The Hidden Wordsworth

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Kenneth R. Johnston surprises his readers in small ways in his large and impressive biography of William Wordsworth. Based on Johnston’s research, Wordsworth emerges as the odd boy of Westmorland, a solitary child of nature only because the local populace largely disdained his family. His father was the land agent for Sir James Lowther, the hated aristocrat who owned or controlled much of the land in Westmorland and Cumberland.

The inclination to chart a separate course consequently continues throughout Wordsworth’s life. His father had separated the four Wordsworth brothers at the death of their mother, when Wordsworth was only seven. They were raised separately by women who boarded students at the local schools they attended. They saw their sister Dorothy only rarely and their father mostly on school holidays.

Perhaps it was this that made Wordsworth something of a solitary at St. John’s College, Cambridge. He certainly could have excelled there, and University honors would have assured the kind of career most middle-class boys sought. Johnston shows, however, how empty the Cambridge honors system could be and that it depended on University politics.

Johnston discusses Wordsworth in France, his relationship with Annette Vallon and their daughter Caroline, in considerable detail. This, too, was a mark of his independence, and of his love for republican France. Some form of marriage had occurred, though the only surviving document referring to it contains so many errors as to render it dubiously legal.

The most controversial section of Johnston’s study is his conjecture that Wordsworth maintained some connection with the British secret service during the French Revolution, and that Vallon played some part in this. The conclusion of the study is much more predictable, as Wordsworth’s career continues its upward trajectory following publication with Samuel Taylor Coleridge of LYRICAL BALLADS (1798).

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXXVI, October, 1998, p. 316.

Contemporary Review. CCLXXIII, November, 1998, p. 277.

The Economist. CCCXLVI, August 29, 1998, p. 75.

Library Journal. CXXIII, July, 1998, p. 91.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 28, 1998, p. 8.

The New Leader. LXXXI, June 29, 1998, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, May 11, 1998, p. 58.

The Spectator. CCLXXXI, August 8, 1998, p. 28.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 18, 1998, p. 3.

The Wall Street Journal. June 23, 1998, p. A18.

The Hidden Wordsworth

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Romanticism conjures up the notion of unconventional behavior, though collegiality was often strained even among those who accepted its general principles. Percy Bysshe Shelley could willingly accept the political views of his friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, and even tolerate Byron’s sexual excesses. Indeed, the exoticism of Byron made him a far more important figure in his own day than either the passing of time or the quality of much of his poetry have justified. What captured Shelley’s imagination about Byron, the willingness to risk everything for an ideal or an experience, likewise caused him to shun John Keats, a dying poet whose obsession with death allowed him to equate poetry with sleep and immortality with an imagined Greek vase.

Shelley reserved special excoriation for William Wordsworth, even committing his thoughts on Wordsworth to paper. This was a rarity, since Shelley frequently thought but rarely wrote negatively about his colleagues. Shelley’s sonnet “To Wordsworth” (1816) is in effect an epitaph (written thirty- four years before Wordsworth’s death!) on what Shelley considered the poet’s squandered promise.

Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honored poverty thy voice  did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,—
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

Shelley’s poem effectively turns the beetle-crag of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1798-1839) on its end and directly attacks Wordsworth where he lives, in Grasmere, the Lake District, as its poet-hermit. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend and collaborator, must have seen Shelley’s poem. His “To William Wordsworth: Composed on the Night After His Recitation of a Poem on the Growth of an Individual Mind” is actually an affirmation of Wordsworthian romanticism directly aimed at Shelley’s attack on The Prelude.

Reading Kenneth R. Johnston’s The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy probably would not have changed Shelley’s mind about The Prelude, a poem that he loathed, but it might have caused him to reassess Wordsworth as a man. It is surely the case that Johnston’s book will provoke debate among contemporary scholars. Some of these will at least reconsider their long-held preconceptions about Wordsworth as a reclusive self-exile and evader of scenes political.

In essence, Johnston’s book presents a long series of small surprises about its subject. Johnston describes Wordsworth’s conservative family standards and essentially rootless adolescence following his mother’s death. He considers Wordsworth’s diffident behavior as a student at Cambridge University, surely uncharacteristic for a boy of moderate means at the time. Then there are Wordsworth’s political and amorous involvements in France, his abrupt return to England at the start of the Reign of Terror, and his possible connections with the British secret service at precisely the time at which he was self- consciously creating his poet-hermit persona.

The first of these surprises concerns Wordsworth’s childhood years. His father, John Wordsworth, was not only a dependent of Sir James Lowther, the most feared, powerful, and hated aristocrat in all of Cumberland and Westmorland, but also his agent. In addition to collecting Lowther’s rents, the elder Wordsworth served his master as political agent and kept his ear to the ground to keep Lowther’s estates compliant and politically safe. To work for “Jimmy Grasp-all,” as Lowther’s tenants called him, ensured a comfortable home and suitable income along with the distrust and disdain of the Westmorland populace.

The poet Wordsworth may have indeed been the “child of nature” he idealizes in his poetry, but he may also have been solitary as a child by necessity. This withdrawn existence evidently became even worse after his seventh year, when his mother, Ann Cookson Wordsworth, died. After her death, the elder Wordsworth separated the poet and his three brothers, each of whom was reared by families of strangers who boarded children near the schools the boys attended. Their sister Dorothy remained at home. The fact that the Cooksons, Wordsworth’s mother’s family, were enemies of Lowther made any close relationship with the Wordsworth children awkward. In the years...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)