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Letting Wordsworth Speak for Himself

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: A LIFE, by Stephen Gill. New York: Oxford University Press/Clarendon. 525 pp. $30. DESPITE the availability of documents - from Wordsworth's own writings and his sister Dorothy's journals to the written recollections of scores who knew him - and despite the intrinsic interest of the subject matter, the biographer of William Wordsworth faces daunting problems.

The inner life of thought, feeling, perception, memory, imagination, and reflection that biographers try so hard (and so often in vain) to capture has, in Wordsworth's case, already been set forth in the magnificent blank-verse autobiography, ``The Prelude,'' the poet wrote and rewrote throughout most of his adult life, but chose not to have published until after his death in 1850 at age 80. Indeed, the very notion of presenting a life story as a history of an individual consciousness rather than as a chronicle of external deeds and events owes much to Wordsworth's example.

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In addition to the awkwardness of having to ``compete'' with Wordsworth, the biographer must also reckon with the rocky quality of the man's character. However deeply one loves the poems, the poet himself lacks surface charm and his life lacks dramatic appeal. Blake, the solitary, embattled prophet; Byron, the witty and dashing rebel; the brilliant, impassioned, impetuous Shelley and the immensely emphatic, exemplary Keats, who both died young; and Wordsworth's own friend and sometime collaborator Coleridge - vulnerable, melancholy, poignantly self-critical and self-destructive: All are all more inviting subjects than the quiet, reserved, self-centered, self-preserving Lakeland sage.

Wordsworth further made things difficult for his biographers by writing nearly all his best work in the first half of his life, leaving the biographer with the problem of how to maintain the reader's interest in the rest of his story.

Stephen Gill, a fellow and tutor at Lincoln College, Oxford, and a noted Wordsworth scholar, handles the first problem by keeping his critical distance. He offers a more factually meticulous version of the poet's early years to stand beside the mythopoeic self-presentation of the poetry. He understands the importance of Wordsworth's inner life.

But unlike Wordsworth, who constantly reflected on his own mental processes in his poems, and unlike the literary critics who follow the poet's lead in probing the contours of his visionary consciousness, Gill refrains from deep or subtle analysis. Yet he manages to convey a good sense of how Wordsworth thought and felt at various points in his life. Trusting the emotional, if not necessarily the factual, truth of Wordsworth's writings, Gill allows the poet to speak for himself.

This biographer pays his subject the invaluable compliment of taking him seriously throughout his life. He focuses special attention on Wordsworth's later years, and in so doing, highlights continuities between the early, radical Wordsworth and the increasingly conservative poet who wrote a sonnet in defense of capital punishment.

Wordsworth's lifelong love of nature, his powerful imagination, and his ability to draw sustenance from recollections of privileged, visionary moments - ``spots of time,'' as he called them - led him to believe there was a vital connection between art and morality. Ethics, doing the right thing, depended on aesthetics - having the right feelings.

Rather than demonstrate his beliefs in expository fashion, he used his own experience as example. He wrote ``The Prelude'' to show how his heart, eye, and imagination had been ``educated'' by nature and experience to enable him to become the poet who might attempt so great a task.

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In writing how he had become himself, he accomplished the task, a pattern prefigured by an adventure he describes in ``The Prelude'': Trying to cross the Alps on foot, Wordsworth and his companion become lost. They struggle on until they meet a peasant and ask him the way. Listening to his directions, it slowly dawns on them that they have, in fact, crossed the Alps!

Gill's portrait of Wordsworth is a useful counterweight to set against the strong image of the ``egotistical sublime'' that Keats detected in Wordsworth's poetry. The prickly, self-reliant poet formed deep and lasting attachments, cherishing - and relying upon - the love of friends and family, especially his sister Dorothy and his wife Mary. ``I am naturally slow to love and to cease loving,'' Wordsworth said of himself.

In choosing to emphasize the strain of Wordsworth that opened out to let in ``the still sad music of humanity,'' Gill slights the antithetical strain first pointed out by A.C. Bradley. Indeed, he not only fails to contend with the bulk of Wordsworth criticism from Matthew Arnold to Geoffrey Hartman, but he also does not even list many important critical works in his bibliography.

``It is,'' wrote Wordsworth, ``such an animating sight to see a man of Genius, regardless of temporary gains whether of money or praise, fixing his attention solely upon what is intrinsically interesting and permanent....'' He was speaking of someone else, but the words apply to the speaker himself. Gill's biography quietly but memorably reveals the drama of Wordsworth's life. It is a very moving story, finally more so because it unfolds slowly and beneath the surface, at a level, to borrow Wordsworth's own phrase, ``too deep for tears.''

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