Justice for a poet of the people

<i>Wordsworth: a life</i> by Juliet Barker (Viking, &pound;25, 971pp)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What a relief to read a biography of Wordsworth in which he is neither a spy, a whoremonger, or his sister's seducer. Juliet Barker's account of one of England's greatest poets is distinguished by its commonsensicality - a quality that may not seem exciting but which more than justifies the need for this new work.

What a relief to read a biography of Wordsworth in which he is neither a spy, a whoremonger, or his sister's seducer. Juliet Barker's account of one of England's greatest poets is distinguished by its commonsensicality - a quality that may not seem exciting but which more than justifies the need for this new work.

The bare facts are sufficiently compelling without the interpolated fantasies of his disciples. William Wordsworth witnessed the French Revolution at first hand, had a French girlfriend and an illegitimate daughter, was for a time a close friend of Coleridge, with whom he composed one of the greatest books of poetry ever - the Lyrical Ballads. He wrote The Prelude and scores of other great poems, and in old age enjoyed fame as Queen Victoria's poet laureate.

Yet, in recent years, our understanding of him has been muddied by spurious claims that he was a womaniser and that, while in Germany in 1799, was in the pay of British intelligence. Barker has resisted such waywardness and instead depends on her enviable acuity to tease out the details of his uncertain finances, his reaction to his brother John's drowning at sea, his fluctuating relationship with Coleridge, and other events.

Although his story is familiar, there are pitfalls. For instance, did Wordsworth return to France in late summer 1793 to see his girlfriend, Annette Vallon? Recent biographers, preferring to spice up the story than adhere strictly to the facts, have inclined towards the notion that he did. It is typical of Juliet Barker that she assesses the evidence and says that it is unlikely - as it always has been. And it is symptomatic of the extremity of some of her predecessors that she sounds radical merely in paying due regard to the evidence.

Other ingredients here are peculiarly the product of her sensitivity. She is correct to argue that John Wordsworth (William's brother) fell in love with Mary Hutchinson before her engagement; and her characterisation of another brother, Richard, is highly persuasive - probably the most sympathetic yet.

Other highlights include Barker's treatment of Annette, whose world she evokes with the minimum of effort, and the quarrels and eventual split between Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1810. On all the important events in Wordsworth's life, she is a persuasive and intelligent commentator.

But there are flaws. For one thing, there are some odd omissions. Barker makes no attempt to differentiate between the two-part, five-book and 13-book Preludes. This isn't a minor scholarly issue; all the different versions are now available in widely-studied texts, and it would have been simple to have traced the evolution of Wordsworth's most famous work.

Nor does she deal adequately with his magnum opus, The Recluse, failing either to define its function or to distinguish between its component parts. As for Coleridge, it is wrong not to deal with the composition of "The Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan", both written during 1797-8 when he was associating closely with the Wordsworths.

Less forgiveable is tiresomely jaunty style of the book. Its bulk is due only in part to the length of its subject's life (Wordsworth died at 80). It is also the result of Barker's weakness for redundancies, clichés and tautologies. So instead of introducing people by name, she refers to "the ubiquitous William Wilberforce", "the unfortunately named Bartholomew", "the brilliant Hartley Coleridge" or "the perennially bad penny Basil Montagu". Some of these judgments are meaningless. When she says that Wilberforce or Beddoes were ubiquitous she means only that they were mentioned 100 pages earlier.

Journalese is something of a feature: events or people are repeatedly "characteristic", "extraordinary" or "unfortunate"; Wordsworth was "head over heels in love" but a "deeply private" person, "for once, his optimism was justified". Dove Cottage afforded "cramped quarters by modern standards"; Grasmere was a tourist attraction, "love it or loathe it".

Nor can Barker resist colloquialisms designed to suggest that, despite the passage of 200 years, the Romantics were just like us: William and Annette enjoy "a one-night stand", "Tintern Abbey" is a "mission statement", while Viscount Lowther was "the star turn". Had it been no more than the odd lapse, I would not have minded, but the text is littered with solecisms. They are, as Barker might put it, extraordinarily characteristic of her.

So what if someone writes in clichés? It's an insult to the reader's intelligence, and a particularly insidious form of dumbing down. Whoever reads this book deserves not to be spoken down to.

I point this out with reluctance and regret because Juliet Barker is both sensitive in her observations and thorough in her research. Were it not so barbarously penned, this work would be a commendable introduction for specialist and non-specialist alike. I don't suppose she is wholly to be blamed: the editor thanked in her acknowledgements has failed her, having read her script either indulgently, or in part, or not at all.

Which is not to say that Wordsworth: a life is to be dismissed. Read it for Barker's understanding of the human drama, if not of Wordsworth's poetry (she thinks that "Goody Blake and Harry Gill" slips into doggerel and describes the Preface to Lyrical Ballads as "verbose and otiose"). But this isn't the "outstanding" work it claims to be, nor (as declared) the first to deal fully with the second half of the poet's life. Volume Two of Mary Moorman's biography devoted some 400 pages to the Rydal Mount years 33 years ago, as did Stephen Gill's William Wordsworth: a life (1989), airily dispatched by Barker as "an unfailing source of reference".

In fact, she is hugely dependent on both, as on the numerous scholars listed in her bibliography. And so she should be. Moorman and Gill remain exemplary, not merely for their content, but for the scrupulous care with which they articulated their findings.

Duncan Wu is university lecturer in English and Fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford