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The radical lessons of William Wordsworth

How the young poet, shaped by revolutionary politics, taught us to love the living world.

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“The second half of William Wordsworth’s life was the longest, dullest decline in literary history.” Jonathan Bate must be Wordsworth’s greatest champion, but such is his considered opinion. The decline was certainly long. Wordsworth was born 250 years ago, in 1770. In his revelatory biography, Bate devotes more than 260 pages to the poet’s first 36 years, a formative and surprisingly political period. A mere 94 pages dispose of the four further decades until his death in 1850. By then Wordsworth had become a “Lake Poet”, growing in fame as he slid into Toryism and ease.

But those early years and his posthumous influence are astonishing. As when a conservator carefully swabs away from an oil painting the crusty accretions and gunk of ages to reveal shining colours and unexpected detail – so Jonathan Bate sets about the youthful Wordsworth, and shows us, page by page, just how world-changing he really was. Gone are the daffodils forced upon resentful school-children. Out steps a master poet of self, memory, loss, revolution and the natural world.

Bate opens his book at a crucial time, not the birth of baby William but a tipping point: Christmas 1806. The poet is spending the holiday at Coleorton in Leicestershire, in the intimate company of his wife Mary, their three children, his sister Dorothy, and sister-in-law Sara. His old friend Samuel Coleridge joins the party, bringing his own son, but Coleridge is bloated by now, in trouble with opium and alcohol. As entertainment for the gathering, Wordsworth begins to read nightly instalments of a long new poem, dedicated to Coleridge. It is an epic, no less.

Until then, epics had been the haunts of gods and heroes. But night by night Wordsworth reads aloud an epic about himself. An autobiography in verse. Extraordinary! It covers his boyhood days in the Lake District, evoking landscapes familiar to everyone assembled. It discloses particular personal memories, those “spots of time”, which Wordsworth, quite sure of himself, called the “hiding places of my power”. It follows his youthful adventures in France and his then enthusiastic support for the principles of the French Revolution. The work remained unpublished in his lifetime; he had meant it to precede an even longer poem, hence its eventual name, “The Prelude”.

Nowadays, epic poetry is banished and bookshelves groan with memoir and nature-autobiographies. It’s hard to imagine a time before their existence. Indeed, we may have come too far with our “I” – in her 2019 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the novelist Olga Tokarczuk said that the sheer success of the first person narrator was “akin to a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all travelling similar routes, drowning one another out”. But in 1806, it was unheard of for a poet to explore his own self-development. This self-creating was quite new. Bate says Wordsworth was the first master poet of memory.

***

Wordsworth needed memory. By the time of that gathering, there had been many losses. William and his siblings had been orphaned when William was 13, their mother having died when he was only eight. His beloved sister Dorothy had been sent away; they were not reunited until he was 24. A brother was lost at sea. These were the personal griefs, and more were to come. He would become “a poet of twilight and mourning”, setting the elegiac tone of English verse.

But before the grief, there had been hope. Principally, the hope of radical political change, as imagined by the French Revolution.

Wordsworth's career as a Cambridge undergraduate was lacklustre. When it was over, jobless but with a developing sense of poetic vocation, he set off for France. He was 22 and those were heady days of revolution and possibility. This was Wordsworth’s second trip to France. Two years previously, in the summer of 1790, he had undertaken a walking tour with his friend Robert Jones. Then, as the pair wandered south to the Alps, they’d found France en fête, celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. On the subsequent trip, begun in 1791, he travelled alone. He was anxious to meet with a woman called Helen Maria Williams who was already resident in Paris. Williams was a poet he admired; she had allied herself enthusiastically with the revolutionary cause and was reporting from the front line. (Bate is rigorous in restoring women to their full role in the times, as poets, novelists, artists and influencers, as well as lovers and helpmeets.) In Helen Maria Williams, Wordsworth saw a role model: perhaps he too could become a poet involved with a cause, embedded in France. He attended the National Assembly and Jacobin Club, visited the ruined Bastille, then travelled south to Orléans, and in due course met Annette Vallon.

Vallon, four years his senior, born to a class of “respectable burghers”, met Wordsworth through her brother, a notary’s clerk, whom she was visiting, and became his informal French tutor. When she had to return home to the city of Blois, Wordsworth went too – the couple were in love. In December 1792 their daughter Caroline was born, but William had already left. With no means of support, and with war imminent between England and France, he had had no option but to return home. So his lover and new daughter were also lost to him. (There was no real reunion until Caroline was ten. However, links were maintained and Dorothy had intended to attend Caroline’s wedding in 1814 – again, prevented by politics. Wordsworth gave Caroline a marriage settlement. Annette Vallon was by then a monarchist.)

After the rousing French experience there came political grief and the death of hope, which weighed especially heavy. Whatever France in fervour had represented, when it was “bliss in that dawn to be alive”, it soon collapsed into violence and terror. Wordsworth witnessed the aftermath of the massacre when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace, King Louis XVI’s residence, in Paris on 10 August 1792. Wordsworth supported the moderate republican Girondin faction, but Girondins were being guillotined. However, the original impulse remained dear. The young poet even wrote a pamphlet “by a republican”. It attacked monarchy and nobility, denounced war and poverty and was deemed so seditious, no publisher could touch it.

So it was back to England, alone, to find a future. A cottage was taken where at last, William could send for his sister Dorothy to join him, so fulfilling her dream. Then he met the powerfully minded Coleridge, and as the tripartite relationship intensified, the cottage was exchanged for Alfoxden House in Somerset, close enough to Coleridge for frequent visits, and much nature-walking. So began the annus mirabilis of 1798. Coleridge’s philosophical turn of mind enabled Wordsworth to extend his capacity for strong feeling and landscape. Wordsworth started writing his autobiographical fragments. Dorothy was companion and amanuensis. Visitors were frequent, and the whole menage became so alarming to the government that spies were sent from London to report.

During that year together Wordsworth and Coleridge planned a collaborative book, in a diction they called “natural and simple”: it was published in 1798 as Lyrical Ballads. The last poem Wordsworth squeezed in was “Tintern Abbey”. With wonderful elan, close reading and detective work, Bate blows the chalk-dust away from this poem and presents it anew. It shines with edginess. Its full title is “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” but the “few miles” might have been as many as 15. Dorothy and William were prodigious walkers. Fifteen miles upriver of the abbey, the topography fits the poem’s description, with “steep and lofty cliffs”. It is in this poem that Wordsworth declares himself a worshipper of nature. It doesn’t cause much frisson now, but at the time nature-worshipping was dangerously close to blasphemy. Bate notes that the poem is not about Tintern Abbey at all. Rather, Wordsworth sings the living landscape, well away from the Christian ruins. “Tintern Abbey” is a poem about individual spirit and landscape “in which he was signalling his retreat from radical politics and articulating a radical alternative religion of nature”. Worse, he even implicates his female companion in this dangerous stuff, his “dear, dear Sister”.

It was William Hazlitt, one of the many visitors to Alfoxden, who first sensed that Lyrical Ballads would set a “new style and new spirit” in poetry. Political revolution having failed, he reckoned the two poets were striving to bring about a literary revolution just as radical, whereby, as Bate puts it, “liberty, equality and fraternity should be introduced into the realm of high culture instead”. Reviews were mixed.

The following year, along with the dear sister, Wordsworth was located in Grasmere in the Lake District, the place that will be forever associated with him, and thinking about his next project – a personal, located, grounded epic; a paradise found.

***

Bate’s book is thrilling on Wordsworth’s times and contemporaries. They were calamitous days, exciting and strange. Days somewhat like our own, but also utterly alien. Bate finds radicalism everywhere in Wordsworth. His fellow-feeling, as evinced in poems about vagrants, convicts and beggars, could be construed by the various authorities as overdemocratic and seditious. Radical also is the “normal” language employed, the everyday diction (we are deaf to it now). Even his blank verse is deemed a radical step; it overthrew the mannered couplets of immediate predecessors such as Pope, and delved back to Shakespeare. Bate describes the blank verse Wordsworth mastered as supple, thought-carrying, river-like, individual – we are implored to read it aloud.

But all things come to an end. By 1806 Wordsworth’s relationship with Coleridge was strained. His friend, the intellectual dynamo who had energised Wordsworth, was stepping aside – or being airbrushed out. Wordsworth was pulling ahead; he knew in his bones he was creating the taste by which he would be judged. There would be further griefs, but he was living well in the Lakes, married and the centre of a happy household with three fond women. A sinecure provided an income. Whose energies would not be dissipated?

Bate conducts a rather brutal thought experiment. What if Wordsworth had died then, at 36, as Byron did? What if, during that cold winter of 1806, having already given us the Lyrical Ballads and his “Prelude” with its famous ice-skating “spot of time”, he had strapped on his skates again, but this time had slipped through the ice and been lost? What would have been denied to English poetry? Not much, Bate says, except one sonnet. Wordsworth’s best work was done. He had achieved a massive shift of consciousness, and become a self. He had brought about the English version of the French revolution, substituted nature for a deity. He had insisted on a poetry of common language. But he lived, and Bate’s judgement is pretty damning. “His unremitting later voice... was a counter-spirit which laid waste his powers, subverted his ideals and vitiated his reputation among the creative spirits of the next generation.” In 1843 the seditious pamphleteer became Poet Laureate.

But there is the legacy. After some scathing reviews came his growth in fame and influence. Nowadays, the figure of early Wordsworth stands behind an entire attitude to landscape and to nature. He is behind the National Trust, and the Lake District as we now know and understand it. He is behind the Yosemite National Park, founded by John Muir, who had made a pilgrimage to the poet’s Grasmere grave.

And there’s more. As in his book The Song of the Earth, Bate argues that poetry, only poetry, will save the Earth. Wordsworth foresaw the industrial era and the consequent alienation and environmental damage it would bring. Wordsworth was responsible for the dramatic shift which enabled a poetry that would route us back to a love of fellow creatures, and of nature itself. A radical poetry, not politics or religion, enables us to love the natural world. Wordsworth stands behind that love, says Bate. And what we love we save.

Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World
By Jonathan Bate
William Collins, 608pp, £25

This article appears in the 22 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb