Just me, myself and I

William Wordsworth was way ahead of his peers when he wrote The Prelude. It couldn't be published for 50 years, but is now recognised as the acme of autobiography, says Duncan Wu
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Exactly two hundred years ago, Wordsworth was writing what was to be his greatest poem - The Prelude, an autobiography in verse. He had been working on it, on and off, since January 1804, and had completed eight of its 13 books. He would finish it in early summer 1805. The literary world had seen nothing like it. Autobiography hardly existed in those days, in prose or poetry; in fact, the idea of writing at length about yourself seemed vaguely improper, which was one reason Wordsworth chose not to publish it before his death in 1850. The Prelude is special not just because it's the first verse autobiography in English, but because of the incredible sensitivity with which it probes the psychological traumas of its author's boyhood, anticipating Freud in its insights. No wonder the Victorians, its first readers, didn't really understand it. It had to wait until the early 20th century to find an enthusiastic readership, since when it has remained an acknowledged classic.

Exactly two hundred years ago, Wordsworth was writing what was to be his greatest poem - The Prelude, an autobiography in verse. He had been working on it, on and off, since January 1804, and had completed eight of its 13 books. He would finish it in early summer 1805. The literary world had seen nothing like it. Autobiography hardly existed in those days, in prose or poetry; in fact, the idea of writing at length about yourself seemed vaguely improper, which was one reason Wordsworth chose not to publish it before his death in 1850. The Prelude is special not just because it's the first verse autobiography in English, but because of the incredible sensitivity with which it probes the psychological traumas of its author's boyhood, anticipating Freud in its insights. No wonder the Victorians, its first readers, didn't really understand it. It had to wait until the early 20th century to find an enthusiastic readership, since when it has remained an acknowledged classic.

The Prelude was a revolution in literature. No poet had previously documented the results of such sustained and intense self-analysis. Of course, he was not the first to write about his feelings - that had been going on since time immemorial - but he was the first to take the human psyche as his principal theme. It is what makes him our contemporary.

Wordsworth lost both parents by the age of 13. He had been close to his sister Dorothy throughout their childhood, but they were split up and, when reunited more than three years after their father's death, they grieved not just for their parents but for their own separation. Loss shaped them; it is one of the things that made Wordsworth such a sensitive observer. His poems about vagrant women, lost children, the alienated and the poor haunt us because they are permeated by grief. And the need to expiate it was the first thing he turned to when beginning The Prelude, which in its opening section describes the day he waited for horses to take him home from school to see his dying father.

'Twas a day

Stormy, and rough, and wild, and on the grass

I sat, half-sheltered by a naked wall;

Upon my right hand was a single sheep,

A whistling hawthorn on my left, and there,

Those two companions at my side, I watched,

With eyes intensely straining, as the mist

Gave intermitting prospects of the wood

And plain beneath.

On the surface, he doesn't seem to be talking about grief at all. Instead, he's drawn us into an anti-narrative, a story going nowhere, like something out of Beckett, before an unexpected jump-cut into the future.

Ere I to school returned

That dreary time, ere I had been ten days

A dweller in my father's house, he died,

And I and my two brothers, orphans then,

Followed his body to the grave. The event,

With all the sorrow which it brought,

appeared

A chastisement, and when I called to mind

That day so lately past, when from the crag

I looked in such anxiety of hope,

With trite reflections of morality,

Yet with the deepest passion, I bowed low

To God, who thus corrected my desires.

God - the angry, vengeful God of the boy's imagination - has killed his father as punishment for impatience at having to wait for the horses. What's worse, he accepts it. He accepts blame for a death of which he is innocent. It may not be just, but it's how the mind works - drawing connections between unrelated events, attentive to its own logic, if not the facts. At a time when most of his contemporaries were writing versifications of the bible, odes to the king and riffs on abstract virtues such as "Hope" and "Fear", Wordsworth was forging a completely new vision - a poetry that plots the twists and turns of his traumatised psyche. This was long before anyone talked of the subconscious, before the invention of psychology as a science.

But his recollections do not end here: he goes on, returning to his memory of the wait for the horses.

And afterwards the wind and sleety rain

And all the business of the elements,

The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,

And the bleak music of that old stone wall,

The noise of wood and water, and the mist

Which on the line of each of those two roads

Advanced in such indisputable shapes -

All these were spectacles and sounds to

which

I often would repair, and thence would drink

As at a fountain. And I do not doubt

That in this later time, when storm and rain

Beat on my roof at midnight, or by day

When I am in the woods, unknown to me

The workings of my spirit thence are

brought.

This couldn't be more startling. Given what he has just said, you'd have thought that these memories would be hellish, painful things, but instead they feed him; he has become dependent on them. They tell him of the "workings" of his spirit - they educate him, providing spiritual and creative energy. Grief is creative fire, the means by which he takes inspiration from the here and now as he writes these words. That, too, is faithful to how loss changes us.

Poets of earlier ages offered only traditional, age-old consolations; instead, far from destroying him, loss gives Wordsworth a key to the workings of the human spirit, making him rich in insights. In that way, the essential Romantic myth is one of redemption, and Wordsworth is its originator. It is a myth we know intimately because our culture long ago adopted it as its own. That's why Wordsworth is one of us. Perhaps we now expect to live longer, so that fewer people lose their parents in their teens than in his day, but that doesn't mean we need it any the less.

Blake Morrison says that "the world divides between those who've lost a parent and those whose parents are still alive": he's right. And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1998), his meditation on parental loss, plays brilliantly on the idea of what "seeing" someone really means. Morrison lost sight of his father well before his eventual death from cancer, even though he was with him to the end. But he won't leave it at that, embarking on an epic project of personal archaeology, retrieving every last shred of memory to pinpoint exactly when he last "saw" the father he knew before the presence of death obscured him from view. It is a courageous, painstaking journey of retrieval in which grief is denied its destructive potential.

Andrew Motion's magical poem "In the Attic" describes a similar process, where the clothes of a dead person are discovered in a "locked trunk", and he tries "to relive/ Times you wore them, to remember/ The actual shape of arm and wrist". And as that happens, without fully understanding why, the dead reappear as "patterns of memory", as if they had never passed away.

Motion and Morrison reinterpret the Wordsworthian myth not because they are unoriginal - they are two of the finest writers we have - but because that myth is ours. It tell us how to come to terms with losses of our own. And we need it because none of us is secure in our handling of loss. Before Wordsworth, the culture depended on religion; he strikes us as modern because, as a "semi-atheist" (as Coleridge called him), he found consolation from within. And we need writers and artists of our day to show us how grief can be healed without necessarily turning to religion.

Germaine Greer tells another story of paternal loss, but with a difference. In her remarkable memoir Daddy We Hardly Knew You (1989), she discovers that her father, whom she thought she had known intimately during his life, had concealed multiple human failings. It is a painful, shattering discovery, and had it ended there, her story would have been one of unrelieved disillusionment. But her path unexpectedly crosses that of her father's foster-mother, unmentioned by him during his life, who "had in abundance all the human characteristics I most prize: tenderness, energy, intelligence, resourcefulness, constancy, courage, honesty, imagination, endurance, compassion". What seems at first to have been a source of pain becomes one of empowerment. To use Wordsworth's terms, the foster-mother is produced as "a leading from above, a something given".

If Romanticism has given us a way of thinking of loss as convertible into something vital, that is because we know that it can also destroy. Our history is thronged with artists persecuted by depression - Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Hart Crane. There are many others.

Duncan Wu's 'Wordsworth: an inner life' is published by Blackwell (£19.99)

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