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Radical Elegies

At a time when many of us are cut off from the natural world, Wordsworth seems more essential than ever

By Jonathan Bate | May 21, 2020
<em>Wordsworth on Helvellyn</em> by Benjamin Haydon (Wikimedia Commons)
Wordsworth on Helvellyn by Benjamin Haydon (Wikimedia Commons)

Why should we still care about William Wordsworth today, 250 years after his birth? Because he reminds us that we need to care for our children and to cherish a child’s way of looking at the world. Because he wrote with unprecedented sympathy for the poor, the excluded, and the broken. Because his poetry has been for many, and can still be for some, a medium of solace and an oasis of calm in a noisy and stressful world, even a medicine for mental illness. Doubly so in the time of lockdown, when we are deprived of the natural world that he loved, but which we can glimpse through the window of his poetry. Because his elegiac poetry can speak to us when we are bereaved. Because he expressed humankind’s longing for the infinite and our sense of “something far more deeply interfused”—the “oceanic feeling”—in a way that was not dependent on religious dogma. Because he changed the way we perceive, inhabit, and preserve the wilder places of the natural world.

But above all, on our fragile planet and with our uncertain ecological future, because, at the very beginning of the industrial era that scientists have christened the Anthropocene, he foresaw that among the consequences of modernity would be not only the alienation of human beings from each other, but also potentially irretrievable damage to the delicate balance between our species and our environment.

I first went to the Lake District for a family holiday in 1969, when I was 11. My favorite photograph in the family album is a faded Kodak snapshot in which I am grinning beside my brother and my father (sprightly, happy, and youthful-looking, though nearly 60) on top of Helvellyn, the third-highest mountain in England. The next day we visited Dove Cottage, a few miles down the road in Grasmere. That was my introduction to Wordsworth. I was amazed that anyone could live and write in rooms so small and dark. The poet shared the tiny cottage with his sister, Dorothy, and after a while with his wife, Mary, and then their two sons and two daughters. Samuel Taylor Coleridge often came to stay.

A few years later, at school, where I was privileged to have great teachers, we studied the “Lucy” poems and “Tintern Abbey.” I worked my way through my father’s blue hardback Oxford edition of the complete poems, purchased in 1939, not long before he went from schoolmastering to soldiering. It had tiny print in double columns and a curious arrangement in categories such as “Poems referring to the Period of Childhood,” “Poems founded on the Affections,” “Poems on the Naming of Place,” “Poems of the Fancy,” and “Poems of the Imagination.”

I discovered that Wordsworth had written a vast number of poems. Every now and then, I would find a sequence or a single image that made my heart leap up: “A violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye,” “Earth has not anything to show more fair,” “The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion.” But there were great swathes of pomposity and turgidity. I asked myself how a poet who could be so good could also be so bad. Later, I would discover and relish a sonnet by Virginia Woolf’s cousin J. K. Stephen, an underrated poet who suffered, like her, from what we now call bipolar disorder. Parodying a grandiloquent sonnet by the man himself, Stephen identified a distinctly bipolar quality in Wordsworth’s imagination:

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine.

“Articulate monotony” is a brilliant phrase. Start with the wrong Wordsworth poems and he will indeed seem ponderous, pedantic, verbose. You will never want to read him again. Do not on any account begin with “To the Spade of a Friend” or the Ecclesiastical Sonnet on American Episcopacy.

Meanwhile, I puzzled over some of those categories: what was the difference between the Fancy and the Imagination? My teacher told me that the answer to that question was to be found in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, and soon the figures of Wordsworth and Coleridge became inseparable in my fancy, as they have been in the imagination of generations of readers. Then at university, when I reread Wordsworth’s poems in chronological order, I began to see that the tangled history of his relationship with Coleridge might provide a large part of the answer to my question of how someone who was so good could be so bad. Wordsworth and Coleridge both began writing their best poetry when they met, and both stopped writing their best poetry when they fell out with each other. The test for an enduring poem is memorability: many lines in the poems written between 1797 and 1807—the years of their friendship and collaboration—are unforgettable, whereas hardly anyone can remember a single line of late Wordsworth.

When Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney published a selection of Wordsworth’s best poems, he included only three written after the year 1806: the sonnet “Surprised by joy,” another sonnet that formed the conclusion of the sequence The River Duddon, and a late elegy called “Extempore Effusion on the Death of James Hogg.” Heaney was an unerring judge of poetry as well as a formidable poet: many readers of Wordsworth would agree that these are indeed among the few later poems that are as powerful and memorable as so many of the earlier ones. All three of them are about death. It was as if, having suffered a kind of poetic death, Wordsworth could only recapture his gift when he wrote of death. And the end of the year 1806 was when the friendship with Coleridge began to run into trouble. Just as there passed away a glory from Wordsworth’s verse after this time, so it can legitimately be argued that the lines Coleridge wrote on hearing Wordsworth recite his autobiographical epic The Prelude—addressed to his friend—constituted his own last memorable poem.

During the 1980s, I wrote a doctoral thesis about Wordsworth and Coleridge, and their successors Keats and Hazlitt, as readers of Shakespeare. I also had the good fortune to be a tutor at the Wordsworth Summer Conference, the brainchild of Richard Wordsworth, an actor best known for his role in the cult 1950s science fiction horror film The Quartermass Xperiment. He was the poet’s great-great-grandson. This was a conference unlike any other: held in Cumbria, it lasted for two weeks and, while the mornings and early evening were devoted to suitably academic lectures, seminars, and papers, the afternoons were spent hiking the fells. As a tutor, one had to be as adept with a compass and an Ordnance Survey map as with an edition of Wordsworth and the latest literary theoretical jargon. Every morning at 7:30, there was a brisk three-mile walk around Grasmere lake, led by Richard, as fleet of foot in his 70s as my father had been in his 60s and as Wordsworth himself must have been when he ascended Helvellyn at the age of 70.

I had one frustration as a tutor then, and I still have it today: too many students—indeed, too many readers of any age—raise an eyebrow when the poet’s name is mentioned, and the only word that comes to mind is “daffodils.” I would like to make them excited about Wordsworth, but this is difficult when he lacked the glamour of Coleridge, De Quincey, and Byron. He was neither opium addict nor “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” as Lady Caroline Lamb described her lover Byron. He lacked, too, the pathos of Keats, Shelley, and John Clare: he failed to make the romantic career move of dying young or going mad. If you try to read a comprehensive account of his entire fourscore years, the chances are that you will lose the will to live somewhere around the halfway mark. Two of the more recent biographies of him are each 1,000 pages long—and one of them covers only the first half of his life. For all their scholarship and sympathy, they reproduce one of Wordsworth’s faults, namely the prolixity that was mocked by Lord Byron:

And Wordsworth, in a rather long ‘Excursion’
(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
Of his new system to perplex the sages.

The trick is to not get bogged down in too much detail while trying to understand several things at once: how the first half of Wordsworth’s life was such an extraordinary adventure and the second half so dull; why the poetry of the first half is so memorable, that of the second so forgettable; why Hazlitt called his genius “a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age”; why he provoked both excoriation and adulation in the next generation; why the Victorians had no hesitation in regarding him as the only modern poet to stand in the company of Shakespeare and Milton. Above all, Wordsworth made a difference. His words are still worth reading two and a half centuries after this birth.

Wordsworth was always a mountaineer, so perhaps the conquest of some vast peak is the best metaphor for his life story. Imagine it as 36 years of arduous but exhilarating ascent to the summit that was reached with the completion and reading aloud of the epic work that he called his “Poem to Coleridge,” and that his family would publish as The Prelude. After a moment of rest, there would be 44 years of crawling descent. Any fell-walker will tell you that the joy of the downward journey comes from its speed—as a young man, I used to run down the scree slopes, footpaths, and sheep-mown grass of Wordsworth’s native hills. There is nothing more boring than a gradual decline. So it is that the long life of Wordsworth tails off into monotony.

A word I like to associate with Wordsworth is radical, derived from the Latin radix, meaning root. In Wordsworth’s time, it denoted the essential nature of a thing: for me, Wordsworth’s genius lies in his formative years, in the roots, the fundamentals. Such an organic metaphor, moreover, is fitting for the man who was more rooted in the natural world than any previous poet. Also fittingly, the word radical began to take on a new meaning in the early 19th century: it became a synonym for “Jacobinical,” used (pejoratively) to denote an English supporter of the French Revolution. And that is what Wordsworth was in his early years. Shortly after graduating from Cambridge University, he literally walked into the French Revolution. In Paris, he mingled with the revolutionaries, along with other English expatriate radicals. But then, as the revolution turned to violence and terror, he distanced himself from his own youthful self.

“Coleridge has told me,” Hazlitt reported, “that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption.” The gravel-walk suited the steady beat of Wordsworth’s blank-verse iambic pentameter, but he did not think that human life progresses in a straight line. One of his controlling metaphors in the poem to Coleridge and elsewhere is that of the river or stream, flowing onward but sometimes looping back on itself, sometimes meandering, while at other times rushing in a torrent.

What Wordsworth understood was that his life—any life—is shaped more by key moments than quotidian routine. As he explained in The Prelude,

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
(Especially the imaginative power)
Are nourished, and invisibly repaired.

To take the true measure of Wordsworth is not to be depressed by trivial occupations and the round of ordinary intercourse. Those are not the things that inspire great poetry. He created greatness out of what he called “emotion recollected in tranquility”; above all, the emotions of childhood and youth—blowing mimic hootings to an owl by moonlight, hissing on skates along the polished ice of a frozen lake, climbing to the top of a mountain and looking down through a gap in the sea of clouds to the real sea below. These are the events that nourished and repaired Wordsworth’s imaginative power. These are the source of what he called, in Book 11 of the poem to Coleridge, “the hiding-places of my power.”

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