CHAPTER XXXVII. WORDSWORTH, AND THE LAKE SCHOOL.
The New School. William Wordsworth. Poetical Canons. The Excursion and
Sonnets. An Estimate. Robert Southey. His Writings. Historical Value.
S. T. Coleridge. Early Life. His Helplessness. Hartley and H. N.
THE NEW SCHOOL.
In the beginning of the year 1820 George III. died, after a very long—but in part nominal—reign of fifty-nine years, during a large portion of which he was the victim of insanity, while his son, afterwards George IV., administered the regency of the kingdom.
George III. did little, either by example or by generosity, to foster literary culture: his son, while nominally encouraging authors, did much to injure the tone of letters in his day. But literature was now becoming independent and self-sustaining: it needed to look no longer wistfully for a monarch's smile: it cared comparatively little for the court: it issued its periods and numbers directly to the English people: it wrote for them and of them; and when, in 1830, the last of the Georges died, after an ill-spent life, in which his personal pleasures had concerned him far more than the welfare of his people, former prescriptions and prejudices rapidly passed away; and the new epoch in general improvement and literary culture, which had already begun its course, received a marvellous impulsion.
The great movement, in part unconscious, from the artificial rhetoric of the former age towards the simplicity of nature, was now to receive its strongest propulsion: it was to be preached like a crusade; to be reduced to a system, and set forth for the acceptance of the poetical world: it was to meet with criticism, and even opprobrium, because it had the arrogance to declare that old things had entirely passed away, and that all things must conform themselves to the new doctrine. The high-priest of this new poetical creed was Wordsworth: he proposed and expounded it; he wrote according to its tenets; he defended his illustrations against the critics by elaborate prefaces and essays. He boldly faced the clamor of a world in arms; and what there was real and valuable in his works has survived the fierce battle, and gathered around him an army of proselytes, champions, and imitators.
WORDSWORTH.—William Wordsworth was the son of the law-agent to the Earl of Lonsdale; he was born at Cockermouth, Cumberland, in 1770. It was a gifted family. His brother, Dr. Christopher Wordsworth, was Master of Trinity College. Another, the captain of an East Indiaman, was lost at sea in his own ship. He had also a clever sister, who was the poet's friend and companion as long as she lived.
Wordsworth and his companions have been called the Lake Poets, because they resided among the English lakes. Perhaps too much has been claimed for the Lake country, as giving inspiration to the poets who lived there: it is beautiful, but not so surpassingly so as to create poets as its children. The name is at once arbitrary and convenient.
Wordsworth was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1787; but whenever he could escape from academic restraints, he indulged his taste for pedestrian excursions: during these his ardent mind became intimate and intensely sympathetic with nature, as may be seen in his Evening Walk, in the sketch of the skater, and in the large proportion of description in all his poems.
It is truer of him than perhaps of any other author, that the life of the man is the best history of the poet. All that is eventful and interesting in his life may be found translated in his poetry. Milton had said that the poet's life should be a grand poem. Wordsworth echoed the thought:
If thou indeed derive thy light from Heaven,
Then to the measure of that Heaven-born light,
Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content.
He was not distinguished at college; the record of his days there may be found in The Prelude, which he calls The Growth of a Poet's Mind. He was graduated in 1791, with the degree of B.A., and went over to France, where he, among others, was carried away with enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and became a thorough Radical. That he afterwards changed his political views, should not be advanced in his disfavor; for many ardent and virtuous minds were hoping to see the fulfilment of recent predictions in greater freedom to man. Wordsworth erred in a great company, and from noble sympathies. He returned to England in 1792, with his illusions thoroughly dissipated. The workings of his mind are presented in The Prelude.
In the same year he published Descriptive Sketches, and An Evening Walk, which attracted little attention. A legacy of L900 left him by his friend Calvert, in 1795, enabled the frugal poet to devote his life to poetry, and particularly to what he deemed the emancipation of poetry from the fetters of the mythic and from the smothering ornaments of rhetoric.
In Nov., 1797, he went to London, taking with him a play called The Borderers: it was rejected by the manager. In the autumn of 1798, he published his Lyrical Ballads, which contained, besides his own verses, a poem by an anonymous friend. The poem was The Ancient Mariner; the friend, Coleridge. In the joint operation, Wordsworth took the part based on nature; Coleridge illustrated the supernatural. The Ballads were received with undisguised contempt; nor, by reason of its company, did The Ancient Mariner have a much better hearing. Wordsworth preserved his equanimity, and an implicit faith in himself.
After a visit to Germany, he settled in 1799 at Grasmere, in the Lake country, and the next year republished the Lyrical Ballads with a new volume, both of which passed to another edition in 1802. With this edition, Wordsworth ran up his revolutionary flag and nailed it to the mast.
POETICAL CANONS.—It would be impossible as well as unnecessary to attempt an analysis of even the principal poems of so voluminous a writer; but it is important to state in substance the poetical canons he laid down. They may be found in the prefaces to the various editions of his Ballads, and may be thus epitomized:
I. He purposely chose his incidents and situations from common life, because in it our elementary feelings coexist in a state of simplicity.
II. He adopts the language of common life, because men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.
III. He asserts that the language of poetry is in no way different, except in respect to metre, from that of good prose. Poetry can boast of no celestial ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose: the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both. In works of imagination and sentiment, in proportion as ideas and feelings are valuable, whether the composition be in prose or verse, they require and exact one and the same language.
Such are the principal changes proposed by Wordsworth; and we find Herder, the German poet and metaphysician, agreeing with him in his estimate of poetic language. Having thus propounded his tenets, he wrote his earlier poems as illustrations of his views, affecting a simplicity in subject and diction that was sometimes simply ludicrous. It was an affected simplicity: he was simple with a purpose; he wrote his poems to suit his canons, and in that way his simplicity became artifice.
Jeffrey and other critics rose furiously against the poems which inculcated such doctrines. “This will never do” were the opening words of an article in the Edinburgh Review. One of the Rejected Addresses, called The Baby's Debut, by W. W., (spoken in the character of Nancy Lake, eight years old, who is drawn upon the stage in a go-cart,) parodies the ballads thus:
What a large floor! 'tis like a town;
The carpet, when they lay it down,
Won't hide it, I'll be bound:
And there's a row of lamps, my eye!
How they do blaze: I wonder why
They keep them on the ground?
And this, Jeffrey declares, is a flattering imitation of Wordsworth's style.
The day for depreciating Wordsworth has gone by; but calmer critics must still object to his poetical views in their entireness. In binding all poetry to his dicta, he ignores that mythus in every human mind, that longing after the heroic, which will not be satisfied with the simple and commonplace. One realm in which Poetry rules with an enchanted sceptre is the land of reverie and day-dream,—a land of fancy, in which genius builds for itself castles at once radiant and, for the time, real; in which the beggar is a king, the poor man a Croesus, the timid man a hero: this is the fairy-land of the imagination. Among Wordsworth's poems are a number called Poems of the Imagination. He wrote learnedly about the imagination and fancy; but the truth is, that of all the great poets,—and, in spite of his faults, he is a great poet,—there is none so entirely devoid of imagination. What has been said of the heroic may be applied to wit, so important an element in many kinds of poetry; he ignores it because he was without it totally. If only humble life and commonplace incidents and unfigured rhetoric and bald language are the proper materials for the poetry, what shall be said of all literature, ancient and modern, until Wordsworth's day?
THE EXCURSION AND SONNETS.—With his growing fame and riper powers, he had deviated from his own principles, especially of language; and his peaceful epic, The Excursion, is full of difficult theology, exalted philosophy, and glowing rhetoric. His only attempt to adhere to his system presents the incongruity of putting these subjects into the lips of men, some of whom, the Scotch pedler for example, are not supposed to be equal to their discussion. In his language, too, he became far more polished and melodious. The young writer of the Lyrical Ballads would have been shocked to know that the more famous Wordsworth could write
A golden lustre slept upon the hills;
or speak of
A pupil in the many-chambered school,
Where superstition weaves her airy dreams.
The Excursion, although long, is unfinished, and is only a portion of what was meant to be his great poem—The Recluse. It contains poetry of the highest order, apart from its mannerism and its improbable narrative; but the author is to all intents a different man from that of the Ballads: as different as the conservative Wordsworth of later years was from the radical youth who praised the French Revolution of 1791. As a whole, The Excursion is accurate, philosophic, and very dull, so that few readers have the patience to complete its perusal, while many enjoy its beautiful passages.
To return to the events of his life. In 1802 he married; and, after several changes of residence, he finally purchased a place called Rydal-mount in 1813, where he spent the remainder of his long, learned, and pure life. Long-standing dues from the Earl of Lonsdale to his father were paid; and he received the appointment of collector at Whitehaven and stamp distributor for Cumberland. Thus he had an ample income, which was increased in 1842 by a pension of L300 per annum. In 1843 he was made poet-laureate. He died in 1850, a famous poet, his reputation being due much more to his own clever individuality than to the poetic principles he asserted.
His ecclesiastical sonnets compare favorably with any that have been written in English. Landor, no friend of the poet, says: “Wordsworth has written more fine sonnets than are to be met with in the language besides.”
AN ESTIMATE.—The great amount of verse Wordsworth has written is due to his estimate of the proper uses of poetry. Where other men would have written letters, journals, or prose sketches, his ready metrical pen wrote in verse: an excursion to England or Scotland, Yarrow Visited and Revisited, journeys in Germany and Italy, are all in verse. He exhibits in them all great humanity and benevolence, and is emphatically and without cant the poet of religion and morality. Coleridge—a poet and an attached friend, perhaps a partisan—claims for him, in his Biographia Literaria, “purity of language, freshness, strength, curiosa felicitas of diction, truth to nature in his imagery, imagination in the highest degree, but faulty fancy.” We have already ventured to deny him the possession of imagination: the rest of his friend's eulogium is not undeserved. He had and has many ardent admirers, but none more ardent than himself. He constantly praised his own verses, and declared that they would ultimately conquer all prejudices and become universally popular—an opinion that the literary world does not seem disposed to adopt.
ROBERT SOUTHEY.—Next to Wordsworth, and, with certain characteristic differences, of the same school, but far beneath him in poetical power, is Robert Southey, who was born at Bristol, August 12, 1774. He was the son of a linen-draper in that town. He entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1792, but left without taking his degree. In 1794 he published a radical poem on the subject of Wat Tyler, the sentiments of which he was afterwards very willing to repudiate. With the enthusiastic instinct of a poet, he joined with Wordsworth and Coleridge in a scheme called Pantisocrasy; that is, they were to go together to the banks of the Susquehanna, in a new country of which they knew nothing except by description; and there they were to realize a dream of nature in the golden age—a Platonic republic, where everything was to be in common, and from which vice and selfishness were to be forever excluded. But these young neo-platonists had no money, and so the scheme was given up.
In 1795 he married Miss Fricker, a milliner of Bristol, and made a voyage to Lisbon, where his uncle was chaplain to the British Factory. He led an unsettled life until 1804, when he established himself at Keswick in the Lake country, where he spent his life. He was a literary man and nothing else, and perhaps one of the most industrious writers that ever held a literary pen. Much of the time, indeed, he wrote for magazines and reviews, upon whatever subject was suggested to him, to win his daily bread.
HIS WRITINGS.—After the publication of Wat Tyler he wrote an epic poem called Joan of Arc, in 1796, which was crude and severely criticized. After some other unimportant essays, he inaugurated his purpose of illustrating the various oriental mythologies, by the publication of Thalaba the Destroyer, which was received with great disfavor at the time, and which first coupled his name with that of Wordsworth as of the school of Lake poets. It is in irregular metre, which at first has the charm of variety, but which afterwards loses its effect, on account of its broken, disjointed versification. In 1805 appeared Madoc—a poem based upon the subject of early Welsh discoveries in America. It is a long poem in two parts: the one descriptive of Madoc in Wales and the other of Madoc in Aztlan. Besides many miscellaneous works in prose, we notice the issue, in 1810, of The Curse of Kehama—the second of the great mythological poems referred to.
Among his prose works must be mentioned The Chronicle of the Cid, The History of Brazil, The Life of Nelson, and The History of the Peninsular War. A little work called The Doctor has been greatly liked in America.
Southey wrote innumerable reviews and magazine articles; and, indeed, tried his pen at every sort of literary work. His diction—in prose, at least—is almost perfect, and his poetical style not unpleasing. His industry, his learning, and his care in production must be acknowledged; but his poems are very little read, and, in spite of his own prophecies, are doomed to the shelf rather than retained upon the table. Like Wordsworth, he was one of the most egotistical of men; he had no greater admirer than Robert Southey; and had his exertions not been equal to his self-laudation, he would have been intolerable.
The most singular instance of perverted taste and unmerited eulogy is to be found in his Vision of Judgment, which, as poet-laureate, he produced to the memory of George the Third. The severest criticism upon it is Lord Byron's Vision of Judgment —reckless, but clever and trenchant. The consistency and industry of Southey's life caused him to be appointed poet-laureate upon the death of Pye; and in 1835, having declined a baronetcy, he received an annual pension of L300. Having lost his first wife in 1837, he married Miss Bowles, the poetess, in 1839; but soon after his mind began to fail, and he had reached a state of imbecility which ended in death on the 21st of March, 1843. In 1837, at the age of sixty-three, he collected and edited his complete poetical works, with copious and valuable historical notes.
HISTORICAL VALUE.—It is easy to see in what manner Southey, as a literary man, has reflected the spirit of the age. Politically, he exhibits partisanship from Radical to Tory, which may be clearly discerned by comparing his Wat Tyler with his Vision of Judgment and his Odes. As to literary and poetic canons, his varied metre, and his stories in the style of Wordsworth, show that he had abandoned all former schools. In his histories and biographies he is professedly historical; and in his epics he shows that greater range of learned investigation which is so characteristic of that age. The Curse of Kehama andThalaba would have been impossible in a former age. He himself objected to be ranked with the Lakers; but Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge have too much in common, notwithstanding much individual difference, not to be classed together as innovators and asserters, whether we call them Lakers or something else.
It was on the occasion of his publishing Thalaba, that his name was first coupled with that of Wordsworth. His own words are, “I happened to be residing at Keswick when Mr. Wordsworth and I began to be acquainted. Mr. Coleridge also had resided there; and this was reason enough for classing us together as a school of poets.” There is not much external resemblance, it is true, between Thalaba and theExcursion; but the same poetical motives will cause both to remain unread by the multitude—unnatural comparisons, recondite theology, and a great lack of common humanity. That there was a mutual admiration is found in Southey's declaration that Wordsworth's sonnets contain the profoundest poetical wisdom, and that the Preface is the quintessence of the philosophy of poetry.
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE.—More individual, more eccentric, less commonplace, in short, a far greater genius than either of his fellows, Coleridge accomplished less, had less system, was more visionary and fragmentary than they: he had an amorphous mind of vast proportions. The man, in his life and conversation, was great; the author has left little of value which will last when the memory of his person has disappeared. He was born on the 21st of October, 1772, at Ottery St. Mary. His father was a clergyman and vicar of the parish. He received his education at Christ's Hospital in London, where, among others, he had Charles Lamb as a comrade, and formed with him a friendship which lasted as long as they both lived.
EARLY LIFE.—There he was an erratic student, but always a great reader; and while he was yet a lad, at the age of fourteen, he might have been called a learned man.
He had little self-respect, and from stress of poverty he intended to apprentice himself to a shoemaker; but friends who admired his learning interfered to prevent this, and he was sent with a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1791. Like Wordsworth and Southey, he was an intense Radical at first; and on this account left college without his degree in 1793. He then enlisted as a private in the 15th Light Dragoons; but, although he was a favorite with his comrades, whose letters he wrote, he made a very poor soldier. Having written a Latin sentence under his saddle on the stable wall, his superior education was recognized; and he was discharged from the service after only four months' duty. Eager for adventure, he joined Southey and Lloyd in their scheme of pantisocracy, to which we have already referred; and when that failed for want of money, he married the sister-in-law of Southey—Miss Fricker, of Bristol. He was at this time a Unitarian as well as a Radical, and officiated frequently as a Unitarian minister. His sermons were extremely eloquent. He had already published some juvenile poems, and a drama on the fall of Robespierre, and had endeavored to establish a periodical called The Watchman. He was always erratic, and dependent upon the patronage of his friends; in short, he always presented the sad spectacle of a man who could not take care of himself.
HIS WRITINGS.—After a residence at Stowey, in Somersetshire, where he wrote some of his finest poems, among which were the first part of Christabel, The Ancient Mariner, and Remorse, a tragedy, he was enabled, through the kindness of friends, to go, in 1798, to Germany, where he spent fourteen months in the study of literature and metaphysics. In the year 1800 he returned to the Lake country, where he for some time resided with Southey at Keswick; Wordsworth being then at Grasmere. Then was established as a fixed fact in English literature the Lake school of poetry. These three poets acted and reacted upon each other. From having been great Radicals they became Royalists, and Coleridge's Unitarian belief was changed into orthodox churchmanship. His translation of Schiller's Wallenstein should rather be called an expansion of that drama, and is full of his own poetic fancies. After writing for some time for the Morning Post, he went to Malta as the Secretary to the Governor in 1804, at a salary of L800 per annum. But his restless spirit soon drove him back to Grasmere, and to desultory efforts to make a livelihood.
In 1816 he published the two parts of Christabel, an unfinished poem, which, for the wildness of the conceit, exquisite imagery, and charming poetic diction, stands quite alone in English literature. In a periodical called The Friend, which he issued, are found many of his original ideas; but it was discontinued after twenty-seven numbers. His Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, contains valuable sketches of literary men, living and dead, written with rare critical power.
In his Aids to Reflection, published in 1825, are found his metaphysical tenets; his Table-Talk is also of great literary value; but his lectures on Shakspeare show him to have been the most remarkable critic of the great dramatist whom the world has produced.
It has already been mentioned that when the first volume of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads was published, The Ancient Mariner was included in it, as a poem by an anonymous friend. It had been the intention of Coleridge to publish another poem in the second volume; but it was considered incongruous, and excluded. That poem was the exquisite ballad entitled Love, or Genevieve.
HIS HELPLESSNESS.—With no home of his own, he lived by visiting his friends; left his wife and children to the support of others, and seemed incapable of any other than this shifting and shiftless existence. This natural imbecility was greatly increased during a long period by his constant use of opium, which kept him, a greater portion of his life, in a world of dreams. He was fortunate in having a sincere and appreciative friend in Mr. Gilman, surgeon, near London, to whose house he went in 1816; and where, with the exception of occasional visits elsewhere, he resided until his death in 1834. If the Gilmans needed compensation for their kindness, they found it in the celebrity of their visitor; even strangers made pilgrimages to the house at Highgate to hear the rhapsodies of “the old man eloquent.” Coleridge once asked Charles Lamb if he had ever heard him preach, referring to the early days when he was a Unitarian preacher. “I never heard you do anything else,” was the answer he received. He was the prince of talkers, and talked more coherently and connectedly than he wrote: drawing with ease from the vast stores of his learning, he delighted men of every degree. While of the Lake school of poetry, and while in some sort the creature of his age and his surroundings, his eccentricities gave him a rare independence and individuality. A giant in conception, he was a dwarf in execution; and something of the interest which attaches to a lusus naturae is the chief claim to future reputation which belongs to S. T. C.
HARTLEY COLERIDGE, his son, (1796-1849,) inherited much of his father's talents; but was an eccentric, deformed, and, for a time, an intemperate being. His principal writings were monographs on various subjects, and articles for Blackwood. HENRY NELSON COLERIDGE, (1800-1843,) a nephew and son-in-law of the poet, was also a gifted man, and a profound classical scholar. His introduction to the study of the great classic poets, containing his analysis of Homer's epics, is a work of great merit.