William Wordsworth (1770-1850), an early leader of romanticism in English poetry, ranks as one of the greatest lyric poets in the history of English literature.
William Wordsworth was born in Cookermouth, Cumberland, on April 7, 1770, the second child of an attorney. Unlike the other major English romantic poets, he enjoyed a happy childhood under the loving care of his mother and in close intimacy with his younger sister Dorothy (1771-1855). As a child, he wandered exuberantly through the lovely natural scenery of Cumberland. At Hawkshead Grammar School, Wordsworth showed keen and precociously discriminating interest in poetry. He was fascinated by "the divine John Milton," impressed by George Crabbe's descriptions of poverty, and repelled by the "falsehood" and "spurious imagery" in Ossian's nature poetry.
From 1787 to 1790 Wordsworth attended St. John's College, Cambridge, always returning with breathless delight to the north and to nature during his summer vacations. Before graduating from Cambridge, he took a walking tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy in 1790. The Alps gave him an ecstatic impression that he was not to recognize until 14 years later as a mystical "sense of usurpation, when the light of sense/ Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed/ The invisible world"—the world of "infinitude" that is "our beings's heart and home."
Sojourn in France
Revolutionary fervor in France made a powerful impact on the young idealist, who returned there in November 1791 allegedly to improve his knowledge of the French language. Wordsworth's stay in Paris, Orléans, and Blois proved decisive in three important respects. First, his understanding of politics at the time was slight, but his French experience was a powerful factor in turning his inbred sympathy for plain common people, among whom he had spent the happiest years of his life, into articulate radicalism. Second, in 1792 Wordsworth composed his most ambitious poem to date, the Descriptive Sketches. An admittedly juvenile, derivative work, it was in fact less descriptive of nature than the earlier An Evening Walk, composed at Cambridge. But it better illustrated his vein of protest and his belief in political freedom.
Finally, while Wordsworth's political ideas and poetic talent were thus beginning to take shape, he fell passionately in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon. She gave birth to their daughter in December 1792. Having exhausted his meager funds, he was obliged to return home. The separation left him with a sense of guilt that deepened his poetic inspiration and that accounted for the prominence of the theme of derelict womanhood in much of his work.
Publication of First Poems
Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk were printed in 1793. By then, Wordsworth's wretchedness over Annette and their child had been aggravated by a tragic sense of torn loyalties as war broke out between England and the French Republic. This conflict precipitated his republicanism, which he expounded with almost religious zeal and eloquence in A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, while his new imaginative insight into human sorrow and fortitude found poetic expression in "Salisbury Plain." The influence of William Godwin's ideas in Political Justice prompted Wordsworth to write "Guilt and Sorrow," and this influence is also perceptible in his unactable drama, The Borderers (1796). This Sturm und Drang composition, however, also testified to the poet's humanitarian disappointment with the French Revolution, which had lately engaged in the terrorist regime of Maximilien de Robespierre.
The year 1797 marked the beginning of Wordsworth's long and mutually enriching friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the first fruit of which was their joint publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth's main share in the volume was conceived as a daring experiment to challenge "the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers" in the name of precision in psychology and realism in diction. Most of his poems in this collection centered on the simple yet deeply human feelings of ordinary people, phrased in their own language. His views on this new kind of poetry were more fully described in the important "Preface" that he wrote for the second edition (1800).
Wordsworth's most memorable contribution to this volume was "Tintern Abbey," which he wrote just in time for inclusion in it. This poem is the first major piece to illustrate his original talent at its best. A lyrical summing up of the poet's experiences and expectations, it skillfully combines matter-of-factness in natural description with a genuinely mystical sense of infinity, joining self-exploration to philosophical speculation. While tracing the poet's ascent from unthinking enjoyment of nature to the most exalted perception of cosmic oneness, it also voices his gnawing perplexity as the writer—prophetically, as it turned out— wonders whether his exhilarating vision of universal harmony may not be a transient delusion. The poem closes on a subdued but confident reassertion of nature's healing power, even though mystical insight may be withdrawn from the poet.
In its successful blending of inner and outer experience, of sense perception, feeling, and thought, "Tintern Abbey" is a poem in which the writer's self becomes an adequate symbol of mankind; undisguisedly subjective reminiscences lead to imaginative speculations about man and the universe. This cosmic outlook rooted in egocentricity is a central feature of romanticism, and Wordsworth's poetry is undoubtedly the most impressive exponent of this view in English literature.
The writing of "Tintern Abbey" anticipated the later spiritual evolution of Wordsworth; it clarified the direction that his best work took in the next few years; and it heralded the period in which he made his imperishable contribution to the development of English romanticism. Significantly, this period was also the time of his closest intimacy with Dorothy—who kept the records of their experiences and thus supplied him with an unceasing flow of motifs, characters, and incidents on which to base his poetry—and with Coleridge, whose constant encouragement and criticism provided the incentive to ever deeper searching and to more articulate thinking. The three lived at Nether Stowey, Somerset, in 1797-1798; took a trip to Germany in 1798-1799, which left little impression on Wordsworth's mind; and then settled in Grasmere in the Lake District.
Poems of the Middle Period
Even while writing his contributions to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had been feeling his way toward more ambitious schemes. He had embarked on a long poem in blank verse, "The Ruined Cottage," later referred to as "The Peddlar"; it was intended to form part of a vast philosophical poem that was to bear the painfully explicit title "The Recluse, or Views of Man, Nature and Society." In it the poet hoped to "assume the station of a man in mental repose, one whose principles were made up, and so prepared to deliver upon authority a system of philosophy." This grand project, in which Coleridge had a considerable share of responsibility, never materialized as originally contemplated; its materials were later incorporated into The Excursion (1815), which centers on the poet's own problems and conflicts under a thin disguise of objectivity. This distortion is significant. Abstract impersonal speculation was not congenial to Wordsworth; he could handle experiences in the philosophical-lyrical manner that was truly his own only insofar as they were closely related to himself and therefore genuinely aroused his creative feelings and imagination. During the winter months that he spent in Germany, he started work on his magnum opus, the "poem on his own mind," which was to be published posthumously as The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet's Mind.
As yet, however, such an achievement was still beyond Wordsworth's scope, and it was back to the shorter poetic forms that he turned during the most productive season of his long literary life, the spring of 1802, when the great loss anticipated in "Tintern Abbey" came over him. The output of these fertile months, however, mostly derived from his earlier, twofold inspiration: nature and the common people. In "To a Butterfly," "I wandered lonely as a cloud," "To the Cuckoo," "The Rainbow," and other poems, Wordsworth went on to express his inexhaustible delight and participation in nature's "beauteous forms." Such poems as "The Sailor's Mother" and "Alice Fell, or the Beggar-Woman" were in the Lyrical Ballads vein, voicing "the still, sad music of humanity" and exhibiting once more his unfailing understanding of and compassion for the sufferings and moral resilience of the poor.
Changes in Philosophy
The crucial event of this period was Wordsworth's loss of the sense of mystical oneness, which had sustained his highest imaginative flights. Indeed, a mood of despondency as acute as Coleridge's in "Dejection" at times descended over Wordsworth, now 32 years old, as life compelled him to outgrow the joyful, irresponsible gladness of youth. He became engaged to Mary Hutchinson, a girl he had known since childhood. Marriage in 1802 entailed new cares and responsibilities. One was to secure some sort of financial stability, and another was somehow to wind up the Annette Vallon episode.
In the summer of 1802 Wordsworth spent a few weeks in Calais with Dorothy, where he arranged a friendly separation with Annette and their child. Napoleon Bonaparte had just been elected first consul for life, and Wordsworth's renewed contact with France only confirmed his disillusionment with the French Revolution and its aftermath. During this period he had become increasingly concerned with Coleridge, who by now was almost totally dependent upon opium for relief from his physical sufferings. Both friends were thus brought face to face with the unpalatable fact that the realities of life were in stark contradiction to the visionary expectations of their youth. But whereas Coleridge recognized this and gave up poetry for abstruse pursuits that were more congenial to him, Wordsworth characteristically sought to redefine his own identity in ways that would allow him a measure of continuity in purposefulness. The new turn that his life took in 1802 resulted in an inner change that set the new course that his poetry henceforth followed.
In earlier days, Wordsworth's interest in the common people, whom he knew and loved and admired, had prompted him to assume a revolutionary stance. He now relinquished this stance, his attachment to his "dear native regions" extending to his native country and its institutions, which he now envisioned as a more suitable emblem of genuine freedom and harmony than France's revolutionary turmoils and republican imperialism. Poems about England and Scotland began pouring forth from his pen, while France and Napoleon soon became Wordsworth's favorite symbols of cruelty and oppression. His nationalistic inspiration led him to produce the two "Memorials of a Tour in Scotland" (1803, 1814) and the group entitled "Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty."
Poems of 1802
The best poems of 1802, however, deal with a deeper level of inner change: with Wordsworth's awareness of his loss and with his manly determination to find moral and poetic compensation for it. In his ode "Intimations of Immortality" (March-April), he plainly recognized that "The things which I have seen I now can see no more"; yet he emphasized that although the "visionary gleam" had fled, the memory remained, and although the "celestial light" had vanished, the "common sight" of "meadow, grove and stream" was still a potent source of delight and solace. And in "Resolution and Independence" (May), he in fact admonished himself to welcome his loss in a spirit of stoic acceptance and of humble gratefulness to God.
Thus Wordsworth shed his earlier tendency to a pantheistic idealization of nature and turned to a more sedate doctrine of orthodox Christianity. Younger poets and critics soon blamed him for this "recantation," which they equated with his change of mind about the French Revolution. While it is true that lyrical outbursts about duty and religion are apt to sound conventional and sanctimonious to modern ears, one cannot doubt the sincerity of Wordsworth's belief, expressed in 1815, that "poetry is most just to its own divine origin when it administers the comforts and breathes the spirit of religion." His Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), which purport to describe "the introduction, progress, and operation of the Church of England, both previous and subsequent to the Reformation," are clear evidence of the way in which love of freedom, of nature, and of the Church came to coincide in his mind.
Nevertheless, it was the direction suggested in "Intimations of Immortality" that, in the view of later criticism, enabled Wordsworth to produce perhaps the most outstanding achievement of English romanticism: The Prelude. He worked on it, on and off, for several years and completed the first version in May 1805. The Prelude can claim to be the only true romantic epic because it deals in narrative terms with the spiritual growth of the only true romantic hero, the poet. Thus Wordsworth evolved a new genre peculiarly suited to his temperament. In this poem as in most of his best poetry—but here on a larger scale—the egocentricity for which he has often been rebuked was validated through symbolism. The inward odyssey of the poet was not described for its own sake but as a sample and as an adequate image of man at his most sensitive.
Wordsworth shared the general romantic notion that personal experience is the only way to gain living knowledge. The purpose of The Prelude was to recapture and interpret, with detailed thoroughness, the whole range of experiences that had contributed to the shaping of his own mind. Such a procedure enabled him to rekindle the dying embers of his earlier vision; it also enabled him to reassess the transient truth and the lasting value of his earlier glorious insights in the light of mature wisdom. It lies in the nature of such an extended process of reminiscence and revaluation that only death can end it, and Wordsworth wisely refrained from publishing the poem in his lifetime, revising it continuously. The posthumously printed version differs in several ways from the text he read to Coleridge in 1807. It is surprising, however, that the changes from the early version should not be more radical than they are. Most of them are improvements in style and structure. Wordsworth's youthful enthusiasm for the French Revolution has been slightly toned down. Most important and, perhaps, most to be regretted, the poet also tried to give a more orthodox tinge to his early mystical faith in nature.
This type of modification toward orthodoxy had already been introduced in 1804, by which time the basic features of Wordsworth's mature personality had begun to stabilize. Of his later life, indeed, little needs to be said. He was much affected by the death of his brother John in 1805, an event that strengthened his adherence to the consolations of the Church. But he was by no means reduced to utter conformity, as his tract On the Convention of Cintra (1808), a strongly worded protest against the English betrayal of Portuguese and Spanish allies to Napoleon, shows. Important passages in The Excursion, in which he criticizes the new industrial forms of man's inhumanity to man, witness this also.
Wordsworth's estrangement from Coleridge in 1810 deprived him of a powerful incentive to imaginative and intellectual alertness. Wordsworth's appointment to the office of distributor of stamps for Westmoreland in 1813 relieved him of financial care, but it also dissipated his suspicion of the aristocracy and helped him to become a confirmed Tory and a devout member of the Anglican Church. Wordsworth's unabating love for nature made him view the emergent industrial society with undisguished diffidence, but although he opposed the Reform Bill of 1832, which, in his view, merely transferred political power from the landed to the manufacturing class, he never stopped pleading in favor of the victims of the factory system. In 1843 he was appointed poet laureate. He died on April 23, 1850.
Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography (2 vols., 1957, 1965), is the standard work. On the poet's personality, Herbert Read, Wordsworth (1930), and Wallace W. Douglas, Wordsworth: The Construction of a Personality (1968), are of interest.
General introductions to the poetry include Peter Burra, Wordsworth (1936); James C. Smith, A Study of Wordsworth (1944); Helen Darbishire, The Poet Wordsworth (1950); John F. Danby, The Simple Wordsworth (1960); Frederick W. Bateson, Wordsworth: A Re-interpretation (2d ed. 1963); and Carl Woodring, Wordsworth (1965). More specialized studies include David Ferry, The Limits of Mortality (1959); Colin C. Clarke, Romantic Paradox: An Essay on the Poetry of Wordsworth (1963); Geoffrey H. Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787-1814 (1964); David Perkins, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity (1965); Bernard Groom, The Unity of Wordsworth's Poetry (1966); and James Scoggins, Imagination and Fancy: Complementary Modes in the Poetry of Wordsworth (1966).
Important discussions of Wordsworth's philosophy are Arthur Beatty, William Wordsworth: His Doctrine and Art in Their Historical Relation (1922); Raymond D. Havens, The Mind of a Poet (1941); Newton P. Stallknecht, Strange Seas of Thought: Studies in William Wordsworth's Philosophy of Man and Nature (1945; 2d ed. 1958); Enid Welsford, Salisbury Plain: A Study in the Development of Wordsworth's Mind and Art (1966); and Melvin Rader, Wordsworth: A Philosophical Approach (1967).
The poet's literary theories are discussed in Marjorie Greenbie, Wordsworth's Theory of Poetic Diction (1966), and his political outlook in Francis M. Todd, Politics and the Poet: A Study of Wordsworth (1957), and in Amanda M. Ellis, Rebels and Conservatives: Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Their Circle (1968). Analyses of individual works include Judson S. Lyon, The Excursion: A Study (1950); Abbie F. Potts, Wordsworth's Prelude: A Study of Its Literary Form (1953); Herbert Lindenberger, On Wordsworth's Prelude (1963); John F. Danby, Wordsworth: The Prelude (1963); and Roger N. Murray, Wordsworth's Style: Figures and Themes in the 'Lyrical Ballads' of 1800 (1967). □
BORN: 1770, Cockermouth, Cumberland, England
DIED: 1850, Ambleside, England
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Lyrical Ballads (1798)
The Sonnets of William Wordsworth (1838)
The Prelude (1850)
Asserting in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads that poetry should comprise “language really used by men,” William Wordsworth challenged the prevailing eighteenth-century notion of formal poetic diction and thereby profoundly affected the course of modern poetry. His major work, The Prelude, a study of the role of the imagination and memory in the formation of poetic sensibility, is now viewed as one of the most seminal long poems of the nineteenth century. The freshness and emotional power of Wordsworth's poetry, the keen psychological depth of his characterizations, and the urgency of his social commentary make him one of the most important writers in English.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Tranquility, Tragedy, and Revolution William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, England, the second son of John and Anne Cookson Wordsworth. An attorney for a prominent local aristocrat, John Wordsworth provided a secure and comfortable living for his family. But with his wife's death in 1778, the family became dispersed: The boys were enrolled at a boarding school in Hawkeshead, and Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, was sent to live with cousins in Halifax. In the rural surroundings of Hawkeshead, situated in the lush Lake District, Wordsworth early learned to love nature, including the pleasures of walking and outdoor play. He equally enjoyed his formal education, demonstrating a talent for writing poetry. The tranquility of his years at Hawkeshead was marred by the death of his father in 1783. Left homeless, the Wordsworth children spent their school vacations with various relatives, many of whom regarded them as nothing more than a financial burden. Biographers have pointed out that Wordsworth's frequently unhappy early life contrasts sharply with the idealized portrait of childhood he presented in his poetry.
After graduating from St. John's College in Cambridge in 1791, Wordsworth lived for a short time in London and Wales and then traveled to France. The French Revolution was in its third year, and although he previously had shown little interest in politics, he quickly came to advocate the goals of the revolution. Along with a heightened political consciousness, he experienced a passionate affair, the details of which were kept a family secret until the early twentieth century. During his stay in France, he fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and in 1792, they had a child, Anne-Caroline. Too poor to marry and forced by the outbreak of civil war to flee France, Wordsworth reluctantly returned alone to England in 1793.
Writing Habits and Lifelong Friends Following a brief sojourn in London, Wordsworth settled with his sister at Racedown in 1795. Living modestly but contentedly, he now spent much of his time reading contemporary European literature and writing verse. An immensely important contribution to Wordsworth's success was Dorothy's lifelong devotion: She encouraged his efforts at composition and looked after the details of their daily life. During the first year at Racedown, Wordsworth wrote The Borderers, a verse drama based on the ideas of William Godwin and the German Sturm und Drang writers, who emphasized emotional expression in their work. The single most important event of his literary apprenticeship occurred in 1797 when he met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two had corresponded for several years, and when Coleridge came to visit Wordsworth at Racedown, their rapport and mutual admiration were immediate. Many critics view their friendship as one of the most extraordinary in English literature. The Wordsworths soon moved to Nether Stowey in order to be near Coleridge. In the intellectually stimulating environment he and Coleridge created there, Wordsworth embarked on a period of remarkable creativity.
In 1802, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson. Realizing that Wordsworth now required a more steady source of income, Coleridge introduced him to Sir George Beaumont, a wealthy art patron who became Wordsworth's benefactor and friend. Beaumont facilitated the publication of the Poems of 1807; in that collection, Wordsworth once again displayed his extraordinary talent for nature description and infusing an element of mysticism into ordinary experience. Always fascinated by human psychology, he also stressed the influence of childhood. Most reviewers singled out “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections ofEarly Childhood” as perhaps Wordsworth's greatest production.
Later Life The remaining years of Wordsworth's career are generally viewed as a decline from the revolutionary and experimental fervor of his youth. He condemned French imperialism in the period after the revolution, and his nationalism became more pronounced. The pantheism of his early nature poetry, too—which celebrated a pervasive divine force in all things—gave way to orthodox religious sentiment in the later works. Such admirers as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who formerly had respected Wordsworth as a reformer of poetic diction, now regarded him with scorn and a sense of betrayal. Whether because of professional jealousy or because of alterations to his personality caused by prolonged drug use, Coleridge grew estranged from Wordsworth after 1810. Two works, Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems (1835) and The Sonnets of William Wordsworth (1838), received critical accolades upon their publication and evoked comparisons of Wordsworth's sonnets with those of William Shakespeare and John Milton. In 1843 he won the distinction of being named poet laureate. After receiving a government pension in 1842, he retired to Rydal. When he died in 1850, he was one of England's best-loved poets.
Works in Literary Context
Romantic Movement Wordsworth was a quintessential Romantic poet. The Romantic Movement in literature, which began in the late eighteenth century, was a reaction against what was seen as the cold rationality of the Enlightenment period. During the Enlightenment, developments in science and technology ushered in the massive social changes in western society. The Industrial Revolution brought about population explosions in European cities while the works of political scientists and philosophers laid the groundwork for the American and French Revolutions. The Romantics viewed science and technology skeptically, and stressed the beauty of nature and individual emotion in their work.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Wordsworth's famous contemporaries include:
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821): Famous general during the French Revolution who eventually became ruler of France.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834): Wordsworth's longtime friend and author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.”
Jane Austen (1775–1817): English realist novelist famous for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
Works in Critical Context
Critics of Wordsworth's works have made his treatment of nature, his use of diction, and his critical theories the central focus of their studies. Early response to his poetry begins with Francis Jeffrey's concerted campaign to thwart Wordsworth's poetic career. His reviews of the works of the Lake poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey—and of Wordsworth's poetry in particular, were so vitriolic that they stalled public acceptance of the poet for some twenty years but brought many critics to his defense. To Jeffrey, Wordsworth's poetic innovations were in “open violation of the established laws of poetry.” He described Wordsworth's stylistic simplicity as affectation. Like Jeffrey, many readers may have believed Wordsworth “descended too low” in his writing, as an advertisement printed with the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 warns. The advertisement recognizes that the familiar tone Wordsworth uses may not be what poetry readers prefer and tries to frame Wordsworth's poetic inclusion of ordinary language as an “experiment” that attempts “to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” Despite this public hesitation, Wordsworth's poetry eventually gained acceptance. By the 1830s, Wordsworth was England's preeminent poet.
The Excursion In 1978, Annabel Patterson wrote in a journal called The Wordsworth Circle that The Excursion “has a history of disappointing its readers.” Patterson goes on to describe how Wordsworth's literary contemporaries reacted negatively to the volume and expected far more. Yet other critics have viewedThe Excursion like other Wordsworth works, as poetic song or even a “song of daily life,” in the words of scholar Brian Bartlett. Bartlett remarks on Wordworth's distinct combination of “man's music and nature's music.” William Wordsworth is considered the preeminent poet of nature, though he claimed his main subject was “the Mind of Man—/ My haunt, and the main region of my song.” Wordsworth portrays suffering humanity in many of his poems, showing a variety of causes: poverty, separation, bereavement, neglect. As Geoffrey Hartman has written, “those famous misreaders of Wordsworth who say he advocates rural nature as a panacea should be condemned to read The Excursion once a day.”
The Prelude Wordsworth's The Prelude was published shortly after his death. Begun some fifty years earlier, the poem was completed in 1805 and then drastically revised over time. Greeted with uneven praise at its first appearance, the poem is now hailed as Wordsworth's greatest work. Scholar Alan Richardson notes that because of the work's autobiographical slant, many literary critics view The Prelude through a variety of lenses, particularly psychoanalytic. Wordsworth, or the poet, becomes the subject, while the critic becomes amateur analyst. At the same time, some critics tend to explore the poem through historical criticism, preferring, as David Miall suggests, to see how “Wordsworth engages with contemporary events … at the local level and … on a broader canvas.” In this vein, scholars like to analyze the way Wordsworth may “position himself as a historical figure.” In general, critics laud The Prelude's blending of autobiography, history, and epic, its theme of loss and gain, its mythologizing of childhood experience, and its affirmation of the value of the imagination.
Responses to Literature
- Wordsworth was good friends with the poet Samuel Coleridge. Write a one- to two-page essay that describes their friendship as illustrated in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads.
- Read a selection of Wordsworth's early poems. Write an essay on how these poems demonstrate how Wordsworth was influenced by the French Revolution.
- Research the literary movements of naturalism, realism, romanticism, and transcendentalism. Make a chart that describes each movement in detail. Then write a paragraph about which literary style you think Wordsworth followed and why.
- One of Wordsworth's most quoted lines is “The world is too much with us.” In an informal essay written from a first-person point of view, explain how the title statement might apply to today's world.
- Compare Wordsworth's “My Heart Leaps Up” with Walt Whitman's “Leaves of Grass.” With a classmate, discuss how the language and imagery might reveal that one poet is from England and one from America.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Wordsworth was keenly interested in depicting idealized portraits of rural people. Here are some other works that champion or examine “common” rural, hardworking lives:
So Big! (1924), a novel by Edna Ferber. Ferber's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel shows a moral contrast between the hardworking farm woman and her city-dwelling architect son.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a book by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans. Agee and Evans photographed and detailed the real lives of sharecropper families in the U.S. South. Their portraits are a far cry from Wordsworth's idealized visions.
Abrams, M. H., ed. Wordsworth: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Batho, Edith. The Later Wordsworth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1933.
Jones, John. The Egotistical Sublime: A Study of Wordsworth's Imagination. London: Chatto & Windus, 1954.
Onorato, Richard. The Character of the Poet: Wordsworth in “The Prelude”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Perkins, David. Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Roe, Nicholas. Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Simpson, David. Wordsworth's Historical Imagination. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Woodring, Carl. Wordsworth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Born: April 7, 1770
Cookermouth, Cumberland, England
Died: April 23, 1850
Rydal Mount, Westmorland, England
William Wordsworth was an early leader of romanticism (a literary movement that celebrated nature and concentrated on human emotions) in English poetry and ranks as one of the greatest lyric poets in the history of English literature.
His early years
William Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770, in Cookermouth, Cumberland, England, the second child of an attorney. Unlike the other major English romantic poets, he enjoyed a happy childhood under the loving care of his mother and was very close to his sister Dorothy. As a child he wandered happily through the lovely natural scenery of Cumberland. In grammar school, Wordsworth showed a keen interest in poetry. He was fascinated by the epic poet John Milton (1608–1674).
From 1787 to 1790 Wordsworth attended St. John's College at Cambridge University. He always returned to his home and to nature during his summer vacations. Before graduating from Cambridge, he took a walking tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy in 1790. The Alps made an impression on him that he did not recognize until fourteen years later.
Stay in France
Revolutionary passion in France made a powerful impact on Wordsworth, who returned there in November 1791. He wanted to improve his knowledge of theFrench language. His experience in France just after the French Revolution (1789; the French overthrew the ruling monarchy) reinforced his sympathy for common people and his belief in political freedom.
Wordsworth fell passionately in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon. She gave birth to their daughter in December 1792. However, Wordsworth had spent his limited funds and was forced to return home. The separation left him with a sense of guilt that deepened his poetic inspiration and resulted in an important theme in his work of abandoned women.
Publication of first poems
Wordsworth's first poems, Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk, were printed in 1793. He wrote several pieces over the next several years. The year 1797 marked the beginning of Wordsworth's long friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). Together they published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Wordsworth wanted to challenge "the gaudiness [unnecessarily flashy] and inane [foolish] phraseology [wording] of many modern writers." Most of his poems in this collection centered on the simple yet deeply human feelings of ordinary people, phrased in their own language. His views on this new kind of poetry were more fully described in the important "Preface" that he wrote for the second edition (1800).
Wordsworth's most memorable contribution to this volume was "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," which he wrote just in time to include it. This poem is the first major piece to illustrate his original talent at its best. It skillfully combines matter-of-factness in natural description with a genuinely mystical (magical) sense of infinity, joining self-exploration to philosophical speculation (questioning). The poem closes on a subdued but confident reassertion of nature's healing power, even though mystical insight may be obtained from the poet.
In its successful blending of inner and outer experience, of sense perception, feeling, and thought, "Tintern Abbey" is a poem in which the writer becomes a symbol of mankind. The poem leads to imaginative thoughts about man and the universe. This cosmic outlook rooted in the self is a central feature of romanticism. Wordsworth's poetry is undoubtedly the most impressive example of this view in English literature.
Poems of the middle period
Wordsworth, even while writing his contributions to the Lyrical Ballads, had been feeling his way toward more ambitious schemes. He had embarked on a long poem in unrhymed verse, "The Ruined Cottage," later referred to as "The Peddlar." It was intended to form part of a vast philosophical poem with the title "The Recluse, or Views of Man, Nature and Society." This grand project never materialized as originally planned.
Abstract, impersonal speculation was not comfortable for Wordsworth. He could handle experiences in the philosophical-lyrical manner only if they were closely related to himself and could arouse his creative feelings and imagination. During the winter months he spent in Germany, he started work on his magnum opus (greatest work), The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet's Mind. It was published after his death.
However, such a large achievement was still beyond Wordsworth's scope (area of capabilities) at this time. It was back to the shorter poetic forms that he turned during the most productive season of his long literary life, the spring of 1802. The output of these fertile (creative) months mostly came from his earlier inspirations: nature and the common people. During this time he wrote "To a Butterfly," "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," "To the Cuckoo," "The Rainbow," and other poems.
Changes in philosophy
The crucial event of this period was Wordsworth's loss of the sense of mystical oneness, which had sustained (lasted throughout) his highest imaginative flights. Indeed, a mood of despondency (depression) descended over Wordsworth, who was then thirty-two years old.
In the summer of 1802 Wordsworth spent a few weeks in Calais, France, with his sister Dorothy. Wordsworth's renewed contact with France only confirmed his disillusionment (disappointment) with the French Revolution and its aftermath.
During this period Wordsworth had become increasingly concerned with Coleridge, who by now was almost totally dependent upon opium (a highly addictive drug) for relief from his physical sufferings. Both friends came to believe that the realities of life were in stark contradiction (disagreement) to the visionary expectations of their youth. Wordsworth characteristically sought to redefine his own identity in ways that would allow him a measure of meaning. The new turn his life took in 1802 resulted in an inner change that set the new course his poetry followed from then on.
Poems about England and Scotland began pouring forth from Wordsworth's pen, while France and Napoleon (1769–1821) soon became Wordsworth's favorite symbols of cruelty and oppression. His nationalistic (intense pride in one's own country) inspiration led him to produce the two "Memorials of a Tour in Scotland" (1803, 1814) and the group entitled "Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty."
Poems of 1802
The best poems of 1802, however, deal with a deeper level of inner change. In Wordsworth's poem "Intimations of Immortality" (March–April), he plainly recognized that "The things which I have seen I now can see no more"; yet he emphasized that although the "visionary gleam" had fled, the memory remained, and although the "celestial light" had vanished, the "common sight" of "meadow, grove and stream" was still a potent (strong) source of delight and solace (comfort).
Thus Wordsworth shed his earlier tendency to idealize nature and turned to a more sedate (calm) doctrine (set of beliefs) of orthodox Christianity. Younger poets and critics soon blamed him for this "recantation" (renouncing), which they equated with his change of mind about the French Revolution. His Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822) are clear evidence of the way in which love of freedom, nature, and the Church came to coincide (come together at the same time) in his mind.
Nevertheless, it was the direction suggested in "Intimations of Immortality" that, in the view of later criticism, enabled Wordsworth to produce perhaps the most outstanding achievement of English romanticism: The Prelude. He worked on it, on and off, for several years and completed the first version in May 1805. The Prelude can claim to be the only true romantic epic (long, often heroic work) because it deals in narrative terms with the spiritual growth of the only true romantic hero, the poet. The inward odyssey (journey) of the poet was described not for its own sake but as a sample and as an adequate image of man at his most sensitive.
Wordsworth shared the general romantic notion that personal experience is the only way to gain living knowledge. The purpose of The Prelude was to recapture and interpret, with detailed thoroughness, the whole range of experiences that had contributed to the shaping of his own mind. Wordsworth refrained from publishing the poem in his lifetime, revising it continuously. Most important and, perhaps, most to be regretted, the poet also tried to give a more orthodox tinge to his early mystical faith in nature.
Wordsworth's estrangement (growing apart) from Coleridge in 1810 deprived him of a powerful incentive to imaginative and intellectual alertness. Wordsworth's appointment to a government position in 1813 relieved him of financial care.
Wordsworth's undiminished love for nature made him view the emergent (just appearing) industrial society with undisguised reserve. He opposed the Reform Bill of 1832, which, in his view, merely transferred political power from the land owners to the manufacturing class, but he never stopped pleading in favor of the victims of the factory system.
In 1843 Wordsworth was appointed poet laureate (official poet of a country). He died on April 23, 1850.
For More Information
Davies, Hunter. William Wordsworth: A Biography. New York: Atheneum, 1980.
Johnston, Kenneth R. The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Negrotta, Rosanna. William Wordsworth: A Biography with Selected Poems. London: Brockhampton, 1999.
WORDSWORTH, WILLIAM (1770–1850), British Romantic poet.
William Wordsworth is so synonymous with "Romanticism" that the period used to be called "The Age of Wordsworth." Born 7 April 1770, Wordsworth lived into the middle of the next century, when Victoria (r. 1837–1901) was Queen and Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892) and Robert Browning (1812–1889) the celebrated new poets. It is often said that Wordsworth "the poet" died in 1807, survived by stodgy didactic work, minor new verse, repackaged older work, and a belated Poet Laureateship in 1843, yet his influence was considerable. Amid the encroachments of modern life, Wordsworth provided an enduring image of the poet as disciple of "Nature" and representative voice of feeling, whether of quiet sentiment, troubled passion, or moral severity. No less in life than in verse, he embodied "plain living and high thinking," at home in the Lake District in Northwest England, a region marked by natural beauty that he made famous. He was happy in his family life, yet often withdrew into meditation and depths of emotion.
Born in the Lake District, Wordsworth was one of five children. His father was a steward for a powerful local landlord, and the poet's boyhood was enjoyed in the market town of Cockermouth, with adventures in the nearby outdoors. The death of his mother when he was eight changed everything: his father, frequently away on business, sent William's sister Dorothy off to relatives and the brothers to school in distant Hawkshead. Five years later, his father died, and legal wrangling prevented the estate from being settled until 1802. In 1787 Wordsworth entered St John's College, Cambridge, to prepare for a living in the Church but Cambridge seemed an alien world to this native of the Lakelands. Vacationing in Europe in the summer of 1790, one year after the French Revolution, he caught the enchantment of millenarian hopes. He took his degree in 1791; that summer he toured Wales (climbing Mount Snow-don) and then returned to France in November 1791. Wordsworth was at once excited and troubled by the new politics of France. He found love with Annette Vallon, who bore their daughter, Caroline, in December 1792. But by then, depleted funds and a looming Terror had forced Wordsworth home, and, because of the ensuing war between England and France, it was not until 1802 (the Peace of Amiens) that he would see Annette and Caroline, just once more, prior to marrying a childhood sweetheart, Mary Hutchinson.
Across the turmoil of the 1790s Wordsworth grew "Sick, wearied out with contrarieties," and relinquished "moral questions in despair" (Prelude 10.900–01). The record of Wordsworth's activities from 1792 to 1795 is obscure. He may have become involved with radical politics at home and may have ventured to France. In 1795 a legacy of £900 enabled him to devote himself to poetry and reunite with his sister Dorothy (1771–1855), who was always to be his encourager, companion, scribe, and housekeeper. A new friend, the poet and journalist Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), inspired Wordsworth with a fresh sense of mission and power. In 1797, he and Dorothy moved to Somerset to be near Coleridge, and the poets were soon collaborating on Lyrical Ballads. Regarded today as a landmark of Romanticism, this volume was published anonymously in 1798 to mixed reviews. When local political anxieties put the group under suspicion, the Wordsworths' lease was not renewed, and the trio decided to go to Germany for winter, to soak up the language, culture, and philosophy.
With more financial resources, Coleridge enjoyed the university towns, while the Wordsworths spent a miserable winter in the remote village of Goslar. It was here that Wordsworth drafted new poems for Lyrical Ballads and his first fragments of autobiography. Coleridge was urging him to write a major philosophical epic, and could abide the auto-biographical turn only as preparatory, but for Wordsworth "the story of my life" (1.668) would become compelling epic in its own right. Returning to the Lake District in late 1799, the Wordsworths settled in Grasmere, their home for the rest of their lives. In 1800 a two-volume Lyrical Ballads, now signed as Wordsworth's, appeared with a controversial Preface declaring such principles as inspiration from "emotion recollected in tranquillity," the equation of "all good poetry" with "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," and the tuning of poetic language to ordinary conversation, rooted in "nature" and "rural society." This manifesto was in part an exercise in mythmaking; but it also marked, said the critic William Hazlitt (1778–1830) in retrospect, "a new style and a new spirit." It set the terms of Wordsworth's fame, even as it focused the charges of his critics for decades on.
The steadily expanding household finally settled at Rydal Mount in 1813, when Wordsworth received a patronage position from the Tory government. The decade prior had been pained by several losses: his brother John, a sea captain, perished in a shipwreck in 1805; two of his and Mary's five children died in 1812; and by 1810 Coleridge's opium addiction and truancy from his own family led to strains in his relationship with Wordsworth. This resulted in a bitter alienation that was not mended until the late 1820s. Leading reviewers ridiculed Poems in Two Volumes (1807), and would be no kinder to The Excursion (1814), a nine-book epic "On Man, On Nature, and On Human Life." Yet the attention, and the advent of a collected Poems (in which the poems were arranged by conceptual category rather than by date) in 1815, confirmed Wordsworth's fame and importance, and he continued to write and publish in every decade of his long life.
During this life, The Excursion was regarded as his major work. The story of a ruined cottage in its first book was widely admired, and overall Wordsworth was prized for poems filled with pathos, such as "Michael" and "The Brothers" (in which, as he said in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the feeling gives importance to the action and situation); odes of crisis and troubled consolation, such as "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"; and a wealth of exquisite sonnets, songs, and lyrics ("The Solitary Reaper" was among the most famous). Victorians revered the poet whose love of "Nature" could heal their "iron age," whose images of childhood and youth evoked simple joys, whose mature poetry gave unembarrassed voice to feeling. The poet John Keats (1795–1821) preferred the "dark passages" and "the burden of the mystery"—the poetry also of most interest to twentieth-century readers, for whom The Prelude (that preparatory autobiography) is the recognized major work. Just weeks after Wordsworth's death, this fourteen-book epic, composed across fifty years, appeared in print. Prelude it was: another version completed in 1805 was published in 1926, and then, further into the twentieth century, a two-book version from 1798–1799, and a five-book version from 1804. In this array of narrative forms and ceaseless revisions, of multiple selves, of writing reflexively as a poet about becoming a poet, The Prelude seems a venture of prescient modernism, but it also endures as a vivid imaginative reckoning with a life animated by the contradictory currents of its age.
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Susan J. Wolfson
Wordsworth, William (Brocklesby)