Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Possibilities for Wordsworth

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Possibilities for Wordsworth

Article excerpt

Possibilities for Wordsworth

IN 1950, WHEN THE CENTENARY OF WORDSWORTH'S DEATH was celebrated at Princeton, one of the speakers, Lionel Trilling, stated what he took to be a perception current at the time that Wordsworth was "not an intellectual possibility, not attractive." "Intellectual possibility" seems an odd phrase to use about a poet, as if it were somehow a primary determinant of whether the poet could be read with pleasure. Much of Trilling's essay "Wordsworth and the Iron Time" was devoted to comparing Wordsworth's "quietism" with the Pirke Aboth, a book of Jewish wisdom-sayings Trilling had been impressed by as a young man, but there was little by way of demonstrating convincingly that, as Trilling himself believed, Wordsworth was still very much alive as a poet. The editor of a recent volume of essays on Wordsworth,1 Stephen Gill-himself a biographer and editor of the poet-assured us that all this has changed, that since 1950 the biographies, scholarly editions, and shifts in intellectual concern (the "linguistic turn" of theory, the return to history, politics, and society that has situated Wordsworth's poems anew) have combined to make him what Gill calls "a fully 'intellectually possible' figure." Whether this also means that, aside from the scholars and critics in the academy who edit and write about him, Wordsworth is read with eagerness and passion, is another story. When Matthew Arnold wrote his "Memorial Verses" upon Wordsworth's death in 1850, the unanswerable question Arnold asked, now that the poet had gone, was "But who, ah! who, will make us feel?" For Arnold, Wordsworth's ministration to our feelings was paramount and overwhelming:

He found us when the age had bound

Our souls in its benumbing around;

He spoke, and loosed our heart in tears.

He laid us as we lay at birth

On the cool flowery lap of earth,

Smiles broke from us and we had ease;

The hills were round us, and the breeze

Went o'er the sunlit fields again;

Our foreheads felt the wind and rain.

Our youth return'd; for there was shed

On spirits that had long been dead,

Spirits dried up and closely furl'd,

The freshness of the early world.

Such a power was, at least for Arnold, to be described in terms that had nothing to do with "intellectual possibility." Yet Arnold pre-empted the "feeling" vocabulary so fully that its terms are unlikely to help readers coming to the poems a century and a half later.

To my knowledge no one believed that what we were all waiting for, in order to stimulate fresh interest in Wordsworth's poetry, was a new biography. Mary Moorman's meticulous two-volume one of 1957 has all the facts one is likely to require; and Stephen Gill's shorter, more critically acute one of 1989, is an excellent treatment in under 500 pages. But biographies have to keep coming, evidently, even of a figure like Wordsworth, who-unlike his friend Coleridge and his younger contemporaries Keats, Shelley, and Byron-seems a particularly uninviting subject to read about at length. Juliet Barker, who has previously produced a massive book about the Brontë family, now gives us a biography of Wordsworth originally published in England in 2000.2 The American version is streamlined: 548 instead of 961 pages, 160 of which pruned pages consisted of notes. Evidently Ecco Press decided American readers wouldn't want or need those notes, so it's impossible to check the source of anything Barker says or quotes-a curious way for a biography to present itself. But the major problem, one that surfaced here and there in the Brontë book, is that although the English blurbs insist how substantial, accessible, and readable is Barker's work, she has some crucial flaws, such as an absence of literary taste and an inability to listen to her own sentences.

As a recipient of an Oxford doctorate in Medieval History (she is an authority on medieval tournaments), there is no reason why Barker should be versed in English poetry, and this absence is confirmed early on when she describes Wordsworth's relation to eighteenth-century poet-predecessors: "His favorites were from what is known as the 'graveyard school,' poets such as Gray, Chatterton, Collins, Beattie, Young and Thomson, whose work was driven by an affectation of melancholy and musings on the grave. …

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