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Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World Reviews

Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World by Jonathan Bate

Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World

Jonathan Bate

4.06 out of 5

9 reviews

Imprint: William Collins
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 1 Apr 2020
ISBN: 9780008167424

A dazzling new biography of Wordsworth's radical life as a thinker and poetical innovator, published to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth.

4 stars out of 5
14 Jun 2020

"It’s​ worth asking just how radical the early Wordsworth was."

In 1801, Wordsworth congratulated a reader of Lyrical Ballads for identifying the pathos of the poems as ‘the pathos of humanity’ and not ‘jacobinal pathos’; only ‘bad poets and misguided men’, he wrote, would yoke their verse to a political cause. By the first years of the 19th century his retreat from radicalism was well under way, but perhaps the radicalism was never unqualified. And perhaps it never completely died. The elderly Wordsworth can still surprise us, as he certainly surprised the Chartist Thomas Cooper when, fresh from Stafford jail, Cooper showed up unannounced at Rydal Mount in 1846. Wordsworth welcomed Cooper in and applauded the aims, though not the methods, of the Chartist movement (‘I have no respect for Whigs, but I have a great deal of the Chartist in me,’ he said on another occasion). Cooper left ‘with a more intense feeling of having been in the presence of a good and great intelligence, than I had ever felt in any other moments of my life’.

Reviews

3 stars out of 5
27 May 2020

"Incomplete biography still details Englishman’s influence"

For too long Wordsworth has been cast as a poet who is significant but worthy, a writer whose work cannot be ignored but is not often enjoyed. If we accept that he wrote a large amount of ordinary poetry we should also acknowledge that his best work, The Lyrical Ballads, The Prelude and Tintern Abbey, repay close and frequent reading.

Radical Wordsworth is not a complete biography but takes its cue from Wordsworth’s own understanding of himself to concentrate on the “spots of time” that produced his great work.

5 stars out of 5
Rachel Cooke
14 Apr 2020

"...(an) inspiriting, fleet-footed book, in which he embroiders together life, poetry and landscape with such dexterity"

In his marvellous new biography of Wordsworth, it’s as if Jonathan Bate has inhaled the very air these two young men breathed; there is a giddiness here – a passionate enthusiasm – that’s all too rare in books about poets, particularly those who, having failed to die young, grew stodgy in later life. In an exhilarating preface, Bate sets out his stall: his book will be shorter than most biographies of Wordsworth, and rather than aiming for comprehensiveness – not for him the dreary opening chapter in which the writer lingers in a graveyard, spouting ancestors – he will seek to explain “the distinctive qualities of the subject’s imaginative power”. What this means, in effect, is that once Wordsworth’s talent fizzles – a process for which the seeds were sown in 1806, when his relationship with Coleridge first ran into trouble, and continued until his death at the age of 80 in 1850 – he, too, will wind down; only a quarter of Radical Wordsworth’s pages are devoted to Wordsworth’s last decades.

5 stars out of 5
Boyd Tonkin
10 Apr 2020

"Jonathan Bate’s crisp biography sheds light on the poet’s inspiration — and long decline"

Doorstopper biographies and critical accounts already abound. Still, Radical Wordsworth — “radical” not just in his youthful politics but in his poetry’s return to the roots of selfhood and society — deserves to take its place as the finest modern introduction to his work, life and impact. It shows how and why “Wordsworth made a difference”. Bate delivers not a long-distance trudge of the kind the poet loved (Thomas De Quincey, his disciple, worked out that Wordsworth’s rambles covered 175,000 miles) but a collage of crisply written, intensively researched scenes, “fragmentary, momentary, selective”. 

4 stars out of 5
Freya Johnston
8 Apr 2020

"Gill’s readiness to find interest and value in Wordsworth’s middle and old age is indeed one of the most rewarding aspects of his biography."

One of the many enjoyments of Stephen Gill’s William Wordsworth: A Life is the quiet pride it communicates in a job well done. Wordsworth emerges from this comprehensive and absorbing study as a man whose sense of purpose and duty steadily grew from youth to old age. That sense had its origins in the early loss of his parents on the one hand, and in his poetic vocation on the other. The orphaned Wordsworth did not see his sister again until they were both grown up. Once reunited, they embarked on a remarkable experiment in domesticity and writing, one to which both siblings, their friends, and (later) Wordsworth’s wife, Mary, were devoted. Gill carefully draws out the rewards and the costs of what it meant for other people to commit their lives to an often testy, sensitive man whose needs dominated the household. He also rightly pauses on several occasions to remind us that, while biographies impose a shape and certainty on the lives of their illustrious subjects, those subjects could not themselves have known how things would turn out. It took a long time indeed for Wordsworth’s greatness to be recognised. For much of his long life (he died aged 80) he was either poor, or vilified by critics, or both.

3 stars out of 5

"Devastating dalliance among the daffodils: When Coleridge found Wordsworth in bed with the love of his life"

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

4 stars out of 5
1 Apr 2020

"To Jonathan Bate, Wordsworth matters principally as a prophet of nature"

The return of nature to Wordsworthian commentary is a corollary of the environmentalist spirit of the age. The process was largely initiated by Bate himself in a book called Romantic Ecology (1991). This new book resumes the theme, providing a colourfully written celebration (one chapter is entitled ‘Lucy in the Harz with Dorothy’) of Wordsworth’s ‘radical alternative religion of nature’. It does not pretend to offer any discoveries or to follow its subject from cradle to grave: Bate is very firm that Wordsworth went off the boil quite soon after he succumbed to respectability, suffering ‘the longest, dullest decline in literary history’, which is quite a claim. As a result, there aren’t many pages on the ageing bard of Rydal.

4 stars out of 5
John Carey
22 Mar 2020

"packs in a lot of erudition"

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.

4 stars out of 5
James Marriott
21 Mar 2020

" An entertaining biography celebrates the young radical romantic, not the elderly bore"

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”.