William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

One of England’s most beloved poets and a pioneer of Romanticism, William Wordsworth was made Poet Laureate in 1843.

William was born in Cockermouth in Cumbria on 7th April 1770 to John Wordsworth, a legal agent and his wife Anne, and was the second of five children. He would remain close to his sister Dorothy throughout his life like William she also became a poet.

He grew up in an impressive mansion house in the Lake District. However his childhood was not a happy one: the children’s relationship with their father was not close and would remain so until his death.

Nevertheless, despite their strained relationship, John Wordsworth did leave an important impression on young William, instilling in him the importance of literature. Wordsworth’s wealth afforded William the opportunity to use his father’s library to learn and be inspired by some of the literary greats.

Whilst his exposure to literature was critical, it was his childhood in the Lake District and his time spent at his grandparents’ house at Penrith which would have a notable impact on Wordsworth’s subject matter in his poetry. It was in this setting that Wordsworth, for long periods of time, would find himself out in the countryside, an escapism both figuratively and literal.

Tragically William’s mother died when William was seven years old and his father passed away just six years later. William was taken in by his mother’s family, sadly separating him from his sister Dorothy with whom he had developed a close bond, as she was sent away to live in Halifax with their mother’s cousin. He remained at Penrith where his initial education was based on tradition and religion.

Dorothy Wordsworth

To complete his schooling he was sent to Hawkshead Grammar School which had a much stronger emphasis on scholarly pursuits and was a stepping stone to higher education. William’s time at Hawkshead was productive, as his new curriculum embraced mathematics and literature as well as Latin which became a particular favourite for Wordsworth. With the assistance of his schoolmaster he was also encouraged to write poetry, an important influence for this talented young boy.

Whilst at Hawkshead he boarded with Hugh and Ann Tyson at a local hamlet. It was whilst staying in this community with its strong Quaker tradition that he began to formulate his own opinions on matters pertaining to religion, society and nature.

He had already become strongly influenced by his natural surroundings whilst staying at Penrith, choosing to wander away from his sad and stifling family life and embracing the natural world instead. This became a critical influence on Wordsworth’s work, his focus on nature forming the backbone of the Romantic Movement and its spiritual journey through literature and art.

After Hawkshead School, in October 1787 Wordsworth moved on to St John’s College Cambridge where, as he himself would later note, he did not achieve any particular brilliance. However it had an important effect on challenging his ideas and evolving attitudes to life.

In his final summer as a Cambridge student, he decided to tour the Alps with his friend Robert Jones. Departing from Dover in July 1790, the two young men set off on a walking tour of Europe, an experience which would influence his literary work as well as his political and social conscience.

Whilst living in France, Wordsworth became increasingly aware of social issues affecting everyday men and women. The context of the French Revolution and the rise of democratic values based around equality were concepts which would influence him. His travels also had an impact on his personal life, conceiving a daughter called Caroline in France. Leaving before her birth, he would later return to France in 1802 with his sister to meet her.

It was in France that some of Wordsworth’s earliest poetry, “An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches”, was published in 1793. He would continue to travel, finding further inspiration for his poetry.
Back in Britain, he would go on to marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson with whom he would have five children, sadly only three of whom would reach adulthood. His family eventually settled down in Grasmere in the Lake District.

William Wordsworth, 1798

Wordsworth’s literary career really took off when in 1795 he met fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Together, they composed “Lyrical Ballads”, first published in 1798, a collection of poems that instigated an entire literary, artistic and cultural movement: Romanticism.

The two poets had intended to embrace poetry using the vernacular which would make it more accessible to the everyday man. Wordsworth himself explained that the whole process was experimental, embracing new ideas on style, form and structure to create an entirely new kind of poetry.

The natural world would take on a didactic quality in many of his works, as in the poem “The Tables Turned” written in 1798 and included in his collection of “Lyrical Ballads”.

“Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher”.

This characterises Romantic poetry as a genre as well as Wordsworth’s focus on nature as a guide for human knowledge, themes echoed in other works completed in the same era.

Hand-written manuscript of Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, also known as ‘Daffodils'(1802).

One of his most famous poems, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, was inspired by a bed of daffodils witnessed by William and his sister on a visit to Ullswater. Nature proved to be a pervasive theme throughout his literary career.

One of Wordsworth’s most prolonged projects, which he failed to see published, was his famous work “The Prelude”. This esteemed work is an autobiographical poem which he initially began working on in 1798 and continued to refine throughout his life.

The content of the poem reflects the different stages of his life his youth, childhood, education and later years are divided into fourteen sections, using style, structure and form to enhance the impact. His stages of life are conveyed symbiotically with the personification of nature, reflecting his spiritual and personal growth.

Wordsworth’s contribution to poetry was eventually recognised in 1843 when he became Poet Laureate. Only seven years later he passed away from pleurisy on 23rd April 1850.

“The Prelude” was published three months later by his wife Mary, a fitting tribute to a great poet with a striking literary career and incredible legacy in British literature.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

From William Wordsworth to Extinction Rebellion: a history of Britain’s green activists

As Extinction Rebellion throws the spotlight on the threat of climate change, Karen R Jones chronicles the history of environmental campaigning in the UK – from William Wordsworth's vivid descriptions of the Lake District to the dystopia of Doomwatch

This competition is now closed

Published: October 22, 2019 at 12:19 pm

Climate change, plastic waste and industrial pollution have rocketed up the news agenda in recent months. From David Attenborough addressing crowds at this year’s Glastonbury festival to the Extinction Rebellion protests taking place across British towns and cities, ideas of environmental responsibility are prominent in today’s public discourse. In fact, concepts of environmental responsibility, appreciation and activism have a long and vibrant history. It’s a history that takes in a diverse array of historical actors, among them Romantic poets, Victorian campaigners for factory reform, advocates for the countryside and anti-nuclear protesters, and adds a valuable (and often understudied) dimension to the understanding of modern Britain.

Thinking about the beginnings of any ‘ism’ is a complicated endeavour, but many would point to the 18th-century Romantic movement as an important example of Nature (with a capital N) being invested with uplifting and aesthetic qualities beyond the demands of basic utility. Writing in A Guide Through the District of the Lakes (1810), William Wordsworth famously described the Lake District as a “sort of national property” that he felt everyone “with an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” should have a right to: an early example of an appreciation for beautiful landscapes translating into a call for their protection. Two decades earlier, the naturalist Gilbert White, who is popularly credited as Britain’s first ecologist, wrote his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) out of an abiding connection to the landscape, gained through close observation of local fauna and flora.

Looming large in an environmental and environmentalist history of Britain is the industrial revolution. While many celebrated this new manufacturing age, with its capital gains, factories and technological wizardry – postcards of sulphurous clouds and belching smokestacks lionised the productive spirit of ‘Beautiful Manchester’ – others were less sanguine. The modern city brought optimism and progress, but also environmental problems: cholera and various communicable diseases, chemical contamination and atmospheric pollution, to name but a few.

Victorian environmental concerns came in many guises, from fretting over the endemic smoky haze that covered the northern manufacturing centres of Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield to fears sparked by the ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ and a capital drowning in equine faeces (a prospect avoided, somewhat ironically, by the invention of the internal combustion engine). Factory reformers, green space advocates, smoke abatement societies and activists against animal cruelty all became pioneers in environmental activism, drawing significant connections between a healthy environment and a healthy society.

As the urban world encroached, conservation became an important motif. The RSPB was founded in 1889 and, led by female campaigners, agitated for the protection of birds (and especially a limit on their use in millinery). The National Trust, founded by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley in 1895, began to lobby for the preservation of sites on the basis of their “beauty or historical interest”, abetted by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (which was later joined by sister bodies in Wales and Scotland), established in 1926.

A passion for the countryside, alongside concerns over the privatisation of commons land since the early 1700s, invited an activist response on Sunday 24 April 1932, when hundreds of workers (many of whom belonged to ramblers’ societies) engaged in a mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire: an important act of civil disobedience that demanded a “right to roam”. Such campaigns for nature conservation led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), and the dedication of the Peak District National Park in 1951.

Smog and seabirds

The post-1945 era augured a new phase in British environmentalism, one symbolised by the atomic bomb and a capacity for Homo sapiens to transform the biosphere on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Walkers marched from Aldermaston to London in Ban-the-Bomb protests led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). Concerns about nuclear contamination were also joined by worries about pesticides and other encompassing threats to life, eloquently articulated by the US biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal tract Silent Spring (1962).

In postwar Britain, this sentiment was galvanised by striking examples of environmental crisis. London’s Great Smog of 1952 – a deadly conjugation of fog and smoke emissions – led to the deaths of 12,000 people, days of near-zero visibility and the removal of prized plants from Kew Gardens to Kent. The deleterious impact of modern industrialism was also made clear by the stricken Torrey Canyon oil tanker dumping more than 100,000 tonnes of crude off the Cornish coast in March 1967 images of mired seabirds capturing the public attention in an early example of TV environmentalism in action.

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).

William Wordsworth Biography

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a major Romantic poet, based in the Lake District, England. His greatest work was “The Prelude” – dedicated to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Prelude is a spiritual autobiography based on Wordsworth’s travels through Europe and his observations of life. His poetry also takes inspiration from the beauty of nature, especially his native Lake District.

Early life – William Wordsworth

Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, in north-west England. His father, John Wordsworth, introduced the young William to the great poetry of Milton and Shakespeare, but he was frequently absent during William’s childhood. Instead, Wordsworth was brought up by his mother’s parents in Penrith, but this was not a happy period. He frequently felt in conflict with his relations and at times contemplated ending his life. However, as a child, he developed a great love of nature, spending many hours walking in the fells of the Lake District. He also became very close to his sister, Dorothy, who would later become a poet in her own right.

In 1778, William was sent to Hawkshead Grammar School in Lancashire this separated him from his beloved sister for nearly nine years. In 1787, he entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. It was in this year that he had his first published work, a sonnet in the European Magazine. While still a student at Cambridge, in 1790, he travelled to revolutionary France. He was deeply impressed by the revolutionary spirit and the principles of liberty and egalite. He also fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon together they had an illegitimate daughter, Anne Caroline.

After graduating from Cambridge, Wordsworth returned to France, where his daughter was born in 1792. However, despite expressing a desire to marry, Wordsworth left France alone, leaving his partner and daughter in France. At the time, there was growing political tension between France and Great Britain. Also, Wordsworth became increasingly estranged from the French Revolution in the Reign of Terror, he saw the revolutionary principles betrayed. Wordsworth was unable to return to France until 1802 when the political situation improved. Wordsworth later sought to maintain his financial obligations to his daughter, but also kept his illegitimate daughter hidden from the public gaze.

Friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge

After graduating, Wordsworth was fortunate to receive a legacy of £900 from Raisley Calvert to pursue a career in literature. He was able to publish his first collection of poems, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. That year he was also to meet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset. They became close friends and collaborated on poetic ideas. They later published a joint work – Lyrical Ballards (1798), and Wordsworth greatest work ‘The Prelude‘ was initially called by Wordsworth ‘To Coleridge

This period was important for Wordsworth and also the direction of English poetry. With Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth helped create a much more spontaneous and emotional poetry. It sought to depict the beauty of nature and the quintessential depth of human emotion. In the preface to Lyrical Ballards, Wordsworth writes of poetry:

“The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Lyrical Ballards includes some of his best-known poems, such as, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”, “A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal”.

A SLUMBER did my spirit seal
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force
She neither hears nor sees
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In 1802, after returning from a brief visit to see his daughter, Wordsworth married a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy continued to live with the couple, and she became close to Mary as well as her brother. William and Mary had five children, though three died early.

Lake District, North Windermere, near Grasmere.

In 1807, he published another important volume of poetry “Poems, in Two Volumes“, this included famous poems such as “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, “My Heart Leaps Up”, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils

– W. Wordsworth – I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

In 1813, he received an appointment as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland this annual income of £400 gave him greater financial security and enabled him to devote his spare time to poetry. In 1813, he family also moved into Rydal Mount, Grasmere a picturesque location, which inspired his later poetry.

“My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began
So is it now I am a man
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!”

Poet Laureate

By the 1820s, the critical acclaim for Wordsworth was growing, though ironically critics note that, from this period, his poetry began losing some of its vigour and emotional intensity. His poetry was perhaps a reflection of his own ideas. The 1790s had been a period of emotional turmoil and faith in the revolutionary ideal. Towards the end of his life, his disillusionment with the French Revolution had made him more conservative in outlook. In 1839 he received an honorary degree from Oxford University and received a civil pension of £300 a year from the government. In 1843, he was persuaded to become the nation’s Poet Laureate, despite saying he wouldn’t write any poetry as Poet Laureate. Wordsworth is the only Poet Laureate who never wrote poetry during his official time in the job.

Wordsworth died of pleurisy on 23 April 1850. He was buried in St Oswald’s Church Grasmere. After his death, his widow Mary published his autobiographical ‘Poem to Coleridge’ under the title “The Prelude”.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of William Wordsworth”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net , 22nd Jan. 2010. Last updated 6th March 2018

William Wordsworth – The Major Works

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4. ‘The World is too much with us’

The world is too much with us late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth always returned to the sonnet. It seems to him to have been an ideal form of expression. Whereas Ben Jonson thought the form misshaped strains of thought, making them longer or shorter than best suited them—and compared them therefore to the Bed of Procrustes—the form was to Wordsworth just large enough to elaborate, without allowing him to become prosaic, as he could often be in his longer, conversational verse, and forcing him to make his points with grace and concision. He took this well-worn love poetry form and used it for truly inventive and original ends. The Wordsworthian sonnet is a thing unto itself. There are many famous poems that could have been included in this list—‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, ‘Upon Westminster Bridge‘—as well as not so famous but beautiful works such as the Ecclesiastical Sonnets (much to be recommended), the many other ‘Miscellaneous Sonnets’, or the sonnet sequence, ‘The River Duddon’ (even more beautiful than the Ecclesiastical Sonnets): but this present poem, in warning us not to indulge too much our consuming impulses, perhaps speaks the most sharply to us today, and retains a beauty that, to my mind, will never cease to refresh a tired soul:

‘The world is too much with us late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’

I don’t believe those first seven words, on those following, ever likely to wear thin: they speak to the very principle of weakness in us.

The turn (or volta) of this sonnet, however, into its closing sestet, moves the verse from the didactic to the Classical Wordsworth—a significant aspect of the poet too rarely seen and appreciated:

‘It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.’

It is a nice little joke, addressing the ‘Great God’ and immediately saying that one would rather be a pagan. But Wordsworth’s point here is indeed much more serious and is made more deeply and substantially in his longer Prelude, that we live ‘in a world of life’, and that it is our duty—and an incomparable pleasure—fully to appreciate this truth. To do otherwise is to beckon catastrophe.

Wordsworth wrote so many sonnets on sundry matters, which are all worth reading, such as ‘Even as a dragon’s eye‘, ‘Four fiery steeds impatient of the rein‘, the handful of sonnets translated from Michelangelo’s Italian, ‘Surprised by joy’ (which gave C. S. Lewis the title of his autobiography), ‘Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends‘ (aka ‘A Parsonage in Oxfordshire’), the wonderful short sequence ‘Personal Talk‘, and so the list continues. Really, we are long, long overdue an edition of Wordsworth which treats his sonnets exclusively. Wordsworth the Sonneteer would have a welcome place on my bookshelf—and, I would hope, on many others’.


Wordsworth's parents were John Wordsworth, a legal agent for James Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale and Collector of Customs at Whitehaven, and his wife, Ann Cookson. [1] John was the son of Richard Wordsworth, a land owner who served as a legal agent to the Lowther family.

Like his father, John became a legal agent for James Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale [2] and was made Bailiff and Recorder for Cockermouth and Coroner for the Seigniory of Millom. [3]

Ann was the daughter of William Cookson, a linen-draper, and Dorothy Crackanthorpe, daughter of a gentry family in Westmorland. They lived above Cookson's shop in Penrith, Cumbria. Ann's brother, Christopher "Kit" Crackanthorpe Cookson (later, Christopher Crackanthorpe) inherited the family estate of Newbiggin Hall. [4]

John, at the age of 26, married Ann, 18, in 1766, and he used his connections with the Lowther family to move into a large mansion in the small town of Cockermouth, Cumbria, in the Lake District. John owned many properties, in Cockermouth and Ravenglass, and he inherited a property at Sockbridge, which was originally purchased by his father and given to John after his older brother, Richard, was disinherited by their father. However, the brother's relationship was not strained by this decision, and Richard would become guardian to John's children after his death. [5]

William's mother died when he was 7 years old and he became an orphan at the age of 13 years.

Childhood Edit

Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth, the second of five children. [6] His sister, the poet, and diarist Dorothy, to whom he was close all his life, was born the following year, and the two were baptized together. They had three other siblings: Richard, the eldest who became a lawyer John, born after Dorothy, who would become a poet and enjoy nature with William and Dorothy until he died in an 1805 shipwreck and Christopher, the youngest, who would become a scholar and eventually Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Although he lived at his father's mansion, Wordsworth, as with his siblings, had little involvement with their father, and they would be distant with him until his death in 1783. [7]

Wordsworth's father, although rarely present, did teach him poetry, including that of Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser, in addition to allowing his son to rely on his father's library. In addition to spending his time reading in Cockermouth, he would stay at his mother's parents home in Penrith, [8] for extended periods of time, which took place primarily during 1775–1776 and during the winter months of 1776–1777. [9] At Penrith, Wordsworth was exposed to the moors and was influenced by his experience with the landscape and was further turned towards nature by the harsh treatment he received at the hands of his relatives. In particular, Wordsworth could not get along with his grandparents and his uncle, and his hostile interactions with them distressed him to the point of contemplating suicide. [10]

In March 1778, Ann died of an illness, possibly pneumonia, at Penrith. After the death of his mother in 1778, his father was inconsolable and sent his children away to be raised by their relatives. William was taken in by his mother's family and eventually sent to Hawkshead Grammar School, and Dorothy was sent to live with Elizabeth Threlkeld, Ann's cousin, in Halifax. She and William did not meet again for another nine years. Although Hawkshead was Wordsworth's first serious experience with education, he was taught to read by his mother and attended a tiny school in Cockermouth of low quality. [11]

Education and nature Edit

At Penrith, Wordsworth was sent to a school for the children of upper-class families and taught by Ann Birkett, a woman who insisted in instilling tradition in her students that included pursuing both scholarly and local activities, especially the festivals around Easter, May Day, or Shrove Tide. Wordsworth was taught both the Bible and the Spectator, but little else. It was at the school that Wordsworth was to meet the Hutchinsons, including Mary, who would be his future wife. Life at Penrith wasn't a happy time for Wordsworth, because he was unsatisfied with his grandparents' treatment he still spent time at his grandparents' home and their relationship was still tense. Wordsworth became rebellious to the point of destroying a family portrait. [12]

His discontent with his familial situation provoked Wordsworth to spend his time wandering away from his home, an action Wordsworth relates as uniting a childish imagination with both nature and mankind in The Prelude. He became attached to nature, and, when he was finally sent to school in Hawkshead, he was able to fully enjoy the countryside. [13] Besides the local surroundings, Wordsworth was educated at the Hawkshead Grammar School, which had a reputation for scholarship and preparation for University entrance. [14]

A large portion of Wordsworth's education at Hawkshead was based on mathematics. The rest of the curriculum was based on teaching the classics, and it was during his classical studies that Wordsworth gained a love for Latin literature. Besides his literary education, Wordsworth and his brothers were given dancing lessons in 1785. While Wordsworth was taught at Hawkshead, he boarded with Hugh and Ann Tyson in the nearby hamlet of Colthouse, where he was exposed to the local yarn trade. The community had a strong Quaker influence, and Wordsworth, after experiencing their traditions, rejected their fixation on praising God for a relationship with the divine that would involve a more direct interaction. [15]

College Edit

Hawkshead School had a strong relationship with St.John's College at Cambridge University and, in October 1787, Wordsworth became an undergraduate there.

Wordsworth felt that his life before Samuel Taylor Coleridge was sedentary and dull and his poetry amounted to little. When Coleridge was near, he was Wordsworth's muse, and Coleridge's praise and encouragement kept Wordsworth motivated. [16] Dorothy described Wordsworth while around Coleridge when she wrote: "His faculties seem to expand every day, he composes with much more facility than he did". [17] It was under Coleridge's support that Wordsworth was encouraged to write poetry intended to rival Milton. [16] William Wordsworth,one of the pioneers of the Romantic movement in English poetry,was deeply influenced by the French revolution which broke out in 1789.The spirit of revolution popularly summarised as "liberty,equality,fraternity informed the romantic elements in his poetry.His friendship with S.T.Coleridge led to joint literary venture in the form of publication of The Lyrical Ballads in 1798. When Wordsworth was forced to move from Alfoxden, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dorothy agreed to travel to Germany in September 1798. Originally, Coleridge and Wordsworth lived together in Hamburg, until Coleridge decided to look for a place to live at Ratzeburg. Wordsworth wanted to join his friend, but was forced to decline over monetary issues Wordsworth was unable to provide for both himself and his sister in such an expensive town, and they instead moved to Goslar. The separation, with the expenses, made it impossible for Wordsworth to spend time with Coleridge until after the winter of 1798. [18]

Wordsworth continued to write even without the support of Coleridge's company, and from October 1798 to February 1799 Wordsworth began writing the "Matthew" poems along with the "Lucy" poems and other poems. These poems express the frustration and anxiety that Wordsworth was feeling [19] In particular, it is possible that the "Lucy" poems allowed Wordsworth to vent his frustration with his sister, and that they contain the subconscious desire for his sister to die. [20] The two poems are thematically unique compared to Wordsworth's other poems, [21] especially in their portrayal of loss [22] and a lack of faith that nature is able to provide comfort or solutions to life's problems. [23] This reversal of Wordsworth's view of nature provoked Alan Grob to suggest that the two sets of poems should be known "as the Goslar lyrics of 1799". [24]

Besides an emphasis on nature, as Bennett Weaver points out, "The dominant theme of the poems of 1799 is death: death for the children of the village school, for Matthew's daughter, and for Lucy Gray." [25]

In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads", which is called the "manifesto" of English Romantic criticism, Wordsworth calls his poems "experimental". The year 1793 saw Wordsworth's first published poetry, with the collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. He received a legacy of £900 from Raisley Calvert in 1795 so that he could pursue writing poetry. That year, he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset. The two poets quickly developed a close friendship. In 1797, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to Alfoxton House, Somerset, just a few miles away from Coleridge's home in Nether Stowey. Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge (with insights from Dorothy) produced Lyrical Ballads (1798), an important work in the English Romantic movement. The volume gave neither Wordsworth's nor Coleridge's name as author. One of Wordsworth's most famous poems, "Tintern Abbey", was published in the work, along with Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". The second edition, published in 1800, had only Wordsworth listed as the author, and included a preface to the poems, which was augmented significantly in the 1802 edition. This Preface to Lyrical Ballads is considered a central work of Romantic literary theory. In it, Wordsworth discusses what he sees as the elements of a new type of poetry, one based on the "real language of men" and which avoids the poetic diction of much 18th-century poetry. Here, Wordsworth gives his famous definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." A fourth and final edition of Lyrical Ballads was published in 1805.

Prelude Edit

In 1799, Wordsworth completed a version of his Prelude, which was, according to Stephen Gill, "the most sustained self-examination in English poetry". [6] In Wordsworth's 1799 Prelude, he attempted to write a biography about the growth of his mind from childhood to the current time. However, he realized that this could never be complete [6] and wrote:

But who shall parcel out His intellect by geometric rules, Split like a province into round and square? Who knows the individual hour in which His habits were first sown even as a seed? Who that shall point as with a wand, and say 'This portion of the river of my mind Came from yon fountain'? (Prelude II 243–249)

The 1799 Prelude describes Wordsworth's early, happy moments in Cockermouth with a particular focus on the River Derwent and Cockermouth Castle. The poem transitions into the happy moments at Hawkshead, skipping over Wordsworth's experience with his mother's family, [9] and only one scene containing his experience in Penrith was introduced in Book XII of the 1805 edition. [26]

The Greatness of William Wordsworth

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on April 7, 1770, the English poet William Wordsworth was born. We are also close to the anniversary of his death, which occurred 80 years later on April 23, 1850. Wordsworth's intense sensitivity to the beauty and power of the natural world made him the archetypal Romantic poet, and the most influential poet of the 19th century.

He spent most of his life in one of the most beautiful areas of England, the Lake District, and his poems are full of detailed descriptions of the sublime, awe-inspiring landscapes of the region. One of the most famous poems in the English language—particularly in the UK, where every child reads it at school—is "The Daffodils," a simple lyric in which Wordsworth describes his joy at the blazing beauty of thousands of daffodils fluttering along the side of a lake.

Wordsworth is a massively significant figure for a number of reasons. First of all, he originated a new kind of poetry. Whereas previous poets had mainly dealt with political and moral issues (often in a satirical and whimsical way), Wordsworth believed that poetry should be subjective, an expression of the inner life of the author, or a lyrical description of the beauty of the natural world. He defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." In other words, poems arise when we feel powerful emotions, such as moments of great joy and deep sadness. They are a way of capturing powerful feelings and transmitting them to the reader. To us nowadays, it seems obvious to describe poetry in this way, but at the end of the 18th century, this was revolutionary.

Wordsworth's major work is a massive autobiographical poem called The Prelude, which explored "the growth of a poet's mind." The only previous poems of a similar length had been epics like Paradise Lost or The Fairie Queen, which told long and convoluted stories. But over hundreds of pages of blank verse, Wordsworth describes his childhood and youth in intricate detail, describing all of his formative experiences—most notably, all of his significant encounters with nature. Some of Wordsworth's contemporaries accused him of gross egotism, but the poem (and Wordsworth's work in general) was really just the expression of a new kind of subjectivity. It was almost as if he had discovered a whole new dimension of human beings' inner life, a kind of terra incognita which he had decided to explore and depict in as much detail as possible. As the literary critics Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling put it, "Before Wordsworth, poetry had a subject. After Wordsworth, its prevalent subject was the poet's own subjectivity… and so a new poetry was born."

Wordsworth's Awakening Experiences

This brings me to the second way in which Wordsworth is so significant. This is because of the spiritual aspects of his poetry. Earlier European poets had written about spiritual experiences, but always in the context of religion. Wordsworth was the first poet to write about spiritual experiences in a secular way, without explaining them in religious terms.

I call such experiences "awakening experiences" and have spent many years studying them from a psychological perspective. They are moments when our awareness becomes more intense and expansive. Our perception becomes more intense so that the world becomes more vivid and beautiful. We feel a sense of connection to nature, to other human beings and animals, and to a deeper part of our own being. All things seem to be interconnected, too, as if they are expressions of an underlying oneness. There is a sense of meaning to life and a sense of harmony in ourselves and in the world.

Wordsworth's poetry is full of descriptions of such experiences. He has many passages where he describes his awareness of a spirit-force pervading the natural world, some of which come very close to descriptions of the all-pervading presence of brahman (or Spirit) in the Indian Upanishads (which Wordsworth almost certainly never read). For example, in one of his most beautiful and profound poems, "Tintern Abbey," he writes:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

In another of his most beautiful poems, "Intimations of Immortality," Wordsworth describes how children's fresh, intense perception enables them to see a world "apparell'd in celestial light" with "the glory and freshness of a dream." However, as we become adults, we move away from the "heaven" of our infancy. "Shades of the prison-house begin to close," and the glorious vision of childhood fades "into the light of common day."

The Romantic Movement

The Romantic movement that began with Wordsworth became a major cultural phenomenon during the 19th century and was the expression of a collective psychological or even spiritual change. There were three main aspects to romanticism, two of which I've mentioned already in connection to Wordsworth: a new attitude to nature—a sense of connection to nature, and a sense of the beauty and purity of the natural world—and the exploration and expression of inner feelings. The third aspect was social and political idealism. The romantics rebelled against injustice and oppression, and against traditions such as Christianity and the feudal system. They were idealists who believed in a better and fairer world.

In my view, the romantic movement represented the emergence of a new state of being and a new kind of consciousness. As I suggest in my book The Leap, evolution has an inner dimension, as well as an outer physical one. At the same time as being a process by which life forms become divergent and physically complex, it is a process by which life forms become more conscious—that is, they develop a more intense awareness of their environment and increased sentience and subjectivity.

The reason why the romantic movement was so important was that it was part of the evolution of consciousness. The romantics had a more intense awareness than previous human beings. Their awareness was more intense in that they felt a strong sense of connection with nature, a strong sense of empathy and compassion (which gave rise to their social idealism), and also an intense subjective awareness. As I suggest in The Leap, before the second half of the 18th century, the standard human mode was an intensified sense of ego, with a strong sense of separation from nature, from other human beings, and from the body itself. But from the second half of the 18th century, this separation began to fade away. There was a new sense of connection and compassion.

Wordsworth was so important because he expressed these aspects of romanticism more than any other author. Although he became a conservative in his later life, as a youth, he had many radical ideas. In his early 20s, for example, he traveled through France and supported the revolutionary forces.

Shades of the Prison House

Although I've long been familiar with Wordsworth's poetry, I didn't know much about his life until a couple of years ago, when I read a book called Wordsworth: A Life in Letters. I was sad to learn that Wordsworth's life was tragically blighted by bereavement—in particular, the death of his children. In 1812 (at a time when he was distraught by the death of his brother a few years earlier), two of Wordsworth's five children died. First, it was his daughter Catherine (who had suffered from ill-health since birth and wasn't expected to survive into adulthood) and then his 6-year-old son Thomas, who died of pneumonia after contracting measles. (The three other children became seriously ill with measles, and their lives hung in the balance for days.)

Both Wordsworth and his wife were in a deep state of grief for years afterward. As he wrote movingly to a friend after the death of his son, "I dare not say in what state of mind I am I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me—yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it." Three years later, he wrote a beautiful short poem called "Surprised by Joy" about the "most grievous loss" of his daughter and the pain of knowing that "my heart's best treasure was no more" and that nothing "could to my sight that heavenly face restore."

One of the puzzling things about Wordsworth is that although he lived till the age of 80 and wrote hundreds of poems, all of his best poetry was written before the age of 40. Critics generally agree that he wrote little of any real merit after this and have often puzzled over the dramatic decline in the quality of his work. His later poems lack so much of the freshness and insight of his earlier work that they seem to come from a different author. I think it's likely that this was the result of his grief, beginning with the loss of his brother and later with the loss of his children. Bloom and Trilling remark that it is almost as if Wordsworth "iced over," and this was probably due to the trauma of his bereavements.

However, it is refreshing to know that, even during his difficult later years, what he called "the visionary gleam" did not disappear entirely. Even at the age of 74, Wordsworth was still able to write a poem like "So Fair, So Sweet, Withal So Sensitive," where the intricate beauty of nature amazes him and enables him to "Converse with Nature in pure sympathy":

So fair, so sweet, withal so sensitive,
Would that the little Flowers were born to live,
Conscious of half the pleasure which they give

That to this mountain-daisy's self were known
The beauty of its star-shaped shadow, thrown
On the smooth surface of this naked stone!

Cambridge Authors

Undergraduate Rachel Thorpe's essay traces the history of Wordsworth's critics. He has meant very different things to different historical periods, but he has consistently been provocative. Where some poets have long periods of neglect, Wordsworth has been distinctive in persistently causing profound, worthwhile problems to later generations.

'An Eddy of Criticism'

Wordsworth is a poet who never seems far from critics' minds. From the moment of his first publication (in 1793), there has been no shortage of critics ready both to dismiss him and to idolise him. His close friend and fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, recognised early on that the sheer amount of critical attention threatened the poems themselves: '[His work] produced an eddy of criticism, which would of itself have borne up the poems by the violence, with which it whirled them round and round'. (This, and the other references in this article, can be followed up in 'Further Reading' below). It is within this whirlpool of critical voices that Wordsworth's poetry exists for us today.

It seems that new generations of critics never tire of evaluating and re-evaluating the ideas found within Wordsworth's poetry, and reinterpreting their significance for a new generation. Whether they love him or hate him, critics of every age have felt it important to communicate their views on his verse and his critics include Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom. Just what is it about the poetry of Wordsworth which seems to provoke such disparate responses?

Reactions of Wordsworth's Contemporaries

Early readers of Wordsworth were confused by Wordsworth's poetry. They objected to his thoughts about language, metrical arrangement, his poetics and his seemingly low subject matter. Despite his having written a large amount of prose discussing his new style of poetry, readers often found this prose yet more infuriating and perplexing (a mood which perhaps Wordsworth registered by writing more and more prose in the early nineteenth century). Coleridge voiced this frustration with poetry that required an explanation, stating: 'nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise'. Thus readers largely set the prose aside in order to interrogate the poems themselves.

wrote damning reviews of a number of Wordsworth's poems. Most notoriously, he wrote an especially stinging review of The Excursion in Edinburgh Review, beginning with the infamous line 'This will never do'. He claimed that Wordsworth was arrogant, irresponsible, and 'silly'. Jeffrey found the moral of Wordsworth's poem obscure, and objected to his use of diction, his lowly subject matter and what Jeffrey imputed as an abstruse system in the poem. He concluded that, 'The case of Mr Wordsworth, we perceive, is now manifestly hopeless, and we give him up as altogether incurable, and beyond the power of criticism'.

But other critics had less aggressive reservations. agreed that Wordsworth was not a truly great poet, and even called him the 'spoiled child of disappointment'. However, he suggested that 'his strength lies in his weakness' and that while his poetry was limited, he was still 'the most original poet now living'. This respect for him is evident in Hazlitt's prose which is bestrewn with allusion to and citation from Wordworth's verse.

Hazlitt also noted that the tide seemed to be turning in Wordsworth's favour, something that anticipated. In fact De Quincey felt sure that he had discovered Wordsworth's genius at least thirty years before the reading public, who were sure to recognise it soon. He attributed the growing critical disregard for Wordsworth to the fact that people needed time to see the 'eternal truths' behind them. He predicted that the poems were destined to increase in popularity as people recognised his 'sympathy for what is really permanent in human feelings'. Memorably, he claimed 'whatever is too original will be hated at first. It must slowly mould a public for itself'.

And he seemed to be right. Critics such as Wordsworth's friend Charles Lamb wrote favourable reviews, in which flaws were highlighted within the context of friendly teasing. Coleridge too catalogued at length what he saw to be Wordsworth's faults, not unlike Jeffrey had. However, his aim was to prove that despite all of these, Wordsworth was still a truly great poet. He claimed that his synthesis of meditative solitude and an energetic excitement of the mind meant that he was capable of producing 'the first genuine philosophic poem'. Whether he ever in fact achieved this has been a recurrent critical debate, as we shall see.

Artistic Responses

Coleridge was not only a critic of Wordsworth - he was a fellow poet. His engagement with the poetry was creative as well as intellectual. He and Wordsworth had worked together on the Lyrical Ballads, and Coleridge was keen to point out that their collaboration did not mean that they held identical views about the task of poetry, or indeed on the Lyrical Ballads themselves. Indeed, as the years passed, their friendship became increasingly strained. Perhaps this was partly due to Coleridge's constant awareness that Wordsworth was the greater poet, and the dissipation of his own poetry as Wordsworth's grew into maturity. However, it was also undoubtedly due in some part to Wordsworth's growing contribution and dominance over the Ballads after 1798. Coleridge was highly concerned to articulate his own position, and often when he appears to be discussing Wordsworth, it is because he states Wordsworth's arguments, and then deliberately distances himself from them in order to highlight his own aesthetic theories and practices.

One novelist who gravitated towards Wordsworth was George Eliot. Her novels show the extent to which she admired Wordsworth as a simple poet of nature and rural beneficence. They shared an identification with the English rural landscape. His influence is perhaps most felt in her novel Silas Marner, where the epigraph is a snippet of one of his poems. She herself commented that she had doubted anyone at all would appreciate the novel seeing as 'Wordsworth is dead'. But it was not only Wordsworth's poetic style, but his philosophy which was inspiring people. John Stuart Mill, the famous economist and philosopher, was profoundly moved by the sentiments he found in Wordsworth. He became inspired by Wordsworth's visions of individuality and the dignity of the human. Wordsworth's concerns with aspects of existence that touch us on the profoundly personal level added nuances to Mill's thoughts about social justice and reform.

The Victorians

A recent critic, Stephen Gill, noted that Wordsworth is often approached by critics in the Victorian period not because of his poetry, but because their own 'visibility [their prominence as critics] is enhanced by a full-dress re-appraisal of Wordsworth's contemporary significance'. Wordsworth was becoming central to literary culture, not only because of his poetry but because of his reputation. The name 'Wordsworth' sold books, and so people began to write about him to gain fame for themselves. Everyone had an opinion on Wordsworth and wanted to share it. People even began to travel to Wordsworth's home in Grasmere on a poetic pilgrimage of sorts. 'The Sage of Rydal Mount', as Wordsworth became known, was now the living relic of a shrine. People journeyed there to take clippings from the garden, or even to converse with the master himself. And indeed they still do today, to partake of the 'famous Grasmere gingerbread'.

Matthew Arnold, an important Victorian social and literary critic, wrote of Wordsworth 'I, for one, must always listen to him with the profoundest respect'. However, he thought that ultimately, Wordsworth could never be a truly great and permanent poet of the stature that Coleridge had suggested he might be. He felt the poetry of Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets to be 'premature', produced 'without sufficient materials to work with'. Arnold summarises: 'In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough'. This was a shortcoming not of the poets themselves, but of the society in which they were writing this response is ironic in that both Coleridge and Wordsworth read copiously in numerous fields. But for Arnold, both the strength and the weakness of Wordsworth's poetry would always be that it had its 'source in a great movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind'.

Modernist Discussions

The modernists framed Wordsworth as their point of departure from the poetry of emotions. rebutted the idea that good poetry was 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling', instead suggesting that it was in fact an escape from emotion and personality. He felt that critics should be turning their attention away from the feelings and opinions of the poet to re-focus on the poetry. A modernist preference for concrete imagery and language meant that Wordsworth was often considered suggestive and vague.

A few critics tried to reclaim purpose within this haze. M.H. Abrams characterised Wordsworth's poetry as having an outward-looking intention not entirely dissimilar from that at the centre of the Modernist project. He claimed that everything in Wordsworth's poems calls us to look beyond, always to something higher, deeper, better, something beyond the self. In contrast, Geoffrey Hartman claimed that Wordsworth's poetry calls us not out into nature, by deep into the mind of the poet himself. He was interested in Wordsworth as a poet of a of thought, or what he labelled Wordsworth's 'consciousness of consciousness', his thinking about his own thinking. The focus was clearly on Wordsworth's ideas, as he became the 'poet-philosopher'.

Specificity vs. Transcendence

critics such as Marjorie Levinson and Jerome McGann began to treat Wordsworth's expansiveness and introspection with suspicion. They considered a poem not only to be an aesthetic construction of language, but also a cultural product. Their approach was not only linguistic, but also conceptual and ideological. Their focus was on the historical aspect of the poems, which they felt had been much ignored since divorced poetry from its context. In reclaiming what had become known as 'cultural contamination' they looked through what they considered to be Wordsworth's elusive and generalising poems to find the specific historical moments which they thought lay behind them They claimed that any sense that his poetry transcends material history was an illusion, created by displacement and evasion. Thus theirs was the approach of analysing the unmentioned things behind the poem. Unfortunately, for many this implied that Wordsworth had focused on nature and beauty at the expense of recognising the harsh reality of the world around him. However, Levinson has been keen to suggest that in fact far from being divorced from his surroundings, he was so deeply affected by them that he could only bear to mention them in passing and so feigned aloofness.

Recently, however, a critical challenge to this approach has returned to a serious consideration of Wordsworth as a philosophical poet. David Bromwich and Simon Jarvis have both argued against criticism that attacks what is supposedly absent from Wordsworth's work. Instead they argue that Wordsworth's arguments in verse might still have ramifications for our own philosophising today. Bromwich was keen to suggest that Wordsworth did write this 'philosophical song' and Jarvis more generally suggests that, 'His [Wordsworth's] writing is always breaking through to some experience for which the available fails'. They believe his poetry to be a living moment of human truth, which exists beyond any one historical event, cultural cause, or life circumstance. This is not because they think that Wordsworth was not interested in 'the '. Jarvis is deeply interested in Wordsworth's response to its own cultural movement, but is keen to point out that his poetry might also take in a broader historical sweep of thought. Using theorists like , Jarvis argues that we must consider how Wordsworth treats a continuum of ideas and forms in his poetry - ideas and forms that have their own histories.

Bromwich has in fact called for a complete reappraisal of Wordsworth, suggesting that we cast aside idealised visions of him as the prophet of nature, and remembering that he was a man - at times a disagreeable one - who wrote poetry. By remembering this, we can perhaps gain a more realistic picture both of the poet and the poetry. And the debate is not over. While Wordsworth maintains his honoured position in the English canon, he will continue to be a centre of critical activity. For, whatever the reason, we can surely agree with Coleridge when he wrote that the sheer volume of critical writings 'leave no doubt in my mind, that Mr. Wordsworth is fully justified in believing his efforts to have been by no means ineffectual'.

Further Reading

Here you will find a list of the sources for quotations above. Other opinions (e.g. Lord Jeffrey quoted above) can be found in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Cambridge, 2003), or indeed in William Wordsworth: The Critical Heritage, ed. Robert Woof, vol. I: 1793-1820 (London, 2001).

  • Abrams, M.H., Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (Oxford, 1971).
  • Blake, William. Complete Writing, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1957).
  • Bromwich, David, Disowned By Memory: Wordsworth's Poetry of the 1970s (London, 2000).
  • Coleridge, S.T, Biographia Literaria ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford, 1907).
  • De Quincey, Thomas, Recollections of the Lake Poets, ed. Edward Sackville-West (London, 1984).
  • Gill, Stephen, Wordsworth and the Victorians (Oxford, 1998).
  • Hartman, Geoffrey H., Wordsworth's Poetry 1787 - 1814 (Yale, 1964).
  • Hazlitt, William, The Spirit of the Age: Contemporary Portraits (London, 1825).
  • Jarvis, Simon, Wordsworth's Philosophic Song (Cambridge, 2006)
  • Lamb, Charles,Lamb's Criticism (ed.) E.M.W. Tillyard (Cambridge, 1923).
  • ---- Selected Writings (ed.) J.E. Morpurgo (Manchester, 1993).
  • Levinson, Marjorie, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems (Cambridge, 1986).
  • McGann, Jerome J, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (London, 1983).

The George Eliot quotation comes from a letter she wrote to her publisher, John Blackwood, on 24th Feb 1861 and can be found in the introduction by Terence Cave to the Penguin edition of Silas Marner.

Further Thinking

Rachel Thorpe quotes Simon Jarvis saying that Wordsworth is always 'breaking through' to something that words struggle to express. Can you find moments in the poems where this seems to be happening? Or would you put it another way?

It seems as if people have, for a variety of reasons, reacted against Wordsworth. Are there things that you react against - even if overall you are persuaded of his merits?

If you have a comment on any of the issues raised here, or if you have read something really good about Wordsworth, you can leave a reply here.

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