William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth; drawing by David Levine

p>On the 5th of February 1805, John Wordsworth, William’s sea captain younger brother, drowned at the age of thirty-two when his ship broke up in a gale off the south coast of England. News of the disaster reached London two days later, and Richard Wordsworth, eldest of the five Wordsworth siblings, a lawyer in the city, immediately dispatched a letter to the little cottage at Grasmere in the Lake District in which William and his unmarried sister Dorothy had been living since 1800, joined there toward the end of 1802 by William’s newly acquired wife, the former Mary Hutchinson. It was Mary’s sister Sara Hutchinson, visiting her old school-friend Mrs. Cookson some miles away at Kendal, who intercepted that letter on February 11, after it had got as far as Rydal, and walked on with it to Grasmere. She had probably been alerted to the catastrophe from a newspaper account.
William, as she presumably knew, at this time saw no newspapers, “not even a weekly one, so that I am in utter ignorance of what is doing in the world.” Guessing that there might be a letter from London waiting, and what it would contain, she determined to deliver it personally to the Wordsworths, while offering what comfort she could in what she was aware would be a situation of appalling grief. Certainly she does not seem to have been expected on the 11th at Grasmere. Sara herself may well have been contemplating marriage to John Wordsworth, and her prompt action was not only generous but seems little short of heroic.

The adult inhabitants of the Grasmere cottage at Town End were indeed devastated. Dorothy wept uncontrollably for days, and remained ill for some time. William, distraught, would be blocked creatively for months. Mary (as usual), although also deeply upset, held the household together with, at least for a week, the help of her sister. Wordsworth did, however, manage a letter to his brother Richard on the evening of the 11th: “We wish you were with us,” he wrote. “God keep the rest of us together! the set is now broken. Farewell.” On March 19, more than a month later, in another emotional letter to Richard, he was admitting, “I am sometimes half superstitious, and think that as the number of us is now broken some more of the set will be following him.”

In both letters, Wordsworth clearly intended “the set” to be understood as Dorothy and himself, Richard, Christopher, and John, a family group of five siblings from which one brother was now missing. Beneath this, however, lurked another meaning. unavailable to his lawyer brother, but of great significance to Wordsworth himself: a partially overlapping but different, and even more closely knit, “set” of six. From this group too John had just been brutally subtracted. There was, moreover, one surviving member of it about whom all the others were now seriously worried.

Even on that first day of mourning for the “silent poet,” as the others thought of John—a man who rarely wrote down his responses to the natural world, although apparently gifted with the same extraordinary sensitivity that Dorothy Wordsworth possessed—William’s thoughts turned immediately to “poor Coleridge,” then far away in Malta. “I tremble for the moment when he is to hear of my brother’s death,” he told Sir George Beaumont; “it will distress him to the heart,—and his poor body cannot bear sorrow. He loved my brother….” And indeed, when the news finally reached Coleridge, on March 31, he appears to have collapsed in the middle of a diplomatic reception. For a fortnight, he was confined to his bed. “Oh dear John Wordsworth!” he scrawled in his notebook on April 8, remembering how likely it had seemed that after only a few more years, John would be able to abandon his perilous seafaring life, settle permanently in the Lakes, “and be verily one of the Concern.” Coleridge’s “Concern,” identical here with Wordsworth’s “set” of six, becomes a kind of litany in his notebook at this time: William and his wife Mary, John, Dorothy, and Sara Hutchinson—with whom Coleridge was hopelessly in love—all linked (of course) with Coleridge himself. These, in the form of initials, are the six names carved at different times by Coleridge and Wordsworth into “Sara’s Rock” (later called “The Rock of Names”), a large boulder harboring a spring of water on the road between Grasmere and Keswick, where Coleridge lived (increasingly unhappily) with his wife, Sara, and their children.

On a piece of blotting paper facing her journal entry on May 15, 1802, Dorothy felt impelled to arrange the same six in a double pattern, its two disparate configurations reflecting her own anxiety about the position she was likely to occupy once her brother had married Mary Hutchinson. Cole-ridge, quite independently, at some indeterminate time after Wordsworth’s marriage in October of that year, did much the same thing in one of his notebooks. In both cases, as on “Sara’s Rock,” the name of Coleridge’s wife was conspicuously absent.


It is understandable that John Worthen should have rejected “The Concern” and “The Set” as possible titles for a book about “Coleridge, the Hutchinsons and the Wordsworths in 1802.” “The Group,” although a designation frequently invoked in his text, would almost certainly have been too reminiscent of a well-known novel by Mary McCarthy (1963). The Gang, nevertheless, Worthen’s ultimate choice, seems unfortunate, and the three epigraphs which attempt to justify it only make matters worse.

For one thing, all three are unhelpfully pejorative. Dr. Johnson’s definition of “gang” in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755—“A number herding together; a troop; a company; a tribe; a herd. It is seldom used but in contempt or abhorrence”—scarcely seems apposite, nor does the government spy James Walsh’s reference in 1797 to “a mischiefuous [sic] gang of disaffected Englishmen,” even though Walsh included Wordsworth and Coleridge among them. As for Coleridge’s joke, in his poem “A Soliloquy of the full Moon” (1802), about “The head of the Gang, one Wordsworth by name,” that refers specifically to a “gang” of poets, among whom only that “Rogue” Wordsworth, Coleridge himself, and the German writer J. H. Voss figure specifically. It is not about the group of people with which Worthen is concerned.

Nor does his attempt to reinterpret “gang” as meaning “a borderline, fugitive, family” improve matters. There was nothing borderline or fugitive about the Hutchinson sisters and their two farmer brothers over at Bishop Middleham and Gallow Hill. That, indeed, as Worthen himself later points out, is why they probably seemed more acceptably genteel to Sara Coleridge than the unconventional Wordsworths, a brother and sister who spent much of their time walking about the countryside like tramps, night and day in all weathers. The book manages, however, to survive its title.

Worthen’s is by no means the first study to focus on Wordsworth and Coleridge at this particular moment in their lives. William Heath’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: A Study of Their Literary Relations in 1801–1802 appeared in 1970, and Gene W. Ruoff’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Making of the Major Lyrics 1802–1804 in 1989. Worthen’s time span—March 1, 1802, to October 4, 1802, with a snapshot in his epilogue of life in the Grasmere cottage on January 11, 1803—is considerably more restricted than theirs. Yet these earlier books inevitably concentrate on many of the same issues. The year 1802 was crucial for both poets. Wordsworth at last made up his mind to marry Mary Hutchinson. Before doing that, on August 1 he and Dorothy crossed over to France and spent a month at Calais with Annette Vallon, who in 1792 had given birth to his illegitimate daughter, Caroline. His relations with Coleridge, once extremely close—Coleridge had transported himself and his family to the Lakes in 1800 solely in order to be near Wordsworth—were already troubled. Coleridge himself was struggling with ill health, opium addiction, the wretchedness of his marriage, his irregular passion for Sara Hutchinson, and an increasingly difficult relationship with Wordsworth. In the end, after fleeing to Malta, he would separate from his wife and return to live in London.

Meanwhile, in 1802, he and Wordsworth found themselves engaged in a poetic dialogue different from the one that had produced Lyrical Ballads in 1798, but quite as important. This time, it involved the complicated interrelations among the texts of Wordsworth’s great ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” as it struggled through various stages toward completion; his much-revised poem “The Leech-gatherer” (subsequently called “Resolution and Independence”); and Coleridge’s multiple versions of the verse “Letter” to Sara Hutchinson, finally published, on Wordsworth’s wedding day (October 4), in a form stripped of direct reference to Sara or his own domestic circumstances, as “Dejection: An Ode.”

The question of how these poems interlock with each other has been explored before, and not only by Heath and Ruoff. What is new about Worthen’s book is its determination to pay serious attention to what Wordsworth and Coleridge were writing in 1802—two appendices painstakingly attempt to reconstruct Wordsworth’s May version of “The Leech-gatherer,” and what Worthen calls “Coleridge’s First Dejection“—while embedding these and other poems within a detailed account not only of their authors’ lives during this limited period but the lives of other members of the group.

He is interested not simply in literary activity but in all the gardening, strenuous walking, letter writing, copying out of poems, social visits, and journeys with which Wordsworth and Dorothy (and to a greater or lesser degree the others) were involved. There is, he maintains stoutly, something wrong (for instance) about plucking out from Dorothy’s journal entry for March 27 the fact that on that day William began what was probably the “Immortality” ode, while ignoring the fact that brother and sister were also anxiously awaiting the arrival of Mr. Oliff’s consignment of dung—manure that William needed to dig into the vegetable garden at Town End before they departed on the following day, via Keswick and the Coleridges, for the Clarksons’ house at Eusemere and then, in William’s case, for the all-important meeting with Mary Hutchinson at Middleham, at which the two would agree upon their marriage. The Gang is a literary biography with a difference, not least because (for all its sometimes microscopic detail) it is also, to a considerable extent, a book concerned to ask searching questions about literary biography as a form.


Worthen, the author of D.H. Lawrence: A Literary Life (1989) and D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885–1912 (1991), has worried at a few of these questions before. In “The Necessary Ignorance of the Biographer,” an essay included in The Art of Literary Biography, edited by John Batchelor,1 Worthen argued that biography in general has come to be so popular in our age because it pretends, soothingly, “that things as difficult as human lives can—for all their obvious complexity—be summed up, known, comprehended.” Worthen inveighed there, in particular, against what he saw as the widespread tendency to allow a subject’s later years (and especially his or her death) to color preceding events and years, making it seem, with hindsight, as though the whole trajectory was inevitable and could have been predicted from the start. And he came near to rejoicing over the constant threat to biographers of the discovery of new material—a cache of letters, previously unknown acquaintances or events, which invalidate such carefully plotted scenarios, throwing them into disarray.

The Gang is informed throughout by disapproval of the liberties biographers allow themselves to take in their eagerness to tell a particular story. And almost no one, among the many who have addressed themselves over the past half-century to the lives and work of Wordsworth and Coleridge—from Mary Moorman and Kathleen Coburn to Stephen Gill, Richard Holmes, Kenneth Johnston, or (most recently) Juliet Barker—escapes being caught out at some point and rebuked, sometimes for indulging in what Worthen calls “the usual attempt by biographers to manufacture material where none exists,” sometimes for falsifying or at least misrepresenting facts.

Worthen, for example, insists that Coleridge in 1800 was not shattered by any high-handed decision on Wordsworth’s part to exclude his friend’s poem “Christabel” from the new edition of Lyrical Ballads. Dorothy’s journal entries for October 4–7, upon which this widely accepted accusation is based, fail, when attentively read, to support it. It seems more likely, Worthen claims, that during those autumn days together at Grasmere the two men decided quite amicably that “Christabel”—which Dorothy makes clear she and William admired—was simply too long and too different to fit into the collection. The notion that it was contumaciously rejected, Worthen suggests, has acquired the currency it has primarily because so many biographers have wanted to believe it, usually in order to attack Wordsworth. (The kind of bias leading biographers to snipe at the character of Wordsworth or Coleridge according to which of the two writers is their primary subject comes under constant attack in this book.) Again, he points out, to accept Coleridge’s word that he produced a whole first version of the “Letter” to Sara Hutchinson on the evening of April 4, 1802, at Keswick, is to ignore both the frequency with which Coleridge falsified the dates of his poetic compositions, making them seem far more rapidly achieved than they were, and Dorothy’s testimony in her journal that after dinner that night they all sat up late talking.

Then there is Worthen’s mass slaughter of biographers (and one or two editors) over the issues of Sara Hutchinson’s reciprocation of Cole-ridge’s passion—there is no evidence that there was any—and the supposed jealousy of Mrs. Coleridge, who is said by one biographer to have sent Sara an anonymous letter in the fall of 1801 and, by another, to have reacted “with barely suppressed fury” in November 1802 when her husband met Sara at Penrith while on his way to London. Again, Worthen insists, there is no evidence. As for the “angry letters” exchanged between Coleridge and his wife that November and December, these do exist, but they are taken up with Coleridge’s financial extravagance and “the usual quarrel” about the amount of time he spent with the Wordsworths at Town End. They have nothing to do with Sara. “All these manipulations,” Worthen concludes, “have been caused by the fact that biographers wish for evidence, seek it where they may, and create it if it does not exist.” There are enough passages of this kind threaded through the text of The Gang, or lurking in its end-notes, to give virtually the entire world of Coleridge and Wordsworth scholarship quite a few moments of unease.

Worthen, however, is writing a literary biography himself, not simply pinpointing the errors of others, and he has clearly thought very carefully about its limits and aims. “It would be a good idea,” he states polemically in his preface,

for a biographer, just for once, to include all that it is possible to include, rather than to start from the point of view that selection and shaping are the biographer’s first principles; while it would also be sensible to make the biography, so far as possible, of all the people in the group, not just of a central figure chosen…for his “literary value.”

With regard to sharing our attention among all the people in a group, as opposed to focusing on a single cen-tral figure, there are, of course, a number of books—William St. Clair’s The Godwins and The Shelleys: The Biography of a Family (1989), for instance, or Juliet Barker’s The Brontës (1994)—which do something like this, although certainly without attempting “to include all that it is possible to include.” Only in special instances can such an approach be possible or rewarding. This is not just because (as Worthen jokes in his preface to The Gang) the biographer might fall into the same self-defeating trap as those imperial cartographers in Borges’s anecdote (“On Exactitude in Science”) who, in their eagerness to omit nothing, ended up creating a map “whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Useless and exasperating, this vast record ended up as tattered remnants blown about in the desert.

There is small danger that any biographer, however assiduous, could produce a work that would take as long to read as the lives under scrutiny took to unfold—although some of the enormous volumes currently weighing down tables in the bookshops look as though they were having a good try. Only rarely, however, as with close-knit and exceptionally talented groups such as the Godwins and the Shelleys or the Brontës—and the Wordsworth/Coleridge circle—does even a more modest inclusiveness of the kind Worthen actually proposes seem a genuinely attractive proposition. And there, much depends upon the amount and nature of surviving material. In the case of The Gang, this predominantly means Dorothy’s journals.

By focusing upon a single year—and less than the full twelve months of it—Worthen himself, of course, has arbitrarily selected and shaped. He does to some extent look before and after, but it is certainly possible to feel that by choosing March 1 as the date on which to begin, he obliterates or at least minimizes many things during January and February 1802 that are of crucial importance for an understanding of the months that followed. Among these are: the arrival of letters then from Annette; William’s two earlier expeditions to see Mary Hutchinson; his work on the preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads; news about John Wordsworth; previous anxieties about Coleridge; and, more especially, the steadily increasing impact—both personal and poetic—of all that reading in Ben Jonson’s nondramatic verse that begins in the Town End cottage on February 11 and ends only on March 23, four days after Coleridge and Wordsworth argued so heatedly about its merits that Dorothy retired to bed, “my spirits…agitated very much.”2

Because, moreover, Worthen relies so heavily upon Dorothy’s journals for 1802, a good deal of her own shaping and selecting imposes itself on him. We are always, in The Gang, far closer to people in the Grasmere cottage than we are to the Coleridges being miserable day by day over at Kes-wick, or to the Hutchinson sisters at Middleham and Gallow Hill. Let alone to the Clarksons at Eusemere, the Hutchinson brothers, or all those unremarkable Lake District neighbors—the Sympsons, the Luffs, the Lloyds, Fisher, Mr. Oliff, and so on—who flit across the margins of Dorothy’s record. As for John Wordsworth, although incontrovertibly a member of “the group,” he was away captaining The Earl of Abergavenny during most of 1802. Wordsworth and Dorothy did meet him in London on September 11, when their own return from Calais happily coincided with his from a voyage to China, but records of the few days they and their brother Richard all spent there together are so meager as to leave virtually nothing upon which to build. (Despite which two biographers, as Worthen points out, without “a single piece of evidence” have recently tried.) John Wordsworth’s life remains, throughout Worthen’s book, something distant and occluded: his supposed interest in marrying Mary Hutchinson himself, and anguish at discovering in September that his brother William in fact was about to do so, are dismissed (persuasively) as yet another example of culpable biographical fabrication.

Does John Worthen, so acute at detecting and puncturing the fantasies of other literary biographers, manage to avoid falling into similar traps himself? On the whole, it would seem that he does, although a few of his pages may raise doubts. The journal Dorothy kept during the month she and her brother spent with Annette and Caroline at Calais is (understandably) so guarded and reticent as to seduce any biographer, Worthen included, into unverifiable speculations about what was actually thought and felt. In suggesting, as he does, that Dorothy may herself have been in love with Cole-ridge in late April and May of 1802 or at least behaved like a woman who was, he trembles on the edge of the kind of imaginary scenario he deplores in others.

One may wonder, too, whether the obsession with children that he detects among all members of the group in 1802 was quite so pervasive as he makes out—although it is easy to see why he should be drawn to the idea. He is not immune either to that familiar failing among biographers, the almost imperceptible gravitation of uncertainty into fact, as when he begins a paragraph about the delay in fixing the date of Wordsworth’s marriage by informing readers that “the Coleridges’ wedding anniversary was the 4th, which perhaps mattered to Wordsworth,” and ends the same paragraph by announcing that this delay “had the advantage for Wordsworth of ensuring that his wedding would, after all, coincide with the Coleridges’ wedding day.”

John Barrell has recently complained that so-called literary biography has now become markedly less literary, minimizing a writer’s work by comparison with the attention paid to his or her life.3 That is not an accusation that can fairly be leveled against Worthen. On the other hand, Barrell’s further observation that biography has, in effect, become “the new novel” is not without its relevance to The Gang and the challenge posed by its attempt at inclusiveness. “Really, universally,” Henry James wrote in his preface to the New York edition of Roderick Hudson,

relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so. He is in the perpetual predicament that the continuity of things is the whole matter, for him of comedy and tragedy; that this continuity is never, by the space of an instant or an inch, broken, and that to do anything at all, he has at once intensely to consult and intensely to ignore it.

James goes on to liken the novelist to an embroiderer confronted with a vast expanse of canvas, punctuated by a boundless number of “distinct perforations for the needle,” not all of which either can or ought to be filled. This seems a better analogy than the mythical Borges map for the task of a biographer faced as Worthen was with the potentially infinite ramifications of an entire group of lives and the need to shape without distorting them. Despite Worthen’s caveats and strictures, all biographies, including this good one, must stand or fall, like novels, on what James calls the “difficult, dire process of selection.”

This Issue

November 1, 2001