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Book Review: Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing

Myself and Some Other Being by Daniel Robinson

Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing by Daniel Robinson is a study of, for the most part, Wordsworth and the creation of “The Prelude”. Robinson earned his BA in English from James Madison University, and he earned his Masters and PhD from the University of South Carolina. Robinson is currently a Professor of English at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. His area of expertise is British Romanticism and rock and roll. Robinson is also the bass player and singer/songwriter for, the aptly named, Milton and the Devil’s Party.http://danielrobinson.org/category/mi…

It has been years, decades more like it, since I thought of Wordsworth or Coleridge. I do, though, enjoy British Victorian writers — Virginia Woolf in particular. The last experience I had with Wordsworth came as an undergraduate. An over zealous English professor contributed all good in the world to English Literature; and all evil to the French, German, Russian, and especially American Literature. I mistakenly mentioned poetry in the modern world, Jim Morrison was the example I used. I was immediately scolded for trying to compare a drug addict to the greatness of Wordsworth or Coleridge. I responded, “Wasn’t Coleridge an opium addict?” That got me branded a heretic, because that (addiction) was something entirely different. My final error was writing a paper on T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland from a post World War I historical perspective, instead of citing fertility rituals. As a history major I wasn’t too worried about the class, but that was the only “C” I received in college. I gave up on poetry for a long time after that. English literature took a back seat to Russian Literature and was considered to be part of the dust bin of literature, in my mind. Eventually, through Patti Smith, I was brought back into poetry by her work, which lead me to Rimbaud. I eventually read Blake and Byron with caution, knowing I was drifting into an area I believed was poison. I really liked Blake and Byron and Shelley too. So, I figured after all these years, I should give Wordsworth a try, again.

I frequently use rock/punk rock references in my reviews. After being shot down for doing so as an undergraduate, I was surprised when reading Myself and Some Other Being to come across the name “Morrissey.” I was even more surprised to see it was the same Morrissey of Smiths fame. A little further along I read a reference to Roy Orbison and another to The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. Still another reference to Wordsworth and Coleridge as being the Lennon and McCartney; this is the duo that wanted to top Milton. Here is everything but calling Wordsworth punk rock, I thought, until I read, “The epic poet is the archetypical badass.” Yeah, Wordsworth was the Lou Reed of his day. 

Myself and Some Other Being is more about the writing than the writer. There is discussion of Wordsworth’s themes of memory and imagination. Memory is important because a poem cannot be written when the emotion is experienced, but emotions like wine need time to mature. Memory can also help us reconnect to the happier freer times of our youth, as written in “Tintern Abbey.” One thing that greatly impressed me and still does is the idea that experience changes our perceptions:

Yet, as Wordsworth asserts, we can go back to the same place (or poem) but we can never have the same experience because we are not the same. The place (or poem) may not change but we do. In this way memory always involves loss — because our past becomes, in effect, imaginary, nonmaterial inventory. So does one’s former self. 

The majority of the book is Wordsworth’s work on “The Prelude” an autobiographical multi-volume poem of his personal development as a writer. I get the feeling that although partnered, in writing, with Coleridge, he did not feel he was the equal or maybe even being a worthy subject of a massive autobiography of his maturation as a poet. Coleridge seemed to steal the show with “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Maybe Wordsworth knew more than he let on about where he felt he was career-wise. Maybe another British rock duo may be just as appropriate as Lennon and McCartney. In keeping with the rock theme, maybe Wordsworth was the David Gilmour to Coleridge’s Roger Waters. Water’s wrote the entire album “The Wall” except for the one song that was a hit, and the one everyone knows, “Comfortably Numb,” which was written by Gilmour. Wordsworth was wanting his “hit” to be “The Recluse”, which unfortunately he never finished and quite frankly didn’t need it as a high mark of his writing. 

Wordsworth life was interesting from happy childhood memories to being embarrassed at being too “country” at Cambridge. He supported working class values and hated aristocratic privilege. At Cambridge, he worked as well as studied on what today would be a work study program. Although work allowed him to attend school, it further lowered his standing among students of privilege. He supported the French Revolution, but hated the results — overthrowing a king to crown an emperor. In 1843 he reluctantly accepted the position as Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate. “The Prelude” was printed just months after his death by his sister. 

This new appreciation for Wordsworth has overturned most of my hard feelings as an undergraduate. It isn’t often that a book can change long held beliefs and even less often when that was not the author’s intent. Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing is well written and an excellent book on what it is to be a writer. It also covers enough of Wordsworth life and experiences to bring everything together rather nicely. I am leaving this experience with a much greater appreciation of Wordsworth as a man, a writer, and a rock star of his time. An Excellent read. 

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