Two Cheers for Romanticism

Article excerpt

FOR ENGLISH MAJORS of the Woodstock generation two groups of writers were particularly resonant: the Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont ménage, and the Lake District "circle of friends" whose core consisted of siblings William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Hutchinson sisters - Mary (who married Wordsworth) and Sara (Coleridge's unattainable beloved). Virginia Woolf shrewdly remarked about these two constellations of poets and their muses, "There are some stories which have to be retold by every generation, not that we have anything new to add to them, but because of some queer quality in them that makes them . . . our own." Actually, scholarship of the last four decades has added a great deal to our knowledge of these people-details either suppressed during more prudish eras or hidden in archives few scholars could access. Nonetheless, Woolf is correct: We keep repeating accounts of their doings because different generations have seen reflections of themselves in their romantic idealism, not to mention their sexual experimentation, alcohol abuse, drug taking, and radical politics. At the same time, their literary philosophies continue to influence our poetry.

Frances Wilson's The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life (Farrar Straus Giroux, 316 pp., $30.00) is only the second full-scale biography of its subject, though she has always been considered a major figure by those who knew her and by biographers of her brother and Coleridge. The publication of her journals in 1889 immediately revealed that she was a significant talent in her own right. Wordsworth called her the person who made it possible for him to be a poet. His lines can often be traced to her prose descriptions. Yet despite the considerable paper trail, she has remained an elusive personality whose motives are subject to diverse interpretations.

In a 1960 edition of the journals, Home at Grasmere, Colette Clark called Dorothy "one of those sweet characters whose only life lies in their complete dedication to a man of genius." Robert Gittings and Jo Manton 's 1985 biography is oddly colorless, intent on protecting Dorothy from two controversial charges. The first, originally aired by some of the Wordsworths' contemporaries, was that before William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson he and Dorothy had committed incest. Her journals and letters do sound unnaturally passionate and intense when describing "dear, dear William," with much stress laid on ambiguous acts of physical and emotional intimacy. On the night before Wordsworth was married, for instance, she describes wearing the wedding ring purchased for his bride and relinquishing it only as he set off for the church, at which point she swooned. The second controversy stems from the 1980 life of Wordsworth by Hunter Davics, who characterized Dorothy as an unnaturally possessive, unstable shrew. He argues that William's muse was actually Mary Hutchinson, who allowed his work to mature, unconstrained by the unhealthy influence of his hysterical sister. Davies went so far as to maintain that only Dorothy's premature descent into senility permitted the poet to achieve his potential both as a writer and a husband.

Wilson's biography is less the narrative of a life than a meditation on Dorothy's character. Each chapter concentrates on a particular theme: the role her headaches play in her psychic history, the incest question, her quasi-religious devotion to nature. For someone unacquainted with the outline of the Wordsworth siblings' childhood - how they were separated at an early age after their mother's death and hardly saw each other again until adulthood - or with the chronology of their later lives and travels, this approach might prove confusing. Wilson recounts certain episodes again and again, occasionally from varied perspectives, while others are mentioned only in passing.

In spite of this technique, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth brings her into sharper focus than ever before. …