Heading off for a weekend in the country, I grabbed what I thought was the latest biography of Wordsworth, Wordsworth: An Inner Life , which had been sent for review. What bliss, I fondly imagined, to come in from a long winter ramble and read again the much-loved story of Coleridge leaping over the gate of Wordsworth's house in Racedown, Dorset, and running impatiently through the garden to see his new friend. How idyllic, I thought, to sit before a fire, with tea and toast and the familiar narrative of William and Dorothy in Dove Cottage, Grasmere, writing their poems and journals.
So imagine my surprise when I opened the book and found that the only pictures were of manuscripts covered with illegible scrawl and that the pages were littered with scholarly apparatus, such as footnotes and references to Dove Cottage MS 7. Make no bones about it, this book is tough, a desk job rather than an armchair job. Despite being called An Inner Life , it deals almost exclusively with texts, with Wordsworth's continual revisions of his poems, with different manuscript versions, with sources and possible influences and other critics. Get a real life, one is tempted to say.
But following some determination, the book begins to grip you with the compulsion of good detective work. Duncan Wu is determined to prove that the poems that Wordsworth wrote between the ages of 15 and 20, commonly known as his juvenalia, were crucial in determining his poetic development and therefore should play a central part in any critic's understanding of the poet. He begins with The Vale of Esthwaite , a poem written in 1787, in which Wordsworth recalls waiting for horses to take him home from school for the holidays. He discovers that his father has died and that home is therefore a place of sorrow. But the grief of that moment is delayed until the time of the poem's composition, four years later. Wu takes the reader in a bravura performance through the labyrinthine manuscript paths of Wordsworth's memory, revealing the repression of emotion and its re-emergence in various drafts of poems in a complex way that was to become so characteristic of his later writing. Wordsworth's private grief found relief in the translation of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in Virgil's Georgics , and that classical poem was in turn relocated to the Lake District landscape, in a convoluted movement of metamorphosis, displacement and elegy.
Wu's thesis about the importance of the horse episode for the development of Wordsworth's poetic sensibility is made more vivid with his edition of Wordsworth's earliest poems. All the surviving fragments of The Vale of Esthwaite , found in the notebooks held at the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere, are gathered together, along with the translations from Virgil. It is possible to see the marked difference between the earliest fragments, written dutifully in accordance with contemporary literary fashions, and the fragment written after "the emotional crisis of July 1787", which examines the troubling memory of personal grief with striking frankness and subtlety: "With sighs repeated o'er and o'er,/ I mourn because I mourn no more."
One of the most interesting and controversial theses of Wordsworth: An Inner Life is that Coleridge's influence on Wordsworth has been overestimated. Wu points out that critics usually claim that it was Coleridge who shaped the course of Wordsworth's ideas about the imagination, based on his prior reading of philosophers such as George Berkeley. But Wu is keen to press Wordsworth's independence and his separate development before he had even met Coleridge in 1797. He says Wordsworth knew about associationism through reading James Beattie, and that his knowledge of "transmutation, immateriality and the sublime" is evident in the juvenalia. More shockingly, Wu maintains that Coleridge had a harmful effect on Wordsworth. By continuing to press him to write the great philosophical poem The Recluse , he "warped" his imaginative talents, the poetic voice that preferred concrete reality, specific locations, autobiographical moments. Coleridge, according to this argument, deliberately rushed up to Wordsworth in Grasmere at short notice twice (October 1799 and December 1803) when it seemed that Wordsworth might abandon The Recluse and charmed him into continuing. The deleterious effect this virtual policing of Wordsworth's poetic life had on him excuses, for Wu, Wordsworth's rejection of Coleridge's Christabel from the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads and the psychological belittling of Coleridge in the note to the Ancient Mariner , and generally during the preparation of that edition. But I am not convinced. Coleridge sounds too calculating, by this interpretation, and both poets have acquired a nastiness that is not evident in their letters at this stage.
At times, Wu's abrasive style, dismissing other scholars and lacerating Coleridge, is a bit hard to stomach. To describe the "idiot boy" in the Lyrical Ballads , for example, as a "mongol" and to use the words "mongol" and "mongolism" repeatedly in the analysis of the poem is to be insensitive to the modern understanding of those with learning difficulties and to undermine his argument that the poem challenges stereotypes of disability. The ventures, too, into Freudian or Kleinian psychoanalysis are tentative and awkward, fitting uneasily with the hard-nosed palaeography and source-hunting that is Wu's forte.
Wu's two books on Wordsworth's reading are an invaluable resource; it is hard to imagine a book or paper on Wordsworth now that would not cite them in the bibliography. Wordsworth: An Inner Life continues this tradition of impressive research. This is traditional scholarship at its best, attentive to detail and immersed in a welter of poetic sources, which will no doubt be studied and absorbed by bright graduate students and Wordsworth experts. I just want something a bit lighter next weekend.
Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge.
William Wordsworth: The Earliest Poems 1785-1790
Editor - Duncan Wu
ISBN - 1 85754 619 9
Publisher - Fyfield Books, Carcanet
Price - 9.95
Pages - 141