RADICAL WORDSWORTH. THE POET WHO CHANGED THE WORLD. by Jonathan Bate, Reviewed by Kenneth R. Johnston
 


RADICAL WORDSWORTH. THE POET WHO CHANGED THE WORLD.
By Jonathan Bate
(Yale, 2020) xxii + 586 pp.
Reviewed by Kenneth R. Johnston on 2020-07-21.

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This book appears just in time for the 250th anniversary year of Wordsworth's birth (1770). Bate presents it as a brief, or at least compact, book for general readers. As such, it succeeds on many counts. The title is intriguing, given Wordsworth's generally stodgy reputation among readers casually acquainted with English poets. Also, its subtitle, "the poet who changed the world," is apt enough, if we define "world" within reasonable limits--and not necessarily only literary worlds. Its length, at 586 pages total and 491 pages of primary text, is manageable for the long life (80 years) of an acknowledged major poet.

Its proportions are also appropriate, to my way of thinking: 310 pages on Wordsworth's life from 1770 to 1806, and 110 pages on his last 44 years, a roughly 3:1 ratio of early to late. (Between the two parts comes a 30-page "Excursion," subtitled "From New School to Lake School," on the terminology and definitions of English Romanticism.) While "full life" biography purists may find this (im)balance a bit skewed, I share (with many others) Bate's estimate that Wordsworth's early poetry is a lot better than his later work. Furthermore, rather than scrutinizing the whole of Wordsworth's life and works, Bate aims to explain "several things at once, without getting bogged down in detail: how the first half of Wordsworth's life was such an extraordinary adventure and the second half so dull" (xviii).

Bate believes that previous biographers have left this task undone. Since his first visit to the Lake District in 1969, he writes, he has "still not found a book that not only outlines the story of the man and examines the best of his work, but also places him in the context of his revolutionary age and traces the vicissitudes of his reputation." (xix) Here Bate seems to overlook such excellent biographies as Stephen Gill's Wordsworth: A Life (1989, 2020) and Nicholas Roe's Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (1988, 2018), which contain more new information than Bate includes here. But a fresh view of a major poet is always welcome.

So the proper interpretive question is this: does Bate's biography define Wordsworth for our time, at this signal milepost in his long afterlife? Here the answers are more mixed. Bate describes his method as "deliberately fragmentary, momentary, selective" (xxii) and "more like a stream of consciousness than a march from cradle to grave" (xxi). I found this method persuasive only part of the time. (Some Impressionist paintings are great, others merely blurry.) For example, while covering the first 20 years of Wordsworth's life in the 44 pages of chapters 2 to 4, Bate highlights a half-dozen "spots of time." The results of this theoretically promising move are movingly sentimental but not very clear. Still less clear is the jump from the end of chapter 4, which minutely probes the raven's nests incident at Hawkshead, to "Chapter 5: Walking into Revolution. 14 July 1790."

Wait a minute: what just happened? Some names, dates, and places have been mentioned, but rather than pausing to spell out their significance, Bate wants to show how the "spots of time" draw us deeper into the emotional heart of Wordsworth's boyhood years. Bate's interpretation of the "spots" sensitively mixes appreciation for Wordsworth's detailed descriptions of natural phenomena--a gift more Dorothy's than William's--with a conventionally Freudian interpretation of likely personal psychological factors. Plausibly if not profoundly, he casts Wordsworth as a radical Romantic pioneer questing toward more modern understandings of the Self and its development. But the results are both over- and under-determined. Wordsworth's loss of his mother at age seven and his father at age thirteen is always primary for Bate, and he always stresses the poet's profound sense of death and loss.

In his "particular example" (22) of such loss, the "spot of time" at Penrith Beacon (1805 Prelude XI.258-345), he pushes this psychological paradigm too far. According to Bate, the bypasser seen by the boy--the "woman and her garments vex'd and toss'd / By the strong wind"-- is "walking toward death," "struggling through life," past "the Stygian pool," beneath the "sepulchral beacon." These phrases are Bate's. Presumably extrapolated from what the boy has just seen (the ancient site of a murderer's grave at the bottom of the roadside gulley), they imply a moralizing narrative for the scene. Yet while the scene must have frightened the five-year-old who experienced it, its impact is both more powerful and less definite for the circa 30-year-old poet who first composed it:

It was, in truth,

An ordinary sight; but I should need

Colours and words that are unknown to man

To paint the visionary dreariness

Which, while I look'd all round for my lost guide,

Did at that time invest the naked Pool,

The Beacon on the lonely Eminence,

The Woman, and her garments vex'd and toss'd

By the strong wind. (XI.308-16)

Bate says that "Wordsworth makes the ordinary seem extraordinary" (33). But Bate himself makes the extraordinary ordinary by claiming that "the power of memory and imagination 'colours' the monochrome of the scene." I would say it is just the reverse: the first description of the three elements of the scene--pool, beacon, woman--is at least realistic if not colorful:

A naked Pool that lay beneath the hills,

The Beacon on the summit, and more near,

A Girl who bore a Pitcher on her head

And seem'd with difficult steps to force her way

Against the blowing wind. (XI.304-08)

In the second description or re-viewing of these three elements, however, they have lost whatever natural coloring they had and assume the shadowy blankness of a photographic negative, or the black-and-white starkness of a police photo, in "colours and words that are unknown to man." They are neither "sepulchral" nor "Stygian"--dismal but nameable--but unknown to man. Bate's adjectival additions are plausible for normalizing the context, but Wordsworth's whole point is that it cannot be normalized.

This may seem too detailed a critique, but throughout the book, and not just in its opening chapters, Bate repeatedly pulls up short at Wordsworth's many iterations of "colours and words that are unknown to man." (Cf. Wordsworth's very similar treatment of the three elements in the Waiting for the Horses "spot of time": "The single sheep, and the one blasted tree, / And the bleak music of that old stone wall" [XI.378-79]. Cf. also the apostrophe to Imagination in Prelude VI: "like an unfather'd vapour," "Halted, without an effort to break through" [527, 530].) This is not a "higher and spiritual" dimension, or a naturalism leading on to awesome but reassuring supernaturalism, but just what Wordsworth usually says it is: Blankness. Desertion. "When the light of sense goes out." Tellingly, though Bate returns to the Intimations Ode many times to affirm the poet's sense of having lost his youthful perceptions of natural beauty, he never quotes the lines in which Wordsworth affirms his real loss, and gain. Not "delight and liberty, the simple creed / Of Childhood,"

Not for these I raise

The song of thanks and praise;

But for those obstinate questionings

Of sense and outward things,

Fallings from us, vanishings;

Blank misgivings of a Creature

Moving about in worlds not realized,

High instincts before which our mortal Nature

Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised . . . (140-48)

For Bate, an early exponent of "Green Romanticism," Wordsworth's Nature is almost always full (of real presence and significance), never empty, alien, other. "Wordsworth's way of dealing with loss," Bate writes, "was always to find restorative power in nature, however bleak the scene" (31). Wordsworth's turf, then, is more English Lake District than "the mind of Man -- / My haunt, and the main region of my song," ("Prospectus to The Excursion, 40-41). And since Nature is almost always full in Wordsworth's poetry, this imbalance does not affect many of Bate's readings. But without the sense of blankness and desertion, we lose the dynamic of the poet's most important poems, the doubts, fears, and anxieties ("If this / Be but a vain belief, yet oh!") that drive them to their hard-earned affirmations. In this pattern of omissions or elisions, Bate reminds me of Shelley's Peter Bell the Third, touching "the hem of Nature's shift," but then feeling "faint--and never dared uplift / The closest, all-concealing tunic" (Peter Bell the Third, Part IV: Sin).

Though academic professionals might consider Bate's book a good gift idea for friends and family, it will leave them with rather vague outlines of Wordsworth's life. Packed with simple subject-verb-object sentences, its style is pleasant, conversational, almost casual. Since Bate offers a series of riffs or "takes" on certain well-known biographical or interpretative highlights or difficulties, the book reads better if one is already conversant with the main outlines of Wordsworth's life. Bate elides or ignores many connections in his determination to be brief, with the result that he stirs new questions even while leaving others unanswered. But if this biography leads readers on to Mary Moorman's or Stephen Gill's, which Bate recommends, so much the better.

At one point in the book (xviii) Bate chides me for prolixity in my own book, The Hidden Wordsworth (1998). So it is perhaps only turnabout fair play to say that I find him often too brief, especially in his treatment of Wordsworth's years in France, including both the 1790 walking tour and the 1791-92 year in Paris and the Loire valley. Of his 58 pages (in three chapters) on these topics, he gives 13 to "Two Revolutionary Women," Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams. While these two poets certainly deserve their due, Bate offers just one skimpy chapter on 1791-92: 10 pages on Wordsworth's love affair with Annette Vallon, 6 on October-December, 1792, and 3 on John "Walking" Stewart. With barely time enough to walk us through the main revolutionary sites in Paris, Bate has virtually no time at all for the poetry. Books IX-X of the 1805 Prelude are the most critical books--in every way--in the poem, central to our understanding of Wordsworth's sense of self-in-the-world. To treat them so cursorily not only adds little to the known facts of his life, but also drastically understates just how radical he was-- a glaring failure in a book called Radical Wordsworth. To say simply, as Bate and almost everyone else does, that the poet lost his faith in the revolution badly undercuts our understanding of how this "loss of confidence in social man" (Excursion, IV.261) catalyzed his concomitant loss of faith in himself and his genius, a loss which Book X subtly and powerfully explores.

Nevertheless, this book has its strengths. Chief among them are Bate's chapters on "Tintern Abbey," where he makes a good case for placing its locale at Symonds Yat while acknowledging that knowing an exact location is not crucial to reading it. Also good are his pages on Bristol and the Somerset years generally, including a common-sensical identification of Joseph Cottle as the "and Co." of George Canning's "New Morality" satire in The Anti-Jacobin, rather than the oft-wished-for desire for it to be Wordsworth, rounding out the "five other wandering bards." Also, following his admiration for John Worthen's The Life of Wordsworth (2014), Bate is generally insightful, tactful, and persuasive on the plentiful psycho-sexual tensions in the Wordsworth-Coleridge-Southey households. Yet Bate sticks his neck needlessly far out in starting his entire book with a "Prelude" entitled "THE EPOCH" recounting Coleridge's fantasy/memory/fear of seeing or finding Wordsworth in bed with Sara Hutchinson at Hall Farm near Coleorton in 1806. Certainly such a scandalous scene at the beginning will alert readers that this will not be a conventional biography of Wordsworth. But Bate does little more than speculate about this mental episode, which is about all one can do. William and Sara, he notes, might have been in bed correcting manuscripts, or she in bed and he in a chair (514, n. 13), which does not seem like a good idea on any accounting. I feared that Bate would return to this "EPOCH" (Coleridge's caps) at the end of his first part (the meat and matter of his book), where he discusses the completion and first reading of The Prelude at that time, but to my relief he did not.

Bate's 110 pages on the last 43 years of Wordsworth's life, 1807-50, are a relaxed amble of five chapters through a variety of the poet's literary acquaintances, literary schools ("Cockney," "Lake," "Satanic") and scandals, London and Edinburgh journals, famous anecdotes, and deaths. Dates are mentioned, but chronology is not followed strictly, so one is hardly aware of the passage of time, which is very much to Bate's tactical point, given his low estimate of Wordsworth's later life and works. Still, it does raise the question, why write about them at all, then?

One demanding but possibly rewarding way to answer this question would be to defend the later poetry, as has been done by Stephen Gill, Peter Manning, and most recently Tim Fulford, in Wordsworth's Poetry, 1815-1845 (2019). The later poetry offers diminishing returns, but that after all is the way of life. Though we want our geniuses to be great all the way to the end, like Shakespeare and Yeats, Wordsworth must disappoint us here

Alternatively, one could try to explain why the later Wordsworth is so dull. Bate asserts this without bothering to argue it, relying instead on a few well-chosen awful quotations. He launches a promising counter-factual inquiry into what we'd have gained and lost if the poet had died young, in 1806, after completing the first full version of The Prelude, but does not take it far (425-26). (I pursue a similar line in "Lord Byron reads The Prelude," Counterfactual Romanticism, ed. Damian Walford Davies [2018]). By Bate's estimate, Wordsworth's death in 1806 would have cost us perhaps a half-dozen worthwhile sonnets and elegies.

Raising the question, "What went wrong?" (430), Bate plausibly finds a leading answer in Wordsworth's growing separation from Coleridge. His most intriguing suggestion, not for the failures but for the counterbalancing ten years of greatness (1798-1808), parallels Woody Allen's formula for artistic success: less sex. If Wordsworth had no sexual relations between leaving Annette in 1792 and marrying Mary Hutchinson in 1802, the resulting build-up of tension could account for the power of the poet's productions. Emotions collected in frustration, as it were. The possibility is not entirely implausible. Though it exemplifies the insistently Freudian orientation of Bate's back-structures ("Wordsworth," he writes, "uncannily anticipates Sigmund Freud in all sorts of ways" [430]), it provokes thought, which is more than can be said for most of Bate's comments on the late years. We do not of course know if Wordsworth abstained from sex during these years, but it seems as likely to be the case as not. If so, Bate ignores the possibilities for intense sublimation opened by Wordsworth's love and companionship with Dorothy--and also with Mary Hutchinson--during these years, stimulated and undergirded by their intense correspondence with Annette at the same time, in which both William and Dorothy participated. Yet finally, to say that such a mighty falling off after the Great Decade is mainly due to mature sexual fulfillment is probably to put too much weight on the place of sexuality in life, though Dr. Freud would disagree.

On the other hand, Bate is true to Freud's Eros-Thanatos paradigm. He finds convincing reason for the poet's decline in the sheer number of deaths of friends and family that began to afflict the poet as he entered his sixties, especially since they followed the early deaths of his parents, as already noted, and two of his children in 1812. But like his experience of Eros, we cannot really say whether his experience of Thanatos differed from anyone else's at the time.

The book closes well, with a penultimate chapter ("A Sort of National Property") on Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes, tracing its influence authoritatively from the 1820s to the establishment and vast growth of the Wordsworth Trust and the establishment of the English Lake District, continuing on to the National Parks of the U.K. and their much-indebted American cousins.

The final chapter is a thoughtfully sympathetic meditation on Wordsworth's weakest link: "Love of Nature leading to Love of Mankind." Although this entitles what many find the least persuasive book (VIII) of The Prelude, Bate persuades us to take it seriously. He means it substantively, but I take it rhetorically, as one option among other possible formulations: e.g., Love of Man > Love of Nature; Disgust with Man > Love of Nature; Disgust with Nature > Love of Man. "Nature" is the god-term of The Prelude, and it (and Wordsworth's faith in it) must be taken at least as seriously as we take the gods and goddesses in The Odyssey. Bate writes here as a concerned public humanist for our time, as Professor of Environmental Humanities at Arizona State University. His argument, vis-à-vis Wordsworth's proposition, is that, if we love ourselves (Mankind) we had better learn to love Nature better than we do. Wordsworth's frequent iterations of how exquisitely the Mind of Man and the world of Nature are wedded or fitted to each other may have sounded poetically rhapsodic or philosophically idealized in the early nineteenth century. Some of my differences with Bate over presences and absences in Nature are philosophical, or even theological, but even Geoffrey Hartman, the main proponent of the radical otherness of Wordsworth's Nature, admitted that "Apocalypse is not habitable." Now, two hundred years later, when we daily see, but mostly fail to recognize, with what exquisite cruelty and coarse stupidity we are unwedding and unfitting ourselves from Nature, we need all the help we can get. Insofar as Jonathan Bate offers Wordsworth as a guide in this critical effort, I am willing to follow his lead, but not as a guide to the poetry itself.

Kenneth Johnston is Ruth N. Halls Professor of English Emeritus at Indiana University.


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