A man of many quotes

Wordsworth: a life

Juliet Barker <em>Viking, 971pp, £25</em>

ISBN 067087213X

"Mr Wordsworth is never interrupted," his wife said, laying a restraining arm on the young John Keats as he was about to stop the great poet in full flow during a visit to London in 1818. Juliet Barker offers many such gems in this fine biography of the writer who steered English poets into Romanticism. But neither her good historical grasp nor her sharp critical judgements justify the book's bulk.

To be sure, the long life of Wordsworth (1770-1850) invites fingertip search. The mountain of available letters, confessional autobiographical poems, political pamphlets, open letters and official records yields vast stores of information on the private and public sides of the poet. Both sides are equally important in tracing his personal journey from lonely Romantic revolutionary to lionised conservative Poet Laureate. Orphaned young and doomed to endless financial want and legal wrangling, he disdained all paid employment as a young man to pursue his art. Fired by a romantic belief in the French revolution, he fathered an illegitimate daughter in France, but returned to England to marry for love and settle in his native Lake District. Over time, the strain of family responsibilities led him to become a government servant (stamp distributor of Westmoreland) and eventually, at 73, Poet Laureate, donning wig, knee-breeches and silver buckles to bow to his young Queen.

To this complex, often tragic story, Barker, author of The Brontes, brings splendid scholarship and an acute - dare one say it? - mother's eye. With the same confidence in which she pronounces a poem inferior, she remarks on the miscalculation of dates of a pregnancy or on a child's slow development. Her account of the unexpected deaths within a short time of two of the young Wordsworth children is movingly told, as is that of Wordsworth's inability to recover from the constant fear of losing his other three.

Her sharp, feminine focus also reveals Wordsworth's French mistress, Annette Vallon, by whom he had an illegitimate daughter, to have been a strong, intelligent and patient woman. So too, as elsewhere portrayed, were the poet's saintly wife, Mary, and his sister, Dorothy. Coleridge, Wordsworth's mentor, long-time dependant and eventual adversary, mocked that the great man had "almost his very Eating & Drinking, done for him by his Sister, or Wife".

Wordsworth disliked prying biographies, especially of authors, and scoffed at these "peeps behind the curtain". Undeterred, Barker goes on to peep, but finds no evidence to support the rumours (then, as now) that Dorothy Wordsworth was either a lesbian or in an incestuous relationship. She has stronger material for her analysis of the long, troubled relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, co-authors of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798), the landmark of English Romanticism marked by the former's "Tintern Abbey" and the latter's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". The charismatic Coleridge began as Wordsworth's mentor, but as the older man passed him in fame, output and marital stability, grew more and more resentful, dependent, opium-sodden and demanding. With the addicted poet as an interminable house guest, the protective Wordsworth was drawn into the family miseries of the Coleridges.

It is regrettable that Barker's impressive book is dragged down, like Ophelia's skirts, by weedy trophies. An editor should have rescued it, persuading a meticulous scholar to part with detail and what scientists called "negative results". For example, why, Barker asks, did Wordsworth move to London for four months in 1791? The debate over this fills two pages, with all possible alternatives laid out before defeat is conceded. "The only indisputable fact" is a visit to a close family friend. But: "Where William's meeting, or meetings, with the new Mrs Rawson took place is not known. One can guess, however . . . " One should not. One should get on with what is known, especially when one still has 58 years of the subject's life to get through and there are other good biographies that weigh somewhat less than three and a half pounds - Stephen Gill's elegant William Wordsworth: a life of 1990, to name but one.

But, long or short, Wordsworth's life is worth reading. While he is easy to dismiss as a self-indulgent writer of banalities - he was a comic figure even to natives of the Lakes, who observed him "mumbling to hissel along t'roads" - he has probably contributed more quotable quotes to our culture than any writer other than Shakespeare, each loaded with humane wisdom and contemporary relevance. His warnings about the landscape's vulnerability, Barker claims, inspired the creation of the National Trust. Certainly, Wordsworth's sonnet against extending the railway into the Lakes offers lines that could well be adopted by any environmental group fighting a new motorway. "Is there no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?" he cries, and addresses the silent hills:

Plead for thy peace, thou beautiful romance
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong.