William Wordsworth by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow and ever-during power;
And central peace subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation. Here you stand,
Adore and worship, when you know it not;
Pious beyond the intention of your thought;
Devout above the meaning of your will.

Some one has told us that Heaven is not a place but a condition of mind, and it is possible that he is right.

But if Heaven is a place, surely it is not unlike Grasmere. Such loveliness of landscape–such sylvan stretches of crystal water–peace and quiet and rest!

Great, green hills lift their heads to the skies, and all the old stone walls and hedgerows are covered with trailing vines and blooming flowers. The air is rich with song of birds, sweet with perfume, and the blossoms gaily shower their petals on the passer-by. Overhead, white, billowy clouds float lazily over their background of ethereal blue. Cool June breezes fan the cheek. Distant knolls are dotted with flocks of sheep whose bells tinkle dreamily; and drowsy hum of beetle makes the bass, while lark song forms the air of the sweet symphony that Nature plays. Such was Grasmere as I first saw it.

To love the plain, homely, common, simple things of earth, of these to sing; to make the familiar beautiful and the commonplace enchanting; to cause each bush to burn with the actual presence of the living God: this is the poet’s office. And if the poet lives near Grasmere, his task does not seem difficult.

From Seventeen Hundred Ninety-nine to Eighteen Hundred Eight, Wordsworth lived at Dove Cottage. Thanks to a few earnest souls, the place is now secured to the people of England and the lovers of poetry wherever they may be. A good old woman has charge of the cottage, and for a slight fee shows you the house and garden and little orchard and objects of interest, all the while talking: and you are glad, for, although unlettered, she is reverent and honest. She was born here, and all she knows is Wordsworth and the people and the things he loved. Is not this enough?

Here Wordsworth lived before anything he wrote was published in book form: here his best work was done, and here Dorothy–splendid, sympathetic Dorothy—was inspiration, critic, friend. But who inspired Dorothy? Coleridge perhaps more than all others, and we know somewhat of their relationship as told in Dorothy’s diary. There is a little Wordsworth Library in Dove Cottage, and I sat at the window of “De Quincey’s room” and read for an hour. Says Dorothy:

“Sat until four o’clock reading dear Coleridge’s letters.”

“We paced the garden until moonrise at one o’clock–we three, brother, Coleridge and I.” “I read Spenser to him aloud and then we had a midnight tea.”

Here in this little, terraced garden, behind the stone cottage with its low ceilings and wide window-seats and little, diamond panes, she in her misery wrote:

“Oh, the pity of it all! Yet there is recompense; every sight reminds me of Coleridge, dear, dear fellow; of our walks and talks by day and night; of all the bright and witty, and sad sweet things of which we spoke and read. I was melancholy and could not talk, and at last I eased my heart by weeping.”

Alas, too often there is competition between brother and sister, then follow misunderstandings; but here the brotherly and sisterly love stands out clear and strong after these hundred years have passed, and we contemplate it with delight. Was ever woman more honestly and better praised than Dorothy?

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“The blessings of my later years
Were with me when I was a boy.
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
And humble cares and gentle fears,
A heart! the fountain of sweet tears,
And love and thought and joy.
And she hath smiles to earth unknown,
Smiles that with motion of their own
Do spread and sink and rise;
That come and go with endless play,
And ever as they pass away
Are hidden in her eyes.”

And so in a dozen or more poems, we see Dorothy reflected. She was the steel on which he tried his flint. Everything he wrote was read to her, then she read it alone, balancing the sentences in the delicate scales of her womanly judgment. “Heart of my heart, is this well done?” When she said, “This will do,” it was no matter who said otherwise.

Back of the house on the rising hillside is the little garden. Hewn out of the solid rock is “Dorothy’s seat.” There I rested while Mrs. Dixon discoursed of poet lore, and told me of how, many times, Coleridge and Dorothy had sat in the same seat and watched the stars.

Then I drank from “the well,” which is more properly a spring; the stones that curb it were placed in their present position by the hand that wrote “The Prelude.” Above the garden is the orchard, where the green linnet still sings, for the birds never grow old.

There, too, are the circling swallows; and in a snug little alcove of the cottage you can read “The Butterfly” from a first edition; and then you can go sit in the orchard, white with blossoms, and see the butterflies that suggested the poem. And if your eye is good you can discover down by the lakeside the daffodils, and listen the while to the cuckoo call.

Then in the orchard you can see not only “the daisy,” but many of them, and, if you wish, Mrs. Dixon will let you dig a bunch of the daisies to take back to America; and if you do, I hope that yours will prosper as have mine, and that Wordsworth’s flowers, like Wordsworth’s verse, will gladden your heart when the blue sky of your life threatens to be o’ercast with gray.

Here Southey came, and “Thalaber” was read aloud in this little garden. Here, too, came Clarkson, the man with a fine feminine carelessness, as Dorothy said. Charles Lloyd sat here and discoursed with William Calvert. Sir George Beaumont forgot his title and rapped often at the quaint, hinged door. An artist was Beaumont, but his best picture they say is not equal to the lines that Wordsworth wrote about it. Sir George was not only a gentleman according to law, but one in heart, for he was a friend, kind, gentle and generous. With such a friend Wordsworth was rich indeed. But perhaps the friends we have are only our other selves, and we get what we deserve.

We must not forget the kindly face of Humphry Davy, whose gracious playfulness was ever a charm to the Wordsworths. The safety-lamp was then only an unspoken word, and perhaps few foresaw the sweetness and light that these two men would yet give to earth.

Walter Scott and his wife came to Dove Cottage in Eighteen Hundred Five. He did not bring his title, for it, like Humphry Davy’s, was as yet unpacked down in London town. They slept in the little cubby-hole of a room in the upper southwest corner. One can imagine Dorothy taking Sir Walter’s shaving-water up to him in the morning; and the savory smell of breakfast as Mistress Mary poured the tea, while England’s future laureate served the toast and eggs: Mr. Scott eating everything in sight and talking a torrent the while about art and philosophy as he passed his cup back, to the consternation of the hostess, whose frugal ways were not used to such ravages of appetite. Of course she did not know that a combined novelist and rhymster ate twice as much as a simple poet.

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Afterwards Mrs. Scott tucked up her dress, putting on one of Dorothy’s aprons, and helped do the dishes.

Then Coleridge came over and they all climbed to the summit of Helm Crag. Shy little De Quincey had read some of Wordsworth’s poems, and knew from their flavor that the man who penned them was a noble soul. He came to Grasmere to call on him: he walked past Dove Cottage twice, but his heart failed him and he went away unannounced. Later, he returned and found the occupants as simple folks as himself.

Happiness was there and good society; few books, but fine culture; plain living and high thinking.

Wordsworth lived at Rydal Mount for thirty-three years, yet the sweetest flowers of his life blossomed at Dove Cottage. For difficulty, toil, struggle, obscurity, poverty, mixed with aspiration and ambition—all these were here. Success came later, but this is naught; for the achievement is more than the public acknowledgment of the deed.

After Wordsworth moved away, De Quincey rented Dove Cottage and lived in it for twenty-seven years. He acquired a library of more than five thousand volumes, making bookshelves on four sides of the little rooms from floor to ceiling. Some of these shelves still remain. Here he turned night into day and dreamed the dreams of “The Opium-Eater.”

And all these are some of the things that Mrs. Dixon told me on that bright Summer day. What if I had heard them before! no difference. Dear old lady, I salute you and at your feet I lay my gratitude for a day of rare and quiet joy.

“Farewell, thou little nook of mountain ground,
Thou rocky corner in the lowest stair
Of that magnificent temple which does bound
One side of our whole vale with gardens rare,
Sweet garden-orchard, eminently fair,
The loveliest spot that man has ever found,
Farewell! We leave thee to Heaven’s peaceful care,
Thee, and the Cottage which thou dost surround.”

* * * * *

At places of pleasure and entertainment in the Far West, are often found functionaries known as “bouncers.” It is the duty of the bouncer to give hints to objectionable visitors that their presence is not desired. And inasmuch as there are many men who can never take a hint without a kick, the bouncer is a person selected on account of his peculiar fitness–psychic and otherwise–for the place. We all have special talents, and these faculties should be used in a manner that will help our fellowmen on their way.

My acquaintanceship with the bouncer has been only general, not particular. Yet I have admired him from a distance, and the skill and eclat that he sometimes shows in a professional way has often excited my admiration.

In social usages, America borrows constantly from the mother country. But like all borrowing it seems to be one-sided, for seldom, very, very seldom, in point of etiquette and manners does England borrow from us. Yet there are exceptions.

It is a beautiful highway that skirts Lake Windermere and follows up through Ambleside. We get a glimpse of the old home of Harriet Martineau, and “Fox Howe,” the home of Matthew Arnold. Just before Rydal Water is reached comes Rydal Road, running straight up the hillside, off from the turnpike. Rydal Mount is the third house up on the left-hand side, I knew the location, for I had read of it many times, and in my pocketbook I carried a picture taken from an old “Frank Leslie’s,” showing the house.

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My heart beat fast as I climbed the hill. To visit the old home of one who was Poet Laureate of England is no small event in the life of a book-lover. I was full of poetry and murmured lines from “The Excursion” as I walked. Soon rare old Rydal Mount came in sight among the wealth of green. I stopped and sighed. Yes, yes, Wordsworth lived here for thirty-three years, and here he died; the spot whereon I then stood had been pressed many times by his feet. I walked slowly, with uncovered head, and approached the gate. It was locked. I fumbled at the latch; and just as there came a prospect of its opening, a loud, deep, guttural voice dashed over me like a wave:

“There–you! now, wot you want?”

The owner of this voice was not ten feet away, but he was standing up close to the wall and I had not seen him. I was somewhat startled at first. The man did not move. I stepped to one side to get a better view of my interlocutor, and saw him to be a large, red man of perhaps fifty. A handkerchief was knotted around his thick neck, and he held a heavy hoe in his hand. A genuine beefeater he was, only he ate too much beef and the ale he drank was evidently Extra XXX.

His scowl was so needlessly severe and his manner so belligerent that I–thrice armed, knowing my cause was just–could not restrain a smile. I touched my hat and said, “Ah, excuse me, Mr. Falstaff, you are the bouncer?”

“Never mind wot I am, sir–‘oo are you?”

“I am a great admirer of Wordsworth—-“

“That’s the way they all begins. Cawn’t ye hadmire ‘im on that side of the wall as well as this?”

There is no use of wasting argument with a man of this stamp; besides that, his question was to the point. But there are several ways of overcoming one’s adversary: I began feeling in my pocket for pence. My enemy ceased glaring, stepped up to the locked gate as though he half-wished to be friendly, and there was sorrow in his voice: “Don’t tempt me, sir; don’t do ut! The Missus is peekin’ out of the shutters at us now.”

“And do you never admit visitors, even to the grounds?”

“No, sir, never, God ‘elp me! and there’s many an honest bob I could turn by ut, and no one ‘urt. But I’ve lost my place twic’t by ut. They took me back though. The Guv’ner ‘ud never forgive me again. ‘It’s three times and out, Mister ‘Opkins,’ says ‘ee, only last Whitsuntide.”

“But visitors do come?”

“Yes, sir; but they never gets in. Mostly ‘mer’cans; they don’t know no better, sir. They picks all the ivy orf the outside of the wall, and you sees yourself there’s no leaves on the lower branches of that tree. Then they carries away so many pebbles from out there that I’ve to dump in a fresh weelbarrel full o’ gravel every week, sir, don’t you know.”

He thrust a pudgy, freckled hand through the bars of the gate to show that he bore me no ill-will, and also, I suppose, to mollify my disappointment. For although I had come too late to see the great poet himself and had even failed to see the inside of his house, yet I had at least been greeted at the gate by his proxy. I pressed the hand firmly, pocketed a handful of gravel as a memento, then turned and went my way.

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And all there is to tell about my visit to Rydal Mount is this interview with the bouncer.

* * * * *

Wordsworth lived eighty years. His habitation, except for short periods, was never more than a few miles from his birthplace. His education was not extensive, his learning not profound. He lacked humor and passion; in his character there was little personal magnetism, and in his work there is small dramatic power.

He traveled more or less and knew humanity, but he did not know man. His experience in so-called practical things was slight, his judgment not accurate. So he lived–quietly, modestly, dreamily.

His dust rests in a country churchyard, the grave marked by a simple slab. A gnarled, old yew-tree stands guard above the grass-grown mound. The nearest railroad is fifteen miles away.

As a poet, Wordsworth stands in the front rank of the second class. Shelley, Browning, Mrs. Browning, Tennyson, far surpass him; and the sweet singer of Michigan, even in uninspired moments, never “threw off” anything worse than this:

“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.
One prop he has, and only one,
His wife, an aged woman,
Lives with him near the waterfall,
Upon the village common.”

Jove may nod, but when he makes a move it counts.

Yet the influence of Wordsworth upon the thought and feeling of the world has been very great. He himself said, “The young will read my poems and be better for their truth.” Many of his lines pass as current coin: “The child is father of the man,” “The light that never was on land nor sea,” “Not too bright and good for human nature’s daily food,” “Thoughts that do lie too deep for tears,” “The mighty stream of tendency,” and many others. “Plain living and high thinking” is generally given to Emerson, but he discovered it in Wordsworth, and recognizing it as his own he took it. In a certain book of quotations, “The still sad music of humanity” is given to Shakespeare; but to equalize matters we sometimes attribute to Wordsworth “The Old Oaken Bucket.”

The men who win are those who correct an abuse. Wordsworth’s work was a protest–mild yet firm–against the bombastic and artificial school of the Eighteenth Century. Before his day the “timber” used by poets consisted of angels, devils, ghosts, gods; onslaught, tourneys, jousts, tempests of hate and torrents of wrath, always of course with a very beautiful and very susceptible young lady just around the corner. The women in those days were always young and ever beautiful, but seldom wise and not often good. The men were saints or else “bad,” generally bad. Like the cats of Kilkenny, they fought on slight cause.

Our young man at Hawkshead School saw this: it pleased him not, and he made a list of the things on which he would write poems. This list includes: sunset, moonrise, starlight, mist, brooks, shells, stones, butterflies, moths, swallows, linnets, thrushes, wagoners, babies, bark of trees, leaves, nests, fishes, rushes, leeches, cobwebs, clouds, deer, music, shade, swans, crags and snow. He kept his vow and “went it one better,” for among his verses I find the following titles: “Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” “To a Wounded Butterfly,” “To Dora’s Portrait,” “To the Cuckoo,” “On Seeing a Needlebook Made in the Shape of a Harp,” etc.

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Wordsworth’s service to humanity consists in the fact that he has shown us old truth in a new light, and has made plain the close relationship that exists between physical nature and the soul of man. Is this much or little? I think it is much. When we realize that we are a part of all that we see, or hear, or feel, we are not lonely. But to feel a sense of separation is to feel the chill of death.

Wordsworth taught that the earth is the universal Mother and that the life of the flower has its source in the same universal life from whence ours is derived. To know this truth is to feel a tenderness, a kindliness, a spirit of fraternalism, toward every manifestation of this universal life. No attempt was made to say the last word, only a wish to express the truth that the spirit of God is manifest on every hand.

Now this is a very simple philosophy. No far-reaching, syllogistic logic is required to prove it; no miracle, nor special dispensation is needed; you just feel that it is so, that’s all, and it gives you peace. Children, foolish folks, old men, whose sands of life are nearly run, comprehend it. But heaven bless you! you can’t prove any such foolishness. Jeffrey saw the ridiculousness of these assumptions and so he declared, “This will never do,” and for twenty years “The Edinburgh Review” never ceased to fling off fleers and jeers–and to criticize and scoff. That a great periodical, rich and influential, in the city which was the very center of learning, should go so much out of its way to attack a quiet countryman living in a four-roomed cottage, away off in the hills of Cumberland, seems a little queer.

Then, this countryman did not seek to found a kingdom, nor to revolutionize society, nor did he force upon the world his pattypan rhymes about linnets, and larks, and daffodils. Far from it: he was very modest–diffident, in fact–and his song was quite in the minor key, but still the chain-shot and bombs of literary warfare were sent hissing in his direction.

There is a little story about a certain general who figured as division-commander in the War of Secession: this warrior had his headquarters, for a time, in a typical Southern home in the Tennessee Mountains. The house had a large fireplace and chimney; in this chimney, swallows had nests. One day, as the great man was busy at his maps, working out a plan of campaign against the enemy, the swallows made quite an uproar. Perhaps some of the eggs were hatching; anyway, the birds were needlessly noisy in their domestic affairs, and it disturbed the great man–he grew nervous. He called his adjutant. “Sir,” said the mighty warrior, “dislodge those damn pests in the chimney, without delay.”

Two soldiers were ordered to climb the roof and dislodge the enemy. Yet the swallows were not dislodged, for the soldiers could not reach them.

So Jeffrey’s tirades were unavailing, and Wordsworth was not dislodged.

“He might as well try to crush Skiddaw,” said Southey.

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