Professor Jonathan Wordsworth

Scholar of William Wordsworth and English Romanticism
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The Independent Online

Jonathan Fletcher Wordsworth, English scholar: born London 28 November 1932; Fellow, Exeter College, Oxford 1958-80 (Emeritus); Lecturer in English Literature, Oxford University 1958-80, University Lecturer 1980-96, Professor of English Language and Literature 1996-2000 (Emeritus); Fellow, St Catherine's College, Oxford 1980-2000 (Emeritus); Chairman, Wordsworth Trust 1976-2002, President 2002-06; married first 1956 Ann Sherratt (four sons; marriage dissolved), second Lucy Newlyn (marriage dissolved), third 1998 Jessica Prince (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 21 June 2006.

Jonathan Wordsworth was an exceptionally distinguished scholar of the poet William Wordsworth and of English Romanticism. From the 1960s he led a golden age of Wordsworth studies in the United Kingdom and America that saw the publication of major biographies, critical studies, and scholarly editions of the poet's works.

One cornerstone of his achievement was as an editor. At a time when standard texts of classics like Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude were routinely based on the latest editions published in the poet's lifetime, Jonathan Wordsworth pioneered a technique of editorial archaeology that sought (some would say, invented) the earliest versions of poems, whether published or in manuscript.

The justification for this method was that the ur-texts represented Wordsworth's "original intentions" for his poems, and the poet's first instincts for his work were consistently his best ones. Editors concerned with Lyrical Ballads as first published in 1798, or with the version of The Prelude completed in 1805, should also seek out the earliest attempts that the poet himself might have regarded as in some way "complete", whether or not they ever saw print. The "early" Wordsworth - the poet of the revolutionary 1790s - was preferred over Queen Victoria's Laureate.

This was a controversial policy and Jonathan Wordsworth's vigorous championing of the first versions of favourite Wordsworth poems remains fiercely contested. However, his work gave a new sense of Wordsworth's poetic achievement, and has led to the widespread study, for example, of an early and beautiful "Two-Part" version of The Prelude (1799-1800), or of "The Ruined Cottage" from 1797-88.

He was one of three Advisory Editors of the Cornell Wordsworth series, the most extensive scholarly edition of the poet ever undertaken. The series broadly embodied his preferred editorial principles, while its ambition to reproduce every variant form of Wordsworth's oeuvre reflected the optimism of transatlantic scholarly circles in the late 1960s. Only now, more than 30 years after Stephen Gill's edition of The Salisbury Plain Poems (1975) inaugurated the series, is this massive endeavour nearing completion.

For Cambridge University Press Jonathan Wordsworth edited, in 1985, well-known poems like "Tintern Abbey", "The Brothers" and "Michael", alongside some that had hitherto existed only in manuscript. These recovered poems included "The Pedlar" and "The Ruined Cottage", both of which were the focus of his critical study The Music of Humanity (1969). In this book he successfully showed how the beauty and the tragic depth of Wordsworth's poetry depended on its complex simplicity.

He transcribed from manuscript and published early versions of Wordsworth's autobiographical epic, The Prelude, and, with Stephen Gill and M.H. Abrams, was a co-editor of the authoritative Norton edition of The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850 (1979). More recently he edited four texts of The Prelude for Penguin, and with his wife Jessica co-edited The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry (2003).

Jonathan Wordsworth chose and introduced the volumes in the Woodstock Facsimile Series "Revolution and Romanticism", one of his finest achievements, which comprises nearly 200 first and early editions from the Romantic period. These books furthered his wish to make early editions known and available to wider audiences, and enabled libraries outside deposit collections to make scarce volumes available to students.

He was a moving force behind the international exhibition "William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism", which visited New York, Chicago and Bloomington in 1988.

Jonathan Wordsworth's brilliance as a close reader of poetry is best appreciated in his book William Wordsworth: the borders of vision (1982). This was the fruit of a lifetime's intensive study of the poet and his texts, tracing in extraordinary and impressive detail the first 35 years of the poet's career, and the evolution of The Prelude, in an age of revolutionary turmoil.

It was published at a moment when Romantic studies in America and Britain were adopting New Historicist techniques, and, to some eyes, the book appeared out of place in this newly "problematised" scene. Others detected a debt to Geoffrey Hartman's earlier study of Wordsworth. Twenty-five years on, The Borders of Vision endures as one of the few standard works on Wordsworth's poetry in its times, with an unrivalled account of how the poems responded to the millenarianism of dissenters such as Richard Price and Joseph Priestley.

Jonathan Fletcher Wordsworth was born in 1932, the great-great-grandson of Christopher Wordsworth, the younger brother of the poet, who was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. His childhood memories were of Dorset (his father taught Classics at Bryanston School), and of the painful and untimely death of his mother; the coastal landscape around East Chaldon, in particular, he described as "swarming with memories". He was educated at Westminster and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he graduated with first class honours in English. His DPhil was a study of the Scottish poet Robert Henryson, and he went on to be a very good teacher of The Testament of Cresseid.

A Fellow in English at Exeter College and then at St Catherine's College, Oxford, he was also appointed University Lecturer in Romanticism and to a Professorship of English Literature. Over the years he amassed an extensive personal collection of Romantic first editions, paintings and engravings, many of which lined his college rooms alongside Chantrey's bust of William Wordsworth. In these surroundings Jonathan Wordsworth was an influential and charismatic tutor and lecturer, who shaped the careers of numerous academics and writers including the novelist Martin Amis and the "Martian" poets Craig Raine and Christopher Reid. His intense engagement with literature drew the admiration of some as powerfully as his dismissive treatment of others resulted in resentment.

To postgraduates and junior academics Wordsworth could be unstintingly generous and supportive, at Oxford and also as an organiser of the annual Wordsworth Conference and Winter School at Dove Cottage, Grasmere. He provided money, found accommodation, bought Guinness and curries, and loaned his old Saab for ferrying delegates to and from Penrith station. The Wordsworth Conference was the brainchild of his cousin Richard Wordsworth, the actor, who founded it in 1970 and welcomed generations of students and scholars from around the globe.

With Richard presiding as a genial host, Jonathan Wordsworth arranged the two-week academic programme of lectures and seminars, on one occasion extending this marathon for a further three days' intensive "colloquium" on Thomas De Quincey. This was in the early 1980s, the heyday of the Wordsworth Summer Conference, when Jonathan Wordsworth's academic leadership had established it as the premier occasion of its kind. With Richard Wordsworth's death in 1993 the fine balance of personalities was lost, some would say to the detriment of the conference itself.

Jonathan was a trustee of the Wordsworth Trust from 1959 to 2002, becoming Chairman in 1976 and, in 2002, President. He was also a Scholar of the charitable trust the Friends of Coleridge, based in Somerset.

Nicholas Roe

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