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Wordsworth did not regard Thomson, Young, and Cowper as suitable literary models. "When I began to give myself up to the profession of a poet for life," he said to Crabb Robinson, "I was impressed with a conviction, that there were four English poets whom I must have continually before me as examples - Chaucer, Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton. These I must study, and equal if I could; and I need not think of the rest." Of these four the first three were not of a kind seriously to affect blank-verse philosophic works such as Wordsworth planned. Nor, it may be, would Milton have exerted much influence had not his style and diction come to be recognized as the most suitable for poems of the sort; but in view of the course of English poetry in the eighteenth century, and of Wordsworth's admiration for the star-like soul that dwelt apart, the strongest single influence upon this part of his work would normally be that of Paradise Lost.
With these things in mind, we shall not be surprised to find the style of the long unrimed pieces very different from that of the short ones and from what we may think of as Wordsworthian. Of course, written, as they were, not at the beginning but at the end of the eighteenth century, they will not show the pompous language and contorted style of 1726, for between them and The Seasons lay a long development of blank verse.
Most of the stylistic peculiarities of Paradise Lost, though present in The Prelude and The Excursion, are not marked. Condensation is frequently gained by the omission of words, parenthetical expressions are fairly common, and occasionally a Miltonic apposition such as "Romorentin, home of ancient kings," is encountered; but one may read whole books of either work without meeting a clipped form of participle or a single adjective used for an adverb or a substantive. Inversion, however, the great mark of the Miltonic style, abounds. Not only is it on every page and in every paragraph, but seldom are five consecutive lines free from it. Furthermore, the inversions are often meaningless; that is, they add nothing to the beauty or effectiveness of the passage, but appear to be used merely for the sake of the meter or to make the verse seem less like prose.2
1 "Conversations," etc., Prose Works (ed. Grosart), iii. 459-60. In a letter to Alaric Watts, Nov. 16, 1824, he quoted a passage in the same vein: "I am disposed strenuously to recommend to your habitual perusal the great poets of our own country, who have stood the test of ages. Shakespeare I need not name, nor Milton, but Chaucer and Spenser are apt to be overlooked. It is almost painful to think how far these surpass all others."
2 A characteristic which The Excursion and The Prelude share with Paradise Lost but which may not be derived from the earlier work — which might, indeed, so nat
As a result of these inversions, of the many learned words, and of the condensation caused by the omission of words ordinarily expressed, - notably auxiliaries, Wordsworth's long poems, and particularly The Prelude, are marked by a formality which at its best rises to dignity and at its worst degenerates into stiffness. Here is what may be termed a neutral passage, neither the best nor the worst that might be found:
We were framed
To bend at last to the same discipline,
To seek the same delights, and have one health,
Else sooner ended, I have borne in mind
For whom it registers the birth, and marks the growth,
Of gentleness, simplicity, and truth,
And joyous loves, that hallow innocent days
Of peace and self-command. Of rivers, fields,
Of the huge city, on the leaded roof
Of that wide edifice, thy school and home,
The influence of Paradise Lost is by no means so marked throughout the long poems as it is in these lines. Yet it is clearly, though not unpleasantly, evident in the style in which a large part of The Prelude and some of The Excursion are written, a style easier and more attractive than that of the extract just quoted, as the following passage will show:
Oh, sweet it is, in academic groves,
Or such retirement, Friend! as we have known
In the green dales beside our Rotha's stream,
urally belong to any poet that, except for Wordsworth's unusual familiarity with Milton, it would not be worth noticing is the use of a series of adjectives, participles, or nouns in the same construction. Here are a few of the many instances: "Abject, depressed, forlorn, disconsolate" (Prelude, v. 28); "Fierce, moody, patient, venturous, modest, shy" (v. 415); "Unbiassed, unbewildered, and unawed" (vi. 41); “Unchastened, unsubdued, unawed, unraised” (vi. 505); "Great, universal, irresistible" (xi. 17, and see ix. 373, xii. 64); "Self-reviewed, Self-catechised, self-punished" (Excursion, vi. 386–7).
1 Prelude, vi. 255-71.
2 Ib. ix. 390-96.
Unfortunately, Wordsworth's inspiration did not keep pace with his desire to write. Often, like a soldier marking time who goes through the motions of walking without getting anywhere, he produced work of the stuffed-bird variety, that has every characteristic of the living thing but one, life. At other times he composed verses which, though awkward, might have been wrought into excellent poetry if they had undergone the laborious revision that some of his best pieces received. The blank verse produced at such times has much in common with the pseudo-Miltonic work of minor eighteenth-century writers. Passages like the following, for example, abound in The Excursion:
Leaving behind of yellow radiance spread
Most of Wordsworth's shorter unrimed pieces that are Miltonic are of this type. A single illustration will probably more than satisfy the reader:
And yet more gladly thee would I conduct
Through woods and spacious forests, to behold
Though waves, to every breeze, its high-arched roof,
Matthew Arnold's comment that Wordsworth "has no assured poetic style of his own," that "when he seeks to have a style he falls into ponderosity and pomposity," may be the explanation of this kind of verse. Certainly it is true of many eighteenth-century poets
that when they exerted themselves to write well they grew turgid. But was not Wordsworth's trouble rather that "ponderosity and pomposity" were natural to him and became evident whenever he failed to exert himself, when he wrote without being in the mood for writing, when he handled subjects that had not fired his imagination or about which he did not feel with sufficient intensity? We know that two of his finest things, Michael and Laodamia, cost him a great deal of trouble, and that he wrote excellent sonnets so long as he found them difficult to write; we also know that his conversation was apt to degenerate into long didactic monologues, and to contain such formal, bookish words that once when he was talking his grandson exclaimed, “Grandpapa is reading without a book!" The faults of The Excursion may, therefore, be the most natural things in it, the defects that impressed all who talked with the poet and that only deep feeling and hard labor removed.
Admirers of Wordsworth are likely to regard as his most characteristic blank verse one that shows practically no traces of Milton's influence, -the kind found in Tintern Abbey, Michael, and in most of the nature passages in The Prelude. It is easy, simple, and direct, but considered merely as style it usually lacks richness, distinction, variety, as well as the finer subtleties of cadence and flow; hence Arnold's complaint that Wordsworth "has no style." Illustrations of it need hardly be quoted, for any one can have them before him by recalling the descriptive passages he likes best in the lake poet's unrimed pieces. It is our familiarity with these descriptions that leads us to think of the style in which they are written as characteristic of the poems as a whole.
This non-Miltonic blank verse suffers just as the Miltonic does when the poet in Wordsworth goes to sleep and the pedagog or the preacher takes his pen. What then results is a quantity of prosaic, matter-of-fact lines, sometimes good enough as to thought, but lacking the imagination, the intensity of feeling, and the finality of phrasing which would lift them into poetry. Verse of this sort led Tennyson to remark that a typical Wordsworthian line would be "A Mr. Wilkinson, a clergyman."2 But it is impossible to parody a poet who himself wrote,
And at the Hoop alighted, famous Inn.
That rural castle, name now slipped
From my remembrance, where a lady lodged.
1 Whately, in Leisure Hour, Oct. 1, 1870, p. 652. "His mode of talking," says Whately, "sometimes resembled a moral declamation." Cf. below, p. 196, n. 1. 2 Hallam Tennyson, Tennyson and his Friends (1911), 264.
As a preparatory act
Of reverence done to the spirit of the place.1
A longer extract will show still better how close to prose Wordsworth's blank verse often comes:
Yet for the general purposes of faith
In Providence, for solace and support,
We may not doubt that who can best subject
But we, I think, may safely affirm with Arnold and Jeffrey that, "as a work of poetic style, 'This will never do.'" 2
It is the preponderance of such blank verse, or of the pseudoMiltonic variety which prevailed in the eighteenth century, that makes The Excursion as a whole unread and unreadable. One reason why Wordsworth slipped into these prosaic styles is that the later, inferior books of The Prelude, all but the admirable first two books of The Excursion, and nearly all of the poorer short pieces in blank verse were written after the fire of his poetic inspiration had died down, only to reappear fitfully and at long intervals. Furthermore, The Excursion has but little to do with nature, Wordsworth's most certain source of inspiration, but is largely taken up with argument. Now, Wordsworth was not, like Goethe, a great thinker, or, like Emerson, a great seer, nor did he possess Dryden's power of reasoning in verse. The few essential things of life he saw with great clearness and felt with unusual intensity, and because these things possessed a grandeur that touched his imagination and reached to the center of his being he could be deeply poetic when he dealt with them. They were the distilled essence of many hours of quiet reflection, something very different from the philosophical system that he worked out with his reason.
Wordsworth wrote one other type of blank verse, as rare in quality as in occurrence. This includes a few hundred lines of his noblest
1 Prelude, iii. 17, ix. 483-4; Excursion, vi. 89–90.
Essays in Criticism, 2d series, 156. The Wordsworth passage is from The Excursion,
3 Unless it be in his prose discussions of the poet's art.