« PreviousContinue »
(WILLIAM WORDSWORTH was born April 7, 1770, at Cockermouth, a town on the edge of the Cumberland highlands. His father was agent to Lord Lowther, and came of an old north-country stock. Both father and mother died in his boyhood; his mother first, his father when he was fourteen. He went to school in the neighbourhood, at Hawkshead, and his school days were days of much liberty, both in playing and reading. In October 1787 he went to St. John's College, Cambridge. But he made no mark at the university, and in January 1791 he took his degree and left Cambridge. Like many of his generation he was filled with enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and after taking his degree he resided for more than a year in France. The Reign of Terror drove him home again ; he came to London, unsettled in his plans; he was in Dorsetshire (1796), then at Alfoxden•in the Somersetshire Quantocks, where he saw much of S. T. Coleridge. In 1793 he published a volume of poems, and in 1798 appeared, at Bristol, the first volume of the Lyrical Ballads, intended to be a joint work of Coleridge and Wordsworth, but to which Coleridge only contributed The Ancient Mariner, and two or three other pieces. The two friends went to Germany at the end of 1798, and Wordsworth, with his sister, spent the winter at Goslar. When he returned to England, he also returned for good to his own northern mountains and lakes. He settled, with his sister, near Grasmere, meaning to give himself to poetical composition as the business of his life, and in 1800 published the second volume of the Lyrical Ballads. In 1802 he married Mary Hutchinson, and finally fixed his þome in the lakes, though it was not till several years afterwards (1813) that he took up his abode in the place henceforth connected with his name, Rydal Mount. During all the early part of the century he was very busy. Besides shorter pieces, suggested by the incidents or feelings of the day, he was at work from 1799 to 1805 on a poem, The Prelude, describing the history and growth of his own mind, and intended to be an introduction to the greater philosophical poem which he was already meditating, The Recluse – in part, and only in part, realised in The Excursion. The Excursion was published in 1814. Composition took many shapes in the various collections published by Wordsworth, from the Lyrical Ballads in 1800 down to his death. But especially his poetical efforts took the shape of the sonnet. Large collections
of sonnets marked the working of his thoughts and feelings on certain groups of subjects, or were the memorials of scenes which had interested him. He once, and early in his career, attempted the drama (The Borderers, 1795-6) but with little success. From the first he took a keen interest in all political and social questions, and he was an impassioned and forcible prose writer. His life was a long one, of steady work and much happiness. He died April 23, 1850, at Rydal Mount]
Wordsworth was, first and foremost, a philosophical thinker; a man whose intention and purpose of life it was to think out for himself, faithfully and seriously, the questions concerning Man and Nature and Human Life. He tried to animate and invest with imaginative light the convictions of religious, practical, homely but high-hearted England, as Goethe thought out in his poetry the speculations and sceptical moods of inquisitive and critical Germany. - He was a poet, because the poetical gift and faculty had been so bestowed on him that he could not fail in one way or another to exercise it : but in deliberate purpose and plan he was a poet, because poetry offered him the richest, the most varied, and the completest method of reaching truth in the matters which interested him, and of expressing and recommending its lessons, of 'making them dwellers in the hearts of men.' 'Every great poet,' he said, 'is a teacher; I wish either to be considered as a teacher or as nothing. Not like poets writing simply to please ; not like Lucretius or Pope, casting other men's thought into ingenious or highly-coloured or epigrammatic verse ; not like Homer or Shakespeare or Milton, standing in impersonal distance from their wonderful creations ; not like Shelley, full of philosophic ideas but incapable from his wild nature of philosophic steadiness of thought ; not even like poets who write to give an outlet to their sense of the beauty, the strangeness, the pathetic mystery of the world, to unburden their misgivings, to invite sympathy with their sorrows or hopes, ---Wordsworth, with all his imagination, and in his moments of highest rapture, has a practical sense of a charge committed to him. He is as much in earnest as a prophet, and he holds himself as responsible for obedience to his call and for its fulfilment, as a prophet. '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 is his own account of the purpose of his poetry. (Letter to Lady Beaumont, May, 1807.) He has given the same account in the Preface to The Excursion.
Not Chaos, not
-Wordsworth's poetry and his idea of the office of poetry must be traced, like many other remarkable things, to the French Revolution. He very early, even in his boyhood, became aware of that sympathy with external nature, and of that power of discriminating insight into the characteristic varieties of its beauty and awfulness, which afterwards so strongly marked his writings. 'I recollect distinctly,' he says of a description in one of his early
poems, the very spot where this struck me. The moment was
• The whole earth
The budding rose above the rose full blown.' The wonder, the sympathy, the enthusiasm which swept him and them away like a torrent, though in his case the torrent's course was but a short one, left ineffaceable marks on his character and his writings. He was not at first so easily shocked as others were at the excesses of the revolution. His stern Northcountry nature could bear and approve much terrible retribution for the old wrongs of the poor and the weak at the hands of nob'es and kings. In his Apology for the French Revolution, 1793, he sneered at Bishop Watson for the importance which the Bishop attached to the personal sufferings of the late royal martyr,' and for joining in the ‘idle cry of modish lamentation which has resounded from the court to the cottage’: and he boldly accepted the doctrine that in a time of revolution, which cannot be a time of liberty, ‘political virtues are developed at the expense of moral ones.' But though the guillotine and the revolutionary tribunal had not daunted him, he recoiled from the military despotism and the fever of conquest in which they ended. The changes in his fundamental principles, in his thoughts of man and his duties, were not great : the change in his application of them and in his judgment of the men, the parties, the institutions, the measures, by which they were to be guarded and carried out, was great indeed.
The hopes, and affections which revolutionary France had so deeply disappointed were transferred to what was most ancient, most historic, most strongly rooted by custom and usage, in traditional and unreformed England. With characteristic courage he never cared to apologise for a political change which was as complete and striking as a change to a new religion. He