Wordsworth: A Life by Juliet Barker - review by Rosemary Ashton

Rosemary Ashton

Steeped in Love

Wordsworth: A Life


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All literary biographies present choices to their authors. How much should one give a documentary, day-by-day account of a life that, as in Wordsworth’s case, may have lasted eighty years? How much should one quote from, and undertake critical appreciation of, the poetry that was the motive force of this particular life? How far is the psychological, emotional and sexual life of the poet to be subjected to scrutiny and – inevitably, in this as in other cases, thanks to the absence and often deliberate destruction of documents – to authorial hypothesis?

Juliet Barker has written a biography that largely combines the first two elements, with careful moments devoted to the third, but mercifully without those ultimately unenlightening remarks of the ‘he must have been thinking’ or ‘we can assume’ variety. She does, of course, deal with Wordsworth’s relationship with his only sister Dorothy, which has attracted much attention, particularly at the point when Dorothy was unfit to attend Wordsworth’s wedding to Mary Hutchinson and slept the night before with the wedding ring on her finger. On this, Juliet Barker is sure-footed and fair, giving in the early pages a very good sense of Dorothy’s emotional deprivation in childhood, which was worse than her brothers’, although they all suffered from the breaking up of the family when their mother died.

Wordsworth was then not quite eight and Dorothy was six: she was sent to live with her mother’s cousin in Halifax, while the boys either stayed with their father in Cockermouth or went to their grandparents in nearby Penrith. The father died when Wordsworth was thirteen, and the family was split up again, among mainly unsympathetic relatives. It was not until 1787, when she was fifteen and Wordsworth seventeen, that Dorothy rejoined her brothers. She attached herself emotionally to William, the nearest in age, and remained devoted to him for the rest of her long life. Naturally, it is impossible to say exactly what the feelings of each were for the other, or whether the relationship had a physical dimension. But that the siblings should have clung to one another emotionally after their difficult separate childhoods is not hard to understand.

If Barker is good on the relationship with Dorothy, she is excellent on the tangled financial affairs of the young Wordsworth’s resulting from the father’s position as legal agent for the great landed Cumberland family, the Lowthers. The eldest brother, Richard Wordsworth, had the unenviable task, as a fledgling lawyer, of trying to get back a considerable amount of money that was owed to his father by the Lowthers. It took him nearly twenty years, and in the meantime William, having found that his vocation lay not in the Church or the law but in poetry, lived almost from hand to mouth.

Barker is to be congratulated on her deftness in conveying a sense of the poems as they were being conceived and written. She treats The Prelude, unpublished until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850, with the right blend of reverence and caution. Autobiographical as the great poem is, giving an incomparable sense of the boy Wordsworth’s joy and troubled guilt in his native Lake District (the famous depiction of the sensations of skating on a frozen lake, of robbing birds’ nests, of stealing a boat and feeling the low rumblings of the hills as an admonition), it is, of course, selective and sometimes misleading, as any work of art has a right to be. Barker manages to use the poem to enlighten the life without becoming a slave to it.

A part of Wordsworth’s life that she handles particularly well is his journey to post-Revolutionary France in late 1791. At that time, hopes for the common man – the subject of so much of Wordsworth’s poetry – were still high (‘France standing on the top of golden hours’), but soon to be dashed by the atrocities of the Terror, culminating in the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793, and the declaration of war with Britain.

Wordsworth’s republican sympathies were in direct opposition to his patriotism, his deep love of home, a conflict richly expressed in the poetry. What is nowhere revealed in The Prelude, and what only a few select friends knew until well into the twentieth century, was that while in France Wordsworth fell in love with Annette Vallon and fathered a daughter, Caroline.

The war with France, and his continuing lack of a secure income, seemed to Wordsworth sufficient reason for not marrying Annette. He and Dorothy undertook a journey to France in the summer of 1802, taking advantage of a short cease-fire, to break the news to Annette that he was about to marry Mary. Barker is inclined to absolve Wordsworth of blame in regard to Annette, although she accepts that his behaviour towards his admirer De Quincey, cutting off all contact when De Quincey began living with a woman he had not married, was inexcusable.

Great poets are not necessarily great men. The evidence is that Wordsworth was egotistical, mean with money – although his financial insecurity for so much of his life might excuse that – and inclined to put his own interests first and call them principles. Barker is half minded to defend him against the charge of egotism, but she is less than fair in discussing his relations with Coleridge, who was, of course, impossible: an opium addict, a congenital liar, full of unfulfillable schemes, and self-pitying. First his wife, then his brother-in-law Robert Southey, and finally the Wordsworths found him a nightmare to live with. Yet he struck all who crossed his path as a palpable and attractive genius.

Wordsworth was his most important friend, and – a fact rather downplayed by Barker – Coleridge was Wordsworth’s. Their joint poetic venture, Lyrical Ballads (1798), although cobbled together to fill a volume, and although not an immediate commercial or critical success, established itself as the document of English Romanticism. It opened with Coleridge’s astonishing ‘Ancient Mariner’ and ended with Wordsworth’s wonderful ‘Tintern Abbey’, two of the finest poems in English, different as chalk and cheese yet equally innovative and lasting. The two men eventually fell out; each was partly to blame, but it has been the habit of most biographers of Wordsworth to sneer at Coleridge. This is all too easy to do, but it leaves the question unanswered: what, then, was the attraction of Coleridge for Wordsworth, as for others?

When Coleridge, Lamb and the Scottish poet James Hogg all died in 1834, Wordsworth wrote a combined poetic appreciation of them, in which Coleridge is mourned as follows:

Nor has the rolling year twice measured
From sign to sign, its stedfast course,
Since every mortal power of Coleridge
Was frozen at its marvellous source.

Barker, belonging with the scoffers, fails to explain how Wordsworth could have felt like this about Coleridge. She offers disappointingly little on the place of Lyrical Ballads in the history of English poetry, and scarcely mentions the great contribution to the criticism of Wordsworth’s poetry contained in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817).

Meticulously researched and very well written, Juliet Barker’s biography is full of riches. Nonetheless, it is extremely long, and follows the documentary style, with its repeated attention over a life of eighty years to summer holidays, the annual number of visitors to Rydal Mount, the life events of large numbers of not particularly interesting cousins, and the like. This has an unfortunate tendency to crowd out not only the important relationship with Coleridge, but also the difficult but interesting questions of how, why, and when Wordsworth’s views on religion and politics changed from early scepticism and enthusiasm respectively to middle and late orthodoxy and establishmentarianism. That said, it is a book steeped in the love of its subject and of the countryside that he commemorated so lastingly in his poetry.

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