Miss Simpson stayed to tea

Philippa Tristram

  • William Wordsworth: A Life by Stephen Gill
    Oxford, 525 pp, £17.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 812828 2

Most great writers, if only in indirect ways, offer some representation of their own life, but the biographer faces a particular problem where interpretation has already been shaped by his subject in autobiography. Wordsworth was not the only writer of his period to dislike the public appetite for private information, or to seek to forestall the biographer’s ‘abominable use’ of letters and personal anecdote by trying himself to control what should, and should not, be offered to the public. Moreover, in the different versions of The Prelude, and in the notes dictated late in life, he offered different interpretations.

The problem of aligning biography with autobiography is often sidestepped by biographers less equal to their task than Stephen Gill, either by equating the ‘truth’ about a writer’s life with what that writer has specifically chosen not to reveal, or by accepting what he has revealed too literally. The first alternative is adopted by A.N. Wilson in his recent – and celebrated – biography of Tolstoy, where he remarks that ‘ “Emotion recollected in tranquillity” is another phrase for making things up after the event.’ From this standpoint, Tolstoy’s work, whether explicitly autobiographical or not, degenerates into a ‘laundering of the facts’ (a favoured phrase), while Tolstoy himself comes to assume the guise of Wilson’s victim rather than his subject. The opposite course, adopted by Mary Moorman in her now superseded biography of Wordsworth, has an oddly similar effect upon his writing, for in being made a quarry for the ‘facts’, it is obscured by Wordsworth’s figure as her hero. Stephen Gill’s admirable biography takes neither course, as his comment on the 1805 Prelude indicates: ‘The magnitude and grandeur of Wordsworth’s own attempt to shape the understanding of his life will only be recognised for what it is when it is acknowledged that it is not the only way of shaping or understanding it.’

That sentence also serves to indicate the first of Gill’s three aims, for William Wordsworth: A Life (while serving that function) is much more than a conduit for new material. Although, as its author claims, it ‘is biography, not an “intellectual history” exegesis of specific works and phases of thought’, it succeeds, where such biographies so often fail, in transforming the life into the work by actively exploring, not avoiding, the complex problems that Wordsworth’s self-account presents to his biographer. This does not mean that Gill attempts to square Wordsworth’s interpretations of his own life with each other and with the datable facts – an enterprise which would, he admits, lead only to confusion. His achievement is based on a direct engagement with Wordsworth’s own forms of resistance to biography: namely, his attitude to chronology, to the significance of ‘spots of time’, and to his constant rewriting of his poems.

All biographers, however skilled, are committed to chronology, but Gill’s reduction of his chapter titles to bare dates may indicate the fragile significance that Wordsworth himself attached to dates as such. Where Lamb considered that the chronological was the only possible arrangement for a collection of poems, since the order in which they were written constituted the history of the poet’s mind, Wordsworth regarded the ‘order of time’ as ‘the very worst that could be followed’. While he advocated an arrangement under subjects, writers on Wordsworth, as Gill points out, often pattern his life in another way which also recognises the doubtful significance of his poetic chronology. Where the periods of Dickens, say, or Yeats, are referred to books, those of Wordsworth are as likely to be referred to places – ‘Windy Brow’, ‘Racedown’, ‘Alfoxden’, ‘Dove Cottage’, ‘Rydal Mount’.

Mere dates, whether in relation to life or to art, could have little import for a poet for whom the meaning of an event was inward, declaring itself only over a period of years, and moreover altering its meaning, as those different versions of The Prelude do, between its successive re-creations in verse. Events that have a ready-made significance for biographers, for Wordsworth lacked immediate definition. Their meaning might even come eventually to lie less in their significance than their lack of it. In the 1805 Prelude, for example, he looks back to a day of sun and dust in 1791 when he picked up a stone from the rubbish before the Bastille and, like an enthusiast, ‘pocketed the relick’. That action, however, becomes an indication, not of a moment that had its ready-made significance, but of one whose meaning lay precisely in its absence:

I looked for something that I could not find,
Affecting more emotion than I felt.

If Wordsworth regarded his own life as uneventful when, in the biographer’s usual terms, its early years at least certainly were not, it was because imaginative transformation was necessary for an occurrence to become an event, and that was accomplished by an inward process with a limited relation to particular place and time. In this way, quite small occasions could prove to be much more momentous than those that we would normally regard as great ones. As T.S. Eliot said, much of a poet’s imagery comes ‘from the whole of his sensitive life since early childhood’. ‘Why,’ he asks, ‘out of all that we have heard, seen, felt in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others?’ Much of Wordsworth’s writing life was spent in answering that question by exploiting, as Stephen Gill observes, ‘the hesitant, probing personal voice so that apparent perplexity could become the generative principle for a complex structure.’

Wordsworth’s repeated revisions of his poems are therefore far from being merely successive exercises in fresh laundering. Stephen Gill’s meticulous account of the complicated history of his publications is necessary to his second aim – of achieving some shift of emphasis from ‘the solitary visionary’ to the poet who ‘cared about his publications, about reviews, about his audience and his public image’. But his account, if it were only that, would be much less interesting to the general reader than it is. As Crabb Robinson said, Wordsworth regarded all poetry as existing in a continuum that knew no perfect tense. His autobiography in The Prelude, unlike others in the 19th century, looks forward to a future of public achievement, not back to the past from that achieved position. Similarly, his revision brings his past into the present, winning from it a fresh source of future sustenance. Even in his life, this practice of renewing what had been took actual form. After his marriage, for example, he walked with Dorothy and Mary across the North of England, following the road that had first led him to Grasmere with Dorothy alone two years before. This habit of retracing significant journeys was one which grew on him in later life. In life as in art, the word ‘revision’ is less appropriate than ‘re-creation’.

This biography, as a result, does not succumb to novelettish form. Stephen Gill has little to say on the subject of fornication and less on incest. Where Mary Moorman can affirm that Wordsworth felt for Annette Vallon ‘all the worship of a great first love’, a passion ‘far more devastating than his schoolboy love for Mary Hutchinson.’ Gill refuses to speculate, prefacing his account of their relationship with the disclaimer: ‘If what follows seems timid, the reason is that caution seems best when we know so little.’ On Wordsworth’s relationship with Dorothy he is equally restrained, declaring that it was both domestic and ‘unquestionably, profoundly sexual’. Where Dorothy notes in her journal ‘after dinner we made a pillow of my shoulder, I read to him and my Beloved slept’ – until, that is, Miss Simpson calls and stays to tea – Gill remarks that it is as important to note that Miss Simpson stayed to tea as that Wordsworth slept on Dorothy’s shoulder. Similarly, while he allows that Wordsworth’s placing of his wedding ring on Dorothy’s finger on the morning of his marriage was a ‘potent gesture’, he also stresses that she had no fears about the marriage.

This should not imply that Gill does Wordsworth’s laundry for him; on the contrary, he is often properly resistant to the poet’s own account. Where Mary Moorman takes too literally Wordsworth’s sparse and ‘check’d’ though laudatory account of his mother in The Prelude, even discovering in his praise of nature an extended image of maternal love, Gill remarks that, perhaps because she found the demands of her increasing family too much, Wordsworth as a very small child indeed was often away from home for periods which, at that age, must have seemed endless. His childhood is not, in this account, quite the idyllic period that it often seems to readers of The Prelude: but in restoring to it a powerful sense of loss, Gill introduces the intricate redress of loss with gain which becomes a central theme in Wordsworth’s life and art. Just as ‘all of Wordsworth’s major poetry affirms gain even as it evokes most poignantly the shared human sense of loss,’ so in life he tried to gather together a family that had as much connection as possible with the one which, in those early years, had been dispersed. The ‘steadfast commitment to a principled life in one intensely loved place’ becomes a description of the periods at Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, where he established and re-established what Sir George Beaumont called his ‘family of love’ in one ‘bless’d place’. All the details which make up a daily life – plans for the garden, a turkey carpet for the house, visits from other friends who stayed to tea – occupy the foreground of this biography in its later stages, until their aggregation forms the wholeness that Wordsworth himself sought for so persistently.

But, from another point of view, that wholeness inevitably depended partly on a consistency of attitude throughout his lifetime which Wordsworth claimed but many others doubted, particularly when it came to politics. Gill’s third and final aim – to rescue Wordsworth’s later years from the fate of a merely biographical interest by exploring the paradox that he became a power in national culture at just that moment when, in the judgment of many, he ceased to be a major poet – is accomplished because the later public life is shown to have expressed its private form. That in one sense was the objection of many of his most critical contemporaries. Byron, who seems to have been no great admirer of the earlier ‘unexcised’ Wordsworth who ‘seasoned his pedlar poems with democracy’, is even harder on the Stamp Distributor for Westmoreland which he became in 1813. By the time of Don Juan his name is an object of contempt, ‘a convict figure’. Where Mary Moorman is scant on such reactions, Stephen Gill allows that Byron ‘was right, from his point of view’. But he also adds that paternity was no less important to Wordsworth than poetry: once more his life and art are indistinguishable, for the first sustains the second.

It is more difficult to claim that, in a purely political sense, Wordsworth’s views possessed the consistency he claimed they did. But Stephen Gill, again by careful aggregation, does persuade one of imaginative wholeness. Innate convictions take some time to surface, and Wordsworth’s comment in 1820 on the field of Waterloo, ‘We felt as Men should feel,’ reminds one that he hadn’t done so, facing the Bastille. Of course, his account in 1805 of what he had felt in 1791 is not necessarily reliable, but his vision of Paris, composed of desolate spaces, in contrast with his theatrically peopled London, does persuade one that his ‘sensitive life’ in 1791 is not responsive to an event ‘written in a tongue he cannot read’, that line being more than an admission of imperfect French. The figure of the hunger-bitten girl (mentioned more than once by Gill), who causes the ardent Beaupuy to exclaim, ‘ “ ’Tis against that/ Which we are fighting,” ’ does not, despite Wordsworth’s devout assent, impress in his description of her as his Lakeland figures do. They, whatever their condition, seem to derive from English solitude a special dignity and quiet contentment; she, in France, is not so gifted, ‘busy knitting, in heartless mood/ Of solitude’. Gill’s claim that Wordsworth never departs from Beaupuy’s conviction seems to me less probable than that he never fully shared it.

Wordsworth’s nationalism, though by no means uncritical, is, on an inexplicit level, deeply so. His relief on each return from France at touching English soil suggests this, and his ‘little spot of earth’ was smaller still. Harriet Martineau was no doubt right in claiming that the personal state of Lakeland’s poor was ‘flagrant beyond anything I ever could have looked for’, but her ‘dear good old Wordsworth forever talking about rural innocence’ is not, as he was for Byron, a figure of fun. His perceptions were inward, and were sustained by a wholeness of life that he, with those closest to him, had created. His vision of interdependence in the ‘harmonious natural, economic and human development’ in the Lake District may have been supported less by local people than by the domestic life he had created. It is striking that the stream of pilgrims who regarded Rydal Mount as their shrine seemed to be in search of the private rather than the public man. Having first met Wordsworth in the work defining the life, they came to see for themselves the life defining the work.

Keats’s admiration for Wordsworth had its limits, but his statement – ‘they are very shallow people who take every thing literally. A man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory’ – fits the impression left by this biography. A number of Romantic poets successfully shaped their life by an early death, and, as Gill observes, it would have been better in the view of literary critics had Wordsworth joined them. But that sort of shaping, which A. Alvarez regards as an art in itself, equal to and not at all separate from their work, would have truncated the allegory that Wordsworth’s later years complete. He might, as Keats remarks of Byron, have cut (more of) a figure but not been figurative. The final forty years of this biography trace out the allegory in which Mary Wordsworth (‘a heroine if ever there was one’, as Gill declares with a rare departure from objectivity) completes the process begun so many years before. Commenting upon this sentence in a recently discovered letter from Wordsworth to his wife – ‘How blest was I to hear of those sweet thoughts of me which had flowed along thy dreams’ – Gill notes that this ‘echoes the tribute to the Derwent at the opening of The Prelude and folds Mary in one image of all that had made his life “blest” ’. William Wordsworth: A Life is so shaped as to remind the reader constantly of its subject’s successful search for wholeness of life. It ends at Grasmere with the schoolboy Wordsworth’s exclamation: ‘What happy fortune were it here to live and ... here to die.’