Bate, an Oxford academic, is a pacy writer and he doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to Wordsworth’s later poetry. Hardly any of it is worth reading, he declares, calling it both pompous and turgid. ‘The second half of Wordsworth’s life was the longest, dullest decline in literary history,’ he says. Yet paradoxically it was then that his fame blossomed. He accepted the role of Poet Laureate in 1843 — so the young radical who had rejoiced in revolution had become a leading member of the Establishment. Friends began to notice ‘a tendency towards vanity and pomposity’, Bate comments
That said, this new book, like everything Bate writes, richly repays reading, and bears comparison with his pioneering life of Ted Hughes (2005). He is illuminating on the sources of Wordsworth’s nature worship, pointing out that it was probably based on listening to Coleridge talk about Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza and Baron d’Holbach, whose works Wordsworth had not read. Although nature worship seems wholesome and innocent to us, it would, Bate notes, be readily identified by contemporary readers with the pantheistic atheism that was at the ideological heart of the French Revolution.
This excellent, intellectually rousing book is about the young poet. This is Wordsworth the dreamy, serious radical glimpsed flying across frozen lakes on his skates, or marvelling at revolutionary Paris, or falling in love with the beautiful Annette Vallon in France. This is the Wordsworth who was the “pure emanation of the spirit of his age”, who pitied the poor, loved the natural world and believed “all that we behold is full of blessings”.