27 MAY 1882, Page 11


"r we want to secure for Wordsworth his true rank as a poet," says Mr. Arnold, with his usual critical dis- crimination, " we must be on our guard against the Words- worthians." But ought we, or ought we not, to be on our guard against so cultivated and shrewd a critic and woman of the world as Mrs. Oliphant, who, in her literary history of England, from the end of the last century to the close of the first quarter of the present century, gives us a very interesting chapter on the authors of the "Lyrical Ballads ?" Is she, too, in this sense a Wordsworthian, or the reverse? Is she, too, in league with Wordsworthians to lay stress upon the points on which Wordsworth is weakest, and to ignore many of those on which he is strongest ? Certainly, Mrs. Oliphant believes herself to be amongst the discriminat- ing few who can magnanimously consent " to lose both Excursion' and Prelude,' rather than consent to part with the Leechgatherer,' and that great Ode which also belongs to these peaceful, prefatory years," who can speak with something like dread of " the waste of sonnets," of which she would desire to save only about "a dozen" from absolute oblivion. She speaks loftily of Peter Bell as mere "dullness and failure," though she admits it to be fitted with a powerful and striking prelimi- nary sketch of the wandering vagrant himself. She lays it down that " Laodamia perhaps shows none of the character-

istic qualities of Wordsworth." She gently depreciates the "Prelude," his poem on the growth of his own mind, and hushes up the " Excursion " with a . compassionate judgment of "long, monotonous, and unequal," describing it as a composition which, " though it contains many passages of the noblest poetry," contains only " here and there a note to which the heart could respond." Taking this entirely nn-Wordsworthian view of Wordsworth, as Mrs. Oliphant does, we were certainly prepared to find her more fully alive to Wordsworth's true weakness than, as a matter of fact, she seems to us to be. She is, indeed, not at all disposed to cast in her lot with those "bold, bad men," to use Mr. Arnold's happy phrase, who quote the dullest passages from Wordsworth at Social- Science Associations, and use him to make enlightenment soporific, and even a poet's "moral being" leaden. Mrs. Oliphant is painfully conscious of Wordsworth's want of humour, of his rather "solemn egotism," and of his undeniable dis- position to preach; and, so far, she may be trusted not to guide the unwary student to the flat passages in Wordsworth, of which discriminating critics well know that there are but too many. But while it is plain enough that Mrs. Oliphant looks at Wordsworth with the shrewd, bright eye of a very keen literary taste, and that anything which she does speak well of is sure to be fairly good of its kind, we are unable to trust her judgment in the criticism of Words-

worth's weak side. Mrs. Oliphant, in her criticism of Wordsworth, is at bottom the woman of society. She is not only a little ashamed of Wordsworth's want of humour, of his almost pedantic simplicity, of the great weight of his moralities, of his earnest disposition to improve the occasion,— in all which she is quite right,--but she is disposed to direct attention as much as possible away from anything that can give rise to ridicule. She even seems to " give place by subjection " to the critics of Lord Jeffrey's type, who, though they detected truly where some of Wordsworth's weaknesses lay, were so absorbed in wonder at the baldnesses which they exposed, as to miss altogether the distinguishing traits of power in the poems of which they had laid bare the weakness. In fact, Mrs. Oliphant seems to us not only quite guiltless of being a Wordsworthian in Mr. Arnold's sense, but hardly enough of a Wordsworthian in any true sense, to appreciate perfectly either the great strength of Wordsworth, or his chief weakness. For instance, when she speaks of the "Anecdote for Fathers" as one of the poems in the "Lyrical Ballads" which indicated Wordsworth's true power, she seems to us to go sadly astray, selecting rather one of those poems which, under some lighter and more playful form, Cowper might have given us, and given us better than Wordsworth, than one which struck in any sense the key-note of Wordsworth's genius. This poem, headed, in its later editions, with the quotation, " Retine vim istam, falsa enim dicam, si coges," in other words, " Don't press heavily on me, for I shall only give you false replies, if you, do," is as follows :—


I have a boy of five years old ; His face is fair and fresh to see ; His limbs are cast in beauty's mould, And dearly he loves me.

One morn we strolled on our dry walk, Our quiet home all full in view, And held such intermitted talk As we are wont to do.

My thoughts on former pleasures ran; I thought of Kilve's delightful shore, Our pleasant home when Spring began, A long, long year before.

A day it was when I could bear Some fond regrets to entertain ; With so much happiness to spare, I could not feel a pain.

The green earth echoed to the feet Of lambs that bounded through the glade, From shade to sunshine, and as fleet From sunshine back to shade.

Birds warbled round me—every trace Of inward sadness had its charm ; Kilve,' said I, was a favoured place, And so is Liswyn farm.'

My Boy was by my aide, so slim And graceful in his rustic dress! And, as we talked, I questioned him, In very idleness.

Now tell me, had you rather be,' I said, and took him by the arm, On Kilve's smooth shore, by the green sea, Or here at Liswyn farm ?'

In careless mood lie looked at me, While still I held him by the arm, And said, ' At Kilve I'd'rather be Than hero at Liswyn farm.'

'Now, little Edward, say why so; My little Edward, tell me why:— I cannot tell, I do not know.'— Why, this is strange,' said I; `For, here are woods, and green hills warm : There surely must some reason be Why you would change sweet Liswyn farm For Kilve by the green sea.'

At this, my Boy hung down his head, He blushed with shame, nor made reply; And five times to the child I said, ' Why, Edward, tell me why ?'

His head he raised—there was in sight, It caught his eye, he saw it plain— Upon the house-top, glittering bright, A broad and gilded Vane.

Then did the Boy his tongue unlock; And thus to me he made reply : 'At Kilve there was no weather-cock, And that's the reason why.'

O dearest, dearest Boy ! my heart For better lore would seldom yearn, Could I but teach the hundredth part Of what from thee I learn."

That is a pretty little poem enough of the anecdotic kind, which any one would praise as graceful, if it were not for the too ecstatic delight of the concluding verse, where the poet has, as it seems to us, extracted, as he often did, more in imagi- nation out of a trifle than there really was in it to be extracted. It was not such a very wonderful lesson of wisdom for the child to give, that if you extorted a reason for a preference which he could not analyse, he would be sure to invent the first that came to hand ; and the " hundredth part " of what this respectable father learned from the child who fastened eagerly on the weathercock as the objectionable feature of Liswyn Farm, seems to us a truly infinitesimal dose of wisdom, which no homoeopathist could underbid. The poem is pretty in a style in which Wordsworth is never very great, but the only essen- tially Wordsworthian thing in it is the undue emphasis, the almost artificial ecstacy of the last verse,—where you see the poet squeezing his almost dry sponge with a dithyrambic rapture for which you can hardly account. It reminds one of the poem on the Gipsies whom the poet accused of having been utterly idle for twelve hours, and whom he addressed in language of extravagant reproach, as follows :- "—Better wrong and strife, Better vain deeds, or evil, than such life ! The silent heavens have goings-on,

The stars have tasks,—bat these have none."

That, as Coleridge remarked, was making a great deal more of the twelve hours of rest which the weary wayfarers had taken,

than the occasion justified. As a rule, in all poems on incident Wordsworth squeezed his moral a great deal too dry ; and, as it seems to us, that is the only specially Wordsworthian touch in the poem of the " Weathercock," a poem which Cowper would have chiselled out with far more delicate touch than Words- worth. But Mrs. Oliphant chooses this otherwise happy trifle, weighted with the unjustified ecstasy of the closing verse, for the highest panegyric she bestows on any one of Wordsworth's slighter poems :—" No one till then, not even Shakespeare him- self, had so revealed that simplest, yet most complex germ of humanity, separated from us by a distinction more subtle than any which exists between rich and poor, yet entirely intelligible to us,—the mind of a child." Well, we should say of that criticism just what we should say of the poem which calls it forth,—that it presses the subject harder than it will bear. Wordsworth got up a rapture over the child's happy fib, which the happy fib did not justify.

Mrs. Oliphant gets up a rapture over the poet's delinea- tion of the happy fib, which that delineation will not justify. She is so glad to direct attention to a graceful popular poem which almost any one might rather like, that she misses the fact that the most Wordsworthian feature in this poem is its heavy rapture, where no rapture is properly justified.

Mrs. Oliphant's want of true Wordsworthianism not only renders her disposed to be too kind to poems deficient in the real Wordsworthian genius, except, indeed, where they display special Wordsworthian defects, but makes her much too contemptuous of poems which have some of the true Wordsworthian genius, in case they are disfigured, as they often are, by the sort of fault to which the public common-sense is most sensitive. Mrs. Oliphant has scarcely words adequate to express her contempt for "The Idiot Boy,"—her chief, and so far as it goes, very just objection, being to the artificial simplicity of the subject, and especially of the names " Betty Foy " and " Susan Gale."

We quite admit the validity of the criticism ; the poem, as a whole, is undoubtedly ostentatiously simple. Betty Foy and Susan Gale are rather ludicrous dramatis personce. The whole style of treatment is unfortunate, is that, namely, in which a poet destitute of humour writes down to the level of his not very sound theory ; but still, when Mrs. Oliphant speaks of the "wordy foolishness" of this poem, and declares it to have been a failure, and an utter failure, she seems to us to show that excessive shame for one of Wordsworth's weaknesses which blinds her to Wordsworth's strength. The poem is certainly far from an utter failure. It is greatly injured by this affectation of simplicity ; but the assertion of an "absolute insignificance " in the incident on which the poem is founded,—that in- cident being really the evidence of that excess of maternal passion which idiocy so often excites in the genuine mother's heart,—is to our minds an utter blunder. The core of the poem is full of significance, and of significance of WordsWorth's highest kind. The deep, homely passion of a mother for her half-witted son is painted on a fine background of natural scenery, and though there are many trivial and feeble verses, in which Wordsworth talks elaborately down to his theory, there are also several from which any critic of insight would have discovered at once that here was a great poet, who understood at once the homely passions of human nature, and the grandeur

of the theatre in which they play their part. Take the follow- ing, for instance:— "She listens, bat she cannot hear

The foot of horse, the voice of man ; The streams with softest sound are flowing, The grass you almost hear it growing,— You hear it now, if e'er you can.

The owlets through the long, blue night Are shouting to each other still ; Fond lovers, yet not quite hobnob, They lengthen out the tremulous sob That echoes far from hill to hill.

. . ..... . And Johnny burrs, and laughs aloud ; Whether in cunning or in joy,

I cannot tell; but while he laughs, Betty a drunken pleasure quaffs To hear again her idiot boy."

We do not defend the form of the poem, or assert that there is beauty or power in the majority of its stanzas ; but in these three stanzas alone there is more of the essence of Words- worth's genius, of the lonely rapture of vision, and the strong human grasp of the ground-passions of our nature, than in twenty such poems as The Anecdote for Fathers." "The Idiot Boy" has much more of Wordsworth's special weakness than the latter poem, but much more of his fundamental imaginative strength of conception, too. The last line but one of those which we have quoted is instinct with the genius of Wordsworth, in spite of the appearance in it of the needlessly objectionable name to which Mrs. Oliphant directs her ridicule.

Wordsworth's weak side, as a poet, was his great difficulty in perceiving when be had and when he had not succeeded in fusing the language which he used with the fire of his own meditative passion. Sometimes, in the midst of a passage of the truest rapture, he will descend suddenly upon a little bit of dry, hard fact, and not be at all aware that the fact remains like an irregular, unlovely stone pressing down a group of flowers, a monument of the sudden failure of the power of his emotion over his lan- guage. Thus, in the lovely lines, " She was a phantom of delight," the reader is suddenly oppressed by being told that the poet at last sees, "with eye serene, the very pulse of the machine,"—as if a phantom of delight could possibly have been a machine, or even, like a waxwork figure, contained one. There is the same fault in one of the finest of the original "Lyrical Ballads,"--the one called "The Thorn," of which Mrs. Oliphant, by the way, who does not seem to have written with a copy of the "Lyrical Ballads" before her, makes no mention, but which Lord Jeffrey epitomised, if we remember rightly, as describing how a woman in a red cloak went up to the top of a hill, and said, " Oh, misery !" and then came down again. The greater part of the ballad, Lord Jeffrey "to the contrary in anywise notwithstanding," as the lawyers say, is penetrated through and through by the most genuine imaginative passion; but when, in the form in which the poem originally appeared, Wordsworth specified the dimen- sions of the little muddy pool by the infant's grave,—

" I've measured it from aide to side ;

'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide," he suddenly precipitated, as it were, into the midst of his poem a little deposit of ugly clay, which made his readers change the sob which the finer parts of the ballad excited, into an hysterical giggle. Wordsworth's weakness—especially in the earlier part of his career as a poet—was this, that he never knew how far his imagination had transmuted, or had failed to transmute, the rough clay of rude circumstance into the material of his plastic art. He was not awakened from his dream by such a descent as we have just quoted, and he did not know that his readers, who did not fully enter into his ecstacy, and probably did see, what Wordsworth could not see, the ludicrous contrasts and inequalities of his mood, would be awakened from their dream by these shocks. We find fault with Mrs. Oliphant, not for seeing how puerile and dull Words- worth often is—that we frankly admit—but for giving up so much that was penetrated with his highest genius, only because it is injured by flaws of puerility and dullness, and yet at the same time greatly over-praising, as it seems to ns, somewhat conventional poems, which, pretty and pleasing though they be, have more in them to remind us of other poets than they have to remind us of Wordsworth. She speaks of Coleridge as having produced much the greatest poem in the "Lyrical Ballads," and, as far as popularity goes, she is right. The " Ancient Mariner " is a glorious dream, which will always fascinate those who care for an eerie conception magnificently expressed. But the "Ancient Mariner" has nothing in it to compare in force and passion with the " Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey," the "Mad Mother," "The Thorn," "Ruth," and "Michael," all of which appeared among the "Lyrical Ballads," and to none of which does Mrs. Oliphant make the slightest reference, when she is criticising them. Yet these are pieces which found out the source of rapture in many a heart, which sprang a well of living water never reached before, a feat which we venture to think that the splendid dream of the " Ancient Mariner," far more superficially captivating as it is, rarely, if ever, accom- plished; and these pieces of Wordsworth's achieved this unique triumph simply because the fountains of Wordsworth's poetry sprang from so much deeper a source in his nature, than did the pictures of Coleridge's gorgeous dream.