Wordsworth: A Poetic Life is a new biography of the great father of British Romanticism. It is new in several ways, most notably in the way it approaches the life of the poet. Paying its proper respect to the classic lives of Wordsworth by Mary Moorman and Stephen Gill, it attempts to tell the story of the life through a more rigorous reading of key and representative works of the poet, through careful blending of life and poetry. Wordsworth offers the story of the literariness of the poet's life - childhood and adolescence in the Lake District, education at Cambridge, love and political radicalism in France, the long period of residence in Grasmere and Rydal, celebrity, and national and international recognition. Its reading of the poems, in tune with current theoretical practice, offers a sense of the continuities in Wordsworth's career as it moves away from familiar theories of a Golden Decade of creativity and a period of long decline. The book also works closely and rigorously with Wordsworth's poetry as a method of dramatizing the essentially poetic character of the poet's life.
Although the seminal figure in English romanticism, of the five great English romantic poets, Wordsworth (1770-1850) typically draws the most ambiguous response. Perceived as lacking the inventive imagination of his friend Coleridge, the sheer tonal beauty of Keats, the passion of Byron or Shelley, he instead relied on the power of memory and self-knowledge to transform personal experience into a poetry that speaks directly to the reader. Mahoney, a professor of English at Boston College, presents both a sympathetic biography and a critical study. Drawing on previous biographies (notably those by the poet's nephew Christopher Wordsworth and, more recently, by Mary Moorman and Stephen Gill) to retrace familiar ground, he examines the young poet's affair with Annette Vallon in France and his later, controversial treatment of Vallon and their daughter, as well as his crucial relationship with his sister Dorothy, which has stirred much debate among Freudians and feminists. Wordsworth's celebrated collaboration with Coleridge on the Lyrical Ballads (1797) is covered in depth. Significantly, Mahoney challenges the common view that the poet's greatest work occurred in a "Golden Decade" (1797-1807) and that his last 40 years were spent in dullness and decline. Rather, "the enormous output of 1810 to 1850... represents an effort of considerable stature in [Wordsworth's] literary life." Taking into account recent theoretical approaches, Mahoney admirably avoids jargon, but his close readings often err on the side of the literal and fail to bring the poet fully to life. While this book will be a useful basic resource for the student, readers anticipating a full-blooded popular account of the life or poetic criticism that breaks ground will be disappointed. (Mar.)
Literary biography is flourishing these days, and now it's Wordsworth's turn in this examination of the "episodes in a poetic life," or moments when the poems and life intersect. Mahoney (Boston Coll.; The English Romantics, 1978) gives a cautious nod here to deconstruction, which he sees as exposing the different and often opposed meanings of a text, as well as the New Historicism, which deepens the reader's sense of the poet's engagement with the world. But while Mahoney's approach is enriched by both of these contemporary strategies, his larger goal is to write neither a critical study nor a life per se but something more like a biography of the poet's career, when Wordsworth was, in the fullest sense, his most writerly self. This book does not replace Stephen Gill's William Wordsworth (Oxford Univ., 1989. o.p.), the most readable and scholarly of recent biographies, but it does offer new and thorough readings of the poems. For all literature collections.David Kirby, Florida State Univ., Tallahassee
John L. Mahoney is Thomas F. Rattigan Professor of English at Boston College and specializes in British Enlightenment and Romantic Literature. He has previously published books on Hazlitt, Keats, and Coleridge.