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

V. William Wordsworth

§ 14. The Ruined Cottage

He was a great poet when, in 1797, he wrote The Ruined Cottage—he never outdid that pastoral and, indeed, only once or twice again reached such perfection. Yet (if we set aside the words of comfort and resignation wherein, years after, it was wrapt up), in itself, the tale is most distressing and desolate. Wordsworth’s usual optimism is not to be found in it. It implies a protest against the iniquity of society and the harshness of fate. It is one of Wordsworth’s masterpieces, but, in a moral sense, can scarcely be called Wordsworthian.

The last of the Lucy poems—though written in 1799—is in even more striking contrast to Wordsworth’s known teaching It is one of the most desperate sobs that ever escaped from the heart of a forlorn lover. No glimpse of hope pierces through his vision of the tomb:

  • No motion has she now, no force;
  • She neither hears nor sees;
  • Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
  • With rocks, and stones, and trees.
  • Surely, Wordsworth would have condemned such a fit of blank despair in any other poetry than his own. Yet, he never wrote with more essential strength, and many of his admirers must needs regard this quatrain as, perhaps, the most condensed example of his poetical greatness.

    What has been said of his moral doctrine applies, also, to his theory of poetical style. It is now agreed that Wordsworth wrote some of his most beautiful poems in entire opposition to his principles of diction. He had laid it down as a rule that the poet should use the simple language of peasants, merely freed from its errors. Yet, even when he interpreted the feelings of cottagers and made them speak in their own names, he often broke this rule in the most glaring manner. The example pointed out by Myers is so conclusive that it would be idle to look for another one. It is taken from The Affiction of Margaret, a pathetic monologue in which a poor widow, who used to keep a shop, laments over the disappearance of her son, and pictures to herself the dangers and sufferings to which he may have been exposed. Not a single phrase in the beautiful stanza “Perhaps some dungeon hears thee groan” but is raised to the highest pitch of lyrical force and subtlety.

    Without recurring to such extreme cases, in which we have the poet at war with the systematic thinker, we must admit that, in many of his finest poems, the characteristics of his thought and doctrine are least evident—whether he gives way to a disturbing melancholy, which he usually condemns, as in The two April Mornings or The Fountain, or where he imparts to us an impression of nature on which he hangs no moral, as in The Green Linnet or Yew-trees. The four yew-trees of Borrowdale, “joined in one solemn and capacious grove,” constitute one of his most impressive pictures. But no philosophy is tagged to the description, which is self-sufficient. There, you have Wordsworth’s power laid bare, founded on his imaginative vision of natural aspects, yet not passing from this to a moral lesson. If this dark, powerful piece of painting had been handed down to us without the author’s name, it is not certain that anyone would have ascribed it to Wordsworth; or, if so, it would have been on account of the Westmorland names found in it; for, the bold allegories, the strange sonorous mythology, would have made many a critic hesitate.

    These instances tend to prove that his poetry is not identical with his habitual teaching, that it sometimes revolts against it, that it may here and there go beyond it. Of this conclusion, we ought not to lose sight, even when we pass on to the examination of such verses as are both beautiful in themselves and stamped as Wordsworth’s manifest creations, to which no exact parallels can be found in any other poet.