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The Life of William Wordsworth

A Critical Biography


John Worthen


Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014

Hardcover. ISBN 978-0470655443. xxi+478 p. £75.00 / €86.30


Reviewed by Bruce Graver

Providence College (Rhode Island)


Wordsworth biography has become something of a cottage industry. Since Mary Moorman published the second volume of her Oxford life in 1965, major biographies have been written by Stephen Gill (1989), Kenneth Johnston (1998), and Juliet Barker (2003), and slenderer volumes have appeared from Hunter Davies, John Mahoney, John Williams, and others. Lucy Newlyn recently entered the biographical lists, publishing a joint life of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, the first time such a thing has been attempted. And Worthen himself has written a biographical study, albeit only of the year 1802, concentrating on the collaboration of the Wordsworths, the Hutchinsons, and Coleridge. All of which leads one to ask why another 500-page life of Wordsworth is needed or even desirable, particularly one priced only for academic libraries?

The facts of Wordsworth’s life, and especially of its first 45 years, are well-established, and most attempts to uncover exciting new data have been, eventually, rejected or seriously qualified. So Worthen sets out instead to find new ways to emphasize information already available, focusing primarily on Wordsworth’s finances. Far more than any other biographer, Worthen has scrutinized the details of Wordsworth’s income, and balanced that against his expenses, to show just how pressed for money he and his family were. These pressures, argues Worthen, go a long way towards explaining many of his major life decisions. It is has been customary, for instance, to assume that the Raisley Calvert legacy gave Wordsworth a modest financial independence. But Worthen shows just how slowly Wordsworth acquired that money, how badly he managed it, and how his mismanagement (mainly his questionable loan to Basil Montagu) forced him and his sister to live very meagerly. Similarly, the long-awaited Lonsdale money, promised in 1802, only arrived in stages, and when it did come in, the Wordsworths invested most of it in John Wordsworth’s unsuccessful and ultimately fatal sea voyages—yielding them no income. Johnston had looked carefully at the Calvert legacy, and Richard Matlak, in Deep Distresses, analyzed closely the financial repercussions of John Wordsworth’s death. Worthen, however, is more relentless than either of them in his efforts to follow the money—even showing how the office of Distributor of Stamps provided Wordsworth with far less income than the family expected and needed. These efforts do yield a rather different portrait of Wordsworth: Jeffrey’s gratuitous (and disingenuous) attacks were not simply blows to his ego. They affected the quality of the meat on the family table

Worthen also takes a more skeptical view than other biographers of Wordsworth’s affair with Annette Vallon. The usual narrative—that their passionate affair was foiled by war and the unyielding disapproval of relatives—is rejected: for Worthen, it was more of a continental fling that unluckily resulted in a child. His main evidence is Wordsworth’s prolonged stay in France after leaving Blois: why should Wordsworth take off to Paris in the middle of her pregnancy and stay there until his daughter’s birth, if he were not losing interest, or beginning to realize how impossible (if not undesirable) such a marriage would be? One might imagine, as Johnston does, Wordsworth’s uncomfortable meeting with his Cookson relations upon his return to England, when those who expected him to take Anglican orders found out instead that he had fathered a child by a Roman Catholic and wanted to marry her. But Worthen does not believe marriage was seriously discussed. He does believe in Wordsworth’s return to France in 1793, but thinks politics, not a lovers’ reunion, was the motivation. And he downplays the correspondence between William and Dorothy and Annette in subsequent years: little of it survives anyway, since the family later destroyed Annette’s letters, and no one knows what happened to the letters sent to France. Now perhaps Worthen is right. Perhaps Moorman’s sentimentalized version and Johnston’s eroticized one are both off the mark. But Worthen’s argument is an argument from silence, and since Wordsworth’s survivors and descendants are responsible for most of that silence, one can logically conclude that they had good cause. That cause seems more likely to have been traces of the embarrassing love talk we find in Vallon’s surviving letters, such as her teasing reference to “mon petit,” than evidence of Wordsworth’s callousness.

The Life of William Wordsworth is part of a series of Blackwell Critical Biographies, and “critical” in this case means biographies that intermingle literary analysis and biographical narrative. I myself am skeptical of this sort of thing: a biography, to me, should be a narrative, and having it interrupted by extended bits of literary criticism is distracting. Part of the brilliance of The Hidden Wordsworth is Johnston’s ability to make close reading of literary texts serve the purpose of the narrative, rather than delay it. If we must be subject to delays, the author should offer interesting new readings. Sometimes Worthen does: his insight that “Surpris’d by Joy” concentrates Wordsworth’s grief over the deaths of both Thomas and Catharine is surely right, for instance. More often, his readings are rather commonplace: see, for instance, his 500 words on “Tintern Abbey,” or his longer, entirely traditional, reading of the “Intimations” Ode. Part of the problem is that Worthen is determined to reinscribe the Arnoldian idea of the Great Decade: he openly states that, for all intents and purposes, little Wordsworth wrote after 1807 is of much value. In fact, he devotes just 45 pages to the last 35 years of Wordsworth’s life, much of which is spent explaining his poetic decline. Like Jonathan Wordsworth in The Music of Humanity (1967), he laments the revisions that turned The Ruined Cottage into Excursion I; like Ernest de Selincourt in the introduction to the parallel-text Prelude (1926), he criticizes Wordsworth’s turn to a more artificial, “poetic” diction; like Stephen Gill in Wordsworth’s Revisitings (2011), he realizes that much of the late Wordsworth is a reworking of themes and subjects from his earlier poems, but unlike Gill, he does not explore their nuances, considering them to be little more than weary enumerations of familiar themes. And, like many of Wordsworth’s readers, from Byron and Shelley on, Worthen attributes these changes to a loss of genuine inspiration, and to the shift in political allegiance that occurred when he became indebted to the Lowther family for his income.

Worthen, then, brings a skeptical, unsentimental point of view to the poet’s biography. Sometimes that serves as a corrective to earlier, romanticized accounts (especially Moorman’s) or sensationalized ones, like Johnston’s. But more often it makes Wordsworth seem rather an unpleasant fellow to be around. And perhaps he was, at his worst. But he was much more than that to almost everyone who knew him, and that is the Wordsworth we never fully encounter in John Worthen’s Life.


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