COOL AND UNCOOL AUTHORS (ON WILLIAM WORDSWORTH)

I shared with my ‘English Romantic Literature’ class the video showing Jon Cheryl perform his musical version of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFexFkJwrAo) and also Michael Griffin’s song ‘London’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAkEyFbGjTc) based on Blake’s eponymous poem. We agreed that both songs are cool and that, by definition, an author whose work can be enjoyed in this up-dated way is cool. Blake is, no doubt, cool as Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters are cool. Other authors are uncool, and I believe that William Wordsworth belongs to that class.

Julien Temple, who was once a cool Brit director (he shot many music videos for stars like David Bowie), made in 2000 a film called Pandemonium about Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship during the time of the French Revolution. Wordsworth was played by John Hannah (how uncool is that?) and Coleridge by Linus Roache (cooler!). The script writer was Frank Cottrell Boyce who later wrote the, definitely, very cool account of Manchester in New Order’s heyday 24 Hour Party People (2002). I haven’t seen Temple’s Pandemonium but an instance of how hard it is to make its subject matter cool is that, apparently, the end credits roll to the sound (or noise) of Olivia Newton-John’s song “Xanadu” (1980) which vaguely alludes to Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn”. Viewers’ reviews on IMBD are mostly positive (despite the middling 6.6 average rating) and the film might be worth spending two hours of your life on seeing it. Yet, one of the most enthusiastic commendations reads: “A splendid effort which will likely be most appreciated by those into classical literature–particularly 19th century poetry”. This is like recommending, just to name a random first-rate movie, The Right Stuff (1983) mainly to people who are interested in the history of NASA. A movie either works or it doesn’t, and if it appeals to a highly specialised academic audience it doesn’t. A more candid viewer writes “With its utter disregard for the historic record, Pandemonium attempts to do for England’s greatest Romantic poets what Monty Python and the Holy Grail did for the Arthurian legends–but (sadly) without the wit or the humour”.

In Pandemonium, in any case, and also in their friendship, coolness fell on the side of Coleridge with Wordsworth playing second fiddle; he always seems to have been the kind of guy you know is not really into it even when you’re having the greatest fun together. The wonder is not that their friendship started, for opposites attract each other, but that it lasted for so long and that it was even retaken after a serious falling out. I very much suspect that without cool Coleridge–and most likely without Dorothy Wordsworth, the adoring sister–Wordsworth would not be Wordsworth as we know him today. He would be perhaps Robert Southey (who?).

Much of Wordsworth’s uncoolness has to do with his living to old age and in good health. I am aware that this sounds callous and that the Rolling Stones are living proof that one can be a youthful rebel well beyond youth: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are both 76. If Byron and Shelley had lived to old age instead of dying in absurd, preventable circumstances at, respectively, 36 (infection caught from his dog) and 29 (drowned for sailing in bad weather), they would have probably behaved like Jagger and Richards. The problem with Wordsworth is that he only had that rock-star profile by association with Coleridge and, once he married his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson in 1802, aged 32, he became the anti-Romantic myth: a steady family man. Even his fathering an illegitimate daughter ten years before, during his stay in post-Revolution France, announced that this is who Wordsworth was at heart. He was rash enough to embark on a passionate affair with a Frenchwoman called Annette Vallon, the pretty daughter of a barber-surgeon, but also prudent enough not to marry her when she got pregnant. He was, it seems, a responsible but detached father for the girl, Caroline, but she was kept apart from her English siblings.

Keeping a family of five children, a wife and a sister (Dorothy never married) on the money made by selling poems is not easy. To be precise, Wordsworth never really lived on his modest earnings as a poet. To be even more precise, Wordsworth mainly lived off rents generated by family legacies. His father, a lawyer, was the legal representative of an aristocrat and it was the money this man paid to settle a long-standing debt that generated the rents allowing Wordsworth to marry. Wordsworth, incidentally, had a BA from Cambridge and his family, specially the uncles that paid for his education after he was orphaned at age 13, expected him to become a parson. He, however, would take no profession. Only in 1813, at the tender age of 43, did Wordsworth accept an appointment as post-master and Stamp Distributor for Westmoreland, rewarded by a yearly stipend of £400 per year, which finally ensured the financial stability of his family. They moved then to a beautiful house, Rydal Mount, near Ambleside in the Lake District, where the Wordsworths lived between 1813 and 1850 (it’s now open to visitors). However, the celebrity Wordsworth who received there an endless stream of visitors was not the same man who had written the poetry he was known for but someone else, his mature counterpart.

By the time Wordsworth published Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822) the transformation was complete. His daughter Catherine and his son Thomas died both in 1812–she in June, he in December–and this must have been a terrible blow, no matter how often we tell ourselves that in past times parents assumed that some of their children would die in childhood. In fact, Wordsworth took the position as a civil servant to make sure that his remaining three children could enjoy the best of lives. Yet something went amiss at the time in his poetical career, as most critics agree, because of his job. It took me a while to understand what exactly Wordsworth did. Anne Frey explains in British State Romanticism: Authorship, Agency, and Bureaucratic Nationalism (Stanford University Press, 2010, p. 55) that Wordsworth did have an office in town and performed numerous professional duties, though not those of a full-time job. “While certainly compatible with Wordsworth’s idea of himself as a professional poet, however”, Frey writes, “the job necessarily took away some time away from Wordsworth’s vocation”. Frey’s sly wording suggests that Wordsworth was not really a professional poet but she struggles not to reveal a basic fact: his poetry emerged from youthful leisure (no matter how hard he worked at his verse) and was far less compatible with an adult working life. In contrast, Blake managed to produce his poems after his daily work routine as an engraver was over, which does sound professional.

I came across a very illuminating article by Andrew Klavan (originally published in 2009 in Romanticon and reproduced here: https://www.city-journal.org/html/romanticon-13214.html) titled “Wordsworth’s Corpus Reflects the Growth of a Conservative’s Mind”. Klavan grants that “Wordsworth’s conservatism hardened as he grew into middle age, sometimes becoming small-minded”. In 1829 (he was then 59) he protested against the Catholic Relief Act which allowed Daniel O’Connell to be the first Irish Catholic to serve as MP. Wordsworth was a strict Anglican all his life and Anglicans like him feared very much the impact of Catholicism on politics and social life. He did not support, either, the 1832 Reform Act, the first to extend franchise among English men (though only within narrow limits). This is typical: the youthful supporter of revolution becomes an adult conservative when changes in family, personal and professional life make political, economic and social stability desirable. In even simpler terms: one becomes more conservative the more one has to lose. Klavan contends, nonetheless, that Wordsworth regained part of his revolutionary fire later on. In 1846, aged 76, he gave his support to the democratic Chartist movement, though warning that rioting would not help the cause. By then, of course, he was a gentleman pensioner of leisure finally free to indulge in his youthful ideals. And the times were no longer Romantic but Victorian.

Wordsworth was given in 1842 a Civil List pension of £300 a year; he resigned then from his position as Stamp-Distributor. Next year, 1843, he was appointed Poet Laureate, aged 73, replacing Robert Southey and after having received honorary doctorates (by the Universities of Durham and Oxford) in the late 1830s. In the last years of his career as a poet, at the height of his celebrity, Wordsworth worked on his massive autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’ which was only published post-humously in 1850 by his wife Mary. Actually, Wordsworth started writing this autobiographical poem back in 1798, the year when, aged 28, he published Lyrical Ballads with Coleridge, and kept adding blank verse lines to it until it grew to 14 books, a total of 7863 lines. This does not mean that the poem covers Wordsworth’s whole life–as the title suggests, it deals mainly with its first decades and it is, on essence, a poem on the ‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’ as the subtitle announces. There is complete critical consensus that ‘The Prelude’ is Wordsworth’s greatest poem but you should read the comments by readers at GoodReads before considering whether you want to read it. I must confess that I have failed to find a valid reason to go through so much verse and no, I’m not ashamed to make this confession even though I teach English Literature. Some other time, perhaps.

No Romantic poet is complete without an oddity in his biography and in Wordsworth’s case this is supplied by Dorothy’s constant presence. There were other three siblings (John drowned at sea in 1805) but she and William, born only one year earlier, seem to have been constant childhood companions until their father died in 1783. The girl, aged 12, and the boy, 13, were then sent to the homes of different relatives and were only reunited in 1795, when she was 24 and he 25. They never separated again, sharing their diverse homes even when William married Mary. Many have read their relationship as incest and a few sexist scholars have even blamed hysterical Dorothy for it, presenting her as a needy woman who hindered William’s path with her demands. This sexualized view of their siblinghood is, I think, plain silly and only reveals that sex occupies too much space in our minds. William and Dorothy were comfortable with each other, they shared many ideas and observations also present in his poems (as her journals have proved), and were perfect companions at a time and in a society when a man and a woman could enjoy friendship in total freedom only as siblings. Mary welcomed her sister-in-law to the family home and the couple took good care of Dorothy when, in the 1830s, she became an invalid. She died in 1855, outliving William by five years. It’s a bitter-sweet tale.

A surprised GoodReads reader sentences “Turns out I like ‘The Prelude’ a lot. But I still wouldn’t invite Wordsworth to a party at my place”–yet another sign of his uncoolness. Wordsworth might then be a category to himself: the kind of author you profoundly respect but do not enthuse about; the type you admire because you can see the man is making an effort. He is not Milton–I still haven’t met a person who would like to meet Milton for coffee much less at a party–but he is not either, definitely, Blake. He is Wordsworth.

Coolness moves in mysterious ways.

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