A Book of Answers VIII: Spade And Pen


Wordsworth’s slightly too solemn address to the spade of his friend Thomas Wilkinson with its suggestion of immortal bathos in the first line has been laughed at often enough and rather unfairly. The bathos does not develop, and the consciously elevated tone for so humble a subject may have been quite deliberate. I like to think of the two poets—for Wilkinson wrote verses too—digging side by side, while Wordsworth ruminated his poetic tribute to his friend. I have never seen any specimens of Wilkinson’s muse, nor would he I imagine have been uncivil enough to write such a reply as I have credited him with.

But if the poem does not deserve scathing comment, it does illustrate a certain pomposity in Wordsworth when he was not at his best—what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “too much neck-cloth”—and it illustrates too his fatal tendency to attempt poems on casual and trivial topics at the drop of a hat. The subjects mentioned in the reply are all taken from actual titles of poems in Wordsworth’s collected works. And it was Wordsworth himself who solemnly collected all these instances of pointless observation or fatuous reflection, solemnly classified them and published them indiscriminately with the poetry by which his name continues to live.

To The Spade Of A Friend (An Agriculturist)

Composed while we were labouring
together in his pleasure-ground

Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands,
And shaped these pleasant walks by Emont’s side,
Thou art a tool of honour in my hands;
I press thee, through the yielding soil, with pride.

Rare master has it been thy lot to know;
Long hast Thou served a man to reason true;
Whose life combines the best of high and low,
The labouring many and the resting few;

Health, meekness, ardour, quietness secure,
And industry of body and of mind;
And elegant enjoyments, that are pure
As nature is;—too pure to be refined.

Here often hast Thou heard the Poet sing
In concord with his river murmuring by;
Or in some silent field, while timid spring
Is yet uncheered by other minstrelsy.

Who shall inherit Thee when death has laid
Low in the darksome cell thine own dear lord?
That man will have a trophy, humble Spade!
A trophy nobler than a conqueror’s sword.

If he be one that feels, with skill to part
False praise from true, or, greater from the less,
Thee will he welcome to his hand and heart,
Thou monument of peaceful happiness!

He will not dread with Thee a toilsome day—
Thee his loved servant, his inspiring mate!
And, when Thou art past service, worn away,
No dull oblivious nook shall hide thy fate.

His thrift thy uselessness will never scorn;
An heir-loom in his cottage wilt Thou be:—
High will he hang thee up, well pleased to adorn
His rustic chimney with the last of Thee!

Thomas Wilkinson To The Pen Of A Friend (A Poet)

Pen! with which William Wordsworth scribbles verse,
—Say rather: Pen! from which he dribbles rhyme—
Thou art the tool of Honour he confers
On any subject, trivial or sublime.

Rare master has it been thy lot to know;
His breakfast egg is matter for a song.
They say man wants but little here below;
But Wordsworth wants that little and likes it long.

A lark, a labourer with a nasty cough,
The characteristics of a favourite dog,
An idiot boy, all these will set him off
To moralize on Liberty or King Log.

A star-crowned mountain’s solitary pride,
A kitten, a primrose by a river’s brim,
Or puddles—he measures them from side to side—
Are equally poetic grist to him.

Steamboats, viaducts and railways would
Call forth in metre his judicious views;
And oft, in vacant or in pensive mood,
The morning newspaper inspire his Muse.

But chiefly Travel, when he takes a trip,
Evokes the logorrhoea of thy dear lord;
Each milestone sees him let a sonnet slip
Or add some trite reflection to his hoard.

‘Tis not that other poets at times do not
Pen trifles, sport and with their art make free,
But William solemnly preserves the lot
And catalogues it for posterity.

Who shall inherit Thee, industrious pen?
The poet’s heirs will snatch, I am afraid,
Faced with thy trivia, nine times out of ten
Wilkinson’s indefatigable spade.

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