Page images
PDF
EPUB

not with reference to the points in which they resemble us, but to those in which they manifestly differ from .. us'.

The reputation of men of genius may, for a time, suffer as much from injudicious partizanship as from malicious opposition ; and Wordsworth found some readers of the idolatrous class ready to hold up to special admiration the most faulty of his poems: in the same manner as a noted writer on art has been heard rapturously to extol every passing whim and random touch of that wonderful landscape painter, Turner. Between this artist and Wordsworth, some critics have noted a resemblance in the contempt with which many affect to mention him, and in the mist that seems, and only seems, to hover over the canvas, and in the clear, well-defined shapes that speedily grow from the canvas to the eye. Hazlitt goes further than this, and his remarks on the 'Excursion' would imply that a pervading obscurity besets that poem, and that his descriptions of natural scenery are not brought home distinctly to the eye by forms and circumstances. -'An intense intellectual egotism swallows up every thing'— 'Every object is seen through the medium of innumerable recollections, and clothed with the haze of imagination, like a glittering vapour. The image is lost in sentiment, as sound in the multiplication of echoes'.

From the absence of warınth or passion in his poems, others have compared Wordsworth to a sculptor. Southey, with genial candour, proclaims that it is by the side of Milton that he will have his station awarded by posterity; and who is there that, remembering the pure life of Wordsworth, and opening his soul to the nobler utterances of his genius, but BIRTH AND EARLY CHARACTERISTICS. 5

must feel that he had many affinities with whatever is beautiful and true in colour and in form, as well as truthful in aspiration and lofty in conception ?

But to pass on to some of the leading events connected with the life of our author,

William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth, in Cumberland, on April 7, 1770, the second son of John Wordsworth, law agent to Sir James Lowther, afterwards Earl of Lonsdale. His mother was Anne, only daughter of Wm. Cookson, mercer, of Penrith. The house in which the poet first saw the light still attracts the attention of the traveller as he enters Cockermouth by the Whitehaven road, from its antiquated style of architecture, its many-windowed front, and a general air of superiority to those in its immediate neighbourhood. The early years of his life were spent partly at Cockermouth and partly with his mother's relations at Penrith, where she died in 1778.

Losing his mother at so early an age, his recollections concerning her appear but scanty. The absurd practice of doing penance was not extinct at the period of his childhood, and on an occasion of this sort, stimulated by curiosity to see the woman in a white sheet, and by the hope of obtaining a penny, he repaired to the church on a week day. On his informing his mother where he had been, she commended him, but withdrew her praise when his acknowledged disappointment at not receiving the expected largess revealed his motive for going.

To an intimate friend, his mother stated, that of her five children, William was the only one about whose future life she felt anxious, adding, that he would be remarkable for good, or for evil, being led to this remark from observation of his moody and violent temper, of which the following instances are given in his autobiographical memoranda.

'I remember', says he, going once into the attics of my grandfather's house, upon some indignity being put upon me, with an intention of destroying myself with one of the foils which were kept there. I took the foil in hand, but my heart failed'. On another occasion when whipping their tops on the boarded floor of the large drawing-room, the walls of which were hung round with family portraits, he dared his elder brother to dash his whip through one of them : his brother declining the feat : ‘Then', said he, ‘here goes', and he struck his lash through the hooped petticoat of one of the ancestral dames.

The virtuous and contemplative Boyle, after relating an incident connected with his childhood, adds, “This trivial passage I have mentioned now, not that I think that in itself it deserves narration, but because as the sun is seen best at his rising and his setting, so men's native dispositions are clearliest perceived whilst they are children, and when they are dying. These little sudden actions are the greatest discoverers of men's true humours'. If these remarks be just, how completely does the sedate, contemplative, and peaceful life of Wordsworth prove the mastery he obtained over his naturally impetuous temperament.

Shortly after the death of their mother, William and his elder brother, Richard, were sent to the grammarschool at Hawkshead, a spot then much more secluded than now, and a situation highly favourable to the cultivation of a reflective and poetic mind. There his days passed happily, he enjoyed much liberty, roaming freely about that favoured region - the centre of so much beautiful scenery,- and reading such books as

he chose. Among his boyish treasures, he makes mention of a little canvas-covered book, a meagre abstract of the Arabian Nights. Learning from his new companions that there were four volumes full of these wonderful tales, he and a favourite playmate made a vow that they would lay aside what money they possessed and save more, until a sufficient fortune was amassed to purchase so great a treasure. For several months they persevered, but alas, for the weakness of the flesh! In Hawkshead market place, near where the assembly room now flourishes, a grey boulder reared its huge round head : it was known far and near as Nanny-Holme Stone, that being the name of an ancient dame, privileged to set up a stall of dainties under its shelter. With such temptation daily in view, can we wonder that the firmness of the embryo poet and his comrade failed ? — A little later on, however, he read, with keen relish, the works of Fielding and Swift, and revelled in Don Quixote and Gil Blas.

Though joining in the boyish pastimes of his school companions, yet at that early period we find him a student of nature, mingling with his sports much of that thoughtful introspection which foreshadowed the after character of the man; and it is remarkable that one of his finest poems, the Ode on the ‘Intimations of Immortality in Childhood', which was composed during his residence at Town End, Grasmere, records his feelings and experiences during that period ; and he has left it on record, that in early youth he could not believe that he should lie quietly in the grave, and that his body would moulder into dust.

‘But', he adds, “it was not so much from the source of animal vivacity that my difficulty came, as from a

sense of the indomitableness of the spirit within me. I used to brood over the stories of Enoch and Elijah, and almost to persuade myself that, whatever became of others, I should be translated in something of the same way to heaven. With a feeling congenial to this, I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality - to that dream-like vividness and splendour which invest objects of sight in childhood, every one, I believe, if he would look back, could bear testimony, and I need not dwell upon it here ; but having in the poem regarded it as presumptive evidence of a prior state of existence, I think it right to protest against a conclusion which has given pain to some good and pious persons, that I meant to inculcate such a belief. It is far too shadowy a notion to be recommended to faith as more than an element in our instincts of immortality. But let us bear in mind that, though the idea is not advanced in revelation, there is nothing there to contradict it'.

The first verses which he wrote were a task imposed by his master, the subject, 'The Summer Vacation'. When about fifteen, he was called upon, among other scholars, to write verses upon the completion of the second centenary of the foundation of the school in 1585, by Archbishop Sandys. These lines were much admired, far more, says Wordsworth, than they deserved, for they were but a tame imitation of Pope's versification. Incited by these exercises to composition of a more voluntary kind, he wrote a long poem on his own adventures amid the scenery of the country

« PreviousContinue »