Story type: Essay
One fault in Wordsworth’s ‘Excursion’ suggested by Coleridge, but luckily quite beyond all the resources of tinkering open to William Wordsworth, is–in the choice of a Pedlar as the presiding character who connects the shifting scenes and persons in the ‘Excursion.’ Why should not some man of more authentic station have been complimented with that place, seeing that the appointment lay altogether in Wordsworth’s gift? But really now who could this have been? Garter King-at-Arms would have been a great deal too showy for a working hero. A railway-director, liable at any moment to abscond with the funds of the company, would have been viewed by all readers with far too much suspicion for the tranquillity desirable in a philosophic poem. A colonel of Horse Marines seems quite out of the question: what his proper functions may be, is still a question for the learned; but no man has supposed them to be philosophic. Yet on the other hand, argues Coleridge, would not ‘any wise and beneficent old man,’ without specifying his rank, have met the necessities of the case? Why, certainly, if it is our opinion that Coleridge wishes to have, we conceive that such an old gentleman, advertising in the Times as ‘willing to make himself generally useful,’ might have had a chance of dropping a line to William Wordsworth. But still we don’t know. Beneficent old gentlemen are sometimes great scamps. Men, who give themselves the best of characters in morning papers, are watched occasionally in a disagreeable manner by the police. Itinerant philosophers are absolutely not understood in England. Intruders into private premises, even for grand missionary purposes, are constantly served with summary notices to quit. Mrs. Quickly gave a first-rate character to Simple; but for all that, Dr. Caius with too much show of reason demanded, ‘Vat shall de honest young man do in my closet?’ And we fear that Coleridge’s beneficent old man, lecturing gratis upon things in general, would be regarded with illiberal jealousy by the female servants of any establishment, if he chose to lecture amongst the family linen. ‘What shall de wise beneficent old Monsieur do amongst our washing-tubs?’ We are perfectly confounded by the excessive blindness of Coleridge and nearly all other critics on this matter. ‘Need the rank,’ says Coleridge, ‘have been at all particularized, when nothing follows which the knowledge of that rank is to explain or illustrate?’ Nothing to explain or illustrate! Why, good heavens! it is only by the most distinct and positive information lodged with the constable as to who and what the vagrant was, that the leading philosopher in the ‘Excursion’ could possibly have saved himself over and over again from passing the night in the village ‘lock-up,’ and generally speaking in handcuffs, as one having too probably a design upon the village hen-roosts. In the sixth and seventh books, where the scene lies in the churchyard amongst the mountains, it is evident that the philosopher would have been arrested as a resurrection-man, had he not been known to substantial farmers as a pedlar ‘with some money.’ To be clothed therefore with an intelligible character and a local calling was as indispensable to the free movements of the Wanderer when out upon a philosophical spree, as a passport is to each and every traveller in France. Dr. Franklin, who was a very indifferent philosopher, but very great as a pedlar, and as cunning as Niccolo Machiavelli (which means as cunning as old Nick), was quite aware of this necessity as a tax upon travellers; and at every stage, on halting, he used to stand upright in his stirrups, crying aloud, ‘Gentlemen and Ladies, here I am at your service; Benjamin Franklin by name; once (but that was in boyhood) a devil; viz., in the service of a printer; next a compositor and reader to the press; at present a master-printer. My object in this journey is–to arrest a knave who will else be off to Europe with L200 of my money in his breeches-pocket: that is my final object: my immediate one is–dinner; which, if there is no just reason against it, I beg that you will no longer interrupt.’ Yet still, though it is essential to the free circulation of a philosopher that he should be known for what he is, the reader thinks that at least the philosopher might be known advantageously as regards his social standing. No, he could not. And we speak seriously. How could Coleridge and so many other critics overlook the overruling necessities of the situation? They argue as though Wordsworth had selected a pedlar under some abstract regard for his office of buying and selling: in which case undoubtedly a wholesale man would have a better chance for doing a ‘large stroke of business’ in philosophy than this huckstering retailer. Wordsworth however fixed on a pedlar–not for his commercial relations–but in spite of them. It was not for the essential of his calling that a pedlar was promoted to the post of central philosopher in his philosophic poem, but for an accident indirectly arising out of it. This accident lay in the natural privilege which a pedlar once had through all rural districts of common access to rich and poor, and secondly, in the leisurely nature of his intercourse. Three conditions there were for fulfilling that ministry of philosophic intercourse which Wordsworth’s plan supposed. First, the philosopher must be clothed with a real character, known to the actual usages of the land, and not imaginary: else this postulate of fiction at starting would have operated with an unrealizing effect upon all that followed. Next, it must be a character that was naturally fitted to carry the bearer through a large circuit of districts and villages; else the arena would be too narrow for the large survey of life and conflict demanded: lastly, the character must be one recommending itself alike to all ranks in tracts remote from towns, and procuring an admission ready and gracious to him who supports that character. Now this supreme advantage belonged in a degree absolutely unique to the character of pedlar, or (as Wordsworth euphemistically terms it) of ‘wandering merchant.’ In past generations the materfamilias, the young ladies, and the visitors within their gates, were as anxious for his periodic visit as the humblest of the domestics. They received him therefore with the condescending kindness of persons in a state of joyous expectation: young hearts beat with the anticipation of velvets and brocades from Genoa, lace veils from the Netherlands, jewels and jewelled trinkets; for you are not to think that, like Autolycus, he carried only one trinket. They were sincerely kind to him, being sincerely pleased. Besides, it was politic to assume a gracious manner, since else the pedlar might take out his revenge in the price of his wares; fifteen per cent. would be the least he could reasonably clap on as a premium and solatium to himself for any extra hauteur. This gracious style of intercourse, already favourable to a tone of conversation more liberal and unreserved than would else have been conceded to a vagrant huckster, was further improved by the fact that the pedlar was also the main retailer of news. Here it was that a real advantage offered itself to any mind having that philosophic interest in human characters, struggles, and calamities, which is likely enough to arise amongst a class of men contemplating long records of chance and change through their wanderings, and so often left to their own meditations upon them by long tracts of solitude. The gossip of the neighbouring districts, whether tragic or comic, would have a natural interest from its locality. And such records would lead to illustration from other cases more remote–losing the interest of neighbourhood, but compensating that loss by their deeper intrinsic hold upon the sensibilities. Ladies of the highest rank would suffer their reserve to thaw in such interviews; besides that, before unresisting humility and inferiority too apparent even haughtiness the most
intractable usually abates its fervour.
Coleridge also allows himself, for the sake of argument, not merely to assume too hastily, but to magnify too inordinately. Daniel, the poet, really was called the ‘well-languaged’ (p. 83, vol. ii.), but by whom? Not, as Hooker was called the ‘judicious,’ or Bede the ‘venerable,’ by whole generations; but by an individual. And as to the epithet of ‘prosaic,’ we greatly doubt if so much as one individual ever connected it with Daniel’s name.
But the whole dispute on Poetic Diction is too deep and too broad for an occasional or parenthetic notice. It is a dispute which renews itself in every cultivated language; and even, in its application to different authors within the same language, as for instance, to Milton, to Shakspeare, or to Wordsworth, it takes a special and varied aspect. Declining this, as far too ample a theme, we wish to say one word, but an urgent word and full of clamorous complaint, upon the other branch. This dispute, however, is but one of two paths upon which the Biographical Literature approaches the subject of Wordsworth: the other lies in the direct critical examination of Wordsworth’s poems. As to this, we wish to utter one word, but a word full of clamorous complaint. That the criticisms of Coleridge on William Wordsworth were often false, and that they betrayed fatally the temper of one who never had sympathized heartily with the most exquisite parts of the Lyrical Ballads, might have been a record injurious only to Coleridge himself. But unhappily these perverse criticisms have proved the occasions of ruin to some admirable poems; and, as if that were not enough, have memorialized a painful feature of weakness in Wordsworth’s judgment. If ever on this earth there was a man that in his prime, when saluted with contumely from all quarters, manifested a stern deafness to criticism–it was William Wordsworth. And we thought the better of him by much for this haughty defiance to groundless judgments. But the cloak, which Boreas could not tear away from the traveller’s resistance, oftentimes the too genial Phoebus has filched from his amiable spirit of compliance. These criticisms of Coleridge, generally so wayward and one-sided, but sometimes desperately opposed to every mode of truth, have been the means of exposing in William Wordsworth a weakness of resistance–almost a criminal facility in surrendering his own rights–which else would never have been suspected. We will take one of the worst cases. Readers acquainted with Wordsworth as a poet, are of course acquainted with his poem (originally so fine) upon Gipseys. To a poetic mind it is inevitable–that every spectacle, embodying any remarkable quality in a remarkable excess, should be unusually impressive, and should seem to justify a poetic record. For instance, the solitary life of one who should tend a lighthouse could not fail to move a very deep sympathy with his situation. Here for instance we read the ground of Wordsworth’s ‘Glen Almain.’ Did he care for torpor again, lethargic inertia? Such a spectacle as that in the midst of a nation so morbidly energetic as our own, was calculated to strike some few chords from the harp of a poet so vigilantly keeping watch over human life.
 Valckenaer, in his famous ‘Dissertation on the Phoenissae,’ notices such a dispute as having arisen upon the diction of Euripides. The question is old and familiar as to the quality of the passion in Euripides, by comparison with that in Sophocles. But there was a separate dispute far less notorious as to the quality of the lexis.
 ‘One,’ but in the Eddystone or other principal lighthouses on our coast there are two men resident. True, but these two come upon duty by alternate watches, and generally are as profoundly separated as if living leagues apart.