Odd Fellow

William Wordsworth presents a biographer with considerable difficulties. He lived a very long time, and the poetry he wrote over his long life established him as a canonical fixture, one credited with inventing childhood, exalting nature’s green grasp on the spirit, and focusing the modern lyric on the poet’s self-consciousness. His verses echo from childhood chores of memory (“I wandered lonely as a cloud...”) and his great poems, “Tintern Abbey,” the Lucy sequence, and the “Intimations” ode, resonate with the power of Scripture. But the real difficulty can best be summed up by his contemporary, the far more endearing poet, John Keats, who recognized in Wordsworth “the egotistical sublime.” “Wordsworth,” Keats wrote in a letter, “has left a bad impression wherever he visited in Town [London]-by his egotism, Vanity, and bigotry.”

Juliet Barker’s Wordsworth: A Life, published here five years after appearing to appreciative reviews in Britain, offers fair-minded assessments of a life that has drawn a host of objections. Wordsworth has been attacked for exploiting the women in his large household and for manipulating, if not betraying, his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Yet Barker portrays a loyal brother and devoted father, generous in his support when he was able. Sympathetically she explores the insecurities and constraints brought about by the early death of Wordsworth’s father and the resulting financial woes of the children, arising from a tangled estate whose ramifications plagued William throughout his years of obscurity as a poet.

Barker lays out the essentials of Wordsworth’s career: the preeminent childhood in nature, the indifferent undergraduate degree, the heady stay in revolutionary France, and Wordsworth’s relationship with Annette Vallon, leading to the birth of their illegitimate child, Caroline. She leads us through the halcyon days with Coleridge in the West Country, where the Lyrical Ballads took shape, followed by the poet’s removal to the Lake District and his growing renown as the poet of that place and of nature in general. Reading the Life, one emerges wondering just how Wordsworth became so prominent. (A clear explanation also eludes Stephen Gill’s standard biography of 1989.) Wordsworth’s early verse collections attracted the derision of critics and sold very poorly, and money remained a constant concern through his middle years. Yet eventually he managed to excite the admiration of his poet contemporaries (Byron did him the service of very humorous debunking verses) and establish the broad readership that made him the high priest of the religion of nature. Barker gives no strong sense of how that transition came about; indeed, she admits some surprise at Wordsworth’s late-career lionization. A reader may justly puzzle over such central events when a biographer herself seems uncertain how they came to pass.

It’s fair to say that Wordsworth does not recommend himself as a personal companion in the course of five hundred pages of text. Yet the details of daily life, the family misfortunes, including the dementia suffered by Wordsworth’s beloved sister, Dorothy, amass to form a sense of a man and poet who lived against adversity. The deaths of those nearest to him inspire chapter headings (“Fixed and Irremovable Grief,” “Bowed to the Dust”) that indicate what he endured as he aged. Yes, the young graduate who had taken up the revolutionary fervor in France grew to be an aged pillar of conservatism. But there is no lack of complication in the portrait of Wordsworth moving increasingly toward Anglo-Catholicism, revising his poems under the influence of an Oxford Movement disciple, to project an overtly Christian message-even as he campaigned against the Catholic emancipation act. As a lover of nature, Wordsworth also takes his place as a pioneer environmentalist who lobbied against the development of what was to become the “tourist trade” in the Lake District. His work to prevent the over-expansion of the railways into Cumberland reads with a Sierra Club familiarity.

To know the inner life of the man, Barker understands, one must read his poetry, and she strives to tempt the reader, illustrating the mythical childhood by careful quotation from The Prelude, Wordsworth’s epic poem, in which he features himself, or rather “The Growth of the Poet’s Mind,” as his subject, tracing the emergence of his imagination under nature’s tutelage. The Prelude is a great work, and its formidable companion, The Recluse, certainly worth reading, even if it does not enjoy the status that it had among contemporary readers. The lyrics and the two odes, though, remain the staple of most readers’ fare, and Barker places all of these appropriately in Wordsworth’s development and situation.

That said, Baker never quite conveys the force of the “Home at Grasmere” section of The Excursion and The Prelude-audacious acts of defiance against Homer, Virgil, and Milton-nor does she really indicate the complicated history of The Prelude’s composition and revision. Wordsworth had more or less finished the poem by 1806, but withheld its publication until after his death. Few contemporaries had access to the manuscript, although the poet went back to it at various times in his remaining years. Barker repeatedly mines the 1806 version for biographical evidence, and in so doing, fails to address the work as an act of imagination in which the “I” is created or fictional. Certainly there is every reason to credit The Prelude with autobiographical status, but Barker makes no attempt to consider the complicated nature of such a representation-not merely the setting down of real life, but the active creation of a poetic self.

It is perverse, of course, to argue what a biographer should have written. Better to admit that Wordsworth’s was a complicated and challenging personality, and to thank Barker for a well-written Life that brings us back to a great artist’s verses and, perhaps, to a new respect for the man himself.

Published in the 2006-07-14 issue: 
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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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