Arachne. No. 2
The dilemma may be looked at in another way. More fortunate ages had had the benefit of mythology, and others that of a settled and vital religion. Mythology and a religion have this much in common, that they are both (at least in part) a way of clothing the bare and elemental in a sociable and communicable guise. They can refer page 5 the experience of the individual (arising in this case from the relation of poet and landscape) to a fund of common metaphor. Had Wordsworth indeed been the pagan who saw Proteus rising from the foam, he would have been more fortunate. His particular experience of the miracle would have been to some extent moulded by an existing and traditional way of looking at these things, a metaphor. And this metaphor would have been in turn modified by the strikingly new experience of the poet. But this, of course, was not the case. Classical mythology had always been an exotic in the English scene—a more profitable source of wit and instruction than of illumination. And Wordsworth was decidedly not an exotic. Traditional religion, once so fertile, had surrendered to the infiltrations of the eighteenth century. When Wordsworth accepted its ministrations, he too succumbed. The urbanity of city life repelled him; education and learning left him mostly untouched. For him there was only the empty country, which, after every effort, remained empty. Wordsworth was left alone with the visible world, and with his own image. Neither mythology nor religion linked his illumination to a common body of experience. He found no true cure for isolation, and utter isolation is silence. And silence was equally the result of adopting a social attitude invalid upon all other grounds. The result is the tragedy of his later life—the dissipation of magnificent talent upon uncongenial topics—the moral requirements of duty, the excellences of the established church, and the evils of popular enthusiasm.
There were two stresses in the life and writing of the young Wordsworth: a notable affinity, amounting at times to a dangerous identification with natural objects (in one place he speaks of his failure to treat trees and men as different and rightly recognised this as a state of mental disease) and a keen awareness of the need for human improvement. These two stresses, abstractly regarded, need not conflict except to produce an agreeable and fruitful tension. Ideally, the poet need give no more to his society than his poems; Wordsworth would be living a full social life if he translated his rural exaltation into verse which would itself be a vehicle for moral improvement. But, ideally, a third factor must enter—the communal and traditional metaphor which would make strange sights communicable. Without such a metaphor, there may be the most exciting privatism; the poet may well sing to the glory of God, but not for the edification of the multitude. Many poets may go on writing for the ear of God alone, and occasional human beings may eavesdrop to their profit; this, however, was not the role Wordsworth chose for himself. Men, ordinary men, ' unassuming things,' were to be his audience. Because the ideal situation did not exist, the conflict between the two stresses bred more than a tension; it developed into open warfare. One of the two had to go down—the poet with nature, or the poet among men.
Instead of an institution which could keep this conflict within profitable bounds, Wordsworth accepted the misty mis-relation of the Anglican communion, and the social attitudes which it sanctioned. The sin of his conservatism is not the volte-face from boyish revolutionary joy—it lies in a much deeper denying of the life of the spirit. The Anglican Church, like all Christian groups of the time, was singularly unfitted for the task of co-ordinating social and individual action. Its beliefs and practices meant little to its age. It had manoeuvred its way into a restless agreement with Enlightenment and Utility; it had lost spiritual urgency and power. At its best, it shared the finer qualities of the aristocracy, a cultured urbanity and a sense of graceful leisure; at its worst, it was afflicted with non-residence, plurality and clerical sloth. At its most enthusiastic, at the level of the evangelicals, it spread, with Methodism, like an enervating page 6 contagion among the lower classes. No spiritual depth was there—no such depth as would be necessary to hold the two sides of Wordsworth's nature together. Nor could the church give him the common metaphor he needed—the church did not speak the language of the common people, and meant as little to them as did the poets. Indeed, the only sorts of language familiar to the common people were, first, that of the exhortatory Methodists, and second, that of the political agitators. And it is as hard to imagine Wordsworth a hot-gospel preacher, as it is to see him in the role of an 'Orator' Hunt. All the doors seem to have closed upon Wordsworth, but the one he opened led nowhere as surely as would any other. He became, indeed, 'a pagan suckled on a creed outworn,' but he was no longer visited by Triton and Proteus.