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Radical Wordsworth by Jonathan Bate review – fleet-footed and inspiriting


On the 250th anniversary of his birth, a biography focusing on the poet’s most creative years zings with passion and energy

In 1798, William Wordsworth arrived from Bristol at the cottage of his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Nether Stowey in Somerset. Twenty-five years later, William Hazlitt, who was also in residence at the time, still remembered his first sight of the future poet laureate, a tall “Don Quixote-like” figure, quaintly dressed in a brown fustian jacket and striped pantaloons. There was, wrote Hazlitt, “a roll in his gait” and a “fire in his eye”; when he began to talk, he heard in Wordsworth’s voice “a strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine”. The poet “instantly began to make havoc” of a Cheshire cheese that was on Coleridge’s table.

The year 1798 was a miraculous one for Coleridge and Wordsworth, their glorious bromance as yet unpolluted by jealousy and opium (Coleridge), pomposity and indiscretion (Wordsworth). There, on the edge of the Quantocks – they were not yet the Lakeland Poets – Wordsworth wrote Tintern Abbey and Coleridge Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Striding out in the countryside, accompanied by Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, they talked of Shakespeare and Spinoza, their brains, like their lungs, expanding with every stride. The atmosphere, all poetry and high-mindedness, was exciting, even febrile. But Britain was also at war with France, and young men of odd appearance and grand ideas were apt to attract attention. Word of their activities having reached the wrong ears, a government spy was dispatched to observe them. What this emissary made of Wordsworth’s striped pantaloons is, alas, not known.

Fanaticism, like bereavement, freezes certain internal organs

Related: The Guardian view on poetry for dark times: add Wordsworth to the stockpile | Editorial

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