Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. The Influence of Rousseau

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 1. The Influence of Rousseau

WORDSWORTH’S surprise and resentment would surely have been provoked had he been told that, at half a century’s distance and from an European point of view, his work would seem, on the whole, though with several omissions and additions, to be a continuation of the movement initiated by Rousseau. It is, nevertheless, certain that it might be described as an English variety of Rousseauism, revised and corrected, in some parts, by the opposite influence of Edmund Burke. In Wordsworth, we find Rousseau’s well-known fundamental tenets: he has the same semimystical faith in the goodness of nature as well as in the excellence of the child; his ideas on education are almost identical; there are apparent a similar diffidence in respect of the merely intellectual processes of the mind, and an equal trust in the good that may accrue to man from the cultivation of his senses and feelings. The differences between the two, mainly occasional and of a political nature, seem secondary by the side of these profound analogies. For this reason, Wordsworth must be placed by the general historian among the numerous “sons of Rousseau,” who form the main battalion of romanticism; though, if we merely regard the ideas he expressed and propagated, his personality may, thereby, lose some of its originality and distinctness. But, resemblance does not necessarily mean repetition and imitation. Moreover, men’s ideas are their least individual possessions. The manner in which a man, and, above all, a poet, becomes possessed of his creed, the stamp he puts upon it, are the things that really matter. Now, Wordsworth formed his thoughts and convictions in the light of the circumstances of his own life, where-by they assumed a reality wanting in those of many of his contemporaries. If he thought like others, he always thought by himself. He gives us the impression that, had he lived alone on a bookless earth, he would have reached the same conclusions. His deep influence on a limited, but incomparably loyal, number of readers owes less to his beliefs than to his minute, persevering analysis of every step he made towards them. He appeals to our confidence by his constant recourse to his personal experience. He prides himself on being the least inventive of great poets. He belittles fancy. It is true that he claimed imagination as his supreme gift, but, at the same time, he bestowed on the word imagination a new meaning, almost entirely opposed to the ordinary one. He gave the name to his accurate, faithful and loving observation of nature. In his loftier moods, he used “imagination” as a synonym of “intuition,” of seeing into, and even through, reality, but he never admitted a divorce between it and reality. The gift of feigning, of arbitrarily combining the features of a legend or story, which had long been held to be the first poetical prerogative, was almost entirely denied him, and he thanked God for its absence. His hold over many thoughtful and, generally, mature minds is due to his having avowedly, and often, also, practically, made truth his primary object, beauty being only second. Those who had ingenuously turned to his poems for the mere charm of verse were grateful to him inasmuch as they had received, in addition, their first lessons in philosophy. They had gone to him for pleasure and they came back with a train of reflection that followed them through the round of their daily tasks. They were taught by him a new way of looking at men and nature. Wordsworth achieved this result by dint of one-sided pressure, by tenaciousness of aim. Not that his ideas remained the same from beginning to end. Few men, on the contrary, changed more thoroughly. His mind may be represented as continuously shifting along a half circle, so that, finally, he stood at the opposite end of the diameter. The young revolutionist evolved into a grey-haired conservative, the semi-atheist and pantheist into a pattern of conformity. But, all the time, he kept true to his fixed centre, the search for the greatest good. His very contradictions point to one engrossing pursuit. His life was an unbroken series of slow movements which brought him from one extreme to the other, though his eyes were ever bent in the same direction. Because he never ceased to have the same object in view, he was himself imperfectly conscious of the change in his position.