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The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy 1st Edition

2 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393046236
ISBN-10: 0393046230
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Editorial Reviews Review

William Wordsworth's version of his youth in The Prelude, an epic-length poem "on the growth of my own mind," is certainly well known, but what does it really tell us about the poet's youth and early adulthood? Kenneth R. Johnston, who has devoted much of his academic career to the romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth, sifts through the other available evidence and demonstrates that the poet suppressed as much, perhaps more, of his personal history as he revealed in the deliberate crafting of his literary identity.

The most fascinating material for some readers will be Johnston's (ably supported) hypotheses about several periods during the 1790s when Wordsworth's presence cannot be fully accounted for. For nearly half of 1793, for example, the poet is supposed to be "quietly sitting down" in Wales, but there's good reason to suspect that he is actually in Paris, re-establishing contact with his French mistress, Annette Vallon. Then, six years later, he and his sister disappear in southern Germany for over a month--and the secret account books of the home secretary, who controlled funds for the secret service, show a payment made out to a "Wordsworth" shortly afterwards.

Was one of the founders of English romanticism actually a British spy? Admittedly, we may never know for sure. But Johnston's account is very convincingly constructed; it fits what can be known without requiring great leaps of imagination. As such, it forces us to re-evaluate everything we've ever believed about Wordsworth and his poems. Fortunately, Johnston is as capable a literary critic as he is biographer.

From Publishers Weekly

Wordsworth tried to evade close scrutiny of his life by creating a more sanitized version of it in The Prelude. If this study of almost 1000 pages is anything to judge by, there's much more to Wordsworth than previously imagined. Johnston delves deep into the poetry and historical sources. Much of what is new is the result of research into government archives in Britain and France, Wordsworth's university records and personal letters of Wordsworth's intimates. Although the volume concentrates only on Wordsworth's early life (approximately the same period covered by The Prelude), the young Wordsworth emerges as a fiery soul, one perfectly situated to shine among his Romantic counterparts. Johnston shows that Wordsworth was more closely aligned with radical Jacobins than has been previously thought. We also learn that financial difficulties may have led Wordsworth to serve the Foreign Office as a minor spy on his trip to Hamburg. Also, Johnston puts to rest the idea that Wordsworth was uninterested in sex by discussing his familiarity with prostitutes at Cambridge and revealing a small but intriguing list of Wordsworth's love interests. But Johnston tends to wallow in encyclopedic detail of questionable interest (e.g., on November 30, 1791, Wordsworth changed money "at the excellent rate of 643 livres for [20 pounds]"). Making the book doubly dense are Johnston's frequent comparisons of The Prelude to historical fact, which can be useful, but seem like a separate book altogether. Still, there is plenty of interesting, fresh detail among the expendable bits. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 965 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (June 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393046230
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393046236
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 2.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,570,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ken Johnston is Ruth N. Halls Professor of English Emeritus at Indiana University, where he chaired the English department and won awards for teaching and scholarly achievement. He's also taught at Colorado, Bucharest, and Georgetown. "The Hidden Wordsworth" was awarded the 1999 Barricelli Prize for outstanding contribution to Romantic studies, and was named a Book of the Year by the New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent and other papers. Johnston's adaptation of James Hogg's "Love Adventures of Mr. George Cochrane" was directed by Lady Judy Steel at the 1993 Scottish Borders Festival, and revived in 2004. He has held Guggenheim, Fulbright, NEH, Lilly, and Mellon fellowships. He is preparing an anthology titled "Apocalypse Forever," featuring End-of-the-World literature, movies, and songs. He resides in Chicago and London. He swims and sings.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 18, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Excellent book! I liked the textual innuendo here, that our most bucolic and turgid of romantic poets was indeed a spy, mostly in the house of love, macking on Dorothea, his sister later of Oz fame, as well as many French Aristocrats and poetesses. This book displays brilliant research and impressive critical girth. The tale of Johnson provides a rich and yeasty reading of Wordsworth's "Prelude" as a love poem to Coleridge, what Johnson calls the foreplay to romanticism itself. Read this book for the rich critical ideas and the saucy details about how, where, and how often the poet hides himself.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I've read Wordsworth my whole life, and my hunched posture, bland disposition, and general resentment of other people's successes are testament to what happens when one gives oneself- like a prom queen- to the WORDSWORTHer. Johnstone does admirable work here, giving us the dirt on the man and the truth about his years in Hollywood. Who knew that Wordsworth was a spy, or that he was the basis of the famous spy vrs spy strip? Johnson's fine research helped me appreciate that strip much more than i had.
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