A Poet's Life

Rattigan Professor of English Mahoney closely blends Wordsworth's work and life in a new biography

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Anyone who undertakes a biography of William Wordsworth, says Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney, "has to be humble," given the already numerous studies of the English poet's life.

While not a biographer by profession, Mahoney felt he could tell his own story of "the high priest and master spirit" of the English Romantic Movement. His book William Wordsworth: A Poetic Life closely blends Wordsworth's work with his life, tracing in a literary fashion his youth in England's Lake District, political activism in the French Revolution, rise to international fame and gradual move toward more conservative views.

Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney- "I decided that I would not neglect Wordsworth's history, but use poems to illuminate it." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Instead of a conventional depiction of Wordsworth's career as a "Golden Decade" of creativity in the early 1800s followed by years of decline, Mahoney focuses on what he sees as a continuity in Wordsworth's evolution from a "passionate, radical poet of nature and imagination" to a "patriarchal, didactic Tory humanist."

"Wordsworth is not easy to understand," Mahoney said. "He is simple and complex, affirmative and negative, radical and conservative. On the one hand, he would affirm the presence of divinity in nature, yet also be torn by episodes of profound doubt. He would be struck by the power of nature, yet also wanted to experience the power of cities, institutions and human beings.

"In that sense, I think, Wordsworth really lived a poet's life," he continued. "He wrote steadily for some 60 years or more, and though he did change with age there were some aspects of him which remained constant. I decided that I would not neglect Wordsworth's history, but use poems to illuminate it."

Taking this approach, Mahoney said, meant re-reading all that Wordsworth wrote, from his famous poems like "An Evening Walk" and "Tintern Abbey" to his letters, as well as the scholarly material on Wordsworth. Mahoney sought a "magical middle ground" in which he treated the poems as both biographical documents and complex texts needing literary analysis.

"A work of art, among its other qualities, is the creature of a particular writer, and also a particular time and place," he said. "The book puts the poet and his work in their historical contexts, consistently asserting independence while consistently calling attention to those forces which give them focus and remove them from some general fund of human experience and linguistic expression."

For example, Mahoney points to passages in "Tintern Abbey" which vividly describe Wordsworth's early psychology and his belief "in the collaboration of mind and nature." Tracing his development from childhood to adolescence to maturity in the late 1790s, Mahoney said, Wordsworth "offers a summation of continuing faith."

An entry in his sister Dorothy's journal from 1803 also serves to illuminate Wordsworth's literary life and dramatizes "the poet's turning the stuff of daily experience into art," Mahoney said. She describes a walk she and Wordsworth took one evening in Scotland and their encounter with two local women, one of whom asked if they were "stepping westward" - an event Wordsworth would subsequently evoke in his poem of the same name.

Later in the book, Mahoney analyzes the long-held tendency among scholars to separate Wordsworth's post-1810 works from his earlier ones, especially the "Golden Decade" in which he published his Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude , among others. Mahoney acknowledges that age, the accumulation of personal and family tragedies, the impact of various sociopolitical trends - disillusionment with the French Revolution, for example, and England's growing industrialism - fostered in Wordsworth a more sober, conservative outlook.

But Mahoney feels this shift in Wordsworth's nature, "from a trust in the reasons of the heart to a moderating of that impulse," did not necessarily mean a decline in his poetic power. There were moments, such as during his visit to the King's College Chapel while writing Ecclesiastical Sonnets , when Wordsworth's imagination was still energized and vividly expressed, Mahoney said.

"Through it all is a poet with a deep faith in the mind's power and a developing awareness of the encounter of mind and a larger reality," Mahoney said. "I think of Wordsworth's poetry as unfolding, with the vigor of youth shaded by sadness and the wisdom of age touched by hope. So to that extent, his was truly a poetic life."

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