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Chapter 20

The former subject continued--The neutral style, or that common to Prose and Poetry, exemplified by specimens from Chaucer, Herbert, and others.


I have no fear in declaring my conviction, that the excellence defined and exemplified in the preceding chapter is not the characteristic excellence of Mr. Wordsworth's style; because I can add with equal sincerity, that it is precluded by higher powers. The praise of uniform adherence to genuine, logical English is undoubtedly his; nay, laying the main emphasis on the word uniform, I will dare add that, of all contemporary poets, it is his alone. For, in a less absolute sense of the word, I should certainly include Mr. Bowies, Lord Byron, and, as to all his later writings, Mr. Southey, the exceptions in their works being so few and unimportant. But of the specific excellence described in the quotation from Garve, I appear to find more, and more undoubted specimens in the works of others; for instance, among the minor poems of Mr. Thomas Moore, and of our illustrious Laureate. To me it will always remain a singular and noticeable fact; that a theory, which would establish this lingua communis, not only as the best, but as the only commendable style, should have proceeded from a poet, whose diction, next to that of Shakespeare and Milton, appears to me of all others the most individualized and characteristic. And let it be remembered too, that I am now interpreting the controverted passages of Mr. Wordsworth's critical preface by the purpose and object, which he may be supposed to have intended, rather than by the sense which the words themselves must convey, if they are taken without this allowance.

A person of any taste, who had but studied three or four of Shakespeare's principal plays, would without the name affixed scarcely fail to recognise as Shakespeare's a quotation from any other play, though but of a few lines. A similar peculiarity, though in a less degree, attends Mr. Wordsworth's style, whenever he speaks in his own person; or whenever, though under a feigned name, it is clear that he himself is still speaking, as in the different dramatis personae of THE RECLUSE. Even in the other poems, in which he purposes to be most dramatic, there are few in which it does not occasionally burst forth. The reader might often address the poet in his own words with reference to the persons introduced:

"It seems, as I retrace the ballad line by line That but half of it is theirs, and the better half is thine."

Who, having been previously acquainted with any considerable portion of Mr. Wordsworth's publications, and having studied them with a full feeling of the author's genius, would not at once claim as Wordsworthian the little poem on the rainbow?

"The Child is father of the Man, etc."

Or in the LUCY GRAY?

"No mate, no comrade Lucy knew; She dwelt on a wide moor; The sweetest thing that ever grew Beside a human door."

Or in the IDLE SHEPHERD-BOYS?

"Along the river's stony marge The sand-lark chants a joyous song; The thrush is busy in the wood, And carols loud and strong. A thousand lambs are on the rocks, All newly born! both earth and sky Keep jubilee, and more than all, Those boys with their green coronal; They never hear the cry, That plaintive cry! which up the hill Comes from the depth of Dungeon-Ghyll."

Need I mention the exquisite description of the Sea-Loch in THE BLIND HIGHLAND BOY. Who but a poet tells a tale in such language to the little ones by the fire-side as--

"Yet had he many a restless dream; Both when he heard the eagle's scream, And when he heard the torrents roar, And heard the water beat the shore Near where their cottage stood.

Beside a lake their cottage stood, Not small like our's, a peaceful flood; But one of mighty size, and strange; That, rough or smooth, is full of change, And stirring in its bed.

For to this lake, by night and day, The great Sea-water finds its way Through long, long windings of the hills, And drinks up all the pretty rills And rivers large and strong:

Then hurries back the road it came Returns on errand still the same; This did it when the earth was new; And this for evermore will do, As long as earth shall last.

And, with the coming of the tide, Come boats and ships that sweetly ride, Between the woods and lofty rocks; And to the shepherds with their flocks Bring tales of distant lands."

I might quote almost the whole of his RUTH, but take the following stanzas:

But, as you have before been told, This Stripling, sportive, gay, and bold, And, with his dancing crest, So beautiful, through savage lands Had roamed about with vagrant bands Of Indians in the West.

The wind, the tempest roaring high, The tumult of a tropic sky, Might well be dangerous food For him, a Youth to whom was given So much of earth--so much of heaven, And such impetuous blood.

Whatever in those climes he found Irregular in sight or sound Did to his mind impart A kindred impulse, seemed allied To his own powers, and justified The workings of his heart.

Nor less, to feed voluptuous thought, The beauteous forms of nature wrought, Fair trees and lovely flowers; The breezes their own languor lent; The stars had feelings, which they sent Into those magic bowers.

Yet in his worst pursuits, I ween, That sometimes there did intervene Pure hopes of high intent For passions linked to forms so fair And stately, needs must have their share Of noble sentiment."

But from Mr. Wordsworth's more elevated compositions, which already form three-fourths of his works; and will, I trust, constitute hereafter a still larger proportion;--from these, whether in rhyme or blank verse, it would be difficult and almost superfluous to select instances of a diction peculiarly his own, of a style which cannot be imitated without its being at once recognised, as originating in Mr. Wordsworth. It would not be easy to open on any one of his loftier strains, that does not contain examples of this; and more in proportion as the lines are more excellent, and most like the author. For those, who may happen to have been less familiar with his writings, I will give three specimens taken with little choice. The first from the lines on the BOY OF WINANDER-MERE,--who

"Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls, That they might answer him.--And they would shout Across the watery vale, and shout again, With long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild Of mirth and jocund din! And when it chanced, That pauses of deep silence mocked his skill, Then sometimes in that silence, while he hung Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise Has carried far into his heart the voice Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene [73] Would enter unawares into his mind With all its solemn imagery, its rocks, Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received Into the bosom of the steady lake."

The second shall be that noble imitation of Drayton [74] (if it was not rather a coincidence) in the lines TO JOANNA.

--"When I had gazed perhaps two minutes' space, Joanna, looking in my eyes, beheld That ravishment of mine, and laughed aloud. The Rock, like something starting from a sleep, Took up the Lady's voice, and laughed again! That ancient woman seated on Helm-crag Was ready with her cavern; Hammar-scar And the tall Steep of Silver-How sent forth A noise of laughter; southern Lougbrigg heard, And Fairfield answered with a mountain tone. Helvellyn far into the clear blue sky Carried the lady's voice!--old Skiddaw blew His speaking trumpet!--back out of the clouds From Glaramara southward came the voice: And Kirkstone tossed it from its misty head!"

The third, which is in rhyme, I take from the SONG AT THE FEAST OF BROUGHAM CASTLE, upon the restoration of Lord Clifford, the Shepherd, to the Estates and Honours of his Ancestors.

------"Now another day is come, Fitter hope, and nobler doom; He hath thrown aside his crook, And hath buried deep his book; Armour rusting in his halls On the blood of Clifford calls,-- 'Quell the Scot,' exclaims the Lance! Bear me to the heart of France, Is the longing of the Shield-- Tell thy name, thou trembling Field!-- Field of death, where'er thou be, Groan thou with our victory! Happy day, and mighty hour, When our Shepherd, in his power, Mailed and horsed, with lance and sword, To his ancestors restored, Like a re-appearing Star, Like a glory from afar, First shall head the flock of war!"

"Alas! the fervent harper did not know, That for a tranquil Soul the Lay was framed, Who, long compelled in humble walks to go, Was softened into feeling, soothed, and tamed.

Love had he found in huts where poor men lie; His daily teachers had been woods and rills, The silence that is in the starry sky, The sleep that is among the lonely hills."

The words themselves in the foregoing extracts, are, no doubt, sufficiently common for the greater part.--But in what poem are they not so, if we except a few misadventurous attempts to translate the arts and sciences into verse? In THE EXCURSION the number of polysyllabic (or what the common people call, dictionary) words is more than usually great. And so must it needs be, in proportion to the number and variety of an author's conceptions, and his solicitude to express them with precision.--But are those words in those places commonly employed in real life to express the same thought or outward thing? Are they the style used in the ordinary intercourse of spoken words? No! nor are the modes of connections; and still less the breaks and transitions. Would any but a poet--at least could any one without being conscious that he had expressed himself with noticeable vivacity--have described a bird singing loud by, "The thrush is busy in the wood?"--or have spoken of boys with a string of club-moss round their rusty hats, as the boys "with their green coronal?"--or have translated a beautiful May-day into "Both earth and sky keep jubilee!"--or have brought all the different marks and circumstances of a sealoch before the mind, as the actions of a living and acting power? Or have represented the reflection of the sky in the water, as "That uncertain heaven received into the bosom of the steady lake?" Even the grammatical construction is not unfrequently peculiar; as "The wind, the tempest roaring high, the tumult of a tropic sky, might well be dangerous food to him, a youth to whom was given, etc." There is a peculiarity in the frequent use of the asymartaeton (that is, the omission of the connective particle before the last of several words, or several sentences used grammatically as single words, all being in the same case and governing or governed by the same verb) and not less in the construction of words by apposition ("to him, a youth"). In short, were there excluded from Mr. Wordsworth's poetic compositions all, that a literal adherence to the theory of his preface would exclude, two thirds at least of the marked beauties of his poetry must be erased. For a far greater number of lines would be sacrificed than in any other recent poet; because the pleasure received from Wordsworth's poems being less derived either from excitement of curiosity or the rapid flow of narration, the striking passages form a larger proportion of their value. I do not adduce it as a fair criterion of comparative excellence, nor do I even think it such; but merely as matter of fact. I affirm, that from no contemporary writer could so many lines be quoted, without reference to the poem in which they are found, for their own independent weight or beauty. From the sphere of my own experience I can bring to my recollection three persons of no every-day powers and acquirements, who had read the poems of others with more and more unallayed pleasure, and had thought more highly of their authors, as poets; who yet have confessed to me, that from no modern work had so many passages started up anew in their minds at different times, and as different occasions had awakened a meditative mood.


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[73] Mr. Wordsworth's having judiciously adopted "concourse wild" in this passage for "a wild scene" as it stood to the former edition, encourages me to hazard a remark, which I certainly should not have made in the works of a poet less austerely accurate in the use of words, than he is, to his own great honour. It respects the propriety of the word, "scene," even in the sentence in which it is retained. Dryden, and he only in his more careless verses, was the first, as far as my researches have discovered, who for the convenience of rhyme used this word in the vague sense, which has been since too current even in our best writers, and which (unfortunately, I think) is given as its first explanation in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary and therefore would be taken by an incautious reader as its proper sense. In Shakespeare and Milton the word is never used without some clear reference, proper or metaphorical, to the theatre. Thus Milton:

"Cedar, and pine, and fir, and branching palm A sylvan scene; and, as the ranks ascend Shade above shade, a woody theatre Of stateliest view."

I object to any extension of its meaning, because the word is already more equivocal than might be wished; inasmuch as to the limited use, which I recommend, it may still signify two different things; namely, the scenery, and the characters and actions presented on the stage during the presence of particular scenes. It can therefore be preserved from obscurity only by keeping the original signification full in the mind. Thus Milton again,

------"Prepare thee for another scene."

[74]

Which Copland scarce had spoke, but quickly every hill,
     Upon her verge that stands, the neighbouring vallies fill;
     Helvillon from his height, it through the mountains threw,
     From whom as soon again, the sound Dunbalrase drew,
     From whose stone-trophied head, it on the Windross went,
     Which tow'rds the sea again, resounded it to Dent.
     That Brodwater, therewith within her banks astound,
     In sailing to the sea, told it to Egremound,
     Whose buildings, walks, and streets, with echoes loud and long,
     Did mightily commend old Copland for her song.
                                     Drayton's POLYOLBION: Song XXX.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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