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The Strangeness of Wordsworth

William Wordsworth: A Life

by Stephen Gill
Oxford University Press, (Clarendon Press), 525 pp., $30.00


The diarist Henry Crabb Robinson records a conversation in which William Blake, after decrying Wordsworth’s naturalism, represented him “as a Pagan, but still with great praise as the greatest poet of the age.” In this assessment of Wordsworth’s stature almost all the other major literary figures of his own and the following generation agreed, including Coleridge, Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Shelley, Keats. Each took exception to qualities in Wordsworth’s temperament and writings—his aloofness, his matter-of-factness, his austerity, and the self-concern that Keats called “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime.” But none doubted his position as the most original and representative poet of the age we now call the Romantic period. A quarter-century after Wordsworth’s death Matthew Arnold ranked him (as Coleridge had done seventy-five years earlier) after only Shakespeare and Milton among English poets. Our own age of criticism distrusts literary canons and rankings, but the substance as well as the remarkable quantity of recent critical discussions of Wordsworth attests to the recognition that beyond all but a very few poets he has affected our consciousness and our culture. Either directly or by way of his influence on other writers, he has altered the way we perceive and describe not only the natural world, but our own selves and other men and women, as well as the ways in which we respond to what we perceive.

The standard life has long been Mary Moorman’s full and admirable two volumes, William Wordsworth: A Biography, completed in 1965. The quarter-century since that publication, however, has been what Stephen Gill in his preface describes enthusiastically as “a golden age of Wordsworth and Coleridge studies.” There have been new editions of the poems, letters, and prose writings, and a flood of scholarly and critical writings.

Three new sources, recently made available, are of special importance to the biographer. One is Mark L. Reed’s Wordsworth: A Chronology, whose two volumes provide a meticulous record, day by day, of Wordsworth’s activities, literary and other. A second is the Cornell Wordsworth series, under the general editorship of Stephen M. Parrish, which has now reached thirteen of twenty-one volumes, and which will make available, from the voluminous manuscripts and the printed texts, all stages of the composition and emendation of his poems.

Wordsworth was a compulsive reviser of his work, whether unpublished or published, even though the act of revision exhausted him and gave him a variety of psychosomatic ailments. In each of the many successive editions of his poems he introduced changes; as Gill points out, even in the edition of his Collected Works which he published in 1845, only five years before his death, Wordsworth subjected the body of his poems, early as well as late, to extensive revision.

In some instances, especially in poems he kept in manuscript, Wordsworth’s changes were drastic enough to produce very different poems; and since, although often for the better, the changes were sometimes (increasingly as he grew older) for the worse, the Cornell Wordsworth not only provides detailed information about the way Wordsworth composed and recomposed, but raises the fundamental question: Which of the successive, complete versions of a Wordsworth text shall we take as the entity designated by the poem’s title?

A third item of importance to the biographer is the unexpected appearance of a cache of family papers that were acquired in 1977 by the Wordsworth Library in Grasmere. Among these, the most surprising was an exchange of thirty-one letters, written in 1810 and 1812, between William and his wife, Mary Hutchinson, whom he had known since childhood and had married in 1802. During Wordsworth’s lifetime it had been remarked that, unlike his major English predecessors, he was not only an austere but a conspicuously asexual poet. Hazlitt commented that “one would suppose, from the tenor of his subjects, that on this earth there was neither marrying nor giving in marriage.” And Shelley—although, as Mary Shelley tells us, “no man ever admired Wordsworth’s poetry more”—wrote a good-humored satire on Wordsworth, “Peter Bell the Third,” in which he remarked that

He touched the hem of Nature’s shift,
Felt faint—and never dared uplift
The closest, all-concealing tunic.

Such an opinion doubtless fostered the vogue in the Age of Victoria of published collections of Wordsworth’s poems designed for the education of children. It came therefore as a shock when the French scholar Emile Legouis and the American George McLean Harper, author of the standard biography that had preceded Mary Moorman’s, published almost simultaneously in the early 1920s their independent discovery of the fact (which had never been a secret to Wordsworth’s family) that while in France in 1792, during the heyday of the French Revolution, he had had a love affair with Annette Vallon and fathered a daughter, Caroline.1 We lack evidence of Wordsworth’s precise feelings for Annette Vallon; but his correspondence with his wife, though written after ten years of marriage and the birth of five children, expresses a blend of deep devotion with a strong and candidly physical sexuality.2

Stephen Gill, of Lincoln College, Oxford, is best known for his edition in the Cornell Wordsworth of The Salisbury Plain Poems and of the very useful William Wordsworth in the Oxford Authors series, which for the first time presents a selection of Wordsworth’s major poems in the order of their composition and in their earliest completed version. In Wordsworth: A Life Gill adroitly organizes the available information, old and new, his judgments are trustworthy, and he writes with economy and verve, as well as precision. The result is a single-volume Life which is not only informed and up-to-date, but interesting and eminently readable, even when it deals with the recalcitrant matter of the least eventful in the many years of Wordsworth’s retirement in the Lake Country.

Gill tells us that his “subject is Wordsworth the writer,” and that he has “not hesitated to sacrifice domestic detail” when “material about Wordsworth’s writing and publication competed for space.” In line with this purpose, he gives us not only the biographical circumstances of Wordsworth’s writings, but appreciative and revealing commentary on selected poems as well. But a single-volume biography that tries to do justice to the entire span of the work of a man who lived eighty years and wrote and published poems during sixty of those years sets limits to what can be said by way of commentary. Admirers of Wordsworth may feel that the Life does not sufficiently convey the inventiveness and variety, indeed the audacity, of his early and greatest poetry. In a manuscript for the poem “Home at Grasmere” probably written about 1800 Wordsworth describes himself, in the boldness of his poetic enterprise, as “in part a Fellow citizen, in part / An outlaw, and a borderer of his Age.” A.C. Bradley, in an essay on Wordsworth written eighty years ago, noted how “audacious” and “strange” some of his poems are. “The road into Wordsworth’s mind,” Bradley advised us, “must be through his strangeness and his paradoxes, and not round them.”


Wordsworth is commonly thought of as above all a nature poet, but he himself asserted that “the mind of man” is “the main region of my song.” Wordsworth’s young contemporary John Keats read him as a poet especially of human suffering who in this aspect “is deeper than Milton,” in that Milton, relying on creedal Christianity, “did not think into the human heart, as Wordsworth has done.” Wordsworth’s earliest undisputed masterpiece, “The Ruined Cottage” (first written in 1797 but expanded in 1799), was what he himself called “a tale of silent suffering,” on the part of Margaret, who has been abandoned by her husband. We owe our knowledge of the story of Margaret as an independent poem to the scholarship that recently retrieved it from manuscript;3 Wordsworth himself had published the story of Margaret only as incorporated in the first book of The Excursion (1814), and had weakened its effect in later editions by inserting passages of conventional religious piety.

As a separate work “The Ruined Cottage” is a companion piece to Wordsworth’s other early poem of silent suffering, “Michael,” published in 1800, but in its austere naturalism, flexible blank verse, and masterful management of a complex narrative point of view, it is an even more impressive instance of what the critic Walter Raleigh, early in this century, called Wordsworth’s “calm and almost terrible strength.” In a time of war and devastating rural depression, Margaret’s husband has secretly left her and their two children in order that they might have the bonus money he received for enlisting in the army. In her fierce and single-minded but finally hopeless waiting for her husband’s return, Margaret deteriorates in a way that is matched by the decay of her neglected cottage. Hers, however, is a moral as well as physical deterioration: she gives up her older boy to the parish while her infant son dies of neglect.

Wordsworth passes no moral judgment on Margaret, but poses the implicit question, What are we to make of life in a world where such things happen? The auditor of the story does not resort for comfort to a beneficent power, whether in or beyond the natural world, but derives solace from his own fellow-feeling, however helpless—

it seemed
To comfort me while with a brother’s love
I blessed her in the impotence of grief.

Unexpectedly his change of mood turns on the recognition of the nonhuman insentience of nature, its “calm oblivious tendencies,” and of the fact that the “secret spirit of humanity” embodied in the ruined cottage survives its ceaseless assimilation into the processes of nature’s independent life. The Pedlar who narrates the story has already achieved this calm of mind, and in a reversal as sharp as Wordsworth could make it, he declares

I turned away
And walked along my road in happiness.

The completion of “The Ruined Cottage,” and the extraordinary creative burst that began in Wordsworth’s twenty-seventh year, coincided with his moving in 1797 to Alfoxden, Somersetshire, to be near Coleridge, and with the daily and intense communion and interchange of ideas and work between the two men, always in the company of Dorothy, whom Coleridge in a letter of 1797 called Wordsworth’s “exquisite sister”—exquisite in her perceptiveness and quick intelligence and in the prose of her wonderful journals as in her vivacious presence. The intimacy of the relationship continued in 1800 when Coleridge moved to the Lake Country after the Wordsworths, who had settled at Grasmere. Developing tensions, however, led to a break between the two in 1810, leaving on both sides emotional wounds that were later patched over but never entirely healed. Precisely what, and how much, each poet owed to the other is a matter of scholarly dispute and can never be known with certainty. But it is clear that their early association and mutual encouragement stimulated each of them to major poetic achievement.

  1. 1

    George Harper, Wordsworth’s French Daughter (Princeton University Press, 1921); Emile Legouis, William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon (J.M. Dent, 1922). At the time of the affair William was twenty-two, a partisan of the Revolution, almost penniless, and with no immediate prospect for earning a living. Annette belonged to a Roman Catholic family whose sympathies were Royalist. Just before he married Mary in 1802, William and his sister, Dorothy, paid an amicable visit to Annette and Caroline at Calais. Thereafter the relations between the Vallons and the Wordsworths—including the generous and warm-hearted Mary Wordsworth—remained cordial, even affectionate.

  2. 2

    The correspondence has been sensitively edited by Beth Darlington, The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth (Cornell University Press, 1981).

  3. 3

    Jonathan Wordsworth, The Music of Humanity (Thomas Nelson, 1969). The various texts are minutely reconstructed by James Butler, editor, “The Ruined Cottage” and “The Pedlar” (Cornell University Press, 1979).

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