Books April 2001

A Year in the Life

A microhistory of an extraordinary literary collaboration

Biographers have many and varied reasons for choosing their subjects, ranging from the high-minded to the simply prurient. For John Worthen it all began with a missing cartload of dung. On March 27, 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth made an entry in what has become known as her Grasmere journal:

Saturday a divine morning—at Breakfast W[illia]m wrote part of an ode—Mr Olliff sent the Dung & W[illia]m went to work in the garden we sate all day in the orchard—

William Knight, the first editor of the journal, considered the arrival of the dung and the poet's subsequent employment to be merely "trivial details" that could legitimately be omitted from his edition because they were not "of any literary or biographical value." As Worthen entertainingly points out, however, in his preface to The Gang, what may seem like a minor editorial decision has important consequences. Knight's version, leaping straight from Wordsworth's composition of "part of an ode" to his sitting with his sister in the orchard, implies that the poet was so exhausted by his literary efforts at breakfast that he was incapable of doing anything else for the rest of the day. It conjures up the perfect image of the Romantic poet, giving his all to his art and suffering in consequence. This seems even more appropriate when we know that the poem Wordsworth was working on was his incomparable Immortality Ode. The rude reality was somewhat different. The full journal entry suggests that the retreat to the orchard was actually a response to the unromantic but necessary physical labor of digging in the newly arrived dung, without which the Wordsworths could not grow the vegetable crops on which they were dependent to eke out their impoverished existence. For them, Worthen observes, the arrival of the dung was in its own way probably as important as that of the poem.

Worthen uses this enjoyably ludicrous example of editorial high-handedness as an argument for the serious thesis that underpins and justifies his book. It would be a good idea, he suggests, for a biography

just for once, to include all that it is possible to include, rather than to start from the point of view that selection and shaping are the biographer's first principles; while it would also be sensible to make the biography, so far as possible, of all the people in the group, not just of a central figure chosen ... for his "literary value."

Because such an approach is impractical for a full-length life, Worthen puts his theory into practice by writing a detailed biography covering a brief period in the lives of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "the Gang"—Coleridge himself, William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, and Mary Hutchinson (Wordsworth's future wife) and her sister, Sara. The year he chooses, 1802, was one that saw momentous events in the creative and personal lives of his subjects: Wordsworth's writing included part of his Immortality Ode and The Leech Gatherer; Coleridge produced Dejection: An Ode; Wordsworth ended his hitherto exclusive partnership with Dorothy by marrying Mary; Coleridge's marriage to the much maligned Sarah Fricker (significantly always excluded from the Gang) fell apart, and his growing infatuation with Sara Hutchinson became a hopeless obsession. It is a period not overburdened with biographical material: There are only about fifty published letters from Coleridge, a mere fifteen from William and Dorothy, and five from their brother John. There are Coleridge's private jottings in his notebooks, which are alternately revelatory and gnomic, and, crucially, there is Dorothy's journal, which—apart from its frustrating reticence on the most intriguing episode (the Wordsworths' meeting in Calais with William's former mistress, Annette Vallon, and their illegitimate daughter)—provides a structure for 1802 that goes beyond the merely chronological.

Illustration by Herve Blondon

Worthen's analysis of this material is acute, critical, and perceptive. He questions accepted readings and datings and argues persuasively for new interpretations. By the simple expedient of comparing extant manuscripts with Dorothy's journal references to copying her brother's poems, he dramatically illustrates how much of her work has been lost—work that, as he emphasizes, was vital to Wordsworth in the creation and revision of his poetry. A similar exercise reveals that very few of the letters Dorothy wrote have survived. Worthen may exaggerate the total number by treating each letter referred to in the journal as if it were a new one rather than perhaps a continuation of a previous one; but even on a more cautious reckoning Dorothy wrote more letters every month than have survived for the entire year. It is therefore all too easy to underestimate the importance of her role in constantly bringing the members of the Gang together through her letters. She acted as a conduit not only for all their news but also—more important—for Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry and the responses of the rest of the Gang to it. Wordsworth published reluctantly and infrequently; this was the only audience he wrote for and whose opinion he cared about. Without his sister's letters he could not have functioned so successfully as a poet.

Worthen is able to paint the bigger picture through these and similar small insights: for instance, Wordsworth reverted to poems about childhood and children as his marriage to Mary and the probability of legitimate fatherhood approached; Sarah Coleridge's exclusion from the Gang is tellingly illustrated by the fact that not a single manuscript of a poem that circulated within the group was written in her hand. What emerges most strikingly and effectively from the narrow focus of this biography, however, is the collective creative process engendered by the Coleridge-Wordsworth-Hutchinson relationship. Because Coleridge and Wordsworth quarreled so bitterly from 1810 to 1812, their biographers are generally divided into hostile camps, each determined to establish the intellectual precedence of its subject (as is, for different reasons, the camp of Dorothy's biographers, who are anxious to prove that her journal entries pre-date and therefore inspired her brother's poems).

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