Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846)
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland, son of John Wordsworth, who worked as an agent and rent collector for Sir James Lowther.
Childhood and education
His mother died in 1778 (8), and in the same year he was sent as a boarder to Hawkshead Grammar School. His father died in 1783 (13), at which time Sir James owed him some £4000, but he refused to honour the debt. Responsibility for William and his brothers passed to his mother’s brother, Christopher Cookson, an unhappy arrangement for the children, who found their guardian unsympathetic. Hawkshead School, on the other hand, under the headship of William Taylor, was a progressive and liberally oriented establishment, where reading in mathematics and the sciences was encouraged. He attended St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1787 (17) to 1791 (21), visiting France, at that time in the midst of revolutionary turmoil, and Switzerland in 1790 (20) with his friend Robert Jones.
Hawkshead Grammar School
Second visit to France and affair with Annette Vallon
He visited France again after graduation, and during this second visit was befriended by Michel Beaupuy, through whom he came to share the ideals of the French Revolution. Whilst in Orléans he had an affair with Annette Vallon, who bore him a child.
He returns to England and radical ideas
Financial problems and the political situation forced him to return to England, where he began to give wholehearted support to the radical philosophy of Thomas Paine and William Godwin, openly expressing their ideas in his own poetry.
Wordsworth, Coleridge and
At the invitation of John and Azariah Pinney he moved with his sister Dorothy to Racedown Lodge on the Devon / Somerset border, and here met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He then moved closer to Coleridge at Alfoxden House, and they collaborated on and published Lyrical Ballads (1798, 28), which began with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ended with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth later wrote a preface for the Ballads, which set out his theory of poetry, and progressively marginalised and finally eliminated Coleridge’s work.
William and Dorothy Wordsworth by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887)
Germany and the Lake District
Later that year the Wordsworths made a trip to Germany with Coleridge, and, on their return, moved to Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the Lake District. From about 1798 Wordsworth worked on a large philosophical and autobiographical poem, The Prelude, which was not published until 1850 (d).
Dove Cottage, Grasmere, now the Wordsworth Museum. It was known to the Wordsworths as Townend. Built in the 17th century as the Dove and Olive Bough Inn, the cottage was rented by the Wordsworths from 1799 until 1808.
He married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 (32), and acquired two patrons in Sir George Beaumont and Sir William Lowther, the latter settling his cousin’s debt to Wordsworth.
His brother drowns at sea
His brother John was drowned at sea in 1805 (35).
His ménage à quatre
His sister Dorothy continued to live with Wordsworth, along with his new wife and her sister, Sara Hutchinson. They were often visited by Coleridge, who had moved to the Lake District with his wife, and who had become emotionally involved with Sara Hutchinson.
Poems in Two Volumes
Wordsworth published Poems in Two Volumes in 1807 (37) in an edition of 1000, 230 of which were still unsold in 1814. The volume received a critical drubbing from the Edinburgh Review.
He argues with Coleridge
He severed his connection with Coleridge in 1810 (40), partly because of that poet’s continued addiction to opium.
Wordsworth the family man and distributor of stamps
He now had five children, two of whom died in 1812 (42). In 1813 (43) he moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside, and was appointed the official distributor of stamps for Westmoreland with a salary of £400 a year.
Rydal Mount, Ambleside, the home of William Wordsworth from 1813 until his death in 1850.
The Excursion and other poetry
In 1814 (44) he published The Excursion, 9000 lines of poetry in nine volumes, which aroused little interest, followed by The White Doe of Rylstone (1815, 45), Peter Bell (1819, 49) and Benjamin the Waggoner (1819, 49). He continued to be criticised for his low subjects and ‘simplicity’. Thereafter he became more interested in reworking, ordering and anthologising his work in various collected editions.
He became Poet Laureate in 1843 (73).
He died in 1850 (80) and was buried in Grasmere churchyard.
Ullswater in the Lake District, watercolour by John Glover (1767-1849)
Links to poetry by William Wordsworth
Lines left upon a seat in a Yew Tree
Upon Westminster Bridge
It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free
A Night Piece
The Poet's Work
Wordsworth was very critical of some of his fellow poets, probably justifiably so. In his Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, he writes: 'They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many moden writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts may be permitted to assume that title' and 'a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetities, of their own creation.'
He also writes concerning the composition of poetry: 'For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibilty, such habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.'
'I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity; the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.'
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