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Wordsworth is its author's weakness on the side of criticism. No poetry has exercised so much influence on subsequent poets as that of Wordsworth. It is, therefore, in his case more than usually important to understand exactly where his strength and his weakness as a poet lie. How absolutely unfit Mr. Harper is for the performance of this difficult task is sufficiently seen by the fact that the two qualities in which he again and again declares Wordsworth to have been pre-eminent are consummate technical skill’ and
versatility', the exact points in which he stands conspicuously below all our other great poets. Mr. Harper positively declares that in all Wordsworth's works both of verse and of prose, with the single exception of The Excursion, he exhibits 'artistic finish' and 'the true artist's instinct for design ’. He frequently selects very ordinary poems for high praise, as when he strangely declares that the lines beginning 'Life with yon lambs' are one of Wordsworth's best poems ’; and he is once at least capable of a serious misinterpretation of a very well-known poem, as when he asserts that 'piety', in the famous lines on the rainbow ' My heart leaps up’, is ' used in its original sense of reverence for filial obligation'. To say this is, of course, to miss the whole idea of the poem, one of the central ideas of Wordsworth’s philosophy. It is not the piety of the grown man towards the memories of his own childhood which he is only or chiefly thinking of. He is thinking of another and still older piety, that ' natural piety' which makes and has always made the heart of man leap with wonder, joy or fear when he beholds the rainbow in the sky'; and it is that sort of piety which he hopes will bind together his youth and age and without which he would prefer to die.
After such blunders as these in his own special subject, one is not surprised at finding Mr. Harper class Milton, Waller, Dryden, and Pope together as poets who all wrote in the academic manner'; and one merely smiles at such
an ineptitude as his calling Crabb Robinson ‘the Pepys of that generation'. It is easier to explain his indignation with Wordsworth for alluding to angels in some of his poems and his confident assertion that the ' date of these beings is out'; or even his strange denunciation of the Sonnet ' Retirement? 'thoroughly immoral, as bad as the work of any Epicurean poet of the Roman decadence'. For anti-religious, as well as religious, intolerance has always blundered over the criticism of poetry which is out of the reach of either. If 'Retirement'is immoral, so is the whole of that very decadent and Epicurean’ poet Cowper ; and, if it was wicked of Wordsworth to talk of angels even in a metaphor, what is to be said of the unorthodox Shelley's angels of rain and lightning' and its thousand parallels ?
The truth apparently is that the natural bent of Mr. Harper's mind is not towards art or poetry at all. It is towards ethics and, above all, towards politics. Of any disinterested enjoyment of poetry in itself there is scarcely a hint in all his nine hundred pages. The reason why he likes Wordsworth’s reforms in the subjects and language of poetry is that he considers them democratic reforms abolishing the fashionable exclusiveness of previous poetry. The reason why he dislikes the poetry of Wordsworth's middle-age is not that much of it is commonplace but that none of it is revolutionary. The Wordsworth in whom he is interested is the young man who went to France and threw himself into the Revolutionary cause. No doubt that period is profoundly important in Wordsworth’s life. But there does not appear to be any foundation for Mr. Harper's notion that without it he would never have been a great poet. On the contrary, the elements which afterwards united and expressed themselves in his poetry—including his profound sympathy with peasants and humble folk generally-were conspicuous in his boyhood ; and the per
manent and poetic part of them owes far more to Hawkshead than to Paris. He wrote no great poetry in France; indeed, he wrote none after his return till the storm of revolutionary excitement had to a large extent settled down. And that storm was neither so violent nor so lasting as Mr. Harper constantly asserts. His view is that Wordsworth's 'state of mind ' about 'distinctions of high and low' was ' a result of his conversion to the equalitarian creed of the French Revolution'. He imagines the second visit to France and the friendship with Beaupuy to have been the most important events in the poet's life. He pictures Wordsworth as becoming a new man under their influence, a passionate politician of the French revolutionary type, a child of The Enlightenment, living for a creed of social and political abstractions, a doctrinaire in politics, a free-thinker in religion. And he supposes this mood to have lasted more or less for some years after the return to England. He even declares that during all the earlier part of Wordsworth's life, apparently up to Waterloo, his chief interest was political'.
Now, a fraction of this is true, of course, but so little that the portrait as a whole is a mere caricature. Mr. Harper can be refuted out of his own pages. Wordsworth's letters from France show none of this enthusiasm. They confirm his later statement in The Prelude that he was often a little bored with Beaupuy's political harangue. The ninth book of The Prelude shows him discoursing to Beaupuy about 'the end of civil government' in the very spirit of Burke, and confessing that when he visited the site of the Bastille he affected more emotion than he felt. So in a long letter, written in May 1792 and printed by Mr. Harper, he shows no political enthusiasm, and congratulates his correspondent on having been born in England, 'a free country where talents are more liberally rewarded than amongst any other nation'. At Orleans, in the autumn, he is more occupied
with limestone springs than with politics. And all the while the alleged free-thinker is contemplating taking orders on his return to England !
The truth is that to politics as understood by the French Revolutionists at the time, and by Mr. Harper and Radical politicians ever since, Wordsworth never gave the heart of his being at all, and gave what he did give only for a short time. Mr. Harper wants us to believe that Wordsworth was in fact much occupied with politics during the great days at Alfoxden. But there is no evidence for this theory ; and Coleridge expressly states the contrary. Unfortunately, Mr. Harper writes throughout in the interest of political, social and religious reform as advocated by the Encyclopaedists in France and by their followers, especially Godwin, in England, and insists on treating Wordsworth first as the champion and then as the apostate of this movement. The truth is that the essential Wordsworth never was either the one or the other. As Mr. Knight well says, he never sympathized with the formal or ' rational 'system of democratic thought. What he did sympathize with, while in France and after his return, was a different thing, the 'glad uprise' of the suppressed instinct of freedom, and its outcome,
Joy in widest commonalty spread. And with this he continued to sympathize, with the cooler fervour of middle and old age, throughout the rest of his life. Whenever he is a poet he is neither revolutionary nor reactionary but something much deeper than either, No doubt his opinions about political measures changed greatly in course of time ; but those convictions about the essential qualities of the human spirit which are at the root of all his poetry remained substantially unaltered. What he wrote to Charles Foxin 1802 was what he had felt before he ever saw France and what he still felt in his last years. He was scorned for choosing 'low' subjects. His defence is that he hoped
by his poems to enlarge our feeling of reverence for our species and our knowledge of human nature by showing that our best qualities are possessed by men whom we are too apt to consider, not with reference to the points in which they resemble us, but to those in which they manifestly differ from us'. That is to say that when he wrote of poor men he was not thinking of their poverty, but of their humanity ; not of their material privations or political rights, but of the hopes and fears and loves and passions which fill them simply as men.
It is of course quite true that Wordsworth was a Radical in his youth and a Tory in his old age. But the truth is that neither his youthful Radicalism nor his elderly Toryism affected very much more than the outskirts of his mind. The essential Wordsworth, the Wordsworth who wrote great poetry and who lives, was not a great deal affected by either. There is a story of Carlyle speaking of himself and a friend with whom he had been having a discussion as 'except in opinion, not disagreeing'. That is the limit of the disagreement between the Wordsworth of 1792 and the Wordsworth of 1832. How small and unessential a part of the man was concerned in the ' opinions of either period may be seen by the utterances they produced. Where does Mr. Harper have to go when he wants to illustrate the extent of Wordsworth's belief in the social, moral, and political theories of Godwin ? To the pamphlet attacking Bishop Watson, the least original, the least imaginative, the least passionate of Wordsworth's productions. Where does he have to go to prove the extreme Toryism of the poet's age ? To querulous letters and dull poems which might have been written by any other respectable and panic-stricken old gentleman between 1830 and 1840. Neither the one nor the other came from the centre at all. When the real Wordsworth speaks, whether in youth or old age, it is in the language of faith and passion. And in his use of that