Adnax Publications

William Wordsworth, Commentary

William Wordsworth caricature

William Wordsworth caricature by David Levine

Charles Lamb : Letter to William Wordsworth, Letter LXXXV, 30th January 1801
I ought before this to have replied to your very kind invitation into Cumberland. With you and your sister I could gang anywhere; but I am afraid whether I shall ever be able to afford so desperate a journey. Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade - all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.  But consider, what must I have been doing all my life, not to have lent great portions of my heart with usury to such scenes?

Sunday in London

from Sunday in London illustration by Cruickshank

My attachments are all local, purely local. I have no passion (or have had none since I was in love, and then it was the spurious engendering of poetry and books) for groves and valleys. The rooms where I was born, the furniture which has been before my eyes all my life, a book-case which has followed me about like a faithful dog (only exceeding him in knowledge), wherever I have moved myself, old chairs, old tables, streets, squares, where I have sunned myself, my old school - these are my mistresses. Have I not enough, without your mountains? I do not envy you. I should pity you, did I not know that the mind will make friends of anything. Your sun, and moon, and skies, and hills, and lakes, affect me no more, or scarcely come to me in more venerable characters, than as a gilded room with tapestry and tapers, where I might live with handsome visible objects. I consider the clouds above me but as a roof beautifully painted, but unable to satisfy the mind: and at last, like the pictures of the apartment of a connoisseur, unable to afford him any longer a pleasure. So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of nature, as they have been confinedly called ; so ever fresh, and green and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city. I should certainly have laughed with dear Joanna.

Lamb's commentary offers an interesting, contemporary sidelight on the poetry of William Wordsworth. Clearly not everybody went along with Wordsworth's choice of subject matter. In fact, in the beginning, there were more who disagreed than who agreed. Recognition of his abilities as a poet was always forthcoming, but many critics and men of taste argued with his choice of 'low' subject matter.

The most comprehensive contemporary critique of Wordsworth's poetry is to be found in Francis Jeffreys' review of Thalaba the Destroyer in the Edinburgh Review of 1803. Jeffreys here defends the 'old school' of poetry, ridiculing the idea, found in Wordsworth's Prelude to the Lyrical Ballads of 1800, that poetry could be expressed in ordinary language and be written about 'ordinary' people.

Benjamin the Waggoner

Benjamin the Waggoner, hand coloured engraving: Thomas Allom

A second important source of contemporary criticism of Wordsworth came from his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was fullsome in his praise of Wordsworth's poetic ability, but who also criticised his use of 'low' language and 'simple' subject matter. Thus:

...that a downright simpleness, under the affectation of simplicity, prosaic words in feeble metre, silly thoughts in childish phrases, and a preference of mean, degrading, or at best trivial associations and characters, should succeed in forming a school of imitators, a company of almost religious admirers, and thiss too among young men of ardent minds, liberal education, and not 'with academic laurels unbestowed' and that this bare and bald counterfeit of poetry, which is characterized as below criticism, should for nearly twenty years have well nigh engrossed criticism, as the main, if not the only butt of review, magazine, pamphlet, poem and paragraph; this is indeed a matter of wonder! (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Ch IV p55)

 But taste was to move slowly but decisively in Wordsworth's direction as the nineteenth century progressed. By 1825, William Hazlitt was writing:

Mr Wordsworth's genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age. Had he lived in any other period of the world, he would never have been heard of..... He takes the simplest elements of nature and of the human mind, the mere abstract conditions inseperable from our being, and tries to compound a new system of poetry from them; and has perhaps succeeded as well as anyone could... His muse ... takes the commonest events and objects, as a test to prove that nature is always interesting from its inherent truth and beauty, without any of the ornaments of dress or pomp of circumstances to set it off. Hence the unaccountable mixture of seeming simplicity and real abstruseness in the Lyrical Ballads. Fools have laughed at, wise men scarcely understand them.

Hazlitt goes on to associate Wordsworth's poetry with the revolutionary movements of the age:

his Muse .... is a levelling one .... The daisy looks up to him with sparkling eye as an old acquaintance: the cuckoo haunts him with sounds of early youth not to be expressed: a linnet's nest startles him with boyish delight: an old withered thorn is weighed down with a heap of recollections: a grey cloak, seen on some wild moor, torn by the wind, or drenched in the rain, afterwards becomes an object of imagination to him: even the lichens on the rock have a life and being in his thoughts. He has described all these objects in a way and with an intensity of feeling that no one else had done before him ... The vulgar do not read them, 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.

Hazlitt adds an opinion on the character of Wordsworth, which can give an interesting sidelight on some of the poems. 

Lord Byron we have called, according to the old proverb, 'the spoiled child of fortune': Mr Wordsworth might plead, in mitigation of some peculiarities, that he is 'the spoiled child of disappointment'. We are convinced, if he had been earlier a poet, he would have borne his honours meekly, and would have been a person of great bonhomie and frankness of disposition. But the sense of injustice and of undeserved ridicule sours the temper and narrows the views. To have produced works of genius, and to find them neglected or treated with scorn, is one of the heaviest trials of human patience..... the tide has turned much in his favour of late years. He has a large body of determined partisans, and is at present sufficiently in request with the public to save or relieve him from the last necessity to which a man of genius can be reduced -- that of becoming the God of his own idolatry!

Decidedly, such biographical details should not normally concern us in assessing the poetry of a man, but, in Wordsworth's case, they do allow us to understand better what is going on in some of the poems, and to appreciate some of the points of reference in his thought. In fact, the fact that Wordsworth himself embeds these experiences in his poetry almost necessitates our delving into the particulars of his life. As a general principle, one could say that the less one needs to know about the creator of a work of art in order to appreciate that work, the more universal it is. One could also say that these biographical interludes in his poetry give rise to a constant need for the poet to change what he has written due to the changed circumstances in his own life: the poems become a constant work in progress, nothing is ever finished, everything must be revisited and changed to conform with present circumstances.

Links to criticism of specific poems:

Lines left upon a seat ...

Upon Westminster Bridge ....

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free ....

A night piece ....

The poet's work ....

The green linnet ....

On the extinction of the Venetian Republic ....

Composed in the valley near Dover ....

Joanna's rock ....

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