Thursday, May 14, 2009

The fecklessness of young Wordsworth, or, Never trust a Romantic poet?

One of the most difficult tasks that faces a conscientious biographer is divining the intent behind his subject's actions. The messy, conflicted decisions with which we're all familiar from our own lives must at least to some extent be translated into a convincing narrative, the bare facts of a life given some sort of form and meaning. An honorable biographer will hedge where necessary--but delicacy and hesitation are not the stuff of biography, and ultimately judgment must be rendered, or the life under examination will remain amorphous at best.

Thus it's not hard to see why a biographer might occasionally offer a generous take on questionable episodes in his subject's life; when openly acknowledged, such generosity serves as a more effective form of hedging, reminding us that no matter the information we have available, we cannot fully claim to be the just judges that we would ask for our own lives--that, as Jean Renoir put it, "Everybody has their reasons."

That said, I think Adam Sisman takes that generosity a bit far in this passage about the young Wordsworth from The Friendship:
Wordsworth was preparing to return to England. By this time it must have been obvious that [his French paramour] Annette Vallon was pregnant; she would give birth to a daughter on 15 December. So why did Wordsworth leave France, just as he was about to become a father?
At this point, I can't help but imagine Jon Stewart reading this, his face set in a thoughtful, attentive look that slowly gives way to disbelief, bordering on scorn, as Sisman trots out each of the following possible reasons for Wordsworth's flight:
He was certainly short of money. He may have believed that the time was ripe to publish his poems. Maybe he felt that he must return home to secure his future, to establish himself in the Church or some other profession, so that he would be able to provide for Annette and his child. Possibly he intended to marry her once he was established; Annette's subsequent letters suggest that she expected him to do so. But she may have been deluding herself.
You think?
Sisman continues:
It would have been difficult for him to make a career in the Church, with a foreign, Catholic wife and a child born out of wedlock. Perhaps he made promises to Annette that he did not mean to keep. The frustrating truth is that there is not enough evidence on which to base anything more than guesses at Wordsworth's intentions.
That last statement, while, strictly speaking, true, reeks of weasel. We may not have enough evidence in this particular case, but we do have centuries and centuries of evidence of what relatively privileged young men are thinking when they disappear just before their girlfriends give birth to illegitimate children, and it's not, "Better hurry back and get my poems published!" Sure, it's possible that Wordsworth was more honorable than the typical feckless young man, but the fact that he ultimately let nearly ten years elapse before he again saw Annette, let alone their child, certainly suggests otherwise.

But that seems too sad--even angering--a note on which to end, so in closing I'll turn to a line that Dorothy Wordsworth wrote about her brother to a friend in 1791:
William has a great attachment to poetry, which is not the most likely thing to produce his advancement in the world.
An assessment with which all of us, poets and critics alike, can surely agree--but perhaps we can draw resolve to continue our chosen course from these lines from Emily Dickinson:
Reverse cannot befall
That fine Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior--
As soon--Adversity

A Diamond--overtake
In far--Bolivian Ground--
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it--if it found--
Are you listening, crazy finance guys who destroyed the world economy?

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