We lament deaths that shorten great careers, as with Mary Wollstonecraft or John Keats. We puzzle over decisions to abandon success. Shakespeare retired to Stratford at the height of his powers; Arthur Rimbaud abandoned poetry at 20 to become, at different times, a construction worker, a coffee grower, an arms trafficker. These stories may strike us as examples of promise lost, of vocations cut short.
Yet we rarely ask, “Can a career be too long?” As I move through my 60s, that’s not just something I ask myself personally; it is also a question that has plagued criticism of an author I’ve spent decades teaching, studying, and now writing about: William Wordsworth. Recognized for having, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, revolutionized poetry, when they published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Wordsworth, over the next ten years, wrote some of the best loved (“Daffodils”) and most influential poems (“Tintern Abbey”) in the English language.
But most scholars see Wordsworth’s poetry declining after this “great decade,” what Matthew Arnold called Wordsworth’s “golden prime.” By 1810, at the age of 40, Wordsworth was seen as headed downhill, as already “late, as “old.” The remaining four decades of his life are often described by critics as an “anti-climax.” This oft-repeated story of decline deserves our skepticism.
In my new book, William Wordsworth, Second Generation Romantic, I provide a strikingly different account. Wordsworth’s appears “late” in part because he continues to write at a time when new poetic voices—the “second generation” of romantic poets including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Keats, and particularly Lord Byron—could be heard. We see these younger writers as having been influenced by Wordsworth and then as essentially having shoved him off the literary stage.
In fact, Wordsworth developed his later poetry in conversation with these younger writers, contesting both their poetics and their politics. Rather than offering a story of two “generations” of Romantic poets—with Wordsworth “fathering” rebellious “sons”—I show both how deeply interconnected Wordsworth was with his younger rivals and how these personal relations gave way to party battles between Wordsworth and the “Lake School” and the “Cockney School” of younger writers. Writing alongside and in competition with these poets, Wordsworth remakes himself as a “second generation” romantic, continuing to speak to a changing society.
Wordsworth, far from retreating into some aesthetic funk after 1810, increasingly engaged with the public, seeking both to define modern poetry and to use poetry to shape the modern world. He and his younger contemporaries battled, in a series of mostly overlooked poems, about how to respond to Waterloo and the apparent defeat of not just Napoleon but the ideals of the French Revolution of the 1790s. In his controversial Peter Bell, begun as a “lyrical ballad” but only published in 1819 when it takes on a quite different meaning, Wordsworth sought to combat both what he saw as a kind of Byronic nihilism and what he felt were radical versions of his own experimental poetics. In his lovely though late River Duddon sonnets (1820), he contests Shelley over how to read nature.
Of course, Wordsworth did grow old. He outlived Shelley and every other major writer of the period—Jane Austen, Keats, Byron, Felicia Hemans, Sir Walter Scott. Wordsworth died at the age of 80 in 1850, having published his last new volume of original verse in 1842 and becoming the poet laureate 1843. In the final section of my book, I offer an approach to truly late Wordsworth, as he turns to retrospection and the re-collection of his own works to think through and from the perspective of old age. As he aged, he came to admire more the style of the younger writers he outlived, but he continued to define his increasingly religious and conservative views in response to their skepticism and radicalism. He continued to contest them because he shared with them the belief in the power of poetry. As he aged, he hoped, in the words of his Prelude, he had gained “Knowledge not purchased with loss of power.” My book allows us to appreciate again that matured power.
Image credit: Benjamin Robert Haydon. Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem
(1814–20). Wordsworth’s portrait, with bowed head, appears between the two columns on the right, next to the sneering Voltaire; Keats and Hazlitt are behind him. 457 x 396 cm. Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Cincinnati. Photo provided by: The Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.