The Greatness of Wordsworth

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth; drawing by David Levine

Among the things which Coleridge “lamented” about Wordsworth’s poetry was that “his genius was not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprang out of the ground like a flower.” Geoffrey Hartman might have taken this remark as an epigraph for his fine book. His argument is that it is just exactly here that Wordsworth’s true genius lay: in his ability to respect the earth and the air, to hold nature and imagination in balance, indeed in magnanimous reciprocity. If Wordsworth’s poetry reaches great heights, it is as an arch does, by stresses that meet and support each other in loving opposition. Coleridge was wrong to deplore in Wordsworth “a something corporeal, a matter-of-fact-ness, a clinging to the palpable.” Not that such matter-of-fact-ness is in itself enough. It may, as Wordsworth said, make the mind “a mere pensioner on outward forms.” The travelers who see Mont Blanc grieve:

To have a soulless image on the eye
That had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be.

But “usurp” is the key-word; the visual must not claim sway over the visionary, nor vice versa. Rather they must be held in vibrant counterpoise, the physical world and the gigantically autonomous powers of the human mind:

He feels that, be his mind how- ever great
In aspiration, the universe in which
He lives is equal to his mind, that each
Is worthy of the other; if the one
Be insatiate, the other is inex- haustible.

As verse, not remarkable: the stated aspiration rather than the achievement itself. But all the same the lines do provide an invaluable summary of the true relationship between nature and imagination, each respecting the other, each inexorable yet gentle in its power. In his important, various, and stimulating book, Mr. Hartman shows conclusively that Wordsworth’s progress was towards a true understanding and expressing of this relationship, and that his decline (notably in The Excursion) must be connected with his inability to maintain any longer this fatiguing and precarious balance. The Excursion sells the visible world grievously short—and in doing so, makes imagination not more but less effective.

Wordsworth’s “consciousness of consciousness” is the theme when Mr. Hartman confronts Wordsworth’s imagination. In “The Solitary Reaper,” “there is an inward sinking, as if the mind, having been moved by the Highland girl, is now moved by itself.” Such self-consciousness could easily become all to reflective, too much a mirror seen in a mirror seen in a mirror…Arthur Hugh Clough, incidentally, taunted this aspect of Wordsworth in nothing that “he is apt to wind up his short pieces with reflections upon the way, hereafter, he expects to reflect upon his present reflections.” But what saves Wordsworth—at his best—from such dithering or solipsism is his counter-respect for nature. Mr. Hartman quotes Petrarch’s loftiness: “nothing is wonderful but the soul,…

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