Front Page Titles (by Subject) 27.: Wordsworth and Byron 30 JANUARY, 1829 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
27.: Wordsworth and Byron 30 JANUARY, 1829 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
About Liberty Fund:
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
Wordsworth and Byron
MS, Mill-Taylor Collection, II/1/11. The manuscript, which consists more of notes towards a speech than a finished address, is inscribed in Mill’s hand: “Speech on Wordsworth / 1829.” The speech was undoubtedly prepared for the debate at the London Debating Society described by Cole: “That Wordsworth was a greater poet than Byron,” opened on 16 January, 1829, by Sterling (“who made a long rambling speech”), followed by Roebuck in the negative; the debate was adjourned until 30 January, when Mill “delivered a most excellent essay which from its length (2 hours) caused some squabbling at the end of the debate.” The first two folios of the speech, evidently a first draft, are printed here as a footnote to the opening sentence. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
remark on the manner in which the debate has been conducted.1
Persons who are not entitled to give an opinion on this question—viz. those who regard poetry as a mere elegant amusement, which is to give them a momentary pleasure, but to leave no permanent impression. Shew, that Poetry is an important branch of education. Education is 1. the education of the intellect. 2. that of the feelings. Folly of supposing that the first suffices without the last. Of the last, so far as influenced by literature, the great instrument is poetry. Why therefore if the end of poetry be so, should not he be considered the greatest poet who has best fulfilled this end? Not unreasonable to suppose that far from philosophy and poetry being unconnected, he ought to be called the greatest poet who is the greatest master of that branch of philosophy, which respects the education of the feelings, and has practised it most.
But waive this as being too little consonant to ordinary ideas and because the side I mean to espouse can be sufficiently vindicated without it. This the more necessary because at any rate I must call upon the Society to adopt what to many of them is a new mode of judging of the merits of a poet. In most persons criticism is not an affair of thought but of mere feeling: They read a writer and the one who moves them most they pronounce the greatest poet. Therefore as it is in the nature of different minds to be affected with any given emotion by different things, men scarcely ever agree in their criticisms, and men generally despise all poetry but that which is written for and addressed precisely to them. No doubt, the immediate purpose of all poetry is to move: and no doubt also, that the merit of a poet, his subject being given, is in proportion to the degree in which his means are well chosen for that end. What I desire is, that men would not take their emotion in the gross, and ascribe it to the poet, but would so far analyse it as to endeavour to find out for how much of it they are indebted to his genius, and how much to the previous state of their own minds. It is only thus that beauties, which depend upon the casual and transitory associations of a particular nation or a particular age, would be distinguished from those which derive their power to please, from the original constitution of human nature itself. Persons habituated to this exercise, would hesitate to treat as puerile and absurd, what other persons of minds equally cultivated with themselves admire, until they had first considered whether it was not possible that there might be some deficiency in their own minds which prevented them from being affected by poetry of a particular kind: and on the other hand, if on a close examination of that poetry which they most admired, they found that a great part of the effect it produced upon them was the effect of a not very enviable or creditable state of mind in themselves, they would perhaps find some reason for suspecting, that the very cause, which made them so admire, must make them incapable of feeling and appreciating the highest kind of poetry: for the highest kind of poetry, is that which is adapted to the highest state of mind: as a man of knowledge is superior to an ignorant one, a man of strong social affections to a malevolent one, a gentle and modest to a proud and scornful man, a man of regulated to a man of uncontrollable passions, a man of a joyful to one of a melancholy disposition, in the same proportion the poetry which delights the one is of a superior kind to that which is adapted to excite the emotions of the other.
By this test the superiority of Wordsworth obvious—but not fair to try by this test because not the usual sense of the words great poet which refer to the degree of power solely as the test of greatness without thinking of the kind. But Byron had advantages which make him appear to have more power than he has. 1. The prestiges of a story. Illustrate the immense effect of this—how it upheld Scott’s poems—upholds bad novels—believe the number of Byron’s admirers swelled immensely by those who think only of the story. 2. Next, the interest turns upon the more intense feelings—with which we more readily sympathize than with the calmer: and among these chiefly upon love—almost the only passion, not of the selfish kind, which the present arrangements of society allow to attain its natural growth. Proof of the effect of this—the poems from Giaour2 to Parisina most admired from Marino Faliero3 downwards scarcely read. Wordsworth nearly precludes himself from these.
Criticize Roebuck’s method.
Now the test. Not to fetter myself by any arbitrary narrowing of the word poetry I shall make it include all it ever includes. They may be judged by the mode in which, 1. they describe objects. 2. feelings. 3. the felicitous expression of thoughts. This poetry, provided the thoughts are of a nature to excite emotions, or are made to do so by the manner in which they are expressed.
1. Describing objects. Here observe that describing objects is not poetry except in so far as they are presented in some light or viewed in some manner which makes them excite different emotions from what a naked delineation would. Example—leaps the live thunder4 —and the stockdove broods.5
Immense superiority of Wordsworth. Extreme rarity of accurate description of nature. Pope’s false imagery. Contrasted with Coleridge—The amber clouds6 and Wordsworth orange sky.7 Immense number of such passages in Wordsworth. His description of yew trees—of nutting.8 Read the first two stanzas of his “Resolution and Independence,” and the three beginning “as a huge stone”9 giving the reason for omitting the others; reason why not quote the “Intimations of Immortality.”10 In Byron nothing of this sort worth remembering, scarcely one new image drawn from external nature, and his descriptions vague and unimpressive. Nearest approach in the Siege of Corinth11 but a reminiscence of Christabel.12 Then an entire genus of Wordsworth not known to Byron—that which adorns and renders interesting ordinary objects. The “Morning Exercise”—“The Kitten and Falling Leaves”13 —etc. which entitle him to rank next to Milton—Nothing of this sort in Byron and why.
2. Describing feelings. It is here that Byron will be supposed the superior; and here I must allow that he comes nearer to Wordsworth than in any thing else.
There are certain feelings which they both have aimed at describing, and others which may be considered peculiar to each.
What they have both described, are those feelings which are produced in ordinary persons, by causes which in the ordinary course of events, many persons are exposed to, not perhaps in the same degree, but in a sufficient degree to know perfectly what the feelings are, and to be able to recognize a just description of them. In this genre, both poets are so admirable, that it is difficult to pronounce which has displayed greatest power. The Prisoner of Chillon14 is certainly equal to the finest poem of the kind in the language: but Wordsworth has produced twenty poems, each for its length quite equal to it. Difference illustrated by Scott and Coleridge in their descriptions of nature. Wordsworth’s pathetic poems each comprise some very deep and delicate touch of nature. Byron’s touches separately of less value, but many of them very skilfully put together; producing a whole at once consistent and true. Difficult to state which the greatest merit. “The Mad Mother”—“The Female Vagrant”—“Complaint of an Indian Woman”—“The Last of the Flock”—“The Sailor’s Mother” (a very good instance)—the “Reverie of Poor Susan”—and “Adam of Tilsbury Vale.”15 —But Wordsworth has a much wider range—Byron paints merely painful feelings—Wordsworth in addition to this presents a greater number of delightful pictures of tranquil enjoyment than any poet perhaps who ever wrote. Read what he can make of so little a subject as the “Miller and two Dames”16 the people listening to a musician in the street17 —but above all the “Highland Girl”18 —the “Solitary Reaper”19 —etc. Byron only tumultuous pleasures—which can only be described in frenzy and have been so often.
Now as to the feelings peculiar to Byron. And here I must enter a little into what may be called the metaphysics of criticism.
Must be granted that those feelings which we describe from observation only, must necessarily be described superficially. There is no depth, no intensity, no force, in our descriptions of feelings, unless we have ourselves experienced the feelings we describe: But yet, to readers who have never experienced the feelings, a superficial description may appear sufficient: and an attempt at a profound one, but thoroughly false, may be taken for true and profound both. This is the secret of their admiring bad poetry and bad acting. Say Byron has described more—but it is like the “Lioness and the Fox.”20
Three kinds of feelings which Byron has described: Wordsworth could—a very acute observer of character. Tumultuous passion, of love or hatred, as in the Giaour etc. Scorn of mankind and dissatisfaction with all human enjoyment, as in Childe Harold, Lara, Cain, and Don Juan.21 And in his dramas, all the passions and feelings of minds of a high order. The second set of feelings only I imagine him to have experienced, and therefore they are the only ones that he has shewn much power in delineating.
From what we know of Byron’s life we have no reason to suppose that he was ever in the Giaour state—we know he was in the Childe Harold very early. I believe the Giaour pictures are entirely from imagination. Whether they are true or not I say candidly I do not know—persuaded none of the Society do. In the South there may be such persons—none here. No man in the Society will pretend he ever was in the Giaour state—else he would have come to the same end as the Giaour. Burns’22 love poems represent the passion better as it is in this country. But I am sure it is very easy to paint all this from mere imagination—Easy to paint men of one idea. You leave out all other ideas and then you have only to exaggerate—which you may easily do—for we have all experienced enough of the same feelings to have some notion of what they are, and we have only to magnify them.
Next as to the personages in his dramas. Dramatic poetry the easiest of all and almost the only one in which men can be true to nature from mere observation—People are made to shew their feelings by what they speak. Now all who have ever experienced deep feelings of any kind, know that the least and most insignificant part, the part nearest the surface, is all which shews itself in talk—at the same time this part is that which most obviously appears to the observer.
There remains then, as the only feeling which Byron has painted with any depth, the feeling of dissatisfaction with life and all which is in it: which feeling he has painted in a great variety of forms—in one form and that a very weak and commonplace and uninteresting one in Childe Harold and Don Juan—that is obviously the form in which it existed in himself: the same feeling is delineated in three other different shapes and in all these instances very powerfully, in Lara, Manfred,23 and Cain, in each of which he seems to have exceedingly skilfully fixed and embodied in a permanent character, feelings which had only passed through his own mind at certain times, but did not permanently exist in him, and it is upon these three works, in my opinion, that his claim must rest to the honor of having done what a poet cannot I think be called great unless he does, viz. to have enlarged our knowledge of human nature. And those only who are or have been in this unhappy state of mind can thoroughly sympathize in or understand these poems.
We next see what are the feelings which Wordsworth has described and Byron not.
Certain in the first place, that whatever he has described, he has felt. No poet in whom you have the same certainty. Every poem of Wordsworth almost, except his great one,24 was written on the occasion of some thing or other which affected his feelings at the time, and gave him a desire to fix and recal these feelings by putting them into verse. Now he is a remarkable man and his feelings consequently of a remarkable kind: and people who only read one poem only having a single case of the feeling presented to them, cannot sympathize in it and think it mere affectation. But this is a disadvantage which every poet who has feelings that are not common ones, must labour under, viz. the necessity of in some measure educating his reader’s mind to make him susceptible of those feelings. For this reason no one can appreciate him who does not read his writings consecutively.
Objected to Wordsworth that he represents feelings as excited by objects which are not in themselves capable of exciting such feelings. Finds human sympathies everywhere every object speaks to him of man and of his duties. That they do not excite such feelings in all persons, and in very few in the same degree is true. I cannot say they always excite the same feelings in me. But he who should pronounce them unreal or unnatural on this account would prove himself to have a very contracted knowledge of the powers of the human mind. Wordsworth is a man of extremely meditative habits: and the habitual subjects of his meditations are two: 1. natural objects. 2. the feelings and duties of man: shew how by meditating on these two subjects and constantly as a poet illustrating the one by the other each becomes capable of exciting the other. If people tell me then of his exaggeration and mystification of this, his talking of holding communion with the great forms of nature, his finding a grandeur in the beatings of the heart25 and so forth, I allow that this is nonsense but the introduction of this into the present question is charging Wordsworth the poet with the faults of Wordsworth the metaphysician. Shew the difference between describing feelings and being able to analyse them—the tendency of a man who by a long indulgence of particular trains of association, has connected certain feelings with things which excite no such feelings in other men, if he then attempts to explain is very likely to go into mysticism—to think that there is a natural connexion between those objects and those feelings, and as he knows there is not in the objects as they appear to the world, any thing to excite such feelings, he looks beyond them and conceives something spiritual and ideal in them which the mind’s eye only can see—witness the mysticism of devotion—communion with God etc.
What is bad then in Wordsworth’s account of his own peculiar feelings is not where he describes them, nor where he gives the history of them, but where he philosophizes over them and endeavours to account for them as in certain parts of the Excursion,26 and some of the published passages of the Recluse.27 He must be considered as having enlarged our knowledge of human nature by having described to us most powerfully and movingly a state of feeling which very few if any of us previously knew to exist. You may tell me that on my own shewing, as these feelings can only exist in the mind of a person of very peculiar habits—and scarcely in any but a poet—it is of very little importance and the knowledge of it conduces very little to human happiness. I allow that there is much of it which can hardly exist in the many, but there is much that can. I have learned from Wordsworth that it is possible by adwelling on certain ideasa to keep up a constant freshness in the emotions which objects excite and which else they would cease to excite as we grew older—to connect cheerful and joyous states of mind with almost every object, to make every thing speak to us of our own enjoyments or those of other sentient beings, and to multiply ourselves as it were in the enjoyments of other creatures: to make the good parts of human nature afford us more pleasure than the bad parts afford us pain—and to rid ourselves entirely of all feelings of hatred or scorn for our fellow creatures. Immense importance of this state of mind—difficulty of painting it because no prototype. My own change since I thought life a perpetual struggle—how much more there is to aim at when we see that happiness may coexist with being stationary and does not require us to keep moving. This state of feeling to be looked to as an end, for I fear in the present state of society something stronger is required. Quote Wordsworth’s “Ode to Duty.”28
This not the only state of feeling that Wordsworth has painted better than any one else. He has painted all the successive states of his own mind. 1. the mere animal delights received from the beauties of nature. 2. the decay of those feelings, and their being replaced by those others which have been described. Quote from his “Tintern Abbey”29 and his “Intimations of Immortality.” He has also painted many other feelings but this will come better under the third head—because it is the peculiarity of Wordsworth that his feelings are excited by thoughts more than those of poets usually are—which is a test of the highest state of a mind.
3. Felicitous expression of thoughts which either are in themselves or are made by the expression, capable of exciting emotions.
What valuable thoughts are there in Byron? All negative and therefore will cease to be valuable. Wordsworth’s thoughts comprise a better and a more comprehensive morality than all other poets together—and alone of all poets he seems to be able to make moralizing interesting. Other moralists merely tell you what not to be: to avoid certain acts, or certain dispositions, and by way of directions as to what you are to be they tell you something vague, to turn your heart to God and so on. Wordsworth illustrates all the most important features of the happiest and most virtuous character and unfolds most recondite truths in morals and mental philosophy—while the poems in which he does this are by far the most delightful as mere poems that he ever wrote.
2. The propriety of diffusing and not concentrating our sympathies—“Laodamia.”32
3. The influence of certain acts in producing habits of benevolence and virtue—the “Cumberland Beggar.”33
Under the head of common feelings defend Wordsworth from the charge of painting only the emotions of rustics with whom we cannot sympathize.
Answer. He has painted men.—abstracting from their education. Uncultivated—yes—but not morally only intellectually and not even intellectually, for they have no prejudices or vulgarities of thought and those other things which disgust us in uncultivated men. You may say rustics are not such—but they may be, and his object was to shew that. By chusing a virtuous character from a village, you do not imply that there are no vicious ones. He has painted vicious rustics: Most powerfully in “Peter Bell”38 —also in “Andrew Jones,”39 the “Two Thieves”40 and sundry others. Not deceived by it—let him read Crabbe41 as an antidote.
Under the head of Wordsworth’s feelings:
That Wordsworth tends to make men quietists, to make them bear. This only a just charge, if men were to read nothing but Wordsworth. Allow that at present great struggles are necessary and that men who were nourished only with his poetry would be unnerved for such struggles. What then? Is a poet bound to do every thing? Allow that the habit of bearing those evils, which can be avoided, is a bad habit. But because there are some things which ought not to be borne, does it follow that there is no use even now, in learning to bear many evils even now which must be borne—hope the time will come when no evils but those arising from the necessary constitution of man and of external nature.
[1 ][First draft of the exordium:] Begin by remarks on the manner in which the debate has been conducted, and by reprehending any attempt to turn Wordsworth into ridicule: saying to the person who attempts it,
[2 ]Byron, The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (London: Murray, 1813).
[3 ]In Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice: An Historical Tragedy in Five Acts. The Prophecy of Dante, a Poem (London: Murray, 1821), pp. 1-208.
[4 ]Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, A Romaunt, in Four Cantos (1812-18), 2 vols. (London: Murray, 1819), Vol. II, p. 51 (III, 865).
[5 ]Wordsworth, “Resolution and Independence” (1807), in Poetical Works, Vol. II, p. 125.
[6 ]See Coleridge, “Lines on an Autumnal Evening” (1793), and “Lewti, or The Circassian Love Chaunt” (1794), in Poetical Works, 3 vols. (London: Pickering, 1828), Vol. I, p. 30 (l. 4), and p. 168 (l. 21).
[7 ]Wordsworth, “Influence of Natural Objects, in Calling Forth and Strengthening the Imagination in Boyhood and Early Youth” (1807), in Poetical Works, Vol. I, p. 43.
[8 ]“Yew Trees” (1815) and “Nutting” (1800), ibid., Vol. II, pp. 53-4 and 57-9.
[9 ]“Resolution and Independence,” p. 128.
[10 ]“Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (1807), in Poetical Works, Vol. IV, pp. 346-55.
[11 ]Byron, The Siege of Corinth, in The Siege of Corinth: A Poem. Parisina: A Poem, pp. 1-58.
[12 ]Coleridge, Christabel, in Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep (London: Murray, 1816), pp. 3-48.
[13 ]“A Morning Exercise” (1828) and “The Kitten and the Falling Leaves” (1807), in Poetical Works, Vol. I, pp. 315-17 and 349-54.
[14 ]Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems (London: Murray, 1816), pp. 3-22.
[15 ]Wordsworth, “Her eyes are wild, her head is bare” (1798), in Poetical Works, Vol. II, pp. 119-24; “The Female Vagrant” (1827), ibid., Vol. I, pp. 112-20; “Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” (1798), ibid., pp. 184-7; “The Last of the Flock” (1798), ibid., pp. 188-93; “The Sailor’s Mother” (1807), ibid., pp. 201-2; “The Reverie of Poor Susan” (1800), ibid., Vol. II, p. 79; and “The Farmer of Tilsbury Vale” (1800), ibid., Vol. IV, pp. 308-12.
[16 ]“Stray Pleasures” (1807), ibid., Vol. II, pp. 30-2.
[17 ]“Power of Music” (1807), ibid., pp. 80-2.
[18 ]“To a Highland Girl” (1807), ibid., Vol. III, pp. 11-14.
[19 ]“The Solitary Reaper” (1807), ibid., pp. 19-20.
[20 ]Cf. “The Lioness and the Vixen,” in Aesop’s Fables, p. 91, of which the moral is that familiarity breeds contempt.
[21 ]Byron, Lara, a Tale (London: Murray, 1814); Cain, in Sardanapalus, a Tragedy. The Two Foscari, a Tragedy. Cain, a Mystery (London: Murray, 1821), pp. 330-439; and Don Juan, a Poem (1819-24), 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Kay, 1825).
[22 ]Robert Burns (1759-96), Works, new ed., 2 pts. (London: Tegg, et al., 1824).
[23 ]Byron, Manfred, a Dramatic Poem (London: Murray, 1817).
[24 ]I.e., The Excursion, Being a Portion of the Recluse (Poetical Works, Vol. V); only this part of Wordsworth’s “great work,” which was never completed, had yet appeared. Its first part, composed in 1805, was published in 1850 as The Prelude.
[25 ]“Influence of Natural Objects,” p. 41.
[26 ]See, e.g., pp. 104-6 (Bk. III).
[27 ]In the Preface to The Excursion, Poetical Works, Vol. V, pp. xii-xvi.
[a-a][interlined for uncancelled a proper regulation of the associations]
[28 ]1807; ibid., Vol. IV, pp. 293-8.
[29 ]“Lines, Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798), ibid., Vol. II, pp. 179-86.
[30 ]“Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree Which Stands near the Lake of Esthwaite,” in Lyrical Ballads (Bristol: Longman, 1798), pp. 59-62; not in Poetical Works.
[31 ]The series of four sonnets beginning with “Personal Talk,” Poetical Works, Vol. II, pp. 292-5.
[32 ]1815; ibid., pp. 111-18.
[33 ]“The Old Cumberland Beggar” (1800), ibid., Vol. IV, pp. 299-307.
[34 ]“The Fountain” (1800), ibid., pp. 230-3.
[35 ]“Michael, a Pastoral Poem” (1800), ibid., Vol. I, pp. 247-68.
[36 ]1800; ibid., pp. 203-6.
[37 ]“Character of the Happy Warrior” (1807), ibid., pp. 199-202.
[38 ]1819; ibid., Vol. II, pp. 187-251.
[39 ]In Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London: Longman and Rees, 1800), Vol. II, pp. 89-91; not in Poetical Works.
[40 ]1800; in Poetical Works, Vol. IV, pp. 315-17.
[41 ]George Crabbe (1754-1832), poet of rural life.