Chapter LXXIV. WORDSWORTH—THE POET OF NATURE
COWPER was as a straw blown along the path; he had no force in himself, he showed the direction of the wind. Now we come to one who was not only a far greater poet, but who was a force in our literature. This man was William Wordsworth. He was the apostle of simplicity, the prophet of nature. He sang of the simplest things, of the common happenings of everyday life, and that too a simple life.
His desire was to choose words only which were really used by men in everyday talk, "and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination."
He chose to sing of humble life because there men's thoughts and feelings were more free from art and restraint, there they spoke a plainer, more forceful language, there they were in touch with all that was lasting and true in Nature. Here then, you will say, is the poet for us, the poet who tells of simple things in simple words, such as we can understand. And yet, perhaps, strange as it may seem, there is no poet who makes less appeal to young minds than does Wordsworth.
In reading poetry, though we may not always understand every word of it, we want to feel the thrill and glamour of it. And when Wordsworth remembers his own rules and keeps to them there is no glamour, and his simplicity is apt to seem to us mere silliness.
When we are very young we cannot walk alone, and are glad of a kindly helping hand to guide our footsteps. In learning to read, as in learning to walk, it is at first well to trust to a guiding hand. And in learning to read poetry it is at first well to use selections chosen for us by those wiser than ourselves. Later, when we can go alone, we take a man's whole work, and choose for ourselves what we will most love in it. And it is only by making use of this power of choice that we can really enjoy what is best. But of all our great writers Wordsworth is perhaps the last in the reading of whose works we willingly go alone. He is perhaps the writer who gains most by being read in selections. Indeed, for some of us there never comes a time when we care to read his whole works.
For if we take his whole works, at times we plow through pages of dry-as-dust argument where there is never a glimmer of that beauty which makes poetry a joy, till we grow weary of it. Then suddenly there springs to our eye a line of truest beauty which sets our senses atingle with delight, and all our labor is more than paid. And if our great poets were to be judged by single lines or single stanzas we may safely say that Wordsworth would be placed high among them. He is so placed, but it is rather by the love of the few than by the voice of the many.
I am not trying to make you afraid of reading Wordsworth, I am only warning you that you must not go to him expecting to gather flowers. You must go expecting to and willing to dig for gold. Yet although Wordsworth gives us broad deserts of prose in his poetry, he himself knew the joy of words in lovely sequence.
He tells us that when he was ten years old, or less, already his mind—
"With conscious pleasure opened to the charm
Of words in tuneful order, found them sweet
For their own sakes, a passion, and a power;
And phrases pleased me chosen for delight,
For pomp, or love."*
*Prelude, book v.
When Wordsworth first published his poems they were received with scorn, and he was treated with neglect greater even than most great poets have had to endure. But in time the tide turned and people came at last to acknowledge that Wordsworth was not only a poet, but a great one. He showed men a new way of poetry; he proved to them that nightingale was as poetical a word as Philomel, that it was possible to speak of the sun and the moon as the sun and the moon, and not as Phoebus and Diana. Phoebus, Diana, and Philomel are, with the thoughts they convey, beautiful in their right places, but so are the sun, moon, and nightingale.
Wordsworth tried to make men see with new eyes the little everyday things that they had looked upon week by week and year by year until they had grown common. He tried to make them see these things again with "the glory and the freshness of a dream."*
*Ode, Intimations of Immortality.
Wordsworth fought the battle of the simple word, and phrase, and thought, and won it. And the poets who came after him, and not the poets only, but the prose writer too, whether they acknowledged it or not, whether they knew it or now, entered as by right into the possession of the kingdom which he had won for them.
And now let me tell you a little of the life of this nature poet.
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland in 1770. He was the second son of John Wordsworth, a lawyer, and law agent for the Earl of Lonsdale. William's mother died when he was still a very small boy, and he remembered little about her. He remembered dimly that one day as he was going to church, she pinned some flowers into his coat. He remembered seeing her once lying in an easy chair when she was ill, and that was nearly all.
Before Wordsworth lost his mother he had a happy out-door childhood. He spent long days playing about in garden and orchard, or on the banks of the Derwent, with his friends and brothers and his sister Dorothy. In one of his long poems called The Prelude, which is a history of his own young life, he tells of these happy childish hours. In other of his poems he tells of the love and comradeship that there was between himself and his sister, though she was two years younger—
"Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,
The time, when, in our childish plays,
My sister Emmeline and I
Together chased the butterfly!
A very hunter did I rush
Upon the prey:—with leaps and springs
I followed on from brake to bush;
But she, God love her! feared to brush
The dust from off its wings."*
*To a Butterfly.
Together they spied out the sparrows' nests and watched the tiny nestlings as they grew, the big rough boy learning much from his tender-hearted, gentle sister. In after years he said—
"She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy."*
*The Sparrow's Nest.
When the mother died these happy days for brother and sister together were done, for Willie went to school at Hawkshead with his brothers, and Dorothy was sent to live with her grandfather at Penrith.
But Wordsworth's school-time was happy too. Hawkshead was among the beautiful lake and mountain scenery that he loved. He had a great deal of freedom, and out of school hours could take long rambles, day and night too. When moon and stars were shining he would wander among the hills until the spirit of the place laid hold of him, and he says—
"I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds
Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod."*
*Prelude, book i.
Wordsworth fished and bird-nested, climbing perilous crags and slippery rocks to find rare eggs. In summer he and his companions rowed upon the lake, in winter they skated.
"And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us—for me
A time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six,—I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for his home. All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games.
. . . . . .
We were a noisy crew; the sun in heaven
Beheld not vales more beautiful than ours;
Nor saw a band in happiness and joy
Richer, or worthier of the ground they trod."*
*Prelude, book i.
Yet among all this noisy boyish fun and laughter, Wordsworth's strange, keen love of nature took root and grew. At times he says—
"Even then I felt
Gleams like the flashing of a shield:—the earth
And common face of nature spake to me
*Prelude, book i.
He read, too, what he liked, spending many happy hours over Gulliver's Travels, and the Tale of a Tub, Don Quixote, and the Arabian Nights.
While Wordsworth was still at school his father died. His uncles then took charge of him, and after he left school sent him to Cambridge. Wordsworth did nothing great at college. He took his degree without honors, and left Cambridge still undecided what his career in life was to be. He did not feel himself good enough for the Church. He did not care for law, but rather liked the idea of being a soldier. That idea, however, he also gave up, and for a time he drifted.
In those days one of the world's great dramas was being enacted. The French Revolution had begun. With the great struggle the poet's heart was stirred, his imagination fired. It seemed to him that a new dawn of freedom and joy and peace was breaking on the world, and "France lured him forth." He crossed the Channel, and for two years he lived through all the storm and stress of the Revolution. He might have ended his life in the fearful Reign of Terror which was coming on, had not his friends in England called him home. He left France full of pity, and sorrow, and disappointment, for no reign of peace had come, and the desire for Liberty had been swallowed up in the desire for Empire.
In spite of his years of travel, in spite of the fact that it was necessary for him to earn his living, Wordsworth was still unsettled as to what his work in life was to be, when a friend dying left him nine hundred pounds. With Wordworth's simple tastes this sum was enough to live upon for several years, so he asked his dearly loved sister Dorothy to make her home with him, and together they settled down to a simple cottage life in Dorsetshire. It was a happy thing for Wordsworth that he found such a comrade in his sister. From first to last she was his friend and helper, cheering and soothing him when need be—
"Her voice was like a hidden bird that sang,
The thought of her was like a flash of light,
Or an unseen companionship, a breath
Of fragrance independent of the wind."
Another poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom William and Dorothy Wordsworth now met, calls her "Wordsworth's exquisite sister." "She is a woman indeed, in mind I mean, and in heart. . . . In every motion her innocent soul out-beams so brightly that who saw her would say 'Guilt was a thing impossible with her.'"