By the time William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday rolled around on April 7, it was clear there would be no party. The Covid-19 pandemic was climbing to its deadly peak, and a public information blitz had ordered people to stay away from the Lake District, the remote corner of northwest England that has become synonymous with the poet. Indeed, anyone attempting to travel to the limestone fells and deep glacial lakes of Britain’s most famous national park found themselves fined on arrival by police officers and sent smartly home. Dove Cottage, the emblematic heart of the Wordsworth heritage industry, had been due to reopen with fanfare on the day itself following a multimillion-pound refurbishment. As it turned out, the newly spruce cottage would remain firmly shut for a further four months.
William Wordsworth may have been closed for business throughout much of 2020, but his life has remained an open book. Three new biographical works suggest something of the pitfalls that beset anyone attempting to get the grand old man of British Romanticism down on paper. The chief stumbling block is that all the best poems—the ones that appear in anthologies, top readers’ popularity polls, and make reasonable people break the law by traveling to the Lake District during lockdown—were crammed into ten early years. Wordsworth wrote “Tintern Abbey,” “Daffodils,” “The Solitary Reaper,” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” between 1797 and 1807, together with much of The Prelude, his posthumously published verse autobiography. After that, the work is generally agreed to have become indistinct and undistinguished. When Seamus Heaney made a selection of Wordsworth’s poetry for a new edition in 2006, all but three of his choices came from before 1806, the year Wordsworth turned thirty-six.
For once changing literary fashions are not to blame. Wordsworth’s contemporaries had been quick to express their dismay at the way his later work made a mockery of the early brilliance. As a young man he had emerged as the chief exponent of a new kind of verse-making, one that rejected the cool neoclassical forms of the Augustan age in favor of a poetry of emotion and imagination that used “the real language of men.” But by as early as 1807 this determination to make poetry out of the vernacular had degenerated into a nursery sing-song that, according to an anonymous critic (Byron, in fact) in Monthly Literary Recreations, was “not simple, but puerile.” Likewise, Wordsworth’s commitment to an eye-level view of rural life among the lower and middle classes appeared to have plunged into parody when, in 1807, he published the sonnet “To the Spade of a Friend.” It might have been a joke were it not increasingly clear that William Wordsworth had absolutely no sense of humor.
Wordsworth’s younger contemporaries, members of the loose grouping subsequently known as the Second Generation of Romantics, were quick to peg his literary decline to a more general moral dereliction. Where once he had written of the French Revolution “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!,” now he appeared to have turned into a mouthpiece for Church and State conservatism. In 1818 John Keats made a visit to Rydal Mount, the handsome villa near Ambleside to which Wordsworth had moved with his growing family, and was disconcerted to find that his idol was out campaigning for the Tories. The young man whose political radicalism had once caused the British government to set agents to spy on him had by now become implacably opposed to widening the franchise and granting full civil rights to Roman Catholics. Most egregious of all, in 1813 Wordsworth had accepted the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland, a government sinecure that would pay him a comfortable £400 for the next thirty years. No wonder that Byron, another of the second-generation Romantics and a man who did not need to sell stamps for a living, had taken to calling him “Turdsworth.”
Oedipal rage must be at play here, not to mention anxiety of influence: without Wordsworth’s The Excursion, Byron could never have written Childe Harold, or Keats Endymion. But there is no avoiding the sense that Wordsworth had become an increasingly hard man to like. The liberating subjective “I” that he had introduced into English verse had slid off the page into a monumental real-life egotism. When a young Emerson made his pilgrimage to Rydal Mount in 1833, he met a kind but pompous old man who lectured his young guest on America’s vulgarity and greed, before throwing out the unfathomable suggestion that what the young republic needed now was a civil war “to teach the necessity of knitting the social ties stronger.” Emerson had the patience of a sage-in-waiting, but even he could not resist letting slip his opinion in print years later that Wordsworth had “written longer than he was inspired.”
It is hard to imagine any biographer relishing a literary life of such an ungainly shape—so full and rich at the beginning, so sour and meager by the end. Jonathan Bate certainly doesn’t. Sounding slightly thrilled by his own daring, Bate declares in his new book, Radical Wordsworth, that Wordsworth had “the longest, dullest decline in literary history.” From here he proceeds to pile on the case for the prosecution: “His unremitting later voice…was a counter-spirit which laid waste his powers, subverted his ideals and vitiated his reputation among the creative spirits of the next generation.” Bate even manages to imply that Wordsworth damaged his own brand by insisting on living to eighty, whereas nearly every other Romantic poet was canny enough to be either dead or mad by forty. No wonder, declares Bate, that most Wordsworth biographies are unreadable—“the chances are that you will lose the will to live somewhere around the halfway mark”—and he casts some side-eye at two offerings of recent years that come to a whopping one thousand pages apiece.
Radical Wordsworth is Bate’s attempt to return the poet to his more palatable incarnation as the bold spirit who “made a difference” by changing both the literary culture and our relationship with the natural world. Bate says he is aiming here for the kind of biography that follows the growth of its “subject’s imaginative power” rather than one that trudges dutifully from cradle to grave. The result is a book that is recognizably Wordsworthian in the way it abjures the calendar in favor of the “spots of time” identified in The Prelude as those moments of piercing self-awareness that direct and define the growing self.
Yet while this makes Radical Wordsworth episodic, it is never superficial. Bate, who until recently taught literature at Oxford, issues a stern instruction to his readers not to skip the long, indented blocks of poetry around which he builds his narrative. Instead, we are urged to slow down, savor, and even read the verse aloud. Radical Wordsworth succeeds where longer literary biographies often fail, by keeping the subject’s work, rather than the minutiae of his pocket diary or his tailor’s bills, lodged at its heart.
The “radical” aspects of Wordsworth’s early life are most easily located in his politics. Bate deftly retells the story of how Wordsworth, having arrived in Cambridge with a partial scholarship and left with a lowly pass degree, set out in 1791 for revolutionary France, convinced “That a spirit was abroad/Which could not be withstood.” Of how he moved from Paris to Orléans, fell in love with a girl named Annette Vallon, and got her pregnant. Of how he watched with mounting horror as the moderate “rational” phase of the revolution descended into the grotesque bloodbath of the Terror. Bate thinks that Wordsworth, on his way back through Paris, may even have seen the guillotine at work.
Having abandoned his lover and daughter and returned to Britain, Wordsworth increasingly came to view his political phase as a betrayal of his true nature and vocation as a poet. The Prelude, the great autobiographical epic that he would spend his life tinkering with, was now begun as an act of penance and rehabilitation. Henceforth he would pour his ardor for liberty, equality, and fraternity into poetry. Starting from the assumption that “men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply,” Wordsworth peopled his verse with vagrants, peddlers, and convicts. New too was the commitment to a poetry that used not only the language but also the rhythms of ordinary speech.
Bate is excellent on how Wordsworth forged a blank verse that shed its grand Miltonic subject matter while taking advantage of the form’s capacity for suppleness and intimacy. Here is verse that stays close to the patterns of human breath, with meaning spilling over the line endings and exclamations appearing in the middle of a sentence, just as they might if one were tramping the lanes around Grasmere and were suddenly startled by a beggar or a bird. Indeed, Wordsworth’s guiding ambition for “The Recluse,” says Bate, was nothing less than “to write a personal epic in which the vale of Grasmere would be his paradise found.”
Yet for Jonathan Bate Wordsworth’s most profound radicalism must always lie in the poet’s relationship to the natural world. Thirty years ago Bate pioneered the academic turn to ecocriticism with his Romantic Ecology, followed in 2000 by The Song of the Earth. Since then he has written two full-length biographies of nature-loving poets: John Clare and, most recently, Ted Hughes. For Bate, Wordsworth is the emblematic figure of the early Anthropocene, already warning of the impact of industrialization on the landscape. It wasn’t just a question of ugly new buildings and odorous new manufacturing processes smearing themselves over his native Lake District. What the poet also saw were the social changes that alienated human beings from one another—the new government-mandated workhouses, the charitable soup kitchens, the way young people were forced to desert the countryside for work in the city.
Bate reminds us too that Wordsworth’s most critically and financially successful work during his lifetime was not “Daffodils” or “Intimations of Immortality” but rather A Guide to the Lakes (1810), the nearest thing the nineteenth century had to an environmentalist’s manifesto. (The irony that the book was responsible for unleashing a steady tramp of scenery-spoiling tourists over the area was not lost on him.) In the longer term, it was Wordsworth who inspired the founding of both Britain’s National Trust and the Yosemite National Park in California.
So it would be hard to think of a better poet to read just now, when our abuse of natural systems has brought us to this moment of terrible reckoning. And Bate is the right guide for the occasion, blowing the dust off familiar poems to reveal their startling resonance. After some careful topographical sleuthing, he persuasively argues that “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is actually set a good fifteen miles or so upstream of the thirteenth-century ruin. A poem that is often read as a conventional lament for a receding Christianity is instead concerned with the spiritual resources of the natural world. It is not ruined gothic arches but “orchard-tufts” and “hedgerows” and “houseless woods” that have become “The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” And that moral being, the speaker emphasizes, is one that relishes its communal responsibilities with “little, nameless, unremembered, acts/Of kindness and of love.” The poem is an early and exquisite working-through of what becomes Wordsworth’s preeminent philosophy: “Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind.”
As to why Wordsworth stopped writing good poetry after 1806, Bate puts it down to the resumption of his stalled sex life. There were ten celibate years between his early love affair with Annette Vallon and his happy and physically fulfilling marriage with Mary Hutchinson in 1802. Bate suggests that during that time Wordsworth sublimated his desire into writing some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. It is a beguilingly simple explanation, sitting neatly alongside Bate’s other assertion that so much of what Wordsworth wrote—in particular the psychological self-analysis of The Prelude—is Freud before Freud. More persuasive, if less “radical,” is Bate’s endorsement of the long-held consensus that Wordsworth’s muse was dependent on his fractiously fertile friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When the two men were in a broad alliance, the poetry poured from him, and when they started to peel apart, in 1808, he became increasingly unable to access the source of his own power.
It is this relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge that Adam Nicolson sets out to excavate in his kinetic new book, The Making of Poetry. While Bate mostly confines his attention to ten years of Wordsworth’s life and work, Nicolson pares things down further. He is concerned with the “year of marvels”—in fact, the sixteen months that run from June 1797 to October 1798—during which Coleridge and Wordsworth, together with Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, read, walked, and wrote themselves into a new kind of poetry.
The results of this time were extraordinary. From Coleridge we have “Kubla Khan,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” and “Frost at Midnight,” and from Wordsworth the new forms of his part of the Lyrical Ballads, including the sublime “Tintern Abbey” together with the beginnings of what would become The Prelude, but at this point was simply known as “Poem to Coleridge.” As well as facing outward to the trails and lanes of rural England, this strange new poetry was equally concerned with the twists and turns of the maturing self. For Nicolson, this year of magical thinking is the moment when Modernism as well as Romanticism set down their roots in British culture.
“I wish to keep my Reader in the company of flesh and blood,” Wordsworth would write in his “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, and it is an ambition that Nicolson shares. To understand what happened during those marvelous months, the sixty-two-year-old Nicolson moves to the place where the three young people were living—not the Lake District in these early years, but gentler Somerset in the southwest of England. He looks up old maps, discovers forgotten footpaths, and tramps the combes and hills, all in an attempt to immerse himself in “the same lanes, the same air” as his subjects. He is engaged, he promises, not in some “kind of elegant gazing at the landscape…but a kind of embodiment, plunging in.” He wants to see what Coleridge and the Wordsworths saw, and feel what they felt, hatching his lyrical descriptions of the natural world with passages of acute biographical and critical analysis. So exactly does Nicolson come to inhabit the young people’s inner lives that he starts to suffer from the same bodily aches, chills, and strains that they did, a phenomenon which he decides must be “psychosomatic”—a word first coined by Coleridge.
While in Bate’s book Coleridge is inevitably a minor character, in Nicolson’s he steps forward in his slightly fleshy glory to become the full counterweight to Wordsworth’s sparer presence. The two men’s physicality suggests something of their different temperaments: Coleridge ebullient, drunk, high, sexually incontinent, and always questing upward to the spiritual, metaphysical realm; Wordsworth now celibate after his youthful indiscretion and disillusionment with radical politics, inward, self-contained, rooted in the natural world, and with a marked tendency to stare at the ground. Coleridge, with characteristic chaotic and conditional generosity, had already decided that Wordsworth was the genius who would write the poem that would change the world. He saw his own job as encourager and booster—one might say “enabler” had he not so often been a drag on the Wordsworths’ limited financial and emotional resources.
The scratchiness of this relationship, its function as the bit of grit around which the pearl forms, is acknowledged right from the start by Nicolson, who warns us not to expect completeness or culmination. Instead, we are to watch out for comings and goings, beginnings and disappearances, a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t kind of indeterminacy. These become apparent in a series of close readings Nicolson offers not of the finished poems but of their various earlier versions. In the process he shows Wordsworth gradually replacing eighteenth-century modes with a simpler poetic language that gets closer to catching the truth of another being. It is a bold way of proceeding, not least because nonacademic readers are often assumed to be restless with this level of textual detail. Nicolson’s ability to get us interested in twelve “uncertain and twitchy” drafts of what would become the minor poem “Incipient Madness” is a thrilling achievement.
Less happy are the illustrations that accompany the text. A note explains that they are woodcuts made from timber recently fallen at Alfoxden, the Wordsworths’ temporary home in the Quantock Hills. The artist Tom Hammick, who accompanied Nicolson during much of his year’s field research, has produced a series of images in bright poster colors that hover somewhere between figurative and abstract and are only glancingly concerned with Nicolson’s text. Their thick, rather crude lines are the antithesis of the finely grained and naturalistic engraving style that was brought to such an exquisite level by Thomas Bewick at the very time that Coleridge and Wordsworth were tramping the countryside. Perhaps the images’ trippy quality is a nod to Coleridge’s escalating drug habit. It is hard, otherwise, to think of any other reason for such a discordant pairing.
Jonathan Bate’s and Adam Nicolson’s flickering, partial approaches to Wordsworth and his associates would not be possible without the work of Stephen Gill. Gill is one of the world’s leading scholars on Wordsworth and published what remains the standard biography, Wordsworth: A Life (1989). Now Gill has lightly updated his classic text to take account of new archival finds and critical approaches from the past thirty-one years. In this second edition you will find more about the women in Wordsworth’s life: not just Mary and Dorothy but also Isabella Fenwick, the amanuensis and confidante of the poet’s later years who partly filled the emotional void left by Dorothy’s long and abject descent into dementia.
Reading Gill’s work is a reminder of the pleasures and advantages of whole-life biography, a form that has been out of fashion for the past decade. Part of the customary charge against chronologically ordered, cradle-to-grave narratives is that they are too indiscriminate, so that the reader is left overwhelmed with details about great uncles, dinner services, lame horses, lost earrings, and the failure of the banking system without being clear why any of it matters. But it doesn’t have to be like that, and Gill gives a master class in how to use the extra room in a way that amplifies rather than clutters our understanding of his subject’s life—which, he reminds us at several points, is lived in forward time, without any clue as to what will happen next.
Gill’s approach is not any kind of reproach. Reading him is not to make Bate’s Wordsworth any less radical or Nicolson’s Wordsworth any less magical. But his commitment to writing about the complete life, rather than hiving off the catchier parts, does mean that we get a joined-up reading, a generous attention to every aspect of Wordsworth’s life, including the bits that don’t go the way we think they should. In particular, Gill makes us see that the last forty-five years of it were not a dreary wasteland of blocked creativity. Wordsworth used this time to revisit and recast work from his earlier years, in a process not unlike that of an analysand engaged in producing a serviceable version of herself. It is not simply understandable but entirely what you would expect Wordsworth, the first fully self-reflexive autobiographer in English literature, to do.