• Email
  • Print

The Mysterious Mr. Wordsworth

When Shelley, in Peter Bell the Third, satirized the Wordsworth of 1819 as a political turncoat, a conservative who formerly “wrote for freedom,” and also a constitutionally “solemn and unsexual man,” indeed a kind of “male prude,” there were a number of things he did not know. Shelley was aware, like everyone else, that Wordsworth in his youth—along with Coleridge and Southey—had not been a Tory, and had radical sympathies. Just how radical he never learned.

Salisbury Plain,” the first and socially incendiary version of the poem Wordsworth later smoothed out into “Guilt and Sorrow,” the long Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, written in “a republican spirit” (it defended the recent execution of Louis XVI and attacked the entire English class and legal system for its oppression of the poor), and, above all, The Prelude, with its account of his 1791-1792 sojourn in France and support for the ideals of the revolution, all remained unpublished until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850—which occurred long after Shelley’s. Even more time was to pass before it became widely known (as opposed to being a carefully guarded family secret) that while in France Wordsworth had had an affair with Annette Vallon, and fathered an illegitimate child. “But from the first,” Shelley wrote,

t was Peter’s drift
To be a kind of moral eunuch;
He touched the hem of Nature’s shift,
Felt faint—and never dared uplift
The closest, all-concealing tunic.

She laughed the while, with an arch smile,
And kissed him with a sister’s kiss,
And said—“My best Diogenes,
I love you well—but, if you please,
Tempt not again my deepest bliss.

“‘T is you are cold—for I, not coy,
Yield love for love, frank, warm and true…”

Shelley would need to rethink those lines today, and not only because of Annette and her daughter, Caroline. Although resistance can still be detected among some Wordsworthians, it has seemed clear for some time now—especially since the publication in full of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal—that although it is virtually inconceivable that they ever went to bed together (as Byron and his married half-sister Augusta Leigh did), “a sister’s kiss,” as far as William and Dorothy were concerned, was not necessarily an asexual peck on the cheek.

In his splendid new book Wordsworth and the Victorians, Stephen Gill pays tribute to that eminent Victorian William Knight, editor of the first scholarly edition of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (1882-1886), and author of a three-volume Life in 1889. (Gill’s book is dedicated to the memory of Knight and another great contemporary Wordsworthian, Edward Dowden.) Knight was the first person given access to Dorothy’s journals (handed over in all innocence by her nephew) and, as Gill suggests, he must have been “both enthralled and discomfited by what he read.” Not only did Knight discover cryptic but distinctly suspicious references to a certain “Annette” and “Caroline” in France, to an extensive correspondence between Wordsworth and Annette, and to an unexplained month at Calais involving Annette, Caroline, Dorothy, and William, in 1802, just before his marriage to Mary Hutchinson. He also found passages describing Dorothy’s passionate feelings for her brother, and the degree of physical intimacy in which they sometimes indulged: “O the Darling! here is one of his bitten apples! I can hardly find in my heart to throw it into the fire,” or “William’s head was bad after Mr S was gone I petted him on the carpet.” Such entries clearly filled him with alarm.

Gill argues persuasively that Knight’s subsequent perusal of Henry Crabb Robinson’s diaries (in which such revelations as Caroline calling Wordsworth “father” when they met years later in Paris and payments of money to her husband were recorded in a simple code) can have left him in no doubt about their relationship. He chose, however, to suppress any reference to it. Not until 1916, in George Harper’s two-volume biography of Wordsworth, did what Harper apologetically called “his false step” become public, to be confirmed by the subsequent discovery of Caroline’s baptismal certificate, naming Wordsworth as father, and then, in the archives at Blois, two emotional letters by Annette about her situation, which were sent in the same packet to Wordsworth and to Dorothy in 1792 and happened to have been impounded by the French authorities. (The letters from her which did reach England were all destroyed by Wordsworth’s family soon after his death.) As for Dorothy’s more unguarded and intense references to William as though he were not only brother but lover, Knight silently (and revealingly) omitted them, even if he reproduced the rest of the entry in his biography.

His caution on both counts was understandable at the time. Wordsworth’s son William, Jr., had apparently been told nothing about Annette, and his successor as head of the family dismissed Knight’s attempt at a private intimation as scurrilous “gossip.” “On First Hearing that Wordsworth had an illegitimate Child,” John Julius Norwich’s parody of Wordsworth’s famous sonnet to Milton—“Byron! Thou shouldst be living at this hour,/We need thy verse, thy venom and thy wit/To castigate the ancient hypocrite”—indicates fairly enough the glee with which some of Wordsworth’s readers, even in the later twentieth century, have welcomed the news that the Sage of Rydal Mount, so ungenerous and severe in his censure of Byron’s moral conduct, had also produced an illegitimate daughter—not to mention having dubious relations himself with a beloved sister.

In the second half of the nineteenth century such discoveries would not have been a laughing matter. As Gill says, Knight’s many volumes appeared to confirm that everything was now known about Wordsworth, and that he

was the only one of the Romantics whose life was as exemplary as his work. The private lives of Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron hardly bore inspection, and even Keats’s was not, it seemed, free from unwholesomeness [—all those “unmanly” letters to Fanny Brawne]. Wordsworth alone was, as Mrs. Humphry Ward thankfully observed, “a respectable genius.”

The importance of that respectability for the Victorians is, in part, the subject of Gill’s book.

Wordsworth and the Victorians offers a substantial, meticulously researched account, not only of the fan letters with which Wordsworth was deluged during the last two decades of his life, but of the number and kinds of people who actually undertook a secular pilgrimage to Rydal Mount. To be told that “the Rydal Mount Visitors Book, kept for most of the last decade of Wordsworth’s life, contains over two thousand names” is suddenly to see the old poet as though he were Westminster Abbey (which in some ways he was). Not everyone, of course, could actually get into the house and take tea with the great man. Most had to be content with exterior views, the hope of a chance sighting, or with a green sprig filched from the garden (“It is fortunate,” Gill observes wryly of these depredations, “that shrubs grow abundantly in Cumbria.”) Even the future George Eliot, young Mary Ann Evans, was grateful to receive from her brother Isaac in 1841 a gift of purloined rose leaves.

All these visitors to the shrine had doubtless read and admired some of Wordsworth’s poems—although not, in most cases, the ones chiefly valued now—but they were not there just because of The White Doe of Rylstone or The Excursion. They came, in a period notable for its desire to find in literature both instruction and spiritual guidance, to testify that this was where they might be discovered, in the work of a man who could be described as “the most spiritual and the most spiritualizing of all the English poets, not Shakespeare, no, nor even Milton, excepted.” What the disclosures lurking in Dorothy’s journal would have done to convictions such as these scarcely bears thinking about.

Quite ordinary people often wrote to Wordsworth to express personal thanks for poetry which they felt had somehow changed their lives, or helped them to survive a personal crisis. Gill reprints some of these (often embarrassing) tributes. But he is understandably more interested in all those Victorian thinkers, men of recognized distinction, upon whom Wordsworth seems to have had an equally powerful effect, although they interpreted him in remarkably different ways: John Stuart Mill, William Hale White (“Mark Rutherford”), or William Whewell, to name only a few. Mill’s belief that Wordsworth’s poetry helped him emerge from a nervous breakdown is well known. Hale White’s spiritual renewal after reading Lyrical Ballads and the philosopher-scientist Whewell’s conviction that his intellectual character had been reformed by Wordsworth are probably less so.

But Gill also resurrects a now almost forgotten, but arresting figure: the Reverend Frederick William Robertson, Church of England minister in Brighton, and bane of the establishment, including his ecclesiastical superiors. Robertson, who died at the age of thirty-seven exhausted by his struggles, was the champion of Brighton’s lower class, a tireless campaigner for better housing, education, and working hours for the poor. Like Mill and Hale White, he believed that Wordsworth had rescued him from terrible doubt and depression. Afterward, he endeavored, as he said, “to make Wordsworth’s principles the guiding principles of his own inner life.”

The principles in question were essentially social and humanitarian, and they reached back to resurrect a Wordsworth now minimized (if remembered at all) both by the reading public and the poet himself. Had Wordsworth been able to publish his Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff when he wrote it, in 1793, he would certainly have been imprisoned. When The Prelude finally appeared in 1850, Macaulay could write in disgust, “The poem is to the last degree Jacobinical, indeed Socialist.” Wordsworth himself, in his old age, sickened by the carnage of the French Revolution in its later stages and the Napoleonic aftermath, was prone to explaining hastily, when his “unfortunate” Jacobin past was dredged up, that young men, of course, tend to be thoughtlessly radical but embrace conservatism with the acquisition of experience and good sense. Robertson, however, even went so far as to welcome the 1848 revolution in France, for reasons akin to those which long before had led Wordsworth to talk about “France standing on the top of golden hours,/ And human nature seeming born again.”

It was not, however, the rare if uncomfortable reminders of his early Jacobinism that really troubled the old Wordsworth. He was firmly sitting on the manuscript of what was later to be known as The Prelude, a poem which, even after its posthumous publication in 1850, would be slow, for copyright reasons, to attain a wide circulation and even slower to establish itself in the exalted position it occupies today. When the Chartists took to the streets to demand social reform, they carried quotations from Byron on their banners, not from Wordsworth. Nor was there any remote equivalent to the flood of cheap, pirated editions of Byron’s Don Juan which, as William St. Clair has demonstrated,1 penetrated the households of the literate working and lower middle classes so effectively that Friedrich Engels, in 1844, could assert that it was the workers, not the hypocritical bourgeoisie, who really knew, and cherished, Byron’s work.

Gill has an excellent chapter on Wordsworth as a marketable commodity, examining not only publishers’ altercations and records but the various formats in which the poems (before Knight’s academic edition) were offered to a Victorian reading public from the upper or, far more often, middle classes. Beautiful—and expensive—gift volumes, complete with gilt-edged pages, and blue or red casings sometimes decorated in gold, proliferated, as did illustrations tending to bear remarkably little relation to the poems themselves. Gill reproduces two especially repulsive attempts to visualize Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” in both of which Little Lord Fauntleroy immured in vaguely medieval fancy dress appears to have replaced anything that might be recognized as an active Lakeland boy.

Illustrations like these bear eloquent witness to the extent to which Wordsworth could now be willfully (or carelessly) sentimentalized and misread. There was, however, one aspect of his work that continued to receive close scrutiny, often with unsettling results. Despite his authorship of the “Ecclesiastical Sonnets,” and his apparently firm adherence to the Church of England (including vigorous objections to all proposals for Catholic Emancipation), the dreaded word “pantheism” continued, far more than “Jacobinism,” to disturb Wordsworth’s admirers throughout the period. For Mill, Hale White, and even the ordained Robertson, it presented no problem—it was, indeed, part of the attraction.

More orthodox readers tended to worry that, in “Lines written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” for instance, whatever the precise nature of that “something far more deeply interfused,” a presence “whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,” it did not seem to be Jesus Christ. Wordsworth never meddled with “Tintern Abbey” (indeed, it would be hard to see how he could). But he did make feeble efforts in 1845 to render Margaret’s tragic story in “The Ruined Cottage,” in which she waits futilely for her vanished husband, more demonstrably Christian, while revising certain passages in the as yet unpublished Prelude along similar lines. The results, however understandable in the climate of his later years, were not happy.

The middle chapters of Gill’s book, about the creative use made of Wordsworth by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Tennyson, are the most predictable in a study of this kind. They are sharpened, however, and made individual here by Gill’s acute understanding of these writers, and because he is less interested in identifying specific instances of indebtedness or allusion than in Wordsworth as a pervasive influence, and the temperamental and artistic reasons for the imaginative hold he acquired over individuals in themselves so unlike. All four of these Victorians actually met Wordsworth, in London or the Lakes. As a small boy, Arnold was surprised by the old poet as he was playing in the fort he had constructed on the slopes of Loughrigg Fell, an apt emblem, as Gill remarks, of what was to be their lifelong relationship: “Wordsworth was always coming upon him in his stronghold.”

Arnold (the only one of the four to produce an edition, selected according to what he regarded as the grain as opposed to the chaff) was steeped in Wordsworth. As Gill makes clear, he was haunted by his own inability to subsume loss in joy, as Wordsworth’s finest poetry does, or come to terms with the older poet’s sense of wholeness and connection between the visible universe, animate and inanimate, and the mind of man. Tennyson was similarly obsessed with the affirmatory side of Wordsworth, returning again and again to “Tintern Abbey,” in particular during the long composition of In Memoriam, in the effort to find for himself what he called “the sense of the abiding in the transient”—an effort that persistently failed.

The two women in this quartet, Gaskell and George Eliot, valued Wordsworth above all as the poet of human suffering and the primacy of feeling, George Eliot finding also an affirmation of the high calling of the writer, a sense of vocation, that answered to her own. Gill writes freshly and perceptively about the “Wordsworthian” in Ruth and Mary Barton, and in Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss. All four of these Victorians, as he demonstrates, took from a Wordsworth whose greatness as a thinker as well as poet they never doubted, what he or she needed, even if (as in the case of Arnold and Tennyson) that was largely a definition of difference.

Stephen Gill’s own biography of Wordsworth, the first major life since Mary Moorman’s monumental, and still valuable, two volumes of 1957 and 1965, appeared in 1989.2 It was written, as Gill announced in his preface, largely to take into account all the new information—from letters, family papers, notebooks, scholarly monographs, and new editions of the poems based on the astonishing cache of Wordsworth manuscripts—that had subsequently emerged. Gill covered the poet’s entire life, a task requiring five hundred and twenty-five pages. Kenneth R. Johnston’s The Hidden Wordsworth, by contrast, stops under halfway, in 1807, at the famous moment when Coleridge, after hearing his (by now substantially estranged) friend read the 1805 Prelude to him aloud, rose and “found myself in prayer.”

Johnston’s is not, apparently, the first of two volumes but complete in itself (“there is no sequel forthcoming”), an assurance perhaps not entirely dismaying to readers who have waded through its nearly one thousand pages. In an introduction, Johnston explains his reasons for writing the book, and they have little to do with new facts: “Wordsworthian biography does not need more facts, though these are always welcome, so much as it needs more speculation.” This is “a portrait in words that attempts to restore the fire to Wordsworth’s eyes, to overcome his own strenuous efforts to damp his youthful passions down,” and its avowed method “often consists of no more than raising questions. My rule of thumb has been: when there’s a choice of possibilities, investigate the riskier one.”

As an authorial statement of intent, this seems straightforward enough, especially if you want to write (as Johnston obviously did) a strikingly “sensational” biography. The problem is that as one proceeds through Johnston’s book, the relation of fact to speculation becomes, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.” Of the four descriptive nouns in Johnston’s catchy subtitle—“Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy”—the first is self-evident, while the second and third have been undisputed ever since the discovery of Annette Vallon, and the publication of (among other things) The Prelude and the Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff. The idea is scarcely new that Wordsworth may have had early sexual experiences with the various women in Cambridge who were available to undergraduates, with those “frank-hearted maids of rocky Cumberland” with whom he disported himself during the summer vacation, or with one of those “fair dark-ey’d maids” on the shores of Lake Como who clearly set his blood racing when he encountered them in the course of his European walking tour with Robert Jones in 1790.

In Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, published in 1922, Emile Legouis aired just these possibilities, observing tolerantly that “there was no strain of asceticism in the young poet’s nature, to make him an exception to his age.” What Legouis did not do was, in effect, to invent an entire short story, on the slenderest evidence, about Wordsworth’s deliberately separating himself from Jones at Como in the hope of spending the night with one of the Italian beauties, and even trying to return to her cottage the next day. Nor, one feels, would he have been much inclined to credit Johnston’s idea that poor Coleridge’s obviously demented ravings in 1806 about Wordsworth going to bed with his sister-in-law, Coleridge’s hopelessly adored Sara Hutchinson, on a Saturday morning in the “Queen’s Head” near Coleorton, nonetheless “cannot be ruled out” as fact,

given Wordsworth’s commanding sexual presence and the reality that Sara was much the liveliest and most attractive of the three rather plain women of the household—and the one whose critical opinions about his poetry Wordsworth paid most attention to.

It may be true that where there’s smoke there’s fire, but Johnston often seems able to fan the most minute ember into a conflagration.

Spy” is certainly the most novel and arresting of the four words in the subtitle of The Hidden Wordsworth. But is it true? That Coleridge’s hilarious account in Biographia Literaria of “Spy Nozy” is largely a fabrication has long been recognized. James Walsh, the government agent who actually was sent down to Somerset in 1797, when a French invasion seemed imminent, to investigate the activities, including walking tours, of a household of “disaffected Englishmen” who did not scruple to entertain the radical orator John Thelwall, was certainly not Coleridge’s footsore incompetent, a man blunderingly construing talk of “Spinoza” as an unflattering reference to himself. When reporting back to his superiors in London, Walsh mentioned “Wordsworth a name I think known to Mr. Ford.” Ford was a London Bow Street magistrate loosely connected with what would now be called the British Secret Service.

Just why Wordsworth’s name should be known to him remains, as Nicholas Roe has indicated in Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (1988), unclear. Letters passing between William and Annette may have been intercepted; Wordsworth’s radical contacts in London might have put him under suspicion, or it could simply be a reference to Wordsworth’s elder brother Richard, who practiced law in the city. For Johnston, however, pursuing (as ever) the “riskier” possibility, and unfazed by the lack of evidence, Walsh perhaps closed the case as quickly as he did because he “found that another operative was already on the ground: Our man in Somerset, Mr. Wordsworth.” Enter Wordsworth as spy, a tentative hypothesis which, by the time Johnston gets William and Dorothy across to Germany in 1799, has hardened into fact.

Johnston can see that there are difficulties surrounding his proclamation of the one important new fact presented in The Hidden Wordsworth: his discovery in 1993 of an entry in the Duke of Portland’s private journal: “To paid Mr. Wordsworth’s Draft, å£92.12,” an entry appearing among some other payments to men associated with the Secret Service. Was this particular Wordsworth really William? If so, one might ask, was this a payment for espionage or was it the kind of rudimentary travelers’ check common in the period, a draft which could be sold locally in Germany (often at a discount) and then find its way back to London to be encashed, thus sparing Wordsworth the need to carry abroad a substantial amount of gold?

We need something that Johnston fails to provide: a fuller account of the document from which this entry has been extracted. Rather touchingly Johnston confesses in a footnote that one of his reasons for espousing the espionage explanation is that it is not only “more plausible” but “frankly, more exciting.” Readers may well raise other queries. It is true that between late February and the end of April 1799 Wordsworth’s and Dorothy’s movements in Germany are unrecorded, and that some pages of their journals for the period are missing. The sum of å£92.12 was, however, at the time, a considerable amount of money, far more than a courier simply conveying a secret government message could expect to earn.

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. 1

    The Impact of Byron’s Writings: An Evaluative Approach,” in Byron, Augustan and Romantic, edited by Andrew Rutherford (St. Martins, 1990).

  2. 2

    William Wordsworth: A Life (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1989).

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  • Email
  • Print