xcept for a brief reassessment by Lascelles Abercrombie in 1932 and, more recently, the inclusion of the preface to Philip van Artevelde (1834) in a widely used anthology of Victorian poetry and criticism, the literary career of Sir Henry Taylor (1800-86) has been given only passing at tention by recent literary scholars.1 Yet even granting those limitations of achievement which hindsight has made clear over the last century, one might among reasonably have expected more curiosity to be awakened by the respectful, sometimes fulsome plaudits of his contemporaries.2 In his own day Taylor figured prominently in certain literary and political circles, not only as a poet and criticbut as the author of thepolitical treatise The Statesman (1836), which still enjoys amodest reputation among historians of political theory. Young enough to be Wordsworth's son, Taylor was several years older than Tennyson and a close friend of both men. Wordsworth's friend Isabella Fenwick was Taylor's step-cousin through his father's second marriage; Taylor's wife was a first cousin of Aubrey De Vere. Taylor knew Southey and Lockhart; his circle of friends also included James Spedding, later Bacon's biographer, and various of the young Benthamites who make their appear ance in the early pages of Mill's Autobiography. A career at the Colonial Office brought him in contact with the larger world of public events and with various prominent civil servants and politicians. Perhaps it is this very omnipresence, causing Taylor to be thought of primarily in terms of his relationships to other figures of his day, that has prevented him from ever coming into focus in his own right.
This paper will confine itself to Taylor in one particular role: as literary critic. His own poetic endeavors are of somewhat lesser interest today. His first play, Isaac Comnenus (1827), would have been virtually stillborn had not Taylor reissued it, heavily revised, in a later edition of his works. His reputation as a poet rests largely on Philip van Artevelde, and the plays which follow it do not significantly alter the dimensions of his reputation any more than does his single volume of shorter poems, The Eve of the Conquest and Other Poems (1847). As a literary critic, however, Taylor is of considerable interest as Wordsworth's chief publicist in the 1830s and '40s. In addition, his relationship with Aubrey De Vere and his few pieces of published criticism after the 1840s bear witness to the survival of various strains of Wordsworthianism into the Victorian period and reveal the relationship of those strains to other motifs in Victorian poetic theory.
In the preface to Philip van Artevelde, Taylor pays some tribute to the "popular poetry of the times," and its sway over his feelings, but questions whether it deserves the high estimate it has received. That his comments are aimed at Byron and Shelley may not be immediately apparent, but a knowledgeable contemporary would easily have deciphered Taylor's veiled allusion to poets who "were characterized by great sensibility and fervour, by a profusion of imagery, by force and beauty of language, and by a versification peculiarly easy and adroit and abounding in that sort of melody which, by its very obvious cadences, makes itself most pleasing to an unpractised ear."3 Unfortunately, Taylor argues, such qualities have too often been associated with the neglect of the "intellectual and immortal" attributes of poetry, the exaltation of feeling over reflection and image over thought, and the failure to utilize sufficiently worthy subject-matter. Although Wordsworth isnowhere mentioned by name in the main text,4 Taylor's strictures on the second generation of Romantics have an undeniably Wordsworthian ring:
It did not belong to poetry, in their apprehension, to thread the mazes of life in all its classes and under all its circumstances, common as well as romantic, and seeing all things, to infer and instruct: on the contrary, it was to stand aloof from everything that is plain and true; to have little concern with what is rational or wise; it was to be, like music, a moving and enchanting art, acting upon the fancy, the affections, the passions, but scarcely connected with the exercise of the intellectual faculties. [W, I,viii]
But such poetry cannot endure, for its durability requires "sense rapt or inspired by passion, not bewildered or subverted." Byron provides evidence of that "uninformed energy" which characterizes an unphilosophical mind. The diction of poetry since Byron has tended to be merely "an arrangement of words implying a sensitive state of mind," unbolstered by any appeal to the understanding (p. xii). Shelley's imagination, though "more powerful and expansive," was not the match of Byron's in the construction of poetic wholes, but rather expressed itself in incidental effects.5 Furthermore, Shelley violated the requirement that thepoet observe nature closely, apparently be cause he felt that "no phenomena can be perfectly poetical until they shall have been so decomposed from their natural order and coherency as to be brought before the reader in the likeness of a phantasma or a vision" (p. xiii). In a letter to his mother written during the period in which he was composing Philip van Artevelde, Taylor asserted that "poetical exercitation" could never provide a "relaxation from intellectual effort."6 And the preface confirms this view: "I would have no man depress his imagination, but I would have him raise his reason to be its equipoise." For reason, far from being antagonistic to poetic genius, is instead "one of its most essential constituents" (p. xiv).
Taylor's first essay on Wordsworth, published the same year in the Quarterly Review, attempts by contrast to define more precisely what should be preserved in the Romantic inheritance. Taylor begins by reviewing the influence of Wordsworth's theory of poetic diction, and suggests that although that theory accomplished its end by weeding out much jaded neoclassical vocabulary, a new stock of errors has taken the latter's place. Poets are now all too liable to employ dimly evocative words such as "bright," "dark," "lonely," "light," "dream," and "halo" with "a sort of feeling senselessness." Poets can never draw their vocabulary solely from everyday life, nor can they reject "scholastic" or archaic language out of hand, but they can at least "avoid any words which are not admissible in good prose or unaffected conversation, whether erudite or ordinary? and . . . avoid the employment of any words in a sense which is not their legitimate prosaic sense" (W, v, 5-6). Wordsworth's practice is perhaps the best guide, although atmoments his theory seems, in Taylor's eyes, to have betrayed him into not just plain but colloquial language, "not only divested of adventitious associations of the poetical kind, but charged with opposite associations" (p. 12).
Taylor then turns to broader questions, first of all separating himself from those who would present Wordsworth as a greater thinker than poet, and here he espouses a position not unlike that which Mill was to take up in his Autobiography.7 Wordsworth, Taylor suggests, is philosophic in judgment rather than in reason, philosophic "in the sense in which anyman must be so who writes from the impulses of a capacious and powerful mind, habituated to observe, to analyse, and to generalise" (p. 16). Truth can be perceived only piecemeal, and poetry can only "cast partial lights upon it." Yet there is a "unity of drift" in the Wordsworthian canon, even if no single poem fully embodies a self-contained, all-encompassing truth. The quiet tranquillity to be derived from the study of nature is of a piece with Wordsworth's belief that the feelings should nourish the intellect; and an "impassioned love of nature," rather than an abstract system, is the lifeblood of his poetry, even while it clears one's "intellectual vision" from "the obstructions of petty cares as well as turbid excitements." As nature steadies the poetic imagination, so does Wordsworth's poetry fortify the mind against "many selfish and many sentimental weaknesses, precluding trivial excitement, and coupling the indulgence (necessary in one way or another) of passionate feeling, with serious study, and as much of intellectual exercise as the understanding may happen to have strength to bear" (p. 32). Thus the "Ode to Duty" makes it clear that self-government checks the excesses of human nature, and that "thoughtfulness becomes a condition of a dutiful life, inasmuch as the qualities of such a being necessarily draw him into more complicated and pregnant relationswith his fellow-creatures" (p. 34). Readers who require violent stimuli, those forwhom "abrupt and startling ejaculations, or extravagant figures of speech" are a necessary concomitant of passion, will be largely unmoved by a language which is characterized by a truthfulness grounded in "just and exact feeling" or by situations which show Wordsworth's "minute familiarity" with the daily life of people in every station, his ability to enter sympathetically into their joys and sorrows.8
In a subsequent article published in the Quarterly in 1841, a more heavily political discussion of Wordsworth's sonnets on capital punishment and on political liberty, Taylor refined further his views on Wordsworth's thought fully moderated responses to reality: "What some persons would consider the poetic or romantic view of things never shuts out from Mr. Wordsworth's mind the contemplation of the whole truth. For the whole truth received into a poetic mind of the highest, that is, of the philosophic order, may always take a poetical shape" (v. 107). Taylor then speaks admiringly of Wordsworth's willingness to confront and absorb the advances of science with a religious heart, as Bacon had done. Such an openness is itself a deterrent to that fear which often causes a mind to lose sight of the resources of its "imaginative and susceptible nature." Taylor quotes the concluding line from the sonnet on the recovery of the Church after Diocletian's persecution: "For all things are less dreadful than they seem," and observes that
fear itself is not more the characteristic of a highly imaginative mind than faith; and the love which casteth out fearwill grow in power, and all the antagonist emotions will be awakened, as the thing apprehended becomes lessmatter of imagination and more matter of distinct perception and knowledge. Poets, therefore, have perpetual occasion ... to apply the consolations of the imaginative reason as a corrective to the excesses of imaginative passion. [v, 117]
Thus, by the beginning of the 1840s the main lines of Taylor's critical principles have been clearly established. First, there is the argument for simplicity in style. The poet's ideas may in truth be complex, and the expression correspondingly so; Taylor has no sympathy with lazy readers, and "Mr. Wordsworth never intended so to write that those who ran might read" (v, 121). But compression and complexity need not be signs of confusion: "a poet who writes for posterity, though he will bestow infinite labour upon perspicuity, will not sacrifice to it thedepth and comprehensive ness which, whilst it is indispensable to the truthfulness of his conceptions, may often be irreconcilable with absolute distinctness of expression" (v, 122). The language of poetry, in Taylor's view, will most normally come to occupy a middle ground between the neoclassical jargon which Wordsworth rejected and the vague, inflated diction of some of the followers of Byron and Shelley.
Second, Taylor applauds Wordsworth's preference for subject-matter rooted in common life. In an essay published a few years later in Notes from Life, entitled "The Life Poetic" (1847), he put it this way: "[I]f. . . a poet would entitle himself to take the highest rank in his art, — to be numbered, that is, among the 'poets sage,' — he should be, to a moderate extent, mixed up with the affairs of life . . . . His speculations should emanate from facts and events, and his poetry should have its roots in the common earth" (W, iv, 119).
Finally, Taylor's criticism emphasizes the need for intellectual discipline in poetic composition, and the embodiment of thatdiscipline in careful scaffold ing, in a clear and reasoned structure. "The Life Poetic" reflects not only the values developed during Taylor's own career as a civil servant, "mixed up with the affairs of life," but also the relative lateness with which he made his mark as a poet; and both his poetic career and that of Wordsworth seem to have convinced him that poetry of the "highest intellectual order" is written after youth. Only a mature writer can attend properly, and with the requisite patience, to matters of form, for in early life it is at best difficult to attain a proper "balance of reason with imagination, passion with self-possession, abundance with reserve, and inventive conception with executive ability" (pp. 155-56). One may turn either to Taylor's Autobiography (1885) or to his published correspondence to find a continuing interest in questions of formal design in the poetic drama, by which he obviously hoped his achievement would be principally gauged. While struggling in 1836 with a projected drama on Becket, a drama which in any event was never finished if even begun, he wrote to Isabella Fenwick:
I never do anything which is so difficult to me as this; there are so many objects to be kept in view. One has to think out each of those objects elaborately by itself, and then to conceive an abstract of them in such a wholeness as may represent their proportions and subordinations, and prevent the sacrifice of the greater to the less, which is not easy. (C, p.74)
Taylor's concern with matters of formal effect in poetry sets him clearly aside from other, more impressionistic Victorian critics. He is, in fact, an exponent for a period of transition in English poetic theory and criticism in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although he pays scant visible attention to classical models, he anticipates strikingly the major concerns of Matthew Arnold's criticism. In 1834, as we have noted, the preface to Philip asked that reason be the "equipoise" of imagination; by the time of the second essay on Wordsworth in 1841 Taylor had combined the two terms in the same phrase, "imaginative reason," which Arnold was to employ in "Pagan and Medieval Religious Sentiment." Furthermore, Taylor's interest in structure and his distrust of isolated effects are of a piece with Arnold's protest against "poems which seem to exist merely for the sake of single lines and passages; not for the sake of producing any total impression."9 Taylor's emphasis on the role of the "executive" faculty in poetic construction thus marks an intermediate stage between Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads and Arnold's preface of 1853. It is at least tempting to speculate that had his views prevailed in the 1830's, Arnold's famous attack on Masson and the ultimate rout of the Spasmodics in the 1850's and 60's at the hands of critics like Aytoun might have been unnecessary. Although matters of poetic form are less pronounced in Taylor's criticism after the 1834 preface, they continued to preoccupy him as a reader. In a letter to De Vere of February 7, 1856, he praised the "rare and peculiar amenity and grace" of Patmore's The Angel in the House, but expressed his regret that a second part was planned:
Nothing is more important to a light poem of that kind than to be rounded off briefly and lie in a ring fence. Even if another poem of equal merit in the same kind could be produced, the effect of both would be partly injured by the feeling that itwas a thing which could be done twice over. But the chances are that the second poem will be inferior. Is there any instance in which second parts, which are second thoughts and did not enter into the original structure, have not halted? [C, pp.216-17]
But Taylor is also a link between Wordsworth and Arnold in his concern for philosophical comprehensiveness to clarity of language. Two letters to an unnamed Oxford undergraduate in 1838 make clear his firm belief that intellectual effort is central to the poetic process: "In my own estimation, a high cultivation of the logical faculty is essential to the existence of the poetical power in any of its higher kinds" (C, p. 106). The concomitant distrust of the visionary element in poetry undoubtedly blunted Taylor's appeal, and his influence as a critic was thus limited to those Victorian circles whose reactions against the generation of Byron, Shelley, and Keats were grounded asmuch in technical as in moral considerations. Taylor, that is, belongs to a kind of Victorian neoclassical movement as a result of both temperament and belief.
This can best be seen in a literary relationship central in Taylor's life, the aforementioned friendship with his wife's first cousin Aubrey De Vere. On Christmas Day, 1838, De Vere wrote to his sister an account of his first meeting with the author of Philip van Artevelde:
He is very (I think remarkably) handsome, and the most stately person I ever saw. He talks very slowly and in a very measured manner. There is, I confess, something almost formidable in the extreme statue-like coldness and serenity of his manner. The conversation turned a great deal on Wordsworth, his character and life. Henry Taylor said that there was a great deal about him which at first seemed to indicate want of heart? the quiet manner, for instance, in which he takes misfortunes and bereavements. This, however, he says may be attributed to the extreme comprehensiveness of his nature, and the degree towhich his peculiar style of poetry has accustomed him to idealise common life.10
The description is revealing, for it suggests — whether or not De Vere in tended this? — that Taylor modeled not only his poetry and critical theorybut his person on Wordsworth. When we add to this Taylor's own description of his most famous protagonist, Philip van Artevelde, as a statesman,we begin to sense that Philip in turn is modeled on both poets.11 Yet De Vere's description itselfhas a certain uncomfortable remoteness. Although the two men reviewed each otherwith great respect, and paid tribute to each other in their autobiographies — such clubbiness in print being much more in the nature of things for the Victorians than for ourselves — the sense of distance persists, and the reason is indicative of how two different personalities reacted in quite distinct ways to their Romantic inheritance, and in particular to Wordsworth.
That reason lies in an issue which has not been our primary concern here but which nonetheless has its part to play in his differences with De Vere. Taylor's religious position, on the evidence of his memoirs and correspondence, seems to have been quietly skeptical. De Vere, by contrast, grew up in a devout High Anglican household (his father, Aubrey De Vere, Sr., wrote a number of devotional verses in the vein of Keble as well as descriptive and ecclesiastical sonnets in the vein ofWordsworth), and was to follow Newman to Rome in the early 1850s. The personal warmth towhich De Vere's contemporaries pay tribute, and which seems to have minimized the results of a kind of defection takenmuch more seriously then than now, was one ingredient in a poetic nature in which lyric fervor sought increasingly to embody itself in religious and doctrinal subject-matter. De Vere's review of Taylor's play Edwin the Fair in 1843 praises the admirable solidity and severity of the play's structure and language (a judgment in which few critics, and certainly not Taylor's friend Wordsworth, followed him) but regrets the lack of "that perfect spontaneity of movement and redundant life" which was so characteristic of earlier dramatists.12 The criticism is muted, but undeniably present, as it is again in 1849 when De Vere praised the shorter poems in The Eve of Conquest as "wrought out with a more discriminating touch than his dramas." The latter review, however, after praising Taylor's poetry for "that practical Truth which constitutes reality," speedily broadens out to become a statement of general principle on kinds of Truth in poetry: truth of character, of veracity, of sentiment and thought, of passion, of style, of scenery, and of "keeping," or proportion. Behind this last kind of truth, De Vere sees a much more important truth, and it is not clear whether the statement that follows is to be taken as an oblique praise of Taylor or as a guarded, carefully measured critique of him. Perhaps De Vere did not wish it to be clear:
A first-rate poem supposes a still higher unity. It is not only the product of the imagination; it is the offspring and exponent of the poet's total being. . . . The unity of the poet's nature ought... to be imaged in his intellectual progeny. Every portion of it, as it grows, must be atrue reflection from his own mind, or from nature as contemplated by that mind; its elements, however complex, must be fused into a crystalline oneness; its parts must be graduated by a just law of proportion. The result of all, namely, a perfect truth of keeping will, consequently, be but an expansion of that truth which was inherent in the impulse and germinal idea from which the poem sprang.13
The passage makes it clear that De Vere adheres to an essentially expressivist rather than an imitative theory of unity.14 Such an approach to the subject is quite alien or, at least, uncongenial to Taylor. Not only his critical theory but his preference as a poet for dramatic rather than lyric forms reflecthis distrust of a method which might seem to surrender too much to the vagaries of the individual psyche.When, in "The Life Poetic," Taylor attempts to describe the imaginative process, he falls back on a kind of eighteenth-century vocabulary: the three stages in that process are the poet's observation of facts, the generalization he draws from those facts, and the "rejection into the concrete, but with improvements from the fancy, of the general conclusions obtained" (W, rv, 119). The language here betrays a somewhat mechanical approach to the poet's method of composition.
It was not precisely on the point of unity that Taylor engaged De Vere, but when his turn came to do the reviewing, the difference in starting-points was instructive. For Taylor theplace to start was clarity, and as early as 1843 he was taxing De Vere with the "obscurity and subtlety . . . [the] crowding and compressing of thoughts" that came from huddling too much into the scope of a poem. He praised De Vere's The Waldenses, on the other hand, because of itspurity and simplicity; thesewere the signs of
a mind not going astray afternovel sentiments and originalities, but, on the contrary, absorbed in the enthusiasm of its first love for the great elementary principles which are native to the heart of man. There are here no subtleties, no curious inquiries, or hintings of undiscovered truths; but at the same time there are thrown up, not unfrequently, such high and grave results of contemplation as passion passing through a thoughtful mind will naturally meet with on its way.15
All this pretty clearly amounts to a hoisting of the Wordsworthian standard. Taylor is willing to concede to De Vere his religious subject-matter, calling him the best of the Tractarian poets but blessedly unpolemical. At the same time, he announces his preference for the avoidance of supernatural machinery in poetry, and makes it clear that his sympathies are with De Vere's less visionary moments: "When Mr. De Vere ascends into the clouds, we are not so much with him as when he walks amongst men; but we do not deny that he moves in the thinner element with a light and buoyant step" (p. 149). Taylor is also at pains to distinguish himself from readers of the sort Wordsworth attacked, those who believe that poetry should provide, in Taylor's words, "refined amusement and pleasant stimulant for idle moments." There is nothing wrong with poetry which requires effort; the objection he would make, rather, to a poem like De Vere's "Tale of the Modern Time" is that the subject itself is treated indistinctly.
Taylor's most candid assessment of De Vere occurred first in a private letter of 1862, but he felt free to repeat it quite openly some twenty years later in his Autobiography. What may have been a persistent, if not growing, irritation with De Vere's brand of doctrinal poetry finally surfaced with the receipt of a letter from his friend defending the arrangement of the May Carols, a series of poems on the doctrine of the Incarnation published first in 1857. Taylor begins his response with the allegation that De Vere fails to exercise "that preliminary act of the Imagination by which a man conceives his audience" (C, p. 251). He goes on:
My own belief is thatwhatever may be the value of this sort of philo sophical theology in itself, it has no vocation to express itself in verse. If itbe not unintelligible in prose (which itwill be to the many), the concentration of it in poetic forms forbids any such development as would convey it to any but some enthusiastic student of such themes. The philosophy which poetry can convey appears to me to consist chiefly of generalised truths (relating tohuman life and affections) which can be at once and undoubtingly recognised as the result of a just and penetrating insight. Taylor continues with an interesting attempt to distinguish between attrac tivemysteriousness and unattractive obscurity in poetry. An instance of the first, he suggests tentatively, iswhen themystery is some familiar puzzle of the human mind which we all contemplate with no hope of solving. One would gather that Taylor might here mean something like the doctrine of immortality. But an unattractive obscurity resultswhen poetry becomes the vehicle of a dogma requiring both faith and intellectual assent. Taylor is no friend even to the first; there is an inescapably Macaulayan sneer in his ref erence to unsolved riddles which free the mind from "straining at conclusions" and give license to "a sort of luxury of dimness." But poetry which argues a case on points that can never be proved is scarcely poetry at all (C, pp. 252-53).
The quarrel between Taylor and De Vere is especially revealing because both view themselves as transmitters of the Wordsworthian tradition. Neither was entirely amiss inmaking that claim. But for Taylor, Wordsworth was a source of ethical instruction and, perhaps somewhat more importantly, of precepts on the fit style and subject-matter of poetry. He preferred Wordsworth's "more sedate but not less deeply-seated love of nature, — that wedded love by which his works are more generally characterised" to those sections of the poem which "his love of nature has impressed with some traces of inordinate desires, instigating the imagination to fictions of impossible fulfilments — desires for community of feeling and reciprocity of spiritual communication with things inanimate" (W, v, 27-28). Thus Taylor had some difficulty in "reconcil[ing] with reason" the passage from "Tintern Abbey" beginning,
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts.
De Vere, more attuned to Wordsworth's mysticism, would have had no such difficulty. He agreed with Taylor that Wordsworth's poetry was ethically elevated, but this fact alone did not, in De Vere's view, adequately convey Wordsworth's real significance for the Victorians, namely, thathe had brought the love of Nature to the threshold of revealed religion.16 And if Taylor was unable to follow De Vere into the realm of religious wonder, De Vere was in turn puzzled by Taylor's discomfort in the face even of natural wonders. In a revealing passage in his Recollections, he recounted a trip to the Alps made in Taylor's company:
The Alps oppressed his spirits like whispers implying painful mysteries or threatening news. The lines of great mountains have a mathematics of their own; they are hieroglyphics. By those who apprehend them in part, but only in part, they are regarded with aversion. To him they were perplexing and distressing, as the minor key eminently was in music; for he felt that there was a deep significance in them; but they would neither reveal what they meant nor let him alone. Alpine scenery was to him a sphinx that threatened to devour those that could not guess their riddle. They were a chaos reasserting its primeval claims upon a world which had submitted long since to a milder control.17
The description is reminiscent of the reaction of some among Taylor's earlier critics as the dispute over the future of poetry raged in the 1830s and '40s. The great Romantics were dead, or, like Wordsworth, aging relics of the past. Was there any need for poetry at all? And if so, was it to be preeminently a poetry of reason, instruction, and everyday life, or a new poetry of vision and prophecy? For Richard Hengist Horne, the preface to Philip van Artevelde offered all too many dangerous excuses "for depressing the tone of all modern poetry, moderating passion at the very outset, and stunting the growth of imagination by never suffering it to rise beyond the calm level of reason and common sense."18 Taylor's belief in "imaginative reason" undeniably stresses the noun at the expense of the modifier. But this does not diminish the honor that accrues to him for having proclaimed clearly the dangers of one kind of poetic excess in the still uncertain literary climate of early Victorian England.
University of Illinois at Chicago Circle
Last modified 15 November 2014