William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770 – April 23, 1850) was one of the leading English Romantic poets. He was very prolific, producing many poems that are held to be important, as well as having a significant influence on British and American poetry of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His long autobiographical poem The Prelude is widely regarded as a masterpiece, but much of his later work is generally considered less significant, especially those works composed during his tenure as poet laureate, from 1843 until his death.
In 1798, he and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, a work that was regarded at the time as radically innovative, with its use of a poetic register (principally seen in many of the poems Wordsworth contributed to this volume) that was closer to everyday speech, and which avoided the poetic diction that was generally the style of poetry in the 18th century.
Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, the third son of an attorney, John Wordsworth. His mother died when he was eight, and his father when he was thirteen. The children then came under the care of uncles. Wordsworth attended Hawkshead Grammar School. His first publication came when he was seventeen, a poem in The European Magazine. From 1787 to 1791 he studied at St John's College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a BA. In 1790 he spent the summer vacation on a walking tour in France and Switzerland, and during this tour he witnessed the first stages of the French Revolution.
After leaving Cambridge he went to Blois in France, where he had an affair with Annette Vallon, who bore him a child called Ann Caroline. In 1793, following England's declaration of war against France, he returned to England. At this stage of his life he was a strong supporter of revolutionary ideas and of social justice. In 1793 he undertook another walking tour, this time in England, from Salisbury to North Wales, and en route saw Tintern Abbey for the first time. He was dismayed by the Terror in France, and renewed his hopes when Robespierre was guillotined in 1794. He retained his sympathies with the hopes of many of the French revolutionaries until the French occupied Switzerland in 1798.
He was short of money for much of his early life, but in 1795 received a bequest of £900 which enabled him to concentrate on a career as a poet and to create a home with his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, to whom he was always very close. They lived first in Dorset and then in Somerset, near Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dorothy's personal journals, with their detailed descriptions of her walks in the countryside, was a major influence on both poets, but particularly on Wordsworth, whose poetry often "sampled" phrases describing naure from his sister's journals. In 1798 the two poets published Lyrical Ballads. In the autumn of that year, Wordsworth, his sister and Coleridge travelled to Germany, where Wordsworth began The Prelude. In 1799 William and Dorothy settled at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the Lake District of north-west England.
In 1802 the Peace of Amiens enabled William and Dorothy to visit Annette Vallon and his daughter. After his return, he married Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend, who agreed to Dorothy living with them. Mary bore him five children. There followed a long period of relative stability and happiness, despite the death of his brother John, a sailor, in 1805. Among his friends during this period was Walter Scott.
In 1810 Wordsworth had a major quarrel with Coleridge, and although they soon made peace with each other, the relationship between them was never quite as close as before.
To add to the tragic loss of his brother, two of his children died in 1812.
Always an inveterate walker, Wordsworth made a number of further walking tours, including of Scotland and (in 1828, with his daughter Dora and Coleridge) of the Rhineland.
Wordsworth's political sympathies changed following the rise of Napoleon, and he became a Tory. In the last years of his life he was very much a member of the conservative political establishment. In 1813 he was given a government post: Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, with a £400 annual salary. This enabled Wordsworth and his household to move, in 1813, to Rydal Mount, again in the Lake District.
Later in his life other public recognition followed - honorary degrees from the universities of Durham in 1838 and Oxford in 1839, and a government pension of £300 a year from 1842. In 1843 he became poet laureate following the death of Robert Southey. He died at Rydal Mount on 27 April 1850 and was buried in the churchyard of St Oswald's Church, Grasmere.
The critical reception of his poetry was initially, at best, mixed. The intentions behind the Lyrical Ballads were widely misunderstood, and some of his work was soon parodied. Lord Byron was among those out of sympathy with his style: in English Bards and Scots Reviewers he describes Wordsworth as showing that "prose is verse, and verse is merely prose", and calls him a "dull disciple" of Southey. But acceptance followed, and Wordsworth and Coleridge had a major influence on the following generation of English poets. John Keats revered him as a poet, but was shocked by his Tory sympathies. In his later years, Wordsworth was very much a grand old man of English letters. Despite the widespread view that he is one of the major English poets, on a par with Chaucer, Spenser and Milton, Wordsworth has never had a European reputation, though Matthew Arnold, a critic with a European perspective, compared him with Goethe, implying that he had a rarer genius.
The initial critical hostility to Lyrical Ballads (all but four of the poems in the volume being by him) led Wordsworth to include a Preface in subsequent editions to act as an apologia for his poetic aims. He explained in the Preface that he sought to use vernacular language and to write about simple uneducated country people as that, to him, was a more "poetic" and "truthful" language than the more formal poetic diction of his day, which he thought artificial and insufficient to "celebrate" the beauty of the natural world. He also said:
"The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure."
The Preface also contains his now famous definition of poetry as being "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotion recollected in tranquility".
In his concentration on nature, Wordsworth built upon trends that had already started to emerge in late 18th century English poetry (most notably in the poems of Thomas Gray and Mark Akenside), though his style was very different. The love of nature at its most sublime, of mountains and of wild scenery (which was also evident in the paintings of his time) was in sharp contrast to the view that nature only after it had been manipulated by human hands, such as in landscape gardening, could then be considered a suitable subject for art and poetry.
Although Wordsworth's early works came to be highly admired and were influential to many poets, his later work is considerd by many to be less notable. But at his best he could produce both successful longer poems and successful lyrical poetry. Among his most famous poems are:
- The Prelude (five versions, from 1805 to 1850, though only the first and last have been published), the final version published shortly after his death. This is a long autobiographical poem which includes political and philosophical reflections and vivid descriptions of nature. An embryo, two-part, version of 1799 has been derived from the manuscripts.
- The Excursion (published in 1814), in nine books, a philosophical poem which shows his disillusion with the later development of the French Revolution (The Prelude (1850) shows that he never fully disavowed his first enthusiasm for it.)
- The Lucy poems, a group of lyrics.
- Many other lyrics, including My heart leaps up when I behold, Daffodils and The Solitary Reaper.
- Resolution and Independence, a short narrative poem, parodied by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.
- Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
- Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, the final poem of the first edition of Lyrical Ballands and the poem which most impressed Keats.
- Many sonnets, including Upon Westminster Bridge, The world is too much with us..., and Surprised by joy...
- Lyrical Ballads, ed. by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd edn (London and New York: Routledge, 1991)
- The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. by J. Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams and S. Gill (New York: Norton, 1979)
- Wordsworth, Jonathan, Abrams, M H, Gill, Stephen. The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850. W W Norton & Co 1979