A Blupete Biography Page

The Contemporary Critics, Part 10 to the Life & Works of
William Wordsworth

Leigh Hunt was a member of the "seditious press," and, for his ferocious attack on the Prince Regent, was to spend time in an English prison. In one of Hunt's articles74, he held up Wordsworth to ridicule; not so much for his poetical judgments, but for his political ones. "Mr Southey," he had said, "and even Mr Wordsworth, have both accepted offices under government, of such a nature as absolutely ties up their independence. ... and yet they shall all tell you that they have not diminished their free spirit a jot. In like manner they are as violent and intolerant against their old opinions, as ever they were against their new ones, and without seeing how far the argument carries, shall insist that no man can possess a decent head or respectable heart who does not agree with them. ... The persons of whom we have been speaking have been always in extremes, and perhaps the good they are destined to perform in their generation, is to afford a striking lesson of the inconsistencies naturally produced by so being. Nothing remains the same but their vanity."75

In his autobiography, written in 1859, Hunt was to come again to the subject of Wordsworth:

"[Wordsworth] ... had a dignified manner, with a deep and roughish but not unpleasing voice, and exalted mode of speaking. He had the habit of keeping the left hand in the bosom of his waistcoat; and in this attitude, except when he turned round to take one of the subjects of his criticism from the shelves (for his contemporaries were there also) he sat dealing forth his eloquent but hardly catholic judgments."76
William Hazlitt wrote:
"Mr Wordsworth, in his person, is above the middle size, with marked features, and an air some what stately and Quixotic. ... He has a peculiar sweetness in his smile, and great depth and manliness and rugged harmony in the tones of his voice. His manner of reading his own poetry is particularly imposing; and in his favourite passages his eye beams with preternatural lustre, and the meaning labours slowly up from his swelling breast. ... In company, even in a tête-à-tête, Mr. Wordsworth is often silent, indolent, and reserved. If he is become verbose and oracular of late years, he was not so in his better days. He threw out a bold or an indifferent remark without either effort or pretension, and relapsed into musing again."77
John Keats:
"I am sorry that Wordsworth has left a bad impression wherever he visited in town by his egotism, vanity, and bigotry. Yet he is a great poet, if not a philosopher."78
In 1797, Wordsworth (then twenty-eight) and Coleridge (twenty-six), were to compile and see to the publication of Lyrical Ballads. Lyrical Ballads is one of the landmarks in literature, heralding, as it did, the period which we know in literature as English Romanticism. Lyrical Ballads was a volume of poetry which opened with Coleridge's magical "Ancient Mariner" and ended with Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" was of country scenes and people, written in plain language and style; and, as for Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," -- well, it was a tale with a supernatural theme not common to the writings up to that date.79 The Lyrical Ballads was not, by any means, an immediate hit with the public; the first reviews were unenthusiastic and sales were meagre.80

Wordsworth defined poetry as follows: "Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science." For Wordsworth -- and the same can also be said of Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge -- "Nature is an inexhaustible source and provocative of lovely imaginings. Wordsworth conveys the loneliness of the mountains, Shelley, the tameless energies of wind, Keats the embalmed darkness of verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways, with an intensity which made all other Nature poetry seem pale."81 Professor Herford continued, "... the poets of English Romanticism had definite limitations. They lacked vision for the world of man, save under certain broad and simple aspects - the patriot, the peasant, the visionary, the child. They lacked understanding of the past, save at certain points on which the spirit of liberty has laid a fiery finger."

The Lyrical Ballads were, to Hazlitt, an unaccountable mixture of simple and abstruse poems, at which fools laughed and wise men scarcely understood. And while that was Hazlitt's observation in one essay, in another he was to write the work contained beautiful work which is most difficult to criticize as it represented a new school, and, as such, could not be compared to any previous standard or theory of poetical excellence. But, generally, Hazlitt was of the view that Wordsworth endeavoured to "aggrandize the trivial, and add the charm of novelty to the familiar. ... Reserved, yet haughty, having no unruly or violent passions (or those passions having been early suppressed), Mr. Wordsworth has passed his life in solitary musings or daily converse with the face of nature. ... He has dwelt among pastoral scenes ..."82

William Hazlitt was tough on Wordsworth, but it should be noted he liked Lord Byron's work even less. Wordsworth's poetry was "pleasing and permanent:" Lord Byron's poetry was like its creator, possessed of "pomp and pretension." Hazlitt likened Wordsworth's poetry to that of "a vein of ore that one cannot exactly hit upon at the moment, but of which there are sure indications."83

"He [Coleridge] lamented that Wordsworth was not prone enough to believe in the traditional superstitions of the place and that there was something corporeal, a-matter-of-fact-ness, a clinging to the palpable, or often to the petty, in his poetry, in consequence. His genius was not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprung out of the ground like a flower, or unfolded itself from a green spray, on which the goldfinch sang. He said, however (if I remember right), that this objection must be confined to his descriptive pieces, that his philosophic poetry had a grand and comprehensive spirit, in it, so that his soul seemed to inhabit the universe like a palace, and to discover truth by intuition, rather than by deduction."84
By 1815 -- the year in which the Battle of Waterloo was to take place, and which marked the end of the grand experiment which we know in history as "The French Revolution" and from which but only few of our modern leaders have taken any sort of a lesson -- Hazlitt was in full cry. It just so happens, that a draft of Wordsworth's new poem, "Excursion," meant for Lamb in London, fell into the hands of Hazlitt. Hardly had the new poem been published, when Hazlitt ripped it up: "The Excursion, we believe, fell still-born from the press. There was something abortive, and clumsy, and ill-judged in the attempt."85 Hazlitt was not alone in his criticism of Wordsworth. In 1815, Wordsworth's The White Doe of Rylstone was published and Jeffrey86 was to opine, "This has the merit of being the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume."87

What Hazlitt wrote, of Wordsworth, was not all bad:

"He takes a subject or a story merely as pegs or loops to hang thought and feeling on; the incidents are trifling, in proportion to his contempt for imposing appearances; the reflections are profound, according to the gravity and aspiring pretensions of his mind. ... No storm no shipwreck startles us by its horrors; but the rainbow lifts its head in the cloud, and the breeze sighs through the withered fern. No sad vicissitude of fate, no overwhelming catastrophe in nature deforms his page: but the dew-drop glitters on the bending flower, the tear collects in the glistening eye. ... The vulgar do not read them [Wordsworth's writings]; the learned, who see all things through books, do not understand them; the great despise. The fashionable may ridicule them: but the author has created himself an interest in the heart of the retired and lonely student of nature, which can never die. ... He has described all these objects [of nature] in a way and with an intensity of feeling that no one else had done before him, and has given a new view or aspect of nature. He is in this sense the most original poet now living, and the one whose writings could the least be spared: for they have no substitute elsewhere."88

"However we may sympathize with Mr. Wordsworth in his attachment to groves and fields, we cannot extend the same admiration to their inhabitants, or to the manners of a country life in general. We go along with him, while he is the subject of his own narrative, but we take leave of him when he makes pedlars and ploughmen his heroes and the interpreters of his sentiments. It is, we think, getting into low company, and company, besides, that we do not like. We take Mr. Wordsworth himself for a great poet, a fine moralist, and a deep philosopher ; but if he insists on introducing us to a friend of his, a parish clerk, or the barber of the village, who is as wise as himself, we must be excused if we draw back with some little want of cordial faith."89

During the years, 1799-1802, William Hazlitt had made an intimate, soul searching acquaintance with the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Then, these poets were Hazlitt's heros. This study had succeeded his eventful visit with them in 1798. Hazlitt had walked miles from his home to visit them at Nether Stowey. Hazlitt recognized these two men as being part of the new sensibility, Rousseauish sensibility. Part of the youth movement, who thought that there was something seriously wrong with existing social conventions and that matters ought to be changed: somehow, by somebody. As the years passed, Hazlitt was to continue to hold Coleridge in considerable awe, but like so many of his contemporaries, thought Coleridge had thrown his talents away in favour of drugs. As for Wordsworth: well, Hazlitt was of the view -- and he was not alone -- that Wordsworth had sacrificed or betrayed his principles for his own private interest. Hazlitt criticisms of the man cut a wide swath including Wordsworth's political beliefs and his poetry, too. In 1815 -- at a time when Hazlitt's grand hero, Napoleon, was absolutely and finally defeated on the field of battle -- we see Hazlitt write of Wordsworth:
"He tolerates nothing but what he himself creates ... He sees nothing but himself and the universe. He hates all greatness, and all pretensions to it but his own. His egotism is in this respect a madness; for he scorns even the admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption in any one to suppose that he has taste or sense enough to understand him. He hates all science and all art; he hates chemistry, he hates conchology; he hates Sir Isaac Newton; he hates logic ... he hates all poetry but his own; he hates Shakespeare ... he thinks everything good is contained in the Lyrical Ballads, or, if it is not contained there, it is good for nothing; he hates music, dancing, and painting; he hates Rubens, he hates Rembrandt, he hates Raphael, he hates Titian, he hates Vandyke; he hates the antique ... He is glad that Buonaparte is sent to St. Helena, and that the Louvre is dispersed ...90
This was hard stuff that was printed for public consumption and had to cut Wordsworth and his friends, terribly. It has to be put in the context of Hazlitt's political opinions, which, were decidedly unpopular, for, "though he had never shared the rhapsodical dreams of Coleridge, the extravagant hopes of Wordsworth, or the petulant sedition of Southey and Landor." Hazlitt was a "Child of the Revolution," a "Champion of Freedom" and the rights of the people. "He followed Bonaparte's career 'like a lover.'"91 However, I am obliged to leave my dissertation on Hazlitt for another day.

Wordsworth admitted that his notions on the subject of government had, for him, changed through the years, and that it should be no surprise that the notions of an enthusiastic youth are different from those of a matured man, one who would take a "profit by reflection." Certainly, Wordsworth was readily able to reflect and to take a profit from the contemporary events in France, - the excesses of the revolution and the tyranny of Bonaparte. "To Wordsworth tyranny could be exercised not only by individuals like Bonaparte, but the hydra-headed collective of masses of ignorant, maddened people. He had the born countryman's fear of huge cities - 'For upwards of 30 years the lower orders have been accumulating in pestilential masses of ignorant population.'"92

Hazlitt's main point, however, and a convincing one at that, was this:

"The philosophers, the dry abstract reasoners, submitted to this reverse pretty well, and armed themselves with patience 'as with triple steel,' to bear discomfiture, persecution, and disgrace. But the poets, the creatures of sympathy, could not stand the frowns both of king and people. They did not like to be shut out when places and pensions, when the critic's praises, and the laurel wreath were about to be distributed. They did not stomach being sent to Coventry, and Mr. Coleridge sounded a retreat from them by the help of casuistry and a musical voice. -- 'His words were hollow, but they pleased the ear' of his friends of the Lake School, who turned back disgusted and panic-struck from the dry desert of unpopularity, like Hussan the camel-driver,
'And curs'd the hour, and curs'd the luckless day,
When first from Shiraz' walls they bent their way.'
They are safely inclosed there. But Mr. Coleridge did not enter with them; pitching his tent upon the barren waste without, and having no abiding place nor city of refuge!'"93


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Peter Landry

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