“Obstinate questionings of sense and outward things”

This is my review of Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A S Byatt.

Daily life, the structure of society, political views, education and childhood, the literary world and the landscape: these themed chapters explore the response of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two pioneers of the Romantic Movement, to the unsettled period in which they lived with the fear of political revolution and disruption of industrial development.

The introduction supplies some very astute analysis of the marked differences between their personalities: “Wordsworth, in his innermost self, proud, solitary, courageous and self-regarding was on the surface suspicious and awkward. Coleridge, who lacked self-respect or self-confidence at the deepest level, was on the surface charming, warm, welcoming and quick to relax and involve people…Wordsworth increased Coleridge’s sense of his own value” and Coleridge had a “humanizing influence” on Wordsworth. Both, initially excited by the French Revolution, were so appalled by its violent excesses that they both became much more politically conservative with age, but Wordsworth, as a respected national figure , became ever more “remote, arrogant, self-absorbed and self-praising”, while Coleridge, a much more profound thinker, found his life severely blighted by frequent illness and opium addiction, for which he was too often dismissed contemptuously.

This book is packed with entertaining anecdotes and fascinating observations. In his sincere if somewhat theoretical concern for the deserving poor, Wordsworth’s poem about “The Leech-gatherer” was based on research that they “did not breed fast and were of slow growth” because of dry weather and being gathered too much so that “formerly 2/6 per 100, they are now 30s”.

Both poets agreed that young children should be allowed to develop naturally, with education a process kindling natural curiosity. Coleridge’s observation of his small children makes moving reading (“a little child, a limber elf, singing, dancing to itself”), and his natural skill in teaching them through play sounds quite modern. It is therefore a shock to learn how he abandoned them for long periods, at one point preferring to stay in Germany where he was having a good time studying rather than return to England to comfort a wife grieving over the loss of their infant son.

Wordsworth questioned the desire of Utopian idealists to educate working class girls on enlightened lines since it was likely to make them “unsettled…..indisposed to any kind of hard labour or drudgery. And yet many of them must submit to it or do wrong”. This was arguably true, but not what one might hope for from a Romantic poet.

A.S. Byatt is clearly shocked by Wordsworth’s support for capital punishment on the basis that time spent in the condemned cell gave a fortunate opportunity to repent. Nimbyism is evident in the opposition to construction of railways in his beloved Lake District which would be spoilt by “droves” of working people from Lancashire who would not appreciate the mountains

He opposed the extension of the right to vote, as likely to produce frequent parliaments and “convert the representatives into mere slavish delegates, as they now are in America, under the dictation of ignorant and selfish numbers misled by unprincipled journalists”. In view of the recent shock of democracy producing a Trump victory, these ideas seem remarkably relevant today, even if one disagrees with his opinion.

Perhaps because he tended to consider issues from more angles, Coleridge comes across less clearly than Wordsworth, but as more engaging. Yet even he came to fear democracy as the misguided pursuit of an abstract idea: “the incorporation of individuals into one unnatural state, the deluded subjects of which soon find themselves under a dominion tenfold more oppressive and vexatious than that to which the laws of God and nature attached them”.

The many quotations are often inserted clunkily into the text, and assume more practice in interpreting poetry than most readers are likely to possess. The passages wrapped round these extracts are often indigestible, even disjointed, since they read as if condensed down from detailed notes.

Recommended, but best read with other texts, such as the biographies of Richard Holmes on the Lakeland poets.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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