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WORDSWORTH AS A CRITIC.
• He passed this life's tempestuous night
A fixed, unsetting, polar star'. After all, Wordsworth probably only intended to express his contempt of a particular view of Burns' poetry; any other theory is inconsistent with the high admiration expressed elsewhere. His criticisms on some of Campbell's poetic images are narrow, and still more narrow, if report speaks true, was his treatment of the Ettrick Shepherd, who, when in company with him and Wilson, and elated by such goodly fellowship, remarked of a transcendent Aurora Borealis that it was just an illumination in honour of the meeting of the three poets'. The incident has been variously described, but the accounts agree in representing Wordsworth as questioning the right of the author of "The Queen's Wake' to rank himself with the bards. Byron, he stated to be deficient in feeling ; and, strong as was his friendly regard for Sir Walter Scott, he did not allow it to bias his judgment when he pronounced emphatically that. Scott's poetry cannot live, for he has never written anything in verse addressed to the immortal part of man, and that what he had written in the way of natural description, was mere rhyming nonsense'. Nor did he attach much value to Scott's historical novels. On his expressing to his friend, H. C. Robinon, an opinion that Mrs. Barbauld 'was spoilt as a poetess by being a dissenter', Mr. R. repeated the following stanzas from her poem entitled 'Life'.
*Life! we've been long together,
Through pleasant and through cloudy weather ;
Then steal away, give little warning,
On their conclusion Wordsworth confessed that, though not given to envy other people their good things, he did wish he had written that ; he also acknowledged the merit of her Essays. Coleridge in his (Literary Life) says that his friend Wordsworth had undertaken to shew that Gray's Elegy was unintelligible. It has however, been understood'.
Rogers was once reading Gray's 'Ode to Adversity' to Wordsworth, and when he came to the line,-'And leave us leisure to be good',– Wordsworth exclaimed, 'I am quite sure that is not original ; Gray could not have hit upon it'. This gives a lively picture of Wordsworth pouncing upon his own property as it were ; for, whether Gray took it from Oldham or not, the phrase and idea are so eminently Wordsworthian that we are scarcely surprised at his feeling as if he had been robbed of them'. This is an amusing instance of that strong sense of property which is ascribed both to bees and to poets, both being of that irritable kind as to be extremely jealous of any one who robs them of their hoarded sweets, or as it would appear, even to invade their lines of thought. While on this topic we may quote part of a letter written by Wordsworth. 'We are all of us in spite of ourselves a parcel of thieves. I had a droll instance of it this morning, for, while Mary was writing down for me one of these sonnets, on coming to a certain line, she cried out, somewhat uncourteously, “That's a plagiarism.” “From whom”? -“From yourself”
was the answer. I believe she is right, though she could not point out the passage, neither can I'.
But, not to dwell further on this theme, we may remark, in conclusion, that many sayings attributed to our poet, may be classed among the facetiæ of the narrators, which, if not invented by them, probably received some imaginative touches, and a considerable heightening of colour. For instance, in a recently published volume of Oriental travels, Buckle, the author of the History of Civilization, is made to report Charles Lamb as saying, that Wordsworth remarked to him that he considered Shakspeare greatly overrated. “There is an immensity of trick in all Shakspeare wrote' he said, ' and people are taken in by it. Now, if I had a niind, I could write exactly like Shakspeare'. So you see', proceeded Charles Lamb, quietly, it was only the mind that was wanting'.
Turning to the 'Memoirs’ by his nephew, we find the following authentic record of Wordsworth's estimation of Shakspeare. “When I began to give myself up to the profession of a poet for life, I was impressed with a conviction that there were four English poets whom I must have continually before me as examples - Chaucer, Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton. These I must study, and equal if I could ; and I need not think of the rest.
'I cannot account for Shakspeare's low estimate of his own writings, except from the sublimity, the superhumanity of his genius'.
It may be readily seen what a different import might be given to the former of these paragraphs by the mere omission of the words printed in italics. Luckily they were communicated by a judicious and genuine admirer of the Bard, and we have his real sentiments.
It was a great addition to the enjoyment of this halcyon period of Wordsworth's life, and a solace to him during the absence of his friend Coleridge, who had gone to Malta on account of ill-health, that his brother John was an occasional inmate of the Grasmere cottage, in the intervals between his voyages ; he being a sea captain, a man of a noble presence, disinterested and excellent in all the conduct of his life. So fully did he appreciate his brother's genius, that he always urged him to persist, and, spite of every discouragement to keep his eye steady on its object. And to aid him in the attainment of that success which he always predicted, he resolved to devote a considerable portion of the moderate fortune which he hoped to realize to his brother's use, that he might fairly exercise the bent of his genius, unembarrassed by worldly anxieties. Two voyages which he prosecuted with this view, were unsuccessful, but, at the close of 1804, he was appointed to the command of the Abergavenny East Indiaman, a vessel which he described as nearly equal in appearance to a 74. The cargo was estimated at £200,000 : she carried £70,000 in specie, and 402 persons.
It was in this splendid vessel that Captain Wordsworth set sail early in February, 1805. His hopes were high, for he had a fair chance of a prosperous and profitable voyage. Owing to the absurd regulations of our merchant shipping laws, he had, at starting, to resign his vessel to the care of a pilot, who, like too many of his class, was incompetent to the task, and ran the vessel on the rocks near the Isle of Portland. A few minutes before the vessel went down, he was seen on an elevated part of the deck, conversing, as it appeared, calmly, with the mate, and when the ship foundered he maintained his post, 'dying, as he had lived, in the very place and point where duty stationed him'. Writing of this event, Wordsworth says, 'I feel that there is something cut out of my life which cannot be restored; I never thought of him but with hope and delight; we looked forward to the time, not distant as we thought, when he would settle near us, when the task of his life would be over, and he would have nothing to do but reap his reward. By that time too, I hoped also that the chief part of my labours would be executed, and that I should be able to shew him that he had not placed a false confidence in me'.
Nowhere is more touching reference made to this sad event, than in the memoir of John Wilson, by his daughter, Mrs. Gordon.
Wordsworth and his brother, she tells us, were accustomed to repair to a secluded Tarn under Helvellyn, and would sit there, in company, lost in thought. “They came hither across the hills when John was about to join his ship for the last time, and here they halted before their last farewell. They talked over their future plans of happiness when they were again to meet. As their last act, they agreed to lay the foundation stone of a little fishing hut, and this they did with tears. They parted there in that dim and solemn place recommending each other to God's eternal care. . . . After the first agony was over, the recollection of that parting flashed upon the mind of the survivor, he at last found courage to go there, and in a state of blindness and desolation, sat down upon the very stone. At length he ventures to look around : the tarn is smiling with light; the raven croaking as before, when they parted; all the crags seem the same; the sheep are in the same figures browsing before them; he almost expects to find his brother at his side. He then