Odd Fellow


A Life

Juliet Barker

Ecco/HarperCollins, $29.95, 548 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.