BY F. W. H. MYERS
"From worlds not quickened by the sun A portion of the gift is won; An intermingling of Heaven's pomp is spread On ground which British shepherds tread."
CHAPTER I. BIRTH AND EDUCATION—CAMBRIDGE
CHAPTER II. RESIDENCE IN LONDON AND IN FRANCE
CHAPTER III. MISS WORDSWORTH—"LYRICAL BALLADS"—SETTLEMENT AT GRASMERE
CHAPTER IV. THE ENGLISH LAKES
CHAPTER V. MARRIAGE—SOCIETY—HIGHLAND TOUR
CHAPTER VI. SIR GEORGE BEAUMONT—DEATH OF JOHN WORDSWORTH
CHAPTER VII "HAPPY WARRIOR" AND PATRIOTIC POEMS
CHAPTER VIII CHILDREN—LIFE AT RYDAL MOUNT—"THE EXCURSION"
CHAPTER IX POETIC DICTION—"LAODAMIA"—"EVENING ODE"
CHAPTER X NATURAL RELIGION
CHAPTER XI ITALIAN TOUR—"ECCLESIASTICAL SONNETS"—POETICAL VIEWS— LAUREATESHIP
CHAPTER XII LETTERS ON THE KENDAL AND WINDERMERE RAILWAY—CONCLUSION
BIRTH AND EDUCATION—CAMBRIDGE.
I cannot, perhaps, more fitly begin this short biography than with some words in which its subject has expressed his own feelings as to the spirit in which such a task should be approached. "Silence," says Wordsworth, "is a privilege of the grave, a right of the departed: let him, therefore, who infringes that right by speaking publicly of, for, or against, those who cannot speak for themselves, take heed that he opens not his mouth without a sufficient sanction. Only to philosophy enlightened by the affections does it belong justly to estimate the claims of the deceased on the one hand, and of the present age and future generations on the other, and to strike a balance between them. Such philosophy runs a risk of becoming extinct among us, if the coarse intrusions into the recesses, the gross breaches upon the sanctities, of domestic life, to which we have lately been more and more accustomed, are to be regarded as indications of a vigorous state of public feeling. The wise and good respect, as one of the noblest characteristics of Englishmen, that jealousy of familiar approach which, while it contributes to the maintenance of private dignity, is one of the most efficacious guardians of rational public freedom."
In accordance with these views the poet entrusted to his nephew, the late Bishop of Lincoln, the task of composing memoirs of his life, in the just confidence that nothing would by such hands be given to the world which was inconsistent with the dignity either of the living or of the dead. From those memoirs the facts contained in the present work have been for the most part drawn. It has, however, been my fortune, through hereditary friendships, to have access to many manuscript letters and much oral tradition bearing upon the poet's private life; and some details and some passages of letters hitherto unpublished, will appear in these pages. It would seem, however, that there is but little of public interest, in Wordsworth's life which has not already been given to the world, and I have shrunk from narrating such minor personal incidents as he would himself have thought it needless to dwell upon. I have endeavoured, in short, to write as though the Subject of this biography were himself its Auditor, listening, indeed, from some region where all of truth is discerned, and nothing but truth desired, but checking by his venerable presence, any such revelation as public advantage does not call for, and private delicacy would condemn.
As regards the critical remarks which these pages contain. I have only to say that I have carefully consulted such notices of the poet as his personal friends have left us, and also, I believe, nearly every criticism of importance which has appeared on his works. I find with pleasure that a considerable agreement of opinion exists,— though less among professed poets or critics, than among men of eminence in other departments of thought or action whose attention has been directed to Wordsworth's poems. And although I have felt it right to express in each case my own views with exactness, I have been able to feel that I am not obtruding on the reader any merely fanciful estimate in which better accredited judges would refuse to concur.
[Footnote 1: I take this opportunity of thanking Mr. William Wordsworth, the son (now deceased), and Mr. William Wordsworth, the grandson, of the poet, for help most valuable in enabling me to give a true impression of the poet's personality.]
Without further preface I now begin my story of Wordsworth's life, in words which he himself dictated to his intended biographer. "I was born," he said, "at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, on April 7th, 1770, the second son of John Wordsworth, attorney-at-law—as lawyers of this class were then called—and law-agent to Sir James Lowther, afterwards Earl of Lonsdale. My mother was Anne, only daughter of William Cookson, mercer, of Penrith, and of Dorothy, born Crackanthorp, of the ancient family of that name, who from the times of Edward the Third had lived in Newbiggen Hall, Westmoreland. My grandfather was the first of the name of Wordsworth who came into Westmoreland, where he purchased the small estate of Sockbridge. He was descended from a family who had been settled at Peniston, in Yorkshire, near the sources of the Don, probably before the Norman Conquest. Their names appear on different occasions in all the transactions, personal and public, connected with that parish; and I possess, through the kindness of Colonel Beaumont, an almery, made in 1525, at the expense of a William Wordsworth, as is expressed in a Latin inscription carved upon it, which carries the pedigree of the family back four generations from himself. The time of my infancy and early boyhood was passed, partly at Cockermouth, and partly with my mother's parents at Penrith, where my mother, in the year 1778, died of a decline, brought on by a cold, in consequence of being put, at a friend's house in London, in what used to be called 'a best bedroom.' My father never recovered his usual cheerfulness of mind after this loss, and died when I was in my fourteenth year, a schoolboy, just returned from Hawkshead, whither I had been sent with my elder brother Richard, in my ninth year."
"I remember my mother only in some few situations, one of which was her pinning a nosegay to my breast, when I was going to say the catechism in the church, as was customary before Easter. An intimate friend of hers told me that she once said to her, that the only one of her five children about whose future life she was anxious was William; and he, she said, would be remarkable, either for good or for evil. The cause of this was, that I was of a stiff, moody, and violent temper; so much so that I remember going once into the attics of my grandfather's house at Penrith, upon some indignity having been put upon me, with an intention of destroying myself with one of the foils, which I knew was kept there. I took the foil in hand, but my heart failed. Upon another occasion, while I was at my grandfather's house at Penrith, along with my eldest brother, Richard, we were whipping tops together in the large drawing-room, on which the carpet was only laid down upon particular occasions. The walls were hung round with family pictures, and I said to my brother, 'Dare you strike your whip through that old lady's petticoat?' He replied, 'No, I won't.' 'Then', said I, 'here goes!' and I struck my lash through her hooped petticoat; for which, no doubt, though I have forgotten it, I was properly punished. But, possibly from some want of judgment in punishments inflicted, I had become perverse and obstinate in defying chastisement, and rather proud of it than otherwise."
"Of my earliest days at school I have little to say, but that they were very happy ones, chiefly because I was left at liberty then, and in the vacations, to read whatever books I liked. For example, I read all Fielding's works, Don Quixote, Gil Bias, and any part of Swift that I liked—Gulliver's Travels, and the Tale of the Tub, being both much to my taste. It may be, perhaps, as well to mention, that the first verses which I wrote were a task imposed by my master; the subject, The Summer Vacation; and of my own accord I added others upon Return to School. There was nothing remarkable in either poem; but I was called upon, among other scholars, to write verses upon the completion of the second centenary from the foundation of the school in 1585 by Archbishop Sandys. These verses were much admired—far more than they deserved, for they were but a tame imitation of Pope's versification, and a little in his style."
But it was not from exercises of this kind that Wordsworth's school-days drew their inspiration. No years of his life, perhaps, were richer in strong impressions; but they were impressions derived neither from books nor from companions, but from the majesty and loveliness of the scenes around him;—from Nature, his life-long mistress, loved with the first heats of youth. To her influence we shall again recur; it will be most convenient first to trace Wordsworth's progress through the curriculum of ordinary education.
It was due to the liberality of Wordsworth's two uncles, Richard Wordsworth and Christopher Crackanthorp (under whose care he and his brothers were placed at there father's death, in 1783), that his education was prolonged beyond his school-days. For Sir James Lowther, afterwards Lord Lonsdale,—whose agent Wordsworth's father, Mr. John Wordsworth, was—becoming aware that his agent had about 5000L at the bank, and wishing, partly on political grounds, to make his power over him absolute, had forcibly borrowed this sum of him, and then refused to repay it. After Mr. John Wordsworth's death much of the remaining fortune which he left behind him was wasted in efforts to compel Lord Lonsdale to refund this sum; out it was never recovered till his death in 1801, when his successor repaid 8500L to the Wordsworths, being a full acquittal, with interest, of the original debt. The fortunes of the Wordsworth family were, therefore, at a low ebb in 1787, and much credit is due to the uncles who discerned the talents of William and Christopher, and bestowed a Cambridge education on the future Poet Laureate, and the future Master of Trinity.
In October, 1787, then, Wordsworth went up as an undergraduate to St. John's College, Cambridge. The first court of this College, in the south-western corner of which were Wordsworth's rooms, is divided only by a narrow lane from the Chapel of Trinity College, and his first memories are of the Trinity clock, telling the hours "twice over, with a male and female voice", of the pealing organ, and of the prospect when
From my pillow looking forth, by light Of moon or favouring stars I could behold The antechapel, where the statue stood Of Newton with his prism and silent face. The marble index of a mind for ever Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.
For the most part the recollections which Wordsworth brought away from Cambridge are such as had already found expression more than once in English literature; for it has been the fortune of that ancient University to receive in her bosom most of that long line of poets who form the peculiar glory of our English speech. Spenser, Ben Jonson, and Marlowe; Dryden, Cowley, and Waller; Milton, George Herbert, and Gray—to mention only the most familiar names—had owed allegiance to that mother who received Wordsworth now, and Coleridge and Byron immediately after him. "Not obvious, not obtrusive, she;" but yet her sober dignity has often seemed no unworthy setting for minds, like Wordsworth's, meditative without languor, and energies advancing without shock or storm. Never, perhaps, has the spirit of Cambridge been more truly caught than in Milton's Penseroso; for this poem obviously reflects the seat of learning which the poet had lately left, just as the Allegro depicts the cheerful rusticity of the Buckinghamshire village which was his now home. And thus the Penseroso was understood by Gray, who, in his Installation Ode, introduces Milton among the bards and sages who lean from heaven,
To bless the place where, on their opening soul, First the genuine ardour stole.
"'Twas Milton struck the deep-toned shell," and invoked with the old affection the scenes which witnessed his best and early years:
Ye brown o'er-arching groves, That contemplation loves, Where willowy Camus lingers with delight! Oft at the blush of dawn
I trod your level lawn. Oft wooed the gleam of Cynthia silver-bright In cloisters dim, far from the haunts of Folly, With Freedom by my side, and soft-eyed Melancholy.
And Wordsworth also "on the dry smooth-shaven green" paced on solitary evenings "to the far-off curfew's sound," beneath those groves of forest-trees among which "Philomel still deigns a song" and the spirit of contemplation lingers still; whether the silent avenues stand in the summer twilight filled with fragrance of the lime, or the long rows of chestnut engirdle the autumn river-lawns with walls of golden glow, or the tall elms cluster in garden or Wilderness into towering citadels of green. Beneath one exquisite ash-tree, wreathed with ivy, and hung in autumn with yellow tassels from every spray, Wordsworth used to linger long "Scarcely Spenser's self," he tells us,
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth, Or could more bright appearances create Of human forms with superhuman powers, Than I beheld loitering on calm clear nights Alone, beneath this fairy work of earth.
And there was another element in Wordsworth's life at Cambridge more peculiarly his own—that exultation which a boy born among the mountains may feel when he perceives that the delight in the external world which the mountains have taught him has not perished by uprooting, nor waned for want of nourishment in field or fen; that even here, where nature is unadorned, and scenery, as it were, reduced to its elements,—where the prospect is but the plain surface of the earth, stretched wide beneath an open heaven,—even here he can still feel the early glow, can take delight in that broad and tranquil greenness, and in the august procession of the day.
As if awakened, summoned, roused, constrained, I looked for universal things; perused The common countenance of earth and sky— Earth, nowhere unembellished by some trace Of that first Paradise whence man was driven; And sky, whose beauty and bounty are expressed By the proud name she bears—the name of Heaven.
Nor is it only in these open-air scenes that Wordsworth has added to the long tradition a memory of his own. The "storied windows richly dight," which have passed into a proverb in Milton's song, cast in King's College Chapel the same "soft chequerings" upon their framework of stone while Wordsworth watched through the pauses of the anthem the winter afternoon's departing glow:
Martyr, or King, or sainted Eremite, Whoe'er ye be that thus, yourselves unseen, Imbue your prison-bars with solemn sheen, Shine on, until ye fade with coming Night.
From those shadowy seats whence Milton had heard "the pealing organ blow to the full-voiced choir below," Wordsworth too gazed upon—
That branching roof Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells Where light and shade repose, where music dwells Lingering, and wandering on as both to die— Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof That they were born for immortality.
Thus much, and more, there was of ennobling and unchangeable in the very aspect and structure of that ancient University, by which Wordsworth's mind was bent towards a kindred greatness. But of active moral and intellectual life there was at that time little to be found within her walls. The floodtide of her new life had not yet set in: she was still slumbering, as she had slumbered long, content to add to her majesty by the mere lapse of generations, and increment of her ancestral calm. Even had the intellectual life of the place been more stirring, it is doubtful how far Wordsworth would have been welcomed, or deserved, to be welcomed, by authorities or students. He began residence at seventeen, and his northern nature was late to flower. There seems, in fact, to have been even less of visible promise about him than we should have expected; but rather something untamed and insubordinate, something heady and self-confident; an independence that seemed only rusticity, and an indolent ignorance which assumed too readily the tones of scorn. He was as yet a creature of the lakes and mountains, and love for Nature was only slowly leading him to love and reverence for man. Nay, such attraction as he had hitherto felt for the human race had been interwoven with her influence in a way so strange that to many minds it will seem a childish fancy not worth recounting. The objects of his boyish idealization had been Cumbrian shepherds—a race whose personality seems to melt into Nature's—who are united as intimately with moor and mountain as the petrel with the sea.
A rambling schoolboy, thus I felt his presence in his own domain As of a lord and master—or a power, Or genius, under Nature, under God; Presiding; and severest solitude Had more commanding looks when he was there. When up the lonely brooks on rainy days Angling I went, or trod the trackless hills By mists bewildered, suddenly mine eyes Have glanced upon him distant a few steps, In size a giant, stalking through thick fog, His sheep like Greenland bears; or, as he stepped Beyond the boundary line of some hill-shadow, His form hath flashed upon me, glorified By the deep radiance of the setting sun; Or him have I descried in distant sky, A solitary object and sublime, Above all height! Like an aerial cross Stationed alone upon a spiry rock Of the Chartreuse, for worship. Thus was man Ennobled outwardly before my sight; And thus my heart was early introduced To an unconscious love and reverence Of human nature; hence the human form To me became an index of delight, Of grace and honour, power and worthiness.
"This sanctity of Nature given to man,"—this interfusion of human interest with the sublimity of moor and hill,—formed a typical introduction to the manner in which Wordsworth regarded mankind to the end,—depicting him as set, as it were, amid impersonal influences, which make his passion and struggle but a little thing; as when painters give but a strip of their canvas to the fields and cities of men, and overhang the narrowed landscape with the space and serenity of heaven.
To this distant perception of man—of man "purified, removed, and to a distance that was fit"—was added, in his first summer vacation, a somewhat closer interest in the small joys and sorrows of the villagers of Hawkshead,—a new sympathy for the old Dame in whose house the poet still lodged, for "the quiet woodman in the woods," and even for the "frank-hearted maids of rocky Cumberland," with whom he now delighted to spend an occasional evening in dancing and country mirth. And since the events in this poet's life are for the most part inward and unseen, and depend upon some stock and coincidence between the operations of his spirit and the cosmorama of the external world, he has recorded with especial emphasis a certain sunrise which met him as he walked homewards from one of these scenes of rustic gaiety,—a sunrise which may be said to have begun that poetic career which a sunset was to close:
Ah! Need I say, dear Friend! That to the brim My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows Were then made for me; bond unknown to me Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly, A dedicated Spirit.
His second long vacation brought him a further gain in human affections. His sister, of whom he had seen little for some years, was with him once more at Penrith, and with her another maiden,
By her exulting outside look of youth And placid under-countenance, first endeared;
whose presence now laid the foundation of a love which was to be renewed and perfected when his need for it was full, and was to be his support and solace to his life's end. His third long vacation he spent in a walking tour in Switzerland. Of this, now the commonest relaxation of studious youth, he speaks as of an "unprecedented course," indicating "a hardy slight of college studies and their set rewards." And it seems, indeed, probable that Wordsworth and his friend Jones were actually the first undergraduates who ever spent their summer in this way. The pages of the Prelude which narrate this excursion, and especially the description of the crossing of the Simplon,—
The immeasurable height Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,—
form one of the most impressive parts of that singular autobiographical poem, which, at first sight so tedious and insipid, seems to gather force and meaning with each fresh perusal. These pages, which carry up to the verge of manhood the story of Wordsworth's career, contain, perhaps, as strong and simple a picture as we shall anywhere find of hardy English youth,—its proud self-sufficingness and careless independence of all human things. Excitement, and thought, and joy, seem to come at once at its bidding; and the chequered and struggling existence of adult men seems something which it need never enter, and hardly deigns to comprehend.
Wordsworth and his friend encountered on this tour many a stirring symbol of the expectancy that was running through the nations of Europe. They landed at Calais "on the very eve of that great federal day" when the Trees of Liberty were planted all over France. They met on their return
The Brabant armies on the fret For battle in the cause of liberty.
But the exulting pulse that ran through the poet's veins could hardly yet pause to sympathize deeply even with what in the world's life appealed most directly to ardent youth.
A stripling, scarcely of the household then Of social life, I looked upon these things As from a distance; heard, and saw, and felt— Was touched, but with no intimate concern. I seemed to move along them as a bird Moves through the air—or as a fish pursues Its sport, or feeds in its proper element. I wanted not that joy, I did not need Such help. The ever-living universe, Turn where I might, was opening out its glories; And the independent spirit of pure youth Called forth at every season new delights, Spread round my steps like sunshine o'er green fields.
RESIDENCE IN LONDON AND IN FRANCE.
Wordsworth took his B.A. degree in January, 1791, and quitted Cambridge with no fixed intentions as to his future career. "He did not feel himself," he said long afterwards, "good enough for the Church; he felt that his mind was not properly disciplined for that holy office, and that the struggle between his conscience and his impulses would have made life a torture. He also shrank from the law. He had studied military history with great interest, and the strategy of war; and he always fancied that he had talents for command; and he at one time thought of a military life; but then he was without connexions, and he felt if he were ordered to the West Indies his talents would not save him from the yellow fever, and he gave that up." He therefore repaired to London, and lived there for a time on a small allowance and with no definite aim. His relations with the great city were of a very slight and external kind. He had few acquaintances, and spent his time mainly in rambling about the streets. His descriptions of this phase of his life have little interest. There is some flatness in an enumeration of the nationalities observable in a London crowd, concluding thus:—
Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese, And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns.
But Wordsworth's limitations were inseparably connected with his strength. And just as the flat scenery of Cambridgeshire had only served to intensify his love for such elements of beauty and grandeur as still were present in sky and fen, even so the bewilderment of London taught him to recognize with an intenser joy such fragments of things rustic, such aspects of things eternal, as were to be found amidst that rush and roar. To the frailer spirit of Hartley Coleridge the weight of London might seem a load impossible to shake off. "And what hath Nature," he plaintively asked,—
And what hath Nature but the blank void sky And the thronged river toiling to the main?
But Wordsworth saw more than this. He became, as one may say, the poet not of London considered as London, but of London considered as a part of the country. Like his own Farmer of Tilsbury Vale—
In the throng of the Town like a Stranger is he, Like one whose own Country's far over the sea; And Nature, while through the great city be hies, Full ten times a day takes his heart by surprise.
Among the poems describing these sudden shocks of vision and memory none is more exquisite than the Reverie of Poor Susan:
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.
The picture is one of those which come home to many a country heart with one of those sudden "revulsions into the natural" which philosophers assert to be the essence of human joy. But noblest and hest known of all these poems is the Sonnet on Westminster Bridge, "Earth hath not anything to show more fair;" in which nature has reasserted her dominion over the works of all the multitude of men; and in the early clearness the poet beholds the great City—as Sterling imagined it on his dying-bed—"not as full of noise and dust and confusion, but as something silent, grand and everlasting." And even in later life, when Wordsworth was often in London, and was welcome in any society, he never lost this external manner of regarding it. He was always of the same mind as the group of listeners in his Power of Music:
Now, Coaches and Chariots! Roar on like a stream! Here are twenty Souls happy as souls in a dream: They are deaf to your murmurs, they care not for you, Nor what ye are flying, nor what ye pursue!
He never made the attempt,—vulgarized by so many a "fashionable novelist," and in which no poet has succeeded yet,—to disentangle from that turmoil its elements of romance and of greatness; to enter that realm of emotion where Nature's aspects become the scarcely noted accessory of vicissitudes that transcend her own; to trace the passion or the anguish which whirl along some lurid vista toward a sun that sets in storm, or gaze across silent squares by summer moonlight amid a smell of dust and flowers.
But although Wordsworth passed thus through London unmodified and indifferent, the current of things was sweeping him on to mingle in a fiercer tumult,—to be caught in the tides of a more violent and feverish life. In November 1791 he landed in France, meaning to pass the winter at Orleans and learn French. Up to this date the French Revolution had impressed him in a rather unusual manner,—namely, as being a matter of course. The explanation of this view is a somewhat singular one. Wordsworth's was an old family, and his connexions were some of them wealthy and well placed in the world; but the chances of his education had been such, that he could scarcely realize to himself any other than a democratic type of society. Scarcely once, he tells us, in his school days had he seen boy or man who claimed respect on the score of wealth and blood; and the manly atmosphere of Cambridge preserved even in her lowest days a society
Where all stood thus far Upon equal ground; that we were brothers all In honour, as in one community, Scholars and gentlemen;
while the teachings of nature and the dignity of Cumbrian peasant life had confirmed his high opinion of the essential worth of man. The upheaval of the French people, therefore, and the downfall of privilege, seemed to him no portent for good or evil, but rather the tardy return of a society to its stable equilibrium. He passed through revolutionized Paris with satisfaction and sympathy, but with little active emotion, and proceeded first to Orleans, and then to Blois, between which places he spent nearly a year. At Orleans he became intimately acquainted with the nobly-born but republican general Beaupuis, an inspiring example of all in the Revolution that was self-devoted and chivalrous and had compassion on the wretched poor. In conversation with him Wordsworth learnt with what new force the well-worn adages of the moralist fall from the lips of one who is called upon to put them at once in action, and to stake life itself on the verity of his maxims of honour. The poet's heart burned within him as he listened. He could not indeed help mourning sometimes at the sight of a dismantled chapel, or peopling in imagination the forest-glades in which they sat with the chivalry of a bygone day. But he became increasingly absorbed in his friend's ardour, and the Revolution—mulier formosa superne—seemed to him big with all the hopes of man.
He returned to Paris in October 1792,—a month after the massacres of September; and he has described his agitation and dismay at the sight of such world-wide destinies swayed by the hands of such men. In a passage which curiously illustrates that reasoned self-confidence and deliberate boldness which for the most part he showed only in the peaceful incidents of a literary career, he has told us how he was on the point of putting himself forward as a leader of the Girondist party, in the conviction that his singleheartedness of aim would make him, in spite of foreign birth and imperfect speech, a point round which the confused instincts of the multitude might not impossibly rally.
Such a course of action,—which, whatever its other results, would undoubtedly have conducted him to the guillotine with his political friends in May 1793,—was rendered impossible by a somewhat undignified hindrance. Wordsworth, while in his own eyes "a patriot of the world," was in the eyes of others a young man of twenty-two, travelling on a small allowance, and running his head into unnecessary dangers. His funds were stopped, and he reluctantly returned to England at the close of 1792.
And now to Wordsworth, as to many other English patriots, there came, on a great scale, that form of sorrow which in private life is one of the most agonizing of all—when two beloved beings, each of them erring greatly, become involved in bitter hate. The new-born Republic flung down to Europe as her battle-gage the head of a king. England, in an hour of horror that was almost panic, accepted the defiance, and war was declared between the two countries early in 1793. "No shock," says Wordsworth,
Given to my moral nature had I known Down to that very moment; neither lapse Nor turn of sentiment that might be named A revolution, save at this one time;
and the sound of the evening gun-fire at Portsmouth seemed at once the embodiment and the premonition of England's guilt and woe.
Yet his distracted spirit could find no comfort in the thought of France. For in France the worst came to the worst; and everything vanished of liberty except the crimes committed in her name.
Most melancholy at that time, O Friend! Were my day-thoughts, my nights were miserable. Through months, through years, long after the last beat Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep To me came rarely charged with natural gifts— Such ghastly visions had I of despair, And tyranny, and implements of death;... And levity in dungeons, where the dust Was laid with tears. Then suddenly the scene Changed, and the unbroken dream entangled me In long orations, which I strove to plead Before unjust tribunals,—with a voice Labouring, a brain confounded, and a sense, Death-like, of treacherous desertion, felt In the last place of refuge—my own soul.
These years of perplexity and disappointment, following on a season of overstrained and violent hopes, were the sharpest trial through which Wordsworth ever passed. The course of affairs in France, indeed, was such as seemed by an irony of fate to drive the noblest and firmest hearts into the worst aberrations. For first of all in that Revolution, Reason had appeared as it were in visible shape, and hand in hand with Pity and Virtue; then, as the welfare of the oppressed peasantry began to be lost sight of amid the brawls of the factions of Paris, all that was attractive and enthusiastic in the great movement seemed to disappear, but yet Reason might still be thought to find a closer realization here than among scenes more serene and fair; and, lastly, Reason set in blood and tyranny and there was no more hope from France. But those who, like Wordsworth, had been taught by that great convulsion to disdain the fetters of sentiment and tradition and to look on Reason as supreme were not willing to relinquish their belief because violence had conquered her in one more battle. Rather they clung with the greater tenacity,— "adhered," in Wordsworth's words,
More firmly to old tenets, and to prove Their temper, strained them more;
cast off more decisively than ever the influences of tradition, and in their Utopian visions even wished to see the perfected race severed in its perfection from the memories of humanity, and from kinship with the struggling past.
Through a mood of this kind Wordsworth had to travel now. And his nature, formed for pervading attachments and steady memories, suffered grievously from the privation of much which even the coldest and calmest temper cannot forego without detriment and pain. For it is not with impunity that men commit themselves to the sole guidance of either of the two great elements of their being. The penalties of trusting to the emotions alone are notorious; and every day affords some instance of a character that has degenerated into a bundle of impulses, of a will that has become caprice. But the consequences of making Reason our tyrant instead of our king are almost equally disastrous. There is so little which Reason, divested of all emotional or instinctive supports, is able to prove to our satisfaction that a sceptical aridity is likely to take possession of the soul. It was thus with Wordsworth; he was driven to a perpetual questioning of all beliefs and analysis of all motives,—
Till, demanding formal proof, And seeking it in everything, I lost All feeling of conviction; and, in fine, Sick, wearied out with contrarieties, Yielded up moral questions in despair.
In this mood all those great generalized conceptions which are the food of our love, our reverence, our religion, dissolve away; and Wordsworth tells us that at this time
Even the visible universe Fell under the dominion of a taste Less spiritual, with microscopic view Was scanned, as I had scanned the moral world.
He looked on the operations of nature "in disconnection dull and spiritless;" he could no longer apprehend her unity nor feel her charm. He retained indeed his craving for natural beauty, but in an uneasy and fastidious mood,—
Giving way To a comparison of scene with scene, Bent overmuch on superficial things, Pampering myself with meagre novelties Of colour and proportion; to the moods Of time and season, to the moral power, The affections, and the spirit of the place, Insensible.
Such cold fits are common to all religions: they haunt the artist, the philanthropist, the philosopher, the saint. Often they are due to some strain of egoism or ambition which has intermixed itself with the impersonal desire; sometimes, as in Wordsworth's case, to the persistent tension of a mind which has been bent too ardently towards an ideal scarce possible to man. And in this case, when the objects of a man's habitual admiration are true and noble, they will ever be found to suggest some antidote to the fatigues of their pursuit. We shall see as we proceed how a deepening insight into the lives of the peasantry around him,—the happiness and virtue of simple Cumbrian homes,—restored to the poet a serener confidence in human nature, amid all the shame and downfall of such hopes in France. And that still profounder loss of delight in Nature herself,—that viewing of all things "in disconnection dull and spiritless," which, as it has been well said, is the truest definition of Atheism, inasmuch as a unity in the universe is the first element in our conception of God,—this dark pathway also was not without its outlet into the day. For the God in Nature is not only a God of Beauty, but a God of Law; his unity can be apprehended in power as well as in glory; and Wordsworth's mind, "sinking inward upon itself from thought to thought," found rest for the time in that austere religion,—Hebrew at once and scientific, common to a Newton and a Job,—which is fostered by the prolonged contemplation of the mere Order of the sum of things.
Not in vain I had been taught to reverence a Power That is the visible quality and shape And image of right reason.
Not, indeed, in vain! For he felt now that there is no side of truth, however remote from human interests, no aspect of the universe, however awful and impersonal, which may not have power at some season to guide and support the spirit of man. When Goodness is obscured, when Beauty wearies, there are some souls which still can cling and grapple to the conception of eternal Law.
Of such stem consolations the poet speaks as having restored him in his hour of need. But he gratefully acknowledges also another solace of a gentler kind. It was about this time (1795) that Wordsworth was blessed with the permanent companionship of his sister, to whom he was tenderly attached, but whom, since childhood, he had seen only at long intervals. Miss Wordsworth, after her father's death, had lived mainly with her maternal grandfather, Mr. Cookson, at Penrith, occasionally at Halifax with other relations, or at Forncott with her uncle Dr. Cookson, Canon of Windsor. She was now able to join her favourite brother: and in this gifted woman Wordsworth found a gentler and sunnier likeness of himself; he found a love which never wearied, and a sympathy fervid without blindness, whose suggestions lay so directly in his mind's natural course that they seemed to spring from the same individuality, and to form at once a portion of his inmost being. The opening of this new era of domestic happiness demands a separate chapter.
MISS WORDSWORTH—LYRICAL BALLADS—SETTLEMENT AT GRASMERE.
From among many letters of Miss Wordsworth's to a beloved friend, (Miss Jane Pollard, afterwards Mrs. Marshall, of Hallsteads), which have been kindly placed at my disposal, I may without impropriety quote a few passages which illustrate the character and the affection of brother and sister alike. And first, in a letter (Forncett, February 1792), comparing her brothers Christopher and William, she says: "Christopher is steady and sincere in his attachments. William has both these virtues in an eminent degree, and a sort of violence of affection, if I may so term it, which demonstrates itself every moment of the day, when the objects of his affection are present with him, in a thousand almost imperceptible attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness which I know not how to describe, a tenderness that never sleeps, and at the same time such a delicacy of manner as I have observed in few men." And again (Forncett, June 1793), she writes to the same friend: "I have strolled into a neighbouring meadow, where I am enjoying the melody of birds, and the busy sounds of a fine summer's evening. But oh! How imperfect is my pleasure whilst I am alone! Why are you not seated with me? And my dear William, why is he not here also? I could almost fancy that I see you both near me. I hear you point out a spot, where if we could erect a little cottage and call it our own we should be the happiest of human beings. I see my brother fired with the idea of leading his sister to such a retreat. Our parlour is in a moment furnished, our garden is adorned by magic; the roses and honeysuckles spring at our command; the wood behind the house lifts its head, and furnishes us with a winter's shelter and a summer's noonday shade. My dear friend, I trust that ere long you will be without the aid of imagination, the companion of my walks, and my dear William may be of our party.... He is now going upon a tour in the west of England, with a gentleman who was formerly a schoolfellow,—a man of fortune, who is to bear all the expenses of the journey, and only requests the favour of William's company. He is perfectly at liberty to quit this companion as soon as anything more advantageous offers. But it is enough to say that I am likely to have the happiness of introducing you to my beloved brother. You must forgive me for talking so much of him; my affection hurries me on, and makes me forget that you cannot be so much interested in the subject as I am. You do not know him; you do not know how amiable he is. Perhaps you reply, 'But I know how blinded you are.' Well, my dearest. I plead guilty at once; I must be blind; he cannot be so pleasing as my fondness makes him. I am willing to allow that half the virtues with which I fancy him endowed are the creation of my love; but surely I may be excused! He was never tired of comforting his sister; he never left her in anger; he always met her with joy; he preferred her society to every other pleasure;—or rather, when we were so happy as to be within each other's reach, he had no pleasure when we were compelled to be divided. Do not then expect too much from this brother of whom I have delighted so to talk to you. In the first place, you must be with him more than once before he will be perfectly easy in conversation. In the second place, his person is not in his favour—at least I should think not; but I soon ceased to discover this—nay, I almost thought that the opinion which I had formed was erroneous. He is, however, certainly rather plain; though otherwise has an extremely thoughtful countenance, but when he speaks it is often lighted up by a smile which I think very pleasing. But enough, he is my brother; why should I describe him? I shall be launching again into panegyric."
The brother's language to his sister is equally affectionate. "How much do I wish," he writes in 1793, "that each emotion of pleasure or pain that visits your heart should excite a similar pleasure or a similar pain within me, by that sympathy which will almost identify us when we have stolen to our little cottage.... I will write to my uncle, and tell him that I cannot think of going anywhere before I have been with you. Whatever answer he gives me, I certainly will make a point of once more mingling my transports with yours. Alas! My dear sister, how soon must this happiness expire; yet there are moments worth ages."
And again: in the same year he writes, "Oh, my dear, dear sister! With what transport shall I again meet you! With what rapture shall I again wear out the day in your sight!... I see you in a moment running, or rather flying, to my arms."
Wordsworth was in all things fortunate, but in nothing more fortunate than in this, that so unique a companion should have been ready to devote herself to him with an affection wholly free from egotism or jealousy, an affection that yearned only to satisfy his subtlest needs, and to transfuse all that was best in herself into his larger being. And indeed that fortunate admixture or influence, whencesoever derived, which raised the race of Wordsworth to poetic fame, was almost more dominant and conspicuous in Dorothy Wordsworth than in the poet himself. "The shooting lights of her wild eyes" reflected to the full the strain of imaginative emotion which was mingled in the poet's nature with that spirit of steadfast and conservative virtue which has already given to the family a Master of Trinity, two Bishops, and other divines and scholars of weight and consideration. In the poet himself the conservative and ecclesiastical tendencies of his character became more and more apparent as advancing years stiffened the movements of the mind. In his sister the ardent element was less restrained; it showed itself in a most innocent direction, but it brought with it a heavy punishment. Her passion for nature and her affection for her brother led her into mountain rambles which were beyond her strength, and her last years were spent in a condition of physical and mental decay.
But at the time of which we are now speaking there was, perhaps, no one in the world who could have been to the poet such a companion as his sister became. She had not, of course, his grasp of mind or his poetic power; but her sensitiveness to nature was quite as keen as his, and her disposition resembled his "with sunshine added to daylight."
Birds in the bower, and lambs in the green field, Could they have known her, would have loved; methought Her very presence such a sweetness breathed, That flowers, and trees, and even the silent hills, And everything she looked on, should have had An intimation how she bore herself Towards them, and to all creatures.
Her journal of a tour in Scotland, and her description of a week on Ullswater, affixed to Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes,—diaries not written for publication but merely to communicate her own delight to intimate friends at a distance,—are surely indescribably attractive in their naive and tender feeling, combined with a delicacy of insight into natural beauty which was almost a new thing in the history of the world. If we compare, for instance, any of her descriptions of the Lakes with Southey's, we see the difference between mere literary skill, which can now be rivalled in many quarters, and that sympathetic intuition which comes of love alone. Even if we compare her with Gray, whose short notice of Cumberland bears on every page the stamp of a true poet, we are struck by the way in which Miss Wordsworth's tenderness for all living things gives character and pathos to her landscapes, and evokes from the wildest solitude some note that thrills the heart.
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears, And humble cares, and delicate fears; A heart the fountain of sweet tears; And love, and thought, and joy.
The cottage life in her brother's company which we have seen Miss Wordsworth picturing to herself with girlish ardour, was destined to be realized no long time afterwards, thanks to the unlooked-for outcome of another friendship. If the poet's sister was his first admirer, Kaisley Calvert may fairly claim the second place. Calvert was the son of the steward of the Duke of Norfolk, who possessed large estates in Cumberland. He attached himself to Wordsworth, and in 1793 and 1794 the friends were much together. Calvert was then attacked by consumption, and Wordsworth, nursed him with patient care. It was found at his death that he had left his friend a legacy of 900L. "The act," says Wordsworth, "was done entirely from a confidence on his part that I had powers and attainments—which might be of use to mankind. Upon the interest of the 900L—400L being laid out in annuity—with 200L deducted from the principal, and 100L a legacy to my sister, and 100L more which the Lyrical Ballads have brought me, my sister and I contrived to live seven years, nearly eight."
Trusting in this small capital, and with nothing to look to in the future except the uncertain prospect of the payment of Lord Lonsdale's debt to the family, Wordsworth settled with his sister at Racedown, near Crewkerne, in Dorsetshire, in the autumn of 1795, the choice of this locality being apparently determined by the offer of a cottage on easy terms. Here, in the first home which he had possessed, Wordsworth's steady devotion to poetry began. He had already, in 1792 , published two little poems, the Evening Walk: and Descriptive Sketches, which Miss Wordsworth, (to whom the Evening Walk was addressed) criticises with candour—in a letter to the same friend (Forncett, February 1792):—
[Footnote 2: The Memoirs say in 1793, but the following MS. letter of 1792 speaks of them as already published.]
"The scenes which he describes have been viewed with a poet's eye, and are portrayed with a poet's pencil; and the poems contain, many passages exquisitely beautiful; but they also contain many faults, the chief of which are obscurity and a too frequent use of some particular expressions and uncommon words; for instance, moveless, which he applies in a sense, if not new, at least different from, its ordinary one. By 'moveless,' when applied to the swan, he means that sort of motion which is smooth without agitation; it is a very beautiful epithet, but ought to have been cautiously used. The word viewless also is introduced far too often. I regret exceedingly that he did not submit the works to the inspection of some friend before their publication, and he also joins with me in this regret."
These poems show a careful and minute observation of nature, but their versification—still reminding us of the imitators of Pope— has little originality or charm. They attracted the admiration of Coleridge, but had no further success.
At Racedown Wordsworth finished Guilt and Sorrow, a poem gloomy in tone and written mainly in his period of depression and unrest,—and wrote a tragedy called The Borderers, of which only a few lines show any promise of future excellence. He then wrote The Ruined Cottage, now incorporated in the Fist Book of the Excursion. This poem, on a subject thoroughly suited to his powers, was his first work of merit; and Coleridge, who visited the quiet household in June 1797, pronounces this poem "superior, I hesitate not to aver, to anything in our language which in any way resembles it." In July 1797 the Wordsworths removed to Alfoxden, a large house in Somersetshire, near Netherstowey, where Coleridge was at that time living. Here Wordsworth added to his income by taking as pupil a young boy, the hero of the trifling poem Anecdote for Fathers, a son of Mr. Basil Montagu; and here he composed many of his smaller pieces. He has described the origin of the Ancient Mariner and the Lyrical Ballads in a well-known passage, part of which I must here repeat:—
"In the autumn of 1797, Mr. Coleridge, my sister, and myself started from Alfoxden pretty late in the afternoon, with a view to visit Linton, and the Valley of Stones near to it; and as our united funds were very small, we agreed to defray the expense of the tour by writing a poem, to be sent to the New Monthly Magazine. In the course of this walk was planned the poem of the Ancient Mariner, founded on a dream, as Mr. Coleridge said, of his friend Mr. Cruikshank. Much the greatest part of the story was Mr. Coleridge's invention; but certain parts I suggested; for example, some crime was to be committed which was to bring upon the Old Navigator, as Coleridge afterwards delighted to call him, the spectral persecution, as a consequence of that crime and his own wanderings. I had been reading in Shelvocke's Voyages, a day or two before, that, while doubling Cape Horn they frequently saw albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort of sea-fowl, some extending their wings twelve or thirteen feet, 'Suppose,' said I, 'you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the South Sea, and that the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime. The incident was thought fit for the purpose, and adopted accordingly. I also suggested the navigation of the ship by the dead man, but do not recollect that I had anything more to do with the scheme of the poem. We began the composition together, on that to me memorable evening, I furnished two or three lines at the beginning of the poem, in particular—"
And listened like a three years' child; The Mariner had his will.
"As we endeavoured to proceed conjointly our respective manners proved so widely different, that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a clog. The Ancient Mariner grew and grew, till it became too important for our first object, which was limited to our expectation of five pounds; and we began to think of a volume, which was to consist, as Mr. Coleridge has told the world, of poems chiefly on supernatural subjects, taken from common life, but looked at, as much as might be, through an imaginative medium."
The volume of Lyrical Ballads, whose first beginnings have here been traced, was published in the autumn of 1798, by Mr. Cottle, at Bristol. This volume contained several poems—which have been justly blamed for triviality,—as The Thorn, Goody Blake, The Idiot Boy; several in which, as in Simon Lee, triviality is mingled with much real pathos; and some, as Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned, which are of the very essence of Wordsworth's nature. It is hardly too much to say, that if these two last-named poems—to the careless eye so slight and trifling—were all that had remained from Wordsworth's hand, they would have "spoken to the comprehending" of a new individuality, as distinct and unmistakeable in its way as that which Sappho has left engraven on the world for ever in words even fewer than these. And the volume ended with a poem, which Wordsworth composed in 1798, in one day, during a tour with his sister to Tintern and Chepstow. The Lines written above Tintern Abbey have become, as it were, the locus classicus or consecrated formulary of the Wordsworthian faith. They say in brief what it is the work of the poet's biographer to say in detail.
As soon as this volume was published Wordsworth and his sister sailed for Hamburg, in the hope that their imperfect acquaintance with the German language might be improved by the heroic remedy of a winter at Goslar. But at Goslar they do not seem to have made any acquaintances, and their self-improvement consisted mainly in reading German books to themselves. The four months spent at Goslar, however, were the very bloom of Wordsworth's poetic career. Through none of his poems has the peculiar loveliness of English scenery and English girlhood shone more delicately than through those which came to him as he paced the frozen gardens of that desolate city. Here it was that he wrote Lucy Gray, and Ruth, and Nutting, and the Poet's Epitaph, and other poems known now to most men as possessing in its full fragrance his especial charm. And here it was that the memory of some emotion prompted the lines on Lucy. Of the history of that emotion he has told us nothing; I forbear, therefore, to inquire concerning it, or even to speculate. That it was to the poet's honour I do not doubt; but who ever learned such secrets rightly? Or who should wish to learn? It is best to leave the sanctuary of all hearts inviolate, and to respect the reserve not only of the living but of the dead. Of these poems, almost alone, Wordsworth in his autobiographical notes has said nothing whatever. One of them he suppressed for years, and printed only in a later volume. One can, indeed, well imagine that there may be poems which a man may be willing to give to the world only in the hope that their pathos will be, as it were, protected by its own intensity, and that those who are worthiest to comprehend will he least disposed to discuss them.
The autobiographical notes on his own works above alluded to were dictated by the poet to his friend Miss Isabella Fenwick, at her urgent request, in 1843, and preserve many interesting particulars as to the circumstances under which each poem was composed. They are to be found printed entire among Wordsworth's prose works, and I shall therefore cite them only occasionally. Of Lucy Gray, for instance, he says,—"It was founded on a circumstance told me by my sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax, in Yorkshire, was bewildered in a snowstorm. Her footsteps were tracked by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her, backward or forward, could be traced. The body, however, was found in the canal. The way in which the incident was treated, and the spiritualizing of the character, might furnish hints for contrasting the imaginative influences which I have endeavoured to throw over common life, with Crabbe's matter-of-fact style of handling subjects of the same kind."
And of the Lines written in Germany, 1798-9,—
"A bitter winter it was when these verses were composed by the side of my sister, in our lodgings, at a draper's house, in the romantic imperial town of Goslar, on the edge of the Hartz forest. So severe was the cold of this winter, that when we passed out of the parlour warmed by the stove our cheeks were struck by the air as by cold iron. I slept in a room over a passage that was not ceiled. The people of the house used to say, rather unfeelingly, that they expected I should be frozen to death some night; but with the protection of a pelisse lined with fur, and a dog's-skin bonnet, such as was worn by the peasants, I walked daily on the ramparts or on a sort of public ground or garden, in which was a pond. Here I had no companion but a kingfisher, a beautiful creature that used to glance by me. I consequently became much attached to it. During these walks I composed The Poet's Epitaph."
Seldom has there been a more impressive instance of the contrast, familiar to biographers, between the apparent insignificance and the real importance of their hero in undistinguished youth. To any one considering Wordsworth as he then was,—a rough and somewhat stubborn young man, who, in nearly thirty years of life, had seemed alternately to idle without grace and to study without advantage,— it might well have seemed incredible that he could have anything new or valuable to communicate to mankind. Where had been his experience? Or where was the indication of that wealth of sensuous emotion which in such a nature as Keats' seems almost to dispense with experience and to give novelty by giving vividness to such passions as are known to all? If Wordsworth were to impress mankind it must be, one might have thought, by travelling out of himself altogether—by revealing some such energy of imagination as can create a world of romance and adventure in the shyest heart. But this was not so to be. Already Wordsworth's minor poems had dealt almost entirely with his own feelings, and with the objects actually before his eyes; and it was at Goslar that he planned, and on the day of his quitting Goslar that he began, a much longer poem, whose subject was to be still more intimately personal, being the development of his own mind. This poem, dedicated to Coleridge, and written in the form of a confidence bestowed on an intimate friend, was finished in 1805, but was not published till after the poet's death. Mrs. Wordsworth then named it The Prelude, indicating thus the relation which it bears to the Excursion—or rather, to the projected poem of the Recluse, of which the Excursion was to form only the Second out of three Divisions. One Book of the First Division of the Recluse was written, but is yet unpublished; the Third Division was never even begun, and "the materials," we are told, "of which it would have been formed have been incorporated, for the most part, in the author's other publications." Nor need this change of plan be regretted: didactic poems admit easily of mutilation; and all that can be called plot in this series of works is contained in the Prelude, in which we see Wordsworth arriving at those convictions which in the Excursion he pauses to expound.
It would be too much to say that Wordsworth has been wholly successful in the attempt—for such the Prelude virtually is—to write an epic poem on his own education. Such a poem must almost necessarily appear tedious and egoistic, and Wordsworth's manner has not tact enough to prevent these defects from being felt to the full. On the contrary, in his constant desire frugally to extract, as it were, its full teaching from the minutest event which has befallen him, he supplements the self-complacency of the autobiographer with the conscientious exactness of the moralist, and is apt to insist on trifles such as lodge in the corners of every man's memory, as if they were unique lessons vouchsafed to himself alone.
Yet it follows from this very temper of mind that there is scarcely any autobiography which we can read with such implicit confidence as the Prelude. In the case of this, as of so many of Wordsworth's productions, our first dissatisfaction at the form which the poem assumes yields to a recognition of its fitness to express precisely what the poet intends. Nor are there many men who, in recounting the story of their own lives, could combine a candour so absolute with so much of dignity—who could treat their personal history so impartially as a means of conveying lessons of general truth—or who, while chronicling such small things, could remain so great. The Prelude is a book of good augury for human nature. We feel in reading it as if the stock of mankind were sound. The soul seems going on from strength to strength by the mere development of her inborn power. And the scene with which the poem at once opens and concludes—the return to the Lake country as to a permanent and satisfying home—places the poet at last amid his true surroundings, and leaves us to contemplate him as completed by a harmony without him, which he of all men most needed to evoke the harmony within.
THE ENGLISH LAKES.
The lakes and mountains of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire, are singularly fitted to supply such elements of moral sustenance as Nature's aspects can afford to man. There are, indeed, many mountain regions of greater awfulness; but prospects of ice and terror should be a rare stimulant rather than an habitual food; and the physical difficulties inseparable from immense elevations depress the inhabitant and preoccupy the traveller. There are many lakes under a more lustrous sky; but the healthy activities of life demand a scene brilliant without languor, and a beauty which can refresh and satisfy rather than lull or overpower. Without advancing any untenable claim to British pre-eminence in the matter of scenery, we may, perhaps, follow on both these points the judgment which Wordsworth has expressed in his Guide to the Lakes, a work which condenses the results of many years of intimate observation.
"Our tracts of wood and water," he says, "are almost diminutive in comparison (with Switzerland); therefore, as far as sublimity is dependent upon absolute bulk and height, and atmospherical influences in connexion with these, it is obvious that there can be no rivalship. But a short residence among the British mountains will furnish abundant proof, that, after a certain point of elevation, viz., that which allows of compact and fleecy clouds settling upon, or sweeping over, the summits, the sense of sublimity depends more upon form and relation of objects to each other than upon their actual magnitude; and that an elevation of 3000 feet is sufficient to call forth in a most impressive degree the creative, and magnifying, and softening powers of the atmosphere."
And again, as to climate; "The rain," he says, "here comes down heartily, and is frequently succeeded by clear bright weather, when every brook is vocal, and every torrent sonorous; brooks and torrents which are never muddy even in the heaviest floods. Days of unsettled weather, with partial showers, are very frequent; but the showers, darkening or brightening as they fly from hill to hill, are not less grateful to the eye than finely interwoven passages of gay and sad music are touching to the ear. Vapours exhaling from the lakes and meadows after sunrise in a hot season, or in moist weather brooding upon the heights, or descending towards the valleys with inaudible motion, give a visionary character to everything around them; and are in themselves so beautiful as to dispose us to enter into the feelings of those simple nations (such as the Laplanders of this day) by whom they are taken for guardian deities of the mountains; or to sympathize with others who have fancied these delicate apparitions to be the spirits of their departed ancestors. Akin to these are fleecy clouds resting upon the hill-tops; they are not easily managed in picture, with their accompaniments of blue sky, but how glorious are they in nature! How pregnant with imagination for the poet! And the height of the Cumbrian mountains is sufficient to exhibit daily and hourly instances of those mysterious attachments. Such clouds, cleaving to their stations, or lifting up suddenly their glittering heads from behind rocky barriers, or hurrying out of sight with speed of the sharpest edge, will often tempt an inhabitant to congratulate himself on belonging to a country of mists and clouds and storms, and make him think of the blank sky of Egypt, and of the cerulean vacancy of Italy, as an unanimated and even a sad spectacle."
The consciousness of a preceding turmoil brings home to us best the sense of perfect peace; and a climate accustomed to storm-cloud and tempest can melt sometimes into "a day as still as heaven" with a benignant tranquillity which calmer regions can scarcely know. Such a day Wordsworth has described in language of such delicate truth and beauty as only a long and intimate love can inspire:
"It has been said that in human life there are moments worth ages. In a more subdued tone of sympathy may we affirm, that in the climate of England there are, for the lover of Nature, days which are worth whole months, I might say, even years. One of these favoured days sometimes occurs in springtime, when that soft air is breathing over the blossoms and new-born verdure which inspired Buchanan with his beautiful Ode to the First of May; the air which, in the luxuriance of his fancy, he likens to that of the golden age,— to that which gives motion to the funereal cypresses on the banks of Lethe; to the air which is to salute beatified spirits when expiatory fires shall have consumed the earth with all her habitations. But it is in autumn that days of such affecting influence most frequently intervene. The atmosphere seems refined, and the sky rendered more crystalline, as the vivifying heat of the year abates; the lights and shadows are more delicate; the colouring is richer and more finely harmonized; and, in this season of stillness, the ear being unoccupied, or only gently excited, the sense of vision becomes more susceptible of its appropriate enjoyments. A resident in a country like this which we are treating of will agree with me that the presence of a lake is indispensable to exhibit in perfection the beauty of one of these days; and he must have experienced, while looking on the unruffled waters, that the imagination by their aid is carried into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable. The reason of this is, that the heavens are not only brought down into the bosom of the earth, but that the earth is mainly looked at, and thought of, through the medium of a purer element. The happiest time is when the equinoctial gales are departed; but their fury may probably be called to mind by the sight of a few shattered boughs, whose leaves do not differ in colour from the faded foliage of the stately oaks from which these relics of the storm depend: all else speaks of tranquillity; not a breath of air, no restlessness of insects, and not a moving object perceptible— except the clouds gliding in the depths of the lake, or the traveller passing along, an inverted image, whose motion seems governed by the quiet of a time to which its archetype, the living person, is perhaps insensible; or it may happen that the figure of one of the larger birds, a raven or a heron, is crossing silently among the reflected clouds, while the voice of the real bird, from the element aloft, gently awakens in the spectator the recollection of appetites and instincts, pursuits and occupations, that deform and agitate the world, yet have no power to prevent nature from putting on an aspect capable of satisfying the most intense cravings for the tranquil, the lovely, and the perfect, to which man, the noblest of her creatures, is subject."
The scene described here is one as exquisite in detail as majestic in general effect. And it is characteristic of the region to which Wordsworth's love was given that there is no corner of it without a meaning and a charm; that the open record of its immemorial past tells us at every turn that all agencies have conspired for loveliness and ruin itself has been benign. A passage of Wordsworth's describing the character of the lake-shores illustrates this fact with loving minuteness.
"Sublimity is the result of nature's first great dealings with the superficies of the Earth; but the general tendency of her subsequent operations is towards the production of beauty, by a multiplicity of symmetrical parts uniting in a consistent whole. This is everywhere exemplified along the margins of these lakes. Masses of rock, that have been precipitated from the heights into the area of waters, lie in some places like stranded ships, or have acquired the compact structure of jutting piers, or project in little peninsulas crested with native wood. The smallest rivulet, one whose silent influx is scarcely noticeable in a season of dry weather, so faint is the dimple made by it on the surface of the smooth lake, will be found to have been not useless in shaping, by its deposits of gravel and soil in time of flood, a curve that would not otherwise have existed. But the more powerful brooks, encroaching upon the level of the lake, have, in course of time, given birth to ample promontories of sweeping outline, that contrast boldly with the longitudinal base of the steeps on the opposite shore; while their flat or gently-sloping surfaces never fail to introduce, into the midst of desolation and barrenness, the elements of fertility, even where the habitations of men may not have been raised."
With this we may contrast, as a companion picture, the poet's description of the tarns, or lonely bodies of water, which lie here and there among the hills:
"They are difficult of access and naked; yet some of them are, in their permanent forms, very grand, and there are accidents of things which would make the meanest of them interesting. At all events, one of these pools is an acceptable sight to the mountain wanderer, not merely as an incident that diversifies the prospect, but as forming in his mind a centre or conspicuous point to which objects, otherwise disconnected or insubordinated, may be referred. Some few have a varied outline, with bold heath-clad promontories; and as they mostly lie at the foot of a steep precipice, the water, where the sun is not shining upon it, appears black and sullen, and round the margin huge stones and masses of rock are scattered, some defying conjecture as to the means by which they came thither, and others obviously fallen from on high, the contribution of ages! A not unpleasing sadness is induced by this perplexity, and these images of decay; while the prospect of a body of pure water, unattended with groves and other cheerful rural images by which fresh water is usually accompanied, and unable to give furtherance to the meagre vegetation around it, excites a sense of some repulsive power strongly put forth, and thus deepens the melancholy natural to such scenes."
To those who love to deduce the character of a population from the character of their race and surroundings the peasantry of Cumberland and Westmoreland form an attractive theme. Drawn in great part from the strong Scandinavian stock, they dwell in a land solemn and beautiful as Norway itself, but without Norway's rigour and penury, and with still lakes and happy rivers instead of Norway's inarming melancholy sea. They are a mountain folk; but their mountains are no precipices of insuperable snow, such as keep the dwellers in some Swiss hamlet shut in ignorance and stagnating into idiocy. These barriers divide only to concentrate, and environ only to endear; their guardianship is but enough to give an added unity to each group of kindred homes. And thus it is that the Cumbrian dalesmen have afforded perhaps as near a realization as human fates have yet allowed of the rural society which statesmen desire for their country's greatness. They have given an example of substantial comfort strenuously won; of home affections intensified by independent strength; of isolation without ignorance, and of a shrewd simplicity; of an hereditary virtue which needs no support from fanaticism, and to which honour is more than law.
The school of political economists, moreover, who urge the advantage of a peasant proprietary—of small independent holdings,—as at once drawing from the land the fullest produce and rearing upon it the most vigorous and provident population,—this school, as is well known, finds in the statesmen of Cumberland one of its favourite examples. In the days of border-wars, when the first object was to secure the existence of as many armed men as possible, in readiness to repel the Scot, the abbeys and great proprietors in the north readily granted small estates on military tenure, which tenure, when personal service in the field was no longer needed, became in most cases an absolute ownership. The attachment of these statesmen to their hereditary estates, the heroic efforts which they would make to avoid parting with them, formed an impressive phenomenon in the little world—a world at once of equality and of conservatism—which was the scene of Wordsworth's childish years, and which remained his manhood's ideal.
The growth of large fortunes in England, and the increased competition for land, has swallowed up many of these small independent holdings in the extensive properties of wealthy men. And at the same time the spread of education, and the improved poor-laws and other legislation, by raising the condition of other parts of England, have tended to obliterate the contrast which was so marked in Wordsworth's day. How marked that contrast was, a comparison of Crabbe's poems with Wordsworth's will sufficiently indicate. Both are true painters; but while in the one we see poverty as something gross and degrading, and the Tales of the Village stand out from a background of pauperism and crime; in the other picture poverty means nothing worse than privation, and the poet in the presence of the most tragic outcast of fortune could still
Have laughed himself to scorn, to find In that decrepit man so firm a mind.
[Footnote 3: The previous page ends midsentence, within an ordinary paragraph, sentence finished by this verse (probably an excerpt from a poem).]
Nay, even when a state far below the Leech-Gatherer's has been reached, and mind and body alike are in their last decay, the life of the Old Cumberland Beggar, at one remove from nothingness, has yet a dignity and a usefulness of its own. His fading days are passed in no sad asylum of vicious or gloomy age, but amid neighbourly kindnesses, and in the sanity of the open air; and a life that is reduced to its barest elements has yet a hold on the liberality of nature and the affections of human hearts.
So long as the inhabitants of a region thus solitary and beautiful have neither many arts nor many wishes, save such as the Nature which they know has suggested, and their own handiwork can satisfy, so long are their presence and habitations likely to be in harmony with the scenes around them. Nay, man's presence is almost always needed to draw out the full meaning of Nature, to illustrate her bounty by his glad well-being and to hint by his contrivances of precaution at her might and terror. Wordsworth's description of the cottages of Cumberland depicts this unconscious adaptation of man's abode to his surroundings, with an eye which may be called at pleasure that of painter or of poet.
"The dwelling-houses, and contiguous outhouses, are in many instances of the colour of the native rock out of which they have been built; but frequently the dwelling—or Fire-house, as it is ordinarily called—has been distinguished from the barn or byre by roughcast and whitewash, which, as the inhabitants are not hasty in renewing it, in a few years acquires by the influence of weather a tint at once sober and variegated. As these houses have been, from father to son, inhabited by persons engaged in the same occupations, yet necessarily with changes in their circumstances, they have received without incongruity additions and accommodations adapted to the needs of each successive occupant, who, being for the most part proprietor, was at liberty to follow his own fancy, so that these humble dwellings remind the contemplative spectator of a production of Nature, and may (using a strong expression) rather be said to have grown than to have been erected—to have risen, by an instinct of their own, out of the native rock—so little is there in them of formality, such is their wildness and beauty."
"These dwellings, mostly built, as has been said, of rough unhewn stone, are roofed with slates, which were rudely taken from the quarry before the present art of splitting them was understood, and are therefore rough and uneven in their surface, so that both the coverings and sides of the houses have furnished places of rest for the seeds of lichens, mosses, ferns and flowers. Hence buildings, which in their very form call to mind the processes of Nature, do thus, clothed in part with a vegetable garb, appear to be received into the bosom of the living principle of things, as it acts and exists among the woods and fields, and by their colour and their shape affectingly direct the thoughts to that tranquil course of nature and simplicity along which the humble-minded inhabitants have through so many generations been led. Add the little garden with its shed for bee-hives, its small bed of potherbs, and its borders and patches of flowers for Sunday posies, with sometimes a choice few too much prized to be plucked; an orchard of proportioned size; a cheesepress, often supported by some tree near the door; a cluster of embowering sycamores for summer shade, with a tall fir through which the winds sing when other trees are leafless; the little rill or household spout murmuring in all seasons,—combine these incidents and images together, and you have the representative idea of a mountain cottage in this country—so beautifully formed in itself, and so richly adorned by the hand of Nature."
These brief descriptions may suffice to indicate the general character of a district which in Wordsworth's early days had a distinctive unity which he was the first fully to appreciate, which was at its best during his long lifetime, and which has already begun to disappear. The mountains had waited long for a full adoration, an intelligent worship. At last "they were enough beloved." And if now the changes wrought around them recall too often the poet's warning, how
All that now delights thee, from the day On which it should be touched, shall melt, and melt away,—
yet they have gained something which cannot be taken from them. Not mines, nor railways, nor monster excursions, nor reservoirs, nor Manchester herself, "toute entiere a sa proie attachee," can deprive lake and hill of Wordsworth's memory, and the love which once they knew.
Wordsworth's life was from the very first so ordered as to give him the most complete and intimate knowledge both of district and people. There was scarcely a mile of ground in the Lake country over which he had not wandered; scarcely a prospect which was not linked with his life by some tie of memory. Born at Cockermouth, on the outskirts of the district, his mind was gradually led on to its beauty; and his first recollections were of Derwent's grassy holms and rocky falls, with Skiddaw, "bronzed with deepest radiance," towering in the eastern sky. Sent to school at Hawkshead at eight years old, Wordsworth's scene was transferred to the other extremity of the lake district. It was in this quaint old town, on the banks of Esthwaite Water, that the "fair seed-time of his soul" was passed; it was here that his boyish delight in exercise and adventure grew, and melted in its turn into a more impersonal yearning, a deeper absorption into the beauty and the wonder of the world. And even the records of his boyish amusements come to us each on a background of Nature's majesty and calm. Setting springs for woodcock on the grassy moors at night, at nine years old, he feels himself "a trouble to the peace" that dwells among the moon and stars overhead; and when he has appropriated a woodcock caught by somebody else, "sounds of undistinguishable motion" embody the viewless pursuit of Nemesis among the solitary hills. In the perilous search for the raven's nest, as he hangs on the face of the naked crags of Yewdale, he feels for the first time that sense of detachment from external things which a position of strange unreality will often force on the mind.
Oh, at that time When on the perilous ridge I hung alone, With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind Blow through my ear! The sky seemed not a sky Of earth—and with what motion moved the clouds!
The innocent rapine of nutting taught him to feel that there is a spirit in the woods—a presence which too rude a touch of ours will desecrate and destroy.
The neighbouring lakes of Coniston, Esthwaite, Windermere, have left similar traces of the gradual upbuilding of his spirit. It was on a promontory on Coniston that the sun's last rays, gilding the eastern hills above which he had first appeared, suggested the boy's first impulse of spontaneous poetry, in the resolve that, wherever life should lead him, his last thoughts should fall on the scenes where his childhood was passing now. It was on Esthwaite that the "huge peak" of Wetherlam, following him (as it seemed) as he rowed across the starlit water, suggested the dim conception of "unknown modes of being," and a life that is not ours. It was round Esthwaite that the boy used to wander with a friend at early dawn, rejoicing in the charm of words in tuneful order, and repeating together their favourite verses, till "sounds of exultation echoed through the groves." It was on Esthwaite that the band of skaters "hissed along the polished ice in games confederate," from which Wordsworth would sometimes withdraw himself and pause suddenly in full career, to feel in that dizzy silence the mystery of a rolling world.
A passage, less frequently quoted, in describing a boating excursion on Windermere illustrates the effect of some small point of human interest in concentrating and realising the diffused emotion which radiates from a scene of beauty:
But, ere nightfall, When in our pinnace we returned at leisure Over the shadowy lake, and to the beach Of some small island steered our course with one, The minstrel of the troop, and left him there, And rowed off gently, while he blew his flute Alone upon the rock—oh, then the calm And dead still water lay upon my mind Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky, Never before so beautiful, sank down Into my heart, and held me like a dream!
The passage which describes the schoolboy's call to the owls—the lines of which Coleridge said that he should have exclaimed "Wordsworth!" if he had met them running wild in the deserts of Arabia,—paint a somewhat similar rush of feeling with a still deeper charm. The "gentle shock of mild surprise" which in the pauses of the birds' jocund din carries far into his heart the sound of mountain torrents—the very mingling of the grotesque and the majestic—brings home the contrast between our transitory energies and the mystery around us which returns ever the same to the moments when we pause and are at peace.
It is round the two small lakes of Grasmere and Rydal that the memories of Wordsworth are most thickly clustered. On one or other of these lakes he lived for fifty years,—the first half of the present century; and there is not in all that region a hillside walk or winding valley which has not heard him murmuring out his verses as they slowly rose from his heart. The cottage at Townend, Grasmere, where he first settled, is now surrounded by the out-buildings of a busy hotel; and the noisy stream of traffic, and the sight of the many villas which spot the valley, give a new pathos to the sonnet in which Wordsworth deplores the alteration which even his own residence might make in the simplicity of the lonely scene.
Well may'st thou halt, and gaze with brightening eye! The lovely Cottage in the guardian nook Hath stirred thee deeply; with its own dear brook, Its own small pasture, almost its own sky! But covet not the Abode: forbear to sigh, As many do, repining while they look; Intruders—who would tear from Nature's book This precious leaf with harsh impiety. Think what the home must be if it were thine, Even thine, though few thy wants! Roof, window, door, The very flowers are sacred to the Poor, The roses to the porch which they entwine: Yea, all that now enchants thee, from the day On which it should be touched, would melt, and melt away.
The Poems on the Naming of Places belong for the most part to this neighbourhood. Emma's Dell on Easdale Beck, Point Rash-Judgment on the eastern shore of Grasmere, Mary's Pool in Rydal Park, William's Peak on Stone Arthur, Joanna's Rock on the banks of Rotha, and John's Grove near White Moss Common, have been identified by the loving search of those to whom every memorial of that simple-hearted family group has still a charm.
It is on Greenhead Ghyll—"upon the forest-side in Grasmere Vale"— that the poet has laid the scene of Michael, the poem which paints with such detailed fidelity both the inner and the outward life of a typical Westmoreland "statesman." And the upper road from Grasmere to Rydal, superseded now by the road along the lake side, and left as a winding footpath among rock and fern, was one of his most habitual haunts. Of another such haunt his friend Lady Richardson says, "The Prelude was chiefly composed in a green mountain terrace, on the Easdale side of Helm Crag, known by the name of Under Lancrigg, a place which he used to say he knew by heart. The ladies sat at their work on the hill-side, while he walked to and fro on the smooth green mountain turf, humming out his verses to himself, and then repeating them to his sympathising and ready scribes, to be noted down on the spot, and transcribed at home."
The neighbourhood of the poet's later home at Rydal Mount is equally full of associations. Two of the Evening Voluntaries were composed by the side of Rydal Mere. The Wild Duck's Nest was on one of the Rydal islands. It was on the fells of Loughrigg that the poet's fancy loved to plant an imperial castle. And Wansfell's green slope still answers with many a change of glow and shadow to the radiance of the sinking sun.
Hawkshead and Rydal, then, may be considered as the poet's principal centres, and the scenery in their neighbourhood has received his most frequent attention. The Duddon, a seldom-visited stream on the south-west border of the Lake-district, has been traced by him from source to outfall in a series of sonnets. Langdale, and Little Langdale with Blea Tarn lying in it, form the principal scene of the discourses in the Excursion. The more distant lakes and mountains were often visited and are often alluded to. The scene of The Brothers, for example, is laid in Ennerdale; and the index of the minor poems will supply other instances. But it is chiefly round two lines of road leading from Grasmere that Wordsworth's associations cluster,—the route over Dunmailraise, which led him to Keswick, to Coleridge and Southey at Greta Hall, and to other friends in that neighbourhood; and the route over Kirkstone, which led him to Ullswater, and the friendly houses of Patterdale, Hallsteads, and Lowther Castle. The first of these two routes was that over which the Waggoner plied; it skirts the lovely shore of Thirlmere,—a lonely sheet of water, of exquisite irregularity of outline, and fringed with delicate verdure, which the Corporation of Manchester has lately bought to embank it into a reservoir. Dedecorum pretiosus emptor! This lake was a favourite haunt of Wordsworth's; and upon a rock on its margin, where he and Coleridge, coming from Keswick and Grasmere, would often meet, the two poets, with the other members of Wordsworth's loving household group, inscribed the initial letters of their names. To the "monumental power" of this Rock of Names Wordsworth appeals, in lines written when the happy company who engraved them had already been severed by distance and death;
O thought of pain, That would impair it or profane! And fail not Thou, loved Rock, to keep Thy charge when we are laid asleep.
The rock may still be seen, but is to be submerged in the new reservoir. In the vale of Keswick itself, Applethwaite, Skiddaw, St. Herbert's Island, Lodore, are commemorated in sonnets or inscriptions. And the Borrowdale yew-trees have inspired some of the poet's noblest lines,—lines breathing all the strange forlornness of Glaramara's solitude, and the withering vault of shade.
The route from Rydal to Ullswater is still more thickly studded with poetic allusions. The Pass of Kirkstone is the theme of a characteristic ode; Grisdale Tarn and Helvellyn recur again and again; and Aira Force was one of the spots which the poet best loved to describe, as well as to visit. It was on the shores of Further Gowbarrow that the Daffodils danced beneath the trees. These references might be much further multiplied; and the loving diligence of disciples has set before us "the Lake-district as interpreted by Wordsworth" through a multitude of details. But enough has been said to show how completely the poet had absorbed the influences of his dwelling-place; how unique a representative he had become of the lovely district of his birth; how he had made it subject to him by comprehending it, and his own by love.
He visited other countries and described other scenes. Scotland, Wales, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, have all a place in his works. His familiarity with other scenery helped him, doubtless, to a better appreciation of the lake country than he could have gained had he never left it. And, on the other hand, like Caesar in Gaul, or Wellington in the Peninsula, it was because he had so complete a grasp of this chosen base of operations that he was able to come, to see, and to make his own, so swiftly and unfailingly elsewhere. Happy are those whose deep-rooted memories cling like his about some stable home! Whose notion of the world around them has expanded from some prospect of happy tranquillity, instead of being drawn at random from the confusing city's roar! Happier still if that early picture be of one of those rare scenes which have inspired poets and prophets with the retrospective day-dream of a patriarchal, or a golden, age; of some plot of ground like the Ithaca of Odysseus, [Greek: traechsi all agathae koyrotrophos], "rough, but a nurse of men;" of some life like that which a poet of kindred spirit to Wordsworth's saw half in vision, half in reality, among the husbandmen of the Italian hills:—