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 …

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