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The history of Literature, as well as that of those ambitious pursuits which more excite the passions of men, unpleasantly reveals a prevailing disposition to persecute, to the extent at least of ridicule, every Reformer who seeks to lead from error to truth. The treatment experienced by William Wordsworth forms no exception to this habit of the public, but on the other hand very few innovators have been permitted to witness such a reaction in the public taste in their favour as came to his lot.
It will now, we suppose, be conceded that the indifference with which his early poems were received, and the opposition which he subsequently encountered in his attempt to rear a new standard of poetic taste, were in great part due to his choice of subjects, perhaps unworthy in themselves to figure in poetry, and to the very extravagance of the simplicity of the style in which they were treated. Another less effectual hindrance to the instant and enthusiastic acceptance of his works may perhaps be traced to the history of the author's mind. In early life, though consistently democratic in all his political opinions, he is also represented as taking pleasure in running counter, rather indiscriminately, to all conventional usages, and in defying received opinions simply because they were received. So in ‘The Prelude, or growth of a Poet's mind,' an autobiographical poem, finished in 1805,
when referring to his independent mode of study as a proud unkind rebellion against the wishes of his friends, he confesses to having given way to an overlove of freedom, which moved him to turn away even from regulations of his own imposition as from the bonds of a tyranny.
Southey has somewhere denounced the many-headed reading public as a foul feeder ; be that as it may, the monster prefers to choose its own morsels, and having been, up the period of which we treat, pampered into an unhealthy state by the false sentimentality and inflated verbiage of its recent caterers, it was not likely to relish the simple homely fare offered to it in such productions as the ' Idiot Boy', or “Goody Blake' and 'Harry Gill’: though these poems are stated by their author to have afforded to some select minds exquisite delight, and though they were amongst the number of those selected by Charles James Fox as worthy of peculiar commendation.
The Reviewers were for the most part incredulous of novelties, particularly from an unknown source, and on their first appearance hailed these poems with a shout of derision. Finding the public not unwilling to join in the laugh, at each re-issue of, or addition to, the volume entitled “ Lyrical Ballads', they raised a hue and cry, following it up by detailed criticism objectionable alike for its want of temper, discrimination, or feeling. In his interesting ‘Biography', Mr. E. P. Hood gives it as his opinion that Wordsworth's popularity was kept back a quarter of a century by the unscrupulous attacks of the Edinburgh Review, and he wittily compares Jeffrey to a bookish Bluebeard pouncing upon these poems and delighting to mangle them in his closet.
SYMPATHY WITH THE LOWLY.
They were not, however, always tenderly treated by those from whom a friendly reception might have been anticipated : ‘Blackwood’and the 'Quarterly'could, on occasion, sneer or damn with faint praise, and it has been justly remarked that the tardy commendations which appeared in ‘ Blackwood' are referable quite as much to the political partizanship and private friendship of Professor Wilson, as to the love of nature and superior poetic taste with which he was credited.
Some of the poet's most manifest absurdities fell under these attacks, and were withdrawn, but others were retained and, to the regret of his more judicious admirers, are still allowed a place in his recognized works.
There is a well-known saying, that while an author is still living, we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead, we rate him by his best.
Whatever strictures may be fairly made on some of his minor poems, no one can fail to sympathize with the kindly feelings which prompted the poet when writing them, and which are further developed in a letter addressed to Charles James Fox, in which he says, 'You have felt that the most sacred of all property is the property of the poor. The two poems which I have mentioned were written with a view to shew that men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply. The poems are faithful copies from nature; and I hope whatever effect they may have upon you, you will at least be able to perceive that they may excite profitable sympathies in many kind and good hearts, and may, in some small degree, enlarge our feelings of reverence for our species and our knowledge of human nature, by shewing that our best qualities are possessed by men whom we are too apt to consider,