Samuel Taylor
Coleridge

Biographia
Literaria
by
Samuel
Taylor
Coleridge

Chapter XX [of
XXII]                                                     [To
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click here.]



The former subject continued–The neutral style, or that common to
Prose and Poetry, exemplified by specimens from Chaucer, Herbert, and
others.

I have no fear in declaring my conviction, that the excellence defined
and exemplified in the preceding chapter is not the characteristic
excellence of Mr. Wordsworth's style; because I can add with equal
sincerity, that it is precluded by higher powers. The praise of
uniform adherence to genuine, logical English is undoubtedly his; nay,
laying the main emphasis on the word uniform, I will dare add that, of
all contemporary poets, it is his alone. For, in a less absolute sense
of the word, I should certainly include Mr. Bowies, Lord Byron, and,
as to all his later writings, Mr. Southey, the exceptions in their
works being so few and unimportant. But of the specific excellence
described in the quotation from Garve, I appear to find more, and more
undoubted specimens in the works of others; for instance, among the
minor poems of Mr. Thomas Moore, and of our illustrious Laureate. To
me it will always remain a singular and noticeable fact; that a
theory, which would establish this lingua communis, not only as the
best, but as the only commendable style, should have proceeded from a
poet, whose diction, next to that of Shakespeare and Milton, appears
to me of all others the most individualized and characteristic. And
let it be remembered too, that I am now interpreting the controverted
passages of Mr. Wordsworth's critical preface by the purpose and
object, which he may be supposed to have intended, rather than by the
sense which the words themselves must convey, if they are taken
without this allowance.

A person of any taste, who had but studied three or four of
Shakespeare's principal plays, would without the name affixed scarcely
fail to recognise as Shakespeare's a quotation from any other play,
though but of a few lines. A similar peculiarity, though in a less
degree, attends Mr. Wordsworth's style, whenever he speaks in his own
person; or whenever, though under a feigned name, it is clear that he
himself is still speaking, as in the different dramatis personae of
THE RECLUSE. Even in the other poems, in which he purposes to be most
dramatic, there are few in which it does not occasionally burst forth.
The reader might often address the poet in his own words with
reference to the persons introduced:

"It seems, as I retrace the ballad line by line
That but half of it is theirs, and the better half is thine."

Who, having been previously acquainted with any considerable portion
of Mr. Wordsworth's publications, and having studied them with a full
feeling of the author's genius, would not at once claim as
Wordsworthian the little poem on the rainbow?

"The Child is father of the Man, etc."

Or in the LUCY GRAY?

"No mate, no comrade Lucy knew;
She dwelt on a wide moor;
The sweetest thing that ever grew
Beside a human door."

Or in the IDLE SHEPHERD-BOYS?

"Along the river's stony marge
The sand-lark chants a joyous song;
The thrush is busy in the wood,
And carols loud and strong.
A thousand lambs are on the rocks,
All newly born! both earth and sky
Keep jubilee, and more than all,
Those boys with their green coronal;
They never hear the cry,
That plaintive cry! which up the hill
Comes from the depth of Dungeon-Ghyll."

Need I mention the exquisite description of the Sea-Loch in THE BLIND
HIGHLAND BOY. Who but a poet tells a tale in such language to the
little ones by the fire-side as--

"Yet had he many a restless dream;
Both when he heard the eagle's scream,
And when he heard the torrents roar,
And heard the water beat the shore
Near where their cottage stood.

Beside a lake their cottage stood,
Not small like our's, a peaceful flood;
But one of mighty size, and strange;
That, rough or smooth, is full of change,
And stirring in its bed.

For to this lake, by night and day,
The great Sea-water finds its way
Through long, long windings of the hills,
And drinks up all the pretty rills
And rivers large and strong:

Then hurries back the road it came
Returns on errand still the same;
This did it when the earth was new;
And this for evermore will do,
As long as earth shall last.

And, with the coming of the tide,
Come boats and ships that sweetly ride,
Between the woods and lofty rocks;
And to the shepherds with their flocks
Bring tales of distant lands."

I might quote almost the whole of his RUTH, but take the following
stanzas:

But, as you have before been told,
This Stripling, sportive, gay, and bold,
And, with his dancing crest,
So beautiful, through savage lands
Had roamed about with vagrant bands
Of Indians in the West.

The wind, the tempest roaring high,
The tumult of a tropic sky,
Might well be dangerous food
For him, a Youth to whom was given
So much of earth--so much of heaven,
And such impetuous blood.

Whatever in those climes he found
Irregular in sight or sound
Did to his mind impart
A kindred impulse, seemed allied
To his own powers, and justified
The workings of his heart.

Nor less, to feed voluptuous thought,
The beauteous forms of nature wrought,
Fair trees and lovely flowers;
The breezes their own languor lent;
The stars had feelings, which they sent
Into those magic bowers.

Yet in his worst pursuits, I ween,
That sometimes there did intervene
Pure hopes of high intent
For passions linked to forms so fair
And stately, needs must have their share
Of noble sentiment."

But from Mr. Wordsworth's more elevated compositions, which already
form three-fourths of his works; and will, I trust, constitute
hereafter a still larger proportion;--from these, whether in rhyme or
blank verse, it would be difficult and almost superfluous to select
instances of a diction peculiarly his own, of a style which cannot be
imitated without its being at once recognised, as originating in Mr.
Wordsworth. It would not be easy to open on any one of his loftier
strains, that does not contain examples of this; and more in
proportion as the lines are more excellent, and most like the author.
For those, who may happen to have been less familiar with his
writings, I will give three specimens taken with little choice. The
first from the lines on the BOY OF WINANDER-MERE,--who

"Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,
That they might answer him.--And they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
With long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of mirth and jocund din! And when it chanced,
That pauses of deep silence mocked his skill,
Then sometimes in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene [73]
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady lake."

The second shall be that noble imitation of Drayton [74] (if it was
not rather a coincidence) in the lines TO JOANNA.

--"When I had gazed perhaps two minutes' space,
Joanna, looking in my eyes, beheld
That ravishment of mine, and laughed aloud.
The Rock, like something starting from a sleep,
Took up the Lady's voice, and laughed again!
That ancient woman seated on Helm-crag
Was ready with her cavern; Hammar-scar
And the tall Steep of Silver-How sent forth
A noise of laughter; southern Lougbrigg heard,
And Fairfield answered with a mountain tone.
Helvellyn far into the clear blue sky
Carried the lady's voice!--old Skiddaw blew
His speaking trumpet!--back out of the clouds
From Glaramara southward came the voice:
And Kirkstone tossed it from its misty head!"

The third, which is in rhyme, I take from the SONG AT THE FEAST OF
BROUGHAM CASTLE, upon the restoration of Lord Clifford, the Shepherd,
to the Estates and Honours of his Ancestors.

------"Now another day is come,
Fitter hope, and nobler doom;
He hath thrown aside his crook,
And hath buried deep his book;
Armour rusting in his halls
On the blood of Clifford calls,--
'Quell the Scot,' exclaims the Lance!
Bear me to the heart of France,
Is the longing of the Shield--
Tell thy name, thou trembling Field!--
Field of death, where'er thou be,
Groan thou with our victory!
Happy day, and mighty hour,
When our Shepherd, in his power,
Mailed and horsed, with lance and sword,
To his ancestors restored,
Like a re-appearing Star,
Like a glory from afar,
First shall head the flock of war!"

"Alas! the fervent harper did not know,
That for a tranquil Soul the Lay was framed,
Who, long compelled in humble walks to go,
Was softened into feeling, soothed, and tamed.

Love had he found in huts where poor men lie;
His daily teachers had been woods and rills,
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills."

The words themselves in the foregoing extracts, are, no doubt,
sufficiently common for the greater part.--But in what poem are they
not so, if we except a few misadventurous attempts to translate the
arts and sciences into verse? In THE EXCURSION the number of
polysyllabic (or what the common people call, dictionary) words is
more than usually great. And so must it needs be, in proportion to the
number and variety of an author's conceptions, and his solicitude to
express them with precision.--But are those words in those places
commonly employed in real life to express the same thought or outward
thing? Are they the style used in the ordinary intercourse of spoken
words? No! nor are the modes of connections; and still less the breaks
and transitions. Would any but a poet--at least could any one without
being conscious that he had expressed himself with noticeable
vivacity--have described a bird singing loud by, "The thrush is busy
in the wood?"--or have spoken of boys with a string of club-moss round
their rusty hats, as the boys "with their green coronal?"--or have
translated a beautiful May-day into "Both earth and sky keep jubilee!"
--or have brought all the different marks and circumstances of a
sealoch before the mind, as the actions of a living and acting power?
Or have represented the reflection of the sky in the water, as "That
uncertain heaven received into the bosom of the steady lake?" Even the
grammatical construction is not unfrequently peculiar; as "The wind,
the tempest roaring high, the tumult of a tropic sky, might well be
dangerous food to him, a youth to whom was given, etc." There is a
peculiarity in the frequent use of the asymartaeton (that is, the
omission of the connective particle before the last of several words,
or several sentences used grammatically as single words, all being in
the same case and governing or governed by the same verb) and not less
in the construction of words by apposition ("to him, a youth"). In
short, were there excluded from Mr. Wordsworth's poetic compositions
all, that a literal adherence to the theory of his preface would
exclude, two thirds at least of the marked beauties of his poetry must
be erased. For a far greater number of lines would be sacrificed than
in any other recent poet; because the pleasure received from
Wordsworth's poems being less derived either from excitement of
curiosity or the rapid flow of narration, the striking passages form a
larger proportion of their value. I do not adduce it as a fair
criterion of comparative excellence, nor do I even think it such; but
merely as matter of fact. I affirm, that from no contemporary writer
could so many lines be quoted, without reference to the poem in which
they are found, for their own independent weight or beauty. From the
sphere of my own experience I can bring to my recollection three
persons of no every-day powers and acquirements, who had read the
poems of others with more and more unallayed pleasure, and had thought
more highly of their authors, as poets; who yet have confessed to me,
that from no modern work had so many passages started up anew in their
minds at different times, and as different occasions had awakened a
meditative mood.


[Here ends chapter 20.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

* * *


FOOTNOTES 
[by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

[73] Mr. Wordsworth's having judiciously adopted "concourse wild" in
this passage for "a wild scene" as it stood to the former edition,
encourages me to hazard a remark, which I certainly should not have
made in the works of a poet less austerely accurate in the use of
words, than he is, to his own great honour. It respects the propriety
of the word, "scene," even in the sentence in which it is retained.
Dryden, and he only in his more careless verses, was the first, as far
as my researches have discovered, who for the convenience of rhyme
used this word in the vague sense, which has been since too current
even in our best writers, and which (unfortunately, I think) is given
as its first explanation in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary and therefore
would be taken by an incautious reader as its proper sense. In
Shakespeare and Milton the word is never used without some clear
reference, proper or metaphorical, to the theatre. Thus Milton:
"Cedar, and pine, and fir, and branching palm
A sylvan scene; and, as the ranks ascend
Shade above shade, a woody theatre
Of stateliest view."
I object to any extension of its meaning, because the word is already
more equivocal than might be wished; inasmuch as to the limited use,
which I recommend, it may still signify two different things; namely,
the scenery, and the characters and actions presented on the stage
during the presence of particular scenes. It can therefore be
preserved from obscurity only by keeping the original signification
full in the mind. Thus Milton again,
------"Prepare thee for another scene."
[74] Which Copland scarce had spoke, but quickly every hill,
Upon her verge that stands, the neighbouring vallies fill;
Helvillon from his height, it through the mountains threw,
From whom as soon again, the sound Dunbalrase drew,
From whose stone-trophied head, it on the Windross went,
Which tow'rds the sea again, resounded it to Dent.
That Brodwater, therewith within her banks astound,
In sailing to the sea, told it to Egremound,
Whose buildings, walks, and streets, with echoes loud and long,
Did mightily commend old Copland for her song.
Drayton's POLYOLBION: Song XXX.