On the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth's birth comes a portrait of the British Romantic poet focused on the revolutionary politics and verse of his young adulthood, rather than the establishmentarian middle and later years that have contributed to the diminishment of his literary reputation.
Radical Wordsworth is Bate’s attempt to return the poet to his more palatable incarnation as the bold spirit who 'made a difference' by changing both the literary culture and our relationship with the natural world. Bate says he is aiming here for the kind of biography that follows the growth of its 'subject’s imaginative power' rather than one that trudges dutifully from cradle to grave. The result is a book that is recognizably Wordsworthian in the way it abjures the calendar in favor of the 'spots of time' identified in The Prelude as those moments of piercing self-awareness that direct and define the growing self. Yet while this makes Radical Wordsworth episodic, it is never superficial. Bate, who until recently taught literature at Oxford, issues a stern instruction to his readers not to skip the long, indented blocks of poetry around which he builds his narrative. Instead, we are urged to slow down, savor, and even read the verse aloud. Radical Wordsworth succeeds where longer literary biographies often fail, by keeping the subject’s work, rather than the minutiae of his pocket diary or his tailor’s bills, lodged at its heart ... Bate is excellent on how Wordsworth forged a blank verse that shed its grand Miltonic subject matter while taking advantage of the form’s capacity for suppleness and intimacy ... it would be hard to think of a better poet to read just now, when our abuse of natural systems has brought us to this moment of terrible reckoning. And Bate is the right guide for the occasion, blowing the dust off familiar poems to reveal their startling resonance.
This is the biography that [Bate] feels has been missing—‘a not overlong and not over-specialised book that would make students excited about Wordsworth’. And he has succeeded in writing it ... Whilst Bate’s stirring biography is selective, it is neither rushed nor reductive. It is full of sharp anecdotes that evoke the lives of the Wordsworths—including the time that William found himself threatened with a carving knife by an inebriated priest. Equally, Bate is able to set the poetry amid the personal, and writes revealingly about the changing relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth after William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802 ... [Bate] displays his deep knowledge of the sources ... Reams have been written on the Wordsworths’ familial relations and there is no doubt that the bond between Dorothy and William was a complicated one. Bate’s nimble biography explores this without being sensationalist, and constructs a vivid picture of a complex man whose poetry helps us ‘see into the life of things’.
... thrillingly good ... Bate is a renowned scholar and a first-rate biographer, and Radical Wordsworth breathes with exactly the kind of relaxed authority that’s always made his books a joy to read ... Bate writes about the younger Wordsworth with an immediate sympathy that fills the narrative with urgent letters, urgent book-reading, and urgent friendships of all kinds. It’s an account remarkably unhaunted by that older, more placid Wordsworth, a faded figure Bate describes in appealingly personal terms ... the exhilarating ascent now has a biographical account that matches its passion.