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The Greatest Between Milton and Yeats : WILLIAM WORDSWORTH A Life by Stephen Gill (Oxford University Press: $29.95; 525 pp., illustrated; 0-19-812828-2)

August 20, 1989|Jack Stillinger | St illinger, who teaches English at the University of Illinois, has edited widely used texts of Wordsworth (Houghton Mifflin) and Keats (Harvard University Press)

Who now reads a poem by Wordsworth? Actually a great many people, if we can trust the evidence of paperback sales, college course enrollments, and the nearly 200 pages that he gets in that most standard of standards, the "Norton Anthology of English Literature." And we find Wordsworth not only in academia. He is second only to Shakespeare in providing titles for other writers' novels, poems, plays, and films. Tag phrases like "wise passiveness," "murder to dissect," "still, sad music of humanity," "the child is father of the man," "trailing clouds of glory" pervade our intellectual and popular culture. Some of his lines have recently figured in advertisements for beer in Britain and cars in the United States; as Stephen Gill points out in his splendid new biography, readers of the ads were expected to recognize the source and to know the correct wording.

Wordsworth, routinely acknowledged as the greatest English poet between the 17th-Century Milton and the 20th-Century Yeats, wrote much of the enduring poetry produced in the Romantic period. Among his 53,000 lines are moving personal meditations such as "Tintern Abbey" and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"; exquisite shorter lyrics like those on the daffodils ("I wandered lonely as a cloud") and the rainbow ("My heart leaps up"); homely and at the same time uncannily beautiful narratives like "Michael" and "Resolution and Independence," the long blank-verse autobiography posthumously titled "The Prelude"; and a handful of the best-known sonnets in the language including "The world is too much with us," "Earth has not any thing to show more fair," and "It is a beauteous evening, calm and free."

Beginning as a political radical, Wordsworth was the English poet most directly involved in the French Revolution, and it is probably no coincidence that Oxford University Press has issued Gill's work in the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille. A year after that event, the 20-year-old Wordsworth walked through France on a summer tour; the next year he returned to become involved in French activities. His "Prelude" recounts the progress of the revolution--the most famous passage begins "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!" As Gill repeatedly points out, the history and politics of the time are background to numerous of his shorter works as well.

Wordsworth was more revolutionary in literature than in politics. His poems, beginning with the first edition of "Lyrical Ballads" (1798), along with his prefaces and essays that accompanied them, have almost single-handedly changed people's notions about the subject matter and language of literature and the central importance of feeling. He was a pioneer in focusing on the social problems and psychology of common life, including peasants, criminals, beggars, itinerant army veterans, mad women, and idiots.

In poetic style he came as close as any successful poet has ever come to the simplicity and matter-of-factness of prose. A much ridiculed example is this couplet describing a pond: "I've measured it from side to side:/ 'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide." But the same kind of simplicity is responsible for such superlatively beautiful images as these from the "Intimations" ode: "The rainbow comes and goes,/ And lovely is the rose,/ The moon doth with delight/ Look round her when the heavens are bare."

Most of his best poetry involves first-person speakers, and much appears to be autobiographical or confessional. Yet Wordsworth also frequently achieved a generalized lyricism in which the speaker is really ourselves the readers, or all humanity, rather than some dramatized version of the person who wrote the poetry.

Just as it is possible to take the French Revolution as the beginning of our 200-year-old modern era, it is possible to see Wordsworth's poetry and theory as the beginning of our modern literature. Twentieth-Century poets and novelists repeatedly return to him for example and inspiration. Wordsworth underlies William Carlos Williams' red wheelbarrow, Wallace Stevens' continuous probing of the relations between imagination and reality, Robert Frost's rustic personae, and the autobiographical films of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Woody Allen. He is behind practically every modern poet and novelist's plainness of language, matter-of-fact description, and focus on the workings of the human mind.

This new biography more than merely fills the longstanding need for a one-volume life that is both readable and reliable. Gill, fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and editor of the first volume of the Cornell edition of Wordsworth as well as several other distinguished publications, is a seasoned Wordsworth scholar. He has made the best possible use of the wealth of biographical, textual, historical, and critical information amassed since Mary Moorman produced the hitherto standard two volumes of scholarly biography in 1957 and 1965.

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