« PreviousContinue »
of saying he had gone to dig peat, or speaks of "the impediment of rural cares" when he means farm-work. From the conventional, hackneyed expressions common in eighteenth-century poetry, the crystal-font-purple-bloom-vernal-breeze sort of thing, Wordsworth is almost entirely free, but he does annoy us by his fondness for "yon," "haply," "albeit," "erewhile," "corse" (for corpse), and the like.
All that is objectionable in Wordsworth's diction - the use of learned and grandiose words and of pompous circumlocutions in place of familiar terms-is marked in the blank verse of the eighteenth century. It is such phraseology that irritates the reader of Thomson, Young, and Cowper and is even more noticeable in the work of their less gifted contemporaries. That Wordsworth should take some features of his diction, as well as of his style and versification, from the writers who immediately preceded him was only natural. It is easy to forget that he was nearer to these men than we are to him or to Shelley or Byron, nearer to most of them than we are to Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold. He was born in 1770, the year in which the Deserted Village was published; he was fifteen when The Task and Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides appeared, and throughout the period in which he was forming his taste and producing his best work it was principally eighteenth-century writings that people read. Indeed, aside from Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, hardly any other English poetry was accessible to them. Only the force of Wordsworth's personality and the depth of his convictions kept him from being dominated by his immediate predecessors.
Is it likely that the older poets affected his diction, except occasionally through the borrowing of single words? He was familiar with Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, as well as with many of the seventeenth- and most of the leading eighteenth-century verse and prose writers, and may have taken from one of several sources any of his uncommon words or peculiar uses of words. Yet the matter is not so difficult as it seems; for, since Milton's poetry was more familiar to him than anything else in English literature (except possibly Shakespeare's plays), Milton's use of a word would be the one to linger in his memory. Furthermore, Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, the other poets most likely to influence him, would certainly not have turned him towards learned and grandiose terms of Latin origin, but Milton would lead him in precisely this direction. When Wordsworth speaks of an "edifice" or a "habitation," or of "the embowered abode - our chosen seat," or of "striplings . . . 1 Excursion, vii. 683–5; iii. 917-18, 540–42; ii. 787–8; vii. 736.
graced with shining weapons," 1 is he not doing just what was done, what had to be done, in the epic of the fall of man? Many words that are quite unobjectionable in Paradise Lost would sound pompous and absurd in The Excursion.
But we are not left to surmises in the matter, for one of Wordsworth's acquaintances wrote, "His veneration for Milton was so great, that if that poet used a particular word in a particular sense, he would quote his authority to justify himself when his wife or daughter objected to its employment in his own poems."2 Instances of this habit are to be found in his letters. Writing to Sir George Beaumont, he remarked that, although Bowles disapproved of the word "ravishment," "yet it has the authority of all the first-rate poets, for instance, Milton."3 In another letter he justified the use of "immediately" in verse by noting that it appeared "to have sufficient poetical authority, even the highest," and then quoted from Paradise Lost. It is probable, therefore, that "adamantine," "compeers," "darkling," "begirt," "empyrean,' ," "encincture," "fulgent," "effulgence," 'effulgence," "refulgent," "refulgent," "gratulant," "griesly," "massy, ""ministrant," "panoply," "Tartarean,' "panoply," "Tartarean," "terrene," "unapparent," "vermeil,' ," "vermeil," "welter," and the like were derived from Paradise Lost. Many words employed in a peculiar sense or in an unusual way he seems also to have taken from Milton: "audience" (of readers), "commerce" (intercourse), "covert" (shelter), "descant" (of a bird's song), "essential" (having substance), "incumbent" (resting on or bending over), "inform" (form within), "instinct with" (impelled or animated by), "lapse" (of a stream), "oblivious" (used actively), "paramount" (as a substantive), "principalities" (order of angels), "profound" (as a substantive), "punctual" (like a point), "rout" (a disorderly crowd), "sagacious" (keen-scented), "use" (as an intransitive verb), "vast" (as a substantive), "viewless" (invisible)."
It would, of course, be folly to explain Wordsworth's language altogether by reference to eighteenth-century writers and Milton, that is, to overlook the importance of his own personality. Any poet who is fond of abstract speculation, who is inclined to be formal and impersonal, who has little sensuous richness in his nature,
1 Ib. iii. 521; vii. 766-7. He uses "edifice" seven times and "habitation" twentytwo.
2 E. Whately, as above, p. 182, n. 2.
For the occurrence of these words, see pp. 618-20 below, and Lane Cooper's Concordance to Wordsworth (1911).
and who "wishes to be regarded as a teacher or as nothing," will not employ the vocabulary of Keats; and if he composes works
On man, on Nature, and on Human Life,
he will probably use language that is somewhat learned and stately. It would have been so even if the author of The Excursion had never read Paradise Lost; his knowledge of the epic only strengthened his natural tendencies. Not that Wordsworth intentionally imitated the diction of Milton and his followers, but that he adopted more of it than he realized. He was so accustomed to a formal style stiffened with words from the Greek and Latin that he easily slipped into it when he was not on his guard. Except when he was dealing with nature or with simple, narrative subjects, he preferred the sound of lines that contained learned words and somewhat pompous phrases; but was it not because of his familiarity with the stately periods and the formal, Latinic diction of Milton and his imitators that such lines pleased him?
Wordsworth would himself have been the last person to deny that he was influenced by Milton. He tells us that he was inspired to write his first sonnets by the "soul-animating strains" of his predecessor, and we have seen that he tooks pains to make "public acknowledgment of . . . the innumerable obligations which," he said, "as a Poet and a Man, I am under to our great fellow-countryman.” He seems, indeed, to have felt that every poet should look to Milton for guidance. At the beginning of his career, it may be remembered, he had been impressed with the conviction that there were four English poets whom he must continually have before him as examples, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton; and in the preface to the 1815 edition of his poems he wrote, "The grand store-house of enthusiastic and meditative Imagination, of poetical, as contradistinguished from human and dramatic Imagination, is the prophetic and lyrical parts of the holy Scriptures, and the works of Milton, to which I cannot forbear to add those of Spenser."
Yet he was almost certainly unconscious of the extent to which Milton influenced him. If he thought of the matter at all, he may have reflected that his verse was free from those peculiarities of Paradise Lost which marred eighteenth-century unrimed poetry,as, indeed, to a large extent it was. Inversion he and his contemporaries doubtless regarded not as a trait peculiar to Paradise Lost, but as a characteristic of all good blank verse. Then, too, his very resemblance to Milton would have blinded him to his indebtedness,
1 See below, p. 529, and above, p. 181.
for it is hard to realize how much one owes to a lifelong friend of similar views but greater powers. To be sure, though he may not have known how numerous they were, he must have been aware of the many phrases and of some of the more unusual words that he borrowed; but such things would not have troubled him. He regarded Milton's authority as supreme, at least in diction, and accordingly may have thought that borrowing from him was like taking words from the dictionary. The similarity between his own exalted, orotund passages and those of Paradise Lost he undoubtedly felt and felt with pride.
Nor need those of us who look upon Wordsworth as one of the chief glories of English literature be disturbed to learn that he derived from another some of the materials and methods he used in the lofty building he erected. Surely one of the uses, and one of the best uses, of great poets is to furnish inspiration and guidance for those who come after them. This is not the least of the important functions that Paradise Lost has been performing for the last two and a half centuries. In Wordsworth's case it accomplished its purpose the more easily and effectively because what it offered was similar to what he himself had. Its influence on his poetry does not seem, for example, like Gothic vaulting in a Greek temple, for it did not tend to deflect him from his course, but merely strengthened him in it by showing him how to pursue it. That is why the last of the great Elizabethans became a power with one of the first of the great romanticists, why Wordsworth is the most Miltonic poet since Milton.
It is generally agreed that Spenser and Leigh Hunt made Keats a poet, but it is not so generally understood that they failed to complete their task, that they left him a rather formless, languorous, saccharine, and at times silly poet. He was naturally romantic, delighting in color rather than form, in richness rather than restraint, in ideal beauty rather than reality, and craving "a life of sensations rather than of thoughts." These traits were exaggerated by his youth, his admiration for Spenser, and his intimacy with Hunt, and as a result his first volume contains a number of rambling and rather pointless poems, with many rimes of the kisses-blisses sort and but one piece of real distinction. Likewise the second publication, Endymion, is a luxuriant wilderness, "the author's intention appearing to be," as even the generous Shelley wrote, "that no person should possibly get to the end of it." Fortunately Keats had himself come to realize these defects, and in the preface to Endymion had acknowledged that the reader of his romance "must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished."
In this same preface the poet expressed the hope of writing another work that should deal with "the beautiful mythology of Greece." This was Hyperion, which was originally conceived as a romance,2 probably rimed and otherwise similar to Endymion, though "more naked and Grecian." But, before he came to write, a new planet swam into his ken which not only changed his plans but affected all his subsequent poetry. This transforming power was Paradise Lost. Keats had known Milton's poetry from boyhood, and had borrowed from the minor pieces and even from the epic; but the latter had meant little to him. He had heard of it by the hearing of the
1 To Charles and James Ollier, Sept. 6, 1819.
2 "The time would be better spent in writing a new Romance I have in my eye for next summer" (letter to Haydon, Sept. 28, 1817). Colvin, in his life of Keats (1918, P. 334), suggests that this "romance" may possibly have been the Eve of St. Agnes. 3 His lines,
You first taught me all the sweets of song...
Miltonian storms, and more, Miltonian tenderness;
(Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke, 53, 58-9, written in September, 1816, but referring to a period several years earlier), show little appreciation of Milton's real greatness.