoken :--
"And in the midst of all a fountain stood
Of richest substance that on earth might be,
So pure and shiny that the crystal flood
Through every channel running one might see;
Most goodly it with curious imagery
Was overwrought, and shapes of naked boys,
Of which some seemed with lively jollity
To fly about, playing their wanton toys,
Whilst others did themselves embay in liquid joys.
"And over all, of purest gold was spread
A trail of ivy in his native hue;
For the rich metal was so colored
That he who did not well avised it view
Would surely deem it to be ivy true;
Low his lascivious arms adown did creep
That themselves dipping in the silver dew
Their fleecy flowers they tenderly did steep,
Which drops of crystal seemed for wantonness to weep.
"Infinite streams continually did well
Out of this fountain, sweet and fair to see,
The which into an ample laver fell,
And shortly grew to so great quantity
That like a little lake it seemed to be
Whose depth exceeded not three cubits' height,
That through the waves one might the bottom see
All paved beneath with jasper shining bright,
That seemed the fountain in that sea did sail upright.
"And all the margent round about was set
With shady laurel-trees, thence to defend
The sunny beams which on the billows bet,
And those which therein bathed mote offend.
As Guyou happened by the same to wend
Two naked Damsels he therein espied,
Which therein bathing seemed to contend
And wrestle wantonly, ne cared to hide
Their dainty parts from view of any which them eyed.
"Sometimes the one would lift the other quite
Above the waters, and then down again
Her plunge, as overmastered by might,
Where both awhile would covered remain,
And each the other from to rise restrain;
The whiles their snowy limbs, as through a veil,
So through the crystal waves appeared plain:
Then suddenly both would themselves unhele,
And the amorous sweet spoils to greedy eyes reveal.
"As that fair star, the messenger of morn,
His dewy face out of the sea doth rear;
Or as the Cyprian goddess, newly born
Of the ocean's fruitful froth, did first appear;
Such seemed they, and so their yellow hear
Crystalline humor dropped down apace.
Whom such when Guyon saw, he drew him near,
And somewhat gan relent his earnest pace;
His stubborn breast gan secret pleasance to embrace.
"The wanton Maidens him espying, stood
Gazing awhile at his unwonted guise;
Then the one herself low ducked in the flood,
Abashed that her a stranger did avise;
But the other rather higher did arise,
And her two lily paps aloft displayed,
And all that might his melting heart entice
To her delights, she unto him bewrayed;
The rest, hid underneath, him more desirous made.
"With that the other likewise up arose,
And her fair locks, which formerly were bound
Up in one knot, she low adown did loose,
Which flowing long and thick her clothed around,
And the ivory in golden mantle gowned:
So that fair spectacle from him was reft,
Yet that which reft it no less fair was found;
So hid in locks and waves from lookers' theft,
Naught but her lovely face she for his looking left.
"Withal she laughed, and she blushed withal,
That blushing to her laughter gave more grace,
And laughter to her blushing, as did fall.
* * * * *
"Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound,
Of all that mote delight a dainty ear,
Such as at once might not on living ground,
Save in this paradise, be heard elsewhere:
Right hard it was for wight which did it hear
To read what manner music that mote be;
For all that pleasing is to living ear
Was there consorted in one harmony;
Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree.
"The joyous birds, shrouded in cheerful shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempered sweet;
The angelical soft trembling voices made
To the instruments divine respondence mete;
The silver-sounding instruments did meet
With the base murmur of the water's fall;
The water's fall with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call;
The gentle warbling wind low answered to all."
Spenser, in one of his letters to Harvey, had said, "Why, a God's name,
may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom of our own language?"
This is in the tone of Bellay, as is also a great deal of what is said in
the epistle prefixed to the "Shepherd's Calendar." He would have been
wiser had he followed more closely Bellay's advice about the introduction
of novel words: "Fear not, then, to innovate somewhat, particularly in a
long poem, with modesty, however, with analogy, and judgment of ear; and
trouble not thyself as to who may think it good or bad, hoping that
posterity will approve it,--she who gives faith to doubtful, light to
obscure, novelty to antique, usage to unaccustomed, and sweetness to
harsh and rude things." Spenser's innovations were by no means always
happy, as not always according with the genius of the language, and they
have therefore not prevailed. He forms English words out of French or
Italian ones, sometimes, I think, on a misapprehension of their true
meaning; nay, he sometimes makes new ones by unlawfully grafting a scion
of Romance on a Teutonic root. His theory, caught from Bellay, of
rescuing good archaisms from unwarranted oblivion, was excellent; not so
his practice of being archaic for the mere sake of escaping from the
common and familiar. A permissible archaism is a word or phrase that has
been supplanted by something less apt, but has not become unintelligible;
and Spenser's often needed a glossary, even in his own day. But he
never endangers his finest passages by any experiments of this kind.
There his language is living, if ever any, and of one substance with the
splendor of his fancy. Like all masters of speech, he is fond of toying
with and teasing it a little; and it may readily be granted that he
sometimes "hunted the letter," as it was called, out of all cry. But even
where his alliteration is tempted to an excess, its prolonged echoes
caress the ear like the fading and gathering reverberations of an Alpine
horn, and one can find in his heart to forgive even such a debauch of
initial assonances as
"Eftsoones her shallow ship away did slide,
More swift than swallow shears the liquid sky."
Generally, he scatters them at adroit intervals, reminding us of the
arrangement of voices in an ancient catch, where one voice takes up the
phrase another has dropped, and thus seems to give the web of harmony a
firmer and more continuous texture.
Other poets have held their mirrors up to nature, mirrors that differ
very widely in the truth and beauty of the images they reflect; but
Spenser's is a magic glass in which we see few shadows cast back from
actual life, but visionary shapes conjured up by the wizard's art from
some confusedly remembered past or some impossible future; it is like one
of those still pools of mediaeval legend which covers some sunken city of
the antique world; a reservoir in which all our dreams seem to have been
gathered. As we float upon it, we see that it pictures faithfully enough
the summer-clouds that drift over it, the trees that grow about its
margin, but in the midst of these shadowy echoes of actuality we catch
faint tones of bells that seem blown to us from beyond the horizon of
time, and looking down into the clear depths, catch glimpses of towers
and far-shining knights and peerless dames that waver and are gone. Is it
a world that ever was, or shall be, or can be, or but a delusion?
Spenser's world, real to him, is real enough for us to take a holiday in,
and we may well be content with it when the earth we dwell on is so often
too real to allow of such vacations. It is the same kind of world that
Petrarca's Laura has walked in for five centuries with all ears listening
for the music of her footfall.
The land of Spenser is the land of Dream, but it is also the land of
Rest. To read him is like dreaming awake, without even the trouble of
doing it yourself, but letting it be done for you by the finest dreamer
that ever lived, who knows how to color his dreams like life and make
them move before you in music. They seem singing to you as the sirens to
Guyon, and we linger like him:--
"O, thou fair son of gentle Faery
That art in mighty arms most magnified
Above all knights that ever battle tried,
O, turn thy rudder hitherward awhile,
Here may thy storm-beat vessel safely ride,
This is the port of rest from troublous toil,
The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil.
"With that the rolling sea, resounding swift
In his big bass, them fitly answered,
And on the rock the waves, breaking aloft,
A solemn mean unto them measured,
The whiles sweet Zephyrus loud whisteled
His treble, a strange kind of harmony
Which Guyon's senses softly tickeled
That he the boatman bade row easily
And let him hear some part of their rare melody."
Despite Spenser's instinctive tendency to idealize, and his habit of
distilling out of the actual an ethereal essence in which very little of
the possible seems left, yet his mind, as is generally true of great
poets, was founded on a solid basis of good-sense. I do not know where to
look for a more cogent and at the same time picturesque confutation of
Socialism than in the Second Canto of the Fifth Book. If I apprehend
rightly his words and images, there is not only subtile but profound
thinking here. The French Revolution is prefigured in the well-meaning
but too theoretic giant, and Rousseau's fallacies exposed two centuries
in advance. Spenser was a conscious Englishman to his inmost fibre, and
did not lack the sound judgment in politics which belongs to his race. He
was the more English for living in Ireland, and there is something that
moves us deeply in the exile's passionate cry:--
"Dear Country! O how dearly dear
Ought thy remembrance and perpetual band
Be to thy foster-child that from thy hand
Did common breath and nouriture receive!
How brutish is it not to understand
How much to her we owe that all us gave,
That gave unto us all whatever good we have!"
His race shows itself also where he tells us that
"chiefly skill to ride seems a science
Proper to gentle blood,"
which reminds one of Lord Herbert of Cherbury's saying that the finest
sight God looked down on was a fine man on a fine horse.
Wordsworth, in the supplement to his preface, tells us that the "Faery
Queen" "faded before" Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas. But
Wordsworth held a brief for himself in this case, and is no exception to
the proverb about men who are their own attorneys. His statement is
wholly unfounded. Both poems, no doubt, so far as popularity is
concerned, yielded to the graver interests of the Civil War. But there is
an appreciation much weightier than any that is implied in mere
popularity, and the vitality of a poem is to be measured by the kind as
well as the amount of influence it exerts. Spenser has _coached_ more
poets and more eminent ones than any other writer of English verse. I
need say nothing of Milton, nor of professed disciples like Browne, the
two Fletchers, and More. Oowley tells us that he became "irrecoverably a
poet" by reading the "Faery Queen" when a boy. Dryden, whose case is
particularly in point because he confesses having been seduced by Du
Bartas, tells us that Spenser had been his master in English. He regrets,
indeed, comically enough, that Spenser could not have read the rules of
Bossu, but adds that "no man was ever born with a greater genius or more
knowledge to support it." Pope says, "There is something in Spenser that
pleases one as strongly in one's old age as it did in one's youth. I read
the _Faery Queen_ when I was about twelve with a vast deal of delight;
and I think it gave me as much when I read it over about a year or two
ago." Thomson wrote the most delightful of his poems in the measure of
Spenser; Collins, Gray, and Akenside show traces of him; and in our own
day his influence reappears in Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
Landor is, I believe, the only poet who ever found him tedious. Spenser's
mere manner has not had so many imitators as Milton's, but no other of
our poets has given an impulse, and in the right direction also, to so
many and so diverse minds; above all, no other has given to so many young
souls a consciousness of their wings and a delight in the use of them. He
is a standing protest against the tyranny of Commonplace, and sows the
seeds of a noble discontent with prosaic views of life and the dull uses
to which it may be put.
Three of Spenser's own verses best characterize the feeling his poetry
"Among wide waves set like a little nest,"
"Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemies,"
"The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil."
We are wont to apologize for the grossness of our favorite authors
sometimes by saying that their age was to blame and not they; and the
excuse is a good one, for often it is the frank word that shocks us while
we tolerate the thing. Spenser needs no such extenuations. No man can
read the "Faery Queen" and be anything but the better for it. Through
that rude age, when Maids of Honor drank beer for breakfast and Hamlet
could say a gross thing to Ophelia, he passes serenely abstracted and
high, the Don Quixote of poets. Whoever can endure unmixed delight,
whoever can tolerate music and painting and poetry all in one, whoever
wishes to be rid of thought and to let the busy anvils of the brain be
silent for a time, let him read in the "Faery Queen." There is the land
of pure heart's ease, where no ache or sorrow of spirit can enter.
 Though always misapplied in quotation, as if he had used the
word in that generalized meaning which is common now, but which could
not without an impossible anachronism have been present to his mind.
He meant merely freedom from prison.
 In his "Defence of Poesy" he condemns the archaisms and
provincialisms of the "Shepherd's Calendar."
 "There is, as you must have heard Wordsworth point out, a
language of pure, intelligible English, which was spoken in Chaucer's
time, and is spoken in ours; equally understood then and now; and of
which the Bible is the written and permanent standard, as it has
undoubtedly been the great means of preserving it." (Southey's Life
and Correspondence, III. 193, 194.)
 Nash, who has far better claims than Swift to be called the
English Rabelais, thus at once describes and parodies Harvey's
hexameters in prose, "that drunken, staggering kind of verse, which
is all up hill and down hill, like the way betwixt Stamford and
Beechneld, and goes like a horse plunging through the mire in the
deep of winter, now soused up to the saddle, and straight aloft on
his tiptoes." It was a happy thought to satirize (in this inverted
way) prose written in the form of verse.
 Edmund Bolton in his _Hypercritica_ says, "The works of Sam
Daniel contained somewhat a flat, but yet withal a very pure and
copious English, and words as warrantable as any man's, and _fitter
perhaps for prose than measure_." I have italicized his second
thought, which chimes curiously with the feeling Daniel leaves in the
mind. (See Haslewood's Ancient Crit. Essays, Vol. II.) Wordsworth, an
excellent judge, much admired Daniel's poem to the Countess of
 Mr. Hales, in the excellent memoir of the poet prefixed to the
Globe edition of his works, puts his birth a year earlier, on the
strength of a line in the sixtieth sonnet. But it is not established
that this sonnet was written in 1593, and even if it were, a sonnet
is not upon oath, and the poet would prefer the round number forty,
which suited the measure of his verse, to thirty-nine or forty-one,
which might have been truer to the measure of his days.
 This has been inferred from a passage in one of Gabriel
Harvey's letters to him. But it would seem more natural, from the
many allusions in Harvey's pamphlets against Nash, that it was his
own wrongs which he had in mind, and his self-absorption would take
it for granted that Spenser sympathized with him in all his grudges.
Harvey is a remarkable instance of the refining influence of
classical studies. Amid the pedantic farrago of his omni-sufficiency
(to borrow one of his own words) we come suddenly upon passages whose
gravity of sentiment, stateliness of movement, and purity of diction
remind us of Landor. These lucid intervals in his overweening vanity
explain and justify the friendship of Spenser. Yet the reiteration of
emphasis with which he insists on all the world's knowing that Nash
had called him an ass, probably gave Shakespeare the hint for one of
the most comic touches in the character of Dogberry.
 The late Major C. G. Halpine, in a very interesting essay,
makes it extremely probable that Rosalinde is the anagram of Rose
Daniel, sister of the poet and married to John Florio He leaves
little doubt, also, that the name of Spenser's wife (hitherto
unknown) was Elizabeth Nagle. (See "Atlantic Monthly," Vol II 674
November, 1858.) Mr. Halpine informed me that he found the substance
of his essay among the papers of his father, the late Rev. N. J.
Halpine, of Dublin. The latter published in the series of the
Shakespeare Society a sprightly little tract entitled "Oberon,"
which, if not quite convincing, is well worth reading for its
ingenuity and research.
 In his prose tract on Ireland, Spenser, perhaps with some
memory of Ovid in his mind, derives the Irish mainly from the
 Compare Shakespeare's LXVI. Sonnet.
 This poem, published in 1591, was, Spenser tells us in his
dedication, "long sithens composed in the raw conceit of my youth."
But he had evidently retouched it. The verses quoted show a firmer
hand than is generally seen in it, and we are safe in assuming that
they were added after his visit to England. Dr. Johnson
epigrammatized Spenser's indictment into
"There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail,"
but I think it loses in pathos more than it gains in point.
 Paradiso, XI. 4-12 Spenser was familiar with the "Divina
Commedia," though I do not remember that his commentators have
pointed out his chief obligations to it.
 His own words as reported by Lodowick Bryskett. (Todd's
Spenser, I. lx.) The whole passage is very interesting as giving us
the only glimpse we get of the living Spenser in actual contact with
his fellow-men. It shows him to us, as we could wish to see him,
surrounded with loving respect, companionable and helpful. Bryskett
tells us that he was "perfect in the Greek tongue," and "also very
well read in philosophy both moral and natural." He encouraged
Bryskett in the study of Greek, and offered to help him in it.
Comparing the last verse of the above citation of the "Faery Queen"
with other passages in Spenser, I cannot help thinking that he wrote,
"do not love amiss."
"And know, sweet prince, when you shall come to know,
That 'tis not in the power of kings to raise
A spirit for verse that is not born thereto;
Nor are they born in every prince's days"
_Daniel's Dedic Trag. of "Philotas."_
 Louis XIV. is commonly supposed in some miraculous way to have
created French literature. He may more truly be said to have
petrified it so far as his influence went. The French _renaissance_
in the preceding century was produced by causes similar in essentials
to those which brought about that in England not long after. The
_grand siecle_ grew by natural processes of development out of that
which had preceded it, and which, to the impartial foreigner at
least, has more flavor, and more French flavor too, than the
Gallo-Roman usurper that pushed it from its stool. The best modern
French poetry has been forced to temper its verses in the colder
natural springs of the ante-classic period.
 In the Elizabethan drama the words "England" and "France" we
constantly used to signify the kings of those countries.
 I say supposed, for the names of his two sons, Sylvanus and
Peregrine, indicate that they were born in Ireland, and that Spenser
continued to regard it as a wilderness and his abode there as exile.
The two other children are added on the authority of a pedigree drawn
up by Sir W. Betham and cited in Mr. Hales's Life of Spenser prefixed
to the Globe edition.
 Ben Jonson told Drummond that one child perished in the flames.
But he was speaking after an interval of twenty-one years, and, of
course, from hearsay. Spenser's misery was exaggerated by succeeding
poets, who used him to point a moral, and from the shelter of his
tomb launched many a shaft of sarcasm at an unappreciative public.
Giles Fletcher in his "Purple Island" (a poem which reminds us of the
"Faery Queen" by the supreme tediousness of its allegory, but in
nothing else) set the example in the best verse he ever wrote:--
"Poorly, poor man, he lived; poorly, poor man, he died."
Gradually this poetical tradition established itself firmly as
authentic history. Spenser could never have been poor, except by
comparison. The whole story of his later days has a strong savor of
legend. He must have had ample warning of Tyrone's rebellion, and
would probably have sent away his wife and children to Cork, if he
did not go thither himself. I am inclined to think that he did,
carrying his papers with him, and among them the two cantos of
Mutability, first published in 1611. These, it is most likely, were
the only ones he ever completed, for, with all his abundance, he was
evidently a laborious finisher. When we remember that ten years were
given to the elaboration of the first three books, and that five more
elapsed before the next three were ready, we shall waste no vain
regrets on the six concluding books supposed to have been lost by the
carelessness of an imaginary servant on their way from Ireland.
 Sir Philip Sidney did not approve of this. "That same framing
of his style to an old rustic language I dare not allow, since
neither Theocritus in Greek, Virgil in Latin, nor Sannazzaro in
Italian did affect it." ("Defence of Poesy.") Ben Jonson, on the
other hand, said that Guarini "kept not decorum in making shepherds
speak as well as himself could." ("Conversations with Drummond.") I
think Sidney was right, for the poets' Arcadia is a purely ideal
world, and should be treated accordingly. But whoever looks into the
glossary appended to the "Calendar" by E.K., will be satisfied that
Spenser's object was to find unhackneyed and poetical words rather
than such as should seem more on a level with the speakers. See also
the "Epistle Dedicatory." I cannot help thinking that E.K. was
Spenser himself, with occasional interjections of Harvey. Who else
could have written such English as many passages in this Epistle?
 It was at Penshurst that he wrote the only specimen that has
come down to us, and bad enough it is. I have said that some of
Sidney's are pleasing.
 See "My Study Windows," 264 _seqq_.
 Of course _dillies_ and _lilies_ must be read with a slight
accentuation of the last syllable (permissible then), in order to
chime with _delice_. In the first line I have put _here_ instead of
_hether_, which (like other words where _th_ comes between two
vowels) was then very often a monosyllable, in order to throw the
accent back more strongly on _bring_, where it belongs. Spenser's
innovation lies in making his verses by ear instead of on the
finger-tips, and in valuing the stave more than any of the single
verses that compose it. This is the secret of his easy superiority to
all others in the stanza which he composed, and which bears his name.
Milton (who got more of his schooling in these matters from Spenser
than anywhere else) gave this principle a greater range, and applied
it with more various mastery. I have little doubt that the tune of
the last stanza cited above was clinging in Shakespeare's ear when he
wrote those exquisite verses in "Midsummer Night's Dream" ("I know a
bank"), where our grave pentameter is in like manner surprised into a
lyrical movement. See also the pretty song in the eclogue for August.
Ben Jonson, too, evidently caught some cadences from Spenser for his
lyrics. I need hardly say that in those eclogues (May, for example)
where Spenser thought he was imitating what wiseacres used to call
the _riding-rhyme_ of Chaucer, he fails most lamentably. He had
evidently learned to scan his master's verses better when he wrote
his "Mother Hubberd's Tale."
 Drummond, it will be remarked, speaking from memory, takes
Cuddy to be Colin. In Milton's "Lycidas" there are reminiscences of
this eclogue as well as of that for May. The latter are the more
evident, but I think that Spenser's
"Cuddie, the praise is better than the price,"
"But not the praise,
Phoebus replied, and touched my trembling ears."
Shakespeare had read and remembered this pastoral. Compare
"But, ah, Mecaenas is yclad in clay,
And great Augustus long ago is dead,
And all the worthies liggen wrapt in lead,"
"King Pandion, he is dead;
All thy friends are lapt in lead."
It is odd that Shakespeare, in his "lapt in lead," is more Spenserian
than Spenser himself, from whom he caught this "hunting of the
 "Ruins of Time." It is perhaps not considering too nicely to
remark how often this image of _wings_ recurred to Spenser's mind. A
certain aerial latitude was essential to the large circlings of his
 Perhaps his most striking single epithet is the
"sea-shouldering whales," B. II 12, xxiii. His ear seems to delight
in prolongations For example, he makes such words as _glorious_,
_gratious_, _joyeous_, _havior_, _chapelet_ dactyles, and that, not
at the end of verses, where it would not have been unusual, but in
the first half of them. Milton contrives a break (a kind of heave, as
it were) in the uniformity of his verse by a practice exactly the
opposite of this. He also shuns a _hiatus_ which does not seem to
have been generally dipleasing to Spenser's ear, though perhaps in
the compound epithet _bees-alluring_ he intentionally avoids it by
the plural form.
"Like as a wayward child, whose sounder sleep
Is broken with some fearful dream's affright,
With froward will doth set himself to weep
Ne can be stilled for all his nurse's might,
But kicks and squalls and shrieks for fell despight,
Now scratching her and her loose locks misusing,
Now seeking darkness and now seeking light,
Then craving suck, and then the suck refusing."
He would doubtless have justified himself by the familiar example of
Homer's comparing Ajax to a donkey in the eleventh book of the
Illiad. So also in the "Epithalamion" it grates our nerves to hear,
"Pour not by cups, but by the bellyful,
Pour out to all that wull."
Such examples serve to show how strong a dose of Spenser's _aurum
potabile_ the language needed.
 I could not bring myself to root out this odorous herb-garden,
though it make my extract too long. It is a pretty reminiscence of
his master Chaucer, but is also very characteristic of Spenser
himself. He could not help planting a flower or two among his
serviceable plants, and after all this abundance he is not satisfied,
but begins the next stanza with "And whatso _else_."
 Leigh Hunt's Indicator, XVII.
 Ben Jonson told Drummond "that in that paper Sir W. Raleigh had
of the allegories of his Faery Queen, by the Blatant Beast the
Puritans were understood." But this is certainly wrong. There were
very different shades of Puritanism, according to individual
temperament. That of Winthrop and Higginson had a mellowness of which
Endicott and Standish were incapable The gradual change of Milton's
opinions was similar to that which I suppose in Spenser. The passage
in Mother Hubberd may have been aimed at the Protestant clergy of
Ireland (for he says much the same thing in his "View of the State of
Ireland"), but it is general in its terms.
 Two of his eclogues, as I have said, are from Marot, and his
earliest known verses are translations from Bellay, a poet who was
charming whenever he had the courage to play truant from a bad
school. We must not suppose that an analysis of the literature of the
_demi-monde_ will give us all the elements of the French character.
It has been both grave and profound; nay, it has even contrived to be
wise and lively at the same time, a combination so incomprehensible
by the Teutonic races that they have labelled it levity. It puts them
out as nature did Fuseli.
 Taste must be partially excepted. It is remarkable how little
eating and drinking there is in the "Faery Queen." The only time he
fairly sets a table is in the house of Malbecco, where it is
necessary to the conduct of the story. Yet taste is not wholly
"In her left hand a cup of gold she held,
And with her right the riper fruit did reach,
Whose sappy liquor, that with fulness sweld,
Into her cup she scruzed with dainty breach
Of her fine fingers without foul impeach,
That so fair wine-press made the wine more sweet."
B. II c. xii. 56.
Taste can hardly complain of unhandsome treatment!
 Had the poet lived longer, he might perhaps have verified his
friend Raleigh's saying, that "whosoever in writing modern history
shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his
teeth." The passage is one of the very few disgusting ones in the
"Faery Queen." Spenser was copying Ariosto; but the Italian poet,
with the discreeter taste of his race, keeps to generalities. Spenser
goes into particulars which can only be called nasty. He did this, no
doubt, to pleasure his mistress, Mary's rival; and this gives us a
measure of the brutal coarseness of contemporary manner. It becomes
only the more marvellous that the fine flower of his genius could
have transmuted the juices of such a soil into the purity and
sweetness which are its own peculiar properties.
 There is a gleam of humor in one of the couplets of "Mother
Hubberd's Tale," where the Fox, persuading the Ape that they should
disguise themselves as discharged soldiers in order to beg the more
"Be you the soldier, for you likest are
For manly semblance _and small skill in war."_
 Bunyan probably took the hint of the Giants suicidal offer of
"knife, halter, or poison," from Spenser's "swords, ropes, poison,"
in Faery Queen, B. I. c. ix. 1.
 Book II. c. 9.
 See Sidney's "Defence," and Puttenham's "Art of English Poesy,"
Book I. c. 8.
 We can fancy how he would have done this by Jeremy Taylor, who
was a kind of Spenser in a cassock.
 Of this he himself gives a striking hint, when speaking in his
own person he suddenly breaks in on his narrative with the passionate
"Ah, dearest God, me grant I dead be not defouled."
_Faery Queen_, B. I. c. x. 43.
 Was not this picture painted by Paul Veronese, for example?
"Arachne figured how Jove did abuse
Europa like a bull, and on his back
Her through the sea did bear: ...
She seemed still back unto the land to look,
And her playfellows' aid to call, and fear
The dashing of the waves, that up she took
Her dainty feet, and garments gathered near....
Before the bull she pictured winged Love,
With his young brother Sport, ...
And many nymphs about them flocking round,
And many Tritons which their horns did sound."
Spenser begins a complimentary sonnet prefixed to the "Commonwealth
and Government of Venice" (1599) with this beautiful verse,
"Fair Venice, flower of the last world's delight."
Perhaps we should read "lost"?
 Marlowe's "Tamburlaine," Part I. Act V. 2.
Grayheaded Thought, nor much nor little, may
Take up its lodging here in any heart;
Unease nor Lack can enter at this door;
But here dwells full-horned Plenty evermore.
_Orl. Fur._, e. vi. 78.
 B. I. c. iii. 7. Leigh Hunt, one of the most sympathetic of
critics, has remarked the passionate change from the third to the
first person in the last two verses.
 B. II. c. viii. 3.
 Observations on Faery Queen, Vol. I pp. 158, 159. Mr. Hughes
also objects to Spenser's measure, that it is "closed always by a
fullstop, in the same place, by which every stanza is made as it were
a distinct paragraph." (Todd's Spenser, II. xli.) But he could hardly
have read the poem attentively, for there are numerous instances to
the contrary. Spenser was a consummate master of versification, and
not only did Marlowe and Shakespeare learn of him, but I have little
doubt that, but for the "Faery Queen," we should never have had the
varied majesty of Milton's blank verse.
 As where Dr. Warton himself says:--
"How nearly had my spirit past,
Till stopt by Metcalf's skilful hand,
To death's dark regions wide and waste
And the black river's mournful strand,
Or to," etc.,
to the end of the next stanza. That is, I had died but for Dr.
Metcalf 's boluses.
 Iliad, XVII. 55 _seqq_. Referred to in Upton's note on Faery
Queen, B. I. c. vii. 32. Into what a breezy couplet trailing off with
an alexandrine has Homer's [Greek: pnoiai pantoion anemon] expanded!
Chaplin unfortunately has slurred this passage in his version, and
Pope _tittivated_ it more than usual in his. I have no other
translation at hand. Marlowe was so taken by this passage in
Spenser that he put it bodily into his _Tamburlaine_.
 Inferno, XXIV. 46-52.
"For sitting upon down,
Or under quilt, one cometh not to fame,
Withouten which whoso his life consumeth
Such vestige leaveth of himself on earth
As smoke in air or in the water foam."
It shows how little Dante was read during the last century that none
of the commentators on Spenser notice his most important obligations
to the great Tuscan.
 Faery Queen, B. II. c. iii. 40, 41.
 Ibid., B. I. c. v. 1.
 Ibid., B. II. c. viii. 1,2.
 B. III. c. xi. 28.
 B. I. c. i. 41.
 This phrase occurs in the sonnet addressed to the Earl of
Ormond and in that to Lord Grey de Wilton in the series prefixed to
the "Faery Queen". These sonnets are of a much stronger build than
the "Amoretti", and some of them (especially that to Sir John Norris)
recall the firm tread of Milton's, though differing in structure.
 Daphnaida, 407, 408.
 Faery Queen, B. I. c. x. 9.
 Strictly taken, perhaps his world is not _much_ more imaginary
than that of other epic poets, Homer (in the Iliad) included. He who
is familiar with mediaeval epics will be extremely cautious in
drawing inferences as to contemporary manners from Homer. He
evidently _archaizes_ like the rest.
 Faery Queen, B. VI. c. x. 10-16.
 Purgatorio, XXIX., XXX.
 I find a goodly number of Yankeeisms in him, such as _idee_
(not as a rhyme); but the oddest is his twice spelling _dew deow_,
which is just as one would spell it who wished to phonetize its sound
in rural New England.
 This song recalls that in Dante's Purgatorio (XIX. 19--24), in
which the Italian tongue puts forth all its siren allurements.
Browne's beautiful verses ("Turn, hither turn your winged pines")
were suggested by these of Spenser. It might almost seem as if
Spenser had here, in his usual way, expanded the sweet old verses:--
"Merry sungen the monks binnen Ely
When Knut king rew thereby;
'Roweth knightes near the loud,
That I may hear these monkes song.'"
A generation has now passed away since Wordsworth was laid with the
family in the churchyard at Grasmere. Perhaps it is hardly yet time
to take a perfectly impartial measure of his value as a poet. To do this
is especially hard for those who are old enough to remember the last shot
which the foe was sullenly firing in that long war of critics which began
when he published his manifesto as Pretender, and which came to a pause
rather than end when they flung up their caps with the rest at his final
coronation. Something of the intensity of the _odium theologicum_ (if
indeed the _aestheticum_ be not in these days the more bitter of the two)
entered into the conflict. The Wordsworthians were a sect, who, if they
had the enthusiasm, had also not a little of the exclusiveness and
partiality to which sects are liable. The verses of the master had for
them the virtue of religious canticles stimulant of zeal and not amenable
to the ordinary tests of cold-blooded criticism. Like the hymns of the
Huguenots and Covenanters, they were songs of battle no less than of
worship, and the combined ardors of conviction and conflict lent them a
fire that was not naturally their own. As we read them now, that virtue
of the moment is gone out of them, and whatever of Dr. Wattsiness there
is gives us a slight shock of disenchantment. It is something like the
difference between the _Marseillaise_ sung by armed propagandists on the
edge of battle, or by Brissotins in the tumbrel, and the words of it read
coolly in the closet, or recited with the factitious frenzy of Therese.
It was natural in the early days of Wordsworth's career to dwell most
fondly on those profounder qualities to appreciate which settled in some
sort the measure of a man's right to judge of poetry at all. But now we
must admit the shortcomings, the failures, the defects, as no less
essential elements in forming a sound judgment as to whether the seer and
artist were so united in him as to justify the claim first put in by
himself and afterwards maintained by his sect to a place beside the few
great poets who exalt men's minds, and give a right direction and safe
outlet to their passions through the imagination, while insensibly
helping them toward balance of character and serenity of judgment by
stimulating their sense of proportion, form, and the nice adjustment of
means to ends. In none of our poets has the constant propulsion of an
unbending will, and the concentration of exclusive, if I must not say
somewhat narrow, sympathies done so much to make the original endowment
of nature effective, and in none accordingly does the biography throw so
much light on the works, nor enter so largely into their composition as
an element whether of power or of weakness. Wordsworth never saw, and I
think never wished to see, beyond the limits of his own consciousness and
experience. He early conceived himself to be, and through life was
confirmed by circumstances in the faith that he was, a "dedicated
spirit," a state of mind likely to further an intense but at the
same time one-sided development of the intellectual powers. The solitude
in which the greater part of his mature life was passed, while it
doubtless ministered to the passionate intensity of his musings upon man
and nature, was, it may be suspected, harmful to him as an artist, by
depriving him of any standard of proportion outside himself by which to
test the comparative value of his thoughts, and by rendering him more and
more incapable of that urbanity of mind which could be gained only by
commerce with men more nearly on his own level, and which gives tone
without lessening individuality. Wordsworth never quite saw the
distinction between the eccentric and the original. For what we call
originality seems not so much anything peculiar, much less anything odd,
but that quality in a man which touches human nature at most points of
its circumference, which reinvigorates the consciousness of our own
powers by recalling and confirming our own unvalued sensations and
perceptions, gives classic shape to our own amorphous imaginings, and
adequate utterance to our own stammering conceptions or emotions. The
poet's office is to be a Voice, not of one crying in the wilderness to a
knot of already magnetized acolytes, but singing amid the throng of men
and lifting their common aspirations and sympathies (so first clearly
revealed to themselves) on the wings of his song to a purer ether and a
wider reach of view. We cannot, if we would, read the poetry of
Wordsworth as mere poetry; at every other page we find ourselves
entangled in a problem of aesthetics. The world-old question of matter
and form of whether nectar _is_ of precisely the same flavor when served
to us from a Grecian chalice or from any jug of ruder pottery, comes up
for decision anew. The Teutonic nature has always shown a sturdy
preference of the solid bone with a marrow of nutritious moral to any
shadow of the same on the flowing mirror of sense. Wordsworth never lets
us long forget the deeply rooted stock from which he sprang,--_vien ben
* * * * *
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland on the 7th of
April, 1770, the second of five children. His father was John Wordsworth,
an attorney-at-law, and agent of Sir James Lowther, afterwards first Earl
of Lonsdale. His mother was Anne Cookson, the daughter of a mercer in
Penrith. His paternal ancestors had been settled immemorially at
Penistone in Yorkshire, whence his grandfather had emigrated to
Westmoreland. His mother, a woman, of piety and wisdom, died in March,
1778, being then in her thirty-second year. His father, who never
entirely cast off the depression occasioned by her death, survived her
but five years, dying in December, 1783, when William was not quite
fourteen years old.
The poet's early childhood was passed partly at Cockermouth, and partly
with his maternal grandfather at Penrith. His first teacher appears to
have been Mrs. Anne Birkett, a kind of Shenstone's Schoolmistress, who
practised the memory of her pupils, teaching them chiefly by rote, and
not endeavoring to cultivate their reasoning faculties, a process by
which children are apt to be converted from natural logicians into
impertinent sophists. Among his schoolmates here was Mary Hutchinson, who
afterwards became his wife.
In 1778 he was sent to a school founded by Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of
York, in the year 1585, at Hawkshead in Lancashire. Hawkshead is a small
market-town in the vale of Esthwaite, about a third of a mile northwest
of the lake. Here Wordsworth passed nine years, among a people of simple
habits and scenery of a sweet and pastoral dignity. His earliest
intimacies were with the mountains, lakes, and streams of his native
district, and the associations with which his mind was stored during its
most impressible period were noble and pure. The boys were boarded among
the dames of the village, thus enjoying a freedom from scholastic
restraints, which could be nothing but beneficial in a place where the
temptations were only to sports that hardened the body, while they
fostered a love of nature in the spirit and habits of observation in the
mind. Wordsworth's ordinary amusements here were hunting and fishing,
rowing, skating, and long walks around the lake and among the hills, with
an occasional scamper on horseback. His life as a school-boy was
favorable also to his poetic development, in being identified with that
of the people among whom he lived. Among men of simple habits, and where
there are small diversities of condition, the feelings and passions are
displayed with less restraint, and the young poet grew acquainted with
that primal human basis of character where the Muse finds firm foothold,
and to which he ever afterward cleared his way through all the overlying
drift of conventionalism. The dalesmen were a primitive and hardy race
who kept alive the traditions and often the habits of a more picturesque
time. A common level of interests and social standing fostered
unconventional ways of thought and speech, and friendly human sympathies.
Solitude induced reflection, a reliance of the mind on its own resources,
and individuality of character. Where everybody knew everybody, and
everybody's father had known everybody's father, the interest of man in
man was not likely to become a matter of cold hearsay and distant report
When death knocked at any door in the hamlet, there was an echo from
every fireside, and a wedding dropt its white flowers at every threshold.
There was not a grave in the churchyard but had its story, not a crag or
glen or aged tree untouched with some ideal hue of legend It was here
that Wordsworth learned that homely humanity which gives such depth and
sincerity to his poems. Travel, society, culture, nothing could
obliterate the deep trace of that early training which enables him to
speak directly to the primitive instincts of man. He was apprenticed
early to the difficult art of being himself.
At school he wrote some task-verses on subjects imposed by the master,
and also some voluntaries of his own, equally undistinguished by any
peculiar merit. But he seems to have made up his mind as early as in his
fourteenth year to become a poet. "It is recorded," says his
biographer vaguely, "that the poet's father set him very early to learn
portions of the best English poets by heart, so that at an early age he
could repeat large portions of Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser."
The great event of Wordsworth's school days was the death of his father,
who left what may be called a hypothetical estate, consisting chiefly of
claims upon the first Earl of Lonsdale, the payment of which, though
their justice was acknowledged, that nobleman contrived in some
unexplained way to elude so long as he lived. In October, 1787, he left
school for St. John's College, Cambridge. He was already, we are told, a
fair Latin scholar, and had made some progress in mathematics. The
earliest books we hear of his reading were Don Quixote, Gil Blas,
Gulliver's Travels, and the Tale of a Tub; but at school he had also
become familiar with the works of some English poets, particularly
Goldsmith and Gray, of whose poems he had learned many by heart. What is
more to the purpose, he had become, without knowing it, a lover of Nature
in all her moods, and the same mental necessities of a solitary life
which compel men to an interest in the transitory phenomena of scenery,
had made him also studious of the movements of his own mind, and the
mutual interaction and dependence of the external and internal universe.
Doubtless his early orphanage was not without its effect in confirming a
character naturally impatient of control, and his mind, left to itself,
clothed itself with an indigenous growth, which grew fairly and freely,
unstinted by the shadow of exotic plantations. It has become a truism,
that remarkable persons have remarkable mothers; but perhaps this is
chiefly true of such as have made themselves distinguished by their
industry, and by the assiduous cultivation of faculties in themselves of
only an average quality. It is rather to be noted how little is known of
the parentage of men of the first magnitude, how often they seem in some
sort foundlings, and how early an apparently adverse destiny begins the
culture of those who are to encounter and master great intellectual or
Of his disposition as a child little is known, but that little is
characteristic. He himself tells us that he was "stiff, moody, and of
violent temper." His mother said of him that he was the only one of her
children about whom she felt any anxiety,--for she was sure that he would
be remarkable for good or evil. Once, in resentment at some fancied
injury, he resolved to kill himself but his heart failed him. I suspect
that few boys of passionate temperament have escaped these momentary
suggestions of despairing helplessness. "On another occasion," he says,
"while I was at my grandfather's house at Penrith, along with my eldest
brother Richard we were whipping tops together in the long drawing-room,
on which the carpet was only laid down on particular occasions. The walls
were hung round with family pictures, and I said to my brother, 'Dare you
strike your whip through that old lady's petticoat?' He replied, 'No, I
won't.' 'Then,' said I, 'here goes,' and I struck my lash through her
hooped petticoat, for which, no doubt, though I have forgotten it, I was
properly punished. But, possibly from some want of judgment in
punishments inflicted, I had become perverse and obstinate in defying
chastisement, and rather proud of it than otherwise." This last anecdote
is as happily typical as a bit of Greek mythology which always prefigured
the lives of heroes in the stories of their childhood. Just so do we find
him afterward striking his defiant lash through the hooped petticoat of
the artificial style of poetry, and proudly unsubdued by the punishment
of the Reviewers.
Of his college life the chief record is to be found in "The Prelude." He
did not distinguish himself as a scholar, and if his life had any
incidents, they were of that interior kind which rarely appear in
biography, though they may be of controlling influence upon the life. He
speaks of reading Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton while at Cambridge,
but no reflection from them is visible in his earliest published poems.
The greater part of his vacations was spent in his native Lake-country,
where his only sister, Dorothy, was the companion of his rambles. She was
a woman of large natural endowments, chiefly of the receptive kind, and
had much to do with the formation and tendency of the poet's mind. It was
she who called forth the shyer sensibilities of his nature, and taught an
originally harsh and austere imagination to surround itself with fancy
and feeling, as the rock fringes itself with a sun-spray of ferns. She
was his first public, and belonged to that class of prophetically
appreciative temperaments whose apparent office it is to cheer the early
solitude of original minds with messages from the future. Through the
greater part of his life she continued to be a kind of poetical
conscience to him.
Wordsworth's last college vacation was spent in a foot journey upon the
Continent (1790). In January, 1791, he took his degree of B.A., and left
Cambridge. During the summer of this year he visited Wales, and, after
declining to enter upon holy orders under the plea that he was not of age
for ordination, went over to France in November, and remained during the
winter at Orleans. Here he became intimate with the republican General
Beaupuis, with whose hopes and aspirations he ardently sympathized. In
the spring of 1792 he was at Blois, and returned thence to Orleans, which
he finally quitted in October for Paris. He remained here as long as he
could with safety, and at the close of the year went back to England,
thus, perhaps, escaping the fate which soon after overtook his friends
As hitherto the life of Wordsworth may be called a fortunate one, not
less so in the training and expansion of his faculties was this period of
his stay in France. Born and reared in a country where the homely and
familiar nestles confidingly amid the most savage and sublime forms of
nature, he had experienced whatever impulses the creative faculty can
receive from mountain and cloud and the voices of winds and waters, but
he had known man only as an actor in fireside histories and tragedies,
for which the hamlet supplied an ample stage. In France he first felt the
authentic beat of a nation's heart; he was a spectator at one of those
dramas where the terrible footfall of the Eumenides is heard nearer and
nearer in the pauses of the action; and he saw man such as he can only be
when he is vibrated by the orgasm of a national emotion. He sympathized
with the hopes of France and of mankind deeply, as was fitting in a young
man and a poet; and if his faith in the gregarious advancement of men was
afterward shaken, he only held the more firmly by his belief in the
individual, and his reverence for the human as something quite apart from
the popular and above it. Wordsworth has been unwisely blamed, as if he
had been recreant to the liberal instincts of his youth. But it was
inevitable that a genius so regulated and metrical as his, a mind which
always compensated itself for its artistic radicalism by an involuntary
leaning toward external respectability, should recoil from whatever was
convulsionary and destructive in politics, and above all in religion. He
reads the poems of Wordsworth without understanding, who does not find in
them the noblest incentives to faith in man and the grandeur of his
destiny, founded always upon that personal dignity and virtue, the
capacity for whose attainment alone makes universal liberty possible and
assures its permanence. He was to make men better by opening to them the
sources of an inalterable well-being; to make them free, in a sense
higher than political, by showing them that these sources are within
them, and that no contrivance of man can permanently emancipate narrow
natures and depraved minds. His politics were always those of a poet,
circling in the larger orbit of causes and principles, careless of the
transitory oscillation of events.
The change in his point of view (if change there was) certainly was
complete soon after his return from France, and was perhaps due in part
to the influence of Burke.
"While he [Burke] forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems built on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
Of institutes and laws hallowed by time;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by custom; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born.
.... Could a youth, and one
In ancient story versed, whose breast hath heaved
Under the weight of classic eloquence,
Sit, see, and hear, unthankful, uninspired?"
He had seen the French for a dozen years eagerly busy in tearing up
whatever had roots in the past, replacing the venerable trunks of
tradition and orderly growth with liberty-poles, then striving vainly to
piece together the fibres they had broken, and to reproduce artificially
that sense of permanence and continuity which is the main safeguard of
vigorous self-consciousness in a nation. He became a Tory through
intellectual conviction, retaining, I suspect, to the last, a certain
radicalism of temperament and instinct. Haydon tells us that in 1809 Sir
George Beaumont said to him and Wilkie, "Wordsworth may perhaps walk in;
if he do I caution you both against his terrific democratic notions"; and
it must have been many years later that Wordsworth himself told Crabb
Eobinson, "I have no respect whatever for Whigs, but I have a great deal
of the Chartist in me." In 1802, during his tour in Scotland, he
travelled on Sundays as on the other days of the week.
He afterwards became a theoretical churchgoer. "Wordsworth defended
earnestly the Church establishment. He even said he would shed his blood
for it. Nor was he disconcerted by a laugh raised against him on account
of his having confessed that he knew not when he had been in a church in
his own country. 'All our ministers are so vile,' said he. The mischief
of allowing the clergy to depend on the caprice of the multitude he
thought more than outweighed all the evils of an establishment." In
December, 1792, Wordsworth had returned to England, and in the following
year published "Descriptive Sketches" and the "Evening Walk." He did
this, as he says in one of his letters, to show that, although he had
gained no honors at the University, he _could_ do something. They met
with no great success, and he afterward corrected them so much as to
destroy all their interest as juvenile productions, without communicating
to them any of the merits of maturity. In commenting, sixty years
afterward, on a couplet in one of these poems,--
"And, fronting the bright west, the oak entwines
Its darkening boughs and leaves in stronger lines,"--
he says: "This is feebly and imperfectly expressed, but I recollect
distinctly the very spot where this first struck me.... The moment was
important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of
the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by
the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them,
and I made a resolution to supply in some degree the deficiency."
It is plain that Wordsworth's memory was playing him a trick here, misled
by that instinct (it may almost be called) of consistency which leads men
first to desire that their lives should have been without break or seam,
and then to believe that they have been such. The more distant ranges of
perspective are apt to run together in retrospection. How far could
Wordsworth at fourteen have been acquainted with the poets of all ages
and countries,--he who to his dying day could not endure to read Goethe
and knew nothing of Calderon? It seems to me rather that the earliest
influence traceable in him is that of Goldsmith, and later of Cowper, and
it is, perhaps, some slight indication of its having already begun that
his first volume of "Descriptive Sketches" (1793) was put forth by
Johnson, who was Cowper's publisher. By and by the powerful impress of
Burns is seen both in the topics of his verse and the form of his
expression. But whatever their ultimate effect upon his style, certain it
is that his juvenile poems were clothed in the conventional habit of the
eighteenth century. "The first verses from which he remembered to have
received great pleasure were Miss Carter's 'Poem on Spring,' a poem in
the six-line stanza which he was particularly fond of and had composed
much in,--for example, 'Ruth.'" This is noteworthy, for Wordsworth's
lyric range, especially so far as tune is concerned, was always narrow.
His sense of melody was painfully dull, and some of his lighter
effusions, as he would have called them, are almost ludicrously wanting
in grace of movement. We cannot expect in a modern poet the thrush-like
improvisation, the impulsively bewitching cadences, that charm us in our
Elizabethan drama and whose last warble died with Herrick; but Shelley,
Tennyson, and Browning have shown that the simple pathos of their music
was not irrecoverable, even if the artless poignancy of their phrase be
gone beyond recall. We feel this lack in Wordsworth all the more keenly
if we compare such verses as
"Like an army defeated
The snow hath retreated
And now doth fare ill
On the top of the bare hill,"
with Goethe's exquisite _Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh_, in which the lines
(as if shaken down by a momentary breeze of emotion) drop lingeringly one
after another like blossoms upon turf.
"The Evening Walk" and "Descriptive Sketches" show plainly the prevailing
influence of Goldsmith, both in the turn of thought and the mechanism of
the verse. They lack altogether the temperance of tone and judgment in
selection which have made the "Traveller" and the "Deserted Village,"
perhaps, the most truly classical poems in the language. They bear here
and there, however, the unmistakable stamp of the maturer Wordsworth, not
only in a certain blunt realism, but in the intensity and truth of
picturesque epithet. Of this realism, from which Wordsworth never wholly
freed himself, the following verses may suffice as a specimen. After
describing the fate of a chamois-hunter killed by falling from a crag,
his fancy goes back to the bereaved wife and son:--
"Haply that child in fearful doubt may gaze,
Passing his father's bones in future days,
Start at the reliques of that very thigh
On which so oft he prattled when a boy."
In these poems there is plenty of that "poetic diction" against which
Wordsworth was to lead the revolt nine years later.
"To wet the peak's impracticable sides
He opens of his feet the sanguine tides,
Weak and more weak the issuing current eyes
Lapped by the panting tongue of thirsty skies."
Both of these passages have disappeared from the revised edition, as well
as some curious outbursts of that motiveless despair which Byron made
fashionable not long after. Nor are there wanting touches of fleshliness
which strike us oddly as coming from Wordsworth.
"Farewell! those forms that in thy noontide shade
Rest near their little plots of oaten glade,
Those steadfast eyes that beating breasts inspire
To throw the 'sultry ray' of young Desire;
Those lips whose tides of fragrance come and go
Accordant to the cheek's unquiet glow;
Those shadowy breasts in love's soft light arrayed,
And rising by the moon of passion swayed."
The political tone is also mildened in the revision, as where he changes
"despot courts" into "tyranny." One of the alterations is interesting. In
the "Evening Walk" he had originally written
"And bids her soldier come her wars to share
Asleep on Minden's charnel hill afar."
An _erratum_ at the end directs us to correct the second verse, thus:--
"Asleep on Bunker's charnel hill afar."
Wordsworth somewhere rebukes the poets for making the owl a bodeful bird.
He had himself done so in the "Evening Walk," and corrects his epithets
to suit his later judgment, putting "gladsome" for "boding," and
"The tremulous sob of the complaining owl"
"The sportive outcry of the mocking owl."
Indeed, the character of the two poems is so much changed in the revision
as to make the dates appended to them a misleading anachronism. But there
is one truly Wordsworthian passage which already gives us a glimpse of
that passion with which he was the first to irradiate descriptive poetry
and which sets him on a level with Turner.
"'Tis storm; and hid in mist from hour to hour
All day the floods a deepening murmur pour:
The sky is veiled and every cheerful sight;
Dark is the region as with coming night;
But what a sudden burst of overpowering light!
Triumphant on the bosom of the storm,
Glances the fire-clad eagle's wheeling form;
Eastward, in long prospective glittering shine
The wood-crowned cliffs that o'er the lake recline;
Those eastern cliffs a hundred streams unfold,
At once to pillars turned that flame with gold;
Behind his sail the peasant tries to shun
The West that burns like one dilated sun,
Where in a mighty crucible expire
The mountains, glowing hot like coals of fire."
Wordsworth has made only one change in these verses, and that for the
worse, by substituting "glorious" (which was already implied in "glances"
and "fire-clad") for "wheeling." In later life he would have found it
hard to forgive the man who should have made cliffs recline over a lake.
On the whole, what strikes us as most prophetic in these poems is their
want of continuity, and the purple patches of true poetry on a texture of
unmistakable prose; perhaps we might add the incongruous clothing of
prose thoughts in the ceremonial robes of poesy.
During the same year (1793) he wrote, but did not publish, a political
tract, in which he avowed himself opposed to monarchy and to the
hereditary principle, and desirous of a republic, if it could be had
without a revolution. He probably continued to be all his life in favor
of that ideal republic "which never was on laud or sea," but fortunately
he gave up politics that he might devote himself to his own nobler
calling, to which politics are subordinate, and for which he found
freedom enough in England as it was. Dr. Wordsworth admits that his
uncle's opinions were democratical so late as 1802. I suspect that they
remained so in an esoteric way to the end of his days. He had himself
suffered by the arbitrary selfishness of a great landholder, and he was
born and bred in a part of England where there is a greater social
equality than elsewhere. The look and manner of the Cumberland people
especially are such as recall very vividly to a New-Englander the
associations of fifty years ago, ere the change from New England to New
Ireland had begun. But meanwhile, Want, which makes no distinctions of
Monarchist or Republican, was pressing upon him. The debt due to his
father's estate had not been paid, and Wordsworth was one of those rare
idealists who esteem it the first duty of a friend of humanity to live
for, and not on, his neighbor. He at first proposed establishing a
periodical journal to be called "The Philanthropist," but luckily went no
further with it, for the receipts from an organ of opinion which
professed republicanism, and at the same time discountenanced the plans
of all existing or defunct republicans, would have been necessarily
scanty. There being no appearance of any demand, present or prospective,
for philanthropists, he tried to get employment as correspondent of a
newspaper. Here also it was impossible that he should succeed; he was too
great to be merged in the editorial We, and had too well defined a
private opinion on all subjects to be able to express that average of
public opinion which constitutes able editorials. But so it is that to
the prophet in the wilderness the birds of ill omen are already on the
wing with food from heaven; and while Wordsworth's relatives were getting
impatient at what they considered his waste of time, while one thought he
had gifts enough to make a good parson, and another lamented the rare
attorney that was lost in him, the prescient muse guided the hand of
Raisley Calvert while he wrote the poet's name in his will for a legacy
of L900. By the death of Calvert, in 1795, this timely help came to
Wordsworth at the turning point of his life and made it honest for him to
write poems that will never die, instead of theatrical critiques as
ephemeral as play bills, or leaders that led only to oblivion.
In the autumn of 1795 Wordsworth and his sister took up their abode at
Racedown Lodge, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire. Here nearly two years
were passed, chiefly in the study of poetry, and Wordsworth to some
extent recovered from the fierce disappointment of his political dreams,
and regained that equable tenor of mind which alone is consistent with a
healthy productiveness. Here Coleridge, who had contrived to see
something more in the "Descriptive Sketches" than the public had
discovered there, first made his acquaintance. The sympathy and
appreciation of an intellect like Coleridge's supplied him with that
external motive to activity which is the chief use of popularity, and
justified to him his opinion of his own powers It was now that the
tragedy of "The Borderers" was for the most part written, and that plan
of the "Lyrical Ballads" suggested which gave Wordsworth a clew to lead
him out of the metaphysical labyrinth in which he was entangled. It was
agreed between the two young friends, that Wordsworth was to be a
philosophic poet, and, by a good fortune uncommon to such conspiracies,
Nature had already consented to the arrangement. In July, 1797, the two
Wordsworths removed to Allfoxden in Somersetshire, that they might be
near Coleridge, who in the mean while had married and settled himself at
Nether-Stowey. In November "The Borderers" was finished, and Wordsworth
went up to London with his sister to offer it for the stage. The good
Genius of the poet again interposing, the play was decisively rejected,
and Wordsworth went back to Allfoxden, himself the hero of that first
tragi-comedy so common to young authors.
The play has fine passages, but is as unreal as Jane Eyre. It shares with
many of Wordsworth's narrative poems the defect of being written to
illustrate an abstract moral theory, so that the overbearing thesis is
continually thrusting the poetry to the wall. Applied to the drama, such
predestination makes all the personages puppets and disenables them for
being characters. Wordsworth seems to have felt this when he published
"The Borderers" in 1842, and says in a note that it was "at first written
... without any view to its exhibition upon the stage." But he was
mistaken. The contemporaneous letters of Coleridge to Cottle show that he
was long in giving up the hope of getting it accepted by some theatrical
He now applied himself to the preparation of the first volume of the
"Lyrical Ballads" for the press, and it was published toward the close of
1798. The book, which contained also "The Ancient Mariner" of Coleridge,
attracted little notice, and that in great part contemptuous. When Mr.
Cottle, the publisher, shortly after sold his copyrights to Mr. Longman,
that of the "Lyrical Ballads" was reckoned at _zero_, and it was at last
given up to the authors. A few persons were not wanting however, who
discovered the dawn-streaks of a new day in that light which the critical
fire-brigade thought to extinguish with a few contemptuous spurts of cold
Lord Byron describes himself as waking one morning and finding himself
famous, and it is quite an ordinary fact, that a blaze may be made with a
little saltpetre that will be stared at by thousands who would have
thought the sunrise tedious. If we may believe his biographer, Wordsworth
might have said that he awoke and found himself in-famous, for the
publication of the "Lyrical Ballads" undoubtedly raised him to the
distinction of being the least popular poet in England. Parnassus has two
peaks; the one where improvising poets cluster; the other where the
singer of deep secrets sits alone,--a peak veiled sometimes from the
whole morning of a generation by earth-born mists and smoke of kitchen
fires, only to glow the more consciously at sunset, and after nightfall
to crown itself with imperishable stars. Wordsworth had that self-trust
which in the man of genius is sublime, and in the man of talent
insufferable. It mattered not to him though all the reviewers had been in
a chorus of laughter or conspiracy of silence behind him. He went quietly
over to Germany to write more Lyrical Ballads, and to begin a poem on the
growth of his own mind, at a time when there were only two men in the
world (himself and Coleridge) who were aware that he had one, or at least
one anywise differing from those mechanically uniform ones which are
stuck drearily, side by side, in the great pin-paper of society.
In Germany Wordsworth dined in company with Klopstock, and after dinner
they had a conversation, of which Wordsworth took notes. The respectable
old poet, who was passing the evening of his days by the chimney-corner,
Darby and Joan like, with his respectable Muse, seems to have been rather
bewildered by the apparition of a living genius. The record is of value
now chiefly for the insight it gives us into Wordsworth's mind. Among
other things he said, "that it was the province of a great poet to raise
people up to his own level, not to descend to theirs,"--memorable words,
the more memorable that a literary life of sixty years was in keeping
It would be instructive to know what were Wordsworth's studies during his
winter in Goslar. De Quincey's statement is mere conjecture. It may be
guessed fairly enough that he would seek an entrance to the German
language by the easy path of the ballad, a course likely to confirm him
in his theories as to the language of poetry. The Spinosism with which he
has been not unjustly charged was certainly not due to any German
influence, for it appears unmistakably in the "Lines composed at Tintern
Abbey" in July, 1798. It is more likely to have been derived from his
talks with Coleridge in 1797. When Emerson visited him in 1833, he
spoke with loathing of "Wilhelm Meister," a part of which he had read in
Carlyle's translation apparently. There was some affectation in this, it
should seem, for he had read Smollett. On the whole, it may be fairly
concluded that the help of Germany in the development of his genius may
be reckoned as very small, though there is certainly a marked resemblance
both in form and sentiment between some of his earlier lyrics and those
of Goethe. His poem of the "Thorn," though vastly more imaginative, may
have been suggested by Buerger's _Pfarrer's Tochter von Taubenhain_. The
little grave _drei Spannen lang_, in its conscientious measurement,
certainly recalls a famous couplet in the English poem.
After spending the winter at Goslar, Wordsworth and his sister returned
to England in the spring of 1799, and settled at Grasmere in
Westmoreland. In 1800, the first edition of the "Lyrical Ballads" being
exhausted, it was republished with the addition of another volume, Mr.
Longman paying L100 for the copyright of two editions. The book passed to
a second edition in 1802, and to a third in 1805. Wordsworth sent a
copy of it, with a manly letter, to Mr. Fox, particularly recommending to
his attention the poems "Michael" and "The Brothers," as displaying the
strength and permanence among a simple and rural population of those
domestic affections which were certain to decay gradually under the
influence of manufactories and poor houses. Mr. Fox wrote a civil
acknowledgment, saying that his favorites among the poems were "Harry
Gill," "We are Seven," "The Mad Mother," and "The Idiot," but that he was
prepossessed against the use of blank verse for simple subjects. Any
political significance in the poems he was apparently unable to see. To
this second edition Wordsworth prefixed an argumentative Preface, in
which he nailed to the door of the cathedral of English song the critical
theses which he was to maintain against all comers in his poetry and his
life. It was a new thing for an author to undertake to show the goodness
of his verses by the logic and learning of his prose; but Wordsworth
carried to the reform of poetry all that fervor and faith which had lost
their political object, and it is another proof of the sincerity and
greatness of his mind, and of that heroic simplicity which is their
concomitant, that he could do so calmly what was sure to seem ludicrous
to the greater number of his readers. Fifty years have since demonstrated
that the true judgment of one man outweighs any counterpoise of false
judgment, and that the faith of mankind is guided to a man only by a
well-founded faith in himself. To this _Defensio_ Wordsworth afterward
added a supplement, and the two form a treatise of permanent value for
philosophic statement and decorous English. Their only ill effect has
been, that they have encouraged many otherwise deserving young men to set
a Sibylline value on their verses in proportion as they were unsalable.
The strength of an argument for self reliance drawn from the example of a
great man depends wholly on the greatness of him who uses it; such
arguments being like coats of mail, which, though they serve the strong
against arrow-flights and lance-thrusts, may only suffocate the weak or
sink him the sooner in the waters of oblivion.
An advertisement prefixed to the "Lyrical Ballads," as originally
published in one volume, warned the reader that "they were written
chiefly with a view to ascertain how far _the language of conversation in
the middle and lower classes_ of society is adapted to the purposes of
poetic pleasure." In his preface to the second edition, in two volumes,
Wordsworth already found himself forced to shift his ground a little
(perhaps in deference to the wider view and finer sense of Coleridge),
and now says of the former volume that "it was published as an experiment
which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain how far, by fitting to
metrical arrangement, _a selection of the real language of men in a state
of vivid sensation_, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure
may be imparted which a poet may _rationally endeavor_ to impart."
Here is evidence of a retreat towards a safer position, though Wordsworth
seems to have remained unconvinced at heart, and for many years longer
clung obstinately to the passages of bald prose into which his original
theory had betrayed him. In 1815 his opinions had undergone a still
further change, and an assiduous study of the qualities of his own mind
and of his own poetic method (the two subjects in which alone he was ever
a thorough scholar) had convinced him that poetry was in no sense that
appeal to the understanding which is implied by the words "rationally
endeavor to impart." In the preface of that year he says, "The
observations prefixed to that portion of these volumes which was
published many years ago under the title of 'Lyrical Ballads' have so
little of special application to the greater part of the present enlarged
and diversified collection, that they could not with propriety stand as
an introduction to it." It is a pity that he could not have become an
earlier convert to Coleridge's pithy definition, that "prose was words in
their best order and poetry the _best_ words in the best order." But
idealization was something that Wordsworth was obliged to learn
painfully. It did not come to him naturally as to Spenser and Shelley and
to Coleridge in his higher moods. Moreover, it was in the too frequent
choice of subjects incapable of being idealized without a manifest jar
between theme and treatment that Wordsworth's great mistake lay. For
example, in "The Blind Highland Boy" he had originally the following
"Strong is the current, but be mild,
Ye waves, and spare the helpless child!
If ye in anger fret or chafe,
A bee-hive would be ship as safe
As that in which he sails.
"But say, what was it? Thought of fear!
Well may ye tremble when ye hear!
--A household tub like one of those
Which women use to wash their clothes,
This carried the blind boy."
In endeavoring to get rid of the downright vulgarity of phrase in the
last stanza, Wordsworth invents an impossible tortoise-shell, and thus
robs his story of the reality which alone gave it a living interest. Any
extemporized raft would have floated the boy down to immortality. But
Wordsworth never quite learned the distinction between Fact, which
suffocates the Muse, and Truth, which is the very breath of her nostrils.
Study and self-culture did much for him, but they never quite satisfied
him that he was capable of making a mistake. He yielded silently to
friendly remonstrance on certain points, and gave up, for example, the
ludicrous exactness of
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