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n what we may call his more private capacity as a poet the most especial and distinctive quality of his genius is rather its pathetic [emotional] than its introspective, its tragic than its philosophic note. A poet of action he never claimed or wished to be: as a poet of introspection, of spiritual insight or ethical doctrine, he has been — if it may be said without irreverence — perhaps alike overrated by others and by himself: but as the poet of suffering, and of sympathy with suffering, his station is unequalled in its kind. Here, except when he is floated away on the unconfined and wide-weltering waters of his limitless blank verse, he scarcely ever seems to me — as even to Mr. Arnold I find that he sometimes seems — to go wrong. . . .

Wordsworth at his best is sublime by the very force of his tenderness. And sometimes, even where no such profound note of emotion is touched as to evoke this peculiar sense of power, the utter sincerity and perfect singleness of heart and spirit by which that highest effect is elsewhere produced may be no less distinctly and no less delightedly recognized. This quality of itself is no doubt insufficient to produce any such effect: and Wordsworth, it may be confessed, was liable to failure as complete as might have been expected, when, having no other merit of subject or of treatment to rely on, he was content to rely on his sincerity and simplicity alone ; with a result sometimes merely trivial and unmeritable, sometimes actually repulsive or oppressive. [137]

[If] we look to detached lines and phrases, — a method greatly favoured and skilfully practised by Mr. Arnold, — there is no poet of any time or nation beside whom Wordsworth need fear to stand. There is nothing of style, in the highest sense, more Shakespearean in Shakespeare than such a turn of expression as 'the engines of her pain, the tools that shaped her sorrow: 'there is nothing outside Æschylus so Æschylean as the magnificent and daring accuracy of the single epithet which brings before us a whole charge of storming breakers as they crowd and crash upon each other. [134]

“Ode on Intimations of Immortality”

I should place on the one hand the Ode to Duty, on the other hand the Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle, as instances of decisive and perfect success, high — upon the whole — above the Ode on Intimations of Immortality. That famous, ambitious, and occasionally magnificent poem — which by the way is no more an ode than it is an epic — reveals the partiality and inequality of Wordsworth's inspiration as unmistakably as its purity and its power. Five stanzas or sections — from the opening of the fifth to the close of the ninth — would be utterly above all praise, if the note they are pitched in were sustained throughout: but after its unspeakably beautiful opening the seventh stanza falls suddenly far down beneath the level of those five first lines, so superb in the majesty of their sweetness, the magnificence of their tenderness, that to have written but the two last of them would have added glory to any poet's crown of fame. The details which follow on the close of this opening cadence do but impair its charm with a sense of incongruous realism and triviality, to which the suddenly halting and disjointed metre bears only too direct and significant a correspondence. No poet, surely, ever 'changed his hand' with such inharmonious awkwardness. [135]

The very year which produced such doleful examples of eccentricity in dullness — relieved by hardly a touch here and there of attentive tenderness and truth — as The Thorn and The Idiot Boy, produced also the imperishable poem on Tintern Abbey: a poem which wants but the excision of one or two futile phrases, the reconstruction of two or three nerveless lines, to make perfect and unquestionable the justice of its claim to be ranked with the most triumphant successes of English poetry. Again, among the Memorials of a Tour in Scotland, 1803, we find side by side the astonishing admonition 'to the sons of Burns' — astonishing no less for its unutterable platitude of expression than for the taste which could dictate such a style of address on such an occasion — and the four glorious poems which give back with such serene perfection of stately ease and high simplicity the very spirit of the Highlands in their severe peace and bright austerity of summer. In the lines To a Highland Girl, in Glen Almain, Stepping Westward, and The Solitary Reaper, the purest note of Wordsworth's genius is discernible in such fullness and sweetness of fervent thought and majestic sympathy, that the neighbourhood of any verse less noble than this is yet more inexplicable than regrettable. Two of these, Glen Almain and the Reaper, are throughout as perfect examples of the author's metrical instinct as of his peculiar tone of meditation: a point of as much or as little importance to a poet's work as is the command of line and colour to a painter's. [140]

Matthew Arnold’s Tribute to Wordsworth

Wordsworth was so great a master of the strict and regular octosyllabic measure, that at times its proverbially 'fatal facility' seems in his hands alone to have lost all danger: its fluency gains strength and weight, its ease assumes gravity and grandeur. It is just and fit, therefore, that the noblest tribute ever paid to his name should be couched in verses not only worthy of his own hand, but written in this very simple and very exacting metre; so easy to work in badly, and so hard to work in well, that perhaps one poet alone has learnt all the effect of its elegiac resources from this master of the difficult and simple secret. Whether we do or do not agree at all points with the pupil as critic or commentator, it is none the less undeniable that the perfect, the (final, the supreme praise of Wordsworth will always be sought, always cherished, and always enjoyed in Mr. Arnold's memorial verses on his death. Here if anywhere is the right chord struck, the just and exact meed of honour assigned to a poet whose work was for so long the object of blundering blame and no less blundering praise. 'Wordsworth's healing power,' his gift of direct or indirect refreshment, the comfort and support of his perfect and pure sincerity in all his dealings with nature, can best be felt, can only perhaps be felt in full, when we consent to forget and succeed in forgetting his excursion or excursions into the preacher's province, a territory dense and dubious with didactic quags and theosophic briars. In his own far loftier land of natural contemplation, when least meditative with any prepense or prefixed purpose, he could do such work and give such gifts as no other poet has given or has done. [142-43]


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