English biographer Barker (The Brontës, 1995) sifts tediously and joylessly through the ponderous life of the great nature poet, friend to Coleridge and later laureate of England.
Wordsworth enjoyed a good, long life (1770–1850), and other than youthful forays into revolutionary politics, he led an internally focused one among his Cumberland relatives. Barker chronicles every inch of this studious span—literally, year by year—recording the subtle evolution of a sensitive child, orphaned along with his four siblings and farmed out to Penrith relatives, into a Cambridge scholar, rambler of hill and dale and keen observer of nature, both wild and human. Rejecting a career in the church, Wordsworth decided on literature, though he was hampered by his penury; his father’s estate was mired in a lawsuit that dragged on for decades. A youthful tour abroad resulted in an explosive love affair with Annette Vallon, a French royalist counterrevolutionary with whom Wordsworth conceived a child, although the war between France and England essentially alienated the lovers for good. He shared a delicate sensibility with his younger sister Dorothy, and together they established several households in England’s Lake District, cultivating new friendships with the disciples of philosopher William Godwin and with fellow literary men/republicans Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who would fiercely champion Wordsworth’s genius. With Dorothy accompanying him on his vigorous rambles in search of the picturesque, the poet traversed much of England and the continent on foot, finding his humble subjects in peddlers and wagoners and his style in blank verse. Although Barker acknowledges Dorothy’s valuable selflessness, the biographer takes her to task for her “depth of insecurity and desperate longing for affection,” while the Great Poet himself comes off as a fuddy-duddy. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted after meeting him, Wordsworth “paid for his rare elevation by general tameness and conformity.”
Exhaustive and intimately connected to the English landscape, but lacking the big picture.