William Wordsworth's early Romantic credentials are superb. He was a poet of intense and sometimes mystical sensitivity. Politically, in the early 1790s, he was swept into the maelstrom of the French Revolution. He traveled extensively in France, fell in love with Annette Vallon, and fathered an illegitimate daughter, Caroline. He returned to England and between 1795 and 1805, wrote his greatest poetry -- poetry that deflected forever the course of English literature by employing "a selection of language really used by men."
Wordsworth and this three brothers and sister, Dorothy, were orphaned early, then denied the money owed them by the erratic and eccentric first Earl of Lonsdale, for whom their father had worked as steward and legal and political agent. After his studies at Cambridge and travels abroad, Wordsworth lived with Dorothy, first in Dorset and then in Somerset. In the late 1790s, William, Dorothy and Coleridge roamed the West Country downs, traveled in Germany and settled finally in the Lake District, where William was to live most of the rest of his life.
In the early version of "The Prelude," Wordsworth's long autobiographical poem, are some prophetic lines in Book XI; "The days gone by/Come back upon me from the dawn almost/Of life: the hiding-places of my power/Seem open; I approach, and then they close;/I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,/May scarcely see at all."
Indeed, it is the latter part of Wordsworth's life that galls. Slowly, beginning in his mid-30s, Wordsworth became self-righteous, egotistical and politically conservative, toadying to the successor to the first Earl of Lonsdale and dropping Coleridge as a friend. Keats eventually turned his back on him; Hazlitt made fun of him in public. In time Wordsworth's poetry dulled. In 1891, J. K. Stephen described Wordsworth's "Two Voices": one, he said, "of the deep," and the other "an old half witted sheep."
It is therefore, especially brave of British author and journalist Hunter Davies -- who was the biographer of the Beatles -- to cope with Wordsworth's life at all. That he has attempted the first popular Wordsworth biography in a half century, leaving out any discussion of Wordsworth's poetry, makes him doubly brave. But his bravery doesn't make up for the fact that Wordsworth without a discussion of his early poetry -- his very excuse for being -- comes across as a cardboard figure.
Yet Davies has made several contributions. He was among the first to see some of the yet unpublished Wordsworth manuscripts discovered in 1977. He quotes from a letter from Wordsworth to his wife, Mary, after they had been married for 10 years, that suggests a passionate physical relationship between the two while they were in their 40s. Reassuring, perhaps, to those who suspected that all passion in Wordsworth died in his youth.
Also, Davies' reporting instincts have led to a revealing analysis of the Cambridge of Wordsworth's day, as well as life in the Lake District while the Wordsworths lived there. More scholarly works have often ignored the setting for the poetry and the man.
And lastly, Davies faces squarely the unattractive aspects of Wordsworth's later years, something frequently glossed over or ignored by Wordsworth scholars.
Davies could have partially compensated for his lack of discussion of Wordsworth's poetry with more interpretation of the sharp division between the two halves of the poet's life. He verges on that when he says, "William developed an almost lemming-like longing to serve them [the Lonsdale family], going out of his way to cultivate their friendship, as if a recessive gene from his father and grandfather, long dormant and despised, was eating into his soul. Without being asked, and without any formal agreement, he started to do what his father had done before him."
But Davies frequently weakens his points by awkward writing, which sometimes seems like a satire of Victorian biography. Wordsworth's first "spot of time" is described as "an ordinary little incident, of the sort many people would come up with, if asked to search back in their memories for the first occasion on which they were frightened." Wordsworth, the reader is told, spent four months in London, after his graduation from Cambridge, "bumming around." Dorothy was "absolutely thrilled" when she heard William had been offered a country cottage and wanted her to join him. What happened to the Atheneum editors? Davies is, after all, an editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, and writes a weekly column for Punch.
However, it may be that the dearth of popular biography on Wordsworth is justified; that Wordsworth's life is not a story worth telling. We are best left perhaps with his early poetry, and for it be thankful.