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William Wordsworth
by [?]

“And he is lean and he is sick:
His body, dwindled and awry,
Rests upon ankles swollen and thick;
His legs are thin and dry.
One prop he has, and only one,
His wife, an aged woman,
Lives with him near the waterfall,
Upon the village common.”

Jove may nod, but when he makes a move it counts.

Yet the influence of Wordsworth upon the thought and feeling of the world has been very great. He himself said, “The young will read my poems and be better for their truth.” Many of his lines pass as current coin: “The child is father of the man,” “The light that never was on land nor sea,” “Not too bright and good for human nature’s daily food,” “Thoughts that do lie too deep for tears,” “The mighty stream of tendency,” and many others. “Plain living and high thinking” is generally given to Emerson, but he discovered it in Wordsworth, and recognizing it as his own he took it. In a certain book of quotations, “The still sad music of humanity” is given to Shakespeare; but to equalize matters we sometimes attribute to Wordsworth “The Old Oaken Bucket.”

The men who win are those who correct an abuse. Wordsworth’s work was a protest–mild yet firm–against the bombastic and artificial school of the Eighteenth Century. Before his day the “timber” used by poets consisted of angels, devils, ghosts, gods; onslaught, tourneys, jousts, tempests of hate and torrents of wrath, always of course with a very beautiful and very susceptible young lady just around the corner. The women in those days were always young and ever beautiful, but seldom wise and not often good. The men were saints or else “bad,” generally bad. Like the cats of Kilkenny, they fought on slight cause.

Our young man at Hawkshead School saw this: it pleased him not, and he made a list of the things on which he would write poems. This list includes: sunset, moonrise, starlight, mist, brooks, shells, stones, butterflies, moths, swallows, linnets, thrushes, wagoners, babies, bark of trees, leaves, nests, fishes, rushes, leeches, cobwebs, clouds, deer, music, shade, swans, crags and snow. He kept his vow and “went it one better,” for among his verses I find the following titles: “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” “To a Wounded Butterfly,” “To Dora’s Portrait,” “To the Cuckoo,” “On Seeing a Needlebook Made in the Shape of a Harp,” etc.

Wordsworth’s service to humanity consists in the fact that he has shown us old truth in a new light, and has made plain the close relationship that exists between physical nature and the soul of man. Is this much or little? I think it is much. When we realize that we are a part of all that we see, or hear, or feel, we are not lonely. But to feel a sense of separation is to feel the chill of death.

Wordsworth taught that the earth is the universal Mother and that the life of the flower has its source in the same universal life from whence ours is derived. To know this truth is to feel a tenderness, a kindliness, a spirit of fraternalism, toward every manifestation of this universal life. No attempt was made to say the last word, only a wish to express the truth that the spirit of God is manifest on every hand.

Now this is a very simple philosophy. No far-reaching, syllogistic logic is required to prove it; no miracle, nor special dispensation is needed; you just feel that it is so, that’s all, and it gives you peace. Children, foolish folks, old men, whose sands of life are nearly run, comprehend it. But heaven bless you! you can’t prove any such foolishness. Jeffrey saw the ridiculousness of these assumptions and so he declared, “This will never do,” and for twenty years “The Edinburgh Review” never ceased to fling off fleers and jeers–and to criticize and scoff. That a great periodical, rich and influential, in the city which was the very center of learning, should go so much out of its way to attack a quiet countryman living in a four-roomed cottage, away off in the hills of Cumberland, seems a little queer.

Then, this countryman did not seek to found a kingdom, nor to revolutionize society, nor did he force upon the world his pattypan rhymes about linnets, and larks, and daffodils. Far from it: he was very modest–diffident, in fact–and his song was quite in the minor key, but still the chain-shot and bombs of literary warfare were sent hissing in his direction.

There is a little story about a certain general who figured as division-commander in the War of Secession: this warrior had his headquarters, for a time, in a typical Southern home in the Tennessee Mountains. The house had a large fireplace and chimney; in this chimney, swallows had nests. One day, as the great man was busy at his maps, working out a plan of campaign against the enemy, the swallows made quite an uproar. Perhaps some of the eggs were hatching; anyway, the birds were needlessly noisy in their domestic affairs, and it disturbed the great man–he grew nervous. He called his adjutant. “Sir,” said the mighty warrior, “dislodge those damn pests in the chimney, without delay.”

Two soldiers were ordered to climb the roof and dislodge the enemy. Yet the swallows were not dislodged, for the soldiers could not reach them.

So Jeffrey’s tirades were unavailing, and Wordsworth was not dislodged.

“He might as well try to crush Skiddaw,” said Southey.