William Wordsworth: The Later Years 1803-1850
The Landscape of Memory
“Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils.” Samuel Johnson’s rueful comment on his own heavily annotated edition of Shakespeare applies with an even greater force to any cradle-to-grave biography of an author. Unfortunately we cannot do without such aids to understanding. Faced with the six hundred pages of Mrs. Moorman’s sequel to her William Wordsworth: The Early Years (which also ran to over six hundred pages) the stoutest devotee’s heart is bound to quail a bit—especially as the special pleading of such recent critics as Edith Batho and John Jones has failed to convince most of us that Shelley and Arnold were wrong in thinking that after 1807 or so the poems get duller and duller. Still this dullness, even among the Ecclesiastical Sonnets, is a matter of degree. The fact is that Wordsworth, if he is to be taken at all, must be taken in toto. This child was the father of the man—and the dullard was also the son of the genius. Both of Mrs. Moorman’s volumes are therefore indispensable, if only as extraordinarily comprehensive and reliable works of reference. Here are more facts about Wordsworth the man—who was also, though the coincidence sometimes strains our credulity, Wordsworth the poet—than have ever been packed before into a biography of him. And, since Wordsworth was the most autobiographical of English poets, facts about his daily life are what we need most of all to respond properly to what Keats, embellishing a phrase of Hazlitt’s, called his “egotistical sublime.”
Twenty years ago, in the heyday of what was then the New Criticism, the critical commonplaces I have summarized in the preceding paragraph would have been dismissed as a gross case of the Biographical Fallacy. In those far-off days a poem’s meaning was presumed enclosed, like a snail in its shell, “inside” the poem. I still remember with embarrassment the public rebuke I once received from T.S. Eliot himself—it was a very public rebuke indeed, as it was delivered through a loud-speaker in the enormous football stadium of the University of Minnesota—because I had argued that, if (as seems certain) the Lucy of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems is in some sense his sister Dorothy, a quasi-incestuous relationship is necessarily implied.
ELIOT’S REBUKE, as it was eventually published (in a less offensive form) in On Poetry and Poets, concluded: “I feel no need for any light upon the Lucy poems beyond the radiance shed by the poems themselves.” What he meant was that the biographical background to the poems was “not relevant to our understanding of the poetry as poetry.” The crux however of the Lucy poems—as of The Prelude, the “Tintern Abbey” lines, the poem about the leech-gatherer (“Resolution and Independence”), and most of Wordsworth’s best poetry—is the poetical substance, as it were, of the “I” in them. If this first person singular does not refer to Wordsworth himself, as it…
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