It may be well at this point to return to the quiet chronicle of the poet’s life at Grasmere; where his cottage was becoming too small for an increasing family. His eldest son, John, was born in 1803; his eldest daughter, Dorothy or Dora, in 1804. Then came Thomas, born 1806; and Catherine, born 1808; and the list is ended by William, born 1810, and now (1880) the only survivor. In the spring of 1808 Wordsworth left Townend for Allan Bank,—a more roomy, but an uncomfortable house, at the north end of Grasmere. From thence he removed for a time, in 1811, to the Parsonage at Grasmere.
Wordsworth was the most affectionate of fathers, and allusions to his children occur frequently in his poetry. Dora—who was the delight of his later years—has been described at length in The Triad. Shorter and simpler, but more completely successful, is the picture of Catherine in the little poem which begins “Loving she is, and tractable, though wild,” with its homely simile for childhood— its own existence sufficient to fill it with gladness:
As a faggot sparkles on the hearth
Not less if unattended and alone
Than when both young and old sit gathered round
And take delight in its activity.
The next notice of this beloved child is in the sonnet, “Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind,” written when she had already been removed from his side. She died in 1812, and was closely followed by her brother Thomas. Wordsworth’s grief for these children was profound, violent, and lasting, to an extent which those who imagine him as not only calm but passionless might have some difficulty in believing. “Referring once,” says his friend Mr. Aubrey de Vere, “to two young children of his who had died about forty years previously, he described the details of their illnesses with an exactness and an impetuosity of troubled excitement, such as might have been expected if the bereavement had taken place but a few weeks before. The lapse of time seemed to have left the sorrow submerged indeed, but still in all its first freshness. Yet I afterwards heard that at the time of the illness, at least in the case of one of the two children, it was impossible to rouse his attention to the danger. He chanced to be then under the immediate spell of one of those fits of poetic inspiration which descended on him like a cloud. Till the cloud had drifted, he could see nothing beyond.”
This anecdote illustrates the fact, which to those who knew Wordsworth well was sufficiently obvious, that the characteristic calm of his writings was the result of no coldness of temperament but of a deliberate philosophy. The pregnant force of his language in dealing with those dearest to him—his wife, his sister, his brother—is proof enough of this. The frequent allusions in his correspondence to the physical exhaustion brought on by the act of poetical composition indicate a frame which, though made robust by exercise and temperance, was by nature excitable rather than strong. And even in the direction in which we should least have expected it, there is reason to believe that there were capacities of feeling in him which never broke from his control. “Had I been a writer of love-poetry,” he is reported to have said, “it would have been natural to me to write it with a degree of warmth which could hardly have been approved by my principles, and which might have been undesirable for the reader.”
Wordsworth’s paternal feelings, at any rate, were, as has been said, exceptionally strong; and the impossibility of remaining in a house filled with sorrowful memories rendered him doubly anxious to obtain a permanent home. “The house which I have for some time occupied,” he writes to Lord Lonsdale, in January 1813, “is the Parsonage of Grasmere. It stands close by the churchyard, and I have found it absolutely necessary that we should quit a place which, by recalling to our minds at every moment the losses we have sustained in the course of the last year, would grievously retard our progress towards that tranquillity which it is our duty to aim at.” It happened that Rydal Mount became vacant at this moment, and in the spring of 1813 the Wordsworths migrated to this their favourite and last abode.
Rydal Mount has probably been oftener described than any other English poet’s home since Shakespeare; and few homes, certainly, have been moulded into such close accordance with their inmates’ nature. The house, which has been altered since Wordsworth’s day, stands looking southward, on the rocky side of Nab Scar, above Rydal Lake. The garden was described by Bishop Wordsworth immediately after his uncle’s death, while every terrace-walk and flowering alley spoke of the poet’s loving care. He tells of the “tall ash-tree, in which a thrush has sung, for hours together, during many years;” of the “laburnum in which the osier cage of the doves was hung;” of the stone steps “in the interstices of which grow the yellow flowering poppy, and the wild geranium or Poor Robin,”—
With his red stalks upon a sunny day.
And then of the terraces—one levelled for Miss Fenwick’s use, and welcome to himself in aged years; and one ascending, and leading to the “far terrace” on the mountain’s side, where the poet was wont to murmur his verses as they came. Within the house were disposed his simple treasures: the ancestral almery, on which the names of unknown Wordsworths may be deciphered still; Sir George Beaumont’s pictures of “The White Doe of Rylstone” and “The Thorn,” and the cuckoo clock which brought vernal thoughts to cheer the sleepless bed of age, and which sounded its noonday summons when his spirit fled.
Wordsworth’s worldly fortunes, as if by some benignant guardianship of Providence, were at all times proportioned to his successive needs. About the date of his removal to Rydal (in March 1813) he was appointed, through Lord Lonsdale’s interest, to the distributorship of stamps for the county of Westmoreland, to which office the same post for Cumberland was afterwards added. He held this post till August 1842, when he resigned it without a retiring pension, and it was conferred on his second son. He was allowed to reside at Rydal, which was counted as a suburb of Ambleside: and as the duties of the place were light, and mainly performed by a most competent and devoted clerk, there was no drawback to the advantage of an increase of income which released him from anxiety as to the future. A more lucrative office—the collectorship of Whitehaven—was subsequently offered to him; but he declined it, “nor would exchange his Sabine valley for riches and a load of care.”
Though Wordsworth’s life at Rydal was a retired one, it was not that of a recluse. As years went on he became more and more recognized as a centre of spiritual strength and illumination, and was sought not only by those who were already his neighbours, but by some who became so mainly for his sake. Southey at Keswick was a valued friend, though Wordsworth did not greatly esteem him as a poet. De Quincey, originally attracted to the district by admiration for Wordsworth, remained there for many years, and poured forth a criticism strangely compounded of the utterances of the hero-worshipper and the valet-dechambre. Professor Wilson, of the Noctes Ambrosianae, never showed, perhaps, to so much advantage as when he walked by the side of the master whose greatness he was one of the first to detect. Dr. Arnold of Rugby made the neighbouring home at Fox How a focus of warm affections and of intellectual life. And Hartley Coleridge, whose fairy childhood had inspired one of Wordsworth’s happiest pieces, continued to lead among the dales of Westmoreland a life which showed how much of genius and goodness a single weakness can nullify.
Other friends there were, too, less known to fame, but of exceptional powers of appreciation and sympathy. The names of Mrs. Fletcher and her daughters, Lady Richardson and Mrs. Davy, should not be omitted in any record of the poet’s life at Rydal. And many humbler neighbours may be recognized in the characters of the Excursion and other poems. The Wanderer, indeed, is a picture of Wordsworth himself—“an idea,” as he says, “of what I fancied my own character might have become in his circumstances.” But the Solitary was suggested by a broken man who took refuge in Grasmere from the world in which he had found no peace; and the characters described as lying in the churchyard among the mountains are almost all of them portraits. The clergyman and his family described in Book VII were among the poet’s principal associates in the vale of Grasmere. “There was much talent in the family,” says Wordsworth in the memoranda dictated to Miss Fenwick; “and the eldest son was distinguished for poetical talent, of which a specimen is given in my Notes to the Sonnets on the Duddon. Once when, in our cottage at Townend, I was talking with him about poetry, in the course of our conversation I presumed to find fault with the versification of Pope, of whom he was an enthusiastic admirer. He defended him with a warmth that indicated much irritation; nevertheless I could not abandon my point, and said, ‘In compass and variety of sound your own versification surpasses his.’ Never shall I forget the change in his countenance and tone of voice. The storm was laid in a moment; he no longer disputed my judgment; and I passed immediately in his mind, no doubt, for as great a critic as ever lived.”
It was with personages simple and unromantic as these that Wordsworth filled the canvas of his longest poem. Judged by ordinary standards the Excursion appears an epic without action, and with two heroes, the Pastor and the Wanderer, whose characters are identical. Its form is cumbrous in the extreme, and large tracts of it have little claim to the name of poetry. Wordsworth compares the Excursion to a temple of which his smaller poems form subsidiary shrines; but the reader will more often liken the small poems to gems, and the Excursion to the rock from which they were extracted. The long poem contains, indeed, magnificent passages, but as a whole it is a diffused description of scenery which the poet has elsewhere caught in brighter glimpses; a diffused statement of hopes and beliefs which have crystallized more exquisitely elsewhere round moments of inspiring emotion. The Excursion, in short, has the drawbacks of a didactic poem as compared with lyrical poems; but, judged as a didactic poem, it has the advantage of containing teaching of true and permanent value.
I shall not attempt to deduce a settled scheme of philosophy from these discourses among the mountains. I would urge only that as a guide to conduct Wordsworth’s precepts are not in themselves either unintelligible or visionary. For whereas some moralists would have us amend nature, and others bid us follow her, there is apt to be something impracticable in the first maxim, and something vague in the second. Asceticism, quietism, enthusiasm, ecstasy—all systems which imply an unnatural repression or an unnatural excitation of our faculties—are ill-suited for the mass of mankind. And on the other hand, if we are told to follow nature, to develope our original character, we are too often in doubt as to which of our conflicting instincts to follow, what part of our complex nature to accept as our regulating self. But Wordsworth, while impressing on us conformity to nature as the rule of life, suggests a test of such conformity which can be practically applied. “The child is father of the man,”—in the words which stand as introduction to his poetical works, and Wordsworth holds that the instincts and pleasures of a healthy childhood sufficiently indicate the lines on which our maturer character should be formed. The joy which began in the mere sense of existence should be maintained by hopeful faith; the simplicity which began in inexperience should be recovered by meditation; the love which originated in the family circle should expand itself over the race of men. And the calming and elevating influence of Nature—which to Wordsworth’s memory seemed the inseparable concomitant of childish years—should be constantly invoked throughout life to keep the heart fresh and the eyes open to the mysteries discernible through her radiant veil. In a word, the family affections, if duly fostered, the influences of Nature, if duly sought, with some knowledge of the best books, are material enough to “build up our moral being” and to outweigh the less deep-seated impulses which prompt to wrong-doing.
If, then, surrounding influences make so decisive a difference in man’s moral lot, what are we to say of those who never have the chance of receiving those influences aright; who are reared, with little parental supervision, in smoky cities, and spend their lives in confined and monotonous labour? One of the most impressive passages in the Excursion is an indignant complaint of the injustice thus done to the factory child. Wordsworth was no fanatical opponent of manufacturing industry. He had intimate friends among manufacturers; and in one of his letters he speaks of promising himself much pleasure from witnessing the increased regard for the welfare of factory hands of which one of these friends had set the example. But he never lost sight of the fact that the life of the mill-hand is an anomaly—is a life not in the order of nature, and which requires to be justified by manifest necessity and by continuous care. The question to what extent we may acquiesce in the continuance of a low order of human beings, existing for our enjoyment rather than for their own, may be answered with plausibility in very different tones; from the Communist who cannot rest content in the inferiority of any one man’s position to any other’s, to the philosopher who holds that mankind has made the most eminent progress when a few chosen individuals have been supported in easy brilliancy by a population of serfs or slaves. Wordsworth’s answer to this question is at once conservative and philanthropic. He holds to the distinction of classes, and thus admits a difference in the fulness and value of human lots. But he will not consent to any social arrangement which implies a necessary moral inferiority in any section of the body politic; and he esteems it the statesman’s first duty to provide that all citizens shall be placed under conditions of life which, however humble, shall not be unfavourable to virtue.
His views on national education, which at first sight appear so inconsistent, depend on the same conception of national welfare. Wordsworth was one of the earliest and most emphatic proclaimers of the duty of the State in this respect. The lines in which he insists that every child ought to be taught to read are, indeed, often quoted as an example of the moralizing baldness of much of his blank verse. But, on the other hand, when a great impulse was given to education (1820–30) by Bell and Lancaster, by the introduction of what was called the “Madras system” of tuition by pupil-teachers, and the spread of infant schools, Wordsworth was found unexpectedly in the opposite camp. Considering as he did all mental requirements as entirely subsidiary to moral progress, and in themselves of very little value, he objected to a system which, instead of confining itself to reading—that indispensable channel of moral nutriment— aimed at communicating knowledge as varied and advanced as time and funds would allow. He objected to the dissociation of school and home life—to that relegation of domestic interests and duties to the background, which large and highly-organized schools, and teachers much above the home level, must necessarily involve. And yet more strongly, and, as it may still seem to many minds, with convincing reason, he objected to an eleemosynary system, which “precludes the poor mother from the strongest motive human nature can be actuated by for industry, for forethought, and self-denial.” “The Spartan,” he said, “and other ancient communities, might disregard domestic ties, because they had the substitution of country, which we cannot have. Our course is to supplant domestic attachments, without the possibility of substituting others more capacious. What can grow out of it but selfishness?” The half-century which has elapsed since Wordsworth wrote these words has evidently altered the state of the question. It has impressed on us the paramount necessity of national education, for reasons political and social too well known to repeat. But it may be feared that it has also shifted the incidence of Wordsworth’s arguments in a more sinister manner, by vastly increasing the number of those homes where domestic influence of the kind which the poet saw around him at Rydal is altogether wanting and school is the best avenue even to moral well-being. “Heaven and hell,” he writes in 1808, “are scarcely more different from each other than Sheffield and Manchester, &c., differ from the plains and valleys of Surrey, Essex, Cumberland, or Westmoreland.” It is to be feared, indeed, that even “the plains and valleys of Surrey and Essex” contain many cottages whose spiritual and sanitary conditions fall far short of the poet’s ideal. But it is of course in the great and growing centres of population that the dangers which he dreads have come upon us in their most aggravated form. And so long as there are in England so many homes to which parental care and the influences of Nature are alike unknown, no protest in favour of the paramount importance of these primary agencies in the formation of character can be regarded as altogether out of date.
With such severe and almost prosaic themes is the greater part of the Excursion occupied. Yet the poem is far from being composed throughout in a prosaic spirit. “Of its bones is coral made;” its arguments and theories have lain long in Wordsworth’s mind, and have accreted to themselves a rich investiture of observation and feeling. Some of its passages rank among the poet’s highest flights. Such is the passage in Book I describing the boy’s rapture at sunrise; and the picture of a sunset at the close of the same book. Such is the opening of Book IV; and the passage describing the wild joy of roaming through a mountain storm; and the metaphor in the same book which compares the mind’s power of transfiguring the obstacles which beset her, with the glory into which the moon incorporates the umbrage that would intercept her beams.
It would scarcely be possible at the present day that a work containing such striking passages, and so much of substance and elevation—however out of keeping it might be with the ruling taste of the day—should appear without receiving careful study from many quarters and warm appreciation in some recognized organs of opinion. Criticism in Wordsworth’s day was both less competent and less conscientious, and the famous “This will never do” of Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review was by no means an extreme specimen of the general tone in which the work was received. The judgment of the reviewers influenced popular taste; and the book was as decided a pecuniary failure as Wordsworth’s previous ventures had been.
And here, perhaps, is a fit occasion to speak of that strangely violent detraction and abuse which formed so large an ingredient in Wordsworth’s life,—or rather, of that which is the only element of permanent interest in such a matter,—his manner of receiving and replying to it. No writer, probably, who has afterwards achieved a reputation at all like Wordsworth’s, has been so long represented by reviewers as purely ridiculous. And in Wordsworth’s manner of acceptance of this fact we may discern all the strength, and something of the stiffness, of his nature; we may recognize an almost, but not quite, ideal attitude under the shafts of unmerited obloquy. For he who thus is arrogantly censured should remember both the dignity and the frailty of man; he should wholly forgive, and almost wholly forget; but, nevertheless, should retain such serviceable hints as almost any criticism, however harsh or reckless, can afford, and go on his way with no bitter broodings, but yet (to use Wordsworth’s expression in another context) “with a melancholy in the soul, a sinking inward into ourselves from thought to thought, a steady remonstrance, and a high resolve.”
How far his own self-assertion may becomingly be carried in reply, is another and a delicate question. There is almost necessarily something distasteful to us not only in self-praise but even in a thorough self-appreciation. We desire of the ideal character that his faculties of admiration should be, as it were, absorbed in an eager perception of the merits of others,—that a kind of shrinking delicacy should prevent him from appraising his own achievements with a similar care. Often, indeed, there is something most winning in a touch of humorous blindness: “Well, Miss Sophia, and how do you like the Lady of the Lake?” “Oh, I’ve not read it; papa says there’s nothing so bad for young people as reading bad poetry.”
But there are circumstances under which this graceful absence of self-consciousness can no longer be maintained. When a man believes that he has a message to deliver that vitally concerns mankind, and when that message is received with contempt and apathy, he is necessarily driven back upon himself; he is forced to consider whether what he has to say is after all so important, and whether his mode of saying it be right and adequate. A necessity of this kind was forced upon both Shelley and Wordsworth. Shelley—the very type of self-forgetful enthusiasm—was driven at last by the world’s treatment of him into a series of moods sometimes bitter and sometimes self-distrustful—into a sense of aloofness and detachment from the mass of men, which the poet who would fain improve and exalt them should do his utmost not to feel. On Wordsworth’s more stubborn nature the effect produced by many years of detraction was of a different kind. Naturally introspective, he was driven by abuse and ridicule into taking stock of himself more frequently and more laboriously than ever. He formed an estimate of himself and his writings which was, on the whole, (as will now be generally admitted,) a just one; and this view he expressed when occasion offered—in sober language, indeed, but with calm conviction, and with precisely the same air of speaking from undoubted knowledge as when he described the beauty of Cumbrian mountains or the virtue of Cumbrian homes.
“It is impossible,” he wrote to Lady Beaumont in 1807, “that any expectations can be lower than mine concerning the immediate effect of this little work upon what is called the public. I do not here take into consideration the envy and malevolence, and all the bad passions which always stand in the way of a work of any merit from a living poet; but merely think of the pure, absolute, honest ignorance in which all worldlings, of every rank and situation, must be enveloped, with respect to the thoughts, feelings, and images on which the life of my poems depends. The things which I have taken, whether from within or without, what have they to do with routs, dinners, morning calls, hurry from door to door, from street to street, on foot or in carriage; with Mr. Pitt or Mr. Fox, Mr. Paul or Sir Francis Burdett, the Westminster election or the borough of Honiton? In a word—for I cannot stop to make my way through the harry of images that present themselves to me—what have they to do with endless talking about things that nobody cares anything for, except as far as their own vanity is concerned, and this with persons they care nothing for, but as their vanity or selfishness is concerned? What have they to do (to say all at once) with a life without love? In such a life there can be no thought; for we have no thought (save thoughts of pain), but as far as we have love and admiration.
“It is an awful truth, that there neither is nor can be any genuine enjoyment of poetry among nineteen out of twenty of those persons who live, or wish to live, in the broad light of the world—among those who either are, or are striving to make themselves, people of consideration in society. This is a truth, and an awful one; because to be incapable of a feeling of poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without love of human nature and reverence for God.
“Upon this I shall insist elsewhere; at present let me confine myself to my object, which is to make you, my dear friend, as easy-hearted as myself with respect to these poems. Trouble not yourself upon their present reception. Of what moment is that compared with what I trust is their destiny?—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 their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform, long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us,) are mouldered in our graves.”
Such words as these come with dignity from the mouth of a man like Wordsworth when he has been, as it were, driven to bay,—when he is consoling an intimate friend, distressed at the torrent of ridicule which, as she fears, must sweep his self-confidence and his purposes away. He may be permitted to assure her that “my ears are stone-dead to this idle buzz, and my flesh as insensible as iron to these petty stings,” and to accompany his assurance with a reasoned statement of the grounds of his unshaken hopes.
We feel, however, that such an expression of self-reliance on the part of a great man should be accompanied with some proof that no conceit or impatience is mixed with his steadfast calm. If he believes the public to be really unable to appreciate himself, he must show no surprise when they admire his inferiors; he must remember that the case would be far worse if they admired no one at all. Nor must he descend from his own unpopular merits on the plea that after catching the public attention by what is bad he will retain it for what is good. If he is so sure that he is in the right he can afford to wait and let the world come round to him. Wordsworth’s conduct satisfies both these tests. It is, indeed, curious to observe how much abuse this inoffensive recluse received, and how absolutely he avoided returning it, Byron, for instance, must have seemed in his eyes guilty of something far more injurious to mankind than “a drowsy frowsy poem, called the Excursion,” could possibly appear. But, except in one or two private letters, Wordsworth has never alluded to Byron at all. Shelley’s lampoon—a singular instance of the random blows of a noble spirit, striking at what, if better understood, it would eagerly have revered— Wordsworth seems never to have read. Nor did the violent attacks of the Edinburgh and the Quarterly Reviews provoke him to any rejoinder. To “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”—leagued against him as their common prey—he opposed a dignified silence; and the only moral injury which he derived from their assaults lay in that sense of the absence of trustworthy external criticism which led him to treat everything which he had once written down as if it were a special revelation, and to insist with equal earnestness on his most trifling as on his most important pieces—on Goody Blake and The Idiot Boy as on The Cuckoo or The Daffodils. The sense of humour is apt to be the first grace which is lost under persecution; and much of Wordsworth’s heaviness and stiff exposition of commonplaces is to be traced to a feeling, which he could scarcely avoid, that “all day long he had lifted up his voice to a perverse and gainsaying generation.”
To the pecuniary loss inflicted on him by these adverse criticisms he was justly sensible. He was far from expecting, or even desiring, to be widely popular or to make a rapid fortune; but he felt that the labourer was worthy of his hire, and that the devotion of years to literature should have been met with some moderate degree of the usual form of recognition which the world accords to those who work for it. In 1820 he speaks of “the whole of my returns from the writing trade not amounting to seven-score pounds,” and as late as 1843, when at the height of his fame, he was not ashamed of confessing the importance which he had always attached to this particular.
“So sensible am I,” he says, “of the deficiencies in all that I write, and so far does everything that I attempt fall short of what I wish it to be, that even private publication, if such a term may be allowed, requires more resolution than I can command. I have written to give vent to my own mind, and not without hope that, some time or other, kindred minds might benefit by my labours; but I am inclined to believe I should never have ventured to send forth any verses of mine to the world, if it had not been done on the pressure of personal occasions. Had I been a rich man, my productions, like this Epistle, the Tragedy of the Borderers, &c., would most likely have been confined to manuscript.”
An interesting passage from an unpublished letter of Miss Wordsworth’s, on the White Doe of Rylstone, confirms this statement:—
“My brother was very much pleased with your frankness in
telling us that you did not perfectly like his poem. He wishes
to know what your feelings were—whether the tale itself did
not interest you—or whether you could not enter into the
conception of Emily’s character, or take delight in that visionary
communion which is supposed to have existed between her and
the Doe. Do not fear to give him pain. He is far too much
accustomed to be abused to receive pain from it, (at least as far
as he himself is concerned.) My reason for asking you these
questions is, that some of our friends, who are equal admirers of
the White Doe and of my brother’s published poems, think
that this poem will sell on account of the story; that is, that
the story will bear up those points which are above the level of the
public taste; whereas the two last volumes—except by a few
solitary individuals, who are passionately devoted to my
brother’s works—are abused by wholesale.”
“Now as his sole object in publishing this poem at present
would be for the sake of the money, he would not publish it if
he did not think, from the several judgments of his friends,
that it would be likely to have a sale. He has no pleasure in
publishing—he even detests it; and if it were not that he is
not over wealthy, he would leave all his works to be
published after his death. William himself is sure that the
White Doe will not sell or be admired, except by a very few,
at first; and only yields to Mary’s entreaties and mine. We are
determined, however, if we are deceived this time, to let him
have his own way in future.”
These passages must be taken, no doubt, as representing one aspect only of the poet’s impulses in the matter. With his deep conviction of the world’s real, though unrecognized, need of a pure vein of poetry, we can hardly imagine him as permanently satisfied to defer his own contribution till after his death. Yet we may certainly believe that the need of money helped him to overcome much diffidence as to publication; and we may discern something dignified in his frank avowal of this when it is taken in connexion with his scrupulous abstinence from any attempt to win the suffrages of the multitude by means unworthy of his high vocation. He could never, indeed, have written poems which could have vied in immediate popularity with those of Byron or Scott. But the criticisms on the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads must have shown him that a slight alteration of method,—nay even the excision of a few pages in each volume, pages certain to be loudly objected to,—would have made a marked difference in the sale and its proceeds. From this point of view, even poems which we may now feel to have been needlessly puerile and grotesque acquire a certain impressiveness, when we recognize that the theory which demanded their composition was one which their author was willing to uphold at the cost of some years of real physical privation, and of the postponement for a generation of his legitimate fame.