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WORDSWORTH'S LETTER TO MATHETES S. ICHIYE HAYAKAWA W ORDSWORTH'S Letter to Mathetes has been strangely neglected by the critics.1 Yet it offers direct and valuable aid in understanding his poetry. It was written in reply to two young men, since identified as John \iViJson (" Christopher North") and,his friend Alexander Blair.2 They had sought from Coleridge's ambling periodical The Friend advice on the proper guidance and conduct of life in youth. Theirs was the perennial problem of youthful enthusiasts: how, confronted with a varied world and without experience, were they to steer a wise course, to avoid giving themselves to unworthy causes, false ideals, vain pursuits? "'Whatever their intellectual powers ... their minds are still at the mercy of fortune: they have no inward impulse .steadily -to propel them: and must trust to the chances of the world for a guide.J) Their world is full of opportunities , causes, movements, and aims which solicit their interest and offer possible paths of endeavour; but such is their "present moral and intellectual state~' that variety of opportunity is ,"little else than variety of danger.)) The young, they hold, are formed with a capacity for good; but they are impressed by "the difficulties from within and from without, which may oppose the natural development of true feeling and right opinion." And so they' put their problem to The Friend. . Whether they found Wordsworth's reply helpful does 1 My attention was directed to the Leiter by Professor Arthur Beatty, who first pointed out its significance in his William Wordsworth, his Doctrine and A,.t in Jheir H iSforical Relations (1927). For the text of the Leiter to Matheles from which I quote, see Coleridge, Complele Works, ed. Shedd, II, pp. 358-375. 2The identification is made by Shedd, op. cit. 533 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY not appear. Its importance for us lies in its thorough and unambiguous statement of beliefs regarding man's development from childhood to maturity" which under- ' lie many of his finest poems, beliefs which by his cr1tics are too often Inisrepresented or passed over. Only when the poefs doctrine of psychological development is understood do The Prelude, The Recluse, Tintern Abbey, and many of the shorter poems become fully comprehensible. The doctrine is, indeed, clearly ~tated in the poems thelnselves; but the Letter is like an apposite ,footnote which clarifies and explains. I t should put the basic 'doctrine of the poems, forever beyond the dangers of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and mere neglect. In the Letter Wordsworth poin ts out that the age in which they live is not, in reality, appreciably worse than other ages; and that even if society were better, the same difficulties would occur, for they (C arise out of the constitution of things, from the nature of youth, froin the laws that govern the growth of the faculties, , and from the necessary condi60n of the great body of mankind." His approach to this, as to many another topic, is thoroughly intelligent. He insists) in agreelnent with the noblest tradi~ion of philosophers and moralists, that safety from the cOl"rupting influences of the world cannot be gained from wi thout, by external precept and admonition, but must be ensured by steady effort from wi thin oneself. "Protection from any fatal effect of seductions and hindrances ·-which opinion may throw in the way of pure and high-minded youth, can only be obtained with certainty at the same price by which everything great and good is obtained, namely, steady dependence upon voluntaty and self-originating effort, and upon the practice of self...,examination, sincerely aimed at and rigorously enforced." 534 'NORDSWORTH'S LETTER TO MATHETES However) in combination with this conscious and active effort, there is a self-active' power, which feeds upon nature and the world at large, and insensibly joins the active will in the formation of character. This is one of Wordsw:orth's most, important doctrines, and serves to explain the plan and terminology used in much of his poetry. In the Letter he tells" of infancy, childhood ,' boyhood, and youth, of pleasures lying upon the unfolding intellect p]enteously as morning de\v-drops-of knowledge...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 533-544
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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