The Life of William Wordsworth: A Critical Biography, by John Worthen

Jane Darcy wonders if exhaustive analysis has left too little room for study of Romantic poet’s creative power

May 15, 2014

In his preface to his 2001 book The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802, John Worthen asked “What would a biography be like which managed to include everything surviving of a life? Every document, letter and journal entry? Every encounter, known movement, illustration?” His scrupulous attention to surviving records of William Wordsworth’s friends and family for that single year arguably paid off. But how successful is this approach when applied to all 80 years of Wordsworth’s life?

In The Life of William Wordsworth, Worthen leaves no archival stone unturned. If you doubted that Wordsworth’s father John was known familiarly as Jack, you can be reassured by a precise reference in a footnote. It’s a biography for academic readers – presumably undergraduate ones, as Worthen glosses phrases such as “an open slight” and “huddled up”. He avoids the sort of academic jargon that might be off-putting. “Nice work if you can get it,” he comments on Wordsworth’s plan to turn tutor; solitude allows Wordsworth to “dig deeper into himself”. Yet he has curiously little to say about more complex terms such as “spots of time” or “the sublime”.

But what fresh insights have his archival searches revealed? Wordsworth had considerable financial anxieties as a young man: this much we already know. But Worthen argues for the importance of tracing “in detail” the effects of Wordsworth’s poverty. He does so over some 450 pages and 1,425 footnotes.

At this length, we might hope for illuminating re-readings of the poetry, expansive discussions of key periods of a life that Wordsworth himself called “unusually barren of events”. But Worthen’s account, for example, of the year of Wordsworth’s collaboration with Coleridge on Lyrical Ballads gives no sense of this as an annus mirabilis of creative intensity. Wordsworth’s thrilled homecoming to Grasmere with his sister Dorothy becomes a hell of domestic discomfort, The Prelude less the high point of Romanticism and more a witness to Wordsworth’s autobiographical unreliability.

Worthen is hampered by his determination to stick to strict chronological order. It’s not a method that suits any creative life, especially that of a poet who continually revised his work. Such rigidity leaves no room to consider the mysterious workings of the imagination, the overwhelming effects of encounters with the sublime, the underlying creative rhythms of the life of a poet.

As most biographers will admit, there is a distinct danger that you may fall out of love with your biographical subject. Worthen’s long relationship with Wordsworth seems to have soured. He is accused of “obstinacy and self-will”, of not taking into consideration the feelings of others (“for example, of his sister Dorothy, upon whom he now depended as his housekeeper, poetry-copier, and income-source…or his brother Richard…Or Annette Vallon…Or Mary…or his cousins in Cumberland”). Instead the self-absorbed poet, Worthen reveals, “would think and read and sometimes write”.

To meet Wordsworth the visionary poet you are still best off with Stephen Gill’s incomparable biography of 1989, and last year Lucy Newlyn gave us a sensitive exploration of William and Dorothy’s brother-sister relationship. For an exquisitely lyrical reflection on the importance of place to Wordsworth and other poets, there is Fiona Stafford’s Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry. But if you’ve always hankered after more knowledge of Wordsworth’s finances, Worthen’s new biography is the one for you.

The Life of William Wordsworth: A Critical Biography

By John Worthen
Wiley-Blackwell 500pp, £75.00 and £60.99
ISBN 9780470655443 and 9781118604922 (e-book)
Published 28 March 2014

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