coleridge

Biographia
Literaria

by
Samuel
Taylor
Coleridge

Chapter XXII [of
XXIV]

[To read other chapters, click here.]
The characteristic defects of Wordsworth’s poetry, with the principles
from which the judgment, that they are defects, is deduced–Their
proportion to the beauties–For the greatest part characteristic of
his theory only.

If Mr. Wordsworth have set forth principles of poetry which his
arguments are insufficient to support, let him and those who have
adopted his sentiments be set right by the confutation of those
arguments, and by the substitution of more philosophical principles.
And still let the due credit be given to the portion and importance of
the truths, which are blended with his theory; truths, the too
exclusive attention to which had occasioned its errors, by tempting
him to carry those truths beyond their proper limits. If his mistaken
theory have at all influenced his poetic compositions, let the effects
be pointed out, and the instances given. But let it likewise be shown,
how far the influence has acted; whether diffusively, or only by
starts; whether the number and importance of the poems and passages
thus infected be great or trifling compared with the sound portion;
and lastly, whether they are inwoven into the texture of his works, or
are loose and separable. The result of such a trial would evince
beyond a doubt, what it is high time to announce decisively and aloud,
that the supposed characteristics of Mr. Wordsworth's poetry, whether
admired or reprobated; whether they are simplicity or simpleness;
faithful adherence to essential nature, or wilful selections from
human nature of its meanest forms and under the least attractive
associations; are as little the real characteristics of his poetry at
large, as of his genius and the constitution of his mind.
In a comparatively small number of poems he chose to try an
experiment; and this experiment we will suppose to have failed. Yet
even in these poems it is impossible not to perceive that the natural
tendency of the poet's mind is to great objects and elevated
conceptions. The poem entitled FIDELITY is for the greater part
written in language, as unraised and naked as any perhaps in the two
volumes. Yet take the following stanza and compare it with the
preceding stanzas of the same poem.
"There sometimes doth a leaping fish
Send through the tarn a lonely cheer;
The crags repeat the raven's croak,
In symphony austere;
Thither the rainbow comes--the cloud--
And mists that spread the flying shroud;
And sun-beams; and the sounding blast,
That, if it could, would hurry past;
But that enormous barrier holds it fast."
Or compare the four last lines of the concluding stanza with the
former half.
"Yes, proof was plain that, since the day
On which the Traveller thus had died,
The Dog had watched about the spot,
Or by his Master's side:
How nourish'd here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime,--
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate!"
Can any candid and intelligent mind hesitate in determining, which of
these best represents the tendency and native character of the poet's
genius? Will he not decide that the one was written because the poet
would so write, and the other because he could not so entirely repress
the force and grandeur of his mind, but that he must in some part or
other of every composition write otherwise? In short, that his only
disease is the being out of his element; like the swan, that, having
amused himself, for a while, with crushing the weeds on the river's
bank, soon returns to his own majestic movements on its reflecting and
sustaining surface. Let it be observed that I am here supposing the
imagined judge, to whom I appeal, to have already decided against the
poet's theory, as far as it is different from the principles of the
art, generally acknowledged.
I cannot here enter into a detailed examination of Mr. Wordsworth's
works; but I will attempt to give the main results of my own judgment,
after an acquaintance of many years, and repeated perusals. And
though, to appreciate the defects of a great mind it is necessary to
understand previously its characteristic excellences, yet I have
already expressed myself with sufficient fulness, to preclude most of
the ill effects that might arise from my pursuing a contrary
arrangement. I will therefore commence with what I deem the prominent
defects of his poems hitherto published.
The first characteristic, though only occasional defect, which I
appear to myself to find in these poems is the inconstancy of the
style. Under this name I refer to the sudden and unprepared
transitions from lines or sentences of peculiar felicity--(at all
events striking and original)--to a style, not only unimpassioned but
undistinguished. He sinks too often and too abruptly to that style,
which I should place in the second division of language, dividing it
into the three species; first, that which is peculiar to poetry;
second, that which is only proper in prose; and third, the neutral or
common to both. There have been works, such as Cowley's Essay on
Cromwell, in which prose and verse are intermixed (not as in the
Consolation of Boetius, or the ARGENIS of Barclay, by the insertion of
poems supposed to have been spoken or composed on occasions previously
related in prose, but) the poet passing from one to the other, as the
nature of the thoughts or his own feelings dictated. Yet this mode of
composition does not satisfy a cultivated taste. There is something
unpleasant in the being thus obliged to alternate states of feeling so
dissimilar, and this too in a species of writing, the pleasure from
which is in part derived from the preparation and previous expectation
of the reader. A portion of that awkwardness is felt which hangs upon
the introduction of songs in our modern comic operas; and to prevent
which the judicious Metastasio (as to whose exquisite taste there can
be no hesitation, whatever doubts may be entertained as to his poetic
genius) uniformly placed the aria at the end of the scene, at the same
time that he almost always raises and impassions the style of the
recitative immediately preceding. Even in real life, the difference is
great and evident between words used as the arbitrary marks of
thought, our smooth market-coin of intercourse, with the image and
superscription worn out by currency; and those which convey pictures
either borrowed from one outward object to enliven and particularize
some other; or used allegorically to body forth the inward state of
the person speaking; or such as are at least the exponents of his
peculiar turn and unusual extent of faculty. So much so indeed, that
in the social circles of private life we often find a striking use of
the latter put a stop to the general flow of conversation, and by the
excitement arising from concentred attention produce a sort of damp
and interruption for some minutes after. But in the perusal of works
of literary art, we prepare ourselves for such language; and the
business of the writer, like that of a painter whose subject requires
unusual splendour and prominence, is so to raise the lower and neutral
tints, that what in a different style would be the commanding colours,
are here used as the means of that gentle degradation requisite in
order to produce the effect of a whole. Where this is not achieved in
a poem, the metre merely reminds the reader of his claims in order to
disappoint them; and where this defect occurs frequently, his feelings
are alternately startled by anticlimax and hyperclimax.
I refer the reader to the exquisite stanzas cited for another purpose
from THE BLIND HIGHLAND BOY; and then annex, as being in my opinion
instances of this disharmony in style, the two following:
"And one, the rarest, was a shell,
Which he, poor child, had studied well:
The shell of a green turtle, thin
And hollow;--you might sit therein,
It was so wide, and deep."
"Our Highland Boy oft visited
The house which held this prize; and, led
By choice or chance, did thither come
One day, when no one was at home,
And found the door unbarred."
Or page 172, vol. I.
"'Tis gone forgotten, let me do
My best. There was a smile or two--
I can remember them, I see
The smiles worth all the world to me.
Dear Baby! I must lay thee down:
Thou troublest me with strange alarms;
Smiles hast thou, sweet ones of thine own;
I cannot keep thee in my arms;
For they confound me: as it is,
I have forgot those smiles of his!"
Or page 269, vol. I.
"Thou hast a nest, for thy love and thy rest
And though little troubled with sloth
Drunken lark! thou would'st be loth
To be such a traveller as I.
Happy, happy liver!
_With a soul as strong as a mountain river
Pouring out praise to th' Almighty giver,_
Joy and jollity be with us both!
Hearing thee or else some other,
As merry a brother
I on the earth will go plodding on
By myself cheerfully till the day is done."
The incongruity, which I appear to find in this passage, is that of
the two noble lines in italics with the preceding and following. So
vol. II. page 30.
"Close by a Pond, upon the further side,
He stood alone; a minute's space I guess,
I watch'd him, he continuing motionless
To the Pool's further margin then I drew;
He being all the while before me full in view."
Compare this with the repetition of the same image, the next stanza
but two.
"And, still as I drew near with gentle pace,
Beside the little pond or moorish flood
Motionless as a Cloud the Old Man stood,
That heareth not the loud winds when they call;
And moveth altogether, if it move at all."
Or lastly, the second of the three following stanzas, compared both
with the first and the third.
"My former thoughts returned; the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
But now, perplex'd by what the Old Man had said,
My question eagerly did I renew,
'How is it that you live, and what is it you do?'
"He with a smile did then his words repeat;
And said, that gathering Leeches far and wide
He travell'd; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the Ponds where they abide.
`Once I could meet with them on every side;
'But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
'Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.'
While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The Old Man's shape, and speech, all troubled me
In my mind's eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently."
Indeed this fine poem is especially characteristic of the author.
There is scarce a defect or excellence in his writings of which it
would not present a specimen. But it would be unjust not to repeat
that this defect is only occasional. From a careful reperusal of the
two volumes of poems, I doubt whether the objectionable passages would
amount in the whole to one hundred lines; not the eighth part of the
number of pages. In THE EXCURSION the feeling of incongruity is seldom
excited by the diction of any passage considered in itself, but by the
sudden superiority of some other passage forming the context.
The second defect I can generalize with tolerable accuracy, if the
reader will pardon an uncouth and new-coined word. There is, I should
say, not seldom a matter-of-factness in certain poems. This may be
divided into, first, a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the
representation of objects, and their positions, as they appeared to
the poet himself; secondly, the insertion of accidental circumstances,
in order to the full explanation of his living characters, their
dispositions and actions; which circumstances might be necessary to
establish the probability of a statement in real life, where nothing
is taken for granted by the hearer; but appear superfluous in poetry,
where the reader is willing to believe for his own sake. To this
actidentality I object, as contravening the essence of poetry, which
Aristotle pronounces to be spoudaiotaton kai philosophotaton genos,
the most intense, weighty and philosophical product of human art;
adding, as the reason, that it is the most catholic and abstract. The
following passage from Davenant's prefatory letter to Hobbes well
expresses this truth. "When I considered the actions which I meant to
describe; (those inferring the persons), I was again persuaded rather
to choose those of a former age, than the present; and in a century so
far removed, as might preserve me from their improper examinations,
who know not the requisites of a poem, nor how much pleasure they
lose, (and even the pleasures of heroic poesy are not unprofitable),
who take away the liberty of a poet, and fetter his feet in the
shackles of an historian. For why should a poet doubt in story to mend
the intrigues of fortune by more delightful conveyances of probable
fictions, because austere historians have entered into bond to truth?
An obligation, which were in poets as foolish and unnecessary, as is
the bondage of false martyrs, who lie in chains for a mistaken
opinion. But by this I would imply, that truth, narrative and past, is
the idol of historians, (who worship a dead thing), and truth
operative, and by effects continually alive, is the mistress of poets,
who hath not her existence in matter, but in reason."
For this minute accuracy in the painting of local imagery, the lines
in THE EXCURSION, pp. 96, 97, and 98, may be taken, if not as a
striking instance, yet as an illustration of my meaning. It must be
some strong motive--(as, for instance, that the description was
necessary to the intelligibility of the tale)--which could induce me
to describe in a number of verses what a draughtsman could present to
the eye with incomparably greater satisfaction by half a dozen strokes
of his pencil, or the painter with as many touches of his brush. Such
descriptions too often occasion in the mind of a reader, who is
determined to understand his author, a feeling of labour, not very
dissimilar to that, with which he would construct a diagram, line by
line, for a long geometrical proposition. It seems to be like taking
the pieces of a dissected map out of its box. We first look at one
part, and then at another, then join and dove-tail them; and when the
successive acts of attention have been completed, there is a
retrogressive effort of mind to behold it as a whole. The poet should
paint to the imagination, not to the fancy; and I know no happier case
to exemplify the distinction between these two faculties. Master-
pieces of the former mode of poetic painting abound in the writings of
Milton, for example:
"The fig-tree; not that kind for fruit renown'd,
"But such as at this day, to Indians known,
"In Malabar or Decan spreads her arms
"Branching so broad and long, that in the ground
"The bended twigs take root, and daughters grow
"About the mother tree, a pillar'd shade
"High over-arch'd and ECHOING WALKS BETWEEN;
"There oft the Indian herdsman, shunning heat,
"Shelters in cool, and tends his pasturing herds
"At hoop-holes cut through thickest shade."
This is creation rather than painting, or if painting, yet such, and
with such co-presence of the whole picture flashed at once upon the
eye, as the sun paints in a camera obscura. But the poet must likewise
understand and command what Bacon calls the vestigia communia of the
senses, the latency of all in each, and more especially as by a
magical penny duplex, the excitement of vision by sound and the
exponents of sound. Thus, "The echoing walks between," may be almost
said to reverse the fable in tradition of the head of Memnon, in the
Egyptian statue. Such may be deservedly entitled the creative words in
the world of imagination.
The second division respects an apparent minute adherence to matter-
of-fact in character and Incidents; a biographical attention to
probability, and an anxiety of explanation and retrospect. Under this
head I shall deliver, with no feigned diffidence, the results of my
best reflection on the great point of controversy between Mr.
Wordsworth and his objectors; namely, on the choice of his characters.
I have already declared, and, I trust justified, my utter dissent from
the mode of argument which his critics have hitherto employed. To
their question, "Why did you choose such a character, or a character
from such a rank of life?"--the poet might in my opinion fairly
retort: why with the conception of my character did you make wilful
choice of mean or ludicrous associations not furnished by me, but
supplied from your own sickly and fastidious feelings? How was it,
indeed, probable, that such arguments could have any weight with an
author, whose plan, whose guiding principle, and main object it was to
attack and subdue that state of association, which leads us to place
the chief value on those things on which man differs from man, and to
forget or disregard the high dignities, which belong to Human Nature,
the sense and the feeling, which may be, and ought to be, found in all
ranks? The feelings with which, as Christians, we contemplate a mixed
congregation rising or kneeling before their common Maker, Mr.
Wordsworth would have us entertain at all times, as men, and as
readers; and by the excitement of this lofty, yet prideless
impartiality in poetry, he might hope to have encouraged its
continuance in real life. The praise of good men be his! In real life,
and, I trust, even in my imagination, I honour a virtuous and wise
man, without reference to the presence or absence of artificial
advantages. Whether in the person of an armed baron, a laurelled bard,
or of an old Pedlar, or still older Leech-gatherer, the same qualities
of head and heart must claim the same reverence. And even in poetry I
am not conscious, that I have ever suffered my feelings to be
disturbed or offended by any thoughts or images, which the poet
himself has not presented.
But yet I object, nevertheless, and for the following reasons. First,
because the object in view, as an immediate object, belongs to the
moral philosopher, and would be pursued, not only more appropriately,
but in my opinion with far greater probability of success, in sermons
or moral essays, than in an elevated poem. It seems, indeed, to
destroy the main fundamental distinction, not only between a poem and
prose, but even between philosophy and works of fiction, inasmuch as
it proposes truth for its immediate object, instead of pleasure. Now
till the blessed time shall come, when truth itself shall be pleasure,
and both shall be so united, as to be distinguishable in words only,
not in feeling, it will remain the poet's office to proceed upon that
state of association, which actually exists as general; instead of
attempting first to make it what it ought to be, and then to let the
pleasure follow. But here is unfortunately a small hysteron-proteron.
For the communication of pleasure is the introductory means by which
alone the poet must expect to moralize his readers. Secondly: though I
were to admit, for a moment, this argument to be groundless: yet how
is the moral effect to be produced, by merely attaching the name of
some low profession to powers which are least likely, and to qualities
which are assuredly not more likely, to be found in it? The Poet,
speaking in his own person, may at once delight and improve us by
sentiments, which teach us the independence of goodness, of wisdom,
and even of genius, on the favours of fortune. And having made a due
reverence before the throne of Antonine, he may bow with equal awe
before Epictetus among his fellow-slaves
------"and rejoice
In the plain presence of his dignity."
Who is not at once delighted and improved, when the Poet Wordsworth
himself exclaims,
"Oh! many are the Poets that are sown
By Nature; men endowed with highest gifts
The vision and the faculty divine,
Yet wanting the accomplishment of verse,
Nor having e'er, as life advanced, been led
By circumstance to take unto the height
The measure of themselves, these favoured Beings,
All but a scattered few, live out their time,
Husbanding that which they possess within,
And go to the grave, unthought of. Strongest minds
Are often those of whom the noisy world
Hears least."
To use a colloquial phrase, such sentiments, in such language, do
one's heart good; though I for my part, have not the fullest faith in
the truth of the observation. On the contrary I believe the instances
to be exceedingly rare; and should feel almost as strong an objection
to introduce such a character in a poetic fiction, as a pair of black
swans on a lake, in a fancy landscape. When I think how many, and how
much better books than Homer, or even than Herodotus, Pindar or
Aeschylus, could have read, are in the power of almost every man, in a
country where almost every man is instructed to read and write; and
how restless, how difficultly hidden, the powers of genius are; and
yet find even in situations the most favourable, according to Mr.
Wordsworth, for the formation of a pure and poetic language; in
situations which ensure familiarity with the grandest objects of the
imagination; but one Burns, among the shepherds of Scotland, and not a
single poet of humble life among those of English lakes and mountains;
I conclude, that Poetic Genius is not only a very delicate but a very
rare plant.
But be this as it may, the feelings with which,
"I think of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul, that perished in his pride;
Of Burns, who walk'd in glory and in joy
Behind his plough, upon the mountain-side"--
are widely different from those with which I should read a poem, where
the author, having occasion for the character of a poet and a
philosopher in the fable of his narration, had chosen to make him a
chimney-sweeper; and then, in order to remove all doubts on the
subject, had invented an account of his birth, parentage and
education, with all the strange and fortunate accidents which had
concurred in making him at once poet, philosopher, and sweep! Nothing,
but biography, can justify this. If it be admissible even in a novel,
it must be one in the manner of De Foe's, that were meant to pass for
histories, not in the manner of Fielding's: In THE LIFE OF MOLL
FLANDERS, Or COLONEL JACK, not in a TOM JONES, or even a JOSEPH
ANDREWS. Much less then can it be legitimately introduced in a poem,
the characters of which, amid the strongest individualization, must
still remain representative. The precepts of Horace, on this point,
are grounded on the nature both of poetry and of the human mind. They
are not more peremptory, than wise and prudent. For in the first place
a deviation from them perplexes the reader's feelings, and all the
circumstances which are feigned in order to make such accidents less
improbable, divide and disquiet his faith, rather than aid and support
it. Spite of all attempts, the fiction will appear, and unfortunately
not as fictitious but as false. The reader not only knows, that the
sentiments and language are the poet's own, and his own too in his
artificial character, as poet; but by the fruitless endeavours to make
him think the contrary, he is not even suffered to forget it. The
effect is similar to that produced by an Epic Poet, when the fable
and the characters are derived from Scripture history, as in THE
MESSIAH of Klopstock, or in CUMBERLAND'S CALVARY; and not merely
suggested by it as in the PARADISE LOST of Milton. That illusion,
contradistinguished from delusion, that negative faith, which simply
permits the images presented to work by their own force, without
either denial or affirmation of their real existence by the judgment,
is rendered impossible by their immediate neighbourhood to words and
facts of known and absolute truth. A faith, which transcends even
historic belief, must absolutely put out this mere poetic analogon of
faith, as the summer sun is said to extinguish our household fires,
when it shines full upon them. What would otherwise have been yielded
to as pleasing fiction, is repelled as revolting falsehood. The effect
produced in this latter case by the solemn belief of the reader, is in
a less degree brought about in the instances, to which I have been
objecting, by the balked attempts of the author to make him believe.
Add to all the foregoing the seeming uselessness both of the project
and of the anecdotes from which it is to derive support. Is there one
word, for instance, attributed to the pedlar in THE EXCURSION,
characteristic of a Pedlar? One sentiment, that might not more
plausibly, even without the aid of any previous explanation, have
proceeded from any wise and beneficent old man, of a rank or
profession in which the language of learning and refinement are
natural and to be expected? Need the rank have been at all
particularized, where nothing follows which the knowledge of that rank
is to explain or illustrate? When on the contrary this information
renders the man's language, feelings, sentiments, and information a
riddle, which must itself be solved by episodes of anecdote? Finally
when this, and this alone, could have induced a genuine Poet to
inweave in a poem of the loftiest style, and on subjects the loftiest
and of most universal interest, such minute matters of fact, (not
unlike those furnished for the obituary of a magazine by the friends
of some obscure "ornament of society lately deceased" in some obscure
town,) as
"Among the hills of Athol he was born
There, on a small hereditary Farm,
An unproductive slip of rugged ground,
His Father dwelt; and died in poverty;
While He, whose lowly fortune I retrace,
The youngest of three sons, was yet a babe,
A little One--unconscious of their loss.
But ere he had outgrown his infant days
His widowed Mother, for a second Mate,
Espoused the teacher of the Village School;
Who on her offspring zealously bestowed
Needful instruction."
"From his sixth year, the Boy of whom I speak,
In summer tended cattle on the Hills;
But, through the inclement and the perilous days
Of long-continuing winter, he repaired
To his Step-father's School,"-etc.
For all the admirable passages interposed in this narration, might,
with trifling alterations, have been far more appropriately, and with
far greater verisimilitude, told of a poet in the character of a poet;
and without incurring another defect which I shall now mention, and a
sufficient illustration of which will have been here anticipated.
Third; an undue predilection for the dramatic form in certain poems,
from which one or other of two evils result. Either the thoughts and
diction are different from that of the poet, and then there arises an
incongruity of style; or they are the same and indistinguishable, and
then it presents a species of ventriloquism, where two are represented
as talking, while in truth one man only speaks.
The fourth class of defects is closely connected with the former; but
yet are such as arise likewise from an intensity of feeling
disproportionate to such knowledge and value of the objects described,
as can be fairly anticipated of men in general, even of the most
cultivated classes; and with which therefore few only, and those few
particularly circumstanced, can be supposed to sympathize: In this
class, I comprise occasional prolixity, repetition, and an eddying,
instead of progression, of thought. As instances, see pages 27, 28,
and 62 of the Poems, vol. I. and the first eighty lines of the VIth
Book of THE EXCURSION.
Fifth and last; thoughts and images too great for the subject. This is
an approximation to what might be called mental bombast, as
distinguished from verbal: for, as in the latter there is a
disproportion of the expressions to the thoughts so in this there is a
disproportion of thought to the circumstance and occasion. This, by
the bye, is a fault of which none but a man of genius is capable. It
is the awkwardness and strength of Hercules with the distaff of
Omphale.
It is a well-known fact, that bright colours in motion both make and
leave the strongest impressions on the eye. Nothing is more likely
too, than that a vivid image or visual spectrum, thus originated, may
become the link of association in recalling the feelings and images
that had accompanied the original impression. But if we describe this
in such lines, as
"They flash upon that inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude!"
in what words shall we describe the joy of retrospection, when the
images and virtuous actions of a whole well-spent life, pass before
that conscience which is indeed the inward eye: which is indeed "the
bliss of solitude?" Assuredly we seem to sink most abruptly, not to
say burlesquely, and almost as in a medley, from this couplet to--
"And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."    Vol. I. p. 328.
The second instance is from vol. II. page 12, where the poet having
gone out for a day's tour of pleasure, meets early in the morning with
a knot of Gipsies, who had pitched their blanket-tents and straw-beds,
together with their children and asses, in some field by the road-
side. At the close of the day on his return our tourist found them in
the same place. "Twelve hours," says he,
"Twelve hours, twelve bounteous hours are gone, while I
Have been a traveller under open sky,
Much witnessing of change and cheer,
Yet as I left I find them here!"
Whereat the poet, without seeming to reflect that the poor tawny
wanderers might probably have been tramping for weeks together through
road and lane, over moor and mountain, and consequently must have been
right glad to rest themselves, their children and cattle, for one
whole day; and overlooking the obvious truth, that such repose might
be quite as necessary for them, as a walk of the same continuance was
pleasing or healthful for the more fortunate poet; expresses his
indignation in a series of lines, the diction and imagery of which
would have been rather above, than below the mark, had they been
applied to the immense empire of China improgressive for thirty
centuries:
"The weary Sun betook himself to rest:--
--Then issued Vesper from the fulgent west,
Outshining, like a visible God,
The glorious path in which he trod.
And now, ascending, after one dark hour,
And one night's diminution of her power,
Behold the mighty Moon! this way
She looks, as if at them--but they
Regard not her:--oh, better wrong and strife,
Better vain deeds or evil than such life!
The silent Heavens have goings on
The stars have tasks!--but these have none!"
The last instance of this defect,(for I know no other than these
already cited) is from the Ode, page 351, vol. II., where, speaking of
a child, "a six years' Darling of a pigmy size," he thus addresses
him:
"Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the Eternal Mind,--
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find!
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o'er a Slave,
A Present which is not to be put by!"
Now here, not to stop at the daring spirit of metaphor which connects
the epithets "deaf and silent," with the apostrophized eye: or (if we
are to refer it to the preceding word, "Philosopher"), the faulty and
equivocal syntax of the passage; and without examining the propriety
of making a "Master brood o'er a Slave," or "the Day" brood at all; we
will merely ask, what does all this mean? In what sense is a child of
that age a Philosopher? In what sense does he read "the eternal deep?"
In what sense is he declared to be "for ever haunted" by the Supreme
Being? or so inspired as to deserve the splendid titles of a Mighty
Prophet, a blessed Seer? By reflection? by knowledge? by conscious
intuition? or by any form or modification of consciousness? These
would be tidings indeed; but such as would pre-suppose an immediate
revelation to the inspired communicator, and require miracles to
authenticate his inspiration. Children at this age give us no such
information of themselves; and at what time were we dipped in the
Lethe, which has produced such utter oblivion of a state so godlike?
There are many of us that still possess some remembrances, more or
less distinct, respecting themselves at six years old; pity that the
worthless straws only should float, while treasures, compared with
which all the mines of Golconda and Mexico were but straws, should be
absorbed by some unknown gulf into some unknown abyss.
But if this be too wild and exorbitant to be suspected as having been
the poet's meaning; if these mysterious gifts, faculties, and
operations, are not accompanied with consciousness; who else is
conscious of them? or how can it be called the child, if it be no part
of the child's conscious being? For aught I know, the thinking Spirit
within me may be substantially one with the principle of life, and of
vital operation. For aught I know, it might be employed as a secondary
agent in the marvellous organization and organic movements of my body.
But, surely, it would be strange language to say, that I construct my
heart! or that I propel the finer influences through my nerves! or
that I compress my brain, and draw the curtains of sleep round my own
eyes! Spinoza and Behmen were, on different systems, both Pantheists;
and among the ancients there were philosophers, teachers of the EN KAI
PAN, who not only taught that God was All, but that this All
constituted God. Yet not even these would confound the part, as a
part, with the whole, as the whole. Nay, in no system is the
distinction between the individual and God, between the Modification,
and the one only Substance, more sharply drawn, than in that of
Spinoza. Jacobi indeed relates of Lessing, that, after a conversation
with him at the house of the Poet, Gleim, (the Tyrtaeus and Anacreon
of the German Parnassus,) in which conversation Lessing had avowed
privately to Jacobi his reluctance to admit any personal existence of
the Supreme Being, or the possibility of personality except in a
finite Intellect, and while they were sitting at table, a shower of
rain came on unexpectedly. Gleim expressed his regret at the
circumstance, because they had meant to drink their wine in the
garden: upon which Lessing in one of his half-earnest, half-joking
moods, nodded to Jacobi, and said, "It is I, perhaps, that am doing
that," i.e. raining!--and Jacobi answered, "or perhaps I;" Gleim
contented himself with staring at them both, without asking for any
explanation.
So with regard to this passage. In what sense can the magnificent
attributes, above quoted, be appropriated to a child, which would not
make them equally suitable to a bee, or a dog, or afield of corn: or
even to a ship, or to the wind and waves that propel it? The
omnipresent Spirit works equally in them, as in the child; and the
child is equally unconscious of it as they. It cannot surely be, that
the four lines, immediately following, are to contain the explanation?
"To whom the grave
Is but a lonely bed without the sense or sight
Of day or the warm light,
A place of thought where we in waiting lie;"--
Surely, it cannot be that this wonder-rousing apostrophe is but a
comment on the little poem, "We are Seven?"--that the whole meaning of
the passage is reducible to the assertion, that a child, who by the
bye at six years old would have been better instructed in most
Christian families, has no other notion of death than that of lying in
a dark, cold place? And still, I hope, not as in a place of thought!
not the frightful notion of lying awake in his grave! The analogy
between death and sleep is too simple, too natural, to render so
horrid a belief possible for children; even had they not been in the
habit, as all Christian children are, of hearing the latter term used
to express the former. But if the child's belief be only, that "he is
not dead, but sleepeth:" wherein does it differ from that of his
father and mother, or any other adult and instructed person? To form
an idea of a thing's becoming nothing; or of nothing becoming a thing;
is impossible to all finite beings alike, of whatever age, and however
educated or uneducated. Thus it is with splendid paradoxes in general.
If the words are taken in the common sense, they convey an absurdity;
and if, in contempt of dictionaries and custom, they are so
interpreted as to avoid the absurdity, the meaning dwindles into some
bald truism. Thus you must at once understand the words contrary to
their common import, in order to arrive at any sense; and according to
their common import, if you are to receive from them any feeling of
sublimity or admiration.
Though the instances of this defect in Mr. Wordsworth's poems are so
few, that for themselves it would have been scarcely just to attract
the reader's attention toward them; yet I have dwelt on it, and
perhaps the more for this very reason. For being so very few, they
cannot sensibly detract from the reputation of an author, who is even
characterized by the number of profound truths in his writings, which
will stand the severest analysis; and yet few as they are, they are
exactly those passages which his blind admirers would be most likely,
and best able, to imitate. But Wordsworth, where he is indeed
Wordsworth, may be mimicked by copyists, he may be plundered by
plagiarists; but he cannot be imitated, except by those who are not
born to be imitators. For without his depth of feeling and his
imaginative power his sense would want its vital warmth and
peculiarity; and without his strong sense, his mysticism would become
sickly--mere fog, and dimness!
To these defects which, as appears by the extracts, are only
occasional, I may oppose, with far less fear of encountering the
dissent of any candid and intelligent reader, the following (for the
most part correspondent) excellencies. First, an austere purity of
language both grammatically and logically; in short a perfect
appropriateness of the words to the meaning. Of how high value I deem
this, and how particularly estimable I hold the example at the present
day, has been already stated: and in part too the reasons on which I
ground both the moral and intellectual importance of habituating
ourselves to a strict accuracy of expression. It is noticeable, how
limited an acquaintance with the masterpieces of art will suffice to
form a correct and even a sensitive taste, where none but master-
pieces have been seen and admired: while on the other hand, the most
correct notions, and the widest acquaintance with the works of
excellence of all ages and countries, will not perfectly secure us
against the contagious familiarity with the far more numerous
offspring of tastelessness or of a perverted taste. If this be the
case, as it notoriously is, with the arts of music and painting, much
more difficult will it be, to avoid the infection of multiplied and
daily examples in the practice of an art, which uses words, and words
only, as its instruments. In poetry, in which every line, every
phrase, may pass the ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice, it
is possible, and barely possible, to attain that ultimatum which I
have ventured to propose as the infallible test of a blameless style;
namely: its untranslatableness in words of the same language without
injury to the meaning. Be it observed, however, that I include in the
meaning of a word not only its correspondent object, but likewise all
the associations which it recalls. For language is framed to convey
not the object alone but likewise the character, mood and intentions
of the person who is representing it. In poetry it is practicable to
preserve the diction uncorrupted by the affectations and
misappropriations, which promiscuous authorship, and reading not
promiscuous only because it is disproportionally most conversant with
the compositions of the day, have rendered general. Yet even to the
poet, composing in his own province, it is an arduous work: and as the
result and pledge of a watchful good sense of fine and luminous
distinction, and of complete self-possession, may justly claim all the
honour which belongs to an attainment equally difficult and valuable,
and the more valuable for being rare. It is at all times the proper
food of the understanding; but in an age of corrupt eloquence it is
both food and antidote.
In prose I doubt whether it be even possible to preserve our style
wholly unalloyed by the vicious phraseology which meets us everywhere,
from the sermon to the newspaper, from the harangue of the legislator
to the speech from the convivial chair, announcing a toast or
sentiment. Our chains rattle, even while we are complaining of them.
The poems of Boetius rise high in our estimation when we compare them
with those of his contemporaries, as Sidonius Apollinaris, and others.
They might even be referred to a purer age, but that the prose, in
which they are set, as jewels in a crown of lead or iron, betrays the
true age of the writer. Much however may be effected by education. I
believe not only from grounds of reason, but from having in great
measure assured myself of the fact by actual though limited
experience, that, to a youth led from his first boyhood to investigate
the meaning of every word and the reason of its choice and position,
logic presents itself as an old acquaintance under new names.
On some future occasion, more especially demanding such disquisition,
I shall attempt to prove the close connection between veracity and
habits of mental accuracy; the beneficial after-effects of verbal
precision in the preclusion of fanaticism, which masters the feelings
more especially by indistinct watch-words; and to display the
advantages which language alone, at least which language with
incomparably greater ease and certainty than any other means, presents
to the instructor of impressing modes of intellectual energy so
constantly, so imperceptibly, and as it were by such elements and
atoms, as to secure in due time the formation of a second nature. When
we reflect, that the cultivation of the judgment is a positive command
of the moral law, since the reason can give the principle alone, and
the conscience bears witness only to the motive, while the application
and effects must depend on the judgment when we consider, that the
greater part of our success and comfort in life depends on
distinguishing the similar from the same, that which is peculiar in
each thing from that which it has in common with others, so as still
to select the most probable, instead of the merely possible or
positively unfit, we shall learn to value earnestly and with a
practical seriousness a mean, already prepared for us by nature and
society, of teaching the young mind to think well and wisely by the
same unremembered process and with the same never forgotten results,
as those by which it is taught to speak and converse. Now how much
warmer the interest is, how much more genial the feelings of reality
and practicability, and thence how much stronger the impulses to
imitation are, which a contemporary writer, and especially a
contemporary poet, excites in youth and commencing manhood, has been
treated of in the earlier pages of these sketches. I have only to add,
that all the praise which is due to the exertion of such influence for
a purpose so important, joined with that which must be claimed for the
infrequency of the same excellence in the same perfection, belongs in
full right to Mr. Wordsworth. I am far however from denying that we
have poets whose general style possesses the same excellence, as Mr.
Moore, Lord Byron, Mr. Bowles, and, in all his later and more
important works, our laurel-honouring Laureate. But there are none, in
whose works I do not appear to myself to find more exceptions, than in
those of Wordsworth. Quotations or specimens would here be wholly out
of place, and must be left for the critic who doubts and would
invalidate the justice of this eulogy so applied.
The second characteristic excellence of Mr. Wordsworth's work is: a
correspondent weight and sanity of the Thoughts and Sentiments,--won,
not from books; but--from the poet's own meditative observation. They
are fresh and have the dew upon them. His muse, at least when in her
strength of wing, and when she hovers aloft in her proper element,
Makes audible a linked lay of truth,
Of truth profound a sweet continuous lay,
Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes!
Even throughout his smaller poems there is scarcely one, which is not
rendered valuable by some just and original reflection.
See page 25, vol. II.: or the two following passages in one of his
humblest compositions.
"O Reader! had you in your mind
Such stores as silent thought can bring,
O gentle Reader! you would find
A tale in every thing;"
and
"I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning;
Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftener left me mourning;"
or in a still higher strain the six beautiful quatrains, page 134.
"Thus fares it still in our decay:
And yet the wiser mind
Mourns less for what age takes away
Than what it leaves behind.
The Blackbird in the summer trees,
The Lark upon the hill,
Let loose their carols when they please,
Are quiet when they will.
With Nature never do they wage
A foolish strife; they see
A happy youth, and their old age
Is beautiful and free!
But we are pressed by heavy laws;
And often glad no more,
We wear a face of joy, because
We have been glad of yore.
If there is one, who need bemoan
His kindred laid in earth,
The household hearts that were his own,
It is the man of mirth.
My days, my Friend, are almost gone,
My life has been approved,
And many love me; but by none
Am I enough beloved;"
or the sonnet on Buonaparte, page 202, vol. II. or finally (for a
volume would scarce suffice to exhaust the instances,) the last stanza
of the poem on the withered Celandine, vol. II. p. 312.
"To be a Prodigal's Favorite--then, worse truth,
A Miser's Pensioner--behold our lot!
O Man! That from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not."
Both in respect of this and of the former excellence, Mr. Wordsworth
strikingly resembles Samuel Daniel, one of the golden writers of our
golden Elizabethan age, now most causelessly neglected: Samuel Daniel,
whose diction bears no mark of time, no distinction of age which has
been, and as long as our language shall last, will be so far the
language of the to-day and for ever, as that it is more intelligible
to us, than the transitory fashions of our own particular age. A
similar praise is due to his sentiments. No frequency of perusal can
deprive them of their freshness. For though they are brought into the
full day-light of every reader's comprehension; yet are they drawn up
from depths which few in any age are privileged to visit, into which
few in any age have courage or inclination to descend. If Mr.
Wordsworth is not equally with Daniel alike intelligible to all
readers of average understanding in all passages of his works, the
comparative difficulty does not arise from the greater impurity of the
ore, but from the nature and uses of the metal. A poem is not
necessarily obscure, because it does not aim to be popular. It is
enough, if a work be perspicuous to those for whom it is written, and
"Fit audience find, though few."
To the "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of
early Childhood" the poet might have prefixed the lines which Dante
addresses to one of his own Canzoni--
"Canzone, i' credo, che saranno radi
Color, che tua ragione intendan bene,
Tanto lor sei faticoso ed alto."
"O lyric song, there will be few, I think,
Who may thy import understand aright:
Thou art for them so arduous and so high!"
But the ode was intended for such readers only as had been accustomed
to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature, to venture at
times into the twilight realms of consciousness, and to feel a deep
interest in modes of inmost being, to which they know that the
attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien, but which yet
can not be conveyed, save in symbols of time and space. For such
readers the sense is sufficiently plain, and they will be as little
disposed to charge Mr. Wordsworth with believing the Platonic pre-
existence in the ordinary interpretation of the words, as I am to
believe, that Plato himself ever meant or taught it.
Polla oi ut' anko-
nos okea belae
endon enti pharetras
phonanta synetoisin; es
de to pan hermaeneon
chatizei; sophos o pol-
la eidos phua;
mathontes de labroi
panglossia, korakes os,
akranta garueton
Dios pros ornicha theion.
Third (and wherein he soars far above Daniel) the sinewy strength and
originality of single lines and paragraphs: the frequent curiosa
felicitas of his diction, of which I need not here give specimens,
having anticipated them in a preceding page. This beauty, and as
eminently characteristic of Wordsworth's poetry, his rudest assailants
have felt themselves compelled to acknowledge and admire.
Fourth; the perfect truth of nature in his images and descriptions as
taken immediately from nature, and proving a long and genial intimacy
with the very spirit which gives the physiognomic expression to all
the works of nature. Like a green field reflected in a calm and
perfectly transparent lake, the image is distinguished from the
reality only by its greater softness and lustre. Like the moisture or
the polish on a pebble, genius neither distorts nor false-colours its
objects; but on the contrary brings out many a vein and many a tint,
which escape the eye of common observation, thus raising to the rank
of gems what had been often kicked away by the hurrying foot of the
traveller on the dusty high road of custom.
Let me refer to the whole description of skating, vol. I. page 42 to
47, especially to the lines
"So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle. with the din
Meanwhile the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while the distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars,
Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away."
Or to the poem on THE GREEN LINNET, vol. I. page 244. What can be more
accurate yet more lovely than the two concluding stanzas?
"Upon yon tuft of hazel trees,
That twinkle to the gusty breeze,
Behold him perched in ecstasies,
Yet seeming still to hover;
There! where the flutter of his wings
Upon his back and body flings
Shadows and sunny glimmerings,
That cover him all over.
While thus before my eyes he gleams,
A Brother of the Leaves he seems;
When in a moment forth he teems
His little song in gushes
As if it pleased him to disdain
And mock the Form which he did feign
While he was dancing with the train
Of Leaves among the bushes."
Or the description of the blue-cap, and of the noontide silence, page
284; or the poem to the cuckoo, page 299; or, lastly, though I might
multiply the references to ten times the number, to the poem, so
completely Wordsworth's, commencing
"Three years she grew in sun and shower"--
Fifth: a meditative pathos, a union of deep and subtle thought with
sensibility; a sympathy with man as man; the sympathy indeed of a
contemplator, rather than a fellow-sufferer or co-mate, (spectator,
haud particeps) but of a contemplator, from whose view no difference
of rank conceals the sameness of the nature; no injuries of wind or
weather, or toil, or even of ignorance, wholly disguise the human face
divine. The superscription and the image of the Creator still remain
legible to him under the dark lines, with which guilt or calamity had
cancelled or cross-barred it. Here the Man and the Poet lose and find
themselves in each other, the one as glorified, the latter as
substantiated. In this mild and philosophic pathos, Wordsworth appears
to me without a compeer. Such as he is: so he writes. See vol. I. page
134 to 136, or that most affecting composition, THE AFFLICTION OF
MARGARET ---- OF ----, page 165 to 168, which no mother, and, if I may
judge by my own experience, no parent can read without a tear. Or turn
to that genuine lyric, in the former edition, entitled, THE MAD
MOTHER, page 174 to 178, of which I cannot refrain from quoting two of
the stanzas, both of them for their pathos, and the former for the
fine transition in the two concluding lines of the stanza, so
expressive of that deranged state, in which, from the increased
sensibility, the sufferer's attention is abruptly drawn off by every
trifle, and in the same instant plucked back again by the one despotic
thought, bringing home with it, by the blending, fusing power of
Imagination and Passion, the alien object to which it had been so
abruptly diverted, no longer an alien but an ally and an inmate.
"Suck, little babe, oh suck again!
It cools my blood; it cools my brain;
Thy lips, I feel them, baby! They
Draw from my heart the pain away.
Oh! press me with thy little hand;
It loosens something at my chest
About that tight and deadly band
I feel thy little fingers prest.
The breeze I see is in the tree!
It comes to cool my babe and me."
"Thy father cares not for my breast,
'Tis thine, sweet baby, there to rest;
'Tis all thine own!--and if its hue
Be changed, that was so fair to view,
'Tis fair enough for thee, my dove!
My beauty, little child, is flown,
But thou wilt live with me in love;
And what if my poor cheek be brown?
'Tis well for me, thou canst not see
How pale and wan it else would be."
Last, and pre-eminently, I challenge for this poet the gift of
Imagination in the highest and strictest sense of the word. In the
play of fancy, Wordsworth, to my feelings, is not always graceful, and
sometimes recondite. The likeness is occasionally too strange, or
demands too peculiar a point of view, or is such as appears the
creature of predetermined research, rather than spontaneous
presentation. Indeed his fancy seldom displays itself, as mere and
unmodified fancy. But in imaginative power, he stands nearest of all
modern writers to Shakespeare and Milton; and yet in a kind perfectly
unborrowed and his own. To employ his own words, which are at once an
instance and an illustration, he does indeed to all thoughts and to
all objects--
"------add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet's dream."
I shall select a few examples as most obviously manifesting this
faculty; but if I should ever be fortunate enough to render my
analysis of Imagination, its origin and characters, thoroughly
intelligible to the reader, he will scarcely open on a page of this
poet's works without recognising, more or less, the presence and the
influences of this faculty. From the poem on the YEW TREES, vol. I.
page 303, 304.
"But worthier still of note
Are those fraternal Four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks!--and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine
Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved;
Not uninformed with phantasy, and looks
That threaten the profane;--a pillared shade,
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pinal umbrage tinged
Perennially--beneath whose sable roof
Of boughs, as if for festal purpose, decked
With unrejoicing berries--ghostly shapes
May meet at noontide; FEAR and trembling HOPE,
SILENCE and FORESIGHT; DEATH, the Skeleton,
And TIME, the Shadow; there to celebrate,
As in a natural temple scattered o'er
With altars undisturbed of mossy stone,
United worship; or in mute repose
To lie, and listen to the mountain flood
Murmuring from Glazamara's inmost caves."
The effect of the old man's figure in the poem of RESOLUTION AND
INDEPENDENCE, vol. II. page 33.
"While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The Old Man's shape, and speech, all troubled me
In my mind's eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently."
Or the 8th, 9th, 19th, 26th, 31st, and 33rd, in the collection of
miscellaneous sonnets--the sonnet on the subjugation of Switzerland,
page 210, or the last ode, from which I especially select the two
following stanzas or paragraphs, page 349 to 350.
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy;
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy!
The Youth who daily further from the East
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day."
And page 352 to 354 of the same ode.
"O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benedictions: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:--
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts, before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised!
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing;
Uphold us--cherish--and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence; truths that wake
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence, in a season of calm weather,
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither;
Can in a moment travel thither,--
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore."
And since it would be unfair to conclude with an extract, which,
though highly characteristic, must yet, from the nature of the
thoughts and the subject, be interesting or perhaps intelligible, to
but a limited number of readers; I will add, from the poet's last
published work, a passage equally Wordsworthian; of the beauty of
which, and of the imaginative power displayed therein, there can be
but one opinion, and one feeling. See White Doe, page 5.
"Fast the church-yard fills;--anon
Look again and they all are gone;
The cluster round the porch, and the folk
Who sate in the shade of the Prior's Oak!
And scarcely have they disappeared
Ere the prelusive hymn is heard;--
With one consent the people rejoice,
Filling the church with a lofty voice!
They sing a service which they feel:
For 'tis the sun-rise now of zeal;
And faith and hope are in their prime
In great Eliza's golden time."
"A moment ends the fervent din,
And all is hushed, without and within;
For though the priest, more tranquilly,
Recites the holy liturgy,
The only voice which you can hear
Is the river murmuring near.
--When soft!--the dusky trees between,
And down the path through the open green,
Where is no living thing to be seen;
And through yon gateway, where is found,
Beneath the arch with ivy bound,
Free entrance to the church-yard ground--
And right across the verdant sod,
Towards the very house of God;
Comes gliding in with lovely gleam,
Comes gliding in serene and slow,
Soft and silent as a dream.
A solitary Doe!
White she is as lily of June,
And beauteous as the silver moon
When out of sight the clouds are driven
And she is left alone in heaven!
Or like a ship some gentle day
In sunshine sailing far away
A glittering ship that hath the plain
Of ocean for her own domain."
*     *     *     *     *     *
"What harmonious pensive changes
Wait upon her as she ranges
Round and through this Pile of state
Overthrown and desolate!
Now a step or two her way
Is through space of open day,
Where the enamoured sunny light
Brightens her that was so bright;
Now doth a delicate shadow fall,
Falls upon her like a breath,
From some lofty arch or wall,
As she passes underneath."
The following analogy will, I am apprehensive, appear dim and
fantastic, but in reading Bartram's Travels I could not help
transcribing the following lines as a sort of allegory, or connected
simile and metaphor of Wordsworth's intellect and genius.--"The soil
is a deep, rich, dark mould, on a deep stratum of tenacious clay; and
that on a foundation of rocks, which often break through both strata,
lifting their backs above the surface. The trees which chiefly grow
here are the gigantic, black oak; magnolia grandi-flora; fraximus
excelsior; platane; and a few stately tulip trees." What Mr.
Wordsworth will produce, it is not for me to prophesy but I could
pronounce with the liveliest convictions what he is capable of
producing. It is the FIRST GENUINE PHILOSOPHIC POEM.
The preceding criticism will not, I am aware, avail to overcome the
prejudices of those, who have made it a business to attack and
ridicule Mr. Wordsworth's compositions.
Truth and prudence might be imaged as concentric circles. The poet may
perhaps have passed beyond the latter, but he has confined himself far
within the bounds of the former, in designating these critics, as "too
petulant to be passive to a genuine poet, and too feeble to grapple
with him;----men of palsied imaginations, in whose minds all healthy
action is languid;----who, therefore, feed as the many direct them, or
with the many are greedy after vicious provocatives."
So much for the detractors from Wordsworth's merits. On the other
hand, much as I might wish for their fuller sympathy, I dare not
flatter myself, that the freedom with which I have declared my
opinions concerning both his theory and his defects, most of which are
more or less connected with his theory, either as cause or effect,
will be satisfactory or pleasing to all the poet's admirers and
advocates. More indiscriminate than mine their admiration may be:
deeper and more sincere it cannot be. But I have advanced no opinion
either for praise or censure, other than as texts introductory to the
reasons which compel me to form it. Above all, I was fully convinced
that such a criticism was not only wanted; but that, if executed with
adequate ability, it must conduce, in no mean degree, to Mr.
Wordsworth's reputation. His fame belongs to another age, and can
neither be accelerated nor retarded. How small the proportion of the
defects are to the beauties, I have repeatedly declared; and that no
one of them originates in deficiency of poetic genius. Had they been
more and greater, I should still, as a friend to his literary
character in the present age, consider an analytic display of them as
pure gain; if only it removed, as surely to all reflecting minds even
the foregoing analysis must have removed, the strange mistake, so
slightly grounded, yet so widely and industriously propagated, of Mr.
Wordsworth's turn for simplicity! I am not half as much irritated by
hearing his enemies abuse him for vulgarity of style, subject, and
conception, as I am disgusted with the gilded side of the same
meaning, as displayed by some affected admirers, with whom he is,
forsooth, a "sweet, simple poet!" and so natural, that little master
Charles and his younger sister are so charmed with them, that they
play at "Goody Blake," or at "Johnny and Betty Foy!"
Were the collection of poems, published with these biographical
sketches, important enough, (which I am not vain enough to believe,)
to deserve such a distinction; even as I have done, so would I be done
unto.
For more than eighteen months have the volume of Poems, entitled
SIBYLLINE LEAVES, and the present volume, up to this page, been
printed, and ready for publication. But, ere I speak of myself in the
tones, which are alone natural to me under the circumstances of late
years, I would fain present myself to the Reader as I was in the first
dawn of my literary life:
When Hope grew round me, like the climbing vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seem'd mine!
For this purpose I have selected from the letters, which I wrote home
from Germany, those which appeared likely to be most interesting, and
at the same time most pertinent to the title of this work.
SATYRANE'S LETTERS
LETTER I
On Sunday morning, September 16, 1798, the Hamburg packet set sail
from Yarmouth; and I, for the first time in my life, beheld my native
land retiring from me. At the moment of its disappearance--in all the
kirks, churches, chapels, and meeting-houses, in which the greater
number, I hope, of my countrymen were at that time assembled, I will
dare question whether there was one more ardent prayer offered up to
heaven, than that which I then preferred for my country. "Now then,"
(said I to a gentleman who was standing near me,) "we are out of our
country." "Not yet, not yet!" he replied, and pointed to the sea;
"This, too, is a Briton's country." This bon mot gave a fillip to my
spirits, I rose and looked round on my fellow-passengers, who were all
on the deck. We were eighteen in number, videlicet, five Englishmen,
an English lady, a French gentleman and his servant, an Hanoverian and
his servant, a Prussian, a Swede, two Danes, and a Mulatto boy, a
German tailor and his wife, (the smallest couple I ever beheld,) and a
Jew. We were all on the deck; but in a short time I observed marks of
dismay. The lady retired to the cabin in some confusion, and many of
the faces round me assumed a very doleful and frog-coloured
appearance; and within an hour the number of those on deck was
lessened by one half. I was giddy, but not sick, and the giddiness
soon went away, but left a feverishness and want of appetite, which I
attributed, in great measure, to the saeva Mephitis of the bilge-
water; and it was certainly not decreased by the exportations from the
cabin. However, I was well enough to join the able-bodied passengers,
one of whom observed not inaptly, that Momus might have discovered an
easier way to see a man's inside, than by placing a window in his
breast. He needed only have taken a saltwater trip in a packet-boat.
I am inclined to believe, that a packet is far superior to a stage-
coach, as a means of making men open out to each other. In the latter
the uniformity of posture disposes to dozing, and the definitiveness
of the period, at which the company will separate, makes each
individual think more of those to whom he is going, than of those with
whom he is going. But at sea, more curiosity is excited, if only on
this account, that the pleasant or unpleasant qualities of your
companions are of greater importance to you, from the uncertainty how
long you may be obliged to house with them. Besides, if you are
countrymen, that now begins to form a distinction and a bond of
brotherhood; and if of different countries, there are new incitements
of conversation, more to ask and more to communicate. I found that I
had interested the Danes in no common degree. I had crept into the
boat on the deck and fallen asleep; but was awakened by one of them,
about three o'clock in the afternoon, who told me that they had been
seeking me in every hole and corner, and insisted that I should join
their party and drink with them. He talked English with such fluency,
as left me wholly unable to account for the singular and even
ludicrous incorrectness with which he spoke it. I went, and found some
excellent wines and a dessert of grapes with a pine-apple. The Danes
had christened me Doctor Teology, and dressed as I was all in black,
with large shoes and black worsted stockings, I might certainly have
passed very well for a Methodist missionary. However I disclaimed my
title. What then may you be? A man of fortune? No!--A merchant? No!--A
merchant's traveller? No!--A clerk? No!--Un Philosophe, perhaps? It
was at that time in my life, in which of all possible names and
characters I had the greatest disgust to that of "un Philosophe." But
I was weary of being questioned, and rather than be nothing, or at
best only the abstract idea of a man, I submitted by a bow, even to
the aspersion implied in the word "un Philosophe."--The Dane then
informed me, that all in the present party were Philosophers likewise.
Certes we were not of the Stoick school. For we drank and talked and
sung, till we talked and sung all together; and then we rose and
danced on the deck a set of dances, which in one sense of the word at
least, were very intelligibly and appropriately entitled reels. The
passengers, who lay in the cabin below in all the agonies of sea-
sickness, must have found our bacchanalian merriment
------a tune
Harsh and of dissonant mood from their complaint.
I thought so at the time; and, (by way, I suppose, of supporting my
newly assumed philosophical character,) I thought too, how closely the
greater number of our virtues are connected with the fear of death,
and how little sympathy we bestow on pain, where there is no danger.
The two Danes were brothers. The one was a man with a clear white
complexion, white hair, and white eyebrows; looked silly, and nothing
that he uttered gave the lie to his looks. The other, whom, by way of
eminence I have called the Dane, had likewise white hair, but was much
shorter than his brother, with slender limbs, and a very thin face
slightly pockfretten. This man convinced me of the justice of an old
remark, that many a faithful portrait in our novels and farces has
been rashly censured for an outrageous caricature, or perhaps
nonentity. I had retired to my station in the boat--he came and seated
himself by my side, and appeared not a little tipsy. He commenced the
conversation in the most magnific style, and, as a sort of pioneering
to his own vanity, he flattered me with such grossness! The parasites
of the old comedy were modest in the comparison. His language and
accentuation were so exceedingly singular, that I determined for once
in my life to take notes of a conversation. Here it follows, somewhat
abridged, indeed, but in all other respects as accurately as my memory
permitted.
THE DANE.  Vat imagination! vat language! vat vast science! and vat
eyes! vat a milk-vite forehead! O my heafen! vy, you're a Got!
ANSWER.  You do me too much honour, Sir.
THE DANE.  O me! if you should dink I is flattering you!--No, no, no!
I haf ten tousand a year--yes, ten tousand a year--yes, ten tousand
pound a year! Vel--and vat is dhat? a mere trifle! I 'ouldn't gif my
sincere heart for ten times dhe money. Yes, you're a Got! I a mere
man! But, my dear friend! dhink of me, as a man! Is, is--I mean to ask
you now, my dear friend--is I not very eloquent? Is I not speak
English very fine?
ANSWER.  Most admirably! Believe me, Sir! I have seldom heard even a
native talk so fluently.
THE DANE.  (Squeezing my hand with great vehemence.) My dear friend!
vat an affection and fidelity ve have for each odher! But tell me, do
tell me,--Is I not, now and den, speak some fault? Is I not in some
wrong?
ANSWER.  Why, Sir! perhaps it might be observed by nice critics in the
English language, that you occasionally use the word "is" instead of
"am." In our best companies we generally say I am, and not I is or
I'se. Excuse me, Sir! it is a mere trifle.
THE DANE.  O!--is, is, am, am, am. Yes, yes--I know, I know.
ANSWER.  I am, thou art, he is, we are, ye are, they are.
THE DANE.  Yes, yes,--I know, I know--Am, am, am, is dhe praesens, and
is is dhe perfectum--yes, yes--and are is dhe plusquam perfectum.
ANSWER.  And art, Sir! is--?
THE DANE.  My dear friend! it is dhe plusquam perfectum, no, no--dhat
is a great lie; are is dhe plusquam perfectum--and art is dhe plasquam
plue-perfectum--(then swinging my hand to and fro, and cocking his
little bright hazel eyes at me, that danced with vanity and wine)--You
see, my dear friend that I too have some lehrning?
ANSWER.  Learning, Sir? Who dares suspect it? Who can listen to you
for a minute, who can even look at you, without perceiving the extent
of it?
THE DANE.  My dear friend!--(then with a would-be humble look, and in
a tone of voice as if he was reasoning) I could not talk so of prawns
and imperfectum, and futurum and plusquamplue perfectum, and all dhat,
my dear friend! without some lehrning?
ANSWER.  Sir! a man like you cannot talk on any subject without
discovering the depth of his information.
THE DANE.  Dhe grammatic Greek, my friend; ha! ha! Ha! (laughing, and
swinging my hand to and fro--then with a sudden transition to great
solemnity) Now I will tell you, my dear friend! Dhere did happen about
me vat de whole historia of Denmark record no instance about nobody
else. Dhe bishop did ask me all dhe questions about all dhe religion
in dhe Latin grammar.
ANSWER.  The grammar, Sir? The language, I presume--
THE DANE.  (A little offended.) Grammar is language, and language is
grammar--
ANSWER.  Ten thousand pardons!
THE DANE.  Vell, and I was only fourteen years--
ANSWER.  Only fourteen years old?
THE DANE. No more. I vas fourteen years old--and he asked me all
questions, religion and philosophy, and all in dhe Latin language--and
I answered him all every one, my dear friend! all in dhe Latin
language.
ANSWER.  A prodigy! an absolute prodigy!
THE DANE.  No, no, no! he was a bishop, a great superintendent.
ANSWER.  Yes! a bishop.
THE DANE.  A bishop--not a mere predicant, not a prediger.
ANSWER.  My dear Sir! we have misunderstood each other. I said that
your answering in Latin at so early an age was a prodigy, that is, a
thing that is wonderful; that does not often happen.
THE DANE.  Often! Dhere is not von instance recorded in dhe whole
historia of Denmark.
ANSWER.  And since then, Sir--?
THE DANE.  I was sent ofer to dhe Vest Indies--to our Island, and
dhere I had no more to do vid books. No! no! I put my genius anodher
way--and I haf made ten tousand pound a year. Is not dhat ghenius, my
dear friend?--But vat is money?--I dhink dhe poorest man alive my
equal. Yes, my dear friend; my little fortune is pleasant to my
generous heart, because I can do good--no man with so little a fortune
ever did so much generosity--no person--no man person, no woman person
ever denies it. But we are all Got's children.
Here the Hanoverian interrupted him, and the other Dane, the Swede,
and the Prussian, joined us, together with a young Englishman who
spoke the German fluently, and interpreted to me many of the
Prussian's jokes. The Prussian was a travelling merchant, turned of
threescore, a hale man, tall, strong, and stout, full of stories,
gesticulations, and buffoonery, with the soul as well as the look of a
mountebank, who, while he is making you laugh, picks your pocket. Amid
all his droll looks and droll gestures, there remained one look
untouched by laughter; and that one look was the true face, the others
were but its mask. The Hanoverian was a pale, fat, bloated young man,
whose father had made a large fortune in London, as an army-
contractor. He seemed to emulate the manners of young Englishmen of
fortune. He was a good-natured fellow, not without information or
literature; but a most egregious coxcomb. He had been in the habit of
attending the House of Commons, and had once spoken, as he informed
me, with great applause in a debating society. For this he appeared to
have qualified himself with laudable industry: for he was perfect in
Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary, and with an accent, which forcibly
reminded me of the Scotchman in Roderic Random, who professed to teach
the English pronunciation, he was constantly deferring to my superior
judgment, whether or no I had pronounced this or that word with
propriety, or "the true delicacy." When he spoke, though it were only
half a dozen sentences, he always rose: for which I could detect no
other motive, than his partiality to that elegant phrase so liberally
introduced in the orations of our British legislators, "While I am on
my legs." The Swede, whom for reasons that will soon appear, I shall
distinguish by the name of Nobility, was a strong-featured, scurvy-
faced man, his complexion resembling in colour, a red hot poker
beginning to cool. He appeared miserably dependent on the Dane; but
was, however, incomparably the best informed and most rational of the
party. Indeed his manners and conversation discovered him to be both a
man of the world and a gentleman. The Jew was in the hold: the French
gentleman was lying on the deck so ill, that I could observe nothing
concerning him, except the affectionate attentions of his servant to
him. The poor fellow was very sick himself, and every now and then ran
to the side of the vessel, still keeping his eye on his master, but
returned in a moment and seated himself again by him, now supporting
his head, now wiping his forehead and talking to him all the while in
the most soothing tones. There had been a matrimonial squabble of a
very ludicrous kind in the cabin, between the little German tailor and
his little wife. He had secured two beds, one for himself and one for
her. This had struck the little woman as a very cruel action; she
insisted upon their having but one, and assured the mate in the most
piteous tones, that she was his lawful wife. The mate and the cabin
boy decided in her favour, abused the little man for his want of
tenderness with much humour, and hoisted him into the same compartment
with his sea-sick wife. This quarrel was interesting to me, as it
procured me a bed, which I otherwise should not have had.
In the evening, at seven o'clock, the sea rolled higher, and the Dane,
by means of the greater agitation, eliminated enough of what he had
been swallowing to make room for a great deal more. His favourite
potation was sugar and brandy, i.e. a very little warm water with a
large quantity of brandy, sugar, and nutmeg His servant boy, a black-
eyed Mulatto, had a good-natured round face, exactly the colour of the
skin of the walnut-kernel. The Dane and I were again seated, tete-a-
tete, in the ship's boat. The conversation, which was now indeed
rather an oration than a dialogue, became extravagant beyond all that
I ever heard. He told me that he had made a large fortune in the
island of Santa Cruz, and was now returning to Denmark to enjoy it. He
expatiated on the style in which he meant to live, and the great
undertakings which he proposed to himself to commence, till, the
brandy aiding his vanity, and his vanity and garrulity aiding the
brandy, he talked like a madman--entreated me to accompany him to
Denmark--there I should see his influence with the government, and he
would introduce me to the king, etc., etc. Thus he went on dreaming
aloud, and then passing with a very lyrical transition to the subject
of general politics, he declaimed, like a member of the Corresponding
Society, about, (not concerning,) the Rights of Man, and assured me
that, notwithstanding his fortune, he thought the poorest man alive
his equal. "All are equal, my dear friend! all are equal! Ve are all
Got's children. The poorest man haf the same rights with me. Jack!
Jack! some more sugar and brandy. Dhere is dhat fellow now! He is a
Mulatto--but he is my equal.--That's right, Jack! (taking the sugar
and brandy.) Here you Sir! shake hands with dhis gentleman! Shake
hands with me, you dog! Dhere, dhere!--We are all equal my dear
friend! Do I not speak like Socrates, and Plato, and Cato--they were
all philosophers, my dear philosophe! all very great men!--and so was
Homer and Virgil--but they were poets. Yes, yes! I know all about it!
--But what can anybody say more than this? We are all equal, all Got's
children. I haf ten tousand a year, but I am no more dhan de meanest
man alive. I haf no pride; and yet, my dear friend! I can say, do! and
it is done. Ha! ha! ha! my dear friend! Now dhere is dhat gentleman
(pointing to Nobility) he is a Swedish baron--you shall see. Ho!
(calling to the Swede) get me, will you, a bottle of wine from the
cabin. SWEDE.--Here, Jack! go and get your master a bottle of wine
from the cabin. DANE. No, no, no! do you go now--you go yourself you
go now! SWEDE. Pah!--DANE. Now go! Go, I pray you." And the Swede
went!!
After this the Dane commenced an harangue on religion, and mistaking
me for un philosophe in the continental sense of the word, he talked
of Deity in a declamatory style, very much resembling the devotional
rants of that rude blunderer, Mr. Thomas Paine, in his Age of Reason,
and whispered in my ear, what damned hypocrism all Jesus Christ's
business was. I dare aver, that few men have less reason to charge
themselves with indulging in persiflage than myself. I should hate it,
if it were only that it is a Frenchman's vice, and feel a pride in
avoiding it, because our own language is too honest to have a word to
express it by. But in this instance the temptation had been too
powerful, and I have placed it on the list of my offences. Pericles
answered one of his dearest friends, who had solicited him on a case
of life and death, to take an equivocal oath for his preservation:
Debeo amicis opitulari, sed usque ad Deos [75]. Friendship herself
must place her last and boldest step on this side the altar. What
Pericles would not do to save a friend's life, you may be assured, I
would not hazard merely to mill the chocolate-pot of a drunken fool's
vanity till it frothed over. Assuming a serious look, I professed
myself a believer, and sunk at once an hundred fathoms in his good
graces. He retired to his cabin, and I wrapped myself up in my great
coat, and looked at the water. A beautiful white cloud of foam at
momently intervals coursed by the side of the vessel with a roar, and
little stars of flame danced and sparkled and went out in it: and
every now and then light detachments of this white cloud-like foam
darted off from the vessel's side, each with its own small
constellation, over the sea, and scoured out of sight like a Tartar
troop over a wilderness.
It was cold, the cabin was at open war with my olfactories, and I
found reason to rejoice in my great coat, a weighty high-caped,
respectable rug, the collar of which turned over, and played the part
of a night-cap very passably. In looking up at two or three bright
stars, which oscillated with the motion of the sails, I fell asleep,
but was awakened at one o'clock, Monday morning, by a shower of rain.
I found myself compelled to go down into the cabin, where I slept very
soundly, and awoke with a very good appetite at breakfast time, my
nostrils, the most placable of all the senses, reconciled to, or
indeed insensible of the mephitis.
Monday, September 17th, I had a long conversation with the Swede, who
spoke with the most poignant contempt of the Dane, whom he described
as a fool, purse-mad; but he confirmed the boasts of the Dane
respecting the largeness of his fortune, which he had acquired in the
first instance as an advocate, and afterwards as a planter. From the
Dane and from himself I collected that he was indeed a Swedish
nobleman, who had squandered a fortune, that was never very large, and
had made over his property to the Dane, on whom he was now utterly
dependent. He seemed to suffer very little pain from the Dane's
insolence. He was in a high degree humane and attentive to the English
lady, who suffered most fearfully, and for whom he performed many
little offices with a tenderness and delicacy which seemed to prove
real goodness of heart. Indeed his general manners and conversation
were not only pleasing, but even interesting; and I struggled to
believe his insensibility respecting the Dane philosophical fortitude.
For though the Dane was now quite sober, his character oozed out of
him at every pore. And after dinner, when he was again flushed with
wine, every quarter of an hour or perhaps oftener he would shout out
to the Swede, "Ho! Nobility, go--do such a thing! Mr. Nobility!--tell
the gentlemen such a story, and so forth;" with an insolence which
must have excited disgust and detestation, if his vulgar rants on the
sacred rights of equality, joined to his wild havoc of general grammar
no less than of the English language, had not rendered it so
irresistibly laughable.
At four o'clock I observed a wild duck swimming on the waves, a single
solitary wild duck. It is not easy to conceive, how interesting a
thing it looked in that round objectless desert of waters. I had
associated such a feeling of immensity with the ocean, that I felt
exceedingly disappointed, when I was out of sight of all land, at the
narrowness and nearness, as it were, of the circle of the horizon. So
little are images capable of satisfying the obscure feelings connected
with words. In the evening the sails were lowered, lest we should run
foul of the land, which can be seen only at a small distance. And at
four o'clock, on Tuesday morning, I was awakened by the cry of "land!
land!" It was an ugly island rock at a distance on our left, called
Heiligeland, well known to many passengers from Yarmouth to Hamburg,
who have been obliged by stormy weather to pass weeks and weeks in
weary captivity on it, stripped of all their money by the exorbitant
demands of the wretches who inhabit it. So at least the sailors
informed me.--About nine o'clock we saw the main land, which seemed
scarcely able to hold its head above water, low, flat, and dreary,
with lighthouses and land-marks which seemed to give a character and
language to the dreariness. We entered the mouth of the Elbe, passing
Neu-werk; though as yet the right bank only of the river was visible
to us. On this I saw a church, and thanked God for my safe voyage, not
without affectionate thoughts of those I had left in England. At
eleven o'clock on the same morning we arrived at Cuxhaven, the ship
dropped anchor, and the boat was hoisted out, to carry the Hanoverian
and a few others on shore. The captain agreed to take us, who
remained, to Hamburg for ten guineas, to which the Dane contributed so
largely, that the other passengers paid but half a guinea each.
Accordingly we hauled anchor, and passed gently up the river. At
Cuxhaven both sides of the river may be seen in clear weather; we
could now see the right bank only. We passed a multitude of English
traders that had been waiting many weeks for a wind. In a short time
both banks became visible, both flat and evidencing the labour of
human hands by their extreme neatness. On the left bank I saw a church
or two in the distance; on the right bank we passed by steeple and
windmill and cottage, and windmill and single house, windmill and
windmill, and neat single house, and steeple. These were the objects
and in the succession. The shores were very green and planted with
trees not inelegantly. Thirty-five miles from Cuxhaven the night came
on us, and, as the navigation of the Elbe is perilous, we dropped
anchor.
Over what place, thought I, does the moon hang to your eye, my dearest
friend? To me it hung over the left bank of the Elbe. Close above the
moon was a huge volume of deep black cloud, while a very thin fillet
crossed the middle of the orb, as narrow and thin and black as a
ribbon of crape. The long trembling road of moonlight, which lay on
the water and reached to the stern of our vessel, glimmered dimly and
obscurely. We saw two or three lights from the right bank, probably
from bed-rooms. I felt the striking contrast between the silence of
this majestic stream, whose banks are populous with men and women and
children, and flocks and herds--between the silence by night of this
peopled river, and the ceaseless noise, and uproar, and loud
agitations of the desolate solitude of the ocean. The passengers below
had all retired to their beds; and I felt the interest of this quiet
scene the more deeply from the circumstance of having just quitted
them. For the Prussian had during the whole of the evening displayed
all his talents to captivate the Dane, who had admitted him into the
train of his dependents. The young Englishman continued to interpret
the Prussian's jokes to me. They were all without exception profane
and abominable, but some sufficiently witty, and a few incidents,
which he related in his own person, were valuable as illustrating the
manners of the countries in which they had taken place.
Five o'clock on Wednesday morning we hauled the anchor, but were soon
obliged to drop it again in consequence of a thick fog, which our
captain feared would continue the whole day; but about nine it cleared
off, and we sailed slowly along, close by the shore of a very
beautiful island, forty miles from Cuxhaven, the wind continuing
slack. This holm or island is about a mile and a half in length,
wedge-shaped, well wooded, with glades of the liveliest green, and
rendered more interesting by the remarkably neat farm-house on it. It
seemed made for retirement without solitude--a place that would allure
one's friends, while it precluded the impertinent calls of mere
visitors. The shores of the Elbe now became more beautiful, with rich
meadows and trees running like a low wall along the river's edge; and
peering over them, neat houses and, (especially on the right bank,) a
profusion of steeple-spires, white, black, or red. An instinctive
taste teaches men to build their churches in flat countries with
spire-steeples, which, as they cannot be referred to any other object,
point, as with silent finger, to the sky and stars, and sometimes,
when they reflect the brazen light of a rich though rainy sun-set,
appear like a pyramid of flame burning heavenward. I remember once,
and once only, to have seen a spire in a narrow valley of a
mountainous country. The effect was not only mean but ludicrous, and
reminded me against my will of an extinguisher; the close
neighbourhood of the high mountain, at the foot of which it stood, had
so completely dwarfed it, and deprived it of all connection with the
sky or clouds. Forty-six English miles from Cuxhaven, and sixteen from
Hamburg, the Danish village Veder ornaments the left bank with its
black steeple, and close by it is the wild and pastoral hamlet of
Schulau. Hitherto both the right and left bank, green to the very
brink, and level with the river, resembled the shores of a park canal.
The trees and houses were alike low, sometimes the low trees over-
topping the yet lower houses, sometimes the low houses rising above
the yet lower trees. But at Schulau the left bank rises at once forty
or fifty feet, and stares on the river with its perpendicular facade
of sand, thinly patched with tufts of green. The Elbe continued to
present a more and more lively spectacle from the multitude of fishing
boats and the flocks of sea gulls wheeling round them, the clamorous
rivals and companions of the fishermen; till we came to Blankaness, a
most interesting village scattered amid scattered trees, over three
hills in three divisions. Each of the three hills stares upon the
river, with faces of bare sand, with which the boats with their bare
poles, standing in files along the banks, made a sort of fantastic
harmony. Between each facade lies a green and woody dell, each deeper
than the other. In short it is a large village made up of individual
cottages, each cottage in the centre of its own little wood or
orchard, and each with its own separate path: a village with a
labyrinth of paths, or rather a neighbourhood of houses! It is
inhabited by fishermen and boat-makers, the Blankanese boats being in
great request through the whole navigation of the Elbe. Here first we
saw the spires of Hamburg, and from hence, as far as Altona, the left
bank of the Elbe is uncommonly pleasing, considered as the vicinity of
an industrious and republican city--in that style of beauty, or rather
prettiness, that might tempt the citizen into the country, and yet
gratify the taste which he had acquired in the town. Summer-houses and
Chinese show-work are everywhere scattered along the high and green
banks; the boards of the farm-houses left unplastered and gaily
painted with green and yellow; and scarcely a tree not cut into shapes
and made to remind the human being of his own power and intelligence
instead of the wisdom of nature. Still, however, these are links of
connection between town and country, and far better than the
affectation of tastes and enjoyments for which men's habits have
disqualified them. Pass them by on Saturdays and Sundays with the
burghers of Hamburg smoking their pipes, the women and children
feasting in the alcoves of box and yew, and it becomes a nature of its
own. On Wednesday, four o'clock, we left the vessel, and passing with
trouble through the huge masses of shipping that seemed to choke the
wide Elbe from Altona upward, we were at length landed at the Boom
House, Hamburg.
LETTER II
To a lady.
RATZEBURG.
Meine liebe Freundinn,
See how natural the German comes from me, though I have not yet
been six weeks in the country!--almost as fluently as English from my
neighbour the Amtsschreiber, (or public secretary,) who as often as we
meet, though it should be half a dozen times in the same day, never
fails to greet me with--"---ddam your ploot unt eyes, my dearest
Englander! vhee goes it!"--which is certainly a proof of great
generosity on his part, these words being his whole stock of English.
I had, however, a better reason than the desire of displaying my
proficiency: for I wished to put you in good humour with a language,
from the acquirement of which I have promised myself much edification
and the means too of communicating a new pleasure to you and your
sister, during our winter readings. And how can I do this better than
by pointing out its gallant attention to the ladies? Our English
affix, ess, is, I believe, confined either to words derived from the
Latin, as actress, directress, etc., or from the French, as mistress,
duchess, and the like. But the German, inn, enables us to designate
the sex in every possible relation of life. Thus the Amtmann's lady is
the Frau Amtmanninn--the secretary's wife, (by the bye, the handsomest
woman I have yet seen in Germany,) is die allerliebste Frau
Amtsschreiberinn--the colonel's lady, die Frau Obristinn or
Colonellinn--and even the parson's wife, die Frau Pastorinn. But I am
especially pleased with their Freundinn, which, unlike the amica of
the Romans, is seldom used but in its best and purest sense. Now, I
know it will be said, that a friend is already something more than a
friend, when a man feels an anxiety to express to himself that this
friend is a female; but this I deny--in that sense at least in which
the objection will be made. I would hazard the impeachment of heresy,
rather than abandon my belief that there is a sex in our souls as well
as in their perishable garments; and he who does not feel it, never
truly loved a sister--nay, is not capable even of loving a wife as she
deserves to be loved, if she indeed be worthy of that holy name.
Now I know, my gentle friend, what you are murmuring to yourself--
"This is so like him! running away after the first bubble, that chance
has blown off from the surface of his fancy; when one is anxious to
learn where he is and what he has seen." Well then! that I am settled
at Ratzeburg, with my motives and the particulars of my journey
hither, will inform you. My first letter to him, with which doubtless
he has edified your whole fireside, left me safely landed at Hamburg
on the Elbe Stairs, at the Boom House. While standing on the stairs, I
was amused by the contents of the passage-boat. which crosses the
river once or twice a day from Hamburg to Haarburg. It was stowed
close with all people of all nations, in all sorts of dresses; the men
all with pipes in their mouths, and these pipes of all shapes and
fancies--straight and wreathed, simple and complex, long and short,
cane, clay, porcelain, wood, tin, silver, and ivory; most of them with
silver chains and silver bole-covers. Pipes and boots are the first
universal characteristic of the male Hamburgers that would strike the
eye of a raw traveller. But I forget my promise of journalizing as
much as possible.--Therefore, Septr. 19th Afternoon. My companion,
who, you recollect, speaks the French language with unusual propriety,
had formed a kind of confidential acquaintance with the emigrant, who
appeared to be a man of sense, and whose manners were those of a
perfect gentleman. He seemed about fifty or rather more. Whatever is
unpleasant in French manners from excess in the degree, had been
softened down by age or affliction; and all that is delightful in the
kind, alacrity and delicacy in little attentions, etc., remained, and
without bustle, gesticulation, or disproportionate eagerness. His
demeanour exhibited the minute philanthropy of a polished Frenchman,
tempered by the sobriety of the English character disunited from its
reserve. There is something strangely attractive in the character of a
gentleman when you apply the word emphatically, and yet in that sense
of the term which it is more easy to feel than to define. It neither
includes the possession of high moral excellence, nor of necessity
even the ornamental graces of manner. I have now in my mind's eye a
person whose life would scarcely stand scrutiny even in the court of
honour, much less in that of conscience; and his manners, if nicely
observed, would of the two excite an idea of awkwardness rather than
of elegance: and yet every one who conversed with him felt and
acknowledged the gentleman. The secret of the matter, I believe to be
this--we feel the gentlemanly character present to us, whenever, under
all the circumstances of social intercourse, the trivial not less than
the important, through the whole detail of his manners and deportment,
and with the ease of a habit, a person shows respect to others in such
a way, as at the same time implies in his own feelings an habitual and
assured anticipation of reciprocal respect from them to himself. In
short, the gentlemanly character arises out of the feeling of Equality
acting, as a Habit, yet flexible to the varieties of Rank, and
modified without being disturbed or superseded by them. This
description will perhaps explain to you the ground of one of your own
remarks, as I was englishing to you the interesting dialogue
concerning the causes of the corruption of eloquence. "What perfect
gentlemen these old Romans must have been! I was impressed, I
remember, with the same feeling at the time I was reading a
translation of Cicero's philosophical dialogues and of his epistolary
correspondence: while in Pliny's Letters I seemed to have a different
feeling--he gave me the notion of a very fine gentleman." You uttered
the words as if you had felt that the adjunct had injured the
substance and the increased degree altered the kind. Pliny was the
courtier of an absolute monarch--Cicero an aristocratic republican.
For this reason the character of gentleman, in the sense to which I
have confined it, is frequent in England, rare in France, and found,
where it is found, in age or the latest period of manhood; while in
Germany the character is almost unknown. But the proper antipode of a
gentleman is to be sought for among the Anglo-American democrats.
I owe this digression, as an act of justice to this amiable Frenchman,
and of humiliation for myself. For in a little controversy between us
on the subject of French poetry, he made me feel my own ill behaviour
by the silent reproof of contrast, and when I afterwards apologized to
him for the warmth of my language, he answered me with a cheerful
expression of surprise, and an immediate compliment, which a gentleman
might both make with dignity and receive with pleasure. I was pleased
therefore to find it agreed on, that we should, if possible, take up
our quarters in the same house. My friend went with him in search of
an hotel, and I to deliver my letters of recommendation.
I walked onward at a brisk pace, enlivened not so much by anything I
actually saw, as by the confused sense that I was for the first time
in my life on the continent of our planet. I seemed to myself like a
liberated bird that had been hatched in an aviary, who now, after his
first soar of freedom, poises himself in the upper air. Very naturally
I began to wonder at all things, some for being so like and some for
being so unlike the things in England--Dutch women with large umbrella
hats shooting out half a yard before them, with a prodigal plumpness
of petticoat behind--the women of Hamburg with caps plaited on the
caul with silver, or gold, or both, bordered round with stiffened
lace, which stood out before their eyes, but not lower, so that the
eyes sparkled through it--the Hanoverian with the fore part of the
head bare, then a stiff lace standing up like a wall perpendicular on
the cap, and the cap behind tailed with an enormous quantity of ribbon
which lies or tosses on the back:
"Their visnomies seem'd like a goodly banner
Spread in defiance of all enemies."
The ladies all in English dresses, all rouged, and all with bad teeth:
which you notice instantly from their contrast to the almost animal,
too glossy mother-of-pearl whiteness and the regularity of the teeth
of the laughing, loud-talking country-women and servant-girls, who
with their clean white stockings and with slippers without heel
quarters, tripped along the dirty streets, as if they were secured by
a charm from the dirt: with a lightness too, which surprised me, who
had always considered it as one of the annoyances of sleeping in an
Inn, that I had to clatter up stairs in a pair of them. The streets
narrow; to my English nose sufficiently offensive, and explaining at
first sight the universal use of boots; without any appropriate path
for the foot-passengers; the gable ends of the houses all towards the
street, some in the ordinary triangular form and entire as the
botanists say; but the greater number notched and scolloped with more
than Chinese grotesqueness. Above all, I was struck with the profusion
of windows, so large and so many, that the houses look all glass. Mr.
Pitt's window tax, with its pretty little additionals sprouting out
from it like young toadlets on the back of a Surinam toad, would
certainly improve the appearance of the Hamburg houses, which have a
slight summer look, not in keeping with their size, incongruous with
the climate, and precluding that feeling of retirement and self-
content, which one wishes to associate with a house in a noisy city.
But a conflagration would, I fear, be the previous requisite to the
production of any architectural beauty in Hamburg: for verily it is a
filthy town. I moved on and crossed a multitude of ugly bridges, with
huge black deformities of water wheels close by them. The water
intersects the city everywhere, and would have furnished to the genius
of Italy the capabilities of all that is most beautiful and
magnificent in architecture. It might have been the rival of Venice,
and it is huddle and ugliness, stench and stagnation. The Jungfer
Stieg, (that is, Young Ladies' Walk), to which my letters directed me,
made an exception. It was a walk or promenade planted with treble rows
of elm trees, which, being yearly pruned and cropped, remain slim and
dwarf-like. This walk occupies one side of a square piece of water,
with many swans on it perfectly tame, and, moving among the swans,
shewy pleasure-boats with ladies in them, rowed by their husbands or
lovers.------
(Some paragraphs have been here omitted.)------thus embarrassed by sad
and solemn politeness still more than by broken English, it sounded
like the voice of an old friend when I heard the emigrant's servant
inquiring after me. He had come for the purpose of guiding me to our
hotel. Through streets and streets I pressed on as happy as a child,
and, I doubt not, with a childish expression of wonderment in my busy
eyes, amused by the wicker waggons with movable benches across them,
one behind the other, (these were the hackney coaches amused by the
sign-boards of the shops, on which all the articles sold within are
painted, and that too very exactly, though in a grotesque confusion,
(a useful substitute for language in this great mart of nations
amused with the incessant tinkling of the shop and house door bells,
the bell hanging over each door and struck with a small iron rod at
every entrance and exit;--and finally, amused by looking in at the
windows, as I passed along; the ladies and gentlemen drinking coffee
or playing cards, and the gentlemen all smoking. I wished myself a
painter, that I might have sent you a sketch of one of the card
parties. The long pipe of one gentleman rested on the table, its bole
half a yard from his mouth, fuming like a censer by the fish-pool--the
other gentleman, who was dealing the cards, and of course had both
hands employed, held his pipe in his teeth, which hanging down between
his knees, smoked beside his ancles. Hogarth himself never drew a more
ludicrous distortion both of attitude and physiognomy, than this
effort occasioned nor was there wanting beside it one of those
beautiful female faces which the same Hogarth, in whom the satirist
never extinguished that love of beauty which belonged to him as a
poet, so often and so gladly introduces, as the central figure, in a
crowd of humorous deformities, which figures, (such is the power of
true genius!) neither acts, nor is meant to act as a contrast; but
diffuses through all, and over each of the group, a spirit of
reconciliation and human kindness; and, even when the attention is no
longer consciously directed to the cause of this feeling, still blends
its tenderness with our laughter: and thus prevents the instructive
merriment at the whims of nature or the foibles or humours of our
fellow-men from degenerating into the heart-poison of contempt or
hatred.
Our hotel DIE WILDE MAN, (the sign of which was no bad likeness of the
landlord, who had ingrafted on a very grim face a restless grin, that
was at every man's service, and which indeed, like an actor rehearsing
to himself, he kept playing in expectation of an occasion for it)--
neither our hotel, I say, nor its landlord were of the genteelest
class. But it has one great advantage for a stranger, by being in the
market place, and the next neighbour of the huge church of St.
Nicholas: a church with shops and houses built up against it, out of
which wens and warts its high massy steeple rises, necklaced near the
top with a round of large gilt balls. A better pole-star could
scarcely be desired. Long shall I retain the impression made on my
mind by the awful echo, so loud and long and tremulous, of the deep-
toned clock within this church, which awoke me at two in the morning
from a distressful dream, occasioned, I believe, by the feather bed,
which is used here instead of bed-clothes. I will rather carry my
blanket about with me like a wild Indian, than submit to this
abominable custom. Our emigrant acquaintance was, we found, an
intimate friend of the celebrated Abbe de Lisle: and from the large
fortune which he possessed under the monarchy, had rescued sufficient
not only for independence, but for respectability. He had offended
some of his fellow-emigrants in London, whom he had obliged with
considerable sums, by a refusal to make further advances, and in
consequence of their intrigues had received an order to quit the
kingdom. I thought it one proof of his innocence, that he attached no
blame either to the alien act, or to the minister who had exerted it
against him; and a still greater, that he spoke of London with
rapture, and of his favourite niece, who had married and settled in
England, with all the fervour and all the pride of a fond parent. A
man sent by force out of a country, obliged to sell out of the stocks
at a great loss, and exiled from those pleasures and that style of
society which habit had rendered essential to his happiness, whose
predominant feelings were yet all of a private nature, resentment for
friendship outraged, and anguish for domestic affections interrupted--
such a man, I think, I could dare warrant guiltless of espionnage in
any service, most of all in that of the present French Directory. He
spoke with ecstasy of Paris under the Monarchy: and yet the particular
facts, which made up his description, left as deep a conviction on my
mind, of French worthlessness, as his own tale had done of emigrant
ingratitude. Since my arrival in Germany, I have not met a single
person, even among those who abhor the Revolution, that spoke with
favour, or even charity of the French emigrants. Though the belief of
their influence in the organization of this disastrous war (from the
horrors of which, North Germany deems itself only reprieved, not
secured,) may have some share in the general aversion with which they
are regarded: yet I am deeply persuaded that the far greater part is
owing to their own profligacy, to their treachery and hardheartedness
to each other, and the domestic misery or corrupt principles which so
many of them have carried into the families of their protectors. My
heart dilated with honest pride, as I recalled to mind the stern yet
amiable characters of the English patriots, who sought refuge on the
Continent at the Restoration! O let not our civil war under the first
Charles be paralleled with the French Revolution! In the former, the
character overflowed from excess of principle; in the latter from the
fermentation of the dregs! The former, was a civil war between the
virtues and virtuous prejudices of the two parties; the latter,
between the vices. The Venetian glass of the French monarchy shivered
and flew asunder with the working of a double poison.
Sept. 20th.  I was introduced to Mr. Klopstock, the brother of the
poet, who again introduced me to Professor Ebeling, an intelligent and
lively man, though deaf: so deaf, indeed, that it was a painful effort
to talk with him, as we were obliged to drop our pearls into a huge
ear-trumpet. From this courteous and kind-hearted man of letters, (I
hope, the German literati in general may resemble this first
specimen), I heard a tolerable Italian pun, and an interesting
anecdote. When Buonaparte was in Italy, having been irritated by some
instance of perfidy, he said in a loud and vehement tone, in a public
company--"'tis a true proverb, gli Italiani tutti ladroni"--(that is,
the Italians all plunderers.) A lady had the courage to reply, "Non
tutti; ma BUONA PARTE," (not all, but a good part, or Buonaparte.)
This, I confess, sounded to my ears, as one of the many good things
that might have been said. The anecdote is more valuable; for it
instances the ways and means of French insinuation. Hoche had received
much information concerning the face of the country from a map of
unusual fulness and accuracy, the maker of which, he heard, resided at
Duesseldorf. At the storming of Duesseldorf by the French army, Hoche
previously ordered, that the house and property of this man should be
preserved, and intrusted the performance of the order to an officer on
whose troop he could rely. Finding afterwards, that the man had
escaped before the storming commenced, Hoche exclaimed, "HE had no
reason to flee! It is for such men, not against them, that the French
nation makes war, and consents to shed the blood of its children." You
remember Milton's sonnet--
"The great Emathian conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus when temple and tower
Went to the ground"------
Now though the Duesseldorf map-maker may stand in the same relation to
the Theban bard, as the snail, that marks its path by lines of film on
the wall it creeps over, to the eagle that soars sunward and beats the
tempest with its wings; it does not therefore follow, that the Jacobin
of France may not be as valiant a general and as good a politician, as
the madman of Macedon.
From Professor Ebeling's Mr. Klopstock accompanied my friend and me to
his own house, where I saw a fine bust of his brother. There was a
solemn and heavy greatness in his countenance, which corresponded to
my preconceptions of his style and genius.--I saw there, likewise, a
very fine portrait of Lessing, whose works are at present the chief
object of my admiration. His eyes were uncommonly like mine, if
anything, rather larger and more prominent. But the lower part of his
face and his nose--O what an exquisite expression of elegance and
sensibility!--There appeared no depth, weight, or comprehensiveness in
the forehead.--The whole face seemed to say, that Lessing was a man of
quick and voluptuous feelings; of an active but light fancy; acute;
yet acute not in the observation of actual life, but in the
arrangements and management of the ideal world, that is, in taste, and
in metaphysics. I assure you, that I wrote these very words in my
memorandum-book with the portrait before my eyes, and when I knew
nothing of Lessing but his name, and that he was a German writer of
eminence.
We consumed two hours and more over a bad dinner, at the table d'hote.
"Patience at a German ordinary, smiling at time." The Germans are the
worst cooks in Europe. There is placed for every two persons a bottle
of common wine--Rhenish and Claret alternately; but in the houses of
the opulent, during the many and long intervals of the dinner, the
servants hand round glasses of richer wines. At the Lord of Culpin's
they came in this order. Burgundy--Madeira--Port--Frontiniac--
Pacchiaretti--Old Hock--Mountain--Champagne--Hock again--Bishop, and
lastly, Punch. A tolerable quantum, methinks! The last dish at the
ordinary, viz. slices of roast pork, (for all the larger dishes are
brought in, cut up, and first handed round and then set on the table,)
with stewed prunes and other sweet fruits, and this followed by cheese
and butter, with plates of apples, reminded me of Shakespeare [76],
and Shakespeare put it in my head to go to the French comedy.
Bless me! why it is worse than our modern English plays! The first act
informed me, that a court martial is to be held on a Count Vatron, who
had drawn his sword on the Colonel, his brother-in-law. The officers
plead in his behalf--in vain! His wife, the Colonel's sister, pleads
with most tempestuous agonies--in vain! She falls into hysterics and
faints away, to the dropping of the inner curtain! In the second act
sentence of death is passed on the Count--his wife, as frantic and
hysterical as before: more so (good industrious creature!) she could
not be. The third and last act, the wife still frantic, very frantic
indeed!--the soldiers just about to fire, the handkerchief actually
dropped; when reprieve! reprieve! is heard from behind the scenes: and
in comes Prince Somebody, pardons the Count, and the wife is still
frantic, only with joy; that was all!
O dear lady! this is one of the cases, in which laughter is followed
by melancholy: for such is the kind of drama, which is now substituted
every where for Shakespeare and Racine. You well know, that I offer
violence to my own feelings in joining these names. But however meanly
I may think of the French serious drama, even in its most perfect
specimens; and with whatever right I may complain of its perpetual
falsification of the language, and of the connections and transitions
of thought, which Nature has appropriated to states of passion; still,
however, the French tragedies are consistent works of art, and the
offspring of great intellectual power. Preserving a fitness in the
parts, and a harmony in the whole, they form a nature of their own,
though a false nature. Still they excite the minds of the spectators
to active thought, to a striving after ideal excellence. The soul is
not stupefied into mere sensations by a worthless sympathy with our
own ordinary sufferings, or an empty curiosity for the surprising,
undignified by the language or the situations which awe and delight
the imagination. What, (I would ask of the crowd, that press forward
to the pantomimic tragedies and weeping comedies of Kotzebue and his
imitators), what are you seeking? Is it comedy? But in the comedy of
Shakespeare and Moliere the more accurate my knowledge, and the more
profoundly I think, the greater is the satisfaction that mingles with
my laughter. For though the qualities which these writers pourtray are
ludicrous indeed, either from the kind or the excess, and exquisitely
ludicrous, yet are they the natural growth of the human mind and such
as, with more or less change in the drapery, I can apply to my own
heart, or at least to whole classes of my fellow-creatures. How often
are not the moralist and the metaphysician obliged for the happiest
illustrations of general truths and the subordinate laws of human
thought and action to quotations, not only from the tragic characters,
but equally from the Jaques, Falstaff, and even from the fools and
clowns of Shakespeare, or from the Miser, Hypochondriast, and
Hypocrite, of Moliere! Say not, that I am recommending abstractions:
for these class-characteristics, which constitute the instructiveness
of a character, are so modified and particularized in each person of
the Shakesperian Drama, that life itself does not excite more
distinctly that sense of individuality which belongs to real
existence. Paradoxical as it may sound, one of the essential
properties of geometry is not less essential to dramatic excellence,
and, (if I may mention his name without pedantry to a lady,) Aristotle
has accordingly required of the poet an involution of the universal in
the individual. The chief differences are, that in geometry it is the
universal truth itself, which is uppermost in the consciousness, in
poetry the individual form in which the truth is clothed. With the
ancients, and not less with the elder dramatists of England and
France, both comedy and tragedy were considered as kinds of poetry.
They neither sought in comedy to make us laugh merely, much less to
make us laugh by wry faces, accidents of jargon, slang phrases for the
day, or the clothing of commonplace morals in metaphors drawn from the
shops or mechanic occupations of their characters; nor did they
condescend in tragedy to wheedle away the applause of the spectators,
by representing before them fac-similes of their own mean selves in
all their existing meanness, or to work on their sluggish sympathies
by a pathos not a whit more respectable than the maudlin tears of
drunkenness. Their tragic scenes were meant to affect us indeed, but
within the bounds of pleasure, and in union with the activity both of
our understanding and imagination. They wished to transport the mind
to a sense of its possible greatness, and to implant the germs of that
greatness during the temporary oblivion of the worthless "thing, we
are" and of the peculiar state, in which each man happens to be;
suspending our individual recollections and lulling them to sleep amid
the music of nobler thoughts.
Hold!--(methinks I hear the spokesman of the crowd reply, and we will
listen to him. I am the plaintiff, and he the defendant.)
DEFENDANT.  Hold! are not our modern sentimental plays filled with the
best Christian morality?
PLAINTIFF.  Yes! just as much of it, and just that part of it, which
you can exercise without a single Christian virtue--without a single
sacrifice that is really painful to you!--just as much as flatters
you, sends you away pleased with your own hearts, and quite reconciled
to your vices, which can never be thought very ill of, when they keep
such good company, and walk hand in hand with so much compassion and
generosity; adulation so loathsome, that you would spit in the man's
face who dared offer it to you in a private company, unless you
interpreted it as insulting irony, you appropriate with infinite
satisfaction, when you share the garbage with the whole stye, and
gobble it out of a common trough. No Caesar must pace your boards--no
Antony, no royal Dane, no Orestes, no Andromache!
D.  No: or as few of them as possible. What has a plain citizen of
London, or Hamburg, to do with your kings and queens, and your old
school-boy Pagan heroes? Besides, every body knows the stories; and
what curiosity can we feel----
P.  What, Sir, not for the manner?--not for the delightful language of
the poet?--not for the situations, the action and reaction of the
passions?
D.  You are hasty, Sir! the only curiosity, we feel, is in the story:
and how can we be anxious concerning the end of a play, or be
surprised by it, when we know how it will turn out?
P.  Your pardon, for having interrupted you! we now understand each
other. You seek then, in a tragedy, which wise men of old held for the
highest effort of human genius, the same gratification, as that you
receive from a new novel, the last German romance, and other dainties
of the day, which can be enjoyed but once. If you carry these feelings
to the sister art of Painting, Michael Angelo's Sixtine Chapel, and
the Scripture Gallery of Raphael can expect no favour from you. You
know all about them beforehand; and are, doubtless, more familiar with
the subjects of those paintings, than with the tragic tales of the
historic or heroic ages. There is a consistency, therefore, in your
preference of contemporary writers: for the great men of former times,
those at least who were deemed great by our ancestors, sought so
little to gratify this kind of curiosity, that they seemed to have
regarded the story in a not much higher light, than the painter
regards his canvass: as that on, not by, which they were to display
their appropriate excellence. No work, resembling a tale or romance,
can well show less variety of invention in the incidents, or less
anxiety in weaving them together, than the DON QUIXOTE of Cervantes.
Its admirers feel the disposition to go back and re-peruse some
preceding chapter, at least ten times for once that they find any
eagerness to hurry forwards: or open the book on those parts which
they best recollect, even as we visit those friends oftenest whom we
love most, and with whose characters and actions we are the most
intimately acquainted. In the divine Ariosto, (as his countrymen call
this, their darling poet,) I question whether there be a single tale
of his own invention, or the elements of which, were not familiar to
the readers of "old romance." I will pass by the ancient Greeks, who
thought it even necessary to the fable of a tragedy, that its
substance should be previously known. That there had been at least
fifty tragedies with the same title, would be one of the motives which
determined Sophocles and Euripides, in the choice of Electra as a
subject. But Milton--
D.  Aye Milton, indeed!--but do not Dr. Johnson and other great men
tell us, that nobody now reads Milton but as a task?
P.  So much the worse for them, of whom this can be truly said! But
why then do you pretend to admire Shakespeare? The greater part, if
not all, of his dramas were, as far as the names and the main
incidents are concerned, already stock plays. All the stories, at
least, on which they are built, pre-existed in the chronicles,
ballads, or translations of contemporary or preceding English writers.
Why, I repeat, do you pretend to admire Shakespeare? Is it, perhaps,
that you only pretend to admire him? However, as once for all, you
have dismissed the well-known events and personages of history, or the
epic muse, what have you taken in their stead? Whom has your tragic
muse armed with her bowl and dagger? the sentimental muse I should
have said, whom you have seated in the throne of tragedy? What heroes
has she reared on her buskins?
D.  O! our good friends and next-door neighbours--honest tradesmen,
valiant tars, high-spirited half-pay officers, philanthropic Jews,
virtuous courtezans, tender-hearted braziers, and sentimental rat-
catchers!--(a little bluff or so, but all our very generous, tender-
hearted characters are a little rude or misanthropic, and all our
misanthropes very tender-hearted.)
P.  But I pray you, friend, in what actions great or interesting, can
such men be engaged?
D.  They give away a great deal of money; find rich dowries for young
men and maidens who have all other good qualities; they brow-beat
lords, baronets, and justices of the peace, (for they are as bold as
Hector!)--they rescue stage coaches at the instant they are falling
down precipices; carry away infants in the sight of opposing armies;
and some of our performers act a muscular able-bodied man to such
perfection, that our dramatic poets, who always have the actors in
their eye, seldom fail to make their favourite male character as
strong as Samson. And then they take such prodigious leaps!! And what
is done on the stage is more striking even than what is acted. I once
remember such a deafening explosion, that I could not hear a word of
the play for half an act after it: and a little real gunpowder being
set fire to at the same time, and smelt by all the spectators, the
naturalness of the scene was quite astonishing!
P.  But how can you connect with such men and such actions that
dependence of thousands on the fate of one, which gives so lofty an
interest to the personages of Shakespeare, and the Greek Tragedians?
How can you connect with them that sublimest of all feelings, the
power of destiny and the controlling might of heaven, which seems to
elevate the characters which sink beneath its irresistible blow?
D.  O mere fancies! We seek and find on the present stage our own
wants and passions, our own vexations, losses, and embarrassments.
P.  It is your own poor pettifogging nature then, which you desire to
have represented before you?--not human nature in its height and
vigour? But surely you might find the former with all its joys and
sorrows, more conveniently in your own houses and parishes.
D.  True! but here comes a difference. Fortune is blind, but the poet
has his eyes open, and is besides as complaisant as fortune is
capricious. He makes every thing turn out exactly as we would wish it.
He gratifies us by representing those as hateful or contemptible whom
we hate and wish to despise.
P.  (aside.) That is, he gratifies your envy by libelling your
superiors.
D.  He makes all those precise moralists, who affect to be better than
their neighbours, turn out at last abject hypocrites, traitors, and
hard-hearted villains; and your men of spirit, who take their girl and
their glass with equal freedom, prove the true men of honour, and,
(that no part of the audience may remain unsatisfied,) reform in the
last scene, and leave no doubt in the minds of the ladies, that they
will make most faithful and excellent husbands: though it does seem a
pity, that they should be obliged to get rid of qualities which had
made them so interesting! Besides, the poor become rich all at once;
and in the final matrimonial choice the opulent and high-born
themselves are made to confess; that VIRTUE IS THE ONLY TRUE NOBILITY,
AND THAT A LOVELY WOMAN IS A DOWRY OF HERSELF!!
P.  Excellent! But you have forgotten those brilliant flashes of
loyalty, those patriotic praises of the King and Old England, which,
especially if conveyed in a metaphor from the ship or the shop, so
often solicit and so unfailingly receive the public plaudit! I give
your prudence credit for the omission. For the whole system of your
drama is a moral and intellectual Jacobinism of the most dangerous
kind, and those common-place rants of loyalty are no better than
hypocrisy in your playwrights, and your own sympathy with them a gross
self-delusion. For the whole secret of dramatic popularity consists
with you in the confusion and subversion of the natural order of
things, their causes and their effects; in the excitement of surprise,
by representing the qualities of liberality, refined feeling, and a
nice sense of honour, (those things rather which pass among you for
such), in persons and in classes of life where experience teaches us
least to expect them; and in rewarding with all the sympathies, that
are the dues of virtue, those criminals whom law, reason, and religion
have excommunicated from our esteem!
And now--good night! Truly! I might have written this last sheet
without having gone to Germany; but I fancied myself talking to you by
your own fireside, and can you think it a small pleasure to me to
forget now and then, that I am not there? Besides, you and my other
good friends have made up your minds to me as I am, and from whatever
place I write you will expect that part of my "Travels" will consist
of excursions in my own mind.
LETTER III
RATZEBURG.
No little fish thrown back again into the water, no fly unimprisoned
from a child's hand, could more buoyantly enjoy its element, than I
this clean and peaceful house, with this lovely view of the town,
groves, and lake of Ratzeburg, from the window at which I am writing.
My spirits certainly, and my health I fancied, were beginning to sink
under the noise, dirt, and unwholesome air of our Hamburg hotel. I
left it on Sunday, Sept. 23rd, with a letter of introduction from the
poet Klopstock, to the Amtmann of Ratzeburg. The Amtmann received me
with kindness, and introduced me to the worthy pastor, who agreed to
board and lodge me for any length of time not less than a month. The
vehicle, in which I took my place, was considerably larger than an
English stage-coach, to which it bore much the same proportion and
rude resemblance, that an elephant's ear does to the human. Its top
was composed of naked boards of different colours, and seeming to have
been parts of different wainscots. Instead of windows there were
leathern curtains with a little eye of glass in each: they perfectly
answered the purpose of keeping out the prospect and letting in the
cold. I could observe little therefore, but the inns and farmhouses at
which we stopped. They were all alike, except in size: one great room,
like a barn, with a hay-loft over it, the straw and hay dangling in
tufts through the boards which formed the ceiling of the room, and the
floor of the loft. From this room, which is paved like a street,
sometimes one, sometimes two smaller ones, are enclosed at one end.
These are commonly floored. In the large room the cattle, pigs,
poultry, men, women, and children, live in amicable community; yet
there was an appearance of cleanliness and rustic comfort. One of
these houses I measured. It was an hundred feet in length. The
apartments were taken off from one corner. Between these and the
stalls there was a small interspace, and here the breadth was forty-
eight feet, but thirty-two where the stalls were; of course, the
stalls were on each side eight feet in depth. The faces of the cows,
etc. were turned towards the room; indeed they were in it, so that
they had at least the comfort of seeing each other's faces. Stall-
feeding is universal in this part of Germany, a practice concerning
which the agriculturist and the poet are likely to entertain opposite
opinions--or at least, to have very different feelings. The woodwork
of these buildings on the outside is left unplastered, as in old
houses among us, and, being painted red and green, it cuts and
tesselates the buildings very gaily. From within three miles of
Hamburg almost to Molln, which is thirty miles from it, the country,
as far as I could see it, was a dead flat, only varied by woods. At
Molln it became more beautiful. I observed a small lake nearly
surrounded with groves, and a palace in view belonging to the King of
Great Britain, and inhabited by the Inspector of the Forests. We were
nearly the same time in travelling the thirty-five miles from Hamburg
to Ratzeburg, as we had been in going from London to Yarmouth, one
hundred and twenty-six miles.
The lake of Ratzeburg runs from south to north, about nine miles in
length, and varying in breadth from three miles to half a mile. About
a mile from the southernmost point it is divided into two, of course
very unequal, parts by an island, which, being connected by a bridge
and a narrow slip of land with the one shore, and by another bridge of
immense length with the other shore, forms a complete isthmus. On this
island the town of Ratzeburg is built. The pastor's house or vicarage,
together with the Amtmann's Amtsschreiber's, and the church, stands
near the summit of a hill, which slopes down to the slip of land and
the little bridge, from which, through a superb military gate, you
step into the island-town of Ratzeburg. This again is itself a little
hill, by ascending and descending which, you arrive at the long
bridge, and so to the other shore. The water to the south of the town
is called the Little Lake, which however almost engrosses the beauties
of the whole the shores being just often enough green and bare to give
the proper effect to the magnificent groves which occupy the greater
part of their circumference. From the turnings, windings, and
indentations of the shore, the views vary almost every ten steps, and
the whole has a sort of majestic beauty, a feminine grandeur. At the
north of the Great Lake, and peeping over it, I see the seven church
towers of Luebec, at the distance of twelve or thirteen miles, yet as
distinctly as if they were not three. The only defect in the view is,
that Ratzeburg is built entirely of red bricks, and all the houses
roofed with red tiles. To the eye, therefore, it presents a clump of
brick-dust red. Yet this evening, Oct. 10th, twenty minutes past five,
I saw the town perfectly beautiful, and the whole softened down into
complete keeping, if I may borrow a term from the painters. The sky
over Ratzeburg and all the east was a pure evening blue, while over
the west it was covered with light sandy clouds. Hence a deep red
light spread over the whole prospect, in undisturbed harmony with the
red town, the brown-red woods, and the yellow-red reeds on the skirts
of the lake. Two or three boats, with single persons paddling them,
floated up and down in the rich light, which not only was itself in
harmony with all, but brought all into harmony.
I should have told you that I went back to Hamburg on Thursday (Sept.
27th) to take leave of my friend, who travels southward, and returned
hither on the Monday following. From Empfelde, a village half way from
Ratzeburg, I walked to Hamburg through deep sandy roads and a dreary
flat: the soil everywhere white, hungry, and excessively pulverised;
but the approach to the city is pleasing. Light cool country houses,
which you can look through and see the gardens behind them, with
arbours and trellis work, and thick vegetable walls, and trees in
cloisters and piazzas, each house with neat rails before it, and green
seats within the rails. Every object, whether the growth of nature or
the work of man, was neat and artificial. It pleased me far better,
than if the houses and gardens, and pleasure fields, had been in a
nobler taste: for this nobler taste would have been mere apery. The
busy, anxious, money-loving merchant of Hamburg could only have
adopted, he could not have enjoyed the simplicity of nature. The mind
begins to love nature by imitating human conveniences in nature; but
this is a step in intellect, though a low one--and were it not so, yet
all around me spoke of innocent enjoyment and sensitive comforts, and
I entered with unscrupulous sympathy into the enjoyments and comforts
even of the busy, anxious, money-loving merchants of Hamburg. In this
charitable and catholic mood I reached the vast ramparts of the city.
These are huge green cushions, one rising above the other, with trees
growing in the interspaces, pledges and symbols of a long peace. Of my
return I have nothing worth communicating, except that I took extra
post, which answers to posting in England. These north German post
chaises are uncovered wicker carts. An English dust-cart is a piece of
finery, a chef d'auvre of mechanism, compared with them and the
horses!--a savage might use their ribs instead of his fingers for a
numeration table. Wherever we stopped, the postilion fed his cattle
with the brown rye bread of which he eat himself, all breakfasting
together; only the horses had no gin to their water, and the postilion
no water to his gin. Now and henceforward for subjects of more
interest to you, and to the objects in search of which I left you:
namely, the literati and literature of Germany.
Believe me, I walked with an impression of awe on my spirits, as W----
and myself accompanied Mr. Klopstock to the house of his brother, the
poet, which stands about a quarter of a mile from the city gate. It is
one of a row of little common-place summer-houses, (for so they
looked,) with four or five rows of young meagre elm trees before the
windows, beyond which is a green, and then a dead flat intersected
with several roads. Whatever beauty, (thought I,) may be before the
poet's eyes at present, it must certainly be purely of his own
creation. We waited a few minutes in a neat little parlour, ornamented
with the figures of two of the Muses and with prints, the subjects of
which were from Klopstock's odes. The poet entered. I was much
disappointed in his countenance, and recognised in it no likeness to
the bust. There was no comprehension in the forehead, no weight over
the eye-brows, no expression of peculiarity, moral or intellectual, on
the eyes, no massiveness in the general countenance. He is, if
anything, rather below the middle size. He wore very large half-boots,
which his legs filled, so fearfully were they swollen. However, though
neither W---- nor myself could discover any indications of sublimity
or enthusiasm in his physiognomy, we were both equally impressed with
his liveliness, and his kind and ready courtesy. He talked in French
with my friend, and with difficulty spoke a few sentences to me in
English. His enunciation was not in the least affected by the entire
want of his upper teeth. The conversation began on his part by the
expression of his rapture at the surrender of the detachment of French
troops under General Humbert. Their proceedings in Ireland with regard
to the committee which they had appointed, with the rest of their
organizing system, seemed to have given the poet great entertainment.
He then declared his sanguine belief in Nelson's victory, and
anticipated its confirmation with a keen and triumphant pleasure. His
words, tones, looks, implied the most vehement Anti-Gallicanism. The
subject changed to literature, and I inquired in Latin concerning the
history of German poetry and the elder German poets. To my great
astonishment he confessed, that he knew very little on the subject. He
had indeed occasionally read one or two of their elder writers, but
not so as to enable him to speak of their merits. Professor Ebeling,
he said, would probably give me every information of this kind: the
subject had not particularly excited his curiosity. He then talked of
Milton and Glover, and thought Glover's blank verse superior to
Milton's. W---- and myself expressed our surprise: and my friend gave
his definition and notion of harmonious verse, that it consisted, (the
English iambic blank verse above all,) in the apt arrangement of
pauses and cadences, and the sweep of whole paragraphs,
"with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out,"
and not in the even flow, much less in the prominence of antithetic
vigour, of single lines, which were indeed injurious to the total
effect, except where they were introduced for some specific purpose.
Klopstock assented, and said that he meant to confine Glover's
superiority to single lines. He told us that he had read Milton, in a
prose translation, when he was fourteen [77]. I understood him thus
myself, and W---- interpreted Klopstock's French as I had already
construed it. He appeared to know very little of Milton or indeed of
our poets in general. He spoke with great indignation of the English
prose translation of his MESSIAH. All the translations had been bad,
very bad--but the English was no translation--there were pages on
pages not in the original--and half the original was not to be found
in the translation. W---- told him that I intended to translate a few
of his odes as specimens of German lyrics--he then said to me in
English, "I wish you would render into English some select passages of
THE MESSIAH, and revenge me of your countryman!". It was the liveliest
thing which he produced in the whole conversation. He told us, that
his first ode was fifty years older than his last. I looked at him
with much emotion--I considered him as the venerable father of German
poetry; as a good man; as a Christian; seventy-four years old; with
legs enormously swollen; yet active, lively, cheerful, and kind, and
communicative. My eyes felt as if a tear were swelling into them. In
the portrait of Lessing there was a toupee periwig, which enormously
injured the effect of his physiognomy--Klopstock wore the same,
powdered and frizzled. By the bye, old men ought never to wear powder
--the contrast between a large snow-white wig and the colour of an old
man's skin is disgusting, and wrinkles in such a neighbourhood appear
only channels for dirt. It is an honour to poets and great men, that
you think of them as parts of nature; and anything of trick and
fashion wounds you in them, as much as when you see venerable yews
clipped into miserable peacocks.--The author of THE MESSIAH should
have worn his own grey hair.--His powder and periwig were to the eye
what Mr. Virgil would be to the ear.
Klopstock dwelt much on the superior power which the German language
possessed of concentrating meaning. He said, he had often translated
parts of Homer and Virgil, line by line, and a German line proved
always sufficient for a Greek or Latin one. In English you cannot do
this. I answered, that in English we could commonly render one Greek
heroic line in a line and a half of our common heroic metre, and I
conjectured that this line and a half would be found to contain no
more syllables than one German or Greek hexameter. He did not
understand me [78]: and I, who wished to hear his opinions, not to
correct them, was glad that he did not.
We now took our leave. At the beginning of the French Revolution
Klopstock wrote odes of congratulation. He received some honorary
presents from the French Republic, (a golden crown I believe), and,
like our Priestley, was invited to a seat in the legislature, which he
declined. But when French liberty metamorphosed herself into a fury,
he sent back these presents with a palinodia, declaring his abhorrence
of their proceedings: and since then he has been perhaps more than
enough an Anti-Gallican. I mean, that in his just contempt and
detestation of the crimes and follies of the Revolutionists, he
suffers himself to forget that the revolution itself is a process of
the Divine Providence; and that as the folly of men is the wisdom of
God, so are their iniquities instruments of his goodness. From
Klopstock's house we walked to the ramparts, discoursing together on
the poet and his conversation, till our attention was diverted to the
beauty and singularity of the sunset and its effects on the objects
around us. There were woods in the distance. A rich sandy light, (nay,
of a much deeper colour than sandy,) lay over these woods that
blackened in the blaze. Over that part of the woods which lay
immediately under the intenser light, a brassy mist floated. The trees
on the ramparts, and the people moving to and fro between them, were
cut or divided into equal segments of deep shade and brassy light. Had
the trees, and the bodies of the men and women, been divided into
equal segments by a rule or pair of compasses, the portions could not
have been more regular. All else was obscure. It was a fairy scene!--
and to increase its romantic character, among the moving objects, thus
divided into alternate shade and brightness, was a beautiful child,
dressed with the elegant simplicity of an English child, riding on a
stately goat, the saddle, bridle, and other accoutrements of which
were in a high degree costly and splendid. Before I quit the subject
of Hamburg, let me say, that I remained a day or two longer than I
otherwise should have done, in order to be present at the feast of St.
Michael, the patron saint of Hamburg, expecting to see the civic pomp
of this commercial Republic. I was however disappointed. There were no
processions, two or three sermons were preached to two or three old
women in two or three churches, and St. Michael and his patronage
wished elsewhere by the higher classes, all places of entertainment,
theatre, etc. being shut up on this day. In Hamburg, there seems to be
no religion at all; in Luebec it is confined to the women. The men
seemed determined to be divorced from their wives in the other world,
if they cannot in this. You will not easily conceive a more singular
sight, than is presented by the vast aisle of the principal church at
Luebec, seen from the organ loft: for being filled with female
servants and persons in the same class of life, and all their caps
having gold and silver cauls, it appears like a rich pavement of gold
and silver.
I will conclude this letter with the mere transcription of notes,
which my friend W---- made of his conversations with Klopstock, during
the interviews that took place after my departure. On these I shall
make but one remark at present, and that will appear a presumptuous
one, namely, that Klopstock's remarks on the venerable sage of
Koenigsburg are to my own knowledge injurious and mistaken; and so far
is it from being true, that his system is now given up, that
throughout the Universities of Germany there is not a single professor
who is not either a Kantean or a disciple of Fichte, whose system is
built on the Kantean, and presupposes its truth; or lastly who, though
an antagonist of Kant, as to his theoretical work, has not embraced
wholly or in part his moral system, and adopted part of his
nomenclature. "Klopstock having wished to see the CALVARY of
Cumberland, and asked what was thought of it in England, I went to
Remnant's (the English bookseller) where I procured the Analytical
Review, in which is contained the review of Cumberland's CALVARY. I
remembered to have read there some specimens of a blank verse
translation of THE MESSIAH. I had mentioned this to Klopstock, and he
had a great desire to see them. I walked over to his house and put the
book into his hands. On adverting to his own poem, he told me he began
THE MESSIAH when he was seventeen; he devoted three entire years to
the plan without composing a single line. He was greatly at a loss in
what manner to execute his work. There were no successful specimens of
versification in the German language before this time. The first three
cantos he wrote in a species of measured or numerous prose. This,
though done with much labour and some success, was far from satisfying
him. He had composed hexameters both Latin and Greek as a school
exercise, and there had been also in the German language attempts in
that style of versification. These were only of very moderate merit.--
One day he was struck with the idea of what could be done in this way
--he kept his room a whole day, even went without his dinner, and found
that in the evening he had written twenty-three hexameters, versifying
a part of what he had before written in prose. From that time, pleased
with his efforts, he composed no more in prose. Today he informed me
that he had finished his plan before he read Milton. He was enchanted
to see an author who before him had trod the same path. This is a
contradiction of what he said before. He did not wish to speak of his
poem to any one till it was finished: but some of his friends who had
seen what he had finished, tormented him till he had consented to
publish a few books in a journal. He was then, I believe, very young,
about twenty-five. The rest was printed at different periods, four
books at a time. The reception given to the first specimens was highly
flattering. He was nearly thirty years in finishing the whole poem,
but of these thirty years not more than two were employed in the
composition. He only composed in favourable moments; besides he had
other occupations. He values himself upon the plan of his odes, and
accuses the modern lyrical writers of gross deficiency in this
respect. I laid the same accusation against Horace: he would not hear
of it--but waived the discussion. He called Rousseau's ODE TO FORTUNE
a moral dissertation in stanzas. I spoke of Dryden's ST. CECILIA; but
he did not seem familiar with our writers. He wished to know the
distinctions between our dramatic and epic blank verse. He recommended
me to read his HERMANN before I read either THE MESSIAH or the odes.
He flattered himself that some time or other his dramatic poems would
be known in England. He had not heard of Cowper. He thought that Voss
in his translation of THE ILIAD had done violence to the idiom of the
Germans, and had sacrificed it to the Greeks, not remembering
sufficiently that each language has its particular spirit and genius.
He said Lessing was the first of their dramatic writers. I complained
of NATHAN as tedious. He said there was not enough of action in it;
but that Lessing was the most chaste of their writers. He spoke
favourably of Goethe; but said that his SORROWS OF WERTER was his best
work, better than any of his dramas: he preferred the first written to
the rest of Goethe's dramas. Schiller's ROBBERS he found so
extravagant, that he could not read it. I spoke of the scene of the
setting sun. He did not know it. He said Schiller could not live. He
thought DON CARLOS the best of his dramas; but said that the plot was
inextricable.--It was evident he knew little of Schiller's works:
indeed, he said, he could not read them. Buerger, he said, was a true
poet, and would live; that Schiller, on the contrary, must soon be
forgotten; that he gave himself up to the imitation of Shakespeare,
who often was extravagant, but that Schiller was ten thousand times
more so. He spoke very slightingly of Kotzebue, as an immoral author
in the first place, and next, as deficient in power. At Vienna, said
he, they are transported with him; but we do not reckon the people of
Vienna either the wisest or the wittiest people of Germany. He said
Wieland was a charming author, and a sovereign master of his own
language: that in this respect Goethe could not be compared to him,
nor indeed could any body else. He said that his fault was to be
fertile to exuberance. I told him the OBERON had just been translated
into English. He asked me if I was not delighted with the poem. I
answered, that I thought the story began to flag about the seventh or
eighth book; and observed, that it was unworthy of a man of genius to
make the interest of a long poem turn entirely upon animal
gratification. He seemed at first disposed to excuse this by saying,
that there are different subjects for poetry, and that poets are not
willing to be restricted in their choice. I answered, that I thought
the passion of love as well suited to the purposes of poetry as any
other passion; but that it was a cheap way of pleasing to fix the
attention of the reader through a long poem on the mere appetite.
Well! but, said he, you see, that such poems please every body. I
answered, that it was the province of a great poet to raise people up
to his own level, not to descend to theirs. He agreed, and confessed,
that on no account whatsoever would he have written a work like the
OBERON. He spoke in raptures of Wieland's style, and pointed out the
passage where Retzia is delivered of her child, as exquisitely
beautiful. I said that I did not perceive any very striking passages;
but that I made allowance for the imperfections of a translation. Of
the thefts of Wieland, he said, they were so exquisitely managed, that
the greatest writers might be proud to steal as he did. He considered
the books and fables of old romance writers in the light of the
ancient mythology, as a sort of common property, from which a man was
free to take whatever he could make a good use of. An Englishman had
presented him with the odes of Collins, which he had read with
pleasure. He knew little or nothing of Gray, except his ELEGY written
in a country CHURCH-YARD. He complained of the fool in LEAR. I
observed that he seemed to give a terrible wildness to the distress;
but still he complained. He asked whether it was not allowed, that
Pope had written rhymed poetry with more skill than any of our
writers--I said I preferred Dryden, because his couplets had greater
variety in their movement. He thought my reason a good one; but asked
whether the rhyme of Pope were not more exact. This question I
understood as applying to the final terminations, and observed to him
that I believed it was the case; but that I thought it was easy to
excuse some inaccuracy in the final sounds, if the general sweep of
the verse was superior. I told him that we were not so exact with
regard to the final endings of the lines as the French. He did not
seem to know that we made no distinction between masculine and
feminine (i.e. single or double,) rhymes: at least he put inquiries to
me on this subject. He seemed to think that no language could be so
far formed as that it might not be enriched by idioms borrowed from
another tongue. I said this was a very dangerous practice; and added,
that I thought Milton had often injured both his prose and verse by
taking this liberty too frequently. I recommended to him the prose
works of Dryden as models of pure and native English. I was treading
upon tender ground, as I have reason to suppose that he has himself
liberally indulged in the practice."
The same day I dined at Mr. Klopstock's, where I had the pleasure of a
third interview with the poet. We talked principally about indifferent
things. I asked him what he thought of Kant. He said that his
reputation was much on the decline in Germany. That for his own part
he was not surprised to find it so, as the works of Kant were to him
utterly incomprehensible--that he had often been pestered by the
Kanteans; but was rarely in the practice of arguing with them. His
custom was to produce the book, open it and point to a passage, and
beg they would explain it. This they ordinarily attempted to do by
substituting their own ideas. I do not want, I say, an explanation of
your own ideas, but of the passage which is before us. In this way I
generally bring the dispute to an immediate conclusion. He spoke of
Wolfe as the first Metaphysician they had in Germany. Wolfe had
followers; but they could hardly be called a sect, and luckily till
the appearance of Kant, about fifteen years ago, Germany had not been
pestered by any sect of philosophers whatsoever; but that each man had
separately pursued his inquiries uncontrolled by the dogmas of a
master. Kant had appeared ambitious to be the founder of a sect; that
he had succeeded: but that the Germans were now coming to their senses
again. That Nicolai and Engel had in different ways contributed to
disenchant the nation; but above all the incomprehensibility of the
philosopher and his philosophy. He seemed pleased to hear, that as yet
Kant's doctrines had not met with many admirers in England--did not
doubt but that we had too much wisdom to be duped by a writer who set
at defiance the common sense and common understandings of men. We
talked of tragedy. He seemed to rate highly the power of exciting
tears--I said that nothing was more easy than to deluge an audience,
that it was done every day by the meanest writers.
I must remind you, my friend, first, that these notes are not intended
as specimens of Klopstock's intellectual power, or even "colloquial
prowess," to judge of which by an accidental conversation, and this
with strangers, and those too foreigners, would be not only
unreasonable, but calumnious. Secondly, I attribute little other
interest to the remarks than what is derived from the celebrity of the
person who made them. Lastly, if you ask me, whether I have read THE
MESSIAH, and what I think of it? I answer--as yet the first four books
only: and as to my opinion--(the reasons of which hereafter)--you may
guess it from what I could not help muttering to myself, when the good
pastor this morning told me, that Klopstock was the German Milton--"a
very German Milton indeed!!!"
Heaven preserve you, and                         S. T. COLERIDGE.

[Here ends chapter 22.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

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