Book review: William Wordsworth: A Life by Stephen Gill

by Anna Mercer
Stephen Gill’s biography of William Wordsworth is a carefully considered, detailed and incredibly readable account of the poet’s life and – most importantly – his works. A chronological survey of Wordsworth’s writing is given here as well as attention to the facts of his biography, and observations on the nature of his personal relationships.

The importance of Wordsworth’s formative years is examined in compelling detail – but always alongside the poetry. In reading about his early childhood or adolescence in the Lake District we are repeatedly reminded of the impact of these events on that great work The Prelude, and this mirrors the poet’s aims in The Prelude itself: childhood is a prerequisite to the adult mind, and part of its formation, not just an idealised state of innocence that must be lost. Gill’s attentiveness to Wordsworth’s autobiographical writing in The Prelude allows this work to do exactly what should be done in literary biography: we remember that William Wordsworth is a poet, and that is why we are interested in him. This is not simply the documented tales of any man born in 1770, or a record of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century life. There is a distinct focus on ‘what the poetry records’ (my emphasis) throughout. We also encounter Wordsworth in his old age by Gill combining attention to the poetical voice of his subject with the circumstances of his overtly personal priorities:

Wordsworth’s most famous line is probably “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. The words “lonely”, “alone”, “solitary”, take up column inches in the Concordance. But the poet of the lonely brooks and the high fells relied on the security of a family, a home, and a circle of friends, and ever since 1799 he had nurtured these with the sure instinct of someone acknowledging imperative needs.

Thus what the verse tells us about the man, and what the man tells us about the verse, is explored in scholarly detail throughout. My admiration of this biography is centred on how Gill consistently looks forward, even in chapter 1, to the illustrious verses of 1797-8 and beyond, intertwining poetics with lived experience in a way any literary biography should prioritise.

Literary biography is a genre with a high-risk potential to emphasise the ‘scandal’ of author’s lives in favour of sensationalising events to produce dramatic effect for the reader. Gill does not do this. Even when discussing Annette Vallon, the French woman with whom Wordsworth had an illegitimate child, Gill is more concerned with the effect of these experiences on Wordsworth as a writer, and how Annette’s absence and/or presence is intermingled with his other relationships and, of course, nature itself:

Above all other influences of this kind in importance, perhaps, is the fact that for twelve months Wordsworth shared every part of his life with Dorothy […] It was an extraordinary prefiguring of the future, as Wordsworth sat round the table with the sister who was never to live apart from him again and the woman he was to marry in 1802 [Mary Hutchinson]. Together with shared memories of the North and childhood experiences, they re-established a sense of continuity, which was strong enough to incorporate the knowledge of Annette.

The moral implications of Annette (and how Wordsworth left her in France with her child) are not questioned. This is a work stating the importance of the poet as a writer and the direct personal, philosophical and political influences on his writing. Gill does not provide unhelpful conjecture but carefully maps out the complex web of interpersonal relationships and the wide range of lived experiences that came to affect Wordsworth’s work – as well as his vast reading and intellectual progress.

Gill also makes clear the importance of location for Wordsworth as a poet: ‘Lovers of Wordsworth’ might recognise An Evening Walk, Lyrical Ballads or The Prelude as key writings, but they are ‘at least as likely to mark out the poet’s spiritual odyssey by referring to “Windy Brow”, “Racedown”, “Alfoxden”, “Dove Cottage”, “Rydal Mount”.’ Recent academic interest in literary pilgrimages, and literary houses, make this particularly relevant to 21st century Romantic criticism. As Gill writes,

These were places, it is understood, in which self-discovery or achievement   or consolidation occurred, whose particular nature, which may or may not be in evidence in specific poems, can be evoked by naming that one special place.

It is with a critical subtlety that Gill discusses the importance of these locations earlier in the biography, setting them apart from the ‘national monument’ that Wordsworth was to become in his years as poet laureate, when ‘for many, Rydal Mount was a must on the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour’. This may appear slightly knowing – implying an understanding of the complexity of Wordsworth’s poetics is required to comprehend his Lake District or his Quantock Hills. Yet you can see how observations like this are appealing both to the literary scholar and also the common reader. All of which is powerfully expressed in Gill’s prose in the intertwining of explorations of the poems themselves, and then verses cited verbatim. A particularly great instance of this is when Gill cites the poem Wordsworth wrote to Scott, Coleridge and Lamb after their deaths: ‘Who next will drop and disappear?’

Gill appeals to the experienced scholar and the common reader alike in introducing famous, well-known moments in the Wordsworth biography (such as when Coleridge leaped over the gate and ‘bounded down a pathless field’ arriving at the Wordsworth’s house in the West Country in 1797) alongside less well-known moments from Wordsworth’s story. One particular event I had never come across before, and therefore took my particular interest, was Dorothy’s description of Wordsworth’s night-time observations of the sky: ‘William called me into the garden to observe a singular appearance about the moon’. As Gill says, the Wordsworth siblings ‘shared their pleasure, alerting one another to nature’s particularities as if bestowing gifts’. Such a powerful example of nature as an experience shared and then a possible joint inspirational moment is a fantastic Romantic anecdote. It reminded me of the moment in S. T. Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale’ when the baby Hartley Coleridge is taken to the garden by his father whilst crying: ‘And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once, / Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently’. The associations between the Coleridges, the Wordsworths, and the moon in the sky: this is an inspiration for myself, in that I would like to read more about this poetical connection, and there may well be more to say on the subject.

And of course, Coleridge plays his own significant role in the biography. What I think is an achievement in particular here is that Wordsworth is – as Gill himself acknowledges – known for being perhaps more reserved and inscrutable than the enthusiastic and soul-baring Coleridge. What Gill does through his vast myriad of sources is draw out a personality in Wordsworth that we expect (i.e. that is still elusive) but attempts to explain constantly his intellectual calling: his dedication to poetry, and a life of writing.

There is a consistent sense of the importance of Coleridge, Dorothy and other members of the Wordsworth group. As a doctoral researcher working on the Shelleys and their circle, and how interpersonal relationships within such a circle affected the writings of its members, I was inspired by Gill in how he manages to weave biography and careful literary analysis of the poetry. My favourite sections included the discussion of the notebook held at Grasmere, perhaps ‘one of the most exciting of all the manuscripts’ there. This contains Dorothy’s Hamburg journal and, rather magically, evidence of Wordsworth beginning ‘to work up blank verse about his own childhood’. Here we see ‘the beginning of his greatest poem, The Prelude, take shape’. I have a personal interest in poetical manuscripts, but how can this not engage any reader by introducing the potential of such a poignant document? It is in the origins of Wordsworth’s greatest poems by which Gill engages the reader with the poet through his writing.
The fact that this notebook (containing The Prelude) also contains Dorothy’s handwriting exemplifies how the book places an emphasis on the collaborative nature of the Wordsworth circle and the impact of the people around the poet had on his work. I found the constant conversations with Coleridge in letters or in person fascinating and it revealed the extended collaborative friendship that goes beyond the annus mirabilis of 1798. For example, there are idiosyncratic but noteworthy instances of two friends’ correspondence: on arrival at Grasmere, ‘within days of arrival Wordsworth told Coleridge of his plans to make a front garden’. The significance of this is emphasised in Gill’s reading of Home at Grasmere, a poem that ‘clearly originated in Wordsworth’s desire to celebrate the good fortune that had led him to this place and to take hold of its features by touching them with his imagination’. Indeed, the first meeting with Coleridge is a momentous moment in the biography, and yet again we see Gill’s subtle way of incorporating the personal details required to write biography with the literariness that makes Wordsworth our subject:

But when Wordsworth left Bristol for Racedown with Dorothy on 26 September what neither her nor Coleridge can have foreseen was that a friendship had begun which was profoundly to affect their lives as private individuals and to determine their destinies as poets.

Gill is not afraid to be critical of the great sage, which is refreshing, as many biographers can become defensive of their subject. For example, Gill explores how at times, ‘not surprisingly […] Wordsworth seems to have become completely self absorbed’. He is also not afraid to consider Wordsworth’s scant regard for Coleridge’s feelings: measured and useful, perhaps, when occasionally the battle between Wordsworth and Coleridge rages on when critics or biographers attempt to establish who was ‘right’ during this famous dispute. In my work on Percy and Mary Shelley, I often face the problem of attempting to write about two authors who have endured criticism that separates them in an attempt to establish whose ‘side’ we should be on. The same can occur with the fall-out of the famous Wordsworth/Coleridge partnership: but Gill does not appeal to this and his measured and engaging response to his detailed research attempts to paint a full picture of facts and then the impact of this on the composition of poetry. ‘Wordsworth’s treatment of Coleridge over Lyrical Ballads 1800 was certainly unfeeling. It was due in part to the fact that Coleridge was maddening’. By this point in the narrative, Gill has established his narrative voice, which is one in which we trust wholeheartedly: and thus when he says, for example, ‘Wordsworth was troubled, but unmoved’ by an event or encounter, we believe him. Gill is less sentimental than, for example, Richard Holmes in the Coleridge biographies. This is in part due to the character tropes of Wordsworth as a subject, but not always.

The length of Wordsworth’s life (he lived until he was eighty) presents a challenge to the biographer, but Gill does not shy away from attempting to depict those years in which, admittedly, Wordsworth wrote very little. Gill’s discussion of ‘the least productive period of Wordsworth’s life’ does not fail to comment on the verse that were produced, perhaps less well known, ‘domestic’ verses, and what is implied in the importance of these is that he often wrote lyrics addressing his companions (his wife Mary, or Benjamin Robert Haydon in response to his paintings) or a ‘celebration’ of the daughters of the lake poets, Edith May Southey, Sara Coleridge, and Dora Wordsworth (The Triad).

The only criticism I have is that there is perhaps something questionable in Gill’s repetition of the phrase ‘He was preparing for death’ at the beginning of chapter thirteen, which appears again in the final pages of the biography (‘in reality he was waiting for death’). However, this all goes to demonstrate the complexity of such a man – who was at once preparing for death but climbing Helvellyn aged seventy – and delivers intrigue about those later years, which perhaps we dismiss as the period of Wordsworth’s more comfortable, and conservative, existence. There is considerable attention paid to the tragic sickness of Dorothy, and Wordsworth’s growing concerns about his children’s future. Overall, this is an honest depiction of the great man who still retains his earthly calling, despite his failure to write The Recluse. Gill does not gloss over the particulars of poetical composition in any attempt at unnecessary grandeur. This is both a sentimental and rigorously scholarly work, and a very enjoyable and detailed read.

Wordsworth’s sonnets, in particular, present a powerful yet succinct depiction of the power of the poet at work. In 1815 he wrote to Haydon:

High is our calling, Friend! – Creative Art
(Whether the instrument of words she use,
Or pencil pregnant with etherial hues,)
Demands the service of a mind and heart,
Though sensitive, yet, in their weakest part,
Heroically fashioned – to infuse
Faith in the whispers of the lonely Muse,
While the whole world seems adverse to desert:
And oh! when Nature sinks, as oft she may,
Through long-lived pressure of obscure distress,
Still to be strenuous for the bright reward,
And in the Soul admit of no decay, –
Brook no continuance of weak-mindedness:
Great is the glory, for the strife is hard!

Anna Mercer is a second-year AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of York. Her thesis focuses on the collaborative literary relationship of Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. She won second prize for her essay ‘Beyond Frankenstein’ at the Keats-Shelley Awards 2015. She is also organising a day conference on the work of Percy and Mary Shelley in London in September 2017. For more details click here .
Anna Mercer
Twitter: @annamercer_