Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 20. His Description of the Moral Emotions

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

V. William Wordsworth

§ 20. His Description of the Moral Emotions

From such deep sources do many of his sonnets, chiefly of his political sonnets, draw their rare intensity of moral feeling. It is enough to remind the reader of a few familiar passages: his melancholy on hearing of the extinction of the republic of Venice; his energy of tone when he comforts poor Toussaint Louverture, the liberator of San Domingo, now thrown into a prison; the bitter restrained irony of his “high-minded Spaniard,” who resents, more than the devastation of his country, Napoleon’s so-called benefits, and so forth. In his more strictly English sonnets, the greatness is not due to novelty of thought. It so happens that almost every idea and emotion expressed by Wordsworth in 1802 and the years following had been more than foreshadowed by Coleridge as early as 1798 in his Ode to France or Fears in Solitude. But the truly Wordsworthian power of the sonnets is owing to the protracted sojourn of these feelings in his breast before he gave utterance to them, to his long reluctance against their admission, to his repeated inward debates. Hence, instead of Coleridge’s extemporised effusions, which have been aptly compared, by Angellier, to the sea-scud which is thrown off by a storm, here we have the distilled elixir. Nearly ten years of vexed thoughts went to the making, in 1803, of the final line of the sonnet to England, where, after enumerating and condemning what he calls her many political crimes, he sighs (with a unique mixture of reproof and tenderness, of grief and repressed pride) at the thought that she, nevertheless, is the least unworthy champion of liberty left in the world:

  • O grief that Earth’s best hopes rest all in thee!
  • It would be hard to match these ten monosyllables for compactness of historical allusion and complex feeling. Such condensed moral utterances are among the glories of Wordsworth’s verse.

    Other characteristics ought to be added, regarding his more purely artistic gifts—gifts of verse-writing and style, gifts of composition. But this would land us in endless discussions; for, in these respects, Wordsworth’s mastery is surely relative and intermittent. He reaches, at times, so high a degree of excellence that the mere verbal felicity of some of his simplest lines baffles the imitation of the most refined artists:

  • Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
  • For old, unhappy, far-off things,
  • And battles long ago.…
  • But he frequently mixes the highest poetry with the flatness of unimpassioned, uninspired prose. He also shows himself, in many a period or stanza, devoid of ease, elegance and pliancy. He is more than once awkwardly naïve, clumsily familiar, or, on the contrary, more solemn and pompous than needs be. The talent for construction, niggardly bestowed on the romantic poets of all countries, is particularly weak in him. He could never frame and fashion a considerable poem with due equilibrium of substance and form, of thought and story. In this respect, The Excursion is a memorable failure. As to The Prelude, it owes its permanent interest partly to its admirable passages of poetry, partly to its philosophical or to its autobiographical value, which we feel, as we read, to be merits not strictly poetic. Only in compositions of moderate length, like The Ruined Cottage, Michael, Laodamia did he achieve perfect harmony, and in many of his lyrics and sonnets.

    That he often tries to lift us and himself to the poetic mood rather than takes this mood for granted, cannot be denied. Poetry often seems to be his object rather than his possession. He made the training of man to poetry his chief office here below. He leads us warily from the inlands of prose to the shore, marking out the way with unprecedented care; but he is sometimes content with gazing on the element and leaves it to others boldly to sail upon it or plunge into it. The main body of his poems is educative and preparatory. Yet he has left sufficient of absolute verse, heart-searching and beautiful, enough for a Wordsworthian anthology that will remain among the most enduring treasures of romanticism.