« PreviousContinue »
utterance, his sublimest description, and his loftiest thought. Here are to be found his most Miltonic passages, and it is here that we best realize how deeply he had drunk at the fountain-head of English poetic blank verse and with what insistence the "voice whose sound was like the sea" kept ringing in his ears. Yet, for the very reason that these passages are imbued with the spirit of Paradise Lost, they are far from being slavish copies of its manner. The following lines, for example, are almost free from the inversions, parentheses, appositives, the use of one part of speech for another, and the similar mannerisms that disfigure most eighteenth-century unrimed poems: A single step, that freed me from the skirts
Of the blind vapour, opened to my view
By waking sense or by the dreaming soul!
Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought,
That givest to forms and images a breath
The organ tone in some of Wordsworth's loftier passages, as in those quoted below, is due partly to the Miltonic practice of introducing proper names for their imaginative suggestiveness and sonorous pomp:
1 Excursion, ii. 830-45; Prelude, i. 401-4. To this class also belongs most of YewTrees, of Kilchurn Castle, and of the extract from Home at Grasmere prefixed to The Excursion.
Tract more exquisitely fair
Than that famed paradise of ten thousand trees,
It will be noticed that the second extract exhibits less of the manner and more of the mannerisms of Paradise Lost. These mannerisms creep not infrequently into Wordsworth's more exalted, just as they do into his more prosaic, blank verse, and for the same reasons. Either his imagination did not glow sufficiently to fuse his materials and get rid of the dross, or he did not hammer the lines long enough to work out the blemishes and perfect the form. Sometimes, as in this passage, the Miltonic largeness of utterance is combined with touches of the Miltonic diction and style in a way surprisingly close to that of Paradise Lost:
This is our high argument.
-Such grateful haunts foregoing, if I oft
Within the walls of cities—may these sounds
The Miltonic element in Wordsworth's diction is considerable, yet it is easily overlooked. For one thing, it is not expected: we think of the author of The Daffodils, Michael, and Tintern Abbey as a writer of simple, direct poems, often profound and sometimes magical, but dealing in the main with nature and the quiet lives of humble people. The style usually impresses us as natural and flowing, so that we assume the language - which we rarely notice — to be equally simple. Then, too, we remember the poet's own declaration, "My purpose was to imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt
1 Prelude, x. 17-22; viii. 75–81.
* Lines 71-82 of the passage prefixed to The Excursion (which constitute lines 82435 of The Recluse, book i, Home at Grasmere). The extract is not typical, since the fragmentary Recluse, though less pedestrian in style than The Excursion, is on the whole less formal than The Prelude. Traces of Paradise Lost are slight, but seldom long absent.
the very language of men."1 Yet, so far as his blank verse and other more serious work is concerned, this conception of Wordsworth's diction is quite mistaken, since, except in his earlier and simpler poems, his language is distinctly literary and often unduly learned. His Old Cumberland Beggar, for instance, although dealing in a simple way with a commonplace subject, contains language like this:
All behold in him
A silent monitor, which on their minds
His charters and exemptions; and, perchance,
And 'tis no vulgar service, makes them felt.2
True, this passage is not typical of all Wordsworth's poetry, but it is characteristic of a large part of his blank verse, particularly of the more formal and philosophical works like The Excursion and The Prelude. In these poems we are continually meeting such words as "abstrusest," "disjoin," "innocuously," "conglobated," "extrinsic," "intervenient," "succedaneum," "admonishment," "presage," "prelibation," "extravagate," "colloquies," "arbitrement," "patrimony," "subversion,' ""subversion," "perturbation"; 3 and expressions like "preclude conviction," "erewhile my tuneful haunt," "monitory sound," "domestic carnage," "kindred mutations," "inveterately convolved." There would be little objection to these words and phrases if they were merely unusual; the trouble is that they are with difficulty assimilated in poetry and that Wordsworth rarely succeeds in assimilating them. Many poets, Swinburne and Francis 1 Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (Poems, Oxford ed., 936). 2 Lines 122-32.
Excursion, i. 65 (also iii. 702, ix. 234, and Prelude, i. 44, vi. 297, ix. 397, xii. 132); iii. 58 (also Prelude, viii. 436, xii. 232, and in one other poem), 516, 974; Prelude, i. 545 (and viii. 624, xiii. 218); ii. 201, 214; iv. 125 (also vii. 546, x. 77, and in two other poems); v. 36 ("presageful" occurs in the poem beginning "Pastor and Patriot,” 4), 245, 503; ix. 470; X. 127, 157, 268 ("subvert" is used in six places); xi. 373 (and in eight other places).
Prelude, x. 165 (there are seven similar instances of the use of "preclude"), 244, 324 (there are four similar instances), 356, xiv. 94; Yew-Trees, 18 (see the whole passage quoted on p. 185 above).
"Words in themselves," as Mr. J. L. Lowes has shown (Convention and Revolt in Poetry, Boston, 1919, p. 193), “.. are neither poetic nor unpoetic. They become poetic, or they remain unassimilated prose, according as the poet's imaginative energy is or is not sufficiently powerful to absorb them." Wordsworth usually employed words like those mentioned above when his imaginative energy was low.
Thompson, for example, use stranger words than these and more of them, and of course Shakespeare and Milton employ a much wider vocabulary than Wordsworth did; but these writers introduce unfamiliar expressions for poetical effect, whereas Wordsworth's diction is stiff, bookish, and lacking in imaginative or emotional appeal. Words like those given above attract attention by being uncommon, but serve no good purpose.
Worse still, the language of The Excursion and The Prelude is often absurdly ill adapted to the persons who are supposed to be speaking it or to the subjects with which it deals. This is what makes the picnic described in The Excursion such a lugubrious festivity. The party consisted of the Solitary, the Wanderer, the Poet, and the Pastor, a kind of later Job with his three friends; the Pastor's wife, "graceful was her port"; their daughter, a "gladsome child"; their son and "his shy compeer," boys of "jocund hearts" and with "animation" in their "mien." We know little of what was said at the picnic, but on the previous day "grateful converse" of the following variety was carried on:
The supper, we are told, was merry, but the description of it does not sound exhilarating. All
A choice repast-served by our young companions
With rival earnestness and kindred glee;
Launched from our hands the smooth stone skimmed the lake,
Rapaciously we gathered flowery spoils.
In view of these solemn relaxations, we are not surprised to learn that the abode of the Pastor and his gamesome family was approached by a path of "pure cerulean gravel," and to read of the edifice itself,
Like image of solemnity, conjoined
With feminine allurement soft and fair,
The mansion's self displayed."
1 viii. 501, 496; ix. 431, 475; viii. 572.
2 viii. 58; vi. 95-7, 102-3; ix. 529–31, 532, 538; viii. 452, 459-61.
Yet the author of these lines wished that his poetry might "keep the
But this is not the worst. Wordsworth is capable of employing
or when he says the "soil endured a transfer in the mart of dire rapacity," meaning the land was sold, or
The shining giver of the day diffuse
meaning we saw the sun shine; or when he tells us that an old man "had clomb aloft to delve the moorland turf For winter fuel" instead
1 Preface to Lyrical Ballads (Poems, Oxford ed., 936). The pompous absurdity of much of Wordsworth's diction is equally characteristic of his prose and was a marked feature of his conversation. According to Edward Whately, who saw a good deal of him at one time, "Both his sentences and his words were too long and too high-flown to suit the subject he was discussing . . . he used the most high-flown language in speaking of the most common-place, ordinary affairs of life" (Leisure Hour, Oct. 1, 1870, p. 652).
2 Preface to Lyrical Ballads (Poems, Oxford ed., 936). Blake commented, "I do not know who wrote these Prefaces; they are very mischievous, and direct contrary to Wordsworth's own practice" (Crabb Robinson's "Reminiscences," quoted in Arthur Symons's William Blake, 1907, p. 300).
3 Excursion, iii. 466, 662 (and cf. Pilgrim's Dream, 23); iv. 447 (also Evening Walk, 203), 180, 450 (cf. Home at Grasmere, 203, MS.); v. 82 (and ix. 701); Prelude, viii. 544; Home at Grasmere, 266 (“sentient tube" occurs in the Italian Itinerant, 23), 506–7.