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This article is taken from PN Review 264, Volume 48 Number 4, March - April 2022.

Pictures from the Rylands Library
Disentangling Meaning in a Lock of Wordsworth’s Hair
Stella Halkyard
A lock of Wiliam Wordsworth’s Hair

In describing Wordsworth, William Hazlitt tells us much about his face, voice, accent, gait, mannerisms and even his method of devouring Cheshire cheese. But nothing prepares us for a direct encounter with an actual lock of Wordsworth’s hair (as shown here). Viewed some 170 years after Wordsworth’s death, it transforms the ‘solemn stately’ demeanour delineated in Hazlitt’s portrait into that of a blond assassin with a soul at the white heat.

For hair becomes a ‘talisman to represent the potency of the body’s leavings’ (Deborah Lutz). At least until we remember that ‘hair cut from the head of the dead carries a different significance to hair that is cut from the head of the living’ (Daisy Hay). The specimen shown here is an example of the latter and probably dates from the mid 1840s. By all accounts John Dixon, the servant who acted as gardener, groom and manservant for Wordsworth, was also responsible for the cutting of his hair. These locks ‘were never thrown away from that venerable head but found their way into hundreds of hands in every part of the empire’ (Hunter Davis), probably in tandem with those controversial ‘Daffodils’. The high drama of the moment of the cutting of hair that commentators sometimes recognise as ‘publicly staged mutilation, castration, and punitive disempowerment’ (Marcia Pointon) dissolves into a domestic scene with rather more charm where hair-grower and hair-cutter companionably engage in smaller-scale topiary on the pate of the poet’s person, a ‘residence thinning rapidly’ (Wordsworth).
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