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NEW YORK REVIEW.
Art. I. — The complete Poetical Works of William Words
WORTH, edited by HENRY REED, Professor of English Literature in the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia :
1837. 1 vol. The Poetical Works of WILLIAM WORDSWORTH. London:
1837. 6 vols.
The era of English poetry, if dated from the birth of Chaucer, is a period of five hundred years. Resumed after a long silence during seven reigns of disputed legitimacy, from the time of the ill-fated Surrey to the present day there has been a continuous strain, often sounding in its noblest tone, and often sinking into a feeble and sickly key. If it were possible to behold at one view all the efforts of all the minds that have sought utterance in the measured words of our language-- to summon, as it were, from the grave those who in the flesh had been inmates of the court, or the camp, or the garret, the poets of each age — the sınall names commemorated by Johnson, and the great names omitted by him — the most worthy of all times, down to the puniest versifier of our own day,- what a strange variety of intellect and heart would be presented !- a few of gigantic stature, many of the common mould, with dwarfs innumerable! Now to assign to each one of this throng his rightful rank would transcend the power of the boldest criticism, for no philosophy could
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devise a standard to graduate with precision their relative merit. But there are names which Time and · Truth, the daughter not of Time but of Heaven,” separate from the multitude, and among these a further discrimination may be attempted. It is the result of mature reflection, when we express the conviction, that the five centuries of English poetry have produced five poets of the highest order—Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. They are named in the succession of time, for we frankly acknowledge a greater difficulty in estimating their relative rank, than in reaching the belief that below them a welldefined line may be drawn. In this enumeration we have chiefly echoed the judgment of time, for the fame of the first four great poets is established. The mind may not, however, be prepared to find a living bard placed by their side. We are sensible that there may be something startling in a classification which, purporting to rest on some principle, passes from the names of Shakspeare and Milton to Wordsworth. We cannot pause to explain the omission of other names of great celebrity ; our purpose is to show, that in the poetry of Wordsworth there is a principle of fame, vital enough to sustain bis memory in the highest region of English poetry. To this opinion is opposed the preliminary prejudice, arising from the mere fact that age has given none of its honors. In placing one of our own times in the select company of those who were glorious to our young imaginations, and who had been honored in the thoughts of our fathers and our fathers' fathers, an undefined sentiment of presumption is suggested, which would fain recoil from treading lightly on sacred dust. But in reality this may be a sentiment of superstition. Is it not a frailty in our nature, which withholds honor from the prophet familiarly living in the present household of the world? Between the language of fame and courtesy there seems, too, to be a mutual repugnance; for while we smile at the awkward designation, in an old volume, of “ Mr. Shakspeare,” or “ Mr. Milton,” we encounter a kindred embarrassment in realizing the fame of those towards whom the dialect of courtesy is still employed. We advert to these considerations to defeat the influence of a natural but unfounded prejudice.
In speaking of poetry of the highest order, we may appear to use a phrase too comparative to suggest a very definite conception. But to claim for a poet a place among those whose rank is universally recognised, is a convenient mode of appealing to the sense of fame. Pointing to the familiar glory of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton, we speak intelligibly when we avow the belief that Wordsworth is native to the same region of poetic inspiration, and that if this generation falter in the judgment, another, sooner or later, will do him justice. It is in no rash spirit of passionate partiality that we speak thus confidently of a living author, but from a conviction, sinking deeper into the heart at each thoughtful communing with his works, that the permanent same reserved for Wordsworth is not fully realized by even his truest admirers. It may be thought that the poet's cause would be more discreetly advocated, were we to plead more cautiously. It is not our desire to deal so with the reader, or to apply the ordinary tactics of the rhetorician, for it would be unworthy to affect a reserve or timidity which is not felt. Why should the strong sense of the poet's genius be disguised - or why should the expression be guarded, and surrounded witia qualifications and conditions, which betray the consciousness of insecurity, whenever error shares the citadel with truth? We have classed Wordsworth with such as Shakspeare and Milton, not for the senseless purpose of direct comparison, but as a simple and explicit mode of indicating, that amidst the vast variety of poets — the winged race of powers so multitudinous— he may be joined to those, whose flight is sustained in the highest and purest regions of poetry. There is a glowing rhapsody of Coleridge on the multiplicity of poetic power, as honorable to his humility, as it is in itself illustrative of that genius, which was diverted from verse to the teaching of Christian philosophy:
“I have too clearly before me the idea of a poet's genius to deem myself other than a very humble poet; but in the very possession of the idea I know myself so far a poet, as to feel assured that I can understand and interpret a poem in the spirit of poetry, and with the poet's spirit. Like the ostrich, I cannot fly, yet have I wings that give me the feeling of flight; and, as I sweep along the plain, can look up toward the bird of Jove, and can follow him and say: "Sovereign of the air, -- who descendest on thy nest in the clest of the inaccessible rock, who makest the mountain pinnacle thy perch and halting-place, and, scanning with steady eye the orb of glory right above thee, imprintest thy lordly talons in the stainless snows that shoot back and scatter round bis glittering shafts, -I pay thee homage. Thou art my king. I give honor due to the vulture, the falcon, and all thy noble baronage ; and no less to the lowly bird, the skylark, whom thou permittest to visit thy court, and chant her matin song within its cloudy curtains; yea, the linnet, the thrush, the swallow, are my brethren ;- but still I am a bird, though but a bird of the earth. Monarch of our kind, I am a bird, even as thou ; and I have shed plumes which have added beauty to the beautiful, and grace to terror, waving over the maiden's brow and on the helmed head of the warrior chief; and majesty to grief, drooping o'er the car of death!'” — Literary Remains, vol. ji. p. 170.
It would be no strained fancy that this was conceived, with the vision of the Excursion, or some of Wordsworth's lotty odes, floating before the enraptured imagination of that friend who had apprehended the poet's genius from the moment that it dawned upon him. Yes, though Wordsworth's meekness might aptly be emblemed in the caged dove, or the lark delighting not less in his lowly nest on the bosom of the very earth than in bathing his wings in the light of the upper air, the symbol of his * power is the eagle's flight.
But what is this high order of poetry? Some standard must be looked for, by which opinion may be put to the test, for what can be more vague than the popular notions of poetry, and what more purposeless than criticism not controlled by some principles? The light of philosophy is needed to guide us over a tract where a thousand paths are open to niislead ; nay, more, we want some rays from a higher fountain of light to reveal how holy a thing the power of a poet is, and to win us from the service of idols that have been set up in its place by passion, and prejudice, and folly. The canons of a contracted criticism, that can look at nothing but little defects, are vainly applied to the nobler productions of inspiration and art; what is it but casting aside the instruments of science to measure mountains with a pocket-rule? The question has been often asked what is poetry? -- but, like Pilate's interrogatory, it seems doomed to go unmated with an answer. The visionary faculty sends forth its creations, like nature, and like nature it eludes the grasp of definition. Still, difficult as it may be to characterize it in words, we cannot doubt the existence of one eternal idea of poetry, which, for instance, gave the impulse to the spirit of Shakspeare, and fashioned and controlled its creations ;— the same which, taking early hold of the heart of Milton, and kindling bis aspirations in manhood as well as youth — giving ever and anon light to the fierceness of his polemic prose, and haunting him, no doubt, at the parliamentary council board, at length, in the darkness of blindness and the seclusion of political disfavor, came forth in the deathless form of the Paradise Lost. Now, in