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John Williams, William Wordsworth: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996. ISBN: 0-333-57418-4 (paperback). Price: £9.99

  • Bruce Graver

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  • Bruce Graver
    Providence College

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John Williams's William Wordsworth: A Literary Life is part of a Macmillan/St. Martin's Press series of short biographies of "the most admired and influential English-language authors." Volumes in the series, claims an introductory note, "follow the outline of writers' working lives, not in the spirit of traditional biography, but aiming to trace the professional, publishing, and social context which shaped their writings." So says the marketing agent; in fact, what separates these biographies from "traditional" ones is their length—200 pages, compared to 400 for Stephen Gill's Wordsworth: A Life, or more than a thousand for Mary Moorman's—and the assumption, on the part of the publishers, that the general reader (for these are not biographies for scholars) has little interest in more than four or five hours of sustained reading. The aim here is not to be nontraditional; it is to fill a niche market for a generation of very casual readers more interested in Jane Austen movies than her prose.

So, the question is not whether Williams's biography makes significant contributions to Wordsworthian scholarship; it is whether he has written a narrative spritely enough to keep an undergraduate awake on the plane ride from New York to London, or the train from Euston to Windermere. And the truth is, he hasn't. Just when the narrative seems to get moving, he interrupts it with analyses of poems, or passages from poems; in fact, about a third of this biography (60 pages or so, by my estimate) is literary interpretation. As a result, much of the story of Wordsworth's life is left out. We have, for instance, a respectable account of his life at Hawkshead and his political activities in the 1790's, but we never hear much about Wordsworth the brother of a remarkable sister, Wordsworth the husband and lover, Wordsworth the father, or even Wordsworth the close friend. All these are given short shrift, to make room for interpretations of poems. Indeed, the interpretations seem to be what is actually literary about this life, for we have just a short account of the dealings with Joseph Cottle over Lyrical Ballads, a brief mention of his uneasy relations with Longman, and nothing at all about his move to Edward Moxon in the 1830's, upon which so much of Wordsworth's literary reputation depends. The omission of Moxon points to another imbalance in the biography: fully one half of Wordsworth's life (the last half, of course) is dismissed in about 25 pages.

There is also a certain imprecision in this biography, which I find unsettling. Cottle, Joseph Johnson, and Daniel Eaton are indiscriminately labelled "radical" publishers, although the adjective is strictly applicable to Eaton alone. John Thelwall is described as one of Wordsworth's "neighbours" in 1798, as if Liswyn Farm were just down the road from Alfoxden. The barely-legible blank-verse fragments scattered through DC MSS. 6 and 7 are called a "blank-verse piece," and The Recluse, which Wordsworth and Coleridge always called a philosophical poem, is called a "Miltonic epic." Now these are details that the undergraduate reader won't care much about, but they are also just the kind of oversimplifications that undergraduates are prone to. It is thus disturbing, and dare one even say dangerous, to find them in a work obviously written for them.

In short, let us expect more out of our undergraduates than this: for an account of Wordsworth's literary life, send them to Gill; for a good, though lengthy, read, send them to Moorman; for politics, send them to George Harper. Maybe then even publishers will get the message and nip marketing ventures like the Literary Lives series in the bud.