Ford Madox Hueffer



The Making of Modern Verse.





IN the preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth dwells with the extraordinary diffuseness that was at once his distinguishing and obscuring faculty upon his choice not so much of words as of language. He aspired to absolute simplicity, to a duffel-grey colloquialism very desirable after the classical dialect of the eighteenth-century poets. He contrasts Johnson's: –

I put my hat upon my head
   And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man,
   Whose hat was in his hand.,

with –

These pretty Babes with hand in hand
   Went wand'ring up and down,
But nevermore they saw the Man
   Approaching from the town.

"In both these stanzas," he continues, "the words and the order of the words in no respect differ from the most unimpassioned conversation. There are words in both; for example, 'the Strand' and 'the Town' connected with one but the most familiar ideas, yet the one stanza we admit as admirable and the other as a fair example of the superlatively contemptible." He preceeds to ask whence arises the difference, and to answer by saying that it lies not in the manner but in the matter, thus amiably "giving himself away." Because I suppose it would be difficult to find a better subject more spoilt than is to be found in, say, The Last of the Flock. The man who could write: –

Among the rocks and winding scars
   Where deep and low the hamlets lie,
   Beneath their little patch of sky
And little lot of stars.

can bring himself to produce:

In distant countries have I been,
And yet I have not often seen
A healthy man, a man full grown,
Weep in the public roads alone.

He saw me, and he turned aside,
As if he wished himself to hide,
And with his coat did then essay
To wipe those briny tears away.

There is nothing the matter with the subject. It was one of which De Maupassant would have made a masterpiece. It treats of the ruin of a farmer, who is forced to sell his sheep one by one to by bread for his children, and is driven half mad by it. Yet Wordsworth, who, as everyone who lives in the country must do, lived in the centre of such tragedies, contrived to make the thing ludicrous by sheer force of language. If we suppose that his canons of composition prevented his worrying long enough to contrive to work "hide himself" in to place and rhyme, he might without any trouble have written "sleeve" for coat. He must have known that that was the mot juste. And as a matter of fact "himself to hide" is not a colloquial but a professional-poetic order of words and a very hateful one at the best. The fact that Wordsworth was careless is emphasisd in the same stanza of Peter Bell (the second). "Beneath their little patch of sky" is bad grammar. "Each with its little patch" would seem to me preferable in many ways; indeed, I was under the impression that the line ran like that until I verified my quotation.

Wordsworth, in fact, who was essentially a poet of Temperament, wrote just as many lines as any poet of importance; and his passage of supreme excellence are as difficult to discover among his wastes of words as are his hamlets among the Yorkshire scars. For that reason one classes him with Coleridge, and to some extent with Shelley.

Shelley never lapsed so astonishingly into nonsense, but, for me at least, he never came in single stanzas so near impossible perfection as did Wordsworth or Coleridge. This may or may not have been because he did very little polishing; lived far from printers, at a time when proofs could not be sent through the post with any dispatch, and so on. He wrote, like all the rest, with astonishing facility at times, at times with excess of difficulty. Yet, in spite of this difficulty, he leaves on the students of MSS., proof-sheets, and successive editions the impression of haste, of carelessness. He brings in his Lyrical Dramas and longer poems, speeches and mention of persons whom he has omitted either to introduce into Scenes or to catalogue in his dramatis personæ. His grammar is frequently at fault; his rhymes frequently don't rhyme, occasionally rhyme with themselves – "gladness" with "gladness". In a general way one may say that his final alterations were those of passages rather than of words, of ideas rather than of phrases. He too, in fact, bothered himself very little with the search for the just word. Yet he could throw off:

And all the while with loose, fat, smile
The willing wretch sat winking there,
Believing 'twas his power that made
That jovial scene, and that all paid
   Homage to his unnoticed chair,

in the course of his parody of Peter Bell, a parody that for immediate purposes we may class with nonsense verses and sonnets to bouts rimés; The theory that I have been trying to shadow forth, by means of these examinations of the poets whom I regard as typical, may be stated somewhat as follows: Every poet must write a certain amount for mere practice sake; Christina Rossetti, on the one hand, wrote much that she did not publish, or that did not count. Wordsworth, on the other, published nearly every word that he wrote. Between Christina Rossetti and Wordsworth lie the other poets who exercised their faculties of selection for publication in varying degrees.

It seems to me that the first duty of the poet "is to keep all his limbs very supple" – by constant practice. There is no doubt in my mind that Christina Rossetti did this in her bouts rimés, devotional poems, and in the poems that she thought unworthy but that were published after her death. Tennyson did it in his official Odes. "Locksley Hall," "In Memoriam," and the rest; Wordsworth in his "Ode on the 21st of January 1816"; Shelley in his "Peter Bell III.," and so on. There are even real poets like Lewis Carrol and Edward Lear who never got beyond the nonsense verse. One could bring evidence to prove that, in such exercises, the poets evolved definite lines; tricks of style which are temperament, and typical lines which, hanging in their ears, influenced them when the real fit was on them.

With regard to selection, I retain a quite open mind, believing that that must be left between the conscience of the poet and himself. And the poet is not always the best judge. There is no best judge. Christina Rossetti had the theory that one must never repent an idea in publication, a theory that, carried out with logic and pitilessly, must reduce every poet to the level of a one-speech man. For most poets are consummate in only one "note," which finds utterance consummately in only one line:

The mellow ouzel fluted from the elm.

When we come to the concrete fact of publication the point of view remains much the same. I imagine that to most poets publication, as such, is a very small thing. Quà poets, they care very little whether their verse be printed, whether it be sold or not sold, or whether it reposes for ever in drawers to be finally used for lighting fires or for wipping out frying-pans. The written words will go thrilling out beyond the infinity of star dust, [439] whether they find readers or not. It is, in fact, for no one to say whether Christina Rossetti was right in publishing only what she believed to be her best, or Mrs. Shelley in believing that everything her husband wrote was instinct with genius.

And their will always remain the opposing camps of the anthologists, selectors, and others; and the literary executors, commentators and the rest. Temperamentally I prefer the the literary executor; he, at least, lets one into the secrets dear to craftsmen. The anthologists bolsters up the noxious idea that the poet always is, and ought always to be, a timid chiseller and mosaicist, instead of a master craftsman who has gained skill through many failures. The anthologist, who is a kind of literary Il Breghettone, hiding the naked failures of the masters, also sets himself to be a sort of labour-saving machine for a public dying of fatty degeneration of the heart – through the use of too many labour-saving machines. I state the case too violently in the hope of driving one-tenth of a half-truth home. But the fact remains, that if the public cannot take the trouble to do its own gold-washing, the public does not deserve the gold of a poet like Wordsworth, who exercised his limbs in an infinity of twaddle in order to be able to write at odd moments lines almost above perfection.

The poet has to choose whether he will remain an unread poet of importance like Wordsworth, or a poet of temperament like Christina Rossetti. If he choose the latter, a public, contemptuous of his solicitude in saving them trouble, will reward him with the style and title of a minor. Or he may take his place anywhere between the two extremes.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Academy and Literature.
Nr. 1563, 19. April, S. 412-414.
Nr. 1564, 26. April, S. 438-439.

Unser Auszug: Nr. 1564, 26. April, S. 438-439.

Gezeichnet: Ford Madox Hueffer

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Academy   online
URL:   online








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