Wordsworth is Finally Getting His Revolutionary Props
A new biography shows how he broke with poetic conventions and pioneered innovative ways of thinking about the self and nature.
Revolution covers all manner of things. Often describing political and social upheaval or a sharp break with a previous condition, it also means the return to a previous state. Both capture facets of William Wordsworth, Jonathan Bate argues in his new biography of the poet, Radical Wordsworth.
Born 250 years ago, Wordsworth transformed poetry and the ways people viewed childhood and the natural world. A central figure of the international movement that we now call Romanticism, Wordsworth was also a man committed to the corner of England that inspired his vision. The Lake District of Westmorland and Cumberland in England’s remote north brought him more than formative experiences and material. It provided the home to which he always returned.
Place is at the center of the tensions in Wordsworth’s life and work. For all his commitment to home in the Lake District, the poet had a wanderer’s restless spirit. He loved to walk, covering some 175,000 miles over his lifetime. His long poem, The Prelude, may have started in the Lake District, but it took him to London, the Swiss Alps, and France. Moreover, much as he wrote of nature, as a teacher he always hungered for books and gratefully acknowledged how his writing drew upon reading. Romanticism has tensions of its own both in the debt owed to classical influences and conflicting political strains that developed from it. The young-radical-turned-middle-aged-conservative may be a cliché, but for Wordsworth it involved more than different stages of life.
Struggling himself with “how a poet who could be so good could also be so bad,” Bate writes that his difficulty making students enthusiastic about Wordsworth led him to write a biography with a selective account of experiences that highlighted Wordsworth’s movement from visionary poet to cultural force. An enthusiastic hiker who first encountered the poet on a childhood holiday in the Lake District, Bate has “walked” with Wordsworth throughout his career as a literary scholar at Oxford. Deliberately episodic, Radical Wordsworth sets the poet’s life and work in context that reveals each’s importance.
Born in 1770, Wordsworth spent his early years in wild landscapes that still inspire awe. The mountainous region named for the lakes amidst the rugged fellsides lacked the open fields elsewhere associated with rural England. Characterized by pastoral farming and smallholdings with a more egalitarian culture among farmers known as “statesmen,” its poor roads until the later 18th century amplified its separateness. Wordsworth absorbed these influences before he was aware of them. His writing later tried to “recover the child’s untrammeled and untroubled unity with the natural world,” Bate writes, but growing up meant growing away from it.
Personal loss also marked Wordsworth’s youth. Admitting that he remembered little of his mother, her death when he was seven—“the onset,” Bate writes, “of enduring childhood memory”—left him “an outcast, bewildered and depressed.” It splintered the family with children fostered among relatives before William went away to grammar school. His father John died when he was 13, another formative age. These deaths, and Wordsworth’s sense of losing a child’s feeling of nature, give his poetry an elegiac tone as he later strove to preserve the past “by locking in a personal story before memory vanishes with age.”
School at Hawkswood made him a classicist, with the Latin poet Ovid, famed for imagery blending human and non-human, a lasting influence. Along with Milton and Shakespeare among older poets, he also learned from William Cowper and Thomas Gray. Bate shows how Wordsworth joined a more individual voice and “particularity lodged in personal memory” with “the art of sermonizing on nature.”
At Cambridge, Wordsworth gained “confidence that the past masters could be as friends rather than inhibiting shadows.” Bate praises the way his early verse captures “the combination of excitement and anticipation” that undergraduates typically feel in their early weeks at university. Instead of following an uncle into an academic career, Wordsworth found his vocation in poetry.
Travel to other parts of England and a tour in Switzerland gave him the opportunity to capture his emotional response to other landscapes. The most dramatic encounters came in France as a 20-year-old political pilgrim. Wordsworth’s famous lines “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was the very heaven” evoke first impressions of the French Revolution he sought later to preserve.
An introduction to Jacques Pierre Brissot, leader of the Girondin faction, drew Wordsworth into the thick of the action in Paris. Moving to the provinces, however, introduced him to royalists. One of them, Marie-Anne Vallons, became his language tutor, then lover, before falling pregnant with Wordsworth’s daughter. Impending war separated them as he fled across the channel to find employment to support them. While the details remain obscure, a brief return likely made Wordsworth a witness to his friend Jean-Antone Gorsas’s execution on the guillotine before a baying crowd.
Wordsworth remained a political radical in a circle that included William Godwin and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dorothy, the sister with whom he reunited, became a vital partner. Coleridge served as a sounding board and advocate whose philosophical mind focused Wordsworth’s reflections on nature and sympathy for the poor. Dorothy’s notebooks with observations from their travels gave him material for work that democratized poetry.
Bate calls Lyrical Ballads, a collection Wordsworth and Coleridge first published in 1798, “a cultural revolution in its way as radical as the political revolution” in France. Combining the elevated form of lyric with the vernacular ballad, as the title announced, gave voice to ordinary people rather than the heroes and rulers poetry typically celebrated. Wordsworth’s preface insisted that materials for poetry “are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind.” Breaking with conventions that used the poor as either picturesque details in a scene or objects of pity, he took people as he found them. Wordsworth freed sensibility from formality and artificial poeticisms to connect the mind with nature and give scenes new immediacy. William Hazlitt, the first outsider to see the work, called the result “a pure emanation of the age” and praised him as “the most original poet now living.”
This accomplishment originally involved turning familiar trends in a new direction. Nature had long figured in poetry, and sensibility, as Jane Austen understood, defined the age. But powerful feeling, for Wordsworth, was not just an emotional release. It was shaped by experience. Reality added to its force. Indeed, Wordsworth disliked the false excitement of Gothic fiction precisely because it created unnatural feeling. Romanticism, as Bate points out, had different strains with different influences on autobiography and autobiographical literary creation. Wordsworth’s Excursion and Prelude, along with other works, made him the first to pursue autobiography and autobiographical literary creation “with absolute self-consciousness.” The way he did so taught readers, as Matthew Arnold observed after Wordsworth’s death, how to feel.
Did prosperity, marriage, and improving finances turn radical Wordsworth into a conservative? The poet’s commitment to place resolves a tension in his career Bate finds overstated. The Lake District’s “statesmen,” whose landholdings embodied a democratic culture similar to what he later found among the Swiss, formed a society Wordsworth idealized. Sympathy made him take their side against elites, adventurers, and political innovation. Wordsworth not only introduced the Lake country to the world, he stood as its defender.
Bate mentions Francis Jeffrey’s attack on Wordsworth in the Edinburgh Review that labeled his circle the Lake Poets, but another clash also bears mention. Wordsworth led a political campaign against Jeffrey’s fellow reviewer Henry Brougham who sought three times to win election as MP for Westmorland. Brougham, a counterpart to Daniel O’Connell and Andrew Jackson as demagogue and reformer, represented forces of progress against the Tory interest led by Lord Lonsdale who had settled debts to the Wordsworth family that his cousin, the previous earl, owed. Wordsworth’s perception of the mercurial Brougham’s threat to the county turned the poet into a politician whose “Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmorland” marked one of the era’s most powerful expressions of conservative thought.
Robert Browning attacked Wordsworth for his apostasy in an 1845 poem “The Lost Leader,” but, whatever their later political differences, Hazlitt still praised his genius. Wordsworth’s attention to nature’s healing power and ordinary voices reflected his commitment to a place that made him revolutionary. Bate shows how he broke with poetic conventions and pioneered innovative ways of thinking about the self and nature, but Wordsworth also turned back to home, childhood, and memory. His thought has shaped more than poetry and our view of childhood, inspiring things as far afield as conservation movements in Britain and the United States. But in the end, it is Wordsworth’s melding of change with a striving for continuity that makes him still worth reading.
William Anthony Hay is professor of history at Mississippi State University and the 2019-20 Garwood Visiting Fellow for the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He is also the author of Lord Liverpool: A Political Life, and The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.