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persons who so complain will declare themselves amused by the characters, and edified by the dénouement, of a drama or metrical romance; but what instruction, warning, or delight (they ask) is furnished by a rhapsody about Daffodils, or an address to the Small Celandine? Yet the influences of these lyrical deliverances-charged as they are with a sentiment of gladness in natural beauty—is surely analogous to the less palpable influences of external life. Mental aliment may be compared to corporeal ; and, as no lover of health will scorn the inhaling of a genial mountain-air on the ground that it is “unsubstantial,” so let these demurrers be reminded that pastoral lyric poetry supplies an atmosphere to the mind, most fitly toning it to sensibility and taste, and preparing it for a delicate appreciation of the nobler truths of art.
It may further illustrate these remarks to quote our author's beautiful ode To the Cuckoo. O blithe new-comer! I have heard,
The same whom in my schoolboy days I hear thee, and rejoice;
I listen'd to; that cry O cuckoo ! shall I call thee bird,
Which made me look a thousand ways Or but a wandering voice ?
In bush and tree and sky. While I am lying on the grass,
To seek thee did I often rove Thy loud note smites my ear;
Through woods and on the green ; From hill to hill it seems to pass,
And thou wert still a hope, a love, At once far off and near,
Still long'd for, never seen! I hear thee babbling to the vale,
And I can listen to thee yet, Of sunshine and of flowers ;
Can lie upon the plain, And unto me thou bring 'st a tale
And listen till I do beget Of visionary hours.
That golden time again. Thrice welcome, darling of the spring!
O blessed bird ! the earth we pace Even yet thou art to me
Again appears to be No bird; but an invisible thing,
An unsubstantial faery place, A voice, a mystery :
That is fit home for thee ! Surely to listen to these verses is, in effect, to be transported to the poet's rest-place on the early summer-grass, surrounded by every genial and inspiring sight and sound ; and then to be borne back to our own dawning childhood, when nature was a dreamlike presence because we unreflectingly enjoyed it,—not less dreamlike now, when memory yields us but the shadow of that shade. The sensations appealed to by the poem are of a delicate and transient kind, of which many readers are hardly susceptible; but surely all may so far appreciate the sentiment as to hear of its cordial reception without signs of impatience or contempt. For its admirers we would willingly cull other and still sweeter posies, from this part of our poet's cultured and dew-fed garden; but the limits of our space forbid. We can only indicate a few of the most pleasing. She was a phantom of delight is a genuine and happy sketch ; and one of kindred excellence is that commencing, Three years she grew in sun and shower. A few masterly strokes (of each it may be said) from the pencil of our artistauthor; and, lo! how fine a creature stands before us! how suitable a back-ground waits upon the picture! Louisa is a creation of similar beauty ; and the ballad of Ellen Irwin, or the Braes of Kirtle, thongh belonging to another class of compositions, is characterised by the same simplicity and freedom.
To many of our author's minor poems we cannot extend the same admiration, for reasons which we may hereafter specify. It is sufficient to remark, in passing, that, though written, like those mentioned, with a
literal truthfulness to nature, they fail to produce the same pleasurable feeling, either from the meanness of their subject, or the unconquerable vulgarity of their associations. And be it here remarked, that such a fault rests entirely at the author's door. Nature is ever lovely ; and it is almost an act of impiety to charge upon her the unsightly failure of our depicting powers. The true artist is no mechanical copyist : he shows the spiritual faculty within him, rather by the selection and disposition of important features, than by the laboured detail which vulgar painters bestow at random on those of least significance. The result he aims at is the communication of thoughts, whatever medium or subject he may employ ; and, if those thoughts be trivial or familiar, he knows well that the mind will be offended at the artistic elaboration of common-place ideas. What should we think of a painted conversation, and that of the most trifling kind ? Yet such is the absurdity too often met with in verses laying claim to the name of poetry ; and of this unpleasing description are too many of our author's earlier pieces. Iterations of natural phenomena they may be ; but expressions of the spirit of nature they certainly are not.
But the genius of Mr. Wordsworth is more true to itself, when exercised in more advanced species of composition. It is his besetting temptation, when dealing with familiar life, to mistake the literal and vulgar for those homely but universal truths which the æsthetic character of art admits in the humblest poetry, as it associates them with the highest. He is, therefore, least successful in that department of song on which his first claims to originality were founded. His lyrical ballads give him no title to a posthumous renown: many of them, indeed, that sustain their place in his collected works, are felt to be only so much carrion borne upwards between the wings of his later and more heaven-ward genius. Writers of less pretension and desert are here superior to our author. Gay's charming ballad of William and Susan (for example) is worth many such as Alice Fell and The Sailor's Mother. The latter two are fragmentary incidents, rather than pictures in brief ; and have no more claim to admiration in their present state than would an isolated tree of Turner's, or a peasant singled out from one of his consummate landscapes. Occurring in important compositions, where their excellence of truth would be auxiliary and incidental, they would have proved effective in a double manner, as at once testifying the affluence of the author's mind, and contributing in their place and measure to the unity and completeness of his work. But, in their isolation, these pieces seem to demand an admiration and regard which they do not intrinsically merit; and there is a contrast, painfully obvious, between the deliberate purpose of their production and its inadequate results.
Nor will their brevity sufficiently explain or excuse the fault. The ballad of William and Susan is equally brief; but at the same time its features are characteristic, not trivial; indicating, in few lines, the strength and mastery of a full-grown passion, and that passion swelling in a sailor's breast, and evidencing itself in the earnest simplicity of a sailor's manner. The whole life of this British tar may be easily imagined from the poet's little song. We repeat, therefore, that the strength of Mr. Wordsworth is most displayed when the shackles imposed by his theory are broken by the force of his genius: for then, no longer mistaking the vulgar for the true, or limited by a fear of swelling into affectation when soaring from the low, he is seen to expatiate with a truly catholic delight over the boundless heritage of nature. His reflections then are more natural and informed, and his language is more terse, expressive, and poetical. The severity of his style, which is apt to degenerate into baldness and froideur, becomes animated and fruitful, suggestive, picturesque, and harinonious. We will quote a few lines from The Old Cumberland Beggar, in illustration of our author's better manner, of which it is in a high degree characteristic.
Him from my childhood have I known; and then
Struggle with frosty air and winter snows;
So in the eye of nature let him die.
Let him be free of mountain solitudes,
The pleasant melory of woodland birds—
toned intellect, while grouping around his own unaided human majesty those accessories of nature which proclaim at once his headship and mortality.
We cannot but esteem the classical poems of Mr. Wordsworth highly successful. This was to be expected from the general purity of his taste, and the antique simplicity of his mind; and, although it has been said that he is pre-eminently the poet of the nineteenth century, an attentive perusal of his works has led us to a different opinion. Let the claim to such distinction, if it be worth asserting, be preferred by some popular genius, whose works more strikingly reflect the times. Wordsworth could not sustain it, and does not need it. He appeals to all reflective and emotional minds, and deals successfully with much of the conscious experience of mankind: but as he never, on the one hand, evinces that individualising power which makes the dramatist transcend the limited sphere of his own condition, and have sympathy with widely-varied characters in untried circumstances; so, on the other, he equally distinguished from the surface-painter of society, who is skilful in the delineation of a costume, or felicitous in the expression of a national humour. He occupies that serene and middle region which lies below the third heaven of poetry, consisting of the sublimated passion of the human heart, and above the grosser cloud-land of social phases, shifting and uncertain. He breathes an atmosphere of sensational intelligence : he is seldom rapt into prophecy, and never descends to satire or good-natured mirth. Hence the fabulous stories of Greece and Rome are admirably suited to his muse; and we cannot but regret that he who has written with so much truthful pathos in Laodamia, and transfused so grand a moral into the Ode of Dion, should not have more often selected such themes of classical significance and beauty.
The mental characteristics just remarked have largely contributed to the excellence of our author's sonnets. Of these we had intended to treat at some length, as being the noblest specimens of their class ever furnished to the world of literature by any single mind; but our limits, already exceeded, oblige us to defer their full consideration to some future opportunity. In the mean time we will simply indicate a few of the distinguishing merits of those before us. They have, then, first, all the beauties peculiar to that form of composition. Independently of the skill which overcomes with apparent ease the most difficult exercise of verse, the sonnet demands from its author a dignity of thought or sentiment which shall deserve the separate attention of the mind, and which-perfect in its unity as a whole--shall admit of a gradual advance to a gentle and consistent climax; being carefully distinguished from the epigram by the serious beauty of its measure, and the absence in its close of a witty, pointed, or abrupt surprise. These conditions are faithfully complied with in every series of Mr. Wordsworth's sonnets.
But while the rigid critic is satisfied by the application of these restrictive canons, the tasteful reader is delighted with nobility of sentiment, precision of language, access of affluent subsidiary thoughts, and culminating line in conclusion. They remind him, sometimes of a richly tessellated pavement, of which the diamond-figured parts are fashioned into one large star, and concentre to a point; and sometimes of a decorated arch, in which the union of stability and grace becomes perfect as the final keystone drops into its appropriate place. It is difficult to select from four hundred specimens that lie before us, each possessing some novel and attractive thought; but let the following serve.