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This has often been denied to him. It used to be said that, in his old age, he cared only for his own poems.
A more baseless calumny has seldom been uttered. Superabundant evidence of the opposite will be found in these volumes. It is true that he gave no poet a place among great writers, unless he was a Teacher as well as an author of verses; and unless the outcome of his teaching was to ennoble character. But in Wordsworth there was the total absence of what has been said to be a prevailing weakness of literary menalthough I suspect not specially confined to them--viz., jealousy of others. Not a trace of envy toward contemporaries was ever seen in him. On the contrary, the generosity of his appreciation was conspicuous; and, although he withdrew from the men who misconstrued and critically assailed him, he never quarrelled with them. As will be seen in these pages, his relationship to the dearest of his early friends—the one man with whom his name will be for ever associated in literature was for a time overshadowed by a cloud, and somewhat severely strained; but Wordsworth bore with Coleridge's increasing weakness, with real magnanimity. He believed in him, as a friend and a poet, and felt the marvellous charm and fascination of his genius to the very last. Of Landor and Leigh Hunt, of Montagu, De Quincey, and Hazlitt, Wordsworth sometimes spoke forcibly enough; and it was not his habit to extenuate faults, or to take a rose-water view of a defect in character; but he was never censorious, and he did not make enemies.
I have purposely recorded some of his adverse judgments, because they exhibit him in the capacity of moral analyst, but there was no bitterness in the severest of them. To refer to a single instance. a
He spoke unfavourably of Sir Walter Scott as a poet, simply because he considered that novels in verse-rhymed romances, or metrical tales-however admirable, were not poems, in his sense of the term. He never concealed his opinion that amongst
The stars pre-eminent in magnitude,
Scott had no place ; " for,” he once said, “ he has never in verse written anything addressed to the immortal part of man.” But where is there a nobler tribute to genius than is to be found in the Abbotsford sonnet, composed before Scott's departure to Naples ?
I think your
A distinguished critic of our time once referred me to Wordsworth's letter to Scott on the publication of Marmion, which he characterised as one of the most consummate specimens of frog-to-bull impertinence in the annals of literature." On receipt of his letter I turned, with some impatience as well as curiosity, to Wordsworth's letter to Scott; and I found simply this, " Thank you for Marmion. end has been attained. That it is not the end which I should wish you to propose to yourself, you will be well aware, from what you know of my notions of composition, both as to matter and manner. In the circle of my acquaintance it seems as well liked as the Lay, though I have heard that in the world it is not so." The whole point of Wordsworth’s criticism was that he would have preferred the subject treated, not so much from the objective, or Homeric point of view. He would have wished it handled, as he had himself attempted to deal with a story of the past, in his White Doe of Rylstone. Wordsworth's appreciation of Scott was genuine from first to last.
Toward Hazlitt and De Quincey his feelings gradually
cooled. If anyone should blame him for that coolness, future biographers may mention facts which explain and justify it.
Although the subject is referred to in the introductory chapter to the first of these volumes—written some years ago--I add a paragraph on the end which the biography of a great man may serve, when it is intentionally a storehouse of facts and not a critical memoir. It may be called a quarry, rather than a building; but of what use are our best criticisms, in comparison with an accurate record of what is known regarding those who have been the chief teachers of mankind ? The commentary of the biographer is speedily forgotten; but, while our estimates pass away, the lives of the great remain, and remain to teach posterity. It appears to me that to add a running commentary on each incident recorded, instead of letting the incident speak for itself, lessens its influence instead of increasing it. The world is doubtless taught by the mature judgments of its great critics, as well as by the works of its chief thinkers and poets; and to be a just appraiser of new literary products is a noble function. It is a function however which appeals to the few, rather than to the many; and what the many mostly need is the careful collection of all relevant data regarding the chief teachers of the world, the publication of what is helpful to the understanding of these teachers, and the suppression of all that is irrelevant.
One reason why extended critical commentary on Wordsworth is less necessary than in the case of other poets is what may be called the homeliness of his genius, notwithstanding its depth. He had a profound grasp of the deep things of life and of the universe; but he was more homely than any of his contemporaries, not only in manner_his rustic air—but in the type of his genius.
“ His verses," as
an American author wrote to me," bring all that is necessary for their own understanding; and the best advice that we can give to his readers is to treat him like their own hearts, to commune with him, and be still." It is for this reason that I let Wordsworth—and his sister, wife, and daughter, as well as his numerous friends and correspondents—tell the story of his life whenever it is possible.
Perhaps the best preparation for the study of Wordsworth is the “wise passiveness” of which he speaks so often-the heart “ at leisure from itself.” Coleridge once said, “ Poetry knocks at the door; if there is no one at home, it goes straight away;" and Goethe
Wer den Dichter will verstehen
Muss in Dichter Lande gehen, If the entrance is sympathetic, there is little 'need for criticism.
These volumes then being for the most part a collection of facts, whenever the authority for those which are new, (and cannot be found elsewhere in published works), is not mentioned in the footnotes, they are invariably given on the authority of letters or documents to which I have had access, but with the statement of which I have not thought it desirable to encumber the pages.
I may add that in this, as in most biographies, a mass of detail, interesting enough to specialists—and which would, in all probability, had it been expedient to continue the Wordsworth Society for a longer time, have found a place in its Transactions— is omitted from the Life. It is to be noted that while Wordsworth detested letter-writing, and wrote as little as he could, a great deal of his correspondence survives; nearly thrice as much as is published in these volumes. It might have been desirable in all cases, perhaps, to have indicated where the letters are now preserved. This has been occasionally, but not always, mentioned.
One result of delay in the issue of a Biography, the materials for which accumulate slowly, is that new facts are sure to be discovered, as fresh sources of information open up, which must modify judgments already come to, and which in some instances may affect statements previously made. This is doubtless both an advantage and a disadvantage. There is no such thing as a Biography that could not have been improved by keeping, as there is no single instance of an immaculate literary text. Every author finds that his work could be improved as soon as it leaves his hands. With this he lays his account beforehand, but it is very mortifying in the course of the passage of a book through the press, to discover new facts which completely alter what has been already said. The most important fact of this kind that I have to record is, that long after the first volume was printed off, I discovered a serious mistake, in which I had followed tradition, and described Mrs Wordsworth as the poet's cousin. This I mention at p. 335 of volume one. It was not till I had the opportunity of examining the series of letters addressed by Wordsworth to Mr Moxon, that I found out my mistake. (See vol. III. p. 374.) Mr Hutchinson of Kimbolton, Mrs Wordsworth's nephew, wrote to me lately, assuring me that there was no truth in the tradition; and as I write I receive the following from Mr Gordon Wordsworth, the poet's grandson.
“THE STEPPING STONES, January 22, 1889. “I think I have solved the grand-parental cousinship question. My grandmother left some memoranda as to her family, which have enabled me to draw up a pedigree of them, for four generations back from herself, so complete that I do not think any connecting link can have escaped me. Throughout the eighteenth century, her ancestors were