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.