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.

Johnston, whatever his commitment to uncovering what has been ‘hidden’, is also a lucid and appreciative close reader of the poetry. As he takes us chronologically through Wordsworth’s life up to 1807, by which time he had written all the poetry that is still widely read, Johnston stops to consider each poem as it is composed. His readings are often illuminated by a knowledge of processes of revision and a sensitivity to Wordsworth’s allusiveness: he is particularly sharp on Wordsworth’s uses of Milton. He also stops to pursue other more contextual investigations. Wordsworth’s remark in The Prelude that he abstained from ‘dissolute pleasure’ while an undergraduate sends Johnston off to find out about prostitution and student promiscuity in late 18th-century Cambridge. Wondering about Wordsworth’s failure to take all his Cambridge exams and therefore attain an honours degree, Johnston sets about discovering exactly what these exams actually involved and gives us sample questions from past papers. Wondering how Wordsworth and his undergraduate friend Robert Jones managed to miss their way at the Simplon Pass, as recorded in The Prelude, he walks the route and explains the topography. Later, to elucidate the account of ascending Snowdon in Book xiii of the poem, he puts on his boots again and pants up the poet’s path, confirming the exactitude of his observations.

All this is engaging and written with the inquisitive zest of the enthusiast. Unfortunately, the best qualities of Johnston’s writing are not what he has become best known for. The Hidden Wordsworth is a revised and shortened version of a book that first appeared in 1998 as The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy, which declared provocatively that ‘Wordsworthian biography does not need more facts, though these are always welcome, so much as it needs more speculation.’ Johnston’s consternation-causing speculation, much hyped by his publishers, was that Wordsworth had been employed as a government spy when he travelled to Germany with his sister and Coleridge in 1798, and perhaps had even been an informer on his friends when they lived at Alfoxden in Somerset the previous year. There were two key pieces of evidence. First, there was the recently revealed record, from the account book of the Duke of Portland, of an apparent secret service payment in June 1799 to ‘Mr Wordsworth’. Second, there was the discovery that a Frenchman named De Leutre, whom Wordsworth befriended on the voyage to Hamburg, was a French agent. Wordsworth, Johnston suggested, had been sent to Hamburg to warn the British minister there, Sir James Craufurd, of De Leutre’s activities. Much circumstantial detail was recruited to support this speculation. The story reached the newspapers and Wordsworthians could only answer that they felt in their bones that this was all very unlikely. In a footnote, Juliet Barker finds the idea ‘ludicrous’, but says no more. Wordsworth éminence grise Stephen Gill thought that a verdict on Johnston’s claims would only be possible after ‘years’ of ‘rigorous scholarly assessment’.

It was about a year and a half before the speculation was scotched. Michael Durey, writing in the TLS, proved that ‘Mr Wordsworth’ was in fact the poet’s cousin Robinson Wordsworth, collector of customs at Harwich, who was being paid for expenses incurred in arresting and taking to London two men accused of treason. He also showed that De Leutre was an English agent rather than a French spy. And so Johnston’s exciting subtitle has had to go and he has added a new, somewhat self-righteous preface to his revised version of the book. Here he excuses his description of Wordsworth as a ‘spy’ as the ‘harmless’ consequence of an honourable mission: ‘my large task of trying to shift the ponderous weight of Wordsworth’s entrenched reputation for stodginess’. And though there have been some grudging adjustments to the spy passages of the book, they are minimal. The assertion that a government agent had recognised Wordsworth as ‘our man in Somerset’ is still there. So, bizarrely, is the following supporting sentence: ‘When we see in June 1799 that Portland’s secret book records a payment of nearly £100 to “Mr Wordsworth” these nagging questions about some kind of Wordsworthian connection to the secret service will rise again.’ But the new preface has already conceded that this entry had nothing to do with the poet. It is all the more peculiar as The Hidden Wordsworth has been quite thoroughly and intelligently revised, and made shorter by about a third. Still, at least Johnston’s dizzy praise of ‘speculation’ has been toned down. Now he says this: ‘Wordsworthian biography does not need more facts, though these are always welcome, so much as it needs more interpretation of the facts we have, and speculation about those we don’t – and about why we don’t.’

The latest substantial contribution to the Wordsworth industry, Juliet Barker’s Life, disproves even this moderated declaration. Barker makes no amazing disclosures, but offers a wealth of small details not seen clearly before – facts, if you like. It is strange to read her biography alongside Bromwich’s work, for she has managed to produce an admirable account of Wordsworth’s life while having next to nothing to say about the qualities of any particular poem. Those who already know why they value Wordsworth’s poetry will probably enjoy without unease what is the fullest and most minutely documented Life of the poet. It is unlike the bulk of literary Lives produced for the general reader by professional writers, for, while generous towards the support offered by Stephen Gill’s 1989 biography, it relies very little on the spadework of previous biographers. It is built on painstaking research and, especially, meticulous use of surviving correspondence. It is sustained by a powerful sympathy for its subject, and by Barker’s remarkable ability to keep in her head (and the reader’s) the large cast of family characters who mattered to the poet. But it would never give any surly student a clue as to why Wordsworth’s poetry is worth anything at all.

Barker’s lack of literary curiosity is, in one way, liberating. It seems to allow her to be true to the long (post-Johnston) years, after Wordsworth had written the poetry that we now admire. Hers is so much a biography of the Wordsworths en famille that she is able to sustain our interest in their dramas, pleasures, quarrels and sorrows long after ‘William’ (as Barker always calls him – even, irritatingly, ‘our William’) has ceased to write wonderful poetry. In fact, she manages to make an intriguing sub-narrative out of his wife’s and his sister’s observations on the ebbing of his creativity. Barker regards Coleridge’s often discussed expectations of Wordsworth – his insistence that his friend should produce a great ‘philosophical’ poem – with disdain. (Indeed, she treats Coleridge throughout as a disruptive, basically crazy intruder into Wordsworth’s life.) Mary Wordsworth’s hopes and criticisms, on the other hand, are brought sympathetically to light. She may have been her husband’s amanuensis, but she was not an uncritical one, and had a keen eye – or rather, ear – for his dwindling poetic ambitions. In particular, she was privately dismissive of his mid-life addiction to the making of sonnets – inherently ‘trifles’, she believed, even while she copied them down. As she listened to each new one (the collection of sonnets that Wordsworth published in 1838 contained well over four hundred), she saw him as clinging to a merely technical adeptness.

Bringing Mary Wordsworth to life is one of this biography’s great successes. The book ends, in fact, with Mary’s death, nine years after her husband and four years after Dorothy Wordsworth. Mary has been, in many ways, the hero of the tale: resourceful and affectionate, keeping faith when money was scarce, brave and humane in the face of the many bereavements she and her husband suffered. Wordsworth’s admirers often saw nothing in her, but her letters and the (unpublished) journals she kept during some of their ‘tours’ show that she was an intelligent and amusing woman, gifted, as Barker observes, with ‘her own brand of mordant humour’. Devoted she may have been, but she was clearly neither saint nor doormat.

Not the least of her gifts were her tact and generosity towards her sister-in-law, Dorothy, to whose intense feelings for her brother the book does unprurient justice. Johnston’s book, in both its versions, makes much of the near-sexual intimacy between the two, while finding it ‘hard to conceive of a physically incestuous relation’ (version one) or deciding that ‘I do not believe there was a physically incestuous relation’ (version two). Johnston bases much of his analysis on poems which, he thinks, longingly address Dorothy: ‘Tintern Abbey’ (where she is certainly present) and ‘Nutting’ and the Lucy poems (where the discovery of his intense feelings for her rather depends on the reader’s prior decision to find them). Barker sticks with the evidence of journals and correspondence, though some of this testimony – Wordsworth placing his wife’s wedding ring first of all on his sister’s finger before leaving for the church – is strange enough. Barker also gives Mary’s sister, Sara Hutchinson, usually renowned only for being the object of Coleridge’s obsessive attentions, room to breathe and speak. After a stay at Rydal Mount in 1816, Henry Crabb Robinson told Mary Lamb that ‘he never saw a man so happy in three wives as Mr Wordsworth is’ and it has proved easy to think of the self-important poet attended by these slavishly admiring females. Barker’s picture of the household is altogether more sympathetic, nuanced and believable.

Though she is best at catching the ordinary complexities of family life, Barker is informative about many aspects of Wordsworth the poet. Her neglect of the poetry itself is all the odder given her evident interest in the business of being an author. On the one hand, she mostly ignores the complex processes of revision that distinguish Wordsworth’s work, filling the huge volumes of the Cornell University Press edition of his poetic works and preoccupying academics. The growth and the later rewriting of The Prelude happen somewhere off-stage, and the great poem itself is merely a trove of biographical data. On the other hand, she is often excellent on Wordsworth’s habits of composition: what stimulated him (frequently the observations of his wife or sister), what hampered him, how he put his poems together while walking or ‘touring’. We see him ‘murmuring verses’, as Mary Wordsworth put it, until they became poems. Lakeland locals remembered him mumbling to himself as he walked. A former servant of the Wordsworths recalled: ‘Mr Wordsworth went bumming and booing about, and she, Miss Dorothy, kept close behint him, and she picked up the bits as he let ‘em fall, and tak’ ‘em down, and put ‘em on paper for him.’

The fact that much of the time Wordsworth was not literally a ‘writer’ at all should surely give Wordsworthian critics more pause than it does. Bromwich’s eloquent treatment of ‘Tintern Abbey’ might have stopped to consider that this poem was repeatedly spoken, and then memorised, before it was ever written. Forty-five years later, Wordsworth told Isabella Fenwick, avid recorder of the great man’s recollections, how it had kept pace with the journey it described. ‘I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of 4 or 5 days, with my sister. Not a line of it was altered, nor any part of it written down till I reached Bristol.’ Though the original title announces ‘Lines Written a few miles above TINTERN ABBEY, on revisiting the banks of the WYE during a tour. July 13, 1798’, there was no actual scribbling involved. The poem’s strangely satisfying obscurities surely have something to do with the way it was made. The rising rhythms of phrase-making remain dramatically persuasive despite all the semantic cavils of critics from Empson (‘what is more deeply interfused than what?’) onwards. Bromwich expresses uneasiness about the role that Wordsworth’s sister, ‘My dear, dear friend’, is made to play in the last phase of the poem: ‘he makes himself necessary to Dorothy, without being asked to, under a pretence of showing why she is necessary to him.’ Perhaps such judgments need to recognise that the address to Dorothy was not merely rhetorical – that she was truly there to hear the lines as they took shape, were tested and amended.

Barker records Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a visit in 1833, being told by Wordsworth that he was used to holding hundreds of lines of his poetry in his head before they were ever transcribed. She does not use one nice detail of Emerson’s account: ‘He led me out into his garden, and showed me the gravel walk in which thousands of his lines were composed.’ The path is the Wordsworthian equivalent of the writer’s desk. One imagines that even when he returned to Rydal Mount from some ramble with half a poem in his head it would be completed as he paced up and down the gravel walk. Reading Barker, it sometimes seems as if Wordsworth’s holding of his poetry in his head was also a matter of keeping to its true, private significance. Even the recording of it on paper, usually by Dorothy or Mary, was for the convenience of family and intimate friends. Like some 17th-century wit, he behaved as if his work was truly intended only for a coterie. He became a national symbol, and even a tourist attraction: after the completion of the new railway line from Kendal to Bowness in 1847, parties of excursionists would arrive to try to catch sight of the great man. Yet he never ceased to profess puzzlement about the public reputation of his poetry. Badly in need of money in 1825, he asked his worldly friend Samuel Rogers for advice. Rogers suggested publishing a selection of ‘the most admired, or most popular’ of his poems. Wordsworth immediately lost heart, being ‘utterly at a loss’ to know which of his poems fell into these categories.

There was considerable pride as well as puzzlement in his aloofness from public taste. ‘I am so thoroughly disgusted with the wretched and stupid Public, that though my wish to write for the sake of the People is not abated yet my loathing at the thought of publication is almost insupportable.’ This was in 1808, when Wordsworth had been offered 100 guineas to publish The White Doe of Rylstone. To the horror of his wife and sister – he was particularly hard up at the time – he began to back away from the deal, hating the thought of submitting his work to Longman’s ‘criticasters’. Luckily for the family finances, Coleridge (not so mad after all) took over the grubby business of dealing with the publisher. Over and over again, with a professional writer’s curiosity, Barker records Wordsworth’s declared distaste for publication. ‘I never publish any thing without great violence to my own disposition which is to shun, rather than court, regard,’ he told the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon in 1815. Barker makes it clear that he went against the wishes of ‘his more practical womenfolk’ in refusing until he was in his late fifties to truck with the periodical press. He boasted to one editor that he had ‘never composed a line for the sake of pelf – though I sometimes published from that immediate motive’. When the bills run up by his spendthrift son John forced him into accepting from a perfectly respectable journal a remunerative offer for some new verse, he wrote of going against all his ‘natural feelings’. His daughter Dora, close to her father’s literary values, called the deal ‘galling’ and ‘degrading’.

Posterity, of course, would have been untroubled by his making money from writing, while it has been stern with him for accepting the largesse of his patrons, particularly Sir George Beaumont and Sir William Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale. Barker is rationally understanding. She gives careful attention to Wordsworth’s money worries, pausing frequently to count his cash and to gauge the pressure of financial anxieties. Yet even she is sometimes taken aback by the political consequences of his dependence on Lord Lonsdale, from whom he derived first an annuity of £100 and later the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland. That he threw himself into election campaigns on behalf of the aristocrat’s sons is well known. Less often mentioned are his feverish attempts to identify potential freeholds and have a syndicate of Lowther supporters buy them up on behalf of friends, who would then qualify as voters in the appropriate constituency. His brother Christopher, one of several family members roped in, expressed doubts about the ethics of purchasing property for ‘the mere purpose of giving a vote’ but the poet would have none of it. ‘I cannot but be of opinion that the feudal Power yet surviving in England is eminently serviceable in counteracting the popular propensities to reform which would unavoidably lead to revolution.’

In describing Wordsworth’s later years, Barker takes us through all his reactionary reflexes. His sometimes gloomy, sometimes panicky Toryism becomes nearly comical by the 1830s. When, in the 1831 general election, Lord Lowther (heir to the Lonsdale earldom) was defeated in the Cumberland constituency by two candidates who were in favour of Parliamentary reform, the poet became convinced that the region was blighted. ‘Poor Father is quite overpowered by the horrors & sorrows which seem to him hanging over this hitherto favoured spot of earth,’ Dora wrote. Yet the ‘torified’ Wordsworth, as Catherine Clarkson dubbed him, is not entirely unlike the young Wordsworth Bromwich pictures. Disowned by Memory begins with an exacting reading of ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ in which we are asked to recognise that ‘Wordsworth’s politics are not to be found on any of the available maps.’ Even in the 1790s, he is an ‘agrarian conservative’ as well a ‘radical republican’ and despiser of the new political economy. Wordsworth’s poem, picturing the beggar as the villagers’ ‘record’ of ‘Past deeds and offices of charity’, has troubled or irritated many readers. Its rejection of do-gooding amounts to fatalism. It defeats, as Bromwich says, all ‘weighing of utility’ and all assumptions we might have, in the wake of Enlightenment philosophers such as Hume and Smith, about the virtues of having sympathy for others. The beggar offers back no ‘amiable confirmation of well-attested feeling’. The subtitle of the poem is ‘A Description’, and it is all from the outside, refusing to allow us to feel ‘from the other person’s point of view’.

Bromwich quotes Charles Lamb’s precise admiration of a couple of ordinary looking lines near the end of the poem. The poet is hoping that the beggar will be allowed to wander for as long as he can and never be confined within some poorhouse.

Let him be free of mountain solitudes,
And have around him, whether heard or not,
The pleasant melody of woodland birds.

Lamb noticed ‘the delicate and curious feeling in the wish for the Cumberland Beggar, that he may have about him the melody of birds, altho he hear them not. Here the mind knowingly passes a fiction upon herself, first substituting her own feelings for the Beggar’s, and, in the same breath detecting the fallacy, will not part with the wish.’ Consoling sentiment and actual feeling are both there, alongside each other, as they are, Bromwich says, ‘consistently in his poetry of the 1790s’. He is astute to give us the quote from Lamb: here is the kind of close analysis that Wordsworth deserves.

Barker’s biography, inadvertently, makes one also consider what a scholar deserves. Read right through it gives an unrivalled, sometimes moving, sense of the consistencies and inconsistencies of Wordsworth’s personality, of his struggles and aspirations, of the texture of his family life. This huge and hugely detailed book should also be a superb work of reference. But Barker has been badly let down by her indexer – or by her publisher’s policy on indexing. Most of the index might as well have been composed by a computer, consisting as it does of names of persons and places followed by phalanxes of page numbers. It is maddening. What is the point of, say, the entry on Dorothy Wordsworth, which gives merely her name followed by almost four hundred page numbers? Once having finished the book, imagine trying to find any of Barker’s acute discussion of the relationship between Dorothy and Wordsworth’s wife, Mary. Or her examples of Dorothy’s contributions to her brother’s poems. Or simply her account of the breakdown in Dorothy’s health, and its accumulating effects on the household at Rydal Mount. The best biographies, often too large to be read cover to cover more than once, are kept alive by their indexes; Penguin have stupidly limited the afterlife of this one. Perhaps, for the paperback edition, they will consider investing in the index that will do justice to this book?