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Walter Pater (1839-1894)

Wordsworth (1874)

{{Page 37}} {{Chapter 2}}

WORDSWORTH

¶1
§1 SOME English critics at the beginning of the present century had a great deal to say concerning a distinction, of much importance, as they thought, in the true estimate of poetry, between the Fancy, and another more powerful faculty -- the Imagination. §2 This metaphysical distinction, borrowed originally from the writings of German philosophers, and perhaps not always clearly apprehended by those who talked of it, involved a far deeper and more vital distinction, with which indeed all true criticism more or less directly has to do, the distinction, namely, between higher and lower degrees of intensity in the poet's perception of his subject and in his concentration of himself upon his work. §3 Of those who dwelt upon the metaphysical distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination, it was Wordsworth who made the most of it, assuming it as the basis for the final classification of his poetical writings ; and it is in these writings that the deeper and more {{Page 38}} vital distinction, which, as I have said, underlies the metaphysical distinction, is most needed, and may best be illustrated. §4

¶2
§5 For nowhere is there so perplexed a mixture as in Wordsworth's own poetry, of work touched with intense and individual power, with work of almost no character at all. §6 He has much conventional sentiment, and some of that insincere poetic diction, against which his most serious critical efforts were directed : the reaction in his political ideas, consequent on the excesses of 1795, makes him, at times, a mere declaimer on moral and social topics ; and he seems, sometimes, to force an unwilling pen, and write by rule. §7 By making the most of these blemishes it is possible to obscure the true ęsthetic value of his work, just as his life also, a life of much quiet delicacy and independence, might easily be placed in a false focus, and made to appear a somewhat tame theme in illustration of the more obvious parochial virtues. §8 And those who wish to understand his influence, and experience his peculiar savour, must bear with patience the presence of an alien element in Wordsworth's work, which never coalesced with what is really delightful in it, nor underwent his special power. §9 Who that values his writings most has not felt the intrusion there, from time to time, of something tedious and prosaic ? §10 Of {{Page 39}} all poets equally great, he would gain most by a skilfully made anthology. §11 Such a selection would show, in truth, not so much what he was, or to himself or others seemed to be, as what, by the more energetic and fertile quality in his writings, he was ever tending to become. §12 And the mixture in his work, as it actually stands, is so perplexed, that one fears to miss the least promising composition even, lest some precious morsel should be lying hidden within -- the few perfect lines, the phrase, the single word perhaps, to which he often works up mechanically through a poem, almost the whole of which may be tame enough. §13 He who thought that in all creative work the larger part was given passively, to the recipient mind, who waited so dutifully upon the gift, to whom so large a measure was sometimes given, had his times also of desertion and relapse ; and he has permitted the impress of these too to remain in his work. §14 And this duality there -- the fitfulness with which the higher qualities manifest themselves in it, gives the effect in his poetry of a power not altogether his own, or under his control, which comes and goes when it will, lifting or lowering a matter, poor in itself ; so that that old fancy which made the poet's art an enthusiasm, a form of divine possession, seems almost literally true of him.

{{Page 40}}

¶3
§15 This constant suggestion of an absolute duality between higher and lower moods, and the work done in them, stimulating one always to look below the surface, makes the reading of Wordsworth an excellent sort of training towards the things of art and poetry. §16 It begets in those, who, coming across him in youth, can bear him at all, a habit of reading between the lines, a faith in the effect of concentration and collectedness of mind in the right appreciation of poetry, an expectation of things, in this order, coming to one by means of a right discipline of the temper as well as of the intellect. §17 He meets us with the promise that he has much, and something very peculiar, to give us, if we will follow a certain difficult way, and seems to have the secret of a special and privileged state of mind. §18 And those who have undergone his influence, and followed this difficult way, are like people who have passed through some initiation, a disciplina arcani, by submitting to which they become able constantly to distinguish in art, speech, feeling, manners, that which is organic, animated, expressive, from that which is only conventional, derivative, inexpressive.

¶4
§19 But although the necessity of selecting these precious morsels for oneself is an opportunity for the exercise of Wordsworth's peculiar influence, and induces a kind of just criticism and true estimate {{Page 41}} of it, yet the purely literary product would have been more excellent, had the writer himself purged away that alien element. §20 How perfect would have been the little treasury, shut between the covers of how thin a book ! §21 Let us suppose the desired separation made, the electric thread untwined, the golden pieces, great and small, lying apart together. * §22 What are the peculiarities of this residue ? §23 What special sense does Wordsworth exercise, and what instincts does he satisfy ? §24 What are the subjects and the motives which in him excite the imaginative faculty ? §25 What are the qualities in things and persons which he values, the impression and sense of which he can convey to others, in an extraordinary way ?

*§26 Since this essay was written, such selections have been made, with excellent taste, by Matthew Arnold and Professor Knight.

¶5
§27 An intimate consciousness of the expression of natural things, which weighs, listens, penetrates, where the earlier mind passed roughly by, is a large element in the complexion of modern poetry. §28 It has been remarked as a fact in mental history again and again. §29 It reveals itself in many forms ; but is strongest and most attractive in what is strongest and most attractive in modern literature. §30 It is exemplified, almost equally, by writers as unlike each other as Senancour {{Page 42}} and Théophile Gautier : as a singular chapter in the history of the human mind, its growth might be traced from Rousseau to Chateaubriand, from Chateaubriand to Victor Hugo : it has doubtless some latent connexion with those pantheistic theories which locate an intelligent soul in material things, and have largely exercised men's minds in some modern systems of philosophy : it is traceable even in the graver writings of historians : it makes as much difference between ancient and modern landscape art, as there is between the rough masks of an early mosaic and a portrait by Reynolds or Gainsborough. §31 Of this new sense, the writings of Wordsworth are the central and elementary expression : he is more simply and entirely occupied with it than any other poet, though there are fine expressions of precisely the same thing in so different a poet as Shelley. §32 There was in his own character a certain contentment, a sort of inborn religious placidity, seldom found united with a sensibility so mobile as his, which was favourable to the quiet, habitual observation of inanimate, or imperfectly animate, existence. §33 His life of eighty years is divided by no very profoundly felt incidents : its changes are almost wholly inward, and it falls into broad, untroubled, perhaps somewhat monotonous spaces. §34 What it most resembles is the life of one of those early Italian or {{Page 43}} Flemish painters, who, just because their minds were full of heavenly visions, passed, some of them, the better part of sixty years in quiet, systematic industry. §35 This placid life matured a quite unusual sensibility, really innate in him, to the sights and sounds of the natural world -- the flower and its shadow on the stone, the cuckoo and its echo. §36 The poem of Resolution and Independence is a storehouse of such records : for its fulness of imagery it may be compared to Keats's Saint Agnes' Eve. §37 To read one of his longer pastoral poems for the first time, is like a day spent in a new country : the memory is crowded for a while with its precise and vivid incidents --

" The pliant harebell swinging in the breeze
On some grey rock " ; --

" The single sheep and the one blasted tree
And the bleak music from that old stone wall " ; --

" In the meadows and the lower ground
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn " ; --

" And that green corn all day is rustling in thine ears."

¶6
§38 Clear and delicate at once, as he is in the outlining of visible imagery, he is more clear and delicate still, and finely scrupulous, in the noting of sounds ; so that he conceives of noble sound as even moulding the human countenance to nobler types, and as something actually " profaned " by colour, by visible form, or image. §39 He has a power likewise of realising, and con-{{Page 44}} veying to the consciousness of the reader, abstract and elementary impressions -- silence, darkness, absolute motionlessness : or, again, the whole complex sentiment of a particular place, the abstract expression of desolation in the long white road, of peacefulness in a particular folding of the hills. §40 In the airy building of the brain, a special day or hour even, comes to have for him a sort of personal identity, a spirit or angel given to it, by which, for its exceptional insight, or the happy light upon it, it has a presence in one's history, and acts there, as a separate power or accomplishment ; and he has celebrated in many of his poems the " efficacious spirit," which, as he says, resides in these " particular spots " of time.

¶7
§41 It is to such a world, and to a world of congruous meditation thereon, that we see him retiring in his but lately published poem of The Recluse taking leave, without much count of costs, of the world of business, of action and ambition, as also of all that for the majority of mankind counts as sensuous enjoyment.*

*In Wordsworth's prefatory advertisement to the first edition of The Prelude, published in 1850, it is stated that that work was intended to be introductory to The Recluse; and that The Recluse , if completed, would have consisted of three parts. The second part is " The Excursion." The third part was only planned ; but the first book of the first part was left in manuscript by Wordsworth -- though in manuscript, it is said, in no great condition of forwardness{{Page 45}} for the printers. §42 This book, now for the first time printed in extenso (a very noble passage from it found place in that prose advertisement to The Excursion), is included in the latest edition of Wordsworth by |Mr.| John Morley. §43 It was well worth adding to the poet's great bequest to English literature. §44 A true student of his work, who has formulated for himself what he supposes to be the leading characteristics of Wordsworth's genius, will feel, we think, lively interest in testing them by the various fine passages in what is here presented for the first time. §45 Let the following serve for a sample : --

Thickets full of songsters, and the voice
Of lordly birds, an unexpected sound
Heard now and then from morn to latest eve,
Admonishing the man who walks below
Of solitude and silence in the sky : --
These have we, and a thousand nooks of earth
Have also these, but nowhere else is found,
Nowhere (or is it fancy ?) can be found
The one sensation that is here ; 'tis here,
Here as it found its way into my heart
In childhood, here as it abides by day,
By night, here only ; or in chosen minds
That take it with them hence, where'er they go.
-- 'Tis, but I cannot name it, 'tis the sense
Of majesty, and beauty, and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual spot,
This small abiding-place of many men,
A termination, and a last retreat,
A centre, come from whereso'er you will,
A whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself, and happy in itself,
Perfect contentment, Unity entire.

¶8
§46 And so it came about that this sense of a life in natural objects, which in most poetry is but a rhetorical artifice, is with Wordsworth the assertion of what for him is almost literal fact. §47 To him every natural{{Page 46}} object seemed to possess more or less of a moral or spiritual life, to be capable of a companionship with man, full of expression, of inexplicable affinities and delicacies of intercourse. §48 An emanation, a particular spirit, belonged, not to the moving leaves or water only, but to the distant peak of the hills arising suddenly, by some change of perspective, above the nearer horizon, to the passing space of light across the plain, to the lichened Druidic stone even, for a certain weird fellowship in it with the moods of men. §49 It was like a "survival," in the peculiar intellectual temperament of a man of letters at the end of the eighteenth century, of that primitive condition, which some philosophers have traced in the general history of human culture, wherein all outward objects alike, including even the works of men's hands, were believed to be endowed with animation, and the world was " full of souls " -- that mood in which the old Greek gods were first begotten, and which had many strange aftergrowths.

¶9
§50 In the early ages, this belief, delightful as its effects on poetry often are, was but the result of a crude intelligence. §51 But, in Wordsworth, such power of seeing life, such perception of a soul, in inanimate things, came of an exceptional susceptibility to the impressions of eye and ear, and was, in its essence, a kind of sensuousness. §52 At least, it is only in a tem-{{Page 47}} perament exceptionally susceptible on the sensuous side, that this sense of the expressiveness of outward things comes to be so large a part of life. §53 That he awakened " a sort of thought in sense," is Shelley's just estimate of this element in Wordsworth's poetry.

¶10
§54 And it was through nature, thus ennobled by a §55 semblance of passion and thought, that he approached the spectacle of human life. §56 Human life, indeed, is for him, at first, only an additional, accidental grace on an expressive landscape. §57 When he thought of man, it was of man as in the presence and under the influence of these effective natural objects, and linked to them by many associations. §58 The close connexion of man with natural objects, the habitual association of his thoughts and feelings with a particular spot of earth, has sometimes seemed to degrade those who are subject to its influence, as if it did but reinforce that physical connexion of our nature with the actual lime and clay of the soil, which is always drawing us nearer to our end. §59 But for Wordsworth, these influences tended to the dignity of human nature, because they tended to tranquillise it. §60 By raising nature to the level of human thought he gives it power and expression : he subdues man to the level of nature, and gives him thereby a certain breadth and coolness and solemnity. §61 The leechgatherer on the moor, the woman "stepping westward," {{Page 48}} are for him natural objects, almost in the same sense as the aged thorn, or the lichened rock on the heath. §62 In this sense the leader of the " Lake School," in spite of an earnest preoccupation with man, his thoughts, his destiny, is the poet of nature. §63 And of nature, after all, in its modesty. §64 The English lake country has, of course, its grandeurs. §65 But the peculiar function of Wordsworth's genius, as carrying in it a power to open out the soul of apparently little or familiar things, would have found its true test had he become the poet of Surrey, say ! and the prophet of its life. §66 The glories of Italy and Switzerland, though he did write a little about them, had too potent a material life of their own to serve greatly his poetic purpose.

¶11
§67 Religious sentiment, consecrating the affections and natural regrets of the human heart, above all, that pitiful awe and care for the perishing human clay, of which relic- worship is but the corruption, has always had much to do with localities, with the thoughts which attach themselves to actual scenes and places. §68 Now what is true of it everywhere, is truest of it in those secluded valleys where one generation after another maintains the same abiding-place ; and it was on this side, that Wordsworth apprehended religion most strongly. §69 Consisting, as it did so much, in- the recognition of local sanctities, in the habit of con-{{Page 49}} necting the stones and trees of a particular spot of earth with the great events of life, till the low walls, the green mounds, the half-obliterated epitaphs seemed full of voices, and a sort of natural oracles, the very religion of these people of the dales appeared but as another link between them and the earth, and was literally a religion of nature. §70 It tranquillised them by bringing them under the placid rule of traditional and narrowly localised observances. §71 " Grave livers," they seemed to him, under this aspect, with stately speech, and something of that natural dignity of manners, which underlies the highest courtesy.

¶12
§72 And, seeing man thus as a part of nature, elevated and solemnised in proportion as his daily life and occupations brought him into companionship with permanent natural objects, his very religion forming new links for him with the narrow limits of the valley, the low vaults of his church, the rough stones of his home, made intense for him now with profound sentiment, Wordsworth was able to appreciate passion in the lowly. §73 He chooses to depict people from humble life, because, being nearer to nature than others, they are on the whole more impassioned, certainly more direct in their expression of passion, than other men : it is for this direct expression of passion, that he values their humble words. §74 In much that he said in exaltation of rural life, he was but {{Page 50}} pleading indirectly for that sincerity, that perfect fidelity to one's own inward presentations, to the precise features of the picture within, without which any profound poetry is impossible. §75 It was not for their tameness, but for this passionate sincerity, that he chose incidents and situations from common life, " related in a selection of language really used by men." §76 He constantly endeavours to bring his language near to the real language of men : to the real language of men, however, not on the dead level of their ordinary intercourse, but in select moments of vivid sensation, when this language is winnowed and ennobled by excitement. §77 There are poets who have chosen rural life as their subject, for the sake of its passionless repose, and times when Wordsworth himself extols the mere calm and dispassionate survey of things as the highest aim of poetical culture. §78 But it was not for such passionless calm that he preferred the scenes of pastoral life ; and the meditative poet, sheltering himself, as it might seem, from the agitations of the outside world, is in reality only clearing the scene for the great exhibitions of emotion, and what he values most is the almost elementary expression of elementary feelings.

¶13
§79 And so he has much for those who value highly the concentrated presentment of passion, who appraise {{Page 51}} men and women by their susceptibility to it, and art and poetry as they afford the spectacle of it. §80 Breaking from time to time into the pensive spectacle of their daily toil, their occupations near to nature, come those great elementary feelings, lifting and solemnising their language and giving it a natural music. §81 The great, distinguishing passion came to Michael by the sheepfold, to Ruth by the wayside, adding these humble children of the furrow to the true aristocracy of passionate souls. §82 In this respect, Wordsworth's work resembles most that of George Sand, in those of her novels which depict country life. §83 With a penetrative pathos, which puts him in the same rank with the masters of the sentiment of pity in literature, with Meinhold and Victor Hugo, he collects all the traces of vivid excitement which were to be found in that pastoral world -- the girl who rung her father's knell ; the unborn infant feeling about its mother's heart ; the instinctive touches of children ; the sorrows of the wild creatures, even -- their home-sickness, their strange yearnings ; the tales of passionate regret that hang by a ruined farm-building, a heap of stones, a deserted sheepfold ; that gay, false, adventurous, outer world, which breaks in from time to time to bewilder and deflower those quiet homes ; not " passionate sorrow " only, for the overthrow of the soul's beauty, but {{Page 52}} the loss of, or carelessness for personal beauty even, in those whom men have wronged -- their pathetic wanness ; the sailor " who, in his heart, was half a shepherd on the stormy seas "; the wild woman teaching her child to pray for her betrayer ; incidents like the making of the shepherd's staff, or that of the young boy laying the first stone of the sheepfold ; -- all the pathetic episodes of their humble existence, their longing, their wonder at fortune, their poor pathetic pleasures, like the pleasures of children, won so hardly in the struggle for bare existence; §84 their yearning towards each other, in their darkened houses, or at their early toil. §85 A sort of biblical depth and solemnity hangs over this strange, new, passionate, pastoral world, of which he first raised the image, and the reflection of which some of our best modern fiction has caught from him.

¶14
§86 He pondered much over the philosophy of his poetry, and reading deeply in the history of his own mind, seems at times to have passed the borders of a world of strange speculations, inconsistent enough, had he cared to note such inconsistencies, with those traditional beliefs, which were otherwise the object of his devout acceptance. §87 Thinking of the high value he set upon customariness, upon all that is habitual, local, rooted in the ground, in matters of religious {{Page 53}} sentiment, you might sometimes regard him as one tethered down to a world, refined and peaceful indeed, but with no broad outlook, a world protected, but somewhat narrowed, by the influence of received ideas. §88 But he is at times also something very different from this, and something much bolder. §89 A chance expression is overheard and placed in a new connexion, the sudden memory of a thing long past occurs to him, a distant object is relieved for a while by a random gleam of light -- accidents turning up for a moment what lies below the surface of our immediate experience -- and he passes from the humble graves and lowly arches of " the little rock-like pile " of a Westmoreland church, on bold trains of speculative thought, and comes, from point to point, into strange contact with thoughts which have visited, from time to time, far more venturesome, perhaps errant, spirits.

¶15
§90 He had pondered deeply, for instance, on those strange reminiscences and forebodings, which seem to make our lives stretch before and behind us, beyond where we can see or touch anything, or trace the lines of connexion. §91 Following the soul, backwards and forwards, on these endless ways, his sense of man's dim, potential powers became a pledge to him, indeed, of a future life, but carried him back also to that mysterious notion of an earlier state of existence -- the fancy of the Platonists -- the old heresy of {{Page 54}} Origen. §92 It was in this mood that he conceived those oft-reiterated regrets for a half-ideal childhood, when the relics of Paradise still clung about the soul -- a childhood, as it seemed, full of the fruits of old age, lost for all, in a degree, in the passing away of the youth of the world, lost for each one, over again, in the passing away of actual youth. §93 It is this ideal childhood which he celebrates in his famous Ode on the Recollections of Childhood, and some other poems which may be grouped around it, such as the lines on Tintern Abbey, and something like what he describes was actually truer of himself than he seems to have understood ; for his own most delightful poems were really the instinctive productions of earlier life, and most surely for him, " the first diviner influence of this world " passed away, more and more completely, in his contact with experience.

¶16
§94 Sometimes as he dwelt upon those moments of profound, imaginative power, in which the outward object appears to take colour and expression, a new nature almost, from the prompting of the observant mind, the actual world would, as it were, dissolve and detach itself, flake by flake, and he himself seemed to be the creator, and when he would the destroyer, of the world in which he lived -- that old isolating thought of many a brain-sick mystic of ancient and modern times.

{{Page 55}}

¶17
§95 At other times, again, in those periods of intense susceptibility, in which he appeared to himself as but the passive recipient of external influences, he was attracted by the thought of a spirit of life in outward things, a single, all- pervading mind in them, of which man, and even the poet's imaginative energy, are but moments -- that old dream of the anima mundi, the mother of all things and their grave, in which some had desired to lose themselves, and others had become indifferent to the distinctions of good and evil. §96 It would come, sometimes, like the sign of the macrocosm to Faust in his cell : the network of man and nature was seen to be pervaded by a common, universal life : a new, bold thought lifted him above the furrow, above the green turf of the Westmoreland churchyard, to a world altogether different in its vagueness and vastness, and the narrow glen was full of the brooding power of one universal spirit.

¶18
§97 And so he has something, also, for those who feel the fascination of bold speculative ideas, who are really capable of rising upon them to conditions of poetical thought. §98 He uses them, indeed, always with a very fine apprehension of the limits within which alone philosophical imaginings have any place in true poetry ; and using them only for poetical purposes, {{Page 56}} is not too careful even to make them consistent with each other. §99 To him, theories which for other men bring a world of technical diction, brought perfect form and expression, as in those two lofty books of the Prelude, which describe the decay and the restoration of Imagination and Taste. §100 Skirting the borders of this world of bewildering heights and depths, he got but the first exciting influence of it, that joyful enthusiasm which great imaginative theories prompt, when the mind first comes to have an understanding of them ; and it is not under the influence of these thoughts that his poetry becomes tedious or loses its blitheness. §101 He keeps them, too, always within certain ethical bounds, so that no word of his could offend the simplest of those simple souls which are always the largest portion of mankind. §102 But it is, nevertheless, the contact of these thoughts, the speculative boldness in them, which constitutes, at least for some minds, the secret attraction of much of his best poetry -- the sudden passage from lowly thoughts and places to the majestic forms of philosophical imagination, the play of these forms over a world so different, enlarging so strangely the bounds of its humble churchyards, and breaking such a wild light on the graves of christened children.

¶19
§103 And these moods always brought with them faultless expression. §104 In regard to expression, as with {{Page 57}} feeling and thought, the duality of the higher and lower moods was absolute. §105 It belonged to the higher, the imaginative mood, and was the pledge of its reality, to bring the appropriate language with it. §106 In him, when the really poetical motive worked at all, it united, with absolute justice, the word and the idea ; each, in the imaginative flame, becoming inseparably one with the other, by that fusion of matter and form, which is the characteristic of the highest poetical expression. §107 His words are themselves thought and feeling ; not eloquent, or musical words merely, but that sort of creative language which carries the reality of what it depicts, directly, to the consciousness.

¶20
§108 The music of mere metre performs but a limited, yet a very peculiar and subtly ascertained function, in Wordsworth's poetry. §109 With him, metre is but an additional grace, accessory to that deeper music of words and sounds, that moving power, which they exercise in the nobler prose no less than in formal poetry. §110 It is a sedative to that excitement, an excitement sometimes almost painful, under which the language, alike of poetry and prose, attains a rhythmical power, independent of metrical combination, and dependent rather on some subtle adjustment of the elementary sounds of words themselves to the image or feeling they convey. §111 Yet {{Page 58}} some of his pieces, pieces prompted by a sort of half-playful mysticism, like the Daffodils and The Two April Mornings, are distinguished by a certain quaint gaiety of metre, and rival by their perfect execution, in this respect, similar pieces among our own Elizabethan, or contemporary French poetry. §112 And those who take up these poems after an interval of months, or years perhaps, may be surprised at finding how well old favourites wear, how their strange, inventive turns of diction or thought still send through them the old feeling of surprise. §113 Those who lived about Wordsworth were all great lovers of the older English literature, and oftentimes there came out in him a noticeable likeness to our earlier poets. §114 He quotes unconsciously, but with new power of meaning, a clause from one of Shakespeare's sonnets ; and, as with some other men's most famous work, the Ode on the Recollections of Childhood had its anticipator. * §115 He drew something too from the unconscious mysticism of the old English language itself, drawing out the inward significance of its racy idiom, and the not wholly unconscious poetry of the language used by the simplest people under strong excitement -- language, therefore, at its origin.

* §116 Henry Vaughan, in The Retreat.

¶21
§117 The office of the poet is not that of the moralist, {{Page 59}} and the first aim of Wordsworth's poetry is to give the reader a peculiar kind of pleasure. §118 But through his poetry, and through this pleasure in it, he does actually convey to the reader an extraordinary wisdom in the things of practice. §119 One lesson, if men must have lessons, he conveys more clearly than all, the supreme importance of contemplation in the conduct of life.

¶22
§120 Contemplation -- impassioned contemplation -- that, is with Wordsworth the end-in-itself, the perfect end. §121 We see the majority of mankind going most often to definite ends, lower or higher ends, as their own instincts may determine ; but the end may never be attained, and the means not be quite the right means, great ends and little ones alike being, for the most part, distant, and the ways to them, in this dim world, somewhat vague. §122 Meantime, to higher or lower ends, they move too often with something of a sad countenance, with hurried and ignoble gait, becoming, unconsciously, something like thorns, in their anxiety to bear grapes ; it being possible for people, in the pursuit of even great ends, to become themselves thin and impoverished in spirit and temper, thus diminishing the sum of perfection in the world, at its very sources. §123 We understand this when it is a question of mean, or of intensely selfish ends -- of Grandet, or Javert. §124 We think it bad {{Page 60}} morality to say that the end justifies the means, and we know how false to all higher conceptions of the religious life is the type of one who is ready to do evil that good may come. §125 We contrast with such dark, mistaken eagerness, a type like that of Saint Catherine of Siena, who made the means to her ends so attractive, that she has won for herself an undying place in the House Beautiful, not by her rectitude of soul only, but by its "fairness" -- by those quite different qualities which commend themselves to the poet and the artist.

¶23
§126 Yet, for most of us, the conception of means and ends covers the whole of life, and is the exclusive type or figure under which we represent our lives to ourselves. §127 Such a figure, reducing all things to machinery, though it has on its side the authority of that old Greek moralist who has fixed for succeeding generations the outline of the theory of right living, is too like a mere picture or description of men's lives as we actually find them, to be the basis of the higher ethics. §128 It covers the meanness of men's daily lives, and much of the dexterity and the vigour with which they pursue what may seem to them the good of themselves or of others ; but not the intangible perfection of those whose ideal is rather in being than in doing -- not those manners which are, in the deepest as in the simplest sense, morals, and without which {{Page 61}} one cannot so much as offer a cup of water to a poor man without offence -- not the part of "antique Rachel," sitting in the company of Beatrice ; and even the moralist might well endeavour rather to withdraw men from the too exclusive consideration of means and ends, in life.

¶24
§129 Against this predominance of machinery in our existence, Wordsworth's poetry, like all great art and poetry, is a continual protest. §130 Justify rather the end by the means, it seems to say : whatever may become of the fruit, make sure of the flowers and the leaves. §131 It was justly said, therefore, by one who had meditated very profoundly on the true relation of means to ends in life, and on the distinction between what is desirable in itself and what is desirable only as machinery, that when the battle which he and his friends were waging had been won, the world would need more than ever those qualities which Wordsworth was keeping alive and nourishing. *

* See an interesting paper, by |Mr.| John Morley, on " The Death of |Mr.| Mill," Fortnightly Review, June 1873.

¶25
§132 That the end of life is not action but contemplation -- being as distinct from doing -- a certain disposition of the mind : is, in some shape or other, the principle of all the higher morality. §133 In poetry, in art, if you enter into their true spirit at all, you touch this principle, in a measure : these, by their {{Page 62}} very sterility, are a type of beholding for the mere joy of beholding. §134 To treat life in the spirit of art, is to make life a thing in which means and ends are identified : to encourage such treatment, the true moral significance of art and poetry. §135 Wordsworth, and other poets who have been like him in ancient or more recent times, are the masters, the experts, in this art of impassioned contemplation. §136 Their work is, not to teach lessons, or enforce rules, or even to stimulate us to noble ends ; but to withdraw the thoughts for a little while from the mere machinery of life, to fix them, with appropriate emotions, on the spectacle of those great facts in man's existence which no machinery affects, " on the great and universal passions of men, the most general and interesting of their occupations, and the entire world of nature," -- on " the operations of the elements and the appearances of the visible universe, on storm and sunshine, on the revolutions of the seasons, on cold and heat, on loss of friends and kindred, on injuries and resentments, on gratitude and hope, on fear and sorrow." §137 To witness this spectacle with appropriate emotions is the aim of all culture ; and of these emotions poetry like Wordsworth's is a great nourisher and stimulant. §138 He sees nature full of sentiment and excitement ; he sees men and women as parts of nature, passionate, excited, in strange {{Page 63}} grouping and connexion with the grandeur and beauty of the natural world : -- images, in his own words, " of man suffering, amid awful forms and powers."

¶26
§139 Such is the figure of the more powerful and original poet, hidden away, in part, under those weaker elements in Wordsworth's poetry, which for some minds determine their entire character ; a poet somewhat bolder and more passionate than might at first sight be supposed, but not too bold for true poetical taste ; an unimpassioned writer, you might sometimes fancy, yet thinking the chief aim, in life and art alike, to be a certain deep emotion ; seeking most often the great elementary passions in lowly places ; having at least this condition of all impassioned work, that he aims always at an absolute sincerity of feeling and diction, so that he is the true forerunner of the deepest and most passionate poetry of our own day ; yet going back also, with something of a protest against the conventional fervour of much of the poetry popular in his own time, to those older English poets, whose unconscious likeness often comes out in him.

1874


Copytext: Appreciations (London: Macmillan and Co., and New York, 1890): 37-63.
Source: the same.
Ed. (text): Ian Lancashire, Rep. Criticism On-line (1996).


Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.


Other works by Walter Pater