William Wordsworth's early life reads like a novel. Orphaned at a young age and dependent on the charity of unsympathetic relatives, he became the archetypal teenage rebel. Refusing to enter the Church, he went instead to Revolutionary France, where he fathered an illegitimate daughter and became a committed Republican. His poetry was as revolutionary as his politics, challenging convention in form, style, and subject, and earning him the universal derision and contempt of critics. Only the unfailing encouragement of a tightly knit group of supporters, his family, and, above all, Coleridge kept him true to his poetic vocation. In the half-century that followed his reputation was transformed. His advocacy of the importance of imagination and feeling touched a chord in an increasingly industrial, mechanistic age, and his influence was profoundly and widely felt in every sphere of life. In the last decade of his life, Rydal Mount, his home for thirty-seven years, became a place of pilgrimage, not just for the great and powerful in Church and state, but also, more touchingly, for the hundreds of ordinary people who came to pay their respects to his genius.
Following Wordsworth over the course of his eight decades (1770-1850), Barker, unlike other biographers, gives equal attention to his early poetic career and radicalism, and to his "middle-aged Toryism" and later domestic years. As she did in The Bronts, Barker puts her subject in the context of his family: his early orphaning; his deep bond with his equally sensitive sister, Dorothy; and the tragic early deaths of his children. Apart from Wordsworth's enjoyment of the Lake District's inspiring landscape, he had a somewhat Dickensian upbringing among tightfisted relatives. Wordsworth's intelligence won him a place at Cambridge, which was intended to position him for the clergy, but his poetic calling and radicalization during the French Revolution determined otherwise. The English political circles in which the young Wordsworth moved introduced him to Coleridge, whose early inspiring friendship eventually deteriorated as the two poets' creative paths split (Barker underscores Coleridge's exasperating character). She is far more forgiving of Wordsworth's abandonment of his early ideology, sympathizing with his practical need as a family man to take a government job enforcing the press-restricting Stamp Act until he received a civil pension-and ultimately the laureateship. Although the U.S. version has been abridged slightly from the British edition, it amply displays Barker's painstaking scholarship. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 30, 2006
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Excerpt from Wordsworth by Juliet Barker
The Child is Father of the Man
On a dark, stormy day in December 1783, a thirteen-year-old boy scrambled to the top of a rocky outcrop near the Lakeland village of Hawkshead. From this vantage point, half-sheltered by a dry-stone wall, and with only a sheep and a hawthorn tree for company, he sat on the damp grass, straining to see through the mist that intermittently shifted to reveal the woods and plain below. It was the eve of the Christmas holidays and William Wordsworth was waiting for the first sight of the horses that were coming to bring him home from school. Not knowing which of the two roads they might take and afraid to miss them, he stubbornly maintained his post through the storm, watching so intently that his eyes swam with tears at the effort. It was an experience he would never forget:
. . . the wind and sleety rain
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music of that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
Which on the line of each of those two roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes -
Prelude (1799), i, 361-7
The turmoil of the scene, so perfectly mirroring that of his own mind, the symbolism of the two roads and, most of all, the intensity of his longing to be home, would come back to haunt him. For the child waiting so anxiously was unaware that this would be the last time he would return to the home he was about to lose for ever. The whole course of his life was about to be changed and, with it, the history of English literature.
The Wordsworth family home lay in the small Cumberland market town of Cockermouth, some thirty miles away from Hawkshead. William Wilberforce, visiting the town in 1779, had dismissed it as 'consisting chiefly of one very large wide street.' A more favourably disposed visitor, William Hutchinson, declared 'the situation . . . beautiful, in a country well cultivated, on the banks of two fine rivers'. He admired the picturesque ruins of the medieval castle on an eminence above the town and the 'pleasantly diversified' nature of the countryside. He wondered at the preference of the people of fortune for building their elegant houses on the short steep street leading up to the castle, but he had no hesitation in stating that 'the whole place bears the countenance of opulence'.
Standing not only at the confluence of the Derwent and Cocker rivers, but also on the main east-west route from Penrith to the prosperous ports of Workington and Whitehaven on the Atlantic coast, Cockermouth was ideally placed for the manufacture and distribution of goods. There were weekly markets and a fortnightly cattle fair, held in the street which had attracted Wilberforce's attention. It was here, in the largest and most imposing house in the town, that the Wordsworth family lived. Set slightly back from the street, with a large garden running down to the Derwent at the rear, it was an elegant Georgian building, to all appearances the residence of a wealthy and influential gentleman.
Unfortunately for the Wordsworths, appearances were deceptive. The house, like Cockermouth itself, belonged to Sir James Lowther. Indeed, it might be said that the Wordsworths also belonged to him, for William's father, John, like his father and cousin before him, was law agent to Lowther. Their family fortunes had been, and were to be, dependent on the grace and favour of the Lowthers throughout William's lifetime and beyond. It was, therefore, doubly unfortunate for the Wordsworths that this particular Lowther was notorious for his ruthlessness in the pursuit of power and riches. 'Wicked Jimmy', as he was known to his beleaguered tenants, had acquired a stranglehold on public appointments and local government in Westmorland and Cumberland and his officials, including the Members of Parliament, were expected to put their master's interest before all others. Any show of independence met with dismissal and persecution.