Vital Stream, Lucy Newlyn, Carcanet, 184 pp, £12.99 (paperback)
For a long time, William Wordsworth had little interest in the sonnet form. ‘I used to think it egregiously absurd,’ he claimed in an 1822 letter to Walter Savage Landor, ‘though the greatest poets since the revival of literature have written in it’. If his origin story is to be believed, 1802 was the turning point, when his sister Dorothy read him some of Milton’s sonnets. Struck by their ‘dignified simplicity’ and ‘majestic harmony’, William ‘took fire’, and produced ‘three Sonnets the same afternoon’. He would go on to write no fewer than 523 over the course of his career.
The stunning about-face of his conversion to a form of poetry that hinges on a volta, or ‘turning point’, could not be more apt. Indeed, 1802 would prove to be a turning point in the lives of the Wordsworths as well as their literature. Separated at childhood, William and Dorothy reunited as adults in 1787 and, in 1799, had moved to Grasmere in the Lake District. The ensuing three years of self-sufficing tranquility at Dove Cottage came to an end in 1802, when William married Dorothy’s childhood friend Mary Hutchinson. The Wordsworth duo became a trio, and the siblings’ friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose marriage and mental state were in decline, strained to breaking point. The same year, the brief Peace of Amiens between Britain and France was declared. William visited Calais for the first time in a decade to see his former lover, Annette Vallon, as well as their illegitimate daughter, whom he had never met.
Lucy Newlyn dives into this momentous year in Vital Stream, her sequence of 135 sonnets dramatising the events of 1802, from perspectives of the key players in William’s circle. ‘Players’, for Vital Stream is consciously dramatic: the preface and back cover stress that it is designed to be ‘read aloud’. It is also, therefore, a uniquely modern fusion for a sonnet sequence. Milton’s public-focused sonnets stood on their own; historically, writers of narratorial sonnet sequences — Philip Sidney or George Meredith, for example — chose more private subject matter. (William never conceived of a sustained sequence of sonnets). Straddling these gaps from the perspectives of multiple characters – the interior and exterior, public and private – Newlyn’s is as ambitious in scope as modern sequences like Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets, without compromising on her historical source material. She convincingly mimics the Lake poets’ unique styles and occasionally weaves their own phrases into her sonnets, demonstrating her prodigious learning of the Wordsworths’ lives on every page — but her real achievement is to have created a satisfying narrative sequence which has genuine emotional resonance.
William composed sonnets on all manner of subjects, from the man-made spectacle of London to his heady memories of revolutionary France. Vital Stream makes similarly wide use of the form. Rhyme-scheme is varied throughout, whether it be tightly constructed Petrarchan, Shakespearean and terza rima sonnets or modern approximations of the form. Often, they are evocative, self-contained vignettes; or ‘spots of time’, as the poet, then laureate, would later write. Newlyn’s William follows closely in his footsteps, describing his pacing the pathway ‘searching for a rhyme’; or lost at Bartholomew Fair, ‘in a huge swirling roaring human sea’. Other sonnets in the collection push the narrative forward, recounting events and characters’ motivations as a series of monologues.
Most interesting, perhaps, is the sonnet ‘William, Dorothy, Mary’, where a third-person narrator contemplates the events that are about to happen, like a Shakespearean prologue (a similarly staged voice narrates the reunion of William with Annette and his daughter at Calais). It is surprising and almost distracting to retreat, as Newlyn does here, from the inward to the outward. Clearly, she does so to bridge a gap: possibly a narrative one, from a lack of evidence of what was being said and thought in such private moments; or possibly out of respect for the privacy of real people — although this does not seem to be a problem elsewhere in the sequence. Either way, we are confronted head-on at these interludes with the performative quality of the work, and all of its potential risks and payoffs. In lesser hands, the collection might have come off as stilted, with the characters artlessly rephrasing the thoughts already encoded in their real works. However, Newlyn takes the seeds of the original poetry and fertilises them with what William called ‘time’s fructifying virtue’ – the real-life drama of 1802 allowing for new interpretations to bloom and new readings to bear fruit.
William and Dorothy wrote some of their most celebrated works in Grasmere (William’s ‘Resolution and Independence’ and Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal, which was kept in the same book William began his biographical notes in that would eventually lead to The Prelude). Echoes of these works are all carefully woven into the poems of Vital Stream. Some of the most obvious allusions appear early on; the very first sonnet giving us ‘Daffodils stirring’, with Coleridge introduced alongside his ‘dejection’. A particularly self-aware sequence of Newlyn’s depicts William’s rediscovery of Milton’s sonnets, and the postponement of his grand project The Recluse to turn his hand to the form. (Writing sonnets about sonnets is, of course, a time-honoured tradition: William himself wrote one in praise of the form that began ‘Scorn not the Sonnet; / Critic, you have frowned, / Mindless of its just honours. . .’.) Vital Stream refreshes and expands on William’s conception of the ideal sonnet as ‘a sphere or a dew drop’: it should have, Newlyn-as-William suggests, in her beautiful poem ‘Seeking a Perfect Form’,
. . . the flawless unity
Of a reflected world in miniature;
That even in its trembling brevity
Might gather to itself a quiet store
Of certitude and hang there poised, replete
With meaning – self-sustained, complete?
It is at moments like this where Vital Stream is most effective; where its goal — to use a poet’s own form to bring their life and art into focus — crystallises with perfect clarity.
Less instantly recognisable sources of inspiration, such as snippets of letters or passages from Dorothy’s journals, are helpfully included as epigraphs before the corresponding sonnet. Yet Newlyn, an emeritus fellow at Oxford and biographer of the Wordsworth siblings, does not stop there. Perhaps the most impressive demonstrations of her immense and intimate knowledge of this area are the ‘cut-up’ sonnets, composed entirely of real fragments quarried from Coleridge’s notebooks, that nonetheless avoid any sense of disjunction and cohere as compelling, satisfying episodes in their own right. That the patchwork nature of these sonnets may not even be recognised by the untrained reader without announcement is undeniably a sign that we are in truly accomplished hands.
Vital Stream is most memorable for its complex relationships and the emotions that intertwine between them. Newlyn is deeply sensitive to the bond between Wordsworth and his ‘beloved Sister’, and often alternates sonnets between the perspectives of each sibling, so that they appear in dialogue, confronting each other on opposite pages. She fashions their different approaches to art-making into humorously contrasting metaphors: William is constantly taking ‘small cuttings’ of life, with which to make ‘transplantations’; Dorothy is somewhat annoyed by this, and more content to savour the present: ‘there are sensations’, she writes, ‘Too precious to be chiselled out in rhyme.’ (The acute irony in Newlyn’s writing in verse is characteristic of the book’s modern, self-conscious streak.) Nonetheless, they need each other, creatively and emotionally; and by the end of her poem, Dorothy’s imagery has begun to resemble William’s: ‘I germinate the seeds of poetry.’ It is a well-worn observation that William and Dorothy’s closeness bordered on the incestuous, and Vital Stream hints that they may have desired to be more than just brother and sister, even if these feelings were left unpursued. The sonnet inspired by Dorothy wearing William’s wedding ring the night before his marriage is particularly tantalising, immersing the reader in mysterious, secret longing.
Vital Stream is also excellent on the growing friction between William and Coleridge, envisioning their heated exchanges as thunderous iambic clashes of rhetoric. Poisoned by jealousy and opium, Coleridge comes across as deeply bitter. Yet there is more than a little truth in his savage assessment, as Newlyn has it, that William was a womaniser: ‘All women blend in his capacious heart’. Newlyn’s Coleridge cuts to the heart of William’s conceit that a poet is simply ‘man speaking to men’, further levelling the claim that he is incapable of understanding the struggle of ‘the middle and lower classes’ he purported to speak for: ‘Ask your leech-gatherer on his lonely fell: / Try telling him to ‘wonder’ at the sky.’ Again, there is a Renaissance-drama quality to such a sustained, even-handed approach, that demonstrates the power of opposing monologues to reveal truths a third-person narrator never could.
The force of argument presented by Newlyn’s Coleridge also points to a wider critique of William’s poetic ideas that she embeds into Vital Stream. Critiquing the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Newyln’s collection reminds us that William’s declaration of the poet as ‘a man speaking to men’ is a narrow vision; one which left no space for women. Clearly Newlyn does not subscribe to this view – her own skill as a poet disproves this, of course; but also, because the women in William’s life were always so central to his creativity and the discussions he was having. Vital Stream constantly reinforces this, whether through William and Dorothy’s interactions, or in its sonnets written from the perspective of Coleridge’s wife and William’s daughter, Caroline. By elevating all the characters to the level of poet, Newlyn re-evalutes William’s own narrative of events, just as she re-evaluates what is possible with the sonnet form.
If a cast could be found, it would be interesting to hear Vital Stream read aloud as a play for voices. It is testament to the dramatic power of Newlyn’s achievement that, reading through the sonnets, it is easy to imagine William’s part being recited in a Cumbrian burr, overlaid with the crunch of gravel and the rush of rivulets by an overly enthusiastic sound designer. But Vital Stream already works on the page: as a showcase of scholarship, a gripping drama in verse, and an epic prelude — the octave to the sestet of the writing it encompasses and mythologises.
Words by James Riding.
For more information and to buy Vital Stream by Lucy Newlyn, visit Carcanet’s website.
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