I'll give half my crop
And now, while the inner circle of friends and relations began, to pass away, the outer circle of admirers was rapidly spreading. Between the years 1830 and 1840 Wordsworth passed from the apostle of a clique into the most illustrious man of letters in England. The rapidity of this change was not due to any remarkable accident, nor to the appearance of any new work of genius. It was merely an extreme instance of what must always occur where an author, running counter to the fashion of his age, has to create his own public in defiance of the established critical powers.
The disciples whom he draws round him are for the most part young; the established authorities are for the most part old; so that by the time that the original poet is about sixty years old, most of his admirers will be about forty, and most of his critics will be dead. His admirers now become his accredited critics; his works are widely introduced to the public; and if they are really good his reputation is secure. In Wordsworth’s case the detractors had been unusually persistent, and the reaction, when it came, was therefore unusually violent; it was even somewhat factitious in its extent; and the poems were forced by enthusiasts upon a public which was only half ripe for them. After the poet’s death a temporary counter-reaction succeeded, and his fame is only now finding its permanent level.
Among the indications of growing popularity was the publication of an American edition of Wordsworth’s poems in 1837, by Professor Reed of Philadelphia, with whom the poet interchanged many letters of interest. “The acknowledgments,” he says in one of these, “which I receive from the vast continent of America are among the most grateful that reach me. What a vast field is there open to the English mind, acting through our noble language! Let us hope that our authors of true genius will not be unconscious of that thought, or inattentive to the duty which it imposes upon them, of doing their utmost to instruct, to purify, and to elevate their readers.”
But of all the manifestations of the growing honour in which Wordsworth was held, none was more marked or welcome than the honorary degree of D.C.L. conferred on him by the University of Oxford in the summer of 1839. Keble, as Professor of Poetry, introduced him in words of admiring reverence, and the enthusiasm of the audience was such as had never been evoked in that place before, “except upon the occasions of the visits of the Duke of Wellington.”
The collocation was an interesting one. The special claim advanced for Wordsworth by Keble in his Latin oration was “that he had shed a celestial light upon the affections, the occupations, the piety of the poor.” And to many men besides the author of the Christian Year it seemed that this striking scene was, as it were, another visible triumph of the temper of mind which is of the essence of Christianity; a recognition that one spirit more had become as a little child, and had entered into the kingdom of heaven.
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