Three feet on the ground

Marilyn Butler

  • William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Oxford, 496 pp, £25.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 19 812097 4
  • William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Grandeur and of Tenderness by David Pirie
    Methuen, 301 pp, £14.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 416 31300 0
  • Benjamin the Waggoner by William Wordsworth, edited by Paul Betz
    Cornell/Harvester, 356 pp, £40.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 85527 513 8

One evening, declares Jonathan Wordsworth as he begins his new critical book, a poet happened to be walking along a road, when the peasant who was with him pointed out a striking sight:

        ’Twas a horse, that stood
Alone upon a little breast of ground
With a clear silver moonlight sky behind.
With one leg from the ground the creature stood,
Insensible and still; breath, motion gone,
Hairs, colour, all but shape and substance gone,
Mane, ears, and tail, as lifeless as the trunk
That had no stir of breath. We paused awhile
In pleasure of the sight, and left him there,
With all his functions silently sealed up,
Like an amphibious work of Nature’s hand,
A borderer dwelling betwixt life and death,
A living statue or a statued life.

The lines are found in a draft, in the end never incorporated into a finished poem; the poet, says Jonathan Wordsworth, could only be William Wordsworth. It seems wholly true, and Wordsworthianness is very well brought out in the discussion that follows – a sensitive, lucid, light prose-paraphrase which includes the reflection that ‘hairs’ is much better than ‘hair’ would have been, and the useful information that horses often sleep on three legs.

Jonathan Wordsworth goes on to warn his reader, with a logic that may escape those unfamiliar with recent Romantic criticism, not to ‘overstress the ordinariness of what is happening’. We, like the peasant, would probably see a horse asleep in the moonlight, whereas Wordsworth ‘points out ... something quite different. We are not, in this case at least, laid afresh on the cool flowery lap of earth, shown an object sparkling anew with the dewdrops of childhood. We are offered a strange, personal vision, child-like only in its intensity.’ We are offered both, surely? Why otherwise should the poet stress his fellow-feeling with the peasant as they look at the horse: ‘We paused awhile/ In pleasure of the sight’? Would the critic have chosen to begin with this wonderful passage unless he sensed that we would warm to its ordinariness? In fact, here as elsewhere in the book, and in spite of his critical orthodoxy, Jonathan Wordsworth demonstrates that it is his great gift to make the poet accessible and sympathetic, an observer of common experience, remarkable for his articulacy, but still companionably attuned to neighbours and strangers.

There was a time when critics probably took it as a compliment if told that they wrote well, and made one want to go off to read the poet they discussed. Nowadays, with groups of mandarin critics circling each major author, writing mostly for one another, it can seem double-edged to say that an academic has the common touch. For most students, and such general readers as survive, the readiest approach to a writer is still a blend of biography and of the ‘close reading’ of a limited, knowable selection of the poet’s oeuvre. Formally, Wordsworth’s life has been written for our time by Mary Moorman, in her detailed two-volume biography (1957 and 1967). But her effort has over the last twenty years been paralleled and supplemented by Jonathan Wordsworth, who operates in an area between textual scholarship and literary biography, using the successive versions of one poem as evidence for Wordsworth’s changing state of mind, and vice versa. Where his earlier book, The Music of Humanity, focused on one poem, ‘The Ruined Cottage’, the present book is an eclectic collection of essays and lectures, the earliest delivered in 1969. They move about within the great decade of Wordsworth’s productivity in what would appear to be a random manner, if the Table of Contents did not reveal a fundamentally chronological and literary-biographical structure of thought by its tell-tale concern with dates.

Jonathan Wordsworth does not stray into biography for its own sake: in a disciplined way, he keeps the texts in view. So he does not here discuss Wordsworth’s marriage, recently so freshly and touchingly illuminated by the discovery of the letters which passed between William and Mary Wordsworth in 1810 and 1812, when the poet was away from home. But the intellectual and literary relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge is of key importance to him, and one connecting thread in this volume of essays brings Coleridge into prominence as an influence and a commentator on Wordsworth’s oeuvre in its best years, 1797-1805.

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