Review of Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography Vol 1.

["The Wordsworth Jungle." Review of Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography Vol 1. New Statesman 1356 (9 March 1957): 314.]


Over a period of thirty years Professor de Silencourt and Miss Helen Darbishire have opened up the jungle of Wordsworth documents by a series of determined route-traverses.  Perceptive single studies of Wordsworth have slowly accumulated.  But until the poems had been thoroughly edited from the many surviving manuscripts, the letters collected and put in order, Dorothy’s Journals accurately transcribed and the record of her life set down, the detailed mapping of Wordsworth’s life could not profitably be attempted.  Even when the pioneer work was completed, anybody attempting a fresh critical appraisal of Wordsworth’s poetry was faced with some dispiriting machete work if he was to establish the biographical detail to which the criticism would have to be referred.  This first part of a two-volume Life is therefore welcome and timely.

In her Preface Mrs. Moorman modestly claims not to have found out “many new facts about Wordsworth.”  To have discovered the Godwin and James Losh diaries, and to have thrown some new light upon the schooldays, upon Racedown, Alfoxden, and Goslar would seem unspectacular enough.  But although the broad outline of the early years remains unchanged, Mrs. Moorman has so enriched it with detail and made it so much more coherent than it ever was before, that the period stands forth almost as a new thing.  The most impressive achievement perhaps is to be seen in the passages of social and local history: accounts of the many places where Wordsworth’s story is set, of the Lowther lawsuit, the undergraduate world of Cambridge; information about members of the family, and about those friends and acquaintances that flit like half-remembered names across the scene.  The stories of Annette Vallon and of Michael Beaupuy are filled out; the account of Wordsworth’s revolutionary activity is clarified; the narratives of the tour in France and Switzerland, the visit to Germany, and all the comings and goings in England and Wales before the first settlement with Dorothy at Racedown are clearly unfolded.  With great care, Mrs. Moorman has unravelled and dated the biographical content of The Prelude and other poems.

The period of childhood and youth moves out of the rainbow mist of recollection into an intelligible pattern as he moves uncertainly towards his final dedication to poetry.  His love of the soldierly virtues, his fascination with revolutionary events in Blois and Paris, the fluctuations of his social and political conscience, his strongly ambivalent feelings about London, his one endearing outcry against the all-sufficiency of “rocks and waterfalls”: all these are recorded together with more purely literary matters like the history of The Prelude, the plan for The Recluse, the provenance of the Lyrical Ballads poems, the record of his literary creditors, his discovery of the sonnet.  With a steady zest for fact and significant detail, Mrs. Moorman quietly adjusts a date here, a place-name there; identifies a person, a house, a book; adds a touch of verifiable information from an obscure contemporary source.  The cumulative result of this refining and adjusting process is of first importance.  All is presented in clearly ordered sequence, the erudition very lightly worn.  It is difficult to believe that much of the detail will be modified by later inquiry.

Mrs. Moorman evidently decided to “stick to the facts” and to avoid controversy and speculation.  The book is strongest when it is breaking new ground in the earlier years for which Wordsworth himself is the only witness.  The revolutionary episode in France stands out as the one major passage of excitement and vitality; for the rest, the narrative moves with the same uniform texture and emphasis as The Prelude, a steady flow that tends to obliterate crucial issues.  “His poetry is itself the chief justification for a biography.”  The Prelude therefore serves as a central source of information – “as a reliable guide in all that concerns the growth of his mind.”

There are many early manuscripts of The Prelude to intercede between the truth and the posthumous edition.  Yet the problem of delineating Wordsworth’s “mind and soul” – even as a poet – is from the nature of the materials difficult, perhaps insoluble.  Nobody could accuse Wordsworth of a confessional turn of mind.  He went a long way to record the “spots of time” that were the focus of his poetic life, the visionary trances, the discipline of fear and beauty, his powers of vivid recollection.  But for all his psychological interest he did little to explore the dark abyss of his own mind.  He kept no intimate journals; he did not examine his major crises in depth; his letters are seldom unguarded; and the central autobiographical document on “the growth of a poet’s mind,” though drawn from quite a wide range of experience, is fashioned into the selective formalities of epic verse.  Wordsworth himself said that he “had nothing to do but describe what he had felt and thought; therefore could not easily be bewildered.”  Many a biographer and poet would shudder at those words “nothing but.”  If Wordsworth is to stand alone on his own evaluation, the figure may well not be fully drawn: he may become simply the man who could reasonably be expected to write the sort of poetry that would have the effect Wordsworth hoped his work would have upon the world.  But the relation between a man and his work, like the action of suffering, is often “obscure and dark.”  If we are interested in the man – and that presumably is a biographer’s prime concern – there are many passages that cry out for deeper exploration.

As the book moves into the Alfoxden days, and into times of more intricate and intimate personal relationships, there is a tendency to neglect the plentiful but complex evidence from outside what Coleridge naughtily calls “the concern.”  The wayward but incisive comments of Lamb and Coleridge – even some of the adverse ones – are quoted but not seriously analysed.  Yet a detailed inquiry into the relations between Wordsworth and Coleridge would probably throw much light upon the question of Wordsworth’s poetic inanition to the brink of which this volume brings us.  There is now, however, hope that the portrait of Wordsworth can be rounded out by finely controlled, sensitive, and courageous meditation upon the facts here marshalled for inspection.