Wordsworth’s poetry itself is heavily identified with autobiographical intention. His greatest poem, THE PRELUDE, OR THE GROWTH OF THE POET’S MIND, was written in three different versions (1799, 1805, 1836) but did not see publication until after the poet’s death in 1850. Wordsworth did not misrepresent essentials, but he often sacrificed the literal facts about people and experiences to the aesthetic requirements of his poem. Biographical accuracy demands a reassessment of Wordsworth’s recollections and allusions.
Throughout his life Wordsworth was known as a “recluse,” a visionary leading a very private existence removed from the turmoil of society. Gill questions this image of the poet’s life by demonstrating Wordsworth’s concern over the state of his own reputation and the reception of his poems. He issued numerous editions of his work. He kept in touch with important intellectual movements. He was not a hermit-bard.
Finally, Gill takes considerable pains to clarify the situation of Wordsworth’s later years. Although his poetic powers declined, his later work was received with interest as his earlier work gained in reputation. He became a poet of increasing importance to the national and literary culture. George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and other major Victorians were heavily influenced by his work and thought.
Most readers do not think of William Wordsworth as a man of heroic stature. The radical “laker” sought seclusion in the beautiful countryside of his childhood after a short but intense taste of French revolutionary chaos, eventually settling in under the protection of the Tories and the Crown to become the “Sage of Rydal.” We forgive him for deserting the good cause—as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Robert Browning never did—because he managed to write some haunting passages about childhood and because he had something to do with arousing intense feelings about nature, a sentiment no less significant in our age of ecological awareness than it was in Wordsworth’s day, when enclosure and industrialism were beginning to scar the land and brutalize the common people.
There is also that problem about his decline. After the great decade, roughly 1797-1807, Wordsworth never quite managed to rise above the achievements of the best of Lyrical Ballads (1798) and the great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” written in 1802. His autobiographical epic The Prelude was essentially completed by 1805, although it did not see publication until after his death in 1850. In other words, from the age of thirty-five to eighty Wordsworth vegetated.
All this may sound overstated even to the casual reader of Wordsworth’s poetry, but the above assumptions are more in place than not. It will be the accomplishment of Stephen Gill’s book, one hopes, to put to rest once and for all the distorted and oversimplified picture of Wordsworth which the above information conveys.
First, the charge that Wordsworth’s conservative politics represented a turning away from the common man in his thought and feelings is without basis. Gill makes clear that after Wordsworth rejected William Godwin’s rationalist approach to social reform, the traumatic memories of violence in France and the outrage over Napoleon’s invasion of Switzerland made it impossible for him to identify with the liberal political theory of his time. Instead he turned to Edmund Burke, who had also profoundly affected Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s great collaborator and beloved friend.
Burke had taught them both the sacredness of tradition and the importance of religious and social institutions that crossed class lines and made for a cultural stability and unity strong enough to sustain the entire nation in times of trial. Wordsworth came to believe that whereas greed and aristocratic arrogance had victimized the peasants and yeomen of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, mob violence and assassination by the disaffected workers and farmers of later decades constituted a similar threat to the spiritual unity of the country. For Wordsworth the dignity of the ordinary person was a sacred trust. Any theory of “political economy” that did not sustain human dignity was anathema. He objected strongly to the Poor Laws because they dehumanized the very people they were supposed to help. “In 1835,” Gill observes, “when so many of his views had suffered a sea change, Wordsworth remained true to this conviction—that a theory stood or fell by its bearing on the individual case.”
Although Wordsworth’s politics can be defended as consistent in principle, it is, ironically, more difficult to explain the contradiction between the “individual case of his poetic achievement and the theory he mounted in...