Jonathan Bate offers readers new to Wordsworth a gripping and perceptive account of a great poet in his prime — and the years in which the poet's fame overtook a sadly diminished talent
In normal times, Jonathan Bate’s invigorating appraisal of William Wordsworth would have neatly coincided with the opening (after a £6.2 million refurbishment) of Dove Cottage, proudly marking the poet’s 250th anniversary. (He was born in 1770, some 20 years before the younger Romantics.) The cottage that Wordsworth’s family knew less romantically as “Town End” is currently closed, but a rainbow stamp issued to honour one of the best-loved poems by its most famous inhabitant (“My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky”) provides unexpected endorsement for a popular symbol of hope in these months of global crisis.
Wordsworth’s celebration of nature has seldom seemed more closely attuned to the spirit of his readers than during lockdown. Taking our prescribed daily exercise in as natural an environment as each of us can find, it’s easy to understand why a depressed John Stuart Mill described Wordsworth’s poems as “medicine for my state of mind”. Looking through Wordsworth’s eyes—as Bate enables us to do by a combination of thoughtful interpretation with generous quotations—we too may learn how to find in nature a source of consolation. As readers, we can stop short of what Keats called “the egotistical sublime”, a process that sometimes threatened to transform nature into a mirror for Wordsworth’s own troubled mind.
Countless books have been written about Wordsworth. Bate, while paying tribute to two of the finest (Mary Moorman’s pioneering two-volume life and Stephen Gill’s acutely intelligent “womb to tomb” biography of 2015—the dismissive phrase is Bate’s, not mine), opts for a bolder approach. Sir Jonathan takes his cue from Wordsworth’s first-hand encounter with the radical politics of revolutionary France, a country to which the 19-year-old poet made his first visit in 1790, armed with an introduction to the leader of the (relatively moderate) Brissotin party. His sense of “a dawn in which it was bliss to be alive” was heightened by his short but passionate love affair with a girl from Blois called Annette Vallon.
Bate declines to condemn Wordsworth for scarpering back from Blois to Paris and thence to England. The question of why he abandoned pregnant Annette, a covert Royalist, remains unasked. Suppressed guilt might explain the poet’s long creative impasse that was only unblocked by that famous annus mirabilis of 1798 in which Wordsworth’s ambulatory and endlessly communicative collaboration with Coleridge resulted in their epochal Lyrical Ballads.
It was Wordsworth, Bate reminds us, who wrote most of the poems that comprised that small but vastly influential book. Wordsworth gave Coleridge the idea of shooting the albatross and the terrible image of a ship manned by dead men for “The Ancient Mariner”, his younger friend’s most significant contribution to their revolutionary volume. But it was from Coleridge that Wordsworth took the idea that provided the bedrock for his greatest work, The Prelude. The first to appreciate Wordsworth’s genius (and, with endearing humility, to rate it above his own), Coleridge proposed that Wordsworth should compose a poem in blank verse and address it: “to those, who, in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness”.
Unpublished in its final form until 1850, three months after Wordsworth’s death, The Prelude was such a poem and it stands at the heart of a biography that is shaped, like Wordsworth’s most intensely autobiographical work, by focusing our attention on the “spots of time” that were of peculiar significance in his life. Prominent among those moments— Bate employs it to open the story—looms the Christmas of 1806 at a Leicestershire farmhouse loaned to the Wordsworths by Coleridge’s friend, Sir George Beaumont.
There, Wordsworth read aloud, night after enchanted night, from the still nameless Prelude. Bate describes it as the first work of autobiography in blank verse; it culminated in a vision of the two poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, as future “Prophets of Nature”. Two days after Christmas, Coleridge fled, convinced that he had glimpsed incontrovertible evidence (“with Wordsworth—in bed—oh agony!”) that Sara Hutchison, the woman with whom he was obsessed, loved Wordsworth, her own brother-in-law, and not himself.
Bate offers readers new to Wordsworth a gripping and perceptive account of a great poet in his prime. Less than a third of his book covers the long 40 years during which Wordsworth’s fame overtook a sadly diminished talent. Stephen Gill praised the ageing man—as opposed to the poet—for his courage in the face of many tragedies (the death of two children and a younger brother; the harrowing decline into senility of his adored sister, Dorothy). Bate, setting aside Wordsworth’s distaste for Lake District tourism, presents the greatest of the “Lakers” as the father of Conservation, inspiring not just the protection of his own beloved landscape, but even the national parks of America. John Muir, a Scotsman, is traditionally credited with saving Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. But really—so Bate suggests—the parks were Wordsworth’s best idea.
Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World
By Jonathan Bate
William Collins, 586pp, £25.00
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.
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