Saturday, July 18, 2015


I have always loved Wordsworth...OK always dating back to when I was nine and I copied out Lucy Gray from the Golden Treasury as a holiday exercise. I loved it because I found the poem mysterious and uncanny. The little girl, the "sweetest thing that ever grew beside a human door", disappearing into the mist with a lantern to light her mother through the snow...nothing of her ever being found. And yet, she kept on walking those hills with that lantern, singing her solitary song, for all eternity. The poem seemed vaguely prophetic. Wordsworth lost both his daughters before he and his wife died, both octogenarians, although Mary, his wife, was very nearly a nonagenarian.

So when Anna pointed out a biography of him (I had been idly considering getting a biography on my Kindle...all expensive) for RM5, naturally, I snapped it up. I knew he was a Lake poet. I knew there was some fight with Byron (I had read the Don Juan stanzas relating to Wordsworth and Southey), I knew about his friendship with Coleridge which broke down because really, no one can be friends with a drug addict, but his life in entirety, no I didn't know much. He was supposed to have had an affair with his sister Dorothy who loved him so much and was his amanuensis? I did read the Alfoxden and Grasmere diaries when I was in Hua Hin (I think I bought it in 2010 but let it lie unread on my shelf for three years before I picked it up, along with The Prelude). So yeah, I knew a little bit.

The Hunter Davies biography, the first to be merely a recounting of what happened throughout his life, without attempting literary criticism, although he did talk about how the various volumes of poetry were received and what the reviewers (most of them severely unkind) said.

I just finished it. Wow. His turbulent, restless youth. His dreams with Coleridge and his sister. His settling down once he had married and had children and becoming so conservative and didactic that people reacted to that rather than his poems per se. The tragedies in his life, starting with the deaths of his father and mother, and later his brother John. Wordsworth lost three children before he died - his daughter Catherine, in infancy, his son Thomas, a young schoolboy, and then his favourite daughter Dora after she had married. This last death seems to have finished him. He saw his contemporaries, even the poets of a generation after - Keats, Byron, Shelly - who died at 26, 30 and 36 respectively, perish before him. He saw Coleridge die, Charles Lamb, Sir Walter Scott...and he felt very old and sad about it.

But because he lived primarily in the West Country, because he was in the habit of taking long walks, living temperately and close to nature (simple living, high thinking), he survived a long, long time. He died at 80. His sister Dorothy (who had been an active and cheerful person before she had taken leave of her senses and become an invalid, died at 83 and his wife Mary, perhaps, the most temperate of them all as she was not given to passions, died at 89, having seen the publication of The Prelude, which was published posthumously, and his biography, a delicate matter, as there were incidents in his life that Wordsworth would rather have not been shared with the public.

Such as his affair with Annette Vallon, a Frenchwoman at Orleans from a good family, during the time of the Revolution, when Wordsworth was there in the early days. Their alliance (which from Annette's letters was more than just a passing fancy to her; she loved him all her life, and never demanded anything save that he come back and legitimise their union) produced a child, Caroline. So, there is a branch of direct descendants in both France and England. How interesting. I don't think Wordsworth behaved very well towards Annette. He didn't go for Caroline's wedding. And when he did meet her and she called him "father", he thought that was "indelicate".

What I liked most about this biography is that it didn't seek to paint Wordsworth in one way or another. People are various and they keep changing. They are usually a mixture of saint and sinner. Perhaps in Wordsworth's case, the sinner part was shocking (his alliance with Annette was discovered in the 1920s, when some letters were discovered at a post office, unsent, from Annette to Wordsworth) because his biographies painted him a rather dour, uncompromising figure who laid down the law as to what poetry is and was supposed to be, and got everyone else's back up.

The journal that was most severe on him was The Edinburgh Review and its reviews were so castigating that a weaker man may have committed suicide. Yet the editor, Jeffrey who later became Lord Jeffrey, said he quite liked Wordsworth's poetry and actually kept a copy of Lyrical Ballads (one of his early volumes, done in collaboration with Coleridge) on his desk. He said the reviews were to keep Wordsworth in his place so he didn't get above himself. What the reviews did, however, was to ensure that he did not make any money from his poetry (roughly about £7 a year for 20 years) so he was forced to take other work. And it was here that he drew the most criticism. The young man was a revolutionary. The middle aged one pandered to the nobility and aristocracy and spied for them. He had gone from being a radical to being the Toriest of Tories, something that the younger poets, especially, couldn't forgive him for.

This biography also took pains to point out that whatever had been his relationship with his sister (and it was pretty ambiguous - when I was reading the DW journals, I was struck by the violence of her emotions, vis a vis her brother) he was passionately in love with his wife...with a love that grew through the years. Their habits were regular, they never squabbled or said an angry word to each other and they were each other's support. Of course, because the household included his sister, Dorothy, and her sister, was said that he had not one but three wives, in the broadest sense of the word. All three ladies chivvied around him, looked after him, did his secretarial work and whatever else he needed. This was one of the things Coleridge most envied about him.

I liked this biography...the telling of his long years...the changes that time wrought in him. The biographer was obviously a fan. He softened Wordsworth's faults, without excusing them.

I feel like moving on to Barbara Pym next.

Receding into shadow

I miss you Mum. You pop up into my mind constantly, maybe because I think I am finally letting you go, and you are receding. So now, whatever life I choose to have, I will have to decide for myself. I've never been good at that, have I? But maybe that's OK. I can trudge on making whatever mistakes I am bound to make, falling and then getting up all over again to make mistakes, other mistakes, better mistakes...failing better, as someone once said.

My life is a mess and I allowed it to get this way. I feel tired all the time and this lack of energy has made me curl up into an uncomfortable corner, sweating because it is too hot, swatting the mosquitoes that tend to land on my sweaty flesh and take their fill, watching feel good Hallmark movies instead of sleeping because there are so many things I am trying to avoid thinking about.

And then, there's the work I could do but choose not to do.

And then I want to go out and watch a movie or write a letter in a cafe or do something at least, rather than sitting here, doing nothing, feeling lost and tired and cranky and hot.

The dogs: I love them and they frustrate me. On the one hand, I do not want the responsibility for them and on the other, I cannot bear to abandon them the way they were abandoned before.

Elliott is old and tired. He has cloudy spots in his eyes and he no longer runs like an antelope. Heck, he no longer runs at all, and if made to walk quickly, he starts wheezing.

And I don't know what I want to do with the rest of my life. The fount of creativity starts and stops...and right now, it's definitely stopped. I try to do what I am supposed to do, get by on the bare minimum and what I lack is soul, and what I lack is the real deal.

I don't know at which point my life got derailed. There is a point, no doubt, but I didn't see it while it was happening. I can only look back on it now, at this point, and wonder.

Has it derailed completely? Is there any such thing as a final ending? Is that what death is? Mother, looking at yours, I think you left so many things unfinished. You know, the way Michael Jackson did. But your body gave out before you could finish them.

And I wonder how lonely you must have been in that house by yourself. It always makes me cry to think about that. There is nothing I can do to change that now. But that house, it scares me and I avoid it. It has become like this dark thing looming in the shadows, and the more it looms, the more I avoid it.

I avoid a lot of things, but I guess if you've been watching, you've kind of noticed that already.

But as I said, even if you were watching before, I don't think you're watching anymore, or at least, less and less.

I feel you receding and this is good. You need to go get on with whatever you need to get on with. I cannot keep calling on you.

Mum I don't know how to live but I'm going to have to figure it out myself.

I love you. I always will.