The Greatest Between Milton and Yeats : WILLIAM WORDSWORTH A Life <i> by Stephen Gill (Oxford University Press: $29.95; 525 pp., illustrated; 0-19-812828-2) </i>
Who now reads a poem by Wordsworth? Actually a great many people, if we can trust the evidence of paperback sales, college course enrollments, and the nearly 200 pages that he gets in that most standard of standards, the “Norton Anthology of English Literature.” And we find Wordsworth not only in academia. He is second only to Shakespeare in providing titles for other writers’ novels, poems, plays, and films. Tag phrases like “wise passiveness,” “murder to dissect,” “still, sad music of humanity,” “the child is father of the man,” “trailing clouds of glory” pervade our intellectual and popular culture. Some of his lines have recently figured in advertisements for beer in Britain and cars in the United States; as Stephen Gill points out in his splendid new biography, readers of the ads were expected to recognize the source and to know the correct wording.
Wordsworth, routinely acknowledged as the greatest English poet between the 17th-Century Milton and the 20th-Century Yeats, wrote much of the enduring poetry produced in the Romantic period. Among his 53,000 lines are moving personal meditations such as “Tintern Abbey” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”; exquisite shorter lyrics like those on the daffodils (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”) and the rainbow (“My heart leaps up”); homely and at the same time uncannily beautiful narratives like “Michael” and “Resolution and Independence,” the long blank-verse autobiography posthumously titled “The Prelude”; and a handful of the best-known sonnets in the language including “The world is too much with us,” “Earth has not any thing to show more fair,” and “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free.”
Beginning as a political radical, Wordsworth was the English poet most directly involved in the French Revolution, and it is probably no coincidence that Oxford University Press has issued Gill’s work in the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille. A year after that event, the 20-year-old Wordsworth walked through France on a summer tour; the next year he returned to become involved in French activities. His “Prelude” recounts the progress of the revolution--the most famous passage begins “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!” As Gill repeatedly points out, the history and politics of the time are background to numerous of his shorter works as well.
Wordsworth was more revolutionary in literature than in politics. His poems, beginning with the first edition of “Lyrical Ballads” (1798), along with his prefaces and essays that accompanied them, have almost single-handedly changed people’s notions about the subject matter and language of literature and the central importance of feeling. He was a pioneer in focusing on the social problems and psychology of common life, including peasants, criminals, beggars, itinerant army veterans, mad women, and idiots.
In poetic style he came as close as any successful poet has ever come to the simplicity and matter-of-factness of prose. A much ridiculed example is this couplet describing a pond: “I’ve measured it from side to side:/ ‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.” But the same kind of simplicity is responsible for such superlatively beautiful images as these from the “Intimations” ode: “The rainbow comes and goes,/ And lovely is the rose,/ The moon doth with delight/ Look round her when the heavens are bare.”
Most of his best poetry involves first-person speakers, and much appears to be autobiographical or confessional. Yet Wordsworth also frequently achieved a generalized lyricism in which the speaker is really ourselves the readers, or all humanity, rather than some dramatized version of the person who wrote the poetry.
Just as it is possible to take the French Revolution as the beginning of our 200-year-old modern era, it is possible to see Wordsworth’s poetry and theory as the beginning of our modern literature. Twentieth-Century poets and novelists repeatedly return to him for example and inspiration. Wordsworth underlies William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, Wallace Stevens’ continuous probing of the relations between imagination and reality, Robert Frost’s rustic personae, and the autobiographical films of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Woody Allen. He is behind practically every modern poet and novelist’s plainness of language, matter-of-fact description, and focus on the workings of the human mind.
This new biography more than merely fills the longstanding need for a one-volume life that is both readable and reliable. Gill, fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and editor of the first volume of the Cornell edition of Wordsworth as well as several other distinguished publications, is a seasoned Wordsworth scholar. He has made the best possible use of the wealth of biographical, textual, historical, and critical information amassed since Mary Moorman produced the hitherto standard two volumes of scholarly biography in 1957 and 1965.
Gill is admirably circumspect in his interpretations, cautious where caution is appropriate--for example, concerning Wordsworth’s feelings about his French mistress and their illegitimate daughter--and generous in providing possible alternatives to hitherto standard opinion on numerous important points. Wordsworth is a difficult person to know, and we are not given much in the way of psychoanalytic portraiture. But Gill’s keen sense of the external reality of the life he is describing extends into such details as the smokiness of the houses, the lack of space for visitors, and the kinds of shoe Wordsworth ordered. Recounting the poet’s new situation at Alfoxden, in Somersetshire, he tells us about the financial terms of the lease, about the house, rooms, furniture, garden, resident deer and sheep, surrounding woods and hills, the waterfall that one would see by walking in one direction, the view of the Bristol Channel and the Welsh mountains that one would see by walking in the other direction, the proximity of Coleridge and other neighbors, and so on. All this is conveyed in a page and a half of agreeable prose that seems leisurely rather than crowded.
Gill’s subject is primarily Wordsworth the writer, and he provides full details of the various publications, including Wordsworth’s role in the makeup, design, and printing of his volumes, and the critics’ reactions. Wordsworth’s career has standardly been viewed as a single decade of brilliant poetic creativity (roughly 1797-1807) followed by a dismal “anticlimax” for 43 more years until his death in 1850. But Gill, drawing on recent discoveries about Wordsworth’s lifelong revising and his close personal supervision over nearly everything that he published, reveals a quite different shape of career. He shows a Wordsworth continuously creative in one form or another for practically all his life.
Ironically, in view of the eminence that he ultimately attained (the poet laureateship, honorary degrees and other prizes, visits from royalty, and, not least, decent sales and an annual Civil List pension of 300), Wordsworth considered himself a failure for most of his life. For many years he had neither employment nor adequate means of support. Aiming to educate the public by depicting the worthiness of common people and the dignity of their feelings, he sold very few copies of his poems and had no discernible effect on contemporary social reform. Seeking poetic fame, he was reviled by the most influential critics, and for much of his career found support only in a small coterie of admirers. Perhaps worst of all, he was able to produce only lengthy fragments of “the First Genuine Philosophic Poem” that his friend Coleridge decided he ought to write. One part of this project, “The Prelude,” is now considered the supreme achievement of 19th-Century English poetry, but Wordsworth, thinking it a mere introduction to a work never completed, left it unpublished.
His reputation took a decisive turn for the better in the 1820s, following the publication of no fewer than 10 volumes of poetry in the four-year span 1819-22. Thereafter, his practice and theory won acceptance as the model for a new kind of literature. Edition after edition was called for, and he became the idol of young writers and the country’s most distinguished living poet. Like Picasso, Stravinsky, and Eliot in our own time, he lived to see himself become a classic, a central figure in both William Hazlitt’s survey of the Romantic period in “The Spirit of the Age” (1825) and Richard Hengist Horne’s characterization of the Victorian Age in “A New Spirit of the Age” (1844). It is pleasant to read in Gill’s final chapters that Wordsworth thoroughly enjoyed his fame and the incredibly busy social life that went with it, and that he was remarkably healthy and vigorous almost to the end, visiting Italy in his late 60s and continuing to climb Mount Helvellyn in his 70s.
Gill’s biography automatically becomes the new scholarly standard--there are 1,640 notes in fine print at the end--but the interest of the subject and the excellence of Gill’s clear and unpretentious writing make it highly recommendable to the general reader as well.