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Lives of the Poet

THE HIDDEN WORDSWORTH: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy.\o7 By Kenneth R. Johnston (W.W. Norton: 966 pp., $45)\f7

June 28, 1998|JOHN GROSS | John Gross is an author and theater critic of the London Sunday Telegraph. His books include "The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters" and "Shylock."

William Wordsworth was a great Romantic poet, but he was not a very romantic man. When Jimmy Porter, the hero of "Look Back in Anger," makes a crack about "Auntie Wordsworth," he is exposing his own limitations; still, you know what he means. It is hard to imagine him talking about "Auntie Byron" or "Auntie Keats."

It would have been a different story if Wordsworth had died young. In his 20s--he was born in 1770--he was famously swept up in the first millennial hopes of the French Revolution ("Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive . . ."); no less famously, he and Coleridge created a literary revolution of their own. (The first edition of their "Lyrical Ballads" was published in 1798; the second, with Wordsworth's manifesto-like preface, in 1800.) But he lived on--lived on to be 80, and the image of the early Wordsworth has been overlaid by that of the later one: grave, solemn, infinitely respectable.

Yet it would be wrong to make too much of the contrast. The young Wordsworth was no stranger to solemnity, either. At every stage, in fact, the passion in his poetry coexisted with earnest deliberation (or, at worst, pure stodge). He was the most prosaic of great poets, and a corresponding sense of grayness clings to his personality.

The subtitle of Kenneth R. Johnston's excellent biography--"Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy"--reads as though it had been coined (by the publisher, perhaps, rather than the author) to counteract the duller aspects of the Wordsworth legend as strenuously as possible. The effect is rather too swashbuckling: It makes the author of "Tintern Abbey" sound a bit like Errol Flynn. But it doesn't seriously misrepresent the substance, as opposed to the tone, of Johnston's book. The poet, the lover and the rebel (though "revolutionary" might be a better word) are what he is largely concerned with. The spy, too--to a lesser degree, but the claim is sensational enough to warrant equal billing.

"The Hidden Wordsworth" is a very long book, but it takes the poet's story only up to 1807, and it concentrates heavily on the 1790s. Johnston's contention is that Wordsworth's life during that decade was a good deal more dramatic than has previously been recognized, that his emotions were more confused and that his political commitments went deeper. It is here that the hidden Wordsworth is to be found, though, of course, the experiences he had at that time must also have helped to shape his subsequent development.

The first great expert on Wordsworth was Wordsworth himself. In "The Prelude" (which was not published until after his death), he left behind the finest autobiographical poem in the language. It is an incomparable source for many of his most intimate experiences. But, quite apart from the fact that its narrative only extends as far as his 24th year, it isn't a sober record of events or a versified diary but the story of how he found his vocation, and in a work written from such a standpoint, a great many other things naturally get tidied up or left out.

Wordsworth's earlier biographers may sometimes have been subtly misled by "The Prelude," but they were hardly naive enough to take it entirely at face value. They also dug deep into the surrounding evidence, and Johnston acknowledges how much he owes them. If he can nonetheless claim to have revealed a Wordsworth whom they missed, it is partly as a result of turning up fresh facts, but more through reinterpreting their findings and still more through bold speculation. He is prepared to treat as near-certainties what others have seen as no more than possibilities. Where there is a gap in the record, he is happy to supply a conjecture.

What exactly was Wordsworth doing, for example, when he spent six weeks in Paris in 1792, at the end of his momentous year in France? There were many British sympathizers with the Revolution living in the city; Johnston's account places him more firmly in their ranks than the bare record suggests. And did he return to France in the autumn of 1793? Unlike other biographers, Johnston doesn't just concede the possibility (for which the evidence is slender). He dwells on it, asking exactly what it would have meant for the poet to have been in the country at the time.

In 1794, Wordsworth wrote to a friend outlining his plans for a journal to be called "The Philanthropist," which, among other things, would have opposed the British government's war against France and its repressive measures against radicalism at home. The following year a journal with the same name and a similar policy actually appeared. There is not hard evidence connecting Wordsworth with it (and the name "philanthropist" itself was very much in the air in liberal circles), but on the basis of a whole series of parallels and suppositions, Johnston argues strongly that he must have been involved.

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