Late Wordsworth

Now that my biography of Wordsworth is at press – coming out in early April in the UK and late April in USA – I’m reflecting on what I put in and what I left out. Most of what I left out was the second half of his life and thus pretty well all his later work. I’m intrigued and slightly amused that this means that for a second time around I find myself at odds with the flow of mainstream Wordsworth/Romanticism studies. That is to say, back in the late 1980s all the “new historicists” were berating Wordsworth for his political turn away from the values of the French Revolution (hardly surprising, in my view, given that his lover was in the royalist resistance and his friend Gorsas was one of the first to be guillotined by the Jacobins); I argued, then, by contrast, that there was a direct line from his early radical politics to the “green” thinking of the Guide to the Lakes, parts of The Excursion and thus his influence on John Ruskin’s ideas in the Victorian period about how urbanization and industrialization were causing climate change. That was the thrust of my little polemic, very much of its time, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition.

This time around, I began research for my biography by re-reading the entirety of Wordsworth’s works in chronological order. And I came to the conclusion that the idea first promulgated by Matthew Arnold was absolutely right: almost all the good work was written in the “great decade” between 1797 and 1806 (which happened to coincide with his closeness to Coleridge). I argue in the biography that the surest test of a worthwhile poem is its memorability. Despite immersing myself in Wordsworth throughout the five years since I said goodbye to Ted Hughes, I cannot hold in my memory a single line from the early Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, or any of the later poems apart “Surprised by Joy” and a few lines in the River Duddon sonnets and the Extempore Effusion on the Death of James Hogg. As I point out in the biography, these also happen to be the only later poems that Seamus Heaney – as fine a judge of poetry as he was a poet – included in his excellent Wordsworth anthology.

And yet, reading the academic criticism about Wordsworth written in the last decade, everybody seems to be speaking up for the later poems – to take two fine examples, Tim Fulford and the emphasis in Katherine Berggren’s fascinating account of Wordsworth’s global and in particular post-colonial influence. So once again, I find myself swimming against the tide…

Maybe, though, it is a question of audiences: work on the later Wordsworth keeps the conversation going within the professional sphere of Romantic studies, but, as in most of my work in the past thirty years, I am more interested in (a) getting students who don’t know any of the poetry to explore, enjoy, and be educated by the Romantics (Latin e-ducere, to lead out from the self … in Wordsworth’s case by witnessing someone else go into the self with unprecedented depth); and (b) speaking to that huge audience of, to use Dr Johnson’s and Virginia Woolf’s still valuable term, “common readers” who are compelled by the fascinating lives and historical contexts of the poets.

For these two audiences, I stand by my decision to cut short the biography (which was already long enough, because it includes a lot of quotation, criticism and context) when Wordsworth’s life became boring and his poetry became unmemorable. But I know what the response will be within the groves of academe …

O, and on the subject of leaving things out: yes, it was deliberate that there is no mention of Daffodils in my three BBC Radio 4 documentaries for the 250th anniversary, In Wordsworth’s Footsteps.

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