Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

19
Dionysus in Lyrical Ballads

1

'I am myself,' said Wordsworth, one of the happiest of men; and no man who does not partake of that happiness, who lives a life of constant bustle, and whose felicity depends on the opinions of others, can possibly comprehend the best of my poems.' It was thus that he delivered himself on 8 May 1812, to Henry Crabb Robinson: and it is a good example of the frightening and repellent self-assurance with which Wordsworth contemplated the fact and the nature of his own genius, and communicated his sense of these to others. But this need not mean that Wordsworth was self-deluded, that there was nothing to contemplate, or that what was there was something different from what Wordsworth saw. It will be the contention of this essay that Wordsworth knew the facts of his own genius better than anyone.

It is remarkable, to begin with, how readily Wordsworth proceeds to oppose his happiness, or his own sense of it, to 'a life of constant bustle'. Did it not occur to him that many men experience a quite genuine happiness precisely in 'bustle', in a sense of purposeful activity around them, in the changing spectacles of energetic life? Apparently not; and this from the first tells us something about Wordsworth's sort of happiness. It expressed itself in stillness and silence:

I was glad to accompany the Wordsworths to the British Museum. I had to wait for them in the ante-room, and we had at last but a hurried survey of the antiquities. I did not perceive that Wordsworth much enjoyed the Elgin Marbles; but he is a still man when he does enjoy himself, and by no means ready to talk of his pleasure, except to his sister.1

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1
Crabb Robinson, Diary ( 20 Nov. 1820). Compare Robinson's description ( 5 Apr. 1823) of Wordsworth at a musical party: '(he) declared himself perfectly delighted and satisfied, but he sat alone, silent, and with his face covered, and was generally supposed to be asleep.'

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