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The Mysterious Mr. Wordsworth

If this was a payment for more elaborate investigations, what on earth could Wordsworth, with his rudimentary German (and the equally Germanless Dorothy in tow), be expected to find out? It all seems distinctly strained, arousing suspicions by no means allayed by Johnston’s comments on the “new invention for washing.” About this matter Wordsworth (who hoped, in effect, to patent it in England) wrote to Coleridge from Nordhausen that it was a device apparently able in one basin to accommodate the needs of “the largest family in the kingdom.” “Laundering” money, Johnston quickly concedes, would be an anachronism in the period. But, he asks eagerly, might not the potential Wordsworthomatic still represent “a coded reference”? Could the “largest family in the kingdom” not refer to King George’s subjects in general? The answer, overpoweringly, would seem to be no.

There are things to praise in Johnston’s book. As one would expect from his earlier Wordsworth and “The Recluse” (1984), Johnston often writes illuminatingly about individual poems (the different versions of “Nutting,” for example, or “Tintern Abbey” as an initial attempt to unite Wordsworth’s previous “ballads of suffering and… lyrics of natural celebration”). His attentiveness to previously undetected echoes of Milton in Wordsworth’s verse also pays off richly, even if one is sometimes a little doubtful that the entire Miltonic passage can be used to drag the hidden Wordsworth to light in the various ways Johnston proposes.

The new book is, however, primarily a biography, the story of Wordsworth’s “self-creation” as a poet, and only incidentally a work of literary criticism, and it is on the former basis that it must be judged. Johnston’s labors have been immense. One can only admire the energy and dedica-tion that have impelled him (twice) up to the top of Mount Snowdon in an effort to see something of what Wordsworth saw in 1791, to thread his way through the Alps, to dodge menacing military vehicles on Salisbury Plain, or to be able to report that Shirehampton, where Wordsworth and Dorothy visited James Losh in 1798, “now consists mainly of industrial fuel storage tanks,” while “a few years ago” the restaurant next to the parking lot at Tintern Abbey offered customers a stuffed salmon called “The William Wordsworth.”

Everywhere that Wordsworth went, Johnston has been sure to go. How accurate he may be is another matter. Certainly his account (based on a letter of Isabella Fenwick’s but augmented by his own visit to the site) of how Wordsworth’s rooms at St. John’s in Cambridge overlooked “the splendid chapel of Trinity College, designed by Christopher Wren” is calculated to give anyone who has ever stood in the Great Court of Trinity considerable pause. (Begun under Mary Tudor, the chapel was finished under Elizabeth I. Trinity’s Wren Library is both quite different and somewhere else.)

There are a lot of minor inaccuracies of this kind, together with some sloppy proofreading, in The Hidden Wordsworth: Richardson wrote a novel called Clarissa, not Clarissa Harlowe; there is as yet no conclusive evidence either for Ben Jonson having been at Cambridge or for Shakespeare’s “hard family circumstances”; and it is a little difficult to see, from Johnston’s account, how Mary Rigge’s illegitimate child David Benoni can be said to bear the surname of his natural father when the paternal name happened to be “Kirkby.” Slips such as these—and there are a good many of them—are, however, ultimately less important than the questions raised by Johnston’s biographical method as a whole.

Johnston blunders constantly into the well-known trap of using such phrases as “surely he must have felt” (or “thought” or “believed”), which allow a biographer to pass off his own conjectures as the actual experience of his subject. So, as a child, Wordsworth apparently “loved nature mainly to destroy it”: all those “grunsel” (i.e., ragweed) flowers he says in The Prelude were “dashed”—for Johnston “violently beaten down”—when he ran through the fields. When still very young, William somehow became separated from John Wordsworth’s servant James when the two were out riding, and was terrified to find himself in the place, near Penrith, where a man was once hanged for either matricide or wife murder. In Johnston’s reconstruction this becomes:

My father is a servant too, he may well have thought, of a terrifying master [James Lowther] who embalmed his paramour’s head. They hang wife killers, don’t they? What do they do to parricides?

If any sense at all can be made of this flight of biographical fancy, it must be that young William, irritated at being abandoned by his father’s servant, actually contemplated doing the elder Wordsworth in. Or, “While it is hard to conceive of a physically incestuous relation between William and Dorothy Wordsworth, it is equally hard to believe that the possibility was not often on their minds, whether as a temptation or a threat, at critical times like the Goslar months,” a surmise which before long has blossomed into an elaboration of Johnston’s conviction that the Lucy poems, among others, express Wordsworth’s “feelings for Dorothy and his determination to control them—against her advances.” He had, it seems (as in “Nutting”), either to discipline what had become her potentially destructive “erotic curiosity,” or (as in the Lucy poems) symbolically kill her off. Maybe.

Nor does Johnston scruple to add “facts” to his source material. Among the entries in Dorothy’s journal that William Knight prudently suppressed is the now famous one describing how she went to bed on the night before her brother married Mary Hutchinson wearing the wedding ring on her “forefinger.” In the morning, before setting off for church, William said goodbye to his sister privately upstairs and, when she returned the ring, “slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me fervently.”3

In Johnston’s book, this becomes, tellingly, a transference to “her third finger”—a fabrication made even more peculiar by the fact that Johnston’s note at this point directs the reader not, as might be expected, to the actual passage in Dorothy’s journal, but to “SG, p. 211.” Although inexplicably absent from Johnston’s long list of “Abbreviations,” “SG” must refer to Stephen Gill, on page 211 of whose Wordsworth biography an account of this episode does indeed appear—but with no mention either of Dorothy’s ring finger, or of her attiring herself that morning “all in bridal white.”

One of the most dizzying things about Johnston’s book is the way hypothesis tends insensibly to advance into fact—and then, not infrequently, resume its status as hypothesis a few hundred pages later. In the chapters entitled “A Return to France?” and then (rather weirdly) “A Return to France: The Evidence of Speculation,” Johnston addresses himself to the possibility (entertained by all of Wordsworth’s recent biographers) that William did, in fact, dart across the Channel again in the autumn of 1793, despite the fact that England and France were at war, in an unavailing attempt to make contact with Annette and the infant daughter he had been obliged to abandon the year before.

Johnston has, in the end, to admit that the case remains unproven but, on the way to this disappointing conclusion, he deluges the reader with a detailed account of Wordsworth’s likely itinerary from Normandy across France toward Blois, including observations on meteorological conditions: “Given Wordsworth’s powerful literalism,” may the reference in The Prelude to “a season dangerous and wild” not refer to the political situation but “simply to the weather in France that fall”? Or to the ill-fated journalist Gorsas, with whom “wild as it seems, it is not wholly outside the realm of possibility” he might have traveled to Paris, “especially if they already knew each other.” Any reader might be forgiven for coming away with the impression that all this actually happened, as opposed to being mere speculation.

Gorsas is of particular importance to Johnston because about 1840 Wordsworth apparently told Carlyle (who recorded the conversation in his Reminiscences) that he had actually witnessed his execution. This, if true, would mean Wordsworth was in Paris on October 7, 1793. Unfortunately, Johnston can’t leave it at that. In the pages that follow, Carlyle’s statement that

he did not otherwise add to or alter my ideas on the Revolution, nor did we dwell long there; but hastened over to England, and to the noteworthy, or at least noted men of that and the subsequent time

becomes—in the teeth of the plural pronoun—evidence of Wordsworth “‘hastening’ over to England” in 1793, when it is perfectly clear that Carlyle is talking about the discussion the two men had, not anything that Wordsworth previously did.

It is one of the central premises of Johnston’s book that “when we are in a position to examine the circumstances of his utterances closely,” we almost always find Wordsworth to be astonishingly “literal.” This belief gives the biographer a dangerous amount of scope when it comes to rearing edifices of “fact” upon the verse itself, supposedly “hidden” fact in particular. But Johnston is not very careful about how he does this, and he frequently ignores genuine facts that inconveniently stand in his way. Like everyone else who writes about Wordsworth’s youth, he has pillaged T.W. Thompson’s wonderful book Wordsworth’s Hawkshead.4 That is how he knows about the episode on the Yewdale Crags, about 1783, when the young Wordsworth, in company with a number of other boys, sallied forth (as they often did) to collect ravens’ eggs and one of them—John Benson, aged about fourteen—became “crag-fast,” too terrified to move either forward along the rock face or back. According to Johnston, “the older boys hurried down to find some adult workmen to rescue him, but one, the youngest of the group, stayed behind to enjoy the sublime possibilities of the situation”:

Oh, when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost, as it seemed,
Suspended by the blast…

…oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ears; the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!
(The Prelude, I. 341-350)

Before reproving the young Wordsworth for paying more attention to the scenery than to a companion in imminent danger of falling to his death, it is as well to check Thompson’s account, which makes it entirely plain that Wordsworth rushed from the scene along with the others to seek adult help. The magnificent lines Johnston quotes from The Prelude cannot be pinned, biographically, to this particular event.

There are moments when one feels that Johnston would have done better to write a novel rather than a biography—something along the lines of Peter Ackroyd’s Milton in America (1996). His powerful imagination is not always a bad thing. He is excellent at constructing lively, panoramic views of (for instance) the Cambridge Wordsworth knew, his London, or what people were doing and thinking in Paris when Wordsworth stayed there in the autumn of 1792, shortly after the September Massacres. Historical settings, in this book, are often more persuasive than the biography. Indeed, The Hidden Wordsworth frequently strikes one as a great compendium of information—about places, manners, other people, political activities, and events—painstakingly gleaned from an impressive number of sources. Wordsworth himself, however, tends to disappear in the throng. Johnston seems to have produced not a portrait with background but a background harboring a hazy and rather unreliable portrait.

Given the subject, that may have been inevitable. As Stephen Gill writes in William Wordsworth: A Life,

The problem for the biographer is that evidence other than [The Prelude] is so scanty. The context of Wordsworth’s life can be assembled in a detailed collage—the people he knew, the political and social mood of the time, the public events of which he must have been aware—but the figure of Wordsworth himself remains indistinct and what he actually felt, thought, and even did knowable only in part.

Johnston has done his best with the collage, but (far more than Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, or even Keats) Wordsworth himself remains stubbornly hidden.


Wordsworth’s Spin June 24, 1999

  1. 3

    The Grasmere Journals, edited by Pamela Woof (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 126.

  2. 4

    T.W. Thompson, Wordsworth’s Hawkshead, edited by Robert Woof (Oxford University Press, 1970).

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