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WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (1770-1850)

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Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland, and educated at Hawkshead Grammar School between Esthwaite Water and Windermere in the Lake District, with which his whole life was closely connected. At St. John's College, Cambridge, according to his own account, he was neither among the 'loyal students faithful to their books,' nor among the honest dunces,' but one of the half-and-half idlers' who 'read lazily in trivial books,' amused themselves with athletic sports, and let the stars Come forth, perhaps, without one quiet thought.' In recollection, Wordsworth probably exaggerated his youthful idleness, for he read extensively, in both classical and modern languages, but he was not for that hour, nor for that place,' and he undoubtedly profited more, intellectually and spiritually, by his vacations in the Lake District and in France. He became a warm sympathizer with the French revolutionary movement, which deeply stirred his imagination. The declaration of war between France and England and the Reign of Terror in France cast him into deep melancholy, but he clung to his revolutionary principles until the Napoleonic despotism finally threw him back into agreement with his conservative fellow-countrymen.

In this spiritual crisis Wordsworth owed much to the companionship of his sister Dorothy, with whom he decided to retire from the world and devote himself to 'plain living and high thinking.' A legacy of £900 from a young admirer (Raisley Calvert) enabled the Wordsworths, who were living in the Lake District on milk and potatoes, to carry out this resolution, and in 1795 they took a cottage at Racedown, in Worcestershire, where they were visited by Coleridge. In the autumn of 1797 the three friends took a long walk together in the Quantock Hills; and to pay the expenses of the excursion, the young men planned a small volume of poetry, which was published the following year by an obscure Bristol printer under the title of Lyrical Ballads. Containing Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and Wordsworth's Lines written above Tintern Abbey, it marked very listinctly the two new streams of influence which were to enrich English poetry throughout the nineteenth century, and it has come to be regarded as one of the most important events in the history of literature, although at the time it attracted little attention. In the same year (1798) the Wordsworths and Coleridge sailed for Germany, where the latter plunged deep into the study of German literature and philosophy, while Wordsworth began the composition of The Prelude, an account of his own poetical and spiritual development, which was finished in 1805, although withheld from publication until after his death.

In 1799 Wordsworth and his sister settled permanently in the Lake District, their home for the next nine years being Dove Cottage, Grasmere. In 1800 the payment of a long deferred debt to the family enabled Wordsworth to marry a lifelong friend, Mary Hutchison, sung by him in 'She was a phantom of delight' and other poems. In 1813 he was given a government sinecure as distributor of stamps, which brought him in £400

year, and he was able to remove to a larger house at Rydal Mount, where he stayed until his death. Most of his work now recognized as of the highest excellence was published by 1807, though his longest poem, The Excursion, appeared in 1814; The White Doe of Rylstone and Laodamia in 1815; The Waggoner and Peter Bell in 1819; the fine series of sonnets, The River Duddon, in 1820; and a less successful sequence, Ecclesiastical Sketches, in 1822. On the death of Southey in 1843, he was appointed Poet Laureate, and was in turn succeeded by Tennyson, who received the laurel greener from the brow, Of him who uttered nothing base.'

Wordsworth's most obvious service to English poetry was to free it from the bondage of the artificial diction which the school of Pope received as a tradition and hardened into a convention. Subsequent ages owe him a greater debt for opening their minds to truer and deeper relations with Nature, and their hearts to sympathy with simple ings and simple people. But his greatest gift was neither a theory of diction nor a system of philosophy, but the union of high imaginative powers with a rare faculty of expression, which enabled him to enrich English poetry with priceless treasures. Matthew Arnold's conviction that the poetical performance of Wordsworth is after that of Shakspere and Milundoubtedly the most considerable in our language from the Elizabethan age to the present time' has been confirmed by the judgment of later critics.

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taste is healthy or depraved; which, again, could not be determined, without pointing out, in what manner language and the human mind act and react on 5 each other, and without retracing the revolutions, not of literature alone, but likewise of society itself. I have therefore altogether declined to enter regularly upon this defense; yet I am sensible, that there would be some impropriety in abruptly obtruding upon the public, without a few words of introduction, poems so materially different from those upon which general approba15 tion is at present bestowed.

It is supposed, that by the act of writing in verse an author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprises the reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in different eras of literature have excited very different expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus, Terence, and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakspere and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which by the act of writing in verse an author, in the present day, makes to his reader; but it will undoubtedly appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. They who have

Several of my friends are anxious for the success of these poems from a be- 30 lief, that, if the views with which they were composed were indeed realized, a class of poetry would be produced well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the quality and 35 in the multiplicity of its moral relations: and on this account they have advised me to add a systematic defense of the theory upon which the poems were written. But I was unwilling to undertake the task, 40 been accustomed to the gaudiness and because I knew that on this occasion the reader would look coldly upon my arguments, since I might be suspected of having been principally influenced by the selfish and foolish hope of reasoning 45 him into an approbation of these particular poems: and I was still more unwilling to undertake the task, because, adequately to display my opinions, and fully to enforce my arguments, would 50 require a space wholly disproportionate to a preface. For to treat the subject with the clearness and coherence of which it is susceptible, it would be necessary to give a full account of the present state of the public taste in this country, and to determine how far this

inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of

courtesy these attempts can be per

mitted to assume that title. I hope therefore the reader will not censure me, for attempting to state what I have proposed to myself to perform; and also (as far as the limits of a preface will permit) to explain some of the chief reasons which 55 have determined me in the choice of my purpose that at least he may be spared any unpleasant feeling of disappoint

PREFACE TO LATER ISSUES
OF LYRICAL BALLADS'

The first volume of these poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the 10 real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a poet may rationally endeavor to impart.

I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect of those poems: I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure; 20 and, on the other hand, I was well aware, that by those who should dislike them, they would be read with more than common dislike. The result has differed from my expectation in this 25 only, that a greater number have been pleased than I ventured to hope I should please.

ment, and that I myself may be protected from one of the most dishonorable accusations which can be brought against an author, namely, that of an indolence which prevents him from endeavoring to ascertain what is his duty, or, when his duty is ascertained, prevents him from performing it.

and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by poets, who think that they are 5 conferring honor upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.

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The principal object, then, proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and to situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far was possible, in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain 15 coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect, and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in 20 than false refinement or arbitrary innova

them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally 25 chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic lan- 30 guage; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; be- 35 cause the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in 40 can be attached were never produced on

that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language, too, of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appears to be its real 45 defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, 50 from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated 55 sibility, such habits of mind will be proexpressions. Accordingly such a lan- duced, that, by obeying blindly and guage, arising out of repeated experience mechanically the impulses of those habits,

any variety of subjects but by a man, who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, wel discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sen

I cannot, however, be insensible to the present outcry against the triviality and meanness, both of thought and language, which some of my contemporaries have occasionally introduced into their metrical compositions; and I acknowledge that this defect, where it exists, is more dishonorable to the writer's own character

tion, though I should contend at the same time, that it is far less pernicious in the sum of its consequences. From such verses the poems in these volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark of difference, that each of them has a worthy purpose. Not that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but habits of meditation have, I trust, so prompted and regulated my feelings, as that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If this opinion is erroneous, I can have little right to the name of a poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, poems to which any value

we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.

I have said that each of these poems has a purpose. But it is proper that I should mention one other circumstance which distinguishes these poems from the 10 popular poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling. My meaning will be rendered per- 15 fectly intelligible by referring my reader to the poems entitled Poor Susan and the Childless Father, particularly to the last stanza of the latter poem.

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elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakspere and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.— When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble endeavor made in these volumes to counteract it; and, reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonorable melancholy, had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible; and did I not further add to this impression a belief, that the time is approaching when the evil will be systematically opposed, by men of greater powers, and with far more distinguished success.

I will not suffer a sense of false 20 modesty to prevent me from asserting, that I point my reader's attention to this mark of distinction, far less for the sake of these particular poems than from the general importance of the subject. The 25 subject is indeed important! For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity 30 who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavor to 35 produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is_especially so at the present day. For a 40 or regular part of that language. They multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all volúntary exertion, to reduce it to a state 45 of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation

are, indeed, a figure of speech occasionally prompted by passion, and I have made use of them as such; but I have endeavored utterly to reject them as a mechanical device of style, or as a family language which writers in meter seem to lay claim to by prescription. I have wished to keep my reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so

of men in cities, where the uniformity 50 doing I shall interest him. Others who

of their occupations produces a craving
for extraordinary incident, which the
rapid communication of intelligence
hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life.
and manners the literature and theatrical 55
exhibitions of the country have conformed
themselves. The invaluable works of our

pursue a different track will interest him
likewise; I do not interfere with their
claim, but wish to prefer a different claim.
of my own.
There will also be found in
these pieces little of what is usually called
poetic diction; as much pains has been
taken to avoid it as is ordinarily taken

Having dwelt thus long on the subjects and aim of these poems, I shall request the reader's permission to apprise him of a few circumstances relating to their style, in order, among other reasons, that I may not be censured for not having performed what I never attempted. The reader will find that personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur in these volumes; and, I hope, are utterly rejected, as an ordinary device to elevate the style, and raise it above prose. I have proposed to myself to imitate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men; and assuredly such personifications do not make any natural

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