It’s William Wordsworth’s birthday. To be honest, about sixty percent of his poetic output over a long career was sheer fudge but, to his credit, Wordsworth knew it. The other forty percent, however, was often superb, and Wordsworth knew that, too. The best of him might be found in poems like “The Ruined Cottage,” from The Excursion, “Michael,” and some wonderful sonnets, including the famous “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802”:
“Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
Because Wordsworth lived so long (1770-1850), the image we retain of him from portraits is that of an old man. We forget that, in his youth, Wordsworth was the antithesis of a conventional Briton. He was a revolutionary; he fathered a child out of wedlock, and he wrote poetry so bracing and so sharply observed that the only reason it feels dated is that it is 250 years distant from us, like a star that appears to our eyes on the verge of going out, but is actually burning with almost inconceivable heat.