John Addington Symonds

 

 

Matthew Arnold's Selections from Wordsworth. 1

 

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It is both interesting and instructive to hear what masters of a craft may choose to say upon the subject of their art. The interest is rather increased than diminished by the limitation of the imperfection of their view, inseparable from personal inclination, idiosyncrasy of genius, or absorbing previous course of study. When Heinrich exclaims, "There's no lust like to poetry;" when Goethe asserts, "Die kunst ist nur Gestaltung;" when Shelley writes, "Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds," we feel in each of these utterances — too partial to express an universal truth, too profound to be regarded as a merely casual remark — the dominating bias and instinctive leanings of a lifetime. If, then, we remember that Mr. Matthew Arnold is equally eminent as a critic and a poet, we shall not be too much surprised to read the following account of poetry given in the preface to his Selections from Wordsworth: "It is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life — to the question: How to live."

At first sight this definition will strike most people as a paradox. It would be scarcely less startling to hear, as indeed we might perhaps hear from a new school of writers upon art, that "Criticism is at bottom the poetry of things," inasmuch as it is the critic's function to select the quintessential element of all he touches, and to present that only in choice form to the public he professes to instruct. Yet, when we return to Mr. Arnold, and compare the passage above quoted with the fuller expression of the same view upon a preceding page, the apparent paradox is reduced to the proportions of a sound and valuable generalization: "Long ago, in speaking of Homer, I said that the noble and profound application of ideas to life is the most essential part of poetic greatness. I said that a great poet receives his distinctive character of superiority from his application, under the conditions immutably fixed by the laws of poetic beauty and poetic truth, from his application, I say, whatever it may be, of the ideas —

On man, on nature, and on human life,

which he has acquired for himself." An important element in this description of poetic greatness is the further determination of the [687] ideas in question as moral: "It is said that to call these ideas moral ideas is to introduce a strong and injurious limitation. I answer that it is to do nothing of the kind, because moral ideas are really so main a part of human life. The question, how to live, is itself a moral idea; and it is the question which most interests every man, and with which, in some way or other, he is perpetually occupied."

With the substance of these passages there are few who, after mature reflection on the nature of poetry, will not agree. That weight of Mr. Arnold's authority should be unhesitatingly given against what he calls the poetry of revolt and the poetry of indifference to morals, is a matter for rejoicing to all who think the dissemination of sound views on literature important. It is good to reminded at the present moment that Omar Kayam failed of the greatness because he was a reactionary, and that Th้ophile Gautier took up his abode in what can never be more than a wayside halting-place. From time to time critics arise who attempt to persuade us that it does not so much matter what a poet says as how he says it, and that the highest poetical achievements are those which combine a certain vagueness of meaning with sensuous melody and colour of verbal composition. Yet, if one thing is proved with certainty by the whole history of literature to our time, it is that the self-preservative instinct of humanity rejects such art as does not contribute to its intellectual nutrition and moral sustenance. It cannot afford to continue long in contact with ideas that run counter to the principles of its own progress. It cannot bestow more than passing notice upon trifles, however exquisitely finished. Poetry will not, indeed, live without style or its equivalent. But style alone will never confer enduring and cosmopolitan fame upon a poet. He must have placed himself in accord with the permanent emotions, the conservative forces of the race; he must have uttered what contributes to the building up of vital structure in the social organism, in order to gain more than a temporary or a partial hearing. Though style is an indispensable condition of success in poetry, it is by matter, and not by form, that a poet has to take his final rank.

Of the two less perfect kinds of poetry, the poetry of revolt and the poetry of indifference, the latter has by far the slighter chance of survival. Powerful negation implies that which it rebels against. The energy of the rebellious spirit is itself a kind of moral greatness. We are braced and hardened by contact with impassioned revolutionaries, with Lucretius, Voltaire, Leopardi. Something necessary to the onward progress of humanity — the vigour of antagonism, the operative force of the antithesis — is communicated by them. They are in a high sense ethical by the exhibition of hardihood, self-reliance, hatred of hypocrisy. Even Omar's secession from the [688] mosque to the tavern symbolizes a necessary and recurring moment of experience. It is, moreover, dignified by the pathos of the poet's view of life. Meleager's sensuality is condoned by the delicacy of his sentiment. Tone counts for much in this poetry of revolt against morals. It is only the Stratons, the Beccadellis, the Baudelaires, who, in spite of their consummate form, are consigned to poetical perdition by vulgarity, perversity, obliquity of vision. But the carving of cherry-stones in verse, the turning of triolets and rondeaux, seeking after sound or colour without heed for sense, is all fore-doomed to final failure. The absolute neglect which has fallen on the melodious Italian sonnet-writers of the sixteenth century is due to their cult of art for art's sake, and their indifference to the realities of life. If we ask why Machiavelli's Mandragora is inferior to Shakspere's Merry Wires of Windsor, in spite of its profound knowledge of human nature, its brilliant wit, its irresistible humour, its biting satire, and its incomparably closer workmanship, we can only answer that Shakspere's conception of life was healthy, natural, exhilarating, while Machiavelli's, without displaying the earnestness of revolt, was artificial, morbid, and depressing. The sympathies which every great work of art stimulates tend in the case of Shakspere's play to foster, in the case of Machiavelli's to stunt, the all-essential elements of social happiness and vigour. In point of form, the Mandragora has better right to be a classic comedy than the Merry Wires of Windsor. But the application of ideas to life in it is so unsound and so perverse that common sense rejects it: we tire of living in so false a world.

Without multiplying instances, it can be affirmed, with no dread of opposition, that all art, to be truly great art, to be permanent and fresh and satisfying through a hundred generations, to yield the bread and wine of daily sustenance to men and women in successive ages, must be moralised — must be in harmony with those principles of conduct, that tone of feeling, which it is the self-preservative instinct of civilised humanity to strengthen. This does not mean that the artist should be consciously didactic or obtrusively ethical. The objects of ethics and of art are distinct. The one analyses and instructs; the other embodies and delights. But since all the arts give form to thought and feeling, it follows that the greatest art is that which includes in its synthesis the fullest complex of thoughts and feelings. The more complete the poet's grasp of human nature as a whole, the more complete his presentation of life in organized complexity, the greater he will be. Now the whole struggle of the human race from barbarism to civilisation is one continuous effort to maintain and to extend its moral dignity. It is by the conservation and alimentation of moral qualities that we advance. The organization of our faculties into a perfect whole is moral harmony. There[689]fore artists who aspire to greatness can neither be adverse nor indifferent to ethics. In each case they proclaim their own inadequacy to the subject-matter of their art, humanity. In each case they present a maimed and partial portrait of their hero, man. In each case they must submit, however exquisite their style, however acute their insight, to be excluded from the supreme company of the immortals. We need do no more than name the chiefs of European poetry — Homer, Pindar, ฦschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Shakspere, Moli่re — in order to recognise the fact that they owe their superiority to the completeness of their representation, to their firm grasp upon the harmony of human faculties in large morality. It is this which makes classical and humane literature convertible terms. It is this which has led all classes and ages of men back and back to these great poets as to their familiar friends and teachers, "the everlasting solace of mankind."

While substantially agreeing with Mr. Arnold, it may be possible to take exception to the form of his definition. He lays too great stress, perhaps, on the phrases, application of ideas, and criticism. The first might be qualified as misleading, because it seems to attribute an ulterior purpose to the poet; the second as tending to confound two separate faculties, the creative and the judicial. Plato's conception of poetry as an inspiration, a divine instinct, may be nearer to the truth. The application of ideas should not be too conscious, else the poet sinks into the preacher. The criticism of life should not be too much his object, else the poet might as well have written essays. What is wanted is that, however spontaneous his utterance may be, however he may aim at only beauty in his work, or "sing but as the linnet sings," his message should be adequate to healthy and mature humanity. His intelligence of what is noble and enduring, his expression of a full harmonious personality, is enough to moralise his work. It is even better that he should not turn aside to comment. That is the function of the homilist. We must learn how to live from him less by his precepts, than by his examples and by being in his company. It would no doubt be misunderstanding Mr. Arnold to suppose that he estimates poetry by the gnomic sentences conveyed in it, or that he intends to say that the greatest poets have deliberately used their art as the vehicle of moral teaching. Yet there is a double danger in the wording of his definitions. On the one hand, if we accept them too literally, we run the risk of encouraging that false view of poetry which led the Byzantines to prefer Euripides to Sophocles, because he contained a greater number of quotable maxims; which brought the humanists of the sixteenth century to the incomprehensible conclusion that Seneca had improved upon the Greek drama by infusing greater gravity into his speeches; which caused Tasso to invent an ex post facto allegory for the Gerusalemme, and [690] Spenser to describe Ariosto's mad Orlando, the triumphant climax of that poet's irony, as "a good governor and a virtuous man." On the other hand, there is the peril of forgetting that the prime aim of all art is at bottom only presentation. That, and that alone, distinguishes the arts, including poetry, from every other operation of the intellect, and justifies Hegel's general definition of Art as "Die sinnliche Erscheinung der Idee." Poetry is not so much a criticism of life as a revelation of life, a presentment of life according to the poet's capacity for observing and displaying it in forms that reproduce it for his readers. The poet is less a judge than a seer and reporter. If he judges, it is as light, falling upon an object, showing its inequalities, discovering its loveliness, may be said to judge. The greatest poet is not the poet who has said the best things about life, but he whose work most fully and faithfully reflects life in its breadth and largeness, eliminating what is accidental, trivial, temporary, local, or rendering insignificant details the mirror of the universal by his treatment. He teaches less by what he inculcates than by what he shows; and the truth of Plato's above-mentioned theory is that he may himself be unaware of the far-reaching lessons he communicates. From Shakspere we could better afford to lose the profound remarks on life in Timon or Troilus and Cressida, than the delineation of Othello's passion. The speeches of Nestor in the Iliad are less valuable than the portrait of Achilles; and what Achilles says about fame, heroism, death, and friendship could be sooner spared than the presentment of his action.

The main thing to keep in mind is this, that the world will very willingly let die in poetry what does not contribute to its intellectual strength and moral vigour. In the long run, therefore, poetry full of matter and moralised wins the day. But it must, before all else, be poetry. The application of the soundest moral ideas, the finest criticism of life, will not save it from oblivion, if it fails in the essential qualities that constitute a work of art. Imagination, or the power to see clearly and to project forcibly; fancy, or the power to flash new light on things familiar, and by their combination to delight the mind with novelty; creative genius, or the power of giving form and substance, life and beauty to the figments of the brain; style, or the power to sustain a flawless and unwavering distinction of utterance; dramatic energy, or the power to make men and women move before us with self-evident reality in fiction; passion, sympathy, enthusiasm, or the power of feeling and communicating feeling, of understanding and arousing emotion; lyrical inspiration, or the power of spontaneous singing; – these are among the many elements that go to make up poetry. These, no doubt, are alluded to by Mr. Arnold in the clause referring to "poetic beauty and poetic truth." But [691] it is needful to insist upon them, after having dwelt so long upon the matter and the moral tone of poetry. No sane critic can deny that the possession of one or more of these qualities in any very eminent degree will save a poet from the neglect to which moral revolt or indifference might otherwise condemn him. Ariosto's vulgarity of feeling, Shelley's crude and discordant opinions, Leopardi's overwhelming pessimism, Heine's morbid sentimentality, Byron's superficiality and cynicism, sink to nothing beneath the saving virtues of imagination, lyrical inspiration, poetic style, humour, intensity and sweep of passion. The very greatest poets of the world have combined all these qualities, together with that grand humanity which confers upon them immortal freshness. Of Homer, Pindar, Sophocles, Æschylus, Dante, Virgil, Shakspere, Moli่re, Goethe, it is only possible to say that one or other element of poetic achievement has been displayed more eminently than the rest, that one or other has been held more obviously in abeyance, when we come to distinguish each great master from his peers. But lesser men may rest their claims to immortality upon slighter merits; and among these merits it will be found impossible to exclude what we call form, style, and the several poetic qualities above enumerated. To borrow a burlesque metaphor from the Oxford schools, a poet may win his second-class on his moral philosophy papers, if the others do not drag him down below the level of recognition; or he may win upon his taste papers, if he has not been plucked in divinity. It is only the supreme few whom we expect to be equally good all round. Shelley and Leopardi have, perhaps, the same prospect of survival on their artistic merits, as Wordsworth on the strength of his moral ideas.

It will be seen that we have now arrived at Mr. Arnold's attempt to place Wordsworth among the European poets of the last two centuries. Omitting Goethe and living men, it seems, to Mr. Arnold, indubitable that to Wordsworth belongs the palm. This distinction of being the second greatest modern poet since the death of Moli่re is awarded to Wordsworth on his moral philosophy paper. "Where, then, is Wordsworth's superiority? It is here: he deals with more of life than they do; he deals with life, as a whole, more powerfully." There is some occult fascination in the game of marking competitors for glory, and publishing class-lists of poets, artists, and other eminent persons. For myself, I confess that it seems about as reasonable to enter Wordsworth, Dryden, Voltaire, Leopardi, Klopstock, and the rest of them for the stakes of poetical primacy, and to announce with a flourish of critical trumpets that Wordsworth is the winner, as to run the moss-rose against the jessamine, carnation, clematis, crown imperial, double daisy, and other favourites of the flower garden. Lovers of poets and of flowers will have their par[692]tialities; and those who have best cultivated powers of reflection and expression will most plausibly support their preference with arguments. There the matter ends; for, both in the case of the poets and the flowers, the qualities which stimulate our several admirations are too various in kind to be compared. Mr. Arnold has undoubtedly given excellent reasons for the place he assigns to Wordsworth. But it is dangerous for Wordsworth's advocate to prove too much. He has already gained a firm, a permanent, an honourable place upon the muster-roll of English poets. Why undertake the task of proving him the greatest? Parnassus is a sort of heaven, and we know what answer was given to the sons of Zebedee.

The final test of greatness in a poet is his adequacy to human nature at its best; his feeling for the balance of sense, emotion, will, intellect in moral harmony; his faculty for regarding the whole of life, and representing it in all its largeness. If this be true, dramatic and epical poetry must be the most enduring, the most instructive monuments of creative genius in verse. These forms bring into quickest play and present in fullest activity the many-sided motives of our life on earth. Yet the lyrist has a sphere scarcely second in importance to that of the epic and dramatic poets. The thought and feeling he expresses may, if his nature be adequate, embrace the whole gamut of humanity; and if his expression be sufficient, he may give the form of universality to his experience, creating magic mirrors wherein all men shall see their own hearts reflected and glorified without violation of reality or truth. Wordsworth's fame will rest upon his lyrics, if we extend the term to include his odes, sonnets, and some narrative poems in stanzas — on these, and on a few of his meditative pieces in blank verse. His long philosophical experiments — the Prelude, the Eccursion — will be read for the light they cast upon the poet's mind, and for occasional passages of authentic inspiration. Taken as a whole, they are too unequal in execution, too imperfectly penetrated with the vital spirit of true poetry, to stand the test of time or wake the enthusiasm of centuries of students. Those, then, who love and reverence Wordsworth, for whom from earliest boyhood he has been a name of worship, will thank the delicate and sympathetic critic who has here collected Wordsworth's masterpieces in the compass of three hundred pages. They will also thank him for the preface in which he has pointed out the sterling qualities of Wordsworth's poetry. After speaking of Wordsworth's debt to Burns, who first in a century of false taste used "a style of perfect plainness, relying for effect solely on the weight and force of that which with entire fidelity it utters," Mr. Arnold introduces the following paragraph as to Wordsworth's handling of that style: —

[693] "Still Wordsworth's use of it has something unique and unmatchable. Nature herself seems, I say, to take the pen out of his hand, and to write for him with her own bare, sheer, penetrating power. This arises from two causes: from the profound sincereness with which Wordsworth feels his subject, and also from the profoundly sincere and natural character of his subject itself. He can and will treat such a subject with nothing but the most plain, first-hand, almost austere naturalness. His expression may often be called bald, as, for instance, in the poem of Resolution and Independence; but it is bald as the bare mountain tops are bald, with a baldness which is full of grandeur."

This is assuredly the truest and finest description which has yet been written of Wordsworth's manner at its best; and the account rendered of the secret of his charm is no less to the point: "Wordsworth's poetry is great because of the extraordinary power with which Wordsworth feels the joy offered to us in nature, the joy offered to us in the simple elementary affections and duties, and because of the extraordinary power with which, in case after case, he shows us this joy, and renders it so as to make us share it." At the same time Mr. Arnold recognises the poet's inequalities, and the critical importance of his essay consists mainly in the broad and clear distinction he has made between what is more and less valuable in his work. "In Wordsworth's case, the accident, for so it may almost be called, of inspiration is of peculiar importance. No poet, perhaps, is so evidently filled with a new and sacred energy when the inspiration is upon him; no poet, when it fails him, is so left 'weak as is a breaking wave.'" The object, therefore, of Mr. Arnold is "to disengage the poems which show his power, and to present them to the English-speaking public and to the world." He thinks that the volume "contains everything, or nearly everything, which may best serve him with the majority of lovers of poetry, nothing which may disserve him." Tastes will differ considerably about both clauses of this sentence; for while Wordsworthians may complain that too much has been omitted, others, who are anxious that our great and beloved poet should appear before the world with only his best singing robes around him, may desire an even stricter censorship than Mr. Arnold's. In the second lyric, To a Butterfly, we find this stanza —

"Float near me; do not yet depart!
 Dead times revive in thee:
 Thou bring'st, gay creature as thou art,
 A solemn image to my heart,
 My father's family!"

No excellence of moral sentiment can redeem the banality of these lines. The last verse, sincerely felt as it may be, respectable as is the emotion it expresses, is from the point of view of art a bathos. A really fine narrative, the Brothers, contains abundance of writing which, were it not Wordsworth's, might be described, in the favourite [694] phrase of "tenth-rate critics" as prose cut into lengths of ten syllables: —

                              "And now, at last
From perils manifold, with some small wealth
Acquired by traffic 'mid the Indian isles,
To his paternal home he is returned,
With a determined purpose to resume
The life he had lived there."

This is bald; but it is not "bald as the bare mountain-tops are bald." It is bald as a letter of introduction is bald, bald as the baldest passages of Crabbe. Can we expect Italians, accustomed to the grandly simple manner of Leopardi's country poems, to accept this? Or choose another example from a ballad called the Power of Music —

"An Orpheus!   An Orpheus! — yes, Faith may grow bold,
 And take to herself all the wonders of old; —
 Near the stately Pantheon you'll meet with the same
 In the street that from Oxford hath borrowed its name."

This is neither bald nor yet genuine; it begins with a conceit, and the epithet applied to the Pantheon is uncouth in its falseness. Can we expect our American cousins to tolerate the style of this opening stanza for the sake of the noble democratic spirit which breathes through the poem? The Character of the Happy Warrior is both conceived and written in the poet's stateliest mood; yet it halts at intervals on lines like these —

"But makes his moral being his prime care . . . .
 By objects, which might force the soul to abate
 Her feeling, rendered more compassionate."

Will Frenchmen, habituated to look for sustained evenness of style in composition, recognise the Happy Warrior as a classic? These examples introduce a grave matter for consideration. No lover of Wordsworth could desire the exclusion of the Brothers, or the Power of Music, or the Happy Warrior, from a selection of his poetry, however willingly they might leave the Butterfly alone. Yet the failure of perfect art in these three fine poems must prove an obstacle to their final acceptance by readers who make no national, or what Mr. Arnold would call provincial, allowance for Wordsworth. No such allowances are demanded by the work of Keats or Shelley, when subjected to such an equally rigorous process of sifting, as that applied to Wordsworth in this volume.

Still if, after study of the greatest literatures of Europe, we feel convinced that Wordsworth is a classic, it does not greatly signify what other nations now think about him. As nothing can confer world-wide celebrity on an inferior poet, however popular at home, so nothing can prevent a classic from attaining his right place in the [695] long run. There is something slightly ridiculous in waiting upon French opinion, and expressing gratitude to M. Henry Cochin or any other foreign critic for a sensible remark upon Shakspere. Still, as the question has been started whether Wordsworth is likely to become a poet of cosmopolitan fame, it is worth while to consider what these chances are. Mr. Arnold, comparing him with the acknowledged masters of the art in Europe, comes to the conclusion that he has "left a body of poetical work superior in power, in interest, in the qualities which give enduring freshness, to that which any of the others has left." What these qualities are we have already seen. It is the superior depth, genuineness, sincerity, and truth of Wordsworth's humanity, the solid and abiding vigour of his grasp upon the realities of life, upon the joys that cannot be taken from us, upon the goods of life which suffer no deduction by chance and change, and are independent of all accidents of fortune, that render Wordsworth's poems indestructible. He is always found upon the side of that which stimulates the stored-up forces of humanity. If I remember rightly, he says that he meant his works "to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight, by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think, and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous." This promise he has kept. When he touches the antique, it is to draw from classic myth or history a lesson weighty with wisdom applicable to our present life. Laodamia has no magic to compete with the Bride of Corinth; but we rise from its perusal with passions purified by terror and compassion. Dion closes on this note —

"Him only pleasure leads, and peace attends,
 Him, only him, the shield of Jove defends,
 Whose means are fair and spotless as his ends."

When he writes a poem on a flower, it is to draw forth thoughts of joy, or strength, or consolation. His Daffodils have not the pathos which belongs to Herrick's, nor has he composed anything in this style to match the sublimity of Leopardi's Ginestra. But Leopardi crushes the soul of hope out of us by the abyss of dreadful contemplation into which the broom upon the lava of Vesuvius plunges him. Wordsworth never does this. The worst that can be said of him is that, as Mr. Swinburne said in a preface to Byron, he shreds Nature's vegetables into a domestic saucepan for daily service. Still the homely pot au feu of the moralist has no less right to exist than a wizard's cauldron of sublimity, and probably will be found to last and wear longer. Wordsworth has said nothing so exquisite as Poliziano upon the fragility of rose-leaves, nor has he used the rose, like Ariosto, for similitudes of youthful beauty. But the moralising of these Italian amourists softens and relaxes. [696] Wordsworth's poems on the Celandine brace and invigorate. His enthusiasms are sober and solid. Excepting the ode on Immortality, where much that cannot be proved is taken for granted, and excepting an occasional exaggeration of some favourite tenet, as in this famous stanza —

"One impulse from a vernal wood
    May teach you more of man,
 Of moral evil, and of good,
    Than all the sages can" —

his impulsive utterances are based on a sound foundation, and will bear the test both of experience and analysis. In this respect he differs from Shelley, whose far more fiery and magnetic enthusiasms do not convince us of their absolute sincerity, and are often at variance with probability. In the case of Shelley we must be contented with the noble and audacious ardour he communicates. The further satisfaction of feeling that his judgments are as right as his aspirations are generous, is too frequently denied. Wordsworth does not soar so high, nor on so powerful a pinion, but he is a safer guide. His own comparison between the nightingale and the stock-dove might be used as an allegory of the two poets. Their several addresses to the skylark give some measure of their different qualities.

The tone of a poet, the mood he communicates, the atmosphere he surrounds us with, is more important even than what he says. This tone is the best or the worst we get from him; it makes it good or bad to be with him. Now it is always good to be with Wordsworth. His personality is like a climate at once sedative and stimulative. I feel inclined to compare it to the influence of the high Alps, austere but kindly, demanding some effort of renunciation, but yielding in return a constant sustenance, and soothing the tired nerves that need a respite from the passions and the fever of the world. The landscape in these regions, far above the plains and cities where we strive, is grave and sober. It has none of the allurements of the south — no waving forests, or dancing waves, or fret-work of sun and shadow cast by olive branches on the flowers. But it has also no deception, and no languor, and no decay. In autumn the bald hillsides assume their robes of orange and of crimson, faintly, delicately spread upon the barren rocks. The air is singularly clear and lucid, suffering no illusion, but satisfying the sense of vision with a marvellous sincerity. And when winter comes, the world for months together is clad in flawless purity of blue and white, with shy, rare, unexpected beauty shed upon the scene from colours of sunrise or sunset. On first acquaintance this Alpine landscape is repellent and severe. We think it too ascetic to be lived in. But familiarity convinces us that it is good and wholesome to abide in it. We learn to love its reserve even more than the prodigality of beauty showered on fortunate [697] islands where the orange and the myrtle flower in never-ending summer. Something of the sort is experienced by those who have yielded themselves to Wordsworth's influence. The luxuriance of Keats, the splendour of Shelley, the oriental glow of Coleridge, the torrid energy of Byron, though good in themselves and infinitely precious, are felt to be less permanent, less uniformly satisfying, less continuously bracing, than the sober simplicity of the poet from whose ruggedness at first we shrank.

It is a pity that Wordsworth could not rest satisfied in leaving this tone to its natural operation on his readers "in a wise passiveness." He passes too readily over from the poet to the moraliser, clenching lessons which need no enforcement by precepts that remind us of the preacher. This leads to a not unnatural movement of revolt in his audience, and often spoils the severe beauty of his art. We do not care to have a somewhat dull but instructive episode from ordinary village life interrupted by a stanza of admonition, like the following: —

"O Reader had you in your mind
 Such stores as silent thought can bring,
 O gentle Reader! you would find
 A tale in everything.
 What more I have to say is short,
 And you must kindly take it:
 It is no tale; but, should you think,
 Perhaps a tale you'll make it."

After this the real pathos of Simon Lee cannot fail to fall somewhat flat. And yet it is not seldom that Wordsworth's didactic reflections contain the pith of his sublimest poetry. Beautiful as the tale of the White Doe is aesthetically, it can bear the closing stanzas of precept: —

"Grey-headed Shepherd, thou hast spoken well;
 Small difference lies between thy creed and mine:
 This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
 His death was mourned by sympathy divine.

 The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
 That is in the green leaves among the groves,
 Maintains a deep and reverential care
 For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.

 The Pleasure-house is dust: — behind, before,
 There is no common waste, no common gloom;
 But Nature, in due course of time, once more
 Shall here put on her beauty and her bloom.

 She leaves these objects to a slow decay,
 That what we are, and have been, may be known;
 But, at the coming of the milder day,
 These monuments shall all be overgrown."

Up to this point the application of moral ideas has been made [698] with perfect success. The artistic charm has not been broken. But the last stanza falls into the sermonizing style, as though the poet's inspiration failed him, and a pedagogue, with no clear conception of the unalterable order of the material universe, had taken his place: —

"One lesson, Shepherd, let us two divide,
 Taught both by what she shows, and what conceals,
 Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
 With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels."

The tone I have attempted to describe, as of some clear upland climate, at once soothing and invigorating, austere but gifted with rare charms for those who have submitted to its influence, this tone, unique in poetry, outside the range, perhaps, of Scandinavian literature, will secure for Wordsworth, in England at any rate, an immortality of love and fame. He is, moreover, the poet of man's dependence upon Nature. More deeply, because more calmly, than Shelley, with the passionate enthusiasms of youth subdued to the firm convictions of maturity, he expressed for modern men that creed which, for want of a better word, we designate as Pantheism, but which might be described as the inner soul of Science, the bloom of feeling and enthusiasm destined to ennoble and to poetize our knowledge of the world and of ourselves. In proportion as the sciences make us more intimately acquainted with man's relation to the universe, while the sources of life and thought remain still inscrutable, Wordsworth must take stronger and firmer hold on minds which recognise a mystery in Nature far beyond our ken. What Science is not called on to supply, the fervour and the piety that humanize her truths, and bring them into harmony with permament emotions of the soul, may be found in all that Wordsworth wrote: —

                        "For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.   And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."

The time might come, indeed may not be distant, when lines like these should be sung in hours of worship by congregations for whom the "cosmic emotion" is a reality and a religion.

[699] Wordsworth, again, is the poet of the simple and the permanent in social life. He has shown that average human nature may be made to yield the motives of the noblest poems, instinct with passion, glowing with beauty, needing only the insight and the touch of the artist to disengage them from the coarse material of commonplace.

"The moving accident is not my trade:
To freeze the blood I have no ready arts:
'Tis my delight, alone in summer shade,
To pipe a simple song for thinking hearts."

Should the day arrive when society shall be remodelled upon principles of true democracy, when "plain living and high thinking" shall become the rule, when the vulgarity of manners inseparable from decaying feudalism shall have disappeared, when equality shall be rightly apprehended and refinement be the common mark of humble and wealthy homes — should this golden age of a grander civilisation dawn upon the nations, then Wordsworth will be recognised as the prophet and apostle of the world's rejuvenescence. He, too, has something to give, a quiet dignity, a nobleness and loftiness of feeling joined to primitive simplicity, the tranquillity of self-respect, the calm of self-assured uprightness, which it would be very desirable for the advocates of fraternity and equality to assimilate. Of science and democracy Wordsworth in his lifetime was suspicious. It is almost a paradox to proclaim him the poet of democracy and science. Yet there is that in his work which renders it congenial to the mood of men powerfully influenced by scientific ideas, and expecting from democracy the regeneration of society at no incalculably distant future.

After all, Wordsworth is essentially an English poet. He has the limitations no less than the noble qualities of the English character powerfully impressed upon him. I had occasion recently to say that Shelley brought into English literature a new ideality, a new element of freedom and expansion. Mazzini greeted Byron with enthusiastic panegyric as the poet of emancipation. Wordsworth moves in a very different region from that of either Byron or Shelley. He remains a stiff, consistent, immitigable Englishman; and it may be questioned whether his stubborn English temperament, his tough insular and local personality, no less than a certain homeliness in his expression, may not prove an obstacle to his acceptance as a cosmopolitan poet. I find a curious note on British literature in the Democratic Vistas of a transatlantic writer, a portion of which, though it is long, may here be not unprofitably cited: –

"I add that, while England is among the greatest of lands in political freedom, or the idea of it, and in stalwart personal character, &c., the spirit of [700] English literature is not great — at least, is not greatest — and its products are no models for us. With the exception of Shakespeare, there is no first-class genius, or approaching to first-class, in that literature which, with a truly vast amount of value and of artificial beauty (largely from the classics), is almost always material, sensual, not spiritual — almost always congests, makes plethoric, not frees, expands, dilates — is cold, anti-democratic, loves to be sluggish and stately, and shows much of that characteristic of vulgar persons, the dread of saying or doing something not at all improper in itself, but unconventional, and that may be laughed at. In its best, the sombre pervades it — it is moody, melancholy, and, to give it its due, expresses in characters and plots these qualities in an unrivalled manner. Yet not as the black thunder-storms, and in great normal, crashing passions, as of the Greek dramatists — clearing the air, refreshing afterward, bracing with power; but as in Hamlet, moping, sick, uncertain, and leaving ever after a secret taste for the blues, the morbid fascination, the luxury of woe."

This is a severe verdict to be spoken by one whose main interest in life appears to be the building up of American personality by means of great literature. To the Americans, destined to be by far the most numerous of "the English-speaking public," our poetry cannot remain a matter of indifference, nor can their criticism of it be passed over by us with neglect. They are in the unique position of possessing our language as their mother-tongue, and at the same time of contemplating our literature from a point of view that is the opposite of insular. Comparing English poetry with the spirit of the American people, whom he knows undoubtedly far better than the refined students of Boston, Watt Whitman comes to the conclusion that there is but little in it that will suit their needs or help them forward on the path of their development. Yet I cannot but think that, had he read Wordsworth, he would have made at least a qualified exception in his favour. 1 Wordsworth is not "sombre, moody, melancholy," is certainly not afraid of the "unconventional," does not borrow "artificial beauty" from the classics or elsewhere. In fact the faults here found with English poetry in general are contradicted in an eminent degree by his best poetry. But, though this seems clear enough, it remains true that in Wordsworth we find a ponderosity, a personal and patriotic egoism, a pompousness, a self-importance in dwelling upon details that have value chiefly for the poet himself or for the neighbourhood he lives in, which may not unnaturally appear impertinent or irksome to readers of a different nationality. Will the essential greatness of Wordsworth, whereof so much has been already said, his humanity, his wisdom, his healthiness, his bracing tone, his adequacy to the finer inner spirit of a scientific and democratic age — will these solid and imperishable qualities overcome the occasionally defective utterance, the want of humour and lightness, the obstinate insularity of character, the [701] somewhat repellent intensity of local interest, which cannot but be found in him?

This is no essay upon Wordsworth, but only a series of discursive notes suggested by Mr. Arnold's admirable preface. If I have seemed to say aught inconsistent with the reverence due to one of England's noblest singers, I can but answer that Wordsworth compels sincerity. That is one of his highest distinctions. It is impossible to be otherwise than plain-speaking in his presence. For the rest, it is enough to recite, by way of confession of Wordsworthian faith, a bede-roll of his masterpieces. Lucy Gray, Ruth, the White Doe, Resolution and Independence, Michael, the Daffodils, the Lyrics on Lucy, the Solitary Reaper, Yarrow, Laodamia, the Ode to Duty, the Ode on Immortality, Tintern Abbey, the Simplon Pass, with at least twenty of the finest sonnets that have been written in any language. I mention only those poems which take rank in my memory with the perfect of all ages and all nations. In this little volume there are some one hundred and sixty separate poems. A different selection from this number might be made by a score of students, loving and honouring Wordsworth alike, and each selection would have an equal right to confer the title of Wordsworthian on its maker. So comprehensive is the poet's range. So ample, as Mr. Arnold puts it, is the body of his powerful work.

 

 

[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[686]   (1) Poems of Wordsworth. Chosen and Edited by Matthew Arnold. Golden Treasury Series. Macmillan, 1879.   zurück

[700]   (1) This I gather from the modification of the above passage in favour of "the cheerful" name of Walter Scott.   zurück

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Fortnightly Review.
Bd. 26, New Series, 1879, Nr. 155, 1. November, S. 686-701.

Gezeichnet: J. A. Symonds.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).


The Fortnightly Review   online
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Literatur

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Christ, Carol T.: Victorian Poetics. In: A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Hrsg. von Richard Cronin u.a. Malden, MA 2002, S. 1-21.

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Thain, Marion: The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism. Forms of Modernity. Edinburgh 2016.

 

 

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer