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Among My Books by James Russell Lowell

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"I've measured it from side to side,
'T is three feet long and two feet wide."

But I doubt if he was ever really convinced, and to his dying day he
could never quite shake off that habit of over-minute detail which
renders the narratives of uncultivated people so tedious, and sometimes
so distasteful.[340] "Simon Lee," after his latest revision, still
contains verses like these:--

"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;
* * * * *
"Few months of life he has in store,
As he to you will tell,
For still, the more he works, the more
Do his weak ankles swell,"--

which are not only prose, but _bad_ prose, and moreover guilty of the
same fault for which Wordsworth condemned Dr. Johnson's famous parody on
the ballad-style,--that their "_matter_ is contemptible." The
sonorousness of conviction with which Wordsworth sometimes gives
utterance to commonplaces of thought and trivialities of sentiment has a
ludicrous effect on the profane and even on the faithful in unguarded
moments. We are reminded of a passage in the "Excursion":--

"List! I heard
From yon huge breast of rock _a solemn bleat,
Sent forth as if it were the mountain's voice_."

In 1800 the friendship of Wordsworth with Lamb began, and was
thenceforward never interrupted. He continued to live at Grasmere,
conscientiously diligent in the composition of poems, secure of finding
the materials of glory within and around him; for his genius taught him
that inspiration is no product of a foreign shore, and that no adventurer
ever found it, though he wandered as long as Ulysses. Meanwhile the
appreciation of the best minds and the gratitude of the purest hearts
gradually centred more and more towards him. In 1802 he made a short
visit to France, in company with Miss Wordsworth, and soon after his
return to England was married to Mary Hutchinson, on the 4th of October
of the same year. Of the good fortune of this marriage no other proof is
needed than the purity and serenity of his poems, and its record is to be
sought nowhere else.

On the 18th of June, 1803, his first child, John, was born, and on the
14th of August of the same year he set out with his sister on a foot
journey into Scotland Coleridge was their companion during a part of this
excursion, of which Miss Wordsworth kept a full diary. In Scotland he
made the acquaintance of Scott, who recited to him a part of the "Lay of
the Last Minstrel," then in manuscript. The travellers returned to
Grasmere on the 25th of September. It was during this year that
Wordsworth's intimacy with the excellent Sir George Beaumont began. Sir
George was an amateur painter of considerable merit, and his friendship
was undoubtedly of service to Wordsworth in making him familiar with the
laws of a sister art and thus contributing to enlarge the sympathies of
his criticism, the tendency of which was toward too great exclusiveness.
Sir George Beaumont, dying in 1827, did not forego his regard for the
poet, but contrived to hold his affection in mortmain by the legacy of an
annuity of L100, to defray the charges of a yearly journey.

In March, 1805, the poet's brother, John, lost his life by the shipwreck
of the Abergavenny East-Indiaman, of which he was captain. He was a man
of great purity and integrity, and sacrificed himself to his sense of
duty by refusing to leave the ship till it was impossible to save him.
Wordsworth was deeply attached to him, and felt such grief at his death
as only solitary natures like his are capable of, though mitigated by a
sense of the heroism which was the cause of it. The need of mental
activity as affording an outlet to intense emotion may account for the
great productiveness of this and the following year. He now completed
"The Prelude," wrote "The Wagoner," and increased the number of his
smaller poems enough to fill two volumes, which were published in 1807.

This collection, which contained some of the most beautiful of his
shorter pieces, and among others the incomparable Odes to Duty and on
Immortality, did not reach a second edition till 1815. The reviewers had
another laugh, and rival poets pillaged while they scoffed, particularly
Byron, among whose verses a bit of Wordsworth showed as incongruously as
a sacred vestment on the back of some buccaneering plunderer of an

There was a general combination to put him down, but on the other hand
there was a powerful party in his favor, consisting of William
Wordsworth. He not only continued in good heart himself, but, reversing
the order usual on such occasions, kept up the spirits of his

Wordsworth passed the winter of 1806-7 in a house of Sir George
Beaumont's, at Coleorton in Leicestershire, the cottage at Grasmere
having become too small for his increased family. On his return to the
Vale of Grasmere he rented the house at Allan Bank, where he lived three
years. During this period he appears to have written very little poetry,
for which his biographer assigns as a primary reason the smokiness of the
Allan Bank chimneys. This will hardly account for the failure of the
summer crop, especially as Wordsworth composed chiefly in the open air.
It did not prevent him from writing a pamphlet upon the Convention of
Cintra, which was published too late to attract much attention, though
Lamb says that its effect upon him was like that which one of Milton's
tracts might have had upon a contemporary.[343] It was at Allan Bank that
Coleridge dictated "The Friend," and Wordsworth contributed to it two
essays, one in answer to a letter of Mathetes[344] (Professor Wilson),
and the other on Epitaphs, republished in the Notes to "The Excursion."
Here also he wrote his "Description of the Scenery of the Lakes." Perhaps
a truer explanation of the comparative silence of Wordsworth's Muse
during these years is to be found in the intense interest which he took
in current events, whose variety, picturesqueness, and historical
significance were enough to absorb all the energies of his imagination.

In the spring of 1811 Wordsworth removed to the Parsonage at Grasmere.
Here he remained two years, and here he had his second intimate
experience of sorrow in the loss of two of his children, Catharine and
Thomas, one of whom died 4th June, and the other 1st December, 1812.[345]
Early in 1813 he bought Rydal Mount, and, having removed thither, changed
his abode no more during the rest of his life. In March of this year he
was appointed Distributor of Stamps for the county of Westmoreland, an
office whose receipts rendered him independent, and whose business he was
able to do by deputy, thus leaving him ample leisure for nobler duties.
De Quincey speaks of this appointment as an instance of the remarkable
good luck which waited upon Wordsworth through his whole life. In our
view it is only another illustration of that scripture which describes
the righteous as never forsaken. Good luck is the willing handmaid of
upright, energetic character, and conscientious observance of duty.
Wordsworth owed his nomination to the friendly exertions of the Earl of
Lonsdale, who desired to atone as far as might be for the injustice of
the first Earl, and who respected the honesty of the man more than he
appreciated the originality of the poet.[346] The Collectorship at
Whitehaven (a more lucrative office) was afterwards offered to
Wordsworth, and declined. He had enough for independence, and wished
nothing more. Still later, on the death of the Stamp-Distributor for
Cumberland, a part of that district was annexed to Westmoreland, and
Wordsworth's income was raised to something more than L1,000 a year.

In 1814 he made his second tour in Scotland, visiting Yarrow in company
with the Ettrick Shepherd. During this year "the Excursion" was
published, in an edition of five hundred copies, which supplied the
demand for six years. Another edition of the same number of copies was
published in 1827, and not exhausted till 1834. In 1815 "The White Doe of
Rylstone" appeared, and in 1816 "A Letter to a Friend of Burns," in which
Wordsworth gives his opinion upon the limits to be observed by the
biographers of literary men. It contains many valuable suggestions, but
allows hardly scope enough for personal details, to which he was
constitutionally indifferent.[347] Nearly the same date may be ascribed
to a rhymed translation of the first three books of the Aeneid, a
specimen of which was printed in the Cambridge "Philological Museum"
(1832). In 1819 "Peter Bell," written twenty years before, was published,
and, perhaps in consequence of the ridicule of the reviewers, found a
more rapid sale than any of his previous volumes. "The Wagoner," printed
in the same year, was less successful. His next publication was the
volume of Sonnets on the river Duddon, with some miscellaneous poems,
1820. A tour on the Continent in 1820 furnished the subjects for another
collection, published in 1822. This was followed in the same year by the
volume of "Ecclesiastical Sketches." His subsequent publications were
"Yarrow Revisited," 1835, and the tragedy of "The Borderers," 1842.

During all these years his fame was increasing slowly but steadily, and
his age gathered to itself the reverence and the troops of friends which
his poems and the nobly simple life reflected in them deserved. Public
honors followed private appreciation. In 1838 the University of Dublin
conferred upon him the degree of D.C.L. In 1839 Oxford did the same, and
the reception of the poet (now in his seventieth year) at the University
was enthusiastic. In 1842 he resigned his office of Stamp-Distributor,
and Sir Robert Peel had the honor of putting him upon the civil list for
a pension of L300. In 1843 he was appointed Laureate, with the express
understanding that it was a tribute of respect, involving no duties
except such as might be self-imposed. His only official production was an
Ode for the installation of Prince Albert as Chancellor of the University
of Cambridge. His life was prolonged yet seven years, almost, it should
seem, that he might receive that honor which he had truly conquered for
himself by the unflinching bravery of a literary life of half a century,
unparalleled for the scorn with which its labors were received, and the
victorious acknowledgment which at last crowned them. Surviving nearly
all his contemporaries, he had, if ever any man had, a foretaste of
immortality, enjoying in a sort his own posthumous renown, for the hardy
slowness of its growth gave a safe pledge of its durability. He died on
the 23d of April, 1850, the anniversary of the death of Shakespeare.

We have thus briefly sketched the life of Wordsworth,--a life uneventful
even for a man of letters, a life like that of an oak, of quiet self
development, throwing out stronger roots toward the side whence the
prevailing storm-blasts blow, and of tougher fibre in proportion to the
rocky nature of the soil in which it grows. The life and growth of his
mind, and the influences which shaped it, are to be looked for, even more
than is the case with most poets, in his works, for he deliberately
recorded them there.

Of his personal characteristics little is related. He was somewhat above
the middle height, but, according to De Quincey, of indifferent figure,
the shoulders being narrow and drooping. His finest feature was the eye,
which was gray and full of spiritual light. Leigh Hunt says: "I never
beheld eyes that looked so inspired, so supernatural. They were like
fires, half burning, half smouldering, with a sort of acrid fixture of
regard. One might imagine Ezekiel or Isaiah to have had such eyes."
Southey tells us that he had no sense of smell, and Haydon that he had
none of form. The best likeness of him, in De Quincey's judgment, is the
portrait of Milton prefixed to Richardson's notes on Paradise Lost. He
was active in his habits, composing in the open air, and generally
dictating his poems. His daily life was regular, simple, and frugal; his
manners were dignified and kindly; and in his letters and recorded
conversations it is remarkable how little that was personal entered into
his judgment of contemporaries.

The true rank of Wordsworth among poets is, perhaps, not even yet to be
fairly estimated, so hard is it to escape into the quiet hall of judgment
uninflamed by the tumult of partisanship which besets the doors.

Coming to manhood, predetermined to be a great poet, at a time when the
artificial school of poetry was enthroned with all the authority of long
succession and undisputed legitimacy, it was almost inevitable that
Wordsworth, who, both by nature and judgment was a rebel against the
existing order, should become a partisan. Unfortunately, he became not
only the partisan of a system, but of William Wordsworth as its
representative. Right in general principle, he thus necessarily became
wrong in particulars. Justly convinced that greatness only achieves its
ends by implicitly obeying its own instincts, he perhaps reduced the
following his instincts too much to a system, mistook his own resentments
for the promptings of his natural genius, and, compelling principle to
the measure of his own temperament or even of the controversial exigency
of the moment, fell sometimes into the error of making naturalness itself
artificial. If a poet resolve to be original, it will end commonly in his
being merely peculiar.

Wordsworth himself departed more and more in practice, as he grew older,
from the theories which he had laid down in his prefaces;[348] but those
theories undoubtedly had a great effect in retarding the growth of his
fame. He had carefully constructed a pair of spectacles through which his
earlier poems were to be studied, and the public insisted on looking
through them at his mature works, and were consequently unable to see
fairly what required a different focus. He forced his readers to come to
his poetry with a certain amount of conscious preparation, and thus gave
them beforehand the impression of something like mechanical artifice, and
deprived them of the contented repose of implicit faith. To the child a
watch seems to be a living creature; but Wordsworth would not let his
readers be children, and did injustice to himself by giving them an
uneasy doubt whether creations which really throbbed with the very
heart's-blood of genius, and were alive with nature's life of life, were
not contrivances of wheels and springs. A naturalness which we are told
to expect has lost the crowning grace of nature. The men who walked in
Cornelius Agrippa's visionary gardens had probably no more pleasurable
emotion than that of a shallow wonder, or an equally shallow
self-satisfaction in thinking they had hit upon the secret of the
thaumaturgy; but to a tree that has grown as God willed we come without a
theory and with no botanical predilections, enjoying it simply and
thankfully; or the Imagination recreates for us its past summers and
winters, the birds that have nested and sung in it, the sheep that have
clustered in its shade, the winds that have visited it, the cloud-bergs
that have drifted over it, and the snows that have ermined it in winter.
The Imagination is a faculty that flouts at foreordination, and
Wordsworth seemed to do all he could to cheat his readers of her company
by laying out paths with a peremptory _Do not step off the gravel!_ at
the opening of each, and preparing pitfalls for every conceivable
emotion, with guide-boards to tell each when and where it must be caught.

But if these things stood in the way of immediate appreciation, he had
another theory which interferes more seriously with the total and
permanent effect of his poems. He was theoretically determined not only
to be a philosophic poet, but to be a _great_ philosophic poet, and to
this end he must produce an epic. Leaving aside the question whether the
epic be obsolete or not, it may be doubted whether the history of a
single man's mind is universal enough in its interest to furnish all the
requirements of the epic machinery, and it may be more than doubted
whether a poet's philosophy be ordinary metaphysics, divisible into
chapter and section. It is rather something which is more energetic in a
word than in a whole treatise, and our hearts unclose themselves
instinctively at its simple _Open sesame!_ while they would stand firm
against the reading of the whole body of philosophy. In point of fact,
the one element of greatness which "The Excursion" possesses indisputably
is heaviness. It is only the episodes that are universally read, and the
effect of these is diluted by the connecting and accompanying lectures on
metaphysics. Wordsworth had his epic mould to fill, and, like Benvenuto
Cellini in casting his Perseus, was forced to throw in everything,
debasing the metal, lest it should run short. Separated from the rest,
the episodes are perfect poems in their kind, and without example in the

Wordsworth, like most solitary men of strong minds, was a good critic of
the substance of poetry, but somewhat niggardly in the allowance he made
for those subsidiary qualities which make it the charmer of leisure and
the employment of minds without definite object. It may be doubted,
indeed, whether he set much store by any contemporary writing but his
own, and whether he did not look upon poetry too exclusively as an
exercise rather of the intellect than as a nepenthe of the
imagination.[349] He says of himself, speaking of his youth:--

"In fine,
I was a better judge of thoughts than words,
Misled in estimating words, not only
By common inexperience of youth,
But by the trade in classic niceties,
The dangerous craft of culling term and phrase
From languages that want the living voice
To carry meaning to the natural heart;
To tell us what is passion, what is truth,
What reason, what simplicity and sense."[350]

Though he here speaks in the preterite tense, this was always true of
him, and his thought seems often to lean upon a word too weak to bear its
weight. No reader of adequate insight can help regretting that he did not
earlier give himself to "the trade of classic niceties." It was precisely
this which gives to the blank-verse of Landor the severe dignity and
reserved force which alone among later poets recall the tune of Milton,
and to which Wordsworth never attained. Indeed, Wordsworth's blank-verse
(though the passion be profounder) is always essentially that of Cowper.
They were alike also in their love of outward nature and of simple
things. The main difference between them is one of scenery rather than of
sentiment, between the life-long familiar of the mountains and the
dweller on the plain.

It cannot be denied that in Wordsworth the very highest powers of the
poetic mind were associated with a certain tendency to the diffuse and
commonplace. It is in the understanding (always prosaic) that the great
golden veins of his imagination are imbedded.[351] He wrote too much to
write always well; for it is not a great Xerxes-army of words, but a
compact Greek ten thousand, that march safely down to posterity. He set
tasks to his divine faculty, which is much the same as trying to make
Jove's eagle do the service of a clucking hen. Throughout "The Prelude"
and "The Excursion" he seems striving to bind the wizard Imagination with
the sand-ropes of dry disquisition, and to have forgotten the potent
spell-word which would make the particles cohere. There is an arenaceous
quality in the style which makes progress wearisome. Yet with what
splendors as of mountain-sunsets are we rewarded! what golden rounds of
verse do we not see stretching heavenward with angels ascending and
descending! what haunting harmonies hover around us deep and eternal like
the undying barytone of the sea! and if we are compelled to fare through
sands and desert wildernesses, how often do we not hear airy shapes that
syllable our names with a startling personal appeal to our highest
consciousness and our noblest aspiration, such as we wait for in vain in
any other poet!

Take from Wordsworth all which an honest criticism cannot but allow, and
what is left will show how truly great he was. He had no humor, no
dramatic power, and his temperament was of that dry and juiceless
quality, that in all his published correspondence you shall not find a
letter, but only essays. If we consider carefully where he was most
successful, we shall find that it was not so much in description of
natural scenery, or delineation of character, as in vivid expression of
the effect produced by external objects and events upon his own mind, and
of the shape and hue (perhaps momentary) which they in turn took from his
mood or temperament. His finest passages are always monologues. He had a
fondness for particulars, and there are parts of his poems which remind
us of local histories in the undue relative importance given to trivial
matters. He was the historian of Wordsworthshire. This power of
particularization (for it is as truly a power as generalization) is what
gives such vigor and greatness to single lines and sentiments of
Wordsworth, and to poems developing a single thought or sentiment. It was
this that made him so fond of the sonnet. That sequestered nook forced
upon him the limits which his fecundity (if I may not say his garrulity)
was never self-denying enough to impose on itself. It suits his solitary
and meditative temper, and it was there that Lamb (an admirable judge of
what was permanent in literature) liked him best. Its narrow bounds, but
fourteen paces from end to end, turn into a virtue his too common fault
of giving undue prominence to every passing emotion. He excels in
monologue, and the law of the sonnet tempers monologue with mercy. In
"The Excursion" we are driven to the subterfuge of a French verdict of
extenuating circumstances. His mind had not that reach and elemental
movement of Milton's, which, like the tradewind, gathered to itself
thoughts and images like stately fleets from every quarter; some deep
with silks and spicery, some brooding over the silent thunders of their
battailous armaments, but all swept forward in their destined track, over
the long billows of his verse, every inch of canvas strained by the
unifying breath of their common epic impulse. It was an organ that Milton
mastered, mighty in compass, capable equally of the trumpet's ardors or
the slim delicacy of the flute, and sometimes it bursts forth in great
crashes through his prose, as if he touched it for solace in the
intervals of his toil. If Wordsworth sometimes puts the trumpet to his
lips, yet he lays it aside soon and willingly for his appropriate
instrument, the pastoral reed. And it is not one that grew by any vulgar
stream, but that which Apollo breathed through, tending the flocks of
Admetus,--that which Pan endowed with every melody of the visible
universe,--the same in which the soul of the despairing nymph took refuge
and gifted with her dual nature,--so that ever and anon, amid the notes
of human joy or sorrow, there comes suddenly a deeper and almost awful
tone, thrilling us into dim consciousness of a forgotten divinity.

Wordsworth's absolute want of humor, while it no doubt confirmed his
self-confidence by making him insensible both to the comical incongruity
into which he was often led by his earlier theory concerning the language
of poetry and to the not unnatural ridicule called forth by it, seems to
have been indicative of a certain dulness of perception in other
directions.[352] We cannot help feeling that the material of his nature
was essentially prose, which, in his inspired moments, he had the power
of transmuting, but which, whenever the inspiration failed or was
factitious, remained obstinately leaden. The normal condition of many
poets would seem to approach that temperature to which Wordsworth's mind
could be raised only by the white heat of profoundly inward passion. And
in proportion to the intensity needful to make his nature thoroughly
aglow is the very high quality of his best verses. They seem rather the
productions of nature than of man, and have the lastingness of such,
delighting our age with the same startle of newness and beauty that
pleased our youth. Is it his thought? It has the shifting inward lustre
of diamond. Is it his feeling? It is as delicate as the impressions of
fossil ferns. He seems to have caught and fixed forever in immutable
grace the most evanescent and intangible of our intuitions, the very
ripple-marks on the remotest shores of being. But this intensity of mood
which insures high quality is by its very nature incapable of
prolongation, and Wordsworth, in endeavoring it, falls more below
himself, and is, more even than many poets his inferiors in imaginative
quality, a poet of passages. Indeed, one cannot help having the feeling
sometimes that the poem is there for the sake of these passages, rather
than that these are the natural jets and elations of a mind energized by
the rapidity of its own motion. In other words, the happy couplet or
gracious image seems not to spring from the inspiration of the poem
conceived as a whole, but rather to have dropped of itself into the mind
of the poet in one of his rambles, who then, in a less rapt mood, has
patiently built up around it a setting of verse too often ungraceful in
form and of a material whose cheapness may cast a doubt on the priceless
quality of the gem it encumbers.[353] During the most happily productive
period of his life, Wordsworth was impatient of what may be called the
mechanical portion of his art. His wife and sister seem from the first to
have been his scribes. In later years, he had learned and often insisted
on the truth that poetry was an art no less than a gift, and corrected
his poems in cold blood, sometimes to their detriment. But he certainly
had more of the vision than of the faculty divine, and was always a
little numb on the side of form and proportion. Perhaps his best poem in
these respects is the "Laodamia," and it is not uninstructive to learn
from his own lips that "it cost him more trouble than almost anything of
equal length he had ever written." His longer poems (miscalled epical)
have no more intimate bond of union than their more or less immediate
relation to his own personality. Of character other than his own he had
but a faint conception, and all the personages of "The Excursion" that
are not Wordsworth are the merest shadows of himself upon mist, for his
self-concentrated nature was incapable of projecting itself into the
consciousness of other men and seeing the springs of action at their
source in the recesses of individual character. The best parts of these
longer poems are bursts of impassioned soliloquy, and his fingers were
always clumsy at the _callida junctura_. The stream of narration is
sluggish, if varied by times with pleasing reflections (_viridesque
placido aequore sylvas_); we are forced to do our own rowing, and only
when the current is hemmed in by some narrow gorge of the poet's personal
consciousness do we feel ourselves snatched along on the smooth but
impetuous rush of unmistakable inspiration. The fact that what is
precious in Wordsworth's poetry was (more truly even than with some
greater poets than he) a gift rather than an achievement should always be
borne in mind in taking the measure of his power. I know not whether to
call it height or depth, this peculiarity of his, but it certainly endows
those parts of his work which we should distinguish as Wordsworthian with
an unexpectedness and impressiveness of originality such as we feel in
the presence of Nature herself. He seems to have been half conscious of
this, and recited his own poems to all comers with an enthusiasm of
wondering admiration that would have been profoundly comic[354] but for
its simple sincerity and for the fact that William Wordsworth, Esquire,
of Rydal Mount, was one person, and the William Wordsworth whom he so
heartily reverenced quite another. We recognize two voices in him, as
Stephano did in Caliban. There are Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch. If the
prophet cease from dictating, the amanuensis, rather than be idle,
employs his pen in jotting down some anecdotes of his master, how he one
day went out and saw an old woman, and the next day did _not_, and so
came home and dictated some verses on this ominous phenomenon, and how
another day he saw a cow. These marginal annotations have been carelessly
taken up into the text, have been religiously held by the pious to be
orthodox scripture, and by dexterous exegesis have been made to yield
deeply oracular meanings. Presently the real prophet takes up the word
again and speaks as one divinely inspired, the Voice of a higher and
invisible power. Wordsworth's better utterances have the bare sincerity,
the absolute abstraction from time and place, the immunity from decay,
that belong to the grand simplicities of the Bible. They seem not more
his own than ours and every man's, the word of the inalterable Mind. This
gift of his was naturally very much a matter of temperament, and
accordingly by far the greater part of his finer product belongs to the
period of his prime, ere Time had set his lumpish foot on the pedal that
deadens the nerves of animal sensibility.[355] He did not grow as those
poets do in whom the artistic sense is predominant. One of the most
delightful fancies of the Genevese humorist, Toepffer, is the poet
Albert, who, having had his portrait drawn by a highly idealizing hand,
does his best afterwards to look like it. Many of Wordsworth's later
poems seem like rather unsuccessful efforts to resemble his former self.
They would never, as Sir John Harrington says of poetry, "keep a child
from play and an old man from the chimney-corner."[356]

Chief Justice Marshall once blandly interrupted a junior counsel who was
arguing certain obvious points of law at needless length, by saying,
"Brother Jones, there are _some_ things which a Supreme Court of the
United States sitting in equity may be presumed to know." Wordsworth has
this fault of enforcing and restating obvious points till the reader
feels as if his own intelligence were somewhat underrated. He is
over-conscientious in giving us full measure, and once profoundly
absorbed in the sound of his own voice, he knows not when to stop. If he
feel himself flagging, he has a droll way of keeping the floor, as it
were, by asking himself a series of questions sometimes not needing, and
often incapable of answer. There are three stanzas of such near the close
of the First Part of "Peter Bell," where Peter first catches a glimpse of
the dead body in the water, all happily incongruous, and ending with one
which reaches the height of comicality:--

"Is it a fiend that to a stake
Of fire his desperate self is tethering?
Or stubborn spirit doomed to yell,
In solitary ward or cell,
Ten thousand miles from all his brethren?"

The same want of humor which made him insensible to incongruity may
perhaps account also for the singular unconsciousness of disproportion
which so often strikes us in his poetry. For example, a little farther on
in "Peter Bell" we find:--

"_Now_--like a tempest-shattered bark
That overwhelmed and prostrate lies,
And in a moment to the verge
Is lifted of a foaming surge--
Full suddenly the Ass doth rise!"

And one cannot help thinking that the similes of the huge stone, the
sea-beast, and the cloud, noble as they are in themselves, are somewhat
too lofty for the service to which they are put.[357]

The movement of Wordsworth's mind was too slow and his mood to meditative
for narrative poetry. He values his own thoughts and reflections too much
to sacrifice the least of them to the interests of his story. Moreover,
it is never action that interests him, but the subtle motives that lead
to or hinder it. "The Wagoner" involuntarily suggests a comparison with
"Tam O'Shanter" infinitely to its own disadvantage. "Peter Bell," full
though it be of profound touches and subtle analysis, is lumbering and
disjointed. Even Lamb was forced to confess that he did not like it. "The
White Doe," the most Wordsworthian of them all in the best meaning of the
epithet, is also only the more truly so for being diffuse and reluctant.
What charms in Wordsworth and will charm forever is the

"Happy tone
Of meditation slipping in between
The beauty coming and the beauty gone,"

A few poets, in the exquisite adaptation of their words to the tune of
our own feelings and fancies, in the charm of their manner, indefinable
as the sympathetic grace of woman, _are_ everything to us without our
being able to say that they are much in themselves. They rather narcotize
than fortify. Wordsworth must subject our mood to his own before he
admits us to his intimacy; but, once admitted, it is for life, and we
find ourselves in his debt, not for what he has been to us in our hours
of relaxation, but for what he has done for us as a reinforcement of
faltering purpose and personal independence of character. His system of a
Nature-cure, first professed by Dr. Jean Jaques and continued by Cowper,
certainly breaks down as a whole. The Solitary of "The Excursion," who
has not been cured of his scepticism by living among the medicinal
mountains, is, so far as we can see, equally proof against the lectures
of Pedler and Parson. Wordsworth apparently felt that this would be so,
and accordingly never saw his way clear to finishing the poem. But the
treatment, whether a panacea or not, is certainly wholesome inasmuch as
it inculcates abstinence, exercise, and uncontaminate air. I am not sure,
indeed, that the Nature-cure theory does not tend to foster in
constitutions less vigorous than Wordsworth's what Milton would call a
fugitive and cloistered virtue at a dear expense of manlier qualities.
The ancients and our own Elizabethans, ere spiritual megrims had become
fashionable, perhaps made more out of life by taking a frank delight in
its action and passion and by grappling with the facts of this world,
rather than muddling themselves over the insoluble problems of another.
If they had not discovered the picturesque, as we understand it, they
found surprisingly fine scenery in man and his destiny, and would have
seen something ludicrous, it may be suspected, in the spectacle of a
grown man running to hide his head in the apron of the Mighty Mother
whenever he had an ache in his finger or got a bruise in the tussle for

But when, as I have said, our impartiality has made all those
qualifications and deductions against which even the greatest poet may
not plead his privilege, what is left to Wordsworth is enough to justify
his fame. Even where his genius is wrapped in clouds, the unconquerable
lightning of imagination struggles through, flashing out unexpected
vistas, and illuminating the humdrum pathway of our daily thought with a
radiance of momentary consciousness that seems like a revelation. If it
be the most delightful function of the poet to set our lives to music,
yet perhaps he will be even more sure of our maturer gratitude if he do
his part also as moralist and philosopher to purify and enlighten; if he
define and encourage our vacillating perceptions of duty; if he piece
together our fragmentary apprehensions of our own life and that larger
life whose unconscious instruments we are, making of the jumbled bits of
our dissected map of experience a coherent chart. In the great poets
there is an exquisite sensibility both of soul and sense that sympathizes
like gossamer sea-moss with every movement of the element in which it
floats, but which is rooted on the solid rock of our common sympathies.
Wordsworth shows less of this finer feminine fibre of organization than
one or two of his contemporaries, notably than Coleridge or Shelley; but
he was a masculine thinker, and in his more characteristic poems there is
always a kernel of firm conclusion from far-reaching principles that
stimulates thought and challenges meditation. Groping in the dark
passages of life, we come upon some axiom of his, as it were a wall that
gives us our bearings and enables us to find an outlet. Compared with
Goethe we feel that he lacks that serene impartiality of mind which
results from breadth of culture; nay, he seems narrow, insular, almost
provincial. He reminds us of those saints of Dante who gather brightness
by revolving on their own axis. But through this very limitation of range
he gains perhaps in intensity and the impressiveness which results from
eagerness of personal conviction. If we read Wordsworth through, as I
have just done, we find ourselves changing our mind about him at every
other page, so uneven is he. If we read our favorite poems or passages
only, he will seem uniformly great. And even as regards "The Excursion"
we should remember how few long poems will bear consecutive reading. For
my part I know of but one,--the Odyssey.

None of our great poets can be called popular in any exact sense of the
word, for the highest poetry deals with thoughts and emotions which
inhabit, like rarest sea-mosses, the doubtful limits of that shore
between our abiding divine and our fluctuating human nature, rooted in
the one, but living in the other, seldom laid bare, and otherwise visible
only at exceptional moments of entire calm and clearness. Of no other
poet except Shakespeare have so many phrases become household words as of
Wordsworth. If Pope has made current more epigrams of worldly wisdom, to
Wordsworth belongs the nobler praise of having defined for us, and given
us for a daily possession, those faint and vague suggestions of
other-worldliness of whose gentle ministry with our baser nature the
hurry and bustle of life scarcely ever allowed us to be conscious. He has
won for himself a secure immortality by a depth of intuition which makes
only the best minds at their best hours worthy, or indeed capable, of his
companionship, and by a homely sincerity of human sympathy which reaches
the humblest heart. Our language owes him gratitude for the habitual
purity and abstinence of his style, and we who speak it, for having
emboldened us to take delight in simple things, and to trust ourselves to
our own instincts. And he hath his reward. It needs not to bid

"Renowned Chaucer lie a thought more nigh
To rare Beaumond, and learned Beaumond lie
A little nearer Spenser";

for there is no fear of crowding in that little society with whom he is
now enrolled as fifth in the succession of the great English Poets.


[323] "I pay many little visits to the family in the churchyard at
Grasmere," writes James Dixon (an old servant of Wordsworth) to Crabb
Robinson, with a simple, one might almost say canine pathos, thirteen
years after his master's death. Wordsworth was always considerate and
kind with his servants, Robinson tells us.

[324] In the Prelude he attributes this consecreation to a sunrise
seen (during a college vacation) as he walked homeward from some
village festival where he had danced all night--

"My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated spirit."--B. IV.

[325] Prelude, Book II.

"I to the muses have been bound,
These fourteen years, by strong indentures."

_Idiot Boy_ (1798).

[327] I think this more than doubtful, for I find no traces of the
influence of any of these poets in his earlier writings. Goldsmith
was evidently his model in the Descriptive Sketches and the Evening
Walk. I speak of them as originally printed.

[328] Prelude, Book III. He studied Italian also at Cambridge, his
teacher, whose name was Isola, had formerly taught the poet Gray. It
may be pretty certainly inferred, however, that his first systematic
study of English poetry was due to the copy of Andersen's British
Poets, left with him by his sailor brother John on setting out for
his last voyage in 1805.

[329] Prelude, Book VII. Written before 1805, and referring to a
still earlier date. "Wordsworth went in powder, and with cocked hat
under his arm, to the Marchioness of Stafford's rout." (Southey to
Miss Barker, May, 1806.)

[330] This was probably one reason for the long suppression of Miss
Wordsworth's journal, which she had evidently prepared for
publication as early as 1805.

[331] Crabb Robinson, I. 250, Am. Ed.

[332] Wordsworth's purity afterwards grew sensitive almost to
prudery. The late Mr. Clough told me that he heard him at Dr.
Arnold's table denounce the first line in Keats's Ode to a Grecian
Urn as indecent, and Haydon records that when he saw the group of
Cupid and Psyche he exclaimed, "The dev-ils!"

[333] The whole passage is omitted in the revised edition. The
original, a quarto pamphlet, is now very rare, but fortunately
Charles Lamb's copy of it is now owned by my friend Professor C. E.

[334] Wordsworth showed his habitual good sense in never sharing, so
far as is known, the communistic dreams of his friends Coleridge and
Southey. The latter of the two had, to be sure, renounced them
shortly after his marriage, and before his acquaintance with
Wordsworth began. But Coleridge seems to have clung to them longer.
There is a passage in one of his letters to Cottle (without date, but
apparently written in the spring of 1798) which would imply that
Wordsworth had been accused of some kind of social heresy.
"Wordsworth has been caballed against _so long and so loudly_ that he
has found it impossible to prevail on the tenant of the Allfoxden
estate to let him the house after their first agreement is expired."
Perhaps, after all, it was Wordsworth's insulation of character and
habitual want of sympathy with anything but the moods of his own mind
that rendered him incapable of this copartnery of enthusiasm. He
appears to have regarded even his sister Dora (whom he certainly
loved as much as it was possible for him to love anything but his own
poems) as a kind of tributary dependency of his genius, much as a
mountain might look down on one of its ancillary spurs.

[335] Speaking to one of his neighbors in 1845 he said, "that, after
he had finished his college course, he was in great doubt as to what
his future employment should be. He did not feel himself good enough
for the Church; he felt that his mind was not properly disciplined
for that holy office, and that the struggle between his conscience
and his impulses would have made life a torture. He also shrank from
the Law, although Southey often told him that he was well fitted for
the higher parts of the profession. He had studied military history
with great interest, and the strategy of war, and he always fancied
that he had talents for command, and he at one time thought of a
military life, but then he was without connections, and he felt, if
he were ordered to the West Indies, his talents would not save him
from the yellow fever, and he gave that up." (Memoirs, II. 466.) It
is curious to fancy Wordsworth a soldier. Certain points of likeness
between him and Wellington have often struck me. They resemble each
other in practical good sense, fidelity to duty, courage, and also in
a kind of precise uprightness which made their personal character
somewhat uninteresting. But what was decorum in Wellington was piety
in Woidsworth, and the entire absence of imagination (the great point
of dissimilarity) perhaps helped as much as anything to make
Wellington a great commander.

[336] Cottle says, "The sale was so slow and the severity of most of
the reviews so great that its progress to oblivion seemed to be
certain." But the notices in the Monthly and Critical Reviews (then
the most influential) were fair, and indeed favorable, especially to
Wordsworth's share in the volume. The Monthly says, "So much genius
and originality are discovered in this publication that we wish to
see another from the same hand." The Critical, after saying that "in
the whole range of English, poetry we scarcely recollect anything
superior to a passage in Lines written near Tintern Abbey," sums up
thus: "Yet every piece discovers genius; and ill as the author has
frequently employed his talents, they certainly rank him with the
best of living poets." Such treatment cannot surely be called

[337] A very improbable story of Coleridge's in the Biographia
Literaria represents the two friends as having incurred a suspicion
of treasonable dealings with the French enemy by their constant
references to a certain "Spy Nosey." The story at least seems to show
how they pronounced the name, which was exactly in accordance with
the usage of the last generation in New England.

[338] Wordsworth found (as other original minds have since done) a
hearing in America sooner than in England. James Humphreys, a
Philadelphia bookseller, was encouraged by a sufficient _list of
subscribers_ to reprint the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads. The
second English edition, however, having been published before he had
wholly completed his reprinting, was substantially followed in the
first American, which was published in 1802.

[339] Some of the weightiest passages in this Preface, as it is now
printed, were inserted without notice of date in the edition of 1815.

[340] "On my alluding to the line,

"'Three feet long and two feet wide,'

"and confessing that I dared not read them aloud in company, he said,
'They ought to be liked.'" (Crabb Robinson, 9th May, 1815.) His
ordinary answer to criticisms was that he considered the power to
appreciate the passage criticised as a test of the critic's capacity
to judge of poetry at all.

[341] Byron, then in his twentieth year, wrote a review of these
volumes not, on the whole, unfair. Crabb Robinson is reported as
saying that Wordsworth was indignant at the Edinburgh Review's attack
on Hours of Idleness. "The young man will do something if he goes
on," he said.

[342] The Rev. Dr. Wordsworth has encumbered the memory of his uncle
with two volumes of Memoirs, which for confused dreariness are only
matched by the Rev. Mark Noble's "History of the Protectorate House
of Cromwell." It is a misfortune that his materials were not put into
the hands of Professor Reed, whose notes to the American edition are
among the most valuable parts of it, as they certainly are the
clearest. The book contains, however, some valuable letters of
Wordsworth, and those relating to this part of his life should be
read by every student of his works, for the light they throw upon the
principles which governed him in the composition of his poems. In a
letter to Lady Beaumont (May 21, 1807) he says, "Trouble not yourself
upon their present reception, of what moment is that compared with
what I trust is their destiny!--to console the afflicted, to add
sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier; to teach the young
and the gracious of every age, to see, to think and feel, and
therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous; this is
their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform long after
we (that is all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves....
To conclude, my ears are stone dead to this idle buzz [of hostile
criticism] and my flesh as insensible as iron to these petty stings
and; after what I have said, I am sure yours will be the same I doubt
not that you will share with me an invincible confidence that my
writings (and among them these little poems) will co-operate with the
benign tendencies in human nature and society wherever found; and
that they will in their degree be efficacious in making men wiser,
better, and happier." Here is an odd reversal of the ordinary
relation between an unpopular poet and his little public of admirers;
it is he who keeps up their spirits, and supplies them with faith
from his own inexhaustible cistern.

[343] "Wordsworth's pamphlet will fail of producing any general
effect, because the sentences are long and involved; and his friend
De Quincey, who corrected the press, has rendered them more obscure
by an unusual system of punctuation." (Southey to Scott, 30th July,
1809.) The tract is, as Southey hints, heavy.

[344] The first essay in the third volume of the second edition.

[345] Wordsworth's children were,--
John, born 18th June, 1803; still living; a clergyman.
Dorothy, born 16th August, 1804; died 9th July, 1847.
Thomas, born 16th June, 1806; died 1st December, 1812.
Catharine, born 6th September, 1808; died 4th June, 1812.
William, born 12th May, 1810; succeeded his father as

[346] Good luck (in the sense of _Chance_) seems properly to be the
occurrence of Opportunity to one who has neither deserved nor knows
how to use it. In such hands it commonly turns to ill luck. Moore's
Bermudan appointment is an instance of it Wordsworth had a sound
common-sense and practical conscientiousness, which enabled him to
fil his office as well as Dr. Franklin could have done. A fitter man
could not have been found in Westmoreland.

"I am not one who much or oft delight
In personal talk."

[348] How far he swung backward toward the school under whose
influence he grew up, and toward the style against which he had
protested so vigorously, a few examples will show. The advocate of
the language of common life has a verse in his Thanksgiving Ode
which, if one met with it by itself, he would think the achievement
of some later copyist of Pope:--

"While the _tubed engine_ [the organ] feels the inspiring blast."

And in "The Italian Itinerant" and "The Swiss Goatherd" we find a
thermometer or barometer called

"The well-wrought scale
Whose sentient tube instructs to time
A purpose to a fickle clime."

Still worse in the "Eclipse of the Sun," 1821:--

"High on her speculative tower
Stood Science, waiting for the hour
When Sol was destined to endure
That darkening."

So in "The Excursion,"

"The cold March wind raised in her tender throat
Viewless obstructions."

[349] According to Landor, he pronounced all Scott's poetry to be
"not worth five shillings."

[350] Prelude, Book VI.

[351] This was instinctively felt, even by his admirers. Miss
Martineau said to Crabb Robinson in 1839, speaking of Wordsworth's
conversation: "Sometimes he is annoying from the pertinacity with
which he dwells on trifles; at other times he flows on in the utmost
grandeur, leaving a strong impression of inspiration." Robinson tells
us that he read "Resolution" and "Independence" to a lady who was
affected by it even to tears, and then said, "I have not heard
anything for years that so much delighted me; but, _after all, it is
not poetry_."

[352] Nowhere is this displayed with more comic self-complacency than
when he thought it needful to rewrite the ballad of Helen of
Kirconnel,--a poem hardly to be matched in any language for swiftness
of movement and savage sincerity of feeling. Its shuddering
compression is masterly. Compare

"Curst be the heart that thought the thought,
And curst the hand that fired the shot,
When in my arms burd Helen dropt,
That died to succor me!
O, think ye not my heart was sair
When my love dropt down and spake na mair?"

compare this with,--

"Proud Gordon cannot bear the thoughts
That through his brain are travelling,
And, starting up, to Bruce's heart
He launched a deadly javelin:
Fair Ellen saw it when it came,
And, _stepping forth to meet the same_,
Did with her body cover
The Youth, her chosen lover.
* * * * *
"And Bruce (_as soon, as he had slain
The Gordon_) sailed away to Spain,
And fought with rage incessant
Against the Moorish Crescent."

These are surely the verses of an attorney's clerk "penning a stanza
when he should engross." It will be noticed that Wordsworth here also
departs from his earlier theory of the language of poetry by
substituting a javelin for a bullet as less modern and familiar. Had
he written,--

"And Gordon never gave a hint,
But, having somewhat picked his flint,
Let fly the fatal bullet
That killed that lovely pullet,"

it would hardly have seemed more like a parody than the rest. He
shows the same insensibility in a note upon the Ancient Mariner in
the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads: "The poem of my friend has
indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no
distinct character, either in his profession of mariner, or as a
human being who, having been long under the control of supernatural
impressions, might be supposed himself to partake of something
supernatural; secondly, that he does not act, but is continually
acted upon; thirdly, that the events, having no necessary connection,
do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat
laboriously accumulated." Here is an indictment, to be sure, and
drawn, plainly enough, by the attorney's clerk aforenamed. One would
think that the strange charm of Coleridge's most truly original poems
lay in this very emancipation from the laws of cause and effect.

"A hundred times when, roving high and low,
I have been harassed with the toil of verse,
Much pains and little progress, and at once
Some lovely Image in the song rose up,
Full formed, like Venus rising from the sea."

_Prelude_, Book IV.

[354] Mr. Emerson tells us that he was at first tempted to smile, and
Mr. Ellis Yarnall (who saw him in his eightieth year) says, "These
quotations [from his own works] he read in a way that much impressed
me; it seemed almost as if he were _awed by the greatness of his own
power, the gifts with which he had been endowed_." (The italics are

[355] His best poetry was written when he was under the immediate
influence of Coleridge. Coleridge seems to have felt this, for it is
evidently to Wordsworth that he alludes when he speaks of "those who
have been so well pleased that I should, year after year, flow with a
hundred nameless rills into _their_ main stream." (Letters,
Conversations, and Recollections of S.T.C., Vol. I. pp. 5-6.)
"Wordsworth found fault with the repetition of the concluding sound
of the participles in Shakespeare's line about bees:

"'The singing masons building roofs of gold.'

"This, he said, was a line that Milton never would have written. Keats
thought, on the other hand, that the repetition was in harmony with
the continued note of the singers." (Leigh Hunt's Autobiography.)
Wordsworth writes to Crabb Robinson in 1837, "My ear is susceptible
to the clashing of sounds almost to disease." One cannot help
thinking that his training in these niceties was begun by Coleridge.

[356] In the Preface to his translation of the Orlando Furioso.

[357] In "Resolution" and "Independence".


If the biographies of literary men are to assume the bulk which Mr.
Masson is giving to that of Milton, their authors should send a phial of
_elixir vitae_ with the first volume, that a purchaser might have some
valid assurance of surviving to see the last. Mr. Masson has already
occupied thirteen hundred and seventy-eight pages in getting Milton to
his thirty-fifth year, and an interval of eleven years stretches between
the dates of the first and second instalments of his published labors. As
Milton's literary life properly begins at twenty-one, with the "Ode on
the Nativity," and as by far the more important part of it lies between
the year at which we are arrived and his death at the age of sixty-six,
we might seem to have the terms given us by which to make a rough
reckoning of how soon we are likely to see land. But when we recollect
the baffling character of the winds and currents we have already
encountered, and the eddies that may at any time slip us back to the
reformation in Scotland or the settlement of New England; when we
consider, moreover, that Milton's life overlapped the _grand siecle_ of
French literature, with its irresistible temptations to digression and
homily for a man of Mr Masson's temperament, we may be pardoned if a sigh
of doubt and discouragement escape us. We envy the secular leisures of
Methusaleh, and are thankful that _his_ biography at least (if written in
the same longeval proportion) is irrecoverably lost to us. What a subject
would that have been for a person of Mr. Masson's spacious predilections!
Even if he himself can count on patriarchal prorogations of existence,
let him hang a print of the Countess of Desmond in his study to remind
him of the ambushes which Fate lays for the toughest of us. For myself, I
have not dared to climb a cherry-tree since I began to read his work.
Even with the promise of a speedy third volume before me, I feel by no
means sure of living to see Mary Powell back in her husband's house; for
it is just at this crisis that Mr. Masson, with the diabolical art of a
practised serial writer, leaves us while he goes into an exhaustive
account of the Westminster Assembly and the political and religious
notions of the Massachusetts Puritans. One could not help thinking, after
having got Milton fairly through college, that he was never more mistaken
in his life than when he wrote,

"How _soon_ hath Time, that subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!"

Or is it Mr. Masson who has scotched Time's wheels?

It is plain from the Preface to the second volume that Mr. Masson himself
has an uneasy consciousness that something is wrong, and that Milton
ought somehow to be more than a mere incident of his own biography. He
tells us that, "whatever may be thought by a hasty person looking in on
the subject from the outside, no one can study the life of Milton as it
ought to be studied without being obliged to study extensively and
intimately the contemporary history of England, and even incidentally of
Scotland and Ireland too.... Thus on the very compulsion, or at least the
suasion, of the biography, a history grew on my hands. It was not in
human nature to confine the historical inquiries, once they were in
progress, within the precise limits of their demonstrable bearing on the
biography, even had it been possible to determine these limits
beforehand; and so the history assumed a co-ordinate importance with me,
was pursued often for its own sake, and became, though always with a
sense of organic relation to the biography, continuous in itself." If a
"hasty person" be one who thinks eleven years rather long to have his
button held by a biographer ere he begin his next sentence, I take to
myself the sting of Mr. Masson's covert sarcasm. I confess with shame a
pusillanimity that is apt to flag if a "to be continued" do not redeem
its promise before the lapse of a quinquennium. I could scarce await the
"Autocrat" himself so long. The heroic age of literature is past, and
even a duodecimo may often prove too heavy [Greek: oion nun brotoi] for
the descendants of men to whom the folio was a pastime. But what does Mr.
Masson mean by "continuous"? To me it seems rather as if his somewhat
rambling history of the seventeenth century were interrupted now and then
by an unexpected apparition of Milton, who, like Paul Pry, just pops in
and hopes he does not intrude, to tell us what _he_ has been doing in the
mean while. The reader, immersed in Scottish politics or the schemes of
Archbishop Laud, is a little puzzled at first, but reconciles himself on
being reminded that this fair-haired young man is the protagonist of the
drama. _Pars minima est ipsa puella sui_.

If Goethe was right in saying that every man was a citizen of his age as
well as of his country, there can be no doubt that in order to understand
the motives and conduct of the man we must first make ourselves intimate
with the time in which he lived. We have therefore no fault to find with
the thoroughness of Mr. Masson's "historical inquiries." The more
thorough the better, so far as they were essential to the satisfactory
performance of his task. But it is only such contemporary events,
opinions, or persons as were really operative on the character of the man
we are studying that are of consequence, and we are to familiarize
ourselves with them, not so much for the sake of explaining them as of
understanding him. The biographer, especially of a literary man, need
only mark the main currents of tendency, without being officious to trace
out to its marshy source every runlet that has cast in its tiny
pitcherful with the rest. Much less should he attempt an analysis of the
stream and to classify every component by itself, as if each were ever
effectual singly and not in combination. Human motives cannot be thus
chemically cross-examined, nor do we arrive at any true knowledge of
character by such minute subdivision of its ingredients. Nothing is so
essential to a biographer as an eye that can distinguish at a glance
between real events that are the levers of thought and action, and what
Donne calls "unconcerning things, matters of fact,"--between substantial
personages, whose contact or even neighborhood is influential, and the
supernumeraries that serve first to fill up a stage and afterwards the
interstices of a biographical dictionary.

"Time hath a wallet at his back
Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion."

Let the biographer keep his fingers off that sacred and merciful deposit,
and not renew for us the bores of a former generation as if we had not
enough of our own. But if he cannot forbear that unwise inquisitiveness,
we may fairly complain when he insists on taking us along with him in the
processes of his investigation, instead of giving us the sifted results
in their bearing on the life and character of his subject, whether for
help or hindrance. We are blinded with the dust of old papers ransacked
by Mr. Masson to find out that they have no relation whatever to his
hero. He had been wise if he had kept constantly in view what Milton
himself says of those who gathered up personal traditions concerning the
Apostles: "With less fervency was studied what Saint Paul or Saint John
had written than was listened to one that could say, 'Here he taught,
here he stood, this was his stature, and thus he went habited; and O,
happy this house that harbored him, and that cold stone whereon he
rested, this village where he wrought such a miracle.'.... Thus while all
their thoughts were poured out upon circumstances and the gazing after
such men as had sat at table with the Apostles, ... by this means they
lost their time and truanted on the fundamental grounds of saving
knowledge, as was seen shortly in their writings." Mr. Masson has so
_poured out his mind upon circumstances_, that his work reminds us of
Allston's picture of Elijah in the Wilderness, where a good deal of
research at last enables us to guess at the prophet absconded like a
conundrum in the landscape where the very ravens could scarce have found
him out, except by divine commission. The figure of Milton becomes but a
speck on the enormous canvas crowded with the scenery through which he
may by any possibility be conjectured to have passed. I will cite a
single example of the desperate straits to which Mr. Masson is reduced in
order to hitch Milton on to his own biography. He devotes the first
chapter of his Second Book to the meeting of the Long Parliament.
"Already," he tells us, "in the earlier part of the day, the Commons had
gone through the ceremony of hearing the writ for the Parliament read,
and the names of the members that had been returned called over by Thomas
Wyllys, Esq., the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. His deputy, _Agar,
Milton's brother-in-law, may have been in attendance on such an
occasion_. During the preceding month or two, _at all events_, Agar and
his subordinates in the Crown Office had been unusually busy with the
issue of the writs and with the other work connected with the opening of
Parliament." (Vol. II. p. 150.) Mr. Masson's resolute "at all events" is
very amusing. Meanwhile

"The hungry sheep look up and are not fed."

Augustine Thierry has a great deal to answer for, if to him we owe the
modern fashion of writing history picturesquely. At least his method
leads to most unhappy results when essayed by men to whom nature has
denied a sense of what the picturesque really is. The historical
picturesque does not consist, in truth of costume and similar
accessaries, but in the grouping, attitude, and expression of the
figures, caught when they are unconscious that the artist is sketching
them. The moment they are posed for a composition, unless by a man of
genius, the life has gone out of them. In the hands of an inferior
artist, who fancies that imagination is something to be squeezed out of
color-tubes, the past becomes a phantasmagoria of jackboots, doublets,
and flap-hats, the mere property-room of a deserted theatre, as if the
light had been scenical and illusory, the world an unreal thing that
vanished with the foot-lights. It is the power of catching the actors in
great events at unawares that makes the glimpses given us by
contemporaries so vivid and precious. And St. Simon, one of the great
masters of the picturesque, lets us into the secret of his art when he
tells us how, in that wonderful scene of the death of Monseigneur, he saw
"_du premier coup d'oeil vivement porte_, tout ce qui leur echappoit et
tout ce qui les accableroit." It is the gift of producing this reality
that almost makes us blush, as if we had been caught peeping through a
keyhole, and had surprised secrets to which we had no right,--it is this
only that can justify the pictorial method of narration. Mr. Carlyle has
this power of contemporizing himself with bygone times, he cheats us to

"Play with our fancies and believe we see";

but we find the _tableaux vivants_ of the apprentices who "deal in his
command without his power," and who compel us to work very hard indeed
with our fancies, rather wearisome. The effort of weaker arms to shoot
with his mighty bow has filled the air of recent literature with more
than enough fruitless twanging.

Mr. Masson's style, at best cumbrous, becomes intolerably awkward when he
strives to make up for the want of St. Simon's _premier coup d'oeil_ by
impertinent details of what we must call the pseudo-dramatic kind. For
example, does Hall profess to have traced Milton from the University to a
"suburb sink" of London? Mr. Masson fancies he hears Milton saying to
himself, "A suburb sink! has Hall or his son taken the trouble to walk
all the way down to Aldersgate here, to peep up the entry where I live,
and so have an exact notion of my whereabouts? There has been plague in
the neighborhood certainly; and I hope Jane Yates had my doorstep tidy
for the visit." Does Milton, answering Hall's innuendo that he was
courting the graces of a rich widow, tell us that he would rather "choose
a virgin of mean fortunes honestly bred"? Mr. Masson forthwith breaks
forth in a paroxysm of what we suppose to be picturesqueness in this
wise: "What have we here? Surely nothing less, if we choose so to
construe it, than a marriage advertisement! Ho, all ye virgins of England
(widows need not apply), here is an opportunity such as seldom occurs: a
bachelor, unattached; age, thirty-three years and three or four months;
height [Milton, by the way, would have said _highth_] middle or a little
less; personal appearance unusually handsome, with fair complexion and
light auburn hair; circumstances independent; tastes intellectual and
decidedly musical; principles Root-and-Branch! Was there already any
young maiden in whose bosom, had such an advertisement come in her way,
it would have raised a conscious flutter? If so, did she live near
Oxford?" If there _is_ anything worse than an unimaginative man trying to
write imaginatively, it is a heavy man when he fancies he is being
facetious. He tramples out the last spark of cheerfulness with the broad
damp foot of a hippopotamus.

I am no advocate of what is called the dignity of history, when it means,
as it too often does, that dulness has a right of sanctuary in gravity.
Too well do I recall the sorrows of my youth, when I was shipped in
search of knowledge on the long Johnsonian swell of the last century,
favorable to anything but the calm digestion of historic truth. I had
even then an uneasy suspicion, which has ripened into certainty, that
thoughts were never draped in long skirts like babies, if they were
strong enough to go alone. But surely there should be such a thing as
good taste, above all a sense of self-respect, in the historian himself,
that should not allow him to play any tricks with the dignity of his
subject. A halo of sacredness has hitherto invested the figure of Milton,
and our image of him has dwelt securely in ideal remoteness from the
vulgarities of life. No diaries, no private letters, remain to give the
idle curiosity of after-times the right to force itself on the hallowed
seclusion of his reserve. That a man whose familiar epistles were written
in the language of Cicero, whose sense of personal dignity was so great
that, when called on in self-defence to speak of himself, he always does
it with an epical stateliness of phrase, and whose self-respect even in
youth was so profound that it resembles the reverence paid by other men
to a far-off and idealized character,--that he should be treated in this
offhand familiar fashion by his biographer seems to us a kind of
desecration, a violation of good manners no less than of the laws of
biographic art. Milton is the last man in the world to be slapped on the
back with impunity. Better the surly injustice of Johnson than such
presumptuous friendship as this. Let the seventeenth century, at least,
be kept sacred from the insupportable foot of the interviewer!

But Mr. Masson, in his desire to be (shall I say) idiomatic, can do
something worse than what has been hitherto quoted. He can be even
vulgar. Discussing the motives of Milton's first marriage, he says, "Did
he come seeking his L500, and did Mrs. Powell _heave a daughter at him?_"
We have heard of a woman throwing herself at a man's head, and the image
is a somewhat violent one; but what is this to Mr. Masson's improvement
on it? It has been sometimes affirmed that the fitness of an image may be
tested by trying whether a picture could be made of it or not. Mr. Masson
has certainly offered a new and striking subject to the historical school
of British art. A little further on, speaking of Mary Powell, he says,
"We have no portrait of her, nor any account of her appearance; but on
the usual rule of the elective affinities of opposites, Milton being
fair, _we will vote her_ to have been dark-haired." I need say nothing of
the good taste of this sentence, but its absurdity is heightened by the
fact that Mr. Masson himself had left us in doubt whether the match
was one of convenience or inclination. I know not how it may be
with other readers, but for myself I feel inclined to resent this
hail-fellow-well-met manner with its jaunty "_we_ will vote." In some
cases, Mr. Masson's indecorums in respect of style may possibly be
accounted for as attempts at humor by one who has an imperfect notion of
its ingredients. In such experiments, to judge by the effect, the pensive
element of the compound enters in too large an excess over the hilarious.
Whether I have hit upon the true explanation, or whether the cause lie
not rather in a besetting velleity of the picturesque and vivid, I shall
leave the reader to judge by an example or two. In the manuscript copy of
Milton's sonnet in which he claims for his own house the immunity which
the memory of Pindar and Euripides secured for other walls, the title had
originally been, "_On his Door when the City expected an Assault_."
Milton has drawn a line through this and substituted "_When the Assault
was intended to the City_." Mr. Masson fancies "a mood of jest or
semi-jest in the whole affair"; but we think rather that Milton's quiet
assumption of equality with two such famous poets was as seriously
characteristic as Dante's ranking himself _sesto tra cotanto senno_. Mr.
Masson takes advantage of the obliterated title to imagine one of Prince
Rupert's troopers entering the poet's study and finding some of his
"Anti-Episcopal pamphlets that had been left lying about inadvertently.
'Oho!' the Cavalier Captain might then have said, 'Pindar and Euripides
are all very well, by G----! I've been at college myself; and when I meet
a gentleman and scholar, I hope I know how to treat him; but neither
Pindar nor Euripides ever wrote pamphlets against the Church of England,
by G----! It won't do, Mr. Milton!'" This, it may be supposed, is Mr.
Masson's way of being funny and dramatic at the same time. Good taste is
shocked with this barbarous dissonance. Could not the Muse defend her
son? Again, when Charles I., at Edinburgh, in the autumn and winter of
1641, fills the vacant English sees, we are told, "It was more than an
insult; it was a sarcasm! It was as if the King, while giving Alexander
Henderson his hand to kiss, had winked his royal eye over that reverend
Presbyter's back!" Now one can conceive Charles II. winking when he took
the Solemn League and Covenant, but never his father under any
circumstances. He may have been, and I believe he was, a bad king, but
surely we may take Marvell's word for it, that

"He nothing common did or mean,"

upon any of the "memorable scenes" of his life. The image is, therefore,
out of all imaginative keeping, and vulgarizes the chief personage in a
grand historical tragedy, who, if not a great, was at least a decorous
actor. But Mr. Masson can do worse than this. Speaking of a Mrs.
Katherine Chidley, who wrote in defence of the Independents against
Thomas Edwards, he says, "People wondered who this she-Brownist,
Katherine Chidley, was, and did not quite lose their interest in her when
they found that she was an oldish woman, and a member of some
hole-and-corner congregation in London. Indeed, _she put her nails into
Mr. Edwards with some effect_." Why did he not say at once, after the
good old fashion, that she "set her ten commandments in his face"? In
another place he speaks of "Satan standing with his _staff_ around him."
Mr. Masson's style, a little Robertsonian at best, naturally grows worse
when forced to condescend to every-day matters. He can no more dismount
and walk than the man in armor on a Lord Mayor's day. "It [Aldersgate
Street] stretches away northwards a full fourth of a mile as one
continuous thoroughfare, until, crossed by Long Lane and the Barbican, it
parts with the name of Aldersgate Street, and, under the new names of
Goswell Street and Goswell Road, _completes its tendency towards the
suburbs_ and fields about Islington." What a noble work might not the
Directory be if composed on this scale! The imagination even of an
alderman might well be lost in that full quarter of a mile of continuous
thoroughfare. Mr. Masson is very great in these passages of civic
grandeur; but he is more surprising, on the whole, where he has an image
to deal with. Speaking of Milton's "two-handed engine" in Lycidas, he
says: "May not Milton, whatever else he meant, have meant a coming
English Parliament with its two Houses? Whatever he meant, his prophecy
had come true. As he sat among his books in Aldersgate Street, the
two-handed engine at the door of the English Church was on the swing.
Once, twice, thrice, it had swept its arcs to gather energy; now it was
on the backmost poise, and the blow was to descend." One cannot help
wishing that Mr. Masson would try his hand on the tenth horn of the beast
in Revelation, or on the time and half a time of Daniel. There is
something so consoling to a prophet in being told that, no matter what he
meant, his prophecy had come true, and that he might mean "whatever else"
he pleased, so long as he _may_ have meant what we choose to think he
did, reasoning backward from the assumed fulfilment! But perhaps there
may be detected in Mr. Masson's "swept its arcs" a little of that
prophetic hedging-in vagueness to which he allows so generous a latitude.
How if the "two-handed engine," after all, were a broom (or besom, to be
more dignified),

"Sweeping--vehemently sweeping,
No pause admitted, no design avowed,"

like that wielded by the awful shape which Dion the Syracusan saw? I make
the suggestion modestly, though somewhat encouraged by Mr. Masson's
system of exegesis, which reminds one of the casuists' doctrine of
probables, in virtue of which a man may be _probabiliter obligatus_ and
_probabiliter deobligatus_ at the same time. But perhaps the most
remarkable instance of Mr. Masson's figures of speech is where we are
told that the king might have established a _bona fide_ government "by
giving public ascendency to the popular or Parliamentary element in his
Council, and _inducing the old leaven in it either to accept the new
policy, or to withdraw and become inactive."_ There is something
consoling in the thought that yeast should be accessible to moral
suasion. It is really too bad that bread should ever be heavy for want of
such an appeal to its moral sense as should "induce it to accept the new
policy." Of Mr. Masson's unhappy infection with the _vivid_ style an
instance or two shall be given in justification of what has been alleged
against him in that particular. He says of London that "he was committed
to the Tower, where for more than two months he lay, with as near a
prospect as ever prisoner had of a _chop_ with the executioner's axe on a
scaffold on Tower Hill." I may be over-fastidious, but the word "chop"
offends my ears with its coarseness, or if that be too strong, has
certainly the unpleasant effect of an emphasis unduly placed. Old
Auchinleck's saying of Cromwell, that "he gart kings ken they had a lith
in their necks," is a good example of really vivid phrase, suggesting the
axe and the block, and giving one of those dreadful hints to the
imagination which are more powerful than any amount of detail, and whose
skilful use is the only magic employed by the masters of truly
picturesque writing. The sentence just quoted will serve also as an
example of that tendency to _surplusage_, which adds to the bulk of Mr.
Masson's sentences at the cost of their effectiveness. If he had said
simply "chop on Tower Hill" (if chop there must be), it had been quite
enough, for we all know that the executioner's axe and the scaffold are
implied in it. Once more, and I have done with the least agreeable part
of my business. Mr. Masson, after telling over again the story of
Strafford with needless length of detail, ends thus: "On Wednesday, the
12th of May, that proud _curly_ head, the casket of that brain of power,
rolled on the scaffold of Tower Hill." Why _curly_? Surely it is here a
ludicrous impertinence. This careful thrusting forward of outward and
unmeaning particulars, in the hope of giving that reality to a picture
which genius only has the art to do, is becoming a weariness in modern
descriptive writing. It reminds one of the Mrs. Jarley expedient of
dressing the waxen effigies of murderers in the very clothes they wore
when they did the deed, or with the real halter round their necks
wherewith they expiated it. It is probably very effective with the torpid
sensibilities of the class who look upon wax figures as works of art.
True imaginative power works with other material. Lady Macbeth striving
to wash away from her hands the damned spot that is all the more there to
the mind of the spectator because it is not there at all, is a type of
the methods it employs and the intensity of their action.

Having discharged my duty in regard to Mr. Masson's faults of manner,
which I should not have dwelt on so long had they not greatly marred a
real enjoyment in the reading, and were they not the ear-mark of a school
which has become unhappily numerous, I turn to a consideration of his
work as a whole. I think he made a mistake in his very plan, or else was
guilty of a misnomer in his title. His book is not so much a life of
Milton as a collection of materials out of which a careful reader may
sift the main facts of the poet's biography. His passion for minute
detail is only to be equalled by his diffuseness on points mainly if not
altogether irrelevant. He gives us a Survey of British Literature,
occupying one hundred and twenty-eight pages of his first volume, written
in the main with good judgment, and giving the average critical opinion
upon nearly every writer, great and small, who was in any sense a
contemporary of Milton. I have no doubt all this would be serviceable and
interesting to Mr. Masson's classes in Edinburgh University, and they may
well be congratulated on having so competent a teacher; but what it has
to do with Milton, unless in the case of such authors as may be shown to
have influenced his style or turn of thought, one does not clearly see.
Most readers of a life of Milton may be presumed to have some knowledge
of the general literary history of the time, or at any rate to have the
means of acquiring it, and Milton's manner (his style was his own) was
very little affected by any of the English poets, with the single
exception, in his earlier poems, of George Wither. Mr. Masson also has
something to say about everybody, from Wentworth to the obscurest
Brownist fanatic who was so much as heard of in England during Milton's
lifetime. If this theory of a biographer's duty should hold, our
grandchildren may expect to see "A Life of Thackeray, or who was who in
England, France, and Germany during the first Half of the Nineteenth
Century." These digressions of Mr. Masson's from what should have been
his main topic (he always seems somehow to be "completing his tendency
towards the suburbs" of his subject), give him an uneasy feeling that he
must get Milton in somehow or other at intervals, if it were only to
remind the reader that he has a certain connection with the book. He is
eager even to discuss a mere hypothesis, though an untenable one, if it
will only increase the number of pages devoted specially to Milton, and
thus lessen the apparent disproportion between the historical and the
biographical matter. Milton tells us that his morning wont had been "to
read good authors, or cause them to be read, till the attention be weary,
or memory have his full fraught; then with useful and generous labors
preserving the body's health and hardiness, to render lightsome, clear,
and not lumpish obedience to the mind, to the cause of religion and our
country's liberty when it shall require firm hearts in sound bodies to
stand and cover their stations rather than see the rum of our
Protestantism and the enforcement of a slavish life." Mr. Masson snatches
at the hint: "This is interesting," he says; "Milton, it seems, has for
some time been practising drill! The City Artillery Ground was near....
Did Milton among others make a habit of going there of mornings? Of this
more hereafter." When Mr. Masson returns to the subject he speaks of
Milton's "all but positive statement ... that in the spring of 1642, or a
few months before the breaking out of the Civil War, he was in the habit
of spending a part of each day in _military exercise somewhere not far
from his house in Aldersgate Street_." What he puts by way of query on
page 402 has become downright certainty seventy-nine pages further on.
The passage from Milton's tract makes no "statement" of the kind it
pleases Mr. Masson to assume. It is merely a Miltonian way of saying that
he took regular exercise, because he believed that moral no less than
physical courage demanded a sound body. And what proof does Mr. Masson
bring to confirm his theory? Nothing more nor less than two or three
passages in "Paradise Lost," of which I shall quote only so much as is
essential to his argument:--

"And now
Advanced in view they stand, a horrid front
Of dreadful length and dazzling arms, in guise
Of warriors old with _ordered_ spear and shield,
Awaiting what command their mighty chief
Had to impose."[359]

Mr. Masson assures us that "there are touches in this description (as,
for example, the _ordering_ of arms at the moment of halt, and without
word of command) too exact and technical to have occurred to a mere
civilian. Again, at the same review....

"'He now prepared
To speak; whereat their doubled ranks they bend
From wing to wing, and half enclose him round
With all his peers; _attention_ held them mute.'[360]

"To the present day this is the very process, or one of the processes,
when a commander wishes to address his men. They wheel inward and stand
at 'attention.'" But his main argument is the phrase "_ported_ spears,"
in Book Fourth, on which he has an interesting and valuable comment. He
argues the matter through a dozen pages or more, seeking to prove that
Milton _must_ have had some practical experience of military drill. I
confess a very grave doubt whether "attention" and "ordered" in the
passages cited have any other than their ordinary meaning, and Milton
could never have looked on at the pike-exercise without learning what
"ported" meant. But, be this as it may, I will venture to assert that
there was not a boy in New England, forty years ago, who did not know
more of the manual than is implied in Milton's use of these terms. Mr.
Masson's object in proving Milton to have been a proficient in these
martial exercises is to increase our wonder at his not entering the army.
"If there was any man in England of whom one might surely have expected
that he would be in arms among the Parliamentarians," he says, "that man
was Milton." Milton may have had many an impulse to turn soldier, as all
men must in such times, but I do not believe that he ever seriously
intended it. Nor is it any matter of reproach that he did not. It is
plain, from his works, that he believed himself very early set apart and
consecrated for tasks of a very different kind, for services demanding as
much self-sacrifice and of more enduring result. I have no manner of
doubt that he, like Dante, believed himself divinely inspired with what
he had to utter, and, if so, why not also divinely guided in what he
should do or leave undone? Milton wielded in the cause he loved a weapon
far more effective than a sword.

It is a necessary result of Mr. Masson's method, that a great deal of
space is devoted to what might have befallen his hero and what he might
have seen. This leaves a broad margin indeed for the insertion of purely
hypothetical incidents. Nay, so desperately addicted is he to what he
deems the vivid style of writing, that he even goes out of his way to
imagine what might have happened to anybody living at the same time with
Milton. Having told us fairly enough how Shakespeare, on his last visit
to London, perhaps saw Milton "a fair child of six playing at his
father's door," he must needs conjure up an imaginary supper at the
Mermaid. "Ah! what an evening ... was that; and how Ben and Shakespeare
_be-tongued_ each other, while the others listened and wondered; and how,
when the company dispersed, the sleeping street heard their departing
footsteps, and the stars shone down on the old roofs." Certainly, if we
may believe the old song, the stars "had nothing else to do," though
their chance of shining in the middle of a London November may perhaps be
reckoned very doubtful. An author should consider how largely the art of
writing consists in knowing what to leave in the inkstand.

Mr. Masson's volumes contain a great deal of very valuable matter,
whatever one may think of its bearing upon the life of Milton. The
chapters devoted to Scottish affairs are particularly interesting to a
student of the Great Rebellion, its causes and concomitants. His analyses
of the two armies, of the Parliament, and the Westminster Assembly, are
sensible additions to our knowledge. A too painful thoroughness, indeed,
is the criticism we should make on his work as a biography. Even as a
history, the reader might complain that it confuses by the multiplicity
of its details, while it wearies by want of continuity. Mr. Masson lacks
the skill of an accomplished story-teller. A fact is to him a fact, never
mind how unessential, and he misses the breadth of truth in his devotion
to accuracy. The very order of his title-page, "The Life of Milton,
narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary
History of his Time," shows, it should seem, a misconception of the true
nature of his subject. Milton's chief importance, it might be fairly said
his only importance, is a literary one. His place is fixed as the most
classical of our poets.

Neither in politics, theology, nor social ethics, did Milton leave any
distinguishable trace on the thought of his time or in the history of
opinion. In both these lines of his activity circumstances forced upon
him the position of a controversialist whose aims and results are by the
necessity of the case desultory and ephemeral. Hooker before him and
Hobbes after him had a far firmer grasp of fundamental principles than
he. His studies in these matters were perfunctory and occasional, and his
opinions were heated to the temper of the times and shaped to the instant
exigencies of the forum, sometimes to his own convenience at the moment,
instead of being the slow result of a deliberate judgment enlightened by
intellectual and above all historical sympathy with his subject. His
interest was rather in the occasion than the matter of the controversy.
No aphorisms of political science are to be gleaned from his writings as
from those of Burke. His intense personality could never so far
dissociate itself from the question at issue as to see it in its larger
scope and more universal relations. He was essentially a _doctrinaire_,
ready to sacrifice everything to what at the moment seemed the abstract
truth, and with no regard to historical antecedents and consequences,
provided those of scholastic logic were carefully observed. He has no
respect for usage or tradition except when they count in his favor, and
sees no virtue in that power of the past over the minds and conduct of
men which alone insures the continuity of national growth and is the
great safeguard of order and progress. The life of a nation was of less
importance to him than that it should be conformed to certain principles
of belief and conduct. Burke could distill political wisdom out of
history because he had a profound consciousness of the soul that
underlies and outlives events, and of the national character that gives
them meaning and coherence. Accordingly his words are still living and
operative, while Milton's pamphlets are strictly occasional and no longer
interesting except as they illustrate him. In the Latin ones especially
there is an odd mixture of the pedagogue and the public orator. His
training, so far as it was thorough, so far, indeed, as it may be called
optional, was purely poetical and artistic. A true Attic bee, he made
boot on every lip where there was a trace of truly classic honey.

Milton, indeed, could hardly have been a match for some of his
antagonists in theological and ecclesiastical learning. But he brought
into the contest a white heat of personal conviction that counted for
much. His self-consciousness, always active, identified him with the
cause he undertook. "I conceived myself to be now not as mine own person,
but as a member incorporate into that truth whereof I was persuaded and
whereof I had declared myself openly to be the partaker."[361]
Accordingly it does not so much seem that he is the advocate of
Puritanism, Freedom of Conscience, or the People of England, as that all
these are _he_, and that he is speaking for himself. He was not nice in
the choice of his missiles, and too often borrows a dirty lump from the
dunghill of Luther; but now and then the gnarled sticks of controversy
turn to golden arrows of Phoebus in his trembling hands, singing as they
fly and carrying their messages of doom in music. Then, truly, in his
prose as in his verse, his is the large utterance of the early gods, and
there is that in him which tramples all learning under his victorious
feet. From the first he looked upon himself as a man dedicated and set
apart. He had that sublime persuasion of a divine mission which sometimes
lifts his speech from personal to cosmopolitan significance; his genius
unmistakably asserts itself from time to time, calling down fire from
heaven to kindle the sacrifice of irksome private duty, and turning the
hearthstone of an obscure man into an altar for the worship of mankind.
Plainly enough here was a man who had received something other than
Episcopal ordination. Mysterious and awful powers had laid their
unimaginable hands on that fair head and devoted it to a nobler service.
Yet it must be confessed that, with the single exception of the
"Areopagitica," Milton's tracts are wearisome reading, and going through
them is like a long sea-voyage whose monotony is more than compensated
for the moment by a stripe of phosphorescence heaping before you in a
drift of star-sown snow, coiling away behind in winking disks of silver,
as if the conscious element were giving out all the moonlight it had
garnered in its loyal depths since first it gazed upon its pallid regent.
Which, being interpreted, means that his prose is of value because it is
Milton's, because it sometimes exhibits in an inferior degree the
qualities of his verse, and not for its power of thought, of reasoning,
or of statement. It is valuable, where it is best, for its inspiring
quality, like the fervencies of a Hebrew prophet. The English translation
of the Bible had to a very great degree Judaized, not the English mind,
but the Puritan temper. Those fierce enthusiasts could more easily find
elbow-room for their consciences in an ideal Israel than in a practical
England. It was convenient to see Amalek or Philistia in the men who met
them in the field, and one unintelligible horn or other of the Beast in
their theological opponents. The spiritual provincialism of the Jewish
race found something congenial in the English mind. Their national
egotism quintessentialized in the prophets was especially sympathetic
with the personal egotism of Milton. It was only as an inspired and
irresponsible person that he could live on decent terms with his own
self-confident individuality. There is an intolerant egotism which
identifies itself with omnipotence,[362] and whose sublimity is its
apology; there is an intolerable egotism which subordinates the sun to
the watch in its own fob. Milton's was of the former kind, and
accordingly the finest passages in his prose and not the least fine in
his verse are autobiographic, and this is the more striking that they are
often unconsciously so. Those fallen angels in utter ruin and combustion
hurled, are also cavaliers fighting against the Good Old Cause; Philistia
is the Restoration, and what Samson did, that Milton would have done if
he could.

The "Areopagitica" might seem an exception, but that also is a plea
rather than an argument, and his interest in the question is not one of
abstract principle, but of personal relation to himself. He was far more
rhetorician than thinker. The sonorous amplitude of his style was better
fitted to persuade the feelings than to convince the reason. The only
passages from his prose that may be said to have survived are emotional,
not argumentative, or they have lived in virtue of their figurative
beauty, not their weight of thought. Milton's power lay in dilation.
Touched by him, the simplest image, the most obvious thought,

"Dilated stood
Like Teneriffe or Atlas....
.... nor wanted in his grasp
What _seemed_ both spear and shield."

But the thin stiletto of Macchiavelli is a more effective weapon than
these fantastic arms of his. He had not the secret of compression that
properly belongs to the political thinker, on whom, as Hazlitt said of
himself, "nothing but abstract ideas makes any impression." Almost every
aphoristic phrase that he has made current is borrowed from some one of
the classics, like his famous

"License they mean when they cry liberty,"

from Tacitus. This is no reproach to him so far as his true function,
that of poet, is concerned. It is his peculiar glory that literature was
with him so much an art, an end and not a means. Of his political work he
has himself told us, "I should not choose this manner of writing,
wherein, knowing myself inferior to myself (led by the genial power of
nature to another task), I have the use, as I may account, but of my left

Mr. Masson has given an excellent analysis of these writings, selecting
with great judgment the salient passages, which have an air of
blank-verse thinly disguised as prose, like some of the corrupted
passages of Shakespeare. We are particularly thankful to him for his
extracts from the pamphlets written against Milton, especially for such
as contain criticisms on his style. It is not a little interesting to see
the most stately of poets reproached for his use of vulgarisms and low
words. We seem to get a glimpse of the schooling of his "choiceful sense"
to that nicety which could not be content till it had made his native
tongue "search all her coffers round." One cannot help thinking also that
his practice in prose, especially in the long involutions of Latin
periods, helped him to give that variety of pause and that majestic
harmony to his blank-verse which have made it so unapproachably his own.
Landor, who, like Milton, seems to have thought in Latin, has caught
somewhat more than others of the dignity of his gait, but without his
length of stride. Wordsworth, at his finest, has perhaps approached it,
but with how long an interval! Bryant has not seldom attained to its
serene equanimity, but never emulates its pomp. Keats has caught
something of its large utterance, but altogether fails of its nervous
severity of phrase. Cowper's muse (that moved with such graceful ease in
slippers) becomes stiff when (in his translation of Homer) she buckles on
her feet the cothurnus of Milton. Thomson grows tumid wherever he assays
the grandiosity of his model. It is instructive to get any glimpse of the
slow processes by which Milton arrived at that classicism which sets him
apart from, if not above, all our other poets.

In gathering up the impressions made upon us by Mr. Masson's work as a
whole, we are inclined rather to regret his copiousness for his own sake
than for ours. The several parts, though disproportionate, are valuable,
his research has been conscientious, and he has given us better means of
understanding Milton's time than we possessed before. But how is it about
Milton himself? Here was a chance, it seems to me, for a fine bit of
portrait-painting. There is hardly a more stately figure in literary
history than Milton's, no life in some of its aspects more tragical,
except Dante's. In both these great poets, more than in any others, the
character of the men makes part of the singular impressiveness of what
they wrote and of its vitality with after times. In them the man somehow
overtops the author. The works of both are full of autobiographical
confidences. Like Dante, Milton was forced to become a party by himself.
He stands out in marked and solitary individuality, apart from the great
movement of the Civil War, apart from the supine acquiescence of the
Restoration, a self-opinionated, unforgiving, and unforgetting man. Very
much alive he certainly was in his day. Has Mr. Masson made him alive to
us again? I fear not. At the same time, while we cannot praise either the
style or the method of Mr. Masson's work, we cannot refuse to be grateful
for it. It is not so much a book for the ordinary reader of biography as
for the student, and will be more likely to find its place on the
library-shelf than the centre-table. It does not in any sense belong to
light literature, but demands all the muscle of the trained and vigorous
reader. "Truly, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect
that it is Milton's life it is naught."

Mr. Masson's intimacy with the facts and dates of Milton's career renders
him peculiarly fit in some respects to undertake an edition of the
poetical works. His edition, accordingly, has distinguished merits. The
introductions to the several poems are excellent and leave scarcely
anything to be desired. The general Introduction, on the other hand,
contains a great deal that might well have been omitted, and not a little
that is positively erroneous. Mr. Masson's discussions of Milton's
English seem often to be those of a Scotsman to whom English is in some
sort a foreign tongue. It is almost wholly inconclusive, because confined
to the Miltonic verse, while the basis of any altogether satisfactory
study should surely be the Miltonic prose; nay, should include all the
poetry and prose of his own age and of that immediately preceding it. The
uses to which Mr. Masson has put the concordance to Milton's poems tempt
one sometimes to class him with those whom the poet himself taxed with
being "the mousehunts and ferrets of an index." For example, what profits
a discussion of Milton's [Greek: hapax legomena], a matter in which
accident is far more influential than choice?[363] What sensible addition
is made to our stock of knowledge by learning that "the word _woman_ does
not occur in any form in Milton's poetry before 'Paradise Lost,'" and
that it is "exactly so with the word _female_"? Is it any way remarkable
that such words as _Adam, God, Heaven, Hell, Paradise, Sin, Satan_, and
_Serpent_ should occur "very frequently" in "Paradise Lost"? Would it not
rather have been surprising that they should not? Such trifles at best
come under the head of what old Warner would have called cumber-minds. It
is time to protest against this minute style of editing and commenting
great poets. Gulliver's microscopic eye saw on the fair skins of the
Brobdignagian maids of honor "a mole here and there as broad as a
trencher," and we shrink from a cup of the purest Hippocrene after the
critic's solar microscope has betrayed to us the grammatical,
syntactical, and, above all, hypothetical monsters that sprawl in every
drop of it. When a poet has been so much edited as Milton, the temptation
of whosoever undertakes a new edition to see what is not to be seen
becomes great in proportion as he finds how little there is that has not
been seen before.

Mr. Masson is quite right in choosing to modernize the spelling of
Milton, for surely the reading of our classics should be made as little
difficult as possible, and he is right also in making an exception of
such abnormal forms as the poet may fairly be supposed to have chosen for
melodic reasons. His exhaustive discussion of the spelling of the
original editions seems, however, to be the less called-for as he himself
appears to admit that the compositor, not the author, was supreme in
these matters, and that in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases to the
thousand Milton had no system, but spelt by immediate inspiration. Yet
Mr. Masson fills nearly four pages with an analysis of the vowel sounds,
in which, as if to demonstrate the futility of such attempts so long as
men's ears differ, he tells us that the short _a_ sound is the same in
_man_ and _Darby_, the short _o_ sound in _God_ and _does_, and what he
calls the long _o_ sound in _broad_ and _wrath_. Speaking of the
apostrophe, Mr. Masson tells us that "it is sometimes inserted, not as a
possessive mark at all, but merely as a plural mark: _hero's_ for
_heroes_, _myrtle's_ for _myrtles_, _Gorgons_ and _Hydra's_, etc." Now,
in books printed about the time of Milton's the apostrophe was put in
almost at random, and in all the cases cited is a misprint, except in the
first, where it serves to indicate that the pronunciation was not heroes
as it had formerly been.[364] In the "possessive singular of nouns
already ending in _s_" Mr. Masson tells us, "Milton's general practice is
not to double the _s_; thus, _Nereus wrinkled look, Glaucus spell_. The
necessities of metre would naturally constrain to such forms. In a
possessive followed by the word _sake_ or the word _side_, dislike to
[of] the double sibilant makes us sometimes drop the inflection. In
addition to '_for righteousness' sake_' such phrases as '_for thy name
sake_' and '_for mercy sake_,' are allowed to pass; _bedside_ is normal
and _riverside_ nearly so." The necessities of metre need not be taken
into account with a poet like Milton, who never was fairly in his element
till he got off the soundings of prose and felt the long swell of his
verse under him like a steed that knows his rider. But does the dislike
of the double sibilant account for the dropping of the _s_ in these
cases? Is it not far rather the presence of the _s_ already in the sound
satisfying an ear accustomed to the English slovenliness in the
pronunciation of double consonants? It was this which led to such forms
as _conscience sake_ and _on justice side_, and which beguiled Ben Jonson
and Dryden into thinking, the one that _noise_ and the other that _corps_
was a plural,[365] What does Mr. Masson say to _hillside, Bankside,
seaside, Cheapside, spindleside, spearside, gospelside_ (of a church),
_nightside, countryside, wayside, brookside_, and I know not how many
more? Is the first half of these words a possessive? Or is it not rather
a noun impressed into the service as an adjective? How do such words
differ from _hilltop, townend, candlelight, rushlight, cityman_, and the
like, where no double _s_ can be made the scapegoat? Certainly Milton
would not have avoided them for their sibilancy, he who wrote

"And airy tongues that syllable men's names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses,"

"So in his seed all nations shall be blest,"

"And seat of Salmanasser whose success,"

verses that hiss like Medusa's head in wrath, and who was, I think,
fonder of the sound than any other of our poets. Indeed, in compounds of
the kind we always make a distinction wholly independent of the doubled
_s_. Nobody would boggle at _mountainside_; no one would dream of saying
_on the fatherside_ or _motherside_.

Mr. Masson speaks of "the Miltonic forms _vanquisht, markt, lookt_, etc."
Surely he does not mean to imply that these are peculiar to Milton?
Chapman used them before Milton was born, and pressed them farther, as in
_nak't_ and _saf't_ for _naked_ and _saved_. He often prefers the
contracted form in his prose also, showing that the full form of the past
participle in _ed_ was passing out of fashion, though available in
verse.[366] Indeed, I venture to affirm that there is not a single
variety of spelling or accent to be found in Milton which is without
example in his predecessors or contemporaries. Even _highth_, which is
thought peculiarly Miltonic, is common (in Hakluyt, for example), and
still often heard in New England. Mr. Masson gives an odd reason for
Milton's preference of it "as indicating more correctly the formation of
the word by the addition of the suffix _th_ to the adjective _high_." Is
an adjective, then, at the base of _growth_, _earth_, _birth_, _truth_,
and other words of this kind? Horne Tooke made a better guess than this.
If Mr. Masson be right in supposing that a peculiar meaning is implied in
the spelling _bearth_ (Paradise Lost, IX. 624), which he interprets as
"collective produce," though in the only other instance where it occurs
it is neither more nor less than _birth_, it should seem that Milton had
hit upon Horne Tooke's etymology. But it is really solemn trifling to lay
any stress on the spelling of the original editions, after having
admitted, as Mr. Masson has honestly done, that in all likelihood Milton
had nothing to do with it. And yet he cannot refrain. On the word
_voutsafe_ he hangs nearly a page of dissertation on the nicety of
Milton's ear. Mr. Masson thinks that Milton "must have had a reason for
it,"[367] and finds that reason in "his dislike to [of] the sound _ch_,
or to [of] that sound combined with _s_.... His fine ear taught him not
only to seek for musical effects and cadences at large, but also to be
fastidious as to syllables, and to avoid harsh or difficult conjunctions
of consonants, except when there might be a musical reason for harshness
or difficulty. In the management of the letter _s_, the frequency of
which in English is one of the faults of the speech, he will be found, I
believe, most careful and skilful. More rarely, I think, than in
Shakespeare will one word ending in _s_ be found followed immediately in
Milton by another word beginning with the same letter; or, if he does
occasionally pen such a phrase as _Moab's sons_, it will be difficult to
find in him, I believe, such a harsher example as _earth's substance_, of
which many writers would think nothing. [With the index to back him Mr.
Masson could safely say this.] The same delicacy of ear is even more
apparent in his management of the _sh_ sound. He has it often, of course;
but it may be noted that he rejects it in his verse when he can. He
writes _Basan_ for _Bashan_, _Sittim_ for _Shittim_, _Silo_ for _Shiloh_,
_Asdod_ for _Ashdod_. Still more, however, does he seem to have been wary
of the compound sound _ch_ as in _church_. Of his sensitiveness to this
sound in excess there is a curious proof in his prose pamphlet entitled
'An Apology against a Pamphlet, called A Modest Completion, etc.,' where,
having occasion to quote these lines from one of the Satires[368] of his
opponent, Bishop Hall,

"'Teach each hollow grove to sound his love,
Wearying echo with one changeless word,'

"he adds, ironically, 'And so he well might, and all his auditory besides,
with his _teach each!_'" Generalizations are always risky, but when
extemporized from a single hint they are maliciously so. Surely it needed
no great sensitiveness of ear to be set on edge by Hall's echo of _teach
each_. Did Milton reject the _h_ from _Bashan_ and the rest because he
disliked the sound of _sh_, or because he had found it already rejected
by the Vulgate and by some of the earlier translators of the Bible into
English? Oddly enough, Milton uses words beginning with _sh_ seven
hundred and fifty four times in his poetry, not to speak of others in
which the sound occurs, as, for instance, those ending in _tion_. Hall,
had he lived long enough, might have retorted on Milton his own

"Manli_est_, resolut_est_, br_east_,
As the magnetick hard_est_ iron draws,"

or his

"What moves thy inquisition?
Know'st thou not that my rising is thy fall,
And my promotion thy destruction?"

With the playful controversial wit of the day he would have hinted that
too much _est-est_ is as fatal to a blank-verse as to a bishop, and that
danger was often incurred by those who too eagerly _shun_ned it. Nay, he
might even have found an echo almost tallying with his own in

"To begirt the almighty throne
Beseeching or besieging,"

a pun worthy of Milton's worst prose. Or he might have twitted him with
"a _seq_uent king who _seeks_." As for the _sh_ sound, a poet could
hardly have found it ungracious to his ear who wrote,

"Gna_sh_ing for angui_sh_ and despite and _sh_ame,"

or again,

"Then bursting forth
Afre_sh_ with con_sc_ious terrors vex me round
That rest or intermi_ssion_ none I find.
Before mine eyes in oppos_ition_ sits
Grim Death, my son."

And if Milton disliked the _ch_ sound, he gave his ears unnecessary pain
by verses such as these,--

"Straight cou_ch_es close; then, rising, _ch_anges oft
His cou_ch_ant wat_ch_, as one who _ch_ose his ground";

still more by such a juxtaposition as "matchless chief."[369] The truth
is, that Milton was a harmonist rather than a melodist. There are, no
doubt, some exquisite melodies (like the "Sabrina Fair ") among his
earlier poems, as could hardly fail to be the case in an age which
produced or trained the authors of our best English glees, as ravishing
in their instinctive felicity as the songs of our dramatists, but he also
showed from the first that larger style which was to be his peculiar
distinction. The strain heard in the "Nativity Ode," in the "Solemn
Music," and in "Lycidas," is of a higher mood, as regards metrical
construction, than anything that had thrilled the English ear before,
giving no uncertain augury of him who was to show what sonorous metal lay
silent till he touched the keys in the epical organ-pipes of our various
language, that have never since felt the strain of such prevailing
breath. It was in the larger movements of metre that Milton was great and
original. I have spoken elsewhere of Spenser's fondness for dilatation as
respects thoughts and images. In Milton it extends to the language also,
and often to the single words of which a period is composed. He loved
phrases of towering port, in which every member dilated stands like
Teneriffe or Atlas. In those poems and passages that stamp him great, the
verses do not dance interweaving to soft Lydian airs, but march rather
with resounding tread and clang of martial music. It is true that he is
cunning in alliterations, so scattering them that they tell in his
orchestra without being obvious, but it is in the more scientific region
of open-voweled assonances which seem to proffer rhyme and yet withhold
it (rhyme-wraiths one might call them), that he is an artist and a
master. He even sometimes introduces rhyme with misleading intervals
between and unobviously in his blank-verse:--

"There rest, if any rest can harbour _there_;
And, reassembling our afflicted powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our enemy, our own loss how re_pair_,
How overcome this dire calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from des_pair_."[370]

There is one almost perfect quatrain,--

"Before thy fellows, ambitious to win
From me some plume, that thy success may show
Destruction to the rest. This pause between
(Unanswered lest thou boast) to let thee know";

and another hardly less so, of a rhyme and an assonance,--

"If once they hear that voice, their liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft
In worst extremes and on the perilous edge
Of battle when it raged, in all assaults."

There can be little doubt that the rhymes in the first passage cited were
intentional, and perhaps they were so in the others; but Milton's ear has
tolerated not a few perfectly rhyming couplets, and others in which the
assonance almost becomes rhyme, certainly a fault in blankverse:--

"From the Asian Kings (and Parthian among these),
From India and the Golden Chersonese";

"That soon refreshed him wearied, and repaired
What hunger, if aught hunger, had impaired";

"And will alike be punished, whether thou
Reign or reign not, though to that gentle brow";

"Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
Save what is in destroying, other joy";

"Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days";

"This my long sufferance and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn shall never taste";

"So far remote with diminution seen,
First in his East the glorious lamp was seen."[371]

These examples (and others might be adduced) serve to show that Milton's
ear was too busy about the larger interests of his measures to be always
careful of the lesser. He was a strategist rather than a drill-sergeant
in verse, capable, beyond any other English poet, of putting great masses
through the most complicated evolutions without clash or confusion, but
he was not curious that every foot should be at the same angle. In
reading "Paradise Lost" one has a feeling of vastness. You float under an
illimitable sky, brimmed with sunshine or hung with constellations; the
abysses of space are about you; you hear the cadenced surges of an unseen
ocean; thunders mutter round the horizon; and if the scene change, it is
with an elemental movement like the shifting of mighty winds. His
imagination seldom condenses, like Shakespeare's, in the kindling flash
of a single epithet, but loves better to diffuse itself. Witness his
descriptions, wherein he seems to circle like an eagle bathing in the
blue streams of air, controlling with his eye broad sweeps of champaign
or of sea, and rarely fulmining in the sudden swoop of intenser
expression. He was fonder of the vague, perhaps I should rather say the
indefinite, where more is meant than meets the ear, than any other of our
poets. He loved epithets (like _old_ and _far_) that suggest great
reaches, whether of space or time. This bias shows itself already in his
earlier poems, as where he hears

"The _far off_ curfew sound
Over some _widewatered_ shore,"

or where he fancies the shores[372] and sounding seas washing Lycidas far
away; but it reaches its climax in the "Paradise Lost." He produces his
effects by dilating our imaginations with an impalpable hint rather than
by concentrating them upon too precise particulars. Thus in a famous
comparison of his, the fleet has no definite port, but plies stemming
nightly toward the pole in a wide ocean of conjecture. He generalizes
always instead of specifying,--the true secret of the ideal treatment in

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