Electronic Telegraph Saturday 11 July 1998

Did the poet wander lonely as a spy?

Jonathan Bate on a detailed but contentious study of the young Wordsworth
The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy by Kenneth Johnston Norton, £30, 965 pp

Visitors to Grasmere are usually startled by the difference between William Wordsworth's two houses. Dove Cottage, where he lived from 1800 to 1808, is tiny, dark, tucked beneath a grassy bank. Though only a mile down the road, Rydal Mount, his home from 1813 until his death in 1850, seems a world away. It is an amply proportioned gentleman's residence, situated on a good elevation with a fine view and a spacious garden that was laid out by Wordsworth himself.

Stooping into Dove Cottage you can imagine the young radical who brought a revolutionary freshness and plainness to English poetry. You sense how close he must have been to the lake outside, the mountain above and his companions within - beloved sister Dorothy, best friend Coleridge, new wife Mary.

In Rydal Mount there is a very different ghost: holder of a sinecure with the Inland Revenue (Distributor of Stamps for the County of Westmorland), author of high moral effusions with titles such as Ode to Duty, Queen Victoria's aged Laureate.

Wordsworth has long been represented as the pre-eminent turncoat in our literary pantheon. Having welcomed the French Revolution as a new dawn in which it was bliss to be alive and "to be young was very heaven", by 1818 he was electioneering on behalf of a hard-right Tory. Shelley damned him and Browning called him "The Lost Leader": "Just for a handful of silver he left us,/ Just for a riband to stick in his coat".

There is nothing especially unusual or surprising about the story of a man's growth from youthful idealism to middle-aged conservatism. What is fascinating about Wordsworth is the process whereby he went over his own story again and again in his writing. He reinvented the poet as autobiographer.

Instead of writing an epic poem about the origin of his nation in the manner of Virgil's Aeneid or the origin of mankind in the manner of Milton's Paradise Lost, he wrote one about the origin and growth of his own mind. And he went on rethinking and revising that poem throughout his life. Wordsworth considered it "a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself". Only after his death was the autobiographical epic published. His widow provided its title, The Prelude. Kenneth Johnston's massive new biography stops at the moment in January 1807 when Wordsworth read The Prelude aloud to Coleridge. It thus covers all the exciting events of the first half of the poet's life without having to bother with the tedium of the second.

No previous biographer has given us such a detailed account of the childhood under the tutelage of Mother Nature in Hawkshead, the incomplete degree at Cambridge, the astonishing summer vacation walking-tour across revolutionary France (2,000 miles in two months), the passionate affair with Annette Vallon (the older woman in Orleans who bore Wordsworth an illegitimate daughter), and the residence in Somerset close to Coleridge which produced English literature's greatest collaborative work, the Lyrical Ballads of 1798.

Johnston writes with energy and engagement of the Annette Vallon affair, but his other attempts to spice up Wordsworth's sex life are less well judged. He is informative on the subject of Cambridge bedmakers in the era of the male-only university, but produces not a shard of evidence for his conjecture that the poet could have availed himself of their additional services.

The publisher's promotional material makes much of Johnston's "compelling new interpretation" of Wordsworth's mysterious "Lucy" poems as products of incestuous desire for his sister. But this is no more than a dubious old interpretation which F. W. Bateson used to tout around Oxford in the 1950s.

What is genuinely new is the discovery that in 1799 the Duke of Portland, head of the secret service, authorised a substantial payment to "Mr Wordsworth" for services rendered. We cannot be sure that William was the man in question, but Johnston adduces intriguing circumstantial evidence in support of the possibility that on his 1798 visit to Germany - a hotbed of espionage provoked by the war against France - Wordsworth was "turned" by the forces of counter-revolution.

If this was so, and especially if it was a matter of ideological commitment rather than mere financial exigency, then Wordsworth's political conversion took place earlier than has usually been assumed.

Johnston is one of those professional American scholars who has great depth but little breadth. He produces a wealth of new in formation about the back ground of Wordsworth's youthful acquaintances, but he thinks that Michaelmas Term is in the spring when it is in autumn, that Wordsworth's early pen-name was a Latin pun when it was Greek, and that The Deserted Village is by Fielding when it is by Goldsmith.

For all its valuable new research, The Hidden Wordsworth has a fundamental flaw. The book's avowed aim is to strip away the verbosity and longevity of the later Wordsworth, and so to make him more of a Young Romantic in the mould of Byron or Shelley. Yet at nearly 1,000 pages, its own length and excess of minute detail contrive to obscure the vigour and the danger of the poet's youth almost as successfully as the wily old Distributor of Stamps did himself.

Jonathan Bate is King Alfred Professor of English Literature at Liverpool University. His novel, The Cure for Love, was published last month by Picador.

Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1997.


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