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Chapter 11 Italian Tour—Ecclesiastical Sonnets—Political Views—Laureateship.

F. W. H. MyersApr 22, 2018'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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Wordsworth was fond of travelling, and indulged this taste whenever he could afford it. Comparing himself and Southey, he says in 1843: “My lamented friend Southey used to say that had he been a Papist, the course of life which in all probability would have been his was that of a Benedictine monk, in a convent furnished with an inexhaustible library. Books were, in fact, his passion; and wandering, I can with truth affirm, was mine; but this propensity in me was happily counteracted by inability from want of fortune to fulfil my wishes.” We find him, however, frequently able to contrive a change of scene. His Swiss tour in 1790, his residence in France in 1791–2, his residence in Germany, 1798–9, have been already touched on. Then came a short visit to France in August 1802, which produced the sonnets on Westminster Bridge and Calais Beach. The tour in Scotland which was so fertile in poetry took place in 1803. A second tour in Scotland, in 1814, produced the Brownie’s Cell and a few other pieces. And in July, 1820, he set out with his wife and sister and two or three other friends for a tour through Switzerland and Italy.

This tour produced a good deal of poetry; and here and there are touches which recall the old inspiration. Such is the comparison of the clouds about the Engelberg to hovering angels; and such the description of the eclipse falling upon the population of statues which throng the pinnacles of Milan Cathedral. But for the most part the poems relating to this tour have an artificial look; the sentiments in the vale of Chamouni seem to have been laboriously summoned for the occasion; and the poet’s admiration for the Italian maid and the Helvetian girl is a mere shadow of the old feeling for the Highland girl, to whom, in fact, he seems obliged to recur in order to give reality to his new emotion.

To conclude the subject of Wordsworth’s travels, I will mention here that in 1823 he made a tour in Holland, and in 1824 in North Wales, where his sonnet to the torrent at the Devil’s Bridge recalls the Swiss scenery seen in his youth with vigour and dignity. In 1828 he made another excursion in Belgium with Coleridge, and in 1829 he visited Ireland with his friend Mr. Marshall. Neither of these tours was productive. In 1831 he paid a visit with his daughter to Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, before his departure to seek health in Italy. Scott received them cordially, and had strength to take them to the Yarrow. “Of that excursion,” says Wordsworth, “the verses Yarrow Revisited are a memorial. On our return in the afternoon we had to cross the Tweed, directly opposite Abbotsford. A rich, but sad light, of rather a purple than a golden hue, was spread over the Eildon hills at that moment; and, thinking it probable that it might be the last time Sir Walter would cross the stream (the Tweed), I was not a little moved, and expressed some of my feelings in the sonnet beginning, A trouble not of clouds nor weeping rain. At noon on Thursday we left Abbotsford, and on the morning of that day Sir Walter and I had a serious conversation, tête-à-tête, when he spoke with gratitude of the happy life which, upon the whole, he had led. He had written in my daughter’s album, before he came into the breakfast-room that morning, a few stanzas addressed to her; and, while putting the book into her hand, in his own study, standing by his desk, he said to her, in my presence, ‘I should not have done anything of this kind but for your father’s sake; they are probably the last verses I shall ever write.’ They show how much his mind was impaired: not by the strain of thought, but by the execution, some of the lines being imperfect, and one stanza wanting corresponding rhymes. One letter, the initial S., had been omitted in the spelling of his own name.”

There was another tour in Scotland in 1833, which produced Memorials of little poetic value. And in 1837 he made a long tour in Italy with Mr. Crabb Robinson. But the poems which record this tour indicate a mind scarcely any longer susceptible to any vivid stimulus except from accustomed objects and ideas. The Musings near Aquapendente are musings on Scott and Helvellyn; the Pine Tree of Monte Mario is interesting because—Sir George Beaumont has saved it from destruction; the Cuckoo at Laverna brings all childhood back into his heart. “I remember perfectly well,” says Crabb Robinson, “that I heard the cuckoo at Laverna twice before he heard it; and that it absolutely fretted him that my ear was first favoured; and that he exclaimed with delight, ‘I hear it! I hear it!’” This was his last foreign tour; nor, indeed, are these tours very noticeable except as showing that he was not blindly wedded to his own lake scenery; that his admiration could face comparisons, and keep the same vividness when he was fresh from other orders of beauty.

The productions of these later years took for the most part a didactic rather than a descriptive form. In the volume entitled Poems chiefly of Early and Later Years, published in 1842, were many hortatory or ecclesiastical pieces of inferior merit, and among them various additions to the Ecclesiastical Sketches, a series of sonnets begun in 1821, but which he continued to enlarge, spending on them much of the energies of his later years. And although it is only in a few instances—as in the description of King’s College, Cambridge—that these sonnets possess force or charm enough to rank them high as poetry, yet they assume a certain value when we consider not so much their own adequacy as the greater inadequacy of all rival attempts in the same direction.

The Episcopalian Churchman, in this country or in the United States, will certainly nowhere find presented to him in poetical form so dignified and comprehensive a record of the struggles and the glories, of the vicissitudes and the edification, of the great body to which he belongs. Next to the Anglican liturgy—though next at an immense interval—these sonnets may take rank as the authentic exposition of her historic being—an exposition delivered with something of her own unadorned dignity, and in her moderate and tranquil tone.

I would not, however, seem to claim too much. The religion which these later poems of Wordsworth’s embody is rather the stately tradition of a great Church than the pangs and aspirations of a holy soul. There is little in them—whether for good or evil—of the stuff of which a Paul, a Francis, a Dominic are made. That fervent emotion—akin to the passion of love rather than to intellectual or moral conviction—finds voice through singers of a very different tone. It is fed by an inward anguish, and felicity which, to those who have not felt them, seem as causeless as a lover’s moods; by wrestlings not with flesh and blood; by nights of despairing self-abasement; by ecstasies of an incommunicable peace. How great the gulf between Wordsworth and George Herbert!—Herbert “offering at heaven, growing and groaning thither,”—and Wordsworth, for whom the gentle regret of the lines,—

Me this unchartered freedom tires,

I feel the weight of chance desires,—

forms his most characteristic expression of the self-judgment of the solitary soul.

Wordsworth accomplished one reconciliation of great importance to mankind. He showed, as plainly in his way as Socrates had shown it long ago, with what readiness a profoundly original conception of the scheme of things will shape itself into the mould of an established and venerable faith. He united the religion of the philosopher with the religion of the churchman; one rarer thing he could not do; he could not unite the religion of the philosopher with the religion of the saint. It is, indeed, evident that the most inspiring feeling which breathes through Wordsworth’s ecclesiastical pieces is not of a doctrinal, not even of a spiritual kind. The ecclesiastical as well as the political sentiments of his later years are prompted mainly by the admiring love with which he regarded the structure of English society—seen as that society was by him in its simplest and most poetic aspect. This concrete attachment to the scenes about him had always formed an important element in his character. Ideal politics, whether in Church or State, had never occupied his mind, which sought rather to find its informing principles embodied in the England of his own day. The sonnet On a Parsonage in Oxfordshire well illustrates the loving minuteness with which he draws out the beauty and fitness of the established scheme of things,—the power of English country life to satisfy so many moods of feeling.

The country-seat of the English squire or nobleman has become—may we not say?—one of the world’s chosen types of a happy and a stately home. And Wordsworth, especially in his poems which deal with Coleorton, has shown how deeply he felt the sway of such a home’s hereditary majesty, its secure and tranquillizing charm. Yet there are moods when the heart which deeply feels the inequality of human lots turns towards a humbler ideal. There are moments when the broad park, the halls and towers, seem no longer the fitting frame of human greatness, but rather an isolating solitude, an unfeeling triumph over the poor.

In such a mood of mind it will not always satisfy us to dwell, as Wordsworth has so often done, on the virtue and happiness that gather round a cottage hearth,—which we must, after all, judge by a somewhat less exacting standard. We turn rather to the “refined rusticity” of an English Parsonage home.

Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends,

Is marked by no distinguishable line;

The turf unites, the pathways intertwine,—

and the clergyman’s abode has but so much of dignity as befits the minister of the Church which is the hamlet’s centre; enough to suggest the old Athenian boast of beauty without extravagance, and study without effeminacy; enough to show that dwellings where not this life but another is the prevailing thought and care, yet need not lack the graces of culture, nor the loves of home.

The sonnet on Seathwaite Chapel, and the life of Robert Walker, the incumbent of Seathwaite, which is given at length in the notes to the sonnets on the Duddon, afford a still more characteristic instance of the clerical ideal towards which Wordsworth naturally turned. In Robert Walker he had a Cumbrian statesman turned into a practical saint; and he describes him with a gusto in which his laboured sonnets on Laud or on Dissensions are wholly deficient.

It was in social and political matters that the consequences of this idealizing view of the facts around him in Cumberland were most apparent. Take education, for example. Wordsworth, as has been already stated, was one of the earliest and most impressive assertors of the national duty of teaching every English child to read. He insists on this with a prosaic earnestness which places several pages of the Excursion among what may be called the standing bugbears which his poems offer to the inexperienced reader. And yet as soon as, through the exertions of Bell and Lancaster, there seems to be some chance of really educating the poor, Dr. Bell, whom Coleridge fondly imagines as surrounded in heaven by multitudes of grateful angels, is to Wordsworth a name of horror. The mistresses trained on his system are called “Dr. Bell’s sour-looking teachers in petticoats.” And the instruction received in these new-fangled schools is compared to “the training that fits a boxer for victory in the ring.” The reason of this apparent inconsistency is not far to seek. Wordsworth’s eyes were fixed on the village life around him. Observation of that life impressed on him the imperative necessity of instruction in reading. But it was from a moral, rather than an intellectual point of view that he regarded it as needful, and, this opening into the world of ideas once secured, he held that the cultivation of the home affections and home duties was all that was needed beyond. And thus the Westmoreland dame, “in her summer seat in the garden, and in winter by the fireside,” was elevated into the unexpected position of the ideal instructress of youth.

Conservatism of this kind could provoke nothing but a sympathetic smile. The case was different when the same conservative—even retrograde—tendency showed itself on subjects on which party-feeling ran high. A great part of the meditative energy of Wordsworth’s later years was absorbed by questions towards whose solution he contributed no new element, and which filled him with disproportionate fears. And some injustice has been done to his memory by those who have not fully realized the predisposing causes which were at work,—the timidity of age, and the deep-rooted attachment to the England which he knew.

I speak of age, perhaps, somewhat prematurely, as the poet’s gradually growing conservatism culminated in his opposition to the Catholic Relief Bill, before he was sixty years old. But there is nothing to wonder at in the fact that the mind of a man of brooding and solitary habits should show traces of advancing age earlier than is the case with statesmen or men of the world, who are obliged to keep themselves constantly alive to the ideas of the generation that is rising around them. A deadness to new impressions, an unwillingness to make intellectual efforts in fresh directions, a tendency to travel the same mental pathways over and over again, and to wear the ruts of prejudice deeper at every step; such traces of age as these undoubtedly manifested themselves in the way in which the poet confronted the great series of changes—Catholic Emancipation, Reform Bill, New Poor Law, on which England entered about the year 1829. “My sixty-second year,” Wordsworth writes, in 1832, “will soon be completed; and though I have been favoured thus far in health and strength beyond most men of my age, yet I feel its effects upon my spirits; they sink under a pressure of apprehension to which, at an earlier period of my life, they would probably have been superior.” To this it must be added, that the increasing weakness of the poet’s eyes seriously limited his means of information. He had never read much contemporary literature, and he read less than ever now. He had no fresh or comprehensive knowledge of the general condition of the country, and he really believed in the prognostication which was uttered by many also who did not believe in it, that with the Reform Bill the England which he knew and loved would practically disappear. But there was nothing in him of the angry polemic, nothing of the calumnious partisan. One of the houses where Mr. Wordsworth was most intimate and most welcome was that of a reforming member of parliament, who was also a manufacturer, thus belonging to the two classes for which the poet had the greatest abhorrence. But the intimacy was never for a moment shaken, and indeed in that house Mr. Wordsworth expounded the ruinous tendency of Reform and manufactures with even unusual copiousness, on account of the admiring affection with which he felt himself surrounded. The tone in which he spoke was never such as could give pain or excite antagonism; and—if I may be pardoned for descending to a detail which well illustrates my position—the only rejoinder which these diatribes provoked was that the poet on his arrival was sometimes decoyed into uttering them to the younger members of the family, whose time was of less value, so as to set his mind free to return to those topics of more permanent interest where his conversation kept to the last all that tenderness, nobility, wisdom, which in that family, as in many others familiar with the celebrated persons of that day, won for him a regard and a reverence such as was accorded to no other man.

To those, indeed, who realized how deeply he felt these changes,— how profoundly his notion of national happiness was bound up with a lovely and vanishing ideal,—the prominent reflection was that the hopes and principles which maintained through all an underlying hope and trust in the future must have been potent indeed. It was no easy optimism which prompted the lines written in 1837—one of his latest utterances—in which he speaks to himself with strong self-judgment and resolute hope. On reading them one shrinks from dwelling longer upon an old man’s weakness and a brave man’s fears.

If this great world of joy and pain

Revolve in one sure track;

If Freedom, set, revive again,

And Virtue, flown, come back,—

Woe to the purblind crew who fill

The heart with each day’s care,

Nor learn, from past and future, skill

To bear and to forbear.

The poet had also during these years more of private sorrow than his tranquil life had for a long time experienced. In 1832 his sister had a most serious illness, which kept her for many months in a state of great prostration, and left her, when the physical symptoms abated, with her intellect painfully impaired, and her bright nature permanently overclouded. Coleridge, too, was nearing his end. “He and my beloved sister,” writes Wordsworth, in 1832, “are the two beings to whom my intellect is most indebted, and they are now proceeding, as it were, pari passu, along the path of sickness, I will not say towards the grave, but I trust towards a blessed immortality.”

In July, 1834, “every mortal power of Coleridge was frozen at its marvellous source,” And although the early intimacy had scarcely been maintained,—though the “comfortless and hidden well” had, for a time at least, replaced the “living murmuring fount of love” which used to spring beside Wordsworth’s door,—yet the loss was one which the surviving poet deeply felt. Coleridge was the only contemporary man of letters with whom Wordsworth’s connexion had been really close; and when Wordsworth is spoken of as one of a group of poets exemplifying in various ways the influence of the Revolution, it is not always remembered how very little he had to do with the other famous men of his time. Scott and Southey were valued friends, but he thought little of Scott’s poetry, and less of Southey’s. Byron and Shelley he seems scarcely to have read; and he failed altogether to appreciate Keats. But to Coleridge his mind constantly reverted; he called him “the most wonderful man he had ever known,” and he kept him as the ideal auditor of his own poems, long after Coleridge had listened to the Prelude,—

A song divine of high and passionate thoughts

To their own music chanted.

In 1836, moreover, died one for whom Coleridge, as well as Wordsworth, had felt a very high respect and regard—Sarah Hutchinson, Mrs. Wordsworth’s sister, and long the inmate of Wordsworth’s household. This most valued friend had been another instance of the singular good fortune which attended Wordsworth in his domestic connexions; and when she was laid in Grasmere churchyard, the stone above her tomb expressed the wish of the poet and his wife that, even as her remains were laid beside their dead children’s, so their own bodies also might be laid by hers.

And now, while the inner circle of friends and relations began, to pass away, the outer circle of admirers was rapidly spreading. Between the years 1830 and 1840 Wordsworth passed from the apostle of a clique into the most illustrious man of letters in England. The rapidity of this change was not due to any remarkable accident, nor to the appearance of any new work of genius. It was merely an extreme instance of what must always occur where an author, running counter to the fashion of his age, has to create his own public in defiance of the established critical powers. The disciples whom he draws round him are for the most part young; the established authorities are for the most part old; so that by the time that the original poet is about sixty years old, most of his admirers will be about forty, and most of his critics will be dead. His admirers now become his accredited critics; his works are widely introduced to the public; and if they are really good his reputation is secure. In Wordsworth’s case the detractors had been unusually persistent, and the reaction, when it came, was therefore unusually violent; it was even somewhat factitious in its extent; and the poems were forced by enthusiasts upon a public which was only half ripe for them. After the poet’s death a temporary counter-reaction succeeded, and his fame is only now finding its permanent level.

Among the indications of growing popularity was the publication of an American edition of Wordsworth’s poems in 1837, by Professor Reed of Philadelphia, with whom the poet interchanged many letters of interest. “The acknowledgments,” he says in one of these, “which I receive from the vast continent of America are among the most grateful that reach me. What a vast field is there open to the English mind, acting through our noble language! Let us hope that our authors of true genius will not be unconscious of that thought, or inattentive to the duty which it imposes upon them, of doing their utmost to instruct, to purify, and to elevate their readers.”

But of all the manifestations of the growing honour in which Wordsworth was held, none was more marked or welcome than the honorary degree of D.C.L. conferred on him by the University of Oxford in the summer of 1839. Keble, as Professor of Poetry, introduced him in words of admiring reverence, and the enthusiasm of the audience was such as had never been evoked in that place before, “except upon the occasions of the visits of the Duke of Wellington.” The collocation was an interesting one. The special claim advanced for Wordsworth by Keble in his Latin oration was “that he had shed a celestial light upon the affections, the occupations, the piety of the poor.” And to many men besides the author of the Christian Year it seemed that this striking scene was, as it were, another visible triumph of the temper of mind which is of the essence of Christianity; a recognition that one spirit more had become as a little child, and had entered into the kingdom of heaven.

In October, 1842, another token of public respect was bestowed on him in the shape of an annuity of 300£ a year from the Civil List for distinguished literary merit. “I need scarcely add,” says Sir Robert Peel, in making the offer, “that the acceptance by you of this mark of favour from the Crown, considering the grounds on which it is proposed, will impose no restraint upon your perfect independence, and involve no obligation of a personal nature.” In March, 1843, came the death of Southey, and in a few days Wordsworth received a letter from Earl De la Warr, the Lord Chamberlain, offering him, in the most courteous terms, the office of Poet Laureate, which, however, he respectfully declined as imposing duties, “which, far advanced in life as I am, I cannot venture to undertake.”

This letter brought a reply from the Lord Chamberlain, pressing the office on him again, and a letter from Sir Robert Peel which gave dignified expression to the national feeling in the matter. “The offer,” he says, “was made to you by the Lord Chamberlain, with my entire concurrence, not for the purpose of imposing on you any onerous or disagreeable duties, but in order to pay you that tribute of respect which is justly due to the first of living poets. The Queen entirely approved of the nomination, and there is one unanimous feeling on the part of all who have heard of the proposal (and it is pretty generally known) that there could not be a question about the selection. Do not be deterred by the fear of any obligations which the appointment may be supposed to imply. I will undertake that you shall have nothing required from you. But as the Queen can select for this honourable appointment no one whose claims for respect and honour, on account of eminence as a poet, can be placed in competition with, yours, I trust you will not longer hesitate to accept it.”

This letter overcame the aged poet’s scruples; and he filled with silent dignity the post of Laureate till after seven years’ space a worthy successor received

This laurel greener from the brows

Of him that uttered nothing base.

 

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