Among the things which Coleridge "lamented" about Wordsworth's poetry was that "his genius was not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprang out of the ground like a flower." Geoffrey Hartman might have taken this remark as an epigraph for his fine book [Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787–1814]. His argument is that it is just exactly here that Wordsworth's true genius lay: in his ability to respect the earth and the air, to hold nature and imagination in balance, indeed in magnanimous reciprocity. If Wordsworth's poetry reaches great heights, it is as an arch does, by stresses that meet and support each other in loving opposition…. In his important, various, and stimulating book, Mr. Hartman shows conclusively that Wordsworth's progress was towards a true understanding and expressing of [the true relationship between nature and imagination, each respecting the other, each inexorable yet gentle in its power], and that his decline (notably in The Excursion) must be connected with his inability to maintain any longer this fatiguing and precarious balance. The Excursion sells the visible world grievously short—and in doing so, makes imagination not more but less effective….
Mr. Hartman offers some extremely revealing comparisons, for example with Milton and Virgil; but the real battle, as he shows, is between Wordsworth and Blake. If Wordsworth were to be thought to triumph, that would be because in the...
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