William Wordsworth : a life

by Stephen Gill

Paper Book, 1989




Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1990, c1989.


In this second edition of William Wordsworth: A Life, Stephen Gill draws on knowledge of the poet's creative practices and his reputation and influence in his life-time and beyond. Refusing to treat the poet's later years as of little interest, this biography presents a narrative of the whole of Wordsworth's long life--1770 to 1850--tracing the development from the adventurous youth who alone of the great Romantic poets saw life in revolutionary France to the old man who became Queen Victoria's Poet Laureate. The various phases of Wordsworth's life are explored with a not uncritical sympathy; the narrative brings out the courage he and his wife and family were called upon to show as they crafted the life they wanted to lead. While the emphasis is on Wordsworth the writer, the personal relationships that nourished his creativity are fully treated, as are the historical circumstances that affected the production of his poetry. Wordsworth, it is widely believed, valued poetic spontaneity. He did, but he also took pains over every detail of the process of publication. The foundation of this second edition of the biography remains, as it was of the first, a conviction that Wordsworth's poetry, which has given pleasure and comfort to generations of readers in the past, will continue to do so in the years to come.… (more)

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LibraryThing member thorold
The record of Wordsworth's life is interesting for all kinds of reasons, not least simply because of the accident of when he was born and how long he lived. This is someone who during his student vacations witnessed the heady atmosphere of revolutionary France, but who was still around in the year
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before the Great Exhibition to fulminate against railway expansion and mass tourism. He outlived the critical young writers of the generation after his own (Byron, Keats, Shelley) to become a national institution courted by all sides of the political and religious spectrum - Charles Kingsley, the Arnolds and Mrs Gaskell looked to him for inspiration just as much as Ruskin, Keble and Newman did. And of course he's one of the few writers who can be said to have exerted a direct geographical influence - without him, the fells of Cumberland and Westmoreland would never have turned into "the Lake District". There would never have been that wonderful moment on 14 August 1805 when Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and Sir Humphrey Davy climbed Helvellyn together - the battle of Trafalgar was still a couple of months away, but the 19th century had already defined itself...

Gill's Life is a sober, academic account, staying away from gossip and speculation and focussing on Wordsworth's writing and the things that were directly relevant to it. It's lively and readable, but it's clearly designed in the first place for readers who are engaging with the poetry and are looking for context and background. And that's important, because Wordsworth really is a writer who is involved in the politics of his own times. However, if you just want anecdotes about home-life in Dove Cottage or detailed maps that will allow you to retrace Wordsworth's treks across the fells, this is not the place for it.

Something Gill is very interested in is the way Wordsworth often seems to be defined more by what he did not write than what he did, in particular the long philosophical poem "The Recluse" which he had planned out with Coleridge's encouragement, and to which "The Prelude" was supposed to act as a kind of introduction. "The Excursion" would have been one part of "The Recluse", but Wordsworth really wasn't a man for abstracting and systematising his ideas: he was passionately interested in what could be learnt from digging into the individual human experience, but he was sceptical about any ideas that started to float free of that foundation.
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