Auden was wrong: Poetry can accomplish much.
Jonathan Bate’s biography Radical Wordsworth is one of the best literary biography’s I have read. Not only does Dr. Bate help us understand the man and his poetry, but he illuminates the times in which Wordsworth wrote, shows the impact of Wordsworth on his own day, and demonstrates the power of poetry to create lasting effects on culture and society.
Wordsworth is presented as a self-centered and egotistical man, whose primary concern was always the advancement of his own status. He used other people and then dismissed them when they no longer served his interests. He made a god of nature and thus mocked the God of Christianity, promoting a kind of pantheism as opposed to the true teachings of the faith about creation as revelation. Later in his life, he may have become more open to faith in the one true God, but Dr. Bate does not elaborate.
Wordsworth’s poetry turned the focus of people away from classical themes to everyday people and vistas where beauty and truth could be found in abundance. He especially focused on the Lakes District in the north of England, its natural wonders and humble people. His poetry can help us to develop an eye for seeing the revelation of God in everyday things, events, and people. This was his impact on the people of his own generation. After his death, so many people had become affected by his poems that his love for creation provided the impetus for many good works of conservation, including the American system of national parks (John Muir was greatly influenced by Wordsworth).
Dr. Bate’s work can help us to appreciate both the power of poetry and the gifts of common grace God gives to all people, even those who neither know nor love Him. This is an excellent, well-written book, for those who want to understand why poetry matters and how poetry can affect us in our souls for loving God and our neighbors.