William Wordsworth! The familiar name of a Romantic poet whose words are worthy of recognition in our time as well as they were in his own. He's a poet teachers can maul by forcefeeding their pupils daffodils, or one to make you lose your way in an endless meandering streams of lines describing this event and that, either revealing or obscuring some fundamental truth of his. He's an author to quote and a figure to gaze at from afar, but also the forerunner for the Romantic movement and the creator of beauty to be appreciated. He is William Wordsworth.
I have a boy of five years old; from Anecdote for fathers
His face is fair and fresh to see;
His limbs are cast in beauty's mould,
And dearly he loves me.
Born the son of a steward in 1770, in Cockermouth in the north of England, William had some turbulent years ahead of him. His mother died when he was eight, and his father four years later, so at 13, he was mostly alone in the world. He still had three brothers and one much-beloved sister, Dorothy, who would stay with him for much of his life. He also had two uncles who looked after his education.
His studies sent him to St. John's College, Cambridge, at 17, but he did not particularly care for the theory. Instead he liked walking around in nature, absorbing the revolutionary (literally) ideas of the time, and writing poetry. 17 was also his age when he published his first sonnet in the European Review. It was an admirable feat, but nobody seemed to notice.
Yet not unrecompensed the man shall roam,from Descriptive Sketches
Who at the call of summer quits his home,
And plods through some wide realm o'er vale and height,
Though seeking only holiday delight;
Filled with admiration for the French Revolution, Wordsworth had a love affair with that country as well as one of its citoyennes. Summer hikes in his native country had given him a thirst for more, and in 1790 he and a friend walked through Switzerland and revolutionay France. The next year he returned, met a girl called Annette Vallon, and had an illegitimate child with her. Political tensions between their two countries forced him to go back to England before it was born, however, and because of the war that followed he did not get to see his daughter, Anne Caroline, until she was nine.
After returning from France, Wordsworth stayed for a while in London, and spent his time in the radical circle around the publisher Joseph Johnson. Wordsworth became acquainted with among others William Godwin, who influenced him greatly, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Blake. He published two poems in 1793, Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk, without success, and ran out of money.
Both pass into new being,--but the Worm, from In Lombardy
Transfigured, sinks into a hopeless grave;
'His' volant Spirit will, he trusts, ascend
To bliss unbounded, glory without end.
In the following years Wordsworth rediscovered love, enthusiasm, and some wealth. He received a legacy, and was reunited with Dorothy at last. The two siblings set up house near Bristol in 1797, and Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in real life for the first time, after years of correspondence. The two discovered that their radical ideas about almost anything were identical. They became bosom friends, meeting every day, and began a great undertaking: Together, they would produce poetry that blew away all the staleness of old lyrical conventions. Theirs would be free, passionate, and speak directly to the heart. Coleridge introduced his friend to the writings of the philosopher David Hartley, which became very meaningful to Wordsworth, and also prompted him to begin his mammoth-sized poem The Prelude, which would only be published after his death.
In 1798, the fruit of their work, Lyrical Ballads, was published. The volume heralded a new type of poetry, simplified in both technique and subject. While earlier poetry had tended to describe heroes in grandiose terms, the poems of Coleridge and Wordsworth were held in an understandable language, dealing with common people and, naturally, nature. Wordsworth produced some of his finest poetry during this period of mutual inspiration and cooperation.
In order to get some more European influences, they all went to Germany in the winter of 1798-99. Although the trip gave Wordsworth homesickness more than anything, he produced some poems, including the lovely and weird "Lucy" cycle. Upon their return to England, William and Dorothy went back to their native Lake District, settling near Grasmere. With Coleridge living nearby and Robert Southey soon settling in the area as well, the Lake School of Romantic poetry was formed.
The Peace of Amiens
in 1802 enabled brother and sister Wordsworth to go to France and meet with his family there. He reached an agreement with Annette to support their child's education financially, but otherwise seems mostly to have wanted to put the whole affair behind him. It is mentioned in one poem, Vaudracour and Julia
. That same year, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson
. They had five children, two of whom died at a young age. Dorothy stayed with the family. Wordsworth published his second collection of poems, called Poems, In Two Volumes
, in 1807.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,from Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
In a political appointment which offered him financial security, Wordsworth became Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland in 1813. Through a gradual change, he had become settled and respectable rather than a rebellious poet. He had lost faith in the ideas of the French revolution and instead became more of an English nationalist. While in his earlier nature poetry he had been a bleeding-heart pantheist, he now turned into an orthodox Anglican. Even his poetry seemed to grow more conventional, and most will agree that much of the brilliance was gone. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a former admirer, denounced him as a sell-out, and in 1810, he had a major argument with Coleridge which estranged them for over ten years.
In exchange for the esteem of his fellow Romanticists, Wordsworth received the undying respect of English society. He was given honourary degrees from the universities of Durham and Oxford, and was named Poet Laureate in 1843.
Wordsworth died in 1850. His poems have been read and studied by generations afterwards. There is something true and un-stilted about them that lasts through the ages. My favourite works are the short, relatively constrained verses; maybe it reveals the bourgeois in me. However, his longer works, whether they tell stories or share thoughts (usually both), are also readable. A trait in them which always charms me is the meticulous description often included at the beginning of poems of the place, time and occasion that inspired them. I think these, more than anything, show the man Wordsworth, a dreaming romantic with his feet solidly planting on earth, a contradiction in terms who created poetry both good and bad. In addition to poetry, he also wrote plays, essays, travel journals, and critical pieces.