THE HIDDEN WORDSWORTH by Kenneth R. Johnston

THE HIDDEN WORDSWORTH

Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy
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KIRKUS REVIEW

As admirers of William Wordsworth’s epochal Lyrical Ballads celebrate that volume’s bicentennial, this conscientious yet surprise-filled life of the poet will deepen their appreciation of his accomplishments. Johnston (English/Indiana Univ.) concentrates on Wordsworth’s (1770—1850) young adulthood, linking the poetry of his “great decade” (1797—1807) to his political and sexual coming-of-age during the Age of Revolution. Such links between Wordsworth and his tumultuous times are not new. But Johnston judiciously presents what was already known (at least to scholars) while uncovering striking new facets of Wordsworth’s life, some heretofore buried in archives, some hidden in plain sight—in the lines of his poetry, for example. Johnston’s opening chapters detail the Wordsworth family’s situation as agents of powerful landed interests and the future poet’s school days amid the natural wonders of England’s Lake District. Orphaned, the teenage Wordsworth became the ward of conservative family elders against whom he rebelled. His studies became increasingly desultory, his extracurricular rambles more adventurous. In 1790, he left Cambridge University to travel in Europe, where he exulted in the climate of revolution. Wordsworth then lived in France for a time, fathering a child out of wedlock. Back in England, he became an intimate of London Radical circles; Johnston suggests that he returned yet again to France amid the Terror to visit his threatened mistress and their child. Johnston’s chapters on Wordsworth’s financial woes and resulting rapprochement with Britain’s conservative ruling elite feature a convincing—although sure to be controversial—argument that Wordsworth served as a British agent in Germany in 1799. Meanwhile, Johnston explores Wordsworth’s relations with his sister, Dorothy, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and with the other companions who supported him as he fashioned himself into the epic poet of the 1805 —Prelude.— Although imposing in its length and occasionally ponderous in its manner, this epic biography is full of romance, rebellion, and intrigue, interleaved with expert glosses on many of history’s most intriguing poems. (photos)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-393-04623-0
Page count: 960pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998