William Wordsworth is usually remembered as the quintessential Victorian Poet Laureate: a dull, worthy, establishment figure, with impeccable middle class, Tory, Anglican credentials, whose moralistic poetry has been required reading for generations of yawning school children. Yet there is so much more to Wordsworth than Daffodils and The Prelude.
This selection of letters and autobiographical fragments introduces us to the real Wordsworth: the rebellious schoolboy, who vandalised his family portraits, became a supporter of the French Revolution and fathered an illegitimate daughter in France; the radical poet whose flouting of the conventions of the day attracted the ridicule of the reviewers and forced him to endure thirty years of rejection, obscurity and financial hardship before achieving belated critical and popular success; the devoted brother, husband and father who could still write passionate love letters to his wife after ten years of marriage and the birth of five children; and, finally, the revered patriarch whose poetry formed the hearts and minds of a generation, whose opinions were sought by writers, politicians, churchmen and educationalists throughout the English speaking world, but who thought nothing of vaulting walls, skating on the Lakes or climbing Helvellyn even in his seventies.
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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 RobertsReview:
'Read it for Barker's understanding of the human drama' Independent
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Book Description Penguin Classic, 2007. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0141442131
Book Description Penguin Classic, 2007. Paperback. Book Condition: New. New item. Bookseller Inventory # QX-134-13-2596102