FictionForest

Chapter 10. Natural Religion.

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

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It will have been obvious from the preceding pages, as well as from the tone of other criticisms on Wordsworth, that his exponents are not content to treat his poems on Nature simply as graceful descriptive pieces, but speak of him in terms usually reserved for the originators of some great religious movement. “The very image of Wordsworth,” says De Quincey, for instance, “as I prefigured it to my own planet-struck eye, crushed my faculties as before Elijah or St. Paul.” How was it that poems so simple in outward form that the reviewers of the day classed them with the Song of Sixpence, or at best with the Babes in the Wood, could affect a critic like De Quincey,—I do not say with admiration, but with this exceptional sense of revelation and awe?

The explanation of this anomaly lies, as is well known, in something new and individual in the way in which Wordsworth regarded Nature; something more or less discernible in most of his works, and redeeming even some of the slightest of them from insignificance, while conferring on the more serious and sustained pieces an importance of a different order from that which attaches to even the most brilliant productions of his contemporaries. To define with exactness, however, what was this new element imported by our poet into man’s view of Nature is far from easy, and requires some brief consideration of the attitude in this respect of his predecessors.

There is so much in the external world which is terrible or unfriendly to man, that the first impression made on him by Nature as a whole, even in temperate climates, is usually that of awfulness; his admiration being reserved for the fragments of her which he has utilized for his own purposes, or adorned with his own handiwork. When Homer tells us of a place

Where even a god might gaze, and stand apart,

And feel a wondering rapture at the heart,

it is of no prospect of sea or mountain that he is speaking, but of a garden where everything is planted in rows, and there is a never-ending succession of pears and figs. These gentler aspects of Nature will have their minor deities to represent them; but the men, of whatever race they be, whose minds are most absorbed in the problems of man’s position and destiny will tend for the most part to some sterner and more overwhelming conception of the sum of things. “Lord, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?” is the cry of Hebrew piety as well as of modern science; and the “majestas cognita rerum,”—the recognized majesty of the universe—teaches Lucretius only the indifference of gods and the misery of men.

But in a well-known passage, in which Lucretius is honoured as he deserves, we find nevertheless a different view hinted, with an impressiveness which it had hardly acquired till then. We find Virgil implying that scientific knowledge of Nature may not be the only way of arriving at the truth about her; that her loveliness is also a revelation, and that the soul which is in unison with her is justified by its own peace. This is the very substance of The Poet’s Epitaph also; of the poem in which Wordsworth at the beginning of his career describes himself as he continued till its close,—the poet who “murmurs near the running brooks a music sweeter than their own,”—who scorns the man of science “who would peep and botanize upon his mother’s grave.”

The outward shows of sky and earth,

Of hill and valley, he has viewed;

And impulses of deeper birth

Have come to him in solitude.

In common things that round us lie

Some random truths he can impart,—

The harvest of a quiet eye

That broods and sleeps on his own heart.

But he is weak, both man and boy,

Hath been an idler in the land;

Contented if he might enjoy

The things which others understand.

Like much else in the literature of imperial Rome, the passage in the second Georgic to which I have referred is in its essence more modern than the Middle Ages. Mediaeval Christianity involved a divorce from the nature around us, as well as from the nature within. With the rise of the modern spirit delight in the external world returns; and from Chaucer downwards through the whole course of English poetry are scattered indications of a mood which draws from visible things an intuition of things not seen. When Wither, in words which Wordsworth has fondly quoted, says of his muse,—

By the murmur of a spring,

Or the least bough’s rustelling;

By a daisy whose leaves spread,

Shut when Titan goes to bed;

Or a shady bush or tree,—

She could more infuse in me

Than all Nature’s beauties can

In some other wiser man,—

he felt already, as Wordsworth after him, that Nature is no mere collection of phenomena, but infuses into her least approaches some sense of her mysterious whole.

Passages like this, however, must not he too closely pressed. The mystic element in English literature has run for the most part into other channels; and when, after Pope’s reign of artificiality and convention, attention was redirected to the phenomena of Nature by Collins, Beattie, Thomson, Crabbe, Cowper, Burns, and Scott, it was in a spirit of admiring observation rather than of an intimate worship. Sometimes, as for the most part in Thomson, we have mere picturesqueness,—a reproduction of Nature for the mere pleasure of reproducing her,—a kind of stock-taking of her habitual effects. Or sometimes, as in Burns, we have a glowing spirit which looks on Nature with a side glance, and uses her as an accessory to the expression of human love and woe. Cowper sometimes contemplated her as a whole, but only as affording a proof of the wisdom and goodness of a personal Creator.

To express what is characteristic in Wordsworth we must recur to a more generalized conception of the relations between the natural and the spiritual worlds. We must say with Plato—the lawgiver of all subsequent idealists—that the unknown realities around us, which the philosopher apprehends by the contemplation of abstract truth, become in various ways obscurely perceptible to men under the influence of a “divine madness,”—of an enthusiasm which is in fact inspiration. And further, giving, as he so often does, a half-fanciful expression to a substance of deep meaning,—Plato distinguishes four kinds of this enthusiasm. There is the prophet’s glow of revelation; and the prevailing prayer which averts the wrath of heaven; and that philosophy which enters, so to say, unawares into the poet through his art, and into the lover through his love. Each of these stimuli may so exalt the inward faculties as to make a man ενθεος κυι εκφρον,—“bereft of reason but filled with divinity,”—percipient of an intelligence other and larger than his own. To this list Wordsworth has made an important addition. He has shown by his example and writings that the contemplation of Nature may become a stimulus as inspiring as these; may enable us “to see into the life of things”—as far, perhaps, as beatific vision or prophetic rapture can attain. Assertions so impalpable as these must justify themselves by subjective evidence. He who claims to give a message must satisfy us that he has himself received it; and, inasmuch as transcendent things are in themselves inexpressible, he must convey to us in hints and figures the conviction which we need. Prayer may bring the spiritual world near to us; but when the eyes of the kneeling Dominic seem to say “To son venuto a questo,” their look must persuade us that the life of worship has indeed attained the reward of vision. Art, too, may be inspired; but the artist, in whatever field he works, must have “such a mastery of his mystery” that the fabric of his imagination stands visible in its own light before our eyes,—

Seeing it is built

Of music; therefore never built at all,

And, therefore, built for ever.

Love may open heaven; but when the lover would invite us “thither, where are the eyes of Beatrice,” he must make us feel that his individual passion is indeed part and parcel of that love “which moves the sun and the other stars.”

And so also with Wordsworth. Unless the words which describe the intense and sympathetic gaze with which he contemplates Nature convince us of the reality of “the light which never was on sea or land,”—of the “Presence which disturbs him with the joy of elevated thoughts,”—of the authentic vision of those hours

When the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world;—

unless his tone awakes a responsive conviction in ourselves, there is no argument by which he can prove to us that he is offering a new insight to mankind. Yet, on the other hand, it need not be unreasonable to see in his message something more than a mere individual fancy. It seems, at least, to be closely correlated with those other messages of which we have spoken,—those other cases where some original element of our nature is capable of being regarded as an inlet of mystic truth. For in each of these complex aspects of religion we see, perhaps, the modification of a primeval instinct. There is a point of view from which Revelation seems to be but transfigured Sorcery, and Love transfigured Appetite, and Philosophy man’s ordered Wonder, and Prayer his softening Fear. And similarly in the natural religion of Wordsworth we may discern the modified outcome of other human impulses hardly less universal—of those instincts which led our forefathers to people earth and air with deities, or to vivify the whole universe with a single soul. In this view the achievement of Wordsworth was of a kind which most of the moral leaders of the race have in some way or other performed. It was that he turned a theology back again into a religion: that he revived in a higher and purer form those primitive elements of reverence for Nature’s powers which had diffused themselves into speculation, or crystallized into mythology; that for a system of beliefs about Nature, which paganism had allowed to become grotesque,— of rites which had become unmeaning,—he substituted an admiration for Nature so constant, an understanding of her so subtle, a sympathy so profound, that they became a veritable worship. Such worship, I repeat, is not what we commonly imply either by paganism or by pantheism. For in pagan countries, though the gods may have originally represented natural forces, yet the conception of them soon becomes anthropomorphic, and they are reverenced as transcendent men; and, on the other hand, pantheism is generally characterized by an indifference to things in the concrete, to Nature in detail; so that the Whole, or Universe, with which the Stoics (for instance) sought to be in harmony, was approached not by contemplating external objects, but rather by ignoring them.

Yet here I would be understood to speak only in the most general manner. So congruous in all ages are the aspirations and the hopes of men that it would be rash indeed to attempt to assign the moment when any spiritual truth rises for the first time on human consciousness. But thus much, I think, may be fairly said, that the maxims of Wordsworth’s form of natural religion were uttered before Wordsworth only in the sense in which the maxims of Christianity were uttered before Christ. To compare small things with great—or rather, to compare great things with things vastly greater—the essential spirit of the Lines near Tintern Abbey was for practical purposes as new to mankind as the essential spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Not the isolated expression of moral ideas, but their fusion into a whole in one memorable personality, is that which connects them for ever with a single name. Therefore it is that Wordsworth is venerated; because to so many men—indifferent, it may be, to literary or poetical effects, as such—he has shown by the subtle intensity of his own emotion how the contemplation of Nature can be made a revealing agency, like Love or Prayer,—an opening, if indeed there be any opening, into the transcendent world.

The prophet with such a message as this will, of course, appeal for the most part to the experience of exceptional moments—those moments when “we see into the life of things;” when the face of Nature sends to us “gleams like the flashing of a shield;”—hours such as those of the Solitary, who, gazing on the lovely distant scene,

Would gaze till it became

Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain

The beauty, still more beauteous.

But the idealist, of whatever school, is seldom content to base his appeal to us upon these scattered intuitions alone. There is a whole epoch of our existence whose memories, differing, indeed, immensely in vividness and importance in the minds of different men, are yet sufficiently common to all men to form a favourite basis for philosophical argument. “The child is father of the man;” and through the recollection and observation of early childhood we may hope to trace our ancestry—in heaven above or on the earth beneath— in its most significant manifestation.

It is to the workings of the mind of the child that the philosopher appeals who wishes to prove that knowledge is recollection, and that our recognition of geometrical truths—so prompt as to appear instinctive—depends on our having been actually familiar with them in an earlier world. The Christian mystic invokes with equal confidence his own memories of a state which seemed as yet to know no sin:—

Happy those early days, when I

Shined in my angel infancy!

Before I understood this place

Appointed for my second race,

Or taught my soul to fancy aught

But a white, celestial thought;

When yet I had not walked above

A mile or two from my first Love,

And looking back at that short space

Could see a glimpse of His bright face;

When on some gilded cloud or flower

My gazing soul would dwell an hour,

And in those weaker glories spy

Some shadows of eternity;

Before I taught my tongue to wound

My conscience with a sinful sound,

Or had the black art to dispense

A several sin to every sense,

But felt through all this fleshly dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

And Wordsworth, whose recollections were exceptionally vivid, and whose introspection was exceptionally penetrating, has drawn from his own childish memories philosophical lessons which are hard to disentangle in a logical statement, but which will roughly admit of being classed under two heads. For firstly, he has shown an unusual delicacy of analysis in eliciting the “firstborn affinities that fit our new existence to existing things;”—in tracing the first impact of impressions which are destined to give the mind its earliest ply, or even, in unreflecting natures, to determine the permanent modes of thought. And, secondly, from the halo of pure and vivid emotions with which our childish years are surrounded, and the close connexion of this emotion with external nature, which it glorifies and transforms, he infers that the soul has enjoyed elsewhere an existence superior to that of earth, but an existence of which external nature retains for a time the power of reminding her.

The first of these lines of thought may be illustrated by a passage in the Prelude, in which the boy’s mind is represented as passing through precisely the train of emotion which we may imagine to be at the root of the theology of many barbarous peoples. He is rowing at night alone on Esthwaite Lake, his eyes fixed upon a ridge of crags, above which nothing is visible:—

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 thro’ the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

In the controversy as to the origin of the worship of inanimate objects, or of the powers of Nature, this passage might fairly be cited as an example of the manner in which those objects, or those powers, can impress the mind with that awe which is the foundation of savage creeds, while yet they are not identified with any human intelligence, such as the spirits of ancestors or the like, nor even supposed to operate according to any human, analogy.

Up to this point Wordsworth’s reminiscences may seem simply to illustrate the conclusions which science reaches by other roads. But he is not content with merely recording and analyzing his childish impressions; he implies, or even asserts, that these “fancies from afar are brought”—that the child’s view of the world reveals to him truths which the man with difficulty retains or recovers. This is not the usual teaching of science, yet it would be hard to assert that it is absolutely impossible. The child’s instincts may well be supposed to partake in larger measure of the general instincts of the race, in smaller measure of the special instincts of his own country and century, than is the case with the man. Now the feelings and beliefs of each successive century will probably be, on the whole, superior to those of any previous century. But this is not universally true; the teaching of each generation does not thus sum up the results of the whole past. And thus the child, to whom in a certain sense the past of humanity is present,—who is living through the whole life of the race in little, before he lives the life of his century in large,—may possibly dimly apprehend something more of truth in certain directions than is visible to the adults around him.

But, thus qualified, the intuitions of infancy might seem scarcely worth insisting on. And Wordsworth, as is well known, has followed Plato in advancing for the child a much bolder claim. The child’s soul, in this view, has existed before it entered the body—has existed in a world superior to ours, but connected, by the immanence of the same pervading Spirit, with the material universe before our eyes. The child begins by feeling this material world strange to him. But he sees in it, as it were, what he has been accustomed to see; he discerns in it its kinship with the spiritual world which he dimly remembers; it is to him “an unsubstantial fairy place”—a scene at once brighter and more unreal than it will appear in his eyes when he has become acclimatized to earth. And even when this freshness of insight has passed away, it occasionally happens that sights or sounds of unusual beauty or carrying deep associations—a rainbow, a cuckoo’s cry, a sunset of extraordinary splendour—will renew for a while this sense of vision and nearness to the spiritual world—a sense which never loses its reality, though with advancing years its presence grows briefer and more rare.

Such, then, in prosaic statement is the most characteristic message of Wordsworth. And it is to be noted that though Wordsworth at times presents it as a coherent theory, yet it is not necessarily of the nature of a theory, nor need be accepted or rejected as a whole; but is rather an inlet of illumining emotion in which different minds can share in the measure of their capacities or their need. There are some to whom childhood brought no strange vision of brightness, but who can feel their communion with the Divinity in Nature growing with the growth of their souls. There are others who might be unwilling to acknowledge any spiritual or transcendent source for the elevating joy which the contemplation of Nature can give, but who feel nevertheless that to that joy Wordsworth has been their most effective guide. A striking illustration of this fact may be drawn, from the passage in which John Stuart Mill, a philosopher of a very different school, has recorded the influence exercised over him by Wordsworth’s poems; read in a season of dejection, when there seemed to be no real and substantive joy in life, nothing but the excitement of the struggle with the hardships and injustices of human fates.

“What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of

mind,” he says in his Autobiography, “was that they expressed,

not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought

coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They

seemed to be the very culture of the feelings which I was in

quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward

joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be

shared in by all human beings, which had no connexion

with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by

every improvement in the physical or social condition of

mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the

perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of

life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better

and happier as I came under their influence.”

Words like these, proceeding from a mind so different from the poet’s own, form perhaps as satisfactory a testimony to the value of his work as any writer can obtain. For they imply that Wordsworth has succeeded in giving his own impress to emotions which may become common to all; that he has produced a body of thought which is felt to be both distinctive and coherent, while yet it enlarges the reader’s capacities instead of making demands upon his credence. Whether there be theories, they shall pass; whether there be systems, they shall fail; the true epoch-maker in the history of the human soul is the man who educes from this bewildering universe a new and elevating joy.

I have alluded above to some of the passages, most of them familiar enough, in which Wordsworth’s sense of the mystic relation between the world without us and the world within—the correspondence between the seen and the unseen—is expressed in its most general terms. But it is evident that such a conviction as this, if it contain any truth, cannot be barren of consequences on any level of thought. The communion with Nature which is capable of being at times sublimed to an incommunicable ecstasy must be capable also of explaining Nature to us so far as she can be explained; there must be axiomata media of natural religion; there must be something in the nature of poetic truths, standing midway between mystic intuition and delicate observation.

How rich Wordsworth is in these poetic truths—how illumining is the gaze which he turns on the commonest phenomena—how subtly and variously he shows us the soul’s innate perceptions or inherited memories as it were cooperating with Nature and “half creating” the voice with which she speaks—all this can be learnt by attentive study alone. Only a few scattered samples can be given here; and I will begin with one on whose significance the poet has himself dwelt. This is the poem called The Leech–Gatherer, afterwards more formally named Resolution and Independence.

“I will explain to you,” says Wordsworth, “in prose, my feelings in writing that poem, I describe myself as having been exalted to the highest pitch of delight by the joyousness and beauty of Nature; and then as depressed, even in the midst of those beautiful objects, to the lowest dejection and despair. A young poet in the midst of the happiness of Nature is described as overwhelmed by the thoughts of the miserable reverses which have befallen the happiest of all men, viz. poets. I think of this till I am so deeply impressed with it, that I consider the manner in which I am rescued from my dejection and despair almost as an interposition of Providence. A person reading the poem with feelings like mine will have been awed and controlled, expecting something spiritual or supernatural. What is brought forward? A lonely place, ‘a pond, by which an old man was, far from all house or home:’ not stood, nor sat, but was—the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible. The feeling of spirituality or supernaturalness is again referred to as being strong in my mind in this passage. How came he here? thought I, or what can he be doing? I then describe him, whether ill or well is not for me to judge with perfect confidence; but this I can confidently affirm, that though I believe God has given me a strong imagination, I cannot conceive a figure more impressive than that of an old man like this, the survivor of a wife and ten children, travelling alone among the mountains and all lonely places, carrying with him his own fortitude, and the necessities which an unjust state of society has laid upon him. You speak of his speech as tedious. Everything is tedious when one does not read with the feelings of the author. The Thorn is tedious to hundreds; and so is The Idiot Boy to hundreds. It is in the character of the old man to tell his story, which an impatient reader must feel tedious. But, good heavens! Such a figure, in such a place; a pious, self-respecting, miserably infirm and pleased old man, telling such a tale!”

The naive earnestness of this passage suggests to us how constantly recurrent in Wordsworth’s mind were the two trains of ideas which form the substance of the poem; the interaction, namely, (if so it may be termed,) of the moods of Nature with the moods of the human mind; and the dignity and interest of man as man, depicted with no complex background of social or political life, but set amid the primary affections and sorrows, and the wild aspects of the external world.

Among the pictures which Wordsworth has left us of the influence of Nature on human character, Peter Bell may be taken as marking one end, and the poems on Lucy the other end of the scale. Peter Bell lives in the face of Nature untouched alike by her terror and her charm; Lucy’s whole being is moulded by Nature’s self; she is responsive to sun and shadow, to silence and to sound, and melts almost into an impersonation of a Cumbrian valley’s peace. Between these two extremes how many are the possible shades of feeling! In Ruth, for instance, the point impressed upon us is that Nature’s influence is only salutary so long as she is herself, so to say, in keeping with man; that when her operations reach that degree of habitual energy and splendour at which our love for her passes into fascination and our admiration into bewilderment, then the fierce and irregular stimulus consorts no longer with the growth of a temperate virtue.

The wind, the tempest roaring high,

The tumult of a tropic sky,

Might well be dangerous food

For him, a youth to whom was given

So much of earth, so much of heaven,

And such impetuous blood.

And a contrasting touch recalls the healing power of those gentle and familiar presences which came to Ruth in her stormy madness with visitations of momentary calm.

Yet sometimes milder hours she knew,

Nor wanted sun, nor rain, nor dew,

Nor pastimes of the May;

They all were with her in her cell;

And a wild brook with cheerful knell

Did o’er the pebbles play.

I will give one other instance of this subtle method of dealing with the contrasts in Nature. It is from the poem entitled “Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew–Tree which stands near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the Shore, commanding a beautiful Prospect.” This seat was once the haunt of a lonely, a disappointed, an embittered man.

Stranger! These gloomy boughs

Had charms for him: and here he loved to sit,

His only visitants a straggling sheep,

The stone-chat, or the glancing sand-piper;

And on these barren rocks, with fern and heath

And juniper and thistle sprinkled o’er,

Fixing his downcast eye, he many an hour

A morbid pleasure nourished, tracing here

An emblem of his own unfruitful life:

And, lifting up his head, he then would gaze

On the more distant scene,—how lovely ’tis

Thou seest,—and he would gaze till it became

Far lovelier, and his heart could not sustain

The beauty, still more beauteous! Nor, that time,

When Nature had subdued him to herself,

Would he forget those beings, to whose minds,

Warm from the labours of benevolence,

The world, and human life, appeared a scene

Of kindred loveliness; then he would sigh

With mournful joy, to think that others felt

What he must never feel; and so, lost Man!

On visionary views would fancy feed

Till his eyes streamed with tears.

This is one of the passages which the lover of Wordsworth, quotes, perhaps, with some apprehension; not knowing how far it carries into the hearts of others its affecting power; how vividly it calls up before them that mood of desolate loneliness when the whole vision of human love and joy hangs like a mirage in the air, and only when it seems irrecoverably distant seems also intolerably dear. But, however this particular passage may impress the reader, it is not hard to illustrate by abundant references the potent originality of Wordsworth’s outlook on the external world.

There was indeed no aspect of Nature, however often depicted, in which his seeing eye could not discern some unnoted quality; there was no mood to which nature gave birth in the mind of man from which his meditation could not disengage some element which threw light on our inner being. How often has the approach of evening been described! And how mysterious is its solemnizing power! Yet it was reserved for Wordsworth in his sonnet “Hail, Twilight, sovereign of one peaceful hour,” to draw out a characteristic of that grey waning light which half explains to us its sombre and pervading charm. “Day’s mutable distinctions” pass away; all in the landscape that suggests our own age or our own handiwork is gone; we look on the sight seen by our remote ancestors, and the visible present is generalized into an immeasureable past.

The sonnet on the Duddon beginning “What aspect bore the Man who roved or fled First of his tribe to this dark dell,” carries back the mind along the same track, with the added thought of Nature’s permanent gentleness amid the “hideous usages” of primeval man,— through all which the stream’s voice was innocent, and its flow benign. “A weight of awe not easy to be borne” fell on the poet, also, as he looked on the earliest memorials which these remote ancestors have left us. The Sonnet on a Stone Circle which opens with these words is conceived in a strain of emotion never more needed than now,— when Abury itself owes its preservation to the munificence of a private individual,—when stone-circle or round-tower, camp or dolmen, are destroyed to save a few shillings, and occupation-roads are mended with the immemorial altars of an unknown God. “Speak, Giant-mother! Tell it to the Morn!”—how strongly does the heart reecho the solemn invocation which calls on those abiding witnesses to speak once of what they knew long ago!

The mention of these ancient worships may lead us to ask in what manner Wordsworth was affected “by the Nature-deities of Greece and Rome”—impersonations which have preserved through so many ages so strange a charm. And space must be found here for the characteristic sonnet in which the baseness and materialism of modern life drives him back on whatsoever of illumination and reality lay in that young ideal.

The world is too much with us; late and soon

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The Winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea:

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth’s own imagination idealized Nature in a different way. The sonnet “Brook! Whose society the poet seeks” places him among the men whose Nature-deities have not yet become anthropomorphic— men to whom “unknown modes of being” may seem more lovely as well as more awful than the life we know. He would not give to his idealized brook “human cheeks, channels for tears,—no Naiad shouldst thou be,”—

It seems the Eternal Soul is clothed in thee

With purer robes than those of flesh and blood,

And hath bestowed on thee a better good;

Unwearied joy, and life without its cares.

And in the Sonnet on Calais Beach the sea is regarded in the same way, with a sympathy (if I may so say) which needs no help from an imaginary impersonation, but strikes back to a sense of kinship which seems antecedent to the origin of man.

It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free;

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquillity;

The gentleness of heaven is on the Sea:

Listen! The mighty Being is awake,

And doth with his eternal motion make

A sound like thunder—everlastingly.

A comparison, made by Wordsworth himself, of his own method of observing Nature with Scott’s expresses in less mystical language something of what I am endeavouring to say.

“He expatiated much to me one day,” says Mr. Aubrey de

Vere, “as we walked among the hills above Grasmere, on the

mode in which Nature had been described by one of the most

justly popular of England’s modern poets—one for whom he

preserved a high and affectionate respect. ‘He took pains,’

Wordsworth said; ‘he went out with his pencil and note-book,

and jotted down whatever struck him most—a river rippling

over the sands, a ruined tower on a rock above it, a promontory,

and a mountain-ash waving its red berries. He went home and

wove the whole together into a poetical description.’ After a

pause, Wordsworth resumed, with a flashing eye and impassioned

voice: ‘But Nature does not permit an inventory to be

made of her charms! He should have left his pencil and notebook

at home, fixed his eye as he walked with a reverent attention

on all that surrounded him, and taken all into a heart that

could understand and enjoy. Then, after several days had

passed by, he should have interrogated his memory as to the

scene. He would have discovered that while much of what he

had admired was preserved to him, much was also most wisely

obliterated; that which remained—the picture surviving in his

mind—would have presented the ideal and essential truth of the

scene, and done so in a large part by discarding much which,

though in itself striking, was not characteristic. In every scene

many of the most brilliant details are but accidental; a true eye

for Nature does not note them, or at least does not dwell on

them.’”

How many a phrase of Wordsworth’s rises in the mind in illustration of this power! Phrases which embody in a single picture, or a single image,—it may be the vivid wildness of the flowery coppice, of—

Flaunting summer, when he throws

His soul into the briar-rose,—

or the melancholy stillness of the declining year,—

Where floats

O’er twilight fields the autumnal gossamer;

or—as in the words which to the sensitive Charles Lamb seemed too terrible for art—the irresponsive blankness of the universe—

The broad open eye of the solitary sky—

beneath which mortal hearts must make what merriment they may.

Or take those typical stanzas in Peter Bell, which so long were accounted among Wordsworth’s leading absurdities.

In vain through, every changeful year

Did Nature lead him as before;

A primrose by the river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.

In vain, through water, earth, and air,

The soul of happy sound was spread,

When Peter, on some April morn,

Beneath the broom or budding thorn.

Made the warm earth his lazy bed.

At noon, when by the forest’s edge

He lay beneath the branches high,

The soft blue sky did never melt

Into his heart,—he never felt

The witchery of the soft blue sky!

On a fair prospect some have looked

And felt, as I have heard them say,

As if the moving time had been

A thing as steadfast as the scene

On which they gazed themselves away.

In all these passages, it will be observed, the emotion is educed from Nature rather than added to her; she is treated as a mystic text to be deciphered, rather than as a stimulus to roving imagination. This latter mood, indeed, Wordsworth feels occasionally, as in the sonnet where the woodland sights become to him “like a dream of the whole world;” but it is checked by the recurring sense that “it is our business to idealize the real, and not to realize the ideal.” Absorbed in admiration of fantastic clouds of sunset, he feels for a moment ashamed to think that they are unrememberable—

They are of the sky,

And from our earthly memory fade away.

But soon he disclaims this regret, and reasserts the paramount interest of the things that we can grasp and love.

Grove, isle, with every shape of sky-built dome,

Though clad In colours beautiful and pure,

Find in the heart of man no natural home;

The immortal Mind craves objects that endure:

These cleave to it; from these it cannot roam,

Nor they from it: their fellowship is secure.

From this temper of Wordsworth’s mind, it follows that there will be many moods in which we shall not retain him as our companion. Moods which are rebellious, which beat at the bars of fate; moods of passion reckless in its vehemence, and assuming the primacy of all other emotions through the intensity of its delight or pain; moods of mere imaginative phantasy, when we would fain shape from the well-worn materials of our thought some fabric at once beautiful and new; from all such phases of our inward being Wordsworth stands aloof. His poem on the nightingale and the stockdove illustrates with half-conscious allegory the contrast between himself and certain other poets.

O Nightingale! Thou surely art

A creature of a fiery heart:—

These notes of thine—they pierce and pierce;

Tumultuous harmony and fierce!

Thou sing’st as if the God of wine

Had helped thee to a Valentine;

A song in mockery and despite

Of shades, and dews, and silent Night;

And steady bliss, and all the loves

Now sleeping in their peaceful groves.

I heard a Stock-dove sing or say

His homely tale, this very day;

His voice was buried among trees,

Yet to be come at by the breeze:

He did not cease; but cooed—and cooed,

And somewhat pensively he wooed.

He sang of love with quiet blending,

Slow to begin, and never ending;

Of serious faith and inward glee;

That was the Song—the Song for me!

“His voice was buried among trees,” says Wordsworth; “a metaphor expressing the love of seclusion by which this bird is marked; and characterizing its note as not partaking of the shrill and the piercing, and therefore more easily deadened by the intervening shade; yet a note so peculiar, and withal so pleasing, that the breeze, gifted with that love of the sound which the poet feels, penetrates the shade in which it is entombed, and conveys it to the ear of the listener.”

Wordsworth’s poetry on the emotional side (as distinguished from its mystical or its patriotic aspects) could hardly be more exactly described than in the above sentence. For while there are few poems of his which could be read to a mixed audience with the certainty of producing an immediate impression; yet on the other hand all the best ones gain in an unusual degree by repeated study; and this Is especially the case with those in which, some touch of tenderness is enshrined in a scene of beauty, which it seems to interpret while it is itself exalted by it. Such a poem is Stepping Westward, where the sense of sudden fellowship, and the quaint greeting beneath the glowing sky, seem to link man’s momentary wanderings with the cosmic spectacles of heaven. Such are the lines where all the wild romance of Highland scenery, the forlornness of the solitary vales, pours itself through the lips of the maiden singing at her work, “as if her song could have no ending,”—

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! For the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.

Such—and with how subtle a difference!—is the Fragment in which a “Spirit of noonday” wears on his face the silent joy of Nature in her own recesses, undisturbed by beast, or bird, or man,—

Nor ever was a cloudless sky

So steady or so fair.

And such are the poems—We are Seven, The Pet Lamb, [The Pet Lamb is probably the only poem of Wordsworth’s which can be charged with having done moral injury, and that to a single individual alone. “Barbara Lewthwaite,” says Wordsworth, in 1843, “was not, in fact, the child whom I had seen and overheard as engaged in the poem. I chose the name for reasons implied in the above,” (i.e. an account of her remarkable beauty), “and will here add a caution against the use of names of living persons. Within a few months after the publication of this poem I was much, surprised, and more hurt, to find it in a child’s school-book, which, having been compiled by Lindley Murray, had come into use at Grasmere School, where Barbara was a pupil. And, alas, I had the mortification of hearing that she was very vain of being thus distinguished; and in after-life she used to say that she remembered the incident, and what I said to her upon the occasion.”]

Louisa, The Two April Mornings—in which the beauty of rustic children melts, as it were, into Nature herself, and the—

Blooming girl whose hair was wet

With points of morning dew

becomes the impersonation of the season’s early joy. We may apply, indeed, to all these girls Wordsworth’s description of leverets playing on a lawn, and call them—

Separate creatures in their several gifts

Abounding, but so fashioned that in all

That Nature prompts them to display, their looks,

Their starts of motion and their fits of rest,

An undistinguishable style appears

And character of gladness, as if Spring

Lodged in their innocent bosoms, and the spirit

Of the rejoicing Morning were their own.

My limits forbid me to dwell longer on these points. The passages which I have been citing have been for the most part selected as illustrating the novelty and subtlety of Wordsworth’s view of Nature. But it will now be sufficiently clear how continually a strain of human interest is interwoven with the delight derived from impersonal things.

Long have I loved what I behold,

The night that calms, the day that cheers:

The common growth of mother earth

Suffices me—her tears, her mirth,

Her humblest mirth and tears.

The poet of the Waggoner—who, himself a habitual water-drinker, has so glowingly described the glorification which the prospect of nature receives in a half-intoxicated brain—may justly claim that he can enter into all genuine pleasures, even of an order which he declines for himself. With anything that is false or artificial he cannot sympathize, nor with such faults as baseness, cruelty, rancour; which seem contrary to human nature itself; but in dealing with faults of mere weakness he is far less strait-laced than many less virtuous men.

He had, in fact, a reverence for human beings as such which enabled him to face even their frailties without alienation; and there was something in his own happy exemption from such falls which touched him into regarding men less fortunate rather with pity than disdain.

Because the unstained, the clear, the crystalline,

Have ever in them something of benign.

His comment on Barns’s Tam o’ Shanter will perhaps surprise some readers who are accustomed to think of him only in his didactic attitude.

“It is the privilege of poetic genius, he says, to catch, under certain restrictions of which perhaps at the time of its being exerted it is but dimly conscious, a spirit of pleasure wherever it can be found, in the walks of nature, and in the business of men. The poet, trusting to primary instincts, luxuriates among the felicities of love and wine, and is enraptured while he describes the fairer aspects of war, nor does he shrink from the company of the passion of love though immoderate—from convivial pleasures though intemperate—nor from the presence of war, though savage, and recognized as the handmaid of desolation. Frequently and admirably has Burns given way to these impulses of nature, both with references to himself and in describing the condition of others. Who, but some impenetrable dunce or narrow-minded puritan in works of art, ever read without delight the picture which he has drawn of the convivial exaltation of the rustic adventurer Tam o’ Shanter? The poet fears not to tell the reader in the outset that his hero was a desperate and sottish drunkard, whose excesses were as frequent as his opportunities. This reprobate sits down to his cups while the storm is roaring, and heaven and earth are in confusion; the night is driven on by song and tumultuous noise, laughter and jest thicken as the beverage improves upon the palate—conjugal fidelity archly bends to the service of general benevolence—selfishness is not absent, but wearing the mask of social cordiality; and while these various elements of humanity are blended into one proud and happy composition of elated spirits, the anger of the tempest without doors only heightens and sets off the enjoyment within. I pity him who cannot perceive that in all this, though there was no moral purpose, there is a moral effect.”

Kings may be blest, but Tarn was glorious,

O’er a’ the ills of life victorious.

“What a lesson do these words convey of charitable indulgence for the vicious habits of the principal actor in the scene, and of those who resemble him! Men who to the rigidly virtuous are objects almost of loathing, and whom therefore they cannot serve! The poet, penetrating the unsightly and disgusting surfaces of things, has unveiled with exquisite skill the finer ties of imagination and feeling, that often bind these beings to practices productive of so much unhappiness to themselves, and to those whom it is their duty to cherish; and, as far as he puts the reader into possession of this intelligent sympathy, he qualifies him for exercising a salutary influence over the minds of those who are thus deplorably enslaved.”

The reverence for man as man, the sympathy for him in his primary relations and his essential being, of which these comments on Tam o’ Shanter form so remarkable an example, is a habit of thought too ingrained in all Wordsworth’s works to call for specific illustration. The figures of Michael, of Matthew, of the Brothers, of the hero of the Excursion, and even of the Idiot Boy, suggest themselves at once in this connexion. But it should be noted in each case how free is the poet’s view from any idealization of the poorer classes as such, from the ascription of imaginary merits to an unknown populace which forms the staple of so much revolutionary eloquence. These poems, while they form the most convincing rebuke to the exclusive pride of the rich and great, are also a stern and strenuous incentive to the obscure and lowly. They are pictures of the poor man’s life as it is,—pictures as free as Crabbe’s from the illusion of sentiment,—but in which the delight of mere observation (which in Crabbe predominates) is subordinated to an intense sympathy with all such capacities of nobleness and tenderness as are called out by the stress and pressure of penury or woe. They form for the folk of northern England (as the works of Burns and Scott for the Scottish folk) a gallery of figures that are modelled, as it were, both from without and from within; by one with experience so personal as to keep every sentence vividly accurate, and yet with an insight which could draw from that simple life lessons to itself unknown. We may almost venture to generalize our statement further, and to assert that no writer since Shakespeare has left us so true a picture of the British nation. In Milton, indeed, we have the characteristic English spirit at a whiter glow; but it is the spirit of the scholar only, or of the ruler, not of the peasant, the woman, or the child, Wordsworth gives us that spirit as it is diffused among shepherds and husbandmen,—as it exists in obscurity and at peace. And they who know what makes the strength of nations need wish nothing better than that the temper which he saw and honoured among the Cumbrian dales should be the temper of all England, now and for ever.

Our discussion of Wordsworth’s form of Natural Religion has led us back by no forced transition to the simple life which he described and shared. I return to the story of his later years,—if that be called a story which derives no interest from incident or passion, and dwells only on the slow broodings of a meditative soul.

 

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