How Wordsworth coped when Coleridge did a Dorothy

August 24, 2001

Biography and literary criticism have tended to see Wordsworth either as a solitary figure or as someone engaged in intense, one-to-one relationships - with his sister, Dorothy, or with Coleridge, his fellow poet. Juliet Barker's biography is refreshing in showing Wordsworth as a family man. Not only devoted to his wife, his children, his siblings and his wife's siblings, he also made his friends welcome in the house, plus their wives and later their children. Coleridge's sons, Hartley and Derwent, regularly spent their weekends in Grasmere while they were schoolboys in Ambleside. Hartley never left the Lake District and died there in 1849. Barker says that Mary, Wordsworth's wife, "had been a second mother since childhood" and laid out his body: "She 'kissed the cold face thrice, said it was beautiful, and decked the body with flowers'."

This touching scene is characteristic of the biography's achievement. It is narrated via a contemporary source and Barker shows an extraordinary grasp of such material. Her text resembles a beautifully edited anthology of letters, diaries and journals, some of them unpublished, few of them available outside major libraries. Family members, friends, even travelling companions are portrayed in effortless detail and their presence creates an unusually intimate and rounded picture of Wordsworth's life.

Hartley's death also illustrates the important part played by Wordsworth's wife. She was born Mary Hutchinson, was Wordsworth's age and a friend of Dorothy from schooldays. The couple married in 1802 and had five children, two of whom died in 1812 and a third, Dora, in 1847. Barker narrates these deaths with sensitivity and intelligence. She suggests that Wordsworth's decision in 1814 to publish The Excursion , a poem written several years before, was prompted by his new awareness that "life is insecure". Made amid bereavement, the decision "bears all the hallmarks of having been forced upon (Wordsworth) by the fear that he might die with the greatest part of his work unpublished".

Earlier in the book, Barker discovers reasons for thinking that Mary exerted an influence over Wordsworth's poetry. Mary visited Wordsworth and Dorothy at Racedown in 1796-97, living with them for six months and leaving a few days before Coleridge's more famous visit began. While there, she began to work as Wordsworth's amanuensis, a task she continued for the rest of her life. On this occasion, she copied out his new poem, "The Ruined Cottage", which became in the end book one of The Excursion . Coleridge's friendship has been seen as the catalyst for the drastically original poems Wordsworth published in Lyrical Ballads (1798). Mary was a much less flamboyant character and had a less brilliant mind; still, the impact of her profoundly compassionate nature may be seen in "The Ruined Cottage" where, for the first time in his work, Wordsworth explores the burden and power of human sympathy.

If Mary was associated with "The Ruined Cottage", then perhaps the publication of The Excursion was a tribute to her, intended to relieve the depression she suffered after the death of the children. Barker enthuses about the poem - "It improves out of all proportion to the initial struggle and yields new treasures on every reading" - and overall she is more attracted by the later Wordsworth than the younger. This may be partly because the later life is less well known and the information available more extensive. Mostly, though, it is a question of temperament. Barker prefers Mary's piety and steadiness to Dorothy's hypersensitivity and she disapproves generally of emotional extremes. Describing Dorothy's notorious hysterical attack when her brother married, Barker comments: "It was characteristic of both women that Dorothy managed to upstage Mary on her wedding day and that Mary bore it with perfect equanimity." This is shrewd but rather cutting. Coleridge is another target - when he came to stay with the Wordsworths in 1800, Barker tells us he "did a Dorothy and retired to bed".

The biography values good sense, especially as displayed by Mary Hutchinson, and it practises common sense. The writing is straightforward though never dull and there is little speculation. Instead, Wordsworth's involvement in the everyday emerges in lively detail. His non-literary interests, such as landscape gardening, electioneering and education, are given more of their due and we are shown how passionately he loved his wife and children. Common sense, though, will only take you so far with Wordsworth because, essentially, he was odd. Barker's biography shows that Wordsworth instinctively sought and created communities in which he could take shelter. She quotes a wonderful letter from Dorothy describing her brother's "violence of Affection... which demonstrates itself every moment of the Day when the Objects of his affection are present with him, in a thousand almost imperceptible attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness... a Tenderness that never sleeps". The violence, restlessness and sleeplessness are striking here; they do not suggest (as is usually supposed) that Wordsworth was simply intent on gaining disciples and acolytes; instead, he seems to desire acceptance, wanting both to cherish and to please. The letter suggests, nonetheless, a volatile personality, someone who is needy and insecure. Barker's exemplary scholarship reports this side of Wordsworth's character but she does not fully understand it. She is too respectful to criticise his more extreme behaviour, treating him differently from the way she treats Coleridge or Dorothy, but she would much rather he had been just like Mary.

Ralph Pite is senior lecturer in English, University of Liverpool.

Wordsworth: A life

Author - Juliet Barker
ISBN - 0 670 87213 X
Publisher - Viking
Price - £25.00
Pages - 971

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