December 22 1814: Wordsworth’s Advice

 

On December 22 1814, William Wordsworth writes to Pearse Gillies.

RYDAL MOUNT, Dec. 22, 1814.t

MY DEAR SIR, Your account of yourself distresses me. Flee from your present abode. If you resolve on going to London, let me beg of you to take Westmoreland in your way. You can make a trial here, and should it not answer, you are only so far on your way to town. . . .

Your first position, that every idea which passes through a poet’s mind may he made passionate, and therefore poetical, I am not sure that I understand. If you mean through a poet’s mind when in a poetical mood, the words are nothing but an identical proposition. But a poet must be subject to a thousand thoughts in common with other men, and many of them must, I suppose, be as unsusceptible of alliance with poetic passion as the thoughts that interest ordinary men. But the range of poetic feeling is far wider than is ordinarily supposed, and the furnishing new proofs of this fact is the only incontestible demonstration of genuine poetic genius. Secondly, ” The moment a clear idea of any kind is conceived, it ought to be brought out directly, and as rapidly as possible, without a view to any particular style of language.” I am not sure that I comprehend your meaning here. Is it that a man’s thoughts should be noted down in prose? or that he should express them in any kind of verse that they most easily fall into ? I think it well to make brief memoranda of our most interesting thoughts in prose; but to write fragments of verse is an embarrassing practice. A similar course answers well in painting, under the name of studies ; but in poetry it is apt to betray a writer into awkwardness, and to turn him out of his course for the purpose of lugging on these ready¬†made pieces by the head and shoulders. Or do you simply mean, that such thoughts as arise in the process of composition, should be expressed in the first words that offer themselves, as being likely to be most energetic and natural? If so, this is not a rule to be followed without cautious exceptions. My first expressions I often find detestable; and it is frequently true of second words, as of second thoughts, that they are the best. I entirely accord with you in your third observation, that we should be cautious not to waste our lives in dreams of imaginary excellence, for a thousand reasons, and not the least for this, that these notions of excellence may perhaps be erroneous, and then our inability to catch a phantom of no value may prevent us from attempting to seize a precious substance within our reach.

When your letter arrived, I was in the act of reading to Mrs Wordsworth your Exile, which pleased me more, I think, than anything that I have read of yours. There is, indeed, something of c mystification ‘ about it, which does not enhance its value with me ; but it is, I think, in many passages delightfully conceived and expressed. I was particularly charmed with the seventeenth stanza, first part. This is a passage which I shall often repeat to myself; and I assure you that, with the exception of Burns and Cowper, there is very little of recent verse, however much it may interest me, that sticks to my memory (I mean which I get by heart). . . .

. . . Mr Hogg’s Badlew (I suppose it to be his) I could not get through. There are two pretty passages the flight of the deer, and the falling of the child from the rock of Stirling, though both are a little outrd. But the story is coarsely conceived, and, in my judgment, as coarsely executed; the style barbarous, and the versification harsh and uncouth. Mr Hogg is too illiterate to write in any measure or style that does not savour of balladism. This is much to be regretted ; for he is possessed of no ordinary power.

. . . Do not imagine that my principles lead me to condemn Scott’s method of pleasing the public, or that I have not a very high respect for his various talents and extensive attainments. . . . With great respect, I remain
yours, WILLIAM WORDSWORTH.”

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