We must be on our guard against the Wordsworthians, if we want to secure for Wordsworth his due rank as a poet. The Wordsworthians are apt to praise him for the wrong things, and to lay far too much stress on what they call his philosophy. His poetry is the reality, his philosophy, — so far, at least, as it may put on the form and habit of "a scientific system of thought," and the more that it puts them on, — is the illusion. Perhaps we shall one day learn to make this proposition general, and to say: Poetry is the reality, philosophy the illusion. But in Wordsworth's case, at any rate, we cannot do him justice until we dismiss his formal philosophy![123]

Devotion to Wordsworth, if it has a tendency to exalt, has also a tendency to infatuate the judicial sense and spirit of his disciples; to make them, even as compared with other devotees, unusually prone to indulgence in such large assertions and assumptions [113] on their master's behalf as seem at least to imply claims which it may be presumed that their apparent advocates would not seriously advance or deliberately maintain. It would in some instances be as unreasonable to suppose that they would do so as to imagine that Mr. Arnold really considers the dissonant doggrel of Wordsworth's halting lines to a skylark equal or superior to Shelley's incomparable transfusion from notes into words of the spirit of a skylark's song. Such an instance is afforded us by the most illustrious — with a single exception — of all Wordsworth's panegyrists. ce for such work to the work of other poets. 'It is an attribute of unusual susceptibility of imagination to need no extraordinary provocatives; and when this is combined with intensity of observation and peculiar force of language, it is the high privilege of the poet so endowed to rest upon the common realities of life and to dispense with its anomalies, — leaving to less gifted writers 'such as Æschylus and Sophocles and Shakespeare' the representation of strange fatalities and of 'nature erring from itself.' No better example than this could possibly be chosen of the kind of writing which has done so much to estrange so many from study or appreciation of a poet whose most distinguished admirers apparently find it necessary to vindicate their admiration by the attempted establishment of a principle which if it has any practical significance or import whatsoever would result, when logically and duly carried out, in the [114] acceptance of such critical canons as would reject Othello and Œdipus and the Oresteia, on the ground of inferiority in subject, from the high station in which they are to be supplanted by such claimants as Peter Bell, and Harry Gill, and the Idiot Boy. If Wordsworth's claims as a poet can only be justified on grounds which would prove him a deeper student of nature, a saner critic of life, a wiser man and a greater poet than Shakespeare, the inference is no less obvious than inevitable: Wordsworth's claims as a poet must in that case go by the board altogether, and at once, and for ever. . . .

Meditation and sympathy, not action and passion, were the two main strings of his serene and stormless lyre. On these no hand ever held more gentle yet more sovereign rule than Wordsworth's. His command of all qualities and powers that are proper to the natural scope and adequate to the just application of his genius was as perfect as the command of those greater than he — of the greatest among all great poets — over the worlds of passion and of action. [117]

His earlier disciples or believers, from the highest to the lowest in point of intelligence — from a young man like Mr. Henry Taylor to a young man like Mr. Frederick Faber, — all were misled, as it seems to my humble understanding, by their more or less practical consent to accept Wordsworth's own point of view as the one and only proper or adequate outlook from which to contemplate the genius and the work, the aim and the accomplishment of Wordsworth. Not that he did wrong to think himself a great teacher: he was a teacher no less beneficent than great: but he was wrong in thinking himself a poet because he was a teacher, whereas in fact he was a teacher because he was a poet. This radical and incurable error vitiated more than half his theory of poetry and impaired more than half his practice. So much at least, if not something more, is equally deplorable and true: but when it has been duly admitted and deplored, the majestic and inviolable figure of his fame which remains standing, unshaken and unsullied, above all but the great and beside all but the greatest of his kind, towers high enough to darken and to dwarf the pretentions of the Byrons and the Southeys in scarcely less degree than itself is overtopped and overshadowed by the proportions of Homer or of Shakespeare. [124-25]


Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “Wordsworth and Byron.” Miscellanies. London: Chatto & Windus, 1886. 63-156. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library, Web. 5 April 2020.

Last modified 7 April 2020