How Not to Be a Critic

Transatlantic Patterns: Cultural Comparisons of England with America

by Martin Green
Basic Books, 298 pp., $11.95

It is shameless to begin a book review by rolling out lines that have been quoted a million times:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

but they are quoted by Martin Green in his collection of essays Transatlantic Patterns: Cultural Comparisons of England with America, and what he has to say of them strikes exactly the note that makes me long to strike him.

Written when Wordsworth was a more sedate gentleman, the lines recall his feelings when the French Revolution broke out in the days of his youth. They have made their way into every intellectual household in England and America; they share lodgings with the thousand-and-one other quotations that make our furniture and form our very background. They sum up an experience that is known to half the living world—that of beginning manhood with the blissful intensity of some sort of radicalism; and the many who feel an almost personal injury because Wordsworth was unable to sustain his bliss in later years (“a resignation, a compromise, a defeat,” says Professor Green) feel as they do because they know that the change of heart is such a common one. No doubt, a million old men are sighing over their lost radicalism at this very moment, but nobody has been able to put the experience and the emotion on paper as definitively and finally as Wordsworth. Like a rose-red city half as old as time (whose author never wrote another memorable line), Wordsworth’s is a unique achievement: there is the ruin in the desert, passed by innumerable travelers but only “seen” for posterity by one.

How can this be explained? Professor Green, speaking for “the New Left,” says of Wordsworth’s lines:

It is because Wordsworth had thought that, and still thought it at the time of writing enough to be able to write those lines, that he was a great poet. The energy of mind and generosity of heart manifested there, the capacity to be a radical and a revolutionary, shown in the changed sensibility towards social classes and work as well as towards landscape, this is what we recognize and respond to in his poetic tactics and strategies. His engagement in the common cause in this sense made him a great poet.

But although Professor Green says “I entirely agree” with this judgment, he goes on to remind the New Left that Wordsworth himself “felt that something else was even more the point,” namely, that it was “turning away from primarily political hopes that made him Wordsworth the poet we know.” Professor Green agrees with this too. The Prelude, in which the quoted lines occur, is a “monumental effort” that derives from “singleness of passion, total dedication, undivided attention.”

This last conclusion is the opposite of the first conclusion—a fact worth mentioning because a great deal of Professor Green’s book suffers from his readiness to land up in too many conclusions at once.…

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