British academic John Worthen gives a new spin to the oft-told tale of English Romanticism's best-known coterie. It's well known that William Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge hopelessly loved her sister Sara, and that Dorothy Wordsworth served as intimate friend to them all, not least her brother William. Worthen deepens our knowledge by closely analyzing every available document--diaries, letters, household accounts--from a pivotal six-month period in 1802 when Coleridge wrote "Dejection: An Ode" and Wordsworth began work on one of his most famous poems, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Only by delving into the artists' daily lives, Worthen asserts in a thoughtful preface, can we truly understand the way their creativity fed off the natural world and their personal relationships. Taking critical issue with previous biographers (particularly Richard Holmes), whom he argues used source material very selectively to serve their own agendas, Worthen seeks a fairer, fuller view. He reminds us that the Wordsworths' highly unconventional lifestyle shocked many people other than Coleridge's soon-to-be-estranged wife, Sarah (better treated here than in many books on the period). He asserts that there is no documentation to suggest that Sara Hutchinson regarded Coleridge's declaration of adulterous love with anything but shock and horror, again reproving scholars who overread the evidence. Most crucially, Worthen makes clear the key importance of the interchange among Coleridge and the Wordsworth siblings, which shaped both men's poetry and placed Dorothy at the group's emotional center. The academic (though accessible) prose and dense lines of argument may intimidate casual readers, but this excellent study turns literary monuments back into human beings. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
"What would a biography be like which managed to include everything surviving a life? Every document, letter and journal entry?" University of Nottingham professor Worthem asks at the outset of his "group biography" of the poets S.T. Coleridge and William Wordsworth, William's sister Dorothy, and their friends Mary and Sara Hutchinson. And he answers the question, for this biography may not consist solely of intimate details drawn from letters and diaries, but those details suffocate much of the text. Worthen argues that during a six-month period in 1802 a time of intense written and oral communication among the members of "the gang" the two poets created some of their most extraordinary and celebrated work, such as Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" and Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode." In part I, tackling both public and private issues such as the mystery of nature, the importance of children and the meaning of friendship that inspired certain poems and even particular stanzas and lines, Worthen thoroughly defends a valid argument about the relation between an artist's daily life and his work, but he fails to arouse his reader's interest in each of the three families' circumstances, laden as the section is with pedestrian detail ("On the last day of February... Dorothy had started a letter to Sara Hutchinson; on 1 March she would finish it, write a letter to Mary Hutchinson, and start another letter to Sara"). In parts II and III, the author accomplishes his goal to write a group biography that gives all its figures an equal amount of authority. In these eventful six months, Wordsworth marries Mary Hutchinson, and Coleridge falls in love with her sister, Sara, neglecting his wife and children. Despite the excess detail, Worthen does a fine job balancing the personal with the critical and offers those who idolize one or both of the poets much to consider. 20 illus.
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