Bumming and Booing

John Mullan

  • Wordsworth: A Life by Juliet Barker
    Viking, 971 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 670 87213 X
  • The Hidden Wordsworth by Kenneth Johnston
    Pimlico, 690 pp, £15.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 7126 6752 0
  • Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth’s Poetry of the 1790s by David Bromwich
    Chicago, 186 pp, £9.50, April 2000, ISBN 0 226 07556 7

David Lurie, the soured academic who is the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, earns his living as a professor of ‘communications’ in a Cape Town university (his former department, Classics and Modern Languages, has been rationalised out of existence). He is obliged to spend most of his time teaching this new subject, in which he has no interest, no belief even, but is allowed to offer one special course per year ‘irrespective of enrolment’. Against the spirit of the institution and the times, he chooses ‘Romantic poets’. One of this bleak book’s slices of academic vérité is Lurie’s class on Book vi of The Prelude, the crossing of the Alps, delivered to sullen and silent students. The more they refuse to respond, the more excitable becomes his commentary on Wordsworth’s exploration of ‘the limits of sense-perception’. ‘For as long as he can remember, the harmonies of The Prelude have echoed within him,’ but in the classroom the echo stays inside his head.

Wordsworth – austere, perplexed, uncompromising – seems the natural example of what ‘the young’ will not respond to. ‘A man looking at a mountain: why does it have to be so complicated, they want to complain?’ In Disgrace, the choice is also ironical, for Wordworth’s greatest poem is about being young. Its recollected passion and youthful wonder are audible only to the angrily ageing professor. Teachers of English do not have to be as terminally disenchanted as Coetzee’s character to recognise the scenario. The least romantic of all Romantic writers, Wordsworth is invariably liked more by those who teach than those who are taught. Academics labour to persuade students of the poetical radicalism of Lyrical Ballads or the imaginative ambition of The Prelude. ‘I could point out some of his pieces which seem to me good for nothing, and not a few faulty passages, but I know of no poet in any language who has written so much that is good,’ Robert Southey wrote (the declaration is emblazoned on the dust-jacket of Juliet Barker’s new Life). Yet any sense of this – of the subtle, elementary qualities of Wordsworth’s verse – is rarely apparent to those who study him, and rarely apparent in the throng of books and articles and theses that continue to be devoted to him. The harmonies that Coetzee’s character loves are unheard and undiscussed. As Barker’s biography, which follows Wordsworth closely through his late years, shows again, the poet had become widely revered in his own lifetime. He already seemed sage beyond any practical criticism, already an old master.

In his poetry, when Wordsworth thinks on youth, he seems in doing so to become no longer young. You can hear this in the most famous lines of The Prelude:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

I remember being woken to the rightness of their hyperbole when I found them misquoted in Paul Foot’s Red Shelley, where they become, even in ‘corrected’ editions,

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
And to be young was very heaven.

Gone is the intoxicated youthful illogic, by which even ‘bliss’ can be trumped. That ‘And’ as we turn into the new line, without Wordsworth’s pausing comma, makes the verse simply remember an admirable enthusiasm (which Foot wants to applaud). Wordsworth’s ‘But’, on the other hand, lets us breathe in the headiness of the time while knowing its delusiveness. In epitome, it manages what so much of Wordsworth’s autobiographical verse does: it looks back to the hopes and illusions of youth without repudiating them.

Academic critics are often enamoured of Wordsworth’s youthful allegiances. Kenneth Johnston’s The Hidden Wordsworth is almost mystically committed to the idea of his youth. Its prologue declares that, with all the reverence (and matching irreverence) the poet has inspired,

there is one image, or story, that we have not seen fully – young Wordsworth. Was Wordsworth ever young? On the evidence of his portraits, he seems to have looked old from a very early age, and his thoughts about death can almost be called precocious. But he was young once too, and this book is an attempt to show him as he was then, even to suggest that his young life was his most important life.

Johnston aims to bring Wordsworth to life by undoing ‘the Wordsworthian cover-up’ – a sanitisation for which the poet himself was largely responsible. Those famous lines from The Prelude, Johnston says, are characteristic in ‘drawing our attention away from the facts, not towards them’. Blissful youth should really be read as a covert reference to what is now the most famously censored episode of his life: his affair with Annette Vallon, related in a fictionalised form as the tale of Vaudracour and Julia in Book ix of the 1805 Prelude. Johnston believes, as David Bromwich often seems to in his study of Wordsworth’s major early poems, that ‘much of his poetry is even more autobiographical than we realise.’ Wordsworth’s poems, he claims, find hauntingly metaphorical expressions for ‘the facts of his life’, thereby concealing them.

The thoughts about Wordsworth that Johnston and Bromwich share are the more striking because their books are so different. Johnston’s is huge and digressive: a pile-up of all that he knows and has thought about pre-1805 Wordsworth. Bromwich’s is narrowed and compacted: a sequence of intensive, fretful close readings. Yet Bromwich, too, is driven by a sense that, with all that is known about the poet, there is much that is hidden – in plain view, as it were – in the poetry. Bromwich’s practical criticism is also psychological. The verse drama The Borderers, written between 1796 and 1799 but only published in a much revised version in 1842, is seen as Wordsworth’s darkly veiled account of his complicity with the political theory justifying the Terror in France. ‘Tintern Abbey’ becomes his dramatisation of his flight from his own guilty political fears, haunted by all that he has left behind in France. Bromwich’s account begins by politely repudiating some of the tediously ‘political’ recent readings of the poem, with their talk of the social history of the Wye Valley and what life might have been like for any vagrants in those woods. ‘Political readers,’ Bromwich observes, ‘are keen on denying Wordsworth the praise and to some extent the pardon he seems to solicit for his change of heart’ from radical idealism to a chastened humanism. Instead, Bromwich tries to chart Wordsworth’s eloquence about his complex feelings.

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