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To Be Radical is Very Heaven: Jonathan Bate’s “Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World”

William Wordsworth was, for a time, the most important romantic poet in England. He had a friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and influenced the likes of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. For a myriad of reasons, the latter three entered a pantheon of romantic poetry while Wordsworth faded and was forgotten. Jonathan Bate, however, thinks this is unfortunate. Wordsworth was, after all, “the poet who changed the world.” But Bate’s literary biography of one of England’s greatest poets also reveals the reason for why Wordsworth faded: he became a conservative which tarnished his earlier romantic, radical, and revolutionary spirit.

Biographies of great literati figures is oftentimes challenging. Does the biographer present the formulaic Plutarchan progression of the individual’s life? Or does the biographer do something unique, or perhaps, more? Jonathan Bate synthesizes the standard biographical progression with literary biography: “The role of literary as opposed to historical biography should be to discern and seek to explain the distinctive qualities of the subject’s imaginative power.” So Bate does as we pilgrimage with William Wordsworth through his formative years and his early beginnings as a “radical poet.”

Bate wants us to approach Wordsworth as a revolutionary poet who articulated the new greatness of poetic epic. We are all familiar with epic. The dazzling poetic masterpiece detailing the hero’s adventure through space and time, gods and monsters, creation to redemption, in a surging sea of twists and turns that leave us eager for more. Bate argues, “In what may well have been the boldest act of chutzpah in literary history, Wordsworth wrote his epic poem [The Prelude] not about heroes and gods, not about his nation, not about the spiritual story of humankind from Genesis to Revelation, but about himself.”

Wordsworth’s Prelude is the main poetic masterpiece that Bate uses as his medium to guide us through Wordsworth life. Originally started in 1798, the Prelude went through its own various twists and turns with Wordsworth’s life and evolution from idealistic youth to conservative sage and wasn’t published until after the poet’s death in 1850. The scope of the poem mirrors Wordsworth’s own life. “Wordsworth loved space.” He was a traveler, a sojourner, a pilgrim. And the Prelude certainly manifests this love of space and travel that so guided Wordsworth’s soul.

But beside space, was there a distinctive quality, or theme, that aroused the great poet’s “imaginative power?” Bate implies the answer is yes. “[L]oss made him an outcast, bewildered and depressed.” Loss, as Bate goes on to reveal to us, seems to be the spirit that guides Wordsworth’s imaginative prowess.

Wordsworth mother died when he was young. His father not long after. Young Wordsworth became orphaned, but because of his father’s contacts and connections, it cannot be said the Wordsworth grew up impoverished. Nonetheless, Wordsworth’s losses greatly affected him. As Bate suggests, the powerful memorial flashes of genius throughout Wordsworth’s many poems often entail loss, sorrow, and sadness, “Wordsworth himself was eminently aware of the possibility that the act of memory creates rather than recreates a feeling.”

The richest parts of Bate’s biography of Wordsworth are his youthful twenties, especially traversing France and rural England as the English poet stumbles into revolution, romance, and loss. In France, venturing with various proto-romantic female poets and witnesses the early fervor of the French Revolution which inspired men and women from Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft to Thomas Jefferson, Wordsworth eventually fell in love with Annette Vallon with whom he fostered a child, Caroline.

Annette Vallon was a gorgeous Roman Catholic daughter of the French aristocracy. Wordsworth’s heart burned hot within him for Annette. It also burned hot for the idealism of liberty, equality, and fraternity promised by the radicals and revolutionaries who had brought forth Declaration of the Rights of Man. But as the French Revolution turned toward Terror and mass bloodshed, Wordsworth found himself in a precarious predicament.

Like many young college-educated Englishmen with literary ambitions, Wordsworth traveled to Europe for romance and intellectual stimulation. Like many young college-educated Englishmen traversing the grounds of France in the early days of the revolution, he was a passionate supporter of the “Friends of Liberty” and became acquainted with a number of Girondist politicos. And like many young college-educated Englishmen who were supportive of the revolution, in its more violent turn he found himself a possible enemy in the hyper-nationalistic and anti-foreigner hysteria that gripped the country.

Torn in multiple directions, his love for Annette, his hope for political idealism, and his revulsion toward the increased violence unleashed by the Jacobins, Wordsworth fled France back to England leaving behind Annette and Caroline just as the bodies of the Royal Swiss guards piled up in front of the Tuileries in their heroic defense against the revolutionaries. The Prelude provides sensual and picturesque imagery during this moment in life: “I crossed – a blank and empty area then – / The Square of the Carousel, few weeks back / Heaped up with dead and dying, upon these / And other sights looking as doth a man / Upon a volume whose contents he knows / Are memorable but from him locked up, / Being written in a tongue he cannot read, / So that he questions the mute leaves with pain, / And half upbraids their silence.”

Wordsworth poetry, Bate tells us, is the product of his imagination moved, principally, by loss and reminisces. “Throughout The Prelude, Wordsworth was writing in the aftermath of his disillusionment with the turn to violence taken by the French Revolution.” In fact, Wordsworth even moderates himself in his poems, lessening his initial enthusiasm to absolve himself of feeling guilty about having supported the fanaticism that led to the streets and fields of France running red with the blood of political terror and war. This doesn’t change the fact that he “dared to hope that the New Jerusalem was about to dawn, that heaven could be brought to earth through social justice.”

Loss, Bate informs us, led to Wordsworth having a fatherly attachment to his own poems which served as surrogate children. Yet Wordsworth eventually married, had children, and settled down in life. The intrepid pilgrim and colorful young radical turned conservative and grew closer to his baptismal Anglicanism. Yawn. Or so Bate implies.

Radical Wordsworth is still a wonderful volume examining the life and poetic prowess of one of England’s great poets. Bate does a fine job extrapolating out of Wordsworth’s many poems, but especially the Prelude, the real-life events and ideas that moved Wordsworth’s greatest lyrical and poetic moments. In doing so, we enter another level of the labyrinth and genius of Wordsworth’s poetry.

Nonetheless, Bate presents a fairly typical portrait of a man of genius commonplace to academics who fancy themselves still governed by the youth and radicalism that makes “very heaven.” The Wordsworth that Bate loves and admires is the revolutionary and radical Wordsworth, the youthful Wordsworth who dreamt the New Jerusalem and lived romantically only to experience loss and pain which continued to govern Wordsworth poetic powers even after his aged turn toward conservatism. In fact, the conservative Wordsworth is only possible through the youthful and radical Wordsworth.

In Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World, we are left wondering if Wordsworth actually changed the world. Although we may not share Bate’s overabundant enthusiasm in placing Wordsworth alongside the likes of Milton or Homer and as a prophet of environmental sustainability, we are nevertheless enriched by this enjoyable odyssey through Wordsworth life—even if it’s only the parts of life that Bate thinks we should remember and try to emulate in the twenty-first century.

Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World
Jonathan Bate
Yale University Press, 2020; 608pp

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