Lead book review

Wordsworth may have been partially eclipsed by his fellow Romantics, but his life was far from dull

Wordsworth’s reputation has been too long in decline, says Tom Williams. In the space of a decade he transformed English poetry, and his earlier works remain astonishing

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

Well-Kept Secrets: The Story of William Wordsworth Andrew Wordsworth

Pallas Athene, pp.480, 24.95

Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World Jonathan Bate

William Collins, pp.672, 25

Between 1798 and 1807 William Wordsworth revolutionised English poetry, giving voice to the marginalised in poems such as ‘The Idiot Boy’ and anticipating modern psychology in his exploration of childhood. Today, his ability to articulate the connection between man and nature can still bring us up short, as in these lines from ‘Tintern Abbey’:

… And I have felt,
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man…

After 1807 Wordsworth experienced what Jonathan Bate, in one of two biographies that mark the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth, calls ‘the longest, dullest decline in literary history’. This is a key biographical challenge: how to write about someone who, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, had ‘written longer than he was inspired’ without boring the reader and overshadowing Wordsworth’s achievement.

Andrew Wordsworth, who is descended from William’s younger brother Christopher, answers this with a collection of themed essays loosely following the trajectory of the poet’s life. He sets out to study his forebear ‘in a thorough and systematic way’, to create ‘a portrait both of the man and of his work’. He pursues him through 16 chapters, arguing that Wordsworth is a shadowy, cautious figure, whose shape can be caught in glimpses between the lines of his poetry but who all too often evades our view. His Wordsworth is ‘secretive and elusive’, embracing in The Prelude an autobiography written in verse because it means he will not be ‘trapped by clear-cut meanings’.

Well-Kept Secrets takes the reader through moments of Wordsworth’s history, making a careful effort to emphasise the poetry. This means we are exposed to plenty of the most affecting lines he wrote, but it also creates an imbalance, because the author relies more on the published work and Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal than on other sources, leaving out the intimate voice of Wordsworth’s own letters and the clarifying perspective of others.

In the winter of 1798, William, his sister Dorothy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge left England for Germany, where they planned to settle for two years to learn the language. It did not go well. Coleridge had a larger budget than the Wordsworths, and they parted. Brother and sister found themselves trapped in Goslar, a small town that William described as being ‘the residence of grocers’. There he wrote 20 poems, including the ‘Lucy’ and ‘Matthew’ series that appear in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, as well as a very early version of The Prelude.

Andrew Wordsworth, while pointing out that this was a pivotal moment for William, enabling him to move to ‘a new, more private idiom’, skates over much of the biographical detail and summarises events without evoking them. He writes: ‘Instead, the desperate conditions actually concentrated [Wordsworth’s] attention and forced him to write in a new way.’ The poet himself put it better, in an unquoted letter to Coleridge: ‘As I have had no books, I have been obliged to write in self-defence.’

The author of Well-Kept Secrets is an artist by profession, and he brings some of that sensibility to bear in his analysis. He is better able to set the poet’s life in the context of the art of the period than most, and he writes illuminatingly, for example, on the parallels between Wordsworth and Turner. (Turner was born five years after Wordsworth and died a year later; he painted a powerful study of Mount Snowdon, ‘very close in spirit to the landscape evoked by Wordsworth’.)

The literary history is less well grounded, and there are some omissions. There can be no doubt, for instance, that one of the most significant relationships Wordsworth experienced was with Coleridge. The two inspired one another, developing a loose blank verse style that each exploited differently in poems such as ‘This Lime Tree Bower my Prison’ and ‘Intimations of Immortality’. The poems that went into Lyrical Ballads were developed through constant discussions between the two men and Dorothy in the Quantocks in 1797 and 1798.

Andrew Wordsworth states: ‘It is impossible for us to measure or quantify the extent and importance of the exchanges between Wordsworth and Coleridge.’ Yet Coleridge is largely absent from his narrative, making it harder to appreciate the continuous conversation that existed between the three. There are errors too. The author dates the beginning of the breakdown of their relationship to 1800, arguing that Coleridge was unhappy to have his poem ‘Christabel’ cut from the second volume of Lyrical Ballads when at the time he accepted the decision and only later, when he became jealous of Wordsworth’s success, did he claim otherwise.

Jonathan Bate makes no such mistakes. He is a seasoned author, whose previous subjects include Shakespeare, John Clare and Ted Hughes. This is the biography that he feels has been missing — ‘a not overlong and not over-specialised book that would make students excited about Wordsworth’. And he has succeeded in writing it. Rather than trying to present a full portrait, he leans into the reality of Wordsworth’s output, concentrating on the moments that are of interest — his earliest days in the Lake District, the French Revolution, the Alfoxden years with Coleridge that led to the Lyrical Ballads, his relationship with Dorothy — to create something ‘deliberately fragmentary, momentary, selective’. Yet he presents us with an energetic, revolutionary Wordsworth who, with The Prelude, had the ‘chutzpah to devote an entire epic to the subject of himself’.

Whilst Bate’s stirring biography is selective, it is neither rushed nor reductive. It is full of sharp anecdotes that evoke the lives of the Wordsworths — including the time that William found himself threatened with a carving knife by an inebriated priest. Equally, Bate is able to set the poetry amid the personal, and writes revealingly about the changing relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth after William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802. He moves through ‘Intimations of Immortality’, Colderidge’s response (published as ‘Dejection: An Ode’) and then ‘Resolution and Independence’ to illustrate their different treatments of depression. He displays his deep knowledge of the sources here, quoting private drafts of the poems to highlight Coleridge’s jealousy, while still keeping the focus on his subject, pointing out that, unlike Coleridge, Wordsworth ‘was determined to use his poetry to fight, rather than indulge, the feeling of joylessness’.

One of the challenges Wordsworth presents is that his life can sometimes seem less interesting than his contemporaries’ lives. He resisted the temptations that undid Coleridge, he was not as exuberant as Shelley or Byron, nor was he as forlorn as Keats. But his life was far from straight-forward, fathering as he did an illegitimate daughter in France with Annette Valon and establishing a household with his wife, her sister and Dorothy. Reams have been written on the Wordsworths’ familial relations and there is no doubt that the bond between Dorothy and William was a complicated one (she did not attend his wedding but slept with the wedding rings the night before). Bate’s nimble biography explores this without being sensationalist, and constructs a vivid picture of a complex man whose poetry helps us ‘see into the life of things’.

Having swept through the years up to 1807, Bate widens the scope of his argument, looking at Wordsworth’s influence on the next generation and the harm that his later work did to his reputation (there are plenty of examples, including his series of sonnets in favour of the death penalty):

His unremitting later voice, with rare exceptions… was a counter-spirit which laid waste his powers, subverted his ideals and vitiated his reputation among the creative spirits of the next generation.

Despite this, the poems of Wordsworth’s earlier years assured his posterity and have inspired us in unexpected ways. In his lifetime, his bestselling work was a Guide to the Lakes, which directly contributed to the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, ‘the environmental equivalent of the National Health Service’. Aside from his poetry, Wordsworth foresaw the way that modern life would separate man from nature and, through his work, hoped to remedy that. This feels especially timely and necessary.

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