Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed The World by Jonathan Bates

radical

By Byron Beynon

Jonathan Bate’s new biography of William Wordsworth, published to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s birth, guides us through the life and makes a strong case of why we should care about the poet’s work today.
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Bate focuses and notes a climate of ideas, that Wordsworth ‘wrote with unprecedented sympathy for the poor, the excluded and the broken’. He ‘changed the way we perceive, inhabit and preserve the wilder places of the natural world’. He also ‘foresaw that among the consequences of modernity would be not only the alienation of human beings from each other, but also potentially irretrievable damage to the delicate balance between our species and our environment’.
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Wordsworth in ‘Tintern Abbey’ wrote that for him the importance was that ‘We see into the life of things’ and as Bate points out in the wonderful skating sequence from ‘The Prelude’,
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‘He felt this spirited ‘transport’ again when skating on the lake at twilight in the frosty season. The village clock tolls six as ‘All shod with steel /We hissed along the polished ice in games/…..The sibilanceof ‘shod’, ‘steel’, ‘hissed’, ‘polished’ and ‘ice’ brings the very sound of the skates to life’. However the experience of skating is not just a physical action but also an interaction, an experience with the image of a star reflected in the ice ‘To cut across the reflex of a star;/ Image that, flying before me, gleamed/ Upon the glassy plain’. 
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Wordsworth was born on the 7th of April 1770, at Cockermouth, a little Cumbrian market town on the edge of the Lake District. Educated at Hawkshead school and later St John’s College, Cambridge he became disillusioned by university life. He was to develop a keen love and empathy for nature as well as the lives of real people, he also realised his vocation as a poet. In his poetry he saw nature as a kind of spiritual healer, with a personality of its own. His deep poetic appreciation of the natural world was not an incidental and decorative part of his verse, it was its chief impulse and theme.
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Bate charts his way through Wordsworth’s childhood in the Lake District, his time at Cambridge, and his walking tours in France and Switzerland with his Welsh friend Robert Jones. He was also to visit the home of Robert Jones in North Wales, their famous night-time ascent of Snowdon left a profound impression on him, as they climbed to find the surrounding peaks illuminated as ‘the Moon looked down upon this shew/ In single glory, and we stood, the mist/ Touching our very feet; ……The universal spectacle throughout/ Was shaped for admiration and delight…’
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In 1791 he visited revolutionary France, alone this time, and met Annette Vallon by whom he had a child. He moves back to England to seek a livelihood and to be with his gifted and observant sister Dorothy.  In 1795 he meets Coleridge. He settles, after a cold and severe winter in Germany with Dorothy and Coleridge, back in the Lake District, at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and marries Mary Hutchinson. Bate focuses largely on this first half of Wordsworth’s life, through childhood, youth and the years between 1798 and 1808 when he completes ‘The Ruined Cottage’, the bulk of the poems published anonymously as ‘Lyrical Ballads’, plans ‘The Recluse’ and when ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ and ‘The Prelude’ are also completed during this groundbreaking period.
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In his preface Bate fairly states that Wordsworth ‘always lacked the glamour of Coleridge, De Quincey and Byron: he was neither opium addict nor ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. He lacked too, the pathos of Keats, Shelley and John Clare: he failed to make the romantic career move of dying young or going mad’.
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However what Bate argues towards is ‘ a selective account of the journey from the visions and experiences that made him a poet to the rays of influence that made him a force in cultural history……why his words are still worth reading two and a half centuries after his birth’.
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In 1807 he published the following sonnet which still resonates across the years:
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‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The Winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wrèathed horn.’
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Bate succeeds in persuading the reader of the continuing importance of Wordsworth’s poetry, how he created a revolutionary style to express the experience of people previously ignored by literature, along with the importance of human emotions throughout childhood and into adulthood, producing a biography which is both fascinating and relevant to the challenges we face in our own time.
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Bate succeeds in persuading the reader of the continuing importance of Wordsworth’s poetry, how he created a revolutionary style to express the experience of people previously ignored by literature, along with the importance of human emotions throughout childhood and into adulthood, producing a biography which is both fascinating and relevant to the challenges we face in our own time.
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You can find the book here: Amazon.com
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Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales.  His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, The London Magazine, Agenda, Poetry Ireland Review, Grey Sparrow, The Worcester Review, Poetry Wales and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets).  Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions).  A selection of his work is forthcoming from Moonstone Press (Philadelphia) entitled A View from the Other Side.
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