Following Wordsworth’s footsteps

A new BBC Radio 4 show about the poet is incredibly dense and atmospheric.

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So incredibly dense and atmospheric was a three-part series about Wordsworth (marking the 250th anniversary of his birth), it almost felt as though it had been minutely storyboarded, like a movie. Locations, brilliant little scenes, Professor Jonathan Bate telling the story of the poet’s life while  Simon Russell Beale read the poems. 

It didn’t matter a jot that Beale’s voice doesn’t have Wordsworth’s “strong tincture of the northern burr” (as William Hazlitt put it), or that we know he doesn’t look at all like the poet. (Who would be perfect in the part, physically? Tom Courtenay, I think, around the age of 30, when his face was most sensitive.) SRB read the poems in an unawed, fully comprehending, purling way, including the memorable line “a naked savage in the thunder shower”, Wordsworth’s description of himself as a young boy in his beloved, watery Cumbrian landscape. 

The sound effects were marvellous. Linnets on the bright air, children distantly playing somewhere on the other side of Esthwaite, and, in episode three, the lovely rolling click of a gate that Coleridge once jumped over in a Dorset field. It all seemed constructed to feel how the posthumously published, autobiographical Prelude reads: as collected flashes of memory. Bright “spots of time”.

In the rural Loire in 1791, two years after the storming of the Bastille, Wordsworth saw a sad “hunger-bitten girl” tied by a rope to a heifer, walking on a lane. She would let the animal stop to forage, knitting with both hands all the while. It broke Wordsworth’s heart. Poverty would “be found no more” he vowed – if only the revolution might succeed. 

I wonder if he was particularly struck by that sight (so journalistic, so cinematic)  because doing several things at once was what he did. Wordsworth wrote as he walked. The distances he covered are truly insane. As Bate notes, the poet thought nothing of walking “all through France, down to Switzerland, across the Alps, around the Italian lakes and back up the rivers of Germany”. Wordsworth might have spoken of emotion “recollected in tranquillity”, but he effectively composed while running marathons. More! 

In Wordsworth’s Footsteps
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose