I cannot say what portion is in truth
The naked recollection of that time,
And what may rather have been called to life
MY TITLE AND this quotation are from William Wordsworth’s great poem, ‘The Prelude’. His life was somewhere in my thoughts when I began to plan this article. My first inspiration came from a friend of mine. In order to deal with the problems of isolation and grief he has been writing his autobiography. I know that he would recommend this process to anyone in his situation, but he is particularly fortunate because he has had a life filled with satisfying achievements and has met many fascinating people.
Yet even in my friend’s colourful life a few days stand out. When World War II began he was twelve years old and living in Dover. One year later he stood on the cliffs watching the evacuation of our troops from Dunkirk. The most intense part of his experience was witnessing the arrival in Dover of wounded and dying soldiers. He has already written about this with some important details. His story has an important place in the archives of that dangerous time.
These memories of Dover suddenly reminded me of an excellent recent series on BBC Radio Four. This followed the life of Wordsworth and in one episode recalled a day in 1802 when the poet walked on the sands near Calais hand-in-hand with his illegitimate daughter Caroline. He later recaptured this moment in a beautiful sonnet which begins, “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free . . .” This was read very sensitively by Simon Russell Beale.
I began this article by quoting Wordsworth because my subject is autobiography and its importance. My friend seeks to benefit privately from re-viewing his life. Wordsworth was asked by his friends to write his autobiography in verse. They wanted him to reveal the many ways in which nature, the landscape of our nation, had fostered his great poetic talent. The result was one of the great poems of our literature. Wordsworth had planned to write an epic, possibly based on the Arthurian legends, but found his true subject in his own story.
Wordsworth wrote his great poem around 1805. He decided,
. . .to shape out
Some tale from my own heart, more near akin
To my own passions and habitual thoughts.
He did not publish the poem until after his death in 1850. The original text of 1805 has since been published and I have the Penguin edition of 1971 which provides parallel texts for 1805 and 1850. Critics have focused on the revisions found in the 1850 publication, which they have often found unsatisfactory and damaging to the images he presents. These criticisms raise some basic questions about memory which I will try to discuss in my next article. As I write an email has arrived from the Royal Mint reminding me that this year is the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth.Wordsworth
If you are interested in autobiographies let me make a few suggestions. Before I do I must tell you that, while was experiencing some of the great natural scenes which shaped his poetic genius, his sister Dorothy was often alongside him recording those scenes in the most sensitive and beautifully conceived prose. Her Journal is a most valuable record. Carl Jung, an important figure in the history of psychology, wrote a fascinating account of his life, ‘Memories, Dreams and Reflections’, but it is a long, quite challenging read. Arthur Miller, the great American playwright, produced a fascinating and very engaging book, ‘Timebends’. Recently, Dr Oliver Sacks, famous for the book and film ‘Awakenings’ published some surprising details of his life in ‘On the Move’. My own favourite, full of insights superbly written, with such great style, is ‘Speak Memory’ the autobiography of Vladimir Nabokov, best known for his novel, ‘Lolita’.