Book: The Hidden Wordsworth

Cover image

The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy

Author: Kenneth R. Johnston
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

A surprise-filled biography of the radical young poet whose fiery intellect revolutionized English poetry, The Hidden Wordsworth breaks through the carefully crafted but frequently misleading accounts of his youth that William Wordsworth created in his later years. In this enthralling narrative, the great Romantic poet emerges as a man of action during his youth and early manhood, when, in Wordsworth’s own words, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”

Kenneth Johnston explores Wordsworth’s links with radical British reformists, French revolutionary leaders, and journalists, and, astonishingly, reveals Wordsworth as an agent for the British “Secret Service” on the Continent and at home. Deeply intertwined with his politics, Wordsworth’s emotional life has until now been even more deeply buried. Johnston illuminates and freshly interprets Wordsworth’s relations with his sister, Dorothy, with his French mistress, Annette Vallon, and with his sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson. At the same time, The Hidden Wordsworth explores the poet’s intense and often destructive relations with a cluster of young writers, leading up to his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the most productive, if highly fraught, collaborations in literary history.

Based on new research in government archives in England and France, school and university records, and intimate letters, The Hidden Wordsworth is a warts-and-all account of a young poet who lived a life even Byron would have envied.


William Wordsworth’s version of his youth in The Prelude, an epic-length poem “on the growth of my own mind,” is certainly well known, but what does it really tell us about the poet’s youth and early adulthood? Kenneth R. Johnston, who has devoted much of his academic career to the romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth, sifts through the other available evidence and demonstrates that the poet suppressed as much, perhaps more, of his personal history as he revealed in the deliberate crafting of his literary identity.

The most fascinating material for some readers will be Johnston’s (ably supported) hypotheses about several periods during the 1790s when Wordsworth’s presence cannot be fully accounted for. For nearly half of 1793, for example, the poet is supposed to be “quietly sitting down” in Wales, but there’s good reason to suspect that he is actually in Paris, re-establishing contact with his French mistress, Annette Vallon. Then, six years later, he and his sister disappear in southern Germany for over a month—and the secret account books of the home secretary, who controlled funds for the secret service, show a payment made out to a “Wordsworth” shortly afterwards.

Was one of the founders of English romanticism actually a British spy? Admittedly, we may never know for sure. But Johnston’s account is very convincingly constructed; it fits what can be known without requiring great leaps of imagination. As such, it forces us to re-evaluate everything we’ve ever believed about Wordsworth and his poems. Fortunately, Johnston is as capable a literary critic as he is biographer.

Views: 328 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.023 sec