Wordsworth and the Rabbis

First delivered as a lecture at Princeton University at a conference on William Wordsworth, Princeton, NJ, April 21, 1950. First published as "Wordsworth and the Iron Time." Kenyon Review 12, No. 3 (Summer 1950): 477-497.


Our meeting here to do honor to William Wordsworth will have its counterparts in academic centers in all the English-speaking countries. But we can scarcely suppose that in the world outside the universities the impulse to commemorate Wordsworth will be felt to any significant extent. Indeed, our occasion must inevitably be charged with the consciousness that were he not kept in mind by the universities, Wordsworth would scarcely be remembered at all. In our culture it is not the common habit to read the books of a century ago and very likely all that we can mean when we say that a writer of the past is “alive” in people’s minds is that, to those who once read him as a college assignment or who have formed an image of him from what they have heard about him, he exists as an attractive idea, as an intellectual possibility. If we think of the three poets whom Matthew Arnold celebrated in his “Memorial Verses,” we know that Byron is still attractive and possible, and so is Goethe, as was indicated last year by elaborateness with which the centenary of his death was celebrated. But Wordsworth is not attractive and not an intellectual possibility. He was once the great, the speaking poet for all who read English. He spoke both to the ordinary reader and to the literary man. But now the literary man outside the university will scarcely think of referring to Wordsworth as an important event of modern literature.