THE POET OF NATURE
Matthew Arnold has well said that Wordsworth is one of the chief glories of English poetry, and he adds that by nothing is England so glorious as by her poetry. When we think of what England has done for liberty and for religion, it may seem at first thought extravagant to call her greatest gift to the world the gift of poetry. But it is her poetry, in which England's liberty and religion are best expressed. Matthew Arnold himself suggests the point of view from which his words can be interpreted, when he says that "poetry is the most perfect speech of man, that in which he comes nearest to being able to utter the truth."
I wish to compare with this a passage from John Stuart Mill. The philosopher and economist, in a time of great mental depression, sought relief in the reading of poetry. He read Byron, but he found his own ennui and discontent only reflected to him. He turned to Wordsworth. There he found medicine for his state of mind, because Wordsworth's poems furnished the culture of the emotions which he was in quest of. They awakened not only the love of rural beauty but a greatly increased interest in the common destiny of human beings.
"The result was," said Mr. Mill, "that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it I long continued to value Wordsworth, less according to his intrinsic merits, than by the measure of what he had done for me. Compared with the greatest poets, he may be said to be the poet of unpoetical natures, possessed of quiet and contemplative tastes. But unpoetical natures are precisely those which require poetic cultivation. This cultivation Wordsworth is much more fitted to give, than poets who are intrinsically far more poets than he."
The characterization of Wordsworth as "the poet of unpoetical natures" is itself a stroke of genius; and, by combining the thought of it with Arnold's dictum about poetry, we may get a new understanding of Wordsworth's exact place in literature. Our poet was primarily a seeker after truth. But he did. not regard truth as consisting solely or mainly in mere facts, or in mere abstract propositions. To him truth was reality, the inner lite of things. The world of nature and of man expressed not only thought but feeling, and this thought and feeling was the thought and feeling of a Being greater than the world, because he was the Maker and the Life of the world. The macrocosm could be interpreted by the microcosm, for macrocosm and microcosm alike were modes in which the Infinite One made himself known to us. It is the great and unique merit of Wordsworth that he first used the common, unsophisticated, primary, and uersal sympathies of humanity, to interpret the physical uerse in which humanity has its dwelling-place. He is the poet of nature, because he perceives the kinship between nature and man by reason of their common origin and life in God.
There was need enough of such poetry as this, for the thought of the world had for many a day tended to sunder nature from God, and so to sunder nature from HIS RELATION TO PRECEDING THOUGHT 337
man. The Hebrews saw God in nature. They said, "The God of glory thundereth," and "The heavens declare the glory of God." Our Lord declared that God fed the birds, and clothed the grass of the field with beauty. Paul and John recognized the presence of God in his works. As all men "live, move, and have their being" in God, so all things "consist" or hold together in Christ, the one great Revealer of God; "whatever has come into being was life in him." The Eastern Church in general held more strongly to this conception of God's immanence than did the Western; Augustine and Calvin unduly emphasized the forensic element, and made God's operation more a matter of law than of life. So Puritan theology led by natural reaction to deism, with its distant God and its automatic uerse. Upton has said:
The defect of deism is that on the human side it treats all men as isolated individuals, forgetful of the immanent divine nature that interrelates them and in a measure unifies them, and that on the divine side it separates man from God and makes the relation between them a purely external one.1
On this view, man loses his dignity, and the sympathies and aspirations which men have in common cease to be matters of interest or concern. But nature follows the fate of man. It becomes a curious machine, whose mathematics may be studied, but whose life and glory have departed. A uerse which can get on without God has no longer anything which irresistibly attracts the mind of man. There is no affinity between man and nature; nature has no voice with which to stir man's heart; nature indeed is dead.
1 " Hibbert Lectures," 287.
These were the influences which had come to reign in English literature before Wordsworth began his work. A formal and mechanical versifying had taken the place of the Elizabethan vigor and insight. Pope showed what talent could do without genius, what mere taste could do without a lofty faith. But a new breath of life swept over the world. The French Revolution was the sign of it in politics; the transcendental school of Kant and Fichte and Schelling was the sign of it in philosophy; Burns, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth, were signs of it in English literature. The greatest of these poets was Wordsworth. He was greatest because he, most distinctly of all poets up to his time, apprehended the principle of all true poetry and most consistently and continuously applied it to the description of nature and of man. Henry Crabb Robinson states the principle, when he says that "by the imagination the mere fact is connected with that Infinity without which there is no poetry." Wordsworth regarded it as his sacred mission to show that the world is full of beauty and meaning because it is throbbing with the life of God. Nothing is insignificant or valueless, for each thing manifests the "Wisdom and Spirit of the uerse." "Amongst least things he had an undersense of the greatest." We see in him the true biological impulse which since his day has transformed science as well as literature, and Emerson only expressed Wordsworth's leading thought, when he wrote,
In the mud and scum of things
Something always, always sings.
It is fortunate that we have in "The Prelude" the
poet's .account of the growth of his own mind. For frank unfolding of the innermost experiences of a great man and a great writer, it holds much the same place in literature as that which is held in philosophy by Descartes' "Treatise on Method," and in theology by the "Confessions " of Augustine. "The Prelude" is a poem of nine thousand lines, yet it is intended only as a sort of ante-chapel to a great cathedral upon which Wordsworth intended to spend the main labor of his life, and to which his minor poems were to sustain the relation of niches, chantries, oratories, and altars. "The Excursion," nearly eleven thousand lines in length, was the only part of the great structure which the poet actually completed. It was meant to be the second book of the poem. "The Recluse," of which only fragments were written, was to be the first book. The third book never existed except in Wordsworth's imagination. In many ways "The Prelude," though long and occasionally prosaic, is an invaluable record. The poet has there disclosed himself more perfectly than Dante or Milton ever did. As we read, we see a vigorous and healthy, yet a calm and quiet spirit developing under our eyes, even though we fail to see the justice of Coleridge's praise when he described the poem as
An Orphic song, indeed,
A song divine of high and passionate thoughts,
To their own music chanted.
A peasant near Rydal was asked during the poet's lifetime: "What sort of a man is Mr. Wordsworth?" and the reply was: "Oh, sir, he goes humming and muffling and talking to himself; but whiles he's as sensible as you or me!" In this matter of meditation upon nature, the child was father of the man. From his earliest youth he ranged the open heights, rowed upon the lake, angled in lonely brooks, or "alone upon some jutting eminence" watched for the gleams of dawn. So he tells us "the foundations of his mind were laid." At first he passively received, passively enjoyed. But at length he became conscious that "a plastic power abode within him," "a local spirit of his own, at war with general tendency." The creative impulse began to awaken:
An auxiliar light,
Came from my mind, which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendor.
But even this creation was reproduction, for he was able to create only because of the pre-existing harmony between man and nature. "He began to construe the uersal life as quasi-human," says Professor Knight, his biographer. "Delight in nature for herself was exchanged for delight in nature for what she revealed of man. The process of idealization, or rather, of interpretation, was matured, only when he detached himself from nature and realized the separateness and the kindredness together."
As if awakened, summoned, roused, constrained,
I looked for uersal things, perused
The common countenance of earth and sky;
Earth, nowhere unembellished by some trace
Of that first paradise whence man was driven;
And sky, whose beauty and whose bounty are expressed
By the proud name she bears—the name of heaven.
I called on both to teach me what they might;
HE SOUGHT TRUTH MORE THAN BEAUTY 34I
Or turning the mind in upon herself
Pored, watched, expected, listened, spread my thoughts
And spread them with a wider creeping; felt
Incumbencies more awful, visitings
Of the Upholder of the tranquil soul,
That tolerates the indignities of time
And, from the center of eternity
All finite motions overruling, lives
In glory immutable.
Yet, with all this love for nature and insight into her meaning, Wordsworth was a homely and almost a rustic poet. It was truth that he sought, even more than beauty. And he tended to express the truth he saw in common phrase. One can hardly avoid the conviction that the meager and plain surroundings of his childhood, and the lack of cultivated society, made him tolerant of rude and inharmonious speech, and ready to lapse into bare and dull expression, when the creative impulse within him grew weak. He had little or no sense of humor, to preserve him from unconsciously degenerating into commonplace. Many of his minor poems are like Sunday-school talks in words of one syllable—they underrate the intelligence of his readers. Even in the larger poems there is not enough of linked sweetness to make up for the fact that they are so long drawn out. The truth is that all the best work of Wordsworth was done from his twenty-eighth to his thirty-eighth year. After that decade had passed, the spontaneity of his verse seemed to vanish, while yet his indomitable industry remained. From thirty-eight to eighty, a long course of forty-two years, he was fruitlessly chasing poetry, as the boy pursues the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow.
The sense of a vocation dawned upon him as early as his nineteenth year. He was then a student of St. John's College, Cambridge. He had brought thither a robust vitality, a habit of solitary wandering in the woods and fields, and a genuinely meditative spirit. He was a great reader, but he was no great scholar. Yet uersity life strongly influenced him. As he sat in the chambers of Milton, or looked upon the statue of Newton, the past got hold upon him. He says:
I could not print
Ground where the grass had yielded to the steps
Of generations of illustrious men,
He became aware of the fact that he had a peculiar gift of observation and insight, and that he might be able, "else deeply sinning," to leave behind him some work which "pure hearts would reverence." His conception of his office was no mean or humble one. He held that no poet could be great unless he was a teacher as well as a versifier, and unless the result of his teaching was the ennobling of character. He regarded Sir Walter Scott, not as a poet, but as a novelist in verse, because he had "never written anything addressed to the immortal part of man "; and Wordsworth was not inconsistent with himself when, on Scott's departure to Naples in search of health, he declared that the might
Of the whole world's good wishes with him goes;
Blessings and prayers in nobler retinue
Than sceptred king or laureled conqueror knows,
Follow this wondrous Potentate.
So he did not think Goethe a great writer. Homer THE POET OF NATURAL RELIGION 343
and Shakespeare he called uersal. "Goethe," he said, "tried the uersal, without ever being able to avoid exposing his individuality, which his character was not of a kind to dignify. His moral perceptions were not sufficiently clear to make him anything but an artificial writer." Wordsworth has expressed the sense of his mission in the words:
He serves the Muses erringly and ill
Whose aim is pleasure light and fugitive.
O that my mind were equal to fulfill
The comprehensive mandate which they give!
Vain aspiration of an earnest will!
Yet in this moral strain a power may live.
And, like Milton, he invokes the Spirit of God to help his high endeavor:
Descend, prophetic Spirit ! that inspirest
The human soul of uersal earth,
Dreaming on things to come, and dost possess
A metropolitan temple in the hearts
Of mighty poets ; upon me bestow
A gift of genuine insight; that my song
With starlike virtue in its place may shine,
Shedding benignant influence—and secure,
Itself, from all malevolent effect
Of those mutations that extend their sway
Throughout the nether sphere!
It must not be inferred that Wordsworth was a specifically Christian poet. It was not his business to put dogma into verse, or to buttress any particular ecclesiastical system. He valued the Church of England as a safeguard of popular morals, a comforter of the poor, an elevator of national ideals, and a noble inheritance from the past. "I would lay down my life for the church," he said. But it is still true that he did not often attend the services of the church. We are reminded of the Polish nobleman who was ready to die for his country, but who could not be prevailed upon to live in it. It was not so much the Christian scheme which the poet conceived himself as set to teach. It was rather the great truths of natural religion, which lie at the basis of the Christian scheme indeed, but which may be treated apart from their relation to a supernatural revelation. This is his meaning when he says:
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
God is manifested in nature. He may be recognized in the unity, law, order, harmony, of the world. Our own intelligence and affection find even in the physical uerse another and a higher intelligence and affection coming out to meet us. The storm reveals a power, and the sunshine reveals a love, which gives us joy. This recognition of nature's divinity, and the submission of the soul to its tranquilizing and restoring influence, is what Wordsworth means by "natural piety."
This is not Christianity, but it is not inconsistent with Christianity. God has not left himself without a witness, even where the light of Christ's gospel has never shone. Paul declares that "the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are plainly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity." And these presuppositions of Christianity are of inestimable importance.
NOT INCONSISTENT WITH CHR1STIANITY 345
Men will not believe in supernatural revelation, unless they first believe in a God from whom such supernatural revelation may come. The tendency of deistic thought has always been to render Christianity an impertinence and an absurdity. Wordsworth's poetry was one long protest against this banishment of God from his uerse. Because he believes in "Nature's self, which is the breath of God," he can also believe in "his pure word, by miracle revealed." And rather than abandon this pure elementary faith in a divine life hidden beneath the raiment of the natural world, he would go back to heathen religion, because that still preserved some remnants of the truth.
Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Wordsworth's biographer tells us that "'The Eclectic Review' criticised 'The Excursion' as pointedly insinuating that nature is a sort of God, and that the love of nature is a sanctifying process." It regarded the religious character of the poem as doubtful. All such criticism savors strongly of Philistinism. It is like denouncing Humboldt's "Cosmos" as atheistic, because the author confines himself to physics and never once mentions the name of God. We must not judge a writer by what he does not say, but only by what he does say. Let us grant him the right to choose his province. Wordsworth's province was the religion of nature, and there he was great. It was well that he did not attempt theology, for there he was not great. Yet he was a believer in the simple facts of Scripture. He left their systematizing and their interpretation to others. Perhaps the best understanding of his position may be gotten from his own words. He writes:
Theologians may puzzle their heads about dogmas as they will; the religion of gratitude cannot mislead us. Of that we are sure; and gratitude is the handmaid to hope, and hope the harbinger of faith. I look abroad upon nature, I think of the best part of our species, I lean upon my friends, and I meditate upon the Scripture, especially the Gospel of St John, and my creed rises up of itself, with the ease of an exhalation, yet a fabric of adamant
No account of Wordsworth's life and work would be complete or even correct, which did not make mention of two other persons who had the largest influence upon him. One of these was his sister Dorothy, and the other was Coleridge. The death of the poet's mother when he was eight years of age, and the death of his father when he was fourteen, had broken up the family.and had separated its members from one another. They lived with a grandfather or with an uncle. But after Wordsworth finished his course at Cambridge, he and his sister began their simple life together, and led that simple life for more than sixty years. It was one soul in two bodies. When the poet married Mary Hutchinson, the quiet and kindly friend of his childhood, brother and sister were still as inseparable as ever.
It is doubtful whether literary history can furnish another such instance of absolute devotion as that which Dorothy Wordsworth showed toward her brother. She DOROTHY COMPLEMENTED HER BROTHER 347
lived only in him and for him. The labor of writing was irksome to him; she put down upon paper line upon line as the words fell from his lips. Endless copying of manuscript, after endless correction, occupied her often far on into the night. She was the constant companion of his walks at all hours of daylight or dark, in all weathers, with little care for proper clothing or food, of which indeed there was never too much, for the Wordsworths lived for years at Grasmere on only seventy pounds a year. They were poor, and were not ashamed to be poor. Yet Coleridge said: "His is the happiest family I ever saw." They lived for a great end, the development of a noble poetic gift, the discovery and expression of the beauty and meaning of the world. Wordsworth was "very much resigned to his own company." He would often walk on in sublime meditation, while wife and sister submissively followed, hopefully . waiting for the utterances of the oracle. Coleridge was often with them. The four discussed every aspect of the scenes about them. Then they stopped to eat their bread and cheese. Dorothy says in her diary: "We rested upon a moss-covered rock, rising out of the bed of the river. William and Coleridge repeated and read verses. I drank a little brandy and water, and was in heaven."
Dorothy Wordsworth, as her diaries show, was a woman of genius. She furnished the complement to her brother; he found in her the sprightliness and sweetness which in him were somewhat lacking. She was no merely passive recipient, for she was more full of suggestion even than he. Exquisite sensibility was united with extraordinary insight, the deepest feeling with the minutest observation. Innocent, ardent, loving, the secret of nature seemed disclosed to her, but all the treasure that she found she laid at her brother's feet. There was a sort of communism between them. He used her journals at times for the material of his poems, and even extracted bits of it for his letters, because he could not compose anything better. Dorothy did everything for him, even wrote his love letters, since he detested correspondence. There was little of romance in him; there was much of romance in her. He could go to the cemetery and look at the tombstones a few hours after his wedding, and that in spite of the fact that the exquisite poem, "She was a Phantom of Delight," was written for his bride. His sister did much to correct this austerity. And though, like Milton, he did not greatly devote himself to his sister or to his wife, he has recognized his debt to Dorothy in his poems. He says, for example:
I too exclusively esteemed that love
And sought that beauty which (as Milton sings)
Hath terror in it. Thou didst soften down
And it was of Dorothy that he wrote:
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
And humble cares and delicate fears,
And love and thought and joy.
It could be wished that the record of such lifelong sisterly devotion could be written without intimation that harm of any sort had come from it. But the poet himself was rendered too autocratic and seclusive, while THE INFLUENCE OF COLERIDGE 349
Dorothy's health was injured by exhausting walks and long exposures to wind and rain. Wordsworth's own robust constitution could endure the strain, but with his sister the intense spirit "O'erinformed its tenement of clay," and her last years were years of mental alienation, with only occasional gleams of smoldering genius. Yet it was she who, at an earlier day, when her brother was for a time skeptical, depressed, bewildered, almost ready to give up his vocation in despair, brought him back to calmness and to faith. "Then it was," he says:
Thanks to the bounteous Giver of all good,
That the beloved sister in whose sight
Those days were passed—now speaking in a voice
Of sudden admonition, like a brook
That did but cross a lonely road, and now
Is seen, heard, felt, and caught at every turn,
Companion never lost through many a league—
Maintained for me a saving intercourse
With my true self; for though bedimmed and changed
Much, as it seemed, I was no further changed
Than as a clouded and a waning moon:
She whispered still that brightness would return;
She, in the midst of all, preserved me still
A poet, made me seek beneath that name,
And that alone, my office upon earth.
Coleridge too must be mentioned, because he contributed to Wordsworth an element of ideality which would otherwise have been imperfectly developed. We must remember their early friendship and their great influence upon each other. Damon and Pythias had scarcely a warmer affection. Here too, each furnished what the other lacked. Coleridge had more of the native poetic instinct, but he had also the discursive and philosophic mind. It may be questioned whether we should ever have found in Wordsworth the metaphysical element which here and there characterizes his poems, if it had not been for his long communings with Coleridge. Coleridge was "the Friend" to whom the outpourings of heart in "The Prelude" were addressed. On the other hand it was Wordsworth who gave to Coleridge whatever practical wisdom he ever had, and who taught him that
to the solid ground
Of Nature trusts the mind that builds for aye.
Wordsworth himself was ignorant enough of the affairs of this life, but Coleridge was an infant beside him. When the two tried for a half-hour to get the collar off a horse without ever thinking of turning it, they showed that they were more familiar with "the light that never was on sea or land," than they were with the lights of modern horsemanship. Coleridge had imagination, and could write his "Hymn at Chamounix," with its sublime description of the avalanche, without ever having seen either Chamounix or an avalanche. But Wordsworth taught him something of the observation of nature. Wordsworth suggested those realistic features of the "Ancient Mariner," the shooting of the albatross and the navigation of the ship by the dead men. In fact, the interpretation of nature as the continual manifestation of God may possibly be the echo of Wordsworth's thought. At any rate, Coleridge had in some way learned the secret which Plato ,md Plotinus had taught long before, and in his "jEolian Harp" had written:
THE BREAKING OF THEIR INTIMACY 351
And what if all of animated Nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o' er them sweeps,
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each and God of all.
It seems a great pity that these two gifted souls, so fitted to supplement each other's virtues and correct each other's faults, should, after long and loving intercourse, have fallen apart and ceased greatly to influence each other. It was partly the fault of circumstances, partly the fault of natural temperament. Coleridge's marriage was unhappy, and separation from wife and family made him a wanderer. Opium, taken at first to ease pain, became a fearful tyrant; conscience became dull, and will became impotent; to know that a thing ought to be done was the very reason why the doing of it was impossible. Coleridge fled from Wordsworth's compassion, and an estrangement began which was never wholly removed. Possibly it was this estrangement which Coleridge had in mind when he wrote:
Alas, they had been friends in youth;
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love
Doth work like madness in the brain.
And thus it chanced, as I divine,
With Roland and Sir Leoline.
Each spake words of high disdain
And insult to his heart's best brother;
They parted—ne' er to meet again!
But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining.
They stood aloof, the scars remaining.
Li' :clifl's that had been rent asunder;
A - i -jary sea flows now between ;—
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.
And yet each loved the other to the end. The separation was due to mutual knowledge of each other's limitations. Coleridge disliked Wordsworth's excessive frugality, and spoke of his occasional fits of hypochondria. Yet he called Wordsworth "the first and greatest philosophical poet." Wordsworth on the other hand thought Coleridge "destined to be unhappy." When Coleridge died, the poet felt that he could not write an elegy; the tie between them was too close, the pain was too overwhelming. Coleridge, as Dr. Knight had said, "was his earliest and closest friend, and his most illustrious contemporary in English literature." All he could venture to say of him, a year and a half after he was dead, is in these following words:
Every moral power of Coleridge
Is frozen at its marvelous source; . .
The rapt one of the godlike forehead,
The heaven-eyed creature, sleeps in earth.
The three poems which mark the highest poetical attainment of Wordsworth are the "Intimations of Immortality," "Tintern Abbey," and "Ode to Duty." The first has in it most of nhilosophy, the second most of religion, the third most f morality. Together they furnish an admirable test of the poet's range and quality. So lofty and noble a-e they, that we are tempted to wish, for his fame's sal that he had never written
anything else, and that these shining mountain peaks had not requiied so vast a body of comnvinplace earth and rock for their foundation. Yet these great poems are the outgrowth of Wordsworth's whole literary life and work, and they cannot be understood by themselves. Let us take them successively and subject them to critical examination, in the light of what we have learned of the poet's mind and aim.
The "Intimations of Immortality" is an attempt to show that man must live after death because he lived before he was born. The argument is as old as Plato. In the " Phaedo " this is the chief and most impressive consideration upon which the sublime faith in immortality is based. Plato held that intuitive ideas, such as ideas of space, time, cause, substance, right, God, are reminiscences of things learned in a previous state of being. He regarded the body as the grave of the soul, and urged the fact that the soul had knowledge before it entered the body, as proof that the soul would have knowledge after it left -the body. But even in Plato this argument is based upon an unconscious identification of the ideal with the actual. The truth at the foundation of the theory of pre-existence is simply the ideal existence of the soul, before birth, in the mind of God—that is, God's foreknowledge of it. The intuitive ideas, of which the soul finds itself in possession, are really evolved from itself; in other words, man is so constituted that he perceive,' these truths upon proper occasions or conditions; ths, fact that they are not derived from sense by no means proves that they are recollections of what was learned in a previous or timeless state of being. .j;
Yet the persistence of this speculation is a curiosity in philosophy, theology, and literature. Philo and Origen both held to it, the former to account for the soul's imprisonment in the body, the latter to justify the disparity of conditions under which men enter the world. Kant and Julius Miiller have advocated it in Germany, and Edward Beecher in America, upon the ground that the inborn depravity of the human will can be explained only by supposing a personal act of self-determination before the present life began. The large place which the doctrine of the transmigration of souls holds in the Indian religions is known to all, but it may not be so generally known that a sort of metempsychosis has been favored in Scotland, and in our own day, by Professor Knight, the editor and biographer of Wordsworth. That Wordsworth himself made the idea the basis of his great poem is not so wonderful when we remember that Vaughan in the "Retreate," so early as 1621, used the same idea, and probably gave to Wordsworth the clew which he has more successfully followed, as Tennyson in his "Two Voices," and Browning in his "La Saisiaz," have followed Wordsworth.
The poets, however, have added something to the philosophers. They have utilized a peculiar experience which men like Walter Scott have vividly described, namely the apparent recollection that we have seen at some time past a landscape which we know to be now for the first time before us, or that before the present time we have passed through an exigency which our sober reason tells us we now first confront. It is probably an illusion of the memory, a mistaking of a part for the whole: we have seen something like a part of
SEEMING RECOLLECTIONS OF THE PAST 355
the landscape—we fancy that we have seen this landscape and the whole of it. So our recollection of a past event is one whole, but this idea of the whole may have an indefinite number of subordinate ideas existing within it; the sight of something similar to one of these parts suggests the whole which the parts make up. Augustine hinted that this illusion of the memory may have played an important part in developing the belief in metempsychosis—we infer that, since what we remember has never happened in this world, it must have happened in some world which we inhabited before we entered upon this.
The fact that Coleridge busied himself with this problem, and suggested that "likeness in part tends to become likeness of the whole," makes it a very interesting question how far Wordsworth's adoption of the idea may have been due to the influence of Coleridge. But a still more interesting question is how far Wordsworth's adoption of the idea may be said to express his own conviction of the truth, or how far we may believe it to be a jea d'esprit, or a mere device of fancy to attract us to his poetry. Here we must confess that what we know of the poet's solemn earnestness, his passion for truth, his scorn of all disingenuous arts and tricks, inclines us to reject the second explanation and to accept the first. In this greatest of his poems he seems, if ever, to be speaking out of his own innermost mind and heart. The "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is not argument from our present recollections of our past childhood, but from the recollections which we had, when we were children, of a previous state of being. A few quotations from the poem will possibly assume a new aspect when we remember this:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
The homely Nurse [Earth] doth all she can
To make her foster child, her inmate man,
Forget the glories he hath known.
And that imperial palace whence he came.
Thou, over whom thy immortality
Broods like the day, a master o' er a slave,
A presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height I
O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise,
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Falling from us, vanishings,
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts before which our mortal nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
But for those first affections
Those shadowy recollections
RECOLLECTIONS OF PRE-EXISTENCE IN GOD 357
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day.
Are yet the master-light of all our seeing:
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal silence; truths that wake
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavor,
Nor man, nor boy.
Nor all that is at enmity with joy.
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather,
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
It is impossible to read these lines carefully without perceiving that the recollections which the poet attributes to childhood are not recollections of a personal existence in a preceding state of being. They are rather recollections of what belonged to it before it "drew from out the vast," as Tennyson has expressed it; survivals, in the finite personality, of knowledge in the infinite personality from which it has come; in other words, God's ideas revealing themselves in the creature who partakes of his life. Not ideal pre-existence in God's foreknowledge, but substantial pre-existence in God's being, is the thought of Wordsworth. While nature is the constant expression of the divine mind and will, man is an actual emanation from God himself, and therefore
Both in perception and discernment, first
In every capability of rapture,
Through the divine effect of power and love:
As, more than anything we know, instinct
With godhead and, by reason and by will,
Acknowledging dependency sublime.
Our destiny, our being's heart and home
Is with infinitude and only there.
And this interpretation is confirmed by other passages in the "Excursion" as well as in the "Prelude ":
Ah, why in age
Do we revert so fondly to the walks
Of childhood, but that there the soul discerns
The dear memorial footsteps unimpaired
Of her own native vigor; thence can hear
Reverberations; and a choral song,
Commingling with the incense that ascends
Undaunted toward the imperishable heavens
From her own lonely altar.
Thou, thou alone
Art everlasting, and the blessed spirits
Which thou includest, as the sea her waves.
Our childhood sits,
Our simple childhood, sits upon a throne,
That hath more power than all the elements;
I guess not what this tells of Being past,
Nor what it augurs of the life to come.
We must confess that if this were all, the proof of immortality would be defective. If the soul had no personal existence before it entered upon its present state, it may have no personal existence after this present state is ended. As it came from the boundless infinite, so to the boundless infinite it may return, mergIMAGINATION IS CREATIVE REASON 359
ing its little wave once more in the great ocean from which it sprang. But another thought is suggested which helps the proof. It is that of the divine love. He who gave being to these sons of men will not disappoint their expectations nor put an end to their progress. Made in the image of God, only an eternity will suffice for their development. Their sympathies are evidence of God's sympathies. Their very longing for immortality is the impulse of divinity within them, and so is prophetic of the future:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be,
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering,
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
That Wordsworth advocated no pantheistic confounding of the soul with God, but rather believed in a personal consciousness and life beyond the grave, is evident from his poem, "The Primrose of the Rock ":
Sin-blighted though we are, we too,
The reasoning sons of men,
From one oblivious winter called,
Shall rise and breathe again ;.
And in eternal summer lose
Our threescore years and ten.
To humbleness of heart descends
This prescience from on high,
The faith that elevates the just,
Before and when they die;
And makes each soul a separate heaven,
A court for Deity.
In the lines composed a few miles above "Tintern Abbey," on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, we have the poet's most complete expression of his views of the relation between nature and God. But in order fully to understand it, we need to take a slight preliminary survey of some of his other utterances, es: pecially those with reference to imagination and the office of a poet. As I have already intimated, Wordsworth regards love as a medium of insight into truth. Beauty cannot be perceived by him who has no love for beauty, and the morally right cannot be perceived by him who has no love for the morally right. Reason, in its largest sense, is far more than reasoning—it is the mind's whole power of knowing, and to the highest exercise of reason a right state of the sensibilities and affections is just as essential as merely perceptive and logical power.
Intellect is not the whole of man; the integral man is made up of emotion as well as intellect. The feelings give wings to the intellect and permit it to soar into lofty regions of truth, when without right feeling intellect would grovel on the earth and learn nothing of the true meaning of the uerse. Nor can mere love for the creature ensure the higher intelligence; only love to God can enable us to understand the least of God's works. All the delights of love are pitiable—
AN ORGAN FOR THE RECOGNITION OF TRUTH. 361
Unless this love by a still higher love
Be hallowed, love that breathes not without awe,
Love that adores, but on the knees of prayer,
By heaven inspired ; that frees from chains the soul,
Lifted, in union with the purest, best
Of earth-born passions, on the wings of praise,
Bearing a tribute to the Almighty's throne.
And now we have, directly following this passage of the "Prelude," the most notable and valuable definition of imagination to be found in all poetical literature:
This spiritual love acts not nor can exist
Without imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power,
And clearer insight, amplitude of mind,
And reason in her most exalted mood.
The imagination of a pure and loving soul is therefore an organ for the recognition of truth. The creative faculty in the poet is like the microscope or the telescope—it does not invent but rather discovers ; that others do not see is simply the fault of their defective vision. And imagination in man enables him to enter into the thought of God—the creative element in us is the medium through which we perceive the meaning of the Creator in his creation. The world without answers to the world within, because God is the soul of both. Even the least sensitive are stirred at times by the cataract or the storm.
The power which all
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus
To bodily sense exhibits, is the express
Resemblance of that glorious faculty
That higher minds bear with them as their own;
This is the very spirit in which they deal
With the whole compass of the uerse;
They from their native selves can send abroad
Kindred mutations. . .
They build up greatest things
From least suggestions. . .
Such minds are truly from the Deity,
For they are Powers; and hence the highest bliss
That flesh can know is theirs—the consciousness
Of Whom they are, habitually infused
Through every image and through every thought,
And all affections by communion raised
From earth to heaven, from human to divine.
So to the poet:
The unity of all hath been revealed,
Feeling has to him imparted power
That through the growing faculties of sense
Doth, like an agent of the one great Mind,
Create, creator and receiver both,
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds.
He catches glimpses of affinities
In objects where no brotherhood exists
To passive minds. . .
Even in their fixed and steady lineaments
He traced an ebbing and a flowing mind,
Expression ever varying.
I felt the sentiment of Being, spread
O'er all that moves and all that seemeth still, . .
Communing in this sort through earth and heaven
With every form of creature as it looked
Toward the Uncreated with a countenance
Of adoration, with an eye of love.
Coming now to Wordsworth's great poem of "Tintern Abbey," we can see how the poet has condensed a whole system of thought into his verse. The ministries of nature have given him "sensations sweet " and happy memories:
Nor less, I trust.
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime ; that blessed mood,
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
It was not always thus, however:
For nature then
To me was all in all. I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur ; other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains ; and of all that we behold
From this green earth ; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half create
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
We can understand now what Wordsworth means by Nature, and why he can recognize in her an instructor, protector, and comforter. If Nature had been to him a dead somewhat, something unintelligent, foreign, and unknown, no verse of this sort would have been possible. It is only because Nature is to him, as Goethe phrased it, "the living garment of the Deity," nay, more, the constant expression of divine intelligence and love, that he can cherish toward it affection and find in it a guide. Nature is not created by fiat and then left by God to itself. The Creator is ever active—he is in
the smallest of his works, and the smallest of them, as truly as the greatest, is the arena in which his omnipresence and omnipotence display themselves. Therefore
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
But therefore also the simple and common emotions and affections of humanity are the best guide to the interpretation of nature, since the same God who is present in the one is present also in the other. From this point of view Wordsworth's preference for humble life, with its joys and sorrows, is explicable. It was the primitive and unsophisticated that taught him most of God. The uersal feelings, he thought, were the most significant. The hopes and fears of all tell us more about the secret of the world than do the hopes and fears of some, even though they be the rich and cultivated few. His poetry busied itself with the toil and suffering, the hope and love, of the poor. He disclosed the hidden sources of content which are possessed by the shepherd on the hillside and the grandame at her loom. He sang of "joy in widest commonalty spread." He glorified the obscure. He had hope for the fallen. And that because he saw in man, as in nature, the common life of God.
Neither vice nor guilt,
Debasement undergone by body or mind,
Nor all the misery forced upon my sight,
Misery not lightly passed, but sometimes scanned
Most feelingly, could overthrow my trust
In what we may become.
I have reserved to the last the mention of the "Ode to Duty," not only because the ethical seems naturally to follow the philosophical and theological, but because this ode, in my judgment, is the most noble and complete of Wordsworth's poems. Though briefer by far than either of the two just examined, it is more sustained in its dignity, and has a flavor of antique grandeur which reminds us of the best work of Milton. In this ode, moreover, we have the best assurance that Wordsworth was no pantheist, and that he never meant, when he looked upon God as the life of nature and of man, to break down all moral boundaries and confound the human personality with the divine. If this had been the case, conscience would have been declared to be God's own voice within the soul. In the first line of the ode, however, duty is addressed as
Stern daughter of the voice of God.
It is an allusion to the rabbinic doctrine of the Bath-kol, or " Daughter of the Voice." The later Jewish teachers held that the Holy Spirit spoke during the tabernacle by Urim and Thummim, under the first temple by the prophets, but under the second temple by the Bath-kol, a divine intimation as inferior to the oracular voice proceeding from the mercy-seat as a daughter is supposed to be inferior to her mother. Hence an approving conscience came to be called Bath-kol, and the rabbins intimated thereby that while conscience holds a relation to God's voice, is indeed the reflection or echo of that voice, it is not to be identified with it. Man has a connection of life with God, even as his being has sprung from God. But the creature is not the Creator. Man has an independent mind and
CONSCIENCE A WITNESS AGAINST PANTHEISM 367
will. Though his conscience testifies to his divine origin, it also testifies to the fact that he is free.
Look up to heaven! the industrious sun
Already half his race hath run;
He cannot halt or go astray
But our immortal spirits may.
Conscience therefore is an eternal witness in the soul against pantheism, and our poet in his adoption of the rabbinical definition of conscience intimates his belief in man's freedom and responsibility. Not simply the initial apostrophe to Duty, but the whole poem from beginning to end, is instinct with moral life. Wordsworth recognizes the beauty and blessedness of a loving and spontaneous obedience. But he recognizes human weakness and perversity also, and the need of severe reproof at times to keep the soul from straying from the path of rectitude.
Serene will be our days, and bright
And happy will our nature be,
When love is an unerring light,
And joy its own security.
And they a blissful course may hold
Even now who, not unwisely bold.
Live in the spirit of this creed,
Yet seek thy firm support, according to their need.
Then comes confession of past error and sincere repentance for the wrong, together with yearning for a state where the will is secure in righteousness. He chooses to be the bondman of duty, rather than to be the bondman of sin.
Me this unchartered freedom tires;
I feel the weight of chance desires;
My hopes no more must change their name,
I long for a repose that ever is the same.
Stern Lawgiver, yet thou dost wear
The Godhead's most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face;
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
And fragrance in thy footing treads;
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong,
And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are
firm and strong.
To humbler functions, awful Power,
I call thee: I myself commend
Unto thy guidance from this hour.
Oh, let my weakness have an end!
Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give;
And in the light of truth thy bondman let me live.
I have said that Wordsworth is not a specifically Christian poet, and we shall look through his writings in vain for any evidence that he intended to teach the details of Christian doctrine. Yet the spirit of his poetry is the spirit of Christianity, and that in spite of the fact that he felt it his mission to be the poet of nature. He never would have been able to find in nature so much to awe and to console, he never could have seen in her so much of truth and love, if he had not carried into his contemplations what he had learned from the gospel of Christ. It is the old story of Plato's cave. He who has once explored the cave with a torch can afterward make his way through in the dark. Many an ethical philosopher like Spencer imagines his conclu
sions about man's being to be the result of his own insight, when in fact they are unconscious plagiarisms from the Christian revelation. We have followed that torch through the recesses of the cavern, and only for that reason are we now able to find our way through them alone. The interpretation of nature, as well as the interpretation of man, is an exclusively Christian achievement. The wisdom and love of God were never seen in nature, until Christ himself had been revealed as the Lord of nature and yet as the Redeemer of man.
There are those who refuse to call Wordsworth a great poet, for the reason that there are so many commonplace and prosaic pages in his collected works. But there are two reasons for calling him great which these critics overlook: First, the large body of genuine poetry which these works contain; and, secondly, the new bent and insight which these works have communicated to literature. The sonnets of Wordsworth constitute of themselves our noblest collection after those of Shakespeare and Milton, and there is a grave and serious beauty even in poems so long as the "Prelude" and the "Excursion." His chief claim to greatness, however, is this, that he has not only apprehended and expressed the divinity of nature as it had never been apprehended and expressed before, but that he has done this in such a way as to mold and change the poetry of his country and of the world, and to begin a new epoch in the history of literature.
His belief in this divinity of nature was so utter that the homeliest things were to him transfigured. The roughest aspects of humanity and the boldest scenes
of the physical world were full of interest, because they conveyed some thought of God. They seemed to him so interesting in themselves that they needed no artistic charms of verse: let the poetry that described them be as bare as the rocks, and it still would have power to move the heart of man. Yes, we say, but only if the heart of man be prepared to receive it. The clew must first be given; the taste must first be formed; the love of nature must first be implanted.
It is no wonder that the admirers of mechanical verse and the devotees of fashion and convention had no ears to hear the sober and solemn music of Wordsworth— they even denied that there was music there. Jeffrey, of the "Edinburgh Review," read "The Excursion," and declared that it would never do. It took almost forty years to convince the English-speaking world that a new poetic luminary had risen upon the horizon. But when the degree of Doctor of Civil Law was conferred upon the poet by the Uersity of Oxford, and the whole auditory of England's picked and sifted scholars rose as one man with shouts and cheers to do him reverence; when Sir Robert Peel overbore his modesty and well-nigh entreated him to accept the poet-laureateship, not because England gave him anything more to do but because England demanded the privilege of rewarding what he had done; it became clear that the tide had forever turned and that his name was to be inscribed upon the rolls of everlasting fame as the first and greatest poet of nature and of common life. And Tennyson, when he succeeded to the office, only did just honor to the spirit of Wordsworth's verse when he congratulated himself upon receiving
RECOGNITION OF WORDSWORTH'S CLAIMS 371
The laurel greener from the brows
Of him who uttered nothing base.
It is not possible to concede supreme merit to more than a few, and those by no means the longest, of Wordsworth's poems. But no poet is to be judged by his worst. Let Wordsworth be judged by his best, and he takes the rank of a great poet—the greatest poet who had appeared since Milton. Browning and Tennyson have eclipsed his fame, but only because they have drawn into their own writings much of his peculiar light. He has added a permanent element to the world's thought; he has given us a new method of regarding the world of nature and of man; he has increased the calmness, the comfort, the hope, of humanity. William Watson has given proof of his critical, as well as of his poetic, genius in his lines upon "Wordsworth's Grave," and his estimate may fitly close this essay:
Not Milton's keen, translunar music thine;
Not Shakespeare's cloudless, boundless, human view, Not Shelley's flush of rose on peaks divine;
Nor yet the wizard twilight Coleridge knew.
What hast thou that could make so large amends
For all thou hadst not and thy peers possessed—
Motion and fire, swift means to radiant ends?
Thou hadst, for weary feet, the gift of rest.
From Shelley's dazzling glow or thunderous haze,
From Byron's tempest-anger, tempest-mirth,
Men turned to thee and found—not blast and blaze,
Tumult of tottering heavens—but peace on earth.
Not peace that grows by Lethe, scentless flower,
There in white languors to decline and cease;
But peace whose names are also rapture, power,
Clear sight, and love: for these are parts of peace.
It may be that his manly chant, beside
More dainty numbers, seems a rustic tune;
It may be thought has broadened, since he died.
Upon the century's noon ; . . .
Enough that there is none since risen who sings
A song so gotten of the immediate soul,
So instant from the vital fount of things
Which is our source and goal;
And though at touch of later hands there float
More artful tones than from his lyre he drew,
Ages may pass ere trills another note
So sweet, so great, so true.