Review of F.W. Bateson, Wordsworth: A Re-interpretation.

["Explosive Criticism." Review of F.W. Bateson, Wordsworth: A Re-interpretation. New Statesman 1243 (1 Jan 1955): 21-2.]


This book is primarily a critical, not a biographical, study; but in Mr. Bateson’s view a radical criticism of Wordsworth’s poetry must depend upon a radical criticism of the man.  Towards the end of the book the author raises an intimate question about the precise nature of the relation between William and Dorothy Wordsworth.  This will offend many readers into shocked protest and bitter rejection.  Nevertheless, one is obliged to consider what the book proposes to do.  This “introductory critical report on Wordsworth as a poet and a man,” Mr. Bateson says, “makes no claim to say the last word about any aspect of the Wordsworthian problem, either critical, biographical, or historical.  The point of view and the tone of voice are perhaps the distinctive features.”  If in the course of his exposition Mr. Bateson’s tone becomes unguardedly assertive, if his reconstructive enthusiasm leads him to neglect some of the niceties of scholarly qualification from sentence to sentence, the reader is not entitled to overlook Mr. Bateson’s regard for the delicacy of the subject and for the insubstantiality of some of the evidence.

    It will be necessary . . . to try and define states of mind of which Wordsworth was   not wholly conscious himself, which he sometimes misunderstood or tried to suppress. The evidence, of course, is always inadequate and sometimes non-existent.  I have often      had to guess and no doubt I have often guessed wrong.  But there is no other alternative. If Wordsworth’s poetry is to go on being read it must be understood, fully and consciously.

Any final judgment of the book will have to answer the question, not only whether the biographical reconstruction is correct in every detail, but also whether – resting responsibly upon as much factual evidence as is available – it does in fact illuminate the poetry.

If Mr. Bateson had told us more about the actual progress of his inquiry, the chronological record of events would not have made it difficult for a reader to distinguish between what is factual and what is admittedly conjectural.  His procedure can, however, be reconstructed.  He started (he tells us) by trying to define the precise change that occurred in Wordsworth’s poetic practice in the summer of 1798.  Having established a working distinction between Wordsworth’s “two voices” – the outer and the inner emphasis, the conscious and the unconscious mind, the Augustan and the Romantic – he found that Tintern Abbey marked an abrupt turn from the Augustan impersonal manner of the Lyrical Ballads to an intensely personal and somewhat unfocused Romantic manner.  Examining the poetry further, he found that Tintern Abbey marked Wordsworth’s transition from one phase to another – each phase being about six years long, the poetry following a curve from a personal and more or less chaotic manner to stability in that fusion of the “two voices” which Coleridge especially admired.  The earlier poetic pattern was found to be closely associated with the progress of his relations with Annette Vallon – his love for her, his abandoning her, and finding emotional recovery through poetry and the influence of a few intimates.  Here we are on solid ground.  Looking backward beyond the Annette cycle, Mr. Bateson detected an earlier six-year phase in the poetry – less distinct, but discernible (he feels) through the slender evidence; and again the cycle of love, rejection, withdrawal, stability.  Looking forward beyond Tintern Abbey, a similar poetic arc could be traced, and the question then arose whether the psychological cycle had also repeated itself.

Since the publication in 1941 of the full text of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals, Wordsworth scholars have been confronted by a psychological fact which they have preferred not to discuss in public – probably because it was not seen to have any literary relevance.  This fact is the unusual, certainly unnatural, probably morbid relation between William and Dorothy as recorded in the Grasmere Journal from its first entry (14 May, 1800) until William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson (4 October, 1802).  Mr. Bateson quotes some of the relevant entries: to see them collected together strikes one with a sense of horror.  No matter how reluctant one may be to accept the evidence, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the relationship – though it evidently did not reach any scandalous conclusion – was in acute danger of becoming incestuous.  Wordsworth, it is safe to assert, would resist such a possibility with the whole force of his will and character, consciously and unconsciously; and one would certainly expect to find in his poetry evidence of violent withdrawal whether or not the precise nature of the crisis had reached the level of his conscious attention.

Bearing in mind the potentially incestuous relation and the certainty that Wordsworth would reject such a situation, some poems and events take on an altered significance: the “Lucy” poems may be involved; the autobiographical Goslar verse and the sudden dominance of a recollective strain look like the mechanism of withdrawal.  The early move from Germany to Sockburn, for example, may have been simply for convenience.  But Mr. Bateson, dramatically extending to earlier events the ascertainable evidence of the Grasmere Journal, says that William and Dorothy had fallen in love in the autumn of 1798, that William became aware of this in Germany, that in the “Lucy” poems he had symbolically (though probably not consciously) killed Dorothy, and returned to England as quickly as possible to rescue himself from an intolerable situation by marrying Mary Hutchinson.

All this makes very good sense psychologically.  It was incautious of Mr. Bateson, however, to forget that those who were disinclined to face up to the evidence of the Grasmere Journal would be ill-disposed to enter into the spirit of his dramatic conjectural reconstruction of the whole process.  One would have preferred a more tentative and carefully modulated statement of what is admittedly conjecture.  But argument will not destroy the evidence of the Journal; the reconstruction Mr. Bateson develops from that evidence – whether or not it proves in the end to be correct – makes sense of inscrutable passages in the poems; and that after all is what Mr. Bateson set out to do.

This is a responsible and impressive, if explosive, piece of criticism.  Forced by an analysis of the poems to examine the details of Wordsworth’s life, Mr. Bateson has produced an account of the early life – partly factual and partly conjectural – which in turn illuminates the poems.  And, as in all good criticism, the scaffolding does not in the end stand in the light.  The author evidently does not doubt that some adjustment of detail, some further analysis, the search for additional factual evidence, and an extension of the re-interpretation over a wider range of poems, will now be needed.  But the bold outline is firm and suggestive enough to serve as the basis for co-operative effort.  Throughout the book there is much original, perceptive, and informative criticism.  I regret the tone of some passages, and would defer from some details in Mr. Bateson’s interpretation.  But the story, when finally unfolded, has enhanced the substance of the poems, concentrated their force, and renewed their vitality.  And when the book has been fully absorbed, it will be found that the whole question of William and Dorothy has dropped out of sight, and that our understanding of Wordsworth’s greatest poetry – its violent terror and its agonised integrity – has been deepened and illuminated.