The year 1805, which bereft Wordsworth of a beloved brother, brought with it also another death, which was felt by the whole English nation like a private calamity. The emotion which Wordsworth felt at the news of Trafalgar,—the way in which he managed to intertwine the memories of Nelson and of his own brother in his heart,—may remind us fitly at this point of our story of the distress and perplexity of nations which for so many years surrounded the quiet Grasmere home, and of the strong responsive emotion with which the poet met each shock of European fates.
When England first took up arms against the French revolution, Wordsworth’s feeling, as we have seen, had been one of unmixed sorrow and shame. Bloody and terrible as the revolution had become, it was still in some sort representative of human freedom; at any rate it might still seem to contain possibilities of progress such as the retrograde despotisms with which England allied herself could never know. But the conditions of the contest changed before long. France had not the wisdom, the courage, the constancy to play to the end the part for which she had seemed chosen among the nations. It was her conduct towards Switzerland which decisively altered Wordsworth’s view. He saw her valiant spirit of self-defence corrupted into lust of glory; her eagerness for the abolition of unjust privilege turned into a contentment with equality of degradation under a despot’s heel. “One man, of men the meanest too,”—for such the First Consul must needs appear to the moralist’s eye,—was
Raised up to sway the world—to do, undo;
With mighty nations for his underlings.
And history herself seemed vulgarized by the repetition of her ancient tales of war and overthrow on a scale of such apparent magnitude, but with no glamour of distance to hide the baseness of the agencies by which the destinies of Europe were shaped anew. This was an occasion that tried the hearts of men; it was not easy to remain through all those years at once undazzled and untempted, and never in the blackest hour to despair of human virtue.
In his tract on The Convention of Cintra, 1808, Wordsworth has given the fullest expression to this undaunted temper:—
“Oppression, its own blind and predestined enemy, has poured
this of blessedness upon Spain—that the enormity of the outrages
of which she has been the victim has created an object of love
and of hatred, of apprehensions and of wishes, adequate (if
that be possible) to the utmost demands of the human spirit.
The heart that serves in this cause, if it languish, must
languish from its own constitutional weakness, and not through
want of nourishment from without. But it is a belief propagated
in books, and which passes currently among talking
men as part of their familiar wisdom, that the hearts of the
many are constitutionally weak, that they do languish, and
are slow to answer to the requisitions of things. I entreat
those who are in this delusion to look behind them and
about them for the evidence of experience. Now this, rightly
understood, not only gives no support to any such belief,
but proves that the truth is in direct opposition to it. The
history of all ages—tumults after tumults, wars foreign or
civil, with short or with no breathing-places from generation to
generation; the senseless weaving and interweaving of factions,
vanishing, and reviving, and piercing each other like the
Northern Lights; public commotions, and those in the breast
of the individual; the long calenture to which the Lover is subject;
the blast, like the blast of the desert, which sweeps perennially
through a frightful solitude of its own making in the
mind of the Gamester; the slowly quickening, but ever quickening,
descent of appetite down which the Miser is propelled; the
agony and cleaving oppression of grief; the ghost-like hauntings
of shame; the incubus of revenge; the life-distemper of ambition . . .
these demonstrate incontestably that the passions of
men, (I mean the soul of sensibility in the heart of man), in all
quarrels, in all contests, in all quests, in all delights, in all
employments which are either sought by men or thrust upon
them, do immeasurably transcend their objects. The true
sorrow of humanity consists in this—not that the mind of
man fails, but that the cause and demands of action and of
life so rarely correspond with the dignity and intensity of
human desires; and hence, that which is slow to languish is too
easily turned aside and abused. But, with the remembrance of
what has been done, and in the face of the interminable evils
which are threatened, a Spaniard can never have cause to complain
of this while a follower of the tyrant remains in arms
upon the Peninsula.”
It was passages such as this, perhaps, which led Canning to declare that Wordsworth’s pamphlet was the finest piece of political eloquence which had appeared since Burke. And yet if we compare it with Burke, or with the great Greek exemplar of all those who would give speech the cogency of act,—we see at once the causes of its practical failure. In Demosthenes the thoughts and principles are often as lofty as any patriot can express; but their loftiness, in his speech, as in the very truth of things, seemed but to add to their immediate reality. They were beaten and inwoven into the facts of the hour; action seemed to turn, on them as on its only possible pivot; it was as though Virtue and Freedom hung armed in heaven above the assembly, and in the visible likeness of immortal ancestors beckoned upon an urgent way. Wordsworth’s mood of mind, on the other hand, as he has depicted it in two sonnets written at the same time as his tract, explains why it was that that appeal was rather a solemn protest than an effective exhortation. In the first sonnet he describes the surroundings of his task,—the dark wood and rocky cave, “the hollow vale which foaming torrents fill with omnipresent murmur:”—
Here mighty Nature! In this school sublime
I weigh the hopes and fears of suffering Spain;
For her consult the auguries of time,
And through the human heart explore my way,
And look and listen, gathering whence I may
Triumph, and thoughts no bondage can restrain.
And then he proceeds to conjecture what effect his tract will produce:—
I dropped my pen, and listened to the wind,
That sang of trees uptorn and vessels tost;
A midnight harmony, and wholly lost
To the general sense of men, by chains confined
Of business, care, or pleasure,—or resigned
To timely sleep. Thought I, the impassioned strain
Which without aid of numbers I sustain
Like acceptation from the world will find.
This deliberate and lonely emotion was fitter to inspire grave poetry than a pamphlet appealing to an immediate crisis. And the sonnets dedicated To Liberty (1802–16) are the outcome of many moods like these.
It is little to say of these sonnets that they are the most permanent record in our literature of the Napoleonic war. For that distinction they have few competitors. Two magnificent songs of Campbell’s, an ode of Coleridge’s, a few spirited stanzas of Byron’s— strangely enough there is little besides these that lives in the national memory, till we come to the ode which summed up the long contest a generation later, when its great captain passed away. But these Sonnets to Liberty are worthy of comparison with the noblest passages of patriotic verse or prose which all our history has inspired—the passages where Shakespeare brings his rays to focus on “this earth, this realm, this England,”—or where the dread of national dishonour has kindled Chatham to an iron glow,—or where Milton rises from the polemic into the prophet, and Burke from the partisan into the philosopher. The armoury of Wordsworth, indeed, was not forged with the same fire as that of these “invincible knights of old.” He had not swayed senates, nor directed policies, nor gathered into one ardent bosom all the spirit of a heroic age. But he had deeply felt what it is that makes the greatness of nations; in that extremity no man was more staunch than he; no man more unwaveringly disdained unrighteous empire, or kept the might of moral forces more steadfastly in view. Not Stein could place a manlier reliance on “a few strong instincts and a few plain rules;” not Fichte could invoke more convincingly the “great allies” which work with “Man’s unconquerable mind.”
Here and there, indeed, throughout these sonnets are scattered strokes of high poetic admiration or scorn which could hardly be overmatched in AEschylus. Such is the indignant correction—
Call not the royal Swede unfortunate,
Who never did to Fortune bend the knee!
or the stern touch which closes a description of Flamininus’ proclamation at the Isthmian games, according liberty to Greece,—
A gift of that which is not to be given
By all the blended powers of Earth and Heaven!
Space forbids me to dwell in detail on these noble poems,—on the well-known sonnets to Venice, to Milton, &c.; on the generous tributes to the heroes of the contest,—Schill, Hoffer, Toussaint, Palafox; or on the series which contrast the instinctive greatness of the Spanish people at bay, with Napoleon’s lying promises and inhuman pride. But if Napoleon’s career afforded to Wordsworth a poetic example, impressive as that of Xerxes to the Greeks, of lawless and intoxicated power, there was need of some contrasted figure more notable than Hoffer or Palafox from which to draw the lessons which great contests can teach of unselfish valour. Was there then any man, by land or sea, who might serve as the poet’s type of the ideal hero? To an Englishman, at least, this question carries its own reply. For by a singular destiny England, with a thousand years of noble history behind her, has chosen for her best-loved, for her national hero, not an Arminius from the age of legend, not a Henri Quatro from the age of chivalry, but a man whom men still living have seen and known. For indeed England and all the world as to this man were of one accord; and when in victory, on his ship Victory, Nelson passed away, the thrill which shook mankind was of a nature such as perhaps was never felt at any other death,— so unanimous was the feeling of friends and foes that earth had lost her crowning example of impassioned self-devotedness and of heroic honour.
And yet it might have seemed that between Nelson’s nature and Wordsworth’s there was little in common. The obvious limitations of the great Admiral’s culture and character were likely to be strongly felt by the philosophic poet. And a serious crime, of which Nelson was commonly, though, as now appears, erroneously, [The researches of Sir Nicholas Nicolas, (Letters and Despatches of Lord Nelson, vol. vii. Appendix), have placed Lord Nelson’s connexion with Lady Hamilton in an unexpected light.] supposed to be guilty, was sure to be judged by Wordsworth with great severity.
Wordsworth was, in fact, hampered by some such feelings of disapproval. He even tells us, with that naive affectionateness which often makes us smile, that he has had recourse to the character of his own brother John for the qualities in which the great Admiral appeared to him to have been deficient. But on these hesitations it would be unjust to dwell. I mention them only to bring out the fact that between these two men, so different in outward fates,—between “the adored, the incomparable Nelson” and the homely poet, “retired as noontide dew,”—there was a moral likeness so profound that the ideal of the recluse was realized in the public life of the hero, and, on the other hand, the hero himself is only seen as completely heroic when his impetuous life stands out for us from the solemn background of the poet’s calm. And surely these two natures taken together make the perfect Englishman. Nor is there any portrait fitter than that of The Happy Warrior to go forth to all lands as representing the English character at its height—a figure not ill-matching with “Plutarch’s men.”
For indeed this short poem is in itself a manual of greatness; there is a Roman majesty in its simple and weighty speech. And what eulogy was ever nobler than that passage where, without definite allusion or quoted name, the poet depicts, as it were, the very summit of glory in the well-remembered aspect of the Admiral in his last and greatest hour?
Whose powers shed round him. In the common strife,
Or mild concerns of ordinary life.
A constant influence, a peculiar grace:
But who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a Lover, and attired
With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired.
Or again, where the hidden thought of Nelson’s womanly tenderness, of his constant craving for the green earth and home affections in the midst of storm and war, melts the stern verses into a sudden change of tone:—
He who, though thus endued as with a sense
And faculty for storm and turbulence.
Is yet a Soul whose master-bias leans
To homefelt pleasures and to gentle scenes;
Sweet images! Which, wheresoe’er he be,
Are at his heart; and such fidelity
It is his darling passion to approve;—
More brave for this, that he hath much to love.
Compare with this the end of the Song at Brougham Castle, where, at the words “alas! The fervent harper did not know—” the strain changes from the very spirit of chivalry to the gentleness of Nature’s calm. Nothing can be more characteristic of Wordsworth than contrasts like this. They teach us to remember that his accustomed mildness is the fruit of no indolent or sentimental peace; and that, on the other hand, when his counsels are sternest, and “his voice is still for war,” this is no voice of hardness or of vainglory, but the reluctant resolution of a heart which fain would yield itself to other energies, and have no message but of love.
There is one more point in which the character of Nelson has fallen in with one of the lessons which Wordsworth is never tired of enforcing, the lesson that virtue grows by the strenuousness of its exercise, that it gains strength as it wrestles with pain and difficulty, and converts the shocks of circumstance into an energy of its proper glow. The Happy Warrior is one,
Who, doomed to go in company with Pain,
And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!
Turns his necessity to glorious gain;
In face of these doth exercise a power
Which is our human nature’s highest dower;
Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves
Of their bad influence, and their good receives;
By objects which might force the soul to abate
Her feeling, rendered more compassionate;—
and so further, in words which recall the womanly tenderness, the almost exaggerated feeling for others’ pain, which showed itself memorably in face of the blazing Orient, and in the harbour at Teneriffe, and in the cockpit at Trafalgar.
In such lessons as these,—such lessons as The Happy Warrior or the Patriotic Sonnets teach,—there is, of course, little that is absolutely novel. We were already aware that the ideal hero should be as gentle as he is brave, that he should act always from the highest motives, nor greatly care for any reward save the consciousness of having done his duty. We were aware that the true strength of a nation is moral and not material; that dominion which rests on mere military force is destined quickly to decay, that the tyrant, however admired and prosperous, is in reality despicable, and miserable, and alone; that the true man should face death itself rather than parley with dishonour. These truths are admitted in all ages; yet it is scarcely stretching language to say that they are known to but few men. Or at least, though in a great nation there be many who will act on them instinctively, and approve them by a self-surrendering faith, there are few who can so put them forth in speech as to bring them home with a fresh conviction and an added glow; who can sum up, like AEschylus, the contrast between Hellenic freedom and barbarian despotism in “one trump’s peal that set all Greeks aflame;” can thrill, like Virgil, a world-wide empire with the recital of the august simplicities of early Rome.
To those who would know these things with a vital knowledge—a conviction which would remain unshaken were the whole world in arms for wrong—it is before all things necessary to strengthen the inner monitions by the companionship of these noble souls. And If a poet, by strong concentration of thought, by striving in all things along the upward way, can leave us in a few pages as it were a summary of patriotism, a manual of national honour, he surely has his place among his country’s benefactors not only by that kind of courtesy which the nation extends to men of letters of whom her masses take little heed, but with a title as assured as any warrior or statesman, and with no less direct a claim.