Wordsworth: A Life
  • Wordsworth: A Life
  • Wordsworth: A Life

Wordsworth: A Life

by Juliet Barker

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The figure of William Wordsworth looms over the nineteenth century like a presiding genius. Sage, seer, and Poet Laureate, Wordsworth was revered by his Victorian contemporaries as a writer of tender, lyrical poetry, a controversial challenger of social and artistic convention, a devoted champion of country life, and the spiritual founder of the conservation

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The figure of William Wordsworth looms over the nineteenth century like a presiding genius. Sage, seer, and Poet Laureate, Wordsworth was revered by his Victorian contemporaries as a writer of tender, lyrical poetry, a controversial challenger of social and artistic convention, a devoted champion of country life, and the spiritual founder of the conservation movement.

In this masterful work, the first biography to fully examine Wordsworth's entire life, critically acclaimed biographer Juliet Barker draws on unpublished sources to present a new picture of him as both public icon and private family man. Balancing meticulous research with engaging prose, she reveals not only the public figure who was courted and reviled in equal measure but also the complex, elusive, private citizen behind that image, vividly re-creating the intimacy of Wordsworth's domestic circle, showing the love, laughter, loyalty, and tragedies that bound them together. Wordsworth is a major biography of one of the world's foremost poets, and a rich, unforgettable portrait of a fascinating and fiercely passionate man.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Holroyd
“A marvelously readable narrative . . . a model of how such things should be done — a tremendous achievement.”
Jonathan Mirsky
“Uncommonly entertaining.”
The Spectator
“Uncommonly entertaining.”
Publishers Weekly
Following Wordsworth over the course of his eight decades (1770-1850), Barker, unlike other biographers, gives equal attention to his early poetic career and radicalism, and to his "middle-aged Toryism" and later domestic years. As she did in The Bront s, Barker puts her subject in the context of his family: his early orphaning; his deep bond with his equally sensitive sister, Dorothy; and the tragic early deaths of his children. Apart from Wordsworth's enjoyment of the Lake District's inspiring landscape, he had a somewhat Dickensian upbringing among tightfisted relatives. Wordsworth's intelligence won him a place at Cambridge, which was intended to position him for the clergy, but his poetic calling and radicalization during the French Revolution determined otherwise. The English political circles in which the young Wordsworth moved introduced him to Coleridge, whose early inspiring friendship eventually deteriorated as the two poets' creative paths split (Barker underscores Coleridge's exasperating character). She is far more forgiving of Wordsworth's abandonment of his early ideology, sympathizing with his practical need as a family man to take a government job enforcing the press-restricting Stamp Act until he received a civil pension-and ultimately the laureateship. Although the U.S. version has been abridged slightly from the British edition, it amply displays Barker's painstaking scholarship. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this in-depth biography of Wordsworth (1770-1850), originally published in the U.K. in 2000, Barker (The Bront s) focuses on the acclaimed poet's relationships with his family members and literary contemporaries rather than on the Romantic Movement as a whole. She brings to life a real sense of Wordsworth's joy and pain in his relationships with the brilliant but difficult people to whom he was closest, like poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his sister Dorothy. While this volume is lengthy, Barker is a skilled writer whose lively style makes her detailed treatment of her subject an enjoyable and at times almost gossipy read. There have been a number of books dealing with Wordsworth and his circle in the past decade (e.g., John Worthen's The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons, and the Wordsworths in 1802, Kenneth R. Johnston's The Hidden Wordsworth, and Kathleen Jones's A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle), but Barker's work is a worthwhile addition to the larger collections of academic and public libraries.-Felicity D. Walsh, Emory Univ. Lib., Decatur, GA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
English biographer Barker (The Brontes, 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 valuableselflessness, 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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.09(d)

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A Life
By Juliet Barker

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Juliet Barker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060787317

Chapter One

The Child is Father of the Man

On a dark, stormy day in December 1783, a thirteen-year-old boy scrambled to the top of a rocky outcrop near the Lakeland village of Hawkshead. From this vantage point, half-sheltered by a dry-stone wall, and with only a sheep and a hawthorn tree for company, he sat on the damp grass, straining to see through the mist that intermittently shifted to reveal the woods and plain below. It was the eve of the Christmas holidays and William Wordsworth was waiting for the first sight of the horses that were coming to bring him home from school. Not knowing which of the two roads they might take and afraid to miss them, he stubbornly maintained his post through the storm, watching so intently that his eyes swam with tears at the effort. It was an experience he would never forget:

. . . the wind and sleety rain
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music of that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
Which on the line of each of those two roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes -
Prelude (1799), i, 361-7

The turmoil of the scene, so perfectly mirroring that of his own mind, the symbolism of the two roads and, most of all, the intensity of his longing to be home, would come back to haunt him. For the child waiting so anxiously was unaware that this would be the last time he would return to the home he was about to lose for ever. The whole course of his life was about to be changed and, with it, the history of English literature.

The Wordsworth family home lay in the small Cumberland market town of Cockermouth, some thirty miles away from Hawkshead. William Wilberforce, visiting the town in 1779, had dismissed it as 'consisting chiefly of one very large wide street.' A more favourably disposed visitor, William Hutchinson, declared 'the situation . . . beautiful, in a country well cultivated, on the banks of two fine rivers'. He admired the picturesque ruins of the medieval castle on an eminence above the town and the 'pleasantly diversified' nature of the countryside. He wondered at the preference of the people of fortune for building their elegant houses on the short steep street leading up to the castle, but he had no hesitation in stating that 'the whole place bears the countenance of opulence'.

Standing not only at the confluence of the Derwent and Cocker rivers, but also on the main east-west route from Penrith to the prosperous ports of Workington and Whitehaven on the Atlantic coast, Cockermouth was ideally placed for the manufacture and distribution of goods. There were weekly markets and a fortnightly cattle fair, held in the street which had attracted Wilberforce's attention. It was here, in the largest and most imposing house in the town, that the Wordsworth family lived. Set slightly back from the street, with a large garden running down to the Derwent at the rear, it was an elegant Georgian building, to all appearances the residence of a wealthy and influential gentleman.

Unfortunately for the Wordsworths, appearances were deceptive. The house, like Cockermouth itself, belonged to Sir James Lowther. Indeed, it might be said that the Wordsworths also belonged to him, for William's father, John, like his father and cousin before him, was law agent to Lowther. Their family fortunes had been, and were to be, dependent on the grace and favour of the Lowthers throughout William's lifetime and beyond. It was, therefore, doubly unfortunate for the Wordsworths that this particular Lowther was notorious for his ruthlessness in the pursuit of power and riches. 'Wicked Jimmy', as he was known to his beleaguered tenants, had acquired a stranglehold on public appointments and local government in Westmorland and Cumberland and his officials, including the Members of Parliament, were expected to put their master's interest before all others. Any show of independence met with dismissal and persecution.

On 5 February 1766, John Wordsworth married seventeen-year-old Ann Cookson, the only daughter of a wealthy Penrith mercer, and the newlyweds set off to begin their married life at Cockermouth. Like a dutiful wife, Ann applied herself to child-bearing and rearing. Her first son, Richard, arrived on 19 August 1768. He was followed by William, born on 7 April 1770 and Dorothy on Christmas Day, 1771, John, on 4 December 1772 and, finally, Christopher, on 9 June 1774.

William's memories of Cockermouth were uniformly happy ones. His family were together, the household, taking its tone from John Wordsworth, a cheerful one, and the children close enough in age to be natural playmates. Their favourite playground was the high terrace at the end of the garden, overlooking the fast-flowing waters of the Derwent. Only a low wall separated the two; covered with closely-clipped privet and roses, it made the perfect hiding place for birds, who built their nests in its most inaccessible depths. The river itself was a constant companion whose ceaseless music

composed my thoughts
To more than infant softness, giving me
Among the fretful dwellings of mankind
A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm
Which nature breathes among the fields and groves.
Prelude (1799), i, II-15

At four years old, William would make 'one long bathing of a summer's day', alternately basking in the sun and plunging into the silent pools beneath the castle;

or, when crag and hill,
The woods, and distant Skiddaw's lofty height,
Were bronzed with a deep radiance, stood alone
Beneath the sky as if I had been born
On Indian plains and from my mother's hut
Had run abroad in wantonness to sport,
A naked savage in the thunder-shower.
Prelude (1805), i, 294-300

The banks of this 'fairest of all rivers' were an endless source of delight and, sixty years later, William could still vividly recall his boyish pleasure in collecting pebbles and gathering the wild flowers that grew there. There were also, of course, the more robust pleasures of boyhood: running races with his brothers, fishing, birds' nesting, exploring the hills, valleys and length of the river.


Excerpted from Wordsworth by Juliet Barker Copyright © 2005 by Juliet Barker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Michael Holroyd
“A marvelously readable narrative . . . a model of how such things should be done — a tremendous achievement.”

Meet the Author

Juliet Barker is internationally recognized for her ability to combine groundbreaking scholarly research with a highly readable and accessible style. Best known for her prizewinning and best-selling book The Brontës (1994), which was widely acclaimed as setting a new standard in literary biography, she is also an authority on medieval tournaments. Born in Yorkshire, she was educated at Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she obtained a doctorate in medieval history. From 1983 to 1989 she was the curator and librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum. She has, for many years, been a frequent contributor to national and international television and radio as a historian and literary biographer, and has lectured in the United States and New Zealand. In 1999 she was one of the youngest-ever recipients of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, awarded by the University of Bradford in recognition of her outstanding contribution to literary biography. She is married, with two children, and lives in the South Pennines.

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