Walter Pater

 

 

On Wordsworth.

 

SOME English critics at the beginning of the present century said a great deal concerning a distinction, of much importance, as they thougt in the true estimate of poetry, between the Fancy and another, profounder faculty, the Imagination. This metaphysical distinction, borrowed originally from the writings of German philosophers, and perhaps not always clearly apprehended by those who talked of it, involved a far deeper and more vital distinction, with which indeed all true criticism more or less directly has to do, the distinction namely between higher and lower degrees of intensity in the poet's perception of his subject, and in his concentration of himself upon his work. Of those who dwelt upon the metaphysical distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination, it was Wordsworth who made the most of it, assuming it as the basis for the final classification of his poetical writings; and it is in these writings that the deeper and more vital distinction which, as I have said, underlies the metaphysical distinction, is most needed and may best be illustrated.

For nowhere is there so perplexed a mixture as in Wordsworth's own poetry, of work touched with intense and individual power, with work of almost no character at all. He has much conventional sentiment, and some of that insincere poetic diction against which his most serious critical efforts were directed; the reaction in his political ideas, consequent on the excesses of 1795, makes him at times a declaimer on moral and social topics; and he seems sometimes to force an unwilling pen and write by rule. By making the most of these blemishes it is possible to obscure the real æsthetic value of his work, just as his life also, a life of much quiet delicacy and independence, might easily be placed in a false focus, and made to appear a somewhat tame theme in illustration of the more obvious parochial virtues. And those who wish to understand his influence, and experience his peculiar savour, must bear with patience the presence of an alien element in Wordsworth's work, which never coalesced with what is really delightful in it, nor underwent his special power. Who that values his writings most has not felt the intrusion there from time to time of something tedious and prosaic? Of all great poets, perhaps he would gain most by a skilfully made anthology. Such a selection would show perhaps not so much what he was, or to himself or others seemed to be, as what by the more energetic and fertile tendency in his writings he was ever tending to become; is, therefore, to the imaginative reason. And the mixture in his work, as it actually stands, is so perplexed that one fears to miss the least promising composition even, lest some precious morsel should be [456] lying hidden within, the few perfect lines, the phrase, the single word even, to which he often works up mechanically through a almost the whole of which may be tame enough. He who thought that in all creative work the larger part was given passively to the recipient mind, who waited so dutifully upon the gift, to whom so large a measure was sometimes given, had his times also of desertion and relapse, and he has permitted the impress of these too to remain in his work. And this duality there, the fitfulness with which the higher qualities manifest themselves in it, gives the effect in his poetry of a power not altogether his own, or under his control, which comes and goes when it will, lifting or lowering a matter poor in itself; so that that old fancy which made the poet's art an enthusiasm, a form of divine possession, seems almost literally true of him.

This constant suggestion of an absolute duality between higher and lower moods, and the work done in them, stimulating one always to look below the surface, makes the reading of Wordsworth an excellent sort of training towards the things of art and poetry. It begets in those who, coming across him in youth, can bear him at all, a habit of reading between the lines, a faith in the effect of concentration and collectedness of mind in the right appreciation of poetry, an expectation of things in this order, coming to one in the way of a true discipline of the temper as well as of the intellect. He meets us with the promise that he has much, and something very peculiar, to give us, if we will follow a certain difficult way, and seems to have the secret of a special and privileged state of mind. And those who have undergone his influence, and followed this difficult way, are like people who have passed through some initiation, a disciplina arcani, by submitting to which they become able constantly to distinguish in art, speech, feeling, manners, that which is organic, animated, expressive, from that which is only conventional, derivative, inexpressive.

But although the necessity of selecting these precious morsels for oneself is an opportunity for the exercise of Wordsworth's peculiar influence, and induces a kind of just criticism and true estimate of them, yet the purely literary product would have been more excellent had the writer himself purged away that alien element. How perfect would have been the little treasury shut between the covers of how thin a book! Let us suppose the desired separation made, the electric thread untwined, the golden pieces, great and small, lying apart together. What are the peculiarities of this residue? What special sense does Wordsworth exercise, and what instincts does he satisfy? What are the subjects and the motives which in him excite the imaginative faculty? What are the qualities in things and persons which he values, the impression and sense of which he can convey to others in an extraordinary way?

An intimate consciousness of the expression of natural things, [457] which weighs, listens, penetrates, where the earlier mind passed roughly by, is a large element in the complexion of modern poetry. It has been remarked again and again; it reveals itself in many forms, but is strongest and most attractive in what is strongest and most attractive in modern literature; it is exemplified almost equally by writers as unlike each other as Senancour and Théophile Gautier; as a singular chapter in the history of the human mind, its growth might be traced from Rousseau to Chateaubriand, from Chateaubriand to Victor Hugo; it has doubtless some latent connection with those pantheistic theories which have largely exercised men's minds in some modern systems of philosophy; it is traceable even in the graver writings of historians; it makes as much difference between ancient and modern landscape as there is between the rough masks of an early mosaic and a portrait by Reynolds or Gainsborough. Of this new sense the writings of Wordsworth are the central and elementary expression; he is more simply and entirely occupied with it than any other. There was in his own character a certain contentment, a sort of religious placidity, seldom found united with a sensibility like his, which was favourable to the quiet, habitual observation of inanimate, or imperfectly animate, existence. His life of eighty years is not divided by profoundly felt incidents; its changes are almost wholly inward, and it falls into broad, untroubled spaces. What it most resembles is the life of one of those early Italian or Flemish painters, who, just because their minds were full of heavenly visions, passed, some of them, the better part of sixty years in quiet, systematic industry. This placid life matured in him an unusual, innate sensibility to natural sights and sounds, the flower and its shadow on the stone, the cuckoo and its echo. The poem of Resolution and Independence is a storehouse of such images; for its fulness of imagery it may be compared to Keats's Saint Agnes' Eve. To read one of his longer pastoral poems for the first time is like a day spent in a new country; the memory is crowded for a time with precise and vivid images: –

" The pliant harebell swinging in the breeze
" On some grey rock; –

" The single sheep and the one blasted tree
" And the bleak music from that old stone wall; –

" In the meadows and the lower ground
" Was all the sweetness of a common dawn; –

" And that green corn all day is rustling in thine ears."

Subtle and sharp as he is in the outlining of visible imagery, he is most subtle and delicate of all in the noting of sounds; so that he conceives of noble sound as even moulding the human countenance to nobler types, and as something actually "profaned by visible form or image." He has a power likewise of realising and conveying to [458] the consciousness of the reader abstract and elementary impressions, silence, darkness, absolute motionlessness; or, again, the whole complex sentiment of a particular place, the abstract expression of desolation in the long white road, of peacefulness in a particular folding of the hills. In the airy building of the brain, a special day or hour even, comes to have for him a sort of personal identity, a spirit or angel given to it, by which, for its exceptional insight, or the happy light upon it, it has a presence in one's history, and acts there as a separate power or accomplishment; and he has celebrated in many of his poems the "efficacious spirit" which, as he says, resides in these "particular spots" of time.

That sense of a life in natural objects, which in most poetry is only a rhetorical artifice, is in Wordsworth the assertion of what for him is almost literal fact. To him every natural object seemed to possess more or less of a moral or spiritual life, to be capable of a companionship with man full of finesse and expression, of inexplicable affinities and subtle secrets of intercourse. An emanation, a particular spirit, belonged not to the moving leaves or water only, but to the distant peak arising suddenly by some change of perspective above the nearer horizon, to the passing space of light across the plain, to the lichened Druid stone even, for a certain weird fellowship in it with the moods of men. It was like a "survival" in him of that primitive condition, which some philosophers have traced in the history of human culture, in which all outward objects alike, even the works of men's hands, were believed to be endowed with life and animation, and the world was full of souls; that mood in which the old Greek gods were first begotten, and which had many strange aftergrowths. In the early ages this belief, delightful as its effects in poetry often are, was but the result of a crude intelligence. But in Wordsworth this power of seeing life, this perception of a soul, in inanimate things, came of an exceptional susceptibility to the impressions of eye and ear, and was at bottom a kind of sensuousness. At least it is only in a temperament exceptionally susceptible on the sensuous side that this sense of the expressiveness of outward things comes to be so large a part of life. That he awakened "a sort of thought in sense" is Shelley's just criticism of this element in Wordsworth's poetry.

And it was through nature thus ennobled by a semblance of passion and thought that he approached the spectacle of human life. Human life indeed is, at first, but an additional, accidental grace on this expressive landscape. When he thought of man, it was of man as in the presence and under the influence of these effective natural objects, and linked to them by many associations. The close connection of man with natural objects, the habitual association of his thoughts and feelings with a particular spot of earth, has sometimes seemed to degrade those who are subject to its influence, as if it did [459] but reinforce that physical connection of our nature with the actual lime and clay of the soil, which is always drawing us nearer to our end. But for Wordsworth these influences tended to the dignity of human nature, because they tended to tranquillise it. He raises nature to the level of human thought to give it power and expression; he subdues man to the level of nature, and gives him thereby a certain breadth and coolness and solemnity. The leech-gatherer on the moor, the woman stepping westward, are for him natural objects, almost in the same sense as the aged thorn, or the lichened rock on the heath.

Religious sentiment, consecrating the affections and regrets of the human heart, above all that pitiful care and awe for the perishing human clay, of which relic-worship is but the corruption, has always had much to do with localities, with the thoughts which attach themselves to actual scenes and places. What is true of it everywhere, is truest of it in those secluded valleys where one generation after another maintains the same abiding-place; and it was on this side that Wordsworth seized religion most strongly. Consisting, as it did so much, in the recognition of local sanctities, in the habit of connecting the stones and trees of a particular spot of earth with the great events of life, till the low walls, the green mounds, the half-obliterated epitaphs seemed full of voices and a sort of natural oracles, the very religion of these people of the dales seemed but another link between them and the earth, and was literally a religion of nature. It tranquillised them by bringing them under the placid rule of traditional and narrowly localised observances. "Grave livers," they seemed to him under this aspect, with stately speech, and something of that natural dignity of manners which underlies the highest courtesy.

And seeing man thus as a part of nature, elevated and solemnised in proportion as his daily life and occupations brought him into companionship with permanent natural objects, his very religion forming new links for him with the narrow limits of the valley, the low vaults of his church, the rough stones of his home, made intense for him now with profound sentiment, he was able to appreciate passion in the lowly. He chooses to depict people from humble life, because, being nearer to nature than others, they are on the whole more impassioned, certainly more direct in their expression of passion, than other men; it is for this direct expression of passion that he values their humble words. In much that he said in exaltation of rural life he was but pleading indirectly for that sincerity, that perfect fidelity to one's own inward presentations, to the precise features of the picture within, without which any profound poetry is impossible. It was not for their tameness, but for this passionate sincerity, that he chose incidents and situations from common life, related in a selection of language really used by men. He constantly endeavours to bring his language [460] near to the real language of men; but it is to the real language of men, not on the dead level of their ordinary intercourse, but in select moments of vivid sensation, when this language is winnowed and ennobled by excitement. There are poets who have chosen rural life for their subject for the sake of its passionless repose, and there are times when Wordsworth extols the mere calm and dispassionate survey of things as the highest aim of poetical culture; but it was not for its passionless calm that he chose the scenes of pastoral life; and the meditative poet, sheltering himself from the agitations of the outward world, is in reality only clearing the scene for the exhibition of emotion, and what he values most is the almost elementary expression of elementary feelings.

And so he has much for those who value highly the concentrated expression of passion, who appraise men and women by their susceptibility to it, and art and poetry as they afford the spectacle of it. Breaking from time to time into the pensive spectacle of their daily toil, their occupations near to nature, come the great elementary feelings, lifting and solemnising their language and giving it a natural music. The great, distinguishing passion came to Michael by the sheepfold, to Ruth by the wayside, adding these humble children of the furrow to the true aristocracy of passionate souls. In this respect Wordsworth's work resembles most that of George Sand in those novels which depict country life. With a penetrative pathos, which puts him in the same rank with the masters of the sentiment of pity in literature, with Meinhold and Victor Hugo, he collects all the traces of vivid excitement which were to be found in that pastoral world; the girl who rung her father's knell; the unborn infant feeling about its mother's heart; the instinctive touches of children; the sorrows of the wild creatures even, their home-sickness, their strange yearnings; the tales of passionate regret that hang by a ruined farm-building, a heap of stones, a deserted sheepfold; that wild, gay, false, adventurous outer world, which breaks in from time to time to bewilder and deflower these quiet homes; not "passionate sorrow" only for the overthrow of the soul's beauty, but the loss of or carelessness for personal beauty itself, in those whom men have wronged, their pathetic wanness; the sailor "who, in his heart, was half a shepherd on the stormy seas;" the wild woman teaching her child to pray for her betrayer; incidents like the making of the shepherd's staff, or that of the young boy laying the first stone of the sheepfold; – all the pathetic episodes of their humble existence, their longing, their wonder at fortune, their poor pathetic pleasures, like the pleasures of children, won so hardly in the struggle for bare existence, their yearning towards each other in their darkened houses, or at their early toil. A sort of biblical depth and solemnity hangs over this strange, new, passionate, pastoral world of which he first raised the image, and the reflec[461]tion of which some of our best modern fiction has caught from him.

He pondered much over the philosophy of his poetry, and reading deeply in the history of his own mind, seems at times to have passed the borders of a world of strange speculations, inconsistent enough, had he cared to note such inconsistencies, with those traditional beliefs, which were otherwise the object of his devout acceptance. Thinking of the high value he set upon customariness, upon all that is habitual, local, rooted in the ground, in matters of religious sentiment, you might sometimes regard him as one tethered down to a world, refined and peaceful indeed, but with no broad outlook, a life protected, but somewhat narrowed, by the influence of received ideas. But he is at times also something very different from this, and something much bolder. A chance expression is overheard and placed in a new connection, the sudden memory of a thing long past occurs to him, a distant object is relieved for a moment by a random gleam of light – accidents turning up for a moment what lies below the surface of our immediate experience – and he passes from the humble graves and lowly arches of "the little rock-like pile" of a Westmoreland church on bold trains of speculative thought, and comes from point to point into strange contact with thoughts which have visited from time to time far bolder and more wandering spirits.

He had pondered deeply, for instance, on those strange reminiscences and forebodings which seem to make our lives stretch before and behind us, beyond where we can see or touch anything, or trace the lines of connection. Following the soul backwards and forwards on these endless ways, his sense of man's dim, potential powers became a pledge to him, indeed, of a future life; but carried him back also to that mysterious notion of an earlier state of existence, the fancy of the Platonists, the old heresy of Origen. It was in this mood that he conceived those oft-reiterated regrets for a half-ideal childhood, when the relics of Paradise still clung about the soul – a childhood, as it seemed, full of the fruits of old age, lost for all in a degree in the passing away of the youth of the world, lost for each over again in the passing away of actual youth. It is this ideal childhood which he celebrates in his famous Ode on the Recollections of Childhood, and some other poems which may be grouped around it, like the lines on Tintern Abbey; and something like what he describes was actually truer of him than he seems to have understood; for his own most delightful poems were really the instinctive productions of earlier life; and most surely for him "the first diviner influence of this world" passed away more and more completely in his contact with experience.

Sometimes, as he dwelt upon those moments of intense imaginative power, in which the outward object seems to take colour and expression, a new nature almost, from the prompting of the observ[462]ing mind, the actual world seemed to dissolve and detach itself, flake by flake, and he himself seemed to be the creator, and when he would the destroyer, of the world in which he lived; – that old isolating thought of many a brainsick mystic of ancient and modern times.

At other times, again, in those moments of intense susceptibility, in which he seemed to himself but the passive recipient of external influences, he was attracted by the thought of a spirit of life in outward things, a single all-pervading mind in them, of which man, and even the poet's imaginative energy, are but moments, – that old dream of the anima mundi, the mother of all things and their grave, in which some had desired to lose themselves, and others had become indifferent to the distinctions of good and evil. It would come sometimes like the sign of the macrocosm to Faust in his cell; the network of man and nature was pervaded by a common universal life; a new, bold thought lifted him above the furrow, above the green turf of the Westmoreland churchyard, to a world altogether different in its vagueness and vastness, and the narrow glen was full of the brooding power of a universal life.

And so he has something also for those who feel the fascination of bold speculative ideas, who are really capable of rising upon them to conditions of poetical thought. He uses them, indeed, always with a very subtle feeling for those limits within which alone philosophical imaginings have any place in true poetry, and using them only for poetical purposes, is not too careful even to make them consistent with each other. To him, theories which for other men bring a world of technical diction, brought perfect form and expression, as in those two lofty books of the Prelude, which describe the decay and the restoration of Imagination and Taste. Skirting the borders of this world of bewildering heights and depths, he got but the first exciting influence of it, that joyful enthusiasm which great imaginative theories prompt, when the mind first comes to have an understanding of them; and it is not under the influence of these thoughts that his poetry becomes tedious or loses its blitheness. He keeps them, too, always within certain bounds, so that no word of his could offend the simplest of those simple souls which are always the largest portion of mankind. But it is, nevertheless, the contact of these thoughts, the speculative boldness in them, that constitutes, at least for some minds, the secret attraction of much of his best poetry – the sudden passage from lowly thoughts and places to the majestic forms of philosophical imagination, the play of these thoughts over a world so different, enlarging so strangely the bounds of its humble churchyards, and breaking such a wild light on the graves of christened children.

And these moods always brought with them faultless expression. In regard to expression, as of feeling and thought, the duality of the higher and lower moods was absolute. It belonged to the higher, [463] the imaginative mood, and was the pledge of its reality, to bring the appropriate language with it. In him, when the really poetical motive worked at all, it united with absolute justice the word and the idea, each in the imaginative flame becoming inseparably one with the other, by that fusion of matter and form which is the characteristic of the highest poetical expression. His words are themselves thought and feeling; not eloquent or musical words merely, but that sort of creative language which carries the reality of what it depicts directly to the consciousness.

The music of mere metre plays but a limited, yet a very peculiar and subtly ascertained function in Wordsworth's poetry. With him metre is but an additional, accessary grace on that deeper music of words and sounds, that moving power, which they exercise in the nobler prose no less than in formal poetry. It is a sedative to that excitement, an excitement sometimes almost painful, under which the language of poetry and prose alike attains a rhythmical power, dependent on some subtle adjustment of the elementary sounds of words themselves to the image or feeling they convey, and independent of their metrical combination. Yet some of his pieces, pieces prompted by a sort of half-playful mysticism, like the Daffodils and The Two April Mornings, are noticeable for a certain quaint gaiety of metre, and rival by their perfect execution in this respect similar pieces among our own Elizabethan or contemporary French poetry. Those who take up these poems after an interval of months, or years perhaps, may be surprised at finding how well old favourites wear, how their strange inventive turns of diction or thought still send through them the old feeling of surprise. Those about Wordsworth were all great lovers of the older English literature, and oftentimes there came out in him a noticeable likeness to our earlier poets; he quotes unconsciously, but with new power of meaning, a clause from one of Shakspere's sonnets; and, as with some other men's most famous work, the Ode on the Recollections of Childhood has its antitype. 1 He drew something too from the unconscious mysticism of the old English language itself, drawing out the inward significance of its racy idiom, and the not wholly unconscious poetry of the language used by the simplest people under strong excitement, language therefore at its source.

The office of the poet is not that of the moralist, and the first aim of Wordsworth's poetry is to give the reader a peculiar kind of pleasure. But through his poetry, and through this pleasure in it, he does actually convey to the reader an extraordinary wisdom in the things of practice. One lesson, if men must have lessons, he conveys more clearly than all, the supreme importance of contemplation in the conduct of life.

Contemplation, impassioned contemplation, – that is with Words[464]worth the end in itself, the perfect end. We see the majority of mankind going most often to definite ends, lower or higher ends as their own instincts may determine; but the end may never come, and the means not be quite the right means, great ends and little ones alike being for the most part distant, and the ways to them in this dim world somewhat vague. Meantime, to higher or lower ends, they move too often with something of a sad countenance, with hurried and ignoble gait, becoming unconsciously something like thorns, in their anxiety to bear grapes; it being possible for individuals in the pursuit of even great ends, to become themselves thin and impoverished in spirit and temper, thus diminishing the sum of perfection in the world at its very sources. We understand this when it is a question of mean or of intensely selfish ends, of Grandet or Javert. We think it bad morality to say the end justifies the means, and we know how false to all higher conceptions of the religious life is the type of one who is ready to do evil that good may come. We contrast with such dark, mistaken eagerness, a type like that of Saint Catherine of Siena, who made the means to her ends so attractive, that she has won for herself an undying place in the House Beautiful, not by her fairness of soul merely, but by those quite different qualities which commend themselves to the poet and the artist.

Yet for most of us the conception of means and ends covers the whole of life, and is the exclusive type or figure under which we represent our lives to ourselves. Such a figure, reducing all things to machinery, though it has on its side the authority of that old Greek moralist who has fixed for succeeding generations the outline of the theory of right living, is too like a mere picture or description of men's lives as we actually find them to be the basis of the higher ethics. It covers the meanness of men's daily lives, and much of the dexterity and the vigour with which they pursue what may seem to them the good of themselves or of others; but not the intangible perfection of those whose ideal is rather in being than in doing; not those manners which are in the deepest as in the simplest sense morals, and without which one cannot so much as offer a cup of water to a poor man without offence; not the part of "antique Rachel," sitting in the company of Beatrice; and the higher morality might well endeavour rather to draw men's attention from the conception of means and ends in life altogether.

Against this predominance of machinery in life Wordsworth's poetry, like all great art and poetry, is a continual protest. Justify rather the end by the means, it seems to say; whatever may become of the fruit, make sure of the flowers and the leaves. It was justly said therefore by one who had meditated more profoundly than others on the true relation of means to ends in life, and on the distinction between what is desirable in itself and what is desirable [465] only as machinery, that when the battle which he and his friends were waging had been won, the world would need more than ever those qualities which Wordsworth was keeping alive and nourishing. 1

That the end of life is not action but contemplation, being as distinct from doing, a certain disposition of the mind, is in some shape or other the principle of all the higher morality. In poetry, in art, if you enter into their true spirit at all, you touch this principle in part; these, by their very sterility, are a type of beholding for the mere joy of beholding. To treat life in the spirit of art, is to make life a thing in which means and ends are identified. This then is the true moral significance of art and poetry. Wordsworth, and other poets who have been like him in ancient or more recent times, are the masters, the experts, in this art of impassioned contemplation. Their work is, not to teach lessons, or enforce rules, or even to stimulate us to noble ends, but to withdraw the thoughts for a little while from the mere machinery of life, to fix them with appropriate emotions on the spectacle of those great facts in man's existence which no machinery affects, "on the great and universal passions of men, the most general and interesting of their occupations, and the entire world of nature," – on "the operations of the elements and the appearances of the visible universe, on storm and sunshine, on the revolutions of the seasons, on cold and heat, on loss of friends and kindred, on injuries and resentments, gratitude and hope, on fear and sorrow." To witness this spectacle with appropriate emotions is the aim of all culture; and of these emotions poetry like Wordsworth's is a great feeder and stimulant. He sees nature full of sentiment and excitement; he sees men and women as parts of nature, passionate, excited, in strange grouping and connection with the grandeur and beauty of the natural world: images, in his own words, "of man suffering amid awful forms and powers."

Such is the figure of the more powerful and original poet, hidden away in part under those weaker elements in Wordsworth's poetry which for some minds determine their entire character; a poet somewhat bolder and more passionate than might at first sight be supposed, but not too bold for taste or poetry; an unimpassioned writer, you might sometimes fancy, yet thinking the chief aim, in life and art alike, to be a certain deep emotion; seeking most often the great elementary passions in lowly places; having at least this condition of all impassioned work, that he aims always at an absolute sincerity of feeling and diction, so that he is the true forerunner of the deepest and most passionate poetry of our own day; yet going back also, with something of a protest against the conventional fervour of much of the poetry popular in his own time, to those older English poets, whose unconscious likeness often comes out in him.

 

 

[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[463] (1) Henry Vaughan's Retreat.   zurück

[465] (1) Fortnightly Review, June, 1873. The Death of Mr. Mill.   zurück

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Fortnightly Review.
1874, April, S. 455-465.
URL: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006056638

Gezeichnet: Walter H. Pater.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

 

 

Zeitschriften-Repertorium

 

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