The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy

Kenneth R. Johnston, Author W. W. Norton & Company $45 (965p) ISBN 978-0-393-04623-6
Wordsworth tried to evade close scrutiny of his life by creating a more sanitized version of it in The Prelude. If this study of almost 1000 pages is anything to judge by, there's much more to Wordsworth than previously imagined. Johnston delves deep into the poetry and historical sources. Much of what is new is the result of research into government archives in Britain and France, Wordsworth's university records and personal letters of Wordsworth's intimates. Although the volume concentrates only on Wordsworth's early life (approximately the same period covered by The Prelude), the young Wordsworth emerges as a fiery soul, one perfectly situated to shine among his Romantic counterparts. Johnston shows that Wordsworth was more closely aligned with radical Jacobins than has been previously thought. We also learn that financial difficulties may have led Wordsworth to serve the Foreign Office as a minor spy on his trip to Hamburg. Also, Johnston puts to rest the idea that Wordsworth was uninterested in sex by discussing his familiarity with prostitutes at Cambridge and revealing a small but intriguing list of Wordsworth's love interests. But Johnston tends to wallow in encyclopedic detail of questionable interest (e.g., on November 30, 1791, Wordsworth changed money ""at the excellent rate of 643 livres for [20 pounds]""). Making the book doubly dense are Johnston's frequent comparisons of The Prelude to historical fact, which can be useful, but seem like a separate book altogether. Still, there is plenty of interesting, fresh detail among the expendable bits. Photos not seen by PW. (June)
Reviewed on: 06/01/1998
Release date: 06/01/1998
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