Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 19. The Lucy poems

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

V. William Wordsworth

§ 19. The Lucy poems

Another summit is reached by the poet when he freely allows his creed of the refining agency of the senses to pass into a sort of waking dream, instead of asserting itself by argument as in The Prelude, or even, as in Tintern Abbey, by lyrical proclamation. Few will deny one of the very first ranks in his verse to the fourth of the Lucy poems, where he tells us how his beloved had been cared for by nature since her tenderest years, how nature had vowed to make her “a Lady of her own,” imparting to her “the silence and the calm of mute insensate things,” either bidding the storm “mould the maiden’s form by silent sympathy,” or causing “beauty born of murmuring sound to pass into her face.” Here, Wordsworth joins company with the most aerial of poets. He drops to the earth, for once, all that matter-of-factness of which Coleridge complained. He sets common observation at defiance and simply ignores the objections of common sense, with which he is elsewhere only too prone to argue. Though most thoroughly himself when shaping Lucy’s natural education, he gives wings, not feet, to his most cherished belief. We have, in this lyric, “the fine excess” of poetry. Whatever may be said of these country maids who, though brought up under the clouds and stars, and by the side of dancing rivulets, failed to be informed with grace and beauty, Wordsworth has used his privilege as a poet of embodying a vision made, after all, of mysterious possibilities, perhaps of truths in the making.

But nature never engrossed all his thoughts. Many were given to man, chiefly to the feelings of man. He shows the same mastery in his delineation of the hidden germs of feeling as of those of sensation. He, again, excels when describing the moral emotions in the blending of the subtle and the simple, of the strange and the essential. But the beauty of his verse seems, in this case, to come less from intuitive discovery than from long brooding. Fullness and compactness of meaning now characterise his greatest utterances. All readers catch their pathos at once; few, immediately, if ever, their entire signification. A noticeable instance is the finale of the plain prosaic story Simon Lee, a short stanza full to overflowing of his prolonged meditations on the present iniquity and harshness of society. Poets and moralists have vied in easy railings at man’s ingratitude. Shakespeare, among others, is full of such denunciations. Alas! the greater cause for grief is the existence of gratitude, chiefly of excessive gratitude, which implies that there is a scarcity of fellow-feeling, a dearth of benevolence, a lack of mutual neighbourly assistance in this world. That exaggerated thanks should be offered for the merest trifle, for a deed of easy and imperative kindness, betrays daily uncharitableness and opens vistas of the insensibility of existing society; it shows “what man has made of man”:

  • I’ve heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
  • With coldness still returning;
  • Alas! the gratitude of man
  • Hath oftener left me mourning.
  • This is one of his many reflections which are more pregnant and sink deeper into the mind and heart than those of almost any other poet.