William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (1770-1850), an early leader of romanticism in English poetry, ranks as one of the greatest lyric poets in the history of English literature.

William Wordsworth was born in Cookermouth, Cumberland, on April 7, 1770, the second child of an attorney. Unlike the other major English romantic poets, he enjoyed a happy childhood under the loving care of his mother and in close intimacy with his younger sister Dorothy (1771-1855). As a child, he wandered exuberantly through the lovely natural scenery of Cumberland. At Hawkshead Grammar School, Wordsworth showed keen and precociously discriminating interest in poetry. He was fascinated by "the divine John Milton," impressed by George Crabbe's descriptions of poverty, and repelled by the "falsehood" and "spurious imagery" in Ossian's nature poetry.

From 1787 to 1790 Wordsworth attended St. John's College, Cambridge, always returning with breathless delight to the north and to nature during his summer vacations. Before graduating from Cambridge, he took a walking tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy in 1790. The Alps gave him an ecstatic impression that he was not to recognize until 14 years later as a mystical "sense of usurpation, when the light of sense/ Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed/ The invisible world"—the world of "infinitude" that is "our beings's heart and home."

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Sojourn in France

Revolutionary fervor in France made a powerful impact on the young idealist, who returned there in November 1791 allegedly to improve his knowledge of the French language. Wordsworth's stay in Paris, Orléans, and Blois proved decisive in three important respects. First, his understanding of politics at the time was slight, but his French experience was a powerful factor in turning his inbred sympathy for plain common people, among whom he had spent the happiest years of his life, into articulate radicalism. Second, in 1792 Wordsworth composed his most ambitious poem to date, the Descriptive Sketches. An admittedly juvenile, derivative work, it was in fact less descriptive of nature than the earlier An Evening Walk, composed at Cambridge. But it better illustrated his vein of protest and his belief in political freedom.

Finally, while Wordsworth's political ideas and poetic talent were thus beginning to take shape, he fell passionately in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon. She gave birth to their daughter in December 1792. Having exhausted his meager funds, he was obliged to return home. The separation left him with a sense of guilt that deepened his poetic inspiration and that accounted for the prominence of the theme of derelict womanhood in much of his work.

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).

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"Tintern Abbey"

Wordsworth's most memorable contribution to this volume was "Tintern Abbey," which he wrote just in time for inclusion in it. This poem is the first major piece to illustrate his original talent at its best. A lyrical summing up of the poet's experiences and expectations, it skillfully combines matter-of-factness in natural description with a genuinely mystical sense of infinity, joining self-exploration to philosophical speculation. While tracing the poet's ascent from unthinking enjoyment of nature to the most exalted perception of cosmic oneness, it also voices his gnawing perplexity as the writer—prophetically, as it turned out— wonders whether his exhilarating vision of universal harmony may not be a transient delusion. The poem closes on a subdued but confident reassertion of nature's healing power, even though mystical insight may be withdrawn from the poet.

In its successful blending of inner and outer experience, of sense perception, feeling, and thought, "Tintern Abbey" is a poem in which the writer's self becomes an adequate symbol of mankind; undisguisedly subjective reminiscences lead to imaginative speculations about man and the universe. This cosmic outlook rooted in egocentricity is a central feature of romanticism, and Wordsworth's poetry is undoubtedly the most impressive exponent of this view in English literature.

The writing of "Tintern Abbey" anticipated the later spiritual evolution of Wordsworth; it clarified the direction that his best work took in the next few years; and it heralded the period in which he made his imperishable contribution to the development of English romanticism. Significantly, this period was also the time of his closest intimacy with Dorothy—who kept the records of their experiences and thus supplied him with an unceasing flow of motifs, characters, and incidents on which to base his poetry—and with Coleridge, whose constant encouragement and criticism provided the incentive to ever deeper searching and to more articulate thinking. The three lived at Nether Stowey, Somerset, in 1797-1798; took a trip to Germany in 1798-1799, which left little impression on Wordsworth's mind; and then settled in Grasmere in the Lake District.

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Poems of the Middle Period

Even while writing his contributions to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had been feeling his way toward more ambitious schemes. He had embarked on a long poem in blank verse, "The Ruined Cottage," later referred to as "The Peddlar"; it was intended to form part of a vast philosophical poem that was to bear the painfully explicit title "The Recluse, or Views of Man, Nature and Society." In it the poet hoped to "assume the station of a man in mental repose, one whose principles were made up, and so prepared to deliver upon authority a system of philosophy." This grand project, in which Coleridge had a considerable share of responsibility, never materialized as originally contemplated; its materials were later incorporated into The Excursion (1815), which centers on the poet's own problems and conflicts under a thin disguise of objectivity. This distortion is significant. Abstract impersonal speculation was not congenial to Wordsworth; he could handle experiences in the philosophical-lyrical manner that was truly his own only insofar as they were closely related to himself and therefore genuinely aroused his creative feelings and imagination. During the winter months that he spent in Germany, he started work on his magnum opus, the "poem on his own mind," which was to be published posthumously as The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet's Mind.

As yet, however, such an achievement was still beyond Wordsworth's scope, and it was back to the shorter poetic forms that he turned during the most productive season of his long literary life, the spring of 1802, when the great loss anticipated in "Tintern Abbey" came over him. The output of these fertile months, however, mostly derived from his earlier, twofold inspiration: nature and the common people. In "To a Butterfly," "I wandered lonely as a cloud," "To the Cuckoo," "The Rainbow," and other poems, Wordsworth went on to express his inexhaustible delight and participation in nature's "beauteous forms." Such poems as "The Sailor's Mother" and "Alice Fell, or the Beggar-Woman" were in the Lyrical Ballads vein, voicing "the still, sad music of humanity" and exhibiting once more his unfailing understanding of and compassion for the sufferings and moral resilience of the poor.

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Changes in Philosophy

The crucial event of this period was Wordsworth's loss of the sense of mystical oneness, which had sustained his highest imaginative flights. Indeed, a mood of despondency as acute as Coleridge's in "Dejection" at times descended over Wordsworth, now 32 years old, as life compelled him to outgrow the joyful, irresponsible gladness of youth. He became engaged to Mary Hutchinson, a girl he had known since childhood. Marriage in 1802 entailed new cares and responsibilities. One was to secure some sort of financial stability, and another was somehow to wind up the Annette Vallon episode.

In the summer of 1802 Wordsworth spent a few weeks in Calais with Dorothy, where he arranged a friendly separation with Annette and their child. Napoleon Bonaparte had just been elected first consul for life, and Wordsworth's renewed contact with France only confirmed his disillusionment with the French Revolution and its aftermath. During this period he had become increasingly concerned with Coleridge, who by now was almost totally dependent upon opium for relief from his physical sufferings. Both friends were thus brought face to face with the unpalatable fact that the realities of life were in stark contradiction to the visionary expectations of their youth. But whereas Coleridge recognized this and gave up poetry for abstruse pursuits that were more congenial to him, Wordsworth characteristically sought to redefine his own identity in ways that would allow him a measure of continuity in purposefulness. The new turn that his life took in 1802 resulted in an inner change that set the new course that his poetry henceforth followed.

In earlier days, Wordsworth's interest in the common people, whom he knew and loved and admired, had prompted him to assume a revolutionary stance. He now relinquished this stance, his attachment to his "dear native regions" extending to his native country and its institutions, which he now envisioned as a more suitable emblem of genuine freedom and harmony than France's revolutionary turmoils and republican imperialism. Poems about England and Scotland began pouring forth from his pen, while France and Napoleon soon became Wordsworth's favorite symbols of cruelty and oppression. His nationalistic inspiration led him to produce the two "Memorials of a Tour in Scotland" (1803, 1814) and the group entitled "Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty."

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Poems of 1802

The best poems of 1802, however, deal with a deeper level of inner change: with Wordsworth's awareness of his loss and with his manly determination to find moral and poetic compensation for it. In his ode "Intimations of Immortality" (March-April), he plainly recognized that "The things which I have seen I now can see no more"; yet he emphasized that although the "visionary gleam" had fled, the memory remained, and although the "celestial light" had vanished, the "common sight" of "meadow, grove and stream" was still a potent source of delight and solace. And in "Resolution and Independence" (May), he in fact admonished himself to welcome his loss in a spirit of stoic acceptance and of humble gratefulness to God.

Thus Wordsworth shed his earlier tendency to a pantheistic idealization of nature and turned to a more sedate doctrine of orthodox Christianity. Younger poets and critics soon blamed him for this "recantation," which they equated with his change of mind about the French Revolution. While it is true that lyrical outbursts about duty and religion are apt to sound conventional and sanctimonious to modern ears, one cannot doubt the sincerity of Wordsworth's belief, expressed in 1815, that "poetry is most just to its own divine origin when it administers the comforts and breathes the spirit of religion." His Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822), which purport to describe "the introduction, progress, and operation of the Church of England, both previous and subsequent to the Reformation," are clear evidence of the way in which love of freedom, of nature, and of the Church came to coincide in his mind.

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The Prelude

Nevertheless, it was the direction suggested in "Intimations of Immortality" that, in the view of later criticism, enabled Wordsworth to produce perhaps the most outstanding achievement of English romanticism: The Prelude. He worked on it, on and off, for several years and completed the first version in May 1805. The Prelude can claim to be the only true romantic epic because it deals in narrative terms with the spiritual growth of the only true romantic hero, the poet. Thus Wordsworth evolved a new genre peculiarly suited to his temperament. In this poem as in most of his best poetry—but here on a larger scale—the egocentricity for which he has often been rebuked was validated through symbolism. The inward odyssey of the poet was not described for its own sake but as a sample and as an adequate image of man at his most sensitive.

Wordsworth shared the general romantic notion that personal experience is the only way to gain living knowledge. The purpose of The Prelude was to recapture and interpret, with detailed thoroughness, the whole range of experiences that had contributed to the shaping of his own mind. Such a procedure enabled him to rekindle the dying embers of his earlier vision; it also enabled him to reassess the transient truth and the lasting value of his earlier glorious insights in the light of mature wisdom. It lies in the nature of such an extended process of reminiscence and revaluation that only death can end it, and Wordsworth wisely refrained from publishing the poem in his lifetime, revising it continuously. The posthumously printed version differs in several ways from the text he read to Coleridge in 1807. It is surprising, however, that the changes from the early version should not be more radical than they are. Most of them are improvements in style and structure. Wordsworth's youthful enthusiasm for the French Revolution has been slightly toned down. Most important and, perhaps, most to be regretted, the poet also tried to give a more orthodox tinge to his early mystical faith in nature.

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Later Years

This type of modification toward orthodoxy had already been introduced in 1804, by which time the basic features of Wordsworth's mature personality had begun to stabilize. Of his later life, indeed, little needs to be said. He was much affected by the death of his brother John in 1805, an event that strengthened his adherence to the consolations of the Church. But he was by no means reduced to utter conformity, as his tract On the Convention of Cintra (1808), a strongly worded protest against the English betrayal of Portuguese and Spanish allies to Napoleon, shows. Important passages in The Excursion, in which he criticizes the new industrial forms of man's inhumanity to man, witness this also.

Wordsworth's estrangement from Coleridge in 1810 deprived him of a powerful incentive to imaginative and intellectual alertness. Wordsworth's appointment to the office of distributor of stamps for Westmoreland in 1813 relieved him of financial care, but it also dissipated his suspicion of the aristocracy and helped him to become a confirmed Tory and a devout member of the Anglican Church. Wordsworth's unabating love for nature made him view the emergent industrial society with undisguished diffidence, but although he opposed the Reform Bill of 1832, which, in his view, merely transferred political power from the landed to the manufacturing class, he never stopped pleading in favor of the victims of the factory system. In 1843 he was appointed poet laureate. He died on April 23, 1850.

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Further Reading on William Wordsworth

Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography (2 vols., 1957, 1965), is the standard work. On the poet's personality, Herbert Read, Wordsworth (1930), and Wallace W. Douglas, Wordsworth: The Construction of a Personality (1968), are of interest.

General introductions to the poetry include Peter Burra, Wordsworth (1936); James C. Smith, A Study of Wordsworth (1944); Helen Darbishire, The Poet Wordsworth (1950); John F. Danby, The Simple Wordsworth (1960); Frederick W. Bateson, Wordsworth: A Re-interpretation (2d ed. 1963); and Carl Woodring, Wordsworth (1965). More specialized studies include David Ferry, The Limits of Mortality (1959); Colin C. Clarke, Romantic Paradox: An Essay on the Poetry of Wordsworth (1963); Geoffrey H. Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787-1814 (1964); David Perkins, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity (1965); Bernard Groom, The Unity of Wordsworth's Poetry (1966); and James Scoggins, Imagination and Fancy: Complementary Modes in the Poetry of Wordsworth (1966).

Important discussions of Wordsworth's philosophy are Arthur Beatty, William Wordsworth: His Doctrine and Art in Their Historical Relation (1922); Raymond D. Havens, The Mind of a Poet (1941); Newton P. Stallknecht, Strange Seas of Thought: Studies in William Wordsworth's Philosophy of Man and Nature (1945; 2d ed. 1958); Enid Welsford, Salisbury Plain: A Study in the Development of Wordsworth's Mind and Art (1966); and Melvin Rader, Wordsworth: A Philosophical Approach (1967).

The poet's literary theories are discussed in Marjorie Greenbie, Wordsworth's Theory of Poetic Diction (1966), and his political outlook in Francis M. Todd, Politics and the Poet: A Study of Wordsworth (1957), and in Amanda M. Ellis, Rebels and Conservatives: Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Their Circle (1968). Analyses of individual works include Judson S. Lyon, The Excursion: A Study (1950); Abbie F. Potts, Wordsworth's Prelude: A Study of Its Literary Form (1953); Herbert Lindenberger, On Wordsworth's Prelude (1963); John F. Danby, Wordsworth: The Prelude (1963); and Roger N. Murray, Wordsworth's Style: Figures and Themes in the 'Lyrical Ballads' of 1800 (1967).