« PreviousContinue »
which it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic ; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish soli. citude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
With this view I wrote the ANCIENT MARINER, and was preparing among other poems, The Dark LADIE, and the CHRISTABEL, in which I should have more nearly realized my ideal, than I had done in my first attempt. But Mr. Wordsworth's industry had proved so much more successful, and the number of his poems so much greater, that my compositions, instead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpolation of heterogeneous matter. Mr. Wordsworth added two or three poems written in his own character, in the impassioned, lofty, and sustained diction, which is characteristic of his genius. In this form the LYRICAL BALLADS were published ;and were presented by him, as an experiment, whether subjects, which from their nature rejected the usual ornaments and extra-colloquial style of poems in general, might not be so managed in the language of ordinary life as to produce the pleasurable interest which it is the peculiar business of poetry to impart. To the second edition he added a preface of considerable length ;4 in which, notwithstanding some passages of apparently a contrary import, he was understood to contend for the extension of this style to poetry of all kinds, and
2 [The Ancient Mariner, Poet. W., ii., p. 1.-Christabel, ibid., p. 28.The Dark Ladie, P W.i., p. 150. Ed.]
3 [The first volume of the Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798. Ed.]
4 [The second edition, with an additional volume and the preface, was published in 1800. Ed.].
to reject as vicious and indefensible all phrases and forms of speech that were not included in what he (unfortunately, I think, adopting an equivocal expression) called the language of real life. From this preface prefixed to poems in which it was impossible to deny the presence of original genius, however mistaken its direction might be deemed, arose the whole long-continued controversy. For from the conjunction of perceived power with supposed heresy I explain the inveteracy and in some instances, I grieve to say, the acrimonious passions, with which the controversy has been conducted by the assailants.
45 [“ The first volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published as an experiment, which I hoped might be of some use to ascertain how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavor to impart.” Preface P. W., ii., p. 303. Ed.]
6 [In illustration of these remarks or the allusions that follow, the Editor gave rather copious extracts from the E. Review of Oct., 1807, Nov., 1814, and October, 1815, which I believe that, after all, he would have felt it not worth while to reprint; and I therefore refer the curious reader to those specimens of the criticism of thirty years since in their own place. I think it right, however, to preserve the Editor's comment upon them, which is as follows :
It is of great importance to the history of literature in this country that the critiques contained in the Edinburgh Review on Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge, should be known and reperused in the present day;—not as reflecting any special disgrace on the writers (for as to them, the matter and tone of these essays only showed that the critics had not risen above the level of the mass of their age,-but for the purpose of demonstrating that immediate popularity, though it may attend, can never be a test of, excellence in works of imagination; and of teaching, if possible, the duty and the advantages of respect for admitted genius, even when it pursues a path of its own making. Just consider what was the effect of all the scorn and ridicule of Wordsworth by which the Edinburgh 1 view, the leading critical Journal of the nation for a long time, distinguis. 'ed itself for twenty years together. A great laugh was created in the fas 'vionable world of letters, and the poet's expectation of pecuniary pro.it was destroyed. Public opinion was, for about a quarter of a century, set against the reception of works, which were always allowed to be innocent, and are now everywhere proclaimed as excellent; and for the same space of time a great man was defrauded of that worldly remuneration of his virtuous labors, which the authors of frivolous novels and licentious poems were permitted and in some instances helped-during the same period to
Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the silly, the childish things, which they were for a long time described as being; had they been really distinguished from the compositions of other poets merely by meanness of language and inanity of thought ; had they
obtain for their compositions. To make the lesson perfect, it has pleased Heaven to let Wordsworth himself live to see that revolution legitimated which he and his compeers, Coleridge and Southey, in different ways and degrees, together wrought; and to read his own defence and praise in the pages of the same work by which some of his most exquisite productions were once pronounced below criticism. Ed.
Agreeing as I do with these remarks in the main, I venture to observe that in my mind they ascribe too much influence upon the early fate of Mr. W.'s poems to the E. Review. That those poems were not generally admired from the first, was, in my opinion, their own fault, that is to say, arose principally from their being works of great genius, and consequently, though old as the world itself, in one way, yet in another, a new thing under the sun. Novelty is delightful when it is understood at once, when it is but the old familiar matters newly set forth; but here was a new world presented to the reader which was also a strange world, and most of those who had grown to middle age acquainted with the old world only, and chiefly with that part of it which was least like Wordsworth's—the hither part, out of sight of Chaucer and Spenser and the old English Poets in general, could never learn their way, or find themselves at home there.
Periodical literature can hardly be said to create public taste and opinion: I believe it does no more than strongly reflect and thereby concentre and strengthen it. The fashionable journal is expected to be a mirror of public opinion in its own party, a brilliant magnifying mirror, in which the mind of the public may see itself look large and handsome. Woe be to the mirror if it presumes to give pictures and images of its own !-it will fall to the ground, even if not shivered at once by popular indignation, Such publications depend for their maintenance on the public which they are to teach, and must therefore, like the pastor of a voluntary flock, pipe only such tunes as suit their auditors' sense of harmony. They cannot afford to make ventures, like warm-hearted, disinterested individuals. It is far from my intention to deny, that the boldest things are often said, the most extravagant novelties broached in publications of this kind : that the strongest and most sweeping assertions, fit, as might be supposed, to startle and shock even the cold and careless,-ascriptions of saintly excellence to men whose unchristian acts of duplicity or cruelty are undenied and undeni. able--of worse than human folly and wickedness to men, whom millions have regarded with reverential gratitude, and this in the way of mere assertion, with no attempt at proof, or only the merest shadow of a shade of one-references to the authority of accusers, who are themselves resting their vague and violent charges on the authority of previous accusers and bitter enemies
indeed contained nothing more than what is found in the parodies and pretended imitations of them; they must have sunk at once, a dead weight, into the slough of oblivion, and have dragged the preface along with them. But year after year increased the num
will never be ventured upon in the public journal. We have had evidence enough in our day to the contrary.* Still I aver that such things are not done till nothing but truth and charity is risked in the doing of them; till the mass of readers are known to be in such a state of mind, that these bold utterances will move them not at all, or only with a pleasurable excitement. Again, the chief contributors to the leading periodicals are for the most part a class of persons opposed to essential novelty ; able men more or less advanced beyond the period of impressible youth, whose intellectual frame is set, who are potent in exposing new follies and false pretensions; but slow to understand the fresh products of genius unwil. ling even to believe in them. It is by the young, or at least by the youthful, that accessions to the old stores of thought and imagination are welcomed and placed in the treasury. Still it is a remarkable fact, that the journal, which especially professed faith in the intellectual progress of the human race, and to be open-eyed to modern excellence, should have shown itself blind to the merits of a body of poetry, in which the spirit of the age, in its noblest and most refined characteristics, is more amply and energetically manifested than in any other. When the luminary first appeared above the horizon, those admirers of new light declared it to be nothing better than green cheese, yet assailed it with as violent outcries as if they thought it able to set the world on fire. If these criticisms excited “a great laugh,” this shows with how little expenditure of wit a great laugh may be excited; for whatever talents in that way the writers may have possessed and on other occasions shown, I think they displayed none of them at the expense of Mr. Wordsworth. The same kind of attack has been repeated of late years with a far more cunning malice and amusing injustice, without exciting any general laughter at all, simply because the time for laughing at a great poet is over and gone. If any laughter is heard now it is but an echo of the past :if there be any minds that have been dwelling in caves under the earth during the last quarter of a century, they may suppose that Wordsworth’s fame has never risen above the horizon. Not that every man of sense must needs bow down before it; there are clever persons who deny the greatness of Milton ; some ingenious critics have pronounced Homer a barbarian, others have decried Shakber of Mr. Wordsworth’s admirers. They were found too not in the lower classes of the reading public, but chiefly among young men of strong sensibility and meditative minds; and their admiration (inflamed perhaps in some degree by opposition) was distinguished by its intensity, I might almost say by its religious fervor. These facts, and the intellectual energy of the author, which was more or less consciously felt, where it was outwardly and even boisterously denied, meeting with sentiments of aversion to his opinions, and of alarm at their consequences, produced an eddy of criticism, which would of itself have borne up the poems by the vịolence with which it whirled them round and round. With many parts of this preface, in the sense attributed to them and which the words undoubtedly seem to authorize, I never concurred; but on the contrary objected to them as erroneous in principle, and as contradictory (in appearance at least) both to other parts of the same preface, and to the author's own practice in the greater part of the poems themselves. Mr. Wordsworth in his recent collection has, I find, degraded this prefatory disquisition to the end of his second volume, to be read or not at the reader's choice. But he has not, as far as I can discover, an.
* For some considerable evidence on these points I refer the reader to Note 10, in Vol. II. (pp. 656-878), of Archdeacon Hare's new work, The Mission of the Comforter, &c., which contains a thorough investigation of the charges brought against Martin Luther of late years, including those of Bossuet, and a most animated and luminous exposure of the perversions and transmutations, rather than misrepresentations, of his teaching imputable to certain reviewers.
speare, many have looked upon Pindar as a “ crazy fellow,” and Spenser is thought even by some of the poetical a very great bore. In like manner there may be a man of sense who has no sense of the merits of Mr. Wordsworth's writings; but to be ignorant of their power and influence is to be ignorant of the mind of the age in relation to poetry. The laughter of thirty years ago must have been chiefly produced by a sense of the contrast between the great conception of the Poet entertained by a few, and the small conception which the many were then alone able to form of it. “He strides on so far before us,” said Mr. Coleridge of his friend,“ that he dwarfs himself in the distance.” People saw him as a dwarf, yet had a suspicion that he might in reality be a giant. One advantage of the present time to Mr. Wordsworth is this, that poetry is not now the fashion. We bestow our “ignorance, incapability, and presumption," or at least our superficiality, incompetence, and hastiness, on the religious tract or controversial pamphlet, and poetry is resigned to those who have a true taste for it and study it in earnest. S. C.]
3 [“ The observations prefixed to that portion of these Volumes which was published many years ago, under the title of Lyrical Ballads, have so little of a special application to the great part of the present enlarged and diversified collection, that they could not with propriety stand as an Introduction to it. Not deeming it, however, expedient to suppress that