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Chapter 9. Poetic Diction—“Daodamia”—“Evening Ode.”
The Excursion appeared in 1814, and in the course of the next year Wordsworth republished his minor poems, so arranged as to indicate the faculty of the mind which he considered to have been predominant in the composition of each. To most readers this disposition has always seemed somewhat arbitrary; and it was once suggested to Wordsworth that a chronological arrangement would be better. The manner in which Wordsworth met this proposal indicated the limit of his absorption in himself—his real desire only to dwell on his own feelings in such a way as might make them useful to others. For he rejected the plan as too egotistical—as emphasizing the succession of moods in the poet’s mind, rather than the lessons which those moods could teach. His objection points, at any rate, to a real danger which any man’s simplicity of character incurs by dwelling too attentively on the changing phases of his own thought. But after the writer’s death the historical spirit will demand that poems, like other artistic products, should be disposed for the most part in the order of time.

In a Preface to this edition of 1815, and a Supplementary Essay, he developed the theory on poetry already set forth in a well-known preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads. Much of the matter of these essays, received at the time with contemptuous aversion, is now accepted as truth; and few compositions of equal length contain so much of vigorous criticism and sound reflection. It is only when they generalize too confidently that they are in danger of misleading us; for all expositions of the art and practice of poetry must necessarily be incomplete. Poetry, like all the arts, is essentially a “mystery.” Its charm depends upon qualities which we can neither define accurately nor reduce to rule nor create again at pleasure. Mankind, however, are unwilling to admit this; and they endeavour from time to time to persuade themselves that they have discovered the rules which will enable them to produce the desired effect. And so much of the effect can thus be reproduced, that it is often possible to believe for a time that the problem has been solved. Pope, to take the instance which was prominent in Wordsworth’s mind, was, by general admission, a poet. But his success seemed to depend on imitable peculiarities; and Pope’s imitators were so like Pope that it was hard to draw a line and say where they ceased to be poets. At last, however, this imitative school began to prove too much. If all the insipid verses which they wrote were poetry, what was the use of writing poetry at all? A reaction succeeded, which asserted that poetry depends on emotion and not on polish; that it consists precisely in those things which frigid imitators lack. Cowper, Burns, and Crabbe, (especially in his Sir Eustace Grey), had preceded Wordsworth as leaders of this reaction. But they had acted half unconsciously, or had even at times themselves attempted to copy the very style which they were superseding.

Wordsworth, too, began with a tendency to imitate Pope, but only in the school exercises which he wrote as a boy. Poetry soon became to him the expression of his own deep and simple feelings; and then he rebelled against rhetoric and unreality and found for himself a director and truer voice, “I have proposed to myself to imitate and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men. . . . I have taken as much pains to avoid what is usually called poetic diction as others ordinarily take to produce it.” And he erected this practice into a general principle in the following passage:—

“I do not doubt that it may be safely affirmed that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. We are fond of tracing the resemblance between poetry and painting, and, accordingly, we call them sisters; but where shall we find bonds of connexion sufficiently strict to typify the affinity between metrical and prose composition? If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of themselves constitute a distinction which overturns what I have been saying on the strict affinity of metrical language with that of prose, and paves the way for other artificial distinctions which the mind voluntarily admits, I answer that the language of such poetry as I am recommending is, as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men; that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life; and if metre be superadded thereto, I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind. What other distinction would we hare? Whence is it to come? And where is it to exist?”

There is a definiteness and simplicity about this description of poetry which may well make us wonder why this precious thing (producible, apparently, as easily as Pope’s imitators supposed, although by means different from theirs) is not offered to us by more persons, and of better quality. And it will not be hard to show that a good poetical style must possess certain characteristics, which, although something like them must exist in a good prose style, are carried in poetry to a pitch so much higher as virtually to need a specific faculty for their successful production.

To illustrate the inadequacy of Wordsworth’s theory to explain the merits of his own poetry, I select a stanza from one of his simplest and most characteristic poems—The Affliction of Margaret:—

Perhaps some dungeon hears thee groan,

Maimed, mangled by inhuman men,

Or thou upon a Desert thrown

Inheritest the lion’s Den;

Or hast been summoned to the Deep,

Thou, thou and all thy mates, to keep

An incommunicable sleep.

These lines, supposed to be uttered by “a poor widow at Penrith,” afford a fair illustration of what Wordsworth calls “the language really spoken by men,” with “metre superadded.” “What other distinction from prose,” he asks, “would we have?” We may answer that we would have what he has actually given us, viz., an appropriate and attractive music, lying both in the rhythm and in the actual sound of the words used,—a music whose complexity may be indicated here by drawing out some of its elements in detail, at the risk of appearing pedantic and technical. We observe, then (a), that the general movement of the lines is unusually slow. They contain a very large proportion of strong accents and long vowels, to suit the tone of deep and despairing sorrow. In six places only out of twenty-eight is the accent weak where it might be expected to be strong (in the second syllables, namely, of the Iambic foot), and in each of these cases the omission of a possible accent throws greater weight on the next succeeding accent—on the accents, that is to say, contained in the words inhuman, desert, lion, summoned, deep, and sleep, (b) The first four lines contain subtle alliterations of the letters d, h, m, and th. In this connexion it should be remembered that when consonants are thus repeated at the beginning of syllables, those syllables need not be at the beginning of words; and further, that repetitions scarcely more numerous than chance alone would have occasioned, may be so placed by the poet as to produce a strongly-felt effect. If any one doubts the effectiveness of the unobvious alliterations here insisted on, let him read (1) “jungle” for “desert,” (2) “maybe” for “perhaps,” (3) “tortured” for “mangled,” (4) “blown” for “thrown,” and he will become sensible of the lack of the metrical support which the existing consonants give one another. The three last lines contain one or two similar alliterations on which I need not dwell, (c) The words inheritest and summoned are by no means such as “a poor widow,” even at Penrith, would employ; they are used to intensify the imagined relation which connects the missing man with (1) the wild beasts who surround him, and (2) the invisible Power which leads; so that something mysterious and awful is added to his fate. (d) This impression is heightened by the use of the word incommunicable in an unusual sense, “incapable of being communicated with,” instead of “incapable of being communicated;” while (e) the expression “to keep an incommunicable sleep” for “to lie dead,” gives dignity to the occasion by carrying the mind back along a train of literary associations of which the well-known ατερμονα ναεγρετον υπνον of Moschus may be taken as the type.

We must not, of course, suppose that Wordsworth consciously sought these alliterations, arranged these accents, resolved to introduce an unusual word in the last line, or hunted for a classical allusion. But what the poet’s brain does not do consciously it does unconsciously; a selective action is going on in its recesses simultaneously with the overt train of thought, and on the degree of this unconscious suggestiveness the richness and melody of the poetry will depend.

So rules can secure the attainment of these effects; and the very same artifices which are delightful when used by one man seem mechanical and offensive when used by another. Nor is it by any means always the case that the man who can most delicately appreciate the melody of the poetry of others will be able to produce similar melody himself. Nay, even if he can produce it one year it by no means follows that he will be able to produce it the next. Of all qualifications for writing poetry this inventive music is the most arbitrarily distributed, and the most evanescent. But it is the more important to dwell on its necessity, inasmuch as both good and bad poets are tempted to ignore it. The good poet prefers to ascribe his success to higher qualities; to his imagination, elevation of thought, descriptive faculty. The bad poet can more easily urge that his thoughts are too advanced for mankind to appreciate than that his melody is too sweet for their ears to catch. And when the gift vanishes no poet is willing to confess that it is gone; so humiliating is it to lose power over mankind by the loss of something which seems quite independent of intellect or character. And yet so it is. For some twenty years at most (1798—1818), Wordsworth possessed this gift of melody. During those years he wrote works which profoundly influenced mankind. The gift then left him; he continued as wise and as earnest as ever, but his poems had no longer any potency, nor his existence much public importance.

Humiliating as such reflections may seem, they are in accordance with actual experience in all branches of art. The fact is that the pleasures which art gives us are complex in the extreme. We are always disposed to dwell on such of their elements as are explicable and can in some way be traced to moral or intellectual sources. But they contain also other elements which are inexplicable, non-moral, and non-intellectual, and which render most of our attempted explanations of artistic merit so incomplete as to be practically misleading. Among such incomplete explanations Wordsworth’s essays must certainly be ranked. It would not be safe for any man to believe that he had produced true poetry because he had fulfilled the conditions which Wordsworth lays down. But the essays effected what is perhaps as much as the writer on art can fairly hope to accomplish. They placed in a striking light that side of the subject which had been too long ignored; they aided in recalling an art which had become conventional and fantastic into the normal current of English thought and speech.

It may be added that both in doctrine and practice Wordsworth exhibits a progressive reaction from the extreme views with which he starts towards the common vein of good sense and sound judgment which may be traced back to Horace, Longinus, and Aristotle. His first preface is violently polemic. He attacks with reason that conception of the sublime and beautiful which is represented by Dryden’s picture of “Cortes alone in his nightgown,” remarking that “the mountains seem to nod their drowsy heads.” But the only example of true poetry which he sees fit to adduce in contrast consists in a stanza from the Babes in the Wood. In his preface of 1815 he is not less severe on false sentiment and false observation. But his views of the complexity and dignity of poetry have been much developed, and he is willing now to draw his favourable instances from Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and himself.

His own practice underwent a corresponding change. It is only to a few poems of his earlier years that the famous parody of the Rejected Addresses fairly applies.

My father’s walls are made of brick,

But not so tall and not so thick

    As these; and goodness me!

My father’s beams are made of wood,

But never, never half so good

    As those that now I see!

Lines something like these might have occurred in The Thorn or The Idiot Boy. Nothing could be more different from the style of the sonnets, or of the Ode to Duty, or of Laodamia. And yet both the simplicity of the earlier and the pomp of the later poems were almost always noble; nor is the transition from the one style to the other a perplexing or abnormal thing. For all sincere styles are congruous to one another, whether they be adorned or no, as all high natures are congruous to one another, whether in the garb of peasant or of prince. What is incongruous to both is affectation, vulgarity, egoism; and while the noble style can be interchangeably childlike or magnificent, as its theme requires, the ignoble can neither simplify itself into purity nor deck itself into grandeur.

It need not, therefore, surprise us to find the classical models becoming more and more dominant in Wordsworth’s mind, till the poet of Poor Susan and The Cuckoo spends months over the attempt to translate the ?neid,—to win the secret of that style which he placed at the head of all poetic styles, and of those verses which “wind,” as he says, “with the majesty of the Conscript Fathers entering the Senate-house in solemn procession,” and envelope in their imperial melancholy all the sorrows and the fates of man.

And, indeed, so tranquil and uniform was the life which we are now retracing, and at the same time so receptive of any noble influence which opportunity might bring, that a real epoch is marked in Wordsworth’s poetical career by the mere rereading of some Latin authors in 1814–16 with a view to preparing his eldest son for the University. Among the poets whom he thus studied was one in whom he might seem to discern his own spirit endowed with grander proportions, and meditating on sadder fates. Among the poets of the battlefield, of the study, of the boudoir, he encountered the first Priest of Nature, the first poet in Europe who had deliberately shunned the life of courts and cities for the mere joy in Nature’s presence, for “sweet Parthenope and the fields beside Vesevus’ hill.”

There are, indeed, passages in the Georgics so Wordsworthian, as we now call it, in tone, that it is hard to realize what centuries separated them from the Sonnet to Lady Beaumont or from Ruth. Such, for instance, is the picture of the Corycian old man, who had made himself independent of the seasons by his gardening skill, so that “when gloomy winter was still rending the stones with frost, still curbing with ice the rivers’ onward flow, he even then was plucking the soft hyacinth’s bloom, and chid the tardy summer and delaying airs of spring.” Such, again, is the passage where the poet breaks from the glories of successful industry into the delight of watching the great processes which nature accomplishes untutored and alone, “the joy of gazing on Cytorus waving with boxwood, and on forests of Narycian pine, on tracts that never felt the harrow, nor knew the care of man.”

Such thoughts as these the Roman and the English poet had in common;— the heritage of untarnished souls.

I asked; ’twas whispered; The device

To each and all might well belong:

It is the Spirit of Paradise

That prompts such work, a Spirit strong,

That gives to all the self-same bent

Where life is wise and innocent.

It is not only in tenderness but in dignity that the “wise and innocent” are wont to be at one. Strong in tranquillity, they can intervene amid great emotions with a master’s voice, and project on the storm of passion the clear light of their unchanging calm. And thus it was that the study of Virgil, and especially of Virgil’s solemn picture of the Underworld, prompted in Wordsworth’s mind the most majestic of his poems, his one great utterance on heroic love.

He had as yet written little on any such topic as this. At Goslar he had composed the poems on Lucy to which allusion has already been made. And after his happy marriage he had painted in one of the best k............
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