Friday, March 10, 2017

Wordsworth: A Life by Juliet Barker

Here is a reprint of my BookLoons review (original version linked here) of a highly recommended book: 

Wordsworth: A Life by Juliet Barker (Ecco, 2005)

Born in Cockermouth, England, on 7 April 1770, William Wordsworth - one of five children born to John and Ann Wordsworth - would go on to become the poet who is arguably the most important figure in English Romanticism. In the poet laureate's own words, written originally for The Ruined Cottage but later subsumed into The Prelude, the immensely important autobiographical poem ...

He was a chosen son:
        To him was given an ear which deeply felt
        The voice of Nature in the obscure wind,
        The sounding mountain and the running stream.
        To every natural form, rock, fruit, and flower,
        He gave a moral life; he saw them feel
        Or linked them to some feeling.

How Wordsworth became the chosen son and how he went on to achieve true greatness as one of the finest poets in the history of English literature is the story brilliantly and passionately told in Juliet Barker's wonderful new biography.

The story begins, naturally enough, with Wordsworth's childhood, the formative years filled to overflowing paradoxically with both stifling sadness and boundless joy that Wordsworth would later poetically allude to when he famously declared that 'The Child is the Father of the Man.' Throughout his formative years as a young student with demanding school-masters at Hawkshead Grammar School and during his unorthodox studies at St. John's College (Cambridge), Wordsworth - as carefully documented and argued by Barker - impressed everyone with his streaks of 'obstinacy and defiance' and his commitment to become a person who 'read more, reflected more, felt more, and settled into habits more promising' even though Wordsworth's family - particularly his beloved sister Dorothy - became increasingly concerned (and disappointed) about young William's indecisiveness about his vocation.

During Wordsworth's critically formative years in the 1790s, the energetic young man traveled twice to Europe, met and had a relationship with Annette Vallon (the mother of Wordsworth's illegitimate daughter Caroline), and reunited with Dorothy from whom he had been separated since childhood because of foster-care placements with relatives (and from whom he would never again for any significant period of time be separated). Wordsworth also during this period, perhaps largely due to Dorothy's influence, finally settled upon a vocation: Eschewing all other practical options urged upon him by his family, Wordsworth would become a poet.

Equally significant during the 1790s, Wordsworth was reintroduced to two people whom he had met only briefly years earlier: Dorothy's close friend Mary Hutchinson (who would become Wordsworth's wife); and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the friend and poet with whom Wordsworth collaborated on Lyrical Ballads (1798), one of the most curiously conceived and remarkably original publications of Wordsworth's career as a poet (and, of course, monumentally significant in the history of English Romanticism, especially when viewed in light of the central poem in Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth's manifesto, the strikingly creative and extremely significant Tintern Abbey).

Beyond the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth in the remaining half century of his life would experience more, achieve more, and influence others more than I could possibly recount in the brief space allotted to me in this review. So, while I could go on and write more about Wordsworth's life and times, doing so here and now would merely be feeble paraphrase of Juliet Barker's magisterial biography.

No amount of effusive praise (which I could - at considerable length - justifiably lavish on Barker's fine work) would be adequate. Wordsworth : A Life is more than a comprehensive outline of the great poet's life and works. It is a remarkably adroit and vivid portrait of places and people, art and politics, culture and commerce during a tremendously important period of English literary and cultural history; and Juliet Barker's clear prose, richly detailed images, easy-flowing narrative, and carefully considered and well-placed excerpts from Wordsworth's (and others') writings combine to make this highly recommended book a very pleasurable and informative experience. If you care at all about Wordsworth, poetry, or literature, you cannot afford to miss this book!

* * * * *

And here is a personal postscript:

When I divide Wordsworth's poetry in two halves -- early and late -- and I am a devoted "fan" of the first half but not too enthusiastic about the second half. Moreover, if I were forced to choose my favorites among English Romantic poets, I would have to put Wordsworth in second place behind John Keats; the mad genius William Blake on some days forces Wordsworth into third place on my list.

But, of course, those rankings are personal, subjective preferences, and they have little or nothing to do with the relative aesthetics merits and poetical skills of those poets; I do not think I am qualified to make aesthetic judgments about poets and poetry, but I do know what I prefer reading, and personal preference is what really matters. Right?

Now, though, I open the floor to others' ideas: What are your opinions?


  1. I couldn't agree more, Tim. Personal taste and preference matter more than what someone says you 'should' like or not. I'm glad you've found such a good biography of Wordsworth. He was an interesting person and a consummate talent.

  2. Margot, as you are an educator (right?), you know as well as I that schools often shape readers' "tastes," and the sticky-wicket in that dynamic is a teacher's "tastes"; so, for better or worse, readers are (too?) often products of teachers' perspectives and -- dare I say it? -- personal and political attitudes. Yes, too many students come out of schools unable to think for themselves; and students' reading "tastes" are carbon copies of teachers' "tastes." Feel free to correct my cynical observation.

    1. I am, indeed, an educator, Tim. And your observation may be cynical, but I don't think it's far off the truth. I think one of the most important lessons students need to learn is to think critically. There are ways of developing one's own tastes, views, philosophy, etc., without being disrespectful of others. Students benefit when they learn that.

  3. i think you're both right; i've not had any education in eng. lit. and i have become very aware of the difference between my comments and those who have had such an education... i'm not sure that the "critical thinking" has so much to do with it, as science teaches that pretty well; but i think being immersed in a critical way in the great works makes a lot of difference in the way a graduate in English approaches other books... my wide reading in some ways has worked against my understanding of the great authors; i learn much from these posts that i never considered before and am appreciative of the opportunity to engage in these conversations...

    1. Mudpuddle, let us take comfort in the fact that most writers (excepting a few strange ones) write for "normal" readers rather than navel-gazing pointy-headed academics in English departments.

    2. lol!! that's pretty funny, Tim... i shouldn't laugh, it's disrespectful, but i couldn't help itit'snotmyfault...