Radical Wordsworth

For several nights during the Christmas season of 1806, William Wordsworth recited a very long new poem in instalments to the company gathered around the fire: his wife, Mary, his sister, Dorothy, his sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson and his old friend and collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to whom the poem was dedicated. It was an autobiographical work, telling the Wordsworth story from his boyhood spent in the Lake District, through his entirely undistinguished career as a student at Cambridge, extensive pedestrian travels in Europe during which he witnessed the revolution in France, to his return to the Lakes to settle at Grasmere, all set to realise his literary vocation and produce the great philosophical poem to which the many hundreds of autobiographical lines he was declaiming were merely prefatory. As it happened, the party was nowhere near the Lake District: they were in a farmhouse in Leicestershire lent to the poet by his devoted patron, the connoisseur Sir George Beaumont, who had confidently identified in Wordsworth the genius of the age. Coleridge was no less sure of his friend’s pre-eminence: in a few years’ time he would publish a book in which he made him the third member of a literary triumvirate, the other two being Shakespeare and Milton. That was setting it pretty high, especially since to many reviewers, and most of the influential ones, Wordsworth was ripe for ridicule, someone who wrote about trivial subjects in a puerile way. Who could forget those lines from his poem ‘The Thorn’ describing a pond: ‘I’ve measured it from side to side/’Tis three feet long and two feet wide’?

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