Barker, Juliet Wordsworth: A Life

ISBN 13: 9780060787363

Wordsworth: A Life

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9780060787363: Wordsworth: A Life

Orphaned young, a rebellious teenager who was later reviled for his revolutionary politics and his experimental poetry, William Wordsworth transformed his reputation to become the most influential philosopher-poet of his day. In an increasingly industrial age, Wordsworth's belief in the importance of imagination and feeling touched a chord with the nation. Juliet Barker's balanced and meticulously researched biography, which draws on previously unpublished sources, recreates the intimacy of Wordsworth's domestic circle. Far from being the cold, solitary figure of legend, Wordsworth emerges from this portrait as a passionate, vibrant man who lived for his family, his poetry and his beloved Lakeland. His legacy remains with us to this day.

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Review:

Wordsworth was a large-boned, somewhat shambling, brilliant and big-nosed man, and Juliet Barker has written a biography to match him on every one of these points. Like its subject it is huge, nearly a thousand pages, and it contains multitudes of fascinating facts--a biographer can hardly go wrong with a subject who lived through such interesting times and knew such interesting people: revolutionary France (where Wordsworth travelled and fathered an illegitimate child), the Napoleonic wars, Coleridge, Southey, and writing a series of astonishing poems. Barker's easy style draws on an enormous wealth of research, but is never bogged down by it, and she manages to make her sometimes obstinate subject always human and likeable. This is an especial achievement in the later years, when Wordsworth's politics calcified into hang 'em and flog 'em Toryism; Barker manages to make even this grumpy old poet a figure you care about. The passages at the end of the book when Wordsworth's daughter Dora dies of tuberculosis, are genuinely moving. It is not a perfect book; like its subject, too it is a little dull. Its readings of the poetry itself (and the poetry is the reason why Wordsworth is so important, after all) are a little meagre; Barker limits herself to observations along the lines of "this is a great poem", "this is an important poem", "this sonnet is an exquisite work of art" and the like. Of the "Intimations Ode" ("the greatest William ever wrote") she limits herself to observing that, so familiar is it nowadays, "reading it is like going through a dictionary of quotations". Steven Gill's William Wordsworth, which has been the standard biography hitherto, does the job of critical reading of the verse much better. And like its subject Barker's book is big-nosed too, in several senses. For one thing, it traces the Wordsworthian "Roman" profile from father to children; Dora had a portrait painted of herself "with swept back black hair and large nose", and later travelled to the artist's London studio "to have my nose reduced a little". But Barker also sniffs haughtily at some of the modern attitudes to Wordsworth's life and times. To the notorious suggestion that Wordsworth had an incestuous relationship with his sister Dorothy, Barker snorts that people only think so because they view the couple "through Freud's distorting lens", and dismisses the--let's be honest, intriguing--notion as "prurient speculation". This said, however, this is nevertheless a noble biographical exercise, absorbing and solid. -- Adam Roberts

Review:

'Read it for Barker's understanding of the human drama' Independent

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