While this is a very dignified LRB essay review on a book about the Romantics, the real take home nugget is that the poets of the day used to make fun of Wordsworth’s a-bit-too-on-the-nose name. Byron called him “Turdsworth”. Basically, this makes my year. You can only imagine what I’ve done to all your names in the bored hours of a snowy North Atlantic evening.
There are treasures in all of these chapters, but the tour de force, the greatest adventure, to use Wolfson’s term, and the set of interpretations that will drive some readers crazy, lie in the essay on Wordsworth’s wordplay. Some of us have been set up for this game by Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where Wordsmith is a college resembling Cornell, and Goldsworth a judge whose house our unreliable hero is renting. We see how pieces of writers’ names can be switched, creating a kind of literary quilt, and also that names, if they are made up of ordinary terms (word, smith, gold, worth), may revert without warning to their ordinary life.
Wordsworth doesn’t juggle with his name as other writers do: Shakespeare, for example, has plenty of fun with will, and Donne, speaking of the forgiveness of sins, writes: ‘When thou hast done, thou hast not done,/For I have more.’ But the fact that Wordsworth doesn’t play games of this kind doesn’t mean he doesn’t play games, and in Wordsworth’s Fun, a book recently reviewed in the LRB (4 July, 2019), Matthew Bevis persuasively suggests that Wordsworth had a sense of humour that has escaped almost all of his readers. He can’t not have noticed how easily his name falls apart into separate words or phrases: will, I am, words, worth. And even if he hadn’t noticed, others were prepared to make jokes using his name. Coleridge suggested, when sending a copy of his poem ‘The Nightingale’, that ‘you’ll tell me what you think my Bird’s worth.’ And Byron, less politely, liked to refer to the poet as ‘Turdsworth’.