|Wordsworth, William (1770-1850), English poet, one of the most accomplished and influential of England's romantic poets, whose theories and style created a new tradition in poetry.
Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, and educated at Saint John's College, University of Cambridge. He developed a keen love of nature as a youth, and during school vacation periods he frequently visited places noted for their scenic beauty. In the summer of 1790 he took a walking tour through France and Switzerland. After receiving his degree in 1791 he returned to France, where he became an enthusiastic convert to the ideals of the French Revolution (1789-1799). His lover Annette Vallon of Orleans bore him a daughter in December 1792, shortly before his return to England. Disheartened by the outbreak of hostilities between France and Great Britain in 1793, Wordsworth nevertheless remained sympathetic to the French cause.
Although Wordsworth had begun to write poetry while still a schoolboy, none of his poems was published until 1793, when An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches appeared. These works, although fresh and original in content, reflect the influence of the formal style of 18th-century English poetry. The poems received little notice, and few copies were sold.
Wordsworth's income from his writings amounted to little, but his financial problems were alleviated for a time when in 1795 he received a bequest of £900 from a close friend. Thereupon he and his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, went to live in Racedown, Dorsetshire. The two had always enjoyed a warmly sympathetic relationship, and Wordsworth relied greatly on Dorothy, his devoted confidante, for encouragement in his literary endeavors. Her mental breakdown in later years was to cause him great sorrow, as did the death of his brother John. William had met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an enthusiastic admirer of his early poetic efforts, and in 1797 he and Dorothy moved to Alfoxden, Somersetshire, near Coleridge's home in Nether Stowey. The move marked the beginning of a close and enduring friendship between the poets. In the ensuing period they collaborated on a book of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads, first published in 1798.
This work is generally taken to mark the beginning of the romantic movement in English poetry. Wordsworth wrote almost all the poems in the volume, including the memorable “Tintern Abbey”; Coleridge contributed the famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Representing a revolt against the artificial classicism of contemporary English verse, Lyrical Ballads was greeted with hostility by most leading critics of the day.
In defense of his unconventional theory of poetry, Wordsworth wrote a “Preface” to the second edition of Ballads, which appeared in 1800 (actual date of publication, 1801). His premise was that the source of poetic truth is the direct experience of the senses. Poetry, he asserted, originates from “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Rejecting the contemporary emphasis on form and an intellectual approach that drained poetic writing of strong emotion, he maintained that the scenes and events of everyday life and the speech of ordinary people were the raw material of which poetry could and should be made. Far from conciliating the critics, the “Preface” served only to increase their hostility. Wordsworth, however, was not discouraged, continuing to write poetry that graphically illustrated his principles.
Before the publication of the “Preface,” Wordsworth and his sister had accompanied Coleridge to Germany in 1798 and 1799. There Wordsworth wrote several of his finest lyrical verses, the “Lucy” poems, and began The Prelude. This introspective account of his own development was completed in 1805 and, after substantial revision, published posthumously in 1850. Many critics rank it as Wordsworth's greatest work.
Returning to England, William and his sister settled in 1799 at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Westmorland, the loveliest spot in the English Lake District. The poet Robert Southey as well as Coleridge lived nearby, and the three men became known as the Lake Poets. In 1802 Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend, who is portrayed in the charming lyric “She Was a Phantom of Delight.” In 1807Poems in Two Volumes was published. The work contains much of Wordsworth's finest verse, notably the superb “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” the autobiographical narrative “Resolution and Independence,” and many of his well-known sonnets.
In 1813 Wordsworth obtained a sinecure as distributor of stamps for Westmorland at a salary of £400 a year. In the same year he and his family and sister moved to Rydal Mount, a few kilometers from Dove Cottage, and there the poet spent the remainder of his life, except for periodic travels.
Wordsworth's political and intellectual sympathies underwent a transformation after 1800. By 1810 his viewpoint was staunchly conservative. He was disillusioned by the course of events in France culminating in the rise of Napoleon; his circle of friends, including the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, also influenced him in the direction of orthodoxy.
As he advanced in age, Wordsworth's poetic vision and inspiration dulled; his later, more rhetorical, moralistic poems cannot be compared to the lyrics of his youth, although a number of them are illumined by the spark of his former greatness. Between 1814 and 1822 his publications included The Excursion (1814), a continuation of The Prelude but lacking the power and beauty of that work; The White Doe of Rylstone (1815); Peter Bell (1819); and Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822). Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems appeared in 1835, but after that Wordsworth wrote little more. Among his other poetic works are The Borderers: A Tragedy (1796; published 1842), Michael (1800), The Recluse (1800; published 1888), Laodamia (1815), and Memorials of a Tour on the Continent (1822). Wordsworth also wrote the prose works Convention of Cintra (1809) and A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England (1810; reprinted with additions, 1822).
Much of Wordsworth's easy flow of conversational blank verse has true lyrical power and grace, and his finest work is permeated by a sense of the human relationship to external nature that is religious in its scope and intensity. To Wordsworth, God was everywhere manifest in the harmony of nature, and he felt deeply the kinship between nature and the soul of humankind.
The tide of critical opinion turned in his favor after 1820, and Wordsworth lived to see his work universally praised. In 1842 he was awarded a government pension, and in the following year he succeeded Southey as poet laureate. Wordsworth died at Rydal Mount, April 23, 1850, and was buried in the Grasmere churchyard.
Michael G. Sundell