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

V. William Wordsworth

§ 12. Laodamia

Wordsworth, in this period, often defeats his own object by refusing to describe the power of evil or woe to the full. He stirs a protest in the reader’s mind, incites him to complete the half-drawn picture of misery. Or else, the strain of his muscles in the fight against grief, his repeated assaults and his tricks to elude the grasp of the great adversary, often leave the reader more distressed than he would be by open pessimistic outpourings. Indeed, the greatness of Wordsworth, in these years, lies in his stubborn refusal to confess himself overcome. There is pathos in his optimism, as in the sight of a strong man that will not weep though timely tears might do him good. His stoic poem Laodamia (1814) is a proof of this. The Olympian serenity advocated in it makes us feel—and painfully feel—the distance between the summit where gods dwell and the lower ground inhabited by men. Well for the gods to disprove “the tumult of the soul!” Well for the Elysian fields to be a place where there are

  • No fears to beat away—no strife to heal—
  • The past unsighed for, and the future sure!
  • But poor Laodamia is merely human and lives on this earth of ours. She cannot “meekly mourn” for her lost hero. She dies of a broken heart, and it seems hard that she should be punished for it as for meditated suicide.

    Is this the conclusion of optimism? How hard, inhuman and, one might add, despairing! The poem is great and pathetic, because Wordsworth, all the time, sympathises with Laodamia, feels for her tender weakness, is at heart more like her than like the heroic, dishumanised Protesilaus. But it can scarcely be called a comforting poem. The same might be said of the other verse of this period in which Wordsworth insists on proclaiming both the grandeur and difficulty of hopefulness, when, for instance, he calls hope

  • The paramount duty that Heaven lays
  • For its own honour on man’s suffering heart.
  • We perceive how lofty is the peak—and, also, how hard the climbing.