[Footnote: Delivered extempore at Manchester.]
The history of the poetry of Wordsworth is a true reflex of the man himself. The life of Wordsworth was not outwardly eventful, but his inner life was full of conflict, discovery, and progress. His outward life seems to have been so ordered by Providence as to favour the development of the poetic life within. Educated in the country, and spending most of his life in the society of nature, he was not subjected to those violent external changes which have been the lot of some poets. Perfectly fitted as he was to cope with the world, and to fight his way to any desired position, he chose to retire from it, and in solitude to work out what appeared to him to be the true destiny of his life.
The very element in which the mind of Wordsworth lived and moved was a Christian pantheism. Allow me to explain the word. The poets of the Old Testament speak of everything as being the work of God’s hand:—We are the “work of his hand;” “The world was made by him.” But in the New Testament there is a higher form used to express the relation in which we stand to him—“We are his offspring;” not the work of his hand, but the children that came forth from his heart. Our own poet Goldsmith, with the high instinct of genius, speaks of God as having “loved us into being.” Now I think this is not only true with regard to man, but true likewise with regard to the world in which we live. This world is not merely a thing which God hath made, subjecting it to laws; but it is an expression of the thought, the feeling, the heart of God himself. And so it must be; because, if man be the child of God, would he not feel to be out of his element if he lived in a world which came, not from the heart of God, but only from his hand? This Christian pantheism, this belief that God is in everything, and showing himself in everything, has been much brought to the light by the poets of the past generation, and has its influence still, I hope, upon the poets of the present. We are not satisfied that the world should be a proof and varying indication of the intellect of God. That was how Paley viewed it. He taught us to believe there is a God from the mechanism of the world. But, allowing all the argument to be quite correct, what does it prove? A mechanical God, and nothing more.
Let us go further; and, looking at beauty, believe that God is the first of artists; that he has put beauty into nature, knowing how it will affect us, and intending that it should so affect us; that he has embodied his own grand thoughts thus that we might see them and be glad. Then, let us go further still, and believe that whatever we feel in the highest moments of truth shining through beauty, whatever comes to our souls as a power of life, is meant to be seen and felt by us, and to be regarded not as the work of his hand, but as the flowing forth of his heart, the flowing forth of his love of us, making us blessed in the union of his heart and ours.
Now, Wordsworth is the high priest of nature thus regarded. He saw God present everywhere; not always immediately, in his own form, it is true; but whether he looked upon the awful mountain-peak, sky-encompassed with loveliness, or upon the face of a little child, which is as it were eyes in the face of nature—in all things he felt the solemn presence of the Divine Spirit. By Keats this presence was recognized only as the spirit of beauty; to Wordsworth, God, as the Spirit of Truth, was manifested through the forms of the external world.
I have said that the life of Wordsworth was so ordered as to bring this out of him, in the forms of his art, to the ears of men. In childhood even his conscience was partly developed through the influences of nature upon him. He thus retrospectively describes this special influence of nature:—
One summer evening (led by her) I found A little boat, tied to a willow tree, Within a rocky cave, its usual home. Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in, Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth, And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice Of mountain echoes did my boat move on, Leaving behind her still, on either side, Small circles glittering idly in the moon, Until they melted all into one track Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point With an unswerving line, I fixed my view Upon the summit of a craggy ridge, The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky. She was an elfin pinnace; lustily I dipped my oars into the silent lake, And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat Went heaving through the water like a swan; When, from behind that craggy steep, till then The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head. I struck and struck again, And, growing still in stature, the grim shape Towered up between me and the stars, and still For so it seemed, with purpose of its own, And measured motion like a living thing, Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned, And through the silent water stole my way Back to the covert of the willow tree; There in her mooring place I left my bark, And through the meadows homeward went, in grave And serious mood; but after I had seen That spectacle, for many days, my brain Worked with a dim and undetermined sense Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts There hung a darkness, call it solitude, Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes Remained, no pleasant images of trees, Of sea, or sky, no colours of green fields; But huge and mighty forms, that do not live Like living men, moved slowly through the mind By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
Here we see that a fresh impulse was given to his life even in boyhood, by the influence of nature. If we have had any similar experience, we shall be able to enter into this feeling of Wordsworth’s; if not, the tale will be almost incredible.
One passage more I would refer to, as showing what Wordsworth felt with regard to nature, in his youth; and the growth that took place in him in consequence. Nature laid up in the storehouse of his mind and heart her most beautiful and grand forms, whence they might be brought, afterwards, to be put to the highest human service. I quote only a few lines from that poem, deservedly a favourite with all the lovers of Wordsworth, “Lines written above Tintern Abbey:”—
I cannot paint What then I was. The sounding cataract Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock, The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, Their colours and their forms, were then to me An appetite; a feeling and a love, That had no need of a remoter charm By thought supplied, nor any interest Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past, And all its aching joys are now no more, And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts Have followed; for such loss, I would believe, Abundant recompense. For I have learned To look on nature, not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity, Nor harsh, nor grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
In this little passage you see the growth of the influence of nature on the mind of the poet. You observe, too, that nature passes into poetry; that form is sublimed into speech. You see the result of the conjunction of the mind of man, and the mind of God manifested in His works; spirit coming to know the speech of spirit. The outflowing of spirit in nature is received by the poet, and he utters again, in his form, what God has already uttered in His. Wordsworth wished to give to man what he found in nature. It was to him a power of good, a world of teaching, a strength of life. He knew that nature was not his, and that his enjoyment of nature was given to him that he might give it to man. It was the birthright of man.
But what did Wordsworth find in nature? To begin with the lowest; he found amusement in nature. Right amusement is a part of teaching; it is the childish form of teaching, and if we can get this in nature, we get something that lies near the root of good. In proof that Wordsworth found this, I refer to a poem which you probably know well, “The Daisy.” The poet sits playing with the flower, and listening to the suggestions that come to him of odd resemblances that this flower bears to other things. He likens the daisy to—
A little cyclops, with one eye Staring to threaten and defy, That thought comes next—and instantly The freak is over, The shape will vanish—and behold A silver shield with boss of gold, That spreads itself, some faëry bold In fight to cover!
Look at the last stanza, too, and you will see how close amusement may lie to deep and earnest thought:—
Bright Flower! for by that name at last When all my reveries are past, I call thee, and to that cleave fast, Sweet silent creature! That breath’st with me in sun and air, Do thou, as thou art wont, repair My heart with gladness, and a share Of thy meek nature!
But Wordsworth found also joy in nature, which is a better thing than amusement, and consequently easier to be found. We can often have joy where we can have no amusement,—
I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed—and gazed—but little thought What Health the show to me had brought. “For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.”
This is the joy of the eye, as far as that can be separated from the joy of the whole nature; for his whole nature rejoiced in the joy of the eye; but it was simply joy; there was no further teaching, no attempt to go through this beauty and find the truth below it. We are not always to be in that hungry, restless condition, even after truth itself. If we keep our minds quiet and ready to receive truth, and sometimes are hungry for it, that is enough.
Going a step higher, you will find that he sometimes draws a lesson from nature, seeming almost to force a meaning from her. I do not object to this, if he does not make too much of it as existing in nature. It is rather finding a meaning in nature that he brought to it. The meaning exists, if not there. For illustration I refer to another poem. Observe that Wordsworth found the lesson because he looked for it, and would find it.
This Lawn, a carpet all alive With shadows flung from leaves—to strive In dance, amid a press Of sunshine, an apt emblem yields Of Worldlings revelling in the fields Of strenuous idleness.
Yet, spite of all this eager strife, This ceaseless play, the genuine life That serves the steadfast hours, Is in the grass beneath, that grows Unheeded, and the mute repose Of sweetly-breathing flowers.
Whether he forced this lesson from nature, or not, it is a good lesson, teaching a great many things with regard to life and work.
Again, nature sometimes flashes a lesson on his mind; gives it to him—and when nature gives, we cannot but receive. As in this sonnet composed during a storm,—
One who was suffering tumult in his soul Yet failed to seek the sure relief of prayer, Went forth; his course surrendering to the care Of the fierce wind, while mid-day lightnings prowl Insiduously, untimely thunders growl; While trees, dim-seen, in frenzied numbers tear The lingering remnant of their yellow hair, And shivering wolves, surprised with darkness, howl As if the sun were not. He raised his eye Soul-smitten; for, that instant, did appear Large space (mid dreadful clouds) of purest sky, An azure disc—shield of Tranquillity; Invisible, unlooked-for, minister Of providential goodness ever nigh!
Observe that he was not looking for this; he had not thought of praying; he was in such distress that it had benumbed the out-goings of his spirit towards the source whence alone sure comfort comes. He went out into the storm; and the uproar in the outer world was in harmony with the tumult within his soul. Suddenly a clear space in the sky makes him feel—he has no time to think about it—that there is a shield of tranquillity spread over him. For was it not as it were an opening up into that region where there are no storms; the regions of peace, because the regions of love, and truth, and purity,—the home of God himself?
There is yet a higher and more sustained influence exercised by nature, and that takes effect when she puts a man into that mood or condition in which thoughts come of themselves. That is perhaps the best thing that can be done for us, the best at least that nature can do. It is certainly higher than mere intellectual teaching. That nature did this for Wordsworth is very clear; and it is easily intelligible. If the world proceeded from the imagination of God, and man proceeded from the love of God, it is easy to believe that that which proceeded from the imagination of God should rouse the best thoughts in the mind of a being who proceeded from the love of God. This I think is the relation between man and the world. As an instance of what I mean, I refer to one of Wordsworth’s finest poems, which he classes under the head of “Evening Voluntaries.” It was composed upon an evening of extraordinary splendour and beauty:—
“Had this effulgence disappeared With flying haste, I might have sent, Among the speechless clouds, a look Of blank astonishment; But ‘tis endued with power to stay, And sanctify one closing day, That frail Mortality may see— What is?—ah no, but what can, be! Time was when field and watery cove With modulated echoes rang, While choirs of fervent Angels sang Their vespers in the grove; Or, crowning, star-like, each some sovereign height, Warbled, for heaven above and earth below, Strains suitable to both. Such holy rite, Methinks, if audibly repeated now From hill or valley, could not move Sublimer transport, purer love, Than doth this silent spectacle—the gleam— The shadow—and the peace supreme! “No sound is uttered,—but a deep And solemn harmony pervades The hollow vale from steep to steep, And penetrates the glades.
“Wings at my shoulders seem to play; But, rooted here, I stand and gaze On those bright steps that heaven-ward raise Their practicable way. Come forth, ye drooping old men, look abroad, And see to what fair countries ye are bound!
“Dread Power! whom peace and calmness serve No less than Nature’s threatening voice, From THEE, if I would swerve, Oh, let Thy grace remind me of the light Full early lost, and fruitlessly deplored; Which, at this moment, on my waking sight Appears to shine, by miracle restored; My soul, though yet confined to earth, Rejoices in a second birth!”
Picture the scene for yourselves; and observe how it moves in him the sense of responsibility, and the prayer, that if he has in any matter wandered from the right road, if he has forgotten the simplicity of childhood in the toil of life, he may, from this time, remember the vow that he now records—from this time to press on towards the things that are unseen, but which are manifested through the things that are seen. I refer you likewise to the poem “Resolution and Independence,” commonly called “The Leech Gatherer;” also to that grandest ode that has ever been written, the “Ode on Immortality.” You will find there, whatever you may think of his theory, in the latter, sufficient proof that nature was to him a divine teaching power. Do not suppose that I mean that man can do without more teaching than nature’s, or that a man with only nature’s teaching would have seen these things in nature. No, the soul must be tuned to such things. Wordsworth could not have found such things, had he not known something that was more definite and helpful to him; but this known, then nature was full of teaching. When we understand the Word of God, then we understand the works of God; when we know the nature of an artist, we know his pictures; when we have known and talked with the poet, we understand his poetry far better. To the man of God, all nature will be but changeful reflections of the face of God.
Loving man as Wordsworth did, he was most anxious to give him this teaching. How was he to do it? By poetry. Nature put into the crucible of a loving heart becomes poetry. We cannot explain poetry scientifically; because poetry is something beyond science. The poet may be man of science, and the man of science may be a poet; but poetry includes science, and the man who will advance science most, is the man who, other qualifications being equal, has most of the poetic faculty in him. Wordsworth defines poetry to be “the impassioned expression which is on the face of science.” Science has to do with the construction of things. The casting of the granite ribs of the mighty earth, and all the thousand operations that result in the manifestations on its surface, this is the domain of science. But when there come the grass-bearing meadows, the heaven-reared hills, the great streams that go ever downward, the bubbling fountains that ever arise, the wind that wanders amongst the leaves, and the odours that are wafted upon its wings; when we have colour, and shape, and sound, then we have the material with which poetry has to do. Science has to do with the underwork. For what does this great central world exist, with its hidden winds and waters, its upheavings and its downsinkings, its strong frame of rock, and its heart of fire? What do they all exist for? Not for themselves surely, but for the sake of this out-spreading world of beauty, that floats up, as it were, to the surface of the shapeless region of force. Science has to do with the one, and poetry with the other: poetry is “the impassioned expression that is on the face of science.” To illustrate it still further. You are walking in the woods, and you find the first primrose of the year. You feel almost as if you had found a child. You know in yourself that you have found a new beauty and a new joy, though you have seen it a thousand times before. It is a primrose. A little flower that looks at me, thinks itself into my heart, and gives me a pleasure distinct in itself, and which I feel as if I could not do without. The impassioned expression on the face of this little outspread flower is its childhood; it means trust, consciousness of protection, faith, and hope. Science, in the person of the botanist, comes after you, and pulls it to pieces to see its construction, and delights the intellect; but the science itself is dead, and kills what it touches. The flower exists not for it, but for the expression on its face, which is its poetry,—that expression which you feel to mean a living thing; that expression which makes you feel that this flower is, as it were, just growing out of the heart of God. The intellect itself is but the scaffolding for the uprearing of the spiritual nature.
It will make all this yet plainer, if you can suppose a human form to be created without a soul in it. Divine science has put it together, but only for the sake of the outshining soul that shall cause it to live, and move, and have a being of its own in God. When you see the face lighted up with soul, when you recognize in it thought and feeling, joy and love, then you know that here is the end for which it was made. Thus you see the relation that poetry has to science; and you find that, to speak in an apparent paradox, the surface is the deepest after all; for, through the surface, for the sake of which all this building went on, we have, as it were, a window into the depths of truth. There is not a form that lives in the world, but is a window cloven through the blank darkness of nothingness, to let us look into the heart, and feeling, and nature of God. So the surface of things is the best and the deepest, provided it is not mere surface, but the impassioned expression, for the sake of which the science of God has thought and laboured.
Satisfied that this was the nature of poetry, and wanting to convey this to the minds of his fellow-men, “What vehicle,” Wordsworth may be supposed to have asked himself, “shall I use? How shall I decide what form of words to employ? Where am I to find the right language for speaking such great things to men?” He saw that the poetry of the eighteenth century (he was born in 1770) was not like nature at all, but was an artificial thing, with no more originality in it than there would be in a picture a hundred times copied, the copyists never reverting to the original. You cannot look into this eighteenth century poetry, excepting, of course, a great proportion of the poetry of Cowper and Thompson, without being struck with the sort of agreement that nothing should be said naturally. A certain set form and mode was employed for saying things that ought never to have been said twice in the same way. Wordsworth resolved to go back to the root of the thing, to the natural simplicity of speech; he would have none of these stereotyped forms of expression. “Where shall I find,” said he, “the language that will be simple and powerful?” And he came to the conclusion that the language of the common people was the only language suitable for his purpose. Your experience of the everyday language of the common people may be that it is not poetical. True, but not even a poet can speak poetically in his stupid moments. Wordsworth’s idea was to take the language of the common people in their uncommon moods, in their high and, consequently, simple moods, when their minds are influenced by grief, hope, reverence, worship, love; for then he believed he could get just the language suitable for the poet. As far as that language will go, I think he was right, if I may venture to give an opinion in support of Wordsworth. Of course, there will occur necessities to the poet which would not be comprehended in the language of a man whose thoughts had never moved in the same directions, but the kind of language will be the right thing, and I have heard such amongst the common people myself—language which they did not know to be poetic, but which fell upon my ear and heart as profoundly poetic both in its feeling and its form.
In attempting to carry out this theory, I am not prepared to say that Wordsworth never transgressed his own self-imposed laws. But he adhered to his theory to the last. A friend of the poet’s told me that Wordsworth had to him expressed his belief that he would be remembered longest, not by his sonnets, as his friend thought, but by his lyrical ballads, those for which he had been reviled and laughed at; the most by critics who could not understand him, and who were unworthy to read what he had written. As a proof of this let me read to you three verses, composing a poem that was especially marked for derision:—
She dwelt among the untrodden ways, Beside the springs of Dove; A maid whom there were none to praise, And very few to love. A violet by a mossy stone. Half hidden from the eye; Fair as a star, when only one Is shining in the sky. She lived unknown, and few could know When Lucy ceased to be; But she is in her grave, and Oh! The difference to me.
The last line was especially chosen as the object of ridicule; but I think with most of us the feeling will be, that its very simplicity of expression is overflowing in suggestion, it throws us back upon our own experience; for, instead of trying to utter what he felt, he says in those simple and common words, “You who have known anything of the kind, will know what the difference to me is, and only you can know.” “My intention and desire,” he says in one of his essays, “are that the interest of the poem shall owe nothing to the circumstances; but that the circumstances shall be made interesting by the thing itself.” In most novels, for instance, the attempt is made to interest us in worthless, commonplace people, whom, if we had our choice, we would far rather not meet at all, by surrounding them with peculiar and extraordinary circumstances; but this is a low source of interest. Wordsworth was determined to owe nothing to such an adventitious cause. For illustration allow me to read that well-known little ballad, “The Reverie of Poor Susan,” and you will see how entirely it bears out what he lays down as his theory. The scene is in London:—
At the corner of Wood-street, when daylight appears, Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years; Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard, In the silence of morning, the song of the Bird. ‘Tis a note of enchantment: what ails her? She sees A mountain ascending, a vision of trees; Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide, And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside. Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale, Down which she so often has tripped with her pail; And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove’s, The one only dwelling on earth that she loves. She looks, and her heart is in heaven: but they fade, The mist and the river, the hill and the shade: The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise, And the colours have all passed away from her eyes!
Is any of the interest here owing to the circumstances? Is it not a very common incident? But has he not treated it so that it is not commonplace in the least? We recognize in this girl just the feelings we discover in ourselves, and acknowledge almost with tears her sisterhood to us all.
I have tried to make you feel something of what Wordsworth attempts to do, but I have not given you the best of his poems. Allow me to finish by reading the closing portion of the Prelude, the poem that was published after his death. It is addressed to Coleridge:—
Oh! yet a few short years of useful life, And all will be complete, thy race be run, Thy monument of glory will be raised; Then, though (too weak to head the ways of truth) This age fall back to old idolatry, Though men return to servitude as fast As the tide ebbs, to ignominy and shame By nations sink together, we shall still Find solace—knowing what we have learnt to know— Rich in true happiness, if allowed to be Faithful alike in forwarding a day Of firmer trust, joint labourers in the work (Should Providence such grace to us vouchsafe) Of their deliverance, surely yet to come. Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak A lasting inspiration, sanctified By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how; Instruct them how the mind of man becomes A thousand times more beautiful than the earth On which he dwells, above this frame of things (Which, ‘mid all revolution in the hopes And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged) In beauty exalted, as it is itself Of quality and fabric more divine.