« PreviousContinue »
this enthusiasm. One of his friends wrote in 1826, "Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton are his favourites among the English poets, especially the latter, whom he almost idolizes."1 And after his death another said, "Wordsworth's favourite poet was Milton. . . . It is curious to observe how Milton's genius triumphed over political prejudices in a mind so strongly imbued with them as that of Wordsworth. . . . Perhaps he was almost as much attached to Milton as he was to his own lakes and mountains." 2
A lifelong admiration like this resulted, of course, in an unusual familiarity with Milton's poetry. Not only could he 'repeat large portions of it at an early age,' but when he was thirty-two, so he wrote Landor, he knew all the sonnets by heart.3 Accordingly, Charles Lamb, in giving him a first edition of Paradise Regained inscribed "To the best Knower of Milton," was merely expressing what is clear enough from Wordsworth's own poems and letters and the reports of his conversation. Crabb Robinson, for example, has left an account of a walk in which "Wordsworth was remarkably eloquent and felicitous in his praise of Milton":
He spoke of the Paradise Regained as surpassing even the Paradise Lost in perfection of execution, though the theme is far below it, and demanding less power. He spoke of the description of the storm in it as the finest in all poetry; and he pointed out some of the artifices of versification by which Milton produces so great an effect, as in passages like this:"Pining atrophy,
Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence,
Dropsies, and asthmas, and joint-racking rheums."
In which the power of the final rheums is heightened by the atrophy and pestilence. Wordsworth also praised, but not equally, Samson Agonistes. He concurred, he said, with Johnson in this, that it had no middle, but the beginning and end are equally sublime.5
Another conversation is recorded by the poet's nephew:
Milton is falsely represented by some as a democrat. He was an aristocrat in the truest sense of the word. . . . Indeed, he spoke in very proud and contemptuous terms of the populace. Comus is rich in beautiful and sweet flowers, and in exuberant leaves of genius; but the ripe and mellow fruit is in Samson Agonistes. When he wrote that, his mind was Hebraized.
1 J. J. Tayler, Letters (1872), i. 72.
2 Edward Whately, Personal Recollections of the Lake Poets, in Leisure Hour, Oct. 1, 1870, p. 653.
See below, p. 529, n. 2.
4 Works (ed. Lucas, 1905), vii. 912.
Diary, etc. (ed. T. Sadler, 1869), Jan. 7, 1836, and see Jan. 26.
Indeed, his genius fed on the writings of the Hebrew prophets.... One of the noblest things in Milton is the description of that sweet, quiet morning in the Paradise Regained after that terrible night of howling wind and storm. The contrast is divine.1
In one of his letters Wordsworth noted that Milton's tractate Of Education "never loses sight of the means of making man perfect, both for contemplation and action, for civil and military duties." 2 To Lord Lonsdale he wrote, "I have long been persuaded that Milton formed his blank verse upon the model of the Georgics and the Aeneid, and I am so much struck with this resemblance that I should have attempted Virgil in blank verse, had I not been persuaded that no ancient author can be with advantage so rendered." 3 "Milton says of pouring 'easy his unpremeditated verse,'" he remarked to W. R. Hamilton. "It would be harsh, untrue, and odious to say there is anything like cant in this; but it is not true to the letter, and tends to mislead. I could point out to you five hundred passages in Milton, upon which labour has been bestowed, and twice five hundred more to which additional labour would have been serviceable; not that I regret the absence of such labour, because no poem contains more proof of skill acquired by practice." How naturally Miltonic phrases rose to his mind is shown by his writing to Sir George Beaumont, "My creed rises up of itself with the ease of an exhalation, yet a fabric of adamant." 5
But all these evidences of Wordsworth's familiarity with his favorite pale before the testimony offered by his poems. These contain at least one hundred fifty-eight borrowings from Milton, a larger number than has been found in the work of any other poet, with the exception, strangely enough, of Pope. It is worth noting that these borrowings are scattered through more than seventy poems, and that they are taken not simply from Paradise Lost, Allegro, and Penseroso, but from Comus, Lycidas, Samson, Paradise Regained, the Nativity, and the sonnets. They leave no doubt as to
1 "Conversations," etc., Prose Works (ed. Grosart), iii. 461. Cf. P.R., iv. 432–8. * To John Scott, June 11, 1816.
1 Feb. 5, 1819.
4 Letter of Nov. 22, 1831.
'This number does not include references to Milton or quotations from his works prefixed to several of Wordsworth's poems. The most comprehensive printed list of such references, quotations, etc., is in Kurt Lienemann's Die Belesenheit von William Wordsworth, [Weimar), 1908.
Wordsworth's familiarity with all the more important poetry of his predecessor, and not merely the poetry, for Artegal and Elidure, which "was written. . . as a token of affectionate respect for the memory of Milton," 1 is based upon the latter's History of Britain. More than this, many of the phrases that Wordsworth takes are so inconspicuous as to have escaped the notice of his editors. Such expressions as "sober certainty," "teachers . . . Of moral prudence,' "my genial spirits droop," "the . . . vessel . . . Rode tilting o'er the waves," "the vine. . . with her brings Her dower, the adopted clusters, to adorn" the elm, "reason is her [the soul's] being, Discursive, or intuitive," 2 can have been impressed upon his mind only by many careful readings. Some of the most interesting of his borrowings occur, singularly enough, in one of his prose works, the Convention of Cintra. Besides mentioning Milton among England's "deliverers and defenders," this piece contains five quotations from his poetry and four references to it, and closes with an extract from his prose. Few would expect to recognize this last borrowing, since it is from the History of Britain; but how many would detect a Miltonic phrase in "the central orb to which, as to a fountain, the nations of the earth' ought to repair, and in their golden urns draw light'"? There are certainly not many who would notice anything from Paradise Lost in the sentence, "Wisdom is the hidden root which thrusts forth the stalk of prudence; and these uniting feed and uphold the bright consummate flower' - National Happiness." 6 Wordsworth wrote fifty-five poems in blank verse. Most of these, it must be confessed, belong to that desert, unwatered by the springs of imagination and unshaded by the foliage of beauty, which
1 Fenwick note prefixed to the poem.
2 For Wordsworth's use of these phrases, see below, Appendix A.
3 Prose Works (ed. Grosart), i. 49, 50, 93, 109, 112 (see p. 180 above), 126, 128, 149, 171, 174.
• Works (Pickering ed.), v. 100. Grosart's note (i. 359) is incorrect.
Ib. (Grosart), 112; cf. P.L., vii. 361-5,
The sun's orb. . .
Hither, as to their fountain, other stars
Repairing, in their golden urns draw light.
6 Ib. 171; cf. P.L., v. 479-81,
So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More aery, last the bright consummate flower.
Neither this borrowing nor the preceding one is pointed out by Grosart or Knight. I owe them, and several other references and quotations, to Mrs. Alice M. Dunbar, of Wilmington, Delaware, who has generously placed at my disposal the extensive collection of material on Wordsworth's indebtedness to Milton which she made at Cornell University under the direction of Mr. Lane Cooper.
stretches its dreary expanse through a large part of his verse. Of these fifty-five pieces there are few that do not show some influence from Paradise Lost, and fourteen are sufficiently Miltonic to be included in the appended bibliography. Less than half of the fourteen, however, have enough beauty or other importance to detain us. One of this number, one that deserves a much wider circle of readers than it seems to have gained, is the Address to Kilchurn Castle, a poem of only forty-three lines, but nobly conceived and expressed in its author's loftiest Miltonic manner. The organ tone is certainly here:
Child of loud-throated War! the mountain Stream
Is come, and thou art silent in thy age
Impersonated in thy calm decay!
Yew-Trees, though even shorter, is much better known. It is similar to the Address in dignity and largeness of utterance, as well as in the subordination of the object seen to the feelings and pictures of the past which it calls up to the imagination. The diction, it will be observed, is decidedly Miltonic, and at the same time, because of the dignity of the theme, eminently suitable:
Of vast circumference and gloom profound
To be destroyed. But worthier still of note
Are those fraternal Four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! and each particular trunk a growth
Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved;
Nor uninformed with Phantasy, and looks
That threaten the profane;
a pillared shade.
Of the remaining poems of Wordsworth that call for consideration, two, Home at Grasmere and The Excursion, are parts of a long, un
finished work, The Recluse, "a philosophical Poem, containing views of Man, Nature, and Society," to which a third, The Prelude, is the prolog. The significance and implications of these well-known facts are apt to be overlooked, since we are bent on regarding Wordsworth as a poet of nature and of the quiet lives of simple country folk, and since the passages that we remember from The Prelude are the descriptions of the out-of-doors and of boyish sports and adventures. Yet these descriptions and brief narratives exist not for their own sake, but to help us understand the "growth of a poet's mind": they are illustrations of philosophic truths. The conviction that Wordsworth's true province was the English lakes should not make us forget his own emphatic declaration that "the Mind of Man" was his "haunt and the main region" of his "song."2 Certainly this was the field of his longest and, to him, most important poems. Such pieces, it goes without saying, would be very different from simple narratives like Michael; they would naturally be learned in diction, dignified and somewhat formal in style, and, if written in blank verse at the close of the eighteenth or the beginning of the nineteenth century, they would almost inevitably be Miltonic. The Recluse and its prefatory poem are not spontaneous warblings, but monumental literary works deliberately built up, with definite purposes and conscious art.
One would expect works dealing largely with nature to be affected by the descriptive poetry of Thomson, the Wartons, Cowper, Hurdis, Grahame, and others; yet Wordsworth seldom referred to these writers and, except for Thomson, was apparently little influenced by any one of them. Their collective influence, however, and that of their contemporaries was doubtless powerful, as the force of early reading and of the tastes and ideals with which one is surrounded in the formative years must always be. Yet it was unconscious, for
1 "Advertisement" to The Prelude.
2 Lines 40-41 of the extract from The Recluse prefixed to The Excursion.
The theories of poetry which Wordsworth exemplified in the Lyrical Ballads and formulated in the preface to the second edition of that work had not a little to do with the simplicity of language and style of Tinturn Abbey and other pieces written at the time. In most of the poems composed after 1800, whether rimed or not, there is a tendency towards a more literary diction and a more formal style, which was in part a return to Wordsworth's natural method of expression (see Whately's remarks on the poet's conversation, quoted below, p. 190 n. 1, 196 n. 1).
Much is said in The Prelude about books, but nothing that I remember about eighteenth-century poems in blank verse. The "Essay supplementary to the Preface" (Poems, Oxford ed., 948-9), the sonnet "Bard of the Fleece," and the correspondence with Lady Beaumont, Allan Cunningham, and Alexander Dyce (Letters, i. 273, 539, ii. 210, 358-9) do, however, reveal a warm admiration for Thomson and Dyer. At one time Wordsworth even thought of editing some of Thomson's works (ib. ii. 393).