Critical Essays Wordsworth's Literary History


Even the very earliest of Wordsworth's poetic efforts were addressed to his "dear native regions." They remained a lifelong source of inspiration for him even though, in his later years, he tended to forsake nature as a direct source for subject matter. Perhaps his favorite pursuit at Cambridge was the reading of contemporary poetry, so much so that he learned modern languages so that he was able to read such poetry in the original. His Italian master was professedly fond of Gray, and we find many echoes of Gray in the early poems. Indeed, the Juvenilia smacked of much of the somewhat sterile poetry turned out with such abundance following 1700.

The impetus toward this type of poetry that would come to be uniquely Wordsworth's during the ambitious walking tours he began while in college and continued long after. On jaunts at home and abroad, he derived inspiration for some of his lofty lyrics. Descriptive Sketches of a Pedestrian Tour in the Alps, his first collection, commemorates the summer walking tour through France and Switzerland in 1790. It was published in 1793, along with An Evening Walk. The latter volume was written in the eighteenth-century manner and was dedicated to his sister Dorothy. The former work contained crude expressions of revolutionary sympathies in isolated passages; it also occasionally exhibited as a tone of moral dejection and even moods of religious disbelief. There was considerable haste in getting both these early volumes printed, and as a consequence quite a few errors appeared, which were, of course, rectified in future editions. Unfortunately, much of the youthful fire that animated the earlier volume was at the same time edited out because of the change in the poet's political thinking during the intervening years.

As for the quality of this early poetry, it was somewhat uncertain. There was much of the plain language that Wordsworth was to become famous for, but it was used awkwardly and self-consciously. There was great borrowing, both of poetic device and of image. In all, clearly the rambling phrase was meant to be a departure from the snug couplet in vogue at the time, an intention which indicated the independence and daring of the poet. Lastly, the poems definitely did not please Wordsworth's guardian; in fact, they pleased scarcely anyone but Coleridge.

By the autumn of 1793, amid the menace of war, Wordsworth had settled in southwest England, explored (as was his wont) the countryside on foot, and composed as he went. In the vicinity of Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, he was inspired to the conception of On Salisbury Plain. In 1794, this effort was amalgamated with a poem called "The Female Vagrant" (the latter was to appear alone in Lyrical Ballads in 1798). As Guilt and Sorrow, this volume was much revised and finally published in 1842. The poetry reflected the strong grip which the rationalistic philosophy of Godwin had on the poet's mind in the early 1790s. As poetry, Guilt and Sorrow marked a great and momentous change in style and featured chiefly a sophisticated attempt at narration which replaced the naive description of nature in the earlier poems. As close inspection reveals, tighter versification — not so many liberties were taken as earlier — and the Spenserian stanza appear. Amid this evenness and control are the visions of humble life couched in plain language (with a political tinge).

The early poems had been published by one Joseph Johnson. His shop was a favorite meeting place for republicans and freethinkers, such as Thomas Paine and Godwin, with whom Wordsworth mingled and conversed. The Bishop of Llandaff (Wales), a former liberal turned conservative, had recently delivered a strong anti-republican attack and a defense of the constitution. Wordsworth undertook a long written rebuttal which justified the Reign of Terror and seizure of Church property in France, and extolled the superiority of popular sovereignty over monarchy. The poet was twenty-three at the time. The treatise was not published until 1876, after which it was ranked as one of the best philosophical works to come out of England at the time of the revolutionary movement.

In 1795-96, in the midst of his deepest period of depression, he wrote his only verse play, the gloomy tragedy, The Borderers. The play attempted to demonstrate the impotence of common sense in the face of life's great mishaps and signifies Wordsworth's struggle to free himself from Godwin's philosophy.

He was helped from this crisis by the staunch friendship of his sister and of Coleridge, both of whom constantly reassured him as to his promise as a poet. He started in earnest to write splendid little lyrics of homely wisdom and simple tragedy which, through arousing strong compassion, would inculcate in readers a yearning to see the reform of all social injustice. His first truly characteristic piece, beginning "Nay, traveller, rest," marked his victory over Godwinism. From the highly stimulating association with Coleridge came the plan for the Lyrical Ballads.

Between 1798 and 1807, he wrote some of his finest and most successful lyrics; many found their way into later editions of Lyrical Ballads. For the most part, these took their departure from English rural scenery; native flora and fauna were treated in the poet's growing style of sober realism.

In the summer of 1802, the poet and his sister arrived in Calais for a prearranged meeting with Annette Vallon and her daughter. While there, he wrote some of his best sonnets. These resound with ringing cries which laud humanity's eternal struggle for freedom everywhere. Returning, he continued to compose sonnets in which the earlier vein of heroics was transformed into a patriotism which extolled the English character. His disgust with Napoleon accounted for the change in tone. In the same year, among others, he wrote the celebrated sonnets "Upon Westminster Bridge" and "London, 1802."

After 1803, he wrote nothing sustained or ambitious. From the time of his first talks with Coleridge, Wordsworth had envisioned a magnum opus (he likened it to a vast Gothic cathedral) in which all his verse would find some place or other. This desire seemed like not too great a perversion of poetic purpose since all his verse was similar as to tone and philosophical foundation. All of the published poems, including the shorter ones, would be merely tentative and might be reworked until they made a more or less perfect fit within, or as a framework to, the grand opus. The whole structure, Wordsworth (and Coleridge) decided, would be the world's first truly philosophical poem. It would deal with people and their environment as these were seen through the eyes of "a poet living in retirement." It was to be called, appropriately, The Recluse. Like Chaucer and Spenser before him, Wordsworth never completed his projected masterpiece.

He did complete The Prelude; it was published posthumously. The main body of The Recluse, again like a cathedral, was to be divided into three parts. The first part was begun, only to be postponed, the poet intending to turn to the other parts before proceeding; the last third was never started at all. Of the three parts, the second, The Excursion, was completed and published in 1814. It ran nearly nine thousand lines and hence was the longest poetical work ever attempted. The lasting critical judgment has been that it does not approach The Prelude in beauty, depth, or form.

With his poetic source ostensibly becoming depleted, Wordsworth turned mostly to editing and revising. In 1807, he published Poems in Two Volumes, featuring some of the smaller poems written since Lyrical Ballads and the two famous Odes. Some of the later works were The White Doe of Aylstone (1815), Peter Bell (1819), The Waggoner (1819), and The River Duddon (1820), Memorials of a Tour on the Continent (1822). In Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), Evening Voluntaries (1835), and Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems (1838), one finds flashes of the old greatness. The first collected edition of the poems appeared in 1815; five more editions followed between that year and 1850 because the poet was revising his older work continuously.

After his death in 1850 began the long critical reappraisal of his place in poetry. De Quincey, his contemporary, said: "Up to 1820 the name of Wordsworth was trampled under foot; from 1820 to 1830 it was militant; from 1830 to 1835 it has been triumphant." Arnold, who stressed the vital need of separating the good poetry from the bad, called him the greatest after Shakespeare and Milton.